Session Fifty-Two

An excerpt from the Journal of Lotario Acuto

The following account is for my personal records. It comprises a personal review of events based on observations and second-hand accounts of witnesses. A copy will be made available to the Network

May 25th, 1203

After the unpleasantness of the passing of Aglaia, the Cainites were all awed into quiet repose for the remainder of the evening.

By day the Crusaders all made friends. Marquis Boniface of Montferrat, Count Baldwin of Flanders, Count Louis of Blois and all of the rest of the high lords humbled themselves before the dissenters. They present themselves as penitents, begging for the mutineer Crusaders to rejoin them, so that they will not all be dishonoured as oathbreakers- faithless and accursed. Their pleas are backed up by the clergy; all firmly behind the deposing of the current Byzantine emperor for the agreement has been made that the newly installed emperor will force the Greek Church to submit to the Latin Church. Who knows what sways them in the end, but the dissenting Crusaders rejoin the main effort, swearing to stay on until Michaelmas (29th September). It is late May and this gives the Crusade a timeline for the taking of Constantinople.

That evening the Coterie met. It is agreed that the Latin Quarter poses a significant threat to the safety of Constantinople. The presence within the Small Council of such a strong influence by the Cainite Heresy, with Narses pulling its strings, and his pawns ruling the Latin Quarter mean that when the Crusade arrives, they will have almost two months outside the city with a strong opposition also undermining it from within. Even with the military danger this poses, my fear is for the safety of the strong-blooded but weak-willed Cainites present in the city, and the large number of diablerists present among the Cainite Crusaders.

Sister Maude Khlesl has decided to leave the Crusade for now and seek the counsel of Dionysius in Athens; she can no longer stand the hypocrisy and destruction. Iulia and Veceslav will stay on with the Crusade. Iulia has sought the backing of a Hungarian Lord called Vencel Rikard to stand as the representative of Hungary on the Small Council, while Veceslav will just continue being ‘Lord Nonchalant’, and build on his friendship with Sir Guy. As for myself, I intend to stay on in Corfu to take advantage of the situation there, moving on to rejoin the Crusade as it hits Constantinople. My task will be to infiltrate the Latin Quarter, in particular the court of its master, Bishop Alfonzo. From there I will direct his arm against the Settites, and seek via clandestine means to boost the strength of the rivals to the Venetian power-base.

On the 24th of May, the Crusade sailed as one from Corfu. The sails filled the sea from shore to horizon. It is said that one of the Crusading lords, Sir Geoffrey de Villehardouin is apparently writing an account of his own, or is taking notes in preparation to do so. I will source a copy for the records when it is done, as his eye sees much. The coterie have taken passage once more with the Toreador Anson of Normandy on the ‘Moon-Dancer’. I distrust him, but believe in Iulia and Veceslav’s capabilities to protect themselves.

An excerpt from the correspondence between Prince Iulia of Weissenburg and her sire and mentor, Lady Katerina of Adrianople, June, AD 1203.

To my lady sire, Katerina,

with most humble greetings and deep affection,

I write this missive to you from a villa overlooking the port of Chalcis, on the island of Euboea, which the Venetians call Negroponte. It is a sheltered port, with a balmy, pleasant clime and a strong, bracing breeze late in the evening. As a point of mild scholastic interest, the waters here behave in a most queer fashion — running with great swiftness like a river through the narrow strait north of the port before abruptly reversing its flow with equal violence and flowing in the opposite direction with the change of tide!

The town numbers perhaps twenty-six hundred souls, most of whom make their living fishing the turbulent waters or herding sheep in the hills around the settlement. The craftsmen here are justly famed for their purple dyes, their delicate pottery and their skill at working bronze and copper. A small but prosperous core of traders conduct business with the merchants of Attica, Thessaly, Constantinople and, to a an increasing extent, those of Venice. Formerly formidable fortifications frame the town; destroyed by the Sicilian Normans some fifty years ago and only partially reconstructed by the provincial government of Byzantium in the years since. I was pleased to find that a number of Vlachs appear to have migrated here in the past, and have been welcomed by the depopulated Greeks. The Vlach work ethic and skill with beast and hoe has served them well here. Their dialect is already heavy with Greek influences and they are forgetting much of their custom, but I am gratified that my people prosper here in safety.

