Exile in Byzantium

411 A.D.: What Lies Beneath

Fire and Water, Smoke and Ash

• • •

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Has fled the Heav’ns, the mortal world below
While Byzantium smoulders in its ling’ring Light
—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

• • •

Smoke. Again, smoke, a faint smell of burning. The windowless, doorless room. This time, a double layer of familiarity—yes, this is the same place the coterie dreamed of before. But deeper than that . . . there’s a nagging, yearning sensation. Each thinks, I know this place. Why? Why does it feel like . . .what? Tiberius looks up, sees a faint rectangle overhead, perhaps the night sky? Or a larger vault? He feels about, almost stumbles over something. A ladder?

Meanwhile, Gaius, in a different room. The same room. A different room. He pounds on a wall, testing its strength, finding thick plaster, rough to the touch. He drops to one knee, feels the floor beneath him. Packed earth and . . . something? A faint tingle, a sense of great power, layer upon layer of stories.

Each wakes again, this time in their respective havens. They exit their homes quickly finding, to their great relief that no fire burns nearby this time. The relief is short-lived . . . one of Valentina’s boys from the Gemini appears seeking Violea, asking her to come right away, as something has happened to Elias. Gaius asks where the unworthy’s haven was, and he and Tiberius prepare to investigate while Violea hastens to the Gemini.

Valentina lets her know that Elias’s haven burned during the day, and he is presumed lost with it. Already tongues are wagging amongst the Propinquii, who love nothing more than gossip, especially about someone else. After all, Gaius challenged Jonas a few nights ago, and the day following Jonas’s home burned. Now, Elias after his encounter with Violea. Pyotr, self-appointed keeper of the Masquerade, is already making inquiries as to whether any of the coterie’s human or ghoul servants had been seen acting suspiciously during the daytime.

Valentina goes on to say that while no one will really miss either of the now-ended Julii (Elias with his tendency to drain his clientele to near-death, Jonas with his fondness for underage kine), it doesn’t look good. Still, she says, none of her business. Pyotr is no friend of the Gemini, as he feels that kine and Kindred should not meet for pleasure—or at all outside of sheer necessity. She waves a pale hand dismissively. “ Let’s speak of something more pleasant,” she continues. “Tell me of these entertainments for which you grew so acclaimed in old Rome?”.

As Violea details some of her exploits in party-planning and in her businesses, Valentina nods appreciatively. “I’ve been thinking of expanding this establishment,” she muses. “Perhaps we should plan a grand celebration to mark it. We cater to a certain . . . adventurously minded mortal clientele. And the nobility of this town are much more open-minded than you may expect coming from propriety-bound Rome as you do.” And thus the two get to planning.

Gaius gathers up Thascius and strides purposefully to the wreckage of Elias’s home, Amira trailing behind. The Hound, Lucretia, is already there, although she looks to be wrapping up any inquiries. “Oh, you again,” she says. “Did you bring my recruit or just sightseeing?” Gaius lets her know Tiberius is close behind. Lucretia repeats that this pair of fires seems awfully suspicious. She then asks whether the coterie’s party had sent advance scouts in the months before their massive wagon train had arrived. Gaius replies in the negative and she seems skeptical. “If I find you’ve lied,” she says, “it won’t look good. Only the fact that the other one burned before you showed up makes me doubt your involvement at all.” And with that she strides off, brooking no discussion.

“Other one?” Gaius asks Amira. She replies that she wouldn’t have connected the events, but now that she thinks about it, Lucretia may be right to suspect something. A month or so before the coterie arrived, there was a suspicious fire and, right around that time, another insignificant low-life Julii vanished. It’s not clear whether she burned, as no one cared enough to investigate. The disgraced childe of a sire who vanished mysteriously in Rome, this Petronia was vicious and careless, and had at least once been brought before the Senex by Pyotr for draining a tavern-goer in an alleyway, leaving him to die where anyone might find the body. She was let off with a warning due to her sire’s status, to Pyotr’s disgust.

Gaius decides to ask around as to whether anyone has useful information that might help put all of these pieces together. He stops a passing Nosferatu to ask a few questions, which doesn’t go well. One of the local Vermes, the passer-by spits out criticisms of Rome and high-and-mighty Roman nitwits coming to his city asking stupid questions. Gaius, enraged, orders to Nosferatu to go dive into the closest sewer.

Tiberius, suspecting there may be more to this than meets the eye, follows the receding figure into the vile waste pipes, easily tracking him. However, when he goes to attack, with diablerie in his mind, something baffling happens. He has mesmerized his prey, ordering him to forget Tiberius was ever there, in case the attacks fails and the intended victim escapes. But he is thwarted is a new and inexplicable way . . . the body flows between his hands like water, seeming to dissolve into the flowing effluvia.

• • •

The coterie regroup at the Siren to share what they’ve learned. Upon hearing of the tenuous connection between the three who’ve burned over the past few months, Violea asks Amira if there are any other trouble-making Julii she knows of.

Amira replies that the Julii have in fact been disappearing for some time, whether to torpor or flight. And last year was marked by rumors from Rome and by Sedeh’s purge of what she claimed were demon-haunted traitors, most of whom were of the Julii. No one dared question Sedeh, though she was the only one who could see this supposed taint.

The society of the Propinquii is relatively small in Byzantium. While of course some unaligned may go unnoticed through assiduous effort, in fact Amira can think of only one who might fit that “troublesome” label . . . Kassandra, her mentor.

Because surely Decimus, as head of the Legio and leader of the Senex, cannot be tarred with this same brush.

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