Campaign of the Month: August 2014
The Concord of Ashes
The Humanity of Barentis
Barentis sat straight-backed on the edge of the bed in his small spartan room. Dust drifted lazily in the sunlight squeezing through the window’s slats. The ancient ghoul stared at the half eaten apple in his hand, chewing slowly and deliberately. He focused his attention on the taste, the texture, the smell. Objectively, he could tell the apple was crisp and fresh, and much sweeter than most.
Yesterday, he had watched as Vesta, the youngest member of Tancred’s Herd of widows, had savoured an apple from the same batch. It was her first apple of the summer season, and as she’d taken her first bite her eyes had closed in a kind of mild rapture.
Now, as he chewed, Barentis searched in vain for any sensation of pleasure. He put the apple back down. He stared at it for a time. He then picked it up again and held it briefly, before once again putting it down, this time without taking a bite. It wasn’t just that he felt no pleasure; he no longer knew what pleasure should feel like. Tastes were just a sensation like any other, and eating was a purely practical consideration.
He sat motionless, still staring at the apple.
With a practiced hand, Hilde attended to Eudoxia’s injury, neatly wrapping a bandage around her two broken fingers and the splint placed between them. One of Eudoxia’s eyes was swollen closed, and she had a gash across her cheek that had only just stopped bleeding.
“He didn’t mean to,” Eudoxia said defensively. “I shouldn’t provoke him, especially after he’s been drinking.”
Bathed in a beam of morning sunlight shining through a nearby window, Barentis watched from the doorway to the clinic reception as Hilde finished attending to Eudoxia’s wounds. Hilde, the leader of Tancred’s Herd in all but name, was never one to suffer fools, and it was clear her patience was at an end. Eudoxia looked up to see the older woman’s steely gaze and aquiline features staring at her most unsympathetically.
“This is the third time in as many months,” Hilde snapped. “One day that brute will kill you, and your baby will be an orphan.”
Finding her fire, Eudoxia clenched her jaw and snapped back. “What would you have me do? Return to whoring? Wouldn’t that be a fine example for little Nonna to follow! Some of us don’t have the luxury of choices. I can handle Cyril and … and I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
A tense silence followed as Hilde, purse-lipped with frustration, tidied up the instruments and bandages.
Nearby, Vesta sat with Nonna on her lap. Oblivious to the tension, the baby looked aimlessly around the room before she locked eyes with Barentis. Her face quickly curled up in a bright smile and she reached her hands towards him, almost urgently.
“Look! She likes you,” Vesta said with a small smile.
“Oh, wonderful,” said Hilde sarcastically. “She’s inherited her mother’s attraction to monsters.”
“Hilde!” gasped Vesta.
Eudoxia stood up and gently pressed the splint on her finger, briefly wincing. “Are you finished?” she asked frostily. “Can I go?”
Hilde nodded curtly. Eudoxia took her baby from Vesta and moved past Barentis with a nervous glance – he was used to the disquiet he caused others. She left the clinic, closing the door behind her.
Summoning her courage, Vesta turned to face Hilde. “Why are you so unkind to Barentis? He’s done nothing to you.” Perhaps she had meant to sound stern, but her tone was petulant – almost child-like.
“You’re worried I’ve hurting his feelings?” Hilde asked, incredulous. “Look at him! He doesn’t have any feelings to hurt.”
The older woman strode from the room. Vesta remained where she was, wringing her hands and glancing apologetically at Barentis, looking lost.
Barentis stood by the open entrance to the Salty Mast, watching the drunken crowd. A cool evening breeze swept in from the nearby harbour, but did little to dispel the stink of unwashed bodies and spilt liquor. A group of regulars – local stevedores – wandered up to the door. Their leader smiled uneasily at Barentis and gave him a respectful nod, before Barentis waved them in.
The ghoul returned his attention to the crowd. He watched as a random patron threw his head back in a roar of hearty mirth. Focussing his attention fully on the man, he took in every aspect of the man’s laughter: head arched back; mouth open wide; eyes pinched shut; short sharp exhalations; shoulders rhythmically twitching. He thought back to what Byzar had said to him the previous night.
“Smiling, laughter, frowning, crying – these are all physiological reactions to mood,” the ancient Methuselah had said in his serene, otherworldly voice. “But they are also mutually causative.”
