Five or Fifteen

Five or Fifteen

It was either the fifth or fifteenth time the cretin entered my pitch-black chambers that I finally remembered his name.  I’m not sure what took me so long—usually I have a knack for remembering such things, as the best way to gain an underling’s trust is to remember something about them, usually a name, a pastime, or an accomplishment.  I had learned the usefulness of an empty compliment long ago.

Where my faculties had failed me before, they rallied as the door creaked open, pale blue light pouring from the other side.  The simpering eyes, the weak chin, the terrified posture… It was Noah, my assistant.  Lord, I can’t fathom how I could ever forget his name.  We spent nearly every waking moment together for the last year or so.  He carried a small folding table under one arm and a high-backed wooden chair under the other.  He placed them both in front of me, and then went back to get something else, leaving the door open behind him.

In the new light, I took stock of my surroundings.  I was in a stone room—a former slaves’ quarters, no doubt—and it seemed as though I was chained to the very wall.  I scoffed.  Never have there been chains that could hold me, and I wasn’t about to let Noah La Rue restrain me, either.  I casually flicked my wrist forward with enough Potence to easily rend even the strongest metal to ribbons, but instead, chained I remained.  I pulled again, this time with all my force.  Again, nothing.  I slumped to the floor, frowning.  There were bits of glass scattered about the ground, and the granite was dry and caked in filth.

When Noah returned, he had a carafe of vitae in one hand and a long-stemmed glass in the other.  He smirked at me; looked down at me.  The fire in my belly roared.  I would make him regret his insolence.  I called to the power of my blood and leapt at him, seeking to bring down the very wall to get at him.  Once again, the chains held fast.  I stood now, taller than he, baring my fangs and glowering at him.

“I am not sure who you think you are, boy,” I spat, “but when I get out of this room, I will make you pay.  I will pull each and every bone in your body out through your pores until you cry my name over and over again, begging for mercy.”

He laughed at me.  “Oh?” he asked, setting the carafe down on the table and taking a seat.  “And what is your name?”

“Do not think that you can play with me, boy.  My name is…”

I froze.  I couldn’t recall.  I didn’t know who I was.  I knew that it was a name to be feared, to be uttered in reverence, yet I could not recall it.  The very essence of my being, lost.  I flagged, collapsing to my knees on the stone before him.

“That’s more like it,” he said, filling the glass with blood and placing it on the table.  He put down the carafe and slid the glass over to my side of the table.  “Now drink, if you would.  You have forgotten much, but you must keep up your strength.”

Forgotten?  What madness was he talking about?  And why did he think I’d just drink whatever he offered me?  Did he think I was the kind to throw myself at the ground and miss?

I looked from the glass to him and back again and, despite myself, I reached out to take it.  The glass was only barely within my reach, leaving the table just outside of it, and I had to stretch to pinch its rim with my fingertips.  I knew I shouldn’t drink any of it.  It was poison, to be sure, and if not that, then something worse.  I fought against myself as my arm lifted the glass to my nose.  I took an involuntary deep breath, inhaling the aroma of vitae, and downed the entire glass in one drink.  I choked on it at first, trying to refuse it, to stop from swallowing.  The blood was like fire and power and lust, burning its way down my throat.  It felt good.  And then, it felt… right.

“What have you done to me?” I asked, dropping the glass onto the floor, shattering it into a million pieces.  I stepped back, shock written on my face like a newspaper headline.  My foot crunched on something.  A memory itched at the back of my mind, screaming that I was missing the obvious.

Noah smirked.  “I’ll let Marcia explain it to you.”  He stood, took the carafe, and left the room, again leaving the door wide open.

I was equal parts enraged and calmed at the thought of this Marcia.  I knew that I had heard her name before and that she meant quite a bit to me, but I could not place her in my memories.  When she finally entered the room, an aura of majesty and terror washed over me, and were I the kind of person to cower, I would have.

She was short, well-muscled, and well-dressed, with dark skin and dark hair.  She was a vampire—I could tell that on an instinctual level, though I knew not how.  She glowered at me and spoke in a low, commanding tone, “Sit.”

And sit I did.  Just as polite as you please.  I sat right down on the broken glass and the grime.  I sat like God himself had commanded it.  I sat because my master and savior had asked it of me.  And I was furious.  No one ordered whomever I was around.

