The Hollow Crown
Holding out for a holding
Since Johannes offered to put me in touch with some potential staff for our new venture, now agreed to be called the Crown and Sceptre, I’ve been wondering when he’ll get in touch. Before we found somewhere, there probably wasn’t a lot of point, but since the last time we saw each other we ended up going at each other fangs bared, I’ve been a little nervous about it. I suppose at the back of my mind is whether I had completely screwed up, although the gift he gave for the fundraiser argued against that.
I’ve come to the conclusion that his lessons might be hard but there is a reason for it; he seems to be trying to make me develop fast in the use of my abilities. It puts the pressure on, there has been no gentle lead in to what it means to be Kindred, but if he thinks it is necessary, then it probably is. I’m practising as much as I can, the fighting is clearly going to be important and when the next attack comes I want to ensure I can remain in one piece. And help ensure that those I care about do too; Imaad, Johannes himself, and Gwendolyn. The initial chill between us seems to be gradually being replaced by something warmer, and I can’t deny how good it would be to have a proper friend again; I’d pretty much deleted my mortal social life before my Embrace in favour of nights spent chasing down the legend of Johannes, and I see no great benefit in trying to start it up again now.
The fundraiser: it’s getting close now and both Imaad and I are starting to get nervous. He’s tense and less jokey than usual, we both know there is a lot riding on this; he is spending increasing amounts of time praying and there is a slightly strained intensity to his caresses which I guess is borne out of the tension. I only hope that things go well, it won’t be for lack of wanting it to on either of our parts. He’s dressing in the bedroom before going to teach a class when Johannes rings me. ‘Eleanor? I’d like to set up for you to meet the people I was talking about for your new business venture. How are you fixed for 10pm tonight?’ He pauses. ‘Bring Gwendolyn, she’ll need to meet them as well since you said you were going into business together. I’m prepared to swear to you that they aren’t blood bound to me or otherwise under my control and she can read my aura if she wants.’ He pauses and his tone goes dark. ’Any other questions are off the table. ’ The warning in his voice is obvious.
’I’ll ring her and check she’s free but I’m sure she will be. I’ll let her know the restriction. Where are we meeting?’ ‘I suggest Seven Stars, they have an area where we can talk business. Do you know where it is?’ I pause. ‘No, but I’m sure we can find it.’ Not the Ink Rooms then, well that will make life a little bit easier for Gwendolyn anyway. He interjects. ‘Vampire rule of Domain, she can’t re-enter it without my permission or by making amends in some way. Speaking of the traditions, they know that you’re a relative of mine as that’s pretty obvious when anyone looks at us, I’ve suggested you’re an older sister that’s investing the money from her husband’s estate.’ ‘Fair enough.’ I reply, the resemblance is definitely there, although annoyingly the strong features that make him an extremely attractive man render me a ‘striking’ woman but in no way a classically beautiful one.
He changes tack. ‘I hope you’ve been practising your sword fighting and I don’t just mean screwing the Assamite.’ If I could blush I probably would, and I’m grateful Imaad can’t hear the conversation – but decide instead to try and channel my sire just a bit. ‘Yes, I have been practising a lot with the sword. Both sorts.’ He laughs. ‘I probably don’t need to tell you to use a different grip, but be careful apart from that, these things rarely last even a decade or two between our kind and they tend to not end well.’ He pauses and I can’t help wondering if Johannes has ever had deep feelings for anyone, there is perhaps just a hint in his tone of voice that he’s talking from personal experience. ‘Anyway I’ll see you at ten, there’s a few things we ought to discuss before I introduce you to Maddy and Connor. They’ll be arriving a little later on.’ He rings off just as Imaad comes into the living room. ‘Who was that?’ ‘Johannes, got a meeting to talk about bar staff’. I kiss him. ‘I need to call Gwendolyn. Have a good class.’ He kisses me intensely and then leaves; I pick up the phone. Jarvis answers, and says he will go and get her. There’s a pause before he does and I hear a scuffle in the background, some muffled swearing and the word ‘slippers’ before Gwendolyn comes to the phone. ‘Hi, how are you?’ I say. ‘I was wondering if you were free about 10pm tonight, Johannes wants us to meet the bar staff he was talking about. Not at the Ink Rooms though, at a bookshop called Seven Stars.’
She sounds slightly bemused as she replies “Fine, apart from a slight issue with Lestrade and Jarvis fighting for top dog spot in the household.” I can hear Jarvis in the background saying something to her and hear him saying HA in a loud sarcastic voice before a door slamming then she continues with a laugh in her voice “Yes, I will be free tonight.”