Barentis had simply stared at him, so Byzar had elaborated. “In other words, Barentis, happiness will make one smile, but a smile, even if at first forced, can also create the feeling of happiness. This is true for most mortals. It is my hope that someday it will once again be true for you.”
Now Barentis found himself trying to mimic the laughing man. Closing his eyes tightly, he tilted his head back, opened his mouth, and exhaled quickly several times. A pair of men standing near him, seeing this strange display, nervously relocated themselves to the far corner of the room, so Barentis promptly abandoned his experiment. He supposed he should feel embarrassment, but that sensation seemed lost to him, too.
A flicker of movement across the taproom caught his eye – Megaris, the middle-aged, long-suffering barmaid of the Salty Wench, was waving at him urgently. Once she had his attention, she gestured to the door leading to the alley behind the tavern and then slipped quickly through it. Barentis pushed his way through the crowd and followed her out into the half-light of dusk.
The alley was awash in gloom and the stink of piss. Megaris was facing three rough men that Barentis had seen before – thugs in service to one of the local petty crime lords.
“We’re here to collect,” snarled their leader, a heavily scarred man with a missing ear.
Barentis knew that the owner of the bar, Sittas, was heavily in debt to some dubious characters. He also knew that Sittas was currently upstairs, insensible, having indulged in an all-day opium binge.
“He’s not here,” Megaris lied. “You’ll have your coin tomorrow.” Her tone was calm and reasonable, but the thugs were not placated.
“We’ll have it now, wench,” the thug replied in a dangerous low tone. He then glanced up, noticing Barentis for the first time in the gloom. “Your pet imbecile won’t save you either.”
“Please,” Megaris said, “We just work here. If you return tomorrow…”
She stopped mid-sentence, eyes widening, as the three men each pulled a vicious looking shiv from their pockets.
Barentis stepped forward. “Leave,” he said evenly. “Now.”
The leader looked uncertain. He bowed his head, and held out a hand in front of him in a gesture of conciliation. Barentis could tell immediately that it was a ruse. He activated his Celerity.
Time slowed. The thug’s bowed head began rising, as if in a dream, teeth now gritted. In the same motion, the thug was bringing the shiv up in a vicious upward swing. He had hoped to catch Barentis off-guard with a slash to the neck or chin. Calm in the familiarity of the Celerity-trance, Barentis watched dispassionately as the shiv arced upwards. At the last moment he languidly leaned back, causing the shiv to narrowly miss its mark, and arc up past his face. He then reached out and plucked the shiv from the man’s hand.
He allowed the flow of time to snap back to normal. The thug stared bemused at his empty hand, then looked around almost comically, before finally spotting his shiv in the ghoul’s grip. Barentis handed the shiv back to the flabbergasted man.
“Leave now,” he repeated, “I will not ask again.”
Suddenly Barentis felt a pain in his gut. One of the other men had hurled his blade – which was clearly weighted for throwing – and found his mark. Had Barentis been a normal mortal, the blade would have pierced his viscera. Instead, it lodged less than half an inch into the ghoul’s Fortitude-bolstered flesh. He glanced down at the blade, pulled it free and dropped it, temporarily distracted. When he looked up he saw that the third thug had grabbed Megaris from behind and backed up against a wall, and was now holding his shiv to her throat.
“Bring Sittas here now or the bitch dies!” the man said, wide-eyed, grinning madly.
Once again Barentis activated his Celerity. In a blur he surged forward, reaching up and grabbing the knife by the blade so that his fingers were between the razor-sharp edge and the flesh of Megaris’s throat. Even with his Fortitude, the blade cut bloodily into his fingers and palm. The pain ignited his rage – one of the few emotions he could still feel. He raised his other fist – a Potence-fuelled battering ram – and struck. His fist whistled past Megaris’s face, missing it by a hair’s breadth, and slammed into the thug’s nose with a wet crunch.
He hadn’t intended to kill the man, so he was taken by surprise by the resulting explosion of gore from the back of the man’s head. In the heat of the moment, Barentis had failed to notice that directly behind the man at head height, affixed to the wall, was a jagged iron fixture of some sort, like a series of long-disused, partially shorn-off metal hooks. The impact with these had ruptured the man’s skull. He slid down the wall, twitching, leaving a smear of blood and brain matter in his wake. The stench of shit briefly overwhelmed Barentis’s senses as the man’s dying corpse emptied its bowels.
