by Timothy Toner (18 Jun 94)
...it's my birthday too. Well, yesterday, actually. I would have posted it then, but frankly, I was having too much fun.
The drive to sell my work has severely curtailed what I can release, on this, the second annual Tim Toner's gift to y'all.
Sitting back, listening to the bells above the coffeehouse door jingle merrily into the cool night. Thus had Klaus passed the last four years. He once tried to intimate that he was on an urgent mission for either the Sabbat or Camarilla, depending on which direction the wind was blowing. This was the border, the place where the Caitiffs and Panders would mingle, their mongrel blood betraying any allegiances.
Across from him, another Pander regarded the slowly cooling cup placed before her. Her eyes twitched slowly, a subtle indication that she was using Auspex to reach deep within the limits of the cup, to know its dimensions, its history.
"Oh. Sorry, Klaus. I was just using that new thing. I was thinking of a friend, a girl. And suddenly I was at a club, inside her mind, hearing the pounding music through her ears. It was wonderful..."
"There's a lot of wonderful things about being a vampire. Looking up old kine friends really isn't one. It's a waste of your gifts. After all, why settle for that, when the night offers so much more.
"For instance, there is the second oldest game..."
"What's the oldest?"
"The Hunt, of course."
"Of course." Her crooked teeth shone past her pale lips. "So what's this game?"
"Waiting. Learning things. Then, maybe five hundred years later, when this triviata gains new relevance, sell it, and destroy empires. Oh, yes, you have to sift through the dross, but that's the price of eternity.
"Take for instance, that one in the corner. His style of dress is 50 years too old. He sits in one of the high backed chairs, facing the door. He is waiting for someone, and he has a great fear of being attacked, even staked. Without even once glancing at his aura, I know he is Kindred, and thus someone worth watching."
The bells jingled again. A man, a head less than Klaus' six and a half feet, searched the room, and finally locked eyes on the stranger. The newcomer walked slowly but passionately to the table, and waited to be noticed.
"So what's going to happen now?" she asked.
"Shhh...this is the time of silence."
The first finally regarded the second. "Can I help you?"
"I was passing through this neighborhood, and spotted the sign above the door. A friend once recommended such a place, and I felt I had to go in. You look a lot like him."
"Really." The seated man continued to stare into the eyes of the newcomer.
"Please. May I sit?"
"Yes, I suppose that's all right."
"Thank you. By the way, my name is Albert."
A pause. "Franklin."
"It is a good evening, Franklin, and a lovely town. Do you live here?"
"Near. Just down the road, in fact. I come to this place to think."
"It would appear from that napkin that you have a lot on your mind."
Both glanced down at the cloth napkin, now torn to shreds by excessive worrying. "Yes. Heavy is the head that holds a crown."
"An odd phrase. What is it you do?"
"I'm an administrator. A local magistrate."
"And the office is wearing you down?"
"In a manner of speaking. I have a difficult decision ahead of me."
Another pause. "Is it anything you can share? I have some small interest in matters of law."
"No. I've always been fascinated by the laws men write to make their society liveable. Often, the notion of law runs directly counter to the goal of justice."
"Yes. Justice. I'm afraid that's my problem. A small matter of justice conflicting with the law."
"The conflict of law and justice is never a small matter."
"The thing that galls me most is that I am the..." Franklin let out a slight breath, then eased his tone. "Magistrate. Am I a tool of the law, or justice?"
"You have no say in the matter? You role is that ambiguous to allow a question? Or is it that your role is all too clearly defined, and it is that lack of choice that galls you?"
Franklin stared out the window, watching a Volkswagen pass slowly. "You are very perceptive, Albert. That is indeed my problem."
"You are not the first to find himself in a position of power, only to discover how powerless it really is."
More silence passed. Albert flipped his fingers, and a waiter appeared. He ordered a cafe au lait.
"Yes. I thought you could tell from the accent."
"In my line of work, accents can be deceiving. I assume nothing."
