Campaign of the Month: October 2017

Blood & Bourbon

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Story Twelve, Caroline I

“I love you, my sweet, precious Caroline.”
Abélia Devillers


Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, AM

GM: “Claire Malveaux’s death must be seen to,” Maldonato begins as the elevator doors open to his office. Caroline sees three ghouls awaiting them with expectant looks: Congo and two large, bald, exquisitely muscled black men in black suits. Their postures and demeanors seem vaguely foreign.

“Mr. Congo, you may contact Bishop Malveaux,” the seneschal continues as he proceeds towards the door. One of the ghouls opens it. All three follow him out. The building’s austere hallways seem all but vacant at this late hour. “Inform him that he is to coordinate efforts with Miss Malveaux to preserve the Masquerade in light of Claire Malveaux’s death.”

“Very good, sir,” Congo states. He removes a phone from his breast pocket. Talks into it. “The bishop is not in Perdido House.”

“Locate him.”

“At once, sir.”

One of the guards opens an elevator.

“Set your affairs in order, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato states to Caroline as it begins its descent. “You may soon be absent from the city at large for some time.”

“Tell no one of whom you are. Your sire shall determine the circumstances under which to publicly disclose that information.”

The doors open to the Paulson Investment lobby. They get into another elevator. They’re joined by a ghoul who looks in her mid to late teens. Her milk-pale facial features are beautiful and unblemished, while her gaze is placid and tranquil. She’s garbed in a flowing white gown that strikingly contrasts her waist-length raven hair and gives her an almost ethereal appearance. Even with her newly-sensitive hearing, Caroline can’t hear the ghoul’s footsteps.

“Your Requiem may now be in danger, Miss Malveaux. Kâmil, Giselle, you shall see to her physical protection and attend to whatever needs she may require. Remain unobtrusive, but her security takes precedent over her secrecy.”

“Yes, effendi,” replies one of the male ghouls.

The female ghoul mutely bows her head.

“Do not engage with NOSTF,” Maldonato states as the elevator continues its descent. “Hound Doriocourt remains the most knowledgeable of our prince’s agents regarding their activities. She shall coordinate efforts with you when she is available.”

“If you should desire, Mr. Congo may arrange secure temporary accommodations in Perdido House for you until a more permanent haven space is available. Report to my offices at 11:30 tomorrow night.”

The doors open to Perdido House’s parking garage. A large black SUV has already been readied. A driver gets out with a thick, double-breasted coat that he fits onto Maldonato’s tall frame. At Caroline’s inquiry as to why he names her mother ‘fallen one’, the seneschal replies, “We have spoken enough of the past for one night, Miss Malveaux. It is now time to prepare for the future.”

Caroline: The Ventrue doesn’t argue with that. The truth is it doesn’t really matter.

“And the two of them,” she gestures to the ghouls he’s assigned to her, “should others ask questions as to their presence?”

GM: “You may answer those queries however you deem most conductive to your and our prince’s interests, Miss Malveaux. You have my trust in this manner.”

The driver opens the SUV door.

“There are matters to which I must attend. Mr. Congo shall arrange any further resources you may require.”

Caroline: “Safe journey, seneschal,” Caroline replies.

GM: “God go with you, Miss Malveaux.” Maldonato enters the SUV along with the driver and the other dark-skinned ghoul. Caroline briefly thinks she sees another outline inside, but it’s only for a moment before the SUV drives away.

Congo offers Caroline a cellular phone number before inquiring if there is anything further she may require.

Kâmil stands silently to attention. Gisèlle awaits with her head demurely bowed.

Caroline: The Ventrue watches the vehicle leave in silence, starring after it as it leaves, then turns her attention back to the ghouls.

“No, thank you,” she replies to the ancient ghoul. “You’ll reach out when you have more information on where to begin with Claire’s death?”

She wants to choke up over it, over callously commenting on her murder of her mother, but that’s not something she can do any longer. Not if she’s going to be the prince’s childe.

Good Ventrue don’t show their emotions like that.

GM: “His Grace would seem to wish you and the bishop to begin yourselves, madam,” Congo answers. “I shall notify you when I have reached His Excellency and arrange a meeting at your soonest conveniences.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “Then I shall await your call.” She looks at the other two ghouls. “There are still some matters I need to see to back at the Giani Building while we wait. Unless that will be a problem?” she asks.

GM: “Our time is yours to allocate, bayan,” answers the deep-voiced man.

The girl silently dips her head in seeming concurrence.

Caroline: “Excellent.” The heiress left Fuller instructions to remain nearby when he dropped her off. She sends him a text that she’s ready for pickup now and turns to study the two ominous ghouls while she waits.

Her eyes settle on the pale woman in white, so pale as to almost appear to be a ghost. “You’re one of the ones they call filles à la casquette, aren’t you?” she asks.

GM: The girl dips her head in another nod.

Caroline: “Other Kindred tell stories about you. The younger ones, at least. I’m sure you know.”

GM: There is another mute dip of the head.

Caroline: She turns to the larger black man. “And you are also known to me by reputation. One of my ghouls spoke very respectfully of you.”

GM: “I am honored, bayan,” the large man answers.

Caroline: “That’s Turkish, isn’t it?” Caroline asks.

The Ventrue doesn’t speak it, but it’s relatively few languages she doesn’t speak some cousin too. Identifying them is more of a process of elimination.

GM: “It is, bayan. I had privilege to serve among the Black Eunuchs of the Exalted Ottoman State in my mortal life.”

Caroline: “Perhaps some night you might speak of it?” Caroline asks. “I know less of Ottoman history than I might wish.”

GM: The large ghoul inclines his head. “Your desire is my will, bayan.”

Caroline: It hadn’t been a focus for her, an item deemed valuable enough to spend time on. Much like Turkish. Arabic and Spanish both saw almost half a billion speakers—including influential OPEC members and a growing demographic of voters, even in Louisiana.

French was a given—one could not be a member of the Louisiana white elite without speaking it, and Italian she’d picked up during a summer in Europe, rather than through study.

But how often did you run into a Turkish speaker? Not frequently in the West, despite Turkey’s growing relevance in the region.

She knew Ferris thought it was interesting, for that reason. He’d said it was also a ‘secret’ language spoke by many Kurds. Something about immigrants to Turkey—of which there were many Kurdish refugees—having to learn the language, and many of them taking it back with them to Iraq and Iran, where the locals didn’t speak it.

GM: And he’s probably the only person in the Giani Building who might also speak it himself.

It’s not overlong before Fuller arrives in the SUV. Congo asks for a mobile number he may reach Caroline at, then takes his leave as the three enter the vehicle. Fuller silently takes stock of the two other ghouls but asks no questions besides, “The Giani Building, ma’am?”

Caroline: “Yes, Brian,” Caroline replies, sliding into the backseat. “Has there been any word from Ms. Morrow?”

GM: “No, ma’am. Ferris is on it, but has a lot else on his plate.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “Have Widney take it over when we get back. Tell her to pull the security cameras and badge in and out logs.”

GM: “He’s already ordered her to, ma’am. He’s been giving a lot of orders.”

The ghoul’s tone doesn’t sound disgruntled. If anything, it’s approving.

Caroline: Caroline runs her tongue across her teeth, behind the ghost of a smile. “These are Kâmil and Giselle,” she fills in to the question the ghoul is too polite to ask. “I’m uncertain as to how long they will be with us, but for the moment extend them every courtesy.”

GM: “My pleasure. Sir. Ma’am.”

Kâmil responds with a brief pleasantry. Gisèlle offers a mute inclination of her head, though shorter than the one to Caroline.

Caroline: The Ventrue wonders, passingly, if the Fille à la Cassette is mute, but it seems impolite to ask.

The rest of the journey doesn’t take long. Caroline asks questions. Fuller answers them. She gives guidance on things she wants done. About half them she learns Ferris has already started on.

It’s refreshing initiative.

GM: “I said your people needed a chain of command,” Fuller answers in response to some of Caroline’s questions. “He’s well on his way to setting one up with himself at the top. Suits me fine. I don’t want to cat-herd a bunch of whining civilians. No offense, ma’am. Knew some of his boys from my gym, too. They said good things.”

Caroline: At the Giani Building, Caroline doesn’t bring the ghouls up to her apartment. She doesn’t even bring them to her notional ‘public’ office on the roof.

Instead they head to what Green mockingly ‘christened’ ‘the war room’. Well, rooms.

Once an interior apartment with too few windows (including an awful and dreary bedroom without any), Caroline’s had the space turned into an operations center for herself and her people. The front door has quietly been replaced with a steel one behind a wood veineer. Even more, an actual steel door bar sits beside the door, ready to be slide into mounted brackets on the inside to provided added protection to those inside. The living room windows—facing a brick wall—have been similarly fitted with steel shutters inside hidden behind thick curtains.

A large table sits in the center of the room, with whiteboards installed on both opposing walls. A desk sits in front of each of the two windows, with a bank of computer screens facing into the room, away from them. About half the screens show surveillance footage from the Giani Building. Some are of the lobby, others of each of the hallways. Others still show the inside of otherwise normal seeming apartments, including one in which a heavily pregnant young Latina sits on the sofa watching TV.

Neatly printed on a corner of one of the whiteboards are a series of words in two columns. One of the columns contains many very familiar words to the ghouls. ‘Kindred. Torpor. Toreador. Ventrue. Vidal. Savoy. Kill. Masquerade.’ The list goes on. Their paring words are far more mundane.

There’s a picture of Audrey in the top-center of the opposite board, along with a timeline of events of interest in the last 48 hours.

The kitchen island is dominated by phones and other tech. The only food in clear evidence is half-full coffee pot in the corner, the Keurig beside it, and the brown-black splotches of dried coffee beside both.

The door to the bedroom is closed.

GM: “A most impressive effort for a Kindred of your years, bayan, if I may presume to speak freely,” Kâmil states as he looks the room over.

Gisèlle’s pale, slow-blinking eyes sift through the ‘war room’s’ features. The casquette girl remains silent.

Caroline: Caroline looks over to where Widney sits in front of the computers. “Show them,” she says simply. The ghoul is too smart to argue. She strikes several keys in sequence and the harsh white overhead lights go out, replaced by blues and light dark violets.

Both whiteboards are almost covered in writing, as is the desk’s surface. The contents of the columns on the board have shifted to entirely new ‘mundane’ words.

There are significant outlines for a variety of plots. “Thank you,” Caroline replies to the seneschal’s servant. “It’s a work in progress.”

The Ventrue walks over to each of the boards in series, quickly reading anything new, especially about Morrow.

Other ‘topics’ of interest on the boards include a branching series of plots related to concealing Claire’s death, lists of hunters identified by Ferris, and lists of Kindred, both in the city still and those he identified as having been destroyed, along with the dates of each destruction.

“I had hoped that I could kill most of her hunters and flip Claire into selling out the others,” she admits coldly to the seneschal’s new ghouls. “Her death was never part of the plan, and it got me off script. Even then, I’d hoped that I could conceal it for a little while longer, but with one of my people suddenly turning up missing this evening… well… I expect the cat’s out of the bag on that one to the non-kine players by now.”

“Ms. Morrow was not deeply involved in my operations, by intention. The details of what happened last night were never briefed to her beyond her own small part, but she knew enough to know that I had something major planned, that required everyone on deck and a lot of weapons, and that it was mostly successful. It’s also possible she was able to,”

She looks away from the board and towards the two, “it’s possible that she’s off being a junkie, thinking simply to sell that information to someone that offered her something good if she reported on me. It’s also possible she’s been in someone else’s pocket for some time.”

“This is not a room she notionally had access to.”

GM: After last day and the better part of this night, the projected reports are quite full.
Widney and Ferris’ people observed no unusual recent behaviors or association on Audrey’s part. Voluntary ones, at least.

Drew Harrington recently passed on a tip that Audrey has been arrested by NOPD for a variety of charges relating to her criminal activities. Somewhere down the line she doesn’t seem to have used (or received) a phone call to get in touch with Caroline’s people.

Ferris’ people couldn’t have picked a better time to start working for Caroline. Ben Chandler and Margaret Ramsey, working alongside Green, found bugs planted on a number of their peoples’ cars.
Physical bugs have not been planted in the ‘war room’ or Caroline’s or Natalia’s haven. Fuller’s armory, however, was bugged, and wiretaps have been placed on phones.

Roger Ferris personally saw to Caroline’s family. He has mixed news.

Orson spends most of his time at home these days. As the ex-CIA agent stated, “The heart attack took a lot out of him.” He’s taken up gardening.

Father Connelly has also passed away, leaving Adam (now the sole Father Malveaux) to largely administer the archdiocese. Priests such as Father Patterson, whose reassignment Caroline well recalls confronting her uncle with, have scented weakness and are making a power play. The most eventful event in Orson’s day was talking with Adam about the Vatican representative who will be paying a visit to New Orleans. Depending on what the representative reports back to Pope Gregory, Orson may be “asked” to resign the archbishopric. As Caroline well knows from her religious upbringing, bishops serve at the pope’s pleasure.

Caroline’s father appears to still be in Washington D.C., although Ferris has obviously not been able to observe him as closely as either of his brothers.

Matthew Malveaux’s day was comparatively mundane. He went to work at the family company’s offices in the CBD, spent an afternoon golfing with some associates, had dinner at Commander’s Palace, and retired for the evening to the Roosevelt Hotel. Half a city away from the Lakeview mansion he nominally cohabits with his wife, which Caroline knows to be fairly normal for them.

Luke also went to work at Malveaux Oil’s offices. He spent the afternoon working on wedding plans with Cécilia, which has occupied much of his time. He later went out drinking with friends and canceled a planned dinner with Talal al-Saud, whose company he has been known to entertain, when Cécilia was sick. He went to bed at his apartment in the CBD.

Ferris reports with some interest that Cécilia, Adeline, Yvette, Yvonne, Noëllle, and Simmone all spent the day at their mother’s house in the Garden District. It occurs to Caroline that while she didn’t ask him to snoop on the Devillers, when she ordered him to follow the movements of “my siblings,” he took that to include Abélia’s other children.

Cécilia and Adeline dropped professional and personal commitments. The three girls enrolled at McGehee all called in sick. Simmone, of course, has not been enrolled at McGehee for most of the school year. All of the driving-age womens’ cars were parked in the driveway, and the house’s grounds were bristling with bodyguards. Somewhat suspicious, but as Caroline recalls Abélia saying, Simmone “can’t handle” being around unfamiliar men carrying guns.

If Ferris has drawn any conclusions as to why the Devillers are evidently so spooked, he does not include them.

Caroline’s youngest brother, meanwhile, is still in Baton Rouge. Due to both distance and his own severed ties with the Malveauxes, Ferris is unable to provide as complete a record of Gabriel’s daily activities.

Her final brother, as far as she knows, remains in the grave.

Autumn is still looking into suitable degenerative conditions (and physicians). None of the ones she’s gone through so far are good enough for her, “if this is supposed to explain a pretty sudden death.” Caroline did not brief any of her people on Claire’s death, and Ferris, in fairly typical fashion for the ex-CIA agent, does not seem to have told Autumn more than he thought she needed to know.

Ericson has not done any of the work Caroline assigned her, and has left a disgruntled phone message citing her extensive professional and familial commitments (even if she is grateful for the Ventrue’s help in landing her job). It is plain that Caroline’s former fencing partner does not view herself as the Ventrue’s servant.

Indeed, now that Caroline considers it, Ericson seems like she has been avoiding her ever since the engagement with Caitlin Meadows. The ghoul seemed terrified of how willing she had been to throw her life headlong into danger on Caroline’s behalf.

A mother shouldn’t have done that. Not one with young children who needed her.

Roger Ferris shows up towards the tail end of Caroline’s report-reading with further news. It does not escape the Ventrue that, much like Audrey, she had yet to tell her newest ghoul where the war room was. Ferris has to be explicitly ordered to deliver his news within the presence of Maldonato’s ghouls, who Caroline is positive the ex-CIA agent does not trust.

First, Carla Rivera has seemingly disappeared. Ferris interviewed various building staff, who testified the woman has been intensely distressed and showing up late to work (or missing it altogether) since the disappearance of her brother Diego. This recent absent stretch is long even for her.

This has alarmed Jack Kinney and Shelby Wright, who Ferris overheard talking about the disappearances of Mark Kavanaugh and Jason Dabney. Two PIs hired for a job in Abita Springs who never came back.

Ferris gave them some cash to buy their silence and quiet objections for a while longer. It’s something to deal with later, but in his eyes, not now.

He awaits Caroline’s instructions expectantly as to what that should be.

It’s midway through that report when she receives a text message from Cécilia.

Simmone having anxiety attack. Maman not feeling good. Can you come help?

Caroline: The Ventrue reads through each board and takes Ferris’ report without comment before turning her attention to the two ‘guest’ ghouls.

“If possible, I’d know if Ms. Morrow’s betrayal was engineered by agents of the prince, or if her loyalties now lie with Mr. Savoy or his agents. This is the second time she’s fled to report on my activities.”

She turns to Widney, “Either way, start liquidating assets related to her. Quietly. Cut off all access to any significant accounts.” She turns to Fuller, “if she returns I want her detained indefinitely—though I don’t think she’ll be that foolish.”

Ericson’s petulant refusal to work grates against her nerves, but she’ll deal with her later.

She plugs back a text to Cécilia.

GM: “She was arrested, ma’am,” Ferris repeats. “Not impossible she still betrayed you. But if she has, it’s not worked out for her.”

Caroline: “I suppose the bugs coincidentally appeared only in areas she had access to, and her decision to leave the building, not making a call, and her previous flight after meaningful events are unrelated?” Caroline observes.

She doesn’t seem interested in arguing the point.

GM: Ferris shrugs. “We’d need to interrogate her to get the full story. Detaining her and liquidating associated assets until then is the right call.”

“I’ll get on it, ma’am,” Widney states, drawing her fingers across a tablet.

Fuller nods at his order.

Caroline: “She was always a weak link and likely spy,” Caroline clarifies. “That was intentional—better the spy I could see coming—but she’s worn out her welcome here, which means she’s worn out her use to them.”

“If she’d resisted their temptations, that would have shown her value in the long term. In succumbing she had value too—but that always had an expiration date.”

“Loyalty and discretion valuable beyond talent.” She lets that observation hang in the air with her other ghouls.

She turns to Ferris directly. “We’re on a hold for the moment, until we hear back from the prince’s agents, regarding coordination on the family and Claire. I expect that soon. I want you here to manage the ‘body’, security here, and any other integration with their cover-up—to say nothing of further investigations into Ms. Morrow.”

“I’d like a way forward we can present on the cover-up as a whole that’s plausible and involves the minimum of interference with the family directly, and still think long term medical issue and sudden deterioration or fatal complication is… ideal. Tulane Medical is likely off-limits, but University Medical Center may be more available.”

She glances at the seneschal’s two ghouls before continuing, “Have Autumn broaden her search to include complications that might arise from treatments, especially drug combinations. There’s a lot there, so if you need to bring in a medical consultant, do so. Widney will make whatever resources are necessary available.” The last seems more for Widney’s benefit than Ferris’, though she doubts the younger ghoul would argue with the ex-CIA agent.

“If that presents a possibility of malpractice, and a patsy medically that can take a more public ‘fall’, that might even work best. I don’t expect we’ll be able to completely fool her compatriots, but if we can make the original illness convincing enough, the plausibility that a Kindred introduced a new medication could be used to point… well, every direction except ours.”

Caroline knows well enough from her own limited experience just how complicated interactions between various medications can be. Fatal complications are rarer, but hardly unknown, and sometimes people just get unlucky. Particularly severe reactions to one medication or another, and those interactions snowballing. Especially in older patients that have multiple prescriptions.

It’s somewhat terrifying—and pathetic—how fragile human beings can be.

“In the meantime… there are some affairs I need to put in order,” Caroline continues, reflecting on fragility.

“I’m bringing Green, leaving Fuller, Widney, and Autumn to coordinate. Call me if something significant changes.”

GM: “We may be of assistance, bayan, where Tulane Medical Center is concerned,” answers Kamil. “Our faces and master are known to the Krewe.”

Caroline: Caroline turns to the ancient ghoul. “It is not my preference to sully either name with this matter, if possible.” She runs her tongue across her fangs. “But keep the door open, if required,” she directs Ferris.

GM: “I would counsel you, bayan, that the Krewe’s cooperation may better facilitate your plans,” Kamil states. “They monitor Tulane Medical Center the most closely, but they have agents placed within every major hospital, given the relevance of such sites to the Masquerade.”

“That is not to say carrying out such an operation without their knowledge is impossible. But it would seem to make an obstacle of what might be an asset. The preservation of the First Tradition is their foremost concern.”

Caroline: The Ventrue runs her tongue across her fangs again in thought. “I would not look that in the face then. I shall await Mr. Congo’s call however, before I invite others into our conspiracy.”

GM: “As you say, bayan,” the deep-voiced ghoul states.

Ferris has a shrewd look in his eye, but says nothing within Kamil’s and Giselle’s presences.

He and the others repeat their acknowledgement of Caroline’s orders.

The Ventrue departs with the two elder ghouls and Green to see her sisters in a black SUV. Caroline sits in back. Green drives.

Caroline may be content to wait for many things, but her family is not among them.


Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, AM

GM: It’s an 11-miute drive from the Giani Building to the Walter Grinnan Robinson House where the Devillers live. The 1859-65-built historic home incorporates a sophisticated blend of Greek Revival and Italianate styles with a Neoclassical cast iron fence, and is one of the largest properties in the district. Large enough to house each member the prodigious family in comfort and privacy.

True to Ferris’ earlier report, there are numerous parked cars outside. Jeremy May and Daniel Hayes, among other security personnel, are on guard. They wave Caroline’s car in without pause.

Caroline: Caroline waits for Green to park, then turns her attention to the two elder ghouls before getting out. “Several of my sisters are uncomfortable around armed men ever since one of them was shot,” she tells Kamil. “I mention it only to ask that you be mindful of your actions and inactions around them on that account.”

She turns to the casquette girl. “And I ask that you not, barring emergency, seek to use the gifts of the blood on an of them directly.”

GM: Kamil inclines his head. “I do not require weapons to fight, bayan, should the need arise.”

While all manner of firearms or blades might hide within the large folds of his dark suit, the casquette girl’s thin white dress looks as if it has little room for weapons.

She dips her head in mute acknowledgement of the order.

Caroline: “The mortal security is fair game—and in fact I would be more comfortable if you were willing to discretely verify there was no ill intent or tampering with them while we’re here.”

Her blue eyes glitter darkly in the car’s interior. “I suspect your touch with such things to be far more nuanced and elegant than my own.”

GM: The casquette girl dips her head again, then tilts it towards the car’s window as if to question ‘now?’

“Can you fucking talk or what?” Green snaps.

The casquette girl only placidly stares at Caroline.

Caroline: “When you’re three hundred years old you get certain allowances,” Caroline interrupts her own ghoul knowingly.

GM: “My parents said being old gets allowances too. They said a lot of bullshit.”

Neither of the elder ghouls reply.

Caroline: Caroline laughs darkly. “You might take notes, Ms. Green. It takes a special kind to survive centuries.”

She turns her gaze back to the elder ghoul. “As the opportunity presents itself, Gisèlle. I expect to be here until we receive the call.”

GM: The casquette girl dips her head again.

Caroline: The Ventrue slides out of the SUV and heads towards the house.

GM: Hayes and May exchange some perfunctory words with Caroline as she gets out, the latter drawlingly remarking on how he’s still waiting to show her a good time at the shooting range. The front door opens without resistance at her approach.

Caroline: She laughs passingly at May’s flirtation, trying to keep the doubts Gettis’ ‘resurrection’ has planted within her at bay, but isn’t slowed in her entry.

GM: Caroline was last inside the house several moths ago to celebrate Christmas with the Devillers. Some of the home’s exquisite features include moldings enhanced with 22 carat gold leaf, marble mantles, custom designed rugs, 19th century-painted ceiling murals, a staircase formerly in the Library of Congress, 16 ft. ceilings, and spacious, spectacular grounds with a beautiful pool and elaborate ironwork. She’s passingly acquainted with the home’s history as the original residence of an Antebellum tobacco magnate.

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

GM: Jocelyn had gushed about the historic property when she visited with Caroline, and the family had all happily entertained her request if she could take pictures. But the Ventrue wonders if her former lover would say that tonight. Like their one-time relationship that’s now so tinged with bitterness and regret, the house is not what it once was. Family pictures, which now include Caroline, hang askew. Furniture has been moved. Rearranged. All wrong. Tables at improper angles. Chairs facing away, or set out in the middle of nowhere. The times in none of the clocks match. Electric cords are unplugged, or crushed beneath table legs. Some of the drapes are only half-done, stretching over the windows like lolling tongues. Rugs seem too long or too short. Some of the ceilings feel taller or shorter than others. The length of the stairs up to the family bedrooms seem uneven. Everything about the house feels off.

Wrong.

Two white-furred persian cats stare at Caroline from the second floor. They feel like they’ve been sitting there for hours. She reads the names on their collars. ‘Mr. Shah.’ ‘Marie.’

They don’t hiss. They just open their mouths and soundlessly fling themselves from the railings.

Caroline: For a moment, but only just, Caroline wonders if someone has attacked the home, if it’s been invaded. The thought of someone rampaging their way through the home, terrorizing her sisters, stops her mid-step.

But she remembers Cécilia’s comments from earlier. About the home. About how much of their mother had sunk into the home. How much it was a reflection and expression of her.

It tells her all she needs to know about how much her actions have cost her. How much Caroline’s actions have cost her.

She sees the cats jump, remembers Simmone’s affection for them, and snatches them out of the air before they crash down almost on instinct.

GM: The taller Kamil reaches out for one of them as he sees Caroline do so. The Ventrue and ghoul both catch the cats. The felines rest in their grasps for a moment, then begin madly hissing, scratching, and biting. Caroline mostly doesn’t feel it past her dead skin. The ghoul evinces no pain either as he sets the one marked ‘Marie’ down.

There’s a loud crash. A toppled grandfather clock rests by Giselle’s feet, who isn’t where she was standing a moment ago.

She looks from the clock and to Caroline.

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t try to hold the angry feline, releasing it as the crash sounds. She grits her teeth at the sight. “Cécilia!?” she shouts into the house. “Adeline?” She stalks forward.

GM: The ghouls follow her. Kamil frowns, rests his arm against the banister, and just as quickly pulls away.

Caroline: She turns her gaze back to him at the sudden motion.

GM: There’s a painful snap and crash as a broken-off section of banister hits the first floor. Kamil might have broken his neck if he’d been leaning on it for any longer.

Caroline: She pauses, bites her lip.

“You do not appear welcome here,” she says at last. “This may be rude to ask, but please wait outside. There is no harm awaiting me within.”

GM: “The same conclusion had occurred to me, bayan,” the ghoul nods.

There’s only a slight pause at Caroline’s order.

“As you wish, bayan. We shall see to the trustworthiness of the guards and await your return.”

Giselle silently dips her head and follows him out.

It’s as the ghouls leave that Caroline hears Cécilia’s voice call, “Caroline? I’m in Simmone’s room!”

Caroline: The Ventrue darts up the stairs towards it with the grace of a ballerina.

GM: Grace to far eclipse any ballerina, if she’s to be precise. Simmone’s bedroom on the second floor closely if not identically resembles the one Caroline saw in the LaLaurie House, down to the same Into the Woods and other theater posters, pink-sheeted bed with its fluffy comforter, and collection of stuffed animals. All that’s different is the bedroom view out over the home’s garden and swimming pool. Cécilia sits on the on the bed, dressed in a nightgown, sleeping robe, and slippers. She’s cradling a nightgown-clad Simmone on her lap, who is crying and wailing piteously in French,

“Je veux maman! Je veux maman! Je veux maman!”

(“I want Maman! I want Maman! I want Maman!”)

“Oh, Caroline, I’m so glad you’re here,” Cécilia says as she looks up from in between words of comfort. “She’s had a horrible nightmare. About Maman.”

“Ecoute, Simmone, Caroline est là. Tu reverras maman très bientôt, je te le promets,” Cécilia assures Simmone in a gently cooing voice, as if the ten-year-old were actually a much younger child.

(“Look, Simmone, Caroline’s here. You will see Maman again very soon, I promise.”)

Caroline: Caroline swallows her own fear about their mother and hides the bitter aftertaste behind a gentle smile. “Oh, on,” she slides into the room towards her youngest sister and finds a spot in the bed on the bed next to Cécilia. She extends a warming hand to take one of Simmone’s own.

“C’est terrible. Voulez-vous m’en parler?” she asks softly.

(“That’s terrible. Do you want to tell me about it?”)

GM: “E-elle est morte! Elle MORTE! Maman est morte!” Simmone wails, tears running down her face.

(“S-she died! She DIED! Maman DIED!”)

Cécilia dabs at her face with a tissue. The wastebin is very full.

Caroline: Caroline squeezes her sister’s hand. “Ça a dû être terrifiant! Puis tu t’es réveillé et elle n’était pas là. Je suis tellement désolé, Simmone,” she answers, her tone understanding.

(“That must have been terrifying! Then you woke up and she wasn’t here. I’m so sorry, Simmone.”)

GM: “Je veux Maman! Je veux Maman! Je veux Maman!” Caroline’s newly-youngest sibling sobs.

(“I want Maman! I want Maman! I want Maman!”)

Caroline: The Ventrue brushes hair from the girl’s tear-streaked with her free hand. “Elle ne peut pas venir tout de suite, chérie. Elle fait quelque chose pour moi.”

(“She can’t come right now, darling. She’s doing something for me.”)

She bites her lower lip in concern as Simmone sobs.

GM: Simmone tilts her head back and gives a wordless, high-pitched shriek:

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEEE!!!!”

“Caroline, there’s some-”

EEEEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

SLEEPING PILLS on the

EEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

“-DRESSER, can you please get those?” Cécilia asks, trying to talk over the noise.

“Cécilia? Que se passe-t-il!?” comes Adeline’s voice at the scream.

(“Cécilia? What’s happening!?”)

Caroline: “Cauchemar,” Caroline’s voice cuts through the shrieks for Adeline.

(“Nightmare.”)

She turns her attention back to Simmone, laying one cool hand on the girl’s cheek and turning her gaze towards Caroline’s own.

“Simmone, je ne veux pas partir comme ça. S’il vous plaît,” the Ventrue doesn’t quite plead.

(“Simmone, I don’t want to leave like this. Please.”)

GM: The ten-year-old’s ear-splitting shriek subsides into low sobs.

“Je… v-veux… Maman …

(“I… w-want… Maman…)

“The dresser, please, Caroline. She needs to sleep,” Cécilia says in English.

Caroline: The Ventrue instead wipes the freshest of Simmone’s tears away. “Je sais. Mais pour ce soir, juste une fois, vas-tu te contenter de moi?” she asks. (“I know. But for just tonight, just once, will you settle for me?”)

“Je vous tiendrai jusqu’à ce que vous vous endormiez, et je vous promets de ne plus laisser de mauvais rêves s’approcher,” she offers with a faint smile. (“I’ll hold you until you fall asleep, and I promise not to let any more bad dreams come near.”)

“Cécilia peut s’allonger de l’autre côté si vous le souhaitez, et nous pouvons vous entourer d’amour.” (“Cécilia can lay on the other side if you like, and we can surround you in love.”)

“Je chanterai même si tu veux. Vous souvenez-vous quand nous avons chanté ensemble pour maman?” (“I’ll even sing if you like. Do you remember when we sang together for Maman?”)

GM: “O-Oui…” Simmone sniffs.

“Cela semble être une merveilleuse idée, Caroline—entourons-la d’amour. Que devrions-nous chanter?” Cécilia says, scooting back across the bed as she pulls Simmone along with her. She smiles as she runs a hand through their sister’s hair.

(“That sounds like a wonderful idea, Caroline—let’s surround her in love. What should we sing?”)

Caroline: The Ventrue props herself up on the other side of Simmone, her long legs stretched out before her but still sitting up next to her.

“Des demandes?” she asks Simmone. (“Any requests?”)

When the younger girl expresses none Caroline begins softly, but more deeply than her typical soprano, slowly meandering through the lyrics like she’s taking a stroll through the park.

“Tiens-moi près et
tiens-moi vite
Le sort magique que
vous lancez
C’est la vie en rose”

“Quand tu m’embrasses,
le ciel soupire
Et bien que je ferme
les yeux
Je vois la vie en rose”

“Quand tu me presse
contre ton cœur
Je suis dans un
monde à part
Un monde où les
roses fleurissent”

“Et quand tu parles, les
anges chantent d’en haut
Les mots de tous
les jours semblent se
transformer en
chansons d’amour

“Donnez-moi votre
cœur et votre âme
Et la vie sera toujours
La vie en rose”

(“Hold me close and hold me fast
The magic spell you cast
This is la vie en rose "
)

(“When you kiss me, heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose "
)

(“When you press me to your heart
I’m in a world apart
A world where roses bloom”
)

(“And when you speak, angels sing from above
Everyday words seem to turn into love songs”
)

(“Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be
La vie en rose”
)




GM: Caroline first heard the Louis Armstrong rendition of the song from her dad’s records. But it’s one thing to hear it from the famous jazz singer’s warm, scratchy, deeper tones in English, and another to hear her higher rendition in melodious-sounding French.

Cécilia adds her voice to her new sister’s. It’s a warm voice with a bright, full timbre, but softer and less piercing than Caroline’s, which she recalls her choir instructor saying could potentially assert itself over a whole orchestra. The contrast between their voices isn’t as marked as Caroline’s song with Abélia’s was, but neither are the pair’s vocal types identical like Yvette’s and Yvonne’s. Instead, the Ventrue’s duet with Cécilia reminds her of a beach’s low-lapping waves at high tide. Each one looks similar enough, but follows steadily after the other, and slowly laps at Simmone’s distress like gentle waves washing over a sand castle.

“Donnez-moi votre
cœur et votre âme
Et la vie sera toujours
La vie en rose.”

(“Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be
La vie en rose.”
)

“That was beautiful, Caroline,” Cécilia remarks quietly after their youngest sister’s whimpers for Maman have ceased. She looks at Simmone’s sleeping face for a moment longer, then back to Caroline’s.

“Maman told me about how you sang for Simmone after Luke proposed. But it’s one thing to hear about it, and another to hear it.”

Caroline: “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Caroline whispers back. “And gladder she did.” The Ventrue looks down at the sleeping Simmone. “I did too.”

GM: Cécilia looks back at their sister. “This isn’t Simmone’s first meltdown, as I’m sure you know. But that’s actually another plus to having you in the family now. I was just going to give her some pills, this has happened so many times. In fact, I even did, not that long ago. She still woke back up.”

Caroline: Caroline looks at the older of her sisters. “It must be difficult being so many things to so many people, Cécilia.”

GM: “It is, sometimes. But I think I have an easier time than some people.” She lays a hand on Caroline’s. “How did things go at Perdido House?”

There’s worry behind her eyes, but hope too. Even expectation. After all, Caroline is here.

Caroline: “We should talk outside,” Caroline replies quietly, gesturing towards Simmone.

GM: Cécilia glances back down at the sleeping ten-year-old. “You’re right, now that Maman isn’t here. It’s so easy to take all of the little things for granted.”

She rises, follows Caroline outside of Simmone’s bedroom, and quietly closes the door behind her.

“Well?” she asks excitedly as they walk towards the stairs.

Caroline: “He didn’t say no,” Caroline answers with barely contained excitement, like a teenager asked out by the presumptive prom king.

“The seneschal sent me off to help deal with the Claire stuff, and sent a pair of his servants to help.” Her footsteps are as silent as death. “I think things are about to change. For the better.”

Finally.

“What happened here though?” she asks, gesturing to the wrecked home.

GM: “Caroline, that’s wonderful!” Cécilia exclaims, hugging her. “I’m so happy for you. I knew this day, or I suppose night, would come.”

Caroline: The Ventrue can’t keep, and doesn’t fight, the smile on her face. “It’s all coming together. Right at the edge of falling apart. I guess no change comes without pain. But it’s worth it.”

GM: “Absolutely,” Cécilia nods. “So what’s going to hap… actually, no. I’ll let you tell the full story to Maman and me.”

Her good humor seems to fade as she looks down the staircase over the disordered home.

“Simmone wasn’t wrong. Maman died. We all had nightmares when it happened. Though she told me it almost certainly would. Philip wouldn’t abide her presence in Perdido House.”

Caroline: Caroline’s expression tightens like string suddenly pulled taunt. “He hurt her?” Then, a moment later, “She came knowing he’d hurt her?”

GM: “She knew you would need her,” Cécilia nods. “You’d know better than me exactly how it happened, but all of us felt it when she died. It’s why the house is the way it is. It’s why Simmone is the way she was. Maman is part of the house, part of us, and we are part of her.”

“You are part of her, too. It’s almost finished.”

Caroline: Caroline grits her teeth. “I did need her.” Without the distraction, to say nothing of the memory games…

Still, she didn’t want this. Hadn’t expected this cost.

“What does that mean for her? For us?”

GM: “It means a lot,” Cécilia says slowly. “I’ll explain everything in a bit. Everything that I understand, at least. But first… we need to bring her back.”

Caroline: “How?” Caroline’s answer is immediate, unhesitant.

GM: “Let me show you.” Cécilia starts down the stairs.

Caroline: The Ventrue follows tensely.

GM: “I could have started hours ago. But it’s important that you be here for this. So you can learn how to do it, too.”

Caroline: Caroline tilts her head. “This has happened before?”

GM: Cécilia nods. “Yes. Maman doesn’t put all of herself into her bodies. They aren’t exceptionally hard to destroy, if she isn’t trying to keep them intact—which I don’t imagine she was in Perdido House. That wasn’t a battle worth fighting, or perhaps even possible to win.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs darkly. “I’d argue in this, as with many things, she won that battle before she walked through the door.”

GM: Cécilia only smiles. “Yes.”

“None of her bodies are great losses, in of themselves. She’s only sad for the pain their destruction can cause us. Maman is so much more than the vessels you’ve seen. Those are more like, I suppose you could say hand puppets, than what she truly is.”

Caroline: “I’m sorry it hurt you all,” Caroline replies. “I had no idea he’d react thusly. Or that they had history.”

GM: Cécilia shakes her head. “Oh, you don’t need to be, and I hope you don’t blame yourself. Maman knew you needed her help. And you couldn’t have known about their history.”

Caroline: She doesn’t argue the point. Not with Cécilia. That battle, much like Abélia’s, was won and lost long ago.

GM: “In any case,” Caroline’s new sister continues, “her bodies hold only a small portion of her. More of it is in the house,” Cécilia gestures at their surroundings, “and in… us.”

Caroline: Caroline listens attentively.

“She wasn’t gone. I think… I don’t think the seneschal realized she was always there with me, even after he… well, made his point.”

There’s some grim satisfaction in getting the better of him.

GM: “She is in all of us,” Cécilia nods. “Our lives are her lives. And her life is ours.”

“It’s harder for her to act through us than it is through her body, though. All seven of us would need to be present for her to be capable of the same things, if her body wasn’t available.”

Caroline: The Ventrue nods in understanding as she continues to follow her oldest sister.

GM: “Her body can channel more of her, but not all of her. The house can contain more still, and is especially useful because we can all spend time here without it being suspicious. It’s our home, after all.”

Caroline: Caroline pointedly doesn’t ask the obvious question. The one that should be burning.

What is she.

She’s Caroline’s mother, and that’s enough.

GM: “There’s nothing wrong with being curious.”

Cécilia smiles at her.

“I’ve said our lives are one. With a little time and effort, you can learn to, I suppose open yourself, to me and the others, too.”

Caroline: “I just…” Caroline shivers, “don’t want to appear ungrateful.”

GM: Cécilia stops in mid-stride to take Caroline’s hands in hers. “Oh, no! There’s nothing wrong with questions. Whatever makes you happy, Caroline. Maman wants us to be happy. I want you to be happy.”

Caroline: There are words Caroline wants to say, but bites back. About how happy the family has already made her. About how this was what she always wanted. A family that genuinely wanted her to be happy, that she genuinely wanted to be happy, and that she didn’t have to hide from.

She bites them back almost out of reflex. Silence reigns for a moment after Cécilia’s declaration.

Finally, she battles through the walls between the truth and the open air and finds her voice. “I know, Cécilia.” She squeezes those holding hands. “I know. Old habits die hard though, even harder than Mother, and this is all… it’s so new that it seems like a dream. I don’t want the dream to end.”

GM: Cécilia smiles beatifically at her new sister as they continue to hold hands.

“You don’t need to be scared anymore, Caroline. Not while you’re here. You are home, and you are loved.”

Caroline: “I know,” she answers.

GM: “Say,” Cécilia continues with a more playful look, “if all of this feels too heavy, what do you think sounds better after I get married to your brother: Cécilia Devillers-Malveaux, or Cécilia Malveaux-Devillers? I want to take his name, but I couldn’t bear to give up our family’s either, so that seems like a good compromise.”

Caroline: Caroline’s serious expression cracks, then collapses into a smile, and finally explodes into genuine laughter.

“I think it sounds like you’re going to curse your children terribly when they’re learning to spell their names. Or, I suppose, they’ll curse you.”

GM: Cécilia softly laughs back. “They’ll have you to help them learn to spell. You’re so smart, it’ll be as easy for them as tying shoes.”

Caroline: “Oh, of course, it’ll be my problem.” Caroline rolls her eyes in mock irritation, then gives another little laugh.

“I really can’t wait to meet them, Cécilia, and to see what the future holds.” Her gaze sweeps back towards the direction they were headed. “But that future requires some works yet now to buy it.”

GM: “I can’t wait for us to meet them either,” Cécilia smiles back. Her gaze follows Caroline’s deeper into the house, then returns.

“But tell me first, I really would like your opinion: which name do you think sounds better?”

Caroline: “Malveaux-Devillers,” Caroline answers. “It lets him have primacy will always reminding everyone of who you are. And it rolls off the tongue more easily.”

GM: “Mal-Dev. Dev-Mal,” Cécilia says experimentally. “Yes, I think you’re right. It starts more softly. Yvette liked Devillers-Malveaux more, I suppose that’s no surprise.”

Caroline: “She’s possessive,” Caroline answers.

GM: “Yes, she is,” Cécilia nods. “There’s a bit of Maman in each of us.”

Caroline: “In more ways than one?” Caroline observes. There’s a twinkle in her eye.

GM: “In many ways,” her new sister smiles. “You included. You have her dutifulness, I think, most of all.”

Caroline: “The seneschal named her fallen,” Caroline abruptly slips out.

GM: Cécilia looks confused. “That’s strange. I suppose the logical question to ask is by what metric?”

Caroline: “He wouldn’t speak of it, he simply labeled her ‘the fallen one.’”

GM: “I’m not sure why he’d call her that. But then, as you’ve deduced, they have history together. Maman has said she knew him in the Old World.”

Caroline: “More games, maybe,” Caroline speculates. “His plots run deeply. I didn’t want to keep it secret, the ideas he set spinning.”

Caroline: Cécilia nods. “We can ask Maman if you’re curious. Now, so far as-”

She trails off as she and Caroline see Giselle through the front door’s paned glass. The casquette girl is standing on the front porch. She wordlessly points at several of the guards.

Caroline: Caroline nods, and mouths as very clear ‘later’ to the elder ghoul.

“Several of your people and I are going to be having very pointed conversations,” Caroline explains for Cécilia’s benefit.

GM: “Is someone there?” Cécilia asks, looking through the door’s glass.

Caroline: “One of the seneschal’s people. I asked her to examine the security people.”

GM: Cécilia looks directly at Giselle.

“I don’t see anyone. She must be hiding herself.”

“I’m so glad you thought to investigate the guards, in any case. Security isn’t really my or Maman’s area. If you don’t think they’re trustworthy, then by all means, do whatever you think is best to keep everyone safe.”

Caroline: “I have no intention of letting anyone harm any of you,” Caroline answers firmly. “We’ll see what she found. We should see to matters here, though… I don’t know how much longer I’ll have tonight.”

GM: Cécilia nods as they start off again into the house. “Yes, of course. Do you have any idea when it’ll be safe enough for the girls to go back to school?”

Caroline: Caroline bites her lower lip. “One of my people, whose opinion I greatly respect, once said all protection, all physical security, was ultimately not a question of whether you could make someone perfectly safe, but whether you could make it so costly to harm them as to make it prohibitive.”

“I don’t think I could ever be comfortable with the idea that someone, anyone, could hurt any of them… or you,” she admits.

GM: “We’re safe as long as we’re here, Caroline,” Cécilia states emphatically. “I don’t want to see any of the girls hurt either. If you think the world is still too dangerous outside the house, we’ll withdraw them from school. We can get everything we need delivered here, and there’s obviously plenty of room. It’d be only a little inconvenient. There’s things they’d be sad to miss out on, of course. But they’ll accept it if Maman says it’s to keep us safe.”

Caroline: “I can’t hide all of you here forever,” Caroline answers firmly. “And even if I could, I will not fight this far and further to rob my sisters of their lives and lock them in a cage like glass dolls.”

She looks at Cécilia. “I can’t promise that no harm will come to them—or you—beyond these walls—but I know that harm will come if they never leave. Even more, it’ll attract attention, which will only tighten the noose.”

“For now, I’m going through the existing people. Anyone that I don’t like the look of we’ll get rid of, and I’m going to move some of my people over to fill the gaps. People I trust, and that have a little more idea of what to look out for.”

“After that… I want them to return to their lives. And if anyone tries to touch them… well, they’re already hard targets, ones of mostly vindictive value, and ones that whether someone hits or misses will have bring down an ungodly firestorm on whoever does it.”

“That’s more than they had yesterday. Or any day in the past.”

Cécilia nods. “I think Maman would be very pleased to hear those words from you.”

“Let’s see that she does.”


Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, AM

GM: It’s not a far walk to the house’s library. Cécilia pulls out one of the books. The shelf ponderously swings open, revealing a stairwell that descends underground—a notably unusual feature given that most houses in New Orleans lack conventional basements.

The steps appear to be made from a dark, solid material Caroline cannot identify—stone, rock, or tightly-packed soil. There’s no design or ornamentation to them. They seem raised from the living earth itself.

The bookshelf swings shut behind Caroline as she follows her sister in. There are no lights, but Cécilia doesn’t stumble or lose her way. Caroline’s eyes cannot pierce more than several feet into the gloom. The tunnel-like stairwell is utterly silent save for the soft pad of Cécilia’s slippered feet and the sharper click of Caroline’s heeled ones down the steps.

Caroline: It’s unnerving not being able to pierce the gloom for the vampire with perfect nightvision, but Caroline continues down behind Cécilia.

GM: The pair emerge into a yawning, hollowed-out chamber bereft of ornamentation or decor. It’s at least as large as the house’s atrium, but Caroline cannot say how far it goes on. She can’t see walls or ceilings. Just more gloom.

A pentagram is drawn across the floor, not with any marker or extraneous material, but dug into the ground itself. The scent of long-dried blood from within the grooves is impossible for the vampire to miss.

It stands out less, though, than the recently-dried black blood smeared over the outside floor. Abélia’s severed head lies on the ground, along with her headless body. The former grins macabrely up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes.

Caroline: Caroline looks away from the corpse. Not because she hasn’t seen plenty, but because seeing Abélia—or at least what she perceives as Abélia—in that state is a sharp stab equally humbling and shameful.

That she had to suffer to help Caroline… and that she would.

She knows the body shouldn’t be here. But then, where should it be? She knows it vanished, and all such things go somewhere.

GM: This has happened before? Caroline had asked.

Cécilia said it had happened before.

And ‘it’ did go somewhere.

All of those ‘its.’

Caroline has read accounts of how Joseph Stalin would cram scores, even hundreds of people into cells meant for only a handful, packing humans in like sardines until so much as moving their hands was impossible. He didn’t need to torture them. Not actively. He just left them alone, to thirst and starve and shit. Inevitably, one person in the immobile mass couldn’t take it anymore and would start screaming. Then the people next to him would scream. Then the people next to them. Then everyone in the entire cell, all those dozens, all screaming. People could supposedly hear them from miles beyond the prison. They described it as the most ghastly, soul-chilling sound they’d ever heard.

The other ‘its’ don’t scream.

They’re well past that state.

Some have had their guts and heads split open. Others have that their limbs or faces gnawed off. Some have their throats slit. Some look like they were exploded from within. Some look like they’ve simply rotted apart. Some are thin. Others have grotesquely swollen, pregnant bellies burst open like gory pustules.

There are tens.

Dozens.

Scores.

More than Caroline can even see.

Black, tar-like residue coats the corpses everywhere like a morning dew. Omnipresent. They’re haphazardly stacked and piled high like so many logs of kindling. They don’t make Caroline think of sardines, though. More like shed exoskeletons—or half-devoured insects wrapped in the sticky folds of a spider’s web. The closest thing she’s seen to it are pictures of the Holocaust or German massacres on the Eastern Front.

Bodies.jpg
Bodies.jpg
Bodies.jpg
Bodies.jpg
The oddest thing is the smell.

The Ventrue would expect it to be overpowering. To send Cécilia retching on her knees, and Caroline to perhaps even long for the physical catharsis. The corpses don’t smell awful, though. They smell like her new mother’s perfume. Violet, creamy, and faintly cool.

Caroline: Caroline reaches out, but doesn’t quite touch them. Instead she covers her mouth with her other hand. “My God…” she whispers.

GM: Cécilia lays a hand on Caroline’s shoulder.

“Maman’s bodies aren’t very durable. They burn out, or simply give out. This is where they all go.”

She looks between Caroline and the piles of corpses.

“Obviously, none of the others know about this place. They’d be scarred for life, if they saw.”

She considers her new sister concernedly.

Caroline: “She’s suffered…” The Ventrue touches one of the husks. “So much.”

She looks back to Cécilia. “I won’t tell them.”

GM: The husk’s skin feels thin and brittle, like old clay. It crumbles apart beneath Caroline’s touch, even light as that is.

“She tells me it doesn’t hurt that badly, most of the time. I hope she isn’t only saying so to comfort me.”

Caroline: The Ventrue has had her own experiences with agony. With wounds that should have killed her. With bullets and blades and whips and fists. With unspeakable agony both alive and dead.

“It’s different,” Caroline reflects. “When it can’t really do more than hurt you. Pain is… manageable. The terror associated with it isn’t there. I’m sure what she goes through has its own flavor, but it isn’t quite the same as when I was human.”

Which doesn’t mean it hurts any less.

GM: Cécilia squeezes her shoulder.

“I’m sorry you’ve hurt.”

Caroline: Caroline gives a reassuring smile. “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t. I just mean… it probably does hurt her… but not in the same way it might hurt you. Still… so many times.”

She looks away from the husks.

“How do we bring her back?”

GM: “Blood,” Cécilia answers somberly.

She reaches among the husks and withdraws a dark-hued, ancient-looking ceremonial dagger.

“I’ve said our lives are one, Caroline. That connection works both ways—for good and ill.”

Caroline: The Ventrue nods.

GM: Cécilia draws the blade’s edge over her palm. She squares her jaw as red wells from the cut, then turns her hand over and lets blood dribble into the pentagram’s grooves.

“There are advantages to this, but there are drawbacks too.”

Caroline: “You should have let me,” Caroline protests as the scent of her sister’s coppery blood fills the room.

GM: Cécilia shakes her head as red continues to well from her palm. “I know being cut doesn’t mean as much to you, Caroline. But the transformation isn’t finished yet. I’m not sure your blood would satisfy.”

Caroline: The Ventrue bites her lip, but doesn’t argue.

GM: “Did you notice, how Adeline didn’t come running when you said Simmone had a nightmare?”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “They don’t all know yet.”

GM: “Yes. They’re still growing to accept you as part of our lives. Simmone was so out of it already, I don’t think she questioned what you were doing here. Not to mention you’ve gotten to know her better than Adeline. She wouldn’t have wanted to cuddle up with someone who wasn’t family.”

Cécilia winces as she digs the knife’s edge in deeper and walks to the pentagram’s next point. She lets more blood dribble into the grooves.

Caroline: Caroline grits her teeth as she watches Cécilia bleed.

GM: “The…” she starts, “largest advantage to our connection with Maman is that she’s all but indestructible, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t matter how the seneschal, or anyone else, kills her bodies. She will always return.”

Caroline: “What did she do before you?” Caroline asks.

GM: Cécilia kneels to paint her blood in the space between the two points.

“I think she simply had to make do without. That’s why we’re doing this, tonight. So she can come back. If we didn’t, she would take longer. Much longer. I’m not sure how long. Years. Maybe centuries.”

“She might have been able to circumvent that restriction by putting less of herself into her bodies. That would probably give them a longer lifespan, too. But she wouldn’t be able to do as much through them. Prices to all things.”

Caroline: Nothing is ever really free. Sometimes it simply isn’t you paying the price.

GM: Cécilia walks to the pentagram’s next point. She grimaces again as she slices the blade across her uncut hand, then lets the blood pool.

“Maman…” she starts falteringly, “might also have been permanently diminished, if she’d been destroyed then. Or perhaps banished from our world. I’m not sure what would have happened.”

She sets the knife down for a moment to apply pressure to her cut hand, but winces at that.

“We are her anchors. We focus her power and keep her essence tied to the physical world. It doesn’t matter how many of her bodies get destroyed, so long as we live. Or exist, in your case. She will always return.”

“But as I’ve said, that connection cuts both ways.”

Cécilia then tells Caroline their mother’s weakness.

Her true weakness.

“It might, maybe even probably would, be enough to permanently destroy her. Without any chance of coming back.”

Caroline: Caroline listens gravely, but shakes her head.

“That won’t happen.”

GM: “I hope you’re right.”

Caroline: “Me too.” The talk was even bleaker than Cécilia bleeding herself.

“All the pentagram has to be filled?” she asks.

GM: Cécilia nods with a faint wince. There’s eight major points left.

Caroline: “How many times have you done this?” Caroline asks her sister.

GM: “More than I can remember, honestly,” Cécilia answers.

“Maman doesn’t let me scar, and it normally doesn’t take very much blood.”

Caroline: “It just hurts,” Caroline answers.

GM: Cécilia nods.

“It’s worth it, of course.”

Caroline: “Do you want help?” Caroline asks.

She knows well how much self-control it takes to bite into your flesh, to draw blood. It’s the difference between waiting for the nurse to give you a shot and jamming the needle into your flesh. That natural aversion that’s so hard to overcome.

GM: “I… yes,” Cécilia nods, gratefully. “It’s going to take a lot of blood, this time. Maman can’t make do with a lesser body, not with Gettis on the loose.”

“A lot of blood.”

“The more that’s shed, the faster she can come back, and the stronger the body.”

Caroline: “Does she heal these, when she comes back?” Caroline asks. “Can she?”

GM: There’s uncertainty across Cécilia’s face for a moment.

“I hope so. I don’t usually cut myself very deeply. Maman normally has some sense of when a body is going to break down.”

Caroline: “You start rebuilding the next early.”

GM: Cécilia nods. “Yes. Sometimes, I can space it out over time.”

“Other times, actually most of the time, there’s a component to the ritual she hasn’t told me. She says she wants to keep my hands clean. My soul clean.”

Caroline: Caroline nods in agreement. With their mother.

She takes the knife from Cécilia and lightly tests its edge.

GM: It’s quite sharp, despite its apparent age.

Caroline: “If it doesn’t have to be this blade, a needle would be far more effective in the future. And less painful,” Caroline observes. “And less dangerous to you.”

“If it has to be a blade, sharper is better. A razor is best. It cuts deeper, further into the blood vessels. A scalpel would work best, but even a straight razor, box cutter, or hobby knife might work better.”

Not that she intends on letting Cécilia do much more of this.

“You won’t scar?” Caroline asks again, just to be sure.

GM: “I don’t know,” Cécilia admits. “Maman isn’t a healer. I’ve not needed to cut myself that deeply, in the past.” She gives a faint smile. “Clearly you know much more about this sort of thing than I do.”

Caroline: “Does it need to be the knife?” Caroline asks instead, at that answer.

GM: Cécilia considers. “I don’t think so. We don’t have any scalpels in the house, but we have plenty of shaving razors.”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “I don’t want to risk scars.”

GM: “There’s always scar revision surgery, if it comes down to it. We did that for Yvonne.”

Caroline: “What happened there?” she asks, pointing to one of the nearby bodies.

GM: Cécilia looks away. “What hap-”

Caroline: Caroline raises the woman’s wrist to her mouth and opens two perfect little holes with the blades as sharp as any razor where she used to have eyeteeth. Blades specifically designed to create deep bleeding wounds.

“Cup your hand?” she directs without hesitation orienting Cécilia’s wrist so the blood runs down and pools into her palm.

GM: “Oh!” Cécilia exclaims, giving a little start as Caroline’s fangs penetrate her. It’s a milder reaction by far, though, next to when she used the knife.

But what’s comparatively gentle for Cécilia is less so for Caroline.

It’s only the faintest of tastes. The inevitable contact between canine and blood without any effort to suck the latter.

The Ventrue almost doubles over from the nightshade-like whiff of poison she scents running through her sister’s veins.

Caroline: She spits the poisonous residue in her mouth into the darkness away from them in a very unladylike manner.

GM: Cécilia examines the already welling wound appreciatively. “Oh, I see. Thank you, Caroline. I suppose it’s no s… are you all right?” she questions as the Ventrue spits.

Caroline: “It’s fine,” Caroline answers, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

GM: Cécilia’s face shows realization.

“You almost tasted my blood. I’m so sorry I didn’t warn you.”

Caroline: Caroline gives a weak smile. “I didn’t warn you either. But I don’t think you’ll be winning any prizes at a vintage club.”

GM: “True. I suppose that makes us even enough,” Cécilia smiles back. Her face grows graver though as she explains, “Maman doesn’t want any Kindred using us as vessels. Our blood is poison. They’ll be killing themselves if they try.”

Caroline: “Good,” comes Caroline’s smug response. If she’d had any intention of drinking from Cécilia—if she hadn’t specifically been trying to avoid doing so—there’s no way she could have avoided at least one mouthful of poison.

She doesn’t imagine most of the family’s dangers are from other vampires specifically, but it’s good to know any foolish lick that stops one of her sisters on the street will get… far more than they expect, even if it is everything they deserve.

GM: “Maman’s laid protections on us against common attacks. Feeding, disciplines, ghouling… I don’t know that they’ll apply to you, though, given that you’re already Kindred.”

Caroline: “I keep a sword for most of those problems,” comes Caroline’s dry reply.

GM: Cécilia gives a faint laugh. “Yes, I suppose you wouldn’t need them as much anyway.”

Caroline: She guides Cécilia’s blood-filling hand around to each point in sequence.

“They’re still dangers. I’ve had vampires that wanted to feed on me, even after I was Embraced, and enjoyed the non-too-subtle touch of more than one discipline. But no lick on the street is likely to get the better of me in that way.” Especially not now, with the power she’s ripped from the bishop’s blood, and with her sire’s protection.

She remembers the last group that tried jumping her on the street. Remembers them getting burned at the trial like the trash they were. After she beat them into torpor.

GM: Kindred fangs can leave very, very deep punctures. They have to, after all. Caroline can well attest as to her (and any Kindred’s, except maybe thin-bloods’) ability to totally exsanguinate a vessel through those two points and some slowly determined sucking.

Cécilia doesn’t make do with a cursory drop. She lets a lot of blood flow. A lot of blood. She starts to look woozy, almost inebriated, and very, very pale. She eventually forgoes standing altogether and gets down on her knees.

“Maybe… Maman could help there… if you could still… find it… use…”

She gestures as if to finish the sentence.

Cécilia slowly runs her hands over the lines between each of the points. She gets it everywhere. The punctures are deep, but not very wide. It takes a long time.

Caroline: The Ventrue carefully monitors Cécilia as she bleeds. Most licks, she imagines, get pretty good at judging blood loss. She likes to think her background gives her a further leg up. They hit a point after which she looks at her sister and simply declares, “Enough.”

GM: Cécilia dully shakes her head.

“I don’t know… this is enough… for a… good body…”

She slowly rolls back the sleeve of her sleeping robe, fumbles for the knife, and starts searching for an artery.

“Need… to keep the others… safe…”

Caroline: Caroline snatches the knife from her sister’s hand with all the effort it would take to snatch it from a child’s.

“It’s enough, Cécilia,” she says more forcefully. “I’d sooner array all my ghouls around the family in a ring of steel than let you spill another drop.”

“You’ve done enough,” she continues more softly, as she reaches and cuts away a strip of her sister’s nightgown sleeve.

GM: Cécilia weakly shakes her head again.

“I… know you don’t… want me… but it won’t… be enough… this… is worth it… to have… Maman… full strength…”

Caroline: Caroline uses one hand to lift Cécilia’s gaze to her own.

“Not with you in trade,” she answers. “I wouldn’t let any vessel give this much if I wasn’t trying to hurt them.”

GM: “Carol… they, we need her…” Cécilia protests. “I don’t know how long… the house’s… will last…”

She dumbly reaches for the knife.

Caroline: “Far less long than it will without you,” Caroline almost snaps.

She bites her lip as she eyes Cécilia’s still-bleeding wrist. She doesn’t know how much longer they have down here, and doesn’t trust an improvised bandage given the depth of the wound.

She takes Cécilia’s wounded wrist in one hand, tucking the knife behind her and out of Cécilia’s reach, then mentally prepares herself for a moment. This is going to hurt. But what had she told her sister? Pain is different when it isn’t going to inflict permanent wounds.

The Ventrue swipes the scrap of robe across Cécilia’s wrist to wipe the wound as clean as she can, and immediately, cobra-quick, leans in to lick the wound closed.

GM: Caroline is fast enough to not only get the two punctures, but the knife slashes across Cécilia’s hands as well. Kindred ‘saliva’ truly does possess miraculous properties, though when she considers it next to what vitae can already do, she supposes its relative efficacy is consistent.

“Oh, Caroline… you didn’t have…” Cécilia starts. “Thank you… but we need… I don’t keep the others safe… like Maman…”

Caroline: The Ventrue spits again, hacking up the poison even as it burns. Poison born in the darkness. But then, she’s no petty creature of darkness either, is she? The strength of two ancient evils runs within her. She’s stained her soul black enough as it is.

Let the poison have what it can take. She’s a creature of poison in a way few Kindred ever are.

Besides, whispers the poison, isn’t it your fault Cécilia is here doing this tonight in the first place? Your fault Simmone woke up in terror. Your fault Abélia ‘died.’ And you can’t even make it right. Cécilia has to. She has to suffer for you.

Caroline tries to ignore the voice in her head keeping score with her mother and sisters. The ways they’ve saved her already. How poorly she’s repaid them in turn. She tries, but the voice cuts through all the same. Claire’s voice always did.

She looks back up at her sister. “Don’t you?” she asks without irony.

“You’re the only one who knows the truth, about everything. You’re the bridge between her, me, them, and everything else in the night. You’re the one here tonight when she can’t be, and the one who’s taken care of them for years. Who kept them here, safe through the day.”

“They need you every bit as much as they need her, now as much as ever.”

The I need you goes unsaid.

GM: Cécilia looks at Caroline for a moment with drooping eyes, then slumps against her sister’s shoulder.

“You’re… you’re right… I’m just scared for them, if… Gettis… or… other… Maman has enemies…”

Caroline: “I know,” Caroline replies, laying a hand on the back of Cécilia’s head to hold her. “But you don’t have to be afraid. He does.”

“Because he’s not in the shadows anymore. He’s not safe. The sheriff and the hounds will hunt him. The prince will hunt him. And we will hunt him.”

GM: “But what… if he… if something… comes for us…?”

Caroline: Caroline looks around the basement. “Looks like there’s plenty of space to stack their bodies down here.”

GM: Cécilia gives a faint laugh. “That’s… morbid…”

Caroline: “I mean it, Cécilia. Anyone who comes for any of you, anyone who even tries, anyone who even thinks about it. I’ll bury them in a shallow grave just like I’m going to bury Gettis. But not before I pry a scream from him to match every one he ever inflicted on Simmone in kind.”

GM: Cécilia gives another faint, half-coughed laugh.

“It’s no wonder… Yvette looks up… to you. There a lot of… Maman in you… both of you…”

Caroline: “In all of us, Cécilia,” Caroline answers.

GM: “You’re such a… good sister… Caroline. I feel like… you were just waiting… to be…”

Caroline: “Maybe I was. But I am now.”

GM: “It’s nice… having someone I can be… open with… about everything…”

Caroline: “Yes,” Caroline agrees. “Yes, it is.”

GM: Cécilia weakly motions at the pentagram.

“Let’s… try now…”

Caroline: Caroline props up her sister from the side, letting Cécilia lean on her. “What do we do next?” she asks.

GM: “Trid… eka… gramm,” Cécilia murmurs. She leans heavily on Caroline. “Draw… extra lines… no blood…”

Caroline: Caroline takes the knife from where she put it and studies the pentagram for a moment, outlining in her head where to put the next lines before she accidentally defaces the oh-so-costly pentagram.

GM: It takes some time to carefully draw the extra points, but Caroline’s hand is nothing if not steady. Cécilia waits patiently, tells Caroline to “say the words as I say them,” and then crawls up to the pentagram’s edge as her sister finishes.

“Mater… autem diligunt te. Mater… venerit ad nos.”

(“Maman… we love you. Maman… come back to us.”)

Caroline: Caroline kneels beside her sister and does as she instructs, her own voice steady beside Cécilia’s wavering one.

“Mater… autem diligunt te. Mater… venerit ad nos.”

(“Maman… we love you. Maman… come back to us.”)

GM: The response is immediate.

The red blood turns black and rolls across the extraneous indentations, filling all thirteen. The pentagram’s center space turns pitch black too. Then the other spaces do, seeming to fall away into a starless void one by one.

But that void is not empty.

A shape slowly approaches from within. Huge like a lunar eclipse drawn impossibly close to earth, and swollen like the abdomen of some monstrously bloated spider. The chamber plunges into near-darkness as sight warps, sound shudders, and wetly dripping rents open in the air behind the pentagram, as if reality is bleeding from the presence’s arrival. Its grotesque bulk seems at once behind, below, above, and adjacent to those rents, impossible for Caroline to perceive in its true size and dimensions, yet hedged in by the pentagram. Enormous tendrils like a spider’s disjointed legs or a kraken’s tentacles swim against the barrier.

Cécilia reaches forward to rub her hand over the blood-inscribed pentagram—a catastrophic decision if there is also a binding circle in place, Caroline knows, that would ruin the binding and allow a summoned entity free reign to do as it pleased.

Caroline: Caroline received only brief but all-too terrifying glimpses of Abélia’s might in the past. Of course calling her forth would be a summoning. Hasn’t she ever seemed to exist halfway in another world? Still, to see the ritual of her return so nakedly exposed for what it is plants questions.

Questions about where it is they call her from. Where she came from. Even what she is. This warper of time and space, rewritter of history, implanter of forbidden lore.

Questions aplenty, but no doubts. Abélia is less than—or more than—human, but then isn’t Caroline? Does it make her less capable of genuine affection? Less caring of those she loves?

Caroline doesn’t think so, and she doesn’t stop her sister from shattering the binding. Cécilia doesn’t bind Abélia. She releases her.

Caroline does not desire to change that.

GM: An earthquake-like shudder wracks the earth beneath Caroline’s knees, the air around her ears, as if the very elements are moaning in protest against the presence’s arrival. Color leeches from Cécilia’s blonde hair, pale skin, blue eyes, rose sleeping robe, leaving only muted grays. The Ventrue looks down at her own hands and sees a shot out of a black and white film. Caroline’s, her sister’s, and all the room’s shadows flicker like guttering flames, then tear themselves free, racing towards the omnidimensional heart of darkness at the center of the pentagram. The churning, whirpool-like maw swallows them greedily, seems to swell vaster still, vaster than even the boundary-less chamber can contain, and then explodes. Darkness seeps over everything like a foul black tide. It seeps into Caroline’s clothing, her hair, her orifices, the pores of her skin, and deeper still. She can’t see anymore. There’s just black.

But still, somehow, there is another blackness. Even deeper.

Cécilia’s blood.

It rises from the pentagramaic grooves, swelling into an amorphous, gelatin-like shape and form. But the process is not like it was in Maldonato’s office. The shape jerkingly shudders, twists, explodes, and collapses as if it’s being run through a meat grinder. Pale skin grows, stretches, pops, and runs like melted wax. Bones snap, crunch, and shatter. Organs wetly burst like overripe fruits. Eyes pop. Matted black hair blossoms from lymph nodes heart vessels like rapacious weeds, then sizzles away beneath running stomach acids. Suffering flesh weeps red. But there is no red and there is no flesh. Maman wouldn’t have any of them if Caroline were to cut her open, and she can’t see anything anyway, just a writhing, even blacker shape in the gloom, a roaring midnight tide downpouring into a too-small, too-brittle vessel.

The Caroline opens her eyes, and it’s all gone. The room and its occupants have color and shadows and all those things that everything is supposed to have again.

Caroline’s new mother, garbed in the same navy-midnight dress, strides out from the pentagram. Her expression melts as she looks upon the two sisters.

“Oh, my poor, sweet Caroline,” she croons. “Oh, my poor, dear Cécilia.”

She sinks to her knees and cradles the pair’s heads against her bosom.

“You have hurt, for me. You have feared, for me. You have suffered, for me.”

Soft hands stroke Caroline’s and Cécilia’s hair.

“My precious, darling daughters. No treasures among Solomon’s riches or the Templars’ hoards could be as priceless to me as you.”

Cécilia, still so pale from her bleeding, all but melts into Abélia’s embrace. Caroline can see the relief in her still-drooped eyes, the childlike instinct to curl up against someone older, someone wiser, someone who loves you, and to let them simply take care of you.

“Maman… you’re back…”

“Of course I am, sweet child,” their mother purrs. “No force within creation may keep me apart from you who are my blood.”

Cécilia offers no reply. She simply lies against Abélia and lets their mother hold her.

Caroline: Coming from someone else, perhaps anyone else, Abélia’s words might seem patronizing. Mocking. Even ridiculous.

They don’t from Abélia.

Perhaps because it’s been so long—if ever—since Caroline heard unadulterated praise. Perhaps because she’s so tired of being worthless in the eyes of others. Perhaps because it’s Abélia, because the monster clad in her sister’s dark blood, has been so good to her, has given her no reason to doubt her genuine affection.

Because she walked into Perdido House with her, knowing what would happen. Because she was her shield against the seneschal’s rape of her mind. Because she showed Caroline the truth when everyone else cloaked everything in only lies. Because she adopted Caroline when she had literally nothing else, and has given her a family that loves her.

And maybe because the dark cynical voice in her head, that whispers not to trust, not to believe, and not to hope in Claire’s most patronizing voice is nowhere to be found around her.

She doesn’t melt into her mother’s arms. She’s not weak, not hurting, not afraid, in the same way that her sister is. Not now. But she does glow under her attention, under the soft touch of this otherworldly entity of ineffable size and darkness that she calls simply:

Mother.

GM:Adoption?” Abélia chuckles, running her hand through Caroline’s hair.

“No, my dear. I do not believe in adoption. I find it piteous, even tragic, that mortals would willingly accept a figurative cuckoo’s egg into their nest and raise the chickling as their own.”

Caroline: “Metaphorically,” Caroline clarifies, with a hint of a smile.

GM: “A mother cannot adopt her own blood, dear child. The very notion is superfluous. You are of my blood. Our blood. Your sister has told you thusly: your life is my life. My life is your life. No cuckoo’s chickling may share what we share.”

“You have joined our family later than your sisters—but then, has not Simmone after you? She is no less our blood than Cécilia.”

Caroline: “I didn’t mean to convey any doubts as to that,” Caroline defends. “Only my gratitude that you were there when I was at my worst. Regardless of the circumstances.”

GM: Abélia chuckles again.

“You do not doubt, my dear. You have doubted many things, and rightly. But this I know you do not.”

Caroline: “Not you,” Caroline answers.

GM: Her hand brushes the Ventrue’s cheek as her dark eyes meet Caroline’s pale blue ones. Then she says the three words Caroline had yet to hear:

“I love you, Caroline.”

“I love you with all of my heart and all of my soul. I love you for all that you have been and all that you now are. It gladdens me that you are of Caine’s blood as well as mine own. If the world burnt to preserve our family’s lives, then creation would be so much the better. Let the kine die in droves to slake your thirst. If their blood makes you strong, then the trade is a worthy one! To know you are strong is pleasing to me.”

“I love you, my sweet, precious Caroline. There is so much about you that is so worthy of love.”

Caroline: Caroline glows under Abélia’s words.

Her mother’s praise is better than presents under the tree on Christmas morning. It’s better than her acceptance into Clan Ventrue. It’s better than her sire’s taciturn acknowledgement of her.

It’s her heart’s desire.

It’s an unfamiliar feeling that swells in her breast and nearly brings bloody tears to her eyes.

“Thank you,” she replies, her voice choked with emotion. She leans into the hand cupping her cheek. “I love you too, Maman.”

And I will make you proud.

GM: Abélia smiles benignly as if to say Caroline already has.

“You are one of us now, my dear. One of us in every way. My rebirth has completed your transfiguration.”

The raven-haired woman’s eyes shine.

“You can feel it, can’t you? I hope your new name is pleasing to your ears.”

Caroline: The heiress smiles. “I feel… better than I have in… ever,” she admits.

And she does. Like she can be who she really is.

No. That’s not quite right.

Like she actually is who she always has been.

“Malveaux-Devillers.” She runs the name over her tongue slowly. “Yes, I rather like it.” Her blue eyes glitter. “I mean, I’ve been using it my entire life, so I’d hope so.”

GM: Abélia’s dark ones twinkle.

“Some things never fail to bring us joy, when we but pause to think of them.”

The content smile spreads.

“Daughters chiefly among such.”

Soft yet heavy footsteps sound from the stairs.

Abélia looks down at Cécilia, silent but for the steady intake of her breath. Her eyes are closed.

“Your sister has given so much of herself for us, I suppose it is no surprise Hypnos has claimed her. Come, let us see her to bed.”

The faceless servant emerges from the gloom. It silently bends to pick up Cécilia’s sleeping form between its arms.

Caroline: “I’m worried about her,” Caroline answers, watching carefully as the faceless servant takes up her sister. “She takes on too much.”

GM: “You and she are the responsible ones in the family,” her mother smiles, brushing a hair from Cécilia’s face as they proceed up the steps. “It is little wonder you are so close. I am gladdened that you shall now be able to alleviate her labors—and she your own.”

“But burdens shared are not always burdens halved. Is there a course with your sister you might counsel, Caroline, to ease those burdens’ weight?”

Caroline: “Only caution, Maman,” Caroline replies. “Left to her own devices this night, she might have bled herself dry, might still be bleeding, in her desire to protect her sisters.”

GM: “Yes, we must see to it that such a thing cannot occur again,” Abélia concurs. “There are components to the ritual I have withheld from her, in a decision that was perhaps selfish and unwise. But they are components you, perhaps, may be better-suited to perform.”

Caroline espies it out of the corner of her eye just as the cold chamber recedes into the gloom.

Claire’s last clothes.

On one of Abélia’s husks.

Caroline: “Even without, if my blood can substitute, that is a far better option,” Caroline answers. “She…”

The Ventrue’s voice dies as she spots the clothing.

GM: Abélia and the faceless man pause in their ascent.

“What is it, sweet child?”

Caroline: She looks back to where she saw Claire’s clothing.

“I thought I saw something,” Caroline answers, turning back to face Abélia. “But it wasn’t anything that mattered.”

GM: Caroline’s new mother smiles as she lays a hand upon her shoulder.

“All that matters, my dear, stands before us here.”


Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, AM

GM: It’s not a long walk to Cécilia’s bedroom, even in the large house. Abélia resumes as they make their way,

“I fear that this body, for all the selflessness of your sister’s sacrifice, is less than my prior ones. It shall not last for a great many workings, nor withstand my greatest workings without equally great harm. I shall confine myself to the house to better conserve its strength.”

Caroline: Caroline frowns. “Could I make a stronger one? With enough of my blood? I can give far more than she ever will.”

GM: “Yes and no, my dear.”

“Your blood shall suffice as well as Cécilia’s to create future receptacles for my essence. Better, in fact, for the reasons you have observed.”

“You could pay the price to create another body for me now, were you inclined. However, it would avail us but little. Much of my essence is housed within this body. For that essence to be released, this body must be destroyed.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “Something for the future, then… can your current body be fortified?”

GM: Abélia smiles at Caroline’s quick grasp of the consequences. “Clever girl. The bishop’s soul has only further expanded your mind, has it not? He was always a bright one.”

Caroline: “And honed my senses. It was necessary,” Caroline echoes her previous comment on the matter. “The seneschal’s plan alone will fail.”

The Ventrue looks at her mother. “But you knew that.”

GM: Abélia smiles contently.

“It fills me with pride how you continue to increase your powers, my dear. Adeline shall not rest so easily upon her laurels as the family’s ‘smartest’, now.”

Caroline: “I don’t expect he will be the last,” Caroline concedes.

GM: “Whom shall you sup upon next? It is never too early to start laying one’s plans.”

Caroline: “Someone mightier,” Caroline answers. “The bishop helped, but he wasn’t enough. Not for what I need.”

GM: “Hmm,” Abélia says thoughtfully, “a true elder, perhaps. By this city’s reckoning, at least. Whom among their ranks have most displeased you?”

Caroline: “She already met her end,” Caroline replies savagely.

GM: “Yes, it is a shame her Blood could not have been put to better use. I know of but few Cainites who might have brought you closer to the Dark Father.”

“Utham would never conceive of such a thing, of course, even though her soul might have strengthened his.”

Caroline: “Of the remaining…” Caroline muses. “Much depends on how the cards lay when the seneschal and the prince have cast them. There are only so many pieces I can pull from the tower before it crumbles.”

GM: “Indeed, my dear. Better that we push it ourselves so you might seize the choicest pieces ere the tower crumbles.”

Caroline: “I would sooner remake it in my image than tear it down. Chaos breeds violence.”

GM: “All succumbs to ruin in due course, dear child. Chaos is ineluctable.”

“Alder John occurs to me as an elder who dwells in comparative isolation from that tower, nevertheless. You are not overly fond of him, are you?”

Caroline: “No,” Caroline agrees. “I am not.”

An understatement.

“But if I were to choose a name from those in the city—that I know of… Opal has made herself the prince’s foe, and Chastain seems poorly of use of her blood these nights.”

GM: Abélia halts immediately.

Caroline: Caroline pauses. “Or have I misjudged things?”

GM: Her mother’s dark eyes silently roam hers.

“You know not what you say, dear child,” she finally states. “There are truths concerning one of the Cainites whom you name that must, and shall, be made clear to you.”

Caroline: “I am a humble vessel for such truths,” Caroline replies.

GM: Her mother’s smile returns.

“There is little in you that is humble. Your pride gives me much to take pride in.”

Caroline: The Ventrue’s grin is positively wolfish.

GM: “It has been starved for so long, hasn’t it, like a radiant flower denied sun and water? Starved and denied by those who presume themselves your betters. It shall pleasure me immeasurably to see that pride blossom in more verdurous conditions.”

Caroline: “They’re coming. Perhaps even here,” Caroline answers. “I can feel it, like the first drops of rain from a summer storm. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.”

GM: “You have eternity, my dear,” her mother replies contently. “Take heed from this: an immortal’s ambitions may never outlive her.”

Caroline: “Will they?” she asks in sudden concern. “Get old? Die?”

GM: “Of course not, sweet child,” Abélia answers consolingly. “I would not have your sisters face so ignoble a thing as old age. We love them with all of our hearts. Why should we ever wish to let them go?”

“Why should so distasteful a thing as death spell an end to our family?”

Caroline: The Ventrue lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.

“It shouldn’t,” she replies firmly. Perhaps selfishly. Gratefully.

GM: “Some of their futures pose a greater dilemma to me than others. Simmone has told me many times that she does not wish to grow up, and I do not wish to be without a child upon my knee.”

Caroline: A forever child. Not a fate Caroline would ever wish, but she can see it in Simmone. She recalls Pearl’s herald in a similar role and distantly wonders how the ‘girl’ feels about that.

GM: “Cécilia and I discussed, what did she call them, ‘hormone blockers’ to delay the onset of womanhood pursuant to more permanent recourses. ‘Blockers’, however, are apparently unable to prevent further height growth. More is the pity. Simmone’s time to remain a child is swiftly elapsing.”

“Cécilia told me you once studied to become a physician. Are you aware of any medicines that might forestall further growth?”

Caroline: “The opposite,” Caroline answers quietly. “High hormone doses have had success in stopping growth, but brings on the onset of puberty more quickly.”

GM: “Your sister mentioned hormone blockers accelerated growth for girls. It appears we shall have to turn elsewhere than the sciences of mankind.”

Caroline: “Not only accelerates, but perpetuates. The longer she’s on them, the taller she’ll grow.”

GM: “Simmone’s continued childhood remains a pressing matter, to be certain, yet not one so pressing we need it address tonight,” Abélia states as the four enter Cécilia’s bedroom. It’s a clean and neatly organized space, with family pictures (that include Caroline) and a few pieces of art to liven up the walls. The faceless man lies Cécilia down upon the bed. Abélia sits and strokes her forehead.

“She is such a role model to your sisters. So responsible. I must not forget she is still a child, too.”

Caroline: “And vulnerable,” Caroline answers. “Or, perhaps, fragile is a better word.”

GM: Abélia smiles down at her daughter wistfully as the faceless man silently withdraws from the room.

“As to your prior question, my dear.”

“Much of my essence is bound within the house, your sisters, and you. My present vessel’s rate of decay may be postponed by remaining close to those things. Less puissant and less frequent workings of power may also prolong its lifespan.”

Caroline: Caroline muses, “Would it be better then if I slept here, during the day?”

GM: Abélia gives a fluttering laugh. “Such a quick mind. Your sister and I had intended to ask you that very same thing, sweet child, though the extension of my present body’s lifespan was not among our reasons.”

Caroline: “But it would help extend its lifespan,” Caroline presses.

She pauses. “I had not intended to—I didn’t want to draw more attention to the family, but…”

GM: Abélia cups Caroline’s chin beneath her hand and raises it to meet her eyes.

“Blood defends its own, Caroline. There is no truer demonstration of love than sacrifice. I dare any power that names you foe to assail you within these walls. This body is less than I am wont to inhabit. But my power here remains strong, and I shall defend my young with ferocity to match any lioness.”

“No force shall harm you here while I yet draw breath to seek its annihilation. This I swear.”

Caroline: Caroline lays a hand on her mother’s arm. “I have—had—no doubt of my safety. But I would bring no others to the doorstep of my mother or sisters without cause.”

GM: Abélia’s dark eyes glint.

“Blood defends its own, my child. Your battles are our battles.”

“Now,” she continues as if the matter is settled, “as to interrupted matters.”

“This body shall join the husks below the house in due course. A gradual death is kinder upon your sisters than a sudden death, as are less frequent ones. Most of my vessels’ deaths go unnoticed, save within the darkest and most slumbering corners of your dreams.”

“What I have perhaps erred in not telling your sister,” she strokes Cécilia’s head, “is that blood alone is a paltry sacrifice before other offerings. I must be fed, my dear. In lives. Almost any mortal’s or night-folk’s shall do. A handful of blood from you or your sisters may then restore me to my full puissance in a new body.”

“The sacrifice must be slain within the circle you saw below and dedicated specifically to my name. Any other corpse is of limited but not nonexistent use. I require less blood to reshape an existing body than to fashion a new one from nothing—or to be precise, from the blood shed in my name.”

“The blood shed by your sister is the whole of my present body. For that reason, it is a poor vessel. Blood is a lesser sacrifice than a life.”

“You, however, could shed such a degree of blood without lasting harm, were you unable or unwilling to sacrifice a life in my name. What is death to the kine is starvation and torpor to you.”

Caroline: Caroline considers for only a moment. “You were wise not to tell her. Cécilia would do anything for her sisters. For you. I don’t think she’d even hesitate, if it came down to it.”

The Ventrue looks down at her sleeping, oh so pale sister. “But that’s not a burden she should carry.” She looks back at their mother. “Not when I’m here.”

GM: Abélia smiles that same serenely content smile as she strokes Cécilia’s and then Caroline’s cheeks.

“No treasure among Solomon’s riches or the Templars’ hoards would enrich me as greatly,” she repeats.

Caroline: What’s another murder? Nothing, for her family. She can think of plenty of people that need killing, and no better reason.

Part of her quakes at how readily that decision is made, but here, now, in this house, it’s a very small part indeed. Like an ant trying to make itself heard before an elephant.

“Speaking of,” Caroline continues after a moment, “the seneschal instructed me to put affairs here in the city in order, for a period. I don’t know how long.”

GM: “Perhaps that is little surprise,” her mother reflects. “What affairs would you see to here, dear child—and which ones might your sisters and I aid you in?”

Caroline: Caroline muses for a moment. “Large items are managing the cover-up of Claire’s death, especially the transition between the seneschal directing my ‘coordination’ with the bishop and handing off the effort entirely.”

“Cleaning house here with the physical security. I’ve already set one of the seneschal’s agents to investigate them. I’m going to shift some of my people over to take the lead on overall security. It’ll also provide an opportunity to fold in some recent assets I’ve acquired since Claire’s death and keep them engaged if I’m gone any extended period.”

She muses a moment longer, her fist before her face, “Inserting tendrils and control over the Malveauxes. I don’t know that there will be immediate interest in conceding that domain to me, but when I win that battle I’d be ready to take action immediately.”

GM: Abélia nods. “Yes, my dear. After the bishop is found to have met final death, to be certain—and you may invite scrutiny as someone who sought to gain from the crime if you appear too interested in his holdings too quickly.”

She smiles proudly as she cups her hand along Caroline’s cheek.

“But nor is my daughter one to wait upon the beneficence of another. She will claim what is hers, and allow others to think it was bestowed by their hands.”

“The security means naught to me while our family is gathered in this place. They are there for your sisters’ peace of mind. Do as you will with them.”

Caroline: “I don’t fear for them here,” the Ventrue replies. “Nor can I truly protect them out there if someone is willing to die for it. But I can make the cost of doing so high. Make them force themselves in the open. Perhaps buy time for them to get away.”

GM: “Little may turn aside a determined will,” Abélia concurs. “Take whatever measures you see fit.”

Caroline: The Ventrue nods. “As for the Malveauxes, I think another making a move on them—or being thought to—may encourage them properly.”

GM: “What a splendid thought, my dear. What Cainites would you strike a blow against who might also harbor plausible interest in the family?”

Caroline: “Pierpont McGinn’s growing interest in kine politics is well known, and he is not a piece simply removed by the prince in response,” Caroline offers. She does not comment on the many slights she’s endured at his hand.

“The same might be true of Marcel Guilbeau, eager to sink his teeth back into the state’s politics.” She doesn’t use either Kindred’s titles with her mother.

“A would-be prince—but not obvious foe to the prince—is an ideal candidate, I think, since it makes it less simple to simply harm them for him,” Caroline muses.

GM: “Plausible motives, my dear. What gain would you seek by sowing discord between either of these Cainites and the prince?”

Abélia seems content to leave prolonged discussion on that matter to the future, however, before bringing up others.

“Why, I see you’ve brought a fille à la casquette with you! They are such precious things. Do take care of her, Caroline. If you must sacrifice one of Philip’s servants, sacrifice the Nubian.”

“I shall prepare a secure haven in anticipation of your return. I can hardly wait for you to meet your other sisters as their sister—Yvette and Yvonne have been so distraught over that unfortunate business with Sarah. But there is little they will not forgive among family.”

She strokes Cécilia’s hair, then states, “There is one final matter before you leave us, dear child.”

Abélia bares a smooth, milk-pale breast. Black blood wells from the nipple.

“Do you thirst?”

Caroline: The truth is she always thirsts. It’s always there, lurking in the background. She can feel the Beast stir at the sight of the blood, feel it scenting the air, its senses—her senses—sharpening even past the razor’s edge they already at.

She shoves back at it, jerks the choke chain tight around the monster’s throat as she keeps her hold on the slavering Beast, lest she become one.

Caroline swallows.

“Constantly,” she admits, her eyes fixated on the leaking blood despite her efforts, her teeth coming to points. “But not such that I’d harm you.”

“You need your strength, the others need your strength.”

GM: Abélia runs a finger along Caroline’s protruding fangs, her face as tender as when she stroked Cécilia’s hair. She lifts her new daughter’s chin to meet her gaze.

“What is every child’s foremost need? What is every mother’s foremost wish, but to place food on the table by the sweat of her brow?”

“I shall suffer none of my daughters to go hungry. Let me provide for you, sweet child. Let me sustain you.”

She cups a hand around Caroline’s neck, encouraging but not forcing the Ventrue’s lips closer towards the sanguine welling.

“Let me feed you.”

Caroline: Abélia wants to do it. Caroline wants the blood. Down to her bones, she wants the blood. Why am I resisting?

Because she doesn’t want to appear weak? Because this idea that she shouldn’t be ashamed of a want is so new? Because she doesn’t want to hurt the people she cares for? Because it’s an act of intimate vulnerability she’s so accustomed to hiding?

But then, would she hesitate to offer anything to her child, if she had one? Wouldn’t it hurt her more if they turned from what she offered? Doesn’t she want to be close to Abélia? She already knows she wants the blood.

The Ventrue bends her neck and drinks.

GM: It’s not like any prior feeding Caroline has experienced. There’s no penetration or horizontal suction: she need merely wrap her lips around the breast’s tip and suck. Gravity aids the natural flow, and Abélia cushions her hand around the back of Caroline’s head to keep her close and the breast snugly in place. It feels less like she’s taking and more like she’s receiving.

Taste floods her mouth.

Where her sire’s blood made her all but gag at the burning strength, as if she were unworthy, her mother’s as the inverse: a whirlpool that irresistibly drags everything in. It tastes like midnight. It tastes like the ocean’s deepest, blackest depths: bone-crushingly heavy, and yet welcoming, as if she were a diver in a suit. It’s sweet like honey, thick like molasses, and fast-flowing like water. It rolls down Caroline’s gullet in a thick, warm stream, and the Ventrue has the sudden, id-driven thought that it’s been months since she ate anything this solid. That she should be starving to death. Abélia runs her other hand through Caroline’s hair and whispers,

“Fill yourself, my child… my sweet, precious child… Maman is here. You are safe, you are loved, and you shall not go hungry…”

Caroline: At Abélia’s urging, she doesn’t. The blood—if it even blood—flows, a seemingly unending stream of bliss, an inky darkness that is satisfying like no other vitae or blood ever has been. Satisfying in a way that makes everything else less satisfying just for its existence.

She has no doubt that Abélia would let her drink her fill, and part of her wants to. But not all of her. Not as much as part of her wants Abélia strong. Needs Abélia to be strong.

There are limits to her own desires, her own needs.

She pulls away, savoring the last drops, and looks up at her mother.

GM: Abélia gently dabs Caroline’s lips and wipes her fingers against the vampire’s tongue, ensuring she gets every last drop.

“There, sweet child… you are sated? You are strong?”

Caroline: “Yes, Mother,” the Ventrue answers, the darkness still fresh on her tongue. “Strong enough, for what is to come. Strong enough to make you proud.”

GM: “You already have, my dear,” Caroline’s new mother smiles beatifically, cupping her cheek.
“You already have—and do.”


Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, AM

GM: At the Ventrue’s behest, Abélia answers and discusses several remaining matters before she takes her leave.

The ritual to summon her, she clarifies, must be performed within the Walter Robinson House. It doesn’t have to be performed within the specific chamber where Caroline and Cécilia did so, but that room is preferable for obvious reasons.

“Your younger sisters are not yet ready to know of such things.”

Caroline: “Will they, eventually?” Caroline asks.

GM: “That shall depend upon them, my dear,” her mother answers.

“If Simmone is to remain a child forever, she shall not. If I believe the knowledge would unduly burden the others’ souls, they shall not.”

“Cécilia has always been the responsible one. The role model. The eldest. I have inducted her alone into the truth thus far.”

Caroline: “Yvette.” Caroline speaks her sister’s name as half-question, half-suggestion.

GM: Abélia smiles proudly. “Her temperament is well-suited to such knowledge, is it not?”

Caroline: “It could be, and might temper her more… reckless impulses,” Caroline agrees.

GM: “Yet to tell her, as you have observed, is to tell Yvonne. No secrets exist between them. Do you believe your other sister ready for such knowledge?”

Caroline: The heiress reflects for a moment. “Not certainly. And I’m not certain she ever will be. She seems to be other side of the coin from her twin, at a glance.”

GM: Caroline’s new mother pats her hand.

“We need not decide such things at once, dear child. We have all the time in the world.”

Leaving the matter of the twins be for now (“I should also value our Cécilia’s counsel”), Abélia continues that the ritual to reconstitute her body may also be performed upon the Walter Robinson House’s exterior grounds (“not that I expect you or Cécilia shall have cause to do so, my dear… but as a matter of academic interest”)—and within the LaLaurie House.

“Our home away from home,” she smiles.

When Caroline asks if the sacrifice needs to die at a specific point, her mother answers that they do not. The sacrifice must merely be killed within the circle and their life specifically dedicated to Abélia’s.

