CODED LETTER TO ELIJAH OF ANTIOCH FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL
PART 1 OF 2
Greetings my roguish friend!
In your last letter you asked me to send you a diary of my activities, covering any period in which it was convenient to record in this way. You finished by insisting that the account might benefit from my “usual” snideness and sarcasm. I really have no idea what you’re implying, but I’ll do my best.
Early September 1202
Following our successful apprehension of the Aasimite assassin, we’ve spent the following weeks in Venice waiting for the Crusade to set sail. I have tentatively agreed to send reports to Narses about the events of the Crusade in return for him spreading my usual medical mumbo-jumbo throughout Venice, with any of his further requests for service being considered on a case-by-case basis. I think Bernhard and Veceslav reached similar deals with him. I have resolved not to get tangled in a web of prestation – or of any kind – with the sinister Prince, but this deal seems risk-free. Famous last words …
Bernhard has flown back to Kronstadt for a brief visit, which under normal circumstances would have significantly lowered the level of loin-thrusting idiocy in Venice. Unfortunately, the city is full of Crusaders, so it’s barely made a difference. Meanwhile, Veceslav has remained at the estate of his new Tzimisce merchant friend doing what he does best: nothing.
For my part, I’ve spent my time out on San Michele with all the other beautiful folk, but mostly with the warm and charming Troglydytia. I think she initially regarded me as a threat and a fool, but after weeks of winning her over with humour and companionship I’m pleased to report that she now sees me as a mildly useful irrelevance.
You’ll be interested to know that despite the inexplicable unease I get around the Giovanni, I held my nose and paid my respects at the Loggia. Curiously, I didn’t die screaming. I still don’t like them.
Late September 1202
Bernhard has returned from Kronstadt. The three of us were summoned before Guy de Provence, the Cainite leader of the Crusade, who was curious about our capabilities and how they could benefit the war effort. Veceslav did a wonderful job of stroking Guy’s sizeable ego simply by recognising the defunct knightly order to which he belonged. Not to be outdone, I queried Guy on how he planned to minimise the murder, rape and destruction that the Crusade would inflict on people of all faiths as it cut its inexorable path of wanton suffering across Europe and the Holy Lands. Curiously, he seemed to take needless exception to this, so I left him and Veceslav to their mutual and increasingly enthusiastic stroking.
It seems I will be working under Guilabert Avignon – a Salubri no less! – for the duration of the Crusade, alongside two fellow Cappadocians, Sister Farancina and Sir Russel. Guilabert seems like a kind and competent fellow. Most importantly, he’s had the sense to accept everything I’ve told him on matters medical.
Bernhard and Veceslav have hit it off with Rollo the Frank, who seems to be on Crusade to earn favours to assuage the ill-feeling he engendered with his prior history of diablerie. Note that his change of heart on the matter of soul-murder only came after he had drunk his way to the equivalent of about fifth generation. Given Bernhard’s history of almost-diablerie, a powerful, uncontrite diablerist is, of course, exactly the worst sort of person with whom he should be fraternising. However, Bernhard now unfailingly responds to my reason and sense with prideful and unsightly loin-thrusting, so I must accept that I can no longer be the person to help him – if, in fact, I ever was.
We arrived at Zara to find it besieged by the vanguard of the fleet. What was the Crusade doing sacking a Christian city? We were to discover that it was part of a filthy deal brokered with the Venetians to bring Zara back under Venetian control in return for delayed payment for money owed on the ships. Although many seemed to find the deal abhorrent, it wasn’t enough to prevent the siege.
The initial attack was nothing but a premature lunge for loot by the Venetians led by Louis of Blois, which was instigated by the odious Carmine. However, without enough reinforcements they were forced to retreat. Thereafter a council of war was held, and Carmine and Salvatore di Varagine received a savage and relentless telling-off by Guy. As I was treating the horrific wounds of the first of this Crusade’s casualties, I found my heart reaching out to Narses’s flunkies and the hurt they must have felt from Guy’s stern rebuke. Indeed, as I amputated the ragged lump of flesh that was all that remained of a soldier’s hand, I reflected with anguish on how embarrassed and chastened his Cainite manipulators must feel!
Following Carmine’s premature spurt, the siege proper began. I have dealt with all manner of wounds in my time, but this is the first time I have worked in a war-time hospital, and I admit to at first being overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering. Worse, I know this is barely a taste of what is to come.
Bernhard and Veceslav had heard of a monastery in Zara dedicated to learning, so when the city’s walls finally fell on the thirteenth day of the siege, they ventured there allegedly to protect the tomes and treasures that lay within. Alas, it was already being attacked by True Faith-addled Crusaders who were butchering the monks – some of them vampires – that dwelt within. As the monastery burned, Bernhard rescued an ancient tome from the fire before they fled. Well, I say “rescued”, but that would imply that he plans to return the book to its rightful owners. Perhaps a more accurate term is “looted”, but you know me, Elijah – I’ve never been one to pedantically quibble over the nomenclature of petty larceny.
Following the siege, the decision has been made for much of the fleet to spend the winter at Zara. Unfortunately, this means months of martial law for the local people who have already had to endure a siege that was, frankly, criminal. Even I didn’t think the Crusade would be this shambolic, disgraceful, unjust and murderous so early on.
Food shortages have led to foot riots, which the invaders have quelled with increasing brutality.
The Pope has excommunicated the Franks and the Venetians for the attack on Zara. I wonder how much war loot they will have to dangle under his nose before he reverses his decision? (Or rather before he reinterprets the unfailingly correct Word of God?)
The three of us have been summoned to deal with a developing crisis. There have been attacks on food stores throughout Zara, and Guy de Provence and Gari, the Prince of Zara, have asked us to resolve the situation. It seems we are developing a reputation as capable investigators. Certainly, I’ll admit it’s useful to have Bernhard and Veceslav present to smash the perpetrator once I’ve done all the actual investigative work.
In any case, Gari seems like a nice enough sort, and the exacerbation of the food shortage would be disastrous for all concerned, so I was quick to agree to help. Unfortunately, Bernhard started tastelessly scrounging for an offer of payment, which sullied the mood, while Veceslav, true to form, urbanely and charmingly said nothing of any consequence whatsoever.
We hurriedly began our investigations that night. It seemed the perpetrator had burned down a grain store outside the city, used Animalism to summon a swarm of rats to befoul the food stored in a warehouse, used Vicissitude to seal the throats of some local herd animals to make it appear the local wells were poisoned, and flesh-crafted the eggs of a local farmer to make them look demonic (which unfortunately led to a mob butchering him and his family). This seemed to suggest a Tzmisice culprit.
Seeing if they could gather any information from the ne’er-do-wells of the city, Bernhard and our new friend, Sir Aimery de Versey, disguised themselves as thuggish, poor-quality men-at-arms (the disguise wasn’t strictly necessary for Bernhard) and began asking questions in low places. Aimery’s efforts proved invaluable, as his use of the Dominate Discipline led me to the grave of a victim of the culprit. There, after a tasty cranial morsel, the identity of the culprit was revealed: a Magyar Tzimisce called Erzebet. Not bad for one night’s work.
Now we just have to find her. I hope Bernhard and Veceslav are ready to perform their smashing duties when we do.
[LETTER CONTINUED IN NEXT SESSION SUMMARY]