Venetian Nights – Session 4

Weeks passed as the coterie waited for Balthazar’s spies to report in on Ravenna’s activities. A year earlier, Venice had agreed to construct ships to transport thirty thousand crusaders to Palestine to reconquer the Holy Land. Now crusaders were starting to arrive in the city, eager to march against the Saracens. Only twelve thousand crusaders had arrived, however. Enrico Dandolo, the doge of Venice, demanded the crusaders pay the eighty-five thousand silver marks that had been promised as payment for the ships. With such fewer numbers than expected, the crusaders were only able to pay thirty-five thousand marks. Subsequently, Dandolo would not let the crusaders leave until they paid the full amount. The economy of the city-state was hurting as it had been focused on preparations for the crusade. If the crusaders didn’t pay, Venice’s economy faced collapse.

Salah was uncomfortable with all the crusaders marching through the streets. His experiences in Saladin’s army had taught him that crusaders of both faiths were filthy, violent assholes. He knew that an armed Kurd walking through the streets of Venice at night was a recipe for disaster. He used his abilities to appear like Francesco, Rigotto’s faithful retainer. In the form of a Venetian, he would be able to travel unmolested.

Ghouled messengers had been departing Venice to deliver invitations to the representatives of a number of important Cainite groups. The Crimson Curia wanted to take control of the crusade, but there was dissent as to what the main goal of the crusade should be: retake Palestine from the Saracens, or conquer Egypt and weaken Islam as a faith. Both options were popular amongst the city’s kindred. There were rumours that Narses hoped to direct the crusade against his enemies in Constantinople.

While the city buzzed with activity, Conall snuck around, spying on Narses’ lieutenant, Guilelmo Aliprando. The son of noblemen, Guilelmo spent much of his time occupied with the running of Venice. Narses was busy with the Curia, and the administration of Venice’s kindred factions fell to Guilelmo. He made his haven in Narse’s palatial estate in San Marco, not far from St. Mark’s Basilica. Every Sunday evening, Guilelmo traveled to the sestiere of Dorsoduro to attend services at the church of San Pantalon. Local legend held that St. Panteleimon was a vampire, martyred for professing an early version of the Cainite Heresy. Heretics used him as proof that the childer of Caine were not all irretrievably damned.

Conall followed Guilelmo into the church, taking a pew in the rear of the church. The readings, from Proverbs, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Gospel According to John, had a focus on redemption through blood. It was clear to Conall that this was a Heretic church. He didn’t know much about the inner workings of the Cainite Heresy, but he had heard talk of the sacramental wine containing vitae. That suggested that every single person attending the night service was blood-bonded to whoever was supplying the vitae. He made a mental note to leave after the homily. It seemed like the only leverage he might be able to get on Guilelmo was his unwavering devotion to Narses and his unwavering devotion to the Cainite Heresy.

From the narthex, Salah watched, hidden. Every second night he followed Conall around, trying to get a sense of the Ravnos. The only member of the coterie he actually trusted was Rigotto. On the nights he wasn’t spying on Conall, he was following Balthazar. The Tremere, however, spent most of his time in his scribery, reading reports from his agents. Salah found him boring. Nevertheless, he wanted to know more about the spymaster’s businesess. He knew of the scribery and the brothel, but wondered just how many businesses Balthazar owned.

Spying on Conall had been much more rewarding. He learned of a gypsy network in Venice causing chaos for the merchant-princes. Nothing major, but it was clear the gypsies wanted to upset the status quo. It seemed Conall was suggesting targets to the rabble-rousers. Salah also learned the location of Conall’s haven, and the identities of a number of gypsies the Ravnos fed on. Conall clearly had contacts throughout the city’s lower class.

Guilelmo wasn’t Conall’s only target. Every few days Salah checked in with Rigotto. The Irish vampire was determined to follow Salah back to his haven. It was difficult, as every time the Kurd left Vetrina, he either assumed the form of a servant, or turned invisible. Conall was determined, and kept at it. Eventually he was able to track his quarry to Balthazar’s, watching the Tremere research blood magic rituals. The idea that Salah was spying on Balthazar suggested he was also spying on Conall. The Ravnos knew he’d have to redouble his own efforts to ensure he wasn’t being followed.

