“What parts of yourself will you sacrifice for power?”
Friday night, 4 December 2015, PM
GM: The evening at Commander’s Palace concludes with Lyman and Abélia splitting the dinner bill, which they subsequently third with Warren at his insistence. Nolan offers to chip in, which Adeline laughingly tells him is silly (“you barely had anything!”). He retorts he “stole some of your dessert!” Abélia and the Whitneys accede to letting him pay the servers’ tips. Chuck tells him he’s overtipping them. Nolan laughs it off. Caroline can’t imagine that Lyman is any happier with his granddaughter’s boyfriend’s behavior, but he holds his tongue under the present and joyous circumstances.
Everyone goes back to their cars after exchanging last congratulations, photos, hugs, and farewells with the newly-engaged couple. People who’ve had too much drink to safely drive work out how they’ll carpool and get their own parked vehicles back home.
Cécilia’s sisters are already chattering about the upcoming wedding. They all want to be bridesmaids. Simmone wants to be the flower girl. Abélia smiles and tells her daughters they should go celebrate their sister’s engagement. “The night is young, my dears, and so are you. Savor both while they last.”
Noëlle and Simmone are the only ones who don’t enthusiastically climb into Adeline’s and Nolan Moreno’s car. Noëlle still does, after Abélia asks Adeline to “mind your sister, please.” Simmone refuses to leave her mother’s side, which the latter indulges. Her breath steams in the winter air as she strokes the girl’s hair and asks,
“Would you care for a ride home, Caroline? My driver has fortunately had rather less to drink than either of us.”
Caroline: “I’d be grateful, Abélia,” Caroline answers, her own breath giving lie to her dead state. She can simply have ghouls or employees pick up her car later.
GM: “As I will be for your company,” Abélia smiles as her chauffeur opens the door to the extra-long Mercedes. “Do you have someone who can come pick up your car soon? Parking spots are at such a premium here, we wouldn’t want to inconvenience tomorrow’s diners.”
Caroline: The Ventrue nods. “Thinking two steps ahead already?” she asks even as she digs out her phone. “I’ll send someone a text.”
She does so and follows the older woman into the large car.
GM: The black car’s leather and hardwood interior is quite spacious, perhaps little surprise given the size of Abélia’s family. It feels empty, though, with only three people to take up the seven seats. Only a handful of reflections stare back at them from the illuminated vanity mirrors, seat-embedded flat screen TVs, and other stainless steel accouterments. Abélia assumes the first passenger row’s middle seat so that a quiet and already drowsy-looking Simmone can lean against her. The Garden District’s live oaks, flower beds, wrought-iron fences, and rows of Colonial and Victorian houses slowly roll past in the night.
“I’m so happy for your brother and my Cécilia,” Abélia remarks. “They really do make such a splendid match together. I can hardly wait to be a grandmother.”
Caroline: “You must be very proud tonight, Abélia,” Caroline agrees. “Though I imagine they’ll take their time before they give you that particular pleasure.”
GM: “Life is full of surprises, my dear. I’d have thought they were going to wait until they were at least 30 before tying the knot,” she says, stroking her daughter’s hair. “They are so young still, as they say.”
Caroline: “I suppose that’s a matter of perspective,” Caroline observes.
GM: “Yes, perspective. There’s nothing like confronting one’s mortality to make one mindful for the future, is there?”
Caroline: “That’s what I found,” Caroline agrees.
GM: “Last August’s tragedy, and your brother’s even more tragic passing, has put so much into perspective for so many here. Perhaps you won’t be an aunt in too many years after all.”
Simmone starts idly tracing doodles across the car’s cold-condensed windows.
Caroline: “That’s one possibility,” Caroline concedes. “The other take away is that few of us know when our own time is up. Life can be so fleeting.” She gives a slight smile. “I’d like to see that though. Your daughter—well, several of them, really, mean more to me than I’d realized.”
GM: “I am so very gladdened to hear that, Caroline,” the raven-haired woman smiles. “It bodes well for the union between our families. How have they won you over?”
Caroline: “No easy questions tonight?” Caroline replies lightly, pausing for a moment as she gathers her thoughts.
“Vulnerability,” she replies after that moment. “Being able to help some of them was a delight. Openness with me, with their own hopes and dreams and even, in some cases, fears. Of course what Cécilia’s done for my brother. And, I’d be lying of course, if I claimed the growing distance with some of my own family members didn’t contribute.”
GM: “J’aime la neige, Maman…” Simmone tiredly murmurs. (“I love the snow, Maman…”)
“C’est beau, ma douce, n’est-ce pas? Chaque flocon de neige est unique,” Abélia answers her. (“It is beautiful, my sweet, isn’t it? Each snowflake is unique.”)
Caroline: Caroline watches the interaction with gentle eyes falling upon the young girl. They’re so fragile, the living.
GM: “A mother’s doting soul,” Abélia smiles at Caroline.
Caroline: “Only someone with one could suffer through six girls. I saw how I made my mother suffer alone. Not that I’m certain you would see it that way, nor she,” Caroline continues.
GM: “Perhaps further company would have eased her burden,” Abélia posits, stroking her daughter’s hair. “Your brother said something about that in his proposal speech—about Cécilia teaching him love wasn’t like oil? How the more of it he gave away, the more he had to give?”
She laughs lightly as drifting white flakes stick to the car’s windows. “Something akin to that.”
Caroline: “Snow in New Orleans,” Caroline remarks. “That’s a near-miracle.”
GM: “It is the season for those, isn’t it?” the black-haired woman smiles again. “But then, Christ is such a near-miraculous figure Himself. Not for His deeds, of course, which were wholly miraculous—but for our perception of them. And of Him.”
Her smile grows as Simmone yawns and snuggles against her breast.
“He was, after all, history’s most devious serpent hiding in lamb’s clothing.”
Caroline: The words sends a chill through the dead woman.
“I’m not certain that’s a canonical view of Him,” she replies.
GM: “Did you ever make much study of Arianism while in school, Caroline? I’m sure you had to have covered religious studies in some depth.”
Caroline: “More familiar perhaps than a layman might be,” Caroline replies. “My uncle is, after all, a priest.”
GM: “More than a priest. And your cousin, of course, is ‘but’ a priest.”
“Would you turn on some carols, please? I find myself in a festive mood,” Abélia remarks through the hands-free intercom to the car’s driver.
There’s a soft flick of the radio.
GM: “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.”
