Campaign of the Month: August 2014
The Concord of Ashes
Sister Maude Khlesl
A shrivelled, ill-tempered and irreverent Cappadocian lay sister; a physician, occultist and humanitarian
Maude appears as a shrivelled, emaciated old woman less than five feet tall, with a steady gaze and a stern countenance. Her age-wrinkled skin and the hood of her nun’s habit help to camouflage her Cappadocian pallour, allowing her to pass for human relatively easily.
Though capable of warmth and good humour, she tends more often to be abrasive and impatiently waspy. She has little patience for the endless posturing and ritual deference required to thrive in the Cainite world, and finds it difficult to maintain the charade of both respectfulness and respectability. Despite her contempt for people generally – whether human, Cainite, or spirit – their immense capacity for suffering in all its forms weighs heavily on her mind, almost to the point of obsession, and alleviating it is clearly one of her primary motivations.
She brings a rigorously evidence-based approach to everything she does, an approach which is at odds with the prevailing thinking of the time, and which seems particularly incongruous when applied to the study of the occult and theology which by their nature are all but unknowable.
Maude is at her best when engaged in academic discourse or altruistic endeavours alongside intellectual equals with gentle dispositions.
Born in 1094, Maude was the youngest daughter of a penniless Viennese nobleman who was cursed with eight daughters and no sons. Her birth a disappointment, she was deemed irrelevant and unmarriable, and bundled off to a life in the clergy.
As the daughter of a noble, Maude was provided an education. She demonstrated a keen intellect and sought to expand the scope of her studies, but was told a broad education was unnecessary for a woman. Feeling stifled, she asked to be sent abroad, and in 1129 was sent on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with her Abbess. She spent a little time in Constantinople, and was exposed to the teachings of the Orthodox Christians, which illustrated to her how the dogmas of all faiths were arbitrary and parochial, including her own. At this point she saw it as a human failing, rather than divine.
Returning to Vienna, she began working in church infirmaries and hospices for the poor. She was viewed by her superiors as a capable leader and a potential abbess. Certainly, she garnered a reputation as someone who generally got her own way, either through force of personality or the irrefutability of her arguments. However, she increasingly came into conflict with her superiors over matters of medical policy. She observed that certain accepted practices were not beneficial – or were, in fact, actively detrimental – to patient recovery, but when she pressed for change she was met with a wall of organisational inertia justified with a fatalistic “God takes who he will” outlook.
Determined to understand the true nature of disease, Maude threw herself into the study of medicine. She sought out texts on the subject and consulted with everyone from respected physicians to backwater wisewomen. Increasingly she came to the conclusion that the majority of medical remedies and techniques were ineffective and based on nothing but hearsay and superstition.
For two decades Maude buried herself in her medical work. She tried innumerable remedies for a wide range of illnesses, while scrupulously taking notes and numerically recording the rates of patient recovery relative to their symptoms, age, physical attributes and a myriad of other factors. She confirmed that many commonly used practices actually worsened patients’ condition relative to receiving no treatment at all. And amazingly, she discovered that many people improved significantly relative to no treatment when they received any treatment, even a sham like plain water described to the patient as a healing draught.
But her most important discovery of all was born from a moment when Maude found herself staring at a lump of mouldy bread. She wondered if some forms of disease were actually miniscule plant-like organisms like the bread mould, perhaps individually invisible to the naked eye, that could be spread by physical contact or even through the air via human breath. Following this revelation, she implemented a rigorous programme of hygiene in her hospice: all patient linen and clothing was washed in boiling water, surgical instruments were sterilised with flame, sick patients were kept isolated, and the nuns who tended to them wore face masks to avoid breathing any contaminated air. The results were dramatic, and her practices were passed onto other medical facilities in Vienna which enjoyed a Golden Age of patient well-being, though little of the credit for these discoveries was attributed to her.
As Maude laboured in the city to ease the suffering of the poor, her faith, which had always been rather abstract and none-too-fervent, evaporated altogether. Her use of reason and empirical evidence to improve the lives of her charges had turned her mind against religion. The Bible and the church made claims about the truths of the universe, but where was their evidence? The Bible was a mess of weirdness, appalling morality, and contradictions – you had to cherry-pick some sections while ignoring others to form a sane and workable code of moral conduct. And God himself was depicted as frivolous, murderous, vain and petty. Further, she knew that different faiths made different claims that were all incompatible with each other. Since none were provable, how could they all be reconciled? Which religion was right? Or were they simply all wrong?
And in light of the appalling suffering she witnessed in her work, the idea of a benevolent God seemed increasingly absurd to her. She secretly concluded that God was incompetent, insane or capriciously cruel, and was filled with despair. Increasingly, she began to believe that the world was more bad than good, that humans’ capacity for suffering was much greater than their capacity for joy. However, driven by her own conscience, she continued to do what she could to ease suffering where possible – this included the discreet euthanising of a handful of hopelessly maimed people of all ages.
Then one night, a chance encounter with a powerful vampire would change her existence forever …
Maude was sitting at her candlelit desk, a small smudge of light in the dark, high-ceilinged room, carefully making entries in the patient record ledgers, when she heard a commotion in the street outside the hospice. Her ears were still sharp, despite her age, and she could make out what sounded like a pained grunt followed by a curse … in Latin?
She rose from the desk, walked over to the small door that led onto the street, and opened it slightly. Silvery moonlight fell through the gap, painting a pale stripe down her body, as she peered out into the street.
Five yards from the door stood an elderly bearded man. Although he was facing away from Maude it was clear that he was injured. It was too dark to make out any blood stains against the dark cloth of his fine quality robes, but he was clutching his gut while struggling to remain upright.