While the rest of the coterie engaged in games of cat and mouse, Rigotto was busy sculpting. He had decided he wanted to carve a marble sculpture of Juliana. His meetings with her were typically brief. She’d address him as her “angel of deliverance” sent by God to deliver her from the Warden DuBois, but it was said without emotion. It angered him that the warden’s actions had destroyed such purity and light.

One of Balthazar’s agents delivered a letter from Livia da Ravenna. It was a simple message: she had his spy. The spy would be returned, unharmed, if Balthazar came to Ravenna with Rigotto Bernini and their other survivors of Scarmiglione. She had questions. She hoped they would have answers. Balthazar was frustrated by the failure of his spy. He expected better of his agents than getting captured. His agents within Venice were tasked with delivering summons to the rest of the coterie. Not knowing of a fixed address for Conall, he instead had his agents deliver the message to the gypsies, trusting the summons would find its way to the Ravnos.

As the message didn’t state why they were being summoned to Nordic Fur, Salah assumed the worst. He arrived armed for battle. The bouncer stopped him at the door, making him check his sword before allowing him to enter. Salah handed over his sword, confident that his concealed knives would be sufficient if trouble arose.

Balthazar relayed the information from Livia da Ravenna to the coterie, telling them that the Ventrue prince of Ravenna knew what they had done in Scarmiglione. It wasn’t true, but Balthazar wanted to create a sense of urgency. Naturally, the others were concerned that this was a trap.

“I believe she does not want to kill us,” Balthazar stated. “Why send the message if it’s a trap?”

Conall agreed. “If she wanted us dead, she could kill us here.”

“If she killed us here, it would be in Narses’ domain. That would be problematic for her,” Rigotto pointed out. “But, if she is indeed aware of what went on, this won’t go away until we deal with it.”

“The message suggests she knows too much already,” Conall said.

I don’t even know what went on,” Rigotto said. “I took a girl home, and then all hell broke loose.”

“We left two loose ends: Gabriel’s ghoul, and that assessor, James. One of them could have told her what happened,” Conall suggested.

Salah turned to Balthazar, “Why would she pay attention to you? You weren’t there.”

“To be fair, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to her,” Balthazar answered.

The coterie returned to their havens for the night, making preparations to leave the next evening. They still had the Count of Scarmiglione’s carriage parked in Rigotto’s warehouse. He had Francesco cover the windows with wood to block out the sun. It was decided that Salah’s and Balthazar’s retainers would drive the carriage during the day while the four Kindred slept. Balthazar used his blood magic to protect the interior of the carriage from the sun. He called it Defense of the Sacred Haven.

Seeing him work his thaumaturgy, Conall turned to Salah. “See, that’s an actual sorcerer.”

While they traveled, at night they discussed their plans. Rigotto’s knowledge of Livia da Ravenna was that she was Roman, and of the mind that both the Byzantine Empire and Holy Roman Empires were poor imitations of Rome. He knew she was Ventrue, which explained the ego. Beyond that, they knew little, not even where her haven was. Conall suggested that his people were spread across Europe, and he’d likely be able to find Ravnos in Ravenna willing to help them out.

He was correct. Once they arrived in Ravenna, he was both able to find other Ravnos able to tell them where to find Livia and he found a perfect mark to steal from, nicking a pocket square from a passing nobleman.

Not wanting to delay things any further, the coterie headed straight for Livia’s haven, presenting themselves to the Prince of Ravenna. She welcomed them to Ravenna, hoping their trip was well.

“I understand you were present at the fall of Scarmiglione. My trusted advisor, Caitríona NicLeòid, was in Scarmiglione with her husband to foster a trade deal. Neither of them returned. It seems the entire village fell, but you survived. Please, tell me what happened.