“There is truthfully no need to even say any words aloud… they merely aid in focusing the spirit.”

Caroline’s sisters are not returning to their normal routines. They have already taken the rest of the week off from school and work.

“They shall remain here until I am at the height of my powers once more.”

“But it shall hardly be a joyless time for them… and I can hardly wait for you to spend the day with us, my dear. Such delights do I have in store for you all.”

Caroline: “I’m rather poor company during the day,” Caroline observes.

GM: Abélia only smiles and strokes Caroline’s cheek.

“Trust Maman, dear child.”

Caroline: “Always,” she agrees.

GM: Her mother’s face is radiant.

“I love you, my sweet Caroline. Being loved agrees with you. I’m only sad it couldn’t have happened sooner.”

Abélia then lifts Cécilia’s sleeping head, presses her daughter’s mouth to her breast, and nurses her on the same midnight blood. Color starts to return to Cécilia’s too-white cheeks.

Caroline: The Ventrue watches with interest, watches the life return to Cécilia with evident relief.

GM: Yet even as it does, Abélia’s breast visibly rots, cracks, and blackens before Caroline’s eyes. Her mother makes a tsking sound and tucks the corpse-like breast away, then tucks Cécilia beneath her bed covers.

Caroline: Caroline needed little more incentive to restore her mother to her full strength. But she has it.

GM: It’s a short walk to Simmone’s room. Abélia lies upon the bed and pulls Simmone into the crook of her arm.

“I shall have this body slumber now, to further slow its decay. Simmone shall awaken in Maman’s arms to find her nightmares long banished.”

Caroline: The Ventrue nods. “How long does it have?”

GM: “Potentially a great deal of time, my dear, if it were to perform no other workings and slumber continuously with you and your sisters by my side. But circumstances are unlikely to be so forgiving.”

“Much awaits for you to do now. If you have need of me before dawn rises, return here. The house shall know.”

Abélia draws Caroline close and plants a tender kiss upon her forehead.

“Go… and know your Maman loves you. Know you have always made me proud.”

There’s no transition from wakefulness to sleep. With those words, Abélia’s body abruptly goes as inert as a discarded puppet. Even its expression is still frozen in the same tranquil smile as it slumps back onto the pillow. When Caroline looks down, she sees no shoes or feet protruding below the hem of her mother’s dress.

Caroline: Caroline lingers for a moment to watch Abélia with Simmone. But only a moment.

The night waits for no one.

Not even her family.


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Story Eleven, Caroline XVI

“Show me you are loyal.”
Augusto Vidal


Tuesday night, 8 March 2016, PM

GM: Abélia’s corpse is missing from the floor where Caroline last saw it, as is her mother’s severed head. Even the blood on her dress is gone, though she cannot say when that occurred.

Maldonato takes her from his office to a private elevator. He swipes a magnetic card to Perdido House’s top floor. The elevator thrums beneath them.

The elder vampire does not speak.

The journey feels as if it takes a thousand years.

Caroline: Perhaps the silence is intended to give her an opportunity to collect her thoughts. If so, it is misplaced.

Despite everything else, she’s still relieved to see the body missing, and for different reasons received she will not greet her sire soaked in blood.

The seneschal’s interaction with her mother raises many troubling questions, but few new ones. Fallen one. Not a term of endearment. And yet that relationship was not her doom.

A lost son. Her materialization from Caroline’s shadow. Her existence in Caroline’s blood. And yet, doubt with her mother does not plague Caroline. Interest certainly, but never doubt.

There’s enough of that from her ‘father.’

GM: The doors open to darkness. The sweeping foyer is unlit. It is bereft of people. It looks like a tomb.

There’s little decor. No chairs. No tables. No pictures. No plants. No rugs. There’s black marble veneers, some classical-themed carvings. but someone would have to physically tear them from their moorings to get rid of those. The cavernous yet empty chamber reminds Caroline of an elephant graveyard: huge bones bereft of the skin, muscle, and sinew necessary to grant such majestic creatures animation. The atrium is thick with the smell of dust. It doesn’t look like even janitorial services have been up here.

Caroline: At first she wonders about the private elevator. She understands when they emerge. No one can see this.

As destructive as the rumors are of his impending torpor… this is far worse.

GM: There are insects. Roaches. Some ‘fresh’, some withered exoskeletons, all motionless and dead. There’s even the tiny skeleton of a mouse or rat, with a few sorry bits of decayed gristle.

Caroline: Spies, Caroline’s mind fills in.

GM: There are no cobwebs, though. No light, insectile scitterings audible to Caroline’s newly-sensitive ears. Even the vermin here are all dead.

The pair’s echoing footsteps feel like the only sound for miles around. Maldonato does not ascend the staircase, but proceeds down a barren hallway to an unmarked set of wooden double doors. He looks at them but does not knock or reach for the handles. Several moments later, they swing ponderously open on squeaking, neglected hinges.

Caroline stares out across a sweeping executive boardroom, the kind of room that breathes of wealth and privilege—or at least once did. It’s as dusty, empty, and unlit as the rest of the floor. Mortal eyes would be able to make out more than pitch darkness, though, from the meager moonlight that shines through the man-sized window. Rain slides down the dark glass like sullen tears.

She recognizes this place. She remembers the conference table, long enough to seat a score of people, although now its chairs are all gone. The same sword rests upon the table’s dusty surface, pitted and corroded to little more than slag on a hilt. It doesn’t look like it’s ever been moved.

Caroline: The state of the chambers sends Caroline’s heart plummeting. This is not the palace of a prince… except that it is. It’s a reflection of the ‘kingdom.’ Ancient, crumbling, its best years far behind it. Most importantly, it’s been allowed to fall into that state. Decrepit.

Of all the terrors she’d expected to find within Perdido House, this is… in some ways worse.

GM: A solitary chair, tall and thick, an almost anachronistic throne, sits at the table’s head. Its back faces the empty spaces where other chairs would be, as if uninterested in anything its nonexistent occupants might have to say. The throne-like chair silently broods upon the cavernous window and the glittering cityscape that stretches beneath it.

NewOrleansAtNight-IMG_9461.JPG
The penthouse view from so many tens upon tens of floors is breathtaking: the entire kingdom laid out like a string of glittering jewels. Under the full light of day, in a conference room full of busily working professionals, it would be a proud sight.

But it’s not. Not either of those things. The view feels brooding. Covetous. The viewer has climbed as high as they may within this city. There is nowhere to go, to plummet, but down.

One might almost wonder whether the building’s—city’s—master even exists. Caroline may have seen him in the flesh, but her kind have no end of ways to deceive one’s senses. She only saw him but once. Perhaps tellingly. One would not wish to subject such a ruse to needless opportunities for scrutiny.

Caroline: She has to, has to focus on something that might offer some kind of hope. The bleakness of the room, of the chamber, of everything she’s seen is oppressive.

This was the fate of this lord of the damned?

GM: Perhaps Vidal died or passed into torpor long ago. Perhaps his continued existence is but a fabrication to keep the fallen prince’s enemies at bay—a gambler’s bluff, so like another slain elder’s continued existence. Maldonato said her allies would wish to maintain the fiction she yet ‘lived.’

Perhaps New Orleans is but a kingdom of smoke and mirrors.

Caroline: Those thoughts pass through her mind, but only fleetingly. The seneschal can be as cruel as any other Kindred, especially when he believes it ‘necessary.’ But while there might have been cause to lead her on were that the case, she can’t find cause to bring her all the way up here for the cruel reveal.

GM: Maldonato does not speak. No words pass in the dead and stale air. There is no sound but the pattering rain and angrily rumbling thunder.

The throne slowly turns.

Augusto_Vidal.jpg
In St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he was tall, dark, and terrible in his purpose, the fury of heaven matched with the fire of hell. Where Matheson was merely dignified, the arriving prince had surveyed his subjects with the bearing of an emperor. His raiment was a midnight-black suit of the finest cut. Not so much as a crease was visible, making the garment seem cut and spun from the night itself. His pristine white undershirt and and blood-red necktie brought to mind the ermine mantles worn by kings of centuries past. A gold signet ring set with a ruby adorned his finger. The blood-red gem seemed to almost pulse and glisten, hungrily devouring nearby light.

Those trappings are present. But it’s the difference between a throne room filled with cheering throngs for a royal coronation and a years-abandoned one filled with naught but cobwebs and dust. His tall and broad-shouldered frame is folded into a brooding posture, and the shadows about his face are long, black, deep. His crisp Mediterranean features resemble a statue by one of the old masters, not brought to life, but left to crumble and gather dust far from the praising voices of those who might remark upon its majesty. The face is so still Caroline almost wonders if its owner truly is a statue, mockingly dressed, even decorated with a black van dyke mustache, and deposited upon a throne.

One has but to look into the eyes to know that fancy for what it is.

The eyes dominate the shadow-cragged face: cold, fanatical, implacable. Those who stare into them overlong feel dizzy, their mouths warm with the taste of blood. The eyes are primal and inhuman and they are strong. They have seen the passing of kings. Kingdoms. Civilizations. All they knew of the world of their birth swept aside by time’s inexorable march.

He may be dead. His palace may be ruined and rotting. His foes may plot his downfall. Even anticipate it.

But all who gaze upon his face know at once:

He, and no other, is their prince.

Caroline: It would be easy to be disappointed.

Of all the places, of all the ways she might have fantasized about this meeting, this is far from all of them. In a crumbling hall, in a faded chamber that exists more as an echo of greatness than anything resembling it.

Perhaps in some ways she is. But those ways don’t matter. This ruined hall doesn’t matter. The long shadows that crawl across him don’t matter. All that matters is that he’s here, and she’s here before him at last.

GM: The prince and seneschal meet one another’s timeless gazes. No words pass between them.

Finally, Maldonato’s voice is the first to break the silence. It feels like someone has walked across a grave.

“Miss Malveaux, you may inform His Majesty of whom you are.”

Her sire’s dark gaze falls upon Caroline. There is no recognition. There is not even curiosity.

Caroline: The Ventrue can’t help it, at least for a moment, getting drawn into that gaze. She barely hears the seneschal’s words, but barely is enough. She goes to her knees smoothly before the seated prince, white gown brushing aside the dust around her, and reaches for her voice for a moment before she finds it with a sharp breath that is deafening in the still room.

“Your Majesty, I introduced myself once before as Caroline Malveaux, childe of René Baristheaut, childe of Robert Bastien, childe of Lothar Constantine, childe of Dominic de Valois-Burgundy, childe of Gaius Pedius Marcellus, childe of Alexander, childe of Ventrue.”

She gives only the briefest of pauses.

“An introduction I understand is barely worthy of remembrance… and blissfully so, for it was a lie. The line of Ventrue I trace my blood through is not Alexander’s, but Tiamat’s.”

“The blood that runs through my veins… is that of the mightiest and most enduring Camarilla prince in the New World. That of the Prince of New Orleans, Augusto Vidal.”

“Sire.”

GM: Something recognizable finally enters those dark and inhuman eyes. Something Caroline has known well herself, far too well, during the mere months of a Requiem that feels like years.

Puzzlement.

Caroline: The vastly younger Ventrue can sympathize, but remains silent.

GM: There is something else, too. Disbelief. She cannot b…

“Miss Malveaux speaks truly, my prince,” the seneschal answers. “Emmanuel Costa was not the last mortal upon whom you bestowed the Dark Gift. Merely the last mortal upon whom you bestowed it knowingly.”

“I absconded with your vitae without your knowledge. I bestowed it upon a young woman of great promise and faithful service as she lay dying. She stands before you now—and she is of your Blood.”

Silence fills the air, like the calm before a storm.

Then, like a breached levee when Katrina made landfall—that storm breaks.

It feels almost inevitable when it happens. The room’s shadows, thick and heavy as corpse shrouds, surge to life like baying, ravenous beasts. A flood of darkness streaks towards Caroline and the seneschal, black as night with shock, rage, and betrayal.

Maldonato raises his hand. Darkness rises to meet darkness like two crashing ocean waves. The great table is swept into the air, cracking apart into color-leeched pieces that fly every which way before disintegrating into dust. The ruined sword hits the hardwood floor with a clatter.

Caroline: Caroline twists away cat-quick. Away from the clashing elders and the destructive power they’ve unleashed.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

GM: Oily darkness washes over the Ventrue like a thirsty tide. Its waves swim with rending talons, ink-slathered tentacles, and bogeyman’s grasping hands—a child’s night terrors given horrifying semblance and animation. Caroline feels as if she is suffocating, drowning, going blind, and being swallowed into some terrible beast’s gullet all at once.

Yet even as she assailed from without, she is assaulted from within. Fire burns through her veins, white-hot with a mindless fury at once echoed and opposed by her Beast’s instinctive terror. The monster doesn’t even know whether to flee or fight.

In that moment of indecisiveness, she clamps down, grinding it under heel. She can’t give in. Won’t give in. Not now. She’ll face the darkness as herself.

But not by herself.

The dark is not empty.

It seeps in through her skin.

And it sings.

It croons to her with dead children’s sweet, strangled voices.

doomed, doomed, doomed you are
come so far
fallen far
fallen star

strangled child
died in your crib
choke your baby
why why why
no one wants you
only us
killer, killer
father’s dead
father’s ours
coming for you
soon soon soon


mother will eat you
daddy’s dead
daddy’s us
come this way
sister, sister
please please pray


daddy, daddy, kill me now
daddy, daddy, I’m going to hell
mother, mother, what to do
mother, mother, I see you


brother, brother, here you come
brother, brother, so much fun…


Caroline: Caroline clenches her teeth at the taunting, twisted song, as it plays off her fears and doubts, fights even as she drowns in it, as it bubbles up around her and engulfs her, seeping into every opening, invasive, penetrating, piercing. They’re just words. But they’re not just words.

GM: They’re not. They’re black and bleeding and painful, like a foul cancer welling in one’s throat. For the darkness is hungry. Wailing cries and other, far less human sounds shrieks in Caroline’s ears as she leaps, twists, and ducks to avoid the worst of the pain. She’s not even sure if she’s trying to avoid a physical adversary or obstacle, but the whirlwind-fast Ventrue feels little worse, even as the blackness drowns her surroundings… little worse, but for several hairs that fall from her head. She doesn’t know how she can see the drifting strands, but she can. They’ve been leached of all color, as if run through a black and white film.

Then, abruptly, the storm of shadows halts. Sight returns, and after a moment, color. Half-animate shadows, grotesquely out of alignment from where they should fall, slink back into place like a child’s imagined monsters retreating back under the bed.

Several slither away from Caroline, their umbral appendages positioned over the Ventrue as if shielding her.

Maldonato stands where Caroline saw him last. His arms are defensively outstretched, but slowly relaxing as the shadows recede.

Vidal broods from his throne. Fangs jut from his mouth as he palpably wrestles his Beast. His black gaze burns like a white-hot, half-forged spear as it stabs between his lover and his childe.

Four hissed words escape his lips.

“I—swore—an oath!”

His voice sounds like it hasn’t been used in years.

Caroline: Caroline says nothing to that. It’s not her place to explain the actions of her sire’s lover.

She can feel his rage, feel it in her blood, in that ethereal connection to him she’s experienced only once before, the night of the trial, at George’s accusations.

Still, despite his fury, despite the all-consuming darkness unleashed, despite the fangs and rage, she can’t muster fear within herself, not of him. She wonders, academically, what the darkness might have done to her, if it might have destroyed her without her action and the seneschal’s attempts to shield her, but it’s only academic. The Beast might fear, it might cower, might flee, but not the woman. She’s come too far, given up too much, to get here, to be afraid.

She is, however, angry. Disappointed. Hurt. To come this far, to give up everything she’s given up, of all the ways she’d dreamed this meeting might go… this is worse. Selfish, proud, even arrogant. Dismissive. Caring about her only insofar as her existence is an affront to his dignity.

It’s all just so… familiar.

GM: “You did, my prince. You honored that oath even as I betrayed it,” Maldonato answers. “My unlife is yours to judge for this crime, as is Miss Malveaux’s. If you would hear a full accounting of my actions before rendering your verdict, I remain yours to command in this and all things.”

The words are calm, not soothing so much as steady. Familiar. Caroline can feel the rage blazing within her sire’s dead heart diminishing… though not dissipating.

There is a curt nod.

Caroline: Caroline says nothing. It’s not her place to speak. Not even when her life is offered up.

GM: The seneschal steeples his slender fingers.

“Then there is much that must now be explained—to Your Majesty and Your Majesty’s childe.”

The tomb-like room looks shredded as though a hurricane raged through it. There are no chairs upon which to sit, nor even a table to seat them around, not any longer. Maldonato continues to stand as he recites,

“You remember the years preceding and following Thorns as well as I do, my prince, though your childe knows them not. They were dark and terrible years.”

“Do we say merely that we had seen our sires, broodmates, your childer, and multitudes of further Kindred, some we named friends, others we named foes, fall to the Inquisition and Anarch Revolt? Such a statement is akin to saying Miss Malveaux was raised without a sire: factually accurate, yet insufficient to convey the reality of an experience.”

Caroline: Childer. Caroline files the information away. And a destroyed grandsire—and the seneschal’s own. But no childer of the seneschal’s own.

Two titans with no legacy but their deeds.

GM: But their deeds, and her.

Caroline: Perhaps that was enough, for immortal beings. Perhaps it was enough for centuries. But the state of this room, and those beyond gives mute lie to the claim it is enough tonight.

GM: “Perhaps instead we should speak in anecdotes,” Maldonato continues. “How I could observe the shape of my sire’s beard, a lengthy and silver article he was wont to stroke in contemplation, as the flames consumed his body. The hatred in the eyes of so many men of faith as they spat and called us devilspawn. Our disbelief at the news that Gratiano the great rebel had slain his sire: could the Tremere’s feat be repeated? It seemed as incredible to believe as another empire’s conquests surpassing Rome’s. Yet such things could and did re-occur. Great, then, was my relief at the news my sire’s grandsire had escaped the slaughter: I recall as you brushed the redden tears from my eyes.”

“I remember the fury within yours as Tyler’s lover shot her handgonnes into our master’s chest: your shout as he staggered and fell, then recovered, and how you did not laugh when the others did as they proclaimed such weapons impotent against our kind.”

Caroline: It’s difficult to imagine the seneschal, the stoic and implacable statue weeping. It’s perhaps even more difficult to imagine the prince, his face still set in such a furious scowl, capable of such a tender act.

But then, time changes everyone. How long has it been since she sat on her bed and wept tears of self-pity for herself and the monster she was turned into, since she cried over one of the terrible acts she performed, since she sobbed over the loss of her mortal life with her family, or even since she wept in joy?

It is not so difficult to imagine the ways in which the elders of centuries ago might have been more human: she can imagine it only months ago.

GM: “I remember a mother fleeing a doomed village, still a child herself by the reckoning of today’s mortals, clutching a wailing infant to her breast. I remember your indignation as her attacker pulled her down, stopping only to dash the babe’s head beneath his heel, so that its mother might see and know despair before he took her life. I remember our instinctive offense that he did not even stop to drink the blood spurting from her throat before your sword parted his head from his shoulders. I remember how the misery and ignoble deaths of those two were but a speck against the hundreds who died that night, and their own deaths but a speck against the multitudes we had seen perish, and the infinitude that would follow. I remember the sheer pointlessness of the atrocity steeling your resolve, and how you declared that for all the doubts you harbored concerning the Camarilla, its alternative was worse.”

Maldonato pauses.

“Anecdotes are but singular bricks within history’s great house. But perhaps from some anecdotes, your childe may at least approximate that house’s size and shape.”

Caroline: The heiress glances between the two ancients, trying to imagine that time of fire and blood. It’s a hopeless attempt, she decides, after a moment. The past is only every recognizable to those in the present as shadows and words. The feeling of a time cannot be understood through them.

The seneschal’s words, however, do paint a picture she’d already framed. ‘Men’ bound by their belief in the lesser of evils, no matter how great.

GM: “We had hoped Thorns would bring peace, but such a notion was misplaced. There was not peace before. There would not be peace again. Do you recall Marius’ words, who was older then than we are now? I recall them exactly.”

‘I know I am a killer, a drinker of blood—and that the only true blood is the sheer power of life, the struggle to climb over the kicking bodies of the wretched, their mad eyes like windows into broken souls. And the color of that blood is green—the color of life, of renewal, of nature. Of all that is natural: the urge to push out and expand. Once upon a time blood’s color was gold; but that too is a myth. There was no golden age—ever. There is only the drive to expansion. The quest for the new; the desire to stay alive.’

‘I watch as my archons begin anew to hatch their endless plots against my foes. The Camarilla. The Sabbat. The Anarchs. The Inconnu. The Lupines. The Awakened. The other night-folk. The mortals. The Antediluvians, the clans and covenants, the countless endless factions, bound to the wheel of history, turning around and around with the inertia of a collapsing sun, rolling over everything with a mindless and pounding repetition.’

“Time ill begets peace,” Maldonato states.

“Always was there some new crisis. Some new mission. Some new war. The Promise. The sack of Rome. The Hunedora incident. The Italian Wars. LaMont’s betrayal. The Wars of Religion. The resurgent Anarchs. The feuding princes. The Morisco revolts. The Sabbat. When would it end?”

Caroline: Some names familiar, some otherwise, but she can see well enough the thread they follow.

GM: “Perhaps it was naive to expect peace even had we laid down our swords, but I entreated you to no less ardently. Your heart was finally moved when the last of my mortal bloodline was extinguished for the crime of their ancestors’ faith. I was weary of war. You were weary to see me so.”

“What irony, then, to arrive at such a sentiment upon the eve of our greatest war.”

Caroline: Caroline can hardly imagine how weary they might be, must be. How weary even months have left her. How jaded and cynical.

GM:‘First came the Greycoats to eat all my swine,
Next came the Bluecoats to make my sons fight,
Next came the Greencoats to make my wife whore,
Next came the Browncoats to burn down my home.
I have naught but my life, now come the Blackcoats to rob me of that.’


“I know not the poem’s author, yet I can find no apter a summation of that terrible conflict. The casualties of the World Wars were paltry by way of comparison.”

Caroline: Caroline frowns at that statement. The World Wars consumed more than a hundred million souls, on a scale she can barely imagine.

GM: “You are surprised, Miss Malveaux. The absolute numbers of deaths caused by the World Wars is higher. The relative percentage is lower. Less than ten percent of the German Reich’s population perished in the ‘wars to end all wars,’ or 17% if one includes German nationals who perished on the Eastern Front. The Thirty Years’ War decimated some 33% of the Holy Roman Empire’s population. The majority of these deaths were caused by starvation and disease rather than armed conflict, though such conditions would of course not have existed during a time of peace.”

“Yet there is perhaps little point in comparing such statistics. At Tulane University, I once had perchance to listen to testimony from a survivor of the Holocaust. He asked rhetorically what purpose is accomplished through comparing suffering. What purpose, indeed?”

Caroline: “As you say, Seneschal,” Caroline agrees mildly. One in three dead—numbers she can hardly imagine.

It’s somewhat easier now, given the recent deaths surrounding her.

GM: “I shall not detail the Kindred vagaries of that conflict, save to say we had seen enough war and bloodshed by its conclusion. We had long since seen enough, and could endure no more. I succumbed to torpor.”

“The timing was at least then fortuitous. Whatever your sire’s brother-in-blood saw in that war, whatever truths I believe he glimpsed at the heart of the Jyhad, broke him as well. My torpor, the installment of a new justicar, and your cousin-in-blood’s Embrace finally convinced the Camarilla your service was done.”

Caroline: And brought you to the New World? Caroline fills in.

GM: “I awoke nearly a century later at your side. The world moved slower then. It was not so different from the one I had left behind, though different enough to prove stimulating rather than overwhelming, as I fear it became for Primogen Chastain. We were free at last from responsibility and obligation. How would we spend eternity?”

Caroline: A point she’s considered—how much easier it must have been to endure torpor and reenter the world before the ‘modern’ era.

GM: “The past century had been kinder to you than the preceding ones. The kindest of any, perhaps. I would have counseled you to take your own rest… but there was no need for you to do so immediately, was there?”

“Time is a nebulous thing in the sleep of ages. Yet you had spent thousands upon thousands of waking nights alone—too devoted to leave my side for long. My heart was touched, yet also saddened to see you had not reconciled with one who might have eased your loneliness.”

“Perhaps you have felt the recent stirrings in your blood and believed them Magdalena’s, echoing from a kingdom far across the sea.”

A considering frown flickers across the prince’s deathly still face.

Caroline: Magdalena. Another Ventrue elder? The name is foreign to her, but if he was to mistake her own feelings for that of the mystery Kindred, they shared blood in some way. She tilts her head in contemplation. Caroline had never considered Vidal’s affection might be drawn to another.

Another childe, perhaps? Something that might be jealousy stirs, but only faintly. Like shadow cast on a moonless night.

GM: “Perhaps you might have seen her again, in time. The nights ahead were ours. I was, for once, eager to see what they held.”

“So too, I believe, were you. What time we had before New Orleans was put to good use. I remember your initial offense at my cousin’s presence, and how you were sufficiently moved by the grace and quiet dignity of her bearing to swear a boon in apology—you, to a heathen Muslim. The denizens of this city call you tyrant, but they have known so little of whom you are.”

Caroline: We see only what we’re allowed to see, Caroline thinks, but the thought is there and gone just as swiftly.

She’s being allowed to see now, isn’t she? A peak behind the curtain.

GM: “I remember, too, the promise exacted between our sires. Both were naught but ashes and dust, yet that vow endured beyond even their Requiems, and become far more than even they might have anticipated. It did not take me overlong to conclude how I wished to spend eternity. It would be your turn to rest now, so that we might undertake that last and greatest journey together.”

A shadow falls across Maldonato’s face. But it is not cast from any unnatural manipulation of the surrounding gloom this time.

“Then the Camarilla came.”

Caroline: The reluctant prince? Surely not.

GM: “Nastasio spoke to us of service, duty, and reasons we were needed in the New World, among them administering a city. I voiced my reservations. He suggested you serve as prince on a provisional basis until the colony of La Nouvelle-Orléans was stabilized.”

Maldonato offers a thin, sad smile.

“I knew you well enough to know you would do no such thing. And you knew I would not allow you to serve as prince alone.”

Caroline: Caroline keeps her expression blank, even as the history and tragedy of this pair is laid out so starkly. A pair bound together by the will of their sires, scarred by centuries of war, and now carrying the weight of the throne upon their backs, as they have for centuries.

Ancient, cut from a different breed than the modern Cainite, both in potency and character.

GM: “We set sail for the New World. Our history and that of New Orleans becomes synonymous at that point, at least in the minds of your archdiocese’s common subjects. Your childe has received an incomplete but sufficient education in the city’s history that I need repeat little of it.”

“Pacifying the colony, however, proved a far more burdensome task than either of us had anticipated. In pitched battle, the dregs of the Old World were little match for us and O’Reilley’s professional military force. But it is one matter to win a battle and another to occupy a hostile territory. Many conquering empires have paid bitterly to learn that lesson. The United States is but the latest one.”

“Stamping out the insurgents and would-be princes took decades. I found little suspicion in such at the time. You would not lay down your sword until it was no longer needed, but your throne would be insecure for so long as the threat of torpor loomed. Loom it did. I saw how the nature of this campaign aggravated you, these rebels whom you could not defeat in pitched battle. I felt your irritation and shortness of temper at subjects who continually strove to sabotage what we labored to build.”

“Perhaps, had the Baron arrived from Haiti some years earlier, he would have found in you a more conciliatory prince. Perhaps he would not have. His faith was unfamiliar to you and my grandsire’s blood did not run in his veins. I believe rebuffing his initial overtures was a grave mistake that might yet cost us everything. But this counsel is not new to you.”

“You Embraced Emmanuel Costa to be your heir, and for a time your youngest childe showed great promise. Yet Du Valle turned him against you and perished himself before he could be put to the question. I did not think to question Boulet’s actions at the time, given the gravity of his sacrifice and the depth of his sire’s grief. The later irregularities in her behavior now lead me to believe other forces were at work.”

Caroline: Caroline listens attentively, especially as history moves closer to the present. Some of these names are familiar to her: most are not.

Some names, however, have faces. She remembers Costa’s face from the coin’s vision. She remembers the supremely cold execution of her brother-in-blood by the prince before her.

GM: “Your Majesty executed Costa for his treachery. Sick from so many centuries of failure, you swore upon all you held sacred that you would never Embrace again. Though I believed your decision made in haste and anger, I find no fault within it. Nor, at the time, did it appear to pose a significant impediment to the archdiocese’s stability. We had a preponderance of potential heirs to choose from. Alejandro, next mightiest among your clan, and Catholic despite his allegiance to the Invictus. Constantine, Sanctified and a bishop. Matheson, young but promising in his attentiveness to the workings of the modern world.”

Caroline: All gone. Destroyed or banished. The names conjure up a time she can barely imagine.

Matheson as young and in touch with the modern world is particularly striking. A lesson, perhaps, in how quickly the world moves.

GM: “Yet I counseled you not to select one of your clan as your successor. There was another whose worth eclipsed them all in my eyes.”

Maldonato smiles distantly.

“It was not for her age, faith, or intelligence that I recommended Maria Pascual as your successor, even though she eclipsed the others in those qualities. Perhaps I saw something of Fatimah in her, and the curious manner in which they could be at once modest and proud. My cousin is modest for the very manner in which she wears her pride so radiantly, for it is a pride in her beliefs and accomplishments rather than her own person, as fine a distinction as that may be. Maria took immense pride in herself, though was always the soul of modesty in denying she took any such pride.”

“Many would have found such pride offensive, had it been worn openly. Maria’s sensibilities were too gentle to do any such thing, though we always knew that pride was there beneath the self-effacement. She made it almost a game for others to draw it out. Few who played were anything but bewitched. Myself included.”

Caroline: The young Ventrue is like a stone, still, silent. She tries to keep her focus on the value of these words, in the insight into the minds and workings of the seneschal and prince, of how they came to be here—but it is not easy to hear she is not a second choice, or a third, or even a forth or fifth, and to listen to praise heaped upon those that came before as she measures their names—still remembered these nights—against her own paltry history.

GM: “The two were opposite faces of the same coin, as well, in their treatment of others. Where both were beloved by their friends and kin, Fatimah’s farmindedness and beneficence has made friends of foes, while Maria’s fierce devotion towards her friends drove her towards relentless opposition of her foes. Where my cousin is regally distant, Maria was intimate and close. It would have brought me much happiness for them to have known one another.”

Caroline: And other turns history might have taken. Two ancients discussing others destroyed before her mother, or even her mother’s mother, was born. If any of those named had survived, Caroline might yet live. Or, perhaps, she would never have been born.

GM: “But little enough good is served in discoursing on the turns history may have taken.”

“Primogen Pascual’s acquaintance with Maria, too, was equally long and rich to any she might have enjoyed with my cousin, and one in which I am also grateful to have been included… but these remembrances are of increasingly little value to your childe. With Pascual settled as your successor, the last of the rebels defeated, and the city’s material prosperity at its apex, we ruled the Antebellum nights in easy splendor.”

Caroline: Caroline can too easily imagine the throb of irritation each time the seneschal refers to her as his childe.

GM: “It was a romantic period I believe Maria and Primogen Chastain were uniquely suited for, even if it was far less than idyllic for those upon whose suffering it was built. Perhaps little wonder, then, that so many among the Camarilla continued to rebuff the Baron—he who associated so freely among those mortals we considered the lowliest of the low.”

Caroline: A gentle way of referring to slavery, but it’s easy to forget how gentle even slavery might have seemed to those that watched a third of a country starve, freeze, or get hacked apart.

GM: “The Civil War bought an end to our easy summer dream. In a stroke, Alejandro, Constantine, and Matheson were eliminated—Alejandro by assailants for whom the benefit was plain, yet whose crime we could not definitively prove, and whose help and aligned interests we could ill-neglect in a time of occupation and hardship. Constantine allegedly fell to Loup-Garoux in a heroic tale of sacrifice by Mr. Guilbeau that I have found scant evidence to substantiate.”

Caroline: The third feeding on childer like a pedophile luring children into his van.

GM: “Matheson’s proclivities, too, I believed coincidental. I well recall the terror in his eyes at your wrath, and the nakedness of his pride as he begged for clemency at your feet. Those who prey upon those smaller than they are easily made small themselves, it often seems. Perhaps I, too, considered him too small to devote any further consideration to.”

“Or perhaps, in truth, I devoted little thought to the circumstances of three would-be successors’ downfalls when we had intended none to be your successors. Maria still occupied that role, and if she wished to step down from her immediate political duties in the aftermath of the Civil War’s cultural destruction, who among us could blame her? She and Primogen Chastain had poured their very souls into the city. Its pain and loss was as their own.”

Caroline: Caroline has different memories of Matheson. She remembers picking herself up off the floor. Remembers him looking down on her even before he put her there.

GM: “Yet taken as a whole, Maria’s behavior was cause for concern. Her use of hard-won prestation to grant the Giovannini access to the city. The increased Setite activity in the Quarter. The inexplicable actions of Robert O’Connor, whom we had believed under her thumb. Her grant of domain to Roger Halliburton, whose political downfall she had helped us engineer.”

Caroline: Caroline fights to keep the frown off her face. Does that mean?

But it’s not really that unbelievable, is it? That they might have killed off another powerful Kindred towards their own ends? She knows full well the seneschal is capable of dealing with perceived ‘problems’ in a very permanent way.

GM: “Our suspicions were aroused—but too late. It was not until we discovered the daughter of Dionysus lairing in the heart of Maria’s domain that we realized the graveness of the danger.”

“Perhaps Maria knew not what she was. We had believed her destroyed in that last, ghastly war—destroyed at our own hands. She professed to have renounced the Sword of Caine, but we knew the matter of her sect allegiance was immaterial. Her immediate destruction was necessary.”

“Yet our power was not what it once was. The Union’s military occupation was over, Halliburton’s pawns in city hall were removed, and his authority as archon stripped from him… yet the Baron’s power waxed ascendant, and we had sealed his eternal enmity through our crackdowns following Reconstruction—a decision I believed to have been unwise. He had grown tired of fruitlessly seeking peace with us. With his aid, we might have excised the cancer eating at our city’s heart. Instead, we faced another knife at our throat.”

“We moved our own blades into position as carefully as we could, but too late. Maria was slain, and Dionysus’ daughter vanished. In a stroke, our plans had been thrown into disarray, for Maria’s most suitable replacements had been removed before her. Too late did we realize the nature of this Jyhad.”

“Primogen Chastain alone had sufficient experience, puissance, and trustworthiness to truly succeed you as prince, as distasteful as you found granting your throne to a Kindred not of the faith. Yet she succumbed to torpor within the year—a development she had long forseen and planned for, yet whose timing could not have proven more disruptive.”

“We were forced to settle, then, for a lesser heir: Robert Bastien. The sheriff was loyal, promising, and had earned much esteem in your eyes: though you never told him so, I believe you had come to regard him as the childe you had never sired. We began to groom him in earnest for your throne.”

“Yet Bastien would be your heir for but a score of years before his own murder at the hands of witch-hunters, which we did not for a moment believe coincidental. I remember well your rage at his final death, and those actions you took in retribution, though I counseled you otherwise. I grew concerned for you, my love. I knew your body and mind were weary, but only then did I realize how time’s passage had abraded your soul. It was long past time for you to take your rest.”

Caroline: A systematic program of elimination, of every possible heir, one by one. The revelations of just how far back it all goes chill Caroline.

Powerful elders, established ancillae, those chosen and groomed to rule for centuries slowly wiped out, until an unwanted childe is all that’s left? She’s expected to succeed where they all fell?

GM: “Five score years ago did I speak those words. Torpor’s specter loomed ever closer, your heirs were removed, and this Jyhad was deeper than Nastasio had prepared us for. Drastic action was required to preserve your legacy: under no circumstances could Antoine Savoy be permitted to claim the throne.”

“I contacted the Baron and made a final effort to broker peace.”

“His response, and your own, eclipsed anything I had anticipated. It seemed we would achieve more than peace: we might, in fact, win this Jyhad in but a handful more strokes, unwilling though I was to pay its price. Deep was the irony that you had found common ground at last with so bitter a foe.”

Maldonato lapses into momentary silence.

“Whether the cause was betrayal or sabotage, that peace, too, was not to be.”

“The question of your successor remained unresolved, but only a fool repeats the same stratagem and expects a different outcome. We would not take another heir into our confidence. Our designs for each one had been discovered despite our efforts at secrecy. There were but three potential leaks that occurred to us: yourself, myself, and our chosen heirs. We would find those heirs, now, in secret. More would arise in time. We would watch from a distance. We would confound our enemy through our apparent inaction and perhaps force their hand.”

“Our immediate choices were all flawed. Francesca Dumont and Dominique Toutain, proud heirs to their sires’ legacies, yet heirs to their hatreds and grudges. Donovan, our new sheriff, capable and bound to you in blood, yet still his sire’s childe. Accou Poincare, eldest among them and a former prince, but aligned with the Invictus. Clarice Barabet, Maria’s protege and successor, until seduced by Antoine Savoy. Coco Duquette, an Anarch, yet whose loyalty was but one draught less certain than Donovan’s. I do not believe Micheal Kelly ever realized the price his sire paid so that he might exist.”

“We watched them all. We labored, silently and subtly, to increase their suitability as heirs. The 20th century passed by into the 21st. Harm befell none. None suffered the fates of their predecessors. Some, such as Donovan and your clanmates, increased in suitability. Others, such as Poincaré and the late bishop, decreased. None, to my mind, were ideal. I wondered if this, too, was the work of other hands. I wondered if our plans were known despite our efforts at secrecy. It seemed improbable, yet we are both long inured to belief in coincidence. The present state of affairs was more beneficial to our foes than us: no clear heir had emerged.”

“I sought, then to upend the rules of this Jyhad. I would tell no one of my next plans: not even my prince. I had also learned the folly of placing our eggs within one basket, and cast my gaze wide… upon Seth’s children rather than Caine’s. Some were little more than infants. Fewer eyes would rest upon their actions. I watched them from a distance and intervened but rarely. I feared to reveal my hand in this latest phase of the game.”

Caroline: The young Ventrue reflects on her sister’s words. Been involved with you for more than a year. Evidently the seneschal’s attempts hide his intentions were not as effective as he might have hoped. It begs the question: why did Abélia even know about the seneschal’s plans, and how did she contrive so carefully to put Caroline in his path—and within her own grasp.

The easy answer would be that her mother had something to do with the culling of past ‘heirs’, but Caroline doubts that immediately: the seneschal is well aware of Caroline’s relationship with her now mother: if she was his avowed foe Caroline would not be standing here before the prince, she’d be getting cleaned up off the floor with a dustpan.

GM: "Yet the Jyhad itself changed, too, with the turning of the millennium. The chronological distinction is arbitrary, yet there is much power and consequence in symbols. Was I, too, moved by the same eschatological fervor that did not die with the passing of the 21st century’s first years?

“Sect wars swept the Eastern Seaboard. Xaviar renounced the Justicarate upon claiming to have witnessed the impossible. Hunters wielding extraordinary powers proclaimed themselves the Earth’s inheritors. Silence fell upon Russia’s Brujah Council. The Kindred of the East descended upon the West Coast. Blood stained the Middle East’s hot soil, and the Banu Haqim spoke of a rising ancient in Alamut. Even within our own city, the last generations made themselves known, Birds of Dis were reported in increasing numbers, and Malkavian seers prophecized doom. Could the Final Nights be upon us? The Sabbat claimed they were. Fear gripped me that time was running out. I returned my gaze to the children I had watched for so much of their lives, and the oldest two who had just reached their ages of majority. There was no time to consider the younger ones: our heir would be found in either Rebecca Whitney or Adam Malveaux.”

Caroline: Caroline pays close attention to talk beyond New Orleans—her knowledge of Kindred beyond the Crescent City is painfully limited. Final Nights? It’s a pointed reminder of how blind she is to this world.

The names that slip from the seneschal’s lips as his first would-be heirs are both a surprise—and not. Rebecca Whitney, domain of Matheson or not, fits the pattern. Well-bred, beloved, talented… and dead. She wonders if it was the mysterious enemies that culled her, or if she rejected her Requiem as Caroline so repeatedly considered in those first, desperate, awful nights as an unliving dispenser of suffering to the world.

Her cousin, however, is a surprise, especially as he is still among the living. She imagines his piety and calm demeanor would have played well with her sire, and with the seneschal—which begs the question of why he wasn’t Embraced, of what flaw he might have shown that she did not to Maldonato’s judging eye…

GM: Caroline finds her assessment of the pair vindicated as Maldonato continues, “Both showed much promise and potential. In the first, I saw charisma, grace, and poise. In the other, I saw faith and moral authority. In both, I saw intelligence, drive, respect for tradition, and loyalty to the dictates of their families. Though both were young, they might have been groomed and made suitable for their intended role in ways their older relatives might not.”

“Yet neither, to my estimation, were guilty of any wrongs so terrible as to warrant the Embrace. In the end, the question of whose life to sacrifice was decided by convenience. When another conspiracy moved to grant Rebecca Whitney and a handful of others the Dark Gift for their own reasons, I saw opportunity to conceal her origins beneath another Kindred’s Embrace. She would be the figurative cuckoo’s egg, raised in secrecy and safety from our enemy, yet able to move freely among our kind’s society while learning its ways and customs. I would find pretext to associate with her so that she might know me as more than a stranger. Only once I deemed her ready to face the dangers and assume the burdens of her intended role would I reveal the truth of her lineage and bring her before you.”

Maldonato lapses into another brief span of silence.

“Yet that was not to be. Her purported sire gave her the Embrace, turning the intended lie of her lineage into truth. I see my error whenever I look upon her face. I think of the rich life she and her family might have led were it not, perhaps, for my involvement—and unquestionably were it not for my failure to prevent her sire’s Embrace. I see a father driven half-mad in mourning for his daughter, counting the procession of all lives and deaths since her own. I see a brother robbed of his marriage, his future, and his worth as a son in his father’s eyes. I see a niece raised in fear, loneliness, and without a mother under the shadow of her aunt’s death. I see a daughter, sister, and aunt whom I had come to know and care for, murdered for no greater purpose than another’s selfish whim. Though she knows not my role in her Embrace, I know her sire and I to be co-architects in her suffering and damnation.”

Caroline: The words tear at Caroline, more for what they don’t say than for what they do. To groom an infant, to watch them grow, with the intent of taking their life with some purpose, only to see it end more senselessly must have been a dagger to the ancient Moor’s sensibilities. She can easily see why he might have proven reluctant in the aftermath to continue with her cousin.

But not so reluctant with her.

Caroline has had months to come to terms with her own death, with her Embrace into the ranks of the Damned. She reconciled—had to reconcile—with her own sins long before her sire’s blood touched her lips, with the bloody stains on her hands she couldn’t wash away from the sight of God that made her fit for this fate. It doesn’t make it easier to hear how innocent and unsullied another was in their Embrace. Especially not that other, for the Ventrue has no doubts as to whom the seneschal speaks.

The pieces fall readily into place: Becky Lynne Adler is, or at least was, Rebecca Whitney.

becky_lynn_adler_4.jpg
Everything fits too neatly. The sparing of the Armstrongs despite their illicit Embrace. Adler’s strong feelings on Caroline’s relationship with Sarah (my, how the younger Ventrue’s ties to her niece must have clawed at her). The timeline of her passing and Adler’s Embrace.

Adler, ahead of her once more. Enjoying not only a Requiem wrapped in all those things Caroline’s has not been, enjoying the benefit of awakening alongside others, of forgiveness of her Embrace, of a sire that sheltered, provided for, influenced on her behalf, and taught her. Adler, the seneschal’s first choice for her sire’s childe.

Caroline bites her lower lip. There’s some consolidation in the fact that she actually received her sire’s vitae, that she’s standing here before him tonight, but recalling what she knows of those circumstances and the fact that she wasn’t the first choice, Caroline can’t help but wonder: was she the last?

GM: Maldonato pauses briefly again and continues, “I showed her and those who had kept her safe clemency when they were brought before us. Such restitution was small and cost me little enough. Rebecca’s fate thereafter is its own tale, yet one that proved of great consequence to my future plans.”

“I feared my intentions were known to our enemy, and that my attempts at secrecy had availed us naught. To commit to another childe’s Embrace would have been the height of folly. I could not condemn Adam to damnation when the same fate as Rebecca, Maria, Robert, and too many other lost heirs would almost certainly have awaited him as well. No longer could I continue to play into our enemy’s hands—indeed, the folly of my prior actions seemed all-too plain in hindsight. I had spoken of my most recent plans to none, yet this had seemed of little impediment to our enemy. I wondered, then: were my actions truly my own? Was I myself manipulated as I had manipulated so many others?”

“I could not continue to act blindly. I would remedy that state before even considering whether to bring another childe into the night—indeed, it was a concerning apparent lapse in judgment that neither of us had reached such a conclusion already.”

“I would begin my investigations by examining the actions of the ‘Armstrong Five’s’ sires. The coterie’s mandate to apprehend their consanguineous parents in atonement for their illicit Embraces served as convenient pretext to make them my agents in this matter.”

“All five neonates suffered greatly in their pursuit of their mission. Yet they succeeded far in excess of my expectations—and far in excess of those who had expected the sheriff’s office to handle the matter. Matheson proved the only one of the Armstrongs’ sires whom they were unable to tender to your justice, yet the intelligence they obtained on his actions would have been difficult for even the sheriff to acquire.”

Caroline: Caroline keeps her expression still. Dead, like a corpse, as the lionization of the ‘would have’ and ‘should have’ been heir to the prince continues. How unlike her own disasters with René, her blundering and stumbling, and the desperate last second hope that a washed-up old ghoul would save her."

But I did get to the bottom of what you did, didn’t I, seneschal? With her mother’s help to confirm it, but even before, she’d smelled out the rotten nature of her ‘Embrace’ by the prince. The lie Maldonato had told even within that great truth he’d confided in her on the eve of her execution.

GM: “The invidia in your eyes ill becomes our prince’s childe, Miss Malveaux. If you were to inquire as to the full tale of their coterie’s first nights from any of the Armstrongs, their answers might paint a narrative of terror, suffering, and loss far more than pride in meeting a distant and inscrutable figure’s expectations. Five sires are not so easily apprehended as one.”

Caroline: “Veritas is a panacea, seneschal,” Caroline agrees. "Perhaps theirs may yet be shared, still I do not expect their failures to be my comfort. "

“You have known me, and of me, Your Grace. Even had my mind not been laid bare, if I an so transparent now I must be have been then. I would not belie my nature, not to the elder that gave me my Embrace,” she nods to the seneschal, “nor to the prince whose blood runs through my veins.” Her gaze settles upon her silent sire in turn.

“I am not, and have never been, content with my achievements. Always there has been something I might have done better in, some flaw that marred them I might have corrected. I cannot then lie and claim to be accepting of my shortcomings. My only comfort in failure has ever been the impossibility of success. To hear then of the success of others cuts all the sharper—both for the failure and the self-deception that comforted me.”

“I beg then, forgive me one correction. It is not envy, seneschal, which afflicts me. I stand before the prince, and have been privileged these last minutes to hear secrets that most in the city would kill for—insight into rulership of the longest praxis in the New World. The blood in my veins would be the envy of all but the eldest or most foolish Kindred, and twice before have I known the mercy of the seneschal—staying the hand of my oblivion.”

She pauses before continuing, “I do not envy her for taking another path, I only begrudge exposing my self-deception.”

“I might lament lost time and missed opportunities, that my instruction came at the hands of lesser than my sire, that they had cause to see me in weakness and blindness. I might desire that things could have been different, that this night could have arrived earlier, or under different circumstances. I certainly regret that my ignorance caused any additional hardship for His Majesty—to say nothing of suffering to a great many.”

“Mostly though, I wish that I might have come tonight in only triumph.”

GM: “If the world were as we could have it, Miss Malveaux, you should not have had to come before us tonight at all. But the world is instead as our limited minds and hands must build it,” Maldonato answers.

Enough,” hisses the prince.

His gaze burns between the two like black fire.

“I have granted you leave to deliver an account of your actions, Philip—a greater privilege than many criminals within my domain receive. You shall finish, without further digression—yours or hers. Then I shall render judgment.”

The words seize upon the two’s dialogue with a vice-like clamp, imposing order and stricture—yet the hands that wield that vice continue to slowly clasp and unclasp like gnawing jaws. Their owner’s face remains still as a grave.

“As Your Majesty commands,” the seneschal replies calmly.

Caroline: The younger Ventrue doesn’t quite wilt under the prince’s burning gaze, but she falls as silent as death before his fury, the spark of life in her response to the seneschal snuffed out in an instant. She folds her hands before her as the seneschal begins his tale once more.

GM:“In the course of the Armstrongs’ investigation, they discovered the hand of another perpetrator behind their sires’ actions. By their report, Sarah Cobbler claimed to have arranged the five’s mass Embrace for her covenant’s purposes. Perhaps she truly was sincere in those stated reasons. Your Majesty invoked the lextalionis upon Mdm. Cobbler and she fled the city. The majority of your subjects believe her part in our city’s history to end there.”

“This development was pleasing to me, for fewer eyes would rest upon Mdm. Cobbler outside of New Orleans. I arranged for the hiring of Monty Lestrange, who respected his employer’s desire to remain anonymous. I believed his connections to his clan’s Thought Police would be of great utility in apprehending Mdm. Cobbler. Mr. Lestrange and his coterie tracked their erstwhile clanmate to Houston, for she had evidently not wished to roam far from her ‘experiments.’”

“I shall spare Your Majesty further details of Mr. Lestrange’s mission, save to relate that he was successful and retrieved the answers I had so ardently desired. Mdm. Cobbler, too, had acted at another’s behest—another whose manipulations I believed we could trace at last. As the 2004th Year of Our Lord passed into the 2005th, a terrible yet desirous anticipation crept upon me that this Jyhad had reached its endgame.”

Caroline: Sarah Cobbler? Another unfamiliar name, but then the Dragons as a whole are a mystery to her. It’s difficult to imagine anyone manipulating such disparate Kindred as Matheson and Baker’s sire, but she supposes she’s seen stranger bedfellows.

GM: “In my preoccupation, however, I neglected—fatally—to consider affairs beyond New Orleans. Had I done so, I would have realized the Nights of Turmoil were beginning to senescence as fears of imminent Gehenna proved seemingly unfounded. We had little reason to believe as much in New Orleans. Not as Owls stole forth from the world’s dark places in ever-increasing numbers, and not as those with gifts of foresight warned us of doom, all the more loudly and desperately. Doom was descending upon New Orleans—but it was a singular doom, one whose worst devastation would be localized to our city.”

Maldonato stares upon the ruined sword, now resting upon the floor.

“Katrina’s tale is Your Majesty’s to tell, for my role within it is ancillary to yours—nor was I the one to pay the greatest price.”

“All of us bore witness to the storm’s destruction. I need not reiterate its consequences upon either Kindred or kine.”

Caroline: Caroline is both grateful for the abbreviation, and curious as to that tale. Perhaps another time. There have been secrets enough tonight.

GM: “Yet some good may have been achieved amidst the tragedy. An heir to my prince’s throne could, I believed, be Embraced at long last.”

The tale is not for her after all, though she’s certain the seneschal has included details for her benefit.

“I did not endeavor to repeat the circumstances of Miss Whitney’s immediately. Other matters occupied my attentions—the archdiocese lay in ruins. There was little point in grooming an heir when there was yet no kingdom for that individual to be heir to.”

“It was not until five years later that Your Majesty repealed the moratorium on new Embraces. Perhaps then I might have brought Adam Malveaux into the night… but for how other children I had watched had come of age.”

“I was mindful of resting so many hopes upon a single individual. I had cast my gaze upon many.”

“Savannah Malveaux, his sister. Far had she risen in spite of the obstacles in her path.”

“Robert Argabrite, heir to another old legacy, before he proved lacking in judgment sufficient to retain it.”

“Stephen Garrison, one of the most promising of all, before Primogen Duquette claimed him for her own.”

“Herman Lewis, who had overcome great hardship, yet in whom I found too great an anger to be suitable.”

“Mark Mullman, resourceful and innovative, but not destined for the Kindred.”

“Dustin Reffett, before he proved unequal to his own expectations.”

“Emily Rosure, beset by hardships of a different manner than Mr. Lewis’, yet unsuitable for the night.”

“Mr. Taylor, who had worked his way from nothing to everything by the sweat of his brow.”

“Jermaine Washington, who had done much the same before his untimely demise.”

“Alice Guillot, brave and determined, heir to a family legacy of much interest.”

“The St. George children, promising in their own manners, yet also unmeant for the night.”

Caroline: More and more names and faces. She’d once seen Abélia as a massive tentacled creature, or a serpent, her coils wrapped around Caroline in wroth, but she can see too well the truth: the seneschal’s own shadowy tendrils around every aspect of life.

GM: “I watched all these souls, and further ones still. Some for the whole of their lives, some for but brief episodes. I had little desire to bring any of them into the night. I had followed Miss Whitney’s developments no less attentively than any of theirs, and I had seen well the suffering and sorrow that her Embrace had wreaked upon so many lives—her own not least of all.”

Caroline: Surely you never believed the Embrace would do anything less. She cannot claim her Embrace has brought only sorrow, but she knows well just how much destruction she has unleashed upon everyone in her life.

GM: “Yet Miss Adler had risen to become an exemplary childe in spite of her sire’s initial indifference and maltreatment. I had not followed the course of her Requiem so closely for reasons of mere sentiment. As she rose in the esteem of our society’s eyes, she stood as evidence that my chosen methodology could bear prodigious results. I had but to repeat that methodology upon another individual—and ensure they received another sire’s vitae in the stead of Mr. Matheson’s.”

“As Hurricane Katrina’s tenth anniversary approached, I could wait little longer. Your Majesty’s reputation had suffered much in the eyes of his subjects. Information was being leaked from our camp to Antoine Savoy, who would not long sit idle upon it, and the Baron had seemingly returned from final death itself. Rumors truer than their disseminators knew were already circulating that Your Majesty’s time would soon be done.”

Caroline: She doesn’t need the confirmation to know how true the rumors are. The opening of the elevator’s doors revealed as much quite clearly, much to her sorrow. Part of her had still hoped it was only a rumor.

GM: “Then were two young women of great promise and potential nearly murdered within a police station.”

“I shall not reiterate Sheriff Donovan’s investigative findings—nor the urgency made necessary by the awakening of so great an evil. The time for waiting was now past. I reviewed the lives of the children I had long watched, weighed the consequences of their deaths, and began my final preparations to bring Adam Malveaux into the night.”

Caroline: The surprise hits Caroline like a punch in the face, and for once she’s grateful she’s taken a more than a few of those. She’d assumed that night sealed her fate.

GM: “Concurrently, René Baristheaut returned to New Orleans upon the centenarial anniversary of his sire’s final death, ostensibly to pay his respects to Sheriff Bastien’s memory. I had not expected to see his face again, but his explanation for returning to the city was plausible enough. For all his grievances against Your Majesty and his sire, he had departed the archdiocese as a hound in good standing. I granted him permission to remain.”

“His heart was at once much changed and little changed. Only later would I become aware he had also approached Mr. Savoy.”

Caroline: Caroline wrestles with her eagerness to learn more, with her desire to urge the seneschal to say more, as they get closer and closer to the present. Her mother may have shown her the truth, but there are many other secrets related to her Embrace—and she’d have them all.

GM: “Another of the children whom I had watched, meanwhile, ventured into Mr. Savoy’s territory to celebrate a mortal festival. Such was little enough cause for concern under normative circumstances—anonymity was always the childrens’ greatest shield.”

“Recent events, however, had left me ill at ease. I tasked an agent with following this child’s movements, and issued him strict orders not to reveal his presence outside of his preassigned cover.”

Caroline: This much Caroline knows.

GM: “Mr. Baristheaut crossed this child’s path during the festivities and absconded with her to the Dungeon to satisfy his base urges. This my agent failed to prevent.”

Caroline: Razor sharp images carve through Caroline’s mind. Memories, pieces of them, dredged up by her mother. Tortures best forgotten—or never imagined.

GM: “Your Majesty and I have both long since been inoculated against belief in coincidence. Of all the agents I might have chosen to shadow the child’s movements, this one was also a spy whom I had contrived to place within the Dungeon’s lower circles. He reported that Mr. Baristheaut believed the child dead and had tasked him with disposing of her remains.”

Caroline: Caroline shivers involuntarily. The memories what she endured scrap against her consciousness like hot irons, searing everything they touch, leaving fresh wounds. At some point it’s all a blur of pain, of agonies, tortures of the mind, body, and spirit that even with her mother’s assistance she can only remember in pieces, slivers, flashes.

More than the pain, more than the specifics, she remembers the sounds and smells, so unlike anything else. The raw wet tearing of flesh, the sharp crack of bones, the sizzle of flesh bubbling, and the smell. God, the smell of blood and burning flesh and filth.

She remembers reading somewhere that memories are most firmly tied to smell. She can believe it. She focuses on the seneschal’s words, trying to pry herself from the memories. Just follow the words, and she does, back away from the depths of hell to the present.

She emerged, that’s what’s important, even if she can’t say she survived.

GM: Though neither elder evinces any apparent reaction to Caroline’s too-vividly recalled pain, there is perhaps some mercy in that Maldonato does not pause in his narrative. The words are easy to grasp and follow, like a waxed rope.

“My agent reported that some spark of life yet persisted with the child’s breast. He was unable to extract her from the Dungeon before its denizens absconded with her. His cover remained intact and he was able to deliver a full report of what had occurred. The trap set before me was plain.”

“It proved well-laid.”

“I made what provisions I could in the time afforded me and descended into the Dungeon. I slew those of its inhabitants I judged deserving of death and did battle with its mistress. Neither fortune nor Your Majesty were there to aid me in our second conflict. I could not destroy her within the heart of her realm.”

Caroline: Caroline too remembers this. The horrific, cataclysmic duel between the two elders, if only from the coin. Her other memories are more… muddied, dulled.

GM: “Another did so in my stead.”

Caroline: There’s nothing dulled about her memories there.

Caroline remembers rising, remembers walking fighting to them on shattered feet, parts of her grotesquely falling from between her legs. Remembers taking up the sword at the seneschal’s urging in bloody, slick, flesh-less hands. Remembers the terrifying visage of the seneschal’s foe, her too late realization of her once-victim’s intent.

She remembers the grim, terrible, satisfaction in ending that thing. The devil incarnate.

There were far worse things she could have done with her last moments of life.

GM: “I had not trusted to hope that the child would still live by the time I reached her. She had. My strength was spent. She took up my sword and ended the daughter of Dionysus’ evil with a stroke.”

Caroline: She deserved it.

There’s a fierce satisfaction, still, in that memory. She could claim it was for destroying an ancient darkness, claim it was for the good it did for the world to remove that monster, but she knows that’s a lie—or at best a half truth.

She wanted revenge on that terrible thing, wanted to make her pay for what she’d done to Caroline. Wanted to kill her killer.

Didn’t she?

GM: “I returned to my haven with the child. A great crime had been redressed. Antoine Savoy was deprived of one of his most potent allies.”

“Yet the victory had not come without cost. The child lay dying. Neither my powers nor the arts of medicine could preserve her life after the torments she had suffered.”

“Caution pulled at me. My interest in her was known to our foes. I could not say if the daughter of Dionysus was alone in her possession of that knowledge.”

Caroline: Then why not make me your own? Caroline wonders still.

She can see how he was manipulated, pushed into her Embrace. She can even see her mother’s hand at work in it—the light touch he’d never even noticed. Successes here and there to catch his eye perhaps, and the push that brought him into the Dungeon.

But if he harbored doubts, if he had any question, why not simply Embrace her of his own blood, rather than use the prince’s?

GM: “The question within your eyes is plain, Miss Malveaux. Perhaps your sire’s understanding of events may be furthered were it articulated and answered.”

Caroline: “By your leave, Seneschal.” She uses the brief formality to buy a moment to frame her question.

“It is plain I was not your first choice, seneschal. In my memory it is just as evident doubts existed even that night. So why, given those, even with the determination to extend my existence, grace me with the prince’s vitae, rather than your own, or even any other’s?”

GM: “Your sole continued existence is an unworthy trade for the multiplicity of lives you have since taken, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato answers. “To say nothing of your immortal soul’s damnation.”

“Perhaps others of our kind might have granted you the Embrace and considered it a kindness. I do not.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “In the absence of purpose, there would be no purpose,” she fills in.

It’s a crushing weight, but one that clarifies the seneschal’s often cruel intent oh so perfectly.

It would never have been enough for her to succeed as one of the damned. It would never be enough to simply eke out an existence as another Kindred in the city.

GM: “You had demonstrated your worthiness to our prince’s Blood through acts of great courage and valor. Had I not Embraced you as you lay already dying, another soul would have been forced to pay for my decision with their life. For all my suspicions and fears of manipulation—that have since proven founded—your Embrace under our prince’s vitae was and remains a lesser evil to the alternatives.”

Caroline: The smallest price to be paid, for his own conscience as well. It’s not as though she can argue: her life was over the moment René absconded with her—that it became the seneschal’s to spend was a minor point.

“I understand, Seneschal,” she agrees.

GM: “It is ever a prince’s destiny to chart their course through such dark waters.”

Caroline: Caroline turns her gaze back to the prince, judging his reaction to this intermission.

GM: Caroline has seen more expression and vitality in tombstones.

" وَمَكَرُواْ وَمَكَرَ اللّهُ وَاللّهُ خَيْرُ الْمَاكِرِينَ?" Caroline replies to the seneschal.

And the unbelievers plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah.

“For all the plots and plans, of all the paths laid out before me, those not across the bloody rocks but instead the soft sand, here I am.” Caroline’s eyes soften, in her dead waxen face, “I’d like to hope that though we may be beyond the grace of god, we are not beyond his will.”

GM: “Such is the core of the Church Eternal’s belief, Miss Malveaux. Yet we have tried your sire’s patience long enough upon this second digression.”

Caroline: Caroline falls silent once more.

GM: “I had previously arranged for an intermediary to consult with Mr. Ghiberti regarding the alleged properties and construction of the True Vessel,” Maldonato continues. “He obtained further information from contacts among his clan. I crafted a lesser copy of the artifact to contain Your Majesty’s vitae. A sample was not overly difficult to procure. As Miss Malveaux lay dying before me, I sealed her damnation and granted her the Embrace—Your Majesty’s Embrace.”

“I arranged for René Baristheaut to receive the blame for Miss Malveaux’s Embrace, thereby concealing her origins while simultaneously granting us pretext to remove this newest thorn in our side. I instructed my agent to deposit Miss Malveaux at Louis Armstrong Park, where the Armstrong Five had awoken eleven years ago.”

Caroline: Just like that. She keeps her mouth closed.

GM: “This would both further obscure her origins, driving others to seek connections that did not exist, while also, I had hoped, providing an established coterie with reason to take her in. The Armstrongs would sympathize with her plight and have ready cause to assist her in Mr. Baristheaut’s apprehension.”

Caroline: But that didn’t happen. What might have been. She can imagine a tie to Adler guiding her in her first nights, or perhaps Baker by her side. Ties she discovered far, far too late. Only recently, in fact.

How many missteps might have been avoided, how many failures undone? This entire disastrous death sentence—she’d have never thought to spy on her coterie-mate’s sire.

It’s fruitless thought she readily abandons.

GM: “Alas, such did not come to pass. Perhaps we may attribute it to the fallen one’s manipulations, seeking to further isolate Miss Malveaux in anticipation of their own meeting, or perhaps Mr. Savoy’s. I am ever uninclined to trust the vagaries of chance.”

Caroline: Or perhaps trusting to the hope she would happen to meet them and they would take her under their wing was a long shot. Kindred society is not known for its kindness to newcomers, though she can imagine how distant that experience might have been to the centuries-old seneschal.

Perhaps she might have done more, might have advertised her Embrace’s details, might have made deeper connections, but those nights seem so far away, and they were so desperate. She recalls how she dreaded nearly all of her meetings with another of the Damned.

GM: “I sent my agent to the Cayman Islands, for his life was now in great peril. An old friend would shelter him there. Prospero has little stake in this city’s Jyhad and had provided me with sagacious counsel upon many prior occasions. Your Majesty’s known mistrust of the Caymans’ prince would further obfuscate the nature of my agent’s actions and his relationship with us.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t grin at this, but it’s still satisfying to have it confirmed she’d teased out that link.

GM: “I thereafter contrived to watch Miss Malveaux from a distance, much as I had always done. Perhaps my caution might have achieved less than I wished, when others suspected or were already privy to the true circumstances of her Embrace. Yet anonymity would remain her greatest shield within our kind’s society. Any number of Kindred might have sought to commit foul amaranth upon her soul, so close to Caine and yet so vulnerable, or exploit her towards any number of further purposes.”

Caroline: A mistake, she judges. She’s fairly certain at minimum Savoy knew of her origins, of her likely bloodline. She doubts he was alone. Keeping her away and ‘anonymous’ was a shield only so long as all those other players thought she might play a better part at their table.

GM: “I have elaborated my reasons for wishing to hide Miss Whitney’s true bloodline from her, had she been Embraced by Your Majesty’s vitae. Those reasons were no less true for Miss Malveaux, yet there was a further one.”

Caroline: She thinks on how closely the French Quarter lord played his hand with her, how carefully he attempted to recruit her. So patient, so available, so ready to aid her in any time of need with any task, or answer any question.

She too shivers at just how easily he might have leaked what he knew of her to less…. favorably inclined Kindred, had he believed her past his reach.

GM: “Character is not developed in ease and quietude. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. I would not have Your Majesty’s only childe raised in a Requiem of luxury and indolence as were Prince Vitel’s.”

“Even your guiding hand, harsh though I know Mr. Costa found it, would have been insufficient to teach Miss Malveaux the Requiem’s most essential lessons in the time allotted to us.”

Caroline: She wonders if the seneschal knows just how close Savoy came to turning her. How desperately she considered some nights confessing all she knew to him.

GM: “She would face the night alone, bereft of a sire’s guidance, of a sire’s identity, of knowledge of what she even was. Naught would be given to her that she did not first earn for herself.”

“She would endure the hardscrabble Requiem of the lowliest Caitiff, so that she might know the suffering Your Majesty’s most ignoble subjects face nightly.”

“She would feel the weight of the headsman’s axe upon her own neck, so that she might know what it is to place that axe upon another’s.”

“She would face the cruelties, manipulations, and tyrannies of our kind at her most lost, desperate, and vulnerable, so that she might know the Camarilla for what it is.”

“She would face the temptations and poisoned kindnesses of Antoine Savoy, so that she might be understand the threat he poses and be inoculated against it—or, had she succumbed, been destroyed by mine hand while the damage she might pose to Your Majesty’s reign was yet minimal.”

“Mr. Savoy’s nature is intimately known to us, Miss Malveaux. Presume not that we are ignorant of the attentions he showed you.”

Caroline: She knew some of what he would say here, but it does not make it easier to hear. That all of her suffering was intentional, that he fully appreciated all she would ensure.

At the same time, she cannot pretend to have suffered as some have. She might have known a Caitiff’s scorn as a sireless fledgling, alone and without aid, but she was still Caroline Malveaux. She might too have known naught of her birthright, but she still wielded it as a hammer against those that opposed her, wittingly or not.

GM: “The Requiem of Your Majesty’s last childe would be a crucible. In fire would she be either destroyed or tempered—as was Miss Whitney before her.”

“Now, at last, she stands here before you.”

Caroline: As the seneschal’s calm, measured voice fades from the chamber, the full weight of his recitation falls upon her. It pushes down on her like a load of bricks, crushing her, grinding her into paste. Not only what he’s said, but what he’s left unsaid. The implications of his logic—so cold, so calculating in its mercy and purpose—and the weight of his decisions. And… more. The pieces of the game that goes so much further than he’s said, but that she does not doubt he must be able to see. She can see it, now, in shadows and reflections only. The ways in which they were each pushed and pulled to this point, towards this end—or another.

She can see the hand at work in the past, removing his choices, striking down could-have-been heirs for centuries, slowly eating away at the heart of the prince’s power. To weaken him? Perhaps, perhaps to undermine his praxis or destroy him, but perhaps not. Perhaps towards another goal.

She can see the hand at work in how it worked upon the seneschal’s mind. How it fed into his worst paranoia. How it pushed him from considering choices among the Damned to considering something she now knows he’d never have done on his own: towards the grooming and Embrace of an heir from among the living. That action she can now see him so adamantly against, so at odds with his moral principles of ‘greater good.’ Not just the taking of a life, but the damning of a soul.

Caroline can see it in Rebecca Whitney’s Embrace, in the way in which she was snatched from him at the last moment, how he was not only denied his prize, but how he was forced to watch the destruction of her life—and also the destruction she wrought. How that failure stayed his hand for years, how it broadened his gaze, and also how it haunted him night after night to have watched a mortal he groomed from infancy become one of the damned. He might have said that failure alerted him to his adversary’s plans, wakened him to their knowledge of his intentions, but it did so much more than that, didn’t it? It prepared him, groomed him, for Caroline’s own Embrace.

An Embrace that could never have happened in 2005—not only because she was still a child, but because of his reluctance, his caution, his careful planning. Would he have ever considered to Embrace a dying woman on the spot? She imagines not—that he would have forgone the opportunity rather than take the risk.

She recalls well her sister’s words, on how close Abélia has been to Caroline for some time, since well before her Embrace. What part did she play in all of this? Caroline can only imagine for now, but no doubt her hand was in play: how could it not be? She sees her mother’s interest in daughters, not sons, and the seneschal’s fixation on Caroline’s male cousin. Sees the effect the police station had on Caroline, sees how it sent her into a spiral. She doesn’t think Abélia laid her own daughters at the feet of Gettis—his shooting smacks of another influence—but she can well imagine that Abélia wished Caroline there, that night, for whatever might have come.

Caroline sees the manipulation of René, his recall to New Orleans, his abduction of Caroline—she cannot forget how she was drugged that night—that was too intentional to be the product of chance. Did her rescue of Sarah and her sister bring her to the attention of another, or had her death that night been planned from before? It’s hard to say—but in this game of inches played across centuries it is far from the least plausible thing. She remembers the piece she received from Kelford, her false sire’s declaration to his Requiem-long ghoul: “it’s time.” No—René did not return to New Orleans after the shooting by chance.

Her abduction, her trip to the Dungeon, and her descent into its depths flash before her, painful bloodstained pieces of the puzzle. She could have just as easily died at René’s hands—and yet it was not to be. She was pulled deep, deeper, deeper still, into the blackest part of that pit. She remembers her suffering there—but also her preservation—like a worm on a hook, skewered but not shredded. She knows others were not so lucky: remembers watching limbs hacked off others, watching them be fed their own fingers, watching them feast on each other’s flesh because to do otherwise was to invite worse, watched them strangled with their own entrails and sewn back together with each other’s limbs. But not her—no, for all her suffering, she was… whole. Whole enough. Whole enough to tempt the seneschal, not only into his descent, but into what followed.

Caroline, who like so few in this age knew her way around the seneschal’s blade. Who checked all the other boxes for the seneschal—of breeding, of education, of devotion. Caroline, given an opportunity to take up his blade. And more still. She sees the guilt he carried for a decade for his failure with Rebecca, with allowing one of ‘his’ children that he’d so carefully watched to suffer such a fate. The fault he placed upon himself, clouding his judgment. This Kindred so devoted to the highest good, the greater good, who still risked his own so-precious existence as a check on darker forces to descend into his foe’s place of power to ‘rescue’ Caroline—a gamble against the longest of odds.

She sees everything that fed into her Embrace, when all the blood had been spilled and it was only the two of them. The grievous wounds that distracted the seneschal, that nagged at his attention. The awful state of Caroline, past not only medicine but also magic to save, with so little time to make a decision. Such an opportunity for the seneschal—an excuse to create a childe, to give the Embrace, without having to so callously take a life as he had planned. The temptation it presented—to both lessen the guilt he still felt for the destruction of Rebecca’s life—for was he killing Caroline? Wasn’t it a lesser evil to take the life of an already dying woman than to ruin another family?

And the timing of it all—might he have done any of these things were it not so late in the game, were he not so desperate, so out of time? The terrible state of the prince speaks for itself. Centuries of planning, decades of manipulation, and a perfect storm of events that night to bring it to a head—to force him into Caroline’s Embrace.

Caroline, who’d always wanted a mother that loved her. Caroline, who’d always desired a sister. Caroline, who all her life sought to please her father, to earn his attention. Caroline, from power and privilege. Caroline, with her hands already stained with blood, who had already shown any that could see into her soul how deep its stains ran, who would sacrifice almost anything. Caroline, whose mother happened to be the most powerful hunter in the state? Caroline, who could appeal so easily to Lou. Caroline, who even so tempted would still so seek to please her ‘father.’

It’s all too much, an overwhelming vision of her life and death and Requiem all plotted out, manipulated, contrived. Her head spins. She feels sick, used, tainted, trapped. Did anything she did ever matter? Did she ever have any choice at all, or had another seen which fork she would take in every road, and contrive them to lay before her? It’s wrong—so wrong, so perverted, a step into the domain of God.

She’d hoped the ‘truth’, full and complete, might give her peace. But it’s all the more horrifying—and not only for the seneschal’s callousness.

GM: Time seems to hang all-too still as Caroline contemplates those by turns unsettling and tragic twists of fate before Maldonato resumes,

“Miss Malveaux’s suitability as a childe, when collated against Miss Whitney’s, has oft proven fitful.”
“I have tasked her with her a series of labors to redress the poor judgment she displayed with Mr. Matheson.

“She has slain Claire Malveaux, her mortal mother, and obtained intelligence on the Baron’s activities by which we may thwart his latest design.”
“She has proven but partly able to divorce herself from her mortal life, and has accepted the fallen one’s blood for her own.”

“As an individual, I have seen much of Your Majesty’s last childer in her. I have seen courage and resolve to eclipse Miss Whitney’s. I have seen self-pity and -preoccupation all-too alike Mr. Costa’s. I have seen loyalty to withstand Mr. Savoy’s wiles. I have seen doubt distance her from Your Majesty’s faith.”

“I have seen in her a resentment and hunger for affection that others might manipulate towards their own ends. I have seen her resist the daughter of Dionysus’ same manipulations, and rid Your Majesty of a great foe, when all hope appeared lost.”

“I believe her less stable of temperament than either Adam Malveaux or Sarah Whitney, and less inspirited by thoughts of obligation and duty.”

“I believe her possessed of greater drive, ambition, and her own manner of sacrifice than either. I believe her capable of surpassing both of Your Majesty’s unrealized childer in greatness.”

“I believe time and careful cultivation may bring out those best traits within her and abate those most deleterious ones. Time do we have.”

“I have spoken much of the need for an heir to Your Majesty’s throne. With such an heir in place, there is yet little need for an immediate successor.”

“Even if a perfect childe of Miss Malveaux’s drive, Miss Whitney’s poise, and Mr. Malveaux’s faith stood before us, such a childe would be too young and inexperienced to rule the archdiocese alone. I shall not see Your Majesty’s domain become as Prince Jackson’s or Prince Panhard’s.”

“Yet an heir is a potent symbol. Once Your Majesty is able to enter the sleep of ages, I believe the archdiocese’s most stable course lies in the continuation of my reign as acting prince until such time as Miss Malveaux is suitable to take the throne.”

“In truth, such a change in leadership would impact the city but little. Your Majesty has long since delegated the majority of your responsibilities as prince and retains the office in but name only.”

“Yet there is power in names and symbols. The ‘rumor’ spread by Mr. Smith has already transformed the archdiocese’s sociopolitical landscape. Knowledge that Your Majesty’s bloodline maintains an unbroken rule over the city shall do much to maintain stability while circumventing the issues endemic to my assuming the title as well as duties of prince.”

Maldonato’s voice grows soft.

“Their existence has ever been a source of consolation and comfort to me.”

His gaze is tender as he looks upon the prince’s impassive, stone-like visage.

“I grow weary of this burden, my love. I desired it not when Nastasio first approached us. We have crossed an ocean and witnessed an age’s passing at his behest, and I still desire it not. There are worthier pursuits we have long postponed that the duties and responsibilities our present positions make untenable.”

“I am patient. Should you see fit to let your childe’s Requiem persist past this night, she shall eventually understand that patience comes easily to our kind. One’s desires and ambitions cannot outlive one who is immortal.”

“I am prepared to rule as regent in Miss Malveaux’s name, and to train her in the duties and responsibilities of a prince’s office, for however long should prove necessary until she may assume the throne herself with minimal disruption to the archdiocese’s continued stability. I do not fear time’s passage. I regret only those actions I may commit that shall impede the journey I have long postponed.”

“Yet such concerns for my own soul are subordinate to those I have for another’s. Your rest is long overdue, my love. Long overdue, long deserved, and long needed. You have changed in the time since assuming this city’s throne, and I do not believe its burdens have been kind to you. I would see them removed from your shoulders. I would see you granted peace.”

“You know as well as I that such peace is not assured. Time is running out. Motes of sand remain in the upper chamber of the hourglass that measures Your Majesty’s reign. The archdiocese’s threats must be dealt with while Your Majesty’s strength remains available to us. Our mission and mandate from the Camarilla persists, even if the one who bestowed it upon us is now long since dust beneath Aajav’s fangs.”

“Miss Malveaux has seen and remembered more to this Jyhad than I should have wished. But perhaps that, too, is necessary if we are to face the trials ahead. They are many.”

“Antoine Savoy plots incessantly to undermine Your Majesty’s temporal influence. The Baron, while so many overlook him, gathers his strength to meet us upon more esoteric battlefields. The Setites stir with new ambition in the aftermath of the daughter of Dionysus’ destruction. The Clan of Death pursues an agenda we still but ill understand. Nathaniel Blanch seemingly prepares to re-enter the Jyhad. The Anarchs roil with discontent and perceived hypocrisy among their leaders. The Tremere march heedlessly forward in their own private war. The Invictus assesses how they might make the city theirs. The primogen eye the fulfillment of their longest-held desire.”

“Birds of Dis descend upon our city in numbers not seen since Katrina. Kindred from Houston, Haiti, and Baton Rouge find ever greater reason to watch our city and involve themselves in its affairs. The magi see a city they may realize in their own image. The moon-beasts hunger for Bayou St. John and renewed war against their foes. The restless dead and those who tend them agitate in rebellion against Stygia’s governor. The wild ones stir in trepidation. Witch-hunters dream of a city cleansed of its Kindred presence. The infernal beckons to those seeking power in these uncertain times. Eyes high and low rest upon Perdido House in anticipation of monumental change they know is soon to occur.”

“Beyond our city, I hear of wars ravaging the Middle East and involving our kind on a scale unprecedented. I hear of a new regent guiding the Sword of Caine’s path, whose grip is surer and whose aim is deadlier than Galbraith’s ever was. Perhaps we may feel that sword’s bite in the coming years. Greater purpose lay behind last Carnival’s packs than merely partaking of the city’s pleasures.”

“I hear tale of distant domains ruled by the clanless, the last generations, and even those who serve, and I wonder how much of our dominion over the night take for granted. The very nature of Scourge Meadows’ mission renders it impossible for her to ever declare success.”

“I hear tale of witch-hunters descending upon our kind with renewed fervor, utilizing powers and technologies we are ill-equipped to understand. I hear of the young rising up against the old, and cities ruled by princes who have known the sun longer than they have the night.”

“Time never ceases its march, yet I find myself contemplating with oft frequency whether its pace may soon outtake us. The Jyhad is changing. The world is changing.”

“When one looks upon New Orleans, one sees a city teeming with energy and vitality. Many proclaim that the tragedies and disaster of ten years ago would hardly seem to have struck. They say the city has moved on. I do not believe this to be so. I believe the city to have been irrevocably transfigured—and that even creatures as static and long-dead as we may share in that metamorphosis. It is time for us to set our affairs in order, cease fighting the tides of history, and see whence our futures might carry us.”

“When I was as new to the night as Miss Malveaux, my sire’s grandsire told me of how he was prepared to slay the tribe of his birth down to the last man, woman, and child. He ended half of their lives before his sire commanded that he stop. In committing one atrocity did he spare the survivors a worse fate at his sire’s hands: a fate he would have been helpless to forestall. In committing one evil did he avert a worse evil. A beast he was, lest a beast he became.”

“My ancestor committed that massacre long ago, yet I feel his destiny coursing through my blood and guiding my steps and actions even to this present night. Here, at last, do we stand.”

“My actions are my own. I have broken Your Majesty’s sworn oath and covenant with God and usurped your prerogative as prince. I have betrayed the trust Your Majesty placed in me. I have damned Miss Malveaux’s soul and robbed her of her life’s most precious joys and gifts. I bear responsibility for the suffering she has caused so many others.”

“I harbor no regrets over my actions. I mourn the harm they have caused to others and the stains they have left upon my soul. Yet were they within my power to undo, I would undo them not. I have committed evil so that a greater evil might yet be averted.”

“Yet amidst such evil, I also see much good.”

“Know this, my love: you kept your oath. Whatever others may believe, you know that no dishonor has stained your dignitas, nor undermined the obedience you owe God. Know this, Miss Malveaux: your sire did not abandon and condemn you. I stole that knowledge and choice from him. You stand here before one another, each innocent of the crimes inherent to your blood as sire and childe. You stand as free of that original sin as did Adam and Eve before sampling Eden’s forbidden fruit.”

“In your reunion, I see a sire who may find the childe and heir he has long sought, and a woman who may find the father whose love she has long wished for. I see the potential for a prince to preserve his legacy, and for a childe to attain the greatness she has long yearned after. I see a measure of redemption for both of your souls through one another. But that is no longer for me to determine.”

“You have heard my tale of the circumstances that have brought us to this point. My secrets are laid bare. My hand may no longer compel what proceeds from here. It is your prerogatives now, to speak, to decide, and to answer:”

“What will you do?”

The seneschal’s voice dies at last, like the slow descent of an autumnal tree’s final leaf. The landscape before Caroline and her sire is dead and barren—yet hearkens to a promised spring.

Caroline: Caroline’s gaze fixes in her sire, in his own ancient, dead gaze. It’s like staring into the abyss, into the infinite. It captures centuries, perhaps more, within its unflinching pitiless eyes.

She can see reflections of herself in his eyes, in his skin. She knows she looks like a corpse this night, the Beast so close to the surface, robbing her of what shreds of her humanity remain.

She knows, better than any, all she’s sacrificed to make it this far, to stand before him.

There’s irony in the seneschal’s questioning of her loyalty, of her duty. Everything—save perhaps the moments since her mother’s embrace of her into a new family—has built towards this moment. Every sacrifice, every demand met, every humiliation suffered, to bring her a step closer to a Kindred she’s met only once before, and in scorn, when she was nothing but a un—then barely—released fledgling.

He is not everything she’d hoped. While she wears the injuries to her soul as open wounds, his are scars so deep she wonders what might remain within him, how he claws himself from the abyss each night in this mausoleum.

The seneschal’s own wounds confirm what she’s long feared—that his rule approaches its end, that his fate is the long sleep, that the time they have is so terribly limited within the context of a Requiem.

The disappointment is not with him—any more than the disappointment a child might feel over learning the truth of Christmas is with their parents. It’s the death of a dream, of an innocence—what little may be pried from a murderer like herself.

She wants to weep in the moment, she wants to rush to him, to beg him to accept him, to say anything other than the harsh pronouncements he’s offered since learning of her existence. Can he ever know everything she gave up to come this far? Everything she endured? Does he know how his silence, his stoicism cuts her even now? Still, she composes herself, perhaps aided by how little of her is human tonight. The Beast that does not quite rule her soul has no room for self-pity, for weakness, or for doubts.

Should she speak? Leave was given to the seneschal to explain his crime, not to her to make her plea, but every moment of silence stretches a lifetime.

GM: Her sire’s black gaze has come at last to rest upon her.

No sound disturbs the still and dead air, save the crashing rain and ominous rumble of thunder.

Caroline: “I beg you, Your Majesty, forgive my presumptuousness,” Caroline begins, when the silence becomes too overwhelming. “I have waited… it seems an eternity, since my Embrace, for this moment.”

Her blue eyes bore into his dark ones. “I am not so presumptuous to gainsay the words of my creator—especially as kind as they were, for all of their stark revelations. Perhaps the seneschal knows me better than I know myself—he has looked upon me for long, and more than once within me, into my mind. The first lies we tell are, I think, to ourselves. Even were that not true, I lack the perspective and accompanying wisdom of a centuries he possesses.”

“Still, there are parts of the tale that he has yet left for me to tell, if it pleases Your Majesty.”

GM: The prince’s response is like an answering crack of lightning from the troubled skies beyond the window. Stark, and for all its illumination, perhaps fatal.

“Proceed.”

Caroline: “I awoke into this existence knowing only that the last of my previous existence had been moments of terror and pain. My first in this one was overwhelming thirst and barely contained rage I had never before felt. In those first moments my first acts reaffirmed for me that which I had become, though I knew not how or why—a monster to match my most monstrous deeds in life.”

Caroline remembers that night, remembers the taste of her first victim’s blood in her mouth, remembers her horror later when she realized what she’d done. The memories are bitter, as much for how far she’s fallen from that night as for her first taste of corruption. Does she even remember many of her victims in modern nights? How many have names she even recalls? Meaningless questions. She’s not here for kine. She bores on, leaving pieces of herself behind as she goes.

“The details may resemble those of thousands of other Kindred across history—I will spare them—but in my first nights I maimed, I fought, and I killed. I felt the touch of the sun and the agony of wounds that would have killed me in life. I learned something of my nature, if not what I was in truth, before I was found and brought before the seneschal and sheriff to face execution.”

More bitter memories, there are so many—it feels this entire sojourn into the past is one into pain and disappointment. Into failure. It’s hard to face her past, the array of choices that in hindsight were so foolish, so reckless. She wants to strangle that version of herself, trying so hard to ‘save’ Paxton, bringing her first victim to the hospital, coming before Orson to help Aimee. She can feel the Beast devouring her self-loathing, how it grows strong from her distain for that still human Caroline Malveaux. Let it, she does not have the strength to fight it now.

“Perhaps I would have welcomed it. The seneschal is correct that I loathed what I had become. I raged petulantly against God Himself for what had happened to me. I hated myself for the harm I inflicted on others. I agonized as I watched my mortal life disintegrate night after night beneath fresh lies—and as I watched those closest to me hurt time and again by my new existence and the costs associated with it. I had no sire to explain my Requiem to me, or the laws of the city, or any other aspect of existence among Kindred. Instead I was counseled by a ghoul—that my very existence was poison, that the best I could hope for was to be destroyed before I caused overly much harm, that the moral choice was to destroy myself.”

She can barely even remember those thoughts—and for the better.

“The only purpose I found in my existence was in the impossible charge laid before me, to hunt down a century old hound, my murderer and purported sire. My missteps were many—and costly. They bought me the ire of the sheriff, the disdain of the Sanctified, the scorn of the Anarchs and the outright hunting by a krewe of them—more enraged and reckless as they became with each defeat I dealt them.”

There’s some satisfaction in some of these memories, the Beast can agree. The thrill of throwing down those lesser that sought to harm her. Of smashing Bliss into a torpor she’d never awake from, of cutting apart not one or two, but three attackers like the trash they were. Dark thoughts that keep the Beast from her mind now, that keep her in control.

“I found little comfort in others of my kind, and few inclined to grant succor to one laboring under a death sentence that rapidly approached: I counted my remaining existence in nights before the sheriff’s justice descended upon me. I received lessons in beatings, in whippings, in tortured mortal associates, murdered mortal family members, and in the inartful delivery of severed heads of those dear to me still.”

Hard nights, hard times. The bite of McGinn’s whip held in the hand of his slave—after he forced her to strip before them. Begging for succor from the sun after he held her there through the night. The taunts of the Nosferatu hacker. The selling out by the Hidden Clan to McGinn, the setup with the bikers. The memory of blows from Matheson for each ill-received answer—a cover for his attempt to all but rape her. Jessica’s head in a box. Westley… hard times that made her harder, that beat what mercy and goodness might have been left in her out. For the better, right?

“I knew not worth in my Requiem, but I would have my justice against my killer, against the one who so callously destroyed my life. He, at least, would never do so again. I would do something of worth, something to offset the terrible toll of my Requiem, endured perhaps by me but paid for in the blood and lives of others. Looming final death gave me clarity, a desperate recklessness in my pursuit of my supposed sire.” Desperateness and recklessness, the hallmarks of her Requiem.

“And along the way I accumulated reasons I might go on, that I might not greet the sun following the fulfillment of my task. Some were pleasures—the company of another—but most were burdens I could not easily lay down. Lives I had shattered that I sought to piece back together in something resembling their previous state, souls I had stained with my own vitae that I was now responsible for. Pride too had a part. The scorn of others, their doubts, their judgement of me called to something in me, demanded that I prove them wrong. I had never been a nobody. I could not bear to be remembered—or worse not remembered at all—as a failure. Still, I think even the night following René Baristheaut’s capture, that sole night of my Requiem in which I did not labor under the seneschal’s death sentence, I remained possessed by doubts. How could any moral person—or even one pretending at it—justify this existence?”

But she did, she continued to justify it, as she has night after night, taking lives, ruining lives, hurting people because it’s what she is. The purring Beast inside reminders her of that much.

“That night proved tumultuous. Mr. Matheson’s secret was laid bare before me in the most personal of ways, and I agonized over what I might do with this poisonous knowledge. The seneschal resolved both matters when I was brought before him to face accounting for the careless handling of such a sensitive and shameful matter.”

“In his grace he revealed, in the moments before what was to be my execution, the truth of my blood—that I was not the childe of the criminal René Baristheaut, but instead that your majesty’s blood ran through me. I begged to come before my sire, but the seneschal relented only that he should hold my sentence in suspense for one year, that I might prove more value than nuisance.”

A tease, enough to keep her twisting on the hook like a worm, the darker part of her whispers.

“The seneschal did not lie, but within the truth he presented was a lie planted that I did not immediately discern. In those following nights I set out to prove I could be of value to your majesty, convinced my sire would not have abandoned me without some greater purpose, that I had endured all I had by the prince’s will.”

Foolish girl the dark whispers. She can’t deny it, and why should she? Only that darker part of her has gotten her this far. How much did goodness buy her?

“I set out to make something of my Requiem, however humble it might be. Nothing had changed—not for the better. I remained a sireless fledgling, now laboring once more under a death sentence. My mother’s secret was exposed, and now Requiem was not dependent not only upon my own actions, but upon her own continued cooperation with the sheriff. His own affection for me was not improved by the interactions my liaison between them required. Mr. Matheson now held numerous boons over me, and I had given him great offense. More, I discovered standing among others in Clan Ventrue writ large could scarcely have been worse. I knew nothing of what that legacy meant prior to my meeting with Mr. Matheson, and in my early nights had given offense to a great many luminaries among it within New Orleans. Perhaps some of it was unavoidable—some met and conspired with René Baristheaut, also of their blood, while I hunted him—but I much of the blame was mine alone. Finally, there was the task laid before me—that I should uncover some secret of equal value to Mr. Matheson’s from among the prince’s foes.”

No great victories here, no great successes. Her successes have been humble.

“Surely, my errors to date, my failures, where why my sire had not spoken to me but officially during my release—and how I treasured that memory. Surely I was not worthy of him. These things I easily believed, having seen your majesty once now, in dark glory, at the trial.”

Foolish gir- She doesn’t let it continue. This is her tale now.

“I don’t know when, exactly, it was that the lie started to unravel. Perhaps as I learned more of the clan that was my birthright. Perhaps when Mr. Savoy sought to wrap his coils around me ever tighter, his every word so carefully chosen. Perhaps when I looked upon the relationships between other childer and their sires.”

How jealous she’d been of them.

“It started, I think, as a dream. A pleasant fantasy—certainly my sire would not have abandoned me in the night. He would not have cast me out to stumble and fall, to bloody myself before the captive audience of the all night society. As I berated myself for every mistake that might mar me in your eyes, so many made in ignorance, I wanted to believe it was the will of some third party that I found myself alone in the night, only hoping my victories, such as they were, might bring some pride to my sire.”

“Knowing, all too certainly by his silence, they did not.”

These lows were not so long ago, when she had nothing to go on for except a desperate dream of getting out from under the seneschal’s sentence, of rising from the lowest of the low among her kind, from taking her rightful place. That he did not see fit to attend the completion of her agoge had been such a blow. She remembers raging with bitter tears, in private, after everyone had left and she didn’t have to keep the mask on anymore. It had been such a familiar experience, so like her childhood. Never good enough.

“Perhaps, as the seneschal alluded to, Mr. Savoy might have eventually manipulated my desire for affirmation in time against my sire. The secrets I knew, and who I was, I knew could be potent weapons wielded against the prince. I will not deny the temptation was there. I think for a time pride held be back, that I would not be proven unworthy of my sire. That I would not settle for a pale imitation, a pretender. So too, wisdom—what future might I have if I went over? I knew I would ever be a liability, a threat to him even if he proved victorious—especially if he did.”

She recalls the argument with her mother, now dead and gone, on this point. Recalls not being able to explain to her the truth. She wonders if that was the beginning of the end of the hope of saving her mother’s life.