‘No problem, do you want me to pick you up or shall I just meet you there?’
“Well, if you don’t mind picking me up that would be useful. I suspect walking in to a meeting with Johannes on my own wouldn’t be good after what happened last time we met.” Her voice is slightly uncertain and I suspect she is remembering what happened last time only too vividly.
‘Oh and there is one other thing. He’s said he will let you read his aura to confirm he hasn’t blood bound or otherwise influenced them. I must admit I didn’t think he’d do something like that but it must be a good thing, though he’s said it’s on that topic only.’ I feel uncomfortable laying it on a bit thick but we can’t afford even the smallest hint of a repeat of what happened in the Ink Rooms.
“By all means, only that topic for reading his aura2 Gwendolyn’s tone is more firm this time. “Whilst I remember Jarvis said he has found two possible locations so we will need to arrange to view them at some stage.” ‘That’s great!’ I reply. ‘Just let me know when and we can go take a look, it will be good to get things moving.’ I pause. ‘Incidentally, I’m not going to be Eleanor Van den Berg for the purpose of running the bar; I’m going to be Eleanor Koenig. Johannes advised me I need to get myself a couple of alternate identities given that I have a traceable mortal background in the area. Obviously all the Kindred will still know who I am.’ It will also probably make Johannes laugh, it was the maiden name of the great-aunt of his mortal generation he was so rude about when he first Embraced me and also is Dutch for ‘King’ so another amusing play on words for the bar.
I pick her up a little later on; it’s snowing again and the Invisible Woman in the snow is once more in evidence. Gwendolyn is waiting at the door, again in fairly modern clothes, bootcut jeans and a top in a sort of heathery shade which suits her colouring. I’m wearing a pair of dark purple jeans with a high necked top in heavy black lace, onyx earrings and the black velvet blazer Imaad bought me; somewhat gothic, but still smart, after all the day I buy a pair of leather trousers or a band t-shirt will be the day I’ve probably started channeling Johannes just a little too much. We gun the BMW, or rather I do and are at Seven Stars shop slightly before the allotted time.
The shop is an interesting mix; books on magic, some new, some obviously old – are mixed with tarot cards, various occult paraphernalia, a cabinet of silver jewellery and perhaps slightly incongruously, some role-playing games. The owner, or at least the person who is in charge, is an old guy with a slightly odd,feel, to him although I can’t put my finger on exactly what is strange about him, maybe Gwendolyn will sense it. He looks up as we enter, then returns to his book. The lighting is relatively dim and there is a faint smell of incense wafting through the shop. I pick up an interesting looking knife, with a large amethyst set into the handle and runes carved round it, then put it back down, maybe something that might be useful for when I use Obtenebration and need to call on my blood although I’m guessing it is meant to have some sort of ceremonial purpose. The owner leads us to a side room where there are some squashy black sofas, obviously an area where people can take a look at the books before making a purchase.
Johannes is sprawled over one of the sofas and rather unusually for him, he is not dressed in leathers and a band t-shirt but is wearing a rather sharp black suit and nonchalantly holding the top of a black cane which I would bet is like Imaad’s, i.e. has a slim sword inside it. His hair is also tied back into a stubby ponytail at the nape of his neck. I wonder where he’s been to that he needed to look smart or if it is merely that he dresses carefully based on where he is going, much as I do myself. Or is it his ‘suit of armour’ for fighting the Sabbat in? I’ve only seen him wearing a suit once before, which was the night he had been wounded and also when the incident with Gwendolyn took place; I hope that isn’t a bad omen. He looks good, though, and doesn’t look injured this time which is a relief. ‘Nice suit.’ I smile at him, though I realise that for the first time ever I am dressed in a more gothic style than he is.
He grins at me and I wonder if the same thought has occurred to him and has amused him. ‘Let’s get down to business then. Have you actually got a name for the place yet?’ ‘Actually yes’. I reply. ‘We thought the Crown and Sceptre had a ring to it. If nothing else it should ensure a few laughs at court.’
He laughs. ‘Don’t get too creative with the pub sign! I’m going to introduce you to the Ink Rooms relief bar manager, Maddy Burke, and one of our bouncers, Connor Maxwell. They’re both bloody good at what they do and I don’t have the opportunities here for them that they deserve; you’ll need to think about what will motivate them best. They’re both quite sharp, though, so you’re going to need to think about how you manage things like why you aren’t around in the daytime, for instance are you going to tell them what you are or not, and if you do, are you going to chuck money at them to incentivise them to keep quiet, or ghoul them. They don’t know about me, by the way, though I think Maddy at any rate is starting to wonder about a few things.’ He pauses.