“We saw her at Federico’s side for a while,” Rigotto answered. “That is more or less the total of what I know of her outcome.”

Livia da Ravenna narrowed her gaze at Rigotto. She used her powers of auspex to see if he was lying. As Rigotto hadn’t actually been present when Catrina died, he technically wasn’t lying. Despite her power, Livia’s abilities couldn’t distinguish from lies of omission.

“So you don’t know what killed her?” Livia asked.

“I wasn’t even there,” Balthazar interjected.

“From the stories I have been told, Federico underestimated the effects of embracing his father,” Rigotto replied.

“I see. So you’re saying the Count of Scarmiglione killed her,” Livia inquired.

“I’m not saying that, because I don’t know that,” Rigotto answered.

“And what of your companions?” she asked.

“I wasn’t even there,” Balthazar repeated.

“I know nothing more than what my master does,” Salah, in the form of Francesco, replied.

“I believe the warden killed her,” Conall suggested. It was technically true. Salah had adopted the warden’s form.

“He was found with his head removed. Would you happen to know what happened to him?” she asked.

“I do not,” Conall truthfully answered.

“Have you ever experience what it’s like to look at the most beautiful thing in the world and then seen it damaged?” Rigotto asked her.

The corners of Livia’s mouth lifted slightly. It wasn’t a smile, but it was as close as she was willing to emote, “Yes, I called it Rome.”

“Then you can understand that when I saw that happen, I was transfixed in trying to find a way to unbreak it,” he continued.

“So the warden killed Catrina, and then you killed the warden?” Livia asked.

“I didn’t kill anybody. That’s ridiculous. Why would I kill anybody?”

“Then how did he lose his head?”

“That’s between the warden and God. I took that beautiful creature back home. It took nine days before she spoke again. Nine days!”

Livia sighed. “Artisans.”

She composed herself once more. “So you were there, but you know nothing.”

Rigotto shrugged. “I wouldn’t say nothing.”

“Were there any other Kindred in Scarmiglione? I’ve heard stories,” she inquired.

“Seems to me it was nothing but Kindred,” Rigotto replied.

“I seek only to understand what happened,” she said.

“The Venetori destroyed the city, slaughtering everyone in their path. That’s who killed the warden, that’s probably who killed your servant,” ‘Francesco’ said.

“What happened to the Venetori?” Livia asked. “My agents searched the city. They found no signs of them.”

“They probably died in the conflict,” ‘Francesco’ replied.

“Venice is quite good at securing its territory,” Rigotto added.

“So you had no role in their deaths,” Livia said.

“My master was there to broker a peace,” ‘Francesco’ said. “It was the Venetori who turned to violence.”

Livia sighed. Assuming Rigotto was the coterie leader, she had used her auspex on him, screening him for lies. But as he knew nothing, she wasn’t able to detect any. Salah, however, was both aware of everything that had transpired, and a very good liar. Unaware of the deception playing out before her, Livia thanked the coterie for speaking with her.

“Perhaps through the years, our communication pathways have become poisoned. Maybe it would be better if we could speak more openly and directly,” Rigotto suggested, playing the role of diplomat.

“That would probably be to everyone’s benefit,” Livia agreed. “In fact, since you’ve come all this way from Venice, perhaps I could ask a favour of you.”

“Once you return my man,” Balthazar said.

“Oh, of course,” Livia motioned to one of her servants to bring out the spy. “He is as he arrived.”

She waited for the spy to return to Balthazar’s side before she continued. “There is to be a gathering of our brethren in Venice. I am unable to attend, and would like you to represent Ravenna in my place. I would appreciate it if you could support Clan Venture in these discussions.”

“What discussions are we talking about?” Rigotto asked.

“The discussions to determine the course of this…War of the Cross,” she answered.

Rigotto bowed. “I would be happy to sit in your place.”

“It is good that we can foster peace between our cities. Ravenna and Venice need not be enemies. I will send a message ahead informing the others that you will speak for me.”