“Good boy,” she said, singsong and condescending, “I am glad that you mastered that trick, Francis.”

A flood of memory came back to me.  Francis was me.  But I went by Frank.  And Overwater was my last name.  I was Frank Overwater.  And Frank Overwater was elated to hear he had pleased Marcia.

I grimaced and willed myself to stand, but I didn’t move.  I did not understand this power, but I would overcome it.  I just needed more information.

“What is the meaning of this?” I asked, far more polite than I intended.  “P-please release me…”  The next word came out like it was pulled from my gullet with a hook.  “…master.”  I threw up hot, sticky blood onto the floor.

“I’d stoop to affectations or insults, but I don’t imagine you have the constitution for them right now.”  She leaned over the table and leered over it.  “Instead, I’ll let you piece it together yourself.  Now, do you remember your Camarilla Elysium at the end of July?”

The memory washed over me as soon as she suggested it.  “Yes.  I had returned from Atlanta.  Piper and I—” I took a sharp breath.  I remembered Piper.  My paramour.  The Prince of Atlanta.  She would know.  She’d come looking for me.  She would be my deliverance.

“Don’t think she’s coming, Francis,” Marcia interrupted.  “Were she coming, she’d have been here by now.  Go on.”

I swallowed hard and glared at her.  Despite my wishes, I continued.  “Piper and I talked on the phone.  About our plan to start expanding the Imperium.  I had stepped outside for some privacy when…” My heart sank.  “…when those two assassins came out of the woods.”

Marcia nodded.  “And what did you say to them?”

“I greeted them as monarchs greet strangers.  Asked them why they felt the need to creep around in the darkness rather than coming inside as honored guests.”

“You thought you were somehow not their target, didn’t you?”

I searched my memories for a moment, then nodded.  “I had killed one of their kind who took a contract on my head.  I was supposed to be immune from future contracts.”

Marcia smirked.  “And who took that contract out on you, Francis?”

A practiced lie swirled in my head about a political rival.  I queued the details in my mind, and I said, “I did.  I hired the assassin under a different name.  I told them the target was an ancillae of no particular power.”  I threw up again.  That was not the story I had intended to tell.

“Good.  Good.  I see these lessons are finding their mark.  Go on.”

I nodded.  “That’s when I heard the commotion inside.  I turned to look, and they set upon me.  It was a fight I should have won handily, but instead…  They had these chains.”  I looked down at my wrists.  They were the very same chains the Assamites had clapped around my wrists that night.

“And what did those chains do?” she asked.  “I presume there are no chains that can hold Francis Overwater.”  She grinned and raised her eyebrows.

“They robbed me of my strength.  They held me there.  And the assassins made me watch as a veritable army of their kind and stinking, rotting Samedi drug each and every Kindred out to the yard, put them on their knees in front of me, and executed them.”  The pain of the memory weighed on me.  I could suddenly remember the look on each face of the Kindred I was supposed to protect.  And then, Sabine, defiant to the very end, tried to Dominate our captors, but it was no use.  They cut her head off slowly with a length of piano wire.  She mouthed to me for help as she turned into a desiccated corpse.

Marcia nodded.  “I remember Sabine the best.  How she cried and flailed.  How she tried to call me mother.  I enjoyed watching her die.”  She closed her eyes, savoring the memory.  “Now.  What of New Orleans?”

“Fallen.”

“To whom?”

“You.  And the Independent Alliance.”

Marcia stood.  “You know, Francis, I will never tire of hearing you grovel.  But when I do, that will be the night of your Final Death.  Now look at me like a good boy.”

I struggled against it, fought and gnashed.  Still, I met her gaze.  With the last of my willpower, I spat at her.  “I will kill you for this, Marcia.”

She smiled, a predator in every way, fangs bared, and vengeance in her eyes.  “You say that every time, Francis.  Every single time.  And it’s delicious.”