Standing ten yards further down the street was another man armed with a bow, an arrow nocked and ready to fire. Though only illuminated by the pale moonlight, Maude could tell that he was inhumanly beautiful. For reasons she couldn’t fathom, the archer filled Maude with a profound dread that made her gut churn and her skin crawl. He sneered at the old man in a way that was both supercilious and predatory.
Then, in a blur of movement almost too fast to follow, he levelled the bow and fired. The arrow punctured the old man’s throat with a sickening noise. Maude gasped involuntarily as he fell backwards, blood spitting from the wound, landing with a thump less than two yards from the door.
Assuming the poor man was dead, she fumbled for the latch on the door, hoping to lock it before the sinister archer spotted her. But her hands froze, unfeeling, when she saw the fatally injured man rise, impossibly, to his feet once more. For the first time she clearly saw his face, somehow both cadaverous and majestic, despite being contorted in pain. He grabbed the arrow and wrenched it from his throat in a splash of gore. There was no choking or gurgling – in fact, he didn’t seem to be breathing at all. It was impossible.
By this time the archer had approached to within a dozen feet of his quarry, another arrow readied. Although his punctured throat hadn’t proved fatal, the old man was nevertheless clearly in great distress. He clutched his neck, blood welling between his fingers. In fact, despite Maude’s racing pulse and the wash of shock throughout her body, she noticed something inexplicable and surreal: the old man wasn’t staunching the blood running from his throat; he was methodically coating his hands and wrists with it.
The archer’s unearthly and beautiful face had the gloating look of one ready to strike a finishing blow on a thoroughly bested opponent. He spoke to the old man in thickly accented Latin.
“Any scum who deal with the Tremere deserve their fate …”
The archer’s words ceased abruptly as the old man suddenly pivoted on his heel and lunged towards him, hands outstretched. The archer’s expression was contemptuous as he caught one of the old man’s wrists … a contempt that abruptly twisted into alarm and agony. He dropped his bow and staggered back staring aghast at the hand with which he had grabbed the old man. The flesh on his fingers and palm was blackening, withering and sloughing off in gory clumps. Within moments naked bone was visible, jutting through mouldering sinew.
The old man, attempting to press his advantage, reached for the archer’s face with his blood-soaked hands. Despite his agony, the archer darted away from the threat with preternatural swiftness. But the blood coated on the old man’s hands and wrists was curling and leaping off him, ghastly dark tendrils of fluid hungrily grasping for the flesh of the other man; they coiled and lanced through the intervening distance, spattering his body in many places. Wherever they touched, flesh turned to ash. His body and angelic face were swiftly marred by hideous blackened ravines where the blood had gouged away the flesh.
The archer screamed in pain, a hideous bestial howl no human could make. His ruined face twisted into an expression of feral fury, of total abandonment of reason. His incisors visibly elongated until they hung well over his lower lip. He crouched like a predatory animal and leapt at the old man with a savagery that was almost impossible for Maude to comprehend.
The momentum from his leap sent both of them hurtling through the air. They slammed into the nearby wall with enough force to send plaster and loose masonry clattering to the street. As they both slid to the ground, Maude held her breath, expecting a frenzy of gouging and biting … but after a few spasmodic twitches from the archer, they both lay still.
Then the old man stirred. As he disentangled himself from his attacker, Maude saw that at some point during the archer’s frenzied leap the old man had managed to fix his hands around his attacker’s neck. Thickly coated as it was with the corrosive blood, it had dissolved the flesh of the archer’s neck in a split second. Now only exposed vertebrae connected his head to his body. As the old man rose trembling to his feet, Maude saw the archer’s head roll free from his body completely, the vertebrae scattering like a children’s game of knucklebones.
When she looked up at the old man again, he was staring straight at her, even though she hadn’t made a sound. “Help me,” he croaked from across the street. Without knowing why, she found herself walking out to him. She offered him her arm, helped support some of his weight, guided him back through the door of the hospice, and set him down in a chair. Her heart fluttered with fear, but for reasons she couldn’t understand she remained outwardly calm.
He was staring into her eyes again. “Give me your arm.” Again, without knowing why, she began to extend her arm towards him. Then, as though snapping out of a trance, she swiftly retracted it. Why had she done that? She should flee, scream; anything other than obeying the commands of this man-devil.
The old man looked surprised at her sudden reticence. He gathered himself. His voice was tremulous from his pain, but calm.
“I need some of your blood if I am to survive,” he said. “You have my word that you won’t be otherwise harmed.” As he spoke, Maude was once again struck by his incongruous demeanour: cadaverous and macabre while simultaneously imperious and majestic.
Finally finding her courage and resolve, and intrigued by his forthright request, she fixed him with a level gaze. “How much blood do you need exactly?”
The old man struggled to retain his focus. He swayed in the chair. “A few mouthfuls at least. The more you can offer, the more …”
“Pints. Give me a measure in pints,” Maude snapped.
“Three,” croaked the old man.
“Three pints? I weigh less than ninety pounds! I’ll be anaemic for a month!”
“Two then. Just whatever … whatever you can … can spare.”
Maude considered his request. What did she have to lose? Her life? Well, she had already lived far longer than most. But what did she have to gain?
Maude had identified several of the pale, unbreathing night people before: a beautiful noblewoman accompanied by several sinister-looking men-at-arms; an overfed and supercilious merchant; a pair of knights from some obscure religious order. She was even introduced to one, a gaunt priest who was most interested in some of her more macabre medical observations … at least until he noticed Maude’s close scrutiny, at which point he began to inhale and exhale conspicuously and audibly, then quickly made his excuses and left.
And now she had one sitting in front of her, in need of her assistance. So, that’s what she had to gain: a chance to find out more about this fascinating supernatural world. It wasn’t a decision at all.
She offered him her wrist. “Take two. But no more.”