The coterie took their leave, returning to their carriage. On the way back to the Venice, Rigotto stopped at a roadside tavern. He used his powers to awe the most beautiful woman in the room, drinking her blood to sate his hunger. The rest of the coterie decided to wait until they returned to Venice to feed.

Venice was busier than when the left. In the last week, several more crusaders had arrived in the city. As the coterie pushed their way through the crowd, they were stopped back an attractive, young, mortal woman. She offered a bouquet of flowers with large white petals veined with red, to Rigotto, explaining that it was tradition to give newcomers to the city a gift. Salah, still in the form of Francesco, interceded, inspecting the flowers. Seeing the flowers were fine, he handed them to Rigotto, checking the girl for weapons.

Rigotto, a native Venetian, had never heard of this tradition, and checked the flowers out himself. He could immediately tell they weren’t native to Venice. The wet soil wouldn’t allow flowers such as these to grow. It occurred to him that they were sanguinaria, a flower native to Northern Africa and Iberia. Before he could comment on the flowers origins, he realized the woman was gone, vanished into the crowd.

The coterie was suspicious, suspecting that there was a message they weren’t recognizing. Balthazar used his thaumaturgy to rewind time, keeping a look out for the woman. It was evident that she had waited for them to cross her path. His attention back in the present, he checked the flowers for a note but could find nothing. Whatever message was being sent was lost on them. He informed the others that he would have his agents keep an eye out for the woman and bring her in once they found her.

“Rigotto? Rigotto Bernini?” a teenaged girl of Greek descent interrupted the coterie, approaching them. “I am Anna Sgorina, the envoy representing Byzantium at the council meetings. I received word that you are representing Livia da Ravenna, and was sent to give you the details of the meeting.”

Rigotto greeted the girl, eager to learn the details of the council meeting. With all the crusaders in the city, Narses was holding the meeting at his estate in two nights time. Anna informed Rigotto that the meeting would begin at sundown, advising him not to be late. Rigotto had no plans to be late. Quite the opposite. He wanted everyone to notice him.

After meeting with Anna, the coterie went their separate ways for the rest of the night. Conall met up with his “herd”, gypsies, tramps, and thieves installed in the city by his sire for the express purpose of being fed upon. Balthazar returned to his scribery, sketching out a perfect representation of the mortal woman who had given them the sanguinaria flowers, making sure his agents knew who to look for.

Salah tracked down Balthazar’s captured spy. Between being captured by Ravenna, and the sanguinaria, Salah suspected a traitor. He followed the spy, invisible, until the spy returned to his home. Salah then broke in, and still invisible, terrified the spy into talking. He wasn’t a traitor, he had just gotten sloppy on the job and had been captured by Livia’s superior spies.

Rigotto arrived for the council meeting, kneeling before Prince Narses. “My liege, I am ever a servant of Venice, the city that I love oh so much, and am therefore at your disposal. I sit here tonight with the vote of Livia da Ravenna,” Rigotto said. The implication was clear. Rigotto would ultimately side with Narses.

Although he was prince of Venice, Narses appeared disinterested in the preparations for the crusade, except to the extent that they affected his city’s wellbeing. Nevertheless, he had offered the use of chambers within his private apartments to his fellow Cainites. The rooms were beautifully appointed. Their floors were covered with mosaics, containing gold and bronze. The walls were likewise decorated with mosaics, Byzantine sculptures, and statues of various saints and martyrs. All the artwork bore the subtle perversions of traditional Christian iconography one would expect in the chambers of the Archbishop of Nod. The irony of debates about a holy crusade against the infidels taking place in such a locale was not lost on the Cainites attending.

It was quickly evident to Rigotto that there were four main factions vying for control of the discussions. The first were Lasombra led by a devout Cainite named Tommaso Brexiano. He had a fiery personality, speaking eloquently of the Saracen threat to Christendom, citing numerous examples of what he called “infidel perfidy”. He used his own experiences in the Holy Land and Egypt as ‘proof’ of his position. He argued that sending the crusade to Palestine would not only buttress the Crusader States already there, but would strike a powerful blow against vital Muslim strongholds.