"A good policy. Tell me, are you free to discuss the problem, in its most general terms? I understand..."
"You have been very helpful so far. Perhaps you can grant insight on this little bit more."
"Well, I'll do my best."
"A case has come to my attention. Two...juveniles...were caught in possession of controlled substances. The law is quite clear on the matter. We do not tolerate addiction of this type, and there can be nothing but the maximum penalty."
"As I see it, you do not think the addiction is quite so terrible as the law says it is."
"Quite the opposite. I think it horrendous. It destroys lives on both sides of the transaction."
"Then you have an affinity for the accused. Perhaps their youth, or some other connection."
"One of them. I knew her father. He was a good friend."
"What does he have to say about the matter?"
"He is dead. He died when she was young, and I cannot help but think that if he was there for her, she would not be in this problem."
"So the law has sealed her fate, and you feel a devotion to friendship and family."
"Yes. I suppose, in a nutshell, that is my problem."
"I once heard a man say that if a problem is stated simply enough, it ceases to be a problem. The dilemma resolves into a solution. From this case, we can see that maxim is a lie."
Franklin seemed not to catch that last phrase. Instead, he blurted out, "Do I have a right to confuse my duty with my personal life?"
Albert nodded. "Yes. That is the problem. And, as we can see, the solution is quite evident. The maxim is correct, after all."
Franklin leaned back in the chair, the wood creaking softly. "Yes, I see now it is. My duty. I have been placed in my position to do a job. That must come first."
"If the law was the problem, I could see going against it. But this is not a conflict of justice and the law. Your decision should be clear."
Franklin let the chair down. "You seem to know a lot, Albert. Tell me, where are you from?"
"France. As I said. Beyond that, it really isn't important. Even if you knew the town where I was raised, even if you knew my mother, it would not solve your current problem. That's what is relevant here. Problem solved."
"It would appear so." Franklin hefted the cup before him, and inhaled the vapors, as if remembering a distant taste. "It used to be much more simple."
"Well, I never have desired a position of power. It seems to be a wise choice on my part."
"I'm not so sure. You seem to know the difficulties all too well. May I ask a question?"
"What would you have done, in my situation?"
"Let her free. As you can see, I'm not a very good magistrate."
"Why? Why would you let her go unpunished?"
"No punishment I could confer upon her would sate the cry for justice. Justice is an ephemeral, unattainable goal. Seeking it is...well...absurd.
"I wouldn't call it absurd. Isn't that a little harsh? Don't we need laws?"
"Tell me, have you met the unredeemable, those for whom law has no meaning? Have you met the good, for whom laws are irrelevant? Laws are pointless, vulgar things, that allow the unredeemable loopholes to slip through, and the good artificial boundaries in their moral center. We should do as we feel, and let the justice come as a consequence to our actions."
"That's all well and good, but I find, as a whole, we have become lazy. Some need laws for guidance, when simple human morality fails them."
"Hm. I have found that there is nothing simple about human morality. In her case, she should go free, and let justice come as a natural event, not some artificial construct of laws that will, in the end, only fail us. Natural Justice cannot fail, because nature in all its glory cannot fail."
"An interesting rule for life. Nevertheless, unsatisfying and wholly impractical. If we removed the...laws, then there would be anarchy."
"And what's so terrible about a little anarchy?"
The table grew very quiet. Franklin stared intently at Albert, judging the strength of his sincerity. Fortunately for the coffeehouse, Albert let the facade crumble.
"Sorry. Just a little less than harmless blathering on my part."
"Such conversations have serious consequences."
"Yes. Which makes them excellent for debate, I find. Apparently, I have struck a nerve. I apologize. Anarchy is indeed a foolish goal. Frankly, I don't think we could handle it. It's too absurd.
"You're terribly fond of that word."
Albert nodded sagely. "Yes. I suppose I am."
"Superb recovery. You have an excellent control over conversations."
"In a way, it is my calling."
"Hm. Yes. So what do you do?"
