The Hollow Crown
When past and present collide
Eleanor Van den Berg, 16 February 2001
E: I sleep a little late following my night out with Gwendolyn in Concord; my sleep however, unlike recently, has been untroubled by dreams, of my Sabbat alternate or indeed anything else. I wake up in Imaad’s arms, and smile at him as the fog of sleep clears my brain, he has clearly been awake for a little longer than I have but hasn’t made any move to get up. I have a training session of some sort with Johannes today, and Imaad has a class then needs to go back to his own haven, to meditate not to mention pick up some clean clothes. In some ways it’s slightly amusing how fastidious we are, after all we don’t sweat any more but both Imaad and I are just as meticulous about our morning routines as I was when I was alive. With a few significant differences, I suspect; there is no longer any need for Crème de la Mer in my case, and I rather doubt he spent as much time fiddling with his hair when he was a soldier in the Second World War. Given I won’t see him tonight, I grin at him. ‘Come here’ and proceed to show him exactly what he’s going to miss by not being here tonight.
I: I laugh, ‘no, you come here’, I pull her into my arms and kiss her..
I will miss her tonight but she is right I have got things to do; teach a class, visit the Mosque and sort some things at home. Our relationship has moved very quickly to a point where we are virtually living together and while still very passionate it has also become deeper. We have shared stories about the time we were mortal and our history before we met. One of the things I want to do tonight is retrieve the medal I received for valour during the war and the picture of me being invested with it by the King. I doubt she will recognise me, my hair was very short then. She probably thinks I grew it during the time I was with Uncle Mohammed before I was embraced but that isn’t the case, even at the time I became kindred my hair was quite short, I grew it using a ritual Uncle Mohammed taught me when I came to America as it seemed to fit in better. One day perhaps I shall cut it and let it return to its mortal length.
It seems I have been present for almost all of Eleanor’s time as Kindred so she has little to tell me there but she has told me of her mortal life, her family and her idiot of an ex-boyfriend. He was a fool to let her go, if he was bored it was because he constrained her, had he let her bloom he would have realised how lucky he was. I always think of my time in California as my teenage years after my time in the army and 15 years with Uncle Mohammed and I think what we are seeing now is Eleanor blossoming in the same way I did then. I did wonder if her adoption of a more gothic look was entirely down to Johannes, but I don’t think so. I suspect it has always interested her and now she can express it in a way she couldn’t before. Rather amusingly with her pale, even when she was mortal, skin, her gothic dress makes her look like a mortal’s idea of a vampire, something I will never be!
E: We miss being interrupted by the phone by about a minute or two in the end and I pick it up as it buzzes with a text message. ‘Tonight’s dress code – clubbing, but not rock club. Pick me up at the Ink Rooms at 9. Hope that gives you enough time to practice your grip ;) J.’ I start laughing and Imaad’s expression clouds slightly. This locking of horns thing between him and Johannes could get wearing quite fast; they are clearly still trying to size each other up and I can’t help returning to another memory of my mortal life. Like so much about my new existence there is a huge difference between the situation then and now but yet, some striking similarities.
It was about three years ago – give or take the odd month – and Donovan and I had been seeing each other about six months. At the time I was really rather bowled over by him, or at least I thought I was; I suspect that deep down, I probably knew we weren’t really compatible but on the surface everything seemed such a perfect fit that I was prepared to bury my doubts and convince myself that he was what I had been waiting for. We were both respected in our fields, both intelligent, wealthy, blonde Boston Brahmins who took good care of ourselves. The introduction to the parents had gone remarkably well, and then my father had thrown in casually, ‘I hope that you’ll accompany us to our lodge upstate next weekend. I’m planning something of a shooting party.’
In a film, this would no doubt lead to a comedy moment where the boyfriend panics that he isn’t going to come back from said shooting party. If Donovan had any such thoughts he didn’t express them and the following weekend we headed off upstate to the family ‘log cabin’. I was unamused to see that we had been put in separate rooms; at 33 this was to my mind ridiculous although even then the physical side of things was less than wonderful. I didn’t have time to be annoyed though as three of my father’s friends piled in shortly afterwards, the aforementioned shooting party, all of them current or former business colleagues of my father – shortly followed by my irritating younger brother Conrad and his pretty but vacuous wife Emily. I remember him grinning at me, with a grin that had all of Johannes’ arrogance but none of the charm or joie de vivre. ‘Now you’ve finally got yourself another man, I couldn’t miss seeing this, could I?’ Emily just looks at the floor, as is often her way; she is pretty enough but Conrad walks all over her. At least they haven’t brought their two horribly spoiled young children, who presumably are with Emily’s parents. I nod at him and lie through my teeth. ‘Good to see you both. Delighted I can provide some entertainment.’ I add somewhat archly.