The old man’s eyes gleamed in the candlelight, his face taking on a feral cast. His fangs extended as he brought her wrist up to his mouth. But abruptly he stopped, head cocked. After a pause he held his finger to his lips, an urgent expression on his pained face. With trembling hands, he snatched up the pen from her desk and started scribbling on the ledger. Bemused, Maude read the hastily scrawled words: More enemies approach. Divert them or we both die.
Maude could hear nothing outside, but she nodded to the old man and, heart pounding, moved back over to the door. It was still open, so she slowly peered around the side of the door frame.
Standing over the archer’s body – which now seemed to be in an advanced state of decomposition – stood two more of the night people. Unlike the archer, who could have passed for human, these two were clearly monstrous. One had a face that was both beautiful and horrific, as though the face of an angelic blue-eyed child had been stretched to scale and transposed onto his head. His disproportionately large child-eyes stared down at the degraded remains of the archer as he prodded the corpse with a slender sword. The other night person was bestial and savage. Tufts of hair sprouted out from under his ragged leathers. He squatted on his haunches sniffing the ground and scratching at the dirt with his long talons. He was already facing the hospice, and Maude realised with a start that he would only have to look up to see her staring at him from around the side of the door.
Thinking quickly, she decided her best hope was to play the devout woman of God, someone who would never give sanctuary to an unholy blood-drinking abomination. With her heart in her mouth, knowing she had to act quickly and decisively, she strode out boldly into the street. Her trembling hands found the crucifix hanging from her neck, and she held it out towards the two night people.
“Back, unholy demons!” she cried out in Latin. “Flee from this House of God!” She tried to fill her voice with the manic, fearless fervour of an unthinking zealot, but the fearful tremor in her tone was clear. The two night people merely sneered at her.
“Where is the old man?” said the one with the obscene child-face. His lilting, haunting voice sang the words, rather than spoke them.
Maude drew herself up to her full height and summoned all the faux defiance she could muster. “I told him what I am telling you now: this is a house of God and you are not welcome here! Back!”
The bestial one snarled and crouched, ready to pounce; she had thought her lie convincing, but he seemed eager to kill her where she stood regardless. Maude felt her legs tremble and prepared herself for the end.
Then with a thud and a splash, a large chamber pot slammed into the ground beside the crouching night person, splattering him with bodily waste. Looking up, Maude saw Fat Lili, a local whore, standing bare-chested at her window, glaring angrily down at the street. Her youngest son was in front of her staring down from over the window sill, head framed on each side by Lili’s enormous milky-white breasts, his eyes widening with shock as he took in the inhuman features of the two night people. Lili, however, was short-sighted and couldn’t make them out clearly.
“Keep the noise down,” she shouted down irritably. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”
A short way down the street, Gregor the cooper and his teenage son – fully a head taller than his father – emerged from their home. Unlike Fat Lili, it seemed they had noticed the inhuman quality to the archer’s frenzied screams earlier, for they each carried a burning torch in one hand and a hefty tool of their trade in the other. They cautiously moved forward.
“Is everything well, Sister?” called Gregor as he approached.
“Stay back, Gregor!” Maude shouted urgently.
As their torchlight fell onto the two night people, Gregor and his son stopped in their tracks, panic blazing in their eyes. The bestial night person was now facing them, growling eagerly. His eyes flared with a demonic red glow as his muscles tensed, ready to pounce. But the one with the child-face stopped his companion with a hand on his shoulder. Maude followed his gaze down the street, where at least a half dozen faces were now staring down from second floor windows, with more windows clattering open with each passing moment.
With a final contemptuous smirk in her direction, the two loped off down the street, looking left and right down side alleys as they went. Relief washed through Maude like a tangible wave of warmth. Looking over at Gregor, she saw that he was crouched over his son who had apparently fainted dead away – he was a gentle lad despite his size.
Knees still trembling, Maude smiled up at Fat Lili who was squinting myopically up the street after the night people.
“My dear,” Maude called up to her, “I think you just saved my life.”
Lili looked slightly bemused at this, but then grinned down at Maude. “Well, I doubt there’s much left of it, Sister. Anyway, I suppose I can put up with another week or two of your nagging.”
Maude smiled and turned back to the hospice door. She took a moment to centre herself. The first priority would be to find a better hiding place for the old man in case his pursuers returned. Then he could have his blood.
And then he would answer her questions; so many questions.
Maude’s new friend, Dietrich, was a Cappadocian elder. Dietrich had been – up until that night – the seneschal of the Ventrue Prince of Vienna, Valerianus, who had just been assassinated by the Tzimisce for the affront of having dealings with the Tremere.
Fascinated by the ancient and powerful creature, Maude kept him hidden in the crypt of the adjoining chapel until the political situation normalised under the Tremere. Dietrich was eventually able to reveal himself to, and somewhat ingratiate himself with, the new Tremere leadership, but his time as seneschal of Vienna was over. Grateful and intrigued by Maude, the two struck up a friendship, and over the following years spent many nights together as intellectual sparring partners.
Finally, in 1155 at the age of 61, Maude fell mortally ill and was on the brink of death. Dietrich offered Maude the Embrace, and she accepted.
The first few years after Maude’s Embrace were spent in Dietrich’s estate with him and his servant family, the Chrieglers, as she trained to become accustomed to her new form. In particular, she focussed on learning to control her Beast, horrified as she was by its ever-present urgings. She also continued in her role as Dietrich’s intellectual muse, and he as hers, while he taught her the Cappadocian Disciplines.
Over this time, Maude noticed that Dietrich was keeping her somewhat removed from the politics and personalities of their clan. This didn’t bother her much, as she felt the clan obsession with death to be rather nonsensical. Over the centuries the Cappadocians had made some remarkable discoveries in the fields of biology, physiology and thanatology, but they had still made no progress in understanding the final destination of the soul … if there even was one. In fact, there was no evidence that even if they found the answers they sought – a dubious proposition at best – that the knowledge could be put to any practical use.
