Author's Note: Been a while since there's been anything new from me, I know. This story may be a little hard to follow, since it's based on a game that was essentially a sequel to the first Baltimore Vampire game played in my group. It picks up where the first game left off. So the story itself and the character introductions are what they call in 'the biz' a cold start. However, I loved the story so much I couldn't help but put it into actual literary form. I've been told by my betas that the characters drive the story enough to make it relatively easy to follow, but that's what I hope you fine people will take the risk to read and tell me. I hope you enjoy.
Six of us sat around the table and none of us looked each other in the eye.
I could smell the hint of acrid, burned flesh in the air, mingled with blood and rock dust and pure, simple fear. Seneschal Regal sat across from me. His dark Italian silk suit was grey with ash, the cuffs burned and frayed. He tapped his fingertips on the table lightly in absent rhythm to the song that Herald Rhodes was whistling beneath his breath: something new and obnoxious, which goes to show just how nervous Regal's tapping actually was. Yesterday, you wouldn't have had both of them at the same table without one of them failing to get up from it afterward. Now, they ignored each other. Now the air trembled with a tension all its own that had nothing to do with the six Kindred who sat like naughty school children waiting to be punished, any two of whom had a dozen reasons to want the other dead.
Six of us kept our eyes glued to the table. All of us knew why we had been called here.
We heard His footsteps before we saw Him. The floors were hardened oak, and the strike of His hard-soled shoes against the lacquered boards rang out with a mercilessly precise Tick. Tack. Tick. Tack.
I felt Clark sink lower into his chair beside me.
Good. Let him sweat a little.
But I was sweating myself. Or at least…I would have been, had I still been alive. Then He walked in and I forgot about Clark fidgeting next to me and Regal's nervous tapping and the cloying scent of Miss Blackwell's perfume. For a moment I forgot about everything and just let His presence wash over me like thunder.
Prince Alvise Moncinegro is not a very tall man. He might generously be said to approach six feet. He doesn't need to be tall. Or broad. Or heavily muscled. And He isn't. He's built like a cat; all lean muscle and dangerous grace. Thin as a blade and just as hard. It's his eyes, though… That's where your gaze will be driven when you rest it on him, sure as the sunrise. I've always loved his eyes. They're as green as the Mediterranean Sea. And they can be as warm.
Then, though… Then, they were as cold as flaked emerald, blazing into all of us with chilled fire, for that night, for the first time in decades, the familiar porcelain half-mask was missing from his face. A small detail to most, surely. But within the First Estate, every breath, every nuance, every choice has a meaning.
He has nothing to hide, I thought. And he demands that we also hide nothing.
He sat slowly at the head of the table, lean, elegant hands steepled before his chin in a gesture I had come to know all too well. For a moment, he merely considered us all, watching with those pale, unblinking eyes as if he saw straight through our skins to the unbeating hearts beneath. Soft as a moth's beating wings, he tapped the tips of his white fingers together.
"So…" he purred softly. "Who wants to be the first?"
The silence was as heavy as lead, broken only as Rhodes lifted a hand and delicately coughed into it.
"Mr. Clark. Perhaps you would be so kind."
It was not a question.
Eric Clark. Backstabbing, two-faced arms dealer. Self-styled Advocate of the rabble that passes for the Carthian movement in this city. The mere falling of his name from Alvise's lips caused an almost visible chill to settle over the room. He had sold ammunition and information to more people that had tried to kill me than I could count on one hand. Despite all this, I still called the man a friend. Maybe I saw him as the brother my parents never gave me. Maybe I'm just an idiot.
Clark sunk a little lower in his chair, a feat I had not thought possible. With all the significant pride within him, though, he managed to slowly draw himself back up, rubbing a grubby hand along the back of his neck.
"Well, let me tell you…"
"No, let me tell you a story, Mr. Clark."
In less time than it takes a breathing man to blink, the Prince was on his feet, leaning his elegant hands heavily onto the table so hard the wood was groaning in protest as he lowered his face to an inch or two before the twitching arms dealer.
"I woke up this evening in a pleasant mood, Mr. Clark. I rolled off of the three Asian concubines I had been napping upon, stood and let my servants dress me in my favorite silken robe…it was a gift, you know. From the Prince of Milan. It took fourteen artists a thousand nights to complete it. Do you know the one? No? Well then…suffice to say that I dressed and made my way down to my private car."
Alvise pulled back from Clark slowly, and the smile that almost gently graced his face was an unpleasant sight, the pointed tips of his fangs just barely showing from beneath his pale lips. He folded his arms behind his back, and the perfectly tailored lines of his Armani suit didn't even wrinkle as he paced.
"I had my driver take me around the park twice before he turned for the wretched mess of downtown Baltimore's evening traffic. We entered my building…my –beloved- building…from the lower level. You know the entrance; the tunnel that passes beneath the library and runs a quarter mile or so before coming to the parking garage. I find it helps me avoid the more distasteful tangles of kine and their dirty horseless carriages. The boy wasn't at his station at the elevator, so I had to ring for the lift myself. However, I was feeling expansive, so it was of no great importance. But the elevator never came, Mr. Clark. Why do you think this was?"
"Shut up. So I took the stairs, Mr. Clark. I came up to the ground floor of my beloved Ravenrook and opened the door. And somehow, Mr. Clark, instead of being greeted by the sight of my wonderfully expensive office and the pleasant evening secretary with the enormous breasts, I saw nothing but a pile of broken concrete and twisted sewer pipes spewing refuse on what remained of my imported Persian carpeting. And I thought that perhaps…perhaps…it was only another one of Mercer's idiot doings and he'd somehow managed to destroy the structure of the first floor. Imagine my surprise, Mr. Clark…"
The Prince leaned forward slowly then, and the smile started to show more than the hint of the wicked fangs his perfect lips concealed.