It was either the fifth or fifteenth time the cretin entered my pitch-black chambers that I finally remembered his name.  I’m not sure what took me so long—usually I have a knack for remembering such things…

Matters of Family

Jean looked out over the gathered Samedi in awe and wonder.  As long as she had been in Haiti, she had never seen this many of her blood gathered in one place.  She didn’t even know that there were this many of them at all.  After all, her sire had been a rather reserved man, quiet and aloof, only telling her that other Samedi were not likely to welcome her into their domains just because of the accident of her embrace.  So she had stayed separate and apart from them, making her way in the world the best she knew how.

For the most part, she practiced Quimbois, just as her mother had taught her, bargaining for places to sleep during the day or passage from one island to another.  It was technically black magic, but on her home island, Quimbois was at odds with neither Catholicism nor Hinduism, so it was relatively acceptable to practice, provided you didn’t dabble in curses or hexes.

Jean frequently dabbled in both curses and hexes.

She found herself on her pilgrimage to Port Au Prince thinking back to her mother’s lessons often, how her eyes would shimmer with reserved mischief whenever teaching Jean the darker parts of Quimbois.  She remembered the way her mother’s fingers danced from petal to root to mortar and pestle, chanting the secret words of power, imploring the loa for aid and justice.  She knew every single one of her mother’s spells by heart.  She had to.  No one else would anymore.

“Don’t cry, my love,” her mother had said.  “We will meet again.  Life is a cycle.  This is not the end of us.”

Eventually, Jean made it all the way to Haiti, intent on finding more of her blood and learning the history and culture of the Samedi.  The island itself was gorgeous.  From her pontoon in the blackness of midnight, the light-speckled shore shone like diamonds, and she knew that she was home.  What she had not expected was to be thrust into the center of a war.

“There’s a war for the soul of Haiti, honey,” Luca had told her.  Luca Aliprado was the Samedi Emissary in Port Au Prince, the woman who had taken her in and gotten her a place to stay while she was visiting the island.  She claimed she was from Haiti, born and bred, but Jean thought she sounded more like Barbra Streisand.

“Ya see, back before all this Independent Alliance business, there was this Setite named Ghede.  Big, black, and beautiful, honey, let me tell you.  Anyway, Ghede claimed all of the island—even the Dominican side—as his own, and he did it by gettin’ the locals to worship Set.  Big kerfuffle.  Lots of snakes.

“Anyway, what he didn’t know was that the Baron had already claimed the island before he ever got here, and they been bickerin’ on and off for centuries.  So the Accords are going down, and don’tcha know who is there representin’ Clan Samedi?  Lil’ ol’ me.  Auntie Luca.

“So there I was, standin’ up to Magnus Bezzio—you know big Uncle Auggie is his sire?  He’s a big deal.  Anyway, I says to Bezzio, I says, ‘Look, we ain’t joinin’ your stupid alliance unless we get Haiti back.  It’s ours, we were there first, and these snake people are a bunch of freeloaders.’

“Well, the Setites there, they didn’t take kindly to it, but they agreed to let it go, but they said we had to hold it.  Had to make sure no one could come in and take it from us.  For the Alliance or some another.  Whateva.  I says yes, and here we are.

“Problem is that Ghede don’t wanna leave.  He’s all hunkered down and stayin’ put.  But he’s over there on the Dominican side in Punta Canta, and he don’t wanna leave.  So he just says the same thing—if we can take it and hold it, it’s ours.

“Well the Baron don’t want nothin’ to do with the other side of the islands.  That’s where all the hurricanes come in anyway.  So we start claimin’ Domain.  The only problem is the place is a lemon!  There’s all these Setites that ain’t Setites crowdin’ up the place, workin’ for the Sabbat, and what’s more, now they got friends.  Somethin’ somethin’ of Skulls or what have ya.

“So long story short, you’re in the war now, and that’s good, because we could use the help.”

That had been several months ago, and Jean had not had the misfortune to see any of the actual fighting herself.  Instead, she had been relegated to surveillance and wards.  Luca wasn’t convinced that Quimbois (“Stick and root finger painting,” she had called it) would do any good, but Jean did her part anyway.  And eventually, the Samedi had been successful.  They’d installed a formal Independent Alliance government, complete with Baron Samedi as the Sovereign, and they’d all but pushed out the Serpents of the Light and Harbingers of Skulls.  And tonight was the celebration.