There have been developments in the Cainite Crusade since I last wrote you on Corcyra. First and foremost of note, the traitor in our midst, Aimery de Versey has been thoroughly interrogated and suffered the Final Death for his crimes. Secondly, further divisions have taken place in the fragile core that makes up the Crusade leadership, and I desire your advice on how best I might proceed. And finally, we have a new ally in the shadows of Byzantium; one that I feel we can trust to aid our schemes to protect the Dream.

Sir Aimery de Versey was put to the question over the weeks following his capture at the hands of my Concord. His will to resist was formidable at first, fuelled as it was by a strong religious conviction. However, the awful skills of the Cappadocian death knight, Sir Russel di Casale, and the flesh and bone-crafting talents of my ally, Veceslav Basarab, broke down his resistance over a number of nights, and the Follower of Set (for such has Aimery finally revealed himself) began to speak. At first he merely answered direct questions, then began to volunteer information, and finally he began desperately blathering anything he thought might interest them — if only they would cease torturing him. I confess, sire, that I did not witness enough to give a faithful account of everything that the villain said. In spite of everything you have taught me, I hadn’t the stomach to witness such suffering — even though Aimery had sorely abused the trust of me and mine, and brought his doom squarely down upon his own head. The following information was gleaned from what I did witness, as well as what Veceslav told me later when we compared notes.

Aimery, and those others who belong to his faith, calls himself a Typhonist, but they are called Decadents by the more orthodox (if such a word can even be used to describe these heathens) among the Followers of Set, who consider them to be a heretical cult. Obviously, they give their worship to a figure that they refer to as Typhon, whom they believe is some sort of metaphysical personification for immoral freedom from the tyrannical dictates of God. Essentially, I believe they feel that Typhon is Evil itself — the Devil. Set is merely one of his servants. A demon. Or perhaps, at best, an aspect of Satan in all his unholy glory. One can only speculate at the depths of delusion that these fools take for the truth! Have none of these cultists received a proper classical education? Typhoeus, the Father of All Monsters. Son of Tartarus and Gaia. Husband of Echidna. A giant with the torso of a man, a hundred dragon heads and the lower body of a serpent. Father of Storms. I speculate that these Decadents have drawn a flimsy correlation between this last aspect and veneration of Set as a storm-god, and then syncretically fused the nonsense with the adversary of the Christian Satan. It would be laughable if these creatures, these Typhonists, weren’t so dangerous.

Forgive me my digressions, sire. I pray you do not find my academic musings tiresome.

Their faith is shared by the Children of Judas, who even now poison the heart of the Dream. It is also shared by “scores” of Settite spies who have wormed their way into the European and Levantine courts of the High Clans under assumed names and false lineages. For what purpose? To bring it all down, Sir Aimery de Versey says. Not for so parochial a master as Set, or even under any central guidance from clan hierarchy. Nay, they do it just because they can — and because they feel that it is right, and their right, to test us all. The root of the evil lies in Constantinople, with Khay’tall himself, but the branches of it now lie well beyond his ability to influence them. There is no direction with the Decadents, just individuals and small cells gnawing away at the foundation of our society like a plague of rats. Sir Aimery de Versey could give us only a few names that he knew in the courts of Italy, and he further stressed that even those were likely using different names than the ones that he knew!

Sir Aimery de Versey and his late companion, Roland du Rochere (whom it would appear was actually a Ventrue, albeit a poor example of one, who had been tempted into embracing the Serpent’s coils) had joined the Crusade to ensure that it would be targeted at Egypt. It would appear that they were bidden to do so by Aimery’s elder sire, Kadjada, so that the Settites’ great enemy, the Children of Haqim, might be weakened by the armed pilgrimage to Damietta, one of their strongholds. You may recall from my earlier correspondence that there is a question regarding a certain unexplained letter (apparently penned by Khay’tall himself) that was found on the corpse of Sir Roland in Venice. The letter, which Sir Aimery genuinely appears to have been ignorant of, exhorted Sir Roland to encourage base behaviour among the Fourth Crusade so that more Christian warriors would be led towards the truth of their existence as the servants of Typhon. Whatever the case, it would appear that having heard these words, the secret serpent in our midst took them to heart.

