Campaign of the Month: August 2014
The Concord of Ashes
This withered, wizened and seemingly frail elder was once the Prince of Venice, Lord of her scattered territories and Archbishop of Nod. He was given the Final Death in 1215, diablerised by his childe, Guilelmo Aliprando.
Narses was a short, wasted, withered, ancient man in his late late nineties. He had a sharp beak of a nose, and what little hair remained to him clung to his scalp in a coarse ring. And yet, despite his seeming decrepitude, he seemed to have a lordly and authoritative aspect- his posture was erect and energetic, and his eyes gleamed with shrewdness, intelligence and wisdom. He wore only the finest velvet and silk, and veritably dripped with gold and jewels.
(Expanded from the character and information as presented in Bitter Crusade: Venetian Nights & Dying Embers, Dark Ages Europe, pp 116, 118-119, Jerusalem by Night, pp. 83-84, & Dark Ages Clan Novel Lasombra).
In his mortal years, Narses Kamsarakan was a palace eunuch in the service of Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium. Little is known of his early years, including how he became eunuch, but it is known that he was born late in the seventh decade of the 5th century, and that his family is known to have been a great one, descended from the Arsacid kings that ruled Armenia for some 4 centuries. Narses was known for his great piety, and found a particular devotion to Saint Mary, whom he felt guided his actions in battle. He variously served as steward, a high treasurer, and commander of the Emperor’s eunuch bodyguard before eventually rising to become the Grand Chamberlain and the Master of Soldiery, a rank equivalent to a Praetorian Prefect. It was in this last role that he rose to true prominence as a gifted general, and he is often accounted by historians as being second among Byzantine commanders only to Belisarius.
The rivalry between Narses and Belisarius dominated much of their lives, and sometimes changed the course of Byzantine history. The stages of their struggle were the reconquest of the fallen Western Empire (specifically the Italian peninsula) and the fickle favour of Emperor Justinian himself. While Belisarius was forthright and inspiring, Narses was often accounted as the cleverer and more driven of the two men, and the eunuch often got the better of the general through his intrigues. Their games attracted the attention of the ancient Ventrue, Antonius the Gaul, who openly ‘advised’ Emperor Justinian at the time. Impressed by the talents of both mortals, Antonius decided to Embrace whichever of the two that managed to ruin the other, and he informed them of his intention to gift the victor with immortality.
The stakes pushed the game ever onward, and for decades the fortunes of Narses and Belisarius both rose and fell furiously at the instigation of the other. As they approached their dotage with no victor decided, the eunuch began to grow desperate as Beliarius’ military victories mounted. Finally, Narses succeeded in whispering poison into the ear of the emperor after the successful Siege of Ravenna, and the jealous Justinian had the popular Belisarius recalled to Constantinople and obscurity. Narses was sent to replace his rival, and clearly demonstrated his own military brilliance against the Ostrogoths at Taginae in AD 552, retook Rome for the empire, and finally destroyed the power of Ostrogoths in Italy at Mons Lactarius in 553. He then succeeded in turning back a combined Frankish and Alemanni invasion the following year, at the Battle of Capua. Grand Chamberlain Narses, now awarded the title of Exarch of Italy, forced the enemy in Naples to capitulate in AD 555, and finally vanquished the remaining Goths and Alemanni at Verona and Brixia in AD 562, thus completing the reclamation of Italy for Byzantium, however briefly. Indeed, he was the last general to ever receive a Triumph in Rome.
Exarch Narses spent the next few years consolidating Byzantine rule and rebuilding the shattered West. He finally returned to Constantinople late in AD 565 to attend Justninian’s funeral and claim his great reward, but upon his arrival at the Great Palace he discovered that Antonius the Gaul had already made his decision. None other than Belisarius stood at the ancient’s side, in a clear place of favour. The methuselah informed Narses that the eunuch had served he, Justinian, and the empire well, but that Belisarius’ great dignity and loyalty made him a worthier candidate for the Becoming. The Exarch was forced to watch as Antonius Embraced his great rival several weeks later, and was then compelled to return to Italy to languish in retirement, miserable and embittered.
There it should have ended.
