OBLIGATORY INTRO: University entrance exams are finally over and I can go back to writing at last. :) As many a Bloodlines fic, this one, too, is inspired by rednightmare's Byzantine Black- but where hers was a different look at the Angeltown events of 2004, I choose to tell a story focusing on the aftermath of it all, a decade after. Blessed be White Wolf and their V20, for giving us back the Old World of Darkness. This one story has been stuck in my head for quite a while. I'd appreciate any and all comments- good, bad and in-between. I think a writer can learn from them all. I'm starting out with T, but it'll surely go up to M for some chapters. It's the WoD after all. And I surely don't share the views of any psychos who are part of the story.
Read, enjoy, review! :)
"Have you ever wondered which exactly is the most dangerous piece on the chessboard?"
For a decade of being Prince, Maximillian Strauss had faced not one or two disasters. It had been his first duty to deal with the aftermath of his predecessor's demise, after all. The memory of that dreadful night, leaving bitter taste in a blood-witch's mouth, was still seared in his mind- as bright as the fires which had adorned the top of Venture Tower. Maximillian had doubted many of Sebastian LaCroix's self-professed virtues- leadership, intelligence… capability of not bringing the city to ruin. But the Tremere had never believed, not even in his wildest of nightmares, that he could overestimate the haughty Ventrue in any way. A Chiropteran circling around an Ivory Tower had proved to Strauss it had been a mistake putting any stock in the spoiled jester-king- even in the man's sanity.
A Masquerade breach of such magnitude was the stuff of legends- literally. Not even since the Dark Ages, when blood-sucking overlords could still rule openly over lush lands hidden deep inside a mountainous embrace, had a Kindred dared risk revealing his kind's existence to humanity. Europa had cried out in unison, shrieks of accusation and demands for blood-soaked justice. The Council had convened for weeks on end, wasting precious time in arguments, while the Nosferatu had been ran ragged until even the flimsiest of evidence had been erased. With the rising count of disposed witnesses, one wild theory after another had blossomed inside the daylight world.
Kine possessed the excellent, endearing almost, quality of reasoning away any and all hint of the supernatural they chanced to encounter. But it had been hard passing off the behemoth as a runaway weather balloon – most of them weren't in the habit of flinging cars at Downtown skyscrapers. Still, somehow, the Camarilla had managed to avert Gehenna. Because, mundane or not, it had been precisely the Apocalypse which had threatened all of vampire kind back then.
The Anarchs had thrived in the chaos, waiting only so long before they had struck out to expand their territory. The Sabbat, as poisonous weeds are wont to do, had come back from their decimation twice in numbers. And the Cathayans of Chinatown, swearing revenge for their fallen priestess, had forsaken all promises of peaceful coexistence with their western counterparts. Dozens of new faces had flocked to the City of Angels following the events of 2004. Akin to sharks smelling blood in the water, Kindred from San Francisco to New York and beyond had gathered in his Princedom. Predators are prone to sensing opportunity in any vortex of chaos, after all.
Indeed, the only thing Maximillian Strauss had inherited was a kingdom built atop pillars of sand and glass. With each night, the grains were shifting, the cracks getting a bit wider. For ten years the Tremere had somehow managed to avoid the Cold War between the four sides from going nuclear. He could have declined the position. Few- if any- amongst the rest of the Primogen had bothered hiding they were well-aware of his desire for the illusionary throne. But even they had probably guessed on him choosing the safer road once again, opting to remain the spider-king behind the curtain.
Maximillian Strauss knew full well how sharp the sword of Damocles poised above him was. He had no illusions of acting out of the goodness of his heart, had never tried to convince himself he was above the game of Jyhad all Kindred played. But even as others had scurried back into the darkness as the veil was being torn around them all, Maximillian had known one thing:
Unless someone competent had been willing to step up and bear the noose disguised as a crown, there wasn't going to be any Princedom to fight for in the future. And any match was pointless when there wasn't even a ring for the participants to fight on.
But now, as the Tremere mulled over the events of the previous night, his mind was full of doubts whether even his diplomatic abilities could avert disaster. Ashed Seneschals, above all when they happened to be Ventrue Primogen, did have the distasteful habit of teasing the dogs of war. Blue lips pursed, Maxillian didn't wonder wonder how it was always members of that particular clan who brought disaster his way. He wondered, how on Earth, they managed to achieve it by dying.