Maude often queried Dietrich about this, but initially he deflected her questions. Eventually, though, after years of badgering, he finally conceded that he felt much the same way, and was in fact a member of a secret cabal of humanist Cappadocians whose beginnings lay in the disgust they shared at the massacre of the Feast of Folly. Dietrich cautioned Maude that it was imperative to keep their beliefs secret, lest they be punished in the same way the “unworthy” had at Kaymakli.
From that point on, no topic was off-limits between them. Maude confided in Dietrich that her scepticism ran very deep indeed. She doubted any of the accepted accounts of creation or of the birth of vampirism. They were all too biased, too self-important, and provided no evidence, just vainglorious, contradictory verses in alleged holy (and unholy) texts.
What if God wasn’t all-powerful? What if humans and animals were spat out uncaringly by some powerful entity from the demonic realm? Or maybe the creator was a spirit being who was neither omnipotent nor omniscient but merely curious, an amoral observer morbidly interested in observing adversity? What if there was no creator at all, with some innate property of the universe making it possible for life to spring forth from nothing?
Soon thereafter, the pair set off on an extended journey to the Middle East accompanied by some of the Chrieglers. The purpose of the journey was twofold: to expose Maude to the methods and techniques of the comparatively sophisticated Hebrew and Arab physicians of the day, and to search for news of Dietrich’s own sire, Kyros of Antioch, of whom he had had no word in decades.
Their travels took them through many of the great cities of the Middle East, but they found little trace of Kyros, even in Antioch, where they were chased out of the city by local Lasombra and Assamites. Eventually, however, news of their search reached the right ears, and one of Kyros’s allies, a Bashirite Ravnos named Elijah, found them and led them to Beirut. There they finally met the ancient Cappadocian, staying with him for several years.
During their stay, Maude made heavy use of Kyros’s wisdom and knowledge, and his extraordinary library. It was during this time that she acquired the foundation of her occult knowledge, and discovered she had a remarkable facility for the ritual magic of Mortis. Her novel approach – experimental, empirical and largely assumption-free – enabled her to compose a number of entirely new rituals, a feat that was unheard of for a neonate of less than ten years.
During her time in Beirut, Maude grew very fond of Kyros, though he remained something of a benign but aloof father figure. However, it was Elijah she truly came to love as a friend and companion. His self-deprecatory humour, gentle mockery and unfailing equanimity was the perfect foil to Maude’s over-earnest – and often acidic – self-righteousness. For his part, he seemed to respect her altruistic bent and to greatly enjoy her barbed wit and lack of pretension. In defiance of their clan tenets – both of which they had little respect for – they taught each other some of their core clan Disciplines, Chimerstry and Mortis.
Eventually in 1166 Kyros slipped back into torpor, so Maude and Dietrich bid a fond farewell to Elijah and began the long journey home.
Back in Vienna, Maude once again spent much of her time studying and improving her occult skills and knowledge. Also, Maude had discovered that she could pass herself off as human relatively easily compared to most Cappadocians, for although she had the cadaverous appearance of all her clan, this was mostly concealed by her nun’s habit which covered all but her pinched and pallid face, which itself didn’t seem unnatural on a very old woman who already had age-wrinkled skin. With this in mind, she was able to insinuate herself back into the church hierarchy (with a little help from Dietrich’s Dominate Discipline) and began to spend some of her nights working once again in Viennese hospices. Standards had lapsed since her departure, but with the return of her expertise and the spread of her methods, patient recovery improved once more, and Vienna began to enjoy another Golden Age of physical health for its citizenry.
For three decades, Maude and Dietrich remained close companions, confidants and intellectual foils for each other. They became so familiar with each other that the line between sire and childe became blurred. Soon they were like an old married couple, complete with good-natured bickering.
However, time can strain even the fondest relationship. Eventually, their intellectual sparring began to stagnate, and Maude’s abrasive manner started to grate. Worse, Maude was showing little interest in learning how to support herself financially. Dietrich, an inveterate miser, became more and more intolerant of what he perceived to be the exorbitant cost to maintain Maude and her interests …
LOCATION: THE STUDY OF DIETRICH VON STEYER, VIENNA
Ah, Maude. You’re back. Did you procure all the ritual ingredients?
No, Dietrich, not all of them. You see I went to the hospice first to check on the progress of their sanitation measures. They’re doing very well. Brother Gottfried might seem like a simpering buffoon, but he’s very good at following instructions, particularly if they’re delivered with an air of authority …
Yes, Maude, but what about the ritual ingredients?
Ah, yes. Them. You see, the hospice has been troubled with leaks, and leaks cause dampness which is quite unconducive to patient recovery. So, since the hospice’s roof is desperately in need of repair, it seemed clear to me that our money was best spent on the services of a skilled carpenter …
“Our” money?! Maude, yesterday I gave you a considerable sum of coin – my coin – to purchase a year’s worth of supplies vital for our ritual research. Are you telling me you spent some of it commissioning roof repairs for the hospice?
No, I’m telling you I spent all of it commissioning roof repairs … Oh, don’t look at me like that! You have more money than you know what to do with. I’ll order the supplies tomorrow night.
No you won’t. I’ll send one of the Chrieglers. Really, Maude, this is disgraceful, even for you. It wasn’t a trivial sum. Did you even meet the merchant? The only reason he agreed to extend his stay in Vienna was because of the business I promised him.
Oh, don’t fret. I know how important the ritual ingredients are. Or did you forget that it’s me that’s responsible for practically all the actual research and innovation that you so enthusiastically parlay into prestige with your far-flung correspondents? Anyway, yes, I met the merchant.
And he agreed to delay leaving Vienna yet again?
And how did you convince him?
Why, with my winning smile and wholesome good looks.
Well, that and a ten percent increase in his original asking price.
Oh, for the love of God!
Well, it was more for the love of quality ritual ingredients.