“But so too, something more. I would not stab my f—my sire in the back. I would not be a cowardly weak slinking thing that needed praise and affirmation, and wilted without them like a flower in the dark. If it was to be your majesty’s will that I should go through this, I would trust in it.”

The curses herself for the misstep even as she pushes on with her explanation. She’s waited her entire Requiem to speak with her sire. She will not be derailed now.

She continues, her voice strong and clear. “Was it though? I thought time and again on it—on what motive there might be for my creation, for my particular initiation into this existence. Surely there was a reason, but I couldn’t find it, not for my utter blindness that had done so much damage. Not for my abject weakness that whored me out to very petty tyrant in New Orleans. Surely there were better ways, if a brutal education and proving ground was what was desired, one’s more in keeping with the traditions I learned of within Clan Ventrue.”

“It began to come together—if not by my sire’s will, then how and why?” Her gaze sweeps to the seneschal. “I knew not if it was possible—and that doubt for months kept me from certainty—but if my sire didn’t know, it would explain much. I thought of my sire, so dignified, so proper, so worthy in my brief meeting, and whether he would delegate my destruction to another for my failures. I could not see it—that he would permit that act to another.”

Her gaze sweeps back to her sire. “The night that truth was confirmed for me was the night any thought of ‘betrayal’ died. It was the night that I resolved, however desperate I must be, that I would stand before my sire, that whatever else came of it, he deserved to know the truth.”

“That injustice, I had seen. I had… committed, of a fashion. The murder of a child without the consent or even knowledge of their existence for the father. My reasons were my own, and my crime less than the seneschal’s own, even if they were just as selfish. There was cruel irony in my circumstance—reason enough to believe in God.”

“If I viewed myself as a victim of the seneschal’s plot, if I felt self-pity and anger, I knew I was not alone.” It’d been before Christmas. Before she’d ruined her name, watched her life fall apart. Thank—not God—Abélia for that. If the truth had not come out, she doesn’t know if she would have had the will to push through that particular trial.

“It is not given to me to pass judgment on what he did—to me or to your majesty. He has given his reasons, and though I might not have done the same, I cannot say what the proper path was, how righteous or terrible his act.” She pauses for a moment before continuing, “nor, I find now, do I care.”

It’s not entirely true. She wishes she could let go of the anger she still feels over all of the lies, but it still burns, and perhaps it always will. Some wounds are too deep to close.

“Whatever the reasons, whatever the methods, whatever the past holds is immaterial in truth.” That much is true. “Those months are gone. What might have been with my sire is gone. What misfortunes were suffered, what lives were lost… it’s all gone. Even what relationship might have existed between the seneschal and myself is gone, forever tainted by the lies that existed between us.”

A cruel barb, but as true as the one’s he laid into her character. She remembers how naively she believed him a moral beacon among the damned. Even until this meeting, she’d thought more of him, thought the excuses he might offer more convincing than the truth has proven. She doesn’t hate him, but she doubts she’ll ever forgive him.

She continues more softly, her monologue coming to a close, “All the future for me, whether I might measure it in seconds or years, flows forth from this moment. I have had only dreams of what that might hold, I dared not hope. In those dreams however, I would spend what time may yet remain with the sire that might yet guide my next steps, that I might make proud, that I might be worthy of. That future, unlike the past, may yet be written by your majesty’s will.”

The young Ventrue falls silent.

GM: Time stretches. Neither elder speaks. Rain screams and crashes against the cavernous window. Thunder rumbles angrily overhead. The occasional fork of lightning distantly flashes, its harsh glow eliminating the harsher crags of the prince’s face.

Caroline cannot say what he might be thinking. Perhaps his love can. Perhaps not even he.

It’s an alien face. A marble statue in both pallor and animation: as bleached as white stone and equally still. Dark fire burns behind the glass-like eyes: the fury of heaven matched with the torments of hell, and a promise damnation that would feel all-too real even were Caroline not damned herself. To stare into its burning depths for overlong is to tempt destruction. There is no possibly mistaking it for the face of a living man.

And yet, it is not so different from Caroline’s.

Past the soul-melting fire, within the reflective sheen of the white glass, she sees herself. Another marble automaton. Another soul stained black by hard choices, by pursuit of power, by her own vitae-baptized damnation.

Another monster.

Time stretches. Neither moves. Neither breathes. Neither blinks.

Then, a rasp. A voice like grinding stone, scorched by fire.

“Show me you are loyal.”

The statue’s offered wrist gleams like marble against the feeble stars. Two points of red well from white.

Caroline: Caroline stares at that wrist. Her sire’s words are a knife running through her hopes for this night.

This night has not been as her dreams might have had it. There has been no joy in her sire’s eyes, no pride, no forgiveness, no embrace of the lost childe. And this… this had certainly not been in any of her dreams. She knows what waits in his blood. She’s felt it often enough from other powerful Kindred, and rarely by choice.

Even more, she knows what waits in his vitae, vice that of the petty tyrants of the city. It is no faint tie, no collar she might casually remove, or that might quickly fade. It is decades, perhaps centuries tied to him, pulled around by it like an eager puppy. Nor is it her first taste of him.

She knows how that second sip makes her feel around Jocelyn, how it draws her to her paramour time and again. How hard it is to resist the Toreador’s desires.

Hasn’t she shown her loyalty? Isn’t she here, tonight, and not in the Evergreen? It does more than sting, his doubt. His demand. She, who’s spent most of her Requiem trying to stand before him, and he, who has done nothing for her. Less than nothing, for his frenzy moments ago that might have claimed her unlife, had she been less swift, or the seneschal less selfish.

But then, of course he doubts. Doesn’t she recall the fate of his last childe? She’s seen it, the betrayal, the rebellion, the execution. How could she expect him to trust, to believe, when she’s seen how deeply the game is played among elders—how many hands were at work in her Embrace? She knows it is the bond working already upon her, that first sip subtly tipping her towards the most favorable conclusion.

Does it matter? She knows she’ll drink. It’s a small price compared to those she’s paid already. It’s not the steep price that stings any more than the tag on a piece of clothing has ever slowed her down, it’s the meaning behind it.

Caroline slides to her knees before the prince and reaches for the offered wrist, for the so intoxicating smelling vitae.

GM: The younger Ventrue all but gags at the taste. It burns her tongue like magma and pours down her throat with all of the heaviness of steel. If Jocelyn’s blood was a tap faucet’s, and the sheriff’s a river’s angry current, the sanguine offering before her is a storm-tossed lake. Her nerves sharpen. Her senses heighten. She feels strong. Calm. Unstoppable. Detached, yet a whole of something greater.

The font of liquid gold ends all-too abruptly. Shadows stir, seeping over her sire’s motionless form like a hungry cloud. His black-burning gaze is the last of his features to vanish. When the darkness recedes, his ruined throne sits empty. Caroline is left alone in the desolate chamber with the seneschal.

His level voice preempts the silence.

“Well done. I had feared much was lost.”

Caroline: Caroline looks from the empty throne to the seneschal. She unconsciously reaches with one hand to her lips, wiping whatever traces of vitae remains into her mouth. “Where…” she pauses, composing herself. “Was he ever here?”

GM: “Doubt not your senses, Miss Malveaux.”

Caroline: She falls silent. The seneschal has taught her, more than anything, to doubt everything.

GM: He turns to depart. “Come. There is much to set in order.”

Caroline: The young Ventrue rises, the taste of the prince’s blood still upon her lips. She feels drunk, heady on the potent vitae and moment both. Has she gotten everything she wished or seen everything she feared? Has she achieved her dreams or wandered into a new nightmare?

Her gaze lingers on the ancient Moor, trying to use him to orient herself, to stop the spinning. His words strike home.

Much to set in order. She thinks to Claire, dead but not forgotten. She thinks to Abélia, and what it means to be one of her daughters. She thinks to her vanished sire and where he has gone. She thinks to the many enumerated threats to her sire’s rule. Her future rule.

Yes. There is much to set in order.

But perhaps now, they can begin.


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Story Eleven, Caroline XV

“We are all of us less than we strive to be.”
Philip Maldonato


Tuesday night, 8 March 2016, PM

GM: It’s not a long drive to Perdido House. But it feels like it is.

It feels like a drive that’s lasted her entire unlife.

It feels like an unlife that’s lasted so much longer than the paltry sum of months it’s really been.

No one talks much on the drive over. No one talks at all, in fact. There’s nothing to talk about. Not right now.

Eventually, Caroline’s car approaches a familiar soaring black and gray steel monolith that surveys the city beneath it like a grim sentinel. Fearsome gargoyles jut from crenelations, baring their claws and fangs to the night sky with muted howls.

Perdido House looks as vast, terrible, and foreboding as ever—a fitting reflection of the master who dwells within. Yet tonight it is not merely those things. Tonight it also seems to hold… anticipation.

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Caroline: It seems a constant that every trip to the building is a matter of life and death for Caroline. Or at least, death or undeath. She thinks back to her visit visit in the ‘custody’ of then-Father Malveaux. There’s some symmetry now.

She has nothing to say to Fuller. There’s nothing to say. If she makes a mistake tonight he’ll likely die—as will her other ghouls. If she succeeds… well. There’s a question.

On one hand, a terrifying oblivion she can well imagine. On the other, a future she imagines any neonate in the city might salivate over. One she can still barely imagine.

GM: Driving into the underground parking garage still remains all-too akin to descending into the belly of a great beast, past an iron-grilled jaw filled with checkpointed teeth. Armed, grim-faced, and black-uniformed security guards inquire Caroline’s business. Fuller says something back. They wave the car on through.

The interior lobby is a harshly lit black marble affair whose brutally straight angles and severe, minimalist decor brings to mind the fascist architecture of decades past. Bulky men wearing black suits, opaque sunglasses and ear radios stand in silent vigil, modern palace guards within their master’s castle. Coldly professional secretaries at the receptionists’ desk direct visitors to their destinations. Save for an iron statue of a man on horseback brandishing a sword (El Cid, Caroline identifies), the entrance hall to Augusto Vidal’s court is austerely decorated, yet projects an oppressively inescapable atmosphere of power and wealth.

She talks to one of the secretaries. Says some words. An elevator ride and some walking later, and she’s in the office of Maldonato’s herald, Robert Congo. His skin is deep black and his hair snow-white. He has a deeply lined face, prominent nose, and thoughtful dark eyes. He wears a subdued dark gray suit with gold cufflinks that remind Caroline of his master’s.

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“Greetings, Miss Malveaux. What business would you discuss tonight?” the ghoul patiently inquires.

Caroline: The heiress has met the ancient black man before. More than once, in fact, though never informally. Never without a prearranged meeting with a specific purpose. It’s just as well—her purpose tonight is not with this man.

For the first time since her Embrace, she wears a stark deviation from her typical wardrobe. A callback to another time, what seems like a lifetime ago. To her first meeting with the ancient Moorish seneschal who would damn her.

Conservative without being boorish, the brilliantly white gown covers her right shoulder and is pinned in gold, leaving bare her left shoulder and both of her oh-so-pale arms. Framing built into the gown ties it tight around her waist, while the cut leaves it clinging to her legs, framing her form without exposing it lasciviously.

The Ventrue’s pale skin is only a slight shade off from that of her dress, only separated by the lustrous brilliance of the gown her own dead flesh lacks. Even precisely applied makeup can’t hide the Beast lurking ever closer to the surface of the young heiress—though its clear she’s tried. Caroline is as carefully presented as she’s ever been.

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“Mr. Congo,” she greets the elder ghoul. Her eyes take in the tiny wrinkles around his eyes that were never so clear to her vision before, the tiny stray threads beginning to peak out of the familiar suit, the tiny abrasions on the edges of his fingernails from when he last clipped them—recently.

“You’ll have to forgive the presumptuousness of this, but some months ago the seneschal asked something of me. It has become somewhat time-sensitive.”

GM: “Seneschal Maldonato has informed me of your task, madam,” the ghoul replies. “Are you here to report its completion to His Grace? He shall receive you but once.”

The words are mild enough, but there is a quiet finality to them.

Once and if Caroline answers yes, she can never go back.

Caroline: But once, for failure shall be met with final death. A threat he has held over her head her entire Requiem. Doubt gnaws at her. Is this the right path?

She doesn’t know. It’s another blade, less final but no less cutting. Doubt. The slow knife that cuts her down bit by bit, cuts at what makes her herself.

It’s too slow tonight.

“Yes,” she replies, the word firmly spoken perhaps a bit more quickly than her last ones. Her own blade striking before doubt can cut her down.

GM: Congo picks up the black STE phone on his desk. He holds it to his ear, then states after a moment, “She is ready, Your Grace.”

There is another pause.

“Very good, Your Grace.”

The ghoul’s deeply-set eyes meet Caroline’s. Then he says something she has never heard an elder’s herald say, or at least not to her:

“He will see you immediately.”

Caroline: The heiress is grateful, for once, that her body is a corpse. For the lack of sweat. For the lack of weakness. The machine-like answer demanded by her mind demands no human weaknesses to betray her doubts.

“Very good,” she replies to the herald. Her voice is flat, trying to conceal the apprehension. The fear. And, yes, the eagerness behind it.

GM: There’s walking. An elevator ride. More walking, down cold and featureless gray corridors. They arrive at a door. Congo knocks lightly against it.

Caroline: There’s no drawn breath. Caroline is as still as a statue.

GM: A single word echoes from behind the wood:

“Enter.”

Congo opens the door.

The seneschal’s office is changed from when Caroline last saw it. The Lancea et Sanctum holy symbol mounted to the wall opposite the door is still present, as she suspects it shall always be. The room’s wall paneling remains a dark and somber brown wood interspersed with tall, full bookshelves. The previous palm and Spanish moss bonsai trees have been exchanged for a weeping willow and cherry tree. The blue and white Islamic vases remain, but the orange and black Greek vases have been replaced with red-patterned Chinese ones.




The same two paintings are still present. David Chase’s The Moorish Warrior, and the calligraphic wood carving interwoven with arabesque floral patterns. Traditional Islamic art does not depict the human form for fear of being idolatrous: abstract geometric patterns instead predominate. Caroline, fluent in Arabic, recognizes the characters: La ghaliba illallah, or Only God obtains victory, repeated twice.



Caroline: The Ventrue takes in the office, faintly surprised at the changes. She’d expected that the seneschal would be a creature of habit, wedded to the past and familiar. She also takes it in with new eyes. The Moorish Warrior—fitting for the greatest swordsman she’s ever seen, Kindred or otherwise.

GM: Philip Maldonato sits behind the same Victorian oak desk from which he first surveyed Caroline, at least as one of the Damned. His surroundings have changed, a little, but the elder Cainite himself looks untouched by time. The same tall height. The same mere hint of wrinkles from age around his deep-set almond eyes. He wears a double-breasted gray suit with a navy tie and matching handkerchief in the front pocket. A silver pocketwatch on an attached chain and cufflinks of the same material offer several further concessions to the past. A gold signet ring set with a sapphire and traced with Arabic script rests upon one of his long, slender fingers.

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He does not look up from his desk. He already is.

Caroline is reminded of their ‘last’ meeting beyond Perdido House in that timeless garden. He looked as if he could sit upon its bench for a thousand years. He looked as if he had been sitting upon its bench for a thousand years.

He still looks like he’s sitting there. He still looks like he’s waiting.

Time passes slowly among the dead, it seems.

Caroline: She resists turning her gaze to him for as long as she can as she studies the room, but it’s as inevitable as the rising of the sun. He looks the same… but not to her. She doubts he ever will. He’s no longer the seneschal, the gentle but firm hand of the prince. He’s not the same man who accepted her confessions and hung the blade above her neck. He’s not the seneschal holding court.

He’s something else. There’s a shadow to him hidden behind his eyes. A darkness lurking there. He’s a liar and a manipulator. A butcher and a killer. He’s the Kindred who damned her not only to walk among the dead, but who threw her into the world blind to it all, to stumble and fall, and fail, and to suffer in ignorance. He’s the Kindred who brought her into this world, but couldn’t even do so with his own blood. Who chose to make her an orphan and a bastard to her own sire in the same stroke.

And he’s also the Kindred who descended into the Dungeon to save her life. Who risked his own, centuries-spanning existence towards some inscrutable purpose. Who suffered pains on her behalf she can well imagine. Who showed her unthinkable gentleness for their kind as she lay dying. Who gave her a second chance when all others must have been howling for her head.

Her eyes settle on his. Her savior, her murderer, her may yet be savior or destroyer: Philip Maldonato—a name that’s as much a lie as any he’s told.

GM: As the elder Cainite’s timeless gaze meets Caroline’s, she sees little of Antoine Savoy’s geniality and good humor. Its wooden-hued depths seem a veritable forest, grown unfathomably tall, thick, and unnavigable—and as perilous to traipse through as a thicket of sharpened stakes.

Nor does his gaze gloss over hers, as Ferris’, Widney’s, and his own ghoul’s did. They seem to attentively note every detail of Caroline’s new eyes—every bit of blue that once was green.

The moment hangs suspended like a snapshot of eternity corked in a bottle.

Finally, he speaks.

“Please be seated, Miss Malveaux.”

The soft click of the door behind them seems almost inaudible.

Caroline: “Thank you, Seneschal.” The short walk to the desk seems like miles, but it passes in an instant. She pulls out a seat and smooths her dress as she sits, never taking her eyes off of him.

GM: “Time has not been kind to you, Miss Malveaux,” he states.

Caroline: “I don’t expect that you believed it would be, Seneschal,” she replies measuredly.

GM: “Time lays waste to all things, but we fight it for as long as we may.”

Caroline: “You knew, Seneschal, there would be a price to pay for what was asked. I would not lay that cost at the feet of time.”

GM: “Time’s soles may bear many names to those trod underfoot.”

He regards Caroline pensively, then states,

“Tell me of your Requiem since our last meeting, Miss Malveaux.”

Caroline: Caroline bites her lower lip and tightens her grip on the chair’s arms. Tell me of your Requiem. It’s so patronizing, so demanding. Part of her wants to lash out at him. Wants to tell him, you are not my sire, to scream, you lost the right to ask me that when you threw me out.

She swallows that part of herself. She tries to move past the anger and pettiness.

What does he want to hear? How she begged and sniveled before other Ventrue for acceptance? How she crawled around on her knees seeking favors? How she’s ended lives and raped minds, and build her pauper’s throne upon a still-growing mountain of corpses and ruined lives?

“Claire Malveaux is dead,” she finally manages. “As are many of ‘her’ hunters, though not all. Some I have, others are beyond my reach, in league with Mr. Savoy under the influence of a very old ghoul hunter.”

“The most recent name he operated under was Richard Gettis, but he’s had many others. He’s been undermining Prince Vidal’s hold on the New Orleans Police Department for decades by inducting members of the force into his own internal organization with the stated goal of destroying Kindred. ‘Gettis’ and members of this organization were at the heart of Claire’s influence in New Orleans, though not the full extent of it.”

She manages to keep a mostly straight face through the ‘report.’

Claire. Not ‘her mother.’ Just ‘Claire Malveaux.’ Her ‘stepmother.’ Not the woman who brought her into the world. Not the mother who willingly exposed herself and betrayed her secret to Caroline. Not the woman who knew the cost of it, but also that it might save her daughter’s unlife.

GM: Something seems to flicker within Maldonato’s eyes at Caroline’s stoic recitation.

“Tell me of your mother’s death, Miss Malveaux,” he requests.

Caroline: “I planted a trap for her hunters. A lure, to draw them into the open for destruction at the hands of my ghouls,” Caroline recites, her voice flat. “Whether she saw through it, or simply had her own agenda… when I went to visit her that night, she sought to trap me.”

She has to keep her voice flat, has to keep it to facts. Has to maintain her composure.

“I believe her in league with Mr. Savoy—directly or indirectly. Whether simply due to his history with hunters, or due to some other means of influence… perhaps my brother. She expressed her intent to ‘release’ me once Mr. Savoy was the prince.”

She’s rambling, she knows that, but she doesn’t want to think on that night. She doesn’t want to remember her mother consumed by darkness. She doesn’t want to remember murdering her.

“She failed to contain me,” she abridges.

GM: “I am certain the temptation to join Mr. Savoy’s political bloc was great,” Maldonato states.

Caroline: Caroline’s smile is not kind. “There’s a reason he’s winning. Several, in fact.”

GM: “What worth do you then find in Prince Vidal’s cause, Miss Malveaux?” the seneschal inquires.

“Sheriff Donovan has made a place for himself at the side of his sire’s rival. Mr. Savoy was doubtlessly prepared to offer our prince’s childe a similar place, and would have derived no small pleasure from the irony.”

Caroline: The Ventrue pauses in thought for a long moment before giving her answer.

“He tried,” she replies distantly. “Repeatedly, and I expect at some cost. He made overtures, made time, arranged meetings, offered concessions… Claire even ran a scheme, either at his urging or his direction, to push me into his arms under the belief that the bishop was threatening me and had raided my haven.”

GM: “Small reason to begrudge a patron such as he, in the eyes of many. Your treatment at the hands of our prince’s agents has been little kinder.”

Caroline: “It would have been the smarter move,” Caroline replies, still distant within her thoughts.

“The sheriff hates me, the bishop hates me. The prince… well. You know better than I, don’t you?”

The Ventrue turns her head, abandoning for a moment formality with the elder Kindred.

GM: Maldonato rests his steepled fingers upon the desk’s surface.

There’s a look on his face she hasn’t seen before.

Surprise.

Caroline: Her blue eyes bore into his.

“So, tell me, Seneschal, why am I here?”

GM: Malonato doesn’t rise from his seat. One moment he’s there. The next he’s not. He’s standing, an ancient-looking book clasped in his hands. It wasn’t there before either. He mouths an incantation. Caroline doesn’t understand it. It sounds only partly like Arabic. It isn’t loud, but it echoes strangely and makes her ears throb with pain.

The Ventrue’s shadow swells like a constrictor swallowing prey. Swallowing light. The room’s flicker erratically. The limbs of Caroline’s shadow writhe like joint-less, flailing tentacles, then vanish, swallowed into an expanding formless gloom that occupies not two dimensions, but three. It swallows all. Even itself. Caroline’s nightvision can no longer make out anything inside the darkness.

Then, splotches of white. Not light. Not light at all. Formless. Sourceless. The pale underside of some monstrous sea beast’s grasping tentacles, alien flesh that has never felt the sun’s rays within its abyssopelagic home. The gloom ripples and washes over the room like a foul black tide. Lights die. Colors fade. The cityscape beyond the window winks out. The shuddering realityscape seems little more than a glass tank, and its cracking glass insufficient to hold its occupant’s grotesque bulk.

Then the lights are back on, the Islamic vases are blue, and there’s a city past the window. Everything is back to normal. Caroline’s shadow has coalesced into a discernibly humanoid shape. The darkness is a woman’s gown and hair. The whiteness is her milky skin.

“Uthman,” smiles Abélia Devillers. “It has been far too long!”

“I never expected you to receive me again, if I’m to be quite honest… another thing to thank this sweet child for,” Caroline’s new mother remarks happily as she settles her hands on the Ventrue’s shoulders.

“You just bring happiness everywhere you go, my dear,” Abélia continues with a fluttering laugh. “Saving innocent children from tragic ends, and now reuniting me with old friends…”

Caroline: Caroline has the feeling she’s been caught up amid something older, and darker, and more twisted than even the diablerie and matricide she’s committed. But then, that’s what she’s become, isn’t it? She’s made her choices. She tries to relax under Abélia’s hands.

“Don’t be upset, Seneschal. She only confirmed what I’d dearly hoped, but not quite dared to believe.”

GM: Maldonato holds out his hand, from which a curved scimitar now rests. He silently advances upon the midnight-haired woman behind Caroline.

She recognizes that sword. She couldn’t make out many details when she first saw it. But she remembers how the hilt felt in her ruined, blood-crusted hands. She remembers the whoosh as the crescent blade cleanly severed their foe’s head. As the cold steel looms large in her vision, she could swear she can hear the hoary Malkavian’s death scream again, a blood-curdling sound more animal than human.

Caroline: The heiress knows full well what he’s capable of with that scimitar. She knows how hopeless any conflict with him might be.

It doesn’t stop her from standing, from wrapping one hand around her ‘mother’ and ushering her behind her.

GM: Abélia seeps behind Caroline as readily as a flitting shadow—her own shadow.

Maldonato raises the sword high with both hands, his tall frame and long arms bringing it well above Caroline’s and Abélia’s heads, then brings it down.

Caroline: Caroline is fast. She knows how swift she is. Academically, she knows there are probably faster Kindred in the city, but she’s only ever seen one.

Unfortunately, the seneschal is that one. She knows there is no comparison. Perhaps she’ll be able to close that gap one night: Kindred throughout the city would envy her Blood’s closeness to Caine if they knew of it. But she doesn’t know how long away that night may be. Hundreds of years? A thousand? Until then, it’s a contest between a tortoise and a hare, a gap she cannot leap. Not yet.

It doesn’t stop her from trying. She can’t run. Won’t run. Even if her gown and shoes didn’t impede her movement, even if she could run, even if she wasn’t in some twilight realm, she wouldn’t leave Abélia behind.

It’s hopeless. But she tries to catch the blade between her palms as it comes down.

GM: Caroline’s hands snap out, faster than any mortal could see. They clap against air. The vanished blade reappears against Abélia’s neck, stopping far less than an inch short of the midnight-haired woman’s throat.

“The lifeblood of she who denuded your sister stains this blade’s edge, fallen one. Is your thirst for vengeance yet satisfied?”

The words are as hard as the scimitar’s steel, and only scarcely less sharp.

Caroline: Caroline pauses, the moment caught in the balance. If he’d meant to strike to kill he could have done so… and there is much she doesn’t know.

Fallen one?

GM: Abélia tilts her nose, smelling deeply of the blade, and then gives a fluttering laugh.

“Oh, my dear Uthman, that’s such ancient history!” she exclaims. “What need have I to dwell on past slights during this time of joy… when I have a new daughter, one for whom I would sacrifice myself… and she so readily for me?”

Abélia’s dark eyes sparkle as they settle upon Caroline’s. She does not move her neck from the steel.

“You are everything and more that a parent could wish of their child, my dear. Claire and Nathaniel hardly deserved you.”

Caroline: The words send a shiver of pride down Caroline’s spine, even as she eyes the seneschal.

GM: “All you ever wished for was love—love to receive, and love to repay in kind. And how you do!”

Caroline: It’s almost taunting. It might be from someone else, but from Abélia the words don’t sting.

GM: They don’t. They sound completely and totally sincere.

Caroline: She opens her mouth, but what is there to say? That Abélia hasn’t treated her like trash and thrown her away? That she’s right? An entire life and unlife of never good enough, until Abélia.

She eyes the scimitar. That close, he’ll have to draw it back to strike. Have to change direction. That will be her moment, when as fast as he is, the seneschal will have to slow to a moment in which it stops.

GM: Maldonato’s gaze remains fixed upon Abélia, unyielding as the steel in his hand.

“Then your thirst remains unquenched, fallen one. Greater is the pity for your daughters. Even your son’s sins might have been wiped clean through their souls.”

Caroline: Caroline isn’t gullible enough to believe there will be no strings attached with Abélia. She doesn’t trust that much, but the seneschal’s words grind on her.

“Don’t be upset that she picked up your refuse and found value in it.”

GM: Abélia’s smile doesn’t fade. But her next words are utterly without mirth.

“I have no son.”

Maldonato’s gaze moves between Caroline and her new mother. Next to John Harley Matheson’s marble-like pallor, the old Moor’s darker skin looks alive enough, but he remains utterly motionless. He doesn’t resemble a statue so much as a snapped picture. So does Abélia. The scimitar still rests against her neck. The three of them seem frozen in the tableau from some surreal drama, all-too obviously inhuman to their audience’s eyes.

“Love holds little regard for truth,” the seneschal intones.

Caroline: “What truth did you share with me, Seneschal?” Caroline asks. “That you made me with your hand and the prince’s blood, like a childe in a test tube? That he doesn’t even know I exist? That you threw me into the world and set me against one the prince’s servants called friend? Into the teeth of the Ventrue, the Sanctified, and the hounds at once.”

She shakes her head without ever taking her eyes off his. “The only answer I don’t have is why.”

GM: “To do otherwise would have doomed you, Miss Malveaux, and seen you slain or stolen as the other heirs to my prince’s throne I have sought and failed to cultivate. Do not mistake your suffering as evidence that its alternative would have been kinder.”

The seneschal’s voice remains as unwavering as his motionless blade’s steel, but his eyes re-fix upon Abélia.

“Truth persists, fallen one, even as love denies and memory betrays. You do your daughters an unkindness in denying their brother. Blood shall always tell.”

Caroline: “Heirs?” Caroline almost spits the word. “A pauper cannot be a prince, Seneschal. Your way beggared and whored me to every petty tyrant Kindred in the city—before it and you destroyed all that I was.”

The accusation lands without venom or anger. Only pain.

GM: “Oh, can you not see the hurt in my daughter’s eyes, Uthman?” Abélia entreats. “The words ‘for your own good’ have brought happiness to few children indeed… happiness as I seek to bring to my own.”

“What happiness has the blood upon your hands purchased? What end has it effected? What good has it achieved and not merely seen slip from your fingers?”

The raven-haired matron gives a fluttering laugh.

“Little wonder, perhaps, that Kant is so welcome to your sensibilities—good intentions are all that matter within that system of ethics, are they not? Why, they say the the bricks along Hell’s road are stamped with those two words: ‘good intentions.’ For my own part, I have always paid greater heed to a journey’s terminus than its beginning.”

“Where one begins a journey determines its terminus, fallen one,” Maldonato answers. “And we are all of us less than we strive to be.”

Caroline: “There’s the seneschal I’ve come to know,” Caroline replies quietly.

GM: There’s another fluttering laugh from Abélia.

“The ill-informed see him as the velvet glove to soften Augusto’s iron fist, don’t they? Ah, they are but different faces to the same coin, my dear. Men of duty, resolved to do what needs to be done. Men who justify their actions through the ever-present specter of a worse alternative. Men unwavering in their convictions, who would sooner break than bend… men who expect the impossible of their children, and punish those children for failures instigated by their parents.”

Abélia’s smile widens.

“They are a perfect match for one another, are they not? And the city’s Cainites declare them so different.”

Caroline: “I wouldn’t know,” Caroline replies softly.

She eyes the scimitar.

“Am I to be slain now, Seneschal, for some failing? Association with some ‘deplorable’ being to your sensitivities? Am I another failed project?”

GM: “Your fate remains within your own power to determine, Miss Malveaux, as it always has.”

Caroline: “No answers. No surprise.”

GM: A frown mars Maldonato’s still face.

“Have care with your words, Miss Malveaux. However much her presence has given me cause to overlook, coarseness of tongue shall ill convince me you are suitable to present before our prince.”

Caroline: “I have ever been transparent before you, Seneschal,” Caroline replies. “What is it you desire? Another mother’s life?”

She can’t keep the bitterness out of that comment, though she tries.

GM: Hurt flickers across Abélia’s face at Caroline’s acknowledgement of that ‘other’ mother.

Caroline: “I have sacrificed all that I was on the altar of your approval, Seneschal. My pride, my dignity, my family, perhaps even my soul. I sold myself out to those that sought to use me as a vessel for knowledge and bowed before my tormentors and licked their boots for approval as a proper Ventrue. Destroyed all that Caroline Malveaux was in the eyes of all but my sisters and mother. I turned from the offers of the prince’s rivals, returned with their secrets both, and killed my then-mother.”

“I stand on a mountain of corpses offered to the Masquerade and demands of your office. Time has not been kind—no, but nor were my duties. Certainly you have lived long enough seneschal to know what you demanded was no easy task—mind, body, or spirit.”

She pauses. “So here we stand, tonight, blade in hand once more.” She gestures. “Genuinely, what more can I offer, Seneschal?”

GM: “More shall always be expected of you, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato intones gravely. “Your brother-in-blood found your sire’s expectations too great a burden to bear. Mine own hand is far gentler than his.”

Caroline: The Ventrue patiently awaits the seneschal’s next words.

GM: None appear immediately forthcoming.

Caroline: “We were talking, Seneschal, won’t you lower the blade and let us continue?”

GM: The sword lowers.

Abélia’s severed head hits the floor with a gory thump.

Caroline: “No!” Caroline’s shriek is painfully loud.

GM: Black blood spurts from the corpse’s neck as it topples backwards onto the floor.

Caroline: She never even saw the blade move. She sinks to her knees to catch the bleeding corpse, heedless of the blood staining her white gown. Grief spreads across her face and she stares up at the seneschal with hate in her eyes.

The expression lasts only a moment before something much darker overtakes it: pure rage. The monster inside comes screaming out as she throws herself at the seneschal, covered as she is in her mother’s blood. There’s not even a wordless cry, just a blur of unliving flesh as she dives at him.

The Beast doesn’t care about his age. The Beast doesn’t care about the sword. The Beast doesn’t care about the prince. It only cares that the human had a moment of weakness, of pain, and it has a way out.

And the human… the human only cares that for the second time in as many nights she’s watched her mother die—and been to blame for it.

GM: The fury burns like a wildfire: red-hot and utterly heedless. Perhaps it gutters out in an instant. Perhaps it roars and burns for hours. Whenever it finally does, Caroline finds herself seated upon her previous chair. The seneschal regards her solemnly from behind his desk.

“Would you still serve our prince, Miss Malveaux, when a second mother is that service’s price?”

Caroline: The Ventrue looks around, looks down for the body, for the blood. Her heart doesn’t beat, but if it did it would be racing.

GM: Abélia’s head has rolled to a stop by the door, its expression frozen in a ghastly smile that shall never relax. The rest of the blood-streaked corpse lies unmoved.

“I do not desire an heir who answers affirmatively out of fear for her continued unlife,” Maldonato continues. “If it is your wish, you may accept exile from New Orleans and make your Requiem wherever fortune carries you. Those of your sisters who are soon to attend university, I am certain, would welcome your presence at Wellesley.”

Caroline: Caroline stares at the severed head, her voice still low with rage. She wants to demand an answer, knows he won’t give one. She wants to lash out, but knows just how pointless it is. She might as well throw herself against a mountain.

“I think we both know that’s nothing but a dream,” she replies. “Even if you could tolerate my failure, neither the sheriff nor the French Quarter’s occupant could ignore my existence.”

Her fingernails bite into her palms painfully, but she needs that pain to keep clearheaded, to control herself.

“But I have only ever been honest with you,” she replies pointedly.

“You ask if I would trade my mother, the only being who did the same for me in my Requiem, who saved my life, for a prince that doesn’t know of me, to be heir to a crumbling kingdom beset by foes, for a seneschal who was not content to take everything from my mortal life…”

The fingernails bite into flesh as she grinds out the words.

She finally tears her eyes from the severed head to meet his gaze.

“Do what you must.”

GM: “I need do but little, Miss Malveaux, if such a destiny is not to your liking. You have cited many valid reasons you would feel no loyalty to our prince. Should you wish to leave the city, Sheriff Donovan and Mr. Savoy are both beset by more pressing concerns than hunting down a willing exile.”

A pause.

“Nor do I believe you stand a viable chance at claiming your sire’s throne without his acknowledgement. Blood alone is insufficient to crown a prince.”

Yet, even as the seneschal speaks, a second voice echoes within Caroline. Not within her mind, like Poincare’s telepathy. It thrums through the very blood in her veins, pulsating with instinctive knowing:

he’s just testing you, my dear… all just another test…

Caroline: Caroline tries to keep her voice steady as she looks at the ancient Moor.

“Do you think me so lacking in loyalty or possessed by ambition, Seneschal? A pitiful creature it would make me, to turn my back on anything and everyone for the possibility of power.”

GM: good…

Caroline: “And easier avenues there are too it than through your gauntlet, had I been so inclined. Secrets to shake what is left of this city freely spilled. To throw in with any other faction.”

“God knows your own servants did all they could to encourage it. I needed no prompting from Mr. Savoy and my mother’s hunters to know they hate me, or to be tempted by his promises and offers of protection from the doom you have hung over my head every night of my Requiem.”

“But despite every bullet in the back, despite every petty taunt, despite starting with literally nothing but the blood you put in my veins—despite your ally’s attempt to feed on me like a kine, his beating of me, his invasion of my mind, and your invasion of my home. Despite the sheriff staking me for a lark and the bishop ruining my name among Kindred and kine. Despite the the impossible demand that I raise my hand against Claire—who revealed herself to me knowing it would cost her life—here I am. Despite the lies about who I am and who I was, the questions I couldn’t even ask, here I am, your demands fulfilled, Seneschal.”

“I am who you thought I was, who I have always been.”

“If that falls short your measure, so be it, but I have been and am the best opportunity you’ve ever had and—unless there is some trump card hidden up your sleeve in these nights, Seneschal—I’m likely the best you ever will have.”

GM: “Your second mother yet lives, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato states. “The destruction of her corporeal form poses little more inconvenience to her than a serpent’s loss of its shed skin.”

Caroline: Caroline looks back to the severed head, her bloodstained hands.

“That was cruel.”

GM: “It was,” the seated vampire concurs.

Caroline: “Did you learn what you wished, Seneschal?”

GM: “I did, Miss Malveaux. I must learn more still, for much I had accepted as given has been called into question. Will you consent to grant me access to your thoughts?”

oh, yes… we knew this would come…

Caroline: “I can’t stop you,” Caroline replies calmly. “But I would ask what it is you hope to find?”

GM: “Fullness of understanding.”

Caroline: “You might wander the desert for forty years if you seek that within me, Seneschal,” Caroline replies.

GM: “Perhaps for longer yet, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato answers contemplatively. “I do not seek understanding of your soul, however, but of events to which you were witness and participant.”

Caroline: “Better rummage through my mind?” Caroline asks.

GM: A frown creases the seneschal’s face. It’s only a slight change in expression—like that first crack in an earthquake’s yawning fissure.

“I have warned you once against coarseness of tongue, Miss Malveaux. Discourtesy ill becomes the Blood of any prince.”

Caroline: The heiress reaches back out through her blood, grasping for her mother. Asking for help, for guidance, even as she smooths her ruined and bloodstained dress.

“My apologies, Seneschal.”

“And again, for the answer, as much as it may matter, is no. I would not invite you in, Seneschal, though we both know I could not resist you any more than I could prevent your strike.”

GM: sweet child… what aid would you have me grant…?

Caroline: He can’t see it…

GM: “I am afraid your answer matters little, Miss Malveaux, beyond what peace of mind free assent might have granted you. The needs of the archdiocese outweigh your desire for privacy.”

Memories suddenly begin to well within Caroline’s head, like pebbles caught within the ebbs of a fast-flowing current.

“I said I don’t need it, Caroline. It’s just easier-”

“He has to die.”

“God knows I’m not advocating you should trust any of them, Caroline. They’re all just different flavors of poison-"

your flesh is my flesh, my dear… I feel another within us… what would you have me do…?

Caroline: Deception… I need to spin him something else…. drop my own tale for him.

GM: “Now all that’s left is to wait, and watch how the dice fall-”

“You’ve done your part in drawing him out. Generals lead from the rear-”

“Killing him is only the start. I need to frame the scene-”

“I’m not putting you in the same room as my people, Caroline-”

little time remains, my dear… the more we wait, the more our foe sees… I shall not decide your battle tactics for you…

Caroline: Gunfire. Screams of pain. A glare from her mother, shock, outrage playing out across her face. More gunfire being exchanged.

“It had to be this way.” Men dying, betrayed from among their number on screens. “You ungrateful… What have you done!” “They had to die, Mother, for you to live.” Sorcery in Claire’s hands. A trap springing to life. “The stake will be removed when Savoy is prince.” Pleading. More men dying. Gunshots tricking down. “Don’t make me do this…” Darkness. Claire’s horrified expression.

A meeting with Ferris. “Something went wrong, but we mopped them up anyway. Took two prisoners too.” “I don’t think she ever saw it coming.” “The barrier…” “Was going to trap you no matter what you did when you refused to defect.”

“Still have to sell it to the bishop…” “Easier to ask forgiveness from him than permission.” “Partycrashers…” “…be anyone, but my money would be on Savoy. He’s been keeping a close eye on you…”_

A meeting in the rain. “Even loyalty has a limit, Roger. You’re living like a criminal…” “Can’t be bought…” “…To a person or to a job? She can’t do the job you were hired to do anymore…” “We’re done…” “…daughter?” A glare. “Benefits to it. I don’t expect she’s offering that, is she?” “Slave to…”

“Two even have children…”

“She’ll thank you in the end.”

Meetings. Planning. “Gettis is crafty…” “Depends on you on the inside, Roger…” “Frame them for….” All the work that goes into such an operation, just slightly tweaked…

She draws on the worst, most bitter memories of her existence, flavoring in feeling here and there. Drowns her mother’s death in all she felt then, before Abélia appeared, muddies the edges of memory, makes them sharp and painful. She paints with broken glass, and she bleeds along with it.

She tries not to focus on the black tint to the blood.

GM: It’s easy enough not to.

Easy enough, against the soft and pale hands so tenderly guiding her own.

Memories flash through her consciousness, faster, too many to process, like the fast-flowing stream is emptying out into a great lake.

Caroline: Caroline tries to catch them as they go, to tweak each detail that needs to change. She grinds her teeth as the strain builds, trying to keep up, to stay ahead…

GM: Just as suddenly, that strain ends. The flow dies. She is back in Maldonato’s office.

Caroline: She hates it, in part. The lying to him. She hadn’t lied earlier when she made the claim. On the other hand, he’s brought this upon himself by delving into her mind not only without her permission, but in direct opposition to her wishes. She didn’t lie to him. He lied to himself.

At least that’s what she tells herself.

GM: The elder vampire does not immediately speak. His gaze is pensive. Reflective. Even… tired.

“Your mother’s life was forfeit ere her secret was exposed, Miss Malveaux. Yet it was not my wish that she should meet her direct end at your hands. I am sorry.”

Caroline: Caroline says nothing for a moment. Many things come to mind. Petty retorts or taunts, and less pretty recriminations and blame that speak to the very real wound, however well-covered it is by Abélia and her new sisters.

What’s the point, though? He knows what he’s done now better than anyone, and if living it through her eyes did not sting enough no words will.

Finally she settles on the mundane. He didn’t have to apologize, and to refuse it is nothing but petty. “Thank you, Seneschal.”

The words cost nothing. They mean nothing. She’s just numb to it, to all the horror—most of it staining her hands. She’s not even certain it was the worst thing she’s done.

GM: “Do you still consider Claire Malveaux to have been a mother to you, Miss Malveaux?” Maldonato inquires.

Caroline: “That is a complicated question, Seneschal,” Caroline replies.

“Yes, I think so,” she continues after a moment. “We were not close, when I was young. Everyone said I was my father’s daughter. I probably knew her better these last six months than my whole life.”

GM: “For some, the Embrace is a curse and wholesale ruination of their mortal lives. For others, it opens their eyes to aspects of the human condition they would otherwise have never experienced,” Maldonato states. The words are not new ones.

The words are not new ones, until he amends, “For some, the Embrace may do both these things.”

Caroline: “I suppose it was very foolish, to get closer. To believe there might be an ending other than tragedy,” Caroline admits. “To hope. She wasn’t so blind.”

She knows she should feel melancholy. Should hate herself. Should be less calm. It just all seems to distant. It’s only the latest thing she’s lost. And that night, unlike many before, she gained something.

GM: “Some biblical scholars have observed that its cultural prohibitions are not without secular basis,” Maldonato states. “Shellfish, which dwell in the bottoms of marine environments, subsist upon dead rather than living organisms and posed a greater health risk for ancient peoples to consume. Leviticus thus prohibited the Israelites’ diet from including water-born creatures without fins and scales.”

“Kindred scholars have debated many topics concerning the Testament’s prohibition against ‘dwelling among’ mortals. In the modern era, even declared atheists have come to believe in that prohibition’s secular value.”

“So too, it would seem, may even those mortals who uphold the Vigil.”

Caroline: Caroline is contemplative. “I don’t believe I have endured a long enough Requiem to speak intelligently on the matter,” she admits.

“I could say that it was the loss of those mortal ties that cut keeper than any torment another Kindred conceived, but… so too could I claim it was the few that remain that have given me the greatest cause to plow forward each night, to carve out a better Requiem. How much of that is a reflection of ‘youth’ and my particular circumstances, well. As I said, Seneschal.”

GM: “What effect have you observed the continuance of those ties to have upon the mortals in question?” Maldonato inquires.

Caroline: “Varied. When within my control, not definite. When beyond it… never positive.” She looks at him seriously. “As with most of a Requiem, I would observe that God may have Damned us, but it is we that make our existence, and each other’s, hell.”

GM: “The Beast has ever abhorred the company of its own kind.”

Caroline: “We are petty and terrible things,” Caroline agrees solemnly. “Haunted by greatness, I think, more than possessing it. A fitting punishment.”

GM: “In Claire Malveaux, I see a woman possessed of many foibles,” the seneschal begins. “I see a woman whose relationship with her daughter was marred by mutual resentments and words left unsaid. I see a woman whose Vigil and pursuits of power stained her hands red with sin, and made her into what she most feared to become. I see a woman motivated to secure what she considered the best possible life for her children, even at great cost to herself, and by whose sacrifice and mercy her daughter stands before me now.”

“I have seen love drive many souls to folly. I have seen love cause suffering to many for the sake of few. I have seen love drive individuals guilty of the darkest sins to acts of altruism few would have believed them capable of. In Claire Malveaux’s love for her daughter and family, I see perhaps all of these things.”

“Love would seem as complex and multinuanced an emotion as any, and perhaps more so than most. Yet it is a comforting thought that some measure of grace may be found within it.”

Caroline: The words bite at Caroline, tear at her, ripping out bleeding chunks. Her expression sets grimly.

“We all make our choices, then we have to live with them, Seneschal. I wonder which is worse.”

GM: “Only by not mourning what we have lost do we lose it in truth,” Maldonato answers.

Caroline: “Have you ever had to murder someone you cared for, Seneschal?” Caroline asks. “To watch the light fade from their eyes, and to see the terror creep into it?”

GM: “I have, Miss Malveaux. I was alone among my sire’s childer in pledging my sword to the Camarilla.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “That must have been difficult.”

GM: “It was a difficult time. Yet such may be said of all times.”

“Your mother’s continued threat to the Masquerade, Primogen Opal’s planned treachery, and further circumstances concomitant to your Embrace and Requiem all promise much hardship in the nights ahead. But those battles are for another night.”

Maldonato rises from his seat.

“Come, Miss Malveaux.”

“It is time we saw your sire.”

Caroline: The Ventrue may be dead, but she can almost feel her pulse quicken, feel her senses sharpening, at the seneschal’s pronouncement.

Her sire.

The prince.

She remembers him not from her ‘Embrace’, not from the lessons any Ventrue should learn from their sire, not from nights spent together. He’s always been something… distant. Grand and majestic.
She remembers the first time she saw him—what seems like a lifetime ago. Sweeping into the cathedral like a god cloaked in night.

Since then—even before—he’s been a mythic figure, an untouchable one, something distant and upon a pedestal. Something to be desired, perhaps even worshiped, but never attained. Even as she sacrificed… everything. Friends. Family. Future. Mother. Father. Even her soul to get here… like a faithless priestess, she never expected to get here. In some ways, it’s more terrible than never making it. She knew the price of failure, knew what awaited her. For the first time she has an opportunity to consider the price of success.

What he will think of her.

What he might say of her.

What he might do with her.

What he might ask of her.

She can’t help but frame him in terms of her own father, of his demands and expectations. Of her failure to meet them. As she was not perfect in life, so too has her Requiem been far from flawless. Her bought education, her modest agoge, her paltry domain. Her failings and debts. She’s seen how he reacted to his last childe. She knows he doesn’t know of her existence. That he might might reject her brings an almost mind-numbing terror for a moment.

She shoves it aside and gathers herself. Whatever comes will come. Whatever he thinks he will think. It’s far too late for regrets now, and doubts are only blades to fall upon. Whatever else she may be, whatever he might think, she’s Abélia Devillers’ daughter. She’s a killer of millennia-old Kindred. Despite all odds, despite everything to the contrary, she’s here now. She has not pulled herself from the gutter to fall to despair now.

She rises to her feet, straightens her back, and holds her head high. Her voice does not waver.

“Lead the way, Seneschal.”


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Story Eleven, Celia X, Estrellado I

“You see me. Not clean lady, not foreign, me.”
Estrellado Ortzi


Tuesday evening, 1 March 2016

GM: The offices of Ware & Lebowski occupy a high floor in a CBD skyscraper. They look nice, though like a lot of businesses, they’d evidently rather not hire a full-time janitor. That’s where Partners in Grime comes in. The middle-aged, short-haired woman who greeted Estrellado without saying hello (or referring to her by name) leads her through the office, post-business hours, and explains where she’s supposed to clean and how. Estrellado isn’t sure who the woman is or what she does at the law firm. She hasn’t even given her name. She just says things like, “Don’t touch anything inside the fridge, we’ll know if you stole any food,” “Make sure the trash is empty, even if the bin isn’t full. And make sure you change out the bag, some of you get lazy or think you’re saving the environment by dumping trash from different bins into the same bag.” “Scrub the parts of the toilet underneath the rim sink, our last cleaner skimped on that and we fired her.” “Change your mop water often. This place needs to be spotless.”

It goes on for a little while. They pass a few attorneys who look like they’re working late.

“Do you understand all of that?” the woman finally asks Estrellado in a very slow and patient voice like she’s speaking to a four-year-old.

Estrellado: If Estrellado is bothered by the way the woman speaks to her, no hint of it appears on her face. She follows along behind her impromptu tour guide and nods her head at all the right moments, a vague, simple smile in place.

“Si, seniora,” she says once the question is asked. “La basura, el bano, no como la comida. Si, comprendo.”

Somewhere in her mid-40s, the maid wears her age just as well as the uniform her boss has provided her. Charcoal slacks, charcoal top, both made of material as durable as the woman to whom they adorn. Black, they have found, all too often shows the residue of their work, but the gray hides all sorts of stains. A golden crucifix hangs just below the neckline of her shirt, the only ornament she allows herself. Thick, black hair pulled back from a weather-lined face, and in her hands the equipment she needs for the job: a veritable treasure trove of cleaning supplies.

Pic.jpg
(“Yes, ma’am. The garbage, the bathroom, don’t eat the food. Yes, I understand.”)

GM: The woman looks irritated.

“You’ll speak English and only English while you’re in these offices. Am I understood?”

Estrellado: Her vague smile never falters. She dips her head.

“Yes, thank you.” An accent might be more noticeable if any of the words contained more than one syllable.

GM: The woman doesn’t stick around, or for that matter say goodbye. Estrellado is left to go about her assigned tasks. The firm looks mostly empty at this hour. There’s an overweight and tired-looking woman at the reception desk who’s sipping a Diet Coke with an unhappy expression as she pinches her nose. “All right. You know what. You’re grounded for a week. No more fights at school, Zach,” she declares before hanging up.

Meanwhile, two late-working lawyers walk past Estrellado as though she’s invisible. Or at least, they seem to, until she feels a hand caress her bottom. One of the men winks at her.

Her cleaning supplies await.

Estrellado: Estrellado must be used to such things. The casual dismissal without so much as a goodbye. The inattention from the men, then the quick hand that sneaks across her rear. Who could blame him? It’s a shapely rear, made for grabbing. A solid handful, as thick as the rest of her: not so thick as to be overweight, but certainly the body of a woman somewhere past her prime. Heavy breasts that have fed who knows how many children sway beneath her shirt, her stomach rife with stretch marks from multiple pregnancies despite how toned she has kept it with years of yoga and Pilates. For all that, though, Estrellado is a handsome woman.

Her cheeks redden at the bold touch regardless of how fitting it may be, and once the men have moved past her she crosses herself, murmuring a silent prayer to the Lord above for tempting one of His flock.

Still, she glances over her shoulder as if she can’t help herself, then quickly away again once he has seen her looking. Seed planted, the maid begins her task. She finds the janitorial closet to fill her bucket with water, slaps on a pair of yellow rubber gloves that end just shy of her elbows, and gets to work.

Start high, work low. Wipe the dust and debris from above onto the floor to be swept and mopped away. That’s how it goes and that’s how she does it.

GM: It’s repetitive work, but it smells less than cleaning the toilets, and it’s less intensive than vacuuming. She works for a while. Back and forth, back and forth, dunk, wring, back and forth. The water in the mop bucket turns darker. A few people pass by without looking at Estrellado.

Eventually, the lawyer from earlier passes by again.

He doesn’t say anything. He just looks at her while she works, as though observing an animal in a zoo.

Estrellado: She makes sure to change out the water frequently, as requested. She’s a professional, after all. She doesn’t even look upset about the work, though once or twice when no one’s looking she might give herself a little boost of speed, careful to stay out of the way of cameras or other prying eyes.

But the eyes find her eventually. They always do, even in this face, this body. Estrellado looks up to see the man staring. She looks away just as quickly, focusing on her task, confirming that any smell coming off of her is well and truly hidden, sucking it in like others bring in their breath.

She doubles down on her task. As if she cannot feel the eyes on her. Wary, like the sleeping animal who knows it’s being watched, who expects the zoo-goer to tell it to wake up and do something interesting.

GM: The zoo-goer’s stare lingers.

Looking wary or faking sleep just makes it worse.

“Come clean my office when you’re done there,” he says. “It’s carpeted, but don’t bring a vacuum. Use a broom and dustpan.”

Estrellado: “Yes, thank you.” She nods agreeably, the same words she had said to the woman earlier in the same deferential tone, accent hidden by the short clip of her statement. The response had been almost awkward before; now it is downright out of place, as if it is the only thing she knows to say in this tongue. She pauses, brows knitting together as she puzzles out further words with which to communicate.

Eventually she gives it up as a bad job altogether, simply nodding again and watching him walk toward whichever door it is so she knows where to find him.

She continues her work once he is gone, sweeping and mopping until the floor shines.

GM: The man gives Estrellado a look, but it’s partly amused. He turns and leaves. His office is a little ways off.

Some more time passes until she’s finished mopping. It’s a good job, not that anyone will ever tell her so.

Estrellado: Nothing by half measures. A wise man had once said that. A white man, probably. She’d heard it on the news, maybe seen it on TV; regardless of how it had come across her ears it had certainly stuck, and Estrellado beams at the floor that is now clean enough to eat off of.

She rinses the mop, wrings it dry with strong, sturdy hands, and rinses the bucket as well. Cleaning gear at her side, she moves across the wet floor with practiced ease, making sure to tidy along the way so she does not need to double back. Garbage bins emptied, bags replaced, tables and chairs wiped down, spare papers sorted into things that are useful and garbage, the latter disposed of, the former tucked away in their proper location after her eyes have scanned the page.

She does not leave her would-be suitor waiting overlong. She knocks on the open door just below his name plaque, taking it in at a glance, and pokes her head inside to seek him out. She hefts the dustpan, the broom, the other supplies.

“I clean?” Her tone lifts at the end. She gestures toward his desk, the assorted furniture, the walls, the floor.

GM: Eugene Lebowski, reads the name on the door.

The man who must be Eugene is sitting at his computer behind his desk. It’s a nice desk in a nice office, with full bookshelves and framed degrees and awards. There’s a good view over the rest of the CBD from the window.

Eugene looks Estrellado over. His eyes reach her face, then drift back down to her chest.

“You clean,” he responds with a faintly amused tone.

“Use a brush when you do the floor. Not a broom.”

“Do the floor first, too.”

Estrellado: Eugene Lebowski. And Lebowski is one of the names on the firm. A partner, then? Junior partner? Nice enough office, anyway; she doubts that they’d waste the view on someone who isn’t bringing in the big bucks. She thinks the other Lebowski might be older than this one, which would make him… a son? Nephew? Connected, anyway, that’s all that matters.

Estrellado dips her head in acquiescence, moving into the room with her supplies. She starts to lay down a small cloth to preserve the carpeting so she can set her things down when his words interrupt her. Floor first? Surprise flits across her face. She makes an abortive gesture to the walls, the bookshelves, his desk, and finally just nods her head, rolling the cloth and stuffing it back into her uniform pocket.

A brush on the floor. She has one, like all of the maids at Partners in Grime, and she gets to work. Hands and knees. She starts in one corner of the office, back to him, bent over to scrub at the floor with the tiny brush that she knows isn’t really doing anything to help clean the carpet fibers. Is it a show he wants? It’s a show she’ll give him, and a show she’ll get in turn. She turns it on, that inner charm, that thing that makes people see her how she wants them to: just a maid with admittedly poor English skills, the perfect person to whom he can speak with no fear of her repeating anything he says. The poor woman probably doesn’t understand him anyway.

GM: It’s not long before the turned-away maid feels a hand on her rear again.

It’s passive at first, like earlier, then starts to hungrily squeeze her glutes.

Estrellado: Estrellado falters in her movements at the touch before doubling down, scrubbing vigorously at the floor. Heat floods her cheeks.

GM: Another hand starts to squeeze and massage her breasts.

“You like that?” murmurs a voice in her ear.

The hand on her ass doesn’t let up.

Estrellado: She finally pauses. Wide eyes stare at the wall in front of her rather than risk a glance back at the hungry predator behind her. She wets her lips with her tongue, searching for her voice, for the English words. The woman’s speak English or else threat looms in her mind, but still the words don’t come. Mutely, she nods her head, fingers moving to the cross at her throat. She touches it for strength.

GM: “I thought you did,” murmurs the voice. His hands continue to fondle her.

“You used to be beautiful. I can tell. You’re still very pretty.”

Estrellado: Her lashes flutter at the compliment, not that he can see with her face turned away. Beneath her shirt her nipples stiffen at his touch. She’s just a woman, after all, she can hardly control herself around such an important man. Her neck turns, eyes flicking toward the door of his office. She murmurs a string of words that sound like, “yes, thank you.”

GM: “Aw, yeah, you like that…” the important man murmurs. He pulls her up from the floor and back against his chest. His hand continues to make steady kneading motions along her breasts. Estrellado can feel a bulge against her rear that isn’t coming from his other hand. He starts to kiss the side of her face.

“What’s your name, hm?”

Estrellado: She follows his lead, rising as he wishes, holding herself still in front of him. Her eyes dart again toward the door, nervous that anyone can walk by and see. His touch elicits soft noises from her, the kind he wants to hear.

“Es… Estrellado,” she tells him, tongue curling and tapping against the back of her teeth to roll her R, then flattening out for the double L / Y sound. Then, perhaps assuming he cannot make the same sounds, she says, “Star.”

GM: “Star,” he repeats as he kisses and caresses her. “What a pretty name. Just reflax, Star. Lean into me. I’ve got you.”

Estrellado: Estrellado does not fight against him. She knows how it is with these rich, powerful men: submit or they make things worse. They complain. They get her fired and she has to start all over again at the bottom.

“La puerta,” she gets out, pointing at the door. Her heart thumps inside her chest, blood rushing through her body. It colors her cheeks, warms her skin where he touches her, stiffens her nipples and that other thing down below, that tiny little bundle of nerves between her legs. “La puerta,” she says again, “por favor.”

(“The door. The door, please.”)

GM: “Hm, what’s that, Star?” he asks, tilting her read to kiss the other side of her face. His hand pulls away from her breasts, but only long enough to snake its way up her shirt. He starts to pinch and tug her nipple from underneath the gray fabric.

“I’m afraid I never learned Spanish. It was high school French for me.”

Estrellado: Estrellado’s head drops back against his shoulder when his fingers slip beneath her shirt, leaning into him as he had previously requested. She bites her lip to keep quiet when he pinches and tugs, breath coming in short, uneven gasps. She struggles to find the word.

“Gate,” she says finally.

GM: “Gate?” he asks, his other hand leaving her ass to stroke her hips. It slowly draws closer to between her thighs.

“That’s a good girl, Star,” he smiles as her head rubs against him. “Lean into me. I’m here.”

Estrellado: “Si, si, la puerta.” She points again at the door, rifling through the vocabulary lessons she had taken as a child. Finally, it clicks. “Door? Por favor.”

GM: “Door. Oh, door.” The man chuckles and tussles her hair. He turns and takes a few steps backwards, half-pulling her along with him. Star feels his beard brush against the back of her head. His hand leaves her leg to close the door.

“That was smart of you to notice, Star. You’re very thoughtful.”

Estrellado: The tension leaves her body. He might catch the smile, the relieved sigh, before she falls right back into what he was doing a moment ago. Pliant, willing, like a good maid. She nods her head at his words.

GM: His hand makes its way back up her shirt.

“Aw, yeah, you’re really enjoying this,” he smiles. “I bet you’ve had a rough day, haven’t you, Star? Maybe we should sit down.”

He pulls her along with him to his leather swivel chair, back still against his chest. He sits down and pulls her onto his lap.

“You like that, being off your feet?”

Estrellado: He doesn’t need to do much tugging to get her to follow him. She traipses along behind him, then sits, thighs spread to the side to give room to his hand, head resting gently against his shoulder.

Another nod at his question, a murmur of those three English words she sticks to. Yes, thank you. She presses her lips together as he fondles her, fingers curling into her thighs.

GM: “It’s good for you to relax like this, Star. You’ve earned a break.” He pulls off her shoes, then her socks, and pulls her legs onto the chair so she’s sitting on his lap cross-legged. He starts to tickle her bare feet with one hand while his other kneads her breasts.

Estrellado: Thick thighs cross over his lap, body curled against his as she watches this man—this strange man—touch her in a way she must not have expected. The words wash over her, their message or tone setting her at ease. And then the onslaught of sensation, the tickling, the fondling. Estrellado giggles. It’s not the giggle of a schoolgirl but rather the giggle of an older woman, throaty and surprised all at once, cut through by a delicate exhale when his hand returns to her breasts. She shifts, hips wiggling as he tickles her, pressing and rubbing against the firm length beneath her as if she simply cannot help herself.

GM: His manhood is very stiff beneath her. She hears his smile in her ear. “Aw, yeah, that laugh. You’ve got beautiful laughter, Star. There’s a lot of life in your laugh.”

“Tell me about yourself. I’m very interested. You’re such a hard worker. I bet you’ve got a family you’re providing for, am I right? A little girl or boy who you’d do anything for. Maybe several. You work your fingers to the bone for them, don’t you, Star?”

He still tickles her feet, a little, though his touch lightens so she can more easily talk.

Estrellado: It’s difficult for her to speak with her attention divided as it is between his hands and the body beneath her. Her task is made all the worse by her limited grasp of the English language, though at least he does not keep her giggling away on his lap. But she nods her head, chewing over the words.

“Si. Mis hijos, estan mi familia, mi vida.” There’s a fondness in her voice, even if he doesn’t understand the words. “Dos.” She holds up two fingers, then counts aloud, hesitant. “Two. Boys. Estan en…” she trails off, then says, “Baton Rouge. La universidad.” That word, at least, is easy enough to understand: university.

GM: “University,” he repeats, hands still steadily kneading her breasts. “I bet you must be very proud of them, Star. I bet you’ve worked so hard to get them where they are now. Everyone says Mexicans are lazy, but they’re some of the hardest workers I know.”

“For that matter, are you Mexican? Or are you from somewhere south?”

Estrellado: Estrellado laughs. “Estoy de Guatemala.”

GM: “Guatemala. My tropical little Star,” smiles the man. He sniffs her hair.

Estrellado: It smells like coconut and something citrus. The scent might take him right to the beach, the tropical little paradise. Maybe he can even hear the waves crashing on the sand. Estrellado smiles at him, nodding her head. Yes, she is a hard worker, proud of her boys, his little tropical Star.

GM: “Mmm, you smell very nice, Star,” he murmurs, taking another moment to breathe in her scent. “I love a woman who smells good.” His hand actually pauses around her breast as he does. Then it leaves off as he reaches into his jacket pocket, removes a wallet, and presses her a handful of $20 bills into her palms.

Estrellado: She blinks down at the bills in her hands. On his lap as she is she cannot quite turn to face him, and it seems the words have been stolen from her throat because she does not ask. Her fingertips touch the bills as if marveling at their texture.

“¿Que es esto?” she finally gets out.

GM: “Sorry, Star?” he asks.

Estrellado: A moment of silence, then, “What this for?”

GM: “Because I like you, Star. You’re a hard worker with a pretty laugh who smells very nice.”

Estrellado: A hard worker with a nice ass whose feet he likes to tickle, who doesn’t complain too much when he pulls her onto his lap.

She blinks back what might be tears, nodding her head, murmuring a string of words in Spanish that convey her thanks and gratitude for his generosity. Her voice is thick with emotion.

GM: “Oh, it’s okay, Star. You’re very pretty. People should do nice things for you.”

Estrellado: The bills disappear into one of the many pockets of her uniform with another word of thanks, fingers touching the cross that hangs from her neck. A quiet moment passes, a moment where she doesn’t know what to say; this was not the turn that she expected. Silent, her back rests against his chest once more.

GM: His hand strokes her hair. “I want you to look pretty, Star. Open the bottom cabinet on my desk. There’s a surprise for you inside.”

Estrellado: Estrellado leans forward to open the cabinet door in question.

GM: Eugene strokes her back as she does. Inside she finds a French maid’s costume, black and lacy white with a low hem and high skirt. There’s also some stockings and black high heels. They smell faintly like the same cleaning supplies she uses.

“Very sexy, isn’t that, Star? I’d love to see you with it on.”

Estrellado: Color rises to her cheeks at the sight of what waits for her. She closes her eyes for a brief moment before nodding, understanding now that this is simply the second part of a transaction that she has already accepted from him.

She could give the money back. Leave. Let someone else take this account in the future.

Someone else who will be subjected to the same things, she thinks. She swallows, says a silent prayer to the Lord, and finally nods once more.

“¿Ahora?” A pause, then the question repeated in English. “Now?”

Now, she means, or later? His own home where they’d have assured privacy?

GM: “Now,” he says. “I want you to look sexy, Star. I bet you do too. When was the last time you felt really sexy?”

Estrellado: Before her husband died. The words clench in her throat.

Estrellado slips off of his lap and reaches for the garments and props, rising with a sweep of her eyes around the room as if searching for a place to change.

GM: Eugene just smiles and turns around in his swivel chair.

“I promise I’ll only peak a little,” he says teasingly.

Estrellado: She makes quick work of her uniform, stripping from her shirt and pants to stand in just the bra and panties she wore beneath. Neither one of them looks as if they belong with the uniform he provided. The panties, at least, will not show beneath the hem, and Estrellado keeps those on but removes her bra, tucking it beneath her uniform top and pulling the costume on over herself. She turns away from him at his comment, entire body flushing, and deftly pulls the stockings up her legs. The elastic band snaps tight around her thigh. Then the heels. Her size. Why is it all her size? Does he do this with every woman who comes to clean, or is this one of those Halloween one-size-fits-most getups?

After a brief moment of consideration she pulls her hair free from its tie, running her fingers through the top of it to tousle her locks and give it a little volume. Finally, she turns around, clearing her throat.

GM: Eugene swivels back around. He grins from ear to ear.

“Wow, Star. You can really knock ’em dead.”

Estrellado: She crosses an arm in front of her stomach, hand clutching her other arm, shoulders lifting as a shy smile crosses her face. Her lashes flutter.

She glances at her cleaning supplies, then him.

“I clean?”

GM: He laughs.

“Take off your panties, first. I can still see those.”

Estrellado: Estrellado glances down at herself. Flushing, knowing that he won’t turn away again, she reaches beneath the hem of her skirt to grasp her panties and slides them down her stocking-clad legs and to the floor, stepping out of them with her heeled feet. Her movements are slower than they strictly need to be.

GM: “Oooh, yeah,” Eugene grins. “You’re so sexy, Star. And bashful. It’s cute. You’re a real treasure, you know that? I feel like I’m the first man to discover you. I bet most men don’t see what I see, when they look at you. The bright, beautiful Star who’d do anything for her boys.”

Estrellado: For all that this has caused undue embarrassment, his words hit home. Another nod, a soft and earnest smile. Just for him. Because he discovered this beautiful Star beneath the drab outerwear and yellow gloves and scent of bleach. She gestures toward the walls, the desk, the bookshelves, taking a handful of tiny steps backwards to stand adjacent to her supplies. She doesn’t have the “feather duster” of the proverbial French maid, but she does have something similar. She bends at the waist, giving him a glimpse beneath the skirt, as she picks it up.

GM: Eugene gives an appreciative whistle.

“Good idea, Star. I suppose you should do some actual cleaning, now that you’re here.” He chuckles. “And in uniform.”

“Walk around a lot, please. I want to see the way those shoes makes your hips sway. There’s nothing to make a woman feel sexy like a good sashay of her hips, is there, Star?”

Estrellado: She does not disappoint. She toes the careful line between the bashful woman he has met at the sexy maid of his apparent dreams, never blatantly showing off any of her bits again as she had moments ago. Her hips sway as she walks around the office in her heels, cleaning while she goes. The areas she dusts and wipes are spotless in no time; even when playing this role for him she still does her job, listening to him speak, nodding her head in agreement with his words. When she catches him staring—which is often—she blushes and looks away, only to look back again when she thinks that he isn’t.

GM: Eugene mentions how much he appreciates Latina women. They’re hard workers, and they care so much about their families.

“One of my daughters is half-Latina, actually,” he mentions absently as he watches her work.

He is very hard by the time she’s done. He pats his lap invitingly.

Estrellado: Daughters. With an S. Multiple. The word might give her pause, but if it does it’s brief. She glances at his hands as she nears him, looking for a ring.

Once she reaches him, though, she doesn’t drape herself over his lap. She still has a desk to clean. She stands in front of him, back to him, bent slightly while she dusts and wipes down the assorted knickknacks and surfaces. Her eyes rove the assembled papers as she straightens and tidies and otherwise makes herself look busy, teasing him with her nearness and the round swell of her rear beneath the skirt, barely visible with her half-bend, without acknowledging what she does.

GM: Estrellado sees a ring. There’s also a picture on the desk she cleans, showing Eugene at the beach with a blonde-haired white woman around his age, a brown-haired older girl, and a darker-haired younger girl.

Eugene squeezes her ass with both of his hands, this time, then leans close and rubs his cheek against it.

“Such a firm, shapely rear…”

There’s a number of papers on the desk. Estrellado sees several references to a ‘Sleepless Investigations.’

Estrellado: This would hardly be the first married man to fool around. Men have needs, and if they’re unhappy at home… well, at least she knows that her womb will not quicken. Her child-bearing days are over with her boys in college. Less messy to do it here, with her, than it would be if he found a random girl on the street. She barely pays the photo any mind, and when he touches her again, when he presses his cheek against hers, she hardly pauses in her work. She giggles, the sound warm and inviting, and leans further across the desk to reach the other side, bent at the waist. She’s very thorough. The hem slides further up, exposing more of her tan skin.

Maybe her skin serves as enough of a distraction to get her a better read on those pages, too, to find out what the law office wants with a Kindred detective.

GM: It looks as if they’ve hired Sleepless to do investigative work for them. Gathering information clients and persons of interest to clients, by the looks of things. They’ve paid the detective agency very generously. Estrellado espies the names ‘Bernard Drouillard’ and ‘Thalia Ocampo.’ It looks like there might be even more, but Eugene runs his hand along her ass’ bare skin and pulls her onto his lap.

“Let’s play a game,” he smiles.

He removes a quarter from his wallet.

“For every quarter you can catch, I’ll order you something off Cadabra. Does that sound like a fun game, Star?”

He chuckles. “And you can keep the quarters, I suppose. Good for laundry.”

Estrellado: The name Drouillard is familiar to her, though she can’t place it off the top of her head. Cop, she thinks, but she’d have to look into that further. Ocampo… something in politics, city council? She commits the names to memory, letting go of the pretense of cleaning once Eugene has her back on his lap. The hem rides up her thighs, bare skin against his lap.

She listens to his proposal. He wants to play catch? She seems to consider it, then nods when he laughs, her smile lighting up her features. She likes games, that smile says.

“Catch,” she repeats the word. “Con mis manos?” She holds up her hands, brows lifted.

GM: He smiles and nods, running a hand through her hair. Estrellado feels his hard cock against her again. “Like that, Star. You catch the coin, and I’ll buy you something.”

“Let’s start you off pretty easy…”

He holds up the quarter, then flips it into the air above them.

Estrellado: Estrellado watches the coin shoot into the air, flipping over and over itself before it hits its peak and begins its descent. She positions her hands beneath it.

GM: She catches it cat-quick. “Well done, Star!” Eugene exclaims, giving her head a proud pat. He pulls open Cadabra’s app on his phone. “What’s something you could really use right now?”

Estrellado: Estrellado beams at him. She watches his fingers tap across the screen of his phone—thanks for the code—then watches him navigate to the shopping app. She taps on the screen if he lets her, scrolling to find the bottle of perfume she’d had her eye on for some time now. One of those old-fashioned glass bottles. Pretty. Vintage. Like her.

GM: He smiles back, lets her, then tells her to hit the ‘Buy with One Click.’ icon.

“That’s very pretty, Star. Just like you.”

He gets out another quarter, asks, “Ready?” and flips it after its predecessor.

This time it hits the carpet with a thump.

“Aw, good effort,” says Eugene as Estrellado’s hands clap after it. He gives her back a consoling rub. “Don’t worry, though. I’ve got at least another quarter left…”

He produces another one and flips it into the air.

This time Estrellado goes after it with a vengeance. It’s barely left his hands before it’s in hers, cat-quick.

“Very good, Star!” Eugene exclaims, giving her head another pat. “What should we get you this time?”

Estrellado: Estrellado considers the question, eyes darting between the coin in her hands and his open phone app. She scrolls, murmuring something under her breath in Spanish, and finally hits the electronics button at the top of the screen. For a long moment she stares wistfully at the selection of cameras before she navigates away. She hits the L key and lingerie auto-completes in the search function, bringing up a page of scantily clad models. Her cheeks flush. She starts to navigate away but pauses before she can complete the gesture, finally pointing at a burgundy set.

GM: “Naughty Star,” laughs Eugene. “Very naughty.”

“I think we can still get you this, but you’ll have to let me see you in it. Deal?”

Estrellado: She gives him a sly smile, then taps her chin as if she has to consider it for a long moment, before finally nodding.

“Deal,” she echoes.

GM: Eugene laughs again at her expression, then hits the ‘Buy with One Click’ button.

“Okay, Star, I’m running low on quarters, but let’s see how you can do when I up the ante. You can ask for something extra nice if you catch this one…”

Eugene produces another quarter and tosses it into the air. Just as Estrellado grabs for it, he gives her bottom a sharp pinch.

The surprise nearly makes Estrellado miss the coin, but she still snatches it out of the air.

“Bravo, Star!” Eugene remarks, clapping his hands appreciatively.

Estrellado: “Aie!” she exclaims at the sudden pinch, waiting until she has caught the coin to turn accusing eyes toward him. “Dios mio.” She looks more satisfied and pleased with herself than truly upset at his attempt to distract her.

GM: Eugene chuckles at the noise she makes. “Yes, you’ve earned something special for that catch. What should we get you, Star?” He pulls up his phone again.

Estrellado: She scrolls. She points at a pin, a butterfly with blue and purple wings. Shyly, she points at her own chest, as if showing him where she’d like to wear it. Perhaps he noticed her lack of jewelry, the simple cross she wears around her neck. Another tap on his phone has a new category pulled up. She considers her options and finally taps on a pair of heels. Red-bottomed Louboutins.

GM: “Very sweet, Star. And very sexy. You’ll look beautiful in both of these,” says Eugene as he places the order.

“Hmm. You’ve cleaned my office and caught my quarters. What do you think we should get up to next, pretty Star?”

Estrellado: The rest of the office is mostly clean, too. She only needs to take the trash with her on the way out the door to deposit in the dumpster and do a quick stop in the bathrooms to finish what that wretched woman had said earlier.

Now, though, she’s on the lap of a man that’s very happy to see her, and she’s pleased with her haul. Lingerie, heels, and a promise that he wants to see her again, plus the two other trinkets. She shifts on his lap, rubbing against him, the hem of her skirt not even pretending to hide what lurks beneath. She flicks a tongue across her lips, shyly turning to look at him over her shoulder. Her brows lift, eyes darting toward the desk. As if she cannot believe what she’d just “suggested” she glances away.

GM: And the money, too.

Eugene laughs. “You have a very naughty mind, Star. But you’re so bashful about it. I bet there was at least one man you made very happy, when you were young.”

“That’s still there. It just needs something to coax it out…”

Estrellado: Estrellado nods her head at his statement. She had been very happy once. Her husband had made her so happy. She reaches for a pocket that doesn’t exist in this new uniform he has put her in, searching for a photo that is halfway across the room in the pile of her clothing. Out of reach, and despite his kind words she does not think he’d like her to get off of him to retrieve it.

“Mi esposo,” she says in lieu of the photo. “Matteo.” She touches her heart, a fond smile on her lips. “Y usted? Esta feliz?”

She shifts, watching his face. Slowly, she reaches to touch his face, the question in her eyes that she cannot find the words to.

“Happy?”

GM: “Matteo. I knew there was someone.” He smiles, but it dips a little at her question. “My younger daughter has run off. There’s a lot of stress in the family, over that.”

Estrellado: She glances again at the photo on his desk. The quick look she’d taken earlier had made her see them as children, but maybe she hadn’t wanted to really look into the life of the man who seems content to throw away his marriage on a fling with a maid.

GM: “They’re older now,” he says. “Both in college. Or at least one is.”

Estrellado: She nods at his explanation. That makes more sense. Is that why he’d brought in Monty? Maybe it’s a personal thing rather than a business thing. She studies the face in the photo and commits it to her memory, before finally turning her attention to the man beneath her.

Times like these she could curse herself for not learning the language fluently. She’s sure he doesn’t want some broken, half-formed words, but it’s all she has to offer. She murmurs them in Spanish, voice conveying what her vocabulary lacks: sorrow at the loss of his daughter, assurance that she is safe and will come home, a brief prayer to the Lord to watch over her. She touches a hand to his shoulder, expression earnest.

It’s less the words than it is the emotion behind them that she lets do the work for her, sending it out of her in a wave of solidarity. She knows what it’s like to lose someone. She’s a mother too. He can talk to her if he wants, unburden himself. She’s already listened to the rest of it, played his games, knew exactly what she was getting into when she came into his office earlier. Now here she sits, a friendly ear if he needs it.

GM: His cock isn’t hard anymore, but he nods gratefully at her words, even half-coherent as they are. The emotion probably shows on her face.

“She was always getting into trouble,” he says. “Intoxication, bad grades, you name it. We tried to keep her on the straight and narrow, had her room together with her older sister, but it wasn’t enough. She took off. My other daughter blames herself. She’s taken it worse than I have, it actually feels like.”

“My wife, her stepmother, was always very kind to her. She didn’t want for anything growing up. I’m not sure where we went wrong.”

Estrellado: It might not have been anything they’d done, she knows. It could just be something else. There are lots of reasons that people go missing, not always by their own free will.

She lets him talk, lets him unburden himself. Hesitant hands slide around him, prepared for him to push her off if he’d rather not be touched, but until that time she nestles against him. Pulls him close, lets him rest his head against her. I’ve got you, like he’d said to her earlier. The delicate touch of her fingers trail up and down his back, movements slow and soothing.

GM: It’s a little odd, with her dressed in the French maid costume, but Eugene doesn’t push her off and seems to enjoy appreciate touch. He mentions how he had his younger daughter during a not-quite affair with his housekeeper—“my wife and I separated, then decided we’d give things another shot. She happened in between then. Lisa always loved her like her own daughter, though. I just don’t understand why she was always acting out. Her sister turned out very successful.”

He also mentions that his name is Stan, not Eugene, actually. “Lebowski just retired. I got his office. They still need to put in the new lettering.”

Estrellado: She doesn’t comment on the fact that she would be the second woman he’d be seeing behind his wife’s back. Though she supposes that a child from a housekeeper isn’t necessarily “behind her back.” Does he have a thing for women in uniform? She keeps it to herself. Her fingers work down his spine while he talks, gently gliding over the muscles, down, then back up, until one hand cradles the back of his head where it rests against her bosom, nails lightly scratching at his scalp. The other continues down his back.

She makes the right noises at the right time in lieu of words, soft, crooning things that let him know she’s listening, that she feels for him, that she understands his pain. She thinks she might understand where the girl is coming from, why she’s acting out, but she keeps that to herself too rather than try to explain in broken English.

When he’s done, or when she thinks he’s done, she finally speaks. “You okay. Family okay. Hija, daughter, she okay.” Estrellado taps his chest. “Strong heart. Latina? Strong. Como se llama?” A pause. “Nom… ah, name, her name.”

GM: “Strong heart.” He smiles. “I guess you’re right. She has that. Gets it from her mom, like you say.”

“Her name’s Summer.”

Estrellado: Summer. She nods. Smiles back at him. Her hand moves from the back of his head to her chest, fingers closing around the golden cross. She whispers something in rapid Spanish that sounds like it might be a prayer, Summer’s name among the blessing she asks for from the Lord. When it’s done she bows her head for just a second. That coconut and citrus smell drifts towards him again, the suggestion of better times.

GM: Stan is quiet for the prayer, bowing his head in tune with Estrellado’s words. He strokes her hair when she’s finished.

“You’re so kind, Star. And so pretty. And such a hard worker. You’re a real treasure, you know that?”

Estrellado: Estrellado smiles at the words. She leans into his touch. If this is what he needs to forget his missing daughter, to feel better for an evening, she won’t be the one to tell him he’s wrong. Lord knows she’s made enough poor choices in her lifetime. Her eyes close at the gentle caress, then reopen to glance towards his lips. She flushes, dropping her gaze.

GM: His lips meet hers as he pulls her close, arms encircling her. His hands stroke up and down her back.

“Oh, my kind, pretty Star… you need a man who’ll treat you right…” he murmurs between kisses.

Estrellado: Heat meets his words. Her prior shyness bleeds away once their lips meet, taken over by the latin fire he had been searching for. She might not have words for him, but this? This she can do.

“Si,” she murmurs, “por favor. Muestrame.” Does he understand her? Does it matter? This language is universal. Her hands start at the top of his shirt to loosen his tie, then the buttons on his shirt. One by one she pops them free.

GM: The shirt comes off as he unbuckles his pants. He doesn’t pull off her clothes, just hitches her skirt above her thighs. He sweeps back the assorted objects on his desk, helps her onto it, and takes her there. There isn’t a ton of room: Estrellado hugs herself against him as he thrusts into her, still standing. His balls steadily smack against her thighs.

“That’s it… that’s my shining Star…” he breathes, still running one hand through her hair.

He pulls down the front of her costume to get a good look at her tits. He rubs his face against them, tongue flecking out to lick and suck her nipples.

Estrellado: Her thighs spread around him, hem hiking up to expose the wet, glistening sex waiting for him. As soon as he’s inside her back arches, arms holding herself tightly against him, mouth at his lips, his cheek, his neck. Her breath is warm against his ear when she repeats a handful of exclamations in her native tongue, urging him on. She isn’t shy about sharing her enjoyment. She wants to rake her nails down his back, wants to sink her teeth into the pulse point that jumps out at her, but the thought of where she is, whose name had been on the papers that were just shoved aside so casually, keep her from taking him into herself in another way. So she writhes and she gasps and she grinds against him until she finds release, a shuddering, needful thing that brings on a fresh round of Spanish cries as it flows through her body.

GM: It doesn’t take Stan much longer to find his own release. He pumps faster and then comes inside her, hugging her tight against his body. His cum starts to leak out as he pulls her back onto the chair with him, still holding her close as he breathes in the scent of her hair.

“Oh, Star…”

Estrellado: Thighs already sticky with the fluids leaking out of her, Estrellado curls atop his lap with her arms around his back, face pressing against the hollow between neck and shoulder. His repetition of her name receives another string of breathy, murmured words against his skin, lips soft where they brush against him. His name passes from her lips amid the rest of them, a breathy sigh that conveys her satisfaction.

GM: “Star, Star, Star. What are we to do with you?” he smiles as he holds her. “I’ve ruined your workday. The rest of it is going to seem so boring after this.”

Estrellado: That’s certainly true. She hardly imagines snooping through another office or planting a device will give her the same sort of enjoyment that this did. If only she weren’t worried about getting caught by one of the licks who apparently has dealings with him, she’d make it even better for both of them.

She giggles at the words, nodding her head in agreement, and finally asks, “What are you want to do with me?” Her brows lift.

GM: “Mmm, I wouldn’t mind doing this again, but I’m not as young as I used to be,” he smiles.

“You were so wet. We didn’t even need lube.”

Estrellado: Another giggle, a string of words that might give him credit for making her that way if her tone is anything to go by. She runs a hand down his chest, then leans in to nibble at his ear.

“Next time, go again?” A gesture with her hands that shows him what she’d like to try next time, though her eyes quickly dart away and pink splashes across her cheeks.

“Meantime… you,” she points at him, as if there is any doubt who she is speaking of, “need relaxing.” Her fingers brush against his shoulders, the top of his back. “Here, tight.” They slide lower, down his traps. “Here, tight.”

GM: He laughs. “Again, next time.”

“You want to do something about that tightness, Star?”

Estrellado: “I? Oh, no, no…” she trails off, looking around the office as if a table will magically appear. She shakes her head, glancing back at Stan. “Necessita un masaje de profesion. Pues… tel vaz en mi casa… no, no, no…” Casa, at least, is an easy one that even non-Spanish speakers recognize as “home” or “house.”

GM: “A house might be tricky. My wife lives there,” he chuckles. “Maybe a hotel room.”

“We could do this in an actual bed. Order room service. Would you like that, Star, someone else to do the cooking for once?”

Estrellado: Estrellado would, anyway. She considers the question, hesitation evident in the way her gaze shifts, shoulders lifting… and finally, finally, she gives a tiny nod, as if he’s presenting her with some shiny toy that she fears he’ll snatch away as soon as she reaches out to touch it. Still, there’s an earnest sort of hope and desire in her eyes when she finally looks back at him, a shy smile giving lift to the corners of her mouth.

GM: “See? That’s my shining Star,” he says, stroking her lower cheek with his fingertip as if to feel her smile. “You really are a treasure…”

Estrellado: A glance at the clock on his wall tells her that she needs to finish the rest of this job. She’s already spent quite a bit of time in here with him. She says as much, interspersed between tiny little kisses across his cheek and lips, murmured Spanish phrases about what she’d like to do to him next time when they have more room to play. Deft fingers re-button his shirt and straighten his tie, and finally, not yet moving from his lap, she asks when he’d like to see her again.

GM: Stan doesn’t look as if he wants her to go, not after her teasing touch and teasing words, or the taste of her tongue in his mouth when he leans in for a deeper kiss. But his own glance at the clock seems to resign him as to that fact.

“Hmm. How about when your presents arrive, Star?” He gives her the date, a few days away.

Estrellado: Another nod at the date, readily agreeing to the meeting. A final kiss, fingers sliding through the back of his hair, wordlessly letting him know that she’s looking forward to seeing him again. At last she slides off of him, moving around the desk to pick up the items their tryst had displaced and setting them back in their rightful place. She changes back to her uniform and sees herself out with a parting smile, moving on to the rest of the law offices.

GM: He’s right about one thing.

The rest of her cleaning won’t be anywhere nearly as fun.


Wednesday evening, 2 March 2016

Celia: The office where Jade meets the pair of brothers is cramped, a space leftover from their days of not having enough. She’d offered once to get them something bigger, to give them more room to stretch out for their things, but the oldest had just given her a look and said something about “knowing where everything is” and “less room for bugs.” She doesn’t know who would bug them. For all anyone else knows, they’re simply a pair of brothers that work for their mom at her bail bond office. No one knows that they work for her, that she has a second pair of ghouls beyond the first two that accompany her around the city. Lucky for her she found triplets, she supposes; lucky for her that they don’t seem to mind passing for their youngest brother whenever she needs them to accompany her. The middle one even seems to get off on it, playing up the “dumb lovestruck fool” that his little brother becomes around her. He might have been just as star struck if it weren’t for their regular meetings.

She wears Jade’s face instead of Celia’s when she visits, takes a seat on the leather couch against the wall and crosses one leg over the other. The middle brother closes and locks the door, the older one swivels to face her, his back to the wall of monitors where he does most of his work. The blue glow of the screen lights him from behind, throws a sort of halo around his body that shrouds his face in darkness. It might be unnerving if she couldn’t see perfectly well in the dark. She thinks he’s more at home with computers than he has ever been with people. Reminds her of an old friend that way, though she’s never said as much. She thinks the pair might get along.

Jade fixes them with a smile.

“Good evening, boys.”

GM: It also probably doesn’t help that like his brother, he’s only a shadow of the other, better thing.

Well, maybe that’s not fair.

Ghouling seems to bring out the worst in people. Or at least make it easier to see the worst in them. After all, if they were something really special, they’d have gotten the Embrace.

As long as they sup from her wrists, they can never be her equals.

But they can be such useful servants.

Reggie looks a lot like his brother. One can debate whether he’s older or younger or co-equal when they’re all triplets, but there’s no doubt that this is the man to Randy’s boy. The first of Randy’s fraternal siblings is a young man with the same black hair and rectangular face, though that’s where similarities end. He’s taller than his brother, with a broad chest and powerful slabs of muscle visible beneath the tight shirt that he wears—and no doubt that’s why he wears it, and why he makes a show of flexing whenever the pretty Toreador appears. Tattoos disappear beneath the sleeves and neckline of his shirt, swirls and whorls of dark ink across his dark skin. His brother might be able to pass as white, but there’s no doubt as to Reggie’s black heritage. Some might say that’s why she prefers his brother; he, at least, can walk beside her in public.

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Rusty’s less of a looker. He’s shorter and rounder than his brothers, though not so far gone that anyone would call him “fat.” Comfortably plump, maybe, with the sort of physique that speaks to long hours in a chair and yellow-tinted glasses perched on his nose that he says “filter out the worst of the blue light.” A smattering of stubble covers his lower jaw. For all that, though, he doesn’t look like he’d meet girls in wet basements, whatever one might say about his other flaws next to Celia’s old teacher. He’s also the only one of his siblings who Jade has ever seen wear a necktie.

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“Evening, Jade,” says Reggie, plopping down next to her on the couch. He wraps an arm around her shoulder like it has every right to be there. Perhaps he’d be less bold if it wasn’t so dark. Perhaps he wouldn’t be.

“So what can we do you for tonight?”

“Evening,” Rusty just says instead. He looks like he’s resisting the urge to roll his eyes at his brother.

Celia: Jade, he calls her. Not mistress. Not the simpering from Alana, the cute nicknames from his younger brother. She doesn’t swat his arm away. Leans into it, even. Not a giggle, no, just a smile at this bold, bold man who positions an arm around her shoulders as if she couldn’t put him on his knees with a look.

“I’ve a need for your particular skill sets.” Her eyes flick between the two of them, though it’s Rusty that she addresses more than Randy. “Intel. And a missing person.” She doesn’t know why she cares about the man’s missing daughter. Not for the girl herself, surely, but the fact that he’d been… decent enough. A cheater, to be sure, but aren’t they all? Easy to picture her mom in that role, baring her soul to some maid in want of anyone else to speak to about a missing child. Easy, too, to earn his affection and let it lead her to bigger things if she’s so inclined.

“Sleepless Investigations is looking into Drouillard and Ocampo, possibly at the behest of Ware & Lebowski. I want to know why. Don’t tip off Monty or his people.” Possibly easier said than done, but she’d prefer the Kook not know that she’s shadowing him. It’s not like she hasn’t had them do it before. And if someone else is interfering with the police… well, she can think of a few people who would like to know.

“Missing girl, college-aged. Summer Greer.” She’d had to pull Stan’s last name from the law firm’s website earlier this evening. It wasn’t as if he’d offered it. “And these.”

She pulls two items from her purse: a golden name plate, the kind in all the fancy offices, with Stan’s name across the front of it. A second, smaller bauble appears with it. A paperweight maybe, or just some generic kitschy piece of decor that’s meant to be placed on a desk or bookshelf.

GM: “I sure bet you need my particular skill sets,” says Reggie. One of his hands starts to play with Jade’s hair.

Rusty refrains from rolling his eyes.

“Sleepless is interesting,” he says. “They’re the best in the city. Their guys don’t come cheap.”

“They get the best rep,” says Reggie. “There’s another guy supposed to be at least as good as them. I’ve heard about him from some cops.”

“Who?”

Reggie thinks. “It’s on the tip of my tongue.”

Rusty snorts. “Yes. Sounds like some guy.”

Reggie shrugs. “Missing college girl. Probably as easy to find her as get in her pants.”

Celia: Amusement curls her lips at Reggie’s statement.

“Still bang a lot of co-eds, do you?

GM: “Not really,” says Reggie. “Just a fact that the easiest place on earth to get laid outside a brothel is an American college campus.”

Celia: “I might argue it’s easier. You don’t generally have to pay for it at college.”


GM: Rusty looks at the two items. “You want those bugged?”

Celia: “Yes. Video and audio on this one,” she taps the nameplate, “and audio by itself is fine on the other.”

GM: Rusty nods.

Celia: “How soon?”

