August 24th, 1167
Campo de la Lana, Santa Croce, Venice
Sweat ran down Salomone’s face, carrying stinging soot into his eyes and mouth, but the firebreak had worked. Several hundred ducats’ worth of linen continued to burn merrily, adding radiant heat to the already unbearably-muggy steambath that was Venice in summer, but to lose five hundred ducats was not ruin. A blow, certainly; but if the other warehouses on the street had gone… Salomone shuddered to think about it. It wouldn’t quite have wiped him out, he had cargoes on ships and properties in other cities; but the loss of working capital would have set him back years, or a decade even.
“Salomone! Are you all right? I came as soon as I heard there was trouble.”
Salomone’s head snapped around; even now, exhausted and filthy from fighting fires and humans, he had to smile a little at the sight of Niccolo Dandolo responding to an emergency. The huge chaperon hat was askew, with the liripipe blowing every which way in the fitful breeze; the tight-fitting doublet, usually carefully smoothed to show off Niccolo’s slim torso, now showed every sign of having been shrugged on hastily, and bunched under the arms. Worse still, there was actual stubble on the right cheek; apparently the news had reached Niccolo halfway through his afternoon shave, and impressed him enough that he’d been willing to appear in public with half a five-o-clock shadow.
“Niccolo,” he said, and was briefly amazed that in these circumstances he could still take a minor pleasure in being on first-name terms with a patrician, an aristocrat who could trace his lineage to the first merchant traders who had sent ships out of the Laguna. “I’m all right, the fire is under control. The Contarini swine are still skulking about the Case Nuove, though.” He gestured down an alley between his warehouses, too narrow to have a formal name, to indicate where the mob of tenantry was still licking its wounds. The Contarini hadn’t quite dared to stiffen their cat’s-paws with any of their liveried house gentlemen; even the Doge’s family had to retain a certain amount of plausible deniability around arson. That was why Salomone had been able to drive them off in short order, even outnumbered and having to split his men between fighting fires and fighting humans. The Contarini tenants were willing enough to throw some torches and crack some heads at their patron’s behest, in accordance with tradition stretching back to before Caesar, but serious fighting against people with actual swords was something else again; and the Aiello tenants had been spitting mad, not just “willing enough”.
Niccolo’s lips formed a thin smile, and he nodded understanding. “Perhaps we’d better drive them off, then,” he said. “They might get enough brains together to throw some more torches, and really now, mobs in the street? I knew Andrea was annoyed we got those spices into Amsterdam before he did, but this is like something out of the tenth century. We can’t get the man himself; but a hard lesson or two among the renters should do some good.”
“Right,” Salomone agreed, setting his jaw. He had a certain amount of sympathy for the Contarini tenants, who’d been given the choice of mobbing his warehouse or being thrown out on the street; but what could you do? If he made it clear, once and for all, that being out on the street was actually the better choice, the threat would no longer be effective – and then the Contarini wouldn’t make it, so everyone would be better off. He looked over the men Niccolo had brought; only a dozen, but well armed, and huge – the one on the left was six feet if he was an inch. “It shouldn’t be too difficult. Just a good straight charge down the alleys, lay into them, crack open some heads, send them home crying for their mamas.” An organised military force would have been holding the alleys and would make such a maneuver impossible – but the tenant militia on the other side were anything but organised, and by now most of them would be thinking that they’d made enough of a show that they’d keep their rooms.
Niccolo shook his head. “You’re right, it’s not difficult, but we can do better than just chasing them off. We’ll go down this one, drive them up towards Bergamaschi. You wait half a minute, then take your men down the next one, hit them just as they’re getting good and panicked. Send your renters up to Sechera, tell them to gang up on anyone who comes running and beat them senseless – that’s far enough out that they won’t be a mob anymore, just singles and pairs.”
“A real massacre,” Salomone said grimly, but nodded. Better to have a single massacre, and convince the tenants that they wanted no part of street fights, than to have people thinking they could revive the old custom of riots as a tool of competition between the Houses. He noted, for future reference, the difference between his own simple plan, and what Niccolo had come up with on the spur of the moment; evidently there was something in the formal education the Houses gave their scions.
“Give me a minute to get organised,” he said, and turned to find Benedetto – who was, in fact, standing right behind him; Salomone hid his startled jump as well as he could, but he could see on his cousin’s face that he hadn’t been too successful.
“You heard?” he asked once he had himself together, and Benedetto nodded. He’d been in charge of Salomone’s hired muscle for as long as Salomone had had hired muscle – at one point that had meant he was in charge of himself – and now he moved both his own men and the tenants with the same efficiency Salomone had in moving ships and cargoes. In short order they were ready, and Niccolo’s men pounded down their chosen alley; a little after that Benedetto shouted “Charge!” and the Aiello guards followed him. Salomone brought up the rear, on the grounds that he wasn’t a trained fighting man but still wanted to bash some heads in to make up for his five hundred ducats.