Caroline: “Essentially, it’s a break from the Trinity. The idea that Jesus Christ, as a begotten being, was not one and the same with God.”
GM: Caroline catches the driver’s reflection in the mirror.
His head lacks eyes, ears, nostrils, or a mouth. A slightly raised indentation of flesh approximates a nose.
Caroline: The sight is as unnerving as the inexplicable snow, or street signs—which she notices, bizarrely, are in French—but the Ventrue grips her composure as firmly as she did at the dinner, and holds fast against the Beast’s thrashing.
GM: “J’aime cette chanson, Maman…” Simmone murmurs sleepily, nuzzling her face against her mother. (“I love this song, Maman…”)
“Nous te chanterons de dormir avec ça, ma chérie. Vous êtes debout après l’heure du coucher,” Abélia answers her. (“We’ll sing you to sleep with it, my dear. You are up past your bedtime.”)
She turns a bright smile towards Caroline. “Caroline, would you care to sing with me? I’m sure you have a beautiful voice to match your mother’s heart—we can make a regular caroling of the night.”
Caroline: “Far be it for me to deny Simmone,” Caroline replies.
GM: “Splendid,” Abélia beams.
The two sing.
Caroline’s clear and piercing soprano voice is slightly on the deep end for that vocal type: one of her instructors at church choir said it was a ‘dramatic soprano,’ and a powerful vocal type that can potentially assert itself over as many as eighty orchestra pieces. It’s also a good voice, he had added, for public speaking (something Caroline told her father about at dinner and he responded to with mild but nevertheless all-too rare approval).
Abélia’s voice, in contrast, is lower, softer, and markedly lachrymose. There’s a haunting and even melancholy quality to it that provides a powerful contrast on multiple levels. The first is internal, through the underlying note of warmth and tenderness as she regards her drowsing daughter. The second is external, when contrasted against Caroline’s higher, stronger, more resonant timber.
The two vocalists play yin to one another’s yang and sun to one another’s moon. The Ventrue isn’t sure if it’s the many emotions she’s felt this evening from joy to fondness to bittersweetness (and simple bitterness), admixed with the fear and uncertainty she feels now, or some advantage of her still-new state. She idly wonders if Toreador singers are superior to their mortal counterparts because their voices aren’t susceptible to the frailties and limitations of living flesh.
Maybe it’s the sum of her entire Requiem, now expressed in a form more pure and forthright than any words. Art, after all, is the expression of the soul. Caroline has rarely bared hers to others, even before the Embrace. Rarely through words. Tonight may be an exception—and the result is a thing of tear-evoking beauty.
“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.”
Snow falls in white and thick whorls. Half-melted flakes run from the windshield as the car’s wipers run back and forth.
“Our God, heav’n cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.”
Caroline: Caroline falls contemplatively silent when the song ends. She’s never been someone easily moved to music, swinging wildly or strongly in emotions. Nor has she thought highly of her own performances.
GM: A sight approaches through the falling snow.
The Gothic castle stretches for as far as Caroline’s eye can see—which is not far under the thickly falling snow. But its stone and arrow-slitted walls rise tall and proud. Ghostly columns of light play up its sides.
Abélia, perhaps pleased with the results of the pair’s music, leads them through an encore.
“Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshiped the beloved with a kiss.”
Simmone’s eyes are closed as her chest slowly rises and falls.
“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him… give my heart.”
An almost reverential silence stretches the car’s heated air.
“That was sublime, Caroline,” Abélia praises, seemingly delighted. “My girls weren’t wrong about you seeking public office… at least not wholly. I don’t know that a career in the performing arts suits your family, but you could have been such an orator with that voice. It would have been wasted in a law office.”
“And I see we delivered Simmone into Hypnos’ waiting embrace,” she smiles, kissing the sleeping child’s brow. “What a perfect little angel she is. I do fear I’m spoiling her, sometimes… but they grow up so fast.”
Caroline hears it. It’s a soft sound, barely audible as it wafts from the smooth and unbroken flesh where the driver’s mouth should be.
It’s interspersed with another noise. Even softer. Fainter, and wholly absent of the telltale visual sign that would accompany it:
Caroline: She tries to ignore that sound.
“That’s kind of you to say, but it sounds as though you’ve already written off my plans for the future, Abélia.”
GM: “Should I not, Caroline? Do you still intend to become tomorrow’s Senator Malveaux as my girls believe you should?” Abélia inquires in an amused tone, tracing a finger along Simmone’s head.
Caroline: “I think that would be rather difficult, all things considered,” Caroline admits. She watches the other woman with Simmone with a mixture of jealousy and melancholy.
Neither is a comfortable feeling, but both are more so than the world turned upside down around her. The snow in New Orleans, the impossibly French street signs, the mysterious and out of place castle, and the pitifully weeping man—or creature—in the front seat.
She tries to tune those things out, to focus on the knowable. Almost frantically so, as though ignoring the rest might somehow make it disappear.
GM: “It’s ironic, you know, just how inconsistent Christianity has been in its orthodoxy. It’s not at all like the old pagans—or comparatively recent Vodouisants—who could accept many gods and ideas under their faith’s umbrella.”
Caroline: “The acceptance of the trinity essentially destroys any potential for embracing monotheism, doesn’t it?” Caroline asks.
The subject change nearly gives her mental whiplash, but she’s well schooled, and quick on the uptake.
GM: “Why yes, it does,” Abélia smiles. “The faith wasn’t always quite able to do that. Catholicism subsumed many prior pagan traditions when it was still Niceanism. Some Protestants during the Reformation considered the Holy Mother Church ungodly for that reason—these were the same Puritans, or at least spiritual siblings to them, who refused to celebrate Christmas due to the holiday’s pagan origins. They had such fire in their conviction that papistry was merely a mask for the old ways. But they forget the Catholics leveled similar accusations against the Arians not so many centuries ago.”
“Arianism was more palatable to the still-pagan Germanic tribes when Ulfilas went on that mission they’d make him the patron saint of heretics for. The Goths could more easily accept a son who was subordinate to the father than a son who was also one with the father.”
“Why, some early Germanic variants of Christianity cast Christ as a warrior figure. There are illustrations of Jesus, albeit ones created some centuries later, that depict Him dressed in mail and helm. He holds a Bible in one hand and a spear in his other one. An impaled fire-breathing serpent and a slain lion with its tongue lolling out from its mouth lie trampled beneath his steel-shod feet. This Christ is no gentle lamb of God.”