GM: “Installing bugs doesn’t take long,” he says. “It’s getting the target to accept the bugged object that takes more time. In the old days, you usually had to plan a break-in. These days, it’s more common to mail them something as an accidental delivery, a free promo offer, or what have you, and get the target to place it where you need it.”

Celia: “Placement is handled.” She thinks, anyway. Maybe it’s a longer shot than she anticipates.

GM: “Okay. We can have these bugged by tomorrow.”

Celia: “Perfect. I’ll be by to collect them tomorrow evening. Let me know what you find about the rest of it. Low profile, gentlemen.”

GM: “Always,” smirks Reggie.


Thursday evening, 3 March 2016

Estrellado: It had taken some time for her to decide what to wear. What Star would wear, given the circumstances. Not her uniform. Not something that could be seen as too sexual. Star is 40-something maid, not a debutante. No gowns, no spiked heels, no flouncy dresses. Something elegant. Classy. Not above her means, but not so brazen as to suggest poverty. No one likes the idea of poverty. No one gets off to that. Power, certainly, but there’s a delicate balance to be struck, and when she had looked at herself in the mirror before leaving to meet with him she thinks she had found it.

Long sleeves that end at her wrist, chest and shoulders bared by the neckline that begins just above the gentle swell of her breasts. It falls almost to her ankles but hugs every delicious curve of her body, accenting the parts that he had been so enraptured by during their last meeting. A gentle flare to the skirt once it passes her knees that she hopes to show off if they ever get to twirling. Light makeup that gives lift to her eyes, a spot of color on her cheeks and lips, lashes darkened by a coat of mascara. All of it applied with a deft hand that merely suggests the presence of cosmetics rather than announces it. The golden cross sits just below the hollow of her throat, two small studs in her ears. Heels and a purse complete the look. And underneath… well, that’s for him to discover later. The dress looks new. Like maybe she’d bought it for him because she hasn’t had anyone else to dress up for. She leaves her hair down, long and thick and black tresses falling in a wave halfway down her back.

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Uncertainty. That’s the word that she channels when she looks for him in the French Quarter’s hotel lobby. He’d decided on this spot because of the crowds, she thinks, because the two of them could lose themselves among the sheer amount of tourists that come and go. If they are seen together—and why would they be, when she thinks that he will confine them to a room?—then no one will have any idea who they are. Just another rich man with a mistress on vacation.

Is that what she is? Is that what she has become, a mistress? Some amusement crinkles the corners of her eyes at the thought of jumping from maid to mistress. She’d thought it before and there it goes again in her mind: he has a type. First the housekeeper, then the maid. How many of them does he keep sequestered in different hotels, how many women warm his bed and let him slake his lust before he goes back to his wife?

She lets the thoughts run through her, lets them show on her face as she slips into the mask she’ll wear tonight, steps into the headspace of Estrellado Ortzi. Uncertainty and hesitance, overdressed, undeserving. Forty-something maid, this week’s passing amusement for the rich, white lawyer. For all his kind words he will use and throw her away.

Maybe she shouldn’t have come.

The woman who would be Estrellado swims to the surface. She steps into the role as if she were made for it, dark eyes searching the lobby for Stan, her recently retrieved gifts heavy in her bag.

GM: Estrellado gets more than one appreciative look and occasional whistle on her way over to the hotel. The clothes clearly make the man, and the woman too.

It’s been said that the French Quarter begins in the lobby of Hotel Monteleone. This venerable New Orleans hotel sits majestically at the foot of Royal Street and proffers a point of departure for all things New Orleans, including Jackson Square, Bourbon Street, the French Market, and the Riverwalk, where steamboats still glide along the Mississippi River. The only high-rise building in the interior of the French Quarter, the hotel boasts the eclectic flair of Beaux-Arts architecture that has made it a historic landmark, acknowledged by the Historic Hotels of America as well as the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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“Shine ya shoes, pretty lady?” calls a towering, bull-shouldered shoe-shiner from a stand just outside the hotel.

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“Guarantee you can see ya face in da buffed point, or ya money back.”

Estrellado: The looks and whistles make her flush, but at least no one here is grabbing her ass or making a pass at her. Not that she’s unhappy with how things worked out with Stan; she might have been a little more irritated if he’d turned out to be some sort of sleazeball, but he’d been… kind. Unexpectedly. There’s little enough of that in the world.

She stops when the man hails her about her shoes, looking down at the heels she’s click-clacking along in. There isn’t much to shine. She says as much to the man, gesturing with her free hand, a question in her eyes as she lets out a string of rapid-fire Spanish.

“¿Hay suficiente para brillar?” She makes a rubbing motion with her hand, pointing at the thin band of her shoe.

(“Is there enough to shine?”)

GM: The shoe-shiner is built like a haystack, with a neck like a fire hydrant, and upper arms like chunks of sewer pipes. His small eyes are an electric blue set in a coffee-colored face, crowned with oiled canerow braids and a occasional porkpie hat. He wears an oversized gray smock over a Hawaiian sirt, its pockets stuffed with brushes and buffing rags, ribbed with black and oxblood stains. The drawers under the two elevated chairs on the stand are loaded with bottles of liquid polish, cans of wax, and saddle soap, toothbrushes and steel dental.

The man gives a simple nod at Estrellado’s words. She isn’t sure if he understands Spanish. At her motion, though, he nods again and says,

“Dere ain’ as much, ma’am, but I’ll buff it clean ’nuff ta see half ya face in.”

Estrellado: Estrellado smiles prettily for the man. She glances at the time, pleased that she’d arrived early enough to give herself this small treat. It’s not often she has other people cleaning for her. She finally nods, accepting his hand up onto one of the seats.

“Yes, thank you.” Back to that old phrase.

GM: Estrellado thinks she recognizes the man’s face as he helps her up. It was over the news, once, the bloodthirsty ex-cop who savagely mauled Vera Malveaux’s (wife of billionaire Matthew Malveaux’s) face and did 15 years in Angola for it, all for no particular reason.

Estrellado: Estrellado is a firm believer that once someone does their time they should be forgiven for their past sins. He’d served his years. She doesn’t say anything about his brutal history when he takes her hand, doesn’t shy away from him or clutch her purse for all that he might make a woman like her a little nervous. She sits back on the chair, watching him work.

GM: The man retrieves several rags, brushes, and wax containers from his stand. He starts the shine by brushing Estrellado’s in clockwise motions to get rid of any dirt and crud, then wipes it clean with a dry rag. He applies some polish, using a toothbrush to get it along her shoe’s thinner heel, then works his buffing brush with an impressive speed and rhythm. He wipes the excess polish off with a rag, then finally applies a drop of water to the shoe with his finger. He uses the polishing cloth to rub a tiny amount of polish into the water droplet, then robs it along the shoe in fast, small circles to get that signature ‘spit shine’ look.

“$7, ma’am,” he smiles when he’s done.

Estrellado: Estrellado beams down at the shoes when he’s done with them. They, unlike her dress, hadn’t looked new when she’d put them on, but now that they’ve been cleaned and shined they might as well be. Indeed, when she holds her foot just right she can see the reflection of her face in it, as promised.

She laughs at the sight, pointing down at it, chittering something in Spanish at him.

“Mira! Mi cara.” She circles a finger around her face, pointing again, clearly delighted. After a moment she picks up her purse and pulls free a ten dollar bill to hand over.

Estrellado: Payment rendered, Estrellado takes his offered hand once more to climb down from the elevated chair. Once her feet are firmly on the ground again she rises to the tips of her toes and kisses both sides of his face. Her lipstick leaves not a single mark behind.

“Son encantadores,” she says again of her shoes, delight in her eyes at the simple transaction. “Muchas gracias. Dios lo bendiga.”

GM: The man might not understand Estrellado’s exact words, but their emotion more than shines through. So does the cash she presses into his hand.

And the kisses against his cheeks.

The man actually blushes and touches the spot.

“Ah, de nada, ma’am, if dat’s how ya say it? Ya welcome, ma’am, ya mighty welcome,” he beams. “Anytime ya want ya shoes shined, I be right here. Hippo Broussard. Big Mon Broussard.” He points at himself as he says the name.

Estrellado: She nods at him, at the Spanish words he gets out. De nada indeed. She repeats the name he’d given her, the syllables rolling off her tongue, lightly accented as they come from her lips in a way they hadn’t from his.

“’Ippo Broussard.” She tries it out, the H dropped, a long E sound at the front, the R’s rolled with a tap of her tongue against her teeth, savors the sound of it as she might a fine meal. She touches a hand to her chest, “Estrellado Ortzi. Star. Mucho gusto, Senior Broussard.” And offers the same hand to him, the one she’d given him twice now—on her way up and on her way back down—though this time to shake. She mulls over her words as she takes his hand, finally, haltingly, offering a shy smile as she stumbles over the English.

“I see you next time, Senior Broussard.” A dip of her head and she’s gone, smiling broadly at the ground where her heels click click click. When, mere steps later, someone asks why she’s smiling—as if she needs a reason—she points down at her shoes and says, “Mis zapatos son brillantes gracias a Senior Broussard. Mira, lo ves?” At their blank look, she says simply, “shoe shine,” and points the way she had come to send Broussard his next customer.

GM: Hippo’s hands are large, thick, and callused, and the way he shakes it as he nods and smiles reminds Estrellado of how someone might handle a newborn kitten. She doesn’t doubt he could crush someone’s hands, though, if inclined to.

The passerby looks down at Estellado’s shoes, says, “Uh, gracias,” and heads towards the shoe-shiner.

“You should speak English when you’re in America, lady,” says another passerby.

“’Ey. Watch what you say ’bout da lady,” calls Hippo.

At the very large man’s very confrontational tone, the guy quickly walks off.

Estrellado: For all that he’s supposedly a hardened criminal who attacked a woman with no provocation, Estrellado thinks she might like the ex-cop turned shoe-shiner. She winks over her shoulder at him and gives a little finger-wave as she turns into the hotel proper, stepping at last into the lobby where Stan had said he’d meet her. Some color rises to her cheeks at the thought of it, wondering if people know that’s why she’s here, if they see through the nice clothes, the shiny shoes, to the middle-aged maid beneath. If they look at her and see someone who doesn’t belong in a place as nice as this. But, no, how could they? She looks like any other denizen of the Quarter, dressed up for a night on the town. She hardly wears a sign around her neck that screams “mistress.” Estrellado doesn’t even know if that’s what this is. Meeting someone twice hardly counts as being a mistress.

Still, the word is better than the alternative.

She pushes the thought from her mind, the bland smile that comes with it, and lets her eyes roam the lobby for her date.

GM: Stan had said the lobby at first, then corrected himself that they should “definitely go to the bar” instead. The city’s only revolving bar, the twenty-five seat, bright circus-clad Merry-Go-Round turns on 2,000 large steel rollers, pulled by a chain powered by a one-quarter horsepower motor at a constant rate of one revolution every 15 minutes. Originally installed in 1949 and renovated in 1992, the current carousel top features fiber optics that create the appearance of stars in the night sky, complete with a regular shooting star that races across the ceiling. One shooting star crosses the room at regular intervals. Notably, the Carousel’s bartenders created the Vieux Carré and Goody cocktails. The sum of all these features has made the ironic bar, and its hotel, a favorite spot in the Big Easy for both its locals and tourists alike.

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Esprellado espies her date at one of the rotating bar’s seats.

That word is also better than the alternative.



Estrellado: Her eyes dart to a clock on the wall as she moves into the bar, wondering if she’d spent too long lingering outside at the shoe shine. But, no, she isn’t late; he’s just early. Like minds in that regard, then.

Her heels herald her approach, hips swaying with every step that she takes in that clinging black fabric. It’s a small step up onto the rotating floor of the carousel proper, moving slowly enough that even in a skintight dress and heels she has no trouble navigating the ascent. It puts her off to one side of him. Her date. She tries it out, lingering over the idea of dating. When she’d lost Matteo she’d thought that she would never date again. She’s barely had flings. With the boys out of the house though… Well, who could blame her?

It’s a fond smile that finally spreads across her lips as she moves along the back of the seats to reach his side, running a hand along the back of his shoulders as she passes him to take the chair just past him. She slides smoothly into place, one ankle crossing over the other.

“Buenas noches.” A brief pause as she tries the phrase again in accented English, the words more clipped than they’d be with a native speaker. “Good evening.”

GM: Stan turns from his seat at her touch.

His eyebrows shoot up when he sees her.

“Wow. Star, you look… lovely. Just lovely.”

He raises her hand to his lips and kisses it.

“Buy a lady a drink?”

Estrellado: She’s not immune to the compliment. Two spots of color appear high on her cheeks, smile spreading across her face as he raises her hand to his lips. She flushes and looks away, lashes fluttering as she takes a shaky breath in before she looks back.

She nods at his question, her eyes scanning the bottles behind the bar. The green one with the skull on the front catches her eye. It takes her back to another time, another man. Memories that aren’t hers. She brushes them aside, no more than cobwebs in her mind.

“Sazerac?” It’s a question, but she’s heard that the Carousel Bar makes a mean one.

GM: He nods. “You eaten yet? They’ve got some good entrees, too.”

Estrellado: Estrellado shakes her head. She hasn’t eaten yet. She should, though, no matter that it might not go down the right way.

She considers for a moment, as if chewing over the words, and finally takes the plunge into the unfamiliar language. Hard to be on a date if she refuses to speak the language.

“We eat. What do you, ah…” a pause, searching for the word, “recommend?”

GM: He asks for their ‘bar bites’ menu.

After a moment he asks, “Would it help if I read it?”

Estrellado: One neatly manicured nail—that’s new, she hadn’t had them done at the office—slides down the menu, lips moving soundlessly at the words. Her nose wrinkles at something. She nods at his question, relief in her eyes.

“Yes, thank you.”

GM: He does so.

Though he asks first if she wants to hear the small plates or entrées, to narrow it down.

Estrellado: Small plates, she tells him, but once he gets going she makes a motion for him to continue all the way down, her eyes on his face, watching his lips form the words.

GM: The couple sitting behind Stan make sneering expressions at the Latina woman who needs her date to read the menu.

Stan, unseeing, works his way down from the Shrimp Pot Stickers to the White Truffle Fries.

Estrellado: Any flutters that had begun in her stomach die at the sight of their curled lips. Her gaze drops.

GM: Stan pauses.

“Would it be better if I picked?”

Estrellado: She starts to make a motion with her hand, then finally nods her head. Her eyes find his face again, pulling a smile from somewhere despite the mockery behind his back.

“Yes, thank you.” A brief pause, then she touches her fingers to where he holds the menu in his hand. “Trust you, pick well.”

GM: The well-dressed man behind Stan opens his mouth and moves his middle finger back and forth towards it, pantomiming sucking a dick. As if to say that’s the only reason Estrellado is here. His date laughs like he’s the funniest guy on earth.

“Okay, I’m a fan of the Crawfish Pie,” says Stan. He places the order.

Estrellado: Her eyes flick past Stan to the man and his woman. The expression on her face doesn’t change, but she sends it out of her in a wave: the crushing despair and guilt, the gut-clenching, sweat-inducing dread of having someone find out your secrets. Maybe it’s the reason he mocks the Latina woman with her white date, the need to feel superior, like he’s never done anything wrong. But this is a cold, cruel world, and she knows more than anyone that they’ve all sinned, knows that his mockery is a desperate attempt to put the attention on anyone else that isn’t him. She hits him with it, pushing her emotions into him, making it resonate through his body until he just can’t take it anymore, until he has no choice but to open his mouth and confess his dirty, filthy sins. Right here in the bar.

GM: Sweat suddenly beads on the man’s forehead. His eyes dart to and fro before he blurts out,

“I did it. Okay? I stuck the pillow over your grandma’s face, because I was just so fucking sick of throwing money after her when she was gonna die anyway.”

His date’s mouth falls open. So does Stan’s.

Estrellado: Estrellado clutches at Stan’s hand, eyes widening at the display behind him.

GM: “W-what!?” gasps the woman he’s with.

Estrellado: She’d thought it would be something… less. Cheating, maybe. Knocking someone up. Not this delicious little tidbit. She hides her amusement behind a mask of shock, as if she can’t believe what he’d just said.

GM: The man blanches. His mouth works several times before he gets out,

“I was kidding. Bad joke.”

Estrellado: “Asesinato,” Estrellado whispers to Stan, voice just loud enough to carry. He doesn’t need to speak Spanish to understand what that means.

“La mató.”

(“Murder. He killed her.”)

GM: His eyes cut to her. A few other people do too.

Then he looks back at the couple. Several other people are watching.

The woman doesn’t say anything. Just stares at her date.

“Look, I’m sorry. It was a really bad joke,” he says, laying a hand on her shoulder.

She slaps it away.

“Don’t touch me,” she hisses.

“Look, I said it was a joke, all right? Just… lighten up! I was only kidding!”

Estrellado: And because Estrellado is apparently a vindictive bitch, she hits the woman with something similar. Another wave of emotion, a suggestion to get mad. She can almost see the red, swirling rage inside her chest, the wounded betrayal, and she strokes a mental hand along it as if feeding a fire. She makes it burn so brightly.

GM: The woman slaps him full across the face.

Even more people turn to watch.

Estrellado: Estrellado covers her mouth with her hand.

GM: The man touches his cheek. “He-”

The woman throws her drink over his face.

Then she grabs someone else’s drink and throws it over his chest.

“Carrie, what the fuck!?”

“You did it!” the woman shrieks. “I always knew! You, fucking, _bastard!”_

“I didn’t! I swear! Can’t you take a fucking joke!?”

Estrellado: She wonders if someone should call the police on the confessed murderer. Maybe security to get the raging woman out of here. She doesn’t say anything though, just watches with barely concealed horror as the scene plays out in front of her. She clutches at Stan’s hands.

GM: “Take this!” she grabs someone else’s plate of food and chucks it at his face. The man gives an alarmed cry and tries to dodge, but it clips him over the head and sends food spilling everywhere. People are gawking. Some get out their phones. The bartender tries to verbally defuse things.

“Oh, fuck you all!” the woman spits. She turns on her heel and storms out of the bar.

Estrellado: Estrellado watches her go. Seeing the phones makes her release Stan’s hands immediately, her eyes turning back to the man once the woman is gone, as if waiting for him to murder someone here, too.

GM: The man looks unsure whether to pursue her or not, then gives a forced-sounding laugh and says, “Bitch can’t take a joke.”

He gets up and leaves. The bartender is talking into the phone in a low voice.

Stan looks back at Estrellado once the couple are gone.

“Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Estrellado: She nods her head in agreement, clearly at a loss for words.

GM: The loudly gossiping patrons around them express similar sentiments. It’s clear no one will be talking about anything else this evening.

Estrellado: Estrellado makes the sign of the cross over her chest, quietly sending a prayer to the Lord for the poor, murdered woman.

Only when things have calmed somewhat does she turn to Stan, pointing at his empty drink. An unfortunate casualty in the incident, its contents splashed across the man’s chest.

“Okay?” she asks.

GM: “I guess it’s the viewing price,” he jokes. “I’m almost tempted to go after her and offer the firm’s services. She might be more likely to face a sentence.”

Estrellado: Her brows lift. She taps a finger on the bar, looking out the door where the woman left.

“¿Por que? Why? He confess murder, no?”

GM: “Well, I said might. If there wasn’t an investigation into the grandma’s death, all he did was make a bad joke. But slapping him and throwing that plate was battery, if he chooses to go to the cops about it.”

“If she goes to the cops, he’ll probably just deny it and they’ll be out of luck if there’s no other evidence. That might even be what it was. Just a really bad joke.”

Estrellado: Bad guys usually win. Someone else had told her that a long time ago. No, not her. That’s someone else’s memory, too.

She frowns, finally turning her eyes back to his face. She opens her mouth as if to say something, then closes it again. She swallows, then nods at his words.

“Bad joke, maybe,” she finally says.

A beat of silence, as if she isn’t sure where to take it from here. She thinks to change the subject, maybe make her own bad joke, but neither of those seem right.

“You take cases like that?” A vague gesture toward where it had gone down. “Criminal?”

GM: “I don’t personally, but there are people at my firm who do. If those two want to be careful they’ll speak to lawyers.”

Estrellado: “What do you take?”

Before he has a chance to answer her question, Estrellado shakes her head. She glances again at the door where the woman had left from, then back to Stan.

“You want find her? I help.” A question, though. She’ll leave it up to him if he’d rather track down a potential client than spend his time here with her.

GM: He shakes his head. “She’s probably long gone by now. I’m here to relax, anyway.”

Estrellado: She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t pleased with that answer, both for her own vanity and to deny the woman competent legal counsel. Not that she can’t find it elsewhere if she’s so inclined. Not her problem anymore, though.

The chair, she realizes, is bolted to the ground. Probably to prevent people from toppling off the edge of the rotating platform. Since she can’t scooch it closer to him as she might want to she settles for swiveling in her seat, rearranging her body to cross one knee over the other. The material clings to her thighs. A murmur of something beneath her breath, a string of Spanish words that convey she might be sounding something out, before she speaks again.

“Then we relax.” Her eyes slide down his form, settle back on his face. She offers a tiny smile, as if she knows exactly how she’ll help him relax, and immediately drops her gaze after the brazenly suggestive look.

GM: Stan’s gaze doesn’t drop. His eyes roam her shapely form, perhaps wondering how the cleaning lady he met previously could be so… transformed.

“You know, we could just get room service…”

Estrellado: Her head tilts to one side, tongue slowly running across her lower lip before she bites down on it. A tiny gesture. Her eyes dip to the floor. When she lifts them again she’s looking up at him from beneath long lashes, a spark of something in her dark eyes.

She gives a slow nod.

GM: He chuckles and takes her upstairs. It’s a standard hotel room, clean and neat, with a king bed and nice view of the French Quarter. He pulls the blinds shut and starts kissing her, his hands hungrily cupping her breasts and squeezing her rear.

“God, you look hot tonight…”

Estrellado: He certainly wastes no time jumping right into things. Estrellado pulls him close, fingers already working at the buttons on his shirt, the buckle of his belt. Her lips part beneath his, the tips of her nails scratching gently across his back, his chest, his stomach. Whatever part of him she can reach. She’s careful not to leave marks behind that his wife might find. Desire curls in her lower abdomen, sets her nerves alight as some other part of her mind considers the locale: the wall? the bed? the floor? Were he a decade younger she’d have them try all three.

“Espera,” she murmurs against his lips once her fingers have made short work of his belt and the zipper at his fly. She stretches a hand behind her back, reaching for the zipper of her dress. She tugs. The suddenly loose material spills across her shoulders, sliding down her chest and arms. She shimmies out of it, left in nothing but the heels, bra, and panties.

GM: Stan’s breath comes hot and heavy as Estrellado pulls off his clothes. He waits long enough for her to pull off hers. His eyebrows shoot up.

“Wow. I swear you got even sexier than when I last saw you.”

He pulls her to the bed, exploring her mouth with his tongue as his hands appreciatively trace her tan skin. Her stretch marks aren’t that visible, there’s still a youthful bounce to her breasts, and there’s definitely less pudge than when he saw her last.

He unhooks her bra and kneads, squeezes, and sucks her breasts. He marvels at how much “having a man” does for her.

Estrellado: Smoother skin, a tighter body, firm where she needs to be with nice handfuls of flesh everywhere else. Her thighs are still thick, her ass still round, but now they’re paired with a flatter stomach, perkier breasts. Everything tucked and tight and trim, in its place. She looks like the “after” to her body’s “before” in some miracle infomercial that promises results in less than a week.

Her panties slide down her legs with a deft flick of her wrist, landing on the floor beside her discarded bra. She flips the pair of them so she’s on top this time, thighs spread to either side of his waist, head tilted back as he pulls a nipple into his mouth. A string of Spanish words leave her mouth, their meaning lost in translation but their message clear: more.

GM: Stan gives more, sucking and squeezing her breasts until her pink little nubs feel ready to burst with pleasure. He gropes the bedside table for the condom he’s evidently thought to bring this time, and looks like he hates every millisecond that it takes to slip the thing on. He fills her thighs and lets her ride him like a stallion until he blows his load and her juices get all over them both. He doesn’t last as long as Matteo did, but Matteo was a lot younger than them both.

“…wow,” he pants.

Estrellado: It could have been the sex. The way she rode him and took exactly what she wanted from him, grinding down on him to hit that spot inside of her over and over again, no thought given to how loud she gets inside the room of his hotel. She doesn’t need to mind the secretary or the other late-night workers, doesn’t need to worry that she’s in someone’s office. Half-formed phrases and expletives pass from her lips, a mixture of English and Spanish, and by the time they’re both done she’s a panting, quivering mess above him.

Or it could have been the fangs. The quick nip at his throat, the heady red liquid drawn into her mouth in the guise of a lingering kiss. She doesn’t take much. A mouthful. A second. A third. Enough to leave him hard without that vacant head-rush he’d get if she took too much, a flick of her tongue against the holes in his neck to seal them shut before her mouth returns to his, swallowing his cries.

Her chest rises and falls in time with his, heart thudding against her ribcage. Only once she feels him begin to soften does she shift, claiming the spot on the bed beside him, an arm across his chest, a leg across his thigh. She nuzzles his neck, trailing soft kisses down his skin. If he were to look over and catch her eye he’d see the self-satisfied smirk.

GM: Stan looks over, but he might not catch the expression on her face. He looks pretty tired between the hour, the sex, and the blood she’s taken. He kisses her back, more sweetly than passionately, and holds her close as he buries his face in her hair. He mumbles something about having brought her “presents.”

Estrellado: Estrellado strokes a hand down his chest, curls her fingers through his hair. Even after the mention of presents she’s content to simply lie with him, exploring his skin with her mouth. The taste of him still dances across her tongue, sweet with affection, none of the false, fake taste so many others like her are forced to endure for this same thing. She keeps her touch light now that he’s spent.

“I, too,” she says after a moment, once they’ve both caught their breath. “Bring you present.”

GM: He gives a soft laugh as he strokes the back of her head.

“Mmm… seeing how good you looked with your clothes all off was my present…”

Estrellado: A giggle meets his words, that same deep-throated sound he’d mentioned he admires at their first meeting.

“You see that anytime,” she tells him.

GM: “Still a present…” he chuckles. “But okay, what’s the other one?”

Estrellado: A final kiss on his cheek before she rolls from the bed, rising to her feet to cross the room to where her purse had been discarded as soon as he’d begun touching her. As if she can’t stand to be apart from him she brings it back with her, sitting on the edge of the bed with one leg curled beneath her as she sifts through it. She presents them with a flourish, one box that has been neatly gift-wrapped in silver paper, a second that looks… well, it looks oblong, less neatly wrapped, but the bow on top turns it into a pretty package all the same.

GM: “What’s this? More than one present,” Stan murmurs. Something briefly passes in his eyes: perhaps concern for whether Star can afford such purchases on her cleaning lady’s salary. Still, he smiles as he unwraps the box from its silver paper.

Estrellado: The box within the silver wrapping is black, and once he opens it he’ll find a nameplate that’s meant to sit on his desk. Heavy in his hand, the base of it is the same wooden hue of the desk on which he’d taken her their first night together, the letters etched in gold and outlined in black upon its surface. His name across the front: Stanley Greer.

She smiles uncertainly at him as he opens it, tucking her hair behind her ear to give her hands something to do other than wring uselessly on her lap.

“For office. New office.”

GM: “Oh, Star,” he smiles, turning it over in his eyes. “It’s beautiful. You’re just in time, too. Someone was going to come over tomorrow to install some new letters.” His brow furrows. “But was it expensive for you…?”

Estrellado: Estrellado makes a motion with her hand, a sort of back and forth that might mean yes or no. She follows it with a shrug, a shaking of her head.

“You…” she struggles for a moment, searching for the words. “Worth. For you, worth. You see me. Not clean lady, not foreign, me.” She taps a hand to her chest to emphasize the point.

“Put on desk,” she suggests, a sly smile in place, “remember fun.”

GM: Stan laughs. “That’d be pretty hard to forget either way. But the reminder will help. Thank you, Star. It’ll look lovely on my desk.” He pulls her close and kisses her head.

“There’s a lot in you to see.”

Estrellado: Her eyes dart down her body, taking in her own nude form. She wiggles her brows at Stan once her gaze returns to his face. A lot to see indeed.

“Un mas,” she says, nudging the other toward him.

GM: Once again, she’s not sure if he understands the literal meaning, but the sentiment seems apparent enough. Stan smiles and unwraps the less neatly-wrapped present.

Estrellado: The oblong shape and messy wrapping makes sense once he opens the second gift. Unlike the first, this is clearly not something that’s new, and there’s no box to contain it. Rather it looks like something that has seen a lot of care over the past however many years. It, too, has a flat base, but it’s egg-shaped at the top. A clear coat of glass or maybe resin holds an entire landscape within: a dark blue sky with stars and a crescent moon, a field of green, a gray mountain across the backdrop with the suggestion of white, fluffy clouds.

She watches his face as he opens it, hands twisting together on her lap.

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Estrellado pulls a piece of paper from her purse once the gift is open. It’s been folded many times over, its texture soft and well-worn, and there’s a flush to her cheeks that isn’t from the sex when she hands it over to him.

“En mi familia, tenemos un dicho: el observador de la luna te guiara,” she says as he unfolds it. She gestures toward the paper. Words are scrawled across the page in a looping, feminine hand, the letters carefully crafted and evenly spaced upon the lines.

In my family, we have a saying: the moonwatcher will guide you. When I came to America I was young. I missed my family fiercely, and though I found happiness here I could not forget the land where I was born or the people to whom I belonged. I felt lost. But at night, when I could see the sky, when the moon hung over the clouds and cast its light upon me, I knew that they were with me, in my heart, that they could look upon the same night sky and see the same sliver of moon that I did. And I knew, no matter how far from them I went, that they would always be with me, and I would always be with them.

“Para su hija,” Estrellado tells him once his eyes have stopped moving across the page. She touches a finger against the side of the orb and the moon lights up, casting its glow upon the mountainscape within. “La luna se guiara. Esta aqui.” Her hand moves to his heart.

GM: “Oh, Star…” Stan murmurs, turning over the glowing orb in his hands. Once again, Estrellado doubts he can understand her (spoken) words, but the sentiment behind the gift does not appear lost. Especially after the folded paper’s words on how one is never truly parted from one’s family. Stan’s eyes linger on the crescent moon, as if wondering when his daughter last looked upon the same celestial object whose likeness he now gazes upon. His eyes start to look moist. He sniffs and rubs his nose before looking back to her.

“This is your family’s? How long have you had it?”

Estrellado: Her eyes do not shy away from his face. Not this time. No, this time she holds his gaze, watches the moisture gather in the corners of his eyes. When he sniffs she only moves closer to him in answer, the pads of her thumbs soft as they wipe away the tears that have escaped his control.

“Muchos años,” she tells him, voice soft. “Long time. Since I come here. For you now.”

GM: “Oh, Star,” he repeats, turning the orb over in his hands again. “I can’t… I can’t accept these, when all I did was fool around with you on my desk…” he protests.

Estrellado: A dozen excuses come to mind. A dozen things she could say to him to make him keep it, all of them as persuasive as the next regardless of her broken English. But she’s silent, watching him, watching his face as he stares down at the gift she has given him. She draws in a breath, as if to speak, but moves instead. She’s on his lap within seconds, her body curled between his legs, her lips brushing against his neck, his cheek, and finally his mouth.

“For you now,” she says again, the words just a murmur between kisses. She puts her emotion into the touch rather than the words, the fondness she feels for him, the gratitude that he turned out like he did rather than how she expected. Her sorrow at his loss and hope that he’ll recover his daughter. She lays it out for him in soft, sensual touches and kisses, in the quiet tenderness of her fingertips and lips upon him.

She’s a maid. She knows that. Knows that she’s nothing but a distraction to him, a one or two time thing before he returns to his wife. She’s not asking for forever, just giving him right now. This moment. This peace.

GM: That, at least, he is willing to take.


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Story Eleven, Celia IX, Jon IX

“Any canvas, given enough care, can shine.”
Jade Kalani


Monday night, 13 February 2016, AM

GM: Jon attends Midnight Mass at Elysium. He publicly receives an ‘interim’ grant of permission to remain within the city, per his earlier discussion with the sheriff and seneschal.

Accou’s herald approaches Jon after he has left the event, and states that her domitor has procured “a potential assistant” to “help facilitate the success of your and my master’s project.” If Jon is amenable, Accou and the ‘assistant’ can meet the Tremere tomorrow evening to discuss the details. Cloe can also be present, if the surgeon would find it useful to personally inspect and interview the elder ghoul.

Alternatively, Jon and the assistant may meet tonight on their own time, away from Accou. The ghoul supplies the assistant’s identity and contact information: Jade Kalani, one of the Toreador primogen’s many grandchilder. Jade is an esthetician, plastic surgeon, and skincare specialist who has extensive experience in this area.

Jon: The surgeon is polite enough to hide his skepticism in front of the elder’s ghoul, but is amendable to meeting with the elder’s grandchilde. Another pair of hands could be useful if they’re steady.

And it would be rude to turn him down cold.

He doesn’t need to speak with Cloe until he has set up for it—further down the line, but has availability this evening to meet with Ms. Kalani. The Elysium may be over, but he expects to remain for some time yet: he has plenty of others to speak with.

GM: Rachelle coordinates the details of the meeting with the number Accou’s ghoul provides for Jade Kalani. She also asks Jon where he’d like to meet her. As a member of Savoy’s bloc, the neonate will not be welcome in any of the CBD’s off-use Elysia. They’re theoretically open to anyone, but in practice, followers of the Baron and French Quarter lord are punished as intruders if they’re spotted in the CBD except to attend Elysium Primo.

There’s always the Carnival Club (“that’s new since we were last here”) in Faubourg Marigny. Sundown’s territory is often used as a neutral meeting ground between the factions.

Though its Nosferatu owner undoubtedly hears everything that passes under its roof.

Jon: The surgeon gives a wry smile. As though the rats don’t hear most things anyway. But he agrees with the suggestion.

There’s value in being seen publicly with one of Savoy’s people.

Celia: Jade is waiting for the archon when he arrives at the Carnival Club.

There are certain games that licks play with each other: making other people wait, hazing, contacting them only through ghouls. Jade has been around long enough to play these games as well, and she’s become well-practiced in getting under the skin of the other neonates. But when an archon comes calling the games are put aside. Schedules are cleared. And neonates show up to the appointed place early, so as to not make any punctual archons wait. She took the trouble of securing a pair of seats for the two of them in a more secluded area of the club so that they need not dither before getting down to… business.

And what business it is that he has with her she does not know.

Jade has kept her nose clean, has kept herself out of trouble. In the scant hours she’d had before she was asked to meet him she had done what little research on the Kindred as she could, which mostly involved speaking to Lebeaux. The archon had made a splash at his arrival to Elysium prior, and Lebeaux had confirmed with the very curious neonate that North is, indeed, the Tremere surgeon he’d once mentioned to her. She’d thought to secure an audience with him through Lebeaux himself, but her phone had rung to summon her to this and now… here she is.

“Watch yourself, kid,” the grizzled detective had told her, “he’s friendly with your sire.” Lebeaux hadn’t had to explain which sire it is that he spoke of.

Surely if her sire had a problem with her it wouldn’t result in sending some faceless lick to deal with her. Surely their dispute could be settled more cordially, or at least more personally. She tries to think of anything she has done to offend her sire recently, of any mistakes she has made in her domain or with the Masquerade, and comes up blank.

She wouldn’t be facing the executioner’s block if it were something personal, would she? Has her sire tired of her? Has she been an embarrassment? Or—and her dead heart does that useless skipping thing it does sometimes—had her sire sent someone else to put her down for some hypothetically inflicted wrong, because that was too painful a thing to do personally?

The fact that she can clearly imagine her final death at her sire’s hands, that she would come if called even knowing what awaited her…

Surely she is mistaken. She has done nothing wrong. And if she were being punished for some transgression she doubts the archon would invite her to a neutral meeting ground.

So Jade had dressed in clothing she thought would not offend, skipping her flouncy skirts and long gowns in favor of something more utilitarian: leather leggings, black cami, and charcoal quasi-pinstriped blazer that can swiftly be removed to transition from work to play. The look is tied together by a leather belt and stiletto booties. A ring adorns her finger, the same opal sun ring she wears most every night.

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Mel, Savoy, Lebeaux—they had all warned her to be careful of what she says in this place. The Nosferatu’s ears are everywhere. So Jade is still as she waits for North to arrive, keeping her fidgeting to a minimum. All the better to dwell.

Only her thoughts betray her inner turmoil.

GM: Of course, they’d also said the sewer rats have ears everywhere else, too. Almost everywhere else.

At least here you know they’re listening.

And the Carnival Club is probably the most neutral ground there is in the city. It’s been Elysium for decades. The parish’s regent is deliberately politically neutral and also the club’s owner. Anyone and anything is welcome here, except for trouble. That stays outside.

It’s the oldest of Sundown’s clubs, and the sole one in Faubourg Marigny to be declared Elysium. Jon remembers it from the ‘20s as a jazz club and speakeasy that opened with enough splash and fanfare to make many people think the then-mysterious owner, who’d popped seemingly out of nowhere and without a sire to name, was a Toreador.

To Jade, though, it’s always been what it is: one of Marigny’s premier nightlife spots.

The line isn’t as long on a Sunday night as on a Friday or Saturday, but lines don’t matter to Kindred patrons. It’s been a subject of some speculation how Sundown does it, when the bouncers are seemingly kine: perhaps some unseen ghoul watches from the shadows, perhaps monitored cameras crap out at giveaway times, or perhaps the sewer rats just know every vampire’s face in the city. Whatever the answer, there has yet to be a Kindred patron who was made to wait in line, face a cover charge, asked for an ID, or who even had their hands stamped. They’re simply ushered directly inside, past the typical throngs of jealous and impatient kine.

Inside, the Carnival Club has all the amenities of a modern nightclub with retro-themed decor. It’s a dark, velvety space filled with a museum’s worth of curios, from antique water spigots presented in a kind of shrine above the bar to a series of stunning and tasteful seminude photographs (a gorgeous woman cloaked in giant leaves) that greet visitors at the door. It has a sort of timeless feel, blending old with new as confidently as the bartenders mixing up drink orders.

The music beats hard on Jon’s and Jade’s bodies. As they push through the sweaty, twitchy throng on the dance floor, it feels like sound, not blood, gives animation to their corpses. The insistent violent rhythm makes them (or at least Jade) more aware of their insides than ever since their Embraces. They’re just two more bodies, and in the darkness nobody notices if they breathe or not.

The Tremere may see it all as a distraction, but the Toreador may never want to come down. It’s a perfect-feeling moment, unsullied by hunger, a perfect chemical high. This is what eternal life means. Freedom to dance, to party every night, all night, forever, never getting old.

Jade is swiftly greeted by Sundown’s herald, who’s variously referred to as Kaia or KKV (an abbreviation of her full name Kaia Kimberly Võ). She’s a beautiful and slim-figured Vietnamese-American ghoul with smooth pale skin, breast-length rich black hair, and smiling dark eyes. Tonight she’s dressed in a leather jacket over an off-shoulder babydoll top, black leggings, and tall silver heels. The sewer rats’ ghouls are supposed to inherit some share of their domitors’ ugliness, but KKV either hasn’t or simply hides it well.

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The crowd’s din seems to muffle in the ghoul’s presence, who is friendly but unobtrusive. Jade can make her way to any one of several Kindred-reserved quiet corner spots (the club’s acoustics are well-designed), the upstairs VIP lounge (where the atmosphere is more relaxed), or simply enjoy herself on the dance floor. Back rooms are also available for a variety of purposes.

“And if there’s anything Sundown can do to make your stay more enjoyable, ma’am, just ask. Having a bad time isn’t allowed at his clubs!” Kaia smiles.

Celia: This is the kind of place that Jade couldn’t not enjoy, even if she tries. Perhaps as a breather she might have been turned off by the loud music and large press of bodies, but here and now she is a wolf among the sheep. And what titillating sheep they are, she can’t help but notice on her way across the floor. If only they were within the French Quarter, Jade might find a dance partner or two and swap more than simply fumbling hands.

She opts for the corner spot on the first floor. North can request they move if he prefer a less busy ambiance, but Jade is all too happy to watch the writhing figures on the floor. Perhaps when this is over she’ll join them. She always enjoys adoring kine. And what part of Jade shouldn’t be adored? She’s a perfect specimen.

She thanks Kaia with a smile of her own and a comment about meeting someone; she asks if the girl can show him over when he arrives to save him the trouble of the search.

GM: “Sure thing, ma’am. And can I say you look Flawless as ever tonight,” the ghoul declares with another smile.

Celia: The rats sure know how to treat a guest. Jade all but preens under the praise. She favors the ghoul with a word of thanks and a wink, then sits back to wait for her companion.

Jon: She sees the archon’s arrival before she see’s him, the bow-wave created by his movement through the crowds of dancing kine. It he’s that his head peaks out among the crowd. The archon moves unhurriedly but purposefully through them, the kine seeming to break against him and part like the red sea behind the predatory confidence of a creature that was taking lives before their great-grandparents were born.

He’s wrapped in stark colors—a dark suit offset with a startlingly bright white blazer. It might be a little overdressed for the club, but would fit right in at the Primo Elysium. There’s a statement in that white blazer among Kindred: it says that he doesn’t need to hide his mistakes because he doesn’t make them.

The suit strains against the raw power hidden beneath it, against the slabs of muscle across his shoulders and chest, the tensioned cords welded to the bone of his arms.

The second lick in is almost swallowed in his shadow, everything he is not. Petite, shrouded in black, her dark hair held back in a complex braid and her dark eyes searching the room, seemingly taking in everything.

He pauses on his approach to her—his unerring approach to her, almost from the moment he came through the door—to lean into his shadowing lick’s ear, and she nods once before slipping away as he resumes his approach, eyes the color of open skies set on Kalani’s.

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GM: Jon is greeted when he arrives by Sundown. Faubourg Marigny’s regent appears as a racially indistinct gentleman of considerable good looks—not so attractive as to be threatening, but more than handsome enough to put everyone around him at ease. He’s dressed in a dark blazer and slacks, nice leather shoes, and a white dress shirt.

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Like any good host, the Nosferatu doesn’t linger overlong. He simply says hello, invites the Tremere to help himself to a vessel, and to avail himself of any of the club’s accommodations for his meeting.

“I’ll look forward to this one’s release,” he smiles at Kyrstin. “Your sire’s and great-grandsire’s names are still talked about a lot, here. It’s a pleasure to see any worthy bloodline grow.”

“Thank you, regent,” Kyrstin offers with a bow of her head.

“Give a holler if your party needs anything, archon. Enjoy your stay.”

With those last words, the sewer rat melts back into the dancing throngs.

Jon: Jonathan is gracious with the Nosferatu host, offering, “The last time I was in New Orleans there wasn’t much opportunity to sample the finer things that others have built since I was last here. I was told I’d be remiss if I passed on the opportunity when it was available.”

He thanks him for his generous offer and assures Sundown he’ll call if they need anything, before continuing on to his meeting.

Celia: Jade rises to her feet as the Kindred struts towards her following his brief interlude with the club’s proprietor, gaze flowing down his body in a way that is nothing short of assessing. Dark eyes framed by darker hair finally return to his face, and she tucks a stray curl behind her ear in a move that turns her comely face younger yet.

“Good evening, Archon North. It is a pleasure to be asked to join you.”

Jon: He studies her for the briefest if moment before replying, “Your manners are superior to your sire’s, Ms. Kalani. I dare say cut more from the cloth of your grandsire.”

Celia: She wonders idly what Veronica has done to offend the archon, and how much of this meeting will be an uphill battle fighting against the preconceived notions he must have of her. She offers him a smile all the same.

“Thank you, sir. I endeavor to be on good terms with my grandsire despite the gap between the pair. I am sure he will pleased to hear that his courtesies have been well replicated in me.”

She extends an upturned hand toward the seat across from her, a silent invitation to join her.

Jon: The archon slides into the chair with the grace of a jungle cat, taking care in the deliberateness of his motions, as though concerned he may break something with a careless touch.

A moment later, unbidden, a pale and dark-haired woman in black gloves appears to deliver a pair of drinks for them. North’s is a mint julep, recognizable by both the crushed mint and spring of the same. She places a martini in front of Kalani and elegantly slides away at the archon’s nod.

“It’s unfortunate when sires and childer are estranged, but there’s no reason that should affect grandsire’s and their grandchilder,” he agrees.

“One could do worse than to model off of your grandsire’s successes—in many cities he’d be prince. But then, your sire has had their own successes.”

“The future is open to you, Ms. Kalani. I would not dictate what you would become, only express that it would be a poor reflection on both for a scion of their bloodline not to become something.”

He takes a casual sip of his drink.

Celia: A drink. Of course. She should have supposed that some frothy concoction would be pushed on her in an establishment like this. Is it rude to refuse a drink from an archon? She makes no move to touch it, though she thanks the girl who dropped it off with a dip of her chin.

Their, though. The word gives her pause, so too do the following lines. Has he been sent her to tell her she’s a disappointment?

She chooses her response with care.

“I would do them both proud, of course, and my great-grandsire as well. Roses do not bloom hurriedly; like any masterpiece, we take time to blossom. But, ah, I suppose you did not seek me this evening to hear me wax poetic about cultivation.”

Jon: Do the woman’s eyes linger just a moment too long on the archon as she departs? Does it matter?

The hint of a smile on his face is there at Kalani’s reference to roses, and gone just as quickly as she tries to move on from the topic. “A rose for the Rose Clan? I’ve often thought Shakespeare’s line inspired by one of you.”

“A flick of the nose, a bit of nuanced one, in blue blood-dominated London.”

Those blue eyes continue to rest on her. Seeing through her. Perhaps into her.

Celia: “All of the great wordsmiths and artists were blooded or bedded by our clan, to hear my grandsire speak of it. How would they have ever turned aside from such a muse?” Jade leans forward in her seat, tapping a finger against the stem of her martini glass. She is not afraid of him. Let him look. Let him stare. Jade Kalani is a stunning upwardly mobile young lick. The smile that she gives him—dazzling, truly—is fraught with nothing.

“What’s in a name,” she agrees.

She reaches, finally, for the drink. Brings it to her lips to take a sip. Jade had died before she ever was of legal age; she only has distorted memories of cheap whiskey and too-sweet rum to compare this to.

As if there is comparison.

As if this dry martini does anything but taste of ash and garbage sludge and worse, besides.

Still, she swallows it.

Jon: The Tremere says nothing of her drinking the foul mixture.

“How indeed? I would not gainsay him,” he agrees.

“Are you your own artist, Ms. Kalani?” he asks, leaning forward as he takes another sip of his drink.

Celia: “True art touches souls, Archon North,” Jade replies as she sets down her drink. There is no flash of disgust, nothing to give her away. “I would not presume to make such a claim. As to being my own artist—I suppose I can admit that I have been compared to the gods of old, Aphrodite and her like, and I am confident enough to admit it has to do more with my deft skill with a brush than something bequeathed to me by birth. Any canvas, given enough care, can shine.”

Jon: “And what are your brushes of choice, Ms. Kalani? Your canvas of choice is clear enough.”

Celia: “Do you wish for technical specifications, sir? Artis Elite, Pat McGrath, Fenty, M.A.C.?” Jade smiles at the archon. “Armani Luminous Silk, NARS, Anastasia Beverly Hills?” She lists brushes then brands, never once giving in to telling him what he truly asks.

Jon: “I’d hoped you were familiar with something with more of an edge,” he answers, his voice deep, crisp, and precise.

Celia: “A scalpel, you mean. Of course, archon; why didn’t you say? I am adept at lifting faces that need an extra touch, and sculpting bodies as if they were naught but clay. If your inquiry is whether I have been beneath the knife myself… well, sir, we roses do not kiss and tell.”

Jon: “It takes particular set of skills to make such things stick in a troublesome canvas like the Damned,” he answers.

Celia: “It does,” Jade agrees. She lets the words linger between them.

Then, “Do you have a particularly troublesome canvas, sir?”

Jon: “I might,” he answers. “More so than most, at least. Your grandsire believed you might have value in the matter.”

Celia: “I will admit to some skill in the area, archon, though if you were to be more specific I would be able to provide more insight.”

Jon: Some skill.

And where would a nice Camarilla lick learn that skill.

“Major bodywide reconstructive surgery on an elder ghoul, to include changes to the entire bone structure and numerous organs to support their new form,” he answers without preamble.

Celia: “And their new form… would be larger? Smaller?” She knows of Pearl’s disdain for her ghoul’s form, though she looks for North to confirm her thoughts.

Jon: “Smaller,” the surgeon confirms. “It goes without saying the margin for error in such a matter is zero.”

Celia: “I do not make mistakes, Archon North.”

“There’s… much to be discussed, if you’re looking to reduce. What age?”

Jon: “I think you can very well guess, Ms. Kalani,” Jonathan answers.

Celia: Jade’s smile is her only answer.

GM: Celia heard the story from Veronica. Cloe used to be six and the most perfectly angelic little cherub you could have laid eyes on.

Veronica thought it was hilarious how Pearl thought she was ‘ruined.’ Served the dusty old relic that was her grandsire right.

Celia: “You wish to return her to her age prior to my grandsire’s benevolence,” Jade says finally.

“That’s difficult work,” she continues, without waiting for his response.

“To take something aged as it is and return it to a prior state. It’s… well. You cut everything almost in half. Bones, organs… everything.” She watches his face as she speaks. She’s right, but she’d like him to confirm it.

Jon: A slight nod.

Celia: Jade considers. Her brain whirls. It’s easy to see in her eyes: what it means for her.

“I can assist,” she says at last.

Jon: She can see herself reflected in his unwavering eyes.

“Can you?” His tone doesn’t change, but he sets a hand on the table. Large, scarred, weathered.

Celia: Jade’s eyes are drawn toward the hand he offers. Her brows lift. He doesn’t need her to fix such a thing. A test? She hesitates only a moment before reaching toward him.

“Shall I show you, archon?”

“I have a place with my tools nearby, should you need demonstration.” There, too, more privacy.

Jon: An unfamiliar face greets the Toreador when he looks back up from the hand, but the voice is the same.

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“If you would be a part of this, yes. Certainty is required.”

“One of mine will present you with a canvas. This is your reference. Precision is required.”

Celia: Jade’s eyes drink in the face across from her for a long moment, studying its details.

“Understood, sir. And you will understand that your… patronage would do much for someone as young as I, were we to collaborate effectively.”

Jon: This time she can see it happen, more slowly, as though demonstratively. The jawline shifts, the cheeks fall, the brow thins.

In a moment the archon sits across from her once more.

Celia: Shadow dancing, she thinks, but is not quite sure.

Jon: “If your skills are sufficient, there will be glory enough to go around if we are successful,” he agrees.

GM: Every surgeon needs an assistive nurse. It’s not like there’s anyone else he can ask.

Celia: “Then I shall be flawless,” she promises.

Jon: “I hope so. If we fail, I don’t expect New Orleans to be very welcoming thereafter.”

An understatement.

“This is a project for the entire city, the restoration of a priceless piece of its history.”

Celia: “You have my word, Archon North. I will not let you down.”

Jon: His gaze lingers.

Finally, “You are wise to keep your abilities quiet. Many of the fiends do not care for the sharing of their skills outside of their bloodline.”

Celia: Jade is very, very quiet for a moment. She is still, her eyes on him.

“Very few know of what goes on behind closed doors.”

It’s not a confirmation, though he can see it in her eyes. She does not try to hide it from him at this point. Apparently, he knows.

“Should you like to discuss further, archon, you know where to find me.” A code that’s not a code: she’s happy to discuss when the ears are not turned their way.

Jon: There’s a low chuckle this time. “Two hundred years walking the earth, Ms. Kalani. One thing I’ve learned with some certainty: don’t assume the Hidden Clan doesn’t already know any secret you’ve ever uttered aloud.”

He waives off further comments on the matter, “And what do you want, Ms. Kalani? Other than…. patronage.”

Celia: Her eyes close for a brief moment, only slightly longer than a blink. She should have known. Naive, to think that there are any secrets in this society. At least this is one of her lesser ones. And if it’s assumed she learned it from an archon… no one will have any cause to doubt the rest of her ruse.

Once her eyes open again she turns them to look upon his face. He’d give her status from the sheer fact of being seen with her, from their success on this project, but that… that is nothing compared to what she really wants.

GM: After all, there’s been one job that’s yet remained beyond her abilities.

Celia: “Show me,” she says bluntly, “I would learn from you. Assistant, protégé, tool; whatever you wish to call it.”

Jon: The Tremere pauses in contemplation before he finally speaks.

“I do not make idle promises, Ms. Kalani, so I will promise this: if you prove talented, if you prove meticulous, if you prove dedicated to the craft—if and only if these things are true, I have room for a protégé.”

Celia: It’s hardly the promise of power that she wants.

And yet… if things go well, how high will her esteem rise in the eyes of her clan? How much will her grandsire value her then, she wonders, and her great-grandsire besides? To add knowledge atop the bump in status…

“My work is nothing short of exemplary, archon. I daresay you will have no room for complaint.” A true smile stretches across her face for the first time since this meeting began. “I look forward to our lessons.”

Jon: There is no smile on the dead face before her, but his voice is not unkind when he speaks after a moment. “I have hope for you, Ms. Kalani. Prove me right.”

Celia: Jade inclines her head toward the archon.

“Thank you, sir. I shall.” A moment passes, her eyes flitting toward the dance floor before returning to his face. “It means much to me that you would seek me out for such a venture. Was there other business you had with me, or shall I leave you to your evening?”

Jon: The surgeon follows her eyes. There’s a hint of amusement in his own. “Is there other business between us, Ms. Kalani?”

Celia: “I wouldn’t presume to know the business of what brings an archon to the city, who knows enough about my station to reach out to me in so neutral a place.” There’s amusement in her eyes and voice. “Did you have a message for my master, perhaps?”

Jon: “You have a master, Ms. Kalani?” More amusement. “Tell me, who do you serve?”

Celia: She exhales briefly through her nose. It might be a laugh.

“Don’t we all serve some higher power? The lord who presides over the Quarter, of course.”

Jon: “Some, I’m told, call him ‘Lord Savoy,’ away from the prince’s Elysia,” he observes.

Celia: “Is that a question? We do indeed. I believe even the prince sees to it that he’s due his proper respect within Elysium, despite all their differences.”

Jon: “He does indeed, though ‘lord’ is a rather unique honorific, at least in this city. I wonder, did he choose it, and if so, why?”

Celia: Jade does laugh at that, though it contains no trace of irony or mockery. “He’s from France,” she says with a wave of her hand, “do they ever explain why they do anything?”

She leans in.

“If you’ve no missive I can pass along to the lord, then perhaps you’ll favor me with a dance?”

Jon: Jonathan’s mirth seems to dim. “That would be a favor.” He looks out into the crowd of kine.

Celia: “I’m young,” Jade reminds him, “I still partake in the sort of frivolity those of your age and status might deem unseemly.” She lifts her shoulders in a half-shrug, as if it doesn’t bother her if he turns her down.

The look she gives him, though, asks that he not.

Jon: He seems to reappraise her, but if he reaches a conclusion it is not apparent on his face. “There is a fine line between presumptuousness and meekness. Stray too far into one and your wings may melt. Stray too far into the other and you’ll never leave the ground.”

He rises, extending one hand to her.

“As in kine, as in kind, one is unlikely to receive what they do not seek.”

Celia: Jade shrugs out of her jacket before she takes the offered hand. It leaves her arms and shoulders bare, and the black top she has on beneath it is more club-like than the stiff formal wear she donned for their meeting. Her smile is all-too satisfied, as if she cares not one whit what he has decided about her. She does not follow; she leads him to the dance floor, parting the kine around her as if they were some sort of sea that crests upon the sand. They give where she flows, and where she flows he follows, if only for the hands that they have clasped together.

The music is not the sort of ballroom waltz or refined band that he might be used to, and yet Jade seems at home on the floor. It washes over her, lets her body move in a sensuous, promising way, though always her hand, hip, or chest remains flush against his, and she pays no attention to the horde of kine that look at the pair of them cutting their way to the floor.

She has some training in dance, it would seem, if her spry dips and pivots and shimmies are anything to judge by; that or she has taken to the learnings of her clan with gusto. What is dance if not art, after all, and what is art if not a display of skill. In this, as in most things, she is skilled.

There’s a moment when the music brings them together. A moment when her knee bends, hip lifts, and her body curls against his on the floor. They are closer together than they have any right to be. Jade doesn’t seem bothered by it. She pays no mind to the Beast who detests such physical displays. No, she comes even closer, her hands looped around the archon’s neck. She leans in. Up.

Her lips find purchase on his ear. A gentle tug with her mouth and the flats of her teeth; more forward than she has any right to be with someone she hardly knows.

And yet…

And yet there must be reason.

Jon: The Tremere moves more easily than she might have expected. There’s raw power there, slabs of muscle across his shoulders and taunt steel cords up and down his arms. He carries himself like a freight train. Like he couldn’t care less about anything in his way.

But there’s an almost unnatural fluidity behind it. No, not almost. Nothing that large should move that smoothly.

No matter the source, he moves like a jungle cat, powerful, fearless, and with an almost lazy grace.

There’s some skill there too—he’s no professional dancer—but there’s more than the average club-goer behind his motions.

And the Beast. The Beast all but swims under his skin, a shark in a sea of minnows, an overbearing presence.

She swims among sharks, but it’s rare that a terror from the deeps swims this close to the surface.

Her nip finds no purchase, sliding across flesh as hard as kevlar.

Celia: And yet she does not shy away from him. This slip of a girl—a plastic surgeon, if Poincaré is to be believed—she seems at home as close to him as she is. Perhaps she’s waiting for some display of actual power, not the play of muscles beneath skin and cloth or the bandied words exchanged in a booth. Her eyes meet his; her smile is nothing short of appreciative. Form, grace, poise; he lacks for nothing, and she is a shadow to the moves he makes across the floor.

She does not bite to claim or wound; no, her teeth seek a different purchase, and she nibbles again at his ear. A message, if only he would listen.

Jon: The surgeon doesn’t react to her nips, and while his hands are on her, hard, powerful, they don’t explore so much as handle.

If she’s expecting him to show off, she’s disappointed. She’s equally so if she expects him to react to her advances.

After several of her nips he finally leans in close, his words intended for her alone.

“You are quite lovely, my dear, and I’m not adverse to mixing business and pleasure. But you’ll have to show me that what’s inside your mind is as intriguing as your flesh.”

He slides away as the music changes, his finger tips trailing across her palm.

Celia: A thrill runs through her at the insinuation. She hadn’t been interested until he’d said it, but now that he has… her eyes sweep his form once more, wondering at the power he hides behind that crisp suit jacket.

She’s not so easy to get rid of as all of that, though. Inside her mind, is it? That’s what she wanted anyway; it only took him long enough to figure it out, though perhaps if she’d tapped his temple rather than his ear it would have sped things along. Not that she didn’t enjoy the dancing, or his hands on her, or their closeness. Not at all.

Her fingers curl around the hand he sweeps along her palm. She doesn’t presume to tug him to a stop, but she does flit after him as he begins to slip away, and she rises high enough to whisper into his ear, “Why don’t you look and see.”

Jon: Dark, cool, cold. Meticulously ordered. The mind whose thoughts slides across hers feels so much like a house of glass and steel. His mental touch is much like his physical one—hard and firm without rising to rough.

:: Rarely without permission. ::

Celia: Ice. Like someone has caught her mind in a steel trap, and if she moves the wrong way or thinks the wrong thing it will snap shut around her and snuff the light and (un)life from her eyes. Tightness coils in her chest.

Jade is cognizant of the gazes upon them, the rats who chitter-chatter, even as the iron jaws clamp down around her brain. She will not be the one to give up the ruse. Her steps do not miss a beat of the music, even as her focus slides inward to the presence within her mind.

:: My thanks for your restraint then, archon. I have a message for you alone. ::

Her hand stays in his, steadfast, leading him or letting him lead her through the dance to keep up appearances.

Jon: He settles into a comfortable lead with her, his eyes locked on hers.

:: You have my undivided attention, Miss Kalani. ::

Celia: That’s how she likes it.

:: The lord of whom we spoke earlier wishes you to know that there are Salubri within the city. ::

Jon: There’s a moment of pause.

:: That’s a very interesting statement, Miss Kalani, and a particularly interesting one for him to pass through such a young lick as yourself. ::

Celia: She smiles for him and lets him draw his own conclusions.

:: He thought you might find it interesting. Shall I tell you the rest? ::

Jon: Amusement. Interest.

:: Please continue, Miss Kalani. ::

Celia: :: He has expressed desire to assist the Pyramid in cleansing the taint. ::

A brief pause. Her eyes, though locked onto his, take in the rest of his face as well, the minute expressions that most people don’t even realize they make, the reflexive action of muscle beneath the skin. Whatever she sees there causes her to continue rather than wait for him to prompt her.

:: He has further intelligence and physical evidence should you be interested. ::

Jon: There’s something in his eyes. Not doubt, but perhaps… consideration? Contemplation? She can almost see the gears turning with her every word, feel see the razor’s edge of the sharp focus he’s brought to bear upon every fiber of her being. It abates only momentarily with her words, replaced by… familiarity. A move back to the normal.

The warlock’s laugh is deep and rich in her mind.

:: No doubt the lord of the French Quarter lays awake at night concerning himself with the good of the Pyramid. ::

It’s bait, on a hook. The kind of bait no Tremere can refuse. Not even an archon. He wonders, briefly, how long Savoy might have sat upon such a secret, waiting for the proper moment. The proper target, perhaps? He stops that line of thought before he lets the self-aggrandizement go too far.

Celia: North is not the only one who manages to laugh at the thought. The amusement from the neonate with whom he dances echoes down the line that links their minds together; it’s almost possible to imagine her eyes flashing as she lifts a hand to cover her mouth to stifle the laughter, though of course there are no auditory sounds. Outside of their connection she does not miss a step.

:: I would not pretend to know the inner workings of his mind. :: Her agreement comes easily enough, though not in so many words.

:: He has implied that he will be happy to show you what evidence he has if you are to visit. As you no doubt realize, it is a risk to carry such things upon my person. ::

Jon: And then there is this thing before him… Veronica’s childe.

He knows the harpy better than some. Knows the viciousness of her, how far the fruit fell from the tree in that one. All the cunning of her sire but none of the manners, the refinement. That one was all venom and slyness. He’d thought her a better serpent than rose—but who was he to criticize one’s choice in childer?

What then, of Veronica’s own childer? What traits made her appealing to her sire? What exactly does he have in his arms right now?

Something sharp enough it seemed to be worthy of carrying such a secret. Considered discerning enough to bait that trap for him…

:: You can tell your master that he need not have so tempted me—I could not decline the pleasure of his company—but I would be very interested in reviewing what he might have to offer on the subject when I call. ::

How wholly must she be his creature, to be trusted with something like that? Interesting that she had it on such short notice of this meeting—at her grandsire’s suggestion. That points all kinds of interesting and disturbing directions in his minds.

Ah, New Orleans. Where the game is played unlike anywhere else in the Americas.

Celia: Is he tempted? Those are words of flattery if she’s ever heard any, though she can’t help but think it is the soul-thieves who have him all a flutter. Still, Jade offers him a smile cut with promises.

:: I shall pass that along. Thank you for the dance; you’ve been lovely company. My apologies for all but mauling you. ::

She does not allude to roles played or masks worn. He seems a sharp enough sort to figure it out on his own.

Jon: The hint of a smile.

:: Lupines maul. Having been on the receiving end of both, there’s no comparison. ::

The surgeon disengages himself from the Toreador with a smile. “This was… fun. Perhaps we’ll do it again.”

Celia: He’d been mauled by a Loup-Garoux and lived to tell the tale? Dark eyes sweep his form once more, appraising the slabs of muscle contained beneath his shirt, the chiseled planes of his body. They’re all dangerous in their own ways, but this one… Hard and cold like steel, with all the refinement that comes with age, and a sharp mind—neatly packaged, all. Intimidating, certainly some might see it that way, but she has another word in mind. Even the iron trap around her mind, the sharp jaws ready to rip into her head, had been delicate, velvet-fitted scalpels. Precise. A surgeon, indeed.

Flame, moth.

“I would like that.”

Jade is not ignorant of their respective statuses. She offers him the courtesy of leaving first, lingering alone on the floor to watch the Tremere slip away.

Jon: The archon makes no great affair of his withdrawal, moving through the crowd further into the club, rather than from it.

“Until then, Miss Kalani.”


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Story Eleven, Caroline XIV

“Nothing goes as planned. Even when you win.”
Roger Ferris


Tuesday night, 8 March 2016, AM

Caroline: There’s much to be done.

First, she wants Roger to dispose of the bodies of the hunters in a neat way, and will defer to him on it. If it causes a headache for Savoy, or at least forces him to get involved in some way, all the better. She wants the lord of the French Quarter’s fingerprints on this. Roger knows more about their operational patterns. No doubt this isn’t their first casualty.

The two that alive are turned over to her ghouls—unless he has some specific plan in place to make use of them. Their particular wounds are difficult to explain, and that many dead cops is not something anyone can readily wash away. Her initial thought is to brainwash the two living with the memory of having murdered their fellows—the group as a whole having served a small corrupt group within the NOPD whose greed eventually led them to violence against each other. It’s sure to be a story, but one the NOPD will want buried as much as anyone. Perhaps they were looting the evidence locker, or stealing from criminals they busted?

In either case, before they’re turned over towards that purpose, she needs information on, if not their other hunters, at least on their past operations. What else have they gotten up to? What else do they know? Who else have they destroyed? What vampires have compromised agents or havens? If necessary she can and will rewrite their memories before she departs to make Ferris their reporting senior, or to give them instructions from their leaders to read him in. In any case, their memories of her at the site of Malveaux’s murder are wiped.

She needs any and all documentation her mother kept her organization or ties, and on this operation specifically. She doesn’t expect much. If there is any recording of the attack on Malveaux she wants it. In particular, footage showing that she had no part in the attack is of value—she wasn’t even there when he went into the house—nor were any of her ghouls.

She is breaking for an important meeting of her own. Her first stop is her mother’s home. Her new mother. That Gettis is alive is information she’s as eager to share, as is news of her destruction of her distant ancestor. That news raises many questions, foremost among them about the providence of Cécilia’s bodyguard (and Gettis’ killer).

GM: Ferris brings up several matters pertaining to the French Quarter lord.

Savoy and Gettis don’t know Claire’s dead at this point, and have no reason to believe so. Savoy wasn’t involved in the hit’s tactical planning at all, but Gettis was, and knew Claire wasn’t taking to the field.

If Caroline desires, Ferris can resume his time-honored role as a double agent claiming to work for someone else. They won’t be able to maintain the ruse forever, but in the short term, they could.

Ferris thinks blaming the dead cops on the living cops is a good story as it pertains to the Masquerade. He doesn’t think it will fool Gettis, who knows his men and well knows such Kindred tricks. He also points out that too visible an effort to preserve the Masquerade will tip off Gettis (and through him, Savoy) that another Kindred was involved in this affair.

At this point, Gettis likely doesn’t believe Caroline was. Claire never shared her daughter’s nature with Gettis, though it’s possible Savoy did. Claire would not have told Gettis or Savoy about Caroline’s involvement in the Malveaux hit.

Ferris can interrogate the hunters for what they know. He says Gettis has certainly prepared for the possibility of his men falling into Kindred hands, and to treat all intelligence gained as suspect until independently verified. He doesn’t think it’s necessary for Caroline to make him their reporting senior—or rather, he thinks it’d be easier to interrogate them through conventional means.

As far as any documentation held by Claire, he’d guess that if there’s any, it’s in her hotel room—along with the devices where she remotely watched the hit.

“She also had another hideout in the city. I don’t know where. Could be more there.”

He does add that if he were Savoy, he’d have eyes on that hotel room. There could be risks to going back—it’s his guess how long any countermeasures placed by Claire may now last. “Risks and rewards.”

Caroline: “Plan for tomorrow,” Caroline responds, regarding her mother’s hotel room. “We can break off if needed, but if he gets in first it could be… very damaging.”

GM: “Could be a lot easier if you got back there the same way you got out,” Ferris observes. “You were in that room. Then you weren’t.”

Caroline: Caroline’s blue eyes betray nothing. “All things have a cost.”

GM: Ferris doesn’t press it, and next brings up an elephant in the room.

Explaining Claire’s death.

There are multiple reasons the sheriff didn’t attempt to eliminate her—at least, immediately—but one of the gravest was the threat to the Masquerade. She’s too public. Too important. Too connected. They have a brief window before the Malveaux family realizes Caroline’s mother is missing—and then neither of them will be able to stop the ensuing manhunt. Ferris supposes he’ll be in charge at first, but when he doesn’t produce a living Claire, he can think of ten thousand different ways this could fall out of his hands and onto the national news.

They picked a fight with the Masquerade even the sheriff didn’t want.

Caroline: Caroline is well aware of the implications of her mother’s disappearance. She doesn’t have an immediate answer, but will have one tonight. Producing a Claire will factor into it.

GM: Ferris says he’ll interrogate the hunters and hit Claire’s hotel room this morning, then asks what Caroline’s call is so far as any potential continued dealings with Gettis. They probably have until people realize Claire is missing for that too.

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t expect Gettis will buy Ferris’ coincidental survival when all of his men died, and frankly considers Ferris to be too important for the information he has about recent dealings.

GM: “Two surviving helps there,” the ex-CIA agent points out, but otherwise defers to Caroline’s decision.

Caroline: For the moment, or the night at least, she wants him to avoid the ancient ghoul, especially since she doesn’t know the extent of his abilities.

GM: “Considerable. I’ve seen him take apart younger Kindred. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.”

Caroline: “How young are we talking about?”

GM: “Last one we killed together was maybe half a century. Her name was Emily Thurmon.”

Caroline: So that’s what happened to Thurmon, Caroline considers.

“How old is he?”

GM: “Not sure. He’s been working with Savoy since the French Quarter lord came to power. Old enough he’ll be dust if he misses a dose.”

Caroline: “Among other things, I’ll need a list of Kindred you—or he—have killed in the last six months, along with those you have under observation.”

GM: “It’s a fair few. Sheriff used us to get rid of his enemies.”

Caroline: “Thurmon was on his hit list?” Caroline asks curiously.

GM: “She was,” Ferris states.

Caroline: Another weapon removed from the arsenal of my enemies, Caroline thinks.

GM: “We passed all his targets to Savoy. Arranged to foul a couple jobs, though Savoy let us kill a few of his people to maintain cover.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “Can’t let your duties to your subordinates get in the way of expediency.”

GM: “Bishop’s dead. Gamble paid out for him. None of the people of his we killed were anywhere near as important.”

Caroline: “We’ll see. Anything else pressing?”

GM: “Plenty of potential usefulness or relevance. None immediately pressing.”

Caroline: Caroline’s blue eyes glitter at the prospect. “We’ll make time when the fires are out.”


Tuesday night, 8 March 2016, AM

GM: Traffic is minimal between the CBD and Garden District at this hour in the middle of the night. No lights emit from the walled mansion where the Devillers family lives. No one answers when Caroline tries the house’s landline number or the gate’s intercom. She lacks a cellular number for Abélia, though has ones for Yvette, Yvonne, and the other Devillers children—or as Abélia might term them, her imminent sisters.

Caroline: She calls Cécilia, knowing she’s awaking her. Gettis is alive, which puts everything about one of her soon-to-be sister’s guardians into question.

GM: More than a few rings pass before a very tired-sounding Cécilia picks up. “Caroline… what is it…?”

Caroline can’t see Cécilia’s face. But she can hear how the news shocks her brother’s fiancée to instant wakefulness like a bucket of ice-cold water.

“What?”

Caroline: “I need to talk to Abélia,” Caroline answers, not bothering to repeat herself.

GM: “She’s… she’ll be at the LaLaurie House. Caroline, how do you… did something happen? Are any of the girls hurt?” Cécilia’s initially confused voice goes sharp as a tack.

Caroline: “No one’s hurt,” Caroline lies. Then, “We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Did she have Simmone with her?”

GM: There’s a pause. “Yes, Simmone’s with her everywhere. Did…”

“Cécilia? What is it…?” sounds a muffled but familiar male voice.

“It’s about the wedding.”

“At this hour…?”

“I know. I’m telling them off… go back to sleep.”

Caroline: Caroline waits for Cécilia to finish her conversation with her brother.

GM: Cécilia’s hushed voice sounds again shortly later. “Tell Maman about this. In person. Stop by the LaLaurie House. I’ll… I have a thousand questions, but I’ll hear it from her.”

Caroline: The Ventrue bites her lip. The French Quarter has eyes, but she supposes it can’t be avoided. “I’ll talk to you later,” she agrees.

She departs for the LaLaurie House.

GM: It’s a long-feeling drive back from the Garden District to the CBD, and from there to the Quarter. There’s equally little traffic even deeper into the dead of night. The city feels asleep as a light rain starts to patter down, but Caroline can only wonder how unsleeping the eyes watching the French Quarter are.

The house on 1140 Royal Street, the same street as Antoine Savoy’s own center of power, stands out little amidst its neighbors. Second-generation Creole architecture. Plain gray gray walls. Delicate iron work along the gallery’s (balcony’s) railings. Potted green plants there, like every gallery in the Quarter seems to have. Tall for when it was built at three stories.

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Caroline: Caroline knows more than a little about the dark history of the house. Remembers her mother speaking of it. Remembers it at the center of a night of anguish what seems like lifetimes ago. Still, she’s never visited.

She knows the stories are far more than stories, knows the place is a pit of darkness, but finds herself unable to fear it. If this is where Abélia makes her home, she trusts whatever terrors it hides are not meant for her.

GM: Caroline almost expects there to be no visible means of egress to the house, but there’s a doorbell as modern-looking as any on the Giani Building. She buzzes it.

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There’s no answer—save for the house’s iron gate silently swinging open, admitting Caroline into a deep, white portal that leads to the front door. Rain dully patters against iron as the gilded bars clang ominously shut behind her. The feeling is not unlike stepping inside an airlock—entering a source of contamination that must be quarantined from the outside world.

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Two urns sit by the front door, along with a panel carving of Apollo in his chariot. Caroline pushes the second bell. The door swings slowly open on silent hinges.

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The house’s interior is almost pitch dark. It doesn’t smell like Caroline thought it might, though. It’s clean and fresh. An iron-railed, winding stair (“said the spider to the fly”) ascends from the checkered marble floor to the house’s second story. Two further doors on the staircase’s left and right lead deeper into the home’s unseen recesses.

Shuffling steps sound at the edge of Caroline’s hearing. A tall, looming figure emerges from within the gloom.

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The figure stares down at Caroline. It doesn’t say anything.

Maybe it can’t.

Caroline: Caroline eyes the figure. “You’re not who I thought you were.”

She finds she cares less about its identity now than before.

“I need to speak with her.”

GM: The figure does not answer Caroline’s first statement. It silently points towards one of the adjacent rooms.

Caroline: The blonde sets off.

GM: For all that Caroline has heard of the house’s cursed reputation, the indicated sitting room appears mundane enough. It’s tastefully decorated with delicate rococo furniture, persian rugs, classical artwork, and a ponderously ticking grandfather clock.

She can see her reflection in the glass. She looks like death. Her skin is lighter than her destroyed—no, annihilated—ancestor’s, but not by much. Color is equally absent from her cheeks, lips, and forehead, giving her face a curiously uniform, plastic-like appearance. Her firm jaw, inherited from her mother, has an almost cruel cast to it. Her pale blue eyes are glassy like marbles. She looks like a morbid doll. A mockingly rendered approximation of the person she used to be.

Her mother’s—first mother’s—words on her appearance weren’t so long ago.

You look… good, did you know that? Less pale, maybe.

Less of the monster tonight, I guess, than the daughter.

Caroline: She wants to look away, but she doesn’t.

This is who you’ve become, she tells herself.

GM: Staring into that reflected vision of herself brings to mind another individual’s long-dead words. Dry and croaked, like he was.

I wish there was a way to fight against it and win. But there isn’t. I’ve searched. I’ve seen. All I know how is the way to lose more slowly.

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Caroline: It doesn’t matter. He’s gone, just like her mother is gone.

GM: The faceless man wordlessly points towards one of the Roman numerals on the clock. A half hour or so from now.

Caroline settles in on a couch and pulls out her phone to stay productively occupied. There’s always something to do. Something to lose herself in.

It beats losing herself. Or at least distracts from it.

She doesn’t hear the tall figure’s retreating footsteps. They’re simply gone. The Ventrue is left alone with her thoughts and her phone’s faintly glowing screen.

Minutes pass.

Then, to Caroline’s newly-sensitive ears. A faint pitter-patter, like the rain against the windows, but heavier and more sequential. She hears the faint thumping of the kine child’s smaller heart before Simmone steps into view. She’s clad in a nightgown and her eyes are rimmed with sleep.

“Caroline…? It’s really late…”

Caroline: Caroline sets down her phone, devoting her full attention to the girl. “I know, I’m sorry. Did I wake you coming in?”

GM: “No… no, mah bedroom’s…” She yawns and points vaguely at the ceiling. “Up there…”

Caroline: “Did you need something?” she asks.

GM: Simmone clambers onto the couch, curls against Caroline, and then abruptly pulls back.

Bong sang, you’re cold…!”

She tilts her and looks at Caroline. Her still-sleepy expression is almost confused. “You look really sick…”

Caroline: The Ventrue forces a smile onto her lifeless face. “It’s been a very long night,” she says. “I just need to rest.” She forces still blood to bump through arteries, forcing an illusion of life back into her corpse.

It’s not even all a lie.

GM: Simmone looks at her face another moment. Caroline can feel it taking more out of her than last time, but the ten-year-old’s sleepy face eventually un-furrows.

“Yeah, Ah guess… why are you ’ere so late?”

Caroline: “I did something tonight, Simmone. Something… something terrible,” she admits.

GM: “You saved Yvonne’s life…” Simmone answers, as if in refutation.

Caroline: “I did that too,” Caroline agrees with a steadily fading smile, like the setting of the sun.

GM: “So… what’d you do?” she asks uncertainly.

Caroline: “I hurt someone. Someone I cared about. Someone that cared about me,” the Ventrue admits.

GM: “Was it an accident?”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “No.” She shakes her head again. “No. We were fighting, about something. They thought they were doing what was right, but they weren’t. They wouldn’t stop.” She digs her fingernails into her palms. “They wouldn’t listen. She wouldn’t listen.”

GM: “Oh.” Simmone doesn’t look completely sure what to say. “When are they, Ah mean she, going to get better?”

Caroline: “I don’t think so, Simmone.” She hangs her head. “I think it was the right thing. If I hadn’t stopped them it would’ve been very bad, but that doesn’t make it any better.”

She looks at the young girl. “Something about being an adult, I guess, sometimes you have to make choices when there aren’t any good ones.”

GM: “Oh,” Simmone says again to Caroline’s answer. She looks worried, even sad for the Ventrue, though still unsure of what to say. “Well… Ah’m sure you did the raht thing. Or the most raht.”

Caroline: “I hope so.” She looks down at the girl. “I guess it shows even adults make mistakes, right?” She draws in a meaningless breath so she can sigh.

GM: “Maman doesn’t,” Simmone says. “Is that why you’re ’ere, so she can ’elp?”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “I don’t know where I’d be without her,” the Ventrue admits.

But she made some mistakes, it seems.

She looks into Simmone’s eyes. “Could you forgive me, if I’d hurt you?”

GM:Sûre. You wouldn’t on purpose,” the ten-year-old answers.

Caroline: Caroline stares at Simmone for a long moment.

“I wouldn’t want to,” she agrees at last.

“Why are you out of bed?” she asks, changing the subject.

GM: “Ah woke up. Sometimes Ah do that. Ah ’ave… bad dreams.”

Caroline: “Did you have a bad dream tonight?”

GM: Simmone nods.

Caroline: “Do you remember it?”

GM: “It was… the shooting,” she says uncomfortably. “Yvonne and… the man ‘oo did it. ’E keeps ’urting us. ’E’s always been ’urting us…” Simmone scrunches her eyes. “Ah wish ’e’d… Ah wish ’e’d go away…”

Caroline: Caroline reaches out for the girl and wraps an arm around her. “I’ll never let him hurt any of you again,” she tells her.

GM: Simmone gladly curls up against Caroline, resting a head against her chest. “Maman doesn’t want me to sleep with ‘er anymore, unless the dreams are really bad. She says Ah’m getting old for it. Ah guess she’s right, but…”

Caroline: “She’s right to,” Caroline replies softly. “Eventually children have to leave the nest. Parents have to let them go out and experience things, make their own choices. If they don’t, they’ll end up trying to run their children’s lives forever.”

GM: Simmone thinks for a moment, then says, “But what if Ah want ’er to?”

Caroline: “What about what she wants?”

GM: “She’d, well…” Simmone trails off. “Ah dunno. Sometimes Ah want to be like Peter Pan and never grow up.”

Caroline: Caroline could grant that wish, in a twisted and perverted way.

GM: “You make being an adult sound… well, ‘ard. Ah don’t want things to be ’ard anymore. Ah just want them to go back… to ’ow they used to be.” Simmone looks a little frustrated, but more sad.

Caroline: “We can never go back,” Caroline answers. “We can’t change the past, or repeat it. There is only ever the future.”

“But it’s not all bad. It may seem like it sometimes, but being an adult has its advantages.”

GM: “But Ah don’t like the future,” Simmone says glumly. “We’ve ‘ad… all this ’appen, and Yvette and Yvonne are leaving next year… and Cécilia’s going to ‘ave a baby, and it’s neat and a little weird Ah’ll be an aunt, but what if she doesn’t ’ave time for me…”

Caroline: Caroline gives a sound that might be a strangled laugh, and turns away to wipe her eyes as a sad but genuine smile blossoms across her face. She carefully wipes away the blood before turning back. The fears of a child.

“Not all change is bad. Would you have never met me?” she asks.

GM: “No… no, Ah’m ’appy for that…”

Caroline: She brushes Simmone’s hair out of her face. “I’ve been wrong before… many… many times. But I think I’m right in this, if nothing else.”

“The past, for good and ill, we carry with us. We can’t change it, nor can we return to it. Not the most terrible things, nor the best times. The future though… in it is endless possibility for good and will—and our own ability to change it.”

“When you become an adult your decisions become yours. Sometimes you make the wrong ones—or even the right ones that are still bad. But you gain the ability to make the right ones. To guide yourself down a path you want.”

“You can meet new people, and create new memories. You can become the aunt you always wanted to be for your new niece, and maybe make your mother very happy one day by giving her grandchildren as well.”

GM: “Ah guess that’s true…” Simmone nods at Caroline’s words. “Ah mean, Maman was a kid like me once, and she started to make raht decisions, like you say, and started to make them for a lot of people.”

Caroline: “And someday you’ll do the same for your daughters,” Caroline agrees.

GM: “It’s really ’ard to picture me like that. Being an aunt is easier.” She smiles. “You’re raht though, they would be girls. Men don’t run in our genes.”

Caroline: “Spoken like your mother,” Caroline answers.

GM: “She’s raht, we don’t ‘ave any brothers or uncles or anything. It’s kinda nice.”

Caroline: “Men can be nice to have around,” Caroline replies. “I love my brothers… my father.”

GM: “Oh they can be, your brother’s nice. It’s just seems like it’d be…” Simmone seems to search for words. “Ah dunno. Different, Ah guess. Ah guess there’s just good and bad things to everything. Like ‘ow Ah don’t ‘ave to go to school anymore. It’s nice getting to sleep in every day, and see Cécilia and Adeline more, but Ah miss mah friends too.”

Caroline: “Would you like to go back to school?” Caroline asks.

GM: Simmone looks uncomfortable. “Ah’m… Ah’m scared, without Maman. Ah’ve missed ’alf the year. Ah was in theater. We were doing The Wizard of Oz, and Ah was going to be Dorothy.”

Caroline: “That would have been something to see,” Caroline replies. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to.”

GM: “Well… Ah guess it’s like you said, you wouldn’t ‘ave come if you ’adn’t saved Yvonne’s life…”

Caroline: Caroline nods, then checks the clock. “Are you ready to go back to bed?” she asks.

GM: Simmone follows her gaze. “Ah guess so. Though it’s not like Ah ’ave to be up early, right?”

Caroline: “Still a good habit,” Caroline answers. “Come on, I’ll tuck you in.”

GM: Simmone holds out her arms. “Carry me?”

Caroline: A smile worms its way across the dead face. “I suppose,” she answers. “Just don’t tell your mother.”

GM: “Oh, she still carries me everywhere,” Simmone smiles back. “She says Ah won’t be too old for that until Ah’m too ’eavy.”

Caroline: That won’t be that long, Caroline thinks. Especially on an eternal, immortal calendar. She can see why Abélia does it.

“All right. Let’s go.”

GM: “Ah still do ballet,” the ten-year-old adds as Caroline picks her up. “Maman ’as mah dance teacher come by to give me lessons. You could watch those.”

Caroline: “Maybe I will,” Caroline agrees, kicking off her heels even as she hoists the preteen.

GM: “She comes bah on Tuesdays and Thursday at 5:30, for an hour,” Simmone helpfully adds as they start moving.

Caroline: “I’ll make a note.” The timing would be awkward under ideal circumstances, but maybe if she’s late arriving one night…

GM: It’s a long and winding path up the three flights of stairs to Simmone’s bedroom. “Ah thought the view was better last time,” the ten-year-old comments humorously, though it’s certainly an easier walk barefoot.

Simmone’s bedroom looks utterly unlike what one might expect of the LaLaurie House. There’s pink bubble patterns on the walls, posters for several plays (including Phantom of the Opera and Into the Woods), and a zebra-patterned rug next to the pink-sheeted bed.

Caroline: Caroline settles the girl into her pink bed and adjusts the sheets and stuffed animals to tuck her in comfortably.

GM: Simmone has Caroline tuck a stuffed panda bear named Mrs. Melons (“because Ah spilled melon on ’er once”) under the sheets next to her, murmurs a “g’naht…” and yawns as she turns over against her pillow. Caroline turns off the lamp on her bedside table. The room is silent but for the steady pattering of rain against her window.

“You’re fitting in marvelously, Caroline,” purrs a low and familiar voice.

Caroline: Caroline turns, searching for the source but not expecting to find one.

“It’s all about finding one’s place,” she agrees quietly.

GM: The Ventrue’s eyes cast towards the door, across the room, and then abruptly back to the door. Abélia Devillers stands within its threshold. Caroline’s sight cannot pierce the clinging darkness in the hallway beyond, but the swollen and melon-like shape to Abélia’s belly is unmistakable.

Caroline: Caroline stares at it for a moment, before settling her gaze back on the French matron’s face.

GM: “Your eyes are already coming in,” the raven-haired woman smiles, stroking her belly. Her voice remains at a whisper. “They look beautiful, Caroline.”

Caroline: Caroline wants to ask, but fears for the answer.

“They’re different,” she says she touches her face. “But then of course they’d be. I shall have to think on how to explain them.”

GM: Abélia gives a faint, fluttering laugh.

“Such a responsible daughter. So concerned for your Masquerade.”

Caroline: “Shall we withdraw so she can sleep?” Caroline gestures to Simmone.

GM: Abélia smiles benignly as her dark eyes passing between Caroline and her youngest. She seem to doesn’t step back into the hall so much as recede into it.

“On this occasion, you may direct your efforts elsewhere—you have so much else to do, and de Corazon’s little dream shall not suffer on account of your lovely eyes.”

Caroline: “And of the questions it may raise among the Damned?” Caroline asks.

Who are you? she wonders as Abélia so casually references centuries-ancient Kindred.

GM: There’s that same fluttering laugh.

“Most of Caine’s children are as gullible as Seth’s.”

Caroline: Caroline lets the matter go and continues in the hall with her ‘mother.’

“I destroyed the bishop. No, more. I devoured him.”

GM: “How did you find his taste?”

Caroline: “As bitter as he was in his Requiem,” Caroline answers. “But deeply satisfying,” she admits.

GM: “Bitter herbs are not without their place in one’s kitchen,” Abélia smiles. “You are pleased with your new power, I trust?”

Caroline: “It is necessary. As necessary as his destruction. Better that it should have been with purpose.”

Yes, she admits to herself.

GM: “More may yet come… give what you have taken time to digest. Whom shall you sup upon next?”

Caroline: “What may come. There’s more though, things you should know.” She waits this until they’ve moved down the hall. “Gettis is alive.”

GM: The two have already spoken of sensitive matters within Simmone’s earshot, of course, but Abélia seems unbothered and content to stroll through the gloom-shrouded halls at a leisurely pace.

“Oh, is he? I fear Jeremy may not be the sharpshooter he fancies himself.”

Caroline: Sensitive is one thing, but she would not give her ‘sister’ cause to fear the demon that haunts her dreams.

“He leads a large and powerful group of hunters within the NOPD,” Caroline continues, shocked by Abélia’s calm at learning of the deception.

GM: “That must certainly be a headache for Vidal,” Abélia smiles. “Savoy is clever to distract him with more visible threats to his influence. But that’s very considerate of you to bring me this information, Caroline. The safety and well-being of your sisters—don’t fret, more than your eyes is still to come in—was of course heavy upon your mind. What counsel would you give me towards that continued end, in light of this new development?”

Caroline: “I want to have all of their security vetted by my people,” Caroline answers, “and eventually replaced by those whose loyalty can be more firmly guaranteed. I will eventually move against Gettis directly, for now he’s lost an ally and many of his soldiers. I have two more I intend on using to create further headaches for him.”

GM: “Do we know the number and composition of his forces?” Abélia inquires. “But of course, vetting their security… I’ve been letting Daniel Hayes handle things there. He seems capable, but he isn’t family. He gets so discomfited when I don’t wish his men around. You won’t see any of them here… Simmone doesn’t like them, I don’t think, unfamiliar men carrying around those noisome guns.”

Caroline: “Moreno is also involved with Savoy, but I’m certain you knew that. Still, that danger is closer than others, depending on how deeply he is in with Savoy.”

GM: “Of course. Adeline and I will be very careful, and heed any further counsel you should give us.”

Caroline: Caroline looks at her mother, trying to figure out if she’s being patronized by the (much) older being.

GM: “One loses naught and may gain much from others’ counsel, my dear child.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “In that vein, I thought to seek your own.”

GM: “Seek and ye shall find,” Abélia smiles.

Caroline: She outlines the potential difficulties of explaining Claire’s disappearance, and also her concern should anyone suspect her part in the bishop’s death, and inquires as to whether her birth mother’s body might be produced, and similarly if her crime might be hidden.

GM: Abélia gives a light and fluttering laugh. “If it were simple to do, my dear child, all Cainites who supped upon their fellows’ souls would do it.”

“Still… hmm. To hide so dark a stain upon yours is no small thing, but it can be done. Bring me a child. The younger, the better—the innocence within an infant’s blood would conceal your crime most totally of all.”

Caroline: Caroline stares at Abélia.

GM: “It’s rude to stare, Caroline,” the raven-haired woman chides with an indulgent smile.

Caroline: She looks away. “Is there no other way?”

GM: “Like requires like, my dear. To paint a black soul white, one must draw from white.”

Caroline: “And the body?” she asks, already knowing her answer to the question of child murder.

GM: Abélia makes a faint tsking noise.

Quite gone, I am afraid.”

Caroline: Caroline tries not to frown too obviously.

GM: The smile returns. “Oh, but I can hardly bear to see any of my daughters unhappy. Just as an older child’s blood might substitute for an infant’s, perhaps we may find something to substitute for Claire Malveaux’s corpse… in what capacity would you desire to employ it?”

Caroline: “Her death will create a great many questions, both for the Masquerade generally, and specifically within the Malveaux family and the hunters she worked with. At minimum I’d wish to cover up the details of her death with the national media. If possible, I’d also desire to create the appearance to the various hunters that she either died a natural death or was killed by Savoy,” Caroline answers, perhaps too professionally.

GM: “Killing two birds with one stone. Very clever, my dear.”

Caroline: “Fracturing that alliance is necessary. As is securing the seneschal’s blessing, now that his demands are met.”

GM: “Oh, have you concerns that Philip may not grant it?”

Caroline: “Stained by the bishop’s blood and with a potential mess left by Claire’s disappearance?” Caroline asks in turn.

GM: “All stains fade in time, my dear. I’m certain a bright girl like you has the sense to wait until she’s cleaned up.”

Caroline: “All things with a cost, Mother. The longer I delay the more vulnerable I and everyone I care for am.”

GM: Abélia only smiles and strokes her swollen belly as the two’s meandering steps carry them past one staircase and then down another. Intricately patterned rugs, the occasional potted plant, and photos of the smiling Devillers family at various ages line the walls. Caroline sees herself in one, on a beach with Cécilia. Both hugging girls wear swimsuits and look younger than Simmone.

Caroline: Caroline stops to look at the picture. “Rewriting history, or just writing another one?” she asks.

GM: It’s not a local beach, or the Florida ones where her (old) family would sometimes go during long-distant childhood excursions across the Gulf of Mexico. The architecture is older, with as much stone as concrete, and orange shingles on many rooftoops. Caroline pegs it as the French Riviera.