The evening’s dinner was something to be endured rather than enjoyed and although it was at least flattering that Donovan crept to my single room in the middle of the night it didn’t really enliven the experience over much. Dawn the following day saw the men shoulder their shotguns and go out hunting, this of course being a pretext for my father to size Donovan up, whilst the women of the family organised the next night’s dinner. Emily did most of the work, as usual, whilst I could cook reasonably well I was no expert and my mother has always relied on the staff for that sort of thing. That’s when she bothers to eat at all, of course – her size zero figure is maintained by iron discipline (translation – a borderline eating disorder) and she has always regarded my US size 6 (UK 10) figure – the result of a lot of hard work in the gym – with an air of superiority.
At the end of the day, the men return and are all smiles. Donovan never told me exactly what they discussed, but he and my father have clearly hit it off and much back slapping ensues as well as exchanging of business cards. Whatever the test was it is clear he has passed it and the evening is sealed off by my mother taking me aside and lecturing me for about half an hour on the tactics I should employ to ‘reel him in.’ At least on that evening she didn’t mention plastic surgery although she did lecture me about my clothes. Too casual that evening from what I recall, faded blue denim with tan leather boots and a wrap top in a soft purple. I think I still have the top in my wardrobe somewhere, a vestige of my old life in amongst the blacks and greys that symbolise the new.
I force my mind back to the present. Once I’ve showered and Imaad is in the bathroom, I dress carefully as usual; ‘club but not rock club’ is a new one on Johannes, and I smile as I wonder what on earth that will mean for him. I’ve seen him in a suit on several occasions, for a business meeting, fighting the Sabbat and of course in black tie at the fundraiser, usually though it’s leather trousers and a rock band t-shirt of some description, though I know that each of those are facets of him I probably still don’t know even half of what the whole adds up to. I end up wearing a pair of dark grey designer jeans, together with a sleeveless black top in slightly floaty silk fabric, which is embellished with silver beads; it’s quite glamorous without being too over the top. Over it I put the black velvet blazer Imaad bought me and I accessorise with onyx jewellery and slick on some caramel lipstick, I’m thankful that it is easy enough to put lipstick on without being able to see what you are doing but eyeliner of course is another matter.
I stash my purse in the bag Imaad got me for Valentine’s day and walk in to the living room; he’s dressed casually and raises an eyebrow. Obviously, he’s wondering what sort of ‘training’ Johannes has in mind for tonight, as I’m clearly not dressed for fighting. I look at him. ‘No, I don’t know what he has in mind either but he said dress to go clubbing and not a rock club. So I’m guessing some sort of lesson in hunting, or we’re going to check out some other bars, but your guess is as good as mine.’ I pause, then wind my arms around his neck and kiss him deeply. ‘Have a good class and see you tomorrow. I’ll miss you.’
He replies ’I’ll miss you too, don’t let Johannes lead you astray!’ I grin. ‘I won’t.’
I arrive at the Ink Rooms shortly before the allotted time and Johannes is waiting for me. I’d been wondering what he would decide to wear to a nightclub that wasn’t a rock club – it seems to translate to a pair of black denim Armani jeans and a sharply tailored black shirt which is open at the neck. His hair is once more tied back in a stubby ponytail and he throws a black wool coat over his shoulders then looks me up and down and grins. ‘You’ll do. Let’s get going. We’re going to The Zetter – I imagine you have been there before.’
As a matter of fact, I haven’t. It’s a bar/ nightclub that opened about 18 months ago and which I had heard of, but hadn’t actually been to – recently for very good reasons. It’s aimed quite specifically at the young and wealthy of Boston – and frequented by them and also by the middle-aged and wealthy that are either trying to be young or trying to pull someone that is. It’s also exactly the type of place that my old social circle, who I’ve tried so hard to avoid, would frequent and the risk of bumping into someone I know is high. I turn and look at Johannes and am about to ask him if this is wise, when I notice his expression, the demonic grin is most definitely in residence and I realise that the purpose of this visit may well be exactly to see how I react if I run into someone I already know. He looks at me very intently. ‘There is a lot more to this existence than being able to summon up shadows, or having supernatural strength. Surviving in the snake pit that is the court takes guile, cunning, and subterfuge. And of course, ‘It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.’ He grins, then goes on, his expression a little more serious.