"Visit coffeehouses and bars, much like this one, and help persons grappling with moral conflicts, such as you are. I prefer to think I've taken up the good aspects of the Church, when they dropped them in favor of becoming sin brokers." Albert smiled broadly.
Franklin let out a powerful laugh. "Well, it seems I wasn't wholly foolish in coming here tonight. Tell me more...about yourself."
Somewhere in the coffeehouse, a clock chimed. "Dear me." Albert glanced at his watch. "I had no idea it was so late. I have to be in Weisbaden by noon. I merely stopped for a cup, and now it seems to have grown cold."
"As has mine. Stay, and we'll grab another round. I'll have one of my servants drive you there. If you desire, I also have friends in Weisbaden. You could stay with them"
"A wonderful proposal, but one which I sadly must refuse. I find the walk refreshing, and I have business that requires my full faculties tomorrow. Adieu."
He stood, and Franklin let him stand. This puzzled the voyeurs, but they let the drama play out. Albert threw a bill on the table, and slipped out into the night. Within a minute, Franklin dropped his serious, passionate glare, walked over to the cashier, paid his tab, and walked out, resolved and fearless.
"So who were they, Klaus?"
The first was the Prince of Frankfurt. We sometimes are so blessed. I had heard of a case of diablerie being ruled there, how the prince seemed genuinely concerned about the fate of the accused. Apparently, the jury has rendered its verdict."
"How valuable is this information?"
"It will be worthless by the end of tonight, when the sentence will be carried out. It is the other thing that is priceless."
"What other thing?"
"I don't know the name of the other, except that he is called The Stranger. He holds a unique position in the Sabbat: the Confessor."
"I've never heard that title before."
"Supposedly he seeks out those trapped in conflicts between his Path and the Sabbat. He helps them seek out a natural conclusion, and then slips away. It is more an honorary position. I have seen him once before."
"Wait...a prince of the Camarilla talking to a Sabbat official? Isn't that illegal?"
"It's priceless. Oh, I'm sure he's never seen the Stranger before, and had no idea he was speaking to a duly authorized member of the Sabbat. Still, you should watch to whom you confide. Fool."
"But if we tell, won't we get the Confessor in trouble? I mean, he seemed to know to whom he was talking, right?"
"The Stranger talks to everyone. Kindred, kine, Sabbat, Camarilla, Inconnu. He performs a service not limited to allegiances of blood and death. Still, if you've met him, you probably are in a great deal of trouble anyway.
"I've got friends to talk to. You coming?"
"Sure, Klaus. Give me a sec."
Klaus shrugged, searched his cloth jacket for his keys, and walked out. Erika crossed the room, to the table. She hefted the coffee cup, and closed her eyes.
A life spent searching for answers. A death full of questions. An eternity of pet theories to try out. Such was his existence. Such was his burden, and his blessing.
He had left a message for her, deep within the cup. "Don't worry, Erika. I won't betray our conversation. Yours was a genuine need. I will not betray the Seal. Still, be careful to whom you speak in the future. Others will not be so gentle.
Erika dumped the contents into the other cup, and quietly slipped the mug into her pocket. The mug would go into the river, where it belong. She chewed softly on her lips, thinking how close she had come to really screwing up her unlife, like she had screwed up her life. Maybe Klaus was the fool. Maybe there was hope in the shadows, the form of a Stranger.
The events unfolding in Stalin's Russia, however, soon spoiled his enthusiasm. He deduced that mankind was incapable of treating each other fairly. Like Beckett and Sarte, he struck upon the idea of Existentialism, and declared that "Life was absurd." The more one railed at death, the more one made the Cosmic Joke laugh.
Nevertheless, Camus never surrendered. He published several novels, and produced countless plays. His ideas were always bleak, but visionary, seeing a grand purpose for mankind that had been buried in the trappings of civilization. If only there was a way to strip it all away. Alas, mankind was condemned to pointless wars which seemed only to reinforce civilization, not bring it low, as many would have it.