Maximillian pressed his forehead to the cold window of the car; chin rested on hand, and mentally prepared himself for what was to come. Doubtless some already knew- the Nosferatu never shied away from trading such juicy pieces of gossip. Wild accusations were bound to fly each and every way. Such things the Prince was more than willing to accept, as long as they were no bullets mixed in-between. Frankly, he didn't care who had put an end to the Ventrue's existence. In the grand scheme of things, it didn't even matter. Following the steps of the old song and dance, the Primogen were going to point at the Anarchs. Rodriguez' men were going to remind them, rather gleefully, Maximillian was willing to bet, of Dr. Grout's death and the Camarilla fiasco which followed.
And if one thing was certain, it was that Maximillian Strauss had no intention whatsoever of taking the risk that Nine Rodriguez could survive another blood hunt. That bothersome man was in possession of more than enough status amongst his own as it was. Woe betide the incautious Camarilla who gave him any chances to boost it further under the Wizard King's watch.
The Sabbat would have been a convenient excuse, if not for the fact that clean jobs were as far removed from their repertoire as painting was from Mozart's. And the place had been just too far away from Kuei-Jin influence for the Tremere to make a convincing argument at trying to unite the Ivory Tower with the Rabble- at least until the Eastern devils were chased away.
He didn't chastise himself for doubting. Only a fool would never doubt himself. Maximillian Strauss didn't pray or hope- such optimistic fancies he had long forgotten. No, all a Wizard King could do was wear his cracked crown with pride and keep on bearing a wire-held kingdom upon his shoulders.
The night was still young. The pale light of the waning moon never seemed to reach the streets of the city. Downtown was the same as ever- bright neon lights never managing to quite chase away the dullness inherent in the giants of concrete and steel, which ruled supreme in the heart of Los Angeles. For a city so big, it was incredibly stifling- at least to him. The buildings had no style to flaunt and no stories to tell. One glass tower after another greedily reached towards the heavens, trapping the people in a cage of their own doing. The Tremere frowned- this city held few similarities to Europe's historical hubs. His heart longed for Vienna and London and Rome. Instead, fate- and his superiors- had banished him to the mother city of the planet's glitz and glitter.
The steadfast hum of the engine mixed perfectly with the rush of air accompanying the cars they passed by. It was getting colder with each and every night. October was drawing near and autumn was already reigning supreme. Maximillian knew he should have been welcoming the change of seasons and the opportunities which longer nights provided. But he could never quite get used to the sight of Los Angeles outside of summer. The carpets of red and gold covering the parks seemed so out of place. The crooked branches of the dying trees looked like tacked on to the scenery, akin to misplaced parts of a puzzle. The Tremere could never-would never perhaps- accept the city as his own. And so he accepted looking only at the tourist-trap version of Angeltown in summer, the most likely way a visiting outsider would remember the city.
The car turned round one last corner, the Nocturne already coming in sight. Maximillian let out a tired sigh, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and exited the vehicle. The driver kept the engine running, but now that the Tremere was outside, he couldn't rely on it drowning out the nightly hustle. The degenerate music stemming from the church-club was somehow managing to reach his ears from several blocks away. With yet another sigh, the Prince made his way inside, barely bothering to offer a curt nod to the two standing guard outside. He couldn't hear the music inside the theatre- praised be the small miracles. Instead, it was the chatter of those already gathered- much akin to a kicked beehive- which greeted him.
The backstage was almost empty- save for a few more guards, stereotypical black suits and useless sunglasses on at night. Maximillian eyed their hands, resting ready on guns' handles, with disdain. Any shot fired in the Nocturne tonight could brand the place their own Sarajevo- the situation was tense as it was, considering their Franz Ferdinand was already dead. Still, the Tremere chased the thoughts of assassinated royalty away from his mind and tried to do likewise with the stubbornly impending headache. Ordering them to leave any weapons aside wouldn't be only foolish, the Prince concluded. Any hint of weakness and doubt, any divergence from the status quo he had so carefully preserved, could spell disaster as well.
No, the Witch King knew that his subjects- and any other gathered on that night- needed to see what they were used to. Information of any kind was worth only as much as the ones involved in the trade believed in it. And the Kindred from Los Angeles were going to see that to their leader the unlife of one Ventrue elder wasn't worth any more than that of a measly fledgling. If anything, Maximillian was more than willing to endure the whines and moans of the victim's pride-wounded clanmates if that was all the cost for keeping peace.