Serving as his aide was the Spanish neonate Lucita of Aragon. She didn’t speak at the council meetings, instead sitting back and observing the others. She paid careful attention to the reactions of others to Tommaso’s orations.

The second most powerful faction was a delegation of German Ventrue, led by Lanza von Sachsen, a Cainite given to hyperbole and bluster. Lanza conceded the value of showing strength to the Saracens, but he believed that the ultimate success of the crusade required strategy as well. Consequently, he argued for an attack against Egypt, which he considered a weak link in Muslim defences. Moreover, an attack against Egypt would split Islam in half, making an easier target for subsequent crusades.

He had two aides with him: Aimery de Versey and Roland du Rocher, both French veterans of previous crusades. He allowed each to speak for him on occasion, and to good effect. They were finer orators than Lanza, using subtle arguments and debating with skills that put their master to shame.

A few of the Qabilat al-Khayal, the Muslim wing of Clan Lasombra, were also present. Led by Khadijah Saadeh, the Muslims had an almost impossible task: prevent the crusade from taking place at all. She was thoughtful and intelligent, arguing forcefully that nothing would be gained by religious strife among Caine’s childer. She believed that a cease-fire served all parties better.

Unfortunately for her, few Cainites were willing to give serious consideration to her position. Naturally suspicious because she was a Christian Arab serving non-Christians, some suspected that she was somehow behind the delays and logistical problems that had plagued the crusade from the beginning.

If possible, Byzantium’s delegates were treated worse than the Muslims. Whereas the Muslims were ignored by respected, albeit grudgingly, the Byzantines were acknowledged and dismissed in the same breath. Most of the Cainites gathered viewed the Byzantines with pity, if not disdain, seeing them as representations of a failed past and agents of a mad and weakened ruler. While both Lasombra and Ventrue mouthed support for the ailing Byzantine Empire, neither faction offered more than words.

Anna Sgorina spoke for the Byzantines. She was an exceptionally gifted speaker, but her frequent allusions to classical literature and evocation of Michael’s Dream fell upon deaf ears. Most of the Western Cainites coveted Byzantium’s riches, but showed little regard for its place in history.

Rigotto was drawn to Anna’s speech, particularly the image of Michael as a stained-glass angel, shimmering with light. Having never been to Constantinople, Rigotto made a note to have Salah track down Anna so that he could learn more.

The next evening, the coterie arrived to hear a debate between the Ventrue Roland du Rocher and the Lasombra Tommaso Brexiano. As the night before, the debate centred on the wisdom of attacking Palestine rather than Egypt. Having already heard Lanza von Sachsen’s oration, the coterie found Roland’s approach very different. Rather than bully his opponent, Roland used logic to make his point, arguing that an attack against the Holy Land might rally the infidels against the crusaders. An attack against Egypt was not only tactically sound, it was less likely to arouse Muslim solidarity.

Once the debate had ended, without having swayed Tommaso, Roland approached the coterie to get their opinions. They were, after all, there as representatives of a Ventrue prince. While they spoke with Roland, Salah and Conall noticed that Tommaso was eying them contemptuously, clearly disturbed that they were consorting with his opponent. Tommaso made no hostile moves towards them, he simply pointed them out to his assistant Lucita, who nodded and left the chamber. Tommaso followed shortly thereafter.

Salah excused himself, vanishing from sight as he followed the two Lasombra into the hall. Tommaso wanted more information on the coterie. He knew most of the faction representatives, but the coterie were an unknown element. He was troubled by the presence of a diablerist among the group. He wanted Lucita to learn more, but cautioned her to be careful. She accepted her mission, returning to the council chamber to speak with Rigotto. She wanted to gauge his position on the negotiations, find out if he was ally or enemy.