Gwendolyn interjects. “My sire is fond of using ghouls or domination depending on situation but personally I find either tactic blunts them too much. Money and good future prospects are a better option alongside good people management.” Gwendolyn’s voice is detached in her reply to Johannes, I notice she is sitting carefully with her hands in her lap, if anything that pole seems to be back I note with a slight smile. I’ve got a tougher decision to make, the last thing I would want is to make someone into a ghoul against their will and repeated use of Dominate would just be too much like abuse, but the peculiar position that Johannes and I are in as antitribu of a Sabbat clan perhaps gives us a greater need for security.
He looks at Gwendolyn and there is an amused expression on his face, perhaps he has noticed the pole too. ‘Be careful of professionals, that charming modern euphemism for mercenary. For the fact is, they have no other attraction to take, or keep, the field other than a trifling stipend. That is little incentive to make them die for you.’ I smile. ‘You’re talking in quotes again, Johannes. Machiavelli, if I’m not mistaken.’ There’s a clear warning in there though – that we need to handle this carefully.
‘Gwendolyn, I apologise for my reaction the last time we met. I was not at my best that evening.’ He pauses. ‘I’m prepared to rescind your ban from my bar on the basis you never mention that person in my presence again.’ His tone makes it clear this is a one-time offer.
Gwendolyn looks at Johannes for a moment with a slightly startled expression possibly because of his apology before replying to him a regretful way. “Any apologies for that evening should be from me, you welcomed us to your bar and headed off what would have been an awkward encounter, only for me to abuse your hospitality by pushing you a subject which is raw to you and then by using a discipline to try and push the questioning. It is I, who is at fault and not you, and for that I humbly apologise for my actions that evening and my questions. I have already promised Eleanor that I will not ask you again and you have my word that I will not mention her again in your presence.”
He nods his shoulders, and prepares himself with a neck stretch and a shoulder roll. He looks her square in the eye. “Get your mojo up and running then.”
I watch as she focuses intently on Johannes, who seems to find this part of the talk amusing or at least I think he does by the way he smirks at Gwendolyn as she asks him rather formally to confirm that neither of the staff he is suggesting to us are under his influence whether by money, blood bond or any other means available to him as a kindred to which he replies in the negative. After a short while she frowns slightly then turns her head to look at me, nods slightly and turns back to Johannes and thanks him.
‘OK, now we’ve got that over it’s time for the introductions. They should be here in a minute so you can have initial discussions with them, and then I suggest you discuss detailed terms with them at a later date, assuming you want them that is. There are also a couple of bar staff at the Ink Rooms I’d be happy if they wanted to approach but that can be sorted out later, when you’re nearer to being up and running.’ I nod. ‘Sounds good to me.’ He rearranges himself on the sofa and a few minutes later two people walk in. The first is a tall, pretty woman with long dark brown hair and brown eyes; she’s wearing tight black jeans, a black vest top and a silver pentagram around her neck with a garnet in the centre, and a dark burgundy velvet jacket which she takes off and slings on one of the chairs. She has a black and grey tattoo of a phoenix on her upper left arm and a warm smile, but her eyes are very keen and I see what Johannes means, I don’t think she is someone that misses very much. The old guy calls over ‘Hey, nice to see you again Maddy.’ So she’s a regular in this shop, interesting; that plus the pentagram suggests an interest in matters not quite of this world. Quietly, I make a decision, but one I will only proceed with if she is willing.
She walks over to us and shakes both my hand and Gwendolyn’s then sits down in one of the chairs, looking relaxed. The second person to enter is a big guy who I would say is in his mid forties, with grey hair and a goatee beard; he was probably quite good-looking once but has a noticeable scar on his face. He also shakes our hands and sits down. Johannes gets up. ‘I’ll give you some time to get to know each other.’ Maddy looks at him as he leaves, and I wonder if she is also baffled by the suit or if the look signifies something else entirely. I turn to face her and Gwendolyn does the same to the bouncer and we begin to engage them in conversation.