“All threads of fate are intertwined, dear child. Embroider another pattern, and existing ones cannot help but be rewoven too.”

Caroline: “And what happens to Caroline Malveaux?”

GM: “Would you still bear that name?”

Caroline: It’s a meaningful question.

“It’s been mine for all my life,” she replies. “But more than a name, what happens to who I was?”

GM: Abélia chuckles lightly as she strokes her swollen belly. “Fret not, my sweet. You shan’t lose your bank accounts or any of those other trifles your clan prizes so dearly.”

Caroline: “What about my experiences?” Caroline asks.

GM: Abélia removes her hand to tenderly stroke Caroline’s cheek. Her dark eyes glint as they take in the Ventrue’s blue ones.

“Trust Maman, dear child. I desire naught but your happiness and success.”

Caroline: “I just want to understand what I am. Who I am. If I didn’t trust you I wouldn’t be here.”

Her mother never would have made such a gesture. Claire, who would have, who did, give up everything until her last moment trying to help Caroline, but only on her own terms.

Another question strikes her. “Were all my sisters born the same way?”

GM: Abélia gives a fluttering laugh as she removes her hand from Caroline’s cheek.

“Oh, clever girl.”

“They were… and they were not. Jehovah’s curse held as true for me as any mother. In pain did I bring them forth. They were not conceived as you were. But your entry into this world shall mirror theirs.”

Abélia walks with Caroline. They reach a balcony overlooking the home’s first-story interior courtyard. Rain pitter-patters against the brick floor. Camellias, rosemallows, gardenias, and other flowers bloom from pots and an earth-filled tough. Fig trees, Japanese maples, and other small trees branch above the flowers. Cushioned garden chairs and tables recline under wide parasols that keep them sheltered from the rain. A set of double french doors leads out to the street. Several further doors into the house’s depths.

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“What do you think of our family’s little home away from home?”

Caroline: “It’s not what I expected,” Caroline admits.

GM: “Expectations are so often traps of our own making,” Abélia smiles. “What had you expected?”

Caroline: “Darkness. I’d heard the LaLaurie House was one of the darkest and most haunted places in the city.”

GM: There’s a fluttering laugh.

“A poor home such a house would make for my Simmone indeed.”

Caroline: “Unless bent to your will,” Caroline answers.

GM: Another fluttering laugh.

“Oh, such feats you ascribe me. Next you shall be saying I direct the sun and moon in their cycles.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs. “Only feats within your grasp. That being a mother is enough may be true, but you are far more than simply that.”

GM: Abélia’s smile returns. “Having family agrees with you, my dear. It makes you say the sweetest of things.”

Caroline: Caroline smiles too. Why couldn’t it ever be like this, she wonders, but the thought passes just as quickly.

“But back to the body,” she presses.

GM: “You spare overmuch thought for the Masquerade, my dear,” the midnight-haired woman tsks. “We shall have to broaden your mind where that little chimera is concerned, sometime.”

Caroline feels a sudden sharp pain at the back of her head. Abélia pulls her hand away. A thick drop of blood clings to her fingertip.

“One of Claire’s children would have served better, but enough of her blood yet lingers in your veins.”

Abélia’s smile returns again.

“Waste not, want not.”

“Return your haven, my dear, ere the dawn rises. The Malveaux family shall have their corpse to mourn.”

Caroline: One of Claire’s children. The words echo in Caroline’s mind. I guess that means I’ve truly left behind my mortal life.

She isn’t certain if that disturbs or relieves her. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter.


Tuesday night, 8 March 2016, AM

GM: If Antoine Savoy’s agents notice Caroline’s car in his domain, parked on the same street as their master’s court, none visibly move to waylay her. She returns to her haven as the dawn rises and sleeps.
She doesn’t settle in to bed, close her eyes, and then wake up. She sleeps.

It does not feel restful. It feels like she is slowly sinking, as if into quicksand, and frantically for a handhold upon the shores of consciousness. Oblivion yawns beneath her. She is glad to awaken.

A woman’s naked corpse lies sprawled over the spartan room’s floor as casually as someone might have dropped a candy wrapper. Hollow green eyes like the ones Caroline used to have stare dumbly open. The face looks like Claire’s, but has a faint and disconcertingly plastic-like quality to it. It looks so much like Claire, it’s impossible to think of the corpse as anyone else’s… and yet the body is not Caroline’s (former?) mother, either, of that she is certain. It’s at once similar enough to attract and strange enough to repulse.

A black, tar-like substance leaks like drool from the naked corpse’s mouth, nostrils, nipples, and wide-staring eyes. The jaw’s lips are quirked in an almost amused-looking half-smile.

Caroline: The ‘sleep’, the body, her now-blue eyes, and the newly-heightened senses that bring it all into vivid clarity leave Caroline more than uneasy. They’re a horrifying and immediate reminder of everything that happened the night before. How she murdered her mother. How she diablerized the bishop. How she stained herself with the blackest sins of both Kindred and kine.

It’s too soon to know what she’s gained from all of this, but she knows all too clearly what she’s lost.
For there to be any gain, she needs to get to work. She doesn’t want to approach the body, doesn’t want to touch it, doesn’t even want to look at it. But she does. She moves to examine it, to determine how closely it might pass for a real one. She wipes away the black tar-like substance and closes the green eyes that stare at her.

Accusing eyes that seem to scream at her, You killed me.

GM: Claire’s corpse only lies there on the floor, almost repulsively stark in its nakedness.

As Caroline could well attest, however, the night does not slow for the dead. Her first meeting is with Roger Ferris. The ex-station chief says he has good news and bad news.

The bad news is that Claire’s hotel suite, when he went back, was stripped of all electronic devices, documentation, and other items of value. “The list of people who could have wound up with those is short. We can assume Savoy wouldn’t have known how the hit played out until Gettis told him.”

“There were eyes on that hotel. I picked up a tail. Ditched them, but wouldn’t want to go back to the Quarter. Only a matter of time until Savoy learns about last night, if he hasn’t already.”

The good news is that it “turns out our enemy’s enemy is our friend.” It’s never smart to go back to the scene of a crime, but in this case the crime scent came to them. The burned Garden District house and murder of its two occupants (a young married couple named Andrew and Heather Reid) made the morning news.

“Police concluded the scene was staged, and that a third party murdered that couple.” Ferris looks pleased. “They’re pursuing suspects in the poorer parts of the city. Vodouisant paraphernalia was found on the scene. I’ll give you one guess who’s framing the Baron’s people for this. If the sheriff sees through it, and he might suspect a bluff, doesn’t hurt someone else was there tampering with the crime scene after we pulled out.”

Ferris waits until last, however, to bring up the potentially most germane subject.

He didn’t ignore Claire’s body when he first came in. He didn’t look at it either. It was simply there to him, like any other piece of furniture in the room. Now, however, he finally looks at it. Then he looks back to Caroline.

“I will not be able to do my job effectively, Ms. Malveaux, without knowing the story behind this.” The ex-CIA agent’s tone is flat. “How was your stepmother’s body brought here and who was involved?”

Caroline: Caroline tries to keep the surprise off her face, but doubts she succeeds—at least in the face of the veteran operator that’s known her since she was a teenager—when he refers to Claire as her stepmother. She bides him to examine ’Claire’s’ sheet covered body, curious as to what he might make of it, while she takes in the details from the day. The stripping of the hotel creates problems with her plans to stage Claire’s death that’ll have to be cleaned up. She tries to keep it together as she falls away from the brief habit of calling Claire ‘mom’ and back into the impersonal.

She’s pleased that the police concluded the scene was staged, and that others seemingly meddled, while remaining concerned that in their own efforts they might have discovered something of her involvement.

She tells him in simple terms of her intentions with Claire and the necessary cover-up she’s even now putting into motion. Given Claire’s failing health and fatalism of late it’s fairly plausible others might believe her to have been suffering some chronic condition. Caroline is going to work to create a record of that, both in print and in memory with both the family and numerous doctors to explain her sudden death. There’s groundwork there she needs to set tonight with other Kindred, and the body needs to be carefully staged. Throughout the conversation she tries to feel out and build her knowledge of her relationship with the Malveaux family. If Claire is her stepmother, who is her mother? Presumably Nathan remains her father, so was he previously married to Abélia… or did they have an affair…

She tries to let Ferris fill in the gaps of her ‘knowledge’ of who exactly she is while he examines the corpse.

GM: Ferris does not drop the subject of how Claire’s naked corpse wound up in Caroline’s bedroom, and points out the thousand and one security risks he sees that could threaten her plans.

Caroline: She bids that she’d hear his thoughts on the corpse before offering her commentary on the body, and the varied ‘security risks’ associated with it.

GM: Ferris has already pulled the sheet back, but bends closer to examine it. “Feels wrong. Looks like her, but I can tell it’s not.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “It’s a creation. A facsimile stand-in. We need to get it into place.”

GM: Ferris then returns to the subject of how it got here, whether it was seen, who made it, and whether they are trustworthy.

Caroline: She replies that no one has seen it, that it was created by someone extremely trustworthy, but that the who is a detail she’s not ready to disclose yet. There’s no chance anyone saw them arrive or depart though, or the body’s creation.

“Some secrets even I have to keep, Roger, from everyone.”

GM: “So does everyone. Including whoever made this. No one’s completely trustworthy, Ms. Malveaux.”

Ferris, in any case, has a number of matters to report.

He and his people disposed of the hunters’ and two ghouls’ corpses. The chopped-up body parts are floating down the Mississippi in weighted bags towards the Gulf of Mexico.

They did not incriminate Antoine Savoy while doing so. There were a lot of corpses, and as it’s turned out, other parties are already on Caroline’s scene. Ferris deemed it safer to get rid of the corpses as quickly and expediently as possible than to try for anything extra.

Caroline: She asks as to whether she thinks their disappearance will cause more or less problems than their staged murder.

GM: “Gettis knows why these men are really missing, Ms. Malveaux.”

Caroline: “I’m less concerned with him, in this instant, than with a dozen police officers vanishing without answer.” She muses, “Though, so long as we are not attached to it, it’s less of an issue.”

GM: “Less than a dozen. They won’t be traced to us. I’d rather keep Gettis in the dark wondering how many are captured and talking than knowing for certain.”

Caroline: It’s not the most Masquerade friendly thought she’s ever had. She nods and bids him continue.

GM: Ferris interrogated the surviving hunters. Besides the missions they worked with Claire on, they were primarily involved in operations against the Baron’s followers (some Kindred, some ghouls, and some simply mortals) in the Seventh Ward. The regent-less parish has long been fought over between Savoy and Cimitiere in a game of tug-o-war behind the screen of gang violence in a high-crime area. Vidal largely leaves them alone to bloody one another’s noses. The Baron also has no influence over NOPD, unlike Vidal. Using them against his people, already frequent targets of NOPD, risked the hunters’ exposure less.

The hunters knew enough about this op to do their jobs. They knew Bishop Malveaux was a high-profile target among the leeches, and that the operation would be a dangerous one, but that they were stacking the deck in their favor. They knew the priest’s physical strengths and vulnerabilities, though little of him personally. They knew of the plan to stage the scene and the actions that would be expected of them. They did not know that Claire Malveaux was a hunter or watching their body cameras, though they knew that their NOSTF superiors were doing the latter.

Caroline: Caroline takes note of that without any pleasure. At this rate she wonders whether there will be any kingdom left for her to inherit when she’s done.

GM: The hunters do not know any others of significant note. Gettis only told them what they needed to know and discouraged contact with hunters outside their cell. They don’t even know any other NOSTF operatives.

Their cell was involved in an unsuccessful attempt on the Requiem of Doc Xola some months back. They did not engage him directly, but called off the op after it appeared he’d compromised a mole they’d placed among his ‘patients.’ They believed the undead bokor was attempting to bait them into a trap.

Caroline: Caroline nods. “I presume some detail of the interrogation is lost in translation.”

GM: “They’re still there if you want to do it yourself.”

“There’s other news. There’s been a third attempt on your Uncle Orson’s life.”

“The first was in the hospital. Your Uncle Matthew tried to poison his food. He didn’t try again after my people foiled that, but your Aunt Vera pulled the same stunt shortly after his discharge.”

Caroline: Caroline arches an eyebrow. “That’s aggressive. Has that been common?”

GM: “Your aunt and uncle hate him, Ms. Malveaux. Always have. They didn’t want him to ever leave that hospital.”

Caroline: “Adam,” Caroline speculates.

GM: “I presume Matt also wanted to seize control of the family, though it might have just been hate.”

“Yesterday someone mailed Orson a letter laced with anthrax. Alphonse intercepted it and came to us. I’ve been working on him for a while now. More than one reason it’s for the best he didn’t tell his boss. The heart attack took a lot out of your uncle. So did the gastric plication surgery. He doesn’t get out of the house a lot now. I hear he’s taken up gardening.”

“Not sure yet who sent the anthrax. Could be your aunt or uncle making another attempt. Could be a third party. But these attacks don’t look like they’re stopping.”

“Your stepmother said she would deal with Matt and Vera. I don’t know how she planned to. It’s moot now. She was going to get around to it after we’d left your staked corpse in a basement.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “More problems to be dealt with. I expect to have some tools available she never did. First I need to solidify my control of the family within my own circles, and that… that I expect to take a while longer. I do need to meet with both Matt and Orson as soon as possible though. Then, of course, the matter of Nathan.” It feels awkward using his name, but she has so many questions. “I don’t relish having to tell him his wife is dead, for many reasons, not the least of which is it will require more finesse than the other two, and I can’t exactly pop in on him besides.”

GM: Ferris raises an eyebrow at Caroline use of her father’s given name. “Your name’s mud with all three of them. They’re not interested in seeing you.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs bitterly. “All the more reason I need to do some restructuring.”

GM: “So’s mine. I’ve been fired from my official position in the family.”

Caroline: Caroline arches an eyebrow. “The ploy in December?”

GM: “You told Bishop Malveaux I was a rogue ghoul. He didn’t sit on his hands. Your stepmother and I thought about me trying to bluff I was still under his control, but concluded it’d have been too risky. He was too suspicious.”

Caroline: She nods. “Restructuring, as I said.”

GM: “The rest of my team’s all been fired too. It’s made protecting the family somewhat inconvenient.”

“I suspect it was one of the reasons your stepmother agreed to the hit. Bishop Malveaux’s been eager to find me. Living like I’m back in Jordan has been inconvenient.”

Caroline: “We both played the hands we had,” Caroline remarks. “Neither of those matters should be especially difficult to clear up going forward. Especially after… well, for now I need an opportunity to speak with them alone. With your knowledge of their schedules and protections I don’t imagine that will be impossible to arrange. The less immediate term matter of your status can be cleaned up following the cleanup of Claire’s passing.”

GM: “If you want me in charge of the investigation into Claire, I’d advise before. Your mother also might be able to arrange a more convenient meeting. She was a regular visitor to Orson in the hospital. He’s become fond of her.”

Caroline: “If it goes as planned, there won’t be much of an investigation,” Caroline replies. She explains in brief her intentions on covering up Claire’s death, related to creating the appearance of a long-term illness they all knew about that has taken a recent turn.

GM: “Nothing goes as planned. Even when you win.”

Caroline: “I hadn’t planned on her dying,” Caroline admits.

GM: “Neither did she,” the ex-CIA agent observes blandly.

Regardless, he stands prepared to carry out Caroline’s further instructions.

He cites several other matters, including the requested hit list on Claire’s past targets and a power play against Orson and Adam by priests within the Catholic Church, that are of relevance to Caroline’s or the family’s interests but do not require immediate address.

Widney, finally, also wanted to see Caroline. Ferris says she doesn’t have any news of consequence besides that Cécilia said she would be dropping by soon. Caroline cannot help but observe that seeing her first before anyone else was supposed to be Widney’s job—one Autumn had been vainly trying to muscle the younger ghoul out of for months.

Ferris awaits Caroline’s instructions what to do with the two captive hunters. He suggests doctoring their memories to make them “responsible” for disposing of their fellows’ bodies. Kill two birds with one stone. They can always release them later to keep Gettis in the dark for now.

Caroline: Caroline agrees with the suggestion, and makes arrangements to come before the two later in the evening to do the appropriate doctoring. She tasks Ferris with finding several of the spots in their memory she can plug in the demise of their fellows alongside their ‘criminal’ activities before she does so. She tasks Audrey with having a ‘snack’ ready before she heads off to do so.

GM: The latter ghoul fails to come through. She is not present at the Giani Building and does not answer calls or texts.

Caroline: That stops Caroline in her tracks. There’s no good reason for Audrey to be unavailable, no fresh horror that might have driven her away, no task more essential than being available right now. She is however, and has long been, the most vulnerable member of Caroline’s entourage. Vulnerable to either seduction or abduction. She taps a pale finger on a pale lip. That’s an unforeseen development. After Claire’s death she knew the mess of her plans this night might draw attention, might lead others to her door, but she’d hoped to wait it out. If someone has already drawn the connection and started moving against her…

Then she has far less time than she’d hoped, regardless of who it is that saw fit to investigate her. She can picture already nightmare scenarios, Savoy holding such power over her, the sheriff using it as an excuse to kill her, Gettis putting pieces together and taking some rash action or dismantling the world she’s carefully built—or, worse, attacking her family. Her sisters.

GM: “I’d be relieved if Gettis did something rash. Rash is messy in the short term, but easier to remove in the long term,” Ferris raises. “Wouldn’t count on us being that lucky though. Rash hasn’t him alive and independent from Savoy a hundred years.”

“Wouldn’t count on lucking out with the sheriff either. Claire always said her cooperation was the only reason he wasn’t taking off your head. Once he finds out she’s gone, you’ll be of no use to him anymore.”

The ex-CIA agent shakes his head. “Morrow being gone is bad. Bad enough ’someone’s’ already been to the crime scene and Claire’s suite. Enemies are moving, Ms. Malveaux. Best we don’t fall behind.”


Tuesday night, 8 March 2016, PM

GM: Cécilia stops by the Giani Building a little after 9 PM. It’s an almost uncannily perfect time, giving Caroline just enough to get dressed, showered, debriefed by Ferris, and to issue orders to her ghouls. It even seems to account for the alarmingly late hour she arose for the night—another grim sign of the Beast’s ever-widening jaws clamped around her soul. Spring, that unwelcome intruder, further eats away at the time.

But her future sister, not merely in-law, may be a less unwelcome one. Cécilia arrives at Caroline’s apartment alongside Daniel Hayes, the first time Caroline has actually seen the former mercenary accompanying Cécilia anywhere. The Ventrue’s now-keener eyesight can easily pick out the faint bulge of a concealed firearm on his clothes. The large man himself is quiet and professional, like many of the older ex-service members Caroline has known in a private security capacity. Cécilia has him wait outside the door.

She doesn’t say anything once they’re alone. She just hugs Caroline. Full, long, and deep.

“Maman told me everything that happened last night,” she exclaims, stroking a hand along Caroline’s back. “Everything. I’m so sorry, Caroline. I can’t even imagine how that must have felt—and still feel. I don’t blame you at all. You had no choice. And I’m so happy, at the same time, how you’ll be part of our family. How we’ll be sisters now, real sisters. I can’t wait until we can tell the others.” Cécilia’s voice is almost gushing for a moment. Her gaze sobers, though, when she pulls back enough to look Caroline in the eye. She doesn’t let go.

“I’m sure this must be very confusing for you, to have so many awful things happen the same time as such a happy one. And to still have so many things, so much of the future, riding in the balance.” Her matching blue eyes concernedly roam Caroline’s face. “How are you… how are you holding up?”

Caroline: The former heiress dismisses everyone else from the room—her living room rather than the roof where she conducts business—and settles in to talk to Cécilia. If Caroline had any doubts about her decision to accept Abélia’s offer, Cécilia puts them to rest as surely as Caroline put down Father Malveaux the night before. The Beast hisses its annoyance, baring its teeth at the ‘kine’ that dares to touch it, but the woman whose flesh it wears is left speechless—no, breathless—by the gesture, and despite the Beast’s tantrum, she is reluctant to pull away.

Is this what acceptance feels like? The thought drifts its way across her consciousness like an idle cloud, but hits with the force of a thunderbolt, battering down and reducing to ash her fears. Whatever else Abélia is, whatever else the family she’s joined is, it is a place she belongs. It’s wonderful, wonderful enough that the nasty fears, the constant paranoia skulking about the back of her mind, are, for the moment, wise enough to make themselves scarce.

She mulls over her ’sister’s’ question for a heartbeat. She’s committed matricide and murder, diablerie and betrayal of clan and covenant both. She’s painted her soul in shades of black she didn’t even know existed until this year and fed the hellish thing inside of her. She knows how she should feel, knows how she’s supposed to feel that is. But she knows how she actually feels as well.

“I’m clear, Cécilia,” Caroline tells her sister. “I just feel… clear. Maybe it all hasn’t hit me yet, but I can clearly see what I have to do, the path forward in all the varied branches it might go. I think most of my attention is focused on ensuring it takes the right one. I don’t know if it makes me more of a monster or less.”

GM: Cécilia looks concerned, but more relieved. “Maybe it just makes you human. There are plenty of people who only grieve or let themselves collapse later, after the crisis is over. I know you’re busy with so much… I guess you can’t afford to.”

She nods firmly. “We’ll get you down that path. Then… then we can catch our breaths and let it hit you.”

Cécilia is not just here “to check in on my sister,” as she puts it, “even if that is the first reason I’m here.” There are some other things:

First, there are their other sisters. “Maman and I haven’t told them about Gettis yet. Adeline can handle it, and maybe Yvette, but the others… and Simmone, especially… it’s taken a lot of work, with your help, to get her to the point she feels safe in a room without Maman. I’m really concerned that telling her Gettis is still out, and knowing so little about him, could shatter her all over again.” A helpless look plays across Cécilia’s face. “Yvonne’s been through a lot of therapy, and Yvette’s been so angry. Well, no, I suppose we’ve all been through a lot of therapy.”

“I suppose it sounds fairly minor, next to that, saying I don’t want to lie to them. But I don’t want to put them in danger, either, if there’s any chance that their knowing might make a difference. I just don’t want them to live in fear again. What do you think we should do?”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t think that Gettis is going to come after them immediately—he’s had plenty of time to do so until now and chosen not to. She admits to being uncertain as to his motives for his initial attack, though.

“For now, I think it’s best it stay between the three of us. I wouldn’t have woken you last night but… with everything else going on, I didn’t want you to be left in the dark about him if something else befell me.”

GM: “That’s true he hasn’t,” Cécilia nods. “It’s just hard not to expect the worst when we don’t even know why he did it. I’m already looking over my shoulder wondering if he’s going to be there…”

She shakes her head as if to clear it. “But don’t think anything of waking me up. This was an emergency. And I’m glad that I know, even if the others don’t.”

Caroline: “I’m glad you know too.” Even if the next few nights are unkind to her, that information passed on to Cécilia and Abélia might have been worth everything else. “But don’t look over your shoulder. I’m going to give him much larger problems—and have already.”

GM: “Is there anything Maman or I could do to help there?” Cécilia asks.

Caroline: “Eventually,” Caroline muses. “Right now he’s got a lot of missing and unaccounted for agents that he won’t be seeing again, and I’m going to use the ones still alive to create all kinds of problems for any he has left. He’s also just lost one of his most powerful allies and can’t know why. He has a lot to busy himself with in the coming nights. After that… well… either I’ll have more resources to deal with that matter, or it’ll be entirely left in your hands.”

GM: “That’s a grim thought,” Cécilia grimaces. “Well, good luck. And again, if there’s anything Maman or I can do, just let us know. You’re not alone anymore.”

Caroline: “I need to understand what’s going on, what’s happening to me, to us. Cécilia, I saw photos of us together, as children. Things that I have no memory of on a beach in France. Ferris called Claire my stepmother…” She bites her lower lip. “I don’t care how, and I am incredibly happy that it is, but I don’t even know who I am to everyone else.”

There’s not quite fear, or even unhappiness in the admission, but there is something that might be unease, or perhaps simply unfamiliarity with being uncertain.

GM: Cécilia nods. “I’m sure that must be confusing, not to mention scary. Maman may seem to you like she’s being vague or opaque, a lot of the time, and maybe even inconsiderate as a result. But I think she just doesn’t see the point in explaining herself when she knows everything will work out. You’ll find that things simply… happen around her, and everything naturally sorts itself out. She’s not really a ‘details’ person. She sees more than we do, and prefers that we simply… trust.”

“I guess that’s a somewhat long-winded way of saying,” Cécilia smiles self-deprecatingly, “I probably don’t know that much more than you about what’s specifically going on. But maybe there are some things I can clarify.”

“From what I understand, our mother was always your mother, and your father Nathan is still your father. Claire was your stepmother, which you seem like you’ve already figured out. I don’t expect the entire story is that complex—Maman would have gone with the path of least disruption to your existing life. Making… changes like that is a very dangerous art, and Maman has to be very careful when she does. You might think of it as re-weaving a tapestry over an open fire. Loosen too many threads, and the entire thing could unravel, or get singed… and if it caught fire, there might not even be any tapestry left. Her hands would likely get burned too, and the fire could spread from there…”

Cécilia shakes her head. “Maman would want to keep any alterations as seamless as she could, keeping as much of the existing tapestry intact as she could. That’s why Claire is still a parental figure in your life. Maman has just tweaked a few things, as opposed to trying to remove her altogether, or you from the Malveauxes. You’re bound too tightly together.” Cécilia smiles again. “And, of course, I’m sure you still want them as your family. Maman wouldn’t simply take that away.”

Caroline: The Ventrue bites her lip at the reference to flame, but nods when her sister is finished. “That all makes sense, even if it’s more than I’d thought was possible, even after all of this. I guess… I’m not afraid—trust her. You might be the only ones I trust. I’m just not comfortable with not being in control. So much has been out of my control. You think I’d be accustomed to it.” She puts on a slightly strained smile.

“And this,” she touches the corner of one eye, “was something of a surprise.” She looks at her sister, studying her with a keenness of eye she’d never had before, taking in all the perfect details. “Did you have the same experience, did any of our sisters?”

GM: Cécilia frowns thoughtfully. “Maybe. I don’t think we have. But if we did, it’s possible I might not remember.”

She looks sympathetic, then adds, “I’m sure that answer isn’t putting you any more at ease. Everything I know about Cainite society fits with what you’ve said, that it disempowers newer Cainites and takes so many things away from them. And I’m sure you’re tired of it and want to be in control of your life, now more than ever. It’s simply that I wasn’t raised knowing the truth of the world, or many of the things Maman can do. She waited until I was older before telling me. And it could cause… scarring, if things I’d long believed true turned out to be false.”

“Or at least, that’s how Maman said others might put it. But I don’t really think of it that way. It’s a false dichotomy to say parts of my life are real or not real, because Maman has or hasn’t touched my past like she has yours. All parents shape their childrens’ lives. However Maman did with ours, she did to make us happy. The truth, my truth, is whatever Maman decides is true.”

Cécilia takes Caroline’s hand. “I don’t expect you to trust her that totally, of course, not right away. We have to earn it from you first. But I hope we will, with time. I know everything since your Embrace has been so hard, and maybe your life before that was too… I want you to know the peace and happiness that Maman can bring, Caroline. From all that I’ve gotten to know of you this past year, you deserve it.”

Caroline: Caroline nods thoughtfully. “It doesn’t matter. Not really. What’s going on with our mother and I… it’s separate from everything with Kindred, even if it isn’t really. I’m just trying to understand.” The idea that she might not remember what’s happening when it’s done bothers her, but only a little. “Whatever the cost, whatever is happening, it’s a small price to pay for what I’ve gotten in return.” She squeezes Cécilia’s hand.

GM: Cécilia smiles as she squeezes it back. “And there’s so much that we have gotten in return. Can I help you understand anything more, still?”

Caroline: The once-more heiress thinks, then smiles. “I suppose I could ask for the details of how our mother does all the things she does, and what she truly is, but I expect I’ll never fully understand. Certainly not anytime soon. And I’m not certain it matters anyway. It’s like she’s always said—enough that she’s a mother to seven daughters.”

“There are some other things that you could help with, in the immediate term. Explaining… explaining Claire’s death is going to take a tremendous amount of time and effort. Especially when it comes to the Malveaux family. I’m not exactly on in the graces of the family, but you and Luke…. well. Are.”

She asks if Cécilia can help set up the meetings she needs to plant the idea of Claire’s ‘illness’ in the minds of her uncles, and also tells her sister of the mental ‘surgery’ she needs to perform on Luke as well. It’s the kind of thing that could be harmful, but that Cécilia can help ensure is as painless as possible by identifying times in which her ‘fake’ memories and alterations fit best into a coherent narrative.

GM: Cécilia frowns. “On someone who’s family, Caroline, I think there may always be some amount of harm in that… not just to them, but to you too. Would you be able to see and relate to them in the same way, after imposing yourself like that without their consent? How easy would it then be to do it again? What level of boundary would…”

She trails off. “I don’t mean to sound like I’m moralizing. I know you’ve had to make some very hard choices. But this one makes me feel very uncomfortable. Maybe we could build a narrative that his mother was hiding her illness from him, because she didn’t want to spoil the wedd…”

Cécilia’s face falls at that statement.

Caroline: The Ventrue reaches out a room temperature hand for her sister’s. “I know this is going to throw a wet blanket on everything… I can’t tell you it won’t, but I won’t let this derail or damage your wedding.” She bites her lip. “I’m going to make it right. I’ll make it right, Cécilia. I can’t fix it, but I’ll find something that makes it up.”

She isn’t sure what else to say. If she can take the family it will make things easier, make the wedding easier, but she knows the truth. Her path isn’t going to get easier. Especially not if Prince Vidal truly is going into torpor.

GM: Cécilia’s smile returns as she squeezes Caroline’s hand back. “I didn’t mean to throw a wet blanket on things, either. You already have made things up—I get to have you in our family, not to mention at the wedding. I’d consider that a more than worthy trade for any added fuss.”

Speaking of their family, she also wants to talk about their sisters’ security and physical protection. “You have the most experience here, Caroline. I’d like to draw up some kind of plan. Should we have bodyguards following them every hour of the day? It seems hard to picture Gettis attacking them at McGehee, but then, I wasn’t expecting him to attack them in a police station either.”

“You also mentioned wanting to vet the people we already have. Whatever you think is best… I’ve brought Daniel along, if you want to start with him, or go over details and coordinate further things. What can I do to help?”

Caroline: The Ventrue pauses. “Honestly, my preference would be to put ghoul bodyguards around each of you every time you step out into the open… but even if that were feasible—and it isn’t—if he’s half as old as I think, I don’t know that would do much more than inform your teams of some of the things that could come up. And even if they could help it would be very… invasive to live like that. The younger girls at the very least deserve something approaching normal. I also suspect that after the shooting his interest in… our family may have waned, when there was no immediate supernatural response.”

“That said, there are some things I’d like to do in the near term. The first is vetting everyone hired on in that capacity by the family and letting any that don’t pass the smell test go. The NOPD in particular is rife with supernaturally aware groups of varying factions, and I don’t want any of them anywhere near any of you.”

She goes on to explain that she’d like to transition the head of their various security details over to one of her ghouls, asserting that even if they’d still physically be a ‘speedbump’ for an elder ghoul, they’d at least know something of what the score was, and ways to make the girls and their varied homes ‘harder’ targets.

“Most of it isn’t even invasive, stuff you saw on your way up here that you didn’t even notice.” She has some thoughts on who would fit best, but wants to wait a couple days on that until she can be sure she’s not adding chaos without value.

GM: “All of that sounds for the best,” Cécilia nods. “I can have Daniel get you a list of everyone we’ve hired. It might hurt his ego a bit not to be in charge of the detail anymore, but I’m more interested in keeping our family safe. Maman and I can find reasons to keep them close by for the next few days.”

The next matter she brings up concerns “furnishing a room for you in the family house. I still keep one, since I’m over so often.” Cécilia smiles. “It’s not as silly as it sounds for me to be bringing this up now. It’s simply that it would be another haven for you—in the true sense of the world. As scared as I am for our sisters now, I’m not scared when they’re home. Maman is strongest there. Her… essence, has seeped into every floorboard, every blade of grass, every speck of gravel. Every mote of dust. Nothing can harm our family there, even when she isn’t home. Not without going through her.”

Cécilia smiles again. “Naturally, we’ll want to have you over all the time, so you could use a room anyway. But you might find it useful to have another haven from a security standpoint. There might, or might not, be times you’d want to spend the day under Maman’s protection. I figure having another option can’t ever hurt. It’ll be proof against the sun, of course, and none of our sisters will disturb you.”

Caroline: The shift in topic to something less bleak brings a genuine smile back to Caroline’s face. Claire’s warning about the house, once so dire, seem so meaningless now. Some small voice in the back of her mind asks what manner of corruption Abélia must be to have saturated such a dark and unholy place so thoroughly. The voice whispers frantic warnings with the speed and energy that only true panic, real fear, can bring on.

The voice is all but drowned out by the smile on her sister’s face. What little remains is only an annoying buzz.

“I don’t expect the French Quarter to be an especially friendly place for me in the future,” Caroline answers. “But it’s good to know there’s at least one place I can feel safe.” She’s happy to spend a few minutes discussing the specifics. What rooms might be available, her preferences for furniture and decorum, how often the girls are all in the house.

GM: “Oh, I meant our house in the Garden District, Caroline,” Cécilia clarifies. “The LaLaurie House isn’t… quite ready for company yet, according to Maman, though it’s coming along very well. Simmone loves it there.”

Cécilia’s even more happy to bring Caroline over to review those options in person. “If you have time these next few days, of course. Though with how dangerous things are, I figure sooner could be better to set it up than later.”

Cécilia’s last topic is cybersecurity. “I was half-asleep when you called me last night, and together with the news about Gettis being such a shock, I wasn’t thinking clearly—but we should keep conversations like that off the phone. The only real security mine has is an encrypted call and messenger app anyone could download. From what I know, it’s secure if the other person is using the same one—it’s Signal, by the way—but with news stories like the NSA wiretapping foreign leaders, I’m not sure how secure ‘secure’ really is. I’m sure their phones are harder to get into than mine.”

“Anyway, next time, just let me know over the phone that you want to meet in person. And if you ever want to get in touch with Maman faster, call or text Simmone. Maman doesn’t use cellphones, but Simmone can pass along whatever you say. I don’t need to tell you not to make it identifying around her, of course.”

Caroline: Caroline agrees about the phone call, though she has a few means and ideas about overcoming it that she’s picked from Roger’s brain over the years and bounced against Fuller’s own experiences. “I remembered him talking about how for a while the people he was hunting got away from all technology as a means of making themselves harder to track, but eventually they got smart to that and began to look for the absence. Honestly, that’s what a lot of older vampires do anyway, I think, what with being less comfortable with technology in general.”

“Burner phones are one way to keep off the radar, unless they have massive resources to track and intercept everything—NSA type things—but they can also be a pretty big giveaway if they’re used frequently, and with high level signals intelligence and enough time you can break into those too. So that brings me to… daily changing cards.”

She goes on to explain, in brief, that her ‘higher level’ agents are given a daily changing card each day with a series of ‘pro’ words that correlate to various sensitive subjects. On one day vampires might be ‘Canadians,’ on the next day they’re ‘old folks,’ and so forth. Common words are given common stand-ins. The entire cards are little bigger than an index card. Each day the cards are burned. She wants to include Cécilia in those that receive cards.

She readily agrees about Simmone as a means of contacting their mother.

GM: “Oh, that’s very clever,” Cécilia says of the cards. “It doesn’t stand out when you change the words daily, and even if someone else learns them, they’re only good for a day… I guess technology still has a while before it catches up with mundane subterfuge.”

She’s humbled by Caroline’s trust in wanting to include her, and works out a means by which she can conveniently receive the cards. She usually starts and ends her day at her Pontalba Building apartment. Sometimes she’s over at Maman’s place, or at Luke’s (or he’s over at hers). They haven’t “officially” moved in together, what with Caroline’s uncle being the archbishop—“and we don’t want to be caught living in sin.” Cécilia is somewhat concerned over how to keep the cards concealed from Luke, but that’s a long-term problem. The wedding, and their move-in date, is still the better part of a year away. For now, what would be the best daily means for by the head of the family’s security each day—if and when Caroline puts a ghoul into place.

“All of that sounds like a very good idea,” Cécilia nods. “I already feel safer.”

Caroline: The Ventrue smiles. “I like to think I can be clever on occasion.”

GM: “On many occasions,” Cécilia amends.

Caroline: “As for the cards, we print them on quick dissolving paper, so disposing of them should be straightforward. Drop them in a glass of water or the toilet and they’re gone in a few seconds. If you want we could print yours in ink that only shows up when something else is applied—like the ‘magic’ pens they sell kids. You’d have to keep one of the revealing pens, but unless someone knew exactly what they were looking for, it might look like another business card or piece of paper.”

Finally, the former heiress expresses once more how grateful she is that Cécilia is ‘in the know’ about everything. She’s so glad to have someone she can talk to, and that there’s no need for such invasiveness with her sister.

She’s also plain that this cover-up is tremendously important, life and death. She asks if the family has a place they can use as a ‘sick ward’ for Claire. Somewhere she’d ‘feel more comfortable’ than a hotel, that they can control.

GM: “Aside from Yvette’s allergies, I’m afraid we’re all pretty healthy. There’s definitely not much that gets Maman down.” Cécilia smiles at that. “Still, I could find a house in the Garden District to rent for a little while. Something nice, but quiet and out of the way. I could have my PA arrange it and pay in cash. The only wrinkle I can think of is that someone still might be able to link it to us, rather than Claire, with a little detective work. Does that sound like what you’re looking for?”

Caroline: Caroline clarifies that she’d meant a spare bedroom or such, vice a more dedicated hospital setting.

GM: “Oh, yes, we do have a spare room in the house we could use,” Cécilia nods. “But that seems a little odd Claire might choose to stay with us, doesn’t it? We were on good terms, but it’d make more sense to me if she wanted to stay with her own family. That’s what I’d want to do if I came down sick, at least.”

Caroline: The heiress laughs. “I think if you’d seen some of the internal politics you could understand it… on the other hand, not knowing what her relationship with our mother might make that complicated…”

GM: “Maman was always very friendly to her,” Cécilia says, then smiles. “Though she tries to be that way to everyone, of course. I just have a hard time seeing Claire wanting to stay with us, if she were really sick, rather than getting a place of her own.”

Caroline: “Perhaps. I could come up with an excuse for her to do it… but that may be a question for later.”

GM: “It just seems unusual to me,” Cécilia repeats. “We were on good terms, like I said, but I wouldn’t say any of the family was that close with her. But all right, if there was something else you wanted to bring up…”

Caroline: The former heiress broaches a final subject with her ‘new’ sister as their conversation starts to close. “How much was she able to tell you, about me? About how I was Embraced?”

She’s grateful for her dead and still heart as she broaches the subject. It’s several less avenues to betray just how uncomfortable she is even speaking the words.

“There’s a reason, Cécilia, a reason for all of this. For why I’m doing what I’m doing. For why I can’t be comfortable as some second-rate vampire eeking out each night in their Requiem.”

She bites her lower lip. “I want to be completely honest with you, Cécilia, in a way I can’t be with anyone else. Haven’t been able to be. I have a birthright. I’m not the childe of Rene Baristheaut. I was not an accident. I think… I think our fates were linked the night Yvonne was shot, but whatever, why-ever… I can be… I should be… I have to be someone.”

She looks at her sister. “Do you know what I’m talking about? What I mean when I say I have to be something more than I am right now? More than anyone knows me to be?”

GM: “I do, Caroline,” Cécilia nods. “Maman was… well, let’s just say you’ve been very close with her in a lot of ways, over this past year. And she always said it was inevitable that charade would unravel.”

“That’s where we’re at now, isn’t it? You’re the one unraveling it, like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon. You’re ready to claim what’s yours.”

Caroline: “I want to know more, but it should wait,” she admits. “At least, until things are more stable.”

It’s a reassuring enough lie. When have things ever gotten easier?


Tuesday night, 8 March 2016, PM

Caroline: The former heiress resigns herself to her inability to fully conceal Claire’s death on her own. The magnitude of the breach is simply too massive, the forces involved too great, and her own resources too paltry. Despite her best efforts, six months have been dozens too few to have every asset she might need or wish. She lacks the hold on the medical industry. Her position with her family is too precarious. Claire’s death is too unexpected. A million excuses—but not without standing.

The decision to consume her ancestor has made it harder than was necessary. She could have destroyed him. Could have captured him. Could have done anything but what she did. But she did consume him, and now she needs to buy time. Needs to stretch as long as she can.

The first step is planting the seeds of Claire’s declining health in the minds of her uncles and brother—that she’s been dying, and that the end is approaching. In some ways the setup, the opportunity to draw her father home, is better. She works between Cécilia and Roger to arrange those meetings with her unfriendly uncles.

GM: Ferris is unable to arrange a meeting. He’s been fired for months now, and the brothers aren’t about to welcome him back. Bishop Malveaux was quite diligent, when he couldn’t catch Ferris, about making the former security chief’s name mud with the family. Ferris also points out that the bishop has almost certainly changed security protocols around the brothers given that Ferris himself was responsible for the old ones. They’d be idiots not to have.

Cécilia says she could likely finagle a meeting with either of her uncles-in-law through Luke. But Luke’s not likely to want to bring Caroline, and once they got to the front gate, the Ventrue’s presence could lead to an awkward if not violent situation.

“Your first family has been telling… horrible things about you, Caroline,” she explains, shaking her head. “Unspeakable things. I know that shooting you wouldn’t hurt you very badly, but your uncles don’t. They’ve actually been bragging about how their guards are under standing orders to. That’s how much the bishop has twisted them… he was obsessed with keeping the family ‘his’ and keeping you away from them.”

“I’ll help however I can, of course. Just tell me what I can do.”

Caroline knows their addresses. The walled, gated, and heavily guarded redoubts await.

Caroline: The heiress pauses in contemplation. She could get to them—of that she has little doubt. With or without Cécilia’s help. But if they’ve really taken that position, she doesn’t think she can get there quietly, and quietly is a priority right now. Meddling in Malveaux’s domain before word of his final death gets out is exactly the kind of thing she can’t afford. It will stain her hands as surely as the undead priest’s diablerie stains her soul. She’d not expected her uncles to be so hostile, but perhaps she should have. The bishop made his position clear regarding her and the family.

She can wait to move on the family and create a Masquerade disaster. She can move on the family and expose herself. Poor options on either hand for the heiress, but…

She stops like she’s been struck by a thunderbolt. There is a third option. An audacious one.

She could go before the seneschal now.

It seems like suicide. What if someone scrutinizes her soul? What if the seneschal or someone else invades her mind again? He’d know in an instant. He’d know, and it would all be over. Whatever her accomplishments, whatever terms she has met, there is no place for her at her sire’s side if this crime comes out. It’d be safer to run to Savoy.

But… what reason will the seneschal have to suspect her? If she goes before him now, before Malveaux is considered ‘missing’, it’s possible the thought of her involvement might not occur to him until it’s too late.

Gettis and Savoy surely won’t be idle, either, if she gives them another three nights. ‘Someone’ has already been tampering with the scene of Malveaux’s final death. ‘Someone’ stole the documents and devices from Claire’s hotel suite, and robbed her of whatever secrets may have lain within those. And one of her ghouls is already missing. Even if it’s a coincidence, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. She’s damned if she does wait and damned if she doesn’t wait… and the third way promised by her mother, to hide the stains upon her soul, would have damned her no less assuredly.

But Ferris is right. Their enemies are moving.

Best they don’t fall behind.

“For now, nothing,” she finally responds to Cécilia’s question. She bites her lip, her mind already racing to plan how she’ll pull off the impossible—again.

It’s a gamble. The collateral on the line is her Requiem. But the whole of her Requiem has been nothing if not a gamble.

Tonight’s odds aren’t new. She’s stared down ugly odds a thousand times before.

But if she has a winning hand…

Well.

She’s always played to win.

Widney hears her cold voice crackle to life as she hits the intercom.

“Get a car ready. Perdido House is expecting me.”


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Story Eleven, Caroline XIII

“I’m sorry, Mom. I love you.”
Caroline Malveaux


Tuesday evening, 1 March 2016

GM: Claire meets Caroline in her hotel’s lobby at the appointed date. It’s been some time since the two last saw one another. Caroline’s mother has actually had a courier deliver January’s and February’s sealed missives for the Ventrue to re-deliver to Donovan, an action that seems as if it violates the spirit if not letter of the sheriff’s agreement.

Claire looks weary. And old. Her cheeks look gaunter, the lines on her face deeper, and there are dark rings under her eyes. Her blonde hair retains its color and most (though not all) of its thickness. She’s also walking with a cane. “I can get by without one,” she mentions conversationally. “It’s just easier. It looks better than wearing flats.”

Caroline: The sight of her mother with a cane hits Caroline like a punch in the gut. She’s not that old.

They’re killing her, she realizes. I’ve killed her.

There’s not really anything else to say on it. They both know it.

GM: “I gave Gabriel my blessing with Linda,” Claire mentions as they make their way up to her suite. “I talked with a few people who could pull strings to help get her in. To Cornell, that is. Your father was angry I didn’t consult with him. Said it’d ruin your brother’s future, that I’d squandered favors. We don’t fight over it, of course, we just don’t talk.”

She talks almost dreamily about the wedding, too. Cécilia has wanted to involve Caroline in so much of it, as have Yvette and Yvonne. Dress shopping, invitations, guest lists, planners, photographers (Jocelyn, she knows the Devillers hope), bands, florists, caterers, websites, hair and makeup artists, rings, the bachelorette party. It’s the first wedding of Caroline’s generation for both the Devillers and Malveaux families, and they’re pulling out all the stops. Not much of what her mother has to say is news.

“I’d give anything to be there for it… but it’s enough to know that it’s happening,” Claire remarks wistfully as the elevator doors ding open to the top floor.

“The family’s already damned to darkness. What’s bringing in another devil, so long as we have more life. It’s been too long since there were any babies.”

Caroline: Caroline moves to help her mother back to her rooms and buttons up afterwards before pouring Claire a drink and taking a seat with her. She doesn’t make false promises or reassurances that her mother will be there for the wedding. They’re well past that.

“I think Cécilia agrees. She and Luke won’t make others wait for that.”

GM: “I said I don’t need it, Caroline. It’s just easier,” Claire somewhat gruffly responds to her daughter’s unspoken offer of help, though she does sit down to let Caroline pour and bring her a drink.

“Luke is a good boy. Cécilia is… I’m sure enough she’s a good girl, whatever else her mother may be.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “If that’s the monster we have, better it than another. Whatever else Abélia may be, she cares for her family, is fiercely protective. We could do worse. And we may need that, if this goes as planned.”

GM: “Yes,” Claire says tiredly. Tiredly, but without surprise. “I’ve stayed my hand this many weeks for you to decide on a final course of action for yourself with the leeches, Caroline. What have you decided?”

Caroline: “He has to die,” Caroline answers without preamble.

GM: “Why do you now believe so?”

Caroline: “I tried bending a knee. It’ll never be enough for him, and none will move against him now, no matter how egregious his actions. The longer we wait the stronger he becomes.”

GM: “Your murderer will kill you again if he discovers your involvement in killing his faction’s bishop. What of your position among the leeches?”

Caroline: “And the bishop will eventually kill me if I let him. Or make me wish that he had. What I saw in his eyes was not something he will not act upon. He would possess me. Matters are improved, but we both know nothing will save me if we’re discovered.”

Part of her wonders if it wouldn’t be so bad to be possessed by the bishop. She rejects it. Fights it. An unnatural attraction borne of his blood, rather than her will. She doesn’t want to be the slave to her ancestor. She’s not meant for it. She’s better than that. She wants more.

GM: Claire denies none of those things—or at least, none of those things Caroline speaks aloud.

“Do you intend to stay aligned with the prince’s bloc, or to defect to Savoy’s? One or the other will inevitably turn on you.”

Caroline: “Hasn’t one already?” Caroline answers. “Haven’t both?”

She shakes her head. “Much will depend on tonight, but if we fail I expect nothing will save me from the wrath to follow.”

GM: Claire more than agrees with the sentiment that all leeches are treacherous and conniving parasites. She just as clearly desires an equally clear sense of Caroline’s future plans and allegiances before she’s willing to commit to such a dangerous undertaking. She also wants to hear why it’s now in the Malveaux family’s best interests.

“The Albino claimed the family as his domain, for good or ill. Who do you believe would now attempt to fill the vacuum left by his absence? The prince still, or another?”

Caroline: Caroline suspects the most important parts—i.e., their family, would pass to the prince. He already holds sway over her father. Other pieces might drift into varied hands. “Always consequences,” she explains without passion. As to the question of why now, she offers several reasons.

First, they may never get another shot at him. Now that he’s the bishop, his power will only grow with time.

Second, his flagrant disregard for Orson’s life was eye-opening. Caroline once believed he guided the family towards positions of power and influence: she’s far less certain after they nearly lost the archbishopric. She’s begun to suspect his motives are more personal and petty.

Third, the entry of Abélia into the family arena opens new doors with regard to sheltering them. “If nothing else, I expect she wants to shelter Luke and Cécilia, and her power is… sufficient to do so.”

Fourth, she can see plainly that they’re literally killing Claire. He’s the prime suspect in such sorcery, and even if it continues following his destruction, they’ll be better for it.

Fifth, his demand that she drink from him, his meddling in her affairs, and their clan’s seeming lack of concern convinces her that working within channels will not work. He’s too entrenched, too potent, too respected, and she’s not worth the trouble. Not with them squabbling for the throne. She might be able to leverage others with time if he weren’t the bishop, but he is the bishop and she doesn’t have time. If nothing else, Marcel’s reaction convinced her of her clan’s apathy to his actions. She thinks it’s only a matter of time until she is forced to drink again, and she will not be his slave. Better to strike first.

Sixth, the recent moves against her have convinced Caroline that the time for playing meekly is over. She’s made progress, but it’s time to get off the fence. Her mother’s and Roger’s actions, the strike on her haven, and her exposure to the family have all made clear that she’s out of time. If she is to face a decision, she would have it be now, on her terms.

Seventh, owing to time, her own grows shorter with each night. She can feel her doom creeping upon her. If she’s to die, she’d have it be with purpose, on her own terms, and take the bishop with her.

Finally, she’s frankly uncertain of her ability to do so without her mother’s help. Her mother has been frank about her own suspicions regarding her future. If the choice is now with her mother, or later alone, she would have it now.

“It’s hard to manage a killing strike from your knees. If the war is to be now or later, I’d have it be now.”

GM: Claire agrees the Albino is unstable, having long since concluded he does not hold the family’s best interests at heart, only his own. He’s killed Malveauxes before. Any affection he may have felt for his relatives appears limited to his long-dead mother and sister. Caroline’s mother is not sure off-hand if any of the living family are even Monique’s descendants—genealogy is Thomas’ department.

Claire’s eyes sharpen from their earlier wistfulness as the discussion turns to her son.

“I’d sacrifice Cécilia in an instant to secure our family’s future,” she declares coldly. “She’s sweet and well-bred, and a good match for Luke. But she isn’t my blood. Luke could always find another girl. Never forget that Abélia feels the same way, and never stop watching her. Any aid she renders our family is to advance the interests of her own. I certainly don’t expect she’s been paying those visits to Orson’s hospital bed out of the goodness of her heart.”

Claire only gives a stoic look in response to Caroline’s statement that the Sanctified are killing her, but agrees the time to act is nigh. Past nigh. She has stayed her hand this long only on her daughter’s account, and repeats her prior question concerning which of the leeches’ factions Caroline intends to throw in with. Given Claire’s present ‘alliance’ with the sheriff, Caroline’s decision to “stand by your murderer” or defect to the French Quarter lord will have significant permutations on her plans.

Caroline: “I suppose that depends on whether you tried to shove me into Savoy’s camp with the attack on the sheriff’s orders, or whether you were in contact with Savoy,” Caroline replies bluntly.

“I confess, I’ve gone back and forth on that one. Were you forced into action by the sheriff to drive a wedge between us, or compelled to action by the belief that Savoy was the better course and the belief that I needed a push?”

GM: “It doesn’t matter. All leeches would do that if they believed it was in their best interests,” Claire answers dismissively. “God knows I’m not advocating you should trust any of them, Caroline. They’re all just different flavors of poison.”

Caroline: “You pick your poison,” Caroline agrees. She still believes there is more future for her with the prince’s bloc, especially with Malveaux removed. Especially if it can be done quietly. She thinks Savoy would only have use for her until he were in power.

GM: Claire disagrees, arguing that Caroline poses no threat after the prince and “your murderer” are eliminated in the French Quarter lord’s likely inevitable coup. They cannot forget the prince’s nights are numbered. She eventually drops the matter when it becomes plain that Caroline’s mind is made up.

“We’ll address this later,” she says tiredly. “Whichever faction you take up with, the actual and potential benefits of the Albino’s death… outweigh the risks inherent to the attempt.”

She closes her eyes for a moment and leans back against the sofa, saying nothing. The lines on her face look very deep.

“Make whatever arrangements you need to get him somewhere he’ll be alone and exposed. I’ll take several days to get things set up as well.”

Caroline: “He’ll make the arrangements. I’ll give you as much notice as I can,” Caroline replies.

She wishes she could tell her mother the truth. Her position would make more sense if she could explain that her very existence will forever make her a challenge to Savoy’s reign, should it dawn. She will always be a loose end to be eliminated.

If she receives her sire’s acknowledgement, she might yet take possession of her family. Especially with the Albino out of the way. She wonders if that promise might even compel her mother to give up her fellows without deception. It’s a comforting hope.

That’s why it’s probably false.


Tuesday night, 1 March 2016, PM

GM: Obtaining audience with Bishop Malveaux is harder than it was last time. Father Polk has positioned himself as the bishop’s gatekeeper: many Kindred wish to see him these nights. Indeed, Polk initially denies Caroline a private audience, citing the bishop’s “full schedule” until the younger Ventrue brings up the boon promised by her elder.

Polk fits in Caroline a week later. Bishop Malveaux’s new office in Perdido House is on a higher floor. It’s larger, too, with a scenic view of the surrounding cityscape, though the decor is just as spartan as it was previously. Bishop Malveaux’s black vestments look more ornate and are trimmed with crimson rather than navy. His silver-headed cane has been replaced by a bishop’s crossier.

Her older clanmate’s pinkish eyes are flat as he receives her. She is not invited to sit, despite the presence of chairs.

The bishop continues that Father Polk has relayed the nature of her business. Though it is plain that he finds it inconvenient, he remains a childe of Ventrue and a Kindred of his word. Nevertheless, his patience—and time—seem short in supply.

“Get to your point, childe,” he rasps.

Caroline: The younger Venture dresses conservatively once more, favoring pearls and black as she arrives to meet the bishop. She’s the perfectly polite and contrite neonate in his presence, a pill made far easier to swallow by the pull of the bishop’s vitae on her mind. She knows the source and hates being made to feel that way about him, but she has little choice and even less reason to fight it this night. It’s not a lie when she declares her desire to accompany him hunting and visiting God’s vengeance upon the unfaithful, so that she might right her ways as one of the Sanctified. It’ll let her spend time with him. Seek his approval. She leans into that pull to make her efforts more convincing.

Her schedule, of course, is open to the elder Ventrue’s convenience, but she does ask (meekly) if he might choose a location that may be more accessible to a neonate such as herself. There are many prime hunting grounds, and few enough where she might be freely allowed to bring terror to the wicked.

GM: Caroline can feel the bond twisting painfully inwards on her mind like an ugly hangnail against too-red skin. She knows the truth. Part of her wants his approval, but the other doesn’t, not really. How could she, when she’s doing this to murder him?

The bishop appears short of temper at Caroline’s presence, and does not inquire as to her aversion to the CBD before perfunctorily declaring they will hunt in his territory within the Garden District. He also declares that she will not taste a drop of vitae, and will rue the consequences if she poaches within his hunting grounds. She will receive only what he pledged his word over, and no more. As Father Polk moves to escort her out, the albino finally hisses,

“Your faith is weak. Fail to convince me otherwise upon this excursion and you shall face excommunication. I pray thanks to Longinus nightly that your grandsire is not present to see the barren soil upon which his blood was spilt.”

Caroline: The words hurt, but not as much as blades and bullets. That’ll come later though, for now she finds faint solace in his ignorance.

You know nothing about me, she thinks silently. But you’ll see.


Monday night, 7 March 2016, PM

Caroline: Caroline aggressively pursues her plans for the bishop, centered around both maximizing her chances of eliminating her mother’s hunters and minimizing her exposure.

She, of course, draws on the provisions she’s been stockpiling since her Embrace. Weapons with strobe lights, construction site equipment, spools of steel wire, a portable PKP fire extinguisher, silencers for weapons, fireworks (both unused and expended), booze, solo cups, spare clothing, and a massive array of items are loaded into the vehicles for her ghouls.

The glass shattered by Meadows in her rampage is replaced with semi-transparent clouded glass that displays form without detail. Audrey takes her place in the top of the Giani Building on the night in question, visible only in profile through that glass—apparently Caroline—with stand-ins for Caroline’s more violence-inclined ghouls also in place. To outside appearances, Caroline is home in her haven. There’s even video evidence of Caroline entering her elevator with her ghouls on their way to the roof—they depart via internal stairwell (sadly the cameras therein haven’t been replaced since the attack by her mother’s hunters).

Caroline simultaneously trades on, as best she is able, Meadows’ attack on Isa and Caroline at her haven. The mad scourge at it again, still rampaging through the city unchecked, narrowly held off by Caroline and her many ghouls. She gossips about the attack with Kindred that show interest at Elysium, speculating as to the many possible things that could have placed her in the ‘sights’ of the rogue scourge.

Her ghouls pack rounds made of yew wood, Meadows’ bane, for sawed-off shotguns and stakes. Her plans are multi-layered: if Malveaux is killed, to potentially frame the scourge. The brave bishop cut down defending one of his flock against the maniac scourge. Even if he survives, she intends on planting that idea inside his mind, given the opportunity: that Meadows is behind the scene.

Finally, she retains the faint hope that the matter might go off without a hitch—and she can claim compete ignorance of it.

That hope doesn’t cloud her judgment. She dominates a number of patsies to go stir up trouble throughout the night. Not real trouble—no violence—but things that have the initial report of it. Things to draw the attention of the sheriff and hounds throughout the night. Fireworks at high school, college, or random street parties that might be reported as gunfire. Homeless in the street that might be bodies. Mundane break-ins at potentially sensitive sites. Social landmarks like the old City Hall building rather than havens. Most of these are done via second and third order patsies. Those encouraged to action by random dominated individuals with no ties to Caroline.

GM: Several nights pass. Sundown’s herald relays that her master is grateful for Caroline’s rescue of Shaw and pledges his own boon in return. The news of Isa’s concurrent final death at Meadows’ claws (unsurprising, given her antagonism of Rocco) lends credence to the story that Caroline clashed with the scourge and fought her off, which most Kindred listeners are impressed if surprised by.

Caroline’s mother receives her at her hotel suite shortly before the scheduled rendezvous with Bishop Malveaux in the Garden District. Claire doesn’t meet her in the lobby this time, and texts her to simply see herself up (she’s left the door unlocked). Caroline finds Claire sitting on the couch. Her mother looks terrible. Her hair is actually grayer, her cheeks are definitely hollower, and there are veins along her hands. She doesn’t look like she’s slept once since they last spoke.

She has a number of linked devices laid out along the table. Screens show various camera vantage points of the Garden District house where Bishop Malveaux said Caroline was to meet him. The setup reminds her of the Situation Room photos when Bid Laden was killed.

Claire doesn’t rise to greet her daughter, but simply motions tiredly to a spot beside her and says, “The place has been booby-trapped to hell. We’ve both done our parts in setting this up.”

She closes her eyes and just breathes for several moments before continuing, “Now all that’s left is to wait, and watch how the dice fall.”

Caroline: The sight of her mother in such a frightful state drives daggers into Caroline, hardens her heart against what’s coming. Maybe. Maybe, she tells herself, she’ll be able to leverage her mother’s life if all goes according to plan. Maybe.

She lays a hand on her mother’s own.

She has questions, a hundred of them, but they matter less than this moment.

GM: Mother and daughter sit and wait. The bishop’s appointed hour draws close. Several more devices’ screens flicker on. Infragreen, jiggling body-mounted cameras (unsurprisingly, non-thermal) give further views from inside the house. Caroline can make out men with shotguns, assault rifles, silencer-mounted heavy pistols, and even archaic crossbows. Their faces are indistinct. They speak little.

Another camera flickers on. Caroline sees a man and woman in the kitchen. They’re tied up, hooded, and make whimpering, pleading-like noises through what sounds like gags. A man’s crackling voice from one of the cameras asks, “Now?”

Claire responds with a grim, “Yes.”

The hoods come off. Silencer-mounted pistols take aim, then shoot the suddenly wide-eyed and frantically struggling pair. Dark hands remove the gags and bonds, carefully reposition the bodies. Guns are placed in their hands, or rubbed against them and placed just a little ways off. Other alterations are made to the scene. Caroline has staged enough murders by now to know another one when she sees it.

Claire watches the unfolding scene grimly, even tiredly, and issues no further directives.

Caroline: Caroline looks at her mother. “What the hell was that?”

GM: “An explanation for the eventual noise and arson.”

Caroline: Caroline’s mouth sets in a firm line. “Who were they?”

GM: “The Albino’s likely planned victims,” her mother answers tersely. “Sinners worthy of death according to your shared religion.”

Caroline: “Did we identify them first? Make certain they weren’t people who mattered?”

Caroline can picture him putting someone she cared for in that room or several people. Images of Luke and Cécilia’s bullet-riddled bodies fill her mind.

GM: “This isn’t the first time my people and I have done this, Caroline.” Claire’s face isn’t sad, or regretful. Just tired. So tired.

Caroline: Caroline says nothing further on the matter. “It’s almost time for me to go.”

GM: Her mother shakes her head. “You’ve done your part in drawing him out. Generals lead from the rear.”

Caroline: “Killing him is only the start. I need to frame the scene, and that assumes you can bring him into the house without me.”

GM: Claire shakes her head again. “I’m not putting you in the same room as my people. They’d attack you on sight—even if they didn’t immediately recognize what you were. We’ll deal with framing the scene further after he’s been neutralized.”

Caroline: “And if he’s not alone? Or he sends in his bodyguard first? I’m more afraid of the sheriff’s blade than your hunters’ bullets,” Caroline replies.

GM: “We’ve planned and accounted for all of this. Your presence will only be an impediment to the operation’s success.”

Caroline: “You’re willing to bet our lives on that?” Caroline asks.

GM: “More than our lives. I’m not putting you in the same room with my people, Caroline.”

Caroline: “I won’t ask you to, then.” Caroline rises.

GM: Her mother’s sigh is almost inaudible over the whoosh of crackling fire that abruptly surrounds the sofa.

Caroline’s Beast recoils in instinctive panic. She forces it down this time, finally noticing the subtly hidden runes surrounding the pair, pressed deep into the fabric of the room’s persian rug—a rug, she abruptly recalls, that was only also there on her prior visit.

Claire motions again and tiredly rises, the circle of flames expanding to between her and her daughter.

“I’d hoped not to do this until he was destroyed.”

Caroline: Caroline literally shakes against the sight of the flames, but her voice is controlled. Firm. “Planned for everything.”

GM: Her mother looks tired. So very, very tired.

“I won’t kill you, Caroline. But I should have done this months ago. I’ll release you from the binding, and remove the stake, after Savoy is prince and your murderer is destroyed.”

Caroline: “Don’t do this,” Caroline all but begs. “Don’t make me do this.”

GM: Claire shakes her head and slowly sits down on a nearby chair. “You’ll just hurt yourself struggling against the wards. Your powers won’t help you—or your slaves.”

Caroline: “They still might.”

Caroline reaches into a pocket.

“This shot is not meant for you.”

She shakes her head.

“I wish I could have told you the truth, about everything. Maybe I should have.”

GM: Claire only gives a second, even wearier-looking shake of her head. Her eyes look so dark and sunken.

“Your phone won’t work here either. You won’t be able to call your slaves. The binding is as secure—more secure—as any I’ve ever drawn.”

She closes her eyes and leans back against the chair. Her voice is almost a whisper.

“God knows I paid a high enough price to keep you safe.”

Caroline: “You paid the devil’s price, Mother,” Caroline replies. “And he tricked you, like he always does. There is no safety for me in his reign. There will never be. There could never be. I will be a challenge to it for as long as I’m here.”

“Which is why I can’t let you do this.”

GM: “Yes… we can’t ever trust him… taking you away from this, from here, was always safest. Easy enough to fake your destruction—among your kind, until we can destroy him too…”

Her mother’s head droops. Her eyes close.

“I have enough time left… enough to bargain with, still… to start finding… how to cure you… there are methods, it’s been done…”

Caroline: Red tears leak from the corners of Caroline’s eyes.

GM: A voice crackles from one of the devices.

“Showtime, Mrs. Malveaux. He’s in position.”

Caroline knows that voice. Roger Ferris.

Caroline: Her fist closes around Abélia’s gift.

“I know you think you’re doing what’s best, Mother. But you’re not. Break the circle. Please. Please don’t make me do this. Please,” she begs. The flames tear at her composure, but not nearly as much as the act she’s contemplating.

GM: Her mother doesn’t acknowledge her, or open her eyes. Caroline watches as whitening hairs drift from her slumped-over head.

“Kill him, Roger… end this…” she murmurs.

“And I’ll finally free Westley…”

Caroline: Caroline bites her lips hard enough to draw blood as she watches her mother fall apart before her.

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

She doesn’t fight the tears.

“I love you.”

She throws the pearl at her mother.

GM: The marble’s opaque, too-black depths reflect none of the flames. It silently bounces off the air just above Caroline, as if striking an invisible barrier—then shatters.

Pure darkness washes forth.

The ceiling and rug within the circle disappear. There’s just blackness, like a kraken’s expelled ink. It washes against the crackling flames. Caroline can feel the eldritch power within her mother’s barrier, so much more than simple fire. Power enough to silence Caroline’s sanguine voice and block her supernal mien. It’d have been a challenge to deal with a Ventrue’s mental powers, especially if Claire was telling the truth about her phone not working.

Caroline can feel the dark energy rippling beneath those unnatural flames too. The price her mother paid to reinforce the binding, to make it stronger, after Caroline revealed the ‘truth’ of her heritage. Claire wanted to be absolutely certain that it would work. That it would contain her daughter and keep her ‘safe.’

The flames hiss, burn, and crackle. They seem to almost scream to maintain their shape. To hold fast Caroline and whatever she has unleashed.

Then, with no more than a mournful hiss, they’re gone as the darkness floods past.

Caroline: She can see it all through red-rimmed eyes, see how much effort her mother has put into this. How much planning. How much she’s sacrificed.

For nothing. For worse than nothing.

GM: Claire’s head snaps up. Horror spreads over her exhausted face. Then it’s gone too, as blackness consumes everything—

All but for a woman’s fluttering laugh.

Darkness.jpg


Monday night, 7 March 2016, PM

GM: The darkness recedes.

A little.

The binding circle that surrounded Caroline is gone. Blackness is everywhere. There are shapes in the gloom. Outlines. Indistinct. Only some seem Euclidean.

“My, my, my!” purrs a too-familiar voice. It wafts from every direction around Caroline, and from nowhere at all.

“You are full of surprises, my dear… I certainly wasn’t expecting this.”

Caroline: Red stains Caroline’s face as she stares into the darkness. Her voice is choked as she answers, “Neither was I.”

GM: A pale hand reaches out to brush Caroline’s cheek as the corners of Abélia’s dark eyes crinkle with sympathy.

“Oh, I know you weren’t, sweet child… to raise one’s hand against one’s family, even in self-defense… there are few things more terrible. Few burdens that weigh heavier upon the soul.”

Caroline: “It had to be,” Caroline answers flatly. There’s a hollowness to her eyes.

GM: A second pale arm reaches out from the darkness and embraces Caroline, holding her close. She can feel the older woman’s body pressing against hers. Abélia is shorter than her, Caroline knows, but it doesn’t feel like it. Her embrace is soft and comforting.

“I know it did, you poor thing… I know.”

“You had no other choice. It was not even a question of ambition, but simple survival. It was her… or you.”

Caroline: She leans into the darkness.

GM: The darkness enfolds her, envelops her. She can feel soft hands brushing away her coppery-smelling tears.

“I know what it is to face such an impossible decision, my dear. It was my father whom I slew. There was no other choice. It was him, or I… I and my sister.”

Caroline: The tears flow.

GM: The darkness coos.

“Sh-sh-sh…”

Caroline: “Iyazebel,” Caroline answers.

GM: The darkness chuckles.

“No, my dear. But a guess delicious in its irony, all the same…”

Caroline: The Ventrue falls silent.

GM: The darkness cradles her, enfolds her, embraces her. It answers the silence in kind. Time seems to stretch for a second, or an eternity, interspersed only by Caroline’s faint weeping, and the pale hand wiping away her eyes.

Caroline: The tears slow. More slowly than she might like to have thought they would.

“I have to go. There’s so much more I have to do. It’s all in the balance.”

GM: “Time holds only what meaning I permit it within this realm, my dear… you need not rub salt upon a wound still so raw.”

Caroline: “Did she suffer?” Caroline asks.

GM: The darkness sighs.

“I shall not comfort you with lies, dear child.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. She knew the truth before she asked.

GM: “But she suffered less, perhaps, than had she witnessed the slow erosion of her hopes. What you are may be altered, transfigured… but not undone.”

Caroline: “I know,” Caroline admits. “I’ve made my peace with it, but I don’t think she ever could.”

GM: “Your family has brought you such pain, Caroline. You have only ever wished to play the role of the filial daughter. You have but wished to demonstrate your love for your parents. You have but wished to know love repaid not in endless demands, not in cruelty, but merely in kind. You have but wished for your father to be proud of you, to show he values and treasures you. You had but wished for your mother… to do the same.”

Caroline: The words are true. Poisonously true. The tears start again.

She says nothing. She’d never say as much. Never admit as much.

GM: The darkness enfolds her, embraces her, cushions her. She knows softness and warmth.

“I cannot compel love to spring from whence it is absent, my child,” murmurs Abélia’s voice. “Such a feat is beyond my paltry abilities. But where love is present… I may yet make a stream well to a current.”

“My girls think the world of you, Caroline. You spared our family an unspeakable tragedy—you have shed blood to spare us blood.”

“If you should desire, I may make you their sister… in truth.”

Caroline: Caroline lays in that warmth. She doesn’t want it to end.

“What would that make me?” she asks. “Other than their sister?”

GM: She feels motion around her. It’s not unpleasant, but like being slowly rocked.

“It would make you my daughter.”

Caroline: Abélia’s daughter. Cécilia’s, Adeline’s, Yvette’s, Yvonne’s, Noëllle’s, and Simmone’s sister. A new family. One to love. One that loves her. The idea is like a weight coming off her shoulders. She relaxes into the darkness that enfolds her, like a black womb. To be reborn as something new…

“What would it cost?” she asks.

GM: “That price would be borne by me, dear child, not you,” wafts a soft voice from that dark womb.

“A mother sacrifices for her children.”

Caroline: The thought is overwhelming. It can’t be true. It can’t be that simple. The heiress weeps for the simplicity of it. “You’d do that?”

She remembers Yvette’s and Yvonne’s words about their mother. How she always seems to get what she wants. How others always seem to end up doing what she wants—and think her doing them a favor.

She remembers Abélia’s terrifying… folds in her home, on Christmas Eve, slithering around her in their monstrous size and power. She remembers the dark blood pouring from her each time she’s accepted the woman’s gifts, the dark temptations of the knowledge she’s offered.

She always gets her way.

She always gets what she wants.

Would that be so bad? She’s already damned by her blood. She’s already doomed by her creation. She’s already despised by her actions.

She just killed her mother.

She just murdered her mother.

“Will it hurt?” she asks—her last question.

She hopes it will.

GM: The darkness chuckles.

‘To the woman the Lord God said: I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.’

“Did your birth hurt you, my dear? Such hurts are for one’s mother to bear. In matters of family, you are innocent as Eve before she ate of Eden’s fruit, and undeserving of pain.”

Caroline: The darkness scares her still, but then, didn’t the light as well when she was born?

“I would be your daughter, Abélia.”

GM: The darkness embraces her. More than the mere sensation of strong arms about her, Caroline feels snug, as if an enveloping presence were embracing every part of her at once—body, mind, and soul. She feels her still-smudged tears dry, even her eternal thirst dim. She feels as if the ground has been taken out from beneath her, and that she is floating in a place removed from time or space as she knows them, yet still protectively embraced by the enveloping presence. Even the slow-burning hunger and ever-present rage of her Beast she has known since her Embrace seem to fade… burdens now borne by another.

“It is begun… my daughter,” sounds Abélia’s voice.

She feels a tender kiss against her forehead.

“Like the gestation of any child in the womb, your full entry into our family shall take time… but what is begun is begun.”

She feels soft hands stroking through her hair.

“I can hardly wait until that night… until what is begun is finished, and your sisters may gaze upon you with the same warmth and depth of affection as I now do.”

A sigh wafts through the darkness, but not wistful or morose like Claire’s. It’s content. Happy.

“Your foe awaits. Go now, with your mother’s blessing… and return to your family in triumph.”

Shapes and phantasmal outlines swim in the darkness. Dreadful shapes, that might descend upon witness’ naked souls like ravenous birds upon wriggling worms, but which Caroline knows will harm her not. Not while Maman is present. She feels motion without ground beneath her feet, as if she is caught within a river’s fast-accelerating current.

“The battle still rages and has left him weak… along with his foes. Neither may withstand you. Go now, and claim your deathright!”

Caroline: “I will not fail,” Caroline replies. The emotions are a whirlwind within her. Grief, self-loathing, terror, fear, frustration, desire, resentment, relief. All will have their day. All have had their moment of rule.

But most all, she feels the hands stroking against her hair. The promise of love, of affection, of a mother that she can trust, that she can share things with. She’d always dreamed of those things, thought perhaps, if she was just a bit better, she’d be worthy of them. If she was a bit more perfect.

She feels safe, for the first time in a long time. Perhaps ever that she remembers.

The relief of the weight of her ravenous thirst and the unending rage of the Beast comes like shedding a burden she’d carried so long she barely noticed it until it was lifted. The muting of the rage and the clarity that comes with it.

Daughter. She’s killed her mother, but gained another. Lost a family, but gained another. Gained sisters that she always wanted. Whatever else may come of it… well, perhaps that is enough. It’s a salve over a wound, numbing it, perhaps numbing her.

“Thank you.” The words spill out with a welling of emotion. They’re inadequate. “I… I can’t wait. To see them. To see what the future holds.”

GM: “You are the one who bears that future within your grasp, my dear… it is yours to shape. Your future holds greatness…” wafts Abélia’s voice, but the sound is fast fading.

More sounds rise—ones of violence. Pain. Hate.

Maddened howls split the empty air. The almost empty air. A weirdly glowing light agent clings to the air in a man-shaped pattern, careening back and forth. The scent of gunpowder is heavy in the air as bullet after bullet riddles the mannish outline, spattering the walls and floor with red. Spent casings tinkle against the ground. Wood-tipped crossbow shafts fly. Explosions sound, and flames roar—but the outline’s maddened shriek still isn’t nearly so agonized as it is at the light.

Caroline is nearly blinded herself from the glare of the headbeams, but the entire house is lit up like someone decided to celebrate a decade of Christmases and New Years’ at once. The phantasmal outline’s unceasing scream is like a spike in her ears, even past the explosive gunshots and literally explosive detonations.

The man-shaped outline blindly stumbles past tripwires and infrared beams in its simultaneous fight and flight. Masked figures fire and retreat, fire and advance, clearly directing their fire to herd him through the worst of the booby traps. Caroline wonders how much longer he can last.

She can still make out several fallen bodies. The shape gestures furiously, all but clawing at the air, and one of the masked figures collapses from behind his cover. He writhes like a gutted fish as blood sprays from his palms, arms, and legs—the same holy wounds borne by Christ.

The shape recoils as another round of bullets chew and pulp its outline, painting the floor red. Fire blossoms around its legs, and its screams reach a ravenous new pitch even as Caroline’s Beast recoils in instinctive panic. The figure’s outline sharply motions again, and another masked figure collapses screaming to the ground, locusts hungrily devouring flesh.

Caroline: Her mother—her birth mother—was wrong, it would seem, in her assertion that she had enough to bring down the bishop. Very wrong.

So much the better. Rarely has Caroline been more inclined to violence, so eager to unleash her loss, her pain, and her anger, on something. So eager to prove herself. And so readily in possession of a target so deserving of her violence.

Malveaux, who would possess her. Malveaux, who would destroy her. Malveaux, who has threatened her since her earliest nights, who dogged her efforts, who insulted and belittled her, who has humiliated her at every opportunity.

Malveaux, who made her kill her mother.

In a moment, all she sees is red.

It doesn’t matter that he’s ‘invisible’. It doesn’t matter that she’s unarmed. It doesn’t matter that bullets and bolts fly back and forth across the room. What matters is that he’s here, where all of his status and influence means nothing. What matters is he’s hurt. What matters is he’s within reach.

Caroline’s attack is utter savagery, lacking in anything approaching subtlety, but not at all in grace or beauty. She’s a blur through the floating particles, then her fists are raining down on him, twisting, turning, trying to rip the bishop limb from limb even as she pulls him, tries to find purchase with her fangs. She digs cruel fingers and canines into the many rents within his skin, tearing them into chasms that weep vitae. She savagely claws and bites at charred skin, ripping it away in bloody hunks. She savages what might be his face, ruining delicate features. Months of loss and repressed rage unleash the gates of hell.

GM: Hell yawns wide—and a demonic host spills forth.

Already wounded, already shot and burned and pierced and ravaged and blinded by her mother’s hunters, the would-be invisible bishop all-too ironically doesn’t even see the hateful whirlwind that is Caroline tear into him. It’s only by the most token of efforts that she tries to resist the Beast. Its instincts and the Man’s are in complete concordance:

The bishop must suffer.

The partial blood bond tugging against her mind is no more than a hangnail against a sucking chest wound. Caroline smashes into her already buckling elder clanmate like a cyclone. Hitting his bullet-riddled skin is like hitting concrete, but she doesn’t care. Even the strongest foundation cracks after enough blows, so she just keeps hitting. And hitting. And hitting. Blow after blow after blow rains down like a howling wind.

Perhaps he screams another invocation. Distantly, her Beast registers pain. Wetness in her hurting palms and arms. She doesn’t care. His physical struggles, even with his own raging Beast behind them, are pathetic. Caroline stops hitting him. She starts devouring him.

Her snapping canines chew, rip, and tear. His neck is as hard as the rest of him. She keeps at it. There are more screamed prayers, more pain across her back, but prayers they’re prayers to a God who must truly be deaf to them as Caroline claws at his half-visible face, digging her nails into an unseen but all-too soft part of his anatomy.

His shrieks are music to the Beast’s ears as the vulnerable organs squelch and pop under her furious fingers. Retinal fluid runs down his suddenly visible face from the gaping holes where his eyes used to be. The bishop lies still.

The red haze recedes.

Gunfire and dragonsbreath explodes at the Ventrue from the remaining masked figures, who perhaps think her spent and weak. She flies towards them. There’s a burst of light and heat in her face. She blurs aside, snap kicking the man in his groin, bringing down an elbow on his neck, and then smashing his masked face against a wall. He crumples to the floor and lies still.

A gunshot sounds behind her. She whirls to face it—and sees one of the men lying on the floor in a heap, bleeding profusely from his ankle. A grenade rolls from his fingers. The man with the smoking gun behind him carefully stops it with his foot, then smashes the butt of his gun into the other man’s face. He also lies still.

“Cops are going to be all over this place in no time, Ms. Malveaux,” sounds Roger Ferris’ voice.

“Plan was to start a fire and blame it on the couple who blew each other’s brains out. The bishop brought backup. Wasn’t supposed to be this much noise or this many bodies. The plan can still work, if you tamper with enough responders’ minds.”

Caroline: Caroline keeps her eyes on the eight-fingered ghoul as she digs out her phone with a viscera-covered hand and dials a number. “Who did he bring?” she asks.

GM: “Fat man. He’s ash. Two ghouls. Both dead.”

“Chandler and the rest of the crew can be here in minutes to help clean up. Your call.”

Caroline: Caroline stares at him and speaks into the phone. “It’s done. Time for cleanup. Get everyone here.” A moment. “No, police.” She hangs up. “Were you ever a ghoul?”

GM: “No. Your mother taught me how to fake it even if one of you tasted me.”

Caroline: Caroline stares, then nips her wrist. “You’re going to be.”

GM: The eight-fingered man bends to receive it.

Caroline: She lets him drink from her, but makes no ceremony of it. Before long, her hand is withdrawn.

“Get your people here. They are subordinate to mine. Are any of the hunters still alive?”

GM: “Only those two,” Ferris answers. He doesn’t lick his lips, but his eyes glint. “My people don’t know about Kindred. But they’ll do what they’re told without questions.”

Caroline: “Get the bodies out of here. Yours will do the immediate cleanup inside. Shell casing, any ordinance, weapons. You know better than I do what’s left here.”

GM: Ferris pulls out out a phone. “Chandler. Scene to scrub. Get everyone.” He gives the address, then hangs up.

Caroline: “Mine will delay the cops. When the first room is set up, start the fire.”

GM: Ferris wordlessly binds and gags the two unconscious men, then starts dragging away the nearest corpse.

Caroline: Caroline once more turns her attention to her defeated foe.

GM: His ravaged, torpid body lies motionless.

Caroline: He’s too dangerous to leave ‘alive.’ More to the point, every moment in which he’s not ash invites his ‘rescue’ and her likely to follow execution.

She knows what Abélia would recommend. What her new mother would want. There’s a poetic justice to it—he would have possessed her. For her to possess him…

My daughter would not shrink from a weapon I placed in her hand.

If that’s what she is now, let none say she fears.

She doesn’t know how it ends, but she knows where to start. She bends to drink from her ancestor once more. For the final time.

GM: Caroline knows well the taste of Kindred vitae by now. She knows it from her liaisons with Jocelyn, from the draughts of elders so often forced upon her lips in punishment. It’s hot, rich, and thick, against which mortal blood tastes like water, even past the faintly bitter ash- or dust-like undertaste. She can almost make out a low Gregorian chant at the edge of her hearing.

She drinks fully, gluttonously, past all satiation. She’s never fed before like this, drained a vessel completely empty while already completely full. She’s never had so much blood. She swollen, bloated, like an engorged tick. Her skin feels wet and she become conscious that the excess blood is leaking out of her pours, she’s taking so much. The omnipresent coppery scent is impossibly arousing. She drinks and she drinks and she drinks, like she has a vein to the world’s own arteries, like she might never run out.

She drinks deep—and hits gold.

It’s not liquid she’s drinking anymore. It’s as heavy as gold and weightless as air. It’s so pure and powerful that she seems to be swallowing liquid fire. She feels a burning in her veins, starting in her throat and spreading outwards through her entire body. It’s indescribable: pleasure so piercing it’s agony, pain so sweet it’s ecstasy.

Bishop Malveaux’s pinkish eyes are wide open, even past his torpor. She sees his mouth laboriously parting past his protruding canines in a silent scream. His face is a shattered mosaic of agony and naked terror: she doesn’t think she’s ever seen another sentient being in such pain.

Caroline: Something within her recoils from that pain and terror, pleadingly claims that she isn’t this person, that she isn’t a sadist, that she doesn’t want to, or enjoy hurting people. I’m a good person, it whispers.

But she knows that voice is a lie. She wants him to hurt. She wants him terrorized. She wants to be the one to hurt him. This freak. This sadist. He deserves it. More to the point, she deserves to do it to him.

My Yvette would not hesitate to seize a newly-forged sword placed before her use. If its steel burnt her hands, ah, well. No power may be claimed without price.

No power without a price. Malveaux’s terror and pain is one she’ll gladly pay.

Especially when it feels so. Damn. Good.

GM: The soundless scream rings back and forth in Caroline’s ears like the tolling of a great church bell. It dongs with every mouthful of that transcendent, soul-scorching flame she sucks into herself. It’s fast at first, like the beating of a vessel’s heart. It slows with each mouthful, yet rings all the deeper, all the louder.

Caroline drinks ravenously. She’s lighter than air and denser than rock. She’s full and she’s empty. She’s divine and depraved. The bishop’s neck is a vein of liquid gold.

She drinks until that vein is empty and that gold is hers—and, impossibly, her ecstasy blooms to even greater heights. She could not stop the raw scream that tears from her lips even if she tried to. The sensation is akin to orgasm, but so much stronger, and omnipresent, lighting up every inch of her skin like she’s been struck by a divine thunderbolt.

She feels ready to burst like a star going nova, so inadequate is her dead shell to contain all that she is. Space vanishes. Time hangs still. She feels herself expanding, racing, as it fills that existential void, and she becomes more than she was… and her ancestor becomes nothing. She sees a crying and naked boy, shunned and mocked by all for his too-pale skin. She sees him wail pitifully for his mother and sister, the only two who loved him, as his brothers hold him down and hit him, laughing what a “runt” and “freak” he is.

She flays his hopes, rapes his tears, swallows his screams, and devours him utterly: in mind, body, and soul. She feels her own all but curl black from the weight a transgression for which there can be no atonement, a sin that no penance may ever erase.

No power may be claimed without price.

She comes to, dead lungs empty of all air, ash falling from her mouth.

Caroline: Caroline takes a deep breath, feeling, for a moment, alive. Her lungs feel, and it feels as though for the first time. Reborn again, something more.

She reaches up and is surprised to find dampness around her eyes again. Tears for her tormentor? She’d never thought of him as anything but a monster. A killer, a terror, an implacable and unyielding fanatic. How many dozens had he killed? How many hundreds in his long Requiem? Beside those murders, those rapes, those torments, his crimes against her are petty. And yet… they all seem petty.

She cannot force the image of him as a crying child from her mind. Afraid, hurt, alone, unloved, reviled. A slave to his mistakes in life—and to the mistakes of his birth.

The Ventrue knows he was more than that. A priest, a bishop, Ventrue, a gerousiastis. He’d risen far from his horrible beginnings. Almost as high as any Ventrue could hope. Far beyond his failings and his limitations. He’d done it on the back of murder and terror, on the back of bigotry and intolerance. He was a monster, objectively, by any measure.

As hard as she tries though, she finds it impossible to remember him as such. Impossible to remember his wrathful castigation of her, time and again. To remember his humiliations of her. To care about the mountain of corpses he left behind him.

The image of the screaming, wailing, pathetic thing he once and always was is seared into her mind, across her soul in ugly black block print. She sympathizes with him in his destruction in a way she never could in his Requiem. She pities him, and hates herself for snuffing out all that he was. And she knows she’ll never forget.

She rises, breathing out the ash of all that’s left of him.

There’s no time to mourn him. There’s no time to regret her actions. The sheriff will be coming. The police already are. She’s made herself the worst type of criminal to her clan, covenant, and kind. Now there is only time to hide her crime.


Monday night, 7 March 2016, PM

Caroline: Normally Caroline would leave the cleanup to her ghouls: that’s what they’re here for, to do such work. Not tonight. There’s no time. Even more, if there is a single error, a single sign of her passage, of her crime, her fate is assured.

She follows the cleanup plan her mother setup: remove the bodies, remove the explosives and bullets and weapons, and burn the building to the ground. She uses Ferris and his men to delay the police, leaning upon the police on his payroll to give her time even as she blitzes throughout the building in a whirlwind of activity gathering up incriminating items.

So far as anyone is concerned, so far as anyone must be concerned, she was never here.

In so much as possible, she keeps her people apart from any of the cleanup. They arrive by van, masked, to assist in loading out corpses, weapons, and the like. When her masked ghouls arrive she has them spread accelerant throughout the house, and additionally bring in numerous more mundane ‘accelerants’. The worst room has an array of paint products brought in, piled among it. Home improvement gone wrong: little burns hotter or faster than paint and paint thinner.

GM: Ferris’ and Caroline’s people get to work. Autumn looks less than happy to see the other now-ghoul working alongside her domitor, but no one wastes time on chatter. Cops in the Garden District are not nearly so inattentive to residents’ needs as they are in other areas of the city. Ferris knows Lt. Curt “The Hurt” Buchowsky by name, but says his people won’t be able to delay the police for long—violent crimes like this are not supposed to happen in the Garden District. On second thought, it may be better if no one messes with the cops’ heads too extensively—the sheriff may look for signs of tampering. Cleaning up the scene to Caroline’s meticulous satisfaction is like walking a tightrope while running instead.

Fortunately, the Ventrue likely could run tightropes. She blurs from carnage-devastated room to carnage-devastated room, too fast to follow, gathering and planting evidence, leaving everything all just so before the big finish.

The house goes up in a roar of flames as Caroline’s vans make their getaway. Some hold fire as a symbol of truth and purification, burning away falsehood and deceit.

But fire has no will. It just burns—and it burns truths as well as it burns falsehoods.

Caroline: Ferris’ people never see Caroline. Once they’re away she brings Ferris in with her to a secondary location, the building she bought for Lou in fact, to debrief him. The bodies of the ghouls are sent off to be disposed of as Ferris / her mother’s team had planned on disposing of any bodies—immediately. Too easily tracked. The hunters are photographed, fingerprinted, and have DNA samples taken for identification if that becomes necessary.

The most immediate and pressing question is who they are, and who among them may be missed. What information Ferris has on them goes a long way towards identification.

Beyond that she wants to know everything about tonight. What involvement they had with Savoy, who else knew of the plot, where any information or plans were stored, the works. She makes no bones of the fact that her mother is dead. Very shortly, if this matter is not cleaned up perfectly, they’ll both join her.

GM: “I know she is, Ms. Malveaux,” Ferris states. “We were in contact. I heard what happened to her.”

“There’s some things you should know.”

“Gettis is alive. He was there at our last meeting. Gettis isn’t his name either. He’s a ghoul. Independent. Ancient. Leads his own organization of police-affiliated hunters called New Orleans Special Task. NOSTF. He’s been working with Savoy for over a century to undermine Vidal’s control of NOPD from within. Lebeaux and Moreno are just the more public efforts.”

“He knows about tonight’s hit on Malveaux. He’s got a nose for trouble. Your mother wanted him to participate. He wouldn’t. Thought it smelled wrong.”

Caroline: The news that Gettis is alive sets Caroline’s nerves on edge, but she simply listens.

GM: “The cell we and Malveaux took out are NOSTF grunts,” Ferris continues. “They operate a clandestine cell system structure. The captives we took won’t be able to identify anyone. They, and the ones we killed, are all cops. NOPD is going to come looking for them.”

Caroline: Caroline scowls. Dead cops are bad news.

“What about the rest of her own ‘cell’?” she asks.

GM: “Your mother wasn’t part of NOSTF, Ms. Malveaux. She was affiliated with an allied group of hunters known as the Barrett Commission. They’re a national organization drawn from politicians, bankers, CEOs, senior military. People at the top.”

“She headed the chapter in Louisiana. They’ve been decapitated with her gone, but have other members. Someone’s eventually going to replace her.”

NOSTF is an allied group. Your mother leaned on them to do her dirty work in return for funding and behind the scenes assistance. Most of the Barretts don’t get their own hands dirty.”

“She also trades vitae with Gettis to help keep him alive. He’s dust at his age if he misses a dose. That’s where your sample went.”

Caroline: The Ventrue runs her tongue across her fangs. It’s a lot—maybe enough, especially with what she got from the coin. Or might have been if she hadn’t destroyed Malveaux. Not that she regrets it.

“How did you get roped in?”

GM: “Seven years ago. When the bishop tried to make me his. He was sterile. He couldn’t Embrace or make ghouls, so he had to be creative.”

“He’s been inside all of your family’s heads at some point, and also uses his magic to perform ‘miracles’ and dupe them into believing what he wants through ‘divine signs.’ Orson truly believes he’s God’s chosen agent on Earth.”

“He tried to suborn me after I started working for your family. Sent me visions and nightmares. Made impossible things happen around me. I’d seen things in the Middle East. When the visions started giving orders, I played along.”

Caroline: “Gettis was at our meeting,” Caroline states as much as asks.

GM: “He was,” Ferris replies.

“Your mother approached me shortly after the bishop tried to get to me. She figured he’d want to. She told me the score. I played double agent and passed along his orders to her.”

“Your mother made me a nominal member of the Barretts, but we agreed she should keep me away from other members. Too close to the front lines. We worked to covertly undermine the bishop’s influence over the family and keep its members safe.”

Caroline: “What happened the night Gettis broke his cover and shot Yvonne Devillers and Sarah Whitney?” Caroline asks.

GM: “Don’t know. Wasn’t your mother’s concern, or mine, except for how it reflected on Gettis. We thought he’d cracked. He only said it was time to abandon the Gettis cover and that his actions served a purpose. We didn’t press for more.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t react to the news.

“What else?”

GM: “Hunter organizations aren’t unlike the CIA, Ms. Malveaux. They don’t share more than they absolutely need to.”