Using his powers of the Blood, and a plethora of more prosaic tricks, Sir Aimery de Versey ensnared dozens of mortal knights in his insidious coils. He named no fewer than four score men (that he could remember!) whom he had Dominated to “enjoy the fruits of their sin”, encouraging them to act on their basest impulses. These knights are leaders, with many more men at their disposal. Needless to say, the damage has been very great. What should happen if this crusade continues to lose its way, and these men are unleashed on the non-combatants of Constantinople? Disaster. Our own vassals were not spared the traitor’s venom. As he owed us a life boon, he was given explicit trust to guard our interests while we journeyed to the Bostral Pass on the business of the Crusade. I fear that several of our mortal servants, valuable and talented people, may have been damaged beyond cure…

With as much information gleaned as could be wrung from the broken Settite, he was handed to the Small Council of the Cainite Crusade for judgement. Sir Aimery de Versey was sentenced to the Final Death without delay, to be conducted immediately and in the presence of the Council. A formal triviality, I assure you. Prior to handing him over, Veceslav and I had insisted on, and were granted, the Right of Destruction for the wrongs done to our vassals. The Tzimisce, as the most wronged party, carried out the sentence. There was little enough of the Typhonist to slay really.

His eyes gouged out, his ears clipped, many of his fingers and toes removed, as well as the nails that clung to them. His manhood torn out by the root. Numerous scorches, abrasions, scoriations and lacerations scarred his body, and his extremities and spine were twisted in in wholly unnatural and horrific ways. My innards threaten to rebel at the memory. If he had sense remaining, Sir Aimery de Versey would have begged for release, but instead he merely… quivered… out of fear or anticipation I know not. Knez Veceslav took him then. The Tzimisce was surprisingly subdued in the act. I was expecting an awful display of the power for which his clan is known, but he merely drew the sabre that he habitually wears and, with a carefully aimed stroke, took the Settite’s head with a single blow. Veceslav then said, in his famously compelling voice, “Behold the fate of all oathbreakers and traitors. Justice is done!” The small council was suitably impressed, and chilled, by his words…

It could be worse, sire. After the loss of Roland, the Settite was working on his own, it would appear. Of that I am quite certain, for he reiterated the truth of it sincerely when “pressed” on the matter by Sir Russel and Veceslav. Apparently it is rare for these Decadents to work together, and hierarchy is almost non-existent outside of basic seniority in individual cities. Consider the collateral damage that a host of Aimery de Versey’s might have on an army, or indeed a city, if they worked together? I shudder to think.

With that in mind, I have decided to act. A number of parties are active in this pilgrimage that clearly mean ill, and my coterie and I are now sure that they have used the powers of the Blood to subvert mind and spirit to their perverse ends. They include the Narsene Lasombra, Holy Roman Imperial elders, the Typhonists, and these Incognitus that Bernhard von Billung encountered in Venice. Our enemies are many, their methods inimical, their names? Immaterial. The only logical response remains the same. Sir Guy de Provence swore an oath to his sire and patron, Dominius, that neither he nor any Cainite sworn to his banner would influence the course of this Crusade with our Disciplines, and instead stay the course that God has plotted for it. That oath includes me. I have broken the letter of this oath, although I hope that I still adhere to its spirit. The Beast rattles its cage with greater ferocity than ever before, and I know that I imperil myself by the course I have chosen, but I see no other way. Should my steps along the Road of Kings falter, and I fall, know that all I have done is to honour our great family and the legacy of civilisation that the Dream represents.