He emerged into the Corte Case Nuove to find he wasn’t going to get a chance; the only Contarini tenants in sight were the ones who had been trampled in the rush, and they weren’t moving. The Aiello and Dandolo house-gentlemen were chasing the remainder up the street; Benedetto and Niccolo had stopped. Leading a charge into resistance was one thing, but just chasing down fleeing renters was beneath a patrician’s dignity; and Benedetto would want to stay close to the leaders, to hear their plans. Salomone stopped to talk to them, wracking his brain to figure out what that next step was; that was when the flat thwacking sound came from a warehouse on the other side of the street, and Benedetto spun and crumpled like a sand castle undercut by the incoming tide.
Salomone stood frozen in shock for a long moment; Niccolo, however, moved, catching Benedetto before he could fall all the way to the ground and starting to drag him back towards the alley. “Crossbow!” he shouted, and Salomone finally moved himself, picking up Benedetto’s feet where they dragged in the mud; with two men carrying, they quickly reached the alley, and the cover of some barrels. “That was meant for one of us,” Niccolo panted. “Probably you. That was the plan all along – the warehouses were just to get you out in the open, where they’d have a shot – plausible deniability, middle of a riot, very sad but what can you do?”
“You’re right,” Salomone said grimly, feeling his flesh creep with conviction; rioting and head-bashing were one thing, he’d take his chances on that, but this deliberate ambush for him specifically was something else again. An assassin who didn’t know his face too well, evening falling, soot and smoke making him and his cousin look much alike – that was all that had saved him. Had the price of peppers in Amsterdam really mattered that much to the Doge? “Filthy fucking weapon,” he said, bending to examine Benedetto.
“Banned for good reason,” Niccolo agreed; the Pope’s ban on crossbows “except against the heathen” was perhaps the most widely-ignored religious doctrine in history, even more so than the injunction against fornication. That was because they were just too damned – Salomone chose his word precisely – useful; the bolt had gone into Benedetto’s ribcage, he saw, and driven fragments of bone along with the bolt itself deep into his lung. Few other weapons inflicted such killing wounds with such ease; Benedetto had a minute, at most, to live.
He knew it, too, Salomone could see; there was desperation and terror in his eyes, and his mouth worked, but only a repeated “Sh – sh” came out, along with a trickle of blood. He reached out a hand to Salomone, appealing for something, but there was no help to give – then Salomone realised what Benedetto was asking for. No help on this Earth; and with a shattered lung he couldn’t form the words. For an anguished moment Salomone balanced the secret they’d kept for two generations against the wish of a dying man – but the man was his cousin Benedetto, as close as a brother; who’d taken him fishing in the Laguna when they were poor and hungry, who had never showed an ounce of envy over the three bezants, who had stood by him for fifteen years. Only one thing to be done for him now, and only Salomone to do it; he took a deep breath and spoke in a clear, carrying voice, to cut through the fog in a dying man’s head.
“Sh’ma, Yisrael. Shema Eloheinu; Shema Ehad.” The words of praise and faith, the last thing to be heard before death; and Benedetto heard, and nodded, very slightly, in gratitude, before he slumped and the tension went out of his torso. Even then Salomone could be shocked by the difference between a man mortally wounded and dying, and a man dead; unmistakable and dreadful – but there was no time. Fearfully, he looked at Niccolo; and all his fears came true.
“You’re fucking Jews,” Niccolo whispered, his face screwed up in disgust. “And I worked with you – helped you – my God, for years. Christ, have mercy on my soul!” Faintly, Salomone realised that this last wasn’t a conventional expression; Niccolo thought himself ritually unclean, and was genuinely praying for forgiveness.
In a way, it was everything Salomone had been expecting, for years; all the disdain that a patrician might feel for a nouveau-riche backstreet family, that Niccolo had never showed a hint of, was out in the open now, in the contempt of Christian for Jew. Still, it grieved him. They had been friends, not only business partners, for years. Niccolo had invited him to parties at his mansion, had even come to the baptism of Benedetto’s son – which was irony; they had actually been celebrating his circumcision, but of course it was necessary to fake the Christian ritual as well. For two eternal seconds Salomone hesitated. Niccolo was an educated man, and had been known to have an original thought on occasion; and he genuinely liked Salomone. Could he, possibly, be convinced to keep the secret, even to continue their friendship, once the first shock had worn off? His immediate disgust, in response to a sudden revelation, while his blood was up from fighting a battle, wasn’t necessarily the way he was going to react when he had time to think. But no – Salomone could not take that chance. If the Aiello were revealed as secret Jews, living outside the restrictions on their faith, they would have to flee Venice; the House militias would unite to burn them out, and their own tenants would lead the charge just to avoid being caught up in the pogrom. There would be deaths; the warehouses would be lost as surely if they’d burned to the ground; every business partnership with a Christian would be in doubt – Salomone could not risk all that, on the possibility that a Christian patrician might remember that they had been friends.