The stage was covered in brilliant, vibrant colors and statues of the loa, and in the middle sat a great golden chair, adorned in the skulls of the dead.  The gathered Samedi chattered and celebrated, sharing drunken blood dolls and singing songs in Creole.  For all her knowledge in Latin and French, Jean never could get the hang of Creole.  There was something to rough, too caustic about it.  Before she could examine what, precisely, made her uncomfortable about the language, the crowd hushed.

Onto the stage walked a lanky corpse of a man, his face painted white and black like a skull, wearing a black, tattered tuxedo and top hat.  He bowed deeply to the audience, taking off his hat and letting his stringy black hair sway before him.  The crowd exploded.  Thunderous applause, haunting hoots and wails, screams of joy, and stomping of feet filled the dark, wet island air.  For her part, Jean managed a quiet clap and a genuine, wide smile.  He rose and replaced his hat, and the audience fell silent once more.

“Friends, clansmen, countrymen!” he bellowed, impossibly loud, though Jean could see no obvious sound system.  “Lend me your ears!”

Several of the older Samedi chuckled.  Jean didn’t know why.  The Baron continued.

“We have driven the Serpents of the Light and our cousins, the Harbingers of Skulls, from our lands!”

More cheers.  He let them carry on for a moment before raising his hand, palm out.

“And we have all of you to thank for it.  Sincerely, I thank each and every one of you for your aid.  I will miss you when you return to your home domains, but I think it might be quite the violation of the Silence to have so many of us here for so long.”

An enthusiastic laugh rose from the audience.

“But, I have someone else I’d like to thank personally.  Someone whose mind and tactics, power and grace, helped us defeat these monsters on our shores.  Someone who came to us in the bowels of a transport ship with nothing but the clothes on her back.  Allow me to introduce to you, the Hero of Cap Haitien! The Strategist of Saint-Louis-du-Dud! The Pirate of Port-au-Prince! Marcia La Rue!”

If the gathered Samedi had cheered or clapped before, she would never have known it.  The sound that came from the gathered vampires was raucous and deafening, and everyone rose to their feet if they were not already to welcome this Marcia La Rue, the woman who had had such an effect on the war effort in Haiti, who had helped take their home back.

But Jean did not clap.  She did not cheer.  She just stared in shock.  The woman who strode on stage was powerful, confident, with sharp, daring features and a powerful brow—and eyes that shimmered with mischief.  She did not know the woman, but she knew those eyes.

The Baron raised his hand again.

“Now,” he began, “It may be of some note to many of you that Marcia is not, as it were, a member of our blood.” Hisses and boos filtered up from the crowd, threadbare, sparse.  “But I will not hold it against her that she is a Ventrue.  Not after what she has given and sacrificed to our cause.”

The audience cheered, hooted, and hollered again.

“In fact!” he shouted over the audience.  “I think it is only prudent and fair that we invite her to be a member of our Clan.  What do we say, Samedi?”

Deafening cheers echoed again, but the world was quiet for Jean, whose stare remained fixed on Marcia.  On her eyes.  On her mother’s eyes.  Of course, she agreed.  How could she not?

“Well then.  I guess we are in need of a Samedi Emissary then, are we not?”

The crowd began chanting: Luca! Luca! Luca! Luca!  Jean found herself chanting along as Luca Aliprado shambled on the stage, waving to the crowd.  She stood there for a long moment, enjoying the adoration and cheers until the Baron gestured her to begin.  She frowned playfully, but spoke to the crowd.

“I just want to start by saying that it is tragic for you to have been embraced a Ventrue, honey,” she says, placing a hand on Marcia’s arm in a staged gesture of comfort.  “Just tragic.  But I think that’s something we can probably fix now, isn’t it?”

The crowd roared again.

“As I am a Beloved, Trusted, and Eminent member of the Independent Alliance, I formally adopt you, Marcia La Rue, into my Clan, with the full rights, privileges, and Prestige that come along with it.  May the Accords bind and keep you from this day until your last day, yadda yadda yadda, something about following Traditions or some such nonsense.  Everybody! Marcia La Rue!”

The gathered Samedi applauded and stomped their feet as Marcia bowed to the Baron and Luca and shook their hands.  When she turned to the crowd, they all fell silent once more.