‘Your powers are growing quite fast, Eleanor – you’ve already learned to summon tentacles of shadow, and you’ve been a vampire a matter of months. But you need to learn to be a little more subtle, to consider the effect of your words as well as actions.’ He pauses. ‘You did pretty well at the fundraiser, actually, you have grown in status with the court, but you can be a little too direct.’ He grins. ‘It’s all about playing the game. Who you can get away with insulting and who you can’t. Who you can use your wiles on, and who you can’t. ‘
Who you can get away with insulting and who you can’t. I mentally contrast my blunt attempt to needle Hardcastle with Johannes’ treatment of Hook and its end result. Johannes had been about as offensive to Hook as it was possible to be in public – and the end result was that Hook was sufficiently wound-up he killed someone, and Johannes was then summoned to perform his public execution, getting out of his life debt to the Prince in the process. I don’t know whether Johannes had planned that deliberately or not, and I’m not going to ask, but he certainly took advantage of it.
It then occurs to me that it would be entirely possible for some people to take the view that I had either planned it that way or taken advantage of it, as well. It would be perfectly possible to assume that I had deliberately needled Hook further by laughing at Johannes’ actions; that I had deliberately arranged for my Assamite lover to frighten Joshua Crouch; that I had calculated that the net result would be one dead Brujah and one Gangrel subject to trial for breach of Elysium; that I had guessed that Hook would elect for trial by combat and have no chance of defeating Johannes. Of course, this would have required me to know that Johannes was the Scourge, and would also have required me to be a great deal more manipulative – and nastier – than I am. This realisation though – of how things could look – goes some way to explaining the touch of fear in the eyes of some of the court after the event, as well as the increased respect. Manipulation and subterfuge is something that my clan is known for and it is evident Johannes can play the game just as well as any member of the darker side of the clan, indeed no doubt it is a skill he has needed to survive as an antitribu for all these years.
We arrive at the club and he grins at me, the devilish charm very much in evidence. ‘In here you’ll meet someone you know. I want to see how you deal with that.’ The expression on his face is that of a fallen angel as we walk from the car through the shadows to the entrance. ‘I also want to see you hunt. Not necessarily the same person. I’ll sort out their memories after if I think it is necessary.’ I nod, trying to prepare myself mentally for what I might say, particularly to explain my disappearance from the Boston Brahmin social scene. The truth – I became obsessed with a family legend, found him and he turned me into a blood-drinking member of the undead – is obviously not an option.
We walk into the bar which is very modern, almost painfully trying to be cool, the décor is all cream and pale blond wood with modern art, mostly in cream and black on the walls, fortunately there seems to be little in the way of reflective surfaces and the lighting is dim, no doubt better to maximise the attractiveness of the clientele rather than to assist the presence of the undead, although it succeeds on both counts. I find a shadowed alcove and order a red wine for myself and a beer for Johannes and we make small talk until a group of men about my age starts to drift in our general direction. Johannes grins demonically at me and slides silently out of the booth. ‘I’ll see you later. The alleyway behind the club is reasonably private, by the way.’ He seems to almost vanish into the shadows, though I can still sense his eyes on me, watching how I deal with things.
And then I look up. The group of four men is now standing near the alcove, and they are quite obviously checking out the women in the bar, looking for likely conquests, engaged on their own hunt for their own prey. Two of them I don’t recognise, one of them is a colleague of Donovan’s I met a couple of times, his name I think is Gerard; he’s tall and wiry with dark hair just starting to turn to grey, and designer stubble. The fourth man has his back to me; he is also tall, with broad shoulders and a shock of sandy blond hair and I know before he turns and looks at me who he is. Has Johannes planned this all along, this confrontation of my mortal life with my undead existence? It is a few minutes before he spots me and his eyes widen as he does.
I look at him and the few seconds it takes for Donovan to walk over to me seems to stretch, time becoming elastic. He looks good, though too conservative for my taste, certainly now, I wonder if that was always the case; he is wearing a nicely cut grey suit, has obviously come straight from the office and looks every bit the former quarterback and all-American boy that he is. He sits down opposite me and takes his jacket off and I am rather gratified to notice he is wearing the silver football cufflinks that I gave him just over a year ago, at least those were to his taste even if ultimately I wasn’t. He looks at me. ‘Eleanor?’ I don’t say anything but let him look at me, his eyes obviously taking in my outfit. ‘You look – different somehow. But good.’ He pauses. ‘Have you had something done?’ he then blurts.
I have to make a huge effort not to laugh and instead turn it into a wry smile. ‘Don, surely you know, never ask a lady her age and never ask her if she has had ‘something done’’. If he’d asked that when I was still alive I would have been furious, now it just seems amusing. Something done? Well you could say that, I became a vampire, and a glass of blood a day keeps ageing at bay – but clearly I don’t voice those thoughts. ‘Just fresh air, exercise and a new healthy eating regime.’ The last part at least is close to the truth, and if plentiful good sex with a handsome Assamite counts as exercise then so is the preceding part. I focus inwardly, aware that Johannes is watching how I deal with this. Am I supposed to make Donovan my prey tonight? My conscious brain doesn’t like that notion, but a primal part of me can’t help seeing the veins pulse in his neck and wondering how he would taste. I look him in the eye, and then deliberately cast my gaze over to Gerard and the others, seeing if they have noticed me as well. I return my gaze to Donovan, and ask ‘So how have you been?’