Instead, despite his advancing years and forced retirement, Narses continued in his intrigues. The gains of Justinian’s rule quickly began to reverse due to his machinations, and alone in his chambers in Naples, Narses smiled at having been able to do a small injury to those who had done him the great wrong of consigning his genius to perish. Other Cainites began to note that he was now free of the interest of Antonius the Gaul, and the Roman Lasombra known as Galerius soon made contact. Galerius was jealous of Byzantine power, and informed Narses that if he could ensure the reversal of Byzantine fortune in the West, he may still earn immortality. For the better part of a decade, Narses and Galerius worked together to undermine Byzantine authority and promote that of the Lombards, even going so far as to offer military advice to King Alboin on how best to invade Italy.
The old man welcomed the Embrace on his deathbed in AD 576, at the age of 98. He now had the opportunity to continue his rivalry with Belisarius, and in any case, he also realised that his methods were that of the Lasombra, not the Ventrue. Galerius needed support in his designs upon the throne of Ravenna, and he soon set up Narses as a vassal prince of the small port of Venice, which was one of the few remaining regions of Italy that was still under the control of Byzantium. The settlement was governed by the Exarch of Ravenna, and Venice was a vital lifeline to the greater empire. Galerius pushed to make the new Exarch his pawn, and following the advice of Narses he began to undermine the allied influence of a coterie consisting of Aristophokles the Ventrue, Lucius Cornelius Scipio the Brujah, Penelope the Cappadocian, and Ngalo the Lasombra.
In AD 582, with Galerius’ smug blessing, Narses journeyed in person to pledge his loyalty to the Dream in service to the Antonian Ventrue. Venice was, after all, a vassal state of the empire, and the neonate reasoned (correctly) that offering his loyalty freely (no matter how falsely) would strip Antonius of the pretext to interfere with his rule. From that point on, the Narsene Lasombra were admitted to the Trinity system, and Narses privately exulted at the sour expressions on the faces of Belisarius and the others who had spurned him in the past.
Back in his new home of Venice, Narses chose to cultivate an interest in the Cainite Heresy rather than focus on political power. Conversely, by the turn of the 7th century Galerius, who chose to centralise his influence in the position of the Exarch of Ravenna, was standing upon very shaky ground. The high turnover of aging exarchs made his influence equally transitory, and his unsubtle power games had made enemies out of the Ventrue and Lasombra of Lombardy and his fellow Cainites of Ravenna. Other enemies were also closing in. Narses understood that Galerius’ failures and weakness could not be tolerated; they reflected not just upon his own bloodline, but the Lasombra of Italy in general.
Only Prince Constantius of Rome, Galerius’ own sire, stood by him but he was too far away to help matters when Narses lured his sire into a trap in AD 606 and committed the Amaranth upon him. He then declared himself prince in his own right, and ceded any claim that Galerius had on Ravenna to Ngalo in exchange for neutrality with regards to his own demesnes in Venice. Constantius and his other progeny, especially Claudius Euginio, despised Narses for his treachery, but it was too late for them to do anything but mourn their brother and hope for vengeance in the future.
The following years saw a brief interregnum in Venice, as numerous local and Lombardic Cainite contenders for the throne tried to oust Narses from his power base. They misguidedly sought to use successive Magister Militi to do so for like Galerius, they misunderstood the vital rule of Italian power: the man on the throne is the servant of his people, not their master. Diffuse, not centralised, influence was the key to power in Venice. By AD 609, none could gainsay his praxis.
The centuries after were good ones for Narses. With the complete evaporation of Byzantine power in Italy around AD 660, he sent his ‘regretful apologies’ to Antonius the Gaul that “until such time as the Antonians could extend their protective grasp to the West once more, the Narsene Lasombra would be forced to forge their own destiny”. He smugly sent his condolences once again when Africa was utterly lost to the Arabs and Belisarius vanished in shame at the turn of the 8th century. In due course Narses became the Archbishop of Nod, making the Cainite Heresy his tool wherever the Crimson Curia could be found. The power of Venice grew throughout the ports of the Mediterranean, and numerous of Narses’ progeny and dozens of agents came to do his bidding in Venetian merchant quarters from Alexandria, Limmasol, Jerusalem, Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Antioch, Athens, Corinth, Crete, Ancona, Durazzo, Naples, Marseille, Thessalonica and, of course, Constantinople herself. Meanwhile, while he made a show of grief and regret when he was brought the news that Antonius had perished at the hands of his treacherous childer Caius and Septima Dominica in AD 797, he must have privately crowed with delight.