"Regent Strauss!" called out a female voice from behind, tearing the Prince away from his grim musings. "Excuse me, Regent Strauss!"
Accompanied by the signature click-clack of stiletto heels, manila folder in hand, Caroline Sawyer was almost sprinting towards him in a one-person stampede. Green eyes, a curious shade between shamrock and lime, met his own tired ones with a steel gaze. A single strand of hair framed her young face; the rest of it neatly tied in a bun. Maximillian had never gotten used to the dullness of its color. It was lifeless red, fire without flames. Still, he would lie if he ever accused the woman of being plain. Signature black suit revealed shapely legs, whilst crimson shirt hid an ample enough bosom. Once, centuries ago, Maximillian would have probably spared more than a passing glance to his fellow Tremere's features. But long ago he had learned to pay attention to what lurked beneath a person's looks.
Miss Sawyer was sharp- in more ways than one. Calm, stoic, collected- those were the words he could best describe her with. She never flustered, at least not outwardly so. She was never one for leisurely talks either. The Lord of the West Coast had sent her specifically to take the newly-chosen Prince's own former position. Barely an ancilla, Caroline Sawyer had already caught the eyes of the upper echelons of the clan. She was seemingly the perfect blend of qualities a Tremere should possess. A keen mind and thirst for arcane knowledge worked in synchronicity with her willingness to obey those above her to the letter. The new Regent of Angeltown was a follower- and the Lords and Pontifices prized such a quality more than any other, when it came to their own clan. Strauss himself had learned that first hand.
But the man bore no ill will to his female counterpart. Miss Sawyer had proved herself more than able to handle the local Chantry's affairs. The Prince possessed no knowledge of the woman's Thaumaturgical abilities- and it was rude to ask- but he doubted a run-on-the-mill sorceress could capture a Lord's interest in any way. Besides, the Wizard King was glad to have at least one Primogen on his side. His Seneschal had been in the habit of agreeing to any of Strauss' suggestion only after a month's worth of vehement disagreement.
"Miss Sawyer, how many times have I already told you?" said Strauss, hands behind his back, tired voice betraying stoic features. "You need not address me with this title anymore. No Chantry has more than a single Regent."
"A police report from today you might like to see," plainly stated the woman, promptly ignoring his words. He decided on letting the little transgression slide, given the incessant tapping of heel on hardwood floor. Few things could make the Regent visibly nervous.
His pursed lips grew thinner, if it was even possible, as Strauss skimmed the papers. Whoever was behind this was either the most stupid of assassins or was aiming to provide the spark needed to turn Los Angeles into a warzone.
"The news are disturbing indeed," admitted Maximillian and he returned the folder to her waiting hand, red talons contrasting with its off-white color as she grasped it. "Has the media gotten word of it?"
"No. At least not yet," replied Miss Sawyer, shaking her head. "The police are trying to keep it as quiet as possible but it's bound to be revealed eventually. We need to tell the Commissioner to be particularly careful in choosing who handles the case."
"Indeed," absent-mindedly replied the Prince, too busy trying to discern something coherent from the increasingly incessant rambling of those gathered that night. "Well, excuse me, Miss Sawyer, but it seems my audience lacks some much needed patience."
He didn't wait for an answer, nor did she expect one. The Prince merely turned around, a slight swish to his crimson trenchcoat, and made his way to center stage. His last three steps echoed out, even and matched. A tense silence had descended as soon as the Kindred of Los Angeles had gotten sight of their Prince. Maximillian allowed himself only a moment of preparation, just enough to scan over those who had answered his call. More than he had expected, yet still much too few. Some of the Primogen had apparently deemed it unnecessary to attend in person. The Prince had more urgent business than to feel offended.
"Fellow Kindred," began the Tremere, booming voice a perfect mirror to his soldierly posture. "Pardon me for gathering you on such quick notice tonight, but, alas, a recent and unexpected turn of events requires it."
It was only then, upon greeting them, upon feeling the brunt of all those scrutinizing glares, when he realized how familiar the scene was. It had been a different Prince back then, accompanied by a brute, a doomed Sire and a Fledgling no older than a night. The Nocturne was bearing witness to an eerily similar performance. The same actors were playing different roles, and LaCroix's flamboyant bravado was thankfully absent, but it still weighed heavy on the Prince's mind. His predecessor had marked the beginning of his end on that very same stage. Strauss only hoped he wouldn't become the architect of his own demise in a similar fashion.