"Imagine my surprise when I went around to the front of my very, very expensive office building to find that instead of a very, very expensive office building…a building that I had spent over two hundred years and several million dollars turning into an echelon of Kindred power and grace…I was faced with no more than a pile of rubble and REFUSE."
His voice had grown steadily through this last diatribe, and though he never shouted, the growl in his voice was feral and white hot with fury. The smile was gone now, and his eyes were a green fire that pinned Clark lower in his chair than a dog on its belly.
"Now, what, Mr. Clark. What is it, exactly, that you have to TELL ME?"
Clark was nearly horizontal at this point, staring up at Alvise with the wide-eyed gaze of a mouse in the sights of a hungry and highly irritable cat. He licked his thin lips dryly and cleared his throat.
"Ravenrook… Ah… Ravenrook…fell down."
"You don't SAY, Mr. Clark!"
Alvise's joyous, surprised smile was quite possibly one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen. It was gone in a heartbeat, though, and in the same instant he drew back with one elegant hand and struck Clark so hard across the face; the Carthian went head over heels off of his seat and sprawling onto the floor. The Prince whirled around then, and I almost stepped back myself as those burning eyes fell on me.
"Diana," he said, and his voice was all a smooth purr once more. "Perhaps you can enlighten me further as to the happenings of last evening."
I swallowed slowly, the blood in my mouth thick and almost putrid. Had I Rhodes' silver tongue, I could have danced around what had happened and paint it in a light that made me out as some sort of savior, instead of the failure I too often was in His eyes. But I didn't have Rhodes' silver tongue. I had my own, and it was too often made of clay rather than silver; thick and heavy and stupid, and I had never been able to lie to Him.
So when those green eyes fell on me, I found myself spilling the story in bland, featureless phrases. How the Acolytes had stormed Ravenrook in a press for power that hadn't been seen since that mad Scotsman McGreggor met the sunrise. How Cercei and Regal had fought across the elegant expanse of the Prince's personal office until one was ash and the other in torpor. How Maureen had come on us all like a demon from the pits of Hades and it took all of us and a hail of gunfire to bring her down. How she had cursed the building and brought it down around us even in her death throes. How I was sorry, so sorry that I had failed…
He held up one thin hand before I could fully embarrass myself and shook his head, the distaste in his words twisting his lips just faintly.
"Enough, Diana." He took a slow breath through his nose, closing his eyes as if to gather the shreds of his calm before he addressed us again. "This…mess…this embarrassment only serves to prove one very important point. Our enemies come down on us like a hammer because they think we are weak. For we are…weak."
Those beautiful eyes opened again, panning over the assembled Kindred with barely contained disdain.
"The First Estate was built upon one principle. Power in the hands of those with the strength and the knowledge to wield it. And we have failed in that principle, my beloved Primogen. You have acted with all the rationality of five year old children fighting over sweets. You have held onto nothing with more force than the grip of an aging invalid and this… This. Will. Change. Am I understood?"
We all nodded soundlessly, and the Prince allowed a flicker of a smile to touch his cold features.
"Good. In one years' time I will hold a Gala. I will introduce the new members of the ruling Invictus…those who will fill the places left vacant by the recent…unpleasantness. In this span of time I expect every last one of you to keep your heads down and your necks off of the line. Am I understood?"
We nodded again, soundless. Desperate to be set free from the cold tyranny of that terrible stare.
"Good," he purred, his beautiful lips twisted in the upward hint of a smirk. "Get out of my sight."
They dashed for the door like frightened rabbits, no matter how much they tried to appear as if they moved with easy disinterest. I stood to follow as well, and then I felt his breath, warm and soft against my neck.
"Diana…" he whispered. "I have had a very unpleasant night. If you will follow me?"
His sheets were luxurious and lovely. They were blood red and silk, the thread count astronomically high, and against my naked skin, they felt as soft and cool as the brush of feathered angel wings. Soft and cool and still not as sweet as the touch of his hands as he gently stroked my hair, spilled across the perfect sculpture of his chest like blood on alabaster.
"You're pensive, Reeve," he murmured lazily, his breath just gently stirring the wayward wisps of my hair. "Usually I manage to drive distracting thought from your mind."
The soft words held a quiet warning as much as they held casual conversation, and I knew enough by now to recognize such a thing when I heard it, so I spoke quickly to ease such notions.
"And you did," I murmured quietly, daring to let my fingertips explore the line of his collarbone. He rewarded me with a quiet sound close to a purr. "But the Primogen has always proved to be untrustworthy and childish. I fear that merely introducing a handful of new Kin will do nothing but exacerbate an already teetering situation. I can not help but worry. That is my job, after all."
A quiet chuckle left the Prince and he turned onto his side, brushing his hand across my cheek in a rare and precious moment of tenderness.
"Silly little girl," he murmured. "There is caution and then there is simple paranoia. Watch and see. The Primogen will be filled again. The Invictus will hold this city as is right and proper. My enemies will know fear again. All will be well, little Reeve. All will be well."
My sigh stirred the hair that fell across his face, but I gave him a smile all the same.
"As you say, sire."
"I do say," he purred softly, rolling onto his side and sliding one cold hand up between my legs. "Now. It seems you require further distraction…"