“The Catholic Church had to re-convert these Arians to the proper ways of believing. The creed wasn’t completely expunged until well over half a millennium after Christ first walked the earth.”
Caroline: The overly intellectual and theological topic at first makes it harder to focus entirely on Abélia instead of the weeping man, but when the topic turns to Ulfilas the older ‘woman’ captures Caroline’s full attention.
There it is, out in the open. A discussion turned explicitly away from simple faith and to that of the Sanctified. Ulfilas was no saint, at least among the living. It’s an all but out and out admission of her nature—not that Caroline hadn’t (or couldn’t) have guessed as much already.
GM: “I’m not boring you with all of this dry and musty talk of centuries-dead faiths, am I, Caroline? Shall we speak of other things?”
Caroline: “Not at all, Abélia,” Caroline replies. “I take your meaning to be that the faith’s is hardly so monolithic historically as even its fractured nature might cause it to appear today—with the Protestant, Reformed, Baptist, Catholic, and many other denominations? I would content that such is not, I think, a fair observation, unless one were to take the position that, for instance, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses fall beyond Christendom.”
GN: “They certainly would not take such a position, would they? It’s an inevitable consequence of monotheistic faiths, I suppose—there is only so much room for doctrinal differences. And those differences cannot help but arise. After the Arians, of course, there were the Monophysites, the Iconoclasts, the Nestorians, the schism between the Chalcedonian and Oriental Churches, the great schism between East and West, and the truly deviant Cathars, who were themselves inspired by the Gnostics of earlier centuries—I wonder, at times, if they were perhaps the closest believers of all to truth.”
“Do you know what they believed? That the false Christ we knew, in so many words, was evil. A false messiah and lust-driven lover of his Thirteenth Disciple.”
Caroline: “That’s a rather hard break from any modern Church,” Caroline concedes, trying to hide some shock at the lewdness of the claim.
GM: Abélia gives a light and fluttering laugh.
“Even they didn’t go so far as to completely condemn Christ, of course. The good Christ, the real, true, and hidden Christ, inhabited the body of his truest disciple, Paul of Tarsus.”
“And why should the Cathar’s Christ not have done such a thing? He was a wholly spiritual being. He was so divorced from the temptations and impurities of flesh that he would not even suffer to have a physical body. In that, perhaps, we see a complete and total rejection of everything the Arians believed: Christ as an entity so material that He could not be one with God.”
Caroline: “The physical as inherently impure, and thus divorced from both God and Jesus?” Caroline asks, trying to follow the leap amid faiths she has a mostly cursory education in. The nuns were more interested in teaching the history of such sects than heretical beliefs that might pervert the faith of young Catholic women.
GM: Abélia nods. “The physical world, to the Cathars’ beliefs, was inherently impure and corrupt. Their theology was a good deal more complex than that, however. The Gnostics of earlier centuries inspired much of their faith, and the Gnostics believed that each soul contained within itself a portion of God. The purpose of life was to release that divine mote from its captivity and to allow it to rejoin with the Almighty. The Gnostics further believed that Christ was a wholly divine being who had taken human form so that He might lead humanity back to the light. The Cathars merely took that belief further still—Christ could not even possess a material body if He was the savior so many believed. The very state of physical existence would have made Him less than divine.”
“‘A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light, he was to bear witness to the light.
The Word was the real light that gives light to everyone; he was coming into the world.
He was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him.’”
Abélia smiles. “The Gnostics did so love the Gospel of John.”
“Perhaps the Church’s patience had finally been tried too far by so many centuries of heretical beliefs. Perhaps the Cathars’ brand of heresy truly was that radical.” The raven-haired woman laughs again. “Perhaps St. Ulfilas overstepped his bounds and committed the deadly sin of pride! But it was the black-robed Cathars who would finally give rise to the Inquisition—hardly unique in its mission and practices, yet undeniable for the place it has captured in the popular mind… mortal and otherwise.”
“You are quite certain that I’m not boring you, Caroline? I do know these aren’t the sorts of topics that brought so many smiles to your face at dinner.”
Caroline: “It’s a very different topic, Abélia,” Caroline replies. “And one I’d not truly put much thought into in the past. For a Malveaux Catholicism was the only way, and I suspect if I’d shown much interest in ancient heresies it would have raised more than a few eyebrows.”
“It’s also something of an awkward topic, isn’t it?” she asks in a less certain tone. “Especially given Prince Vidal’s affection for St. Ulfilas?”
GM: “Do you believe that affection to be an idle one, my dear? They are so very alike in so many ways. Even in the ways in which they are different.”
Caroline: “I’d point to the prince’s position on Vodoun for those that might believe it idle,” Caroline answers. “Though I’ve never had the occasion to interact with the prince in much depth.”
GM: “History is a wagon wheel, my dear girl. It may turn and groan, but it cannot help but endlessly come back up to the same face.”
Caroline: “An interesting analogy, as despite the wheel’s return to its position, it moves the cart down the path towards some goal. The turning of the wheel to those with a narrow view might view it as pointless, but to those that broaden their gaze they see it part of some greater purpose.”
GM: “And such things the wheel’s turning may crush beneath its tread!” Abélia laughs. “Why, consider the eradication of the Cathars. Sword and crusade liberated them from the material world they so abhorred. Yet their deaths would echo down the centuries and convince a frightened pontiff of another matter… do you recognize where we are, Caroline?”
Caroline: Caroline studies the view in more detail for the first time through the car’s frosted glass. “Palais des Papes?”
The words send a chill through her she can no longer ignore.
What in God’s name is going on?
GM: The nuns who taught Caroline her history and letters might have lacked the inclination to teach young girls the fine points of centuries-dead heresies, but the Malveaux scion studied her faith’s temporal history well. The Palais de Papes, she knows, was the seat of the Avignon papacy—the 77-year period when popes resided in France rather than Rome.
This was considered one of the most shameful periods of the Catholic Church’s history, as the Avignon pontiffs were known for their corruption, lavish lifestyles, and material indulgence. History has only further maligned them for being under the thumb of the French kings and (even more) politically motivated in many of their decisions. The circumstances of the Avignon papacy both preceded and contributed to the Western Schism, which would irrevocably erode the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church and in turn give rise to the Protestant Reformation.
“Someone has studied her history!” Abélia remarks in a pleased tone as snow continues to whirl and fall. Dead and leaf-barren trees roll past the frosted windows like grasping, skeletal hands. In the distance, Caroline can perceive a great lake or river of groaning ice.