“I am proud to call myself a member of Clan Samedi,” she said, her eyes glistening with bloody tears.  “Thank you for taking me in when I had nothing, when I was nothing.  Thank you for trusting me to defend your home when you had no reason to.  Thank you for everything.”  Blood streamed down her face, thick, red rivulets of joy.

The Baron took her in his arms and embraced her.  When she had composed herself, he let go of her and addressed the crowd once more.

“So, since many of us are leaving anyway…” he began, making a show of scratching his chin, “What do you think about helping to repay our great debt to our newest Clanmate first?”

The crowd cheered their assent—as did Jean.  She cried out, willing for Marcia to hear her and acknowledge her, “You have my aid, zanset!  I will follow you, manman!”

The Baron smiled.  Marcia looked right at Jean, locked gazes with her, and opened her eyes wide in surprise.  She knows me, tooshe thought, her own tears welling up now.

“So, Marcia,” the Baron said, “How is New Orleans this time of year?”

Francis and His Flowers

Francis and His Flowers

From the Journal of Frank Overwater, March 15, 2019 –

They say that therapy can help even the unafflicted be better people.  While I can’t speak for so-called mental health professionals, I can say that gardening has greatly helped me organize my thoughts for centuries.  Today, I am in my new greenhouse in Metairie, tending to my flowers and my saplings.  I make sure to plant at least one tree every year on my estate in Atlanta, Magnolias mostly, but this year, I am tending to a Japanese Maple—Acer palmatum, to be precise—and it is a delicate process to tend it from winged seed to tree, so I am keeping it in a controlled environment until I can be sure it is ready to fight the unforgiving Georgian earth.

I carefully check the pH of the soil and dutifully alter the flow from the irrigation system.  Many amateur botanists would tell you that you need to start the Acer family of trees as grafts with root systems that can tolerate fickle climates.  Fortunately, I am no amateur.  For me, my palmatum is a preparatory exercise.  A warm up, if you will.  I move on to the usual greenhouse fare—Chinese hibiscus, Amazon lilies, orchids, and the like.  Their care is rote.  They’re the trickle of water to my soul, the effortless care of practiced pampering.

I hum to myself as I work and try to ignore the brooding omnipresence of my assistant.  He’s a stooped man, hunched and loathsome, like a beaten hound who doesn’t know whether to piss or whimper.  But I don’t keep him around because I need him.  His existence in my world is a quandry.  I have no patience for useless things, yet here he stands, as useless as a condom to a eunuch.  No, I keep the pup around to remind him of the error of his birth and his embrace.  I keep him around to remind him that his blood—both mortal and Kindred—are weak.  Not for his sake, I assure you, but for mine.  I do enjoy the easy sorts of power.  It’s part of my therapy.

“Come, Noah,” I say to him.  He winces at the sound of my voice, as does almost everyone who knows me as I truly am.  “Let us tend to the Night Queen.”

We make our way to the center of the greenhouse, to a large, sprawling plant with leaves like banana trees and tightly curled, orange blossoms that are preparing to open.  I pretend to engage him.

“Do you remember what I’ve told you about Epiphyllum oxypetalum?” I ask, carefully tipping water into the soft-packed soil.

He hesitates, but he isn’t foolish enough to stay silent.  “Y-yes.  The Night Queen.  Sometimes called the Kindred Blossom.  It only blooms once per year, and only at midnight.  Its petals wilt in the sunlight.”

“Very good.  What else?”

“The… the cactus part is a… uhm…”

“An epiphyte,” I offer.

He nods.  “An epiphyte.”

“Which means?”

“Which means that it has to grow on another plant to survive.  Like a… Like a parasite.”

I smile.  It isn’t meant to be comforting. “Very good.  Except unlike most parasites, it can coexist with its host.  While it isn’t a symbiotic relationship, the host plant is often cultivated precisely because the Night Queen will bloom upon it.”

I let the moment sink in.  We’ve been over this before, and he knows what comes next.  I let him think that maybe, just tonight, it won’t.  I mix the fertilizer—low nitrogen—while he stands there, eyes and fists clenched shut.  He’s in the darkness now, and I’m the only beacon of light.  He keeps hoping that I won’t guide him toward the rocks, but ultimately, I am a predictable man.  More to his pity.