Depressed, even though he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, life seemed a game that wasn't particularly fun. But, then, why did we play it? Why did we create these bizarre rules? What profit lay in life and living, except a wretched self-fulfilling prophesy?
Camus squandered his small fortune travelling Europe, seeking these answers. He became aware of a steadily growing group of admirers that seemed to be in each town, waiting for him to talk. Of course, they never seemed to want to actually talk; only politely approach, and wish him the best.
Finally, two of these individuals approached him with a question. "If you knew for a fact that life held no answers, and were told as an absolute certainty by another person that death held the answers, would you kill yourself to find out?"
Camus was puzzled. He liked encountering people on trains and trams, and asking them these deeply philosophical questions, then walking away, leaving them sputtering. He considered the question for a full ten minutes, then replied that, yes, if death held these answers, he would be ready to grasp the brass ring. A sudden agreement flashed between the two strangers, as if some secret wager had just been settled.
Camus brushed this off, until one night, a Pack descended upon him, and compelled him to drink of the blood of all seven, all loyal fans. It would seem that they did not want such insight to be squandered in a hole.
The Sabbat were angered by the decision of the pack, as Camus had not been properly exposed to the Creation Rites. Nevertheless, Camus defended their decision, arguing so compellingly, without once bringing in useless concepts as justice and mercy, that they suffered him to live. The Pack, of course, was destroyed.
Packless and friendless, Camus was taken in by high ranking Sabbat who felt his pangs. For his part, Camus enjoyed being a member of the Sabbat in theory. After all, he despised his humanity, and hated being weighed down by an artificial moral center. He felt strong kinship with the legend of the first vampire, and likened Caine to Sisyphus, eternally living out a capricious punishment that seemed to hurt humanity far more than Caine. However, The Stranger truly did not care for the endless bloodlust embodied by most Sabbat.
His time spent with the Sabbat elders who had spared him was not wasted. The philosopher seemed to help the officials a lot more than the officials helped Camus. It was finally decided that Camus needed no pack; he would take on the ancestral role of the Confessor.
A drawback to the times of the Inquisition, Sabbat who had committed grievous crimes could submit to the judgment of the Confessor, who would hear them out, and then either expunge them of Guilt, or mark them for destruction. In every way, it was the court of last resort. The confessor wore a ring, called the Seal, which branded into the flesh of the vampire a sign that either saved or doomed the party. From the time of the Inquisition, the title of Confessor had been left vacant, since more than likely if one was not caught immediately, one would not be punished.
Camus, however, added a new spin to the title. He had personally loved the concept of the Stranger, an entity that did not necessarily live on the inside or outside, but somewhere in between. From there, he took the title to the extreme, becoming a true fence walker, catering to Camarilla and Sabbat, Kindred and kine. Making a choice immediately destroyed the impartiality so critical for the job.
Since Camus did not make it a matter of politics, and did not flaunt his powers, as other had in the past, the Sabbat hierarchy was pleased with his bold undertakings After all, the most potent members of the Camarilla in the area sought him out for his unique insight, and his relative openness caused them to be quite open about their problems. In a short while, Camus came to be one of the most knowledgeable kindred in the area.
It is not known, however, what the Sabbat would think if they knew he was also giving help to the other side. Above all, the Stranger serves only one Master: the random flow that brings him from one person to another.
Special notes: For a vampire so young, The Stranger seems overly powerful. However, some of this is due to special rituals invoked on him by Antitribu Tremere, as part of the trappings of office of the Confessor. Should he ever forsake this office, his disciplines would be Auspex 1 Dominate 2 Fortitude 1 Presence 2 Obfuscate 2.
He also carries the Seal of the Confessor, a ring that heats to a white hot glow on command. There are two Seals he can choose from, the Seal of Redemption, used on those he has forgiven, and the Seal of the Doomed, used on those he condemned. A vampire so burned is not aware which has been conferred, until she presents herself to a superior for judgment.