“I don’t know that I have enough information to have a real opinion,” he admitted. “My loyalty is, and always will be, to the city of Venice”

She respected that. She had her own master that she was loyal to.

Rigotto motioned towards one of the windows overlooking the canal. “It is a beautiful city. You cannot stand in the piazza and look at the basilica and not have a feeling come over you. I look at this war as, not so much ‘What will it do for the Faith?’, but ‘What will it do for the people?’, ‘What will it do for Venice?’”

“The launching of the crusade should secure Venice’s place in the annals of history,” Lucita said.

“I know I sit in the position of someone else who cannot be here, but she gave me a preference, not an instruction, when it comes to the deliberations,” Rigotto said.

“It’s good to see you’re your own man in this. Too many of us are bound by old ties,” Lucita said.

“I serve only Venice,” Rigotto told her.

Early at the next council meeting, Lanzo von Sachsen addressed the assembled Cainites with an obvious sense of urgency. The Ventrue delegate announced that his aide, Roland du Rocher, had been found murdered and that the victim’s vitae had turned to dust! Naturally, his announcement caused a stir among the Cainites, several of whom began to point fingers at one another for the crime. Tommaso Brexiano was a frequent target of such accusations, which he denied vigorously.

Guilelmo Aliprando, rose from the Byzantine-style cathedra he was observing from, calling for order. He ordered an immediate inquest into the matter, requesting that Roland’s desiccated body be brought to Narses’ chambers immediately for investigation. He also asked that no one make any effort to leave Venice until the inquest was over, lest they incriminate themselves.

To avoid any suggestion of impropriety, Guilelmo conducted the inquest in public, under the watchful eyes of representatives from every major faction. Lanzo represented the Ventrue, while Lucita represented the Christian Lasombra. The Muslim Lasombra and the Byzantines also sent their leaders as representatives. The coterie was chosen to attend as neutral observers. They had no specific ties to any of the major factions.

Roland’s body was a frightful sight. His skin was grey and ashen, unusual even for a Cainite. His features were sunken and skeletal. He hardly looked like the vigorous man that had appeared before the council. More disturbing still, his mouth, nose, and ears were filled with a fine black dust, like volcanic ash but without any sulphurous odour. He was also missing two fingers on his right hand. They appeared to have been snapped off rather than cut.

Balthazar’s attention was drawn to the missing fingers. Blessed with an eidetic memory, he tried to recall any occult rituals that might call for such an injury, but could think of nothing.

Guilelmo employed his auspex abilities to examine the body, inviting others to do so as well. He stressed, though, that only his findings would carry any weight. Rigotto used his heightened senses to look for anything out of the ordinary. He noticed a tiny incision in Roland’s neck, possibly the entry point for a thin dagger.

Guilelmo also noticed the incision. He also noticed a sticky, reddish residue that was likely a poison of some kind. He took great care to avoid touching the poison, using a metal instrument to collect a small sample. It took only a few moments for him to pronounce his findings: Roland du Rocher was killed by bloodroot poison.

The Cainites present, with the notable exception of Lucita of Aragon, looked at Guilelmo in ignorance. They were unfamiliar with bloodroot. Narses’ lieutenant explained that bloodroot, also called sanguinaria, could be used to create a toxin that was deadly to vampires. In its natural state it was a pale, white flower whose large petals were veined with red.

Anna Sgorina turned to face the coterie. She had seen them carrying a bouquet of white flowers like those Guilelmo described. Upon hearing this, Lanzo charged the coterie with Roland’s murder. He ordered them to be taken into custody. Anna reluctantly concurred, as did Lucita. Khadijah, however, argued against such wild accusations on minimal proof.

Guilelmo brought the chaos to order. He called for guards to take the coterie into custody, arguing that it was for their own safety as much as any evidence against them. He asked that they not struggle or attempt to escape, for that would only harden opinions against them. He promised that the matter would be dealt with fairly by Prince Narses. With that, they were escorted out of the chamber and into another room where they were kept under guard.


End Session 4.

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