He glanced up to see the other two men running away, looking over their shoulders in terror. He bent down to where Megaris had fallen to her knees. She was frantically wiping blood, brains and bone fragments from her face and shoulders.
“Are you hurt?” Barentis asked.
Megaris dry-retched twice. “Not as badly as him,” she eventually said with a wan smile.
He helped her to her feet. She was trembling and pale, but her gaze was steady.
“Thank you,” she said. She had taken his hand in hers in what he assumed was a gesture of gratitude. But then he realised she was inspecting his palm – the same one he’d used to grab the blade. Although it was sticky with his blood, he’d already unconsciously knitted the wound shut. He quickly pulled his hand away, but she had seen the undamaged flesh.
Megaris peered up at him in undisguised curiosity. “I’ve never seen a man move so fast … or heal so quickly. Barentis, what are you?”
When he didn’t respond, Megaris persisted. “You just saved me, Barentis. Your secrets are safe with me.”
After a long pause, Barentis said, “I can’t tell you anything. It would only endanger you.”
“I’m a barmaid at the Salty Mast. I’m already endangered,” she replied drolly, glancing down at the body of the thug. She shifted her attention back to Barentis’s face, peering inquisitively into his eyes. “You’re stronger and faster than a man should be. And seemingly invincible. Yet you work the door at a dockside tavern. Shouldn’t you be in service to a king or emperor? Hell, you could probably take a crown for yourself if you were so inclined.”
“Megaris, there are things in the world, creatures resembling men, hidden in plain sight …” He stopped, unsure how to continue without giving too much away. “No good would come of you knowing more,” he finally said.
“Very well then, my immortal guardian,” she replied with exaggerated formality, “I will pester you no more … well, as long as you promise to continue working here for a time. Those three might not be the last of our unwelcome guests, so a demigod on the door might prove handy.” She patted him on the chest.
“Do you think the thugs will return?” he asked. “And what should we do with the body?”
“I have friends in the city guard,” she replied, “as well as a few in … well … ‘low places’ shall we say. We’ll get through this somehow. Just leave it to me.” She turned to re-enter the tavern, then paused and turned back to look at the ghoul.
“Whoever or whatever you are, Barentis, I’m on your side.” She gave him a warm smile. “If you need help with anything, anything at all, you need only ask.” Her expression turned theatrically matter-of-fact. “Well, except for your lack of social graces. I can’t help you with that.” When he still didn’t respond, she rolled her eyes in frustration. “It seems I also can’t make you smile.” Shaking her head, she returned through the door to the tavern taproom.
Over the months he had worked alongside her, Barentis had discovered that Megaris was a remarkable woman: brave, clever and loyal. And he suddenly realised that the events of the evening had triggered something in him, a feeling he had toward Megaris, like a kind of fierce tightness in his chest, a whisper of … what was it? Admiration? Gratitude? A desire to protect her? He was unsure. He held onto the faint feeling, afraid it would vanish.
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of crashing furniture and shouted insults coming from the taproom; a bar brawl was brewing. A moment later, Megaris poked her head through the door.
“O great demigod, would you mind … ?” she said with a weary smile.
“Coming,” he replied.
Barentis walked quickly through the backstreets and alleys, following the young man hurrying in front of him. It was a windless summer night, and oppressively hot. The young man, one of Eudoxia’s neighbours, was babbling at Barentis over his shoulder.
“… everyone is used to their fighting. We barely take any notice anymore. And it’s no good complaining to the guard, what with Cyril being a lieutenant and all. My brother tried to reason with him once and got a black eye for his trouble. That Cyril’s got a mean streak and he’ll take it out on anyone who crosses him …”
Barentis interrupted the boy’s rambling. “But what was different about tonight?”
The boy paused for a moment, glancing back at Barentis with a haunted look. "Eudoxia was screaming – even louder than usual this time – and then she suddenly stopped. And then I think I heard Cyril say … I think I heard him say “she’s dead” a few times … quietly … like he was in shock."