“Sword and crusade would eradicate the Cathars, at least from the material world they so abhorred. Yet the death of mere flesh would echo down the centuries into their greatest triumph.”
“History makes much of the fact that the Catholic Church endured a ‘Babylonian captivity’ within Avignon and were puppets of the French monarchs. This belief is rooted in truth but not entirely true, and further ignores the historic context of Clement V’s decision to relocate his court.”
“St. Louis IX made great strides in curbing the power of France’s nobles and cementing the authority of its monarchy, but this was nevertheless a gradual process that would only be completely realized by his namesake and centuries-later descendant Louis XIV. Until the reigns of the Sun King and his own immediate predecessors, southern France would remain a politically and culturally distinct region within the greater French ‘nation,’ which was a looser concept then than it is now: common people saw themselves as Norman or Toulousain rather than French. It was no coincidence the Cathars found the warm soil of future-day Languedoc so fertile a location to plant their seeds of heresy.”
“Clement V did not anticipate that French interests would come to so completely dominate the policy decisions of his successors. He truly believed that Provence was far enough from Philip the Fair’s grasp—though he himself was French and may have been biased in that assumption. He certainly had cause to fear for his personal safety in Rome. His predecessor’s unruly kidnapping had caused the poor old man to die of shock!”
“It was the Cathars, in many ways, who lured the Avignon line of popes to France.” A laughing smile slowly spreads across Abélia’s face. “I’m not certain whether they would have spun in their graves or danced for joy, if they could have seen it—in a time when the corrupt clergyman was already a stock character, Avignon plunged the papacy into still-greater depths of material corruption and excess.”
“The Cathars had been vindicated in their beliefs. Utterly and completely.”
“Gregory XI sought to undo the damage of Clement’s decision, but he was too late by too many popes. His death would give rise to the Great Occidental Schism—and the Catholic Church would never again command the spiritual and, eventually, temporal authority that it once did.”
“The wheel of history turns and groans. The face that once looked heavenwards is crushed beneath the earth, while another face once thought crushed now waxes ascendant. Has Prince Vidal learned these lessons?”
Caroline: “That those that rise will fall?” Caroline asks at the conclusion of the lesson.
GM: The raven-haired matron gives another fluttering laugh.
Caroline: “That concentration of power inevitably ends with its sundering, often by its own excesses?” Caroline continues through the laugh. “That one man cannot undo the damage of many?”
GM: “History has certainly proven that lesson true many times, has it not?”
“It is so hard for one man to undo the damage of many. It is so much harder for many men to reverse the course of greater wheels—force is that much harder for one body to leverage among many.”
Caroline: Caroline falls silent, then, after a moment. “Why are we here, Abélia?”
GM: The French matriarch laughs again. “Oh, this is terribly embarrassing to admit, Caroline, but I must confess I’ve never really had any head for plots and politics… they fly right over me. It just seemed like a good idea to take us somewhere out of the way, where my ineptness might not get us into trouble around all those spies.”
Caroline: “Ineptness? I doubt that’s a word any might apply to New Orleans’ premier socialite, not to mention a Kindred talented enough to maintain a masquerade amid that position and with six daughters to further complicate matters,” Caroline replies.
GM: There’s another gay and fluttering laugh as Abélia strokes the sleeping Simmone’s hair.
“Oh, that is something to hear, my dear girl. And really quite flattering, even if all you can see is another vampire.”
Caroline: “We’re slaves to our own experiences,” Caroline replies warily.
GM: There’s another laugh, but not gay at all this time. Abélia’s hungry eyes gleam in the dark.
“Those are truer words than you may know, my dear.”
Caroline: “The words of the young, when they hold any truth, usually are,” Caroline replies.
GM: “Don’t they. It’s true for so many of the young, Cainites and otherwise. Just consider the ‘timeless,’” and here Abélia smiles again, “question of the sum of two and two. So many of Caine’s youngest get would answer that it is four. Why?”
Caroline: “Public school systems,” Caroline quips. “New Orleans in particular is notoriously terrible, despite my father’s best efforts, and I’m sorry.”
GM: Abélia’s smile only grows.
Caroline: The heiress takes the smile as a positive and continues, “I’m told that common core math will help solve that problem, with children able to give any answer imaginable to that age old question after only a few classes.”
GM: “Education is something of a passion of mine, Caroline. It has to be, with six daughters. I could teach you how to do proper arithmetic, if you’d like—or at least the beginnings of how.”
Caroline: “Oh?” Caroline invites her to continue.
GM: “I do so appreciate an inquisitive young mind,” the raven-haired matron declares happily. “Your first lesson, my dear, is that two plus two does not equal four. Sometimes it’s five. Sometimes it’s nine. Sometimes it’s red. Sometimes it’s the sound of a scream in the wilderness. Sometimes it’s the heat death of the universe and an isolated system in total equilibrium.”
Caroline: “The truth is whatever you make it in the moment?” Caroline speculates.
GM: “Not in the least, my dear girl,” Abélia corrects. “Young Cainites such as yourself are rather selective in which views from their former lives they’re willing to abandon and which ones they insist on retaining, despite all evidence to the contrary. Tell me, Caroline, how do you exist? What scientific laws allow a clinically dead cadaver such as yourself to get up and walk?”
Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “I haven’t the faintest idea. There seem to be immutable laws to this state, but I could no more tell you what governs them than an infant could explain what makes the wind blow, or the tides come in, or the sun go down,” she admits. “It seems to deal more with faith than with science.”
GM: “That is untrue, my dear. Science is the simple discovery and organization of knowledge, nothing more and nothing less,” Abélia states. “But your words grasp truth. You can’t tell me, can you, any more than you might have explained the laws of nature as an infant?”
“An infant can only recognize the world that exists within their sensory perceptions. The breeze is cool. The beach is wet. The sky is dark. They have no conception of the how or why of these things. They cannot imagine what they cannot perceive.”
Caroline: “Effect without cause,” Caroline agrees.
GM: “Young Cainites such as yourself are similarly limited in their understanding,” Abélia agrees. “In many ways, their perceptions may be even more limited. An infant’s mind is adaptive and pliable. It believes whatever it perceives. There is no ‘impossible’ to an infant’s worldview.”
“A newly-Embraced Cainite’s mind is not so adaptive. They cling to scientific laws that hold their very existence to be impossible. Rather than acknowledge those laws’ inconsistency, and the rabbit hole that leads down, they find the figurative sand a more inviting place to plant their heads. They persist in believing the world abides by principles they were raised on. Force equals mass times acceleration. Matter cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Living organisms obey the laws of thermodynamics. And cadavers do not get up and walk. Vampires are, somehow… an exception.”