Such did the mercantile and naval power of Venice grow that La Serenissima became the preeminent and wealthiest city in the Mediterranean. Constantinople’s power, on the other hand, reached a dangerous nadir. The failure of the Battle of Manzikert had destroyed Byzantine authority in Asia, and his old rival Belisarius soon reemerged to take the reins of Military Prefect. The 7th Council of AD 1081 brought with it an invitation from Basileus Caius, Antonius’ murderer and successor, for the re-entry of the Narsene Lasombra back into the fold of the Dream not just as an obscure provincial family, but as a full partner in the system. Once more, he would have the opportunity to torment his rival. Prince Narses’ delight with the offer was, for once, ill-disguised, and he accepted. Over the following century, the mercantile power of the Narsene Lasombra grew in Constantinople, often at the expense of that of the Antonian Ventrue.
With the murder of his childe, Bishop Elizio, as well as a number of other Latin Cainites and several thousand Venetian kine in the Latin Riots of AD 1182, Narses demanded justice and compensation. With massive debts to Venice still waiting to be repaid, Caius acquiesced to Narses’ demands. Investigations bore out the culpability of Tribonius, Autokrator of the Lexor Brujah, and Epirus, Domestic Prefect of the Antonian Ventrue. Both were executed for their roles in fostering and directing the violence, and a wedge was driven between the Antonian and Lexor families. Furthermore, the Latin Quarter was now to be autonomous, and the Narsene Lasombra were given strict control of it. It would be a city within a city, outside of the purview of the Codex of Legacies.
In 1185 Narses replaced the late Elizio with another of his capable progeny, Alfonzo, and the elder performed remarkably well. Within a decade the Amalfitan, Geonese and Pisan Cainites all bowed to his authority, which meant that they also bowed to Narses as well. Bishop Alfonzo threw the gates of the Latin Quarter open to any and all comers, and as a result the Queen of Cities Cainite population swelled to dangerous levels. Tales of assassination and murder reached Narses’ ears, but he cared little, for the silver flowed into his coffers and his Byzantine enemies had long since been humbled. Even stories of Belisarius’ failure to rebuild the empire through the Comneni dynasty seemed to give Narses little pause or pleasure.
At the Council of the Fourth Cainite Crusade in 1202, he was asked for his thoughts on the Queen of Cities when the Concord was permitted a private interview with he and his major-domo, Guilelmo Aliprando. “In truth,” Narses said, “I seem to have won. I would rather keep my attention on my own great work, La Serrenisima, rather than dwell on past hatreds, faded glories, and pathetic enemies. Venice has eclipsed Constantinople in every way.” Even so, he offered to pay them handsomly for serving as his spies and agents on the crusade. They declined, at least as a collective. In any case, with the outcome of Venice joining the crusade, a Venetian coterie formed that called itself the Serene Brotherhood, so Narses would be very well informed indeed of the events to come.
Soon enough, the crusade was redirected to Byzantium and the events surrounding the financial difficulties of the pilgrims and dynastic squabbles for the imperial throne culminated in its fall and the Great Sack in April of 1204. Venice was finally victorious. With the destruction of the Archangel and the Dream of Constantinople, Narses finally had his ultimate revenge on Antonius the Gaul, Belisarius, and all those who had ever repudiated his talent and his will. The Archbishop of Nod veritably exulted with delight to see the empire quartered and its wealth flow into the coffers of his own city, and he had not one nostalgic tear for the ravished Queen of Cities that he had once served. Suddenly, he was not just Prince of Venice and Archbishop of Nod, but Lord of territories including Zara, Corfu, Ragusa, Crete, Negroponte, and Modon. Even despoiled Constantinople herself was within his grasp as his brilliant childe, Alfonzo, manoeuvred himself ever closer to the throne of the leaderless city.