They continued in silence for several minutes, before arriving at the entrance to the block of apartments, a run-down edifice of stained plaster and wood. The boy casually kicked the corpse of a rat away from the doorway before bounding up the stairs within. Barentis following closely behind. They stopped in front of a grimy door. The youth nodded at Barentis and retreated a short way down the corridor.
Barentis placed his ear to the door and strained to discern anything. Augmented by his Auspex he could hear a man softly sobbing. He knocked firmly on the door.
“Fuck off!” shouted a man’s voice in response.
Barentis tried the handle. It was unlocked, so he swung the door open and stepped through.
Lying on the floor less than ten feet away was Eudoxia. Her head was bent almost at right angles to her body; her eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling. There was no blood, so it was unclear exactly how her neck had been broken.
Sitting slouched on a narrow stool near her corpse was a behemoth of a man. Taller even than Barentis, and clearly much heavier – though most of his bulk was around his middle – he looked absurd swaying drunkenly on the tiny, fragile-looking stool. His brutish face had the ruddy and blistered complexion of a perpetual drunk. He turned to look, teary-eyed, at Barentis.
“Who the fuck are you?” Cyril said.
“Where’s Nonna?” Barentis responded.
“What fucking business is it of yours?” Cyril said.
Barentis looked quickly around the cluttered, grimy apartment before his eyes were drawn to a wide wooden pail lined with a ragged blanket. He walked over to it and saw Nonna sleeping within.
He glanced back at Cyril who returned his stare belligerently, but otherwise made no move. Barentis knew he had nothing to fear from the man. No doubt he was strong and knew how to effectively use his bulk, but he would have been helplessly slow against Barentis’s superhuman speed and agility.
Cyril glanced down at Nonna’s makeshift crib. “She’s probably not even mine,” he muttered darkly, almost to himself.
Staring hard at Cyril, Barentis felt a rage rising within him. Everything about the man was deserving of hatred. He was violent and cruel, a savage bully who had murdered his lover, and he was now wallowing in self-pity. He would blame her for provoking him. He would deny any culpability for his actions. And, as a lieutenant in the guard, he would probably get away with it.
Barentis could feel his pulse pounding in his temples. His fists clenched, unclenched, and clenched again. It would be so simple to grab a handful of the sagging flesh at Cyril’s throat and tear it free. The muscles throughout the ghoul’s body strained – he struggled to rein in his Beast as it urged him to enact justice. A low growl issued from the back of his throat.
Cyril seemed to sense his peril. His eyes widened in fear. He slid inelegantly off the stool, and started scrambling away from Barentis across the floor.
“Barentis!” The ghoul turned to see Maude standing in the doorway. She moved swiftly to him and took both his hands in hers. “Peace, my friend,” she said firmly. “His fate is not your concern.”
Barentis closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. The rage remained – it was still impossible to think clearly – but he was no longer in danger of losing control. He looked up to see the young man who had led him here standing in the doorway. The boy was staring down at Eudoxia’s body, eyes wide, hand over his mouth in shock, a tear rolling down his cheek. No doubt he was a kind lad – too kind for this city, for this world.
Maude bent down and plucked Nonna from the pail. The baby stirred and opened her eyes. Maude had used her Obfuscate Discipline to appear rosy-cheeked and matronly, but Nonna wasn’t comforted. She began wailing piteously until her gaze fell on Barentis. Immediately her crying ceased, and she reached for him.
“Good God, she’s already a terrible judge of character,” Maude muttered indignantly, before swiftly swaddling the baby in the blanket and handing her to Barentis. He held Nonna awkwardly, as she smiled up at him. A moment later she had fallen asleep once more. Distracted by the responsibility, Barentis was suddenly aware that his rage had evaporated completely.
Maude was now walking over to where Cyril sat on the floor.
“Listen, you old bitch,” he snarled as she approached. “You both better get the fuck out…” His words were cut off when Maude struck him across the face with a vicious open-handed slap. She must have used her vitae to enhance her strength – his head snapped back with great force, and two of his teeth flew from his mouth in a trail of blood before skittering across the floor. Stunned into insensibility, he didn’t resist as she grabbed his head in both hands and locked eyes with him.