Abélia’s dark eyes glint with mirth.
“Heaven forbid they should be a rule.”
Caroline: “I’d argue the comparison with children is more accurate than you know,” Caroline responds.
“As much like a child, a young Cainite is beset with tales, explanations, and suggestions designed to shape their opinion along certain lines, or to explain a matter in simple terms.” She pauses. “Any source of actual truth is elusive. Whether others lie to them because the truth is too complicated, or they wish them to believe certain untruths, or simply because they can… well, that too can be much as with an a child.”
GM: “Oh, how it can,” Abélia purrs.
“Truth may be elusive, my dear, but it is far from relative. If one can admit their worldview has been built from false assumptions, yet still wishes to explain how a lovely cadaver such as yourself can get up and walk, it is necessary to reevaluate and discard assumptions that do not support one’s experimental observations. That is what a scientist does.”
“Caine’s get are not an anomaly. They are not a blind spot where the laws of science fail to apply. It is those laws—science itself, if we are to use a vernacular turn of phrase—that are blind. Four as the result of two plus two is the product of a flawed methodology.”
“So many old rules must be discarded to explain how cadavers can get up and walk. So many new ones must be invited in. That can be, I suppose we might say…”
Abélia chuckles mirthfully and pats her sleeping daughter’s head.
“…rather too much, for certain minds.”
Her smile turns back towards Caroline. The looming castle is gone. The alien cityscape that lurches past the car’s windows looks utterly dark and forlorn. All of the angles now seem slightly off, and no longer even fully euclidean. No people are visible.
“But I’ve prattled on for long enough, my dear. Would you like to try now—to understand how something like yourself can exist? Really, truly understand?”
Caroline notices it from the driver this time.
The faceless being’s slow but tense—terrified—shaking of their head.
Caroline: “What does that cost?”
It’s clear she’s not asking about a price to be paid to the French matriarch.
GM: “Very good, my dear,” Abélia declares approvingly. “You’ve already grasped one of the universe’s real scientific laws of the universe.” Mirth dances in her eyes. “But there’s only so much peaking through the keyhole that’s allowed before you must open the door.”
“Truth will make you powerful. What parts of yourself will you sacrifice for power?”
Caroline: “What parts of me are even left?” Caroline asks back without hesitation.
GM: “Very well,” the raven-haired matron smiles.
She reaches out with a slender, pale finger to brush Caroline’s brow.
Caroline: The Ventrue does not jerk away.
She flees, dead heart pounding furiously in her chest.
She stops and halts, against every instinct and common sense.
She turns and looks—and recoils at what she sees.
The darkness parts. The thing within emerges.
It pierces her skull, unraveling soul and sanity alike. She screams as it stirs and scrambles her mind’s fragile contents like an egg. She screams as it fills her holes and shudderingly implants her with its blasphemous seed.
She screams, and she screams, and she is back in the car with Abélia. She lies sprawled across the floor, her clothes in shredded tatters and her skin covered with cuts and bruises. The ‘woman’ smiles. Her dark eyes are so wide and bright, and so very, very hungry.
Blood leaks from Caroline’s ruptured uterus, thick and black… and her mind is swollen and fecund with what she has claimed. The daughter of Nathaniel Malveaux and childe of Augusto Vidal will pursue—and seize—power at any price.
Caroline: She feels sick. The pain is something she’s long conquered, something she knows can’t truly ‘hurt her’ anymore, but the thoughts that fill her mind, the knowledge, the feeling is utterly wrong. She wants to vomit, to claw at her eyes, to empty her brain out through her ears. Anything to get the feeling of utter wrongness to go away.
It feels like she’s been raped, and looks like it too. For the second time she’s awakened with that feeling and only the knowledge that something awful has happened to her.
Juxtaposed against an evening full of joy, of laughter, of satisfaction, and perhaps even (among some there) of actual love the last few…. whatever it has been… feel like a nightmare, one of the few things in months that has actually scared her.
But that nightmare is not laid against another night of hurting people. It’s not set against a backdrop of darkness, and pain and suffering and humiliation, and even with the rancid pounding in her head and the profaned feeling, there’s something else there, in her mind. Perhaps a backdrop of light painted over, but not completely. She seizes those shards of light as she drags herself off the floor of the vehicle.
GM: “Oh, you are still there!” Abélia purrs. “How does your head feel now, my dear? Nice and full, I hope?”
Caroline: “What are you.” Caroline doesn’t quite demand that answer of the other ‘woman.’
GM: Abélia gives another fluttering laugh.
“Why, I am Simmone’s and five other girls’ mother. Nothing more and nothing less.”
She strokes the sleeping child’s hair.
“And a grandmother soon, I do hope.”
Caroline: "There was darkness. Something in the darkness chasing me, and when I looked back at it… " She shakes her head. “The darkness was inside of me. It’s still inside of me.” The last is almost frantic.
GM: Abélia brushes a strand of hair from Caroline’s head. “Of course there is. You can’t get something for nothing, my dear girl. Those gifts of Caine you already possess certainly didn’t come freely—you must subsist upon the blood of the living, accept Sol as your mortal foe, and endure a host of other inconveniences to enjoy them.”
“Why, the thoughts and knowledge swimming in your head now—don’t fret if you can’t fathom everything all once, it’ll come when you need it—they might normally take years of study to acquire! And we don’t have years, do we? No, this Jyhad is fast approaching its endgame.”
Caroline: “You seem to know far more about it than I do,” Caroline replies.
GM: Abélia laughs again.
“I’m afraid that isn’t so hard at all, my dear. Not to mean any slight against you, of course. You have simply had so little time to learn all of the rules and players.”
Caroline: “But apparently I matter in this game?”
GM: “You most certainly do, my dear.” Her eyes glint. “And such an interesting addition you make to it…”
Caroline: Caroline wipes blood off her face with the back of her hand. “You could have fooled me.”
GM: “That I find you interesting? Come come now, Caroline. Would we have spoken for all this time if I didn’t find you so?”
Caroline: The heiress is silent for a moment. “So, where do we go from here?”
GM: Abélia smiles benignly. “Where should you like us to go? We have all the time in the world.”
Caroline: “On the contrary, you may have eternity, but I have only today.”