The only Final Death he would never accept was ending up a copy of Sebastian LaCroix.
"Last night, while on a… visit to St. Lucia Academy, one of our own met his unfortunate demise. Albrecht Weissmann's Final Death was confirmed earlier tonight. The one behind this crime is yet to be determined and so I urge you- strongly- to refrain from any accusations until we gather conclusive evidence."
They had reacted much like Strauss had expected them to. Suspicious stares were matched in number only by the multitude of false gasps. Only Abrams' debaucherous childe- still seemingly lacking any knowledge in basic dressing etiquette- seemed genuinely aghast. Or maybe she could just fake it better and the Prince was fool enough to fall for it. Baron Hollywood himself looked as smug as ever. Both men had never had much good to say about one another, but after the fiasco with that stone-skinned oaf, Maximillian was willing to trade away half his Princedom just to see the Toreador nailed to an east-facing wall. His latest childe- Ramirez or something similar (Strauss had no interest in the filmmaker's bad taste in childer)- was one of the few who kept their reactions to themselves.
Imalia, substituting for her sire like always as of late, was drilling daggers through the skull of Abrams' red-haired childe. The Cleopatra could capture the heart of many an unknowing mortal, perfect Obfuscate mirroring the raven-black curly tresses and olive skin she had possessed in life. But still, Strauss doubted any Nosferatu was capable of missing on gossip even if they were distracted. Golden wouldn't have sent her otherwise.
Therese Voerman, in contrast, seemed deeply entranced by the news. Judging by the haughty smile dancing on false-Ventrue lips, the Malkavian Primogen was already imagining herself Seneschal. Her ambitions would never bear fruit under his watch, though- Strauss needed to be madder than any of her clan to place the ambitious former Baron merely a step below him.
Nines Rodriguez and his cadre of hot-blooded neonates seemed noticeably on edge. The Anarch icon himself kept his signature stone-cold demeanor. Arms crossed and gaze defiant, his steel grey eyes were even now sending a not-so-subtle challenge to the Wizard King. Maximillian couldn't care less. As convincing as he found the Anarch leader's imitation of an angered peacock, he had no intention whatsoever of giving him any chance to take center stage. His Anarch guests, on the other hand, apparently thought him more foolish than that. The usually carefree Toreador was eyeing the nearest Camarilla supporters warily, as if expecting them to jump any second. The dark-skinned lieutenant was equally on edge, albeit masking his anxiousness behind a soldier's stoic façade. A recent addition to Angeltown's Anarchs, one of Jack's foul-mouthed childer, was resting her hands in disappointment on the places where she usually kept her guns.
And speaking of the so-called Anarch "icon", Jack himself was thankfully missing. The elder Brujah would have been Strauss' prime suspect in the death of any Ventrue elder, if not for that fact the supposed ex-pirate had ridden off north two years ago to halt the Cathayan invasion. The Prince glanced wearily at the row of support pillars on his right. There was no cigarette light sparkling in the darkness like ten years ago. Only a lone Caitiff slumped lazily at the base of one of the columns, midnight blue eyes observing the audience from under a mop of black hair stuck in a state of perpetual dishevelment. Maximillian couldn't decide whether to be surprised the man was looking serious for a change, or to chastise himself for not realizing even a Vagabond could fancy himself a secret player in the game of Jyhad.
"Rest assured that I will personally make sure justice is served. The Camarilla will not tolerate any attacks towards its own, be it neonate or elder. To all of you who doubt foul play on my part," said the Prince and threw a not particularly subtle glance in the Anarachs' direction. "You should be already well-aware how important our continued peaceful coexistence is to me, in the face of the adversaries we face. As long as you are innocent in this matter, you need not fear."
Another pause, another half a minute of tense silence.
"Three days from now I will hold a meeting for the Primogen, so a new Seneschal can be chosen from amongst them. That is all."
"That is all?" echoed a voice from somewhere above, each word punctuated by a blend of mockery and anger. Before the Prince had even looked up, he knew who he was going to see looking down on him from one of the lounges.