“You will spend the rest of your life making amends for your crimes,” Maude intoned. “You will help the suffering and the wronged. You will do no harm.” Cyril nodded slowly, eyes glazed. Maude walked quickly back to the door, gesturing for Barentis to follow. At the doorway, she turned back to Cyril. “You will also forego any claim to Nonna,” Maude said. “She is your daughter no longer.”
Cyril sat on the floor, a trail of blood and saliva oozing down his chin. His eyes seemed to have regained their awareness. He nodded meekly.
It had been a busy night at the clinic, and the additional burden of attending to Nonna had not helped matters. Once the final broken limb had been set, and the final baby delivered, most of Tancred’s widows had retired for the evening, all thoroughly exhausted. It was now past midnight. While Hilde, Maude and Tancred conferred in the clinic’s office, Barentis sat beside Vesta and Nonna on the wooden bench in the clinic’s reception.
Nonna had woken, unsettled, several times throughout the evening, and in the absence of her mother it seemed only Barentis could calm her. Now Nonna slept soundly on Vesta’s lap. Looking down at her cherubic face, Barentis felt a wash of unease.
He had done countless unspeakable deeds over the centuries, first in the thrall of Antonius, and then Caius. The memories of many of his atrocities were lost to the haze of the Dominate discipline, of the blood bond, and of time. But Byzar had been working to rid his psyche of the last vestiges of the mental corruption inflicted on him by his Ventrue domitors. With those efforts came the return of some of the memories. Looking at Nonna, a memory surfaced of him holding a baby by the ankles and dashing its brains out against a wall. Barentis would have preferred memories like that to remain buried, but Byzar had insisted that remorse for his past deeds – even those carried out obeying commands he couldn’t resist – was a necessary part of his healing.
Vesta had been staring at Nonna’s sleeping face, enraptured, for several minutes. The girl, only eighteen years old at the time of the city’s sacking, had been one of the countless victims of the pillaging Crusader armies. Barentis knew from overheard conversations between the other widows that Vesta’s young husband had been slaughtered in front of her, and that – heavily pregnant – she had been subjected to brutalities that had caused her to miscarry.
Since Nonna had been brought back to the clinic, Vesta had barely been able to take her eyes off her.
“I wonder why you put her at ease,” Vesta said quietly, turning to smile at Barentis. “Perhaps she senses the good in you.”
To Barentis, the notion seemed absurd. He remained silent, unsure what to say.
“Were you a father once?” she asked. “Perhaps long ago, before …” She stopped, uncertain how to finish the question. He was aware that she had moved closer to him on the bench. He could feel her warm breath against his neck.
“I don’t think so,” said Barentis. “I have no memory of children. I suppose it’s possible, but … no, I don’t think so.”
“What they did to you was so terrible,” she said looking earnestly into his eyes. “To take away a man’s identity. To rob him of who he is.” Her shoulder was now pressed into his side, her face only inches from his.
He involuntarily enhanced his senses with Auspex. He could now feel the warmth of her body like a wall of heat. He could smell the feminine aroma of her body and unwashed dress. He could see the tiny fair hairs, invisible to mortal eyes, that covered her face and neck. And he could hear the gentle pulse of her heartbeat.
As she stared into his eyes, he saw her pupils dilate. Her pulse was quickening, as was her breathing. He felt a stirring in the pit of his stomach and in his loins.
But with it came more sinister urges. He was now staring at the flesh of her throat. He reflexively bared his teeth, suddenly desperate for a taste of the intoxicating red elixir that flowed beneath her flesh.
Abruptly a buried memory resurfaced. He was holding a young woman close, their faces almost pressed together. She looked not unlike Vesta, round-faced and barely out of adolescence. But this was no intimacy. Instead, the girl’s face was curled in a scarlet rictus of pain and terror. He held the girl suspended a foot off the ground by a garotte tightly wound around her throat. Her swollen tongue lolled from her gasping mouth. She clawed feebly at his face as her strength abandoned her. Kneeling nearby were her parents. Her father pleaded while her mother clawed at her eyes.
Barentis stood up so abruptly and forcefully that the bench skidded back a few inches and banged into the wall. Vesta yelped in surprise, almost dropping Nonna from her lap. She stared up at Barentis, wide-eyed and alarmed.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could think to say, before fleeing the room.