GM: Abélia’s smile doesn’t fall, but some hint of a shadow seems to pass through her dark eyes.
“I am finding your manners less than they were at the start of this evening, Caroline. Politesse is so important, wouldn’t you agree?”
Caroline: Caroline forces a smile across her own blood-smeared face. “Forgive me, Abélia. This night has been long, and my Requiem at times feels as though it has been only a single long night. My manners are not what they once were, nor what they should be. You’ve given me a gift this evening, many in fact, including that of an evening with your daughters’ company. And of your own time.”
GM: “I am so very pleased to hear that,” Abélia smiles. “We won’t be kin, technically, but your brother is to become my son-in-law. I should only wish for our families to get along.”
Caroline: “The family, I’m afraid is beyond me, but for what time I have left as ‘Caroline Malveaux,’ your family has my friendship.”
GM: “And my family has far more than even that, thanks to you,” Abélia replies as the car rolls on. The snow falls thickly and heavily, and for nearly as far as Caroline can see. The city’s lights are dead.
“You did, after all, save two of their lives on that terrible August night. It would be only good manners for me to show my thankfulness, don’t you agree? Once for each life?”
Caroline: “If you think it appropriate, Abélia,” Caroline replies. “Though I’d not seek to compel such a thing from you.”
GM: “Oh, you needn’t be so modest, Caroline, you did singlehandedly pull them from death’s jaws! Such heroism deserves reward. I realize a humble mother can only offer so much that matters to you, in life or death… but I hope you’ll at least allow me keep my pride.”
Caroline: “Trust me, Abélia, that is something I understand the importance of.”
GM: “I knew you would,” Abélia beams. “Now then, how might I repay you for my girls’ lives? What boons would you ask of me?”
“Is there some great deed you would accomplish—or another you regret and would see undone? Some foe you would have slain or humbled, or whose designs you would see thwarted? Some secret you would have made known, some stain upon your soul you would have cleansed? Some power you would claim for your own? Some thread of fate you would see unraveled and re-spun to your liking?”
Abélia smiles again. “There may be only so much I can do towards those ends… I’m certain my paltry abilities couldn’t compare at all with the grandness and scope of your ambitions. But I am so, so very grateful to you for saving my daughters, and you have been so very patient in waiting for me to properly express those thanks.”
“So please, Caroline, I implore that you tell me: how can I ever repay what you have done for my family?”
Caroline: Caroline studies Abélia thoughtfully for several moments.
That coin on her choker is Roman. It’s a depiction of the emperor Aurelian. He led the Roman Empire through a pivotal period during the Crisis of the Third Century and reunited the breakaway Gallic and Palmyrene Empires back into the fold. He also pursued a mission of “one faith, one empire” to promote monotheistic worship of his patron deity, the latter-day incarnation of Sol. Aurelian is less historically recognized than Diocletian for his efforts in preserving the Roman state, but they were no less integral during their day. He was also the namesake of New Orleans after he rebuilt the ancient Gallic city of Cenabum, which was renamed ‘City of Aurelian’ in his honor. That name eventually evolved into Orléans, from which New Orleans would take its own name.
Another puzzle piece. What does it mean?
The heiress finally looks down at her soiled form.
“I’ve made a mess of your car, Abélia,” she apologizes. She wipes a hand with frustration on her ruined dress. “Once tonight already I leaped before looking, asking for your assistance.” She gestures around them to the blood-soaked and food-covered vehicle. “This was the result.”
“You’re not wrong about my ambitions. There are so many questions I would seek answers to, so many things I might wish were different—both within and without your not inconsiderable power.” She gestures out the window to the changing ‘landscape.’ “But even a short time as a Cainite has shown me this: that knowledge is a double-edged sword, and that our unbeating heart’s desires can be as destructive as our Beasts if not checked.”
“I might destroy myself with an offer such as that, Abélia. Smote by your generosity. And my own narrow vision.”
GM: Abélia merely regards Caroline patiently. Her eyes do not seem to blink in the gloom as she contently strokes the sleeping Simmone’s hair.
“I am so glad to see you dispense with modesty, Caroline. It’s a charming quality, but it doesn’t suit the Malveauxes’ women nearly so well as it does the Whitneys’.”
Snow whorls against the car’s windows as she continues, “You have rendered me two services. For that, I shall render two unto you. There are rules where such things are concerned, my dear—rules far older and graver than your ‘life,’ or my daughters’ lives.”
Her dark eyes narrow against the falling snow.
“Do not test my will on this.”
Caroline: “I would not dream of it, Abélia,” Caroline replies placatingly. “Nor would I seek to hold such a generously given boon against you in perpetuity.”
“We were discussing the trinity earlier. In the spirit of that, I might offer three possible answers then. First, that you take those actions you sense best. It’s clear your vision of New Orleans is clearer than my own, and rather than ask a boon that I know—or may not know—will create strife, it may be better handled to leave the specifics in your hands.”
“Second, you might permit me a set time to consider the magnitude of the offer, to weigh where my own heart lies—and how it may be best reconciled with my head.”
GM: Abélia continues to idly stroke her daughter’s hair.
“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.”
“But rare indeed is the day she would shrink from its heat and entreat me to wield it on her behalf.”
Caroline: “Which brings me to the third,” Caroline nods. Abélia does not seem one for half-measures.
GM: Something further seems to pass in the dark-haired matriarch’s eyes.
“You disappoint me, Caroline. Perhaps there is less of your father in you than I had believed.”
Caroline: The comment stings, but that sting seems to add fire to her response. “I want to know what happened on the night of my Embrace, and of any events leading directly to it.” The words are as sharp as a rose’s thorn. “Who. When.”
She digs her nails into her palms.
GM: “Knowledge, then. Very well.”
Abélia reaches a slender hand towards the car’s window, then through it. Ripples flow across the glass like disturbed water. Snow-laden winds howl in Caroline’s ears. Frozen flakes of winter blow over her hair and ruined dress. Simmone whimpers and shivers in her sleep.
The terrible cold filling the car’s now snow-strewn abates as Abélia pulls her hand back through the glass. She presses a silver coin into Caroline’s palm.
A faint chill spreads through the Ventrue’s hands as she accepts it. The coin’s mold is crudely shaped and heavily dented on one side. Its two faces bear the images of a woman and an owl. Caroline’s classical education serves her well as she identifies the former figure as the Roman goddess Minerva.
“Whisper to it what you would know, and the knowledge shall be yours.”
Caroline: “How many questions may it answer?” Caroline asks.