Caroline: “If it were easy to ferret them out, they wouldn’t exist,” she agrees.

GM: “Gettis has been allied with Antoine Savoy since time out of mind. When she blew her cover sparing you, she went to Gettis. He put her in touch with Savoy. She knew things wouldn’t last with the prince’s bloc. Knew the prince would betray her. Savoy has a proven track record of working with hunters.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “And where do you stand, Mr. Ferris?”

GM: “That was an interesting question initially, Ms. Malveaux,” the gray-bearded man replies. “The cardinal rule for any spy is to never burn your own boss. One of my old ones joked trust is like a girl’s virginity. Gone for good once it’s soiled.”

“Your uncle Matt hired me. On paper I reported to him. In practice his actions weren’t his own. It made things messy. Unclear what boss not to burn.”

Caroline: Caroline waits for him to mull it all over, her green eyes glittering.

GM: Caroline’s eyes aren’t green anymore.

She didn’t notice it, at first, until she glimpsed her reflection in the car’s window. They’re the same pale blue as Cécilia’s.

“I concluded my loyalty was to the Malveaux family,” Ferris continues calmly. “As the ones who’d pulled me back from the brink and enabled me to recover my daughter.”

“I also concluded your mother and the bishop were the only ones capable of making true executive decisions as to its future. Your mother had the family’s welfare in mind. The bishop didn’t. He was cracked. Damaged. I threw in with Claire.”

“I liked your mother well enough, Ms. Malveaux. But I’m not going to die for her memory. She’s gone now. So’s he. None of your relatives know the real picture. You’re the only one left who can lead the family.”

Caroline: “And what would you advise me, the last loyal man in New Orleans?”

GM: “You think my advice so free of self-interest? I’m flattered.”

Caroline: “All the better.”

GM: Ferris shrugs. “There’s reasons to eliminate me, and ones to keep me around. You know my skills. I won’t repeat those.”

Caroline: “I didn’t mean about you. Broaden your gaze. Would you advise my mother’s course? That I leap in with Savoy as the old order crumbles?”

GM: “When I was in the CIA, Ms. Malveaux, I didn’t care if it was a Democrat or Republican in the White House. The orders handed down aren’t so different. Domestic macro-politics isn’t our concern.”

“But since you’ve asked.”

“Savoy’s on the rise. He’s had a lot of recent wins. I think he’s shrewder, more open-minded, and more adaptable than the opposition. We’ve handed him another significant win taking out the bishop and his lackey.”

“Savoy’s head still isn’t the one that wears the crown, though. The prince is more established, has more clout, more resources, more everything. But he’s worse at leveraging those advantages than Savoy is. The operative question seems to be how well he can, or can’t, leverage them before his time runs out.”

“Some insurgencies against the established order succeed. Others fail. I’d say between the two here it’s a toss-up.”

Caroline: “The prince cannot hold out,” Caroline agrees. “Not as he’s done. It would require a radical change.”

She rolls over the case agent’s words.

“Insurgency is a good word for how Savoy has run his campaign. And the prince has utterly failed to win hearts and minds. This is not the city it was in his heyday, or even before Katrina, I think. It cannot be ruled as though it still is.”

GM: “The prince doesn’t think he needs to win hearts and minds. He crushes dissenters. That’s worked in the past. Not so much now. Regime change seems inevitable if he’s bound for torpor, assuming that’s accurate information.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “That was why Malveaux had to die, regardless of which side I take.”

GM: “Extra bodies won’t make a regime last if they’re not dependable, and can lull leaders into overconfidence.”

Caroline: Caroline considers that answer before changing the topic.

“And your current state? Can you tolerate existence as a ghoul?”

GM: “Hunters tolerate it well enough when they want to.” Ferris shrugs. “You’re Kindred. Mortals don’t work for you. Hezbollah doesn’t recruit Jews. The CIA doesn’t recruit Muslims. That’s how it is.”

Caroline: “I have need of you, Roger. I need your expertise. I need your knowledge. I need your connections. I need your loyalty. My own ghouls are good at their jobs, but none of them are you. They lack your subtlety, your finesse. That attack on my haven was a work of art.”

GM: The gray-bearded man’s face flickers with annoyance. “It was sloppy. We relied on bad intel, to predictable results.”

“Regardless. Your mother and the bishop are both off the board. My loyalty’s to the Malveauxes, and you’re the only one who can lead them now. You want my service, it’s yours.”

Caroline: The Ventrue lets out her Beast to sniff Ferris’ words, to scent through lies and sift his thoughts for any trace of falsehood. It’s eager to come out, still so freshly soaked in her foe’s stolen blood.

She doesn’t sense any immediate deceit from him. She supposes that’s good enough. He’s had little time to lay longer-term plans.

She rises and extends her hand.

Most women don’t shake hands.

Most women weren’t Nathaniel Malveaux’s daughter in another life.

GM: Ferris rises. The man’s grip is firm, though his two prosthetic fingers lend it an unusual, even off-balancing feel.

Caroline: “We have a great deal to do, Roger.”

Her blue eyes dance.

“We’re going to win a war.”


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Story Eleven, Caroline XII

“Goddamn. I’ve seen some weird-ass shit in my night. Then this comes along.”
Alexander Wright


Monday night, 29 February 2016, AM

Caroline: Caroline calls Autumn and gets the information she promised Doriocourt from her. She passes it off to Fuller before she leaves. The Ventrue doesn’t go home. She can’t face that yet—not physically and not emotionally. There’s still more to clean up. Instead she drives to Rocco’s domain to answer any questions the hound might have about his tenant. About her place in this. About why she didn’t tell him first.

It goes about as well as she might expect.

Rocco tells Caroline to drink from him.

The eventual drive back to the Giani Building is long and dark. Widney says, “You did the right thing, ma’am.” Her eyes show too-obvious doubt.

Caroline eventually has to face what she wishes with all her heart she didn’t have to face. She feeds her blood to Jocelyn’s corpse.

She even waits. Just long enough.

She’s already violated the Toreador in enough ways.

Before she doers so she binds Jocelyn broken corpse. The last thing she wants is for the weakened Kindred to awaken and set upon her again, and she expects all too well the frenzy that might overtake her.

Have a break here?

GM: Jocelyn comes to.

Hungrily.

Confusedly.

Furiously.

When she tastes the blood.

When she sees her surroundings.

When she feels her bonds.

She doesn’t even ask what the fuck is going on. There’s just a furious howl as the Beast overtakes her.

The steel cuffs don’t threaten to snap like Tina made them, but Jocelyn is no half-finished excuse for a vampire like Natalia. Caroline has to hold her down on top of the cuffs, well away from her snapping mouth and clawing hands, as the Toreador mindlessly roars and thrashes.

It feels like it goes on for hours.

It’s exhausting. To the spirit, far more than the body, even when Caroline can hold her down.

When the madness recedes from her lover’s eyes, it feels temporary. Temporary before the Beast will fill them again. Before the Beast will fill her eyes again. It’s like she said.

It never stops.

It always wants.

It always comes back.

It always gets back out.

“Let me go! LET ME THE FUCK GO!” Jocelyn shouts as she strains against the cuffs. Caroline can all but hear the second frenzy’s approach in her ragged voice.

Caroline: “I will! I fucking will, but not until you listen for one minute.” Caroline’s grateful she soundproofed her apartment.

“I know you’re angry, and I know you hate me, and I’m not even sure you shouldn’t,” the Ventrue continues. “But I’m not letting you leave here beaten to hell because of me.”

There’s pain in the Ventrue’s voice. “Like… just listen. I get it. But that’s… that’s the one thing I can make right.”

“I don’t your handouts! I have a fucking krewe, you know, licks who actually like and help me, in case you’ve forgotten!” Jocelyn flares.

“It’s the only thing I can make right.”

* “I don’t want your handouts! I have a fucking krewe, you know, licks who actually like and help me, in case you’ve forgotten!” Jocelyn flares.

“Guess y-” she cuts.

“What the fuck did you do with Gwen?”

* “Guess y-” she cuts off.

“What the fuck did you do with Gwen?”

Caroline: Caroline, straddling the battered and spread-eagle Toreador, looks away. “Yeah… she flipped when I stopped mind-screwing her…. and then I flipped.”

“Doriocourt woke her up later.” Which had genuinely surprised Caroline. She’d not heard that the hound was that old.

Of course, Kindred wouldn’t think she could do that either.

She’s not supposed to be that old.

“Dorio… what!? What’d you do with Gwen!?”

Caroline: “I brought her to Perdido House,” Caroline replies, bracing for another frenzy.

GM: She gets one.

The Toreador’s maddened howls echo off the walls as she snarls, snaps, and tugs against the four handcuffs and Caroline’s weight.

It never stops.

It always wants.

Caroline: Jocelyn isn’t strong. Even with the Beast, she’s never been that strong, at least compared to Caroline. Beaten half-to-death she’s weaker still. It doesn’t make it pleasant.

It almost makes it worse. This pathetic, thrashing, hating thing wrapped in the body of her lover. All of it brought on by Caroline.

She holds Jocelyn down. That’s the easy part. It’s in the trying not to weep over the awfulness of everything that there’s a challenge.

GM: She feels a good damn deal stronger than Caroline, or at least a calm Caroline. But a fat lot of good it does her spread-eagled and so poorly able to leverage that strength.

It lasts a while.

Not as long as last time seemed to.

But still too long.

Long enough for Caroline’s face to smell like blood.

“Why the fuck did you do that!? They’re gonna KILL HER!” Jocelyn shouts.

Caroline: “Because otherwise they’d have killed Natalia for sure!” Caroline screams back, her face a mask of grief.

GM: “So we HIDE Natalia! We find a lick look strong enough to, to,” Jocelyn suddenly frowns in puzzlement, “how’d you wake up me?! Why couldn’t you for Gwen, huh!? You KILLED her! You KILLED GWEN!”

Red freely leaks from Jocelyn’s eyes.

“Oh my g-god, Evan, and now f-fucking Gwen!”

Caroline: “She fucking deserves what she gets!” Caroline snarls.

GM: “Oh you’re full of SHIT, like you haven’t done WORSE!” Jocelyn shouts back. “LIKE WE ALL HAVEN’T!”

“She has fucking stuffed animals! She’s a wimp! How many people have you killed, huh!? WHY ARE YOU SO FUCKING BETTER!?”

Caroline: “No, I haven’t,” Caroline snarls back. “I haven’t ever murdered a pregnant girl because I felt bad them brought her back as a thin-blood. Have you?” she accuses.

“There’s a line, Jocelyn! We’re monsters, but there’s a fucking line!”

GM: “Great! I guess you should tell the sheriff to kill you next, you’ve killed a million fucking people!”

“But that’s not is it, huh? You’re just butthurt ’cuz YOU killed a baby!”

Caroline: There’s truth there Caroline doesn’t try to deny. Instead she falls silent.

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” she replies softly after a moment.

GM: Jocelyn starts crying again.

“You killed Gwen! I, I can’t BELIEVE you! Ev-Evan, NOW GWEN!? We-we’re fucked! S-stick a g-godamn f-fork us, we’re f-fucked!”

Caroline: “You’re right, Jocelyn. Maybe if it’d been some random guy I could have looked the other way. Could have helped her hide her crime.” She wipes the blood from her eyes with the back of her hand.

GM: “Take these fucking off!” Jocelyn yells, rattling the handcuffs.

Caroline: “And when you frenzy again?” Caroline snarls. “What do you want me to do with your ashes?”

GM: “Oh gee, thanks for asking! Boy, that’s a first!”

Caroline: “I’m fucking serious! If you lose it on me I won’t be able to stop myself!” she snarls. “And we both know damn well you couldn’t stop me on your best day.”

GM: “I HATE YOU!” Jocelyn shouts, red leaking from her eyes. “Why don’t you just MINDFUCK me again already, if I’m just your fucking toy!”

“How many times, huh!? How many bloopers off the memory reel!?”

Caroline: Tears well again in Caroline’s eyes at the accusation, and she climbs off the Toreador.

“Fucking never. Never, Jocelyn, not once. Why the fuck do you think I’d bother trying to talk to you about it all if it was really that easy for me to do something like that to you?” she replies, shaking her head and heading for the door.

GM: “Oh, yeah! Except that one time! Just now! Guess you forgot!”

Caroline: “No,” Caroline snaps back. “I didn’t forget. And I never will. And neither will you. I’ll send in some ghouls in a bit with a snack.” She opens the door.

GM: Jocelyn laughs manically as red rolls down her cheeks. “Oh, that’s, that just, ha ha, bet that’s new! How many times?! Huh!? HOW MANY TIMES!?”

“Fucking answer me, if you’re just gonna do this all over!”

“What is this, just, just some fucking experiment!? See what I’m like when you aren’t sticking a bot switch in my head!?”

Caroline: “If I wanted to fucking control you it’d be way fucking easier to have bonded you when I woke you up and mind fucked this all away.”

The Ventrue leaves. Caroline slams the door behind her.

GM: “Boy, guess you can write that off! Jocelyn’s no fun now!” is the last thing she hears as the door slams.

Caroline: Caroline walks over to the windows looking out into the city lights in her living room. Compared to the bedroom it’s warm out here. Pleasant, even. Caroline doesn’t really notice.

She wishes she could have a drink. Something to numb the pain, or make her forget the awfulness of this night. Another thing the Requiem has robbed her of.

GM: Well, mostly. She heard about it from Jocelyn. Boozing up your vessels and then feeding on them.

“They call it blood alcohol content for a reason,” she’d joked.

Caroline: She doesn’t want to entertain a vessel, want to fatten them up like a Christmas goose to make herself feel better.

When the night started there were painfully few worthwhile things in her Requiem. Only really two. Now there’s one. She looks out on the city bathed in darkness until the tears stop. Until she calms down, and the only thing left is the throbbing, instead of the anger she felt beginning to bubble up.

She’s not really mad at Jocelyn. Can’t be mad at her. It’s impossible to tell her ‘feelings’ apart from the ever-present tug of the bond—and at this point Caroline doesn’t really want to. Jocelyn’s hurt because Caroline hurt her, in every way. A sadistic bit of her says she should let turn her loose, let her wander out into the street covered in blood with her broken body. That it’s not her problem.

But it is her problem. It’s her fault. And while she can’t undo the things she did to her the Toreador mentally—or at least won’t—she can put the physical pieces back together. She picks up the landline and tells Audrey to bring them up in a few minutes, then tells Fuller to come up as well.

By the time the security man arrives she’s already put the vessels Audrey brought under her spell. She orders them under his control and asks him to ‘administer’ them to the bound Toreador in the bedroom.

“I don’t trust anyone else not to hurt her—or not to let her hurt them.”

GM: Audrey’s picked up two seedy- and disheveled-looking men. The kind out and about during the middle of the night on a weekday. They’ve got messy hair, rashes on their skin, and a sunken cast to their eyes. They look like dope fiends.

Fuller nods at the order and sees the men in.

He comes out after a moment.

“She says she doesn’t want anything from you.”

He shrugs. “Can force-feed her. Asking since she’s your girl.”

“She looks pretty hungry. Just being stubborn.”

“Probably wouldn’t even need to force her, actually. She’d lose it just smelling blood right now.”

Caroline: “Petulant,” Caroline growls without animosity.

“She needs to eat,” she replies. “Give her the choice, but it happens on her terms or yours.”

GM: Fuller returns several minutes later. The two men look notably paler.

“Spat on my face. Did it on my terms. You’ve pissed her off something fierce, ma’am.”

Caroline: “I know,” Caroline replies sadly. “I’m sorry she spat in your face, Brian, and that I asked you to do that. There’s no one else I’d trust to do it.”

She pauses, then continues, “Thank you.”

GM: “Been hurt worse,” the ex-corpsman shrugs. “Seen girls like her, though. Thought you should know the state of mind she’s in. But you’re welcome, ma’am.”

Caroline: “I don’t expect I’ll be seeing much of her in the future,” Caroline replies with resignation. “Can you see these two back to Audrey to return wherever she got them from?”

GM: Brian nods. “Overheard the earlier stuff between Widney and Rabinowitz, ma’am. It’s ugly. They’re getting in the way of each other’s jobs.”

Caroline: “I’d hoped they’d have resolved their pecking order by now,” Caroline agrees, grateful in the moment for something else to worry about.

GM: “Not happening. Each thinks they should be the boss. The other’s boss, anyway.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “You think I should get involved.”

GM: “You don’t have a clear chain of command, ma’am. So it comes down to personalities and how they get along. Or don’t.”

“Curtis had his act together. Green, some of the time.”

“Attribute it to them being civilians, ma’am. No offense.”

Caroline: The Ventrue gives a dark chuckle. “None taken. There’s a reason I employ so many of you.”

GM: “There’s a reason so many people want to employ us.”

Caroline: “Touché.”

The Ventrue looks at the former corpsman, tilting her head slightly to the side as if to see him in a different light.

GM: He’s all crags, leathery skin, and thick-corded muscles from whatever angle Caroline looks at him, standing assertively to attention. Chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in, eyes front, blank facial expression. It’s a more ‘overt’ variety of professionalism than she’s been used to with Roger Ferris.

Caroline: “I’ll deal with them,” she continues after a moment. “Not tonight, but soon.”

She looks back at the bedroom. “One mess at a time.”

GM: “As you say, ma’am.”

Caroline: She waits for him to leave with the dope fiends before heading back into the bedroom.

GM: He’s gone in short order when Caroline indicates she has no further orders. The door to Jocelyn’s room is closed.

Caroline: Caroline heads into the bedroom.

GM: Jocelyn’s still cuffed down. There’s some blood running down her chin. She glares furiously at Caroline and spits red when the Ventrue gets close.

She remembers her uncle Carson saying he could deal with screaming, gibbering, crying, ranting, insane, whatever, defendants. He could deal with them all. But if there was one thing he absolutely detested, it was spitting.

Not an uncommon attitude among his peers, as the newly-certified lawyer well knows.

Caroline: “At least now you’ve got it to spare,” Caroline replies stoically. She picks up Jocelyn’s phone from the dresser. The screen is cracked, presumably from where Caroline slammed the Toreador down along with it, but it still works. “I need you to unlock it so I can call Meg to pick you up. Unless you’d rather I called you a Ryde.”

GM: “Fuck you.”

Caroline: “Do you hate me and want to leave or just want to sit here and insult me?” Caroline asks tiredly.

GM: “What a goddamn control freak. Even when you’re deciding how I’m gonna leave, you have to do it with me chained up, and you have to decide it yourfuckingself.”

Jocelyn’s face twitches.

Caroline: “Fine, what do you want?” Caroline asks. “Just… what will make you happy?” she asks.

GM: “Oh, how nice of you to ask. Go save Gwen from the church, turn back time to whenever-the-fuck you didn’t mindfuck me, and hey, maybe a pony on top. A magical goddamn fairy pony that loves vampires.”

Caroline: “I’m sorry,” she says. “For whatever it’s worth.”

GM: “It’s worth shit. Why the fuck would you KILL GWEN and RAPE MY MIND and think I wouldn’t have a fucking problem!?”

Jocelyn’s eyes blink open and shut dazedly.

Caroline: “If I could undo what I did… undo snapping at you like I did, don’t you think I would?” Caroline answers.

GM: “Dunno, I’d think you’d have never done it if you really fucking cared!”

She flops her head back against the pillow and gives an inarticulate half-moan, half-snarl.

“Nnnnuuuuhhhhgghhh…”

Caroline: The Ventrue gives a sad smile.

“If I didn’t care more than words can say
If I didn’t care, would I feel this way?
If this isn’t love then why do I thrill?
And what makes my head go ’round and ’round
While my heart stands still?”


GM: Jocelyn gives several hard tugs, dulling clanging the cuffs against the bed frame. The metal doesn’t snap, but Caroline can smell the telltale coppery tang in the air, even make out the dead muscles swelling against Jocelyn’s skin. She’s clearly burning through the vitae in her system to deliberately pointless effect.

“Can’t make me, can’t make me, can’t make me!”

“La la la la la!”

“Can’t make me, can’t make me, can’t make me!”

“La la la la la!”

Caroline: The Ventrue pulls the handcuff keys off the dresser. “Fine, just… just fucking go. Stop fucking hurting yourself just to hurt me!” she snarls.

GM: “What’s that, I caaan’t heee-eeeaaaar you, over the sound of yooouuuu beeeeing a giaaannnt biiiii-iiiiiiiitch!”

Caroline: The Ventrue unlocks the Toreador’s left hand.

GM: “La la la la la la!”

Jocelyn slaps her across the face. She’s no Brujah, but it still stings.

“Can’t make me, can’t maaake me, can’t maaaaaake me, you’re a giant cuuuu-uuuuuunt!”

Caroline: Caroline shoves the Toreador’s hand back into the bed and its silken sheets. “You’re right, I am a cunt.” She straddles the Toreador again.

GM: “Lemme out, I’m gonna go break the Masquerade! Fuck the Masquerade, ha ha! I’m gonna tell eeeeeveryone in this building I’m a vampire, and when they don’t believe me, I’m gonna suck their blood!”

“Ha ha ha ha fuck you,” she snarls, “fuck you so much, you fucking bitch!”

Caroline: The Ventrue brings her own free wrist up to her mouth and opens it. “Is this what you want?” she demands, dangling the bleeding thing over Jocelyn’s lips.

GM: Jocelyn glares at it with simultaneous hate and longing. Her eyes look ready to pop out of their sockets.

Caroline: Vitae drops into the Toreador’s face, the wrist just in her reach. But she’ll have to reach for it.

GM: She spits in Caroline’s face, eyes bulging, and then grabs at the wrist.

“Good fucking riddance to your stupid baby! You’d have been a horrible mom, I bet! Fucking babykiller!”

“La la la la la, Caroline the babykiller! Caroline the babykiller! La la la la la la!”

Caroline: The Ventrue lets her seize the wrist. It’s wrong, but in the moment it feels right. Her anger melts under how much easier it is to grind against her lover’s near-helpless body.

She slaps the Toreador, but there’s no anger behind it. Just something else, burning beside beside everything else.

It’s impossible to tell where the bond begins and affection ends.

GM: Caroline might be tougher, faster, but she isn’t so much stronger than Jocelyn. The Toreador strains and throws off Caroline’s hand, grabs it, then bashes it against the wall, once, twice, then three times. She screams incoherently. It hurts.

“Fucking fucking fucking fucking… you fucking cunt… you… killed… Gwen… fuck… you…”

She snaps at Caroline’s wrist and clamps her mouth around it, her eyes mad as she sucks ravenously.

“Fuck… you… bitch…”

The hate in Jocelyn’s face doesn’t sputters out. Just hisses, sputters, and yes, even dies, at least partly, like someone’s dumped a jug of water over a roaring blaze.

She lets go of Caroline and throws her head back against the pillow.

“F… uck… you…”

She starts crying again, red freely leaking from her eyes.

“F… f… uck… you…”

Caroline: Caroline climbs off her and drops the keys into her open palm.

GM: Jocelyn doesn’t move. She just lies there crying.

“F… uck… you… Carol… ine…”

She picks up the keys and flings them at the floor.

“You… bitch… you… b… itch… fuck… you…”

Caroline: “Your choice, Jocelyn,” Caroline replies. “I didn’t want to lose you, but I gave you the choice.”

GM: Jocelyn just gives a needful moan.

“I… don’t… want to… fucking… remember… this… get… get it… out… of my… head… please…”

Caroline: Caroline looks down at her. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

GM: Jocelyn stares up at her past still-bleeding eyes. “I fucking do.”

“I don’t… wanna remember, either… how you’ve been in there… fucking with my head… you… bitch…”

Caroline: “You want me to just go through and erase all the bad memories?” Caroline asks impassively.

GM: “Y… eah… what you did… to Gwen and me… edit it out… fucking wish I’d never asked you for help…”

Caroline: “Why the hell would I do that?” the Ventrue responds after a moment. “Why should I have to carry that memory but you shouldn’t?”

GM: Jocelyn starts crying again.

“Fuck… fuck you… because you fucked me… you bitch… and you’re the strong one… fuck… fuck you…”

Caroline: “You keep saying that, but you know what I did was right. That’s why you called me, to make the decision you couldn’t.”

GM: Jocelyn keeps crying.

“You’re such a bitch…”

Caroline: “You can be mad at the word, and mad at Gwen, and mad it all happened, but don’t fucking be mad at me for doing what had to be done.”

GM: “Oh,” Jocelyn says, her voice suddenly low, “Skyman’s Vidal…”

“Has me and the Storyviles… drive out every week… this abandoned warehouse in the middle of bumfuck fucking nowhere…”

“I’m not supposed to say that… ha ha… fuck him… fuck you…”

“He, like, preaches, just for us… really fucking something, lemme tell you… tells us how special we are…”

Caroline: “Stop!” Caroline snaps. “Just stop talking.”

GM: “Yeeeeep!” Jocelyn laughs dementedly. “We think he’s God. Like, first there was Longinus, and then there’s him.”

Caroline: “Fucking stop!” Caroline screams. “Don’t talk about him!”

GM: “Everything he says is the word of God, we all think that…” Jocelyn laughs on. “The Hussar’s there, too… he does the driving, and like… Vidal doesn’t even take any other renfields, any other people, just him and the Hussar… super fucking secret…”

Caroline: The Ventrue stares in mute horror.

So, fucking, close.

GM: “And he, like… says we’re a big fucking deal… did shit for Evan, but hey… does this ritual shit… even brings in donors, for us to snack on… told you to come hungry… there’s always plenty there…”

Caroline: Caroline grinds her teeth.

“So… close…” The words slip out.

Tears slip from her eyes.

GM: “He’s God, or I thought he was,” Jocelyn goes on. “There’s, like, gonna be a new age or shit, and we’re his chosen… his first, or…”

Caroline: Caroline sinks to the ground. It’s too much. So close… to have come so close to her entire Requiem being so different.

GM: “He’s annoyed about the Evan shit… wonder why he can’t find Evan, if he’s God…”

“And, boy, the Hussar said… he said if we talked… ha ha ha… he’d cut off our fucking heads… oops… ha ha ha… wonder how long… before he’ll catch on…”

“Unless you erase it from my head, ha ha ha…”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “You vindictive bitch…”

“You realize… I’ll never get that out of my head. I’m going to have to live with that the rest of my Requiem?”

GM: “Hussar’s gonna cut off my heeee-eeeaaaaad,” Jocelyn repeats in a sickly singsong voice.

Caroline: She shrieks.

GM: Jocelyn laughs insanely.

Caroline: “You want to hear a secret, Jocelyn? Since you won’t remember in the morning?” Caroline answers after a long moment.

GM: “Why not, ha ha ha…”

Caroline: “You remember how you said it was a shame I wasn’t the childe of some elder?” She gives a little laugh.

GM: “Yeah, you’re sure a stuck-up enough cunt to be one.”

Caroline: “I’m his.”

GM: “What?”

Caroline: Caroline laughs bitterly. “I… am… his.” She says each word carefully, as though speaking to a small child.

GM: Jocelyn laughs. “Oh, yeah, and I’m Rafael de Corazon’s!”

Caroline: “Why do you think my blood’s so strong, Jocelyn?” the Ventrue asks.

GM: “Actually, no, I’m Vidal’s, I like that better. I’m secretly a Ventrue, ha fucking ha.”

Caroline: “Strong enough to wake you up.”

GM: “Okay, so what the fuck are you doing on the streets with the rest of us plebs?” she scoffs.

Caroline: Caroline gives a choked sob.

“He doesn’t know. I didn’t know, until the night the Matheson shit blew up.”

GM: Jocelyn laughs again.

Caroline: “The seneschal told me, when he was about to execute me.”

GM: “Oh, what, you tripped and fell in his vit—oooh, that’s even better! Well, worse. I couldn’t think of a dumber fucking story if I tried. What idiot would even buy that.”

Caroline: Silence greets her rhetorical question.

GM: “Yeah, not me. Your secret sucks.”

Caroline: Silence.

GM: “All right, time to mindfuck me I guess, we should make this a regular Tuesday thing.”

Caroline: “No, I don’t think I will,” Caroline replies.

There’s a savagery in the words.

“You don’t get to abuse me and make me clean up your fucking messes. To threaten me, and to do it with your safety.”

“You can fucking lay there and think about it. Think about what the Hussar is going to do. I’ll be sure to let you go in time for your meeting, to send you on your way to meet the prince. Make sure you get there on time.”

Caroline’s eyes blaze with indignation.

“You can fucking be afraid for once in your Requiem! You can know what it feels like!” she screams.

GM:Good, maybe I don’t wanna have a Requiem anymore!” Jocelyn shouts back. “You’ve made it shit! I think I’m gonna tell the Hussar all I blabbed, and that I blabbed to you too! Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, you still looo-ooose!”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “Fine, you want me to fuck with your head? Let’s do it. I want you out of my life.”

She doesn’t sound frustrated anymore, just resigned. The Ventrue stands and walks over to the Toreador.

GM: “Too late,” Jocelyn laughs bitterly. “We’re both collared.”

Caroline: “Yeah, we’ll see if that holds against what I’m going to put in your head.”

GM: “Oh, boy. Build me up, buttercup.”

Caroline: “Either way. Goodbye, Jocelyn.”

Caroline leans in and stares into the Toreador’s eyes.

GM: Jocelyn doesn’t look away.

“Oh, why do you build me up, buttercup, just to let me down… and mess me around…”

She gives another manic little laugh.

“And then worst of all, you never call, baby…
When you say you will, but I love you still…”

Caroline: “No,” Caroline agrees sadly. “I won’t.”

She takes a deep breath.

The Ventrue stares into Joceyln’s eyes one last time, then unleashes her Beast for the second time on her lover’s mind. It hurts her. It bleeds her. It’s like crawling through broken glass. She damns Jocelyn for making her do it. Hates her for it. She wants to demand of her, to scream at her for making Caroline do it, but there’s no point now. Maybe there never was.

She knows what Jocelyn wants, understands it even. Just wipe away all the fights of tonight, pretend nothing happened between them. She would rather blissful ignorance than the pain Caroline has inflicted on her.

But the Toreador has sorely underestimated the wounds she’s inflicted in return. Wounds Caroline doesn’t get to simply forget. Jocelyn may want to wake up and go on like nothing ever happened, but Caroline can’t. She won’t.

She couldn’t look at herself in the mirror if she raped away all of Jocelyn’s memories of the wrongs Caroline has done her, much less look the Toreador in the eye ever again. She couldn’t look at herself in the mirror if she let Jocelyn manipulate her with this petulant self-destructive lashing out—and not for the first time.

Caroline might understand why Jocelyn is lashing out, she might even sympathize with it, but she can’t accept it. Won’t accept it. Can’t have it in her Requiem… and doesn’t want it either, no matter how the collar tugs against her. It’s an ugly side of Jocelyn, the childish manipulative side. It’s using someone else’s love to get what you want, to see to your needs with no regard for anyone else.

Caroline tears into Jocelyn’s mind. She tears up memories and plants new ones, but they’re not the whitewash her lover wants. Not memories to pretend everything is fine between them.

She wipes out the memory of Caroline dominating her, replacing it instead with an argument over turning Gwen in. She leaves the memory of Jocelyn’s frenzy, but replaces her awakening to Caroline’s blood with her awakening from a staking at Caroline’s hand, pausing to tear a whole in Jocelyn’s shirt to match. She destroys everything that’s transpired here in the Giani Building between them. Replaces their argument here with a furious argument in the car as Caroline drove her back to her apartment. Replaces her last words to Jocelyn with harsher ones. “I don’t ever want to see you again.” Inserts Jocelyn’s own to the same effect, the Toreador screaming her hate at Caroline in their last moments together. About how Jocelyn is glad they’re done, and how Caroline is nothing but a poison.

Then she unlocks the still-dazed Toreador from her shackles and leads her downstairs. Puts her into a car and drives her back to her apartment. She replaces her memory of Fuller force-feeding her with the memory of finding a victim herself to heal from her staking after she and Caroline splits. She gives last instructions on how to wake up from her fugue when she steps inside the building, returning from her hunting. Then she sends Jocelyn on her way, watching her head into the building.

It’s like watching someone she cares for die. But it’s for the best, for Jocelyn. She wasn’t wrong, Caroline is poison. Just look at what she does to everyone that gets close to her.

It’s not going to get better either. She knows what’s coming. Knows how easily everything could go wrong with the bishop, with her mother’s hunters. She tells herself it’s better for Jocelyn to get out now. Better for her to get away from Caroline before her Requiem becomes ground zero.

It’s easier to tell herself she’s doing the right thing for Jocelyn. The Ventrue can swallow that story, that she’s making the harder choice for someone else. Doing what’s best for them.

She doesn’t try to tell herself the other story. The story the tears again sliding down her face as she drives away give obvious lie to: that this is what she wants.


Monday evening, 29 February 2016

GM: The next evening is about as much fun as Caroline might expect.

It’s impossible not to think about Jocelyn. Maybe it’s her feelings. Maybe it’s the bond’s.

Maybe it’s all the reminders of her. The clothes they picked out shopping together. The furniture and decor, that Jocelyn said “ok, I’m pretty sure there’s a Toreador law that I have to help you pick out” over, before doing exactly that.

It’s easy enough to throw out those things, if Caroline wants to. Harder may be the framed photographs all around her haven.

Or all the day-set ones on her social media.

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t throw anything out. Nothing except the few photos of the two of them together.

She deserves the pain. Deserves to hurt. She knows Jocelyn is hurting too, and worse. The least she can do is hurt with her. The pain gives her clarity, keeps her focused, as she throws herself into her planning against her mother and the bishop. Into her meetings with other licks. Into her arrangements with them.

It’s incredible how much time she’s freed up by not spending any of it with Jocelyn… incredible, and painful. No matter how much she throws herself into her ‘work’, no matter how aggressively she fills moments of downtime with tapping away on a tablet, there’s too many moments she’s alone with her thoughts, and her thoughts are as often as not on Jocelyn.

GM: Jocelyn doesn’t call or text back. Perhaps she’s sulking, or trying to move on (good luck with the bond), or who knows what. Maybe she’s wondering what Caroline’s doing with all that freed-up time.

But the rest of the world moves on too. Word arrives at the Giani Building from Perdido House. A ghoul delivers a letter signed and stamped with a wax seal bearing the seneschal’s personal heraldry. The letter is brief, stating only that “Natalia Garcia shall be granted a period of reprieve” if Caroline assumes responsibility for the thin-blood’s care. Caroline will be held accountable for all of Natalia’s actions, as well as charged with maintaining her personal Masquerade. Natalia’s fate subsequent to the birth of her child “shall be decided upon the basis of your shared actions and behavior.” If Caroline does not wish to serve in such a capacity, she has three nights to find another Kindred willing to act as the thin-blood’s mawla. If no Kindred is willing to do so, Natalia shall be put to death.

The ghoul patiently awaits Caroline’s written or verbal reply.

Caroline: Caroline has Widney settle the ghoul in with, if he wishes, a drink while she pens a response. She replies that she would like to meet again with the girl before making such a commitment, if possible.

GM: One night later, Caroline is in a cold and bare-looking room in Perdido House that reminds her of a police interrogation room. Natalia is led in by a ghoul. She’s still wearing the same clothes, which smell worse, and looks pale and haunted. She all but collapses with relief when she sees Caroline.

“What’s, what’s happening to me? Am I going to die, are you going to take me away?”

Caroline: “Let’s talk, Natalia,” the Ventrue replies reassuringly. “Are you hungry? Have you eaten?”

GM: “N-no. Eaten, I mean. I am hungry. But the seneschal said I don’t need to.”

Caroline: “But you want to,” Caroline replies.

GM: She nods after a moment.

Caroline: The Ventrue reaches into the gym bag on the floor next to her and pulls out a Tupperware container. She doesn’t crack the lid, but she does slide it across the metal table to the girl along with a fork.

It’s not hot, but it is still warm, the plastic lid’s interior beaded with moisture. “You can eat while we talk,” she tells the thin-blood.

Inside is a salmon filet, several pieces of steamed broccoli, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on top. “I have no idea if it’s any good, I made Autumn make it,” she admits.

GM: Or at least bring it over. The ghoul seemed a little indignant at the suggestion she do cooking, but had said sure. Her dad’s a pretty good cook, she could bring a spare plate.

Caroline: “The seneschal seems to think your child is going to be ok,” Caroline continues.

GM: Natalia hungrily sets into the food, starting with the salmon. She looks famished, but there’s no look of disgust or surprise at the taste.

She stops in mid-bite at those words.

“He… he said Miles, that he might be…”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “We’re in sort of unexplored territory here, but I trust his judgment.”

It is, after all, all that she has left.

GM: “He, he said… ‘life cannot come from death.’ But that since I’m only, only really half d…”

Natalia swallows, but not any of the food.

“He said there was, was a high risk of complications. Of a miscarriage. Or… or a stillbirth.”

Maybe that’s what she’s pale from.

Caroline: “There’s a chance,” Caroline replies, not unkindly. “That’s all anyone can promise.”

GM: “But he said, he said it’s happened before,” she continues urgently, hopefully. “Births. From… women, like me.”

Caroline: That’s interesting, and news to Caroline, but she doesn’t comment on it.

GM: “He said, he said there was a doctor in the city. Dr. North, a vampire doctor. And another one, Dr. Netchurch. Who’s studied… thin-bloods. Even delivered babies.”

“I want to get him. Them. Please. I’ll do anything, pay anything.”

Caroline: “Let’s back up a little bit,” Caroline replies, trying to soften the words with a smile. “The seneschal has offered to allow me to take you on as my ward, until Miles’ birth.”

GM: Natalia starts again on the fish, then stops again at Caroline’s next words.

“You… you mean, I’d get to have him?”

Caroline: “That’s one possible outcome,” Caroline answers. “The other, more probable one, is you’d do something and get us both killed.”

The Ventrue leans back. “I’ve tried to help you at literally every turn.”

She digs her nails into her palm under the table as she continues, “And every time you’ve chosen the path of greatest resistance for me. You have no idea,” the last two words escape with a shiver, “none, what it cost me to help you get this far.”

GM: Natalia drops to her knees at Caroline’s feet, her large belly brushing against the Ventrue’s knee.

“Please. Please. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll do whatever you say,” she begs.

Caroline: “Start with sitting back down,” Caroline replies, disgusted more with herself than the girl.

GM: Natalia slowly gets up, clutching the table for support, and sits back down.

“Please,” she begs again.

Caroline: “I don’t need you to beg, I need you to understand,” Caroline continues.

GM: “I’ll understand. I’ll understand whatever you want. Please, help me understand.”

Caroline: “We’ll start where it matters the most,” Caroline replies plainly.

“If you haven’t caught on already, no one knows about any of this,” she gestures with one hand in a circle. “Not about vampires, or werewolves, or any of the other things that go bump in the night. That’s an absolute law among us—if you fuck it up, you get killed and no one bats an eye at it, because that’s the way it has to be.”

“That’s what we all exist under.”

GM: “All right. No one knows. About… vampires. I won’t tell anyone.”

Caroline: Caroline gives a light, joyless, laugh.

“And it means lying to the people you care about every day, and every night. It means making excuses. It means hurting the people you care about and hurting yourself when you have to. Destroying your reputation. Destroying your friendships. Shoving your family away. Letting other people think the worst of you when you have to because it’s better for them to think you’re a fuck-up than to even guess at the truth.”

GM: “I’ll do it,” Natalia repeats. “I’ll lie to them, about anything you want, if that’s what it takes for Miles.”

Caroline: “Yeah?” Caroline demands. “What about your husband? How are you going to explain going missing to him? And why you’re acting so weird. And why you’re dropping out of Tulane for the rest of the semester and moving across town? Why you sneak out at night? Why… god I have no idea how you even react to sunlight, or if you can even be awake during the day.”

“What’s your story for him?”

GM: “I…” Natalia starts.

Caroline: Caroline waits.

GM: “I, I can’t do it anymore. Go to school and raise a baby when I’m pregnant. I have to do it later. Go to school when I’m pregnant and raise a baby, I mean.”

Caroline: “And leaving him behind? Moving across town?” Caroline asks patiently.

GM: “Wh, why do I have to do that?”

She adds quickly, “I’ll do it, I’ll do whatever you want. You just said you wanted me to understand.”

Caroline: “Do you think he’d understand? Could understand why you’re acting oddly? Why you’re shifting doctors? Why you have to live in this area? Why you can’t go certain places anymore?”

GM: “That’s… wouldn’t it be easier to just… tell him?” Natalia ventures. “He’s my husband. He loves me. He’ll help me, through anything.”

Caroline: Caroline seems to think on that. “How much do you trust him? To keep it all secret?”

GM: “Yes, I trust him, I trust him completely,” Natalia says relievedly. “He was in the Army, he didn’t do intelligence work, but he’s good at keeping secrets.”

Caroline: “He wouldn’t tell anyone?” Caroline asks.

GM: “No, not if we made it clear, that this has to be a secret. Wouldn’t that be so much easier, than a bunch of lies?”

Caroline: “He’d understand you have to drink blood every night to stay alive?” Caroline asks. “And he’d be ok with that?”

GM: “Yes, yes,” Natalia nods, “he’d do anything for me, for our baby.”

Caroline: Caroline drops her hand on the table with a crash. “And just like that we’re both dead.”

She doesn’t sound angry, just tired.

“And that temptation to tell him will always be there.”

GM: “But, but he’d understand!” Natalia protests. “He would keep it secret, I know him!”

“Have you ever told anyone? Is there anyone you know, who’s not a vampire, and knows?”

Caroline: “I tried it with my best friend, right after I got turned,” Caroline replies.

“I’d been lying to her, but eventually, one night, all the lies fell apart. She brought my brother to come stage an intervention,” the Ventrue continues.

“I thought I could convince them to go along with things, to believe me. They just ended up making these worse.” Caroline looks very soberly at the other girl.

The Ventrue knows of one exception, but Cécilia’s case is hardly normal, and that’s hardly her secret to share either. Not here, and not with this desperate thin-blood.

GM: There’s her mother, too.

But maybe that falls under ‘making things worse.’

Caroline: It does.

GM: “Well, doesn’t it make sense then, to be up front instead? So they don’t get upset catching you in a bunch of lies?”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “No, because even if there wasn’t a group of us that make their whole every existence every night making sure the secret stays secret out there, and even if they didn’t pay particular attention to young little vampires like yourself that are most likely to make that mistake, and even if I thought it could end well—which I don’t—it’s still blasphemy against our church, and if you hadn’t caught on, it’s pretty non-secular around here.”

GM: Natalia doesn’t look sure what to say to that and starts again on the fish.

Caroline: “Domestic abuse,” Caroline muses.

GM: “Sorry?” she asks confusedly between a hungry bite.

Caroline: “It would be a good excuse to explain your split from him, and your moving,” Caroline answers.

GM: Natalia looks horrified.

Caroline: “Believable too, he’s prior military? PTSD is real.”

GM: “But, he’d know that wasn’t real, it’d be just another lie!”

Natalia looks as if she wants to protest more, but then the look on her face grows resigned.

“Am, am I going to die? After I have Miles?”

Caroline: “There’s a lot up in the air,” Caroline responds. “It’s possible you could die having Miles. That said, I suspect if you were able to manage the next couple months without… well, incident, there’d be little reason for the archdioceses to order your execution.”

Which would hardly mean you’re safe, Caroline thinks, but doesn’t say. A Requiem is hard enough without a child, as a full vampire, or with a sire. With only Caroline’s meager protections…

“The point I’m getting at, Natalia, is there’s no easy way forward here, and it doesn’t get easier. This is not a one-time terrible thing that happened. It’s your life now.”

GM: “I just want to have my baby, and raise him with my family. If I have to drink blood, go to night classes, only work at night, I’ll… I’ll make it work. Can that happen?”

Caroline: “If that’s the way you’re thinking about it, it’d be kinder for me to leave you here,” Caroline replies.

GM: “Please, no,” Natalia begs. “Forget about me. Can, can Miles still have a life, after I have him? What’ll happen to him?”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “This is what you need to do, Natalia. You need to think. You need to think long and hard on this, and not just give the knee jerk reaction.”

“You need to think on whether or not you can live with losing your family, with losing your husband, with ruining their lives. You need to think on how much sin you’re willing to swim through for the slim chance we make it past your release. You need to think how you’re going to be a vampire that can’t go out during the day and sucks blood from people.”

“Think on how you’re going to get that blood, and before you go to something like stealing from the hospital, know those are all controlled by one of our kind, and they do not look kindly on others getting in their business.”

“You need to think on how you’re entering a society full of a lot more people like the one who murdered you, and that woman that so terrified you last night, than it is people that are like me.”

There’s a joke, something dark inside her whispers at the suggestion Caroline is any better than any other lick.

Caroline ignores the voice.

“You need to think on spending every night as a member of that society will you will always be worse than a second-class citizen, and where plenty will have cruel plans for you and your son just because it’ll amuse them. And you need to decide if you can live like that, because if you’re not there for him…”

She holds up her hand to forestall a response. “Finish eating. Think on what I said.”

She knows it’s a near wasted effort. Nothing she says can prepare the girl for what awaits her, but that nothing she says will convince her to accept execution. Maybe if she was just a girl forced into this, without a child in her womb, she could consider it.

Caroline did.

But not with the child. She’s seen enough of Natalia to know there’s only one answer she’ll get. And she knows enough about herself to know there’s only one answer she can give to the seneschal.

Damn it, Lou… where the hell did you go. She resents the old ghoul for how he played her, but can’t bring herself to hate him. He knew the score all along and was happy to keep her in the dark, but then, she was trying to play him right back.

GM: She can’t claim she didn’t get what she needed from him, even if it wasn’t all she wanted.

It’s not hard to wonder what he’d say now.

What he’d want to do here. With this pregnant half-vampire.

Caroline: She knows the old ghoul wouldn’t be able to resist this case. He couldn’t help himself with Caroline: she knows he wouldn’t be able to resist this damsel.

She lets silence reign while the girl eats.

GM: The Ventrue’s own thoughts are already far down the line. Not with what to do with the girl, with whether she’ll take her. No, she’s already thinking about all the consequences it’s going to bring down on her head when she does.

Natalia’s appetite seems slow at first, but she doesn’t seem like she wants to get on Caroline’s bad side either. She eats the salmon first, without trying the other food, then alternates between the broccoli and sweet potatoes.

It took Caroline a lot of practice to get to that point, of not regurgitating it back up, and nothing wipes out the taste of ash and drain cleaner.

Natalia just chews and eats.

Chews. Eats. Swallows.

Caroline: She can’t resist asking.

“Are you actually…. enjoying it?”

GM: The thin-blood looks a little surprised by the question. “Oh. Yes. It’s good.”

“Thanks for bringing it. Even if, if the seneschal’s right I don’t have to, it just seems better safe than sorry. For the baby.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t say anything. It’s like she’s not even a vampire.

GM: “And I definitely wouldn’t want to just drink blood, anyway.”

Caroline: “We can’t really eat,” Caroline volunteers. “The rest of us. I mean, we can force it down with practice, but it tastes like I imagine drain cleaner does.”

GM: Natalia looks genuinely taken aback. “Oh. I’m so sorry! That must be awful.”

Caroline: “You get used to it,” Caroline replies. “It’s just… bizarre watching you eat.”

GM: ‘Bizarre’ is one word for it.

Caroline can picture the pulped, useless organic matter sliding down her throat.

Sitting in her stomach. Rotting. Decaying.

Do her stomach acids still work? Her digestive system? Is she going to shit it out?

Is she going to squat over a toilet, expel foul-smelling, ugly, brown stool, and run her hand against that shit through a layer of toilet paper?

There’s a lot of things to miss about being alive. There’s some not to miss at all.

At least the kine do that to stay alive, though. Eat.

It’s like the blood Caroline drinks. Grossly less efficient.

There’s so many ways to turn it into poison. Leaving it out for too long. Eating the wrong amounts and quantities for too long, to shave years off their too-brief lifespans for the simple pleasure of their taste buds.

It’s so much less efficient. It can’t sustain them forever. They die with it, and sooner without it. It kills them, not drives them into hibernation. Can permanently cripple them. Generates disgusting literal waste product, because their bodies can’t even use it all, not like Caroline’s can.

But for all that, at least their eating serves a purpose.

Prolongs their temporary lifespans for that much longer.

Natalia said Maldonato said so. She doesn’t need to eat.

What purpose is there here, in her eating?

What purpose in her kind at all?

“It seems more bizarre not to eat,” Natalia says. “No offense.”

Caroline: And yet, Caroline can understand her position. Especially with the child.

Caroline has no particular answer to that, save to ruthlessly beat back the more terrible thoughts ripping their way forward into her mind.

GM: “Thanks for bringing it,” she says again, filling the void. “The salmon especially. Protein is what I should be eating.”

Caroline: “It’s nothing.” Caroline lets her finish eating.

GM: Calcium, too, as Caroline is aware, but Natalia doesn’t say anything about that. Eventually, she finishes.

Caroline: Everything in the meal was picked out with a purpose. But Caroline doesn’t need to rub it in the girl’s face.

GM: “I’ll, I’ll do whatever I have to,” she says. “So I can have my baby, and he can grow up with a nor…” she seems to reconsider that, then substitutes, “good life. That’s more important. Than anything about me.”

Caroline: It’s like listening to a scratched record on repeat. But then, of course it is.

GM: “You seem good,” she adds.

Caroline: Caroline actually laughs at that.

GM: “Hard, but, I think good,” Natalia amends.

Caroline: “You didn’t think so last night when you were screaming for help and trying to run from me.”

GM: Natalia shivers, then says quietly, “I’ve seen… I’ve seen worse, now.”

Caroline: “You haven’t seen bad,” Caroline replies genuinely. “This,” she waves around, “isn’t bad.”

GM: “I, I believe you. I saw some other vampires.”

Caroline: “Oh?” Caroline asks.

GM: “A pale one. He screamed at me, that I was an abomination.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs again, well, more chuckles at that, though she tries to contain it.

GM: There’s a silence from Natalia. She isn’t laughing at all.

Caroline: “Would you believe we’re related?” Caroline asks, when she contains herself.

GM: “No. I was, I was so scared, just looking into his eyes. They were like coals. I don’t see that in yours.”

“They… cut me in places. They poked me, prodded me, inspected me. Like a piece of meat.”

Caroline: Caroline can well imagine. She remembers her own experiences in the hands of the sheriff as an unreleased fledgling. She keenly remembers staring down death, watching it claim so many others so cruelly.

GM: “They wouldn’t even look at me. They just talked to each other. They said I was vermin. That I was filth.”

Caroline: “But not the seneschal,” Caroline inserts.

GM: “The, the pale one. He said he wanted to cut me open. Cut my baby open.” Her voice is positively faint. “He said, that he’d heard of births, like mine, but no one had ever di… dissected…”

Caroline: Caroline feels a stab of anger run through her. Of course he did.

She may sympathize with the callousness the hounds, and even sheriff conduct themselves. She may have come to understand, and even agree with most of the laws of their kind. But her ancestor’s capacity for unnecessary cruelty never fails to amaze.

“He’s not going away,” Caroline answers after a moment. “And if you make a mistake, if you think you know better, if you go around me and lie to me out there he’ll do exactly what he told you he would.”

GM: Natalia goes paler still at the threat.

“No, I don’t know better. I won’t lie to you or go around you. I won’t make mistakes.”

Caroline: “God, I hope you mean that, Natalia.” She stands. “For your sake. For Miles’ sake. For mine. Because there aren’t any second chances here, and they’ll cut my head off right next to yours.”

GM: “You’ll… you’ll do it? You’ll give me one?” Natalia rises with Caroline, seems to move to touch her, but then sinks to her knees instead. “Oh… oh, thank you! Thank you! You’ve saved my baby!”

She looks as if she’s about to weep. “If there’s anything, anything, I can ever do, my family can ever do, to pay you back…”

Caroline: Caroline looks down at the ill-made fledgling. There’s a lot in her gaze. Sympathy. Pity. Maybe even fear. She opens her mouth to speak, then closes it.

After a long moment she opens her mouth again.

“Remember those words,” she tells the pregnant girl. “Remember this moment, where you were grateful. Remember them when you hate me later. When you think I’m being a tyrant or a monster. When you scream about how I’m ruining your life.”

She takes a senseless, meaningless, breath and sighs, offering a hand to the girl.

“And pick yourself up off the floor. No one bows or grovels to me.”

GM: Natalia takes Caroline’s hand. Her skin feels warm to the touch, and she’s heavy to help pull up.

“I will. I won’t ever, ever, forget, Caroline. Thank you, more than I can… thank you, just thank you.”

Caroline: Caroline knows it’s desperation talking. Terror mixed with determination. That urge to please Caroline at any cost to protect her unborn child.

Caroline knows Natalia would say anything right now, when her situation is so dire. It’s what any mother should do. She knows the girl will be cursing her soon enough, when the terror wears off and all she can see is what she’s losing. Gratitude is a fickle thing, with a half-life measured in moments.

She knows she’s invited a mountain of problems into her Requiem. Knows she can barely keep up with the vitae for herself and her own ghouls, much less support some malformed fledgling. She knows cleaning up the girl’s personal life is going to be a nightmare. Knows that when word of this gets out, that she’ll get mocked by other Kindred. More ammunition for the harpies. More reasons for the bishop to scorn her. More trouble with Agnello.

There’s no good reason to take the girl on as her ward. Not a single logical argument in favor of inviting the disaster she heralds into her Requiem. That whatever her gratitude, the thin-blood won’t ever really understand the risk Caroline is taking on her behalf, or be able to repay her.

It doesn’t matter.

For one night it’s not about what’s best for Caroline. It’s not about what she can get the most advantage out of. It isn’t a question of how she can get ahead or make her on Requiem easier. It isn’t about what other Kindred might think, or do, or say. It isn’t about her dreams or ambitions. It’s about pushing back the darkness for one night, just a bit. It’s about drawing a line in the sand, and saying this far, no further.

What was it Lou said? He didn’t know how to win, only lose more slowly?

Caroline doesn’t know either. God knows she doesn’t have any idea, and perhaps never has. But even if losing is inevitable, it won’t be here. It won’t be tonight. It won’t be over the girl’s dead body. Not if she has any say in it.


Monday night, 29 February 2016, PM

GM: It doesn’t take overly long for Caroline to arrange Natalia’s extrication from Perdido House. She doubts any of the prince’s people want her there.

It is not a painless departure.

Wright is the one to administer it. Caroline’s Beast flares in instinctive alarm at the heat radiating from the brand’s red-hot tip. There’s a low metallic hiss, then the sizzling burning of human skin over wafting smoke. Natalia’s raw-throated screams are awful. When Wright pulls the brand away, Caroline sees the blackened mark of a crescent moon upon the thin-blood’s upper arm.

Caroline: The Ventrue offers no comment on the branding. Her opinion is as worthless as it is unwelcome here. Instead she clenches her teeth, clenches her fists, anything to find purchase against the Beast’s whining in the face of the brand.

GM: “Don’t know whether to call you an idiot or a saint,” Wright says over Natalia’s whimpers, shaking his head. “They don’t last long. Any of ’em. Kinder to put ’em down.”

Caroline: The Ventrue meets the hound’s gaze. The venom that was once there is missing tonight. “Verdict’s in, not a saint. Jury is still out on the idiot part.”

GM: “Wannabe saint, I guess. When she’s ready to deliver, you let us know.”

Caroline: “I’d like to hope we all have a line somewhere we won’t cross,” Caroline replies to the hound. “I can’t help every other sireless fledgling, and largely agree that it doesn’t look like much of a Requiem for her. But an unborn child?” She shakes her head. “I’ll let keep in touch as she gets close.”

GM: “Don’t spread around you got a pregnant run-off in your crib, either. Or wherever the fuck you gonna stash her. Seneschal wants this on the down an’ low.”

Wright shakes his head slowly. “Goddamn. I’ve seen some weird-ass shit in my night. Then this comes along.”

“What do any of us fuckin’ know.”

Caroline: “Fewer know, easier it is for me,” Caroline agrees. “And for her.”

She bites her lip, then continues, “How quiet does he want it? Is it going to cause problems if I stitch up the loose ends in her life to keep people from going looking for her?”

“Get her to withdraw from school, all that,” Caroline clarifies.

GM: “Didn’t say.” Wright shrugs. “Do what you gotta do.”

Caroline: The Ventrue nods. “Anything else for her, or can we go?”

GM: “Your granddaughter…” Natalia croaks from the floor, “Coils, snakes, around her school…”

Wright whirls at the thin-blood, his eyes suddenly dangerous.

“The fuck did you say?”

“Say… what?”

Wright seizes Natalia by her hair. The Brujah’s nostrils flare.

“The fuck did you say!”

Caroline: “She has no idea what she’s saying,” Caroline interrupts. “She’s half dead and all terrified.”

GM: “I, I don’t kn…” the thin-blood repeats, eyes wide.

Wright just stares into them, his gaze as hard and pointed as a wooden stake.

Caroline: “She probably doesn’t even know your name,” Caroline interjects. “How would she know anything about you?”

GM: The Brujah barks a laugh, though it comes out half a snarl. The human part is still a hard sound without any trace of humor.

He stares into Natalia’s eyes a moment longer, then drops her hair without a word.

The thin-blood is quiet on the drive back to the Giani Building. She looks angry, humiliated, and in pain from the brand, if tempered by profound relief to be getting out of Perdido House.

Caroline settles her into one of the spare apartments, stripped of communicative technologies like it was for Amelie. Natalia is inordinately grateful when Caroline lets her call her husband and parents. She is even more grateful upon hearing she’ll get to see them again tomorrow.

Caroline: The Ventrue goes over her script for both groups before she lets the teenager make either call, which she still monitors. There’s a difference between mercy and stupidity, and certain things she can’t let the girl talk about yet.

GM: The Ventrue can hear the furious but intensely concerned-sounding phone conversations from a distance. Her family had already gone to the cops and filed a missing persons report. Natalia lies about going camping and claims she sent text messages she’s puzzled they never received. Maybe her “phone wasn’t working, or my service got weird.” She’s really sorry. There’s no lie at all when she says those last words. She says she’ll see them tomorrow, when she’s back in the city.

“I was, just really overwhelmed. I had to get away and breathe. Please don’t be mad.”

There’s a muted reply. Softer.

“Yes. I love you too. See you soon.”

“How much does your husband look at your finances?” Autumn asks after she hangs up.

“Sorry?”

“Like, who pays the bills, plans budgets, logs onto your bank accounts and sees balances, that kind of thing.”

“We both do. But I let him handle more of it. He’s older than me and has, had more money. But he wants me to be more involved.”

Caroline: “She’s asking because if he goes looking and doesn’t see any spending that reflects your ‘gone hiking’ story it’s a loose end,” Caroline interjects.

GM: “All right, well, you buy stuff to go camping,” Autumn says. “It’ll show up on credit card statements, or at least as ATM cash with…”

“Yeah, beat me to it.”

“But there’s an easy way around. You went camping with a friend. Maybe one of us. We paid for it. How we wanna play stuff from here depends on the overall plan, though.”

Autumn can’t stop from staring at the thin-blood’s swollen belly.

Caroline: Caroline nods. “I need to think on it.” She looks pointedly at Natalia. “You need to think on it.”

“And that level of detail Autumn was talking about—down to receipts and explanations for spending—that’s the way you need to start thinking about your lies.” She bites her lip before adding, “There’s a reason most vampires fake their deaths.”

GM: Natalia nods slowly. “I will. I’ll think of something.”

“You’ve got a better start than Caroline, at least,” says Autumn. “Can I… touch your belly?”

Natalia looks wary.

“Just touching. Nothing else.”

“All right,” she says after a moment.

“Yeah, sorry. I’m sure th…”

“Please, I don’t want to talk about it,” Natalia preempts.

“Sorry.” Autumn touches her. “Wow. I mean, wow. I thought this was just… an urban legend.”

Caroline: The Ventrue watches the exchange without comment.

GM: Natalia doesn’t look sure what to respond either.

Caroline: Caroline gives Autumn her moment before she speaks again. “You’re welcome to anything in the apartment. Anything in the closet that fits is yours, and I’ll have someone bring by some food later. Most of what’s in the pantry is dried foods.”

She looks at the girl. “For both of our safeties, you’ll be confined here until tomorrow night. There is no phone and we’ll hold onto yours, but you’re free to spend your time here as you wish. Watch TV, read a book,” she gestures to the lone bookcase in the hall, then crinkles her nose, “take a bath.”

“If there is anything pressing you need one of my people will answer the door. Please don’t waste their time by trying to run away or begging to make more phone calls.” The last bit comes out a little sharper than she means. “Tomorrow night we’ll have your husband over and see where we go from here.”

Maybe by then Caroline will have some idea.

“For now,” she gestures to the apartment, “welcome home.”


Monday night, 29 February 2016, PM

Caroline: She could claim she went over in the interest of developing further relationships with other licks. She could tell herself it was because she wanted to leave something behind if things went sideways in the nights to come with more meaning than a photograph. She could even claim it was to break up her schedule and avoid the appearance of plotting to others.

But she knows those are all lies.

She went to the Alystra because he said things, did things, that made her feel better about herself. And those things were in short supply of late.

GM: Caroline’s ride drops her off in the CBD, only a few blocks away from the Hilton where she spent a terrified first day as one of the Damned. Marcel Guilbeau’s domain is a multi-decked riverboat casino with yellow and purple lights that flash and pulsate over the water. Music, cheering, and sounds of revelry are audible from within.

Caroline remembers a few discussions within her own family concerning the state’s riverboat casinos, back during her father’s time as majority leader in Baton Rouge. Her uncle Orson was morally opposed to gambling, but her father was unopposed on the grounds that the industry brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. Gambling on public land is illegal in Louisiana, the Ventrue also recalls, so the state legislature naturally had no objections to people gambling on water. Except for Harrah’s, also several blocks away, which was able to obtain an exception. And that new bill she heard about somewhere, still in the works, which would no longer require riverboat casinos to have operable paddlewheels. The Pelican State’s efforts at regulating gambling seem as slapdash as everything else it does.

If the numbers of people making their way up the casino’s walkway seem any indication, however, few souls besides her Uncle Orson would seem to mind their government’s laxness—though a few, with the benefit of hindsight, might be grateful for it. While some people leave the casino in excitedly chattering groups (or more lustful pairs of two), the losers look either sullen or morose. One woman who’s actually breaking down in tears and making a scene is quietly but briskly ushered away by security.

Caroline is greeted by the same handsome, dark-skinned and suited ghoul who’s received her during her prior visits to the casino. When he hears she’s here to see Josua, he simply smiles, says “Right this way, madam” and leads her aboard. As before, he still offers her a hand to ‘help’ her up the amply wide and railed gangplank.

As soon as she enters the gambling hall, she is assailed by a riot of sounds, smells, and scintillating colors. The first thing she notices is the massive array of slot machines with blinking lights, whirring sirens, and tokens clattering into the metal payout drawers. Gold and bright primary colors glint excitedly everywhere. Rowdy jazz music plays from speakers and a live band. Crowds of clapping, exclaiming, shouting people are clustered around the array of games, including three-card poker, blackjack, roulette, craps, Mississippi Stud, and Ultimate Texas Hold’em—and the ever-present slot machines that make up the most of any casino’s revenue. An all-you-can-eat Creole/Caribbean-themed buffet and bar is set up in the corner, along with the band. Cocktail waitresses weave their way through the lively crowds while suited croupiers smartly deal out cards.

Caroline: As before, she’s careful to settle the Beast, to allow herself to be seenby the cameras throughout. Her appearance is no secret, and the rules haven’t changed.

GM: The ghoul thanks her doing so as he leads her up several flights of stairs. In contrast to the riotous scenes below, the baccarat lounge at the riverboat’s top deck is a much more subdued affair. It’s quieter, most noticeably. People are having normal conversations in low murmurs rather than screaming or cheering. The blues band plays relaxed, slower-paced tunes. The lights are dimmer. Larger windows overlook the Mississippi’s dark waters, imparting a sense of stillness. A cocktail bar and small restaurant with booths provides some distraction from the baccarat tables.

Marcel isn’t there among the players time, and the ghoul leads Caroline down a seemingly employees-only corridor away from the lounge. The music and sounds of gambling are largely muted by the time he knocks softly against a cabin’s door and announces, “Miss Malveaux is here to see you, Master Cambridge.”

“Oh, do let her in,” comes a pleased purr.

GM: The ghoul opens the door. Josua’s cabin is a sumptuous-looking space with an amply large ovular-shaped shaped bed with silky red sheet. A flatscreen TV hangs from one of the walls. There’s a phone and tablet on the bedside table. The rest of the space is taken up by a painter’s easel, canvases, and assorted brushes, paint tubes, and other artist’s supplies. It’s a relatively cramped room.

Josua himself is seated by the easel. Unlike in Elysium, he doesn’t look jaw-droppingly perfect and like he’s just stepped off a magazine cover: he’s merely boyishly handsome with casually ‘I woke up like this’ tousled brown hair, full lips, a firm chin, and soulful green eyes. He’s dressed in a simple white t-shirt whose tightness nicely shows off his smooth chest and thick arms. Caroline can’t see his rear, but those skinny jeans have to make it look great.

Caroline: The Ventrue is in her trademark black, tonight a tight number cinched at the waist with a white belt that leaves her shoulders and arms bare.

GM: He smiles widely as he sees the Ventrue and slowly runs a tongue across his lips.

“It’s not gold, but it’s still delicious. That belt makes you look like a present just waiting to be unwrapped.”

The ghoul unobtrusively closes the door behind them. Josua rises from his stool and gives Caroline a very full, very intimate hug that presses his firm chest tight against her breasts and his pelvis directly against hers. His hands stroke the small of her back in almost massage-like motions. Up close, he smells like Old Spice Original: nutmeg, cinnamon, and musk.

“It’s so good to see you, Caroline,” he purrs into her ear.

Caroline: “All things in their time,” Caroline replies to his comment about waiting to be unwrapped with a toothy smile.

“I like to imagine you weren’t very good at waiting though,” she continues.

She leans her head back, pulling away her very pointed fang as she all but shivers, hungry with desire at the physical contact.

“You’re not the first man to say that.”

GM: “Ever, or just today?” Josua smiles, showing two of those same fangs.

Caroline: “In the last five minutes,” she lies.

GM: “Marcel gets around,” the Toreador laughs. “We could unwrap presents together.”

Caroline: She arches an eyebrow. “That sounds a great deal like an invitation for more than a painting.”

GM: “He’s great in bed. Ever since Marie got torped, he’s been looking for another fuck buddy.”

“It appeals to his ego, really, to have at least two at a time.”

Caroline: Caroline’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “Did you want me to come over, or did he?” she asks, her gaze on the Toreador, though without pushing him away.

GM: Josua continues to massage Caroline’s shoulders. “Relax. He’d have just asked you if it was his idea.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs lightly, trying to take the sudden edge off. “So is he the one who prefers more than one at a time, or are you?”

GM: “Oh, we both are,” Josua smiles as his hands squeeze her posterior. “That works out rather well.”

“But sometimes we prefer one on one. Variety is the spice of unlife, too.”

“Do you want to talk first, paint first, or fuck first?”

Caroline: There’s something suddenly off-putting about the presumptuousness of Josua that makes her want to walk out on him. She can smell the blood in him, feel his strong hands, feel the Beast salivating at the prospect of vitae sliding across it’s tongue, an arousal both physical and mental, as intoxicating as any drug, and yet…

She’s not some common tramp. Not something to be taken for granted.

She slides out of his arms. “You promised me a painting.”

GM: “Art before presents,” he smiles. “We can talk, too. It’s really just picking now or later.”

He looks over Caroline’s form appreciatively. “You’ve got a great figure. I mean that in both senses of the word. From an aesthetic perspective, too. You’ll be a delight to put to canvas.”

Caroline: A smile creeps back onto her face. “So, where do you want me?” she asks suggestively.

GM: “On top, of course,” he grins. “Blue bloods hate being anywhere else.”

Caroline: Caroline’s eyes glitter. He’s not wrong. That distantly makes her wonder what it would be like with another Ventrue.

GM: Something he invited her to find out.

“We could have you striking a pose, seated on a chair, or laid out on the bed… what feels natural to you, Caroline? Who are you in your element?”

Caroline: “You had it right the first time,” Caroline purrs. “I like to be in control.” She stalks around the room/studio, looking for a place to stake her claim, ultimately deciding on the high stool Josua paints from, taking it and repositioning it in the center of the room.

She takes a seat, straight-backed and imperious.

GM: Josua laughs about how he just shouldn’t offer a blue blood any ideas next time and re-purposes the chair to serve as a painter’s stool. He adjusts his easel and gets to work. His hand and brush are literal blurs of motion as they move across the canvas. Caroline suddenly has some idea of why that particular gift of Caine’s may be so valued by the Rose Clan.

“So what’s Caroline’s story?” he asks idly as he works. “What happened in her life to make her an alpha bitch who steals artists’ stools?” Despite the harsh words, his tone is playful enough.

Caroline: Caroline laughs wickedly. “You know blue bloods. We all want control. Some of us have to find it where we can.”

“I suppose the easy answer, the cliché one, is to say it all started with my father. Wasn’t loved enough. Only two options from there.”

GM: “That’s so sad,” Josua says. His face looks truly mourning for hers. “Maybe hard people only turn out that with hard parents. But you deserve to be loved. You’re too beautiful for any parent not to love.”

“I’m sure you were radiant as a little girl. A golden-haired little cherub who could’ve shot arrows with Cupid.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs at that too. “I was a terror, too precocious for my own good.”

GM: “Stolen Cupid’s bow, then,” Josua smiles. “And the grown-ups all thought you were too adorable to ever punish you for it. For anything.”

Caroline: Another, more genuine laugh, but tinged with bitterness. “Quite the opposite. I’m the oldest. I had to set an example. I got punished for everything.”

“There’s this funny idea that growing up rich and powerful makes your life easier.” She smiles. “Only with wastrel parents.”

GM: “Oh, that is sad,” Josua repeats, his smile turning upside down. “You’re too beautiful for any parent to punish, too. Especially as a little girl. Punishing you would have been like hitting a puppy. You’d need a heart of absolute stone.”

“Raise your chin just a bit, please.”

Caroline: She does so. “Granite. Like his jaw.”

GM: The brush remains a nonstop blur in Josua’s hands. “A granite-jawed father. Tell me about him.”

Caroline: “Hard. Powerful. Indomitable. Everything always had a purpose. Had to have a purpose. He refused to leave anything on the table, miss any opportunity.”

“I always wanted to impress him.”

GM: “But he never appreciated you, did he? Even after all those boxes you checked.”

Caroline: “Not enough boxes,” Caroline sighs.

GM: “I think he must have just hated women,” Josua declares. “He wanted his firstborn to be a son, didn’t he?”

Caroline: Caroline frowns. “I don’t know. Maybe. But they didn’t seem to have it easier. Maybe the youngest, but only because there was so little time by then, and he found value in a daughter. Good PR.”

GM: “Do your brothers and sisters feel like he appreciates them?”

Caroline: Caroline thinks. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Not in practice. In some ways they had it easier because social expectations are different between men and women, but we all carry our crosses. Sometimes we just have to play the hand we’re dealt.”

GM: “Yes, we do. My cross is being too handsome.”

Caroline: “And talented, don’t forget talented.”

GM: “Being handsome is worse than being talented,” the Toreador smiles, showing his fangs. “It’s easier to hide talent.”

Caroline: “It must be so hard with men and women throwing themselves at you.”

GM: “It is! You saw it with your ghoul. She started kissing me, just like that. It happens all the time.”

Caroline: A flash of possessiveness. “You enjoy getting under people’s skin, don’t you?”

GM: The brush stops moving. There’s a look of sorrow on Josua’s face. “Oh, no. I love women, Caroline. I was raised by a single mother and three sisters. I adore women. I wouldn’t ever want to get under one’s skin. Get in their pants, sure, but that’s completely different kind.”

Caroline: “That’s interesting,” Caroline answers contemplatively. “No father in the picture at all?”

GM: “He walked out on us while I was still young. My mom never wanted to break our hearts with that news, so she never really said it directly, and we all kept hoping he’d come back.”

Caroline: “You ever think of looking for him? Now?”

GM: “All the time, when I was younger. He was an artist too. I used to fantasize if my work was good enough, if I got famous enough, he’d notice and come back.”

Josua laughs. It’s a rich and velvety sound, not altogether unlike Coco’s, that shows off his fangs as he does.

“Now, not really. He showed us all how he really felt.”

Caroline: “I meant more as one of the Damned. You could get answers. Hold him accountable.”

GM: Josua shrugs. “Answers to what? He didn’t want to be in our lives. It took a lot to get that out of Mom, but it was that simple. Some dads are just deadbeats.”

“We could have used the child support, growing up, but it’s a little late now.”

Caroline: “I’d have to know. Have to face them. To get an answer. To make them acknowledge what they did.”

GM: “Yes, but you’re a badass bitch in charge. I’m just a boytoy,” Josua grins.

“Besides, Marcel still needs to find my vampire mom first. My breather dad can wait.”

Caroline: “Your sire went missing?” Caroline asks curiously.

GM: There’s another laugh. But lower. Less humorous.

“I guess you could say that.”

He tells her his story.

Caroline: Caroline listens attentively, asking questions at appropriate moments. She doesn’t have to feign interest or sympathy. “Do you still have any paintings of her?”

GM: “The original’s long gone, like I said. That was the best one. But I’ve made more from memory.” He gets off his chair and pulls up a backwards-facing one from the wall.

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Her white, so-pale face seems to float like a mirage in the darkness. She looks tall and thin, at once haunting and vulnerable, like a phantom just out of reach.

Caroline: Caroline studies it. “Too much to hope for a familiar face.”

“Absent sires seem a theme here,” she continues softly.

GM: “Just more deadbeat dads, aren’t they?” Josua agrees with a wan smile.

Caroline: “They can be,” Caroline answers. “I like to think some at least had reasons, though I didn’t get a chance to discuss the matter with my own.”

Yet.

Still, the tale can’t help but color her view of Josua, soften how she sees him.

GM: “I heard about yours.” Josua’s eyes look mournful. “That was so sad. You deserved someone like Marcel. You really did.”

Caroline: “It’s complicated. Might be for the best.” She shrugs. “It let me form my own identity, at least. That’s rare among blue bloods.”

GM: “Mmm. You might be right. And Marcel took me on, so it could have been worse there too.”

Caroline: “Is worse for plenty,” Caroline agrees. “Still, at least I knew who mine was. It must be so difficult… with that still hanging over your head.”

GM: “It’s comfy here. But she destroyed my life. I hope Marcel finds her.” There’s the faintest tremble of rage to his voice as the brush flies to and fro. “She deserves whatever Vidal’s going to do.”

Caroline: “She also made you immortal. There were easier ways to destroy a life.”

GM: “You remember that prom queen during the ‘90s who gave birth during the dance, then left her baby in a bathroom trash can? That’s like saying she also gave her baby life. There’s a thousand ways I could’ve died, again, or had something awful happen to me. It was dumb luck I ran into Marcel. She left me in the bathroom trash can.”

Caroline: Caroline rises and lays a hand on Josua’s cheek. “Maybe. Or maybe there was more to the story. She didn’t leave you in the sun. It could have been worse.”

“And she clearly saw something in you.” She brushes his hair back. “Something more than just the good looks.”

GM: An infectious smile spreads over Josua’s face at Caroline’s touch. He reaches out to cup her face back. His touch is soft but firm.

“You’re right. Maybe she saw I was going to paint you.”

Caroline: Caroline smiles, stealing a peek at the painting so far, even as one hand snakes across his shoulders.

GM: Josua’s hand just as quickly slips over her eyes.

“Good things come to those who wait, Caroline,” he smirks. “Be patient. I’m fast enough we’ll be done in one sitting.”

Caroline: After a moment Caroline’s hand snaps like a cobra to snatch his, even as she turns from the painting back to the Toreador, rotating around to sit on his legs facing him, straddling him. “That’s usually been my line,” she whispers, leaning close.

She runs a hand back and lightly across his throat.

GM: Josua doesn’t get hard like a man might, but the gleam of his fangs is all-too evident. His hands mirror Caroline’s. They’re an artist’s hands, delicate and discerning: they remind her of Neil’s hands, which had to be delicate and careful for his surgeries. But there’s a hunger to Josua’s her mortal ex never had as they stroke the contours of her neck, then longingly run across her chest’s exposed skin, stopping just shy of her dress’ bust. The skin is smooth, clearly pampered, and like velvet against Caroline’s.

“A woman’s shoulders are the front lines of her mystique,” he purrs, leaning in equally close to nip the Ventrue’s ear.

“And her neck has all the mystery of a border town. A no-man’s land in that battle between the mind and the body.”

Caroline: Her breath is cold across his neck, and there’s perhaps a hint of a prick there, a careless brush of her fangs.

She drinks in the friendly odors of the oh so sensual artist.

“Am I mystery to you then?” she whispers in his ear. “What secrets of mine would you know?”

GM: “Every woman is a mystery,” Josua purrs back, fangs tracing against her skin. His arm snakes around her shoulders as he rises from the chair with her, and then the pair fall onto the red-sheeted bed.

“The best women, anyway.”

He pulls off his t-shirt. Caroline’s seen buffer from some of the ex-service members who make up so much of private security, but he’s clearly someone who’s done more than his share of cardio and lavished care upon his body as though it were a temple. He’s shaved off all his hair, too, leaving nothing but the lines and contours of his pale figure to admire.

He takes Caroline’s hands in his and slowly runs them along his abs.

“The better the woman, the deeper the mystery.”

He pulls off her shoes, tosses them onto the floor, and raises her right leg high enough that her toes meet his face. Joint flexibility seems another benefit of undeath. One by one, Josua kisses, nibbles, and tenderly licks each of her toes, even as his fangs press firmly against the skin, stopping just shy of drawing blood.

“Some women…” he murmurs between each kiss and flick of the tongue, “go… their whole lives… without anyone… solving them…”

Caroline: Caroline tolerates his tender affections, a bemused smile on her face that does nothing to hide the prominent canines.

It’s fun, this tenderness. It makes him feel sort of like her earliest mortal lovers, tender, gentle, almost uncertain.

“You think you’ve solved me?” she purrs.

GM: Josua laughs at that, sets down her foot, and starts to undo her belt. If there’s one thing he doesn’t feel, it’s uncertain.

“Not in a thousand years…”

Caroline: It happens in a flash. One moment he’s on top, the next he’s not, and Caroline’s atop him. She smirks down at him.

“Good things come to those that wait. You were painting a picture for me.”

She slowly climbs off him and makes her way back to her seat. “Leave the shirt off though.”

GM: “As the blue blood commands,” Josua grins, returning to his chair.

“I hate to tell any girl to put more clothes on, but I hadn’t painted your feet.”

Caroline: There’s an almost girlish giggle as she slips the heels back on. “Very thorough, Mr. Artist.” Her green eyes glitter.

GM: The brush blurs again in Josua’s hands. Caroline wonders if it’s a coincidence he hadn’t painted her feet yet, the lowest part of the portrait, because he looks like he’s painting her hair at the top too. She gets a good look at his chest at various angles as a result.

“That’s why artists have such great sex, and talk about sex so much. We’re always thorough.”

Caroline: Another laugh. “Did you always swing both ways?” she asks, curious.

“You speak a great deal about women.”

GM: “I slept with a few guys when I was a breather, but it didn’t do much for me. Not until I was turned.”

“Men can be great fucks, but they’re not beautiful like women are.”

“I appreciate women more on an aesthetic level. Beyond fucking.”

“Men’s bodies are robust and functional. They’re all straight lines and sharp angles. They’re easier to draw, too. Ask any artist. It’s much easier to draw a realistically proportioned man than a woman.”

“Women’s bodies aren’t functional, aren’t utilitarian like men’s bodies are. They’re curvaceous. They’re soft. It takes so much more effort to draw them properly. To draw women, to really draw them well, you can’t hate them for their shape. You have to love them for it. You have to love their bodies. You have to relish how much more difficult they are, because you know it’s worth it, because to do any great thing always takes more effort.”

Caroline: “You’re more functional than I am?” Caroline asks, amusement evident.

GM: “Of course not,” Josua grins. “Only my body type.”

“Take the world’s fastest runners. They’re mostly men. Women’s hips have more air drag.”

“Men’s bodies are made to do things. Women’s bodies are made to be pretty.”

“I had a girl in one of my art classes say that was sexist of me to think.” He grins again. “But she was ugly, and I’m pretty sure she was gay too, so I didn’t care.”

Caroline: Caroline gives a light laugh, tinged with something darker, but seems to take the comment in stride.

GM: “I had a renfield who was gay,” he remarks idly. “She was cute, and an artist too. I could never get her to want me in her pants.”

Caroline: “Do you frequently sleep with your ghouls?” Caroline inquires, maintaining her stately poise.

GM: “God no. Even a girl who’s great in bed feels like sticking your dick in a fleshlight, after injecting it with anesthesia.”

“I feed on the one I have now, sometimes. We both like that.”

Caroline: “Colorful,” she answers.

GM: “You don’t? It’s great always having a little juice around.”

Caroline: “I’m picky,” Caroline laughs. “And generally don’t mix business with pleasure.”

GM: “Business without pleasure is…” Josua laughs, “not pleasurable.”

“But it’s okay to be picky. Are your renfields not hot enough?”

Caroline: “They were chosen for other reasons,” Caroline answers. “Isn’t Marcel picky too? I thought you’d be familiar with a Ventrue lover.”

GM: “With what, his renfields or his lovers?” Josua smirks. “With the latter, at least, I can say he’s got great taste.”

Caroline: “More his snacks,” Caroline answers wryly.

GM: The Toreador laughs. “Sure, he’s picky. Asking that is like asking whether my clan spazzes out, isn’t it?”

Caroline: That thought sends a stab through her, but she waves it off. “It makes finding valuable ghouls and those with the proper flavor… complicated.”

GM: “Oh, true. Your guys’ curse is the second-worst there is, no offense.” He smiles. “I’d hate to have a more limited menu.”

Caroline: “Second worst? So who’s got it the worst?” She asks.

GM: The smile turns into a smirk. “Oh, that’s easy. Can’t you guess?”

Caroline: “Being a little crazy can’t be that bad, can it?” Caroline asks sincerely.

GM: “Definitely not, against what’s worst.”

“Come on, can’t you guess it? It’s easy.”

Caroline: “Indulge me,” Caroline answers.

GM: “Okay, here’s a hint. The hipsters are angry, the outlanders are beastly, the kooks are crazy, the sewer rats are ugly, the grayfaces are clingy, the torries are spazzy, and the blue bloods are picky. What’s worst?”

Caroline: “I get the impression you wouldn’t be fond of most of those things,” Caroline answers wryly.

GM: Josua laughs. “You’ve not been around many torries if the one at the bottom of the list isn’t obvious.”

Caroline: “Maybe I’ve just been around too many sewer rats,” Caroline answers. “If that’s what you’re getting at.”

“For myself, I think the Brujah’s curse would weigh especially heavily on me as well.”

GM: “Oh, I hope you haven’t. You can call this racist or clanist or whateverist of me, but I’d never want to hang out with a nossie. They’re too ugly. I only want to spend time with beautiful people.”

Caroline: The argument isn’t so different than the position of many of the racists her father had crawled in bed with (figuratively). In truth it isn’t even so different than her own position in life. She’d have never slept with a black man.

It doesn’t stop it from getting under her skin. Irrationally. Hypocritically.

“We’re all ugly in our own ways,” she answers.

GM: “Oh, sure,” Josua answers. “But beauty’s skin deep. You have to look at it more.”

Caroline: “I guess it depends on what you find most valuable,” Caroline answers.

GM: “Call me shallow there,” the Toreador smiles, “but I’d answer beauty. The Requiem’s cruel, tragic, and ugly enough on its own. But in beauty there’s something pure, something right. Beauty gives us something to smile at, to lose ourselves in, to forget being monsters over. When I admire a beautiful woman, I’m not just turned on. I appreciate her beauty on an aesthetic level, for that… touch of God, maybe, that’s made her a bright spot in a dark world. It makes me want to protect her, nurture her, and capture her on canvas, so that everyone else can feel all the things she makes me feel. Maybe that’s love.”

He looks at Caroline soulfully.

“Beauty brings out the best in us.”

“You bring out the best in me, Caroline.”

Caroline: “Charmer,” she answers. “How many other Kindred have you painted?” she asks.

GM: “Oh, tons. Mostly ones I’ve fucked.”

Caroline: “Before or after?”

GM: “Mmm, varies. I’ve done some before and some after to mix things up.”

“Marcel likes to keep them separate, though. Another blue blood not mixing business with pleasure.”

Caroline: “What do you mean there?” she asks, still in poise.

“He didn’t strike me as a painter.”

GM: “Oh, he’s not. I mean I don’t fuck him and paint him in the same session. He’s had me do a few ‘official’ portraits of him as prince.”

“He’s very serious about those. About anything to do with him still being prince, really. There’s nothing that gets him off more than getting called ‘Your Majesty.’”

Caroline: Caroline laughs. “Once and always.”

“What about you?”

GM: “Does getting called ‘Your Majesty’ get me off? I can’t really say so,” he smirks, “but I won’t knock someone else for it.”

Caroline: “More generally, what’s your hang-up?”

GM: “Oh, I didn’t mean ‘gets off’ in the sexual sense. He likes it when everyone calls him that.”

“Though he doesn’t seem to mind when I call him that in bed, either. I guess kings like being reminded they’re kings everywhere.”

“There’s a movie I saw a while ago, about some British king whose wife calls him ‘Mr. King’ in bed. It was cute, and seemed innocent and lighthearted, but he has a pretty raging ego in the rest of the movie.”

“I think you have to be, to be a king.” He smirks again. “Or a blue blood.”

Caroline: “Someone has to rule. Has to accept responsibility,” Caroline answers. “There’s debate of course—does the blood make us call to it, or do we only Embrace those called to begin with…”

GM: “Chicken’s here either way, whether or not the egg came first. Marcel says that too. And his kids.”

“Well, Anthony more than Chris. Chris is gorgeous. I’d love to fuck him, but Marcel wouldn’t be happy about that, with how tense things are between them.”

Caroline: “Does he usually care what you do? Well, who you do?”

GM: “Mm, not that much. I’ve fucked tons of licks. He’s just clear that he comes first, and I’m not to do it in his bed. Unless he also gets to join in.”

Caroline: “Remarkably progressive.”

GM: “Some licks get possessive. But monogamy’s for breathers. We’re basically fucking somebody every time we eat. Kind of dumb to get hung up about, really.”

Caroline: “More one way than the other.”

GM: “Mmm, true. But I guess that’s like being okay with your boyfriend getting blowjobs from other girls, but upset if he does anything else with them.”

“His pants are coming down either way.”

Caroline: “Colorful,” she observes.

GM: “And true. But you asked about my hang-up.”

Josua smiles.

“Women are my hang-up.”

Caroline: “Other than beauty,” Caroline fills in quickly, amused.

GM: “Any guy could say that, of course. But not like me.”

Caroline: “You’re special?” Caroline fills in.

GM: “Feminine women are my hang-up. The more feminine, the better. Women who grow their hair long. Who doll up their faces every day. Who wear perfumes you can feel like you’re in a field of flowers, when you smell. Who wear beautiful jewelry. Who wear skirts and dresses. Who wear heels that make their hips delightfully sway. Who keep their legs silky and smooth. Who have full breasts, voluptuous hips, and those round, dainty, eternally child-like faces…”

“I could go on and on. But it’s not just how they look, too. It’s how they act. Their body language. Their gestures. Their posture. The way they hug instead of shaking hands. How much they smile. How they’ll lie next to their friends, in ways guys never would. How they scream at spiders and shrink back for a man’s protection. How their high, trilling voices stay eternally young like a little child’s.”

“There’s so much to love about women. There’s an art to being a woman, not like there is to being a man.”

Caroline: “You almost sound like you’d rather be a woman,” Caroline observes.

GM: Josua laughs. “I’ve put on a dress and makeup before, if you’re wondering. I was told I made a great woman. But I make a better man.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t be mindful of what it takes to make a great woman. And it does take them so much work. A guy getting dressed can just throw on a shirt and deodorant and call it a day. When a guy gets dressed up, he puts on a black tux. Only a slob can get it wrong. Women labor for hours and hours. They spend so much time. So much money. So much pain—advertising makes them feel so sad about their bodies. All those eating disorders. I’m mindful of their sacrifice. They, you, suffer for your beauty.”

“Beauty brings so much good to the world.”

“Women bring so much good to the world.”

“We don’t appreciate women enough as a society. We should worship women, put them on pedestals and altars, for the good they bring to the world. Through their beauty. Through their pain.”

Caroline: Are we certain he’s a Toreador? Caroline wonders passingly.

She doesn’t quite know what to say to that.

“No wonder you’re such a successful womanizer,” she purrs. “That’s an uncommon appreciation. Most men just seem interested in how quickly they could fuck me, for their own ego’s sake.”

GM: Josua smiles from ear to ear.

“Oh, I do want to fuck you, as quickly as possible. But I want to fuck you because you’re so beautiful. Because of the light you bring into the world. The way you you elevate, the way you better everyone who so much as looks at you.”

“I want to share in that. I want to experience that. I want to acknowledge your beauty. I want to show you how deeply it affects me. I want you to know how you speak to my soul. Fucking you is so much more than just fucking. It’s… _communion.”_

Caroline: “Then you should hurry up with that picture,” Caroline smirks.

She’d rather be wanted for who she is, for what she’s done. But tonight she’ll settle for beauty.

GM: “Soon,” he smiles. “I have to get it right. I couldn’t hurry it, just to fuck you sooner. That would be as… as bad as rape. I have to honor your beauty, fully and completely.”

Caroline: “Mhmm.” Caroline eyes his shirtless form as she waits.

GM: “Have your lovers appreciated you, Caroline?” he asks. “Appreciated what you go through, as a woman?”

Caroline: “I don’t think most cared to understand,” she answers. “And how can you appreciate what you don’t understand?”

“And most of them were more about convenience. For both of us. A woman in my position was expected to have a boyfriend of a certain social status.”

“Which wasn’t terrible,” she continues. “It meant we had certain shared interests and expectations, it just also narrowed the field considerably. My father wouldn’t have ever, for instance, approved of me seeing some artist.”

GM: “Oh, but ’isn’t terrible’ isn’t the same as ‘everything I always wanted.’ You deserve so much than just ’isn’t terrible.’ Who were the boyfriends you always wanted?”

Caroline: An image passes through her mind, swiftly buried. “I don’t know. Someone gentle and kind, but firm, with strong hands.”

“Successful.” She might have blushed if she were living. “Domineering.”

“I think I wanted to date my father for most of my life. Not literally of course, but someone like him. I spent my life thinking I needed to earn his love, that doing so was how I could be the best daughter, the best version of myself.”

GM: “Hmm. That does make sense. We want love from our parents, when we’re children, then other people once we’re grown up. But if we never get it from our parents, we keep trying to get it from somwhere.”

Caroline: “It’s what we know.”

GM: “What about since dying? How many licks have you been with?”

Caroline: “That’s sort of a tasteless question, isn’t it?” Caroline answers pointedly.

GM: “Hey, you asked me.”

Caroline: “What happened to never asking a woman her age, weight, or number of partners?”

“And in fairness, you didn’t provide a number either,” she points out.

GM: “Only because I’ve lost count.”

Caroline: “There aren’t that many licks in the city,” Caroline answers dubiously. “I think it feeds your ego to ‘lose count’.”

GM: “It does,” Josua smiles. “But I still have. Honest. I was turned a couple years ago, and there’s lots of licks who just pass through the city for a little while.”

Caroline: “You make it a point to add them to your number,” she inserts.

GM: “A fuck’s a fuck.”

Caroline: “Poetry,” Caroline mocks playfully. “Fewer than you, to answer your question.”

GM: “You don’t have to be bashful about numbers,” Josua smirks. “We’re all out there getting blowjob equivalents every night. The only real thing someone’s still a virgin over is whether they’ve killed or not.”

Caroline: “Few enough of those,” Caroline answers. “Sounds like a boring Requiem.”

GM: “Marcel says the Crones recognize licks for it. Female ones who’ve never taken a life are part of some holy order or something and dress all in white.”

“The First Estate’s supposed to recognize them, too. There’s one in your clan, Becky Lynne, who I hear’s a virgin.”

Caroline: Of fucking course she is.

“I stand by my statement,” Caroline replies.

GM: “I suppose it depends who you kill,” Josua says thoughtfully. “I couldn’t live with myself if I’d killed a beautiful woman. A really beautiful woman. I’d walk into the sun.”

Caroline: “I’m not in favor of it. I’m not proud of it. But the only way I see you never losing it on someone is a pretty soft Requiem.”

GM: “Oh, yes. I’d like to fuck her too, but you’re both very different kinds of femininity.”

Caroline: “Turned you down?”

GM: “Worse. I tried to force myself on her.”

Josua looks heartbroken.

“I didn’t mean to. Like with your renfield. I never do.”

Caroline: Caroline frowns. “I thought that was an act. That you were trying to get my goat. Or at least my ghoul.”

GM: “Oh, no.” Josua sets down the brush and looks at Caroline forlornly. “I have this ability… this talent… and it’s beyond my control.”