The following day, Barentis did his best to avoid Vesta, even when she sought him out to help calm Nonna. She looked hurt and bewildered by his avoidance, and this stirred unpleasant and unfamiliar feelings of his own that he assumed must be guilt or remorse. He knew that what he felt must be a mere echo of what mortals experienced, and dreaded the prospect of one day enduring the emotions in their fullness.
Later, after night had fallen, Tancred woke as usual from his slumber in the concealed room in the basement. Two of Tancred’s widows joined him there. He talked to them for a time, asking after their happiness and health, and hearing any concerns they may have, before politely asking if he may take some of their blood. It was a ritual practiced several times a week. Barentis thought Tancred’s polite request for blood to be somewhat disingenuous given his Herd’s addiction to the Kiss, but he supposed it was the most benign arrangement possible given the realities of Tancred’s vampiric condition and his inability to feed on anyone except widows. Tancred was certainly kinder in this respect than any of the Antonian Ventrue.
Later in the evening, Maude returned from some errand, and she, Hilde and Tancred gathered in the office to discuss what they would do with Nonna. Barentis was leaning against the wall in the adjacent kitchen, listening. Hilde and the two vampires spoke rapidly and quietly in Latin, but with his Auspex Barentis could easily hear the conversation through the wall. Vesta sat at the kitchen table with Nonna on her lap also trying to eavesdrop on what was being said. Her hearing was sharp, but her Latin was poor, and the frustration on her face was clear.
Barentis listened as the decision was made to place Nonna in the care of the best orphanage in the city. While this was far from ideal – the “best” orphanage was still hopelessly overcrowded and underfunded so soon after the sacking of the city – in the end poor Nonna was just one orphan among thousands, she wasn’t their responsibility, and trying to find her an adoptive family would be nigh impossible, not to mention a huge burden on their time – time better spent on their other altruistic endeavours.
Tancred, Maude and Hilde had barely set foot in the kitchen before Vesta sprang to her feet, Nonna still in her arms, and asked, “Well? What will we do with Nonna?”
Tancred and Hilde exchanged a brief glance, while Maude looked at Vesta with undisguised pity.
“Vesta,” Tancred said, “we think it’s best if Nonna is placed in the care of the Orphanage of Saint Paul. It’s the best we can do for her.”
Vesta stood still, looking at the floor, weighing their decision. Tancred was already moving to leave the room, certain the matter was settled.
“No,” Vesta said suddenly.
Tancred looked back at her, bemused. He walked over to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Vesta. We’ve made our decision. There’s no better…”
“No!” Vesta said again more loudly, pushing Tancred’s hand from her shoulder. “Why is it your decision to make?”
“Listen, Vesta,” said Tancred. His tone had become paternal and firm. “I can see you’ve become attached to little Nonna. Allowing that was probably a mistake on our part. You’re tired. Why don’t you get some sleep. You’ll feel better about our decision tomorrow.”
Tancred was ushering Vesta towards the bedrooms, and at first she unthinkingly allowed herself to be led. But then she planted her feet, and turned to face him again. Her eyes blinked fiercely as the slender girl stared up at the much taller man.
“She should stay with us,” she said emphatically. “I’ll look after her.”
Tancred rolled his eyes in frustration. “It’s out of the question,” he said. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “A Cainite’s haven is no place for a baby.”
“Why not?” Vesta hissed back.
Tancred looked over to Maude and Hilde for support.
“My dear Vesta,” Maude said quietly and sadly. “Tancred and I have taken great pains to remain apart from the vicious intrigues of our kind, but there is no guarantee that we won’t one day draw their attention. If that were to happen … well, the worst of our kind do the most unspeakable things to mortals as casually as you would swat a fly. They would kill Nonna – or worse – without hesitation or remorse if they felt it would further their goals or settle some vendetta.”
Barentis knew beyond doubt that Maude spoke true. He had, after all, perpetrated such crimes himself.
“If the danger is so great,” Vesta responded, “then surely it is also immoral to have your widows, your Herd, close to you.” She had emphasised the term intentionally, knowing it was pejorative, knowing it made Tancred profoundly uncomfortable.