In the midst of sudden violence Niccolo had reacted like lightning; but now, when the crisis was trust broken and secrets revealed, he was still trying to process what had happened for a whole second after Salomone’s gutting knife was out of its sheath. The knife had once opened a shark, though blade and handle were new since that time; it had no difficulty at all with Niccolo’s silks, or with the soft flesh of his stomach.
“Sh’ma, Yisrael,” Salomone repeated; who knew, perhaps it would do his friend some good to hear the words of praise and faith before he died. “Hear, O Israel. The Name is our God; the Name is One.”
And now you know the source of the names for my starting characters. Before anyone starts to quibble about the words of the Shema Yisrael, observe that the Aiello are not only secret Jews, but secret Samaritans – a closely related faith, but one which never underwent the Babylonian Exile and whose rituals are very slightly different. The Samaritans themselves claim that they have the original Jewish faith, uncorrupted by Persian ideas picked up in Babylon; the upshot is that the Aiello are doubly isolated – from Christians because they are Jews; from Jews because they are Samaritans.
Backstory aside, this session brought my first player conflict of the game, against Oddman in Syria. I had completed my crusade (which term is now a bit ironic, but for public purposes the Aiello find it useful to be more Catholic than the Pope) for Tripolitania, and found an opportunity to seize Cyrenaica when its Emir rebelled. Oddman, feeling Cyrenaica to be well within the sphere of influence of the two Muslim players who are currently vassals of the Ayyubids, objected, at first diplomatically. However, he tried to convince me that I should limit myself to Tunis (!) and points west; this is not on for an Italian power, Libya is basically my back yard, so we went to war over the issue. It was somewhat back-and-forth; I initially thought I was in a minor border skirmish against an obscure Emir, so I had only sent a small army. Oddman landed with 9000 men and easily crushed this force; his character personally led these troops, albeit from behind, to keep the men in order. I raised two mercenary regiments and shipped them across; when the Moslems ran, he was in the van, and first across the border.
Oddman had apparently misunderestimated my reserves, and thought that his 9000 plus his liege’s 10000 would be sufficient; and to be fair, against that number of men I would certainly have known I’d been in a fight, and might have dropped the project as too expensive. (Mercenaries cost money, after all.) However, the Kingdom of Jerusalem very helpfully joined the war, and raised enough Holy Orders that the Ayyubid Sultan’s men never showed up in Libya at all, being busy on the Holy Land Front. I had occasion, then, to point out to oddman that my Venetian forces included no HOs; “our camp followers are all women of virtue”.
After this war I fought some minor skirmishes in Italy; I took the city of Ravenna (and a patrician very helpfully followed up by taking the province) and also grabbed the city Pescara from Sicily. I can see that uniting Italy with these salami-slice CBs is going to be a long process; at least there are now a lot of polities around the Adriatic, so I shouldn’t be too hampered by truces. I also declared Crusade for Tunis, which looks promising although the Almohads sent 12000 men to interfere; happily these marched around in the desert for a while, doing nothing in particular, and are now down to 8000 without a blow exchanged.
A surprise victory against the odds during the campaign for Pescara. I was so sure I was going to lose this battle that by the time of the screenshot, the replacement mercenaries have already been hired. Then I had to find a use for them, hence the crusade for Tunis.
Central Med, 1253. Recent conquests picked out in red (excepting Blayne’s domains in Greece). Note the Almohad army besieging Djerba.
The internal affairs of Venice, meanwhile, continue to be a vexation. My good-ish eldest son, Isacco, was killed in someone’s plot; his replacement Pietro is useless, and I cannot designate anyone else as my heir because I granted ex-Moslem counties to all the grown Aiello males, and they are now under the Lowborn duke who inherited Isacco’s titles. To win the election for Pietro requires bribes on the order of a thousand ducats; in an effort to keep this number down I have been assassinating patricians left, right, and center, but every time I kill one with respect 7000, another with respect 5000 takes his place. My count stands at 7, and the eighth is currently in my dungeon; one of my first acts in Sunday’s session will be to execute him, in the hope of saving a couple of hundred on bribes. Next week’s narrative will be related to these events; stay tuned.
Venetian domestic situation, 1247. Not keeping exact count, but I think the Dandolo candidate is about to be the fourth, possibly fifth, victim of my election campaign. Morosini and Ziani candidates preceded him.