October 4th, 1267
A tent outside Tunis, Venetian Africa
“I should point out,” Fausto said coldly, “that I don’t in fact have any authority to negotiate for this army. Burso leads the cause of independent Libya.”
Fausto, somewhat after the events of this narrative.
“That’s all right,” his cousin said cheerfully. “I’m not here representing Venice in its dispute with the Libyan rebels. I’m visiting you on a family matter. The envoy-from-Venice thing was just to get past those surly thugs you employ; this is an armed camp, you know.”
“Quite so. Perhaps I should have hired some surly Arabs instead; thugs who don’t speak the language can’t be smooth-talked by passing in-laws.” Beneath his banter Fausto tensed, and his hand crept to the long dagger in his belt. “A family matter”, was it? It was by no means impossible that the family – in particular, Pietro, who had disliked him since they were boys in Venice together – had decided to get rid of its black sheep with a discreet assassination.
“Nu, I see you’re not in the mood for guests,” Eliezer said, “so I’ll make it brief. Pietro sends you this gift.” Moving slowly, he pulled a knife out of his robes. Fausto drew a sharp breath and rose, sending his camp chair toppling; his dagger came out of its sheath and into position, left hand warding against a sudden grab, right hand ready to stab for the vulnerable stomach – but Eliezer was still moving slowly, unthreateningly. To start your attack slowly and then blur into startling speed, fooling the target’s reactions, was a midlevel technique in fencing, taught to all the males of the family – but Eliezer had waited much too long; he didn’t intend to attack at all. Now he smiled mockingly at Fausto’s readiness to fight, and laid the knife down on his desk.
“So distrustful of a kinsman? Come, Fausto, no Aiello has died by an Aiello’s hand yet, and I won’t be the one to break that record.”
“You play dangerous games,” Fausto snarled, adrenaline still pumping through his veins.
Eliezer held up his hands pacifically. “Eh, there was the desk between me and you; and anyway I’m much faster. I wasn’t in any real danger.”
And he’d enjoyed tweaking his cousin’s nose, Fausto filled in between the lines. His lips pressed together. “The gift of a knife severs a friendship,” he pointed out, abandoning the line of conversation that wasn’t going to win him anything. “Or is Pietro expecting me to pay a penny for it?”
“Between you and Pietro, there’s no friendship to sever,” Eliezer said. “But I spoke inexactly when I said it is a gift. It’s a bequest. To inherit a knife has no symbolic importance, that I know of.”
“Pietro is dead then,” Fausto said, mostly for something to say. He wasn’t saddened by the news, precisely – he had hated Pietro, for his slowness, for his stubborness, above all for his being born to the senior line and therefore the family’s candidate for Doge – but he felt an emptiness, all the same. He had joined the rebellion, if he were honest with himself, to show that idiot, once and for all; and now, win or lose, Pietro could be shown nothing.
“As you say,” Eliezer agreed, and waited patiently. Fausto felt his disappointment recede as his brain got into gear. Why had Eliezer come all this way just to tell him his rival was dead? Bringing an inheritance to the black sheep, no less? He looked again at the knife; it looked ordinary enough, good Illyrian steel in the blade, wooden handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl – but the shape was unusual. It wasn’t an easily-concealable stiletto, such as the Aiello carried in their sleeves from the time their voices dropped; nor the long dagger they wore publicly in token of their patricianship. Instead the blade’s tip was rounded, though not blunt; a gutting knife, made for getting entrails out of fish – but such knives were not commonly made of Illyrian steel. He looked at Eliezer again, wild surmise in his expression; his cousin nodded.
“It’s the knife of our grandfather.” An old joke; of course the handle and the blade had been replaced – many times, in fact, as the Aiello fortunes increased and they could afford better. But if the accidents had changed, the true substance of Salomone’s knife remained the same; and it was still a symbol of leadership within the family.
“Pietro willed it to me?” Fausto asked, sheathing his dagger and picking up the knife. He was beginning to feel, at the back of his mind, the humiliating knowledge that he had been stupid; that in the end, it was Pietro who had shown that idiot – and the idiot was him.
“The knife, and the Dogal signet.” With a flourish, Eliezer produced the latter item and laid it on Fausto’s desk. “Spending money like water, I might add.”
“He would have to,” Fausto said faintly. To elect a rebel as Doge? Pietro must have emptied the family treasury, borrowed against their future revenue – sold off the old furniture, for all he knew! “I’m surprised money could do it.” Feeling a need to sit down, he righted his chair and collapsed into it.
“It also hasn’t been a good year for elderly gentlemen of the Ziani and Morosini families,” Eliezer noted dryly. Fausto winced; it was very well to be elected Doge of Venice, but the patrician families had long memories. That sort of tactic would come back to haunt them – no, it would come back to haunt him. He rubbed his forehead, thinking.
“So… Pietro spent the family fortune, he provoked the other patrician families by assassinating their heads, and then he died and left the mess for me to deal with. And, the Name help me, I can’t even complain, because I’m Doge of Venice and head of the Aiello family. Oh, and I’m in the middle of an army rebelling against my rule.”
Eliezer smiled. “Everything you ever wanted, served to you on a platter by the death of your hated enemy. Mazel tov.”
The feeling that he’d been stupid returned in force. Did the rebels stand a chance? They did not; oh, they’d taken some cities, but Libya was a border march, expendable. In a few months the Venetian navy would arrive with an army of mercenaries, and it would be the rebels who were besieged. And yet he had joined this doomed cause for no better reason than to spite his cousin – who had gotten the last laugh. Or had he? Was it possible that Pietro had actually thought he, Fausto, was the best qualified to lead the Aiello? He’d been slow, Fausto noted, but not dishonest. Or could it even be the case that Pietro had just given him his rights, as the next oldest male and therefore next in the line of succession? Had he, at the end, simply been doing what he thought