Caroline: “I don’t know that I’ve known a lick that couldn’t control themselves in that way,” she muses.

GM: “Marcel says I have a natural flair for enthrallment. That’s what he calls it. A ‘natural flair.’ He says I can do ‘very impressive’ things with the discipline, for a lick who’s been dead as little time as me, and that I’ll do more amazing things after I’ve been dead for longer. He expects I’m going to come up with ‘a whole host’ of new tricks and uses for it. I’ve already taught him a few.”

The Toreador shakes his head slowly.

“But he says that talent comes with a cost. I can’t always control it. Sometimes I make women feel things I don’t mean them to feel. I put urges in their heads without even wanting to, sometimes without even knowing I have. When they start kissing me, when my blood runs hot, when I feel how warm and beautiful they are in my hands, I can get… carried away. I’ve wondered if that makes me a rapist. I think it does.”

He stares at Caroline with deep and sorrowful eyes.

“I’m a monster, Caroline. A beautiful monster.”

Caroline: Caroline feels an urge to lay a hand in that chiseled jawline, but she keeps her place.

“We all are,” she answers soberly but gently. “I’ve killed… God, so many people. So many. And I don’t have a talent to show for it. If you’re a monster, it’s a lesser kind.”

GM: There’s a smile beneath the sorrow, as sweet as it is bitter.

“You have this.”

He turns the finished portrait to face her.

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It’s different from the haunting quality of Josua’s prior pieces, or at least the way he’s described them. Caroline looks radiant. A soft glow suffuses her skin, granting her an almost heavenly air even as her face makes plain she is no angel. She stares imperiously above the portrait’s viewers, but her eyes are not downcast upon them: instead, they look upwards, heavenward, towards some distant horizon or planned future she can see but her viewers cannot. Her platinum blonde hair cascades freely down her shoulders like a lion’s mane, even as she casually tosses it back with one hand as if to say there’s work to be done. She’s dressed all in black that strikingly contrasts her pale skin, while her shoulders are the front line of her mystique. Her swan-like neck is the mystery of a border town: the no-man’s land in the battle between her mind and her body. Its length, further accentuated by the low but narrow cut to her clothing that juts beyond the portrait’s border, seems to imply there is no solution to that mystery… or at least none the viewer may ascertain themselves. That power rests within Caroline’s hand alone. She is an enigma, but one whose posture and expression assures all that she is the holder of some vast and terrible and glorious secret. One must tremble to imagine the consequences of its revelation. One must tremble before her.

She is proud. She is regal. She is powerful.

And she is, above all else, beautiful.

Caroline: Caroline drinks in the image, the painstaking detail, the sheer admiration evident in every brushstroke. Has anyone ever looked at her thusly? Have they ever viewed her so favorably? Has she ever viewed herself thusly?

She drinks in the painting. If she had breath, the painting would take it away.

How long she stares she can’t say, but when her gaze breaks from it she turns it to Josua, stares into his eyes.

GM: “This is you,” he repeats softly, his soulful eyes meeting hers.

“Art doesn’t lie, Caroline. It’s the most honest form of communication there is.”

Caroline: “Oh?” Caroline answers, through eyes faintly rimmed in red. “I’d beg to differ.” She rises, advancing on the artist and his creation.

Her hands deftly undo the belt at her waist, casting it aside.

“I can think of one that’s a little more… intimate.” One hand gently seizes his jaw, runs down to his throat, even as she pulls him to her.

Her gown falls away, and all that’s between them pale flesh.

GM: Josua drops his pants, then slides to his knees on the floor while Caroline remains on the bed. He pulls away her undergarments, then sinks his fangs into her most intimate place. His tongue caresses and explores her womanhood even as it laps and smears the turgidly flowing blood.

He doesn’t say anything further. Whatever the most ‘direct form’ of communication between their kind may be, be it actions or artwork, there’s one thing it isn’t:

Words.

Caroline: The blood flows back and forth, a sanguine truth shared between them. It’s not sex, but it is. It’s better than sex—and also worse. There’s no future with Josua. No expectations.

For once she’s content to let him take the lead. To be loved. The be lavished with attention. To simply be beautiful.

It’s enough.

At least for a little while.


Tuesday night, 1 March 2016, AM

GM: Caroline’s settled Natalia into one of the spare apartments, stripped of communicative technologies like it was for Amelie. Natalia is inordinately grateful when Caroline lets her call her husband and parents, just before dawn. She is even more grateful upon hearing she’ll get to see them again tomorrow.

Caroline: The Ventrue goes over her script for both groups before she lets the teenager make either call, which she still monitors. There’s a difference between mercy and stupidity, and certain things she can’t let the girl talk about yet.

GM: The Ventrue can hear the furious but intensely concerned-sounding phone conversations from a distance. Her family had already gone to the cops and filed a missing persons report. Natalia lies about going camping and claims she sent text messages she’s puzzled they never received. Maybe her “phone wasn’t working, or my service got weird.” She’s really sorry. There’s no lie at all when she says those last words. She says she’ll see them tomorrow, when she’s back in the city.

“I was, just really overwhelmed. I had to get away and breathe. Please don’t be mad.”

There’s a muted reply. Softer.

“Yes. I love you too. See you soon.”


Tuesday night, 1 March 2016, AM

Caroline: There’s one last matter Caroline sees to before taking her rest.

The earlier near-miss with Bishop Malveaux and the raid on her haven by her mother drives Caroline to Abélia’s second gift. The second coin. She clears her haven of her ghouls and barricades herself inside for another brush with darkness and madness. She restrains herself once more but leaves keys available, along with a spare in the hands of Widney.

She takes up the coin and whispers to it of the secret she would know: one of Lidia Kendall’s.

GM: The coin turns black as Caroline’s dead breath passes over it. The tarnished silver rises aloft into the air. There is no bedlam and destruction this time, however… or at least none the Ventrue can perceive. Instead, her consciousness is simply swept away by dark currents, as easily as one might fall into a dream.

She’s at a derelict street corner marred with all the typical signs of urban decay: crumbling buildings, gang tags, distant car alarms and gunshots. A weather-worn couch sits in the middle of the street, the gangland throne of an inner city king. His four courtiers haven’t bothered to get seats of their own. Dead legs don’t tire.

The first is a teenage girl with dark hair in cornrows. She’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and low-cut jeans. Her gaze looks older than any flighty teen’s, though.
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The second figure is a stocky mixed-race man built like a wrestler with broad shoulders and a thick, full beard. His facial bones visibly jut against pallid, waxy flesh, and his eyes are deeply sunken in dark-rimmed sockets. Sickly veins bulge against his too-thick muscles. Few humans, Caroline suspects, can meet his gaze without shivering.

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The third is one of the most striking men Caroline has ever seen. He’s not handsome: he’s beautiful. His features are soft, almost feminine, but his well-muscled physique looks flawless in every aspect past his tight clothes. Something about him feels uncomfortably at odds with his physical beauty, though, like the stink of failure or the pang of unrequited love.

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The fourth is strangely muted to Caroline’s sight. Their build seems female, and dark of skin, but all past that is indistinct, like a smudged or dented spot over glass.

All four pay homage to their king.

All Kindred may be dead things, but Caroline has seen few others whose state is so obvious. He’s a corpse. An upright-sitting corpse. His once-dark flesh is gray and sunken, his hole-lined teeth are more yellow than white, and his hair falls to his shoulders in wet, stringy clumps. He’s almost paradoxically dressed in old black suit, top hat, cane, and sunglasses. He smells of moldering rot congealing beneath only barely adequate scents and cleansers. His bearing is reserved and dignified, like that of a respected grandfather who knows what’s best for his descendants. A dark, musky power feels as though it could roll from him like the miasma off a bayou, yet is held in check—not, perhaps, out of concern, but for reasons that bemuse his children and are inscrutable to those other than kin.

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“You smell like shit,” the teen girl says to the bearded man.

“Bale,” he rumbles.

“Gonna ash her?”

The bearded man smiles. It is not a nice smile. It makes Caroline feel dirty. “’Ventually.”

“Enough ash to coat the city after that trial,” remarks the beautiful young man. “Too bad about the Angels.”

“Already jumped into bed with Savoy,” says the teen. “Good riddance.”

“An unfortunate loss of inroads among the Anarchs,” speaks the muted woman. “That leaves Freeman and the witches.”

“Ironic you should say.” The teen.

“You mean…” The beautiful man.

“Oh, yes,” purrs the bearded man, smiling that same cruel smile.

“Ancient history. They’ve cozied up before.” The beautiful man.

“Vidal is fuckin’ batshit. Coulda collared or exiled the fugly. You do not fuck with her kids.” The teen.

“This proves the rumors true. Vidal is no longer a rational actor, and Maldonato is no longer able to rein him in. He has lost his mind.” The muted woman.

“Our gain,” rumbles the bearded man.

“Might be he is reinin’ the old fuck in, an’ what we’re getting is the censored version.” The teen.

“His ability to is declining.” The muted woman.

“Didn’t say it wasn’t.” The teen.

“We’ve got an opening with Miss Opal. We could reach out. Quietly.” The beautiful young man.

“No.”

The other four all turn at their leader’s low voice.

“Too many will suspect. We will wait. She will come to us.”

“Guess revenge is best served cold.” The teen.

“She will take her time. But she will betray the prince for this.” The muted woman.

“Savoy may reach out first…” The beautiful man.

“Bondye, I can picture Savoy doin’ it. ‘I am so sorry for your loss. Hey, here’s how I can make things better.’” The teen pantomimes spitting on the ground. “Fuckin’ used car salesman.”

Their leader speaks again.

“The French Quarter lord has long grasped for power he does not understand.”

“He has always been overeager. To our gain.” The muted woman.

“I say. Angels aside, Vidal goin’ crazy aside, Smith’s whole torpor and Lasombra shpeel aside, this trial was still our fuckin’ birthday present on Christmas. The prince an’ the Frenchie will be goin’ at it like never before.”

“Sidelines are a good place to be when blood’s getting spilled,” the bearded man purrs.

The four look towards their leader.

“Minimize your direct involvement in the Jyhad. Allow the conflict between the prince and French Quarter lord to fill the city’s thoughts. We shall use the time provided by their distraction to reach out to Miss Opal and set our own house in order. Malia, what new developments have occurred among the Bata’a?”

“They remain in disarray. The Macoute have been expanding to fill the power vacuum left by Wedo’s death…”

She trails off, staring into their leader’s face. He is looking towards her, but not at her. Beyond her.

“We are being watched,” he murmurs.

The teenager’s voice grows sharp.

“By who?”

The leader’s gaze slowly sweeps across his surroundings.

“By magic that is mine… and not mine. By one whom I know…”

Caroline: It’s time to go.

She got what she came for.

Abélia warned her against seeking more than was bargained for, and the Baron—who else can it be?—already recognizes that someone is watching. And possibly still more.

She tries to end the vision. Tries to pull away.

GM: Caroline’s surroundings blur and distort. The gathered Kindred’s voices indistinctly gurgle as though from underwater. Their forms recede.

Before they vanish completely, the leader turns and stares directly into Caroline’s eyes. His decayed lips move.

“Come closer…”

With terrible physicality, she feels a rotting hand clamp around her throat.

Then, the last of her surroundings wash away like a rushing river. Noise roars in her ears. Blackness overtakes her vision. She comes to on her bed. The coin is nothing but blackened, ruined bits of slag. The scent of decay hangs heavy in her nostrils. Her neck feels strange. It’s not until she gets up and looks into a mirror that she sees why.

Five wet, black, finger-shaped holes mar her throat. The flesh around them is as rotted as a waterlogged corpse’s.

Caroline: That was too close.

She’d shiver at the sight, if her body still experienced those physical reactions. She stops breathing. She’d rather not feel air coming through those ugly holes, and the absence of that familiar action makes her feel more dead than ever. She wills vitae to mend the gruesome disfigurements, restoring rotted flesh to corpse-pale. She watches it happen in the mirror.

It only makes her feel a little better.

Magic that is mine and not mine. What did the Baron mean? For not the first time, she wonders who—and what—Abélia is, and just what she’s gotten in bed with.

It’s too late for regrets. Besides, she’s walked away with a secret: Miss Opal’s planned treachery. The Baron’s people reaching out. Yes, she thinks that will be worth something to the seneschal. And her sire. Abélia came through on their bargain, even if the experience left her less than whole, and with as many questions as answers.

As ever, the only way forward is through.


Tuesday evening, 1 March 2016

GM: It’s another empty-feeling day for Caroline in her bedroom without Jocelyn, even if sleeping still only lasts an eyeblink. Widney greets her the next night to read her schedule, which among other items, includes the visit between Natalia and her husband and parents. They’re already here at the building. Widney has fed them whatever script Caroline gave her.

Autumn, ever-jealous of Widney seeing their domitor first during the night, also finds a reason to see Caroline. She says she eavesdropped on Natalia during the day and that the thin-blood tossed and turned in bed, rather than lying still as a corpse. She woke up around sunset—while it was still bright out, though she didn’t try to lift the extra-thick drapes to see outside. Autumn was also able to view Natalia through a camera without interference while she was asleep. Once the thin-blood woke up, the feed crapped out like it would for a normal lick.

“She also, uh… I heard her going to the toilet,” Autumn says.

The ghoul leaves it at that.

“Pretty eager to see her family, anyways. They’re downstairs.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t let her frustration or irritation show in front of Autumn, but there are times she dearly wishes she had access to other powers of the Blood. The ability to linger unseen and listen in rather than lead the discussion like the bishop. The ability to casually pluck thoughts from minds… like Jocelyn.

The tug of both on her thoughts is like an itch she can’t scratch. A constant source of irritation that begs for attention in a way that is almost maddening.

Working with only the tools she has is at times frustrating, like sculpting with only a sledgehammer. It’s easy to forget that only months ago she had so many fewer. It seems, she reflects, envy is a reflection of what you see, not what you need. Or maybe it’s just an excuse to think about the others.

She’s prepared the field, as it were, with Natalia. Given her the lies she’s to tell about their relationship, about the heightened danger in the pregnancy, about her decision to take the rest of the semester off.

GM: It was met with a common refrain:

“But I can go back next semester, can’t I? Night classes, or online ones?”

Caroline: It’s possible, Caroline tells her. Not certain, but possible. Other Kindred have gotten degrees. The biggest limitation will be her adjustment to the All-Night Society, and whether she can offer something (not money) to others to make letting her do that worthwhile to them.

GM: Natalia looks confused. “But I just want to take classes and pay tuition, like anyone else. Why should that be a big deal?”

Caroline: “Because they have dominion over Tulane—well, all of Riverbend, really. Because you shall respect that dominion. Because you could be a threat to their influenced.” Caroline lists off the reasons almost languidly.

“Because they said so, and because if you don’t they’ll hurt or kill you and people around you.”

Caroline is quiet for a moment. “I had a friend that was a cop. I asked her to look into something for me, after I got turned.”

“They delivered her head to me. Just her head. In a box.”

“There wasn’t any warning. That was the warning.”

The memory is as fresh tonight as it was that night. Jessica’s eyes looking up at her. Her hair mattered and slick with her blood. The moment of shock and horror as she struggled to reconcile this friend she had known with this object in the box.

GM: And Jocelyn being there to offer what comfort she could. Who took away the head, said she’d bury it “someplace respectful” so Caroline wouldn’t have to deal with that. Who offered to show the Ventrue her art, for the first time, to take her mind off things.

Caroline: She tears away from that memory. She has to.

GM: Maybe it’s her own feelings. Maybe it’s just the collar. But she can feel her fingers all but twitching with desire to yank out her phone. To call up her ex.

Caroline: She’s glad she’s dead. That there’s no flush associated with those feelings. No rapid breathing. Nothing to betray her feelings to Natalia.

Natalia, who’s fault this isn’t, but whom is a reminder in every moment of what she lost for this ungrateful little thing.

GM: Natalia looks faintly horrified. But it’s one thing to hear about it and another to see it. Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

“That’s terrible. I’m… so sorry for your friend,” she replies, seeming more than a little unsure what to make of it all.

“I’m actually not sure how a big threat she’d be,” Autumn raises. “Though not like it really changes anything, so far as the sheriff being willing to share. But you might be able to get away with online classes. The Traditions are pretty blurry when it comes to the internet.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “Could be. But your name and face are known to the sheriff, and he is not known for his mercy.”

“There’s no forgiveness to be asked among us. Only permission. Or deception.”

GM: “Well… what could I do for him, then, to let me take classes?”

Autumn’s look says it all.

Caroline: “One thing at a time.” Caroline answers. “You have to show you can keep the Masquerade, can control yourself, can learn our laws. You seem to be assuming your life is going to go back to normal. That you can just blend back in.”

“That may not be true… or necessary. Depending on what gifts you might develop over time.”

GM: “Well, obviously it’s different, with having to drink… blood. But I can do that, I can do all those things. I just want to keep my head down, have my baby, and become a doctor.”

Caroline: Caroline restrains the laugh she wants to give. She was naive once too.

“Speaking of, you must be thirsty.”

GM: The thin-blood’s eyes glint.

Caroline: “Wouldn’t do for you to meet them hungry.” Caroline turns her wrist up for Natalia.

It should serve several purposes. Identity whether the girl can even perform the kiss with her mangled teeth, and make her a little more pliant. And perhaps soothe her thirst.

GM: Natalia starts to ask whether that “would hurt” Caroline, but then seems to remember the Ventrue cutting herself earlier. She bends to drink. The sensation isn’t nearly so pleasant as with another Kindred: the punctures come from the wrong places at the wrong angles, like someone giving her a bad massage. Still, it’s a pleasurable enough feeling once she gets going.

But it’s not Jocelyn.

Caroline: Caroline lets her drink deeply before gently but firmly pushing her away.

It’s almost a tease, and more irritating and less pleasurable for being not good enough than for not being pleasurable in and of itself.

That frustration is all too clear in Caroline’s eyes.

It’s like the worst sex of her life.

GM: Natalia licks her lips, all-too clearly savoring the taste, but there’s uncertainty in her own.

“Did I… do something wrong?”

Caroline: Everything. And then, Nothing.

“No. It’s just… Different.”

“Less potent.”

GM: The thin-blood looks a little unsure what to say to that before Widney says the Garcias are here. They head down to the Giani Building’s lobby.

Natalia’s husband Jake is a tall, brown-haired Caucasian man with a short beard and callused-looking hands. He’s wearing a long-sleeved white Vans tee, light-wash jeans, a black watch, and small studs on his ears. He gives off a similar vibe to a lot of the predominately ex-service members who compose so much of the private security Caroline has spent her life around.

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Her father is a balding, gray-haired, mustached Colombian man who looks a little on the older side to be Natalia’s father. He wears rectangular glasses and a button-up shirt and dark jeans.

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His shorter, plumper wife looks around his same age, also wears glasses, and has on a magenta top in a looping pattern.

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All three of her relatives immediately wrap her up in hugs with assorted greetings and exclamations of relief in Spanish and English. “I’m sorry I disappeared,” Natalia gets out, “I didn’t mean to scare you, I thought my phone was working…”

Olvídalo, nena,” her mother replies in a quavering voice, clasping her head before kissing her brow. “We’re just glad you and Miles are safe. We prayed, we prayed you would be safe…”

“Yes. We’re just glad it was all over nothing,” her father says, squeezing her shoulder. “Your brothers and sisters were going to take time off from work to help look for you.”

“That’s so sweet of them,” Natalia manages. “I know how caught up Valeria is, with the campaign…”

“You’re easy to be sweet to,” smiles her husband as he rumples her hair.

Caroline: The entire thing is so sickeningly sweet Caroline makes a note for Widney to schedule her a dental appointment.

GM: Or maybe it’s because she never got much of a taste of sweet.

She can’t think of any time that her mother, or other family members, said they prayed she was safe. Despite all they believe she’s been through.

Despite all her mother knows she’s been through, and is going to go through, to destroy the bishop.

Still no prayer for her safety.

GM: “And this is Caroline,” Natalia finally says, indicating the true-blooded Kindred. “She’s why I’m here. She really helped me out.”

The husband looks curious as to the ‘how’ behind both those things, but ends the hug to offer Caroline his handshake. “Jake Abel. Thanks for being there for her.”

Caroline: Caroline takes the hand with her most dazzling smile. “Caroline,” she offers back.

“It’s something of a long story, perhaps we could tell it upstairs?” she offers lightly.

GM: Jake’s grip seems to slacken for a moment as he shakes the vampire’s too-cool hand, but the family (after introducing themselves as Raul and Paola) agrees to follow Caroline up.

“You look so pale, querida! You should eat more,” Natalia’s mother comments.

Caroline: If you only knew…

The Ventrue has set up drinks on the roof and introduces Autumn (waiting upstairs) tonight as her assistant.

Caroline mixes herself a grapefruit and tonic and offers refreshments to the others, providing Natalia with a chilled mango juice (her self-admitted favorite in earlier questioning) without prompting.

GM: Natalia’s parents both take a rum and tonic. Jake takes a screwdriver. The pregnant and underage Natalia sips the virgin cocktail. It’s almost laughable to think of alcohol being off-limits after what she drank earlier.

When everyone is settled in she gestures to Natalia, “Bad news doesn’t age like fine wine.” She tells the thin-blood.

GM: “So, I guess there’s no way to put this well. And I guess it’s better to just get it out. But there’s…” her face sinks with all-too genuine worry, “there’s been complications, with the pregnancy…”

She lists off whatever medical conditions Caroline told her say.

Caroline: The Ventrue’s had some official looking ‘test’ results printed out with Natalia’s name on it. It wasn’t difficult, between her own background and the helpful pediatric doctor under her wing these nights.

GM: The Garcias take the news about as well as Caroline might expect.

Jake protectively pulls Natalia close, as if to shield her from an approaching enemy. There’s disbelief from Paola. Then she starts to sob and cry. Natalia begs her mom in Spanish not to cry. “¡Por favor no llores, mamá!” Raul lays an arm around his wife’s shoulder with a haggard expression, like he’s just lost a grandson he’d already gotten to know. Paolo clasps her crucifix and starts to pray.

“Oh santa santa,
quien tuvo el privilegio incomparable de traer al mundo
La que se convertiría en la Madre de Dios,
Venimos a colocar a nuestra hija
bajo su especial cuidado…”

(“O Good Saint Anne,
who had the incomparable privilege of bringing into the world
Her who was to become the Mother of God,
We come to place our daughter
under your special care…”
)

Jake bows his head and clasps his hands at first, but looks over the tests as the prayers continue. The Army vet looks like he’s trying to project a strong front for his wife and in-laws at first, but Caroline can see what the news is doing to him, what the official-looking tests are driving home. The fear in his eyes. The grief when there shouldn’t even be grief. The desperate hope that there won’t have to be.

It’s almost like telling them the truth.

In fact, Caroline supposes it is telling them the truth.

There are likely to be ‘complications.’

Caroline: She listens to the prayers acutely aware of the blasphemous twisting she’s put upon them. Their daughter has been entrusted into someone’s care, but not the hands of a saint.

GM: Natalia sneaks a glace at Caroline past her husband, as if unsure where they’re supposed to take this next.

She supposes that’s also just as applicable to the ‘lie’ and truth.

Caroline: Caroline lets the family get out their initial grief, patiently waiting as Natalia tries to reassure them, to calm them. It’s hard to watch. Not only for their pain, but for their obvious affection for their daughter. Their love.

The entire thing just makes her entire life feel so hollow.

Her Requiem all the more.

When they’ve gotten past their shock, she finally interjects.

She hasn’t known Natalia as long as they have (god, is that true), but Caroline knows that she hasn’t given up—and won’t. This is a trial, but one that is survivable.

She’d like to help—and my how she can.

GM: “How? How can you help?” Jake asks, looking between Caroline and the tests. His tone isn’t ungrateul, but the man is clearly still fighting to maintain his composure.

Caroline: The Ventrue flashes a dazzling smile. “Well, I hope quite a lot.”

She explains, in brief, how affected she was by Natalia’s story when she came to her for advice, and how she wants to do everything she can. She had some ideas for a start.

Natalia’s condition requires someone be available at all times in case something should happen. Caroline explains gently that she knows how ‘happily’ the family would take their daughter back in, but also how eager she and Jake are to carve out something of a life for themselves.

She can offer an alternative to simply moving back in—one that would ensure that Natalia has someone available while also allowing her and Jake to continue on with their lives.

If he still has concerns and wants to stay closer to her during this trying time, she’s certain she can arrange work for him in the building.

That might even work best, as it would allow him to place Natalia under the rather robust insurance plan the Giani Building offers.

GM: Paola dabs at her eyes at first, but then replies, “That’s very generous of you to offer, querida, very generous, but we’d rather look after her ourselves.” She turns to Natalia and her husband. “We’d be so happy to you both back home, there’ll be so much less for you to worry about. I always did say that was a good idea, didn’t I, Raul? To have them back home?”

“Yes, you did,” Natalia’s father answers, also looking towards Jake. “And I agree. Jake, this is the best thing we can do for Miles and Natalia right now. All the help they can get.”

“Yes, that’s what we’ve always been saying!” Paola adds. “We just want to make things easier for you. People are so hung up in this country about living with their parents! Everyone does it back home, everyone. And you do want to give Miles the best chance, don’t you?”

Jake, though his are silently pressed together, seems to mentally halt at that question.

Palola continues, “Her due date’s only two months away! Look, it’s not that long. Why don’t you keep your place, it’s only two months’ rent, and just move in for a bit so we can help. Then you can decide what to do, after we’ve all welcomed Miles into the world. Just two months, to help Miles. Doesn’t that sound like the right thing to you?”

“You’re right.” Jake looks like he might have been suppressing a sigh, but the look on his face soon passes to one of resolve. “Whatever it takes to beat this. Whatever gives him the best shot.”

Caroline: “I think,” Caroline interjects softly, “that Natalia has a vote in this. In fact, the largest vote.”

GM: “Oh, we all know Naty’s always wanted to move back home!” her mother declares. “Oh, we already have your room all ready for you, and tonight, why don’t I bake some-”

“I’d… like to say here,” Natalia ventures.

Her family all turn to look at her as if she’s sprouted a third head. Jake included.

“It’s… the insurance,” she offers lamely.

“It’s a really, ah, good policy…”

Caroline: “You can tell them,” Caroline interjects. “You should tell them.”

She looks up to meet Natalia’s mother’s eyes.

“Added stress is potentially very dangerous right now.”

GM: “Un higo para el seguro!” Raul declares, bringing his fist down on the table. “Insurance isn’t going to keep Miles alive! Insurance! You think we care about the money, Natalia? You think we give a damn about money, of all things right now!”

“Raul, calm down! Of course she’s going to live with us, even Jake agrees now!” Paola exclaims, resting her hands on her husband’s shoulders.

“Tell them…?” the teenager ventures unsurely, looking between Caroline and her parents.

“Tell us what?” Jake asks, not looking away from Caroline or his wife.

Caroline: “Fine, I will.” Caroline looks them in the eye. “Natalia is concerned that moving back in will cause conflict, between you all, and with her.”

GM: “What!?” Paola exclaims, looking at her daughter. Raul just stares.

“It’s, um… I know Jake hasn’t wanted to, and maybe he’s right…”

“I don’t care anymore, Nat,” Jake says flatly. “You’re right, I didn’t want to. It was pride. Fuck pride.”

“Language!” Paola exclaims. Raul holds up a hand and looks at his son-in-law.

Jake continues, “Guys who only think about their egos are the ones who get their unit killed. Maybe I’ve forgotten that.”

“Miles isn’t safe. Whatever makes him safe, I’ll do.”

“There’s no conflict. This is bigger than me and what I want.”

“Oh, well, it’s just…” Natalia starts.

“Just two months. We’ll review our options after then. After we’ve held our son.”

Natalia looks at a loss what kind of defense to offer.

Jake looks at Caroline. “Thanks for your help, ma’am, and the kind offer. Shouldn’t be having a family argument in front of you anyways.”

He looks back at his mother-in-law. “Sorry for the swearing, Mom.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she waves off, “you’re just worried! So are we.”

Caroline: Not exactly doing your part here, Caroline growls to herself behind her smile.

She’d have preferred to do this the easy way, but that is far from the only way. She turns her attention on Paola, letting the Beast out into the room. Letting it invade Paola’s mind, letting it weaken her resistance to what Caroline suggests.

“Come on now, Paloa, you can see why moving back home with her husband, with many other changes in her life, and the stresses it might add could be intimidating for Natalia.”

She blinks at the matronly woman. “Even if she loves you and respects you too much to say so, and would rather give in than ever argue with you.”

GM: Natalia’s mother blinks but frowns deeply. “No, that’s… silly. Of course you want to come home, don’t you, Naty?”

“I do! I’m just not sure that’s the best thing for us right now,” the thin-blood replies. “It’s just… not the best thing.”

“Natalia, what are you talking about? You’ve always wanted to move back home with us,” Raul frowns.

“Yes. You have.” Jake frowns even more deeply, a questioning look to his eye. “Why isn’t this the best thing anymore? What changed your mind?”

“Yes, Naty! Why are you saying this? Tell us!” her mother exhorts.

“Ah… look, this is all just so overwhelming. I talked a lot with Caroline, about things, she can tell you,” Natalia tries to deflect.

Three sets of eyes fall on the Ventrue.

Caroline: The Ventrue turns her attention towards Natalia’s father, massaging his feelings towards her. Taking his trust.

“I don’t want to speak for her,” Caroline begins, “but it sounds like Natalia wants to preserve some independence if things work out, and lessen the blow if… well, they don’t.”

GM: Raul looks at Caroline solemnly. “If my grandson is dead, nothing will lessen that blow. It does not matter if he dies in my house, the hospital, or anywhere else on God’s green earth.”

He looks back to his daughter. “Natalia, nothing will change how we feel about Miles. Nothing. We are in this together. You need help. Let us help you.”

Natalia’s eyes start to water. “Papi, you… you’re all so good… but you don’t understand…”

“Then help us, nena! Help us to understand. What don’t we understand?” her mother implores.

“I, I want to be more independent,” she starts. “That what it is. This, this isn’t… isn’t Colombia. I want us to live on our own.”

“Good. We agree,” says Jake. “We’re going to raise Miles in our own place, Natalia. We’ve talked about this. We can take out the VA loan. We’ll see you through this, two months, then move out. We can start looking at realty listings this week. Okay?”

“No, I’m sorry, it’s…” Natalia wipes her eyes. “It’s not okay.”

“Naty, you aren’t making any sense,” her father declares in a tried-sounding voice.

Jake frowns, starts to say something, then pauses and sniffs. “What’s that smell?”

Caroline doesn’t need to pause to smell it.

Blood.

Diluted.

But blood.

Caroline: Damn her, Caroline seethes.

But not really. She made the same mistake.

The Ventrue turns to Jake. “Will you be a dear and grab her a box of tissues? I think there’s one on the patio with the towels.”

GM: Jake gets up, then stares at his wife.

“Is that… blood?”

Raul and Paola make sounds of distress. There are cries to get Natalia to a doctor. Jake gets out his phone to call 911.

Caroline: Caroline’s patience is spent.

They’re kine.

They’re kine, and she’s Kindred. Natalia has left her little other choice.

“Look at me,” she says, and then invades their minds. She tests her powers of mental dominion like never before. Can she suborn multiple kine at once? It looks like she can. She tells Natalia the things to say. The excuses to make. The medical condition she’s seen a doctor for. The importance that she stay here. She uses the thin-blood’s genuine fear and worry, and together with sheer brute force, she bludgeons and dominates the three kines’ minds and twists their emotions like taffy until they agree to let their daughter stay with her. They leave as glassy-eyed automatons, but convinced this is for the best, filled with all the right memories and glamour-induced matching emotions.

Will it hold? That remains to be seen. The thin-blood has left her little alternative but to resort to direct use of her powers, and she feels her patience slipping. Especially after the girl makes a scene over what Caroline has done to her husband and parents.

It was foolish of her to care. Foolish to take up this entirely needless burden. But what’s done is done. She doesn’t have time for Natalia tonight and tells her as much, and bluntly. She leaves her ghouls to handle the thin-blood.

Her meeting with her mother is approaching, and with it, the hit on the bishop. She has Kendall’s secret. Events are rapidly coming to a head.

She doesn’t know how it’s going to go down. But nothing, she’s confident, will be the same afterwards.


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Story Eleven, Celia IX

“Come home, come home, darling rose…”
Unknown fae


Monday evening, 7 December 2015, AM

Celia: The thing about first impressions is that you only get one shot to make someone like you. Which is all well and good for most people.

But Celia Flores isn’t most people.

So when Savoy’s “friend” tells her to bring a disruptive sort of weapon into Bloom Couture, Celia tries not to let it bother her. In fact, she even acts on it. Maybe living among the Damned has simply made her more pessimistic and the mystery friend isn’t a conniving cunt that wants to watch Celia crash and burn out of petty malice. Maybe the mystery friend thinks there might be trouble and just wants to make sure that Celia is prepared with a weapon if things go to hell.

She needs supplies first, though, and she sets about to gathering them. A few words to Rusty and he has the iron knife for her ready to go the next time she sees him. She hadn’t even had to explain, and she’s reminded (as if she forgot) why she keeps him around despite his less-than-stellar interpersonal skills.

If it were summer she’d steal through her mother’s garden for a rose, but it isn’t, and her roses aren’t in bloom. Still, a visit to a nursery has a dozen of them ready to go.

It would be impolite to show up hungry. Celia has Alana bleed a client for her while she fixes her face: it won’t be Celia or Jade that shows up, but instead a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl that still thinks fantasies can become reality and might even want to meet a fairy from the tales. She seals the rose and iron knife inside and, once she’s dressed, masks her Beast and heads off to Bloom Couture.

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GM: Bloom Couture is located just off Decatur St. on St. Ann, its storefront is sandwiched between Ma Sherie Amour and the Vieux Carré Gallery. Celia knows the location has been a boon for Dahlia Rose, as the foot traffic in the area sees to it that her shop is almost always full of curious tourists and locals alike. Part greenhouse, part fashion design studio, stepping into Bloom Couture is always a new adventure for even seasoned veterans. One visitor described it as ”the prettiest garden you can imagine, with butterflies and songbirds and vibrant flowers that belong in a museum. Even if you don’t buy anything it’s definitely worth the visit.”

Most nurseries in the city close at 5 to 7. Bloom Couture skews towards the latter end, but the winter months prove a better time to do things, as they so often do. Celia can’t visit at all during spring and summer. Even now, as she approaches the nursery, it looks like things are winding down and the staff preparing to close up.

It’s the smell that strikes Celia first as she walks inside. Sweet pollens and fresh earth and intoxicating fragrances from a kaleidoscope of brightly colored flowers. The air is warm and humid against the wet and raining 48 degree night outside. Birds chirp over a fountain’s steadily trickling water and the soft crunch of feet pacing over grass and earth. Plants are everywhere. Palm trees, ferns, bushes, trees. Celia can’t name most of the specific varieties. There’s just green, everywhere, where there isn’t brown from the earthy trails through the plants, white from the ceiling overhead, and of course colors from all the flowers. It feels less like a nursery or conservatory than it does an indoor jungle. It reminds her of the Evergreen. But where the French Quarter lord’s rooftop garden feels like it’s bringing nature into its walls (or at least roof), Bloom Couture feels more like it’s giving itself to nature. Low conversations are audible among departing customers finishing up their purchases.

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Celia’s been here her share of times, both on her own and with family. Emily’s enjoyed walking around the place to unwind from med school’s stress. Diana likes to buy her plants and gardening supplies from somewhere close by. She likes bringing Lucy too, so the five-year-old gets to see some nature. Lucy likes the place a lot. Everyone seems to like the place a lot.

Most nurseries don’t have people at the doors to greet the customers, but Bloom Couture has a helpful attendant to explain the store’s layout despite the prominently placed map.

Zahira Pavaghi, a college-age South Asian woman of the ubiquitous family, greets Celia like a new customer and lets her know where the paths branching off from the store’s front lead (beyond “deeper into the internal jungle”). The sounds from the hustle and bustle of the Quarter fade away with each step.

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“Dahlia’s in her design studio,” she mentions when Celia asks after the owner. “That’s in the back.” She gives directions to it.

“We’re closing pretty soon, so try not to get lost if you still want to see her,” she smiles.

Celia: Celia—is her name Celia tonight? Perhaps she needs a new name to go with the new face—is intimately familiar with the paths of Bloom Couture. Or at least, she muses as she thanks (yet another) Pavaghi for the assistance, she thinks she is.

She’d wondered how Dahlia Rose had managed to put what feels like a rain forest inside a building. Why it looks so much bigger inside than it does outside. How she manages to create such beautiful gowns and other couture fashion out of plants. And now, maybe, an answer.

Fae.

Conscious of the rose and iron inside of her, Celia (maybe something soft for the softer face?) steals through the paths of Bloom Couture. She keeps her eyes open for anything out of the ordinary, remembering Mel’s words about affinity for illusions and iron disrupting their magic. She wishes she’d thought to ask her grandsire about their disposition toward licks when she’d met with him atop the roof of the Evergreen instead of waiting for the go-between. This might just be another friendship where she lies through her teeth.

What else is new?

She pushes the thought aside. It’s not like she expects Dahlia Rose to come out and say “yes, I’m a fairy” to her, either.

She doesn’t linger overlong in the conservatory; they’re closing soon, like the Pavaghi said. Her feet take her toward the design studio.

GM: Emily had remarked once on how much larger the place feels inside than out, but didn’t seem to spare it much thought. Diana hadn’t commented on that fact at all, much less Lucy. Dahlia had still answered it was a combination of acoustics, mirrors, and “clever interior design.”

Celia spots nothing untoward, however, beyond the customers who are leaving the “building” (nature preserve feels more apt) with their assorted purchases, rather than walking deeper in. Celia spots a few more leaving the wooden doors of Eden Apothecary, which looks like nothing so much as a thatched Vietnamese hut squatting amidst the trees. The nearby greenery looks more Vietnamese too, with bamboo stalks and sacred lotuses.

The fashion design studio is a ways further back, but following the path takes Celia there. It looks like an actual plant conservatory tucked away amidst the greenery, but the walls are white and opaque. A knock at the door is answered by Manuel Lopez, a 30-something Hispanic man with a broad face, tall frame, and short beard. He’s dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and upturned baseball cap. A green apron and gardening gloves that smell like earth attest to his employment.

“Can I help you?” he asks.

Celia: It could be normal acoustics, lighting, and mirrors, like Dahlia Rose had said. It’s plausible. So is creating fashion out of flowers. Which is a convenient excuse as to why she’s here looking for the owner, if nothing else.

Celia smiles at Manuel. She’s seen him around plenty during prior trips here, though he won’t recognize this face of hers.

“Your girl out front told me I could find Miss Flores back here.”

GM: “Si,” he says, then turns around. Celia can make out some out some of the studio’s all-white walls and floors. “Hey, Dahlia! Lady here who wants to see you.”

Footsteps approach. Dahlia Rose Flores is a caramel-colored, brown-eyed Latina woman with long, dark hair that flows halfway down her back. She has full lips made for easy smiles and a pert nose that brings her whole face together. Her brows are delicately arched and expressive, and Celia has often seen them quirked in amusement. Long-limbed and lean, Dahlia Rose has the willowy body of the plants that she so often tends to. She might have more dirt beneath her nails than the typical girl, but the floral aroma that comes off her skin more than makes up for the time she spends elbow-deep in mud.

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“Can I help you?” she smiles at Celia.

Celia: Well, I heard you’re a fairy…

That doesn’t seem like it will go over well. Celia gives her the same smile Manuel had gotten. Soft. Non-threatening. No fangs here.

How long does it take for her to find out about the rose and the iron? Does it count if she’s got it inside of her rather than on her?

“I hope so,” Celia enthuses. “A friend of mine told me that she got a floral gown from you, an’ I was mighty intrigued an’ thought maybe I could get one too.” A little bit of an accent makes her voice slightly different.

GM: “Sure thing,” the ‘fairy’ smiles back. “I’ve got the designs in here, come take a look.”

The fashion design studio is white. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. They’re well-lit to cast no shadow within the room. A three-way mirror sits against one wall with a pedestal before it, displaying the artist’s creations. “Floral gowns” is an apt descriptor.

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Some of them resemble nothing so much as dress-shaped gardens replete with dozens of tiny plants and blooms. Others are more uniform: perhaps two dozen plate-sized white petals make up the voluminous skirt of one particular gown.

“I’ve also been starting a line of shoes to go with the gowns,” says Dahlia.

She has only one finished design currently available. It looks like there’s a bouquet resting on the toebox. The heel is made from pink petals that nicely contrast with the rest of the mostly green shoes.

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Celia: The gowns are beautiful, of course. How could they not be when they’re made from florals themselves? Not a mere pattern, not dead things stitched onto a piece of fabric, but actual, living flowers.

It’s the shoes, though, that truly catch her eye. When Dahlia gives her permission she reaches out to touch the soft petals that make up the base and sides of the shoes, staring in wonder at the creation before her. She hadn’t heard that Bloom Couture makes shoes. She says as much, eyes wide in wonder when she looks back to Dahlia Rose.

“How,” she asks, “how on earth does that work? It’s not just adhered to a shoe?”

GM: “Oh no, those are real plants,” says Dahlia. “They’re much more comfortable than normal heels are, and there’s less need to get your size exactly right. The shoe is more pliable and will conform to the shape of your foot.”

“The only downside, like the gowns, is you can’t wear them forever.”

Celia: “And it will hold weight? You can actually walk in them?”

GM: “Yep. Feel free to try them on.”

Celia: She can hardly pass up the opportunity when offered. Celia takes a seat, removing her own heels so that she can slip into the plant shoes. After a brief moment of hesitation she rises, testing the support of the heel as if she expects for it to crumble beneath her weight. She takes a step. Another. Spins. Delighted, she giggles as she spins again, the skirt of her dress flowing out around her.

“These are amazing! How did you ever think of them?”

GM: The shoes are very comfortable. Soft. It feels like walking on grass. The bouquet on the toebox sways as she walks.

Dahlia smiles. “Same way as the gowns. More plants, less cloth.”

“I knew I wanted a shoe line as soon as I unveiled the gowns. It’s just taken some time to get ready.”

Celia: It’s easy to slip into the role once the shoes are on. She steps lightly on her feet, trusting the plants to support her, and it’s like every little girl’s dream come true. She all but prances across the design studio, her imagination taking her to a place where she runs barefoot through a field of wildflowers beneath a blanket of stars.

“I’d love a pair,” that girl says to Dahlia Rose, still caught in the fantasy. “Brightly colored, like these. Vibrant.” She’ll wear them with white and let the shoes steal the show. Another spin and she sees it in her mind, a fitted bodice of hundreds of white-petaled flowers with a long, sweeping flare at the base. It will sway when she walks, letting everyone see the rainbow hued shoes beneath the hem.

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“Like a fairy princess,” she all but sighs.

The girl—more alive now than she has ever been—finally ceases her twirling and finds Dahlia Rose with her guileless blue eyes. She asks the expected question.

“How do you do it?” A gesture toward the shoes.

GM: Dahlia smiles widely back at the spinning girl’s enthusiasm.

She gives the expected answer.

“Trade secret.”

“Otherwise everybody would start making them.”

Celia: A serious nod meets that answer. She knows all about trade secrets.

GM: “Brightly colored, though, I think we can manage. Miguel can fit you onto the pre-order list. What colors?”

Celia: “Pink,” she says immediately. “And purple. And blue.” Like the night sky. She will wear the galaxy itself upon her person.

GM: “Star shoes,” smiles Dahlia, as if guessing that very thought.

“Galaxy shoes,” offers Manuel.

Suddenly, the mirror’s surface ripples like disturbed water.

A foul, swampy stench, like sour eggs and rotting vegetation, fills the room.

A creature emerges.

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The thing is made out of countless slimy, wet, reed-like tendrils. Half a dozen or so larger ones seem to serve limbs. A fleshy orange bulb beats like a heart where its chest might be. An enormous mouth filled with a forest of thorn-like teeth splits open. Its voice sounds like a thousand buzzing, droning mosquitoes.

“Rose’s whiff
Hunter comes swift
Come home, come home
Darling rose
Your prince misses you
Misses your scent
Wilts without you
Come home, come home…”


Several of the creature’s tendrils whip towards Dahlia, flecking brackish swamp water over the white studio. Manuel stares in horror.

Celia: Suddenly the knife makes sense.

Horrifying though the unknown creature is, Celia doesn’t hesitate. This is what she’s done all her life, isn’t it, protecting people that haven’t done anything wrong. Not that she knows for sure that Dahlia hasn’t done anything wrong, but it reminds her too much of the night she left her mother alone and the monsters came for her too, and it’s all too easy to picture Maxen as this sort of tentacle-clad horror coming for her defenseless mother in the middle of the night. Celia hadn’t been there for her then. But she’s here for Dahlia Rose now.

Her hand plunges inside her body’s cavity, shredding skin with her claws to grab the hilt of the iron knife Rusty had secured for her. In flower shoes and a fluttering dress, Celia Flores launches herself toward the thing that stepped out of the mirror.

GM: The iron knife bites deep into the creature’s tendril. There’s a spray of brackish, bug-filled water rather than blood, and then a dull thwop as the severed appendage hits the floor. The swamp creature shrieks, a ghastly sound like a thousand drowning frogs, and before it can react Celia’s sliced off another tendril. The iron sheers through the creature like it’s made of play-doh.

One tendrils slips around Dahlia’s waist and seems to hold her fast, then she steps out of it like it’s made of limp seaweed.

“Get Phuong!” Dahlia yells at Manuel, her face white with fear. “Get out the customers!”

The frozen man turns and bolts.

Dahlia claps her hands together. The plants come to life. Vines and branches burst through the studio’s walls, whipping around the creature like gasping hands. It roars and twists to escape its entanglement.

Celia: Celia tries not to gape at the plants coming to life around her. It’s like something out of a movie, isn’t it?

Then again, so is she.

She hefts the knife, taking advantage of the creature’s distraction with the vines to hack and slash at it again with the cold iron in her grip. She can buy Manuel time to get Phuong, at least, and prevent this thing from sucking Dahlia Rose back into the mirror.

GM: The creature thrashes against the plants, then yawns wide and belches a foul-smelling wave of swamp water and hungrily buzzing mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are enormous, the size of baseballs, and have the wrinkled faces of leering old men and women, with noses that end in pointed stingers. The bugs hungrily alight upon Dahlia, Celia, and the beautiful gowns. The floral creations rot apart under their sucking stingers.

Dahlia gives a furious shriek and blasts the bugs with rays of shimmering violet-gold light. Several fall to the ground, blackened and smoking, the mouths dumbly working open and closed as their ruined wings try to buzz.

Several land upon Celia’s shoulders, their stinger-tipped noses stabbing deep into her flesh like knives as they hungrily suck. Celia can see her vitae shooting up the transparent needle-like thing. Several quick slashes with the iron knife bisect one of the creatures, sending its halves tumbling to the floor. The other bug warily buzzes into the air. It gibbers something at her that sounds like a cloud of furiously droning mosquitoes.

The iron blade wreaks even greater havoc against the larger fae creature in Celia’s hands. Restrained by Dahlia’s animated plants, it can’t dodge or get away. Celia hacks the struggling thing apart with impunity. Foul-smelling swamp water leaks out with each blow.

The creature gives a great gurgling wail, makes one last, desperate effort to break free, and then goes limp.

Celia: It’s the knife. It has to be the knife, the iron blade in her hand, because Celia doesn’t even begin to think that she’d do this well in a knife fight against a creature like this without it. The knife, the vines, the way her brain spirals toward a similar kidnapping from so many years ago that propels her forward, makes her faster, guides the hand with the blade. She snarls at the old, leering faces as they bleed her, lips pulled back from her teeth. They’re ugly, hateful little things; vicious satisfaction thrums through her when she cuts one literally in half. Bald—like the monster that lived in her home for years and terrorized her every waking moment. The monster who took her mother from her, who tried to saw off her leg and killed her dream, who would have killed her a second time if Celia hadn’t stopped him. Her fault, for leaving.

Her fault, for coming. The realization hits her. The rose. The iron. The hunter.

Her fault.

A wordless shriek of rage passes her lips. She stomps the heels of her borrowed shoes down on the wings of the fallen beasts, crushing it beneath her feet. The knife plunges again, again, again into Max—into the monster. The spray of brackish water drenches her; blood runs pink down her skin.

Dead. It’s dead. She killed it, she won, she—

GM: The bulbous heart-thing explodes.

A man strides out. He’s too tall to have fit inside. He’s made out of reeds and brambles, with cat tails in place of eyes, and writhing leeches for teeth.

A second later, he looks like a muscular Cajun man in overalls, wild-eyed but ordinary-looking, save for the swamp water leaking around his bare feet. He swings a sword, cleaving apart Dahlia’s vines and brambles as they streak towards him, then throws a metallic-looking net at her. Her next blast of light splashes impotently off as the net closes around her, sending her tripping to the ground. She screams and struggles.

The man glares hatefully at Celia, then sprints up to Dahlia. He hoists the kicking, net-bound woman over his shoulder, then runs back towards the mirror. The surviving bugs streak towards Celia.

Celia: She’s stopped short when the heart explodes and out steps… him. The thing. Whatever it is it sets her teeth on edge. The puppet master to the monster? Or the hunter’s true form, just another guise he slips into? She doesn’t know. Doesn’t care. She’ll stop him, too.

The blood in her body responds to her mental commands. It mends her split flesh and she moves, ducking as best she can around the bugs. She lunges for the mirror—

The mirror.

There she is on the surface of the mirror, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl she had turned herself into. Cute, dainty, feminine, with a soft pink dress and flower shoes. She should be smiling. And she is. But it’s not the smile of the girl she wants to be, the girl who believes in fairies and princes and unicorns and never knew fear in her life.

It’s the smile of the lick who orchestrated a kidnapping to make someone owe her instead of just saying hello. It’s the flat, hard, empty eyes of the lick who dropped her from the roof of a building and told her that catching her is a favor rendered.

Her eyes flash. Green, for Jade.

Inside her chest her Beast purrs at the transition, shedding the ill-fitting mask as easily as she rips off a gown. Together they lash out to cow the thing and assert dominance, sending to it the same sort of fear that had molded her and turned her into this.

GM: She has so much fear to draw on.

So many memories.

So many terrors, even tonight.

It’s so easy to just… share them.

To let it all out.

The hurled fear crashes into the man like a psychic missile. His already wild eyes bulge wide as he staggers forward, caught in the throes of the primal urge to fight (the mirror itself?) or flee.

He chooses to flee.

The mirror’s surface ripples as he leaps through,. The surviving bugs zoom in after him. Celia can see through the mirror-shaped hole to another place. It resembles an enormous swamp, like the bayous outside the city.

But it’s so much more.

The trees seems soar for miles. The colors are more vivid. The bayou reeds are green as emeralds. The smells are stronger. Celia wonders if a breather would faint from the egg-like swamp stench, or find themselves irresistibly drawn forward by the flowers so sweet she can almost taste them. The noises are louder, deeper, like a prehistoric jungle full of primeval terrors.

And the darkness is so much deeper.

Yet as the man madly scrambles away, down a path of trampled reeds and rotting logs, Celia can see his true mien, a plant-like creature made of reeds and brambles and cattails.

And Dahlia’s.

Her hair is longer, falling all the way to her waist, and made of flowers. It’s not hair at all. Just flowers. It’s an iridescent flowing mass of roses in various stages of blossom, freely shifting from blue to red to pink to all the colors in which roses may be found. She smells like a rose garden in the height of spring bloom. The roots of her hair are literal green roots and vines, anchoring the floral mane to skin that resembles freshly-turned earth. Her eyelids look like rose petals, too, but her eyes remain hauntingly human.

And equally filled with terror.

Celia: Celia does not stop to wonder where this portal will take her. She plunges headlong into the mirror after her fleeing quarry—

No. Not him.

Her.

How had she ever thought that this human mask of hers is beautiful? How had she ever thought that any mere skinbag could compare to the ethereal, inhuman, haunting aesthetic of Dahlia Rose in her natural form? Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe the radiance coming off of her. It’s alluring. Divine. Magnetic. Even if Celia weren’t intent on returning Dahlia Rose to the mortal world (where even is she? has she crossed to another realm? she must have) she’d follow her all the same, down whatever road paved with whatever monsters she needs to face. Everything else fades away.

The terror-stricken face of Dahlia Rose beckons her forward like a guiding light.

Within seconds Celia realizes the error of the shoes. She kicks them off as she runs, hurtling after the fleeing fae as quickly as her body can take her, knife ready to bite once more into his skin.

GM: Her psyche enveloped by the otherwordly beauties before her, the Toreador is helpless to do aught but streak forward. Her bare feet smoosh into the moss and bark. She can feel it underneath her. Wriggling underneath her, like a living thing, but she blurs past.

Brambles catch her dress and prick her sides. Algae and water splatters over her front. The bayou hoots and hollers around her, pulling her steadily in, step after step. She can’t even see the sky. It’s an impenetrable thicket of impossibly thick trees and moss and thorns.

The fleeing fae, however, looks equally at home in his natural environs. He’s a green blur too as he races through the otherworld. A rickety-looking skiff awaits at the edge of the log. Everything past that is water, floating plants, and the soaked roots of unearthly trees. (How many feet long must the log be? Hundreds?) The fae hops onto the skiff, unceremoniously dumps a still-struggling Dahlia onto its floor, and produces a reed-like pole. He starts to row away.

Celia leaps after the skiff. The fae whips around the pole, cracking it hard over her head and sending her crashing to the vessel’s wooden floor. The log starts to recede as they float down the bayou.

“Cut me out!” shrieks Dahlia as she claws at the net. The rose scent is even headier up close.

“It’s iron, I can’t do magic!”

Celia: Another snarl rips from her throat as the oar smashes against her skull. It’s a bestial, inhuman sound; that and the blood that drips down her face gives lie to the image that she’d so carefully cultivated with her face and dress. There’s nothing delicate about the way she rises, knife brandished, ready to thrust again.

Dahlia Rose’s voice cuts through her need to slaughter the fae to keep the treasure for her own. She doesn’t hesitate—though some part of her wonders at the order to cut through iron—but sweeps her gaze instead over the net to look for a likely spot. She slices.

GM: The net does not look as if it’s made from solid iron, but individual iron links joined by cords made from some unknown material.

The other fae, meanwhile, drops its pole to swing its sword straight at Celia’s neck.

Celia: Celia finds a link in the iron and swipes at it with the blade, quickly cutting through the non-iron material to allow Dahlia Rose to pull herself free.

Then she’s gone.

Her form blurs, shifts, and twists. Large paws touch down on the bottom of the skiff with curved claws as long as her fingers. Sharp, meant to shred, they erupt from the striped fur that covers her body. Muscles and bones shift and realign within her body to turn her into one of nature’s apex predators. Her fangs, already long in her mouth, jut further from her skull with the change. She flattens her ears back against her skull and roars at the fae male, letting loose the reins that have so carefully kept her in control until this point.

She unleashes the Beast.

The Beast (and beast) shifts backward, weight moving to its powerful back legs. Its muscles coil and tighten before they release, sending the tiger soaring through the air at the fae male with outstretched claws and a wide open jaw. Rip, tear, kill. That’s all it cares about right now.

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GM: Celia lets go.

There is no Celia anymore. Just two apex predators working in peerless tandem.

The leaping big cat smashes headlong into the reed-like fae, its enormous claws and fangs already rending and tearing, and then the red haze obliterates everything beneath a roar of primal savagery.

An eyeblink later, it’s gone.

The tiger is in the water. Its coat is soaked with algae. Withing, whispering, emerald green algae. Brambles, branches, and shredded reeds cover the tig too. The big cat’s mouth tastes like plants and witter and rotten eggs. Low roars sound in the distance over the droning of insects and the ribbeting of frogs. All of it deeper, louder, more primal, and just slightly off. Their air is wet and hot. This entire place seems to silently egg on the tiger’s Beast.

Dahlia Rose is crouched aboard the skiff, which now bears a number of deep gouges, with a vary expression.

Celia: Just like that, the tiger wins. Sated on (not?) blood of its fallen adversary, satisfied with its kill, the tiger comes back into itself. It paws at the water around it as it heads toward the skiff, cutting through the algae infused water so it can haul its body out of the water to land in a sodden pile of fur at Dahlia Rose’s feet.

It won. It beat the kidnapper and got the girl, and this exquisite beauty that smells like roses is its prize. The claws that had so handily defeated her quarry slide back into their protective ligaments.

It doesn’t purr—big cats can’t do that—but it blinks slowly at her in a show of affection and rubs its giant head against her hands.

GM: The skiff noticeably tilts under the big cat’s weight.

The fae woman’s hands feel like warm, freshly-turned earth as they massage the tiger’s neck. She has pink-hued flower petals instead of nails. The rose smell is even stronger so up close. The sensation is wonderful. The big cat could do this all day.

“We need to leave,” says Dahlia Rose, her eyes warily scanning the bayou. “It’s not safe here.”

Celia: The tiger finds it difficult to tear itself away from the girl. It doesn’t want to leave. It likes this pretty place with the beautiful girl and the air that smells like roses. But it understands enough to know that the girl is right. It got lucky with the fae male and the iron knife, but it can’t count on that sort of thing happening again. It whuffs its agreement and disappears.

Celia takes its place. Blood splattered, hair matted, bare-footed, with a dress that clings wetly to her skin, she looks every bit a mess. She reaches for the knife and the net, tossing the latter over her shoulder after a moment of consideration. It might come in handy.

She points vaguely back toward the log.

“That way.”

GM: She finds the net and knife both gone already.

Dahlia Rose doesn’t so much as blink at the transformation, though, before climbing off the skiff and back onto the log. Her nursery work clothes are equally stained and torn. They look so ugly on her literally flowering skin. She should wear her floral gowns. They’re the only thing worthy of that hair. That not-hair. It isn’t hair, it’s a floral mane. Celia can see the blooms sway in the wind as the colors shift from pink to blue to scarlet, like they’re speaking their own secret language. She smells so good. Even here, in this swamp. So, so good. It’s like having her face buried in roses. If she were to get even closer…

The Toreador can feel her vision tunneling, like Dahlia Rose and her wondrous hair is the only thing in the world.

She got the girl. They really should stay and enjoy themselves…

Celia: The lack of knife and net concerns her… but only for a moment. Only until she sees the girl up close with her “human” eyes, smells her with her “human” nose—tigers don’t actually have the best olfactory senses despite what most people think—and enjoys the fleeting touch of rose petals on her skin.

She reaches for the vine-like hair, staring in wonder at the being in front of her with large eyes.

“You’re really pretty,” she breathes.

Inadequate words to describe her, but it’s all her brain comes up with in the moment.

GM: The hair isn’t a vine. It’s a cape. A cape of cascading, living flowers, everything her gowns try to be, but can only be for a little while.

Does she have to water it? Give it sun?

It feels exquisite, either way. The petals curl around Celia’s fingers as if in response to her touch. They’re so soft. So sweet-smelling.

“Thanks, but we really need to go,” says Dahlia Rose, tugging Celia’s arm. The Toreador hasn’t yet clambered off the skiff.

Celia: “Okay,” she readily agrees, following after Dahlia Rose as if in a daze. She’d follow her anywhere. She’d followed her here, hadn’t she? To this… place. She tears her eyes away from the girl for only a moment to look around, but it’s hard to focus on anything except Dahlia Rose.

“Where are we,” she finds herself asking, not caring about the answer. But it’s something to keep the girl talking, to let that breath of fresh spring air assail her sense once more.

Maybe, she thinks, she can keep one of the roses from her hair for saving her.

Oh. Roses. The rose. She should get rid of the rose.

But not where Dahlia Rose can see. Vague instructions come back to her to not let the fairy know about it.

Then again, who cares about the rose inside of her when Dahlia Rose is… this.

GM: She’s so fucking pretty.

Dahlia Rose gives the Toreador a considering look, then just tugs her along. Celia doesn’t feel her bare feet squishing against the muck and the moss or hear the sounds of the swamp. There’s just the floral vision in front of her.

Dahlia’s mouth moves some more. Says something about it being the place where creatures like the… whatever, come from.

She smells so nice when she talks. Her lips are made of petals, too. Two pinkish petals. They have such a unique shape. It’s really pretty, too. What’s her tongue like…?

Celia: Celia nods along as the fairy talks, though the words go in one ear and right out the other side. She keeps her hand in Dahlia Rose’s, using any excuse she can to touch, feel, smell. A root “trips” her and she reaches out to steady herself, brushing her hands against Dahlia Rose’s… what is this? What is she made of? Is she a plant? She thinks she might ask, the words tumbling out past her lips before she can consciously stop them. Not that she wants to. She wants to know everything she can about this siren in front of her.

GM: Dahlia Rose just yammers something about needing to “GO.” The words are so much less interesting than watching her mouth move. Her teeth look like thorns. White-hued, rather wide thorns, but there’s a pointed shape to them that normal teeth don’t have, but which aren’t quite Kindred fangs either. Can she eat with those?

She touches Celia, too, when she “trips.” Helps her along. That brings her closer. Her flowers closer. God, she smells so nice.

There has to be a way Celia can replicate this at Flawless.

“Come on, come on, we’re almost th—fuck!” exclaims Dahlia.

“Hol’ up,” ribbits a deep and bullfrog-like voice.

The thing is huge, almost twice as tall as a man, and ugly as sin. It smells like it sleeps in a swamp. It smells like it bathes in a swamp. It smells like it shits in a swamp.

It smells like it just took a shit.

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It’s standing square in the middle of the path leading to the mirror-shaped window and Dahlia Rose’s design space.

“If yuh wants throughs,” it ribbits.

“Gimme one o’ yous. For eats.

The creature gives a very ugly smile.

“Or.”

“Or yuh solves muh riddle.”

“But yuh gets it wrong.”

“I eats yuh both.

The words still only half-register. The thing is so boring. So ugly. So what if they can’t leave? She can stay here with Dahlia Rose. Stay here forever.

Celia: Celia might say something to Dahlia Rose. Something about why would they want to go when they just got here, when it’s so beautiful, when she hasn’t—

The rest of the thought never leaves her head. She’s stopped short by the thing in front of her. It’s an assault to her senses, to her very being. It doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Dahlia Rose. (Does she breathe? Oxygen? Carbon dioxide? What are the rules?)

She wants to stay. But not if one of them gets eaten. And the words only remind her that she’s so, so hungry, that the swampy watery thing hadn’t slaked her thirst, but maybe this thing…

Then they could linger. They could stay in the forest and frolick and they’ll both be young and beautiful forever.

Together.

“Okay.” Celia’s lips move of their own volition. She takes a step forward, a feral smile in her eyes. “Okay,” she says again, “but if we get your riddle then I eat you.

GM: The monster gives a booming, ribbit-like laugh that expels foul-smelling swamp gas all over Celia’s face.

“Yuh gets muh riddle. Yuh gets tuh go throughs. Dat’s it.”

The monster pauses, as if thinking, then gives another ugly smile that shows its tusks.

“Yuh wants tuh eat me. Yuh gots tuh get… TWO riddles!”

The monster jabs triumphantly with two fingers pointed upwards, grinning ear to ear.

“I can’t eat you,” says Dahlia Rose. “Do I still get to go back we get the first riddle right?”

The thing grunts and sniffs.

Dahlia Rose gives it a bit of time.

The thing licks its lips.

“Mmm…”

“I wouldn’t taste very good, anyway,” says Dahlia Rose. She runs a hand through her ‘hair.’ The rosy smell is like some much-needed air freshener in a public bathroom. “Look, I’m a flower. You like meat, right?”

“Mmm… yus…”

“Eating me would be like eating grass. Meat doesn’t do it for me, either. We can’t eat each other. So that’s only fair I should get to leave if we get the first riddle, isn’t it?”

The thing grunts and scratches its ass.

“Mm… okays… but yuh gets muh firs’ riddle wrong… I eats yuh anyways.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” nods Dahlia Rose.

The monster looks back at Celia and holds up its two fingers again. There’s a worm crawling on one of them now. A worm with three ‘heads.’

The monster looks at it, sticks the fingers in its mouth, then chews and swallows.

It pulls them out and holds them up again for Celia.

TWO riddles, tuh eats me!”

Celia: The thing would turn her stomach if her body still worked that way. She’s glad that she’s next to Dahlia Rose, that all she has to do is lean in close to take a whiff of that rosy scent to drive the foul stench of the thing (ogre? Troll? Trolls like riddles, she thinks) away from her.

She could bottle this. Sell it. Make a fortune. Maybe a collab..?

“If we get your first riddle, we go through the door. If I get your second riddle, I eat you.”

GM: The monster growls.

“Yuh gets da second wrong. I EATS yuh.”

“Yuh dun like. I eats yuh NOW!” it roars, opening a cauldron-sized mouth.

The misshapen teeth are a dentist’s nightmare, but they look every bit as large and sharp as any tiger’s.

Celia: Not this tiger’s. Not this maneater. It already found the quest items, slew the monster, and rescued the princess.

This ugly, brutish thing before it is just the dessert after a five course meal.

A laugh leaves her lips. It’s a light, giddy sound, at odds with her battle-torn state. Her eyes flash once more, then settle.

“Try me,” she purrs.

GM: The monster gives her a dumb look.

“Huh?”

“I think she means to ask your riddle?” says Dahlia Rose.

Celia: Obviously.

Celia gives the thing a look that Maxen would be proud of. She doesn’t need to say stupid.

GM: The thing opens its mouth again, but the voice that issues forth is light and mellifluous.

“A lady coming through my swamp
Comes right through but does not stomp
Sometimes seen and sometimes cloaked
Never by the rain is soaked
She lulls the serpent to his sleep
Causes every bird to cheep
She strokes the spine of every gator
But they do not try to eat her
She comes and goes but does not stay
Going home so far away
Who is she?”


Celia: It’s not what she expected. The voice, the riddle, all of it. She’d half-thought that there would be some childish, five-year-old’s sort of rhyme with a pun for an answer, or a silly twist. She hadn’t expected… this.

For a moment she can’t help but be annoyed. Does he expect her to know the name of an individual fae that travels his swamp?

But… no, that’s not how riddles work. Or at least that’s not how riddles should work.

Celia considers the words he’d given her, running over them in her mind.

Lady. Ladybug? Not a person. Plant? Animal? What doesn’t get soaked by the rain? Cloaked and not cloaked—invisible? Like her, someone who can turn into what she wants? No, that doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t stomp. No feet? Glides? The wind? Nature. Could be nature. Makes sense that it’s nature, doesn’t it? This whole place is nature. Something in nature. What’s cloaked? The moon? Behind clouds. Doesn’t get rained on. But moon doesn’t make birds cheep…

Sun? Has to be sun. Birds sing for the sun. Snakes get lazy and warm when they’re exposed to it. Gators… only see their spine above the swamp water so that’s all it touches? Doesn’t linger because it’s always rising and setting, and the gators can’t chomp on something that isn’t tangible.

But the sun isn’t a lady. Almost every mythology has it as a man. Sol, Roman, male. Counterpart is Luna, the moon, female. Helios, Greek, male. Apollo is the one who took the sun across the sky, but he’s male too. Ra, Egyptian, also male. Akkadian and Sumerian, Shamash and Utu, also male. It’s always a male. The moon is the female. But moon doesn’t fit here.

Unless… there was a line she read for class once, a line she liked so much that she took it for her own and used it in a writing project for another class, and one of her classmates laughed and said “you stole that from Homer.” It was a single line in a longer story, but she still remembers it:

When Dawn stretched fingertips of rose across the sky…

Almost every mention of “dawn” in The Odyssey is capital D “Dawn,” like a person’s name. It’s never just “the sun rises,” it’s always Dawn doing the thing. Dawn, female, “her” fingers. Because they personified her, and because… because she’s a goddess. With fingertips of rose. Rose, like the color of the sky. Rose, like Dahlia Rose. A fitting riddle for the girl next to her, and a fitting riddle for a lick who had studied ancient religions and cultures.

Celia turns to Dahlia Rose, voice lowered in case the thing (troll? definitely a troll) thinks that her speaking is a clear answer.

“I think it’s Dawn.” Briefly, she explains her thought process.

GM: Dahlia Rose listens as she does.

“So, I think you’re right about the mythological aspect with sun figures being male and moon figures being female… but neither of them is, inherently. Dawn being female because of The Odyssey seems like a stretch.”

“Has this thing even read The Odyssey?

“Most hobgoblins spend their whole lives in the Hedge. They don’t know who the president is or what Greece is or sometimes even what a book is.”

Celia: “Valid.” Something she had considered. “It’s less the book than the entire mythology and religion, but I imagine things work differently here.”

GM: “I don’t know how much mythology and religion this thing knows.”

The fae woman thinks some more. “If you leave that out, does the answer make more sense as dawn or sun?”

Celia: “Dawn is part of the sun. It’s just one of the sun’s, uh, phases. But I imagine he won’t like a technicality. Sun, I think. Does that sound right?”

GM: “I think you’re right he won’t give us credit for being almost right. Or technically right. Whether it’s dawn or sun.”

Celia: “Then we go with sun, if the nuance of the feminine form is lost on him.”

GM: “Okay. If you think that’s right.”

Celia: “…do you think it’s right?”

Celia thinks it’s right. But she’s gambling their lives on it, and she isn’t one hundred percent certain. Only mostly certain.

GM: “Well, I hope it is. I’m pretty sure he can still eat me.”

Celia: She rips through the riddle in her mind again. Nothing else makes sense, does it? It can’t be a person or an animal because they’d get soaked by the rain and gators would try to eat them, and the sun is sometimes cloaked, and it’s far away, and…

“It’s the sun,” she says. Firmly. To the hobgoblin.

GM: The monster glares down at them. She can hear a massive rumble go up from its stomach.

Then it steps aside.

“Yuh goes through.”

Celia: “Go,” Celia says to Dahlia Rose.

GM: Dahlia Rose’s shoulders slump with relief.

She looks at the monster, then back at Celia. “I could help with the second one…”

Celia: “It’s not going to eat you if you stay?”

It warms her that the rose-girl wants to help, though. It warms her something fierce. How can she fail with this at her side?

GM: “Uh, can I stay? But still leave if she gets the second riddle wrong?” Dahlia Rose asks the thing.

It glowers dully from under its heavy brows.

Celia: “Your deal is with me,” Celia reminds it.

“And she’s a plant, no meat.”

A gesture at herself, her shapely, meaty body.

GM: “Got da riddle. Goes through,” rumbles the monster.

“Right, I will go through,” says Dahlia Rose. “Just in a little bit.”

Celia: “She’s my envoy. If I don’t make it. To tell our world of your mighty riddles.”

“So others can come through to try their wits against you as well.”

GM: The monster grins at that, showing its many teeth.

“Okay. She gon’ tell LOTS o’ others.”

“An’ I’s gun’ eat dem alls.”

Celia: “You’ll be very full,” Celia says with a nod.

GM: The ‘hobgoblin’ loudly farts, then scratches its ass.

A ripe, sewage-like smell fills Celia’s nose, along with a wet patter-pattering. Something dark and slimy trails down the back of the monster’s legs.

Celia: Her lip curls in disgust as the scent hits her.

GM: Dahlia Rose wrinkles her nose in distaste.

Her rosy scent cannot be inhaled fast enough.

The monster draws itself up, then speaks in the same clear and melodic voice:

“I eat goblin, snake, and spider
I eat giant, drake, and walking bone
I eat soldier, hunter, squire
But simple fish I leave alone
Who am I?”


“Well, that one’s shorter…” whispers Dahlia Rose.

Celia: The answer to this one isn’t as readily apparent. The use of goblin, drake, and walking bone makes her think it’s something that comes from… this place. The Hedge, is that what Dahlia Rose had called it?

“I, uh… some sort of predator,” Celia murmurs, “that doesn’t like fish?” No, that doesn’t make sense, does it? It can’t just be about the fish, these things are never that ‘simple.’ Even though it said simple. Fish live in water. What can’t get to water? Fire? Fire is put out in water. (Her Beast recoils at the thought of fire eating anything, and she quickly changes her thought process.) The earth “eats” things too, when it buries them. Fish aren’t buried. Everything that dies ends up in the ground, unless it’s not in the ground. And it can’t be death, since fish still die. Technically fish end up in the silt at the bottom of rivers and lakes, but technically dawn fit better than the sun for the last one, so she thinks it’s… not that nuanced.

“What’s a walking bone?” she asks Dahlia. “A thing here? Or just anything that walks on land and has bones?”

GM: “Walking bones might be a thing here,” says Dahlia Rose. “Almost anything can be a thing here.” She frowns. “But not a universal thing. I’ve never heard of anything like ‘walking bone.’”

“So, my guess would be anything that walks, and has bones.”

Celia: “But walks, not swims. I think that’s the key here. Something that doesn’t like water.”

GM: She thinks some more. “What can’t hurt fish, doesn’t like water… fire? Wait, no, fire can hurt fish.”

“You can cook them.”

“They just have to be out of the water.”

Celia: “Earth,” Celia suggests, “like a… grave. It eats them when you bury them. Or when they fall and die and the earth reclaims them. Graves. Or, ah… mushrooms? They don’t grow in water so they wouldn’t eat fish? Something that feasts on decay like that…?”

GM: “Hm,” thinks Dahlia.

“But doesn’t the earth eat fish too, after they die?”

Celia: “Technically.”

“Bottom of rivers, lakes, oceans. All earth.”

GM: “That was my thought.”

Celia: “What’s not underwater? Wind? Doesn’t eat things, not like that. Fish could be a metaphor. Simple fish. Like… the masses? ‘Shooting fish in a barrel’ is a saying, but…” she looks around “…probably not here.”

GM: “The last riddle wasn’t really a metaphor, either.”

“The sun does put snakes to sleep.”

“Well, makes lethargic.”

“The answer seems kinda literal, but kinda poetic too?”

Celia: “I think the poetic part comes in with the idea that everything is equal before death. Like all these things die on land, it doesn’t matter what it is, and it eats them. Which is why I keep coming back to like… mushrooms. Or carrion birds.”

“But it doesn’t… really fit.”

GM: “I could see it being mushrooms,” thinks Dahlia. “It’s just that they don’t eat everything.”

Celia: “So… something similar to mushrooms that does eat everything?”

“…like a mosquito?”

GM: “Hm,” she thinks.

“Can you repeat the riddle?” she asks the monster.

The monster repeats thusly:

“I eat goblin, snake, and spider
I eat giant, drake, and walking bone
I eat soldier, hunter, squire
But simple fish I leave alone
Who am I?”


Celia: “It’s not him, is it?” Celia mutters to Dahlia.

GM: She looks at the monster thoughtfully.

“Could he eat a drake or giant?”

Celia: “If it were dead,” she sighs.

GM: “Yeah. The answer feels poetic. ‘To eat,’ as in, ‘to overcome.’”

She’s taking longer with this one.

Stupid, whispers a bald man.

Celia: She is stupid. Stupid to think she could make a friend. Stupid to come here. Stupid to challenge a hobgoblin to a test of wits. Stupid to challenge anyone to a test of wits. They’d be home free if it weren’t for her, back in the design studio with the ruined dresses (her fault) and the shoes (around here somewhere, she thinks, and if they’re left behind that’s her fault too), and when she fails and this thing eats her no one is ever going to know what happened to her, and her mom won’t understand why she didn’t come home, and—

Stop it, snarls the thing inside of her. She isn’t going to give up like some pathetic mortal girl who needs someone to save her. She’s the hero here.

“Hero,” she says dully, “overcomes things. Snakes. Spiders. Dragons. Armies. Doesn’t fight fish because they’re… simple. Not a challenge.”

It still doesn’t seem right.

GM: Dahlia thinks.

“It seems like it fits, technically… but do heroes ‘eat’ those things?”

Her family will be sad if she doesn’t come home, she’s sure. Her mom and Lucy and Emily. The people at Flawless, too.

How many others will be?

Celia: No one.

No one else.

GM: Stupid, whispers the bald man.

How could she think she was smarter than anything?

Even a hobgoblin that shits itself and can’t say ‘you’ right?

“Plus, squires… do heroes ‘overcome’ those?”

“I’d say yes, giants and drakes, but heroes don’t overcome squires. Or eat them.”

Oh.

There’s Roderick.

Would he get the riddle right?

How little time would it take a brain like his?

Celia: His sire would get it. The great and powerful Coco. The wonderful, sun-shines-out-her-ass, can’t-do-anything-wrong Coco.

Dahlia Rose doesn’t know either, though. Maybe they’re both stupid. Because they’re pretty.

Stupid but pretty.

GM: Whores, whispers another man she knew.

She remembers, one time, after she’d swallowed his cum, and he asked her if she’d rather be called a whore or a prostitute.

She’d said whore.

He’d made fun of her for the answer. Was ‘prostitute’ too official-sounding? Did she not believe having sex for money was her primary vocation?

“This is the only thing you’re good for, my pretty little whore,” he’d smiled, patting her cheek.

“My stupid, pretty little whore,” he’d repeated.

“God knows I’m not paying you for intellectual discourse.”

Celia: She’d thought it was the answer that he wanted to hear. All those times he’d made her call herself a whore, his whore, she’d thought it… she’d thought it might have made him happy with her, would have made their exchanges more pleasant, would have made him say something nice.

She was weak and stupid and desperate and just wanted someone to care about her.

Like Stephen had. Before she’d ruined that too.

But she seizes the thought because it’s all she has left, searching for whatever part of her he’d found attractive. Attractive mentally, not physically. Other people have told her she’s smart. Gui. Savoy. Smart and pretty. She can be both. She will be both.

She rips through her mind for the answer. Something that overcomes and eats, no matter how mighty it once was. Scavengers. Termites. Beetles. Worms. Maggots.

She lists them, one by one, to Dahlia Rose.

GM: Dahlia isn’t sure and asks the hobgoblin to repeat the riddle again.

“I eat goblin, snake, and spider
I eat giant, drake, and walking bone
I eat soldier, hunter, squire
But simple fish I leave alone
Who am I?”


“Maybe?” she says.

“Hm, do worms eat spiders?”

Celia: “Worms eat everything when they’re dead.”

But it’s not an answer to the riddle. It brings her back to the grave idea. Fish aren’t buried.

“Graves. Dirt, since it’s mud in the water?”

She thinks she’s grasping at straws.

GM: “This one is hard,” says Dahlia.

“Spiders don’t get graves, though?”

Celia: “Neither do the rest of them, except humans. Animals don’t really bury their dead.”

GM: “Yeah. And not all humans even bury their dead.”

“We technically just ‘inter’ ours, in the city. With the above-ground tombs and vaults.”

Celia: Helpful.

GM: Celia’s mom even picked one out with her, when she did her will.

She didn’t ask Celia to pick a grave, though. Much too young for that.

Is it technically accurate that she’ll always be too young for a grave?

Celia: She won’t need one. Hopefully. She wants to be ash when and if she dies.

GM: So are dead kine, after long enough.

Celia: And everything else. What’s that saying? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust? Do fish turn to ash or dust when they decompose? She asks Dahlia Rose, as if she might know.

GM: “That doesn’t sound quite right to me,” frowns the fae woman.

“‘Wet decomposed remains’ is probably the more accurate.”

Celia: “Could be the answer. Ash.”

“Or dust.”

GM: “I’m kind of stuck at this point.”

She’s already whispering, but lowers her voice further.

“I wonder if there’s any way we could cheat…?”

Celia: “What, like look it up online? You guys have wifi or cell service here?” Celia matches her quiet whispers.

“Distract it and bolt?”

“You have that net he hit you with? The knife?”

GM: “I was thinking more the latter, or maybe trying to get it to spill the answer.”

“Technology is… funny here.”

“But it works better when you’re close to the real world, and that portal’s only just ahead…”

“And I dumped them both in the water. Sorry.”

Celia: That brings up all sorts of question about this world not being “real,” but now is hardly the time.

GM: “I could go back for the knife. The hob said I could leave.”

“Maybe he’d even let you, since you’re not going through the portal?”

Celia: “Maybe,” Celia hedges, but she’s not betting on it. She doesn’t think she’s going to get this riddle. A dozen different ways to cheat her way out of this open up before her, another dozen ways to get out without spilling blood. No matter that the Beast wants to tear into it, the girl had just wanted a friend.

She finally sighs loudly, forcing the sweet-smelling air out of her lungs. Maybe it’s the magic of this place. Maybe it’s her proximity to Dahlia Rose. Or maybe it’s just her, the blue eyed blonde with the ripped, wet, bloody dress that clearly doesn’t belong in this world. Exotic, that’s the word. Can’t the hob see it? Doesn’t it notice how the ground parts for her, how the stars shine down on her from above, how there’s an inner glow—an inner beauty—that pours out of her very soul?

He’s used to the way the things look around here, isn’t he, the half-plant, half-animal, half-whatever, covered in swamp water and leeches and reeds and petals. But not this. Soft. Warm. So very different. So very alluring.

She turns those blue eyes onto him (what’s that color? cerulean? sky? something deeper, shifting, like the ocean?) and smiles softly. The charm pours out of her.

“Can I ask your name,” she says to it, “so that when my friend tells our world about you you get the proper credit?”

GM: The monster grins widely at her with a vacant expression.

“I’s Grumblegut.”

“Yuse pretty…”

Celia: “Thank you.” Celia beams at him. Is it possible she looks even more radiant than normal? Another wave of supernatural charm? Maybe she’s just, like, really pretty.

“Grumblegut,” she repeats, “I like that. It makes sense.” A nod towards his large stomach. “Can I confess something to you, Grumblegut?”

GM: “Sure,” rumbles the hobgoblin.

He grins wider, showing his fangs.

“Yuse gon’ taste so good…”

Celia: “That’s the confession,” Celia says with another long sigh. “I admit I’ve been stalling, Grumblegut. I know we made our deal, but I don’t want to eat someone as smart and clever as you, and I was looking for a way to let you save face, as it were.”

“Because my friend here,” Celia slides an arm around Dahlia Rose, “you see her? I had to come in here to get her. And you’re guarding the portal back. And I don’t think anyone else will do as good a job of it as you do, so I don’t want to take you away from it.”

GM: The hobgoblin’s eyes seem to sharpen.

“Riddle. Or eats.”

Celia: Those sharp eyes of it must see how wonderful Celia is, then, when she does pour on more of the charm. She wants to be friends. Best friends. Doesn’t he see that?

GM: “…okays,” grunts the hobgoblin after a moment. He scratches his ass again.

“Goes through.”

Dahlia Rose eyes the creature warily.

Celia: Celia nudges Dahlia Rose toward the portal, letting the charm continue to seep out of her and ensnare the hobgoblin. She follows along behind, smiling pleasantly all the while.

GM: The monster stands still as the women walk past.

Dahlia Rose walks very briskly. There’s a sharp, adrenaline-like tinge to her floral scent.

The hobgoblin watches them go for several moments.

Watches them walk towards the mirror.

Watches them get a fair distance away, and get a head start on making good their escape.

Then, its eyes bulge and it bellows at the top of its lungs, spittle flying from its fanged maw,

CHEEEEAAAATTTSSSSS!!!!!!!!”

Dahlia Rose takes off in a run.

Celia: Ah, well, the jig is up. But the portal is right there. Celia sprints toward it.

GM: The Toreador literally blurbs ahead. She comes to a stop at the mirror.

An ordinary mirror.

An ordinary mirror that shows nothing more than the reflections of her and a desperately sprinting, panting Dahlia Rose.

And, just behind the fae woman, a bellowing, furious-eyed hobgoblin rapidly gaining on her.

Celia: There’s nothing ordinary about a mirror where Celia’s face is reflected. Her visage is nothing less than exquisite. Divine. Perfect.

Flawless.

Even a raging, stampeding hobgoblin upset about his lunch getting away can’t help but notice it. How pretty she is. How perfect she is. How still she stands, waiting for him to come to her, arms outstretched with a smile on her lips. Come and get me, that smile says. Teasing, cajoling, urging. Nothing else matters but that mirror.

Until it changes.

Until the girl in the mirror isn’t the girl he’d seen in front of him but a twisted, distorted version of it, with eyes that flash a rich shade of green and lips that pull back from her teeth to reveal long, sharp fangs in her mouth and claws that sprout from the tips of her fingers.

He sees the truth. Not Celia. But Jade, the green-eyed monster, and the Beast locked inside her chest.

And Jade is just as hungry as he is.

GM: The monster freezes in place for just a moment as Jade’s supernal presence crashes into it, beady eyes wide.

Dahlia barrels past Jade, her heart audibly hammering to the vampire’s sensitive ears, and bangs her fist against the mirror.

“Let us out!”

The surface ripples, showing her trashed design studio on the other side. The fae woman dives through the glass like it’s made of water.

Grumblegut roars at the sight and charges forward.

Celia: Celia doesn’t hesitate. She tumbles into the mirror after Dahlia Rose, praying that it stops the hobgoblin but not her.

GM: She falls through, landing with a crash on the other side. Dahlia swipes her hand across the mirror’s surface, yells, “Close!” and the hobgoblin’s almost inches-away face suddenly disappears. A booming thud sounds from the mirror’s other side, but all that stares back at the two is their reflections.

Then silence.

Dahlia Rose looks human again. There’s no flowers in her hair (‘for’ her hair), and her skin is flesh rather than earth. She smells like sweat and swamp rather than roses.

Her clothes, though, are just as torn and wet.

Celia: She doesn’t need to breathe, so her chest doesn’t rise and fall with erratic movements. Her heart doesn’t thud in her chest. There’s no adrenaline that surges through her veins.

Just satisfaction from getting out of a near-death experience and awe at getting to go to an entirely different world.

Wide eyes fix on Dahlia Rose in her now-human guise. Finally, she lets out a breathless laugh.

GM: Dahlia sinks to the floor. Unlike the Toreador, she’s panting heavily. Celia can still hear her heart hammering in her chest.

She looks around the destroyed studio, then at the mirror, and buries her face in her hands. Sobs start to sound.

Celia: The satisfaction fades in the wake of this despair. All of her feelings of triumph are gone in a flash. Her smile dims.

Hesitantly, Celia reaches out to touch Dahlia’s shoulder. If the girl doesn’t throw her off she scoots across the floor and brings her in for a hug.

GM: Dahlia freezes at the Toreador’s touch, her head instantly bolting up from her hands. Then she sees it’s Celia, and after a moment, she collapses against the other woman.

“I… I thought… I was safe…” she sobs.

Celia: “You were,” Celia says quietly. Her hand travels up and down her back.

“You are,” she amends. “The thing that came after you is dead. It can’t report back where you are.”

“It was hunting you for a… for a prince?”

GM: Dahlia gives a shuddering nod.

“He… he found me…”

Celia: “Why? What does he want?”

Maybe we can kill him goes unsaid.

GM: “To take me back…”

Celia: Celia bristles at that.

“Then we’ll stop him.”

GM: Dahlia gives a broken-sounding laugh.

“You can’t, no one can… just hide…”

Celia: “Why?”

GM: “Because he’s…” Dahlia trails off, then looks at Celia. Warily.

“You’re not human. But you’re not fae…”

Celia: “No,” Celia agrees.

GM: Dahlia starts to slowly back away.

“What are you?”

Celia: Celia lets her go.

“Someone who wants to help.”

GM: “What are you?” she repeats. Fear is edging back into her eyes.

“Why, why do you want to help?”

Celia: Because it’s her fault.

“When I was a kid,” she says slowly, “a monster came for my dad. It broke my family. Years later, my dad came for my mom. They were divorced. But he took her. And he hurt her. And I don’t… I won’t see that happen again.”

GM: Dahlia doesn’t scoot closer. But neither does she scoot any further away.

“What are you,” she repeats, a third time.

“You’re not fae. You wouldn’t have asked that, about my Keeper, if you were fae.”

Celia can hear the word’s emphasis.

“And you turned into a tiger. You asked the hob if you could eat him. You’re not human.”

Celia: “I thought it would scare him,” Celia admits. She keeps her hands folded on her lap, as if to show she means no harm. “I wasn’t really going to eat him. I doubt he’d taste very good.”

There’s a pause. She could lie. Should lie, maybe. But if she knows Dahlia Rose’s secret, isn’t it fair that the girl know hers?

“Lick.”

Then, as if realizing she won’t understand the slang, “Vampire.”

GM: Dahlia Rose eyes her for several moments.

“How’d you… you showed up. With iron.”

“How did you know what I am?”

Celia: “It’s… kind of a really long, really dumb story.”

GM: “Well, we’re here.”

Celia: “I did a favor for someone. And they asked what I wanted. But options were limited, so I… wanted to know if fae are real, since everything else apparently is. And they said yes, and told me where to find one, and warned me to… to bring iron, because you might be in trouble.”

Celia lifts her shoulders, but her hands stay on her lap. Non-threatening.

“And you were. And I… really just wanted a dress, but then the thing came out, and I couldn’t just watch it take you, and no one else was doing anything…”

GM: “Manuel couldn’t. He’s just human. He…”

Dahlia gives a sharp inhalation.

“Phuong. She isn’t here. She should be here.”

Celia: Celia is on her feet in an instant, holding a hand out to Dahlia Rose. Her lips set in a thin line. Hopefully that thing didn’t send a friend for her, too.

“Come on. We’ll find her.”

GM: Dahlia hesitates for a moment, then takes the hand. They walk outside, past what’s left of the ruined gowns. The design studio looks equally wrecked. There are holes and cracks everywhere from the plants that burst inside. Trees are missing branches or look like they’ve been hacked to pieces, from the monster’s struggle. Leaves, dirt, upturned stones, and broken bits of tree lie scattered along the paths, lending the formerly tranquil place a feeling of disharmony.

Dahlia Rose looks around warily as she makes her way briskly down one of the disturbed paths.

The vampire, though, smells it in the air.

Blood.

Celia: She hadn’t thought that the monster made it this far. Hadn’t figured it would be after the other woman too, just Dahlia Rose. Celia stops short at the scent of blood, sniffing the air to find the source. She heads towards it.

GM: “Phuong’s apothecary is this way,” whispers Dahlia Rose, pointing the other direction.

Celia: “Blood,” Celia says shortly, nodding toward the source.

GM: Dahlia seems to think for a moment, then follows after her. The scent grows steadily stronger as Celia heads off the beaten path. She finds Manuel lying on his back deep in the undergrowth. He’s bleeding from a head wound and a number of cuts, but worst off is his right leg. The skin beneath his torn pants is badly shredded, and the limb is twisted at a nasty angle. The ground underneath is seeped red.

He awkwardly, painfully, tries to haul himself away when he hears the two women approach, but stops when he sees the one behind Celia.

“Dahlia,” he starts, “they-”

Celia only half-hears what comes out of his lip. She just sees. Smells. All.

That.

Blood.

She can’t stop it. Just like that, her Beast breaks loose. Celia lunges at the wounded man, fangs long in her mouth, as the red haze descends.

Then. Pain. Motion. Struggling. Fury. The Beast roars and thrashes. It could be as brief as an instant, or as long as an hour. When Celia finally comes to, vines, brambles, and branches are wrapped around her from toe to shoulder, binding her fast against a tree. The red thirst burns in her throat. She can’t move her arms and legs.

Dahlia Rose watches with a grim expression, hand held out as if directing the plants.

Celia: There’s no time to warn her. No time to do anything but give in when the Beast snaps its chain. She tries to reign it in but out it comes. It burned through enough blood for this bitch tonight; it wants the helpless, defenseless feast in front of it. Already half dead, isn’t he? It’s a waste if she doesn’t take it. She wants it. Needs it. Her throat burns, fangs erupting from her mouth as she hurtles forward, lost to the monster inside of her.

She snarls at the plants, ripping and tearing and bucking her body this way and that, but they hold her fast. She doesn’t know how long. Too long. Long enough that when she finally comes to, with plants wrapped around her, she knows what Dahlia Rose must think of her: that she’s a mindless, slavering beast. That she’s just as bad as every monster in every story.

She can’t even deny it.

The fangs recede. Her struggles cease. She hangs limply against the vines that hold her tight, shame in the eyes that she directs toward the ground.

All of this is her fault. The Keeper. The hunter thing. The hob. Phuong. And now this—almost murdering a man in front of his friend.

“I—I’m—”

What? Sorry? She is, but that doesn’t mean anything.

“—in control,” she finally finishes.

GM: “Are you? You don’t look like it to me,” says the fae woman, sashaying up to her.

She presses a hand against the tree, to one side of Celia’s head. The vampire feels the plants around her tighten.

“I don’t think you’re in control of anything right now.”

Celia: No, she supposes she isn’t.

GM: “What do you think of that, mmm, big fierce vampire?”

Celia: Celia holds back a snort. She wasn’t the one crying over dresses.

GM: “Dahlia…” groans Manuel.

Celia: “He’s going to bleed out.”

GM: The fae woman smiles and starts playing with Celia’s hair.

Celia: “Your plants have healing magic, do they? Then fix him. Before he dies.”

GM: Dahlia Rose brushes a finger over Celia’s lips.

“Sh-sh-sh…”

Celia: Celia stills, wariness in her eyes as she watches Dahlia Rose. She doesn’t like this. She doesn’t like this one bit.

GM: Her finger traces down Celia’s chin.