Leonard Weissmann, a dead Seneschal's prized childe-fueled by only that particular brand of fury a spurned Ventrue could muster- was currently looking ready to either shoot or pounce on his Prince. The usual translucent red of his irises was now a deep crimson, like a blossoming rose. He had obviously fed recently, eliminating the possibility of losing himself to his instincts- although the Wizard King was almost sure he would prefer dealing with a frothing Beast than a spoiled Ventrue childe. Leonard ran a hand through slicked back silvery-white hair and clutched the railing with the other, nails digging deep into lacquered mahogany. The albino exhaled through gritted fangs, angered sigh coming out as a viper's hiss.
"A member of your own council, your own Seneschal," began Leonard, more calmly this time- which could only spell out an impending storm for the Prince. "Is killed in a place branded as Elysium by your own hand… And all you do is call for a flimsy social gathering just to clue us all in on recent events?! And why did I have to be informed by Nosferatu contacts that my own sire had been turned to ashes on our own ground, Strauss? Your leniency on this matter-"
"Is nonexistent," interjected the Wizard King, voice even, glasses hiding the annoyance in his narrowed eyes. He shot a glance at Imalia- her knowing smirk disappeared a second too late. "I have already looked into the matter. I would advise you to stop acting on presumptions, neonate- and that is precisely the reason why I did not inform you any sooner."
"We are being bled dry, Strauss!" shouted the Ventrue, clamping another hand on the railing. "I don't know what games you are playing, nor do I know what schemes you concoct. But even I- a neonate," he smirked at the word, tossing the Prince's own dagger back at him. "Can plainly see the Camarilla is losing ground, prestige and power. For ten years of ruling, how many times have you actually ben proactive? Your precious peace is rotting us from the inside-out! All you are doing is removing bricks from the bottom to add to the top and wondering why your castle isn't getting any higher."
"Your Brujah passion has been duly noted, Mr. Weissmann," replied the Prince, uncaring for the glares he earned from those Rabble present. He could spot a Cheshire grin stretching across the Caitiff's face. "I thank you all for answering my call tonight. This meeting is over."
The sireless Ventrue looked more than willing to argue with the finality of Strauss' statement, but the Prince gave him no chance. As the Tremere retraced his steps to the back door he wondered if the killer had been present amongst the Kindred gathered. Anyone else would have considered Leonard as a prime suspect, but the Prince knew the younger Weissmann was much too cunning. Behind Ventrue haughtiness and tons of excess pride worked a shrewd mind, one that would grow dangerous after several decades. Even with his relative lack of experience Leonard would have never risked making a move to usurp his sire so early in unlife. His reaction had been a surprising one, actually, unless it had been a ploy meant to undermine the Wizard King's authority.
Nines Rodriguez himself was too much of a good politician to risk disturbing the equilibrium of power without having a decisive trump card. The Anarch hero would never admit it of course- be it under pain of torture, death or Tzimisce fleshcrafting- but behind the Robin Hood façade lay an ancilla well-versed in the game of Jyhad. Still, the Tremere was used to duplicity in Kindred. There was no surprise in the former Baron's blend of egalitarianism preaching, accompanied by an almost Ventrue-like realpolitik instinct.
Abrams would have never dared risk his precious Hollywood by- God forbid- actively showing which side he "fought" for. Golden was interested only in ruling his dung-filled, pest-infested Warrens, listening on to others' conversations in the meantime. Voerman, if only by eliminating the other alternatives, remained the likeliest of suspects. The woman could hide behind her corporate persona, but there was no denying the existence of the Malkavian madness coursing through her veins. No doubt she could convince herself in the rightness of her actions, even if the voice inside her head urged her to greet the sunrise stark naked.
Of course, the Prince was not yet willing to rule out any other options. But Leonard Weissmann was going to need a prey to chase after while Strauss looked for the truth behind it all. And what better prey could he offer the Ventrue than an overly ambitious turncoat fox?
"All in all, I expected something worse," chimed in Miss Sawyer from her place leaning on the side of the car. "What is your suggested course of action, Regent?"
The Tremere didn't bother correcting her and only accepted the open door. The woman took her place next to the driver, her nose soon buried once again into the police reports. As the clocks in Angeltown struck midnight and announced the beginning of October, Maximillian Strauss weighed option after option in his mind.
"Call Mr. Weissmann into my office," he announced eventually, eyes gazing at the appalling glass pieces of architecture the car passed by. "And inform Mr. Blake you have a job for him."
The female Tremere nodded knowingly and pulled out a phone.