GM: “Tell it merely what you would know.” Abélia chuckles. “But don’t be greedy. Any more, at least.”
Caroline: “Where do you draw the line?” Caroline asks, turning the chill coin over in her hand. “After all, one woman’s greed is another’s ambition.”
GM: “Isn’t it,” Abélia agrees, her eyes dancing with mirth. “That line is drawn by the knowledge you have asked of me, my dear. Those secrets and no more are to be yours… safely, at least.”
Caroline: Caroline smirks, but nods. “Perhaps next time I should ask for the moon.”
GM: “One woman’s ambition, and another’s greed,” Abélia repeats, laughter still dancing in those dark eyes.
Caroline: Caroline laughs lightly. “Perhaps not. I’m told the environment is interesting, but there’s no atmosphere.”
GM: “Our first account is settled,” Abélia smiles, “and one daughter’s life repaid. What second boon would you ask of me?”
Caroline: The heiress turns the coin over in her hand. She runs her tongue across her fangs, then speaks once more.
“I would know of the Baron, or his lieutenants. Some secret that might endanger their Requiem to the prince.”
GM: “Name one Cainite whose secret you would know, my dear. One secret for one daughter’s life. No less and no more.”
Caroline: Caroline pauses for a moment before responding, “Lidia Kendall.”
GM: “Knowledge,” Abélia states again.
She reaches another slender hand through the car’s glass. Chill winds scream in Caroline’s ears as snow blows past. Simmone shivers as Abélia presses another too-cool silver coin, stamped with the same Roman goddess and her owl, into the Ventrue’s grasp.
“Whisper to it what you would know.”
Caroline: Caroline takes this second too-cool coin as well. “Then I hold any obligation to me fulfilled,” she states.
GM: “Two boons granted for two daughters’ lives. Our accounts are settled, my dear.”
The car feels as if it is moving, and faster. Indistinct shapes rush by in the gloom—tall, vast, and gnarled. They seem to almost grasp towards the car.
“I’m so glad you didn’t take my driver’s advice. He’s a shameless liar, you know, even without a tongue to spread his poison.”
Caroline: Caroline feels her gaze drawn to those passing shapes. Were she living she might swallow.
“The bold seem unlikely to be drivers to the great.” She doesn’t look back towards the driver. “Still, that seems a cruel fate, to live without a face.”
GM: Abélia gives another fluttering laugh. “The great! A flattering appellation indeed, my dear, for one as small and weak as myself. Why, my heart is too soft to even hurt him as cruelly as he’s hurt my own family. Isn’t that right, you? Is your punishment not just?”
The faceless driver jerkingly nods, once, twice, three times.
“My daughters do like you, Caroline. It’s inevitable they would, of course, after you saved their lives,” Abélia smiles.
Caroline: “I mean for them nothing but success and flourishing,” Caroline replies.
GM: “I can hardly deny my girls anything. My heart is simply too weak to ever tell them no—it doesn’t make me a very good mother, I realize, but I can no more rise above my own frailties than a mouse might be commanded to display a lion’s courage.”
“Perhaps they would benefit from having a role model in someone so much stronger and surer than myself. Someone, I know, whose vengeance would make my own half-hearted measures pale were anything to befall them.”
Caroline: “So long as my Masquerade might endure, it would be my pleasure to be a part of your daughters’ lives,” Caroline replies.
GM: “Oh, how splendid!” Abélia exclaims. “I’d say you should tell Simmone ‘no’ less often, but perhaps she needs someone to be a bit firmer with her than I’m able.”
“You really ought to make sure your masquerade lasts properly, however. I couldn’t bear to see their poor hearts disappointed by any bad news.”
Caroline: Caroline thinks on those words for a moment, then asks almost contemplatively, “Are you really not one of us?”
GM: “I’ve told you what I am, my dear.”
Abélia strokes her sleeping daughter’s hair.
“I’m six girls’ mother. That’s quite enough for anyone to be by themselves, wouldn’t be you agree?”
Caroline: “I would, but you’ll forgive me, I didn’t mean to give offense, it’s simply that… there is a different perspective after you’ve been damned and become a night-walking corpse.” Her tone is contemplative. “From the first night of my Requiem, my family dogged my every step. I was awakened and dragged into the sunlight only hours after my Embrace by one of their retainers. Subsequently, my uncle all but abducted my best friend and held her hostage against my appearance before him.”
“It seems like night since there’s been a call, or no call, or a meeting, or an obligation I’ve had to explain my way out of, or be chastised for, or been slandered for. Even your daughters—and that obnoxious Pavaghi heir—know about the friction that has only seemed to grow.”
“Its difficult to maintain a Masquerade among your family, your real family, even for skilled Kindred. I can think of none off hand that do so. I don’t think it’s the simple difficulty though. I think it’s the cost of living a life with certain constraints on it. Most Kindred I’ve known capable of living an effective Masquerade among mortal ties have done so because they intentionally crafted a persona that allowed them to explain away their absences, their disappearances, their missed parties and declined invitations.”
“Among your actual family, among your living friends, that’s much more difficult, and among my controlling family?” She shakes her head. “The last Malveaux daughter that stepped out of line has lived in a convent for the better part of a decade.”
She waves a hand softly at Abélia. “I’m not saying this to elicit sympathy. I bear my own responsibility for what’s happened to me. Nor do I say it to ask for help. I simply wish to give context to what I say next.”
“I don’t want to give up my family, not really. I don’t want to never see my brother marry. I don’t wish to never see my nieces and nephews, or to put my mother and father through the pain of burying another child. But before tonight?” She gives a curt, sardonic, laugh. “Every night I saw fewer and fewer reasons to cling to the identity ‘Caroline Malveaux’.”
“My family didn’t need me. If anything, I was a burden, a headache. At best little more than a growing embarrassment to them. And their own demands? To describe them as complicated only by my damned condition would be to sell short the complexities of Kindred politics in New Orleans. Even if all their demands were at night, they’d still be… very difficult.”
“And so every night they slipped a little further away. Or maybe I did. Maybe I slipped further away from being ‘Caroline,’ because there just seemed to be less and less reason not to.”
“Tonight was different. For the first time in a long time, to your daughters, I wasn’t simply a burden, and they weren’t simply a burden. There was a reason to be Caroline. So yes, Abélia, I’ll work to maintain it. For so long as any of these things might last, before the ‘gift’ of un-aging immortality stretches the credence of good cosmetics,” she says the last with a bit of humor that rapidly fades to sobriety, “for so long as the prince will permit me my Requiem, for so long as you’ll permit it, I would remain Caroline, and remain in their lives.”