Maude! This time you’ve gone too far. My patience for this sort of behaviour is at an end. I should never have …
Oh Dietrich, spare me your outrage! The money was well spent. Recovering patients need to be warm and dry. I haven’t yet managed to quantify the need precisely, but I will. And I can assure you it won’t be a case of merely one or two patients per hundred being slightly better off. On the contrary, the fixed roof will undoubtedly save lives in the long run. That’s what I spent your money on, Dietrich: saving lives; preventing children from being needlessly orphaned; helping people to overcome illnesses that they couldn’t recover from on their own. In fact, the sorts of things an adherent of the Road of Humanity should enthusiastically support.
I’m not the least bit interested in your melodrama or your emotional blackmail.
Tell me I’m wrong about any of it! Besides, what has this cost you in any meaningful way?
What do you mean “what has it cost me”? It has cost me a considerable amount of coin!
That’s not meaningful in the context of your wealth. Your ledgers simply now have marginally smaller values in them. But you haven’t lost anything material, or had to make changes to the way you live, or in fact had to make any personal sacrifices whatsoever. And yet your coin will save lives. You should be happy.
Maude, why didn’t you just ask me? How do you know I wouldn’t have agreed to help the hospice?
Because you’ve refused similar requests in the past.
I’ve agreed to many as well.
You know, Maude, this demeanour you’ve adopted, this frivolous, mischievous spendthrift mien – it isn’t endearing. If you were recently embraced as an adolescent, a young and pretty and carefree thing, then it might be charming … for a while. But you’re not. You were embraced as a haggard, ill-tempered and insufferable old crone, and unlife hasn’t changed you much at all.
Oh Dietrich, you old romantic. You’re making me feel like the woman I once was.
I’m not sure anyone in their right mind has ever wanted to feel the woman you once were.
Now, now. Are those sorts of hurtful insults appropriate for one claiming to be on the Road of Humanity? You clearly need some moral and ethical guidance. In Lady Rowena’s absence, I think I should start tutoring you in the moral philosophy of our Road. Think of it: hours and hours of me incessantly instructing you on how to keep the Beast at bay by living a good and worthwhile life.
Final death would be preferable.
I’m not so sure. I’m working on a ritual that carries my voice through to the Shadowlands, so we could continue the lessons even in the event of your untimely demise. The ritual is called Shh, Maude’s talking, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it There is no peace in death.
I cannot for the life of me remember what possessed me to embrace you.
No doubt it was an uncharacteristic moment of good judgement.
Maude knew her time with Dietrich would have to end at some point, but she resisted at first. She hoped the process of finding her own place in the world would be a gradual and gentle affair. But when her temper got the better of her at an audience with the Viennese Prince, Lotharius, she was forced from Vienna very abruptly indeed …
“So, Prince Lotharius, the symptoms you describe strongly suggest that the mortal servants of your subjects are victims of Vienna’s current flux epidemic.”
Maude glanced around the grand audience room as Dietrich addressed the Prince. Most of Vienna’s Cainite population were in attendance. Maude wasn’t well acquainted with any of them, which was as she wished it. There were about half a dozen Tremere, most from the Chantry, and a scattering of High Clan lackeys. A room full of jackals, she thought.
Lotharius himself sat on a great wooden chair of superb craftsmanship, his handsome face and piercing blue eyes fixed on Dietrich. Standing on Lotharius’s right was his childe and Thaumaturgical protégé, Hette von Borcke, a pretty young noblewoman with a penchant for extraordinary hubris. Standing on Lotharius’s left was his sire Etrius, a frequent visitor to Vienna. A rotund man with long blonde hair, he seemed unremarkable to look at. Only the elaborate arcane symbols embroidered into his robe hinted at the almost god-like power of his blood, which was but one step away from that of an Antideluvian.
“Normally a flux outbreak would be cause for great concern,” Dietrich continued. “However, as you know, my childe, Sister Maude, has made especial study of the ailments of the kine. She is confident she can help prevent the spread of the contagion, while providing a beneficial regime of herbal remedies for those currently afflicted…”
Hette von Borcke interrupted Dietrich with a loud snort of derision, her pretty face made ugly by the cruel sneer on her lips. “This plague has been affecting our herds for more than a week,” she snapped. “Why did you not come forward with this information sooner?”
Maude tried to keep her face as neutral as possible, while busying her thoughts with the mental recitations of book passages that she had memorised. Auspex was a clan discipline of the Tremere, so some of those present in the court would no doubt be viewing her aura. She did not want to betray the contempt she felt for this bombastic, pompous fool.
“We only became aware of the outbreak on Monday,” replied Dietrich in his soft, deliberate voice. “We immediately requested an audience with the Prince, but our messenger was turned away.”
A visible ripple of unease crossed over Hette’s arrogant expression. Only now, it seemed, did she suddenly remember contemptuously dismissing Godwine, Dietrich’s ghoul, without even reading the message he carried. She squirmed under Dietrich’s placid but unwavering gaze, floundering for a response.
“Your ghoul looked like a common ruffian,” she finally blurted out. “If you insist on sending scruffy representatives then you must expect them to be turned away.”
Dietrich gave a slight bow. “I apologise, my lady,” he said. “In future I will endeavour to have my messengers reputably attired in garments tailored to your exacting standards.”
Hette stared at Dietrich uncertainly, unsure of whether he was mocking her. Maude managed to contain the smirk threatening to creep up her face. Etrius, who until now had seemed disinterested in the proceedings, made no effort to hide his smirk at all.
“Let us focus on the problem at hand,” said Lotharius, his voice cool and authoritative. “What course of action do you recommend?”
“With your permission, my Prince,” replied Dietrich, “I would have my childe answer your question, as this is her area of expertise.”
Lotharius nodded curtly. Maude stepped forward with a small curtsy, paused for a moment to centre herself, and began to speak.