It’s a long time since I have had to interview someone, the last time would have been a couple of years ago when a student was helping me on a research project and I’ve certainly never had to interview anyone for a bar job before but I ask her about her interests, her qualifications, what she has enjoyed most (and least) about working at the Ink Rooms and what she is looking for from her next move. She is obviously bright, having a degree in business studies at Boston University and is open about having had to drop out and work in order to make enough money to finish it off and also that although she has enjoyed working as a bar manager at the Ink Rooms there isn’t the opportunity to do it full time and she doesn’t want to revert to just working as basic bar staff, so was going to look around in any event. To help set up a new venture gives a ‘clean slate’ as well as an opportunity for her. She is also very open about her beliefs. I like her straight away, but realise that caution will be required in taking this to the next step as it seems to be in everything.
And then she starts firing questions at me and it becomes obvious that this is firstly one very sharp young woman and secondly that she knows what she is talking about; she asks about the bar’s market, the sort of look and clientele that we are going for, regulatory issues (which can be a problem if converting somewhere that isn’t or hasn’t previously been in use as a bar) and plenty more. I level with her and tell her that although we have some of these sorted, the two venues lined up which we are to see in the next couple of days, both of which are existing premises which require some refurbishment (which fortunately Jarvis is already sorting out contacts for) the sort of look we are going for (colonial/ traditional with a slight edge), we are looking for her to basically run the place, we are providing the investment and will be in there frequently but won’t be involved in the hands on stuff. The responsibility for finding (and managing) bar staff will basically be hers although she will ultimately report to us herself. I’m grateful that I’ve drunk in enough bars when I was mortal (and posed with a glass of wine in others since I stopped being) to have some idea what works and what doesn’t and hope I sound like someone who is looking for her expertise and open to her ideas but without being completely wet behind the ears.
I finish by telling her that once we have firmed up on a venue, which I expect to be in the next few days – I will contact her to show her the venue and to discuss detailed terms. This gives me an opportunity to discuss the terms that I have in mind in private, and find out if she is as open to matters not quite of this world as the initial impression suggests. At the end of the conversation, we shake hands, I take her contact details and let her know I’m looking forward to working with her.
Gwendolyn I can hear talking to Connor about the role of security manager for the bar, she seems quite relaxed chatting to him and is mentioning that he will be trained up to the role by Jarvis. For a short time he will have to manage some of the front line role at the pub but she is keen to employ younger guys for that role with Connor as overall manager with responsibility for the security. As I end my conversation with Maddy she is giving Connor a card and shaking hands suggesting a couple of different dates for his second interview but explaining due to her main job that it would have to be an evening interview.
They leave, and I make a snap decision to buy the small knife I’ve seen, paying in cash; it’s rather beautiful even if what I am likely to be using it for isn’t what it was designed for, I guess Obtenebration is a ritual of sorts though. It will need sharpening before it can be used for that, of course. I also get side-tracked by a pair of amethyst drop earrings, and Gwendolyn says she’ll meet me by the car, and leaves; I pay for the knife and earrings and stash them in my handbag but while I am rummaging in my purse for cash I notice that Kingston, the Tremere who burned my clothes in the alleyway, is also leaving the shop and has a slightly odd expression on his face. Instantly I wonder if my wild guess about Johannes’ suit wearing is correct and they are about to go out on a raid or something, but there’s no sign of Doyle so maybe this is off beam, also Johannes wasn’t wearing a coat, which he has been when we’ve seen him either in, or after, action. Or maybe the suit is just a way of keeping people on their toes, I doubt he would tell me anyway so there is no real point in asking, I just have to trust that he’ll let me know what I need to know when I need to know it. I walk over to Johannes. ‘Thanks for your help on this. I really appreciate it. Maddy seems very switched on.’ He nods and grins. ’I’ll see you at the fundraiser.’
I leave the shop and find Gwendolyn by the car, a thoughtful expression on her face. ‘Are you OK?’ I ask.
“Kingston has offered me to help me refine my skill with auspex for more public use; it is an unexpected offer from him which I suspect Johannes has a hand in, but it would be useful since my initial tutoring in the skill I had to learn on my own.” Her voice is thoughtful but I think that I detect a bit of sadness – but then in a typical Gwendolyn manner she changes the conversation. “I have asked Jarvis to arrange evening viewings for both properties for us, one is in more need of repair but is closer to the antiques shops and the other one according to Jarvis only needs decorating and it will be ready to go. Both were bars so licensing shouldn’t be an issue although the second place doesn’t have an existing kitchen so if we wish for lunchtime trade from businesses that could be an issue but resolvable.” She gets into the car and hands me a folder with details for me to look at later.