I, and a number of those whom I trust, have been subtly Dominating those that cross our paths and fall under our power. The infirmary attached to the Crusade is flooded with an almost inexhaustible number of patients, especially since the outbreak of plague caused by the late former prince of Corcyra, Aglaia. We tend to their illness and infirmity, battened on the great knowledge that Sister Maude Khlesl of Vienna has imparted to us. While we do so, we exercise our own powers of the Blood; Dominating the men with commands to do no harm to the people of Byzantium: “Harm not your fellow Christians, and seek to uphold the tenets of chivalry, piety, valour, humility and, above all, poverty.” Although I fear no betrayal from these worthy Cainites, and a number of them are merely complicit rather than active in our enterprise, I provide you with their names so that you may know our allies, and so that I may be indemnified from undue harm: Sister Farancina, of the convent of St. Peyronelle of Soissons; Roberto di Noldo, a merchant of the Hanse; Justis Giovanni, his childe and protege — all healing from the Clan of the Death; Sir Guilabert d’Avignon, a humble brother of the Knights Hospitaller, as well as a Warrior of the Salubri; and lastly, Father Ferox, an ancient ghoul in service to the Ventrue elder Fabrizio Ulfila. Although a mere mortal, this last worthy is as skilled in the arts of Dominate as I — no mean feat for a ghoul, I must concede.

On to other matters.

The power base of the Commander of the Fourth Cainite Crusade grows. More than a dozen neonates and ancillae have flocked to his banner since the “successes” of Zara, Durazzo and, to a lesser extent, Corcyra. Most of them are of middling strength in the Blood, walkers on the Road of Humanity or Kings who see little advantage in waiting for the power of their sires’ to crumble. In addition to this development, it would appear that Sir Guy’s warmth to one of his captains has cooled somewhat of late.

Felix of Vaucluse, a wealthy, prominent Ventrue who brought many swords to the the Crusade’s cause, has been revealed (to Sir Guy and a select few of his aides) as a diablerist, as have a number of his coterie-mates. The truth of it was revealed by the elder Drenis, and supported by the talents of Lotario, and has since been borne out by a number of others. There has been no public repudiation of Sir Felix, nor do I expect there to be, given the sensitivity of the matter, but it has driven a wedge into the leadership of the Council. Unrest among the pilgrimage can only benefit our cause, and so I applaud the perspicacity of my coterie-mate, Sister Maude, who had choice words in a number of important ears before taking her leave from the pilgrimage at Corcyra.

I have followed your advice regarding pursuit of the appointment as representative of the Arpads on the pilgrimage, and I thank you for supporting my expenditure of the boon owed by Vencel Rikard. I feel that it has gone some way to aiding our cause. Although I am seen as second to Veceslav, owing to some unwitting (though admittedly, impressive) oratory on his part, it is worth the lack of recognition and I do not resent his greater standing. Ultimately, it is in name only and while he engages in vacuous meetings, I can work behind the scenes to our benefit. Together, we are now considered as the official representatives of Hungary on this crusade. In addition, other small victories have resulted, as our constant presence in council reminds those who have been lax in their religious duty that they have strayed from it. Even so, I require counsel on how to proceed further, and humbly ask for the treasure that centuries of your experience might provide.

I am more than equal to the political minds of most of the Cainites on this crusade. Most of them are knights first, impulsive dolts second and madmen third — much as my former ally, Bernhard von Billung was. I have endeavoured to the best of my ability to promote uncertainty, angst, and doubt as to the just cause of the pilgrimage. And yet, despite all the greed, the jealousy, the factionalisation and the dissent over its course, the enterprise labours on. In my place, lady sire, I wonder what you would you do to further exacerbate these tensions? And how would you divine the unseen forces that appear to guide these mortals? Narses has his part, of that I am certain (as we have previously discussed), but other forces are at work here, and to ascribe all of this folly to his workings is both laggardly and dangerous.