Clearly and succinctly, she described the probable causes of the outbreak: contaminated drinking water and filthy living conditions harbouring the tiny invisible life forms that would wreak havoc on mortal physiology. She then moved swiftly to the solutions: identifying the source of contamination, boiling drinking water thoroughly in the meantime, and implementing a regime of cleanliness in the mortals’ living environment.
“In particular,” she continued, “it is important to make the mortals aware of the need for continued cleanliness, and for them to be given the supplies they need. If necessary, benign use of the Dominate Discipline could ensure compliance. In the end, these measures will be far more productive if the people themselves can take responsibility for their own well-being now, as well as for the preventative measures that will help avert similar outbreaks in the future.”
As she spoke, Lotharius stared down at her with the hint of a supercilious smile on his lips. She suspected that, like so many other Cainites, he found her concern for the kine faintly amusing – almost quaint.
“For those already afflicted,” Maude said, “it is imperative that they drink as much clean water as they can, and that their bodily waste – a virulent source of the contagion – is disposed of as hygienically as possible. I can also provide you with herbal remedies that will help ease their discomfort and …”
Hette interrupted Maude with a bark of dismissive laughter. “Your obsession with the kine is well known, sister,” she said. “We needn’t bother with your herbal remedies. This epidemic will soon burn itself out.”
Maude felt her ire rise. She waited patiently for Hette to finish speaking, before continuing exactly from the point at which she had been interrupted. All the while she looked only at Lotharius, refusing to make eye contact with his childe. Maude could sense Hette bristling with this subtle but deliberate slight.
“… help speed their recovery,” Maude continued, “which will, in turn, reduce the incidents of infection and reinfection. It is important that all these measures are implemented thoroughly and simultaneously.”
Hette glowered at Maude, incensed at being ignored. Finally, Maude came to the last piece of her discourse, the piece that she knew would cause the most consternation in the court.
“Unfortunately, those with infected herds will now be carrying the disease in their own vitae. If they use the Kiss on an unaffected mortal they may infect him, thus continuing the cycle.”
A murmur of displeasure rippled through the court. The notion that a Cainite could be infected by some filthy kine disease was something many wouldn’t accept, especially when the flux was asymptomatic for the Cainites themselves.
“The most effective course of action for the infected is to undergo a complete purge of their vitae. However, I understand that this may not be feasible for those not versed in the Thaumaturgic path of Rego Vitae. Another alternative would be for infected Cainites, for a one-month period, to feed only from animals and from mortals who have been carefully bled with heat-sterilised blades, a technique that I am willing to teach gratis. While the flux can be carried in the blood, it only flourishes in the mortal gut, so after a month in a Cainite’s physiology a flux infection should have diminished to the point that it is no longer contagious.”
Maude had predicted that the advice wouldn‘t be well received, but was still taken aback by the indignant stares she was receiving from all angles.
Maude knew that humans exposed to the flux generally developed a resistance to it if they survived the initial onset. Therefore an uncaring Cainite could just continue feeding as normal, let the outbreak run its course unimpeded resulting in maximal suffering and death to the affected mortals, and then worry about replacing any dead herd when the outbreak had passed. However, Maude wasn’t about to present them with that option. She expected that many of the Cainites present would ignore her instructions in any case, but if even a few followed her advice then a great deal of needless suffering would be averted.
Hette gave another bark of derisive laughter. “Feed from animals? We’re not wretched Gangrel drooling in the wilderness. We’ve dealt with mortal diseases before. They always pass in time.”
“If the epidemic is simply ignored,” Maude persisted, still refusing to look at Hette, “it will lead to far greater expense and inconvenience than if you heed my advice, to say nothing of the immeasurable death and suffering that will be inflicted on your mortal charges.”
“Immeasurable death and suffering?” Hette repeated mockingly. “Your maudlin and melodramatic obsession with the supposed plight of the common folk is as misplaced as it is unseemly. It is the lot of the peasantry to endure a life of hardship in service to the nobility, and the lot of the kine to suffer in service to the kindred. It is the natural order of things clearly ordained by God. Any fool can see this.”
Maude finally met Hette’s gaze. “Any fool knows not to speak of things of which she knows very little,” she snapped. “Pray tell, my lady, do you really claim to know the will of God? And are you an expert in matters of mortal physiology or of the sicknesses that can afflict it? On what grounds should any of those present pay the slightest regard to a single thing you might say? Where lies your authority? What are your credentials?”
Hette recoiled with outrage. “You dare question me?” she cried, her face a mask of anger. “I am the most capable Thaumaturge of my generation. My intellectual credentials are impeccable! Your claims are nothing but baseless assertions. Instructing flux victims to drink water? Absurd! Any fool knows they suffer from an excess of wet humours and should drink as little as possible.”
Afire with indignation, Hette turned to address the others in the room. “Pray tell, why are we stooping to receive advice from this half-mad crone who spends her life studying the shit of the kine? Or, indeed, from her dusty, mumbling sire, the failed seneschal of a failed Prince?”
The court audibly gasped at the flagrant insults. Their leering ashen faces leaned forward, titillated, anxious not to miss a word. Etrius grinned throughout Hette’s tirade, clearly entertained by the proceedings. Lotharius, however, was now staring coolly at his childe with a level gaze, seemingly displeased, but Hette had stepped forward and so remained unaware of her sire’s scrutiny.
Maude felt a cold fury rising within her. The rational part of her was perplexed at Hette’s needless vitriol. Why this hostility? Perhaps Maude and Dietrich somehow represented something the Tremere woman detested? But Maude’s rationality, her normal imperturbability, was being eclipsed by the fury she felt at the egregiously unjust attack on Dietrich’s honour. How dare this callous bitch mock his fall from power, when it was Tremere treachery that was responsible for it! She felt the faint stirring of her Beast.