Tancred looked next to Hilde for support. Barentis was startled to see the normally waspy and impatient leader of the widows looking at Vesta sadly with tears in her eyes. In response to Tancred’s unspoken plea for help, Hilde merely shrugged.
“Vesta, you and the other widows have a choice whether to remain in my care,” Tancred persisted. “Nonna does not. We can’t…”
“Choice?!” Vesta barked incredulously. “Tancred, are you really that blinkered?!”
“Right, that’s enough,” the Ventrue said sternly. “You know nothing of the evils of my kind.” He grabbed Vesta’s shoulder, intending to lead her from the room. “You will go to your room…”
With a squeal of outrage, Vesta pivoted and pushed Tancred hard in the chest with her free arm. Everyone in the room stared at her in amazement. Barentis was as surprised as the rest of them – she had always been such a gentle, tentative girl. Vesta then calmly placed Nonna’s sleeping form on the kitchen table before turning back to face them all.
“You speak of the evils of vampires,” she said quietly but fiercely. “But it wasn’t vampires that ravaged the city – it was men. It isn’t vampires that form rape gangs to brutalise orphans – it is men. It wasn’t vampires that killed Nonna’s mother – it was men. It wasn’t vampires that disembowelled my husband in front of me and then…” She trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. Her tears were flowing freely now, clear snot running from her nose, though her words remained clear and forceful. “It was men,” she finally finished.
There was silence in the kitchen as Vesta used the back of her sleeve to wipe her nose and eyes. She plucked Nonna from the table almost primly, and then turned to look each of them in the eye.
“Nonna’s fate is not yours to decide,” she finally said. “If she goes, I go.”
It was a cool autumn morning. The previous few days had been quieter for the clinic than any Barentis could remember. The widows had mused that perhaps, after several years of hardship and misery, the city was finally on the road to recovery.
Yesterday, Maude had left the city to begin her journey back to the Siebenbergen. She was satisfied that after years of training and first-hand experience, most of the widows were now competent physicians in their own right, and that the clinic would be in good hands in her absence. When she had said her goodbyes to Byzar, the Methuselah was in the midst of one of his confused spells and seemed uncertain who she was. Barentis had been surprised to see Maude quietly weeping tears of blood as they left Byzar’s haven in the Necropolis. For his part, the ghoul already felt Maude’s absence like a kind of hollow ache within him. Hilde had identified the feeling for him: melancholy. Life wouldn’t be the same without her.
Now Barentis sat in the small courtyard adjoining the clinic. Nearby, Hilde stood over the outdoor tub doing the preliminary hand washing of the used bandages and linen before the main boil-wash later in the day. Beside him, Vesta was bathing Nonna in a wooden bucket, as Nonna splashed the water and squealed in delight. Inside the clinic, Barentis could hear the other widows attending to their patients in their calm, soothing voices.
Vesta plucked Nonna from the water, quickly dried her with a ragged towel, and placed her naked and clean in Barentis’s lap. As always, Nonna smiled up at him, gurgling happily.
“Isn’t she just perfect?” Vesta cooed. “She’s just the most perfect little angel. Aren’t you, Nonna? Yes, you are. Just perfect. An angel plucked straight from heaven.”
“Oh shush, girl,” Hilde called over her shoulder. “You’re making me nauseous.”
“But she is an angel!” Vesta insisted. “Look at her! She’s just the sweetest of God’s creations. Aren’t you, Nonna? Yes, you are! Yes, you are! You’re heaven’s sweetest…”
Vesta’s blathering was suddenly interrupted by a sputtering, moist-sounding, gaseous explosion as Nonna jettisoned a torrent of mostly-liquid shit all over Barentis’s lap. The stench was indescribable. Grimacing, the ghoul wondered how such a small creature could hold so much waste.
Paralysed for a moment with horror, Vesta finally grabbed Nonna from his lap and quickly carried her to the bucket, where she began rinsing her little rump with a clay jug, all the while uttering effusive apologies to Barentis. Unsurprisingly, Hilde was now doubled up, cackling uncontrollably with glee.
Barentis looked around the courtyard: first at Vesta’s crestfallen face; then at Hilde howling with laughter; then down at the shit soaking into the fabric of his tunic; and finally at Nonna herself who grinned back at him as though proud of her efforts.
For the first time in centuries, Barentis smiled.