What other European elders, other than Dominius and Narses, have a stake in the crusade? Felix of Vaucluse and Vitalis of Asti both have venerable lords that command their loyalty. What of them? What of their enemies? What of those even more inveigled by history or subterfuge? Is it the Incognitus, as Bernhard seemed to think, or perhaps the mortal magi that surround the barons? I have it on good authority that not just Marquis Bonfice of Montferrat, but Count Baldwin of Flanders and Count Louis of Blois as well, have “advisors” who may well be these workers of magic. It is certain that they interfere with the machinations that we begin to place in the mortal leadership. Wolf howls were heard in camp at Corcyra, and my coterie-mate, Veceslav, encountered a young girl there who began to change into one of those beasts. Sire, there are no wolves on that island! We brought them with us! We must bend our will to bend the crusade to our needs, and now! The Dream can ill afford the chaos that these Frankish fools bring with them! Mark my words, and advise me, I pray you. There are too many variables, and too little help! Forgive my desperation, but mobilise our allies. The crusade will sail for the Bosporus soon, and whether united or disparate, Constantinople must be ready and willing to resist!

Speaking of allies in the capital, the Concord has begun working closely with one Lotario Acuto, a young Michaelite of the provinces. He openly admits to serving Petronius, a notable patron indeed. However, it is quite clear that he also serves another; a woman, of whom he will tell me nothing. I have not pressed the issue with him, for Lotario clearly works in league with us, though his methods require him to operate on his own. He appears to be adept at slipping into the cracks of society and vanishing, only to reemerge with gems of knowledge pertaining to our work. Clever, resourceful and connected throughout the western provinces, he is an asset we should cultivate.

However, I think it wise should we discover more regarding his origins so that we might arm ourselves against him should we need. We know too little of him; and an unknown quality is also a dangerous one, as you have often counselled. It would be prudent for us to learn more. Perhaps you can make enquiries in the capital? Given the ease with which he helped us apprehend Aglaia, he is obviously stronger in the blood than he would have us believe; I suspect he is lying about his lineage. Lotario will also be easy to manipulate should we require. Despite his talents for investigation, he typically jumps to paranoid conclusions from his findings. He sees grand conspiracy everywhere, yet fails to see individual players. Apparently, the Followers of Set are behind everything. His hatred of them is obvious, and decidedly not an asset. Lotario elected to remain behind on Corcyra, and will make his own way to Constantinople, where he will establish a false persona and attempt to infiltrate the Latin Quarter. You will not know him, but if you watch for a skilled investigator making his way about the quarter, you shall doubtless find him should you need.

The mortal barons held a council yestereve, after landing an expeditionary force and finding no resistance here. It has been decided that Count Boniface, Count Baldwin and Prince Alexius will take soldiers and ships to conquer Andros, the neighbouring island. They shall also endeavour to reprovision the crusade from the bountiful harvest there. This operation is expected to take six days, after which the fleet intends to set sail for the port of Abydos on the Dardanelles. I am told we should penetrate the southern end of the strait by the tenth day of this month, and make landfall by the twelfth at the latest. Sire, it will be less than a month, perhaps as early as three weeks, before the pilgrimage stands before the Walls of Theodosius.

For now, an ally of the Marquis of Montferrat will hold Negroponte with a small garrison. I am encouraged by this, as it shows that the Franks are tiring of handing over every last gain they make to Venice. Likewise Guy of Provence has spurned the wishes of Salvatore and the Venetian Lasombra, and instead appointed one of his own trusted vassals, the Ventrue neonate Sir Vincent of Nice, as Guardian of Negroponte. The young Ventrue and his small coterie will watch for the return of any of the Greek Cainites that fled the place before our arrival. My efforts to drive a wedge between Venice and her debtors might finally begin to bear fruit.

I shall write you again once we reach Abydos, my lady. If you require clarification or have further instruction, I pray you send it with all due haste to that port, and it shall find me in the usual manner.

May the Honour of the House of Licinius flourish!

Written by mine own hand on this, the Feast of Saint Nicephoros the Confessor,

I remain,

Your faithful daughter of the blood, and loyal servant,

Iulia, Prince of Weissenburg.

Session Fifty-Two

The Concord of Ashes Haligaunt