Abandoning caution and common sense, Maude turned her full attention to Hette. “My lady,” she said, in a tone of contrived joviality, “I understand your area of expertise is the Creo Ignem path of Thaumaturgy.”
Hette stared at her uncertainly. “What of it?” she snapped.
“So, in other words,” Maude continued with exaggerated clarity, as though speaking to a child, “you’re very good at making fire with your mind.”
Hette continued to stare, unsure of Maude’s intent. Maude reached into her robes and pulled out a few long thin pieces of wood; they were the tapered brands she used to light lanterns. She threw them on the ground at Hette’s feet.
“There are some flammable sticks, dear,” she said in a condescending grandmotherly voice. “Now why don’t you run along and practice your pretty magical burning elsewhere, and leave the grown-ups to talk in peace.”
A susurrus of gasps and ill-concealed tittering swept the court. Even Lotharius smirked, while Etrius openly snickered at the sight of Hette’s stunned expression.
It took a moment for Maude’s insult to sink in. Hette’s face then curled into a rictus of incandescent rage.
“How dare you!” she screeched. “How dare you!” She turned to look at Lotharius, hoping for some support, but he merely stared back impassively. “How dare you, you wretched, hideous hag!”
Maude gasped in feigned despair. “I am hideous?” she cried out. “Truly this is news to me! I had assumed that it was my vows of celibacy that kept a horde of suitors from my door. But now I learn – alas! – that it is because I am unlovely to look upon! Oh, the sheer horror of it!” Maude’s face then lit up with faux joy. “But all hope is not lost!” she said in an exaggeratedly optimistic tone. “Surely I can find a Vicissitude practitioner willing to remedy my haggard appearance.”
Maude then turned to Hette with a contemptuous curl on her lip, her tone now cold and harsh. “But pray tell, my dear, who can you find to remedy your ignorance, your arrogance, your entirely misplaced sense of your own greatness, and your regrettable habit of sticking your head so far up your own arse that you risk poking out your eye with the pointy end of a rib?”
Several in the court erupted into outright laughter. Etrius cackled with glee, his jowls shaking. Hette gaped at Maude in disbelief. She turned to Lotharius for support, only to discover he was chortling, too. She turned back to Maude, her mouth opening and closing noiselessly, shocked; lost for words.
Emboldened by the reaction in the court, Maude continued with her tirade.
“Look around at those assembled, girl,” Maude snarled. “Take a close look. What do you see? Certainly there are a handful of studiously neutral expressions from the most politic. But what else? Smirks and laughter, my dear, some entirely unconcealed – and I can assure you that they’re not directed at me. Do you imagine for one moment that a conceited upstart like yourself is liked by those who came before her? If you are such an offensive little bitch to invited guests, then I can only imagine how despised you must be by those who have to endure your insufferable nonsense every waking hour of the night.”
Hette’s mouth continued to work noiselessly. Her gaze flicked between Maude and Lotharius, hoping her sire would provide some respite from her humiliation. Finally, with a petulant squeal of outrage, she turned on her heels and fled the room through a side door, slamming it shut behind her.
“Oh, please don’t go!” Maude called after her. “We were all just warming to you!”
With Hette’s departure, silence descended on the court. Maude was suddenly aware that she was standing in the dead centre of the room, and that all eyes were fixed on her. Her triumphant anger abruptly evaporated, replaced by a sheepish self-consciousness. She gave an awkward and pointless curtsy and retreated a few steps to stand beside Dietrich. She glanced at him sideways: his expression was a study in neutrality, but Maude could sense his exasperation and disgust – an exasperation and disgust directed not at Hette, but at her.
Lotharius continued to stare at Maude for a moment longer, his eyes like flint. Maude realised with a sinking feeling that no Prince could allow such an insult to his favoured childe, however well deserved it might have been. She braced herself for the consequences of her folly.
Finally, Lotharius spoke. “Thank you, Herr von Steyer,” he said, “for your counsel and that of your childe. We will take all you have said into consideration, and will send word if we need further assistance in dealing with the epidemic.”
He nodded a curt dismissal, and Maude and Dietrich turned to leave. Maude felt a surge of relief – it seemed there were to be no repercussions after all. They had just reached the door when Lotharius spoke once more. Maude felt her heart sink, anticipating what was to come.
“Oh, and one more thing,” he called to them across the room. “I feel that tonight has been … ‘educational’ for all concerned.” He fixed Dietrich with a steely gaze. “For my part, I have learned that Vienna is big enough for one Cappadocian, Herr von Steyer, but not two. I leave it up to your inestimable wisdom, perspicuity and judgement to decide which of you must leave.”
Dietrich strode swiftly through the moonlit streets of Vienna, and it was all Maude could do to keep up. A few paces ahead of them were Rolf and Hermann, while Godwine and Frederick brought up the rear. The moment they had set foot outside Lotharius’s audience hall, Dietrich had begun to explain his plans for Maude’s imminent departure and for her future endeavours – some nonsense about building a tower in the Transylvanian wilderness. He spoke in the clipped, businesslike tone that he always used when he was angry with her, a tone that brooked no interruption or dissent. Well, to hell with that, she thought.
As they were entering an alley strewn with refuse, Maude grabbed his arm and planted her feet. “Dietrich, stop!” Maude snapped.
Dietrich halted, shook his arm free and glowered at her. “We have a great deal to organise and little time to do it,” he said curtly.
“So, you plan to just meekly accept Lotharius’s judgement?!” she cried.
“He is the Prince,” Dietrich said simply. “You heard what he said.”
“I did,” Maude said. She then adopted a tone of exaggerated pomposity. “ ‘For my part, I have learned that Vienna is big enough for one Cappadocian, Herr von Steyer, but not two. I leave it up to your inestimable wisdom, perspicuity and judgement to decide …’ ”
Dietrich didn’t wait for her to finish. “Exactly. You will need to leave tomorrow night or we risk reprisals.”