He looks at me. ‘Good, thank you.’ We make small talk about work and then he asks the question I’ve been waiting for. ‘So what have you been up to? The girls say they haven’t seen you for months, and what are you doing here anyway?’ I look him directly in the eyes and laugh. ’I’ve been busy. Research for my next book, and taking some time to think about a few things. Like tying myself down for starters. On reflection, I don’t think it’s my style, whatever my mother might want me to think.’ I pause and look him in the eyes. ‘As to tonight, I imagine I am doing the same thing you and your friends are, or trying to at any rate. I had a date, or thought I did, but he seems to be conspicuous by his absence.’ At that point again I feel Johannes’ presence, and amused laughter seems to be in my mind although telepathy is not one of the gifts of our clan so I am probably imagining it. Donovan’s expression turns to what might pass for sympathy if I didn’t know him better, the ego clearly thinking poor Eleanor, all glammed up and stood up, she’s trying to pretend she doesn’t want a relationship, but she still wants me. I notice his body language, the dilated pupils and the slight flush of blood in his face, he is thinking he can capitalise on this, get me into his bed with no commitment; it would be all too easy tonight to feed on him, for Johannes to alter his memory so all he remembered would be a moment of stolen pleasure.
And I know that I can’t do it; that maybe this is part of the test. I am not Sabbat, not my alternate, and I can’t feed on someone that I used to care about, even if I maybe never really loved him. He extends a hand over the table and again for a fraction of a second I’m tempted to take it but I know that feeding on him won’t just be a betrayal of my humanity, it will also be a betrayal of Imaad and what we have together. And then another voice breaks in. ‘Donovan, aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?’
One of the other men slides into the booth and I note a flash of annoyance cross Donovan’s face. He’s not as tall as Donovan, and is wearing an impeccably cut grey suit which contrasts nicely with a shock of red hair which is slightly longer than the standard city boy cut, skin that is almost as pale as mine, and green eyes that are full of mischief. Donovan’s eyes are still annoyed but he makes the introduction. ‘Eleanor Van den Berg – Rory Colhoun.’ Irish extraction then, like Fallon. He grins. ‘So this is your ex? Donovan, you really didn’t do her justice.’
I have my solution, it seems in some ways too easy. I remember something that Johannes said to me, that the Embrace smooths out minor physical imperfections, in effect we become better looking versions of what we were before, although in his case and mine there is no mirror that will prove this to be true. I smile at Rory. ’I’m sure that’s not true.’ and turn on all of my charm.
We make small talk, and it isn’t too long before Donovan decides to withdraw and to leave Rory to me. I’m aware that I’ve drawn a line under the past, I’ve faced Donovan and in a way I seem to have some closure, my old life feels in some ways a million light years away and I’ve resisted the temptation that was offered on a plate, to feed off him and thereby become even less human than I already am. Rory is interesting enough company and full of Celtic charm and when he asks me if I want to step outside our encounter flows naturally from banter to kissing him to the point where I sink my fangs into his neck and taste the sweet nectar that is his blood, as I drink from him I notice the other couple in the alleyway, Johannes casts an amused glance in my direction even as he feeds from the blonde society girl that he appears to the casual observer to be amorously entwined with. All too soon it is time to break away, I have taken relatively little, by this point the blonde is gone and Johannes is by my side, I am telling Rory he had an amorous encounter with me that did not progress beyond kissing, that neither of us ultimately felt that it was fair on Donovan, and Johannes erases the memory of his own face from Rory’s mind.
In spite of my words, backed up with the force of my will, the effect on Donovan will be obvious; a clear indication that I have moved on. From him, and on a larger scale, from my mortal life, but with enough of my humanity left that I don’t cross the Rubicon into the world of the Sabbat. At that moment, as Rory shambles off, I miss Imaad intensely; another night until I am back in his arms seems too long, even though we have all the time in the world.
That feeling doesn’t dissipate after I drop Johannes off; he seems to be pleased with what he saw, and again I wonder if the test was whether I decided to feed off Donovan as well as dealing with actually seeing him. I don’t think I’ll see Donovan again, and I don’t want to. It’s early for our kind when I return to my haven, and I read long into the night, a cold space in my bed and my head full of thoughts.