GM: Abélia contentedly strokes Simmone’s hair as Caroline speaks. Shadows writhe and undulate past the car’s windows in weird shapes, filtered by the light of a pale moon.
“That is such happy news to hear, my dear girl. I’m certain my daughters would be thrilled to know how much joy and purpose they’ve brought into your existence. One can never have too much of either, can’t one?”
The raven-haired matron smiles self-deprecatingly. “It’s a poor habit of mothers to nag, I know. I’ll beg your indulgence when I observe—again, I know—how you really will have to start taking better care of your masquerade… even one such as myself can see how torn and ragged that poor thing is at the seams.”
Caroline: “Yes, I imagine I’ll have to do something about that. Perhaps multiple somethings. I confess, preservation of Caroline’s masquerade was not a particularly high priority, given her pending date with a tragically fatal car accident.”
She taps a finger on her chin. “Perhaps a rebellion against the family… difficult to do without offending Father Malveaux, though.”
GM: “It is ever so hard to satisfy one’s desires simultaneously with others, isn’t it?”
Caroline: Caroline smiles. “My grandmother, on my mother’s side of course, once told me when I was young… perhaps no older than Simmone, ‘you can’t make everyone happy all the time, but you need to make sure you’re happy at least some of the time’. Not a quote my father approved of. She only said it once—I don’t know if someone spoke with her—but it stuck with me. It seemed a great expression of selfishness, of what it was to be a bad daughter. But I find it rings more true in my Requiem than it did in my life.”
GM: “What a delightfully forthright woman, my dear. That sort of quality can be charming, in quick splashes like the absinthe in those oyster pastries we had.”
Caroline: Caroline laughs lightly. “But you wouldn’t care for a bottle?”
GM: Abélia stares out the car’s window, now a solid midnight black. No snowflakes drift against the cold-frosted windows, from which Simmone’s doodles have long since faded.
Caroline: Caroline’s next words die on her lips as she sees the source of Abélia’s attention.
GM: “Moderation in all things, my dear. Our remaining time together grows short.”
Caroline: “Hopefully it will not be the last time,” Caroline replies.
GM: “Be careful what you wish for, Caroline. You never know how you might get it,” the ‘woman’ replies, her dark eyes once more alight with mirth.
“Now then—and I’ll beg your ever-patient indulgence for this ever-fretful mother’s continued nagging—I would have you speak of how you’d like to sew up that raggedy little masquerade. I can’t afford for the apples of my eye to be seen associating with just any masked reveler who comes along, you understand.”
Caroline: “Of course,” Caroline smiles back, though the smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I think the most likely, and successful tactic would be for a break of some kind with the family line. That has its own pains and headaches, but I don’t think it possible for ‘Caroline’ to be the dutiful daughter the family wishes.”
GM: “What a shame,” Abélia remarks, stroking her daughter’s hair.
Caroline: “It is and it isn’t,” Caroline replies. “I don’t know that I would be fully satisfied playing that role today, knowing what I know. Being what I am.”
GM: A shudder goes through the car, jostling Caroline in her seat. Simmone whimpers again in her sleep.
Caroline: Caroline’s eyes cut to the stirring child, then once more to outside.
GM: Nothing is visible to Caroline’s sight but impenetrable void.
“We are all but pawns on another’s chessboard, my dear,” Abélia states.
Caroline: Caroline smiles. “I suppose it depends on the size of the board—we’re all kings on our own board, and what we are on each other’s… well. That’s the question.”
“A pawn may see only what is in front of it. It moves in only a single direction apace. A rook moves more powerfully, in any direction he pleases, but the knight,” she arches an eyebrow, “a knight might see more. Alone among the pieces he sees more than just lines and straight paths to destinations.”
GM: Another shudder rocks through the car, but far stronger this time. Even without a seatbelt, Caroline lithely twists and resists being flung from her seat.
So positioned, her eye is drawn to the void outside the cold-frosted windows.
A void that is no longer empty.
That’s someone, Caroline’s instincts scream.
The someone who’s trapped within that awful, bulging eye. Whose silhouette, impossibly, is also reflected in that eye’s pupil, as they frantically try to escape Abélia’s car.
That’s someone she knew.
The eye seems to expand with that realization, swelling until its pupil fills the whole window. The entrapped figure’s hands frantically rake against the glass—both sides of the glass—as a bone-chilling scream pierces Caroline’s psyche. Terror floods the Ventrue’s veins, drowning out the world in inky darkness and fluttering laughter.
Caroline lies prostrate in the Giani Building’s underground parking garage. She aches and hurts, everywhere, especially in her head and sex.
Abélia’s two coins stare up at her from the tarmac.
Caroline: The pain is a familiar companion. The awakening in terror is not. Caroline throws herself to her feet and backpedals away from the coins as she struggles to get her bearings. She’s not in the dark anymore. Not in the car. Not with that thing looking at her. Not with Abélia.
Familiarity returns. She’s in the Giani Building’s garage. Somewhere ‘safe.’ A quick examination reveals she’s covered in vomited-up food and blood, her once-expensive dress in tatters. She doesn’t remember how she got here, but many other events from the night click into place.
Her gaze is drawn back to where she awakened. To the two coins laying on the ground like serpents waiting to strike. The analogy brings to mind the biblical tale of Eve, drawn in by the serpent and partaking of the forbidden fruit… the very thing she asked for: knowledge.
The coins scare her. Abélia scares her. The implications of the dark and forbidden knowledge already seeping through her mind scares her. It’s not a familiar emotion either for the Malveaux scion turned undead abomination, not in her life or in her death.
She could leave the coins there, forget about them. Pretend it didn’t happen. Or she could call a servant to pick them up for her—keep her ‘hands’ clean. Or she could kick them into a gutter, not to trouble another for a hundred years.
The moment draws on, and the opportunity for these things passes. Fear recedes. Other, more productive, emotions and thoughts take its place. She walks back to the coins, dark heels clicking on the paved ground. She tears off a dangling piece of her dress and reaches down with fabric-cupped hand to pick them up. Ambition may make her blind, but it need not make her stupid. Whatever else they are, the coins are an opportunity. A chance. One may contain a weapon. The other a truth.
Abélia was right about one thing.
Neither are things that Nathaniel Malveaux’s daughter can readily throw away.