“And who does Epiphyllum oxypetalum remind you of, Noah?” I smile ruefully, letting the dirt glide between my fingers as I aerate the soil.  I smell the tears of blood rolling down his cheeks.  I have to hand it to him: he still cares for his family even if they’ve abandoned him.  But he has not the discipline to keep it from me, so instead I’ll keep reveling in it.

“My great aunt Marcia,” he sobs.

I pretend to startle and turn to him, feigned shock on my face.  “And why is that?”

“Because she fancied herself the queen of this city, but she was wilted by your sh- shining light.”

“I suppose you’re right.  And don’t forget that she relied on me to survive in the first place, just like this flower relies on its host,” I say, gesturing to the plant.  “Nothing is permanent.  Not even Marcia La Rue.”

 

April 10, 2019 –

Today, Noah asked me if I had no faith in God.  The La Rues are religious sorts.  Have been since they floated over on a pontoon made of palm trees and poverty.  The idea that some God might be up there, looking out for them.  As if God would have faith in them or any of us.  We are Kindred.  We are damned.  It is God who has no faith in us.

 

May 14, 2019

Why does everything have to be a struggle?  It isn’t difficult for people to just say yes.  Especially when they’re as hopeless as a one-winged chicken in an alligator pond.  It is my birthday, and all I wanted was for Noah to tell me Happy Birthday.  He refused.  Kicking and screaming.

His face was set, immutable as hardtack, as he whispered it.  “No.”

I stood, walking toward him, hoping to intimidate him back away from the Night Queen.  I didn’t want to risk collateral damage if it came to blows.  Before this night was over, he would say it, if for no other reason than I willed it.  He did not move.

“Noah, I do not believe you heard me correctly,” I said, removing my gardening gloves.  “I said that today, on this day nearly four centuries ago, I was born.”

His upper lip trembled.  Sometimes a dog don’t hunt.  Sometimes it don’t want to.  Sometimes it can’t.  “You did.”

I leaned in.  He stank of fear, yet he did not back down.  His eyes stared straight ahead, through me, past me, like was pretending he was somewhere else.  “And then, I asked if there was anything you wanted to say to me.”

His eyes focused on mine.  “And I said no.”

If you’re riling up a bull for a rodeo, you should expect the horns.  No one has pity for a surprised bullfighter.  Noah, to his credit, expected it, but he didn’t know how fast I was.  When my foot connected with the back of his knee, he crumpled like a house of cards, a sickening crack ringing through the air as his leg bent full in half.  Still, he did not scream.

I stood over him, and I looked down at him.  Terror gripped him.  His brave face faltered.  And then like a storm, my fist connected with his nose.  Another crack, blood.

“And now?”

“N- no.”

Another blow. And another.  No pause between for an answer.

I leaned close to his ear.  “I am having a little trouble hearing you, Noah,” I whispered.  “Maybe you should speak up.”

“What do you want?” he managed through broken teeth.

I leaned back from him.  “What do I want?” I repeated, breathing heavily, his blood still running down my knuckles.  “Your absolute loyalty.”

“Fuck you,” he said, his wounds already knitting through the power of his blood.  I stood up and went back to my discarded gloves.

Sometimes, the only way to gain your superior’s respect is to defy him.  I have zero tolerance for betrayal, but I do have reverence for resistance.  I am a Brujah if I am nothing else, after all.

“Fine.  See if I get you anything on your birthday, then,” I said, wiping my hands off on a nearby towel.  I threw it at him after I was finished with it.  “Clean yourself up.  We’ve still got work to do.  Sabine is far more incompetent than Marcia was; I doubt she could run this show without us.”

He caught the towel and wiped his face, sitting up.  “Was she really a member of the Sabbat?” he asked.  Poor thing didn’t know his ass from his elbow.

“If it were true, I’d tell you.”  I turned and walked away from him.  I was done gardening for tonight.  The Night Queen would be blooming soon.

Behind me, Noah was smiling.  I could tell it, even if I couldn’t see it.  He had shown me that physical brutality would not break his spirit, but that didn’t mean he was invincible.  If he had the sense God gave a thumbtack, he’d understand he couldn’t fly so close to the sun forever.