“Sometimes, I can hear them scream…”

Celia: “…the plants?”

GM: “Metal, metal, metal, don’t we even…”

She giggles.

She cups her hand around Celia’s cheek.

Celia: Oh. She’s insane.

GM: “All day, every day…”

“Sometimes, we just…”

Her footsteps pad against the undergrowth as she paces around Celia, then leans in close to the vampire’s ear.

“…have to let go.”

“You know?”

She pulls away and stares long into Celia’s eyes.

Celia: She does know. Sometimes she just wants to disappear into that red haze and let the Beast… let the Beast do its thing. Sometimes she doesn’t have a choice. And sometimes she does.

Is that what this is? A fae-like Beast inside of Dahlia Rose, similar to what she has? Just… clever and tricky instead of a raging, fighting, merciless killer?

“So you let go.” Celia lets her head drop back against the tree. Her lips pull into a smile, though it doesn’t meet her eyes. “You lost control when he came for you, and now you want it back.”

GM: Dahlia smiles and turns away, spinning on her heel as she holds out her arms.

“The golden kiss.”

“I was so warm.”

“Warm, warm, everywhere!”

She giggles and pulls off her shirt.

“Everywhere. Everywhere…”

She undoes her bra, then steps out of her pants, throwing the ruined, soaked clothing articles aside. She looks human with her clothes off. All-too ordinary, though her tanned body is still slender and well-proportioned.

Celia: Celia’s eyes rake her form. Human again, not what she was in the Hedge. Not that half-plant, overwhelming beauty. Just moderately attractive. It doesn’t keep her from appreciating it. Her tongue runs across her teeth.

“Do you want to be warm again?”

GM: Manuel stares at her for a moment, then grits his teeth as he starts pulling himself away, using his arms.

Dahlia pulls off her socks and shoes, then her panties.

She sighs and presses her feet against the grass, arms still held wide.

“Loved by the sky…”

Celia: Celia’s eyes follow the mortal, bleeding man. It’s a waste.

“If you’re going to let him die anyway,” she says to Dahlia Rose, “can I at least feed from him?”

GM: “To grow tall… wide…” murmurs Dahlia.

She kneels to the ground, runs her fingers through the earth, and pulls out a clumpful. Celia can see some worms and bugs wriggling in it.

Dahlia sighs and closes her eyes.

“I miss him…”

She opens her mouth and starts eating the handful of earth, worms and all.

Celia: Celia stares in disgust.

GM: Dahlia swallows and gives a contented sigh.

“Love… love… what do you anyone know about love…”

Her head suddenly snaps up towards Celia, her eyes narrowed.

“What do you think you know about love?”

“You don’t know anything!”

Celia: “No?” Celia asks. “You think you have the monopoly on love?”

GM: “People, people…” Dahlia holds up a single finger. She wags it back and forth, her eyes following it unerringly.

“One, one, one at a time…”

“People.”

She spits to the side. It’s brown and has flecks of earth.

“People! HA!”

“People don’t know anything about love!”

Celia: “And you think you do?” Laughter. She’s laughing at her.

GM: Dahlia rises to her feet and spreads her arms wide again, looking up towards the sky.

“I was loved by a FOREST!”

“I was loved by every tree! Every vine! Every bramble! Every blade of grass!”

“I was loved by the sky, by the wind, by the sun!”

“I fucked the sun!”

Celia: “I loved a god.” Goading. “Was loved by a god. Was formed by his hand. The master of Death. Taken to the brink and brought back.”

A peal of laughter. This flower thinks she knows about love?

GM: “Gods!” Dahlia whirls. “There are no gods here!”

She scoops up a handful of earth and tries to shove it inside her vagina. Most just slips out past her fingers. She scoops up more and rubs it over her shoulders, arms, and breasts.

“He made love to me, ceaselessly! Every second of every minute of every day of every century of every eon! He made love to my roots! He made love to my stem! He made to my petals! My leaves, my pistils, my sepals! The wind blew with his love! The rain wept for his love! The sun shone for his love! His pollen grew inside of me, singing ceaselessly of his love!”

Dahlia cries and throws herself upon the tree, wrapping her arms around the trunk as she grinds her womanhood against it. Celia can smell her wetness, but tears leak from her eyes.

“There’s no love, here! There’s no love, here!”

“Take me back…” She sobs, grinding still faster, “Please… take me back…”

Leaves, vines, and branches wrap around Dahlia, caressing her breasts and sex.

Celia: That’s some prince. Keeper. Thing. It sends her mind spinning down all sorts of different paths. If this is how it is even from afar, how much better is it up close? How lost will she get in the sensations of what he can bring her?

What would it be like to be loved by a fae? By a prince? By the trees, the wind, the rain? She’s so close to the crying, writhing girl, so close to the vines and leaves that caress her skin. She shifts, doing what she can with her body bound as tightly as it is, mirroring the movements of Dahlia Rose.

GM: She can grind back and forth, a little, but the plants’ grip is quite tight. She finds herself frustratingly un-fucked as a crying Dahlia madly continues to hump the tree. Moss tickles her stiffened nipples. Grass snakes up her leg to caress her clit.

Celia: She’s never used her powers on plants before. But she tries it now, searching for the same feelings inside of her that Dahlia Rose feels for the plants. Her fingers, the only loose things on her, stroke the vines like she would flesh, begging for them to return the favor.

GM: The vines remain still and inert even as their siblings continue to pleasure Dahlia Rose. But she looks little happier for it.

Celia: Does she? Celia tries it again, watching the reaction it has in the fae.

GM: Dahlia only continues to sob and grind. She has to start bleeding if she keeps that up.

Celia: It’s not like bloody sex is a problem for the vampire. But maybe it’s not what the girl is looking for. And the crying is a real turn off, anyway.

She’s had moments like these where she just needs to rub one out or have a good, hard fuck to clear her mind. Maybe Dahlia Rose just needs the same. Without the use of her limbs, though, there’s little she can do to assist.

Except offer to take Dahlia Rose back to her Keeper, if that’s what she wants, so he can love her again. But she doesn’t think it is. She’d been terrified at the thought of him getting ahold of her again. She’d said that she thought she was safe. With him, she isn’t safe.

She could bring her to that edge, she knows. Help her find the post-climax clarity with a toe-curling orgasm that will leave her panting and gasping for more.

But some part of her recoils at the thought. Not for herself, but for the fae’s sake. She knows what it’s like to love what she can’t have. To want what she can’t have. To crave the touch of someone who won’t give himself to her, who toys with her like a cat or a string. Dangerous and lethal, but she wants it anyway.

She can’t give that to Dahlia Rose. Not while whatever this is warps her mind.

But she can take it away. She can remove those feelings from the girl, can numb her to the ardor that courses through her veins.

“Dahlia,” she says quietly, urgently, “Manuel is dying. He’s bleeding. I can’t get close. You need to help him.”

While she speaks she reaches out with the gifts of her clan, cooling the fae’s passion.

GM: Manuel has dragged himself away, but Celia can still smell the man’s blood. Her fangs are long in her mouth at the tantalizing scent. If only she wasn’t tied.

Dahlia’s head whips towards Celia’s. She stops humping the tree and cups the Toreador’s face in her hands. Their lips hungrily meet.

Vines and brambles rip and pull off what’s left of her clothes.

Leaves and moss start to tease her nipples. It’s a sensation altogether unlike any human (or Kindred) lover’s mouth or fingers.

Celia: Her nipples stiffen at the contact. Soft, but… rough? Textured. It’s decidedly different from anything she’s ever felt before, but not unpleasant. Is this what fucking a forest feels like?

It’s certainly not what she’d intended, but she’ll take it. Despite the long, sharp fangs in her mouth she doesn’t cut into Dahlia Rose with them, keeping them tucked behind her lips as best she can so the thing inside of her isn’t tempted. Who knows what sort of control she’d lose.

…then again, she’s tied up, and if Dahlia Rose is going to have fairy sex with her, isn’t it only fitting that she introduce her to the red kiss as well? She can compare it to the golden one she’d just been ranting about…

Just a sip, she tells her Beast, just a taste. She nips.

GM: Taste floods Celia’s mouth.

It’s alive.

Oh, it tastes like roses and flowers and nectar sweet beyond compare, but it shimmers and sparkles and laughs on the way down. It doesn’t trickle down her throat: it races, pitter-pattering, skipping, laughing and cavorting. She feels the light welling inside. She is light. She is glowing. She’s a star! Radiant!

She’s on a plane!

Pic.jpg
She cannot contain the laughter. It bursts, screaming, flooding, shooting from her lips like a thousand rays of light. Her veins laugh laugh. Her heart laughs. Her hair laughs. Dhalia Rose laughs. Her face is enormous. It’s so big Celia could climb it. Swim in it. Garden in it. She’s a fairy again, with flowers for hair, plant stems for hair roots, and earth for skin.

Her mouth opens like a cavernous pit. The vines sing with her.

“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
So she gave them some broth without any bread;
And she whipped them all soundly and ate them instead.”


Celia: Is it even blood? It’s more than blood. It’s divine, heady, intoxicating. It’s ambrosia, the nectar of the gods themselves, and it’s on her tongue, in her mouth, sliding down her throat. It’s all she has ever wanted. All she has ever needed. She drinks deeply, as long as she can; she never wants it to stop. The visions swim before her eyes. Everything shifts, changes. It’s more colorful, more vivid. She’s on fire. She’s drowning. She’s singing, sunlight in her veins.

Is this fucking the forest? Can her Keeper do this, bring her this pleasure? Are they even still touching? Is she still feeding? Where has her Beast gone?

The rhyme should mean something, shouldn’t it?

She doesn’t know.

She doesn’t care.

She just keeps going.

GM:
She keeps going.

She drinks the rhyme.

The rhyme drinks her.

They’re one, aren’t they?

Ha. Ha. Ha. Foolish girl.

No they weren’t.

Yes they were.

No they weren’t.

Just relax.

Let go.

Colors swirl past. Her surroundings dissolves into rainbow. She is the rainbow. Everything is the rainbow, and there are more colors than she ever suspected. If only she had names for them. She needs to get the names…







All yellow beneath the tomb
You breathe quiet fangs among the clouds
Ahhh! The bitch is done
Sinful and rabid over the clouds
You stroke mammoth tomb stones about the slime
Can you dig it? The inspiration is over
We are dark among the mist
I condemn flying dreams behind the light
I reach! The devil has gone
shining unsafe
a long way from home
a sense of danger
In how many places
the face in your mirror
stop for a while
when the world was new




Celia comes to. She feels like she just woke up from the mother of all weed trips. She’s naked as the day she was born. She’s lying on her back in a park. A wet green substance like runny clay is smeared over her body.

What happened to her clothes is an open question.

Celia: Well, what the fuck?

It’s a question Celia doesn’t ponder long. She slips into shadows and takes to the air, a warm shower in her mind.


Previous, by Narrative: Story Eleven, Amelie IV, Caroline IX
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Story Eleven, Caroline XI

“We’re all the fucking bad guys here.”
Jocelyn Baker


Monday night, 29 February 2016, AM

GM: Caroline’s phone rings. It’s Jocelyn.

“So, uh… I’m doing what you suggested.”

“I broke the news to Gwen. About Evan.”

There’s a pause.

“We have a problem. A big problem.”

Caroline: “What problem?”

GM: An address appears in her text messages.

“Come over here. You… you have to see it to believe it. And I sure as fuck don’t want anyone else to.”

Caroline: Caroline frowns. “I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

GM: “Okay. See you in a bit.”

Caroline: The address is for an apartment complex in the CBD, along with a unit number.

The Ventrue gathers her ‘entourage’, those on call for the evening, and a few items as well and heads out for the evening with Widney, Fuller, and Green, her curiosity piqued.

GM: Jocelyn actually texts her about that a little while later. Don’t bring your GI Joe renfields. The redhead, whatshername, might be handy.

Wasn’t she a Krewe cleaner?

Yeah she might be

Caroline: Caroline scowls. She’s asked Jocelyn to lay off on the Kindred-specific references on the phone before.

I’ll be there soon. Will call her in if we need her, she replies noncommittally.

While Green drives she pulls up the address Jocelyn sent on her phone, digging into its history.

GM: Julia Row of the Thirteen Sisters was built in 1832-33 as a speculative development, or so Zillow tells the Ventrue. Upon its completion, “Julia Row became one of the most affluent addresses in the American Sector.” Each three-story house with attic and three-story service wing was a single-family residence that architect Alexander Thompson Wood designed in a transitional Federal to Greek Revival style. However, that was clearly all a very long time ago, given that rents now start at $1,350 a month. The 13 “sisters” have since been renovated into single- and two-bedroom apartment units.

Thirtee_Sis.jpg
Caroline: It’s interesting, though not as much as who owns it now, and whether it’s appeared in the news recently. Caroline appreciates the ‘news’ column of Google.

GM: Caroline sees no recent news. The building is owned by a real estate company based out of Dallas.

Caroline: She has Green circle the block looking for anything that jumps out before she pulls over to let the rest of the group out.

GM: “Hey, look at those shades,” the ex-SWAT observes. “Little different make than the others.”

Caroline: “Good eye,” she compliments, studying the apartment in question.

GM: It matches the floor Jocelyn said to meet her at.

It’s a short ways up to the apartment. Caroline passes one or two people leaving or going up to the units, but nothing gets in her way. She knocks. There’s a shadow behind the peephole, then Jocelyn pulls it open.

“Okay, glad you’re here.” She looks at Widney. “Thought I said to bring the redhead? The butler girl’s not really gonna be helpful.”

Widney merely remains at silent, studious attention.

Caroline: Caroline smirks. “Don’t underestimate her.”

GM: Jocelyn closes the door behind them. “Gwen, she’s here.”

The one-bedroom apartment’s non-bedroom area looks like most any other twenty-something’s. IKEA furniture, a TV, some rugs and posters for Christian bands. Microwave and fridge by the stove and sink. Not really any food out.

“Gwen!” Jocelyn calls.

There’s the sound of running water from the bedroom, then Gwen steps out. It’s been a long time since Caroline saw her in person: the last time was the hand-off between her and Eight-Nine-Six in City Park, in fact, what feels like a lifetime ago. Gwen is a pudgy girl with a somewhat sad face, large bust, and shoulder-length black hair. Winters in New Orleans are mild enough affairs, and she already has on a spring-appropriate striped top, dark skirt, and silver crucifix earrings.

Her eyes are dry enough. But Caroline can still smell the wiped-off coppery tang.

When she sees the Ventrue, she stops in mid-stride, traces the sign of a lance, and starts whispering prayers.

“Look, relax, we’re… gonna take care of this,” Jocelyn says.

But her voice sounds flat.

“The… in the bedroom still,” Gwen says quietly.

She closes her eyes.

“Oh Longinus, Longinus, Longinus…”

Caroline: “What happened?” Caroline demands, her hackles rising.

GM: Jocelyn just points at the door.

“You… you have to see it.”

Widney looks between the vampires, but remains silent.

Caroline: Caroline’s eyes narrow. “Jocelyn, where did we meet?”

GM: “At church,” she says. “We didn’t really talk until we were outside though.”

The Toreador frowns a bit. “Why do you ask?”

Gwen whispers more prayers.

Caroline: The Ventrue’s eyes don’t change. “Because you’re acting really weird.”

“Because you’ve never asked me not to bring over a ghoul.”

GM: “I don’t want lots of renfields knowing about this!” Jocelyn hisses. “They won’t help, anyway. I mean… okay, I don’t even fucking know. But the GI Joes sure won’t. They can’t… just shoot this.”

Jocelyn looks as if she’s about to say more, then just shakes her head and pulls open the bedroom door.

It’s a comfortable enough-looking bedroom. The oversized bed takes up well over half the space. It’s white, with fat comforters, lots of pillows and smaller blankets, the sort of bed someone could just drown themselves in. There’s a Sanctified lance mounted above the bed, along with a cross. The nearby shelves have a few books, and a wood letter carving that reads “LOVE,” but they’re mostly taken up by an enormous collection of stuffed animals, including everything from teddy bears to bunnies to a cartoon vampire with a cape and widow’s peek. There’s a placard on the bedside table along with an unlit candle holster.

G_bedroom.jpg
G_bedroom.jpg
The first thing Caroline’s eye falls upon, though, is the small yet heavily pregnant Latina girl tied spread-eagled to each of the bed’s four posts. Her swollen belly stands out all the more against her petite frame. She’s blindfolded, thrashing deliriously, and making muffled sounds of panic past a cloth gag. There’s blood all over her face and torn clothes.

Jocelyn stares at the bound figure, her eyes flaring.

Gwen buries her face in her hands.

Jocelyn is silent for a moment.

“Taste her, Caroline.”

Caroline: The Ventrue runs a finger along the woman’s bloody clothes and holds it to her tongue.

GM: She tastes the diluted tang of the same vitae that’s inside Widney.

“That’s not a ghoul,” Jocelyn whispers.

Her chest rises and falls as she takes needless heaving breaths.

Caroline: “She tastes like one,” Caroline replies.

GM: “It tastes like it,” Jocelyn repeats. “But it is fucking not.”

The Toreador looks almost sick.

Caroline: “What the fuck do you mean it’s not?” Caroline asks.

GM: “It’s…”

Jocelyn waves a disbelieving hand.

The bound figure gives a muffled wail and thrashes against her bonds.

Caroline: She looks at Gwen. “What the hell did you do?”

GM: “I… I didn’t try to!” Gwen exclaims. Her face is a mask of horror. “I… I thought I was…”

“You thought WRONG!” Jocelyn flares.

Caroline: The Ventrue turns away. “Jesus…” she mutters, firing off a text to her security ghouls to wave them off.

GM: Widney stares at the bound woman uncertainly, but continues to hold her tongue.

Caroline: She looks back to the bound Latina. “You tried to Embrace her?”

GM:Tried,” Jocelyn repeats.

There’s numbness in her voice.

And disgust.

Caroline: She looks at Gwen. “What the hell were you thinking?”

GM: Red leaks from the other Toreador’s eyes. “I… I didn’t mean…”

Caroline: “What did you mean to do?” she asks angrily.

GM: “It was EVAN!” Gwen sobs, burying her face in her hands again.

“I… I was…”

The red flows freely.

“I m-m-missed h… him…”

Caroline: “A pregnant girl!?” Caroline all but snarls.

GM: Gwen’s bloody tears flow. “I didn’t mean to! I… I didn… I jus…”

“Caroline…” Jocelyn’s voice has dropped to a whisper. “I don’t know if that’s…”

Jocelyn just points at the woman’s swollen belly.

“…even dead.”

The Toreador looks nauseous.

Caroline: “Just…” Caroline wants to vomit. “Start at the beginning with what happened and why. We’ll deal with what to do about after you explain how we got here.”

GM: “I… it was, was Evan, and how…”

Gwen stares at the girl.

“The living room could be a better place, ma’am,” Widney offers quietly.

Caroline: Caroline looks at the girl again, then nods. “Yeah…”

She closes the door on the scene of horror.

GM: Her last sight over the blindfolded girl’s frantic, muffled sobs is of her enormous belly rolling back and forth over the bloody, foul-smelling sheets.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Caroline: Caroline is grateful, not for the first time, that she’s dead. If she were alive she’d have puked already. She doesn’t know how Widney is keeping it together.

GM: Her resume did commend her level head. Then again, perhaps it’s simple ignorance. Autumn was supposed to debrief her on Kindred physiology, but the two ghouls haven’t ever gotten along.

The four sit down.

“She didn’t even go apeshit,” Jocelyn says flatly. “Oh, I mean, I’m sure she’s scared and pissed and… and everything as all hell. But she wasn’t an animal. Not like we get. I know the difference.”

Caroline: “Just…” the Ventrue shakes her head. “Just start talking, Gwen..”

GM: “And being tied up like that? I, you, we could all burst out, easy, if we burned enough juice.”

Caroline: “She’s a thin-blood,” Caroline agrees numbly with Jocelyn. “Gwen, I don’t hear you talking.”

GM: “I…” Gwen starts haplessly, wringing her hands.

Caroline: “No,” Caroline cuts her off. “Stop wringing your damned hands.”

“You own this. So own it.”

GM: Gwen says nothing for a moment, then sets them down.

“It was… Jocelyn told me, that Evan was… that he really was…”

Red leaks from the Toreador’s eyes.

“It… it was like, like a hole… he knew me… he… he really knew me…”

“Yeah, Houston, we know that, Gwen,” Jocelyn interrupts.

“N… no… no, you don’t… not l… like… he…”

The Toreador just weeps red. Her top is a mess.

Jocelyn fills the moment as she does. “You can see why I said the GI Joes wouldn’t be any help, now?”

Caroline: “I think that one might be a matter of opinion,” Caroline replies more sharply than she means.

GM: “Seriously though, call your little Krewe cleaner already. Maybe she…” Jocelyn motions, “I don’t know, has seen this before?”

Caroline: She looks back at Gwen. “You were lonely, we get it. Then what? Who is she and what did you intend on doing to her?”

GM: “Well what the fuck do you want them to do, bravely defend us against that… that…” Jocelyn says, then just settles for, “that might not even have fangs!?”

Caroline: “No, that wasn’t what I meant at all,” comes Caroline’s cold reply.

GM: “I don’t know if she even has any! I seriously don’t!”

“Her… her name’s Natalia, Garcia…” Gwen speaks up. “I mean, Natalie. Or was it…"

“You turned her into… and you don’t even know her name!?” Jocelyn scoffs.

Gwen closes her eyes. “I wasn’t, thinking…”

“Yeah, I’ll say.”

“I… I wish I hadn’t…”

Jocelyn looks like she’s about to say something, as if there’s a thousand things she could say, and then just doesn’t.

Caroline: “So what did you intend on doing, Gwen.”

Convince me that I shouldn’t cut your fucking head off for this one.

GM: “I was just, I was just… talking with her. I met her at, and we just… talked. About families. Our families.”

“She’s got a… a really big family. They were all really happy when she got pregnant, they weren’t mad, even though she’s young, and they want to help her with the baby, so she can keep going to college…”

Caroline: The words ‘loose ends’ scramble across Caroline’s consciousness despite all desires to the contrary.

GM: “She said her sister’s in politics, and really pretty, and her husband’s a vet… and that he really wants… for the baby…”

More red wells from her eyes.

“I… I wanted kids… lots of kids… and her family, it sounded so… so… I… I don’t know what, but I was… crying, and she was hugging me, and… she was so warm, so nice, and I could feel the baby kicking… and I wanted… I just wanted… I was so sad, and…”

“You lost it,” Jocelyn says slowly. “She just got too close, when you were…” the Toreador motions halfheartedly. “And you just lost it.”

The words aren’t understanding. Or even, in fact, recriminating. Just flat.

“And you attacked her.”

“N… no!” Gwen protests, wiping at her eyes. “I didn’t, I was just… just, being… it was the Beast…”

She traces a lance.

“Oh, Longinus, forgive me…”

Caroline remembers another individual speaking similar words. More eloquently. More knowingly. All-too knowingly.

Or maybe it’s nothing so strategic but was an act of poisoned passion. He could have seen you, been totally ignorant of your name and birthright, just seen your beauty and been swallowed up with lust and terrible loneliness.

Caroline: “And when you came to she was so very still, so you tried to put the pieces back together,” Caroline fills in.

GM: “I…” Gwen says unsurely. “Maybe? I guess, that makes sense.”

Caroline: “What do you mean, maybe? Did she trip, fall, and land on your vitae?”

GM: “I don’t know! It was… I was so…”

“She sounds as if she was very distressed at the time, ma’am,” Widney interjects quietly.

Caroline: ""And if she’s maimed some random person that would be one thing," Caroline replies with icy patience. “Instead she put her poison in that girl, and into her child, but couldn’t even do that right.”

She looks at Jocelyn. “And then presumably called you?”

GM: “Sort of…” Jocelyn says. “She called me, yeah.”

“She had the body in a bathtub.”

Caroline: Dread fills Caroline.

GM: ""She was a wreck. The body, it’d… been there, all night. All day. For god knows how long. And then it…" she finishes lamely, “wasn’t a body. We tied her down, then I… called you. And here we are.”

Seriously, call your little Krewe cleaner already. I’m paranoid we might’ve…” Jocelyn gestures. “This is a mess. Fuck, what if the Krewe knows already!”

Gwen looks horrified at the thought. “Oh… oh god, you’re right, they’re everywhere…”

But it doesn’t look like a new one.

Caroline: “What do you want her to tell you? That there’s some fix for this? You murdered a girl that people are sure as fuck going to look for. You murdered her child. Then you Embraced her with your weak blood,” Caroline spits out. “There is no easy fix for this.”

GM: Gwen’s face doesn’t look like it could look much lower.

Jocelyn heaves a needless sigh.

“Given these facts and circumstances, ma’am, what is the ideal outcome we would like to achieve?” asks Widney, seemingly uncertain of the full nuances of what’s happened, but wanting to start planning and organizing.

Caroline: Caroline looks at Gwen and her Beast roars out into the crying Toreador’s mind. “Do as I say. Stop crying and sit there.”

GM: Gwen stops crying as her face goes blank.

“What the fuck!?” Jocelyn exclaims.

Caroline: Caroline turns to her lover. “Widney is right. You need to start thinking very carefully about what you want out of this, Jocelyn, because this isn’t some minor fuck up.”

GM: “She wasn’t getting in the way!” Jocelyn gapes. “Okay, fine, she was weepy, but you don’t need to turn her into a ’bot!”

Caroline: “She doesn’t need to remember this conversation,” Caroline replies firmly.

GM: “So, what, you want her to forget the whole ‘thin-blood in her bedroom’ too?!”

“And wow, if that isn’t the most Ventrue shit I’ve heard all year! What the fuck! I thought your butler was right about planning, and… we didn’t even plan, anything! You just turned her into a ’bot!”

Caroline: “No, I want you to decide if someone that murdered a pregnant girl then Embraced her as a thin-blood is someone you want to risk your Requiem for, because right now you’re an accessory to her crime.”

The Ventrue’s tone is viciously cold, like stone pried from the earth after a thousand years, but Jocelyn knows her well enough to know what it hides: anger.

GM: Seeing that look in her lover’s eyes, Jocelyn falters for a moment.

“Look, I just… couldn’t we have just, talked it out, first?”

Caroline: “She doesn’t get a vote,’” comes Caroline’s oh-so-cool response.

GM: “She brought us in! Okay, she screwed up, huge, but… so have you! She wants to fix things, even if… fuck if I know how.”

Caroline: “_She murdered a pregnant girl because her life sounded too nice,”_ the Ventrue grinds out between clenched teeth. “And then illicitly Embraced her and her unborn child for her trouble.”

The Ventrue’s fists clench as she grinds out those words.

GM: “It… it happens! You should know, I thought your sire Embraced you under pretty sketchy… look, fuck, we’ve all fucked up! Just give her a chance to help, even if she’s crying a lot, please?”

Widney remains silent and still throughout the argument between the two vampires.

Caroline: “Yeah,” Caroline replies, her volume increasing. “I you might even say I’m an expert on being fucking horribly murdered for no reason other than someone else’s pettiness then given someone’s vitae.”

She gestures at Gwen. “SHE is not the fucking victim here.”

GM: “I didn’t say that,” Jocelyn says quietly. “Yeah, she fucked up. She killed someone. Worse than killed someone. Two someones.”

Caroline: “That girl is the victim in there, and the only reason I haven’t shoved a stake in her,” Caroline gestures to Gwen again. “And dragged her in front of the prince is because it was you that called me.”

GM: Jocelyn looks about to start again, then settles for, “Look. We’re all sinners. We could all do that. Pot, kettle, black. We’re all the fucking bad guys here.”

“Just let her out of bot mode, Caroline. She hasn’t screwed up the damage control beyond crying a lot.”

Caroline: Caroline folds her arms. “So what is damage control here, Jocelyn? Are we trying to lessen the blow when it hits her, or are we trying to this,” she gestures to the other room, “up?”

GM: “I don’t know, Caroline. I’m just saying you don’t need to mindfuck her before we’ve even made up our minds what to do! Let her go, all right?”

“And just to pitch things from the Ventrue angle, she can’t owe you big for this if she doesn’t even remember you showing up.”

Caroline: Caroline’s eyes flicker with anger again. “I don’t give a damn about her owing me. I care about what you want to do, Jocelyn, because when you talk about what to do, there’s really two options.”

“You turn her in,” she gestures to Gwen, “and she begs for mercy but probably gets executed. Or,” she gestures to the closed bedroom door, “you start plotting how you’re going to dispose of that girl and her child. How you’re going to destroy them and cover up Gwen’s crime.”

GM: “What?!” Jocelyn exclaims. “No, No, there’s-”

“Ma’am, what are all of the possible options here that occur to you?” Widney ventures quietly.

Jocelyn closes her mouth for a moment.

“What are all of the things you can think to do, at least right now?” Widney continues.

“Okay, so…” Jocelyn starts. “Well, there’s confession. You tell your crime to a priest and you get off easier. I mean, the prince… has forgiven Embraces like that before. When you confess.”

She frowns. “But… the thin-blooded part… adds a wrinkle. That makes this a lot worse. I mean, I think? Maybe he’d kill…” Jocelyn gestures to the bedroom, “and spare Gwen.”

Caroline: “They cause problems,” Caroline replies bluntly.

GM: “Though there’s also…” Jocelyn trails off, then glares, “Okay, if you’re mindscrewing Gwen, you’re DEFINITELY mindscrewing the renfield. She doesn’t need to hear all of this. Can’t hear all of this.”

Widney gives a faint but indignant frown.

Caroline: “Widney, please go check on the girl. If you can calm her down, the better,” Caroline replies. “I don’t imagine she’s going to be especially welcoming to that, but someone explaining something to her, or even talking to her, I suspect might help some with the terror she feels right now.”

GM: “I’ll do my best, ma’am,” Widney replies, rising to her feet.

The sounds start again, when she opens the door. The gagged cries. Then they mute as she closes it.

Jocelyn looks after the door for a moment.

“Jesus.”

She shakes her head.

“Just, Jesus.”

Caroline: Caroline is silent for a moment.

“…yeah…”

GM: “Everyone goes on about how we’re damned, but… god. Just imagine waking up as one of… those. Not even a real vampire. Just some… abortion that couldn’t even die right.”

Gwen just stares blankly ahead. Jocelyn has stopped looking at her.

Caroline: “I was talking about it with Garcia a while back. He mentioned some of them don’t even have fangs, many don’t, but they still have to suck down blood.”

GM: Jocelyn makes a face of disgust.

Caroline: “And the baby?” She shakes her head gravely. “The best case is that it’s dead.”

GM: “Is… that how it even works?” Jocelyn asks uncertainly. “I’ve heard some… really weird stories about them. Like, they can walk in the sun, eat, shit, and… have kids.”

Caroline: “I mean, thin blood is…. weird, but usually if you introduce the blood to a pregnant woman in any way, she miscarries. There’s some horror stories out there about it becoming a little vampire fetus, clawing its way out of the mother… but I haven’t heard any good ones.”

GM: “God, a… vampire fetus? Yeah, that’s a pretty… wow. And I thought the licks Embraced as little kids were creepy.”

“There’s one in my clan. He looks like he’s in middle school. Feels kinda… off.”

Caroline: Caroline shivers. “I don’t even want to think about that.”

“But we still don’t have an answer.”

GM: “Well, middle school licks seem pretty tame next to… yeah.”

Jocelyn looks at the bedroom door.

“I hear there’s supposed to be a bunch more thin-bloods these days. Nights. That they call themselves ‘duskborn’, even, to be proud. I think that’s one of the things Meadows does, though. Kills them where she finds them.”

Caroline: “Bad for the Masquerade,” Caroline replies bitterly.

GM: “Sally told me scourges used to be kinda rare, but there’s been a bunch since the ’90s when thin-bloods really started cropping up. Guess our city was ahead of the curve.”

Jocelyn looks grim.

“It’s… hard to see a happy ending for her. Vidal says thin-bloods are all vermin.”

Caroline: “I mean, think how hard it is to maintain your Masquerade, then imagine doing it with half your gifts?”

GM: “Yeah.”

Caroline: “How difficult it would be for her to feed without making a mess.”

GM: “Though I guess easier in some ways, like if they can walk in the day. I hear some of them even age, like kine. They actually get older. Some super fast.”

Caroline: “Lots of rumors,” Caroline replies, “not a lot of facts.”

“Guess that’s what happens when the official policy is to kill them.”

GM: “Yeah, I guess.” Jocelyn looks thoughtful. “Though… not everywhere, from what I hear. There’s supposed to be a bunch in the French Quarter. Because there’s just so many licks there, all crowded in, with already weak blood. And I guess they get sloppy. And Savoy I guess isn’t really… murder gung ho, like the prince.”

Jocelyn looks thoughtful at that declaration.

Caroline: “Don’t even think about it,” Caroline replies.

GM: “Caroline, she…”

Jocelyn eyes the door.

“God, I don’t know. It seems horrible just to be one of them. But… there’s supposed to be a lot of them, out there. I guess they just… exist, like anything.”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “It’s not enough to exist. Not when you cause as much misery by simply by doing so as we do.”

GM: “It seems kinda like we should ash ourselves if we wanna ash them, honestly. I mean, total heresy, ruin your rep thing to say. I wonder how many people they kill next to us though. I mean, I guess they get up to all sorts of crap, but it must be actually hard for them to kill normal breathers, because they’re so weak.”

She shivers. “God though, I’m glad my sire had stronger blood than Gwen’s. I would not want to be one of them. Or to make one.”

Caroline: Caroline shuffles uncomfortably. “There’s a lot that I disagree with the Sanctified on, Jocelyn… issues I have with the faith, with how it does things, but there’s one thing I can agree with completely. If there isn’t some purpose to this existence, if there isn’t some value in it, we’re all just monsters that deserve to burn.”

GM: “Doesn’t she have a purpose, though? With that big family, and the husband?”

“God, she can’t even really hunt sinners, can she? No wonder the prince just wants to kill them all.”

Caroline: “I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the guy that’s been doing this for a thousand years,” Caroline replies quietly.

GM: Jocelyn looks uncomfortable.

“Caroline, I’ve killed people. We… we all have. I hear there’s some holy order of ‘Kindred virgins’ who haven’t, but… well, I don’t know any.”

Caroline: Caroline’s killed. She can still remembers faces, but the list of names has gotten so long she had to write it down.

GM: “But it’s never been… like this’d be. Just handing someone over. Knowing they’ll die.” She thinks. “I hear the Anarchs are supposed to be less… kill-happy with thin-bloods.”

Caroline: “It’s called responsibility,” Caroline replies aloofly. “All your other murders…. well, that was the Beast, or it was in the service of god, right? This one… well… we own that. It’s a whole different thing to kill someone with intent.”

Caroline should know.

GM: “Maybe we could try with them?” the Toreador offers. “I mean, at least look into some options?”

Caroline: “Any option that doesn’t involve Gwen in front of the seneschal is one that puts your Requiem…. and mine on the line,” Caroline points out.

GM: “What if no one saw? I don’t think the Krewe is actually everywhere. They can’t be.”

Caroline: “They’re not,” Caroline replies. “But they’re in enough places. Someone would see her. She’d eventually come before someone. And does Gwen seem like a bundle of stability to you right now? Like she’s going to keep a nice lid on things?”

“You know what the ‘right’ answer is.”

GM: “I haven’t even told Roxanne yet,” Jocelyn says quietly. “About Evan. And this is what happened when I told Gwen.”

Caroline: Caroline puts a hand on Jocelyn’s. “I’m sorry…”

GM: Jocelyn leans against the taller Kindred’s arm. “I don’t even know how I’m gonna break this. Roxanne is going to just… go nuclear.”

Caroline: “You just do the best you can… and you keep doing the best you can, every night. Eventually it’s either enough, or…”

She doesn’t shrug with Jocelyn leaning on her, but she tilts her head as though she might.

GM: “Yeah… every night. Best you can.”

Jocelyn’s eyes are starting to look a little more resolute.

Caroline: “We just have to be grateful for what we have. That we’re not that girl…. god, I don’t even know where to start with her.”

GM: “I don’t wanna kill her, Caroline. Natalie. I’m just… I’m tired of always being the bad guy. Of things always being horrible. She’s… what she is, because of Evan, and what happened to him.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t agree, but doesn’t say as much.

GM: “Everything’s just gone completely to shit, since Evan left. Since he disappeared. Died. I’m just tired of that. Of everything getting worse, for everyone.”

Caroline: “Yeah… but…” Caroline interrupts gently.

“Did everything get worse just because he disappeared, or did it get worse in part because he isn’t here to make things better?”

GM: “Maybe both,” Jocelyn wonders. “I don’t know. I don’t really know what I believe now, either. About God. About the church. I just…” She looks tired. “I just don’t wanna kill someone, who doesn’t have to die. I don’t. It feels like… it feels like this is my first shot, to do something… right, since Evan. Actually right.”

Jocelyn rubs her head against Caroline’s shoulder.

“You’re smart. You’re strong. How could we pull this off?”

Caroline: “You’re assuming she’d even want to keep going,” Caroline points out gently.

GM: “Why don’t we ask her, then? Try taking out the gag?”

Caroline: “I’m willing to do that…. if nothing else, we could find out if she has any last wishes…. things she wants done.”

GM: “I don’t wanna kill her, Caroline…” Jocelyn repeats.

Caroline: “I know.” Caroline stands up, drawing Jocelyn with her. “Let’s go talk.”

GM: Jocelyn bites her lip. “Okay…”

Caroline: The Ventrue leads the Toreador back into Gwen’s bedroom, to the bound ‘girl.’

GM: The bedroom is much as they left it. The same huge bed with its overstuffed, overly many pillows and bedding items. The same stuffed animals and religious iconography.

The same heavily pregnant… girl, Kindred, in-between, tied down spread-eagled, over sheets that reek not just of blood, but other fluids… perhaps sweat.

She’s still gagged and blindfolded, but she isn’t struggling anymore. Widney looks up.

“I’ve been talking to her, ma’am. She’s calmed down, though I would not expect her to be completely rational.”

Caroline: “Good job,” Caroline praises the ghoul. The stink of the room is… almost unfamiliar. A reminder of things that seem so long past to Caroline.

She approaches the bound girl. “I’d like to talk with you. If I take the gag out, are you willing to do that?”

GM: There’s silence for a moment, and then a slow nod.

Caroline: “I know you must be very scared, and have a lot of questions,” Caroline continues, not yet removing the gag. “I’ll answer as many of them as I can.”

She waits another long moment, then reaches down to loosen the gag.

GM: The still-blindfolded woman gasps and works her jaw as the bunched-up dish towels come out. Her dusky skin lacks Caroline’s pallor, and gleams faintly with… perspiration? It could also just be the dried blood. Her black hair, worn in two knotted braids, looks frazzled and damp.

“Please… please let me go,” she begs. “I don’t know your names, your faces. I won’t tell anyone. I swear.”

Caroline: “I’d like to, but I have a few questions first, do you feel like you can answer those?” Caroline replies gently.

GM: She swallows.

“Y… yes.”

Caroline: “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up here?”

GM: “I… it’s so blurry…”

Caroline: “I know,” Caroline encourages, “but I need you to try.”

GM: “I was on campus, going… one of my professors had late office hours, I was asking about some assignments… I mean, an exam. There was… I had an appointment with my OB/GYN, during the exam, I wanted to see if I could take it early. The syllabus said we couldn’t do that, that we couldn’t reschedule exam dates. I still wanted to ask. He didn’t say yes, so I was going home, thinking about what to do next, and… it’s so blurry…”

Caroline: The words are daggers to Caroline. “I understand, that’s…. not unusual.”

It certainly wasn’t for her.

“Moving to the present, do you feel any… differently?”

GM: “I… I’m thirsty.”

Caroline: Caroline looks to Widney. “Can you get her a glass of water?”

GM: Her voice drops to a low whine.

“I’m thirsty…”

Widney returns after a brief moment with a glass of water. She holds it to the bound woman’s lips.

She drinks.

Slurp.

Slurp.

Slurp.

Jocelyn stares with something between pity, revulsion, and morbid fascination.

Caroline: Caroline waits for her to finish, then asks, “Is that better?”

GM: “I… yes, but I’m still…”

Caroline: Caroline bites her lip and looks at Widney. “Do you mind? I’ll give you some back as soon as we leave.”

GM: “Ah. You mean, ma’am…”

Widney doesn’t say what it is.

Caroline: The Ventrue nods and gestures for Widney to offer up her wrist to Caroline. She knows her domitor’s teeth are sharper, neater, than any knife.

GM: The majordomo’s expression remains mostly level as she holds up her wrist.

Caroline: Caroline’s fangs punch two neat holes in the shorter woman’s wrist, and she sucks on it for just a moment, just enough to get the blood flowing and cover up the pain of the wound with an instant of the ecstasy of the kiss, before she relinquishes it.

GM: Widney closes her eyes for a moment. Her mouth opens, just a bit, and her cheeks redden as she feels the Ventrue’s kiss take so-brief hold.

She slowly moves her bleeding wrist over the glass and lets the red flow.

The two—and a half?—vampires watch it.

Smell it.

Slowly fill up.

Caroline: Caroline nods. “That’s enough.”

GM: Jocelyn looks at Widney with an all-too hungry gaze. Caroline see the hint of two protruding canines.

Caroline: She takes Widney’s hand and licks closed the two tiny wounds, once again letting just enough of the kiss cover up the pain. She’s not Caroline’s type, but it isn’t for Caroline.

The Ventrue looks at her lover and runs a finger down the Toreador’s spine. “Be nice.”

GM: She can hear the thin-blood’s breathing, too. Labored. Almost anticipatory. See it in the flare of her nostrils.

“I’m not on a diet like you…” Jocelyn mumbles, her eyes fixed on the glass.

Caroline: “Thank you, Sarah,” Caroline tells the ghoul as she takes the blood filled glass and brings it to the bound girl’s lips.

“No doubt she’s preferable to Meg,” Caroline murmurs into Jocelyn’s ear as she watches the blood hit the girl’s lips.

GM: Her mouth opens instantly, without hesitation.

Garcia wasn’t completely right.

Caroline can see fangs.

But they’re wrong.

One of them protrudes from her front-most upper tooth, like a beaver’s, rather than several teeth to the side like where Caroline’s are. The second fang even more discordantly juts up from her lower set of teeth. It’s no longer than any of its neighbors, but it is far thicker, like a molar from the back of someone’s mouth. Rather than one sharp point, it’s split into two uneven ones. If symmetry is the measure for beauty, then by that measure, it is an ugly set of teeth.

Caroline: Caroline scowls in disgust, but continues to watch.

GM: Jocelyn all but gapes at the sight and looks at Caroline incredulously.

The thin-blood gulps down Widney’s vitae. Hungrily. Eagerly. For a moment, all the tension and apprehension in her frame goes away.

She licks her lips, then winces as her tongue brushes across her lower half-split canine.

“Please… more,” she begs.

Caroline: “I suppose that puts any questions to bed on that topic,” Caroline murmurs.

“Was that better?” she asks more loudly.

GM: “Yes… yes…” the woman answers hoarsely. “Please, more… please…”

Caroline: The Ventrue passes the bloodstained glass to the still ‘pointed’ Toreador. “You can lick the bowl if you want.”

GM: There’s little enough to lick. The thin-blood drank every last drop she could get, and even ran her tongue along the glass as Caroline pulled away.

“Ehhh, that’ll just give me the munchies,” Jocelyn replies. “And…”

She stares at the bound girl with a faintly disgusted look. It eventually softens to pity.

Caroline: “I don’t have any more for you right now, I’m sorry.”

She falls into silence for a moment before continuing, “You feel them, don’t you, in your mouth.”

GM: The woman’s disappointment—if not despair—is all-too plain.

“I… what?”

Caroline: “They’re ugly enough to make a Nosferatu proud, but they’re there.”

GM: “Nosferatu? I… what?”

Caroline: “I’m sorry, I’ll explain in a bit, just a couple more questions. Do you feel any differently?”

GM: “Yes. I’m… sore. I hurt.”

Caroline: She looks to Jocelyn to see if she has anything to add before she brings up her next topic.

GM: The Toreador shakes her head.

Caroline: “How about… the baby?”

GM: Caroline can hear the immediate fear in the young mother’s voice.

“What… what about…?”

Caroline: “I don’t know anything you don’t,” Caroline replies so pacifically one can almost picture her holding her hands up. “I’m just asking if anything feels different.”

GM: “No. No, he’s still kicking. His name is Miles.”

The woman’s voice breaks.

“Please. Please, let me live.”

Caroline: “I’m not going to hurt you,” Caroline replies gently.

GM: “I have a husband, Jake, parents, brothers and sisters, and we’re all… we’re…” the woman sobs, “please… I don’t know anything, I won’t say anything, I swear, I swear…”

Jocelyn stares at Caroline when she hears the word ‘kicking.’

Caroline: She’s lying about it, Caroline knows. From experience, she knows most people would say almost anything when captive. She certainly did. Still, it doesn’t embitter her to the girl. Quite the contrary. It stirs up ugly feelings about herself, about what she’s done, and what she’s become. How many people she’s hurt. Just how often she’s been the victimizer now, rather than the victim.

Caroline reaches down and unties the girl’s left hand even as she speaks. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she repeats. “Something… pretty horrible happened to you, and I’m here to try to make it right, but there are some things you need to understand first.”

She guides the slight girl’s hand to her own mouth and places her own finger against each of her fangs in turn.

GM: The girl flinches when Caroline takes her hand, but doesn’t struggle or resist.

“What, what happened to my…?”

Caroline: “Someone did something to you, and… I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve it.” Caroline keeps hold of her hand.

GM: “Please. Please, let me go,” she whines.

“What, what do you want? I’ll, I’ll do anything. Please. Just let me, us, go. Please.”

Caroline: “I want you to listen, and understand that the person who did this to you isn’t in here, and that we’d like to release you, but we need to make sure you understand what’s happening first, so you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.” Caroline replies patiently.

GM: “Okay, okay, I’ll listen,” the girl agrees immediately.

“The, the person who did this isn’t here. I, I understand.”

Caroline: “You’re not human anymore,” Caroline continues, knowing full well the reaction that’s coming.

GM: That statement actually makes her falter for a moment.

“Okay. I’m not human anymore,” she then repeats.

Caroline: “Do you know what you were just drinking?”

GM: “N… no.”

Caroline: “But it satisfied that thirst you have better than the water?” Caroline continues.

GM: No hesitation.

“Yes. Yes.”

Caroline: Caroline nods, though she knows the girl can’t see it. “Are you religious… I’m sorry, I haven’t even asked your name.”

GM: “Natalia. Natalia Garcia. I’m Catholic.”

Caroline: “That makes it easier to explain then,” Caroline replies reassuringly. She sends Jocelyn a very unhappy glance about her krewemate not even getting the girl’s name right.

“Natalia, there’s not really an easy way to say this, and most people don’t believe it until they see it, but you were killed, then brought back as something else.”

It’s a harsh and blunt truth, but it gets no easier or kinder the longer she beats around it.

GM: “Brought back? As, as what?”

Caroline: The Ventrue bites her lip. That’s a complicated answer.

She also doesn’t believe for a moment that the girl will go along without a demonstration.

She reaches down and draws back the blindfold from Natalia.

GM: Natalia blinks as it comes off. She looks college age, with dark eyes, Hispanic features, and a long nose.

Natalia_Garcia.jpg
Caroline: Caroline puts on her best fake, reassuring, smile for the girl.

She whispers something to Widney that sends the other blonde headed back into the living room as she continues, “Well…” She gives a sigh. “You have no reason to believe this, so let me get that out of the way first.”

She leans in a little closer. “Look at me, Natalia, look very closely.”

She smiles, showing teeth. Showing too long, too sharp, teeth.

GM: Natalia pales. Actually pales.

“Oh Dios, que nos conoce en medio de tan grandes peligros, que…”

(“O God, Who knowest us to be set in the midst of such great perils, that…”)

Caroline: Widney returns with a paring knife from the kitchen, which Caroline takes from her hand. “It’s appropriate that you should pray,” the blonde agrees. “But I would leave no doubt.”

She flicks the knife across her own palm with inhuman speed, neatly parting skin, before handing it back to Widney.

GM: Natalia tries to pull away when she first sees the knife, eyes wide.

Caroline: With that newly freed hand she takes Natalia’s own, forces it into the cut on her palm. “You can feel the that, right?” she asks, her eyes boring into the teenager’s. Vitae wells in her palm around the cut.

GM: “Feel… feel what…?” she asks falteringly.

“Please… let me go, please let me go…”

Caroline: “This isn’t some parlor trick,” Caroline replies, slowly willing the wound closed even as she holds Natalia’s fingers against it.

When the wound is closed she draws her hand away and gestures for Widney to hold out her hand before pouring the collected vitae into her assistant’s cupped palm.

GM: Natalia watches disbelievingly.

“Yeah, vampires,” says Jocelyn. “We’re real.”

Caroline: She reveals the whole and hale palm to Natalia. “Lacking in artistry, but capturing the point,” Caroline replies to her lover.

GM: “Hey, my medium’s pictures. Just one says a thousand words.”

Caroline: “We’re the walking dead, the life drinkers, the blood drinkers.” She bites her lip. “Now… what exactly you are is less clear.”

GM: “What… what I am!?”

There’s a rising panic to her voice.

Caroline: “Some weaker form, with life still clinging to you, for better or worse… but you are definitely a blood drinker.”

GM: “You drank blood,” says Jocelyn. She holds up the red-rimmed glass.

Caroline: “Sorry,” Caroline continues after a moment.

GM: In spite of herself, Natalia starts to protest in horror.

Jocelyn interjects, “Look, maybe you could use another demonstration…”

She fills up the glass with her blood next. Want, revulsion, and denial war across Natali’s still-pallid, wide-eyed face.

Want wins out when Jocelyn holds the glass under her nose and waves it back and forth.

She drinks. Thirstily. Needily. Ravenously. But still with those same, too-human eyes.

Caroline: “Christ, that’s freaking me out,” Caroline murmurs to herself.

GM: Her one upper tooth scrapes along the rim of the glass. She at looks once horrified, ashamed, and wanting when Jocelyn pulls the glass away.

Caroline: “Yeah… I recognize that look,” Caroline replies. “I saw it in the mirror the first couple times.”

GM: “Wh… wh… how!? Why!?”

“What about… what about my baby?!”

Jocelyn looks at a total loss for how to answer that.

Caroline: “I don’t know,” Caroline answers honestly. “If you were fully dead, like us… that’s pretty clear cut, but this half-alive thing you are…. there’s some hope.”

GM: “W-what do you mean, I’m half-alive?!”

“¡Dios mío, mi bebé! ¡Dios mío!”

(“Oh god, my baby! Oh my god!”)

Caroline: “Look at me, Natalia,” Caroline demands. “Look at me, because I’m risking my life just by talking to you.”

GM: Natalia starts weeping and lamenting in Spanish. Her tears aren’t red. Or clear. They’re a watery, diluted-smelling pinkish in between.

“Please, get me a doctor! He needs a doctor!”

Widney looks uncertainly towards her domitor.

Caroline: “No, you need something well beyond that… but it’s complicated,” Caroline replies. “So listen, because we aren’t going to have another chance to talk before things move out of our control.”

GM: “Please!” she begs. “Please! I’m a premed student, the longer you leave these things, the, the, I have to see a doctor!”

Caroline: The words tear at Caroline, but she knows how hopeless the plea is. How pointless.

“There is no mortal doctor that can help you right now, Natalia,” Caroline replies firmly. “Your only hope, his only hope, is with elders of our kind, and most of them would as soon slay you for what you are as speak to you.”

“So listen, because every minute you’re crying is a minute you’re losing, and so is he.”

GM: Natalia falls silent. Not hoping. More like praying.

“The Ordo’s supposed to be the experts on this stuff…” Jocelyn raises.

Caroline: The Ventrue falls silent as well before turning to Jocelyn. “You should call him. You know who.”

GM: “What… what should I say?” Jocelyn asks quietly.

Caroline: “The truth. That you need a meeting with the seneschal. He might be persuaded to grant a stay in this… well, very specific circumstance.”

GM: “You think he’d…? He hasn’t seemed to stop the prince…”

Caroline: The Ventrue falls silent for a long moment, then speaks, her voice melodic and foreign.

" حَدَّثَنَا الْحَسَنُ بْنُ الرَّبِيعِ، حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو الأَحْوَصِ، عَنِ الأَعْمَشِ، عَنْ زَيْدِ بْنِ وَهْبٍ، قَالَ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ حَدَّثَنَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَهْوَ الصَّادِقُ الْمَصْدُوقُ قَالَ ‏ “‏ إِنَّ أَحَدَكُمْ يُجْمَعُ خَلْقُهُ فِي بَطْنِ أُمِّهِ أَرْبَعِينَ يَوْمًا، ثُمَّ يَكُونُ عَلَقَةً مِثْلَ ذَلِكَ، ثُمَّ يَكُونُ مُضْغَةً مِثْلَ ذَلِكَ، ثُمَّ يَبْعَثُ اللَّهُ مَلَكًا، فَيُؤْمَرُ بِأَرْبَعِ كَلِمَاتٍ، وَيُقَالُ لَهُ اكْتُبْ عَمَلَهُ وَرِزْقَهُ وَأَجَلَهُ وَشَقِيٌّ أَوْ سَعِيدٌ‏.‏ ثُمَّ يُنْفَخُ فِيهِ الرُّوحُ، فَإِنَّ الرَّجُلَ مِنْكُمْ لَيَعْمَلُ حَتَّى مَا يَكُونُ بَيْنَهُ وَبَيْنَ الْجَنَّةِ إِلاَّ ذِرَاعٌ، فَيَسْبِقُ عَلَيْهِ كِتَابُهُ، فَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ النَّارِ، وَيَعْمَلُ حَتَّى مَا يَكُونُ بَيْنَهُ وَبَيْنَ النَّارِ إِلاَّ ذِرَاعٌ، فَيَسْبِقُ عَلَيْهِ الْكِتَابُ، فَيَعْمَلُ بِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّة‏.‏”‎

She looks at Jocelyn. “The exact meaning is multifaceted, but it refers to when the soul enters a unborn child.”

GM: Jocelyn stares at Caroline, her mouth hanging just slightly agape.

“You have… you have such a beautiful voice…”

A red tear falls from her eye.

“It’s beautiful, Caroline!” the Toreador chokes. “Let’s record it, right now!”

She pulls out her phone, taps a few times, and holds the device up.

Caroline: The Ventrue gives a faint smile. “For the seneschal there can be no doubt that the child is an innocent and possessing of a soul. If I were to put my faith in anything in the city, it would be in in his desire to spare that, if possible.”

GM: “Do that again, Caroline! It’s beautiful!

A wide smile spreads over Jocelyn’s face.

“Go on! We’ll make you famous! We’ll have you sing at the guilds! Oh, it’s beautiful! You’re beautiful!”

Jocelyn falls on the Ventrue and starts ‘kissing’ her. Running her lips and protruding fangs over her lover’s skin.

“Oh, god, I love your ass, how tight it is, and how fucking tall you are, you’re like a queen…”

Caroline: “Jocelyn,” Caroline interrupts.

GM: The Toreador starts pulling at the seems to her clothing.

Caroline: “Do you want to go back to your place? Then I need you to make that phone call we just talked about.”

GM: “No, no, here’s fine, oh god, fuck me me now, you busty…. blonde… giant…”

She pulls open Caroline’s blouse and starts pulling her breasts out of her bra.

Natalia stares.

Uncomprehending. Even scared.

Widney frowns deeply and looks towards her domitor in silent query.

Caroline: Caroline scowls, shoves her back, and does up her clothes. Her gaze tears across the space between them.

“Knock it off,” she snarls.

She’s heard about Toreador doing this. ‘Spazzing out’ over things they find beautiful. Even seen Jocelyn do it. It was mostly harmless until now.

GM: “Oh, rough, huh,” Jocelyn smirks as she starts pulling at the Ventrue’s clothes again, “you’re such a blue blood…”

Caroline:Stop it.” The words carry more than Caroline’s voice this time.

GM: The ardor slides from Jocelyn’s face as her hands fall slack.

Just another tool.

Caroline: No, she snarls back at that thought.

GM: It’s what she said about Aimee and Gabriel, after all.

That she wouldn’t use her powers on them.

Look how long that lasted.

Jocelyn had a good run, at least.

Caroline: The Ventrue tears her gaze from her slack lover back to Natalia, her jaw clenched in an ugly line.

“God damn it,” she mutters, then snarls as she angrily scours the top of a dresser of its unlit candle, obnoxious quote, and assorted items.

She looks back at Natalia. “I said I’d never fucking do that to her.”

GM: The thin-blood looks apprehensive, confused, and fearfully questioning of Jocelyn’s sanity.

“I’m… I’m sorry.”

Caroline: Not that the half-kine cares, that she understands exactly what that cost Caroline, what it might still cost her. Natalia has no idea just how little Caroline has left. Doesn’t know that she’s given up her family. Doesn’t know how empty the Ventrue’s Requiem is, how few the anchors there are for her to cling to. How important Jocelyn is—and perhaps now was—among them.

She can’t look at the Toreador. Can’t think of the fallout of this. She takes an unnecessary breath and heaves a guilt-ridden sigh.

“No, I’m sorry. Sorry you’re involved in all of this… sorry for what might still happen.” And angry. Angry at the world that put her in this circumstance, with this poor girl.

“Sorry someone killed you because they are an irresponsible childe. Sorry the only people that might be able to help your son—if he can still be helped—might do it again because she didn’t even have thick enough blood to kill you right… it’s just… it’s all fucked.”

“The world isn’t fair.”

She closes her eyes, and when they open again that moment of vulnerability is gone. “Look… I presume you’d take any risk, even if it might cost you your life, if it gave you a chance to save him, if there was even a slim chance, right?”

GM: Natalia just stares for a moment when Caroline opens them. There’s dread, panic, uncertainty, desperation, and more in the thin-blood’s eyes. The Ventrue can only imagine what she’s thinking. Torn between what any mother would want to do, and the scraps of too-incredible, too-horrible things her captors have said.

“I’d… yes, I’d do anything for him, please…”

Caroline: “Fine,” Caroline replies. She holds out a hand to Widney. “Phone.”

When the assistant produces one from her coat pocket, Caroline punches through a handful of screens before hitting send.

GM: The ever-silent, ever-unobtrusive ghoul produces the Solaris without comment.

Caroline waits for half a dozen rings before his herald Annabelle picks up, inquiring in an almost gloomily bored tone as to “your business, Miss Malveaux?”

Caroline: “It’s rather complicated, but also urgent. I’m calling in my favor from him,” she replies.

GM: “Hmph,” she says airily, “and how do you wish to do that, Miss Malveaux?”

Caroline: “I request his assistance in arranging an escort of myself and two others to a meeting with the seneschal’s herald this evening.” She pauses before adding, “It is a matter of some urgency, that I believe Hound Agnello to have both a professional and personal interest in. I would not make such a request lightly.”

GM: “Hmph,” the ghoul airily repeats. “Stop by his place in an hour, Miss Malveaux… you can tell me all about this urgent request there.”

Caroline: “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Caroline replies icily. “If he is unable to answer his debt at this time, I understand, and will refer him to you when he inquires as to why he was not informed of ongoing matters intensely cognizant to his interests prior to their revelation to others.”

GM: There is a cold silence from the line.

Do feel free to tell him, Miss Malveaux, that I have made myself available to you on his behalf within an hour,” the ghoul replies frostily. “If that is too slow for your expectations, I suggest you have miscalculated your worth in his eyes—and no few others.”

“If you do not wish to meet with me concerning Hound Agnello’s boon, then you may wait until he is next available… whenever that may be.”

Caroline: “Perhaps, or perhaps a more inquiring mind might wonder, what was so vital that it could not easily delay an hour?” Caroline replies, hate smoldering to life in her eyes. “Please pass on to him my strong desire to speak with him at his earliest opportunity, and my apologies that this matter was not able to come before him first.”

GM: “Of course, Miss Malveaux. Be assured that your desires are of the highest importance to us both. Good night,” the ghoul replies with icy politeness.

The line clicks.

Caroline: “Cunt,” the Ventrue snarls.

GM: Natalia does not look hopeful.

Caroline: She eyes Jocelyn, still standing blank-eyed in place.

She turns her attention back to Widney. “Pick out some clothes from her from what Gwen has. I need to talk to her and Jocelyn before we go,” she directs the ghoul, before leading Jocelyn by the hand back into the living room and releasing her control over the shorter Toreador.

GM: “Wait! What’s… what’s going to happen?” the still-bound Natalia calls.

Caroline: “We’re going to take you to see someone, as soon as I convince these two that’s the best option,” Caroline replies. “Just… give me a minute. All three of us are putting our necks out on this one.”

GM: “Can you untie me… please? I’m sore…”

She can’t keep her gaze away from Jocelyn, though.

Caroline: The Ventrue pauses for an instant before replying. “I’m sorry… not yet.”

GM: “Please. I won’t try to run. You’ve said this is my only chance…”

Caroline: Trust never came easy for Caroline, even before she was damned. Since then it hasn’t at all. She leaves Natalia bound.

GM: There’s a despairing look on the thin-blood’s face before the door closes over it. After Caroline releases her control, Jocelyn blinks.

She looks down.

Then up.

“How did I get here!?”

She looks at Caroline.

Caroline: The Ventrue doesn’t speak. Doesn’t meet Jocelyn’s gaze.

GM: That’s not the real question in Jocelyn’s exclamation.

It’s not how.

Not really.

It’s why.

And maybe it is how, too.

Another kind of how.

Caroline: “I’m sorry,” the Ventrue says at last, the words sliding out as painfully as a blade from between her ribs.

GM: Jocelyn just stares at her too.

Like she’s been stabbed.

Right where it hurts most.

Right where she left open.

Right where she didn’t, couldn’t, expect.

Caroline: “I didn’t mess with your memories or anything,” she continues slowly. “I just…”

She stops.

GM: Jocelyn stares. Amidst the shock, the disbelief, the betrayal, Caroline sees a snarling, mindless rage beyond rage unlike anything in the thin-blood’s eyes. Jocelyn’s eyes twitch as her mouth dumbly opens and shuts, revealing Beast’s protruding canines.

She gives a strangled half-snarl, then turns and sprints for the apartment door.

Caroline: The Ventrue doesn’t let her make it that far.

Jocelyn might be fast, but Caroline is… well, much faster.

GM:GET OFF! GET OFF! GET OFF!!!!!” Jocelyn screams as Caroline intercepts her. She clamps her eyes shut and pulls her head away to avoid meeting the Ventrue’s will-stealing gaze.

Caroline: The Ventrue doesn’t fight the Toreador. She doesn’t strike or try to hurt her. She just holds her.

GM: Jocelyn madly slaps, shoves, and scratches to free herself.

Caroline: The Ventrue’s tough skin turns aside the worst of what she as to offer, even as Caroline wraps her arms around the Toreador to keep her from swinging.

“You can leave, and you can hate me, but not like this,” Caroline chokes out.

GM:LET ME GO! LET ME GGGOOOOOO!!!!!” Jocelyn screams at the top of her lungs.

Caroline: The Ventrue clamps a hand over her mouth. “Fucking stop it!” she demands, her tone thick with emotion. “Just listen for ten seconds and you can do whatever you want.”

GM: Jocelyn muffledly screams and thrashes.

Caroline: Tears leak from the edges of Caroline’s eyes, but she doesn’t let go.

“I’m taking Natalia to Perdido House,” she grinds out in a voice that sounds like rocks scraping together.

GM: The Toreador’s fangs rip into Caroline’s palm as a bestial howl roars from behind. A monster stares out from Jocelyn’s wide-open eyes.

Caroline blinks.

When the red haze clears, her lover’s broken, savaged, motionless corpse lies at her feet. Blood is spattered over the floor, walls, and her clothes.

Caroline: The Ventrue looks down at what she’s wrought with a mixture of shock, horror, and abject self-loathing. She doesn’t look at her hands. She knows they’re covered in Jocelyn’s blood. Jocelyn, who trusted her. Maybe the only Kindred who trusted her. If she were weaker-willed she might wail over the sight. She might scream against what she’s done while cradling the broken body in her arms.

She doesn’t.

She locks the guilt and horror away in the moment. There will be plenty of time in the rest of her Requiem to dwell on her actions—however long that may be—but the demands of this night remain. A whispering ragged voice mutters in the back of her mind about how much better she is at locking away guilt than she is at holding off the Beast. She doesn’t argue with its logic. She doesn’t argue with it at all: there’s no point in arguing with a weak, dying thing.

Caroline sets to work picking up the pieces instead, just as she’s done time, and time, and time before. The motions have become so familiar as to almost be rote, colored this night only by how dreadfully personal they are. But then, in truth, that’s not new either, is it? It’s not the first time, far from the first time she’s lashed out and maimed or killed people she cared for. A stronger, more cynical, voice laughs that it’s only a matter of time before she does this to everyone in her life.

Jocelyn’s corpse is wrapped in one of Gwen’s already bloodstained rugs with gentleness utterly at odds with the violence just visited upon it and set aside for the moment. Caroline coaxes Widney out of the bedroom and tells her to call both Audrey and Autumn. Audrey needs to pick up a couple guests for dinner at the Giani building. Autumn needs to get here. Not immediately, but within the next couple hours. She wants the scene cleaned up, and not just the site of her frenzy. This apartment stinks like vampire.

The heiress releases her hold on Gwen’s mind. Caroline doesn’t dance around her intentions: she’s going to bring the girl to Perdido House. If there’s any chance that her child is still alive, they owe it to try. Gwen is welcome to join them: she needs to go give confession anyway. Caroline asks who her confessor is, and ruthlessly squashes any reluctance from the young Toreador at the prospect of confessing her crime. That her reaction was to call Jocelyn and the topic of doing anything but confessing came up at all is a blight on Gwen’s supposed faith. She doesn’t outright force the Toreador to do so, but she does all but.

Finally, Caroline returns to untie Natalia and help her dress in something of Gwens’s that is the closest fit—and modest. Whether Gwen joins them or not, Caroline’s first stop is the Giani building, where Jocelyn is bundled up and into the building, up to Caroline’s apartment, through the back elevator. She locks the reinforced bedroom doors between Jocelyn and anyone else and makes clear that no one is to touch her.

As they drive to Perdido House Caroline is gentle as she can be while remaining honest with Natalia: the most likely outcome, even in the best case where her child survives, is that Natalia won’t survive the night. If the girl has any questions, or of she has any wishes beyond attempting to see to the welfare of her son, Caroline invites her to air them. The Ventrue will do whatever she can to honor those wishes.

The Ventrue escorts the girl into Perdido House, seeking and audience with the seneschal’s herald.

GM: To call Widney and Natalia disturbed when they see Caroline would be accurate enough in the former’s case and all-too inadequate in the latter’s. They heard the sounds. The screams that weren’t human screams, not with the two vampires’ Beasts in control. They see the blood. The gore.

No one asks where Jocelyn is.

Widney obediently starts to help pick up the pieces. Natalia just stares ahead in mute horror.

After all, this is new to at least one of them.

When Gwen awakens, she dumbly looks over her blood-caked surroundings. Maybe she immediately assumes Jocelyn. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, her first demand is:

“What happened!?”

Caroline: The stupidly cruel ignorance sets Caroline’s nerves on edge.

“Exactly what you think happened. Jocelyn will be fine. You have other problems,” she responds bluntly.

GM: There’s a pause, like a last fatal crack appearing in an already chipped and melting ice sculpture—and then the whole thing collapses as another howling, burning-eyed vampire falls upon Caroline in the throes of their Beast.

The Ventrue’s own red haze recedes moments later. Another, equally savaged, blood-caked, and broken corpse lies at her feet.

Poison, she said once.

It never stops. It always wants.

Natalia is visibly trembling when Caroline approaches her. Widney suggests she should probably shower and says she’s texted Autumn to bring some clean clothes.

Caroline: “When you ask later why, why the others are so cold blooded, so ruthless about everything, remember this moment,” Caroline tells the girl.

“Remember that I just ripped my lover apart with my bare hands. That this is what being one of us costs you,” she doesn’t quite snarl.

She stalks off to wash the gore from herself at Widney’s suggestion.

GM: The ghoul has a change of clothes ready when her domitor gets out of the shower. Gwen’s own plus-sized clothes make serviceable enough maternity wear for the thin-blood. She doesn’t care what they put her in. Fuller, Green, and Autumn show up shortly later to help with the clean-up.

Then the police do. Green hisses there’s several officers outside the door’s peephole.

That’s when Natalia tries to make a break for it. She starts screaming, “HELP! HEEEEEELP!” at the top of her lungs.

Caroline: The Ventrue hisses for Fuller to put a stop to that stupidity immediately.

GM: Natalia keeps screaming.

Fuller re-gags her.

The cops outside yell for them to open up. Green does so at her domitor’s signal. The officers blink at the gory scene being cleaned up and draw their guns. They shout for everyone to put their hands on their heads and get down on the ground.

Caroline: Caroline and her people mesmerize the two police and leave them with fake memories of responding to a false alarm—cats fucking and making noise. Memories of coming inside and finding nothing.

GM: Autumn agrees this place stinks like vampire. “Guess we’ll have to go knocking on doors for the 911 callers.” She looks at the cops thoughtfully. “Actually, could have these guys do it…”

Fuller and Green get started pursuing the cars of anyone who fled the apartment building after hearing the sounds of violence. They might have called or texted people. When Autumn says loose ends in apartment buildings are such a hassle to clean up, Widney makes a prissy remark at her for doing her job without complaint. Or rather, not doing.

Caroline: Caroline lets the ghouls figure their personal issues out. Her father always said kingmaking amid a staff just fed more resentment and as often as not gave the wrong person the job.

GM: Autumn starts critiquing Widney’s “amateur hour” mistakes as she continues cleaning up, tweaking the majordomo’s nose for not being the professional she prides herself as.

Natalia by this point has stopped struggling and making noises.

It only took a few moments after she saw them deal with the police to stop.

Caroline: She lets the gagged Natalia watch her break the cops’ minds, then turns crossly to the girl.

“You’re making my life harder than it needs to be and endangering more people for no reason.”

Her next words are hard, but no more than doing what needs to be done is.

No more than this entire existence is.

“Maybe you are one of us.”


Monday night, 29 February 2016, AM

GM: The stop at the Giani Building proceeds uneventfully enough. Fuller, Green, and Autumn get out to see to their various tasks. Widney remains in the car to drive her domitor and their reluctant passenger to Perdido House. When she removes Natalia’s gag before starting the car with Caroline’s permission, the thin-blood flinches at the contact.

“Y… you killed them,” she whispers after a moment.

“Wh… why…?”

Widney only pulls the car out of the underground garage.

Caroline: Caroline gives a bitter and joyless laugh. “Not hardly. We’re hardier than human. More like put them in a coma.”

“As for why,” she continues, “we’re not just monsters because we’re damned by God parasites on humanity, sucking the literal lifeblood from people.”

“There are a lot of different explanations, but the one that always stood out to me is that we all carry the sins and hate and anger of all the vampires in the line that made us inside us. Sort of like original sin.”

“And when that gets out, when we have a moment of weakness and it takes control, we lose control.” She gestures to Gwen’s corpse beside them. “I don’t even remember doing this, just coming to after it was done.”

Her voice is hard, joyless. “Jocelyn lost it on me because I invaded her mind to make her stop trying to fuck me while you were trying to get an explanation. Gwen wasn’t real happy when I woke her up to find Jocelyn torped and lost it as well.”

GM: Natalia stares at Gwen’s corpse.

Caroline: “When the Beast is in control it doesn’t matter if they’re your best friend, your lover, your own mother. This is what happens.” She gestures to Gwen again.

GM: “Ms. Wade isn’t dead, ma’am?” Widney asks from the driver’s seat with some surprise.

Caroline: “I mean, semantically she’s as dead as I am. But to actually destroy one of us in a wake we won’t eventually wake up from requires some pretty specific means,” Caroline replies, frowning that Autumn hasn’t gone over this.

“Hitting, even shooting or stabbing us until we stop moving won’t do it in the long term. The morning after I was turned I got shot in the head. I shrugged it off.”

GM: “Ms. Rabinowitz is unwilling to debrief me on vampiric physiology, ma’am,” Widney states. “Among other topics of relevance to my duties.”

Caroline: Caroline frowns. “We’ll talk about it later.”

She looks at Natalia again. “Not that I wouldn’t have liked to kill Gwen,” Caroline continues to the girl. “This is less than she deserved after killing and fucking up her turning of you.”

GM: Widney looks as if she wants to smear Autumn into the mud further, but refrains at her employer’s request.

Caroline: “But that justice isn’t mine to dispense, though she may very well receive it. What she did to you… that’s usually punishable by death.”

The Ventrue shrugs. “I don’t know if that makes you feel any better.”

GM: “Why… why can’t you just let me go?” Natalia asks falteringly. “What did I do? What, besides get…”

She just looks at Gwen again.

Caroline: Caroline sighs. “I don’t know. What did you do? I’ve never met one of us that didn’t have some deep dark secret buried in their past.”

She turns her dead eyes on the girl intently. “So what did you do to deserve getting killed and damned?”

GM: Natalia looks more than apprehensive under the scrutiny and answers, “N… nothing. I got, I got pregnant, before I was married. I just want to have the baby and get my degree. That’s all.”

Caroline: “Nothing? Not ever? You never hurt anyone or took advantage of someone?” Caroline pries.

GM: Natalia answers like someone who thinks their life may depend on it.

“Hurt, hurt how? Everyone’s done something…”

Caroline: “You’re right. They have,” the Ventrue replies. She takes another needless breath and gives another sigh.

“It’s like looking in a mirror,” she says at last, more gently. “When this happened to me I asked the same questions. I demanded the same things. I protested. But deep down I knew the truth. The sins that Damned me way before the first drop of my makers blood passed my lips.”

“It didn’t excuse them for doing it, but I knew I wasn’t innocent. Not really.” She shrugs, “I don’t care what you did. Not really, Natalia. It’s not my business to judge you. Hell, none of this is really my business.”

“But I don’t know what your future holds, and honestly the hours left in your life are probably as few as the minutes we have left in the car, so if you want to get something off your chest before it’s out of my hands, and yours, I’m here to listen.”

GM: “But I, I confessed to my priest. Having sex and getting pregnant when I wasn’t married. But I got married. My family was so happy. He said God forgave me.” Pinkish, watery-copper tears well at her eyes. “I don’t know what I did. I don’t know why, why you want to kill me. Why do you want to kill me?”

“I would also find it informative to know why, ma’am,” Widney says quietly. “From what you’ve said of your own… initial unlife circumstances, they sounded similar to Ms. Garcia’s.”

Caroline: Caroline pauses to collect her thoughts. “I have no intention of hurting you, Natalia. I have no desire to. If I did, I would have simply left, I would have called the sheriff and told him of your existence. I’d have let Gwen find some way to dispose of you.”

The silence stretches on. “But nor can I simply turn you loose in the street. That wouldn’t benefit me, or you, or any of the people you’d hurt before someone else dragged you in front of the sheriff or the scourge found you and murdered you in some dark alley with her claws.”

“And I know what you’re thinking—that you wouldn’t hurt people—because I thought the same thing. I thought it right up until I ripped out someone’s throat when he tried to drag me out of a closet during the day. When the first time I was starving I bit into a girl’s throat. When the first time I was hurt and couldn’t control myself I drank and drank and drank until they were dead.”

She looks at the thin, half coppery tears. “And I am possessed of all the strength of a ‘real’ vampire. I can invade minds and rewrite memories. I can make you my friend with just a glance. I can shrug off bullets and literally move faster than you can see.”

“How are you going to feed your thirst? What are you going to do for your unborn child? What doctor are you going to go to that will understand what you are, what he may be, and what either of you need? That would believe you anything but crazy? And one better, wouldn’t simply result in someone less gentle than myself coming to collect—and then promptly dispose—of you for endangering the secret that is our existence?”

“So I’m taking you to the prince—because it’s the law—and with good reason. I’m taking you to the prince because he might know what to do about your son. And I’m taking you to the prince because it’s the right thing to do. But I’m not going to lie and tell you everything is going to be alright.”

GM: “You said I’m going to die. In… hours.” Natalia’s voice is small.

Caroline: Caroline wants to reach out and comfort the girl, but she knows just how little good that would do. She’s not a savior in Natalia’s eyes, just a terrible monster whose grasp she’s in.

“I… I don’t want to lie to you, Natalia… you’re what’s called a thin-blood. It’s what happens when a vampire that’s too weak tries to make another vampire. You’re also an illegal Embrace—a vampire created without the prince’s permission.”

“Typically, either of those is enough to get you executed, because creating a vampire without permission is a high crime precisely to prevent stuff like this from happening, and because… being a weak vampire just means your existence is going to be even harder than it is for the rest of us. And typically the people that suffer when a vampire’s existence is difficult are the people around them.”

“The laws of our kind are harsh, by necessity. And even when they’re not, most of us are every bit the monster you think I am right now. You can’t go through night after night manipulating and hurting people just so you can suck the life from their veins without it twisting you into something awful.”

She sighs. “So yeah… you could die where I’m taking you… but it’s also the only place you might get help for your son before that happens.”

GM: “But, but I’m 27 weeks,” Natalia protests. “My water hasn’t broke. He’ll be dead too, if you go through with this. If they kill me. How can he get help? How can he get help if I’m dead?”

Caroline: Survival rates at 27 weeks are actually pretty good, Caroline thinks, but doesn’t say. She doesn’t expect it’ll calm Natalia down, but Caroline judges the ‘pre-med’ student for not knowing more about her pregnancy.

GM: 80 to 90 percent, as Caroline well knows. High to a premed student.

Perhaps lower to a mother.

Caroline: “Yeah, so that’s the rub for them too,” she says instead. “I don’t think the seneschal would want to execute a pregnant woman, and I’m hoping between dragging your sire’s torpid body in for justice and that, that they’ll grant you a stay.”

GM: “The seneschal? That’s, that’s who’ll decide? Who are they?”

Caroline: “The hand of the prince in night to night activities. The seneschal is… ancient, hundreds of years old. He is wise and merciful.”

“Well… by our standards.”

GM: “So… they could let me, us, live?” Natalia asks uncertainly.

It’s not quite hope, but maybe wants to be.

Caroline: “Natalia, I wouldn’t be bringing you there if I didn’t think it was your best chance,” Caroline replies genuinely. “But I don’t want to lie to you and tell you everything is going to be fine.”

“There’s a way this could go wrong, so… I know this is a difficult thing to think about right now, but if it does go that way… if there’s anything you’d like to see done, any last wish type things…” she continues gently.

GM: There’s no hesitation.

“My baby. Let my baby live. If you, they, kill me, let him live. Please.” The thin-blood’s voice breaks.

Caroline: “I know, I know,” Caroline replies. “I know. I meant anything other than that.”

GM: “Say you’ll do it. Say you’ll let him live. Please.”

Caroline: “I will do everything in my power to let your child live,” Caroline replies. “I already am.”

Can’t she see that? snarls a nasty voice in Caroline’s head.

But she knows it’s just the voice of pain and loss. She knows that she just became all the more threatening to the girl than Father Malveaux was in her earliest nights. He didn’t beat two other vampires into torpor in front of her.

GM: Natalia looks at once unsure of that answer, and like she wants to believe in it more than anything.

“And that you’ll bring him back to my family,” she continues. “My husband’s name is Jake Abel.” She adds an address.

Caroline: Caroline makes a point of plugging both into a note on her phone.

“I know you don’t believe it, Natalia, but I am trying to help you.”

GM: “Say you’ll do that. Please.”

Caroline: “If anything happens to you, I will do what is within my power to ensure your son is turned over to his father,” Caroline agrees.

GM: “I’d… I’d like to say goodbye to him. And my parents.”

Caroline: The Ventrue bites her lower lip. “I think that would be hard to explain, but for what it’s worth, I’ll make it clear. One idea though, that I might have more influence in might be writing him a later that could be given to him when he’s older.”

“Nothing specific to… well, all of this, but you could tell him the things you what to say about yourself, about life. You could leave something to let him know you loved him, and you’d do anything for him.”

“And if the worst happened… I’d do everything I could to ensure it reached him down the line.”

She pauses again. “Or… even better, if you thought you could keep it together… you could leave a message behind on my tablet. You could say what you wanted him to hear, he could hear it in your voice, and it would be something he could have.”

GM: “I meant, I meant saying goodbye to my husband,” Natalia says at first.

She’s silent for a moment at Caroline’s mention of saying goodbye to that other ‘him’. The Ventrue’s suggestion of leaving behind a letter or recording elicits a choked little sound.

“I… what could I even say, to Miles, to explain all…”

All of this.

Caroline: “You couldn’t,” Caroline replies. “Not to explain this. But if I had one message to leave for someone I cared about for the rest of their life, it wouldn’t be about what happened for me. It would be about what I felt for them.”

GM: “Yes. Yes, I do I want to say that.” The thin-blood sniffs. Actually sniffs. “I just want him to know that, that I didn’t abandon him. I don’t want him to grow up with that.”

Uncertainty flickers across her face. “What’s, what’s Jake and my family going to know, what happened to me?”-

Caroline: The Ventrue bites her lower lip. “Honestly? I don’t know. I mean, in broad terms it’ll get covered up some how. Accidental death is popular.”

GM: Natalia doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “Okay. I’d like to record something. Please.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “Sure, just… keep it generic. A ‘just in case’ video that you could have recorded without outside prompting.”

She digs a tablet out.

GM: Natalia doesn’t even reach to touch it until Caroline hands it over. When the Ventrue does, she tries to smile. She does, but Caroline doesn’t think she’s ever seen a sadder one.

“Miles. Hi. This is your mom.”

“I don’t know if you’re going to hear this. But I want you to have something. In case…” She takes a shaky breath. “Just in case.”

“I love you. I want you to know that. I love you.”

“Your dad, your grandma and grandpa, and all your aunts and uncles, I know they’ll tell you stories about how your dad and I met. When he asked me if he could compare Biology 101 notes, and how he only did that so he could ask me out.” She gives a little laugh. It sounds genuine, even if the fear, worry, and exhaustion behind it does too.

She sniffs. “You were a surprise. A big surprise, actually. Some people thought I shouldn’t have you. But I knew, as soon as I knew you were alive, you were special and, and a blessing, and I wanted to give you the best life I could.”

“I was scared, at first. That other people, that your family, wouldn’t see you the same way. That it was going to be hard to give you the life I wanted you to have.”

She gives another laugh that’s all-too genuine in all the right and all the wrong ways.

“Well, I guess you know how that turned out.”

“With your family, it was love at first sight. Not even first sight. First, I guess sound. They were so happy when I told them about you, so happy like you couldn’t even believe.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to hear that after being so scared. I was so happy, so happy I wondered if this was even happening, for you and for me. You have so much love in your life. Just so much love. You’ve felt like, like the luckiest baby in the world.”

“There’s so much I want to say to you, so much I want to share with you and be with you there for. I want to be there when you see your dad’s medal and know how brave he was. I want to have you on my lap and feed you your grandma’s garbanzos stew on Semana Santa, and I hope you don’t urp it up on your grandpa’s face like I did, they’ll tell you that story, but I’ll love you even if you do that too.”

Caroline: Caroline tries not to listen. She tries not to focus on what a better person Natalia is than she ever was. The words bite all the same.

They’re words she never said. Words she will never get to say. Words she never even considered. Damn you, Gwen. The Ventrue is actually glad the Toreador frenzied, glad she’s delivering Gwen’s torpid body along with the girl. Anything that might give Natalia a chance…

And it’s all chances. The slim chance her child is still alive. The slimmer chance that he’s not just some undead monstrosity like any Kindred child. The slim chance she can get the girl to see the seneschal. The slim chance the seneschal will grant mercy to this pathetic thin-blood. Chances within chances within chances. But what the hell else can she do? Throw her off into the world? Try to hide her with Savoy?

Even if the lord of the French Quarter was inclined to look after her—and she doesn’t know he is—there’s no reason to think he or his people would be able to help her. And what kind of life would it be, skulking around, trying to avoid notice, trying to figure out how to feed with the malformed ‘gifts’ of a half-vampire? She knows bitterly well difficult it is just to keep alive as a lick. Just how easily—and how many—people get hurt as a result.

Damn Gwen. Fucking damn her. The Ventrue feels a fierce satisfaction in her handiwork with the Toreador.

Another option dances across her mind. Someone as knowledgeable as the seneschal, and perhaps even more so. Someone who wouldn’t execute Natalia out of hand… but it dances away just as quickly.

She made extremely clear to Caroline that she was not there to solve the Ventrue’s problems, nor interested in them.

GM: As Caroline mentally weighs those many evils and re-commits herself to the lesser one, Natalia continues to falteringly talk into the tablet as Widney drives. She doesn’t move to stop at any point. Caroline supposes it’s no surprise. If there’s anyone she wants to talk to in this car, after all, it’s the baby she might never see.

She talks about random things. Hopes. Memories. Plans. How she’s going to school so she become a doctor, a family doctor. Her wedding with Jake, that they celebrated about a month ago. How he’s going to school too, to be an engineer. How they went through her parents’ collection of children’s books a little while ago (the one she wants to read Miles most is One Hundred Years of Solitude), and how Jake’s parents brought over his old Thomas the Tank Engine ones when they flew in for the wedding. How…

Caroline doesn’t think she’s ever seen Perdido House look so imposing as when the 40-story skyscraper abruptly soars into view. Natalia’s voice dies as she looks over the brutal glass and steel monolith with its silently howling gargoyles.

“I, I want you to do so many things,” she starts again. “The beach, the zoo, the, the Disneyland, and, and I know even if we don’t, if we don’t get to do them, I know your family loves you, and will do so much for you,” she stammers as the underground parking garage swallows their car. Checkpointed teeth close past as the guards wave them through, their grim faces utterly without sympathy for the thin-blood.

“You have so much love,” she continues in a choked voice. “In your life, from all your family. I, I don’t know if I’ll get to meet you, there’s nothing I want more, and I love you, and I’m sorry if, if, I love you, so much, and I’m sorry, I l…”

The car finally comes to an inevitable stop. Natalia breaks down again in those same pinkish, half-salty, half-coppery tears as the engine dies.

“It’s time, ma’am,” Widney says somewhat unnecessarily.

Caroline: “Just a moment,” Caroline replies, digging out several tissues from the seat-back in front of her and passing them to the girl.

“I know this is tough,” she begins sympathetically. “Believe me, I know better than anyone.” Once again she wishes she could reach out and touch the girl to comfort her. Instead she simply gives a weak smile.

“I can’t give you much time here, but I’ll buy you another minute—just one. Don’t end the message in tears, please, for him. Wrap it up with the truth: you hope he never has to see this, but you never wanted him to have any doubt.”

GM: Natalia dabs off her eyes. “But, but I already said…”

“We can edit out that part, ma’am,” Winey states.

Caroline: Caroline nods in agreement with her assistant. “End it how you’d want your mother’s last words to you to end. Tell him you’re sure he’ll do great things and you hope you’ll be there to see it all.” She cracks open her door. “One minute, Natalia.”

The Ventrue slides out to meet anyone that comes to investigate or greet them.

GM: Word travels fast in Perdido House. No one is outside that Caroline can see, but the elevator doors a short ways off are already dinging open. Camilla Doriocourt and two ghouls are already filing out.

Camilla.jpg
“What is your business, neonate?” the unsmiling hound asks in an impassive tone all-too like her sire’s.

Caroline: “I have brought Gwendolyn Wade and her illicitly Embraced childe for the seneschal’s justice,” the Ventrue replies grimly.

GM: A coldly disdainful sneer curls the Toreador’s perfect lips.

“Bring them out.”

Natalia has had almost no time to amend her message.

Caroline: “There’s a complication,” Caroline interrupts.

GM: The priest waits in expectant silence.

Caroline: “Several, in fact.” Caroline pauses for only a moment before continuing, “Ms. Wade frenzied and was unfortunately,” a hint of a smile sneaks its way out of Caroline’s face at that word, “beaten into torpor. I’m afraid she’ll have to be awakened before she can speak to her crime.”

GM: “This fact poses minimal inconvenience,” Doriocourt states.

Caroline: “The second was that between the fledgling’s reaction to her Embrace and the violence of Ms. Wade’s frenzy, the police were to respond to her apartment. I entered their minds to convince them nothing was amiss, and sent them along with several of my ghouls to ensure the neighbors were similarly convinced. I beg forgiveness and understanding for this intrusion into the prince’s domain.”

“I can provide their badge numbers and names, if you wish to verify I had no ulterior motive and tampered no further with their minds than was necessary to protect the Masquerade.”

GM: “Do so,” the hound states perfunctorily. “Your actions shall be forgiven if what you have told me is true.”

Caroline: “Of course, Hound Doriocourt. My gratitude.” The Ventrue runs her tongue across her fangs and brings up her third point. “Finally, though I believe none presumed Ms. Wade to be especially close to Caine, the full truth of her blood’s thinness is reflected in her ‘childe’. That, until itself is I know not so irregular. The scourge does the prince’s will each night in helping preserve the archdiocese against the many dangers presented by such creatures, but Ms. Wade’s choice of victims…”

She pauses for a moment. “There is no polite way to say this. The girl is seven months pregnant. She reports the child is still moving within her. She herself still draws breath and still has a pulse.”

GM: Doriocourt stares at Caroline. The Ventrue cannot say what thoughts might be occurring behind those cold eyes.

Finally, she replies, “Show me Miss Wade’s mistake.

Caroline: “Of course.” Caroline slides over to the other side of the car and opens the door. “Ms. Diaz, please step out.”

GM: It’s not until some time later that Widney corrects her employer that Natalia’s surname was Garcia, because the thin-blood doesn’t. She looks as if someone is dragging her before a hungry lion after she steps out and gets one look at Doriocourt.

The hound offers neither sympathies nor reassurances. She does not even speak. She wordlessly slashes Natalia’s palm with a knife from her coat pocket, causing the thin-blood to cry out. Doriocourt dabs a finger against the wet blade and touches it to her tongue.

She wordlessly yanks open Natalia’s mouth and examines the cavity’s interior as if inspecting a horse. Disgust crosses her face for a moment at the thin-blood’s malformed fangs.

Caroline can see the naked fear on Natalia’s face when Doriocourt begins to poke and prod her swollen belly, then removes a leather glove to press a too-cold palm against it.

Nothing crosses the hound’s face. No tenderness. No sympathy. Just clinical, scientific notation.

Finally, she turns away from the thin-blood without a word and approaches Caroline’s car. Widney pulls up Gwendolyn at her request. The hound slashes her wrist and presses it to the torpid vampire’s lips.

Gwen shakily starts, “Mother…?”

She is preempted with a cold, “Explain.

“Mother,” she starts, her eyes widening as she looks at Natalia, “there was an accident, I was going to confe…”

The hound’s icy stare says it all.

She is too late.

Far too late.

Gwendolyn gives an explanation much like the one Caroline listened to. Doriocourt stares at her disdainfully.

Fear starts to give way to anger on Natalia’s face.

“You, how could you even-!”

Doriocourt stares into the thin-blood’s eyes and orders, “Be silent,” with all the regard of someone telling Alexa to turn off the lights.

When Natalia’s misshapen fangs do not retract, the Toreador contemptuously orders one of her ghouls to “hood this thing.” The man pulls a black sack over Natali’s head. She opens her mouth to protest, but no sound comes out. There’s just a despairing look before the hood eclipses even that.

Caroline: Caroline lays a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

GM: It’s there only for an instant before the ghoul offers her a hard shove in the direction she’s supposed to start walking. It’s too much. Natalia panics. She rips off the hood and tries to run.

Caroline: Caroline has control of her before she can.

GM: Doriocourt also stares into her eyes again and tells her what else not to do, then slaps her across the face hard enough to spin her head. Natalia glances at Caroline desperately before the hood goes back on. Gwen watches without protest and follows the group into the elevator.

“Your service to the archdiocese is noted, Miss Malveaux,” the hound states as the doors close.

Caroline: The Ventrue stares numbly after the doors have closed. Bitterly.

It was the right thing to do. For what Natalia wanted—the best possible chance for her child. For the good of the innocent girl turned into this half-living monster. For the good of all the people in Natalia’s life that she would have hurt and dragged down if turned loose.

It was the right thing to do. Forcing Gwen to pay for what she did. Trying to get some bitter justice in the world.

But when the doors close all that Caroline is left with is how little all of that means. With the price she paid tonight, and how little it bought her. Jocelyn’s battered body back at her apartment. The hurt and hate in her eyes when she realized what Caroline had done.

She knows how angry she’ll be too, about Gwen. That Caroline turned her in. About Natalia, that Caroline delivered her to the hounds. About everything. She can’t even blame her, wouldn’t want to.

Caroline wishes she could just wake up from this bad dream, this horrible night in which everything went wrong, and nothing went right. The night where Gwen murdered and Embraced a pregnant girl to make herself feel better. The night Caroline hurt her lover. The night she delivered the terrified girl into the least tender hands imaginable.

There’s no waking up. It never stops.

The Ventrue eventually breaks from the trance that holds her and gets back to work. Picking up the pieces.

Again.

It’s what she always does.


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