Then a curious thing happened. Despite all their professed scorn for the schismatics of the East, and their derision for the insanity of Michael and his flawed Dream of Constantinople, the princes of the West discovered regret. They realised that something had gone from the world that would never return; a place where Cainites parlayed their talents, their eternal perspective, and the advantages of the Blood to create the nearest thing to Heaven on earth. An imperfect dream perhaps, but a worthy one nonetheless. Certainly Michael’s city was greater than anything the Children of Caine had accomplished since the First City. Greater even than Rome. Certainly greater than Venice, no matter how many of Byzantium’s treasures were carted off to adorn her. Now it had all been brought into a nightmarish ruin.
And they all blamed Narses.
Within a couple of years, vicious rumours began to circulate that the Archbishop of Nod had been in league with a Baali witch, the infamous Mary the Black, and together they had conspired to destroy the blessed martyr that was Michael the Archangel. A series of prominent princes and lords called for an unprecedented Mediterranean-wide Blood Hunt on Mary, and despite the lack of evidence of his own collusion, many of them ventured that perhaps Narses should fall under the same sentence. To compound these vexing tidings, Alfonzo’s rise to the princedom of Byzantium at the end of 1206 came with a break from his sire and the See of Nod. To protect himself from the wrath of Narses he instead declared himself a vassal of Ambrosio Luis Moncada of the Sea of Shadows.
In 1212, his rival Nikita of Sredetz, who had long agitated against his station in the Cainite Heresy, called a special convocation of the Crimson Curia without Narses. The assembled bishops, archdeacons, and curial legates met to discuss the impiety of their leader and the base way in which he had used their resources to destroy the Dream of Constantinople. Guilelmo, his own progeny and major-domo, was a primary witness, and he confirmed that his sire had manipulated the Fourth Crusade, at least in part. The convocation passed a resolution to divest Narses as undeserving of his sacred rank as Archbishop of Nod. Lastly, and most egregiously, they declared a heresy-wide Blood Hunt on the defrocked priest.
Realising that his position as prince was also suddenly untenable, Narses went into hiding with only his most loyal of his brood: Pietro Augustino and Lorenzo Tron. More princes, many of whom had been on the receiving end of his masterful machinations in the past, extended the hunt to their own demesnes in thanks to his past unkindnesses. Within weeks Narses was a hunted vampire, with few allies and little hope of safe harbour. In his absence, his former major-domo smoothly stepped into the role of prince with the tacit support of most of his consanguineous relatives, who were wise enough to see that without him, they could all lose their place in the city to the opportunistic Giovanni Cappadocians. Those with a mind to move against Guilelmo were instead forcibly moved on by the united front, who thereafter eschewed the moniker of the Narsene Lasombra in favour of a new name: the Serene Cohort.
The following year, as the reorganisation of his family and their assets continued, Guilelmo also began using his accumulated knowledge of the exiled prince’s networks, as well as the seized funds and properties of his sire, to begin an exhaustive manhunt for Narses. He cited publicly the prerogative to reclaim his unworthy blood for his crimes, much as a sire might do to a perfidious childe. In truth, while Narses yet lived, Guilelmo knew that his own claim on the princedom would remain tenuous. He would be seen as a pretender, and sooner rather than other powers would come for the Serene Cohort, and they would all lose their lives.
It took years to find the secret haven of his sire, but eventually Narses was found hiding in a small Croatian town on the Adriatic coast. In strength, Guilelmo and his coterie attacked the pitiful remnants of the old eunuch’s retinue. Their former master fought like a demon possessed, but eventually they brought him down and Guilelmo committed the Amaranth upon Narses. He then returned to Venice, a prince in truth. By 1217, the destruction of Narses of Venice was common knowledge throughout the Mediterranean. He was mourned by few.
Embrace: AD 576.
Lineage: Childe of Galerius (d), childe of Constantius, childe of Deinomenes (d), childe of Lasombra
- Note that Narses is a self-admitted diablerist, having committed the Amaranth upon Galerius in AD 606.