“So, even though I’ve lived in Vienna my entire life, you’ve decided that I’m the Cappadocian who must leave?” Maude queried with feigned surprise. “My, how wise, perspicacious and judicious you are!”
Dietrich ignored her sarcasm, and began walking again. Maude once again hurried to keep up.
“Besides,” said Dietrich. “This is for the best. Frankly, it is way past time you found your own way in the world.”
“But to be exiled like this?” Maude replied indignantly. “Because of that reprehensible little bitch?”
“You only have yourself to blame. Lotharius clearly felt that Hette was due a lesson in humility. Had he not, things could have gone far worse for you. A similar outburst in another court could mean the end of you. You were a fool, Maude.”
“I was defending your honour!”
“I don’t need my honour defended from an irrelevance like Hette von Borcke. Nothing she could say could have any impact on my status in Vienna.
“Indeed,” Maude snapped. “When you’re at the bottom of the pecking order, there’s nowhere left to fall.” She had said it with far more venom than she intended. When Dietrich didn’t respond, she felt a wave of remorse. “Dietrich, I’m sorry. You’re right. Irritatingly, you’re right. It was just that when Hette insulted you like that, especially after it was the Tremere themselves who …” She trailed off, leaving the rest of the thought unsaid. “I just snapped. The injustice of it …”
“I know, my childe,” Dietrich said gently. “And I appreciate the sentiment.”
They walked a while in silence, passing a tavern still alive with talk, laughter and music despite the late hour.
“I’ll miss you, you miserly old goat,” Maude finally said.
“Of course you will, my childe,” Dietrich replied. “But take solace from the fact that I’ll be thoroughly enjoying some well-deserved peace for the first time in 40 years.”
Maude cackled and took his arm in hers. “I know you’ll miss me eventually,” she said, “even if you’re too proud to say it. For am I not the epitome of daughterly grace and obedience?”
Up ahead, Hermann chortled at her quip.
“You shouldn’t encourage her, lad,” said Dietrich. “It will make her even more insufferable.”
To Maude’s great surprise, Hermann didn’t reply with ‘yes, master’. Instead he said, “But master, if Sister Maude is leaving Vienna, then this may be my last chance to enjoy her humour.” He ignored the warning stare he was receiving from Rolf, and instead smiled shyly at Maude.
“Well, if you enjoy her quips so much,” said Dietrich, “then perhaps you should go with her. You too, Godwine. Maude can give you her blood when you have need. And choose three of the women to accompany you as well – perhaps the feisty one, Beatrice, and a couple of others.”
“Since this journey that you’re proposing will be long, hard and dangerous,” Maude said, “perhaps you should ask our friends if they wish to undertake it rather than order them?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dietrich said. “My fortune is their fortune. When I prosper, so do they.”
Maude sighed inwardly. It was hopeless to argue the point, not least because the Chrieglers would eagerly agree to anything Dietrich requested, whether it be a stern order or the hint of a suggestion.
They were approaching a cobbled plaza, when Maude tugged on Dietrich’s arm. “Let’s go this way,” she said, pointing to a side street.
“Maude, we haven’t time to waste,” Dietrich chided.
“Humour me,” she said with a grin. “It’ll only take a few minutes.”
After a short pause, perhaps guessing her intent, Dietrich nodded his head. They wandered down the narrow lane flanked by two storey buildings, until they found themselves in front of the hospice where they had first met half a century ago. Three months ago, the roof of the hospice – the same one that Dietrich had unwillingly funded – had caught fire and collapsed, killing two of the bedridden patients. Dietrich was inconsolable, not because of the deaths, of course, but because he felt that the money that she had frivolously spent on his behalf over a decade ago had now gone to waste. As Dietrich stared at the hospice, Maude had no doubt that he was thinking of his “wasted coin”. Fortunately, he had the grace to merely look thoughtful instead.
“This is where we first met,” Maude said with a smile. “Remember?”
“Of course,” Dietrich murmured.
“You tried to use the Dominate Discipline on me in order to feed.”
“And you successfully resisted – very unusual for a mortal.”
“Why didn’t you just make another attempt?” asked Maude.
“I thought you might panic if I failed again. Also, I felt it would be … rude somehow.”
Maude chuckled. “In the end I gave you some of my blood anyway.”
“Yes,” Dietrich said with a rueful smile. “But only after forcing me to agree to a most egregious breach of the Silence of the Blood.”
Maude peered along the street, remembering how it looked in the sunlight; remembering all the people who had lived there. Fat Lili was long dead, as were all her many children. She’d done her best for them – none of her sons had become common ruffians and none of her daughters had followed in their mother’s footsteps. As far as Maude knew, all Lili’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren led safe and comfortable lives. Gregor the cooper and his son were also long dead. Maude lost touch with their family, but had been told that the son joined the clergy.
Staring at the ashes of the hospice, Maude suddenly realised that every person she knew in her mortal life was long dead. She was engulfed with a wave of melancholy.
Dietrich seemed to sense what she was thinking. “It is our blessing and our curse to outlive all those whom we cared for in our mortal lives,” he said. “It changes us, perhaps as much as the Curse of Caine itself. We can never live like we once did, even if we wished to.”
Maude squeezed Dietrich’s arm and grinned up at him. “Sentimental musings, old man? Do I have to be exiled to see this side of you?”
Dietrich affected a dismissive tone. “Well, Lady Rowena once told me that I should occasionally indulge in mawkish nostalgia – purely as a technique of self-control for the via humanitatis you understand. Out of respect for her I try to manage at least one such indulgence a year, though, frankly, I doubt the efficacy of that kind of prattle myself.”
“Oh, you’re hopeless!” Maude cackled.
She then turned to look at the derelict hospice one final time, before taking Dietrich’s arm and walking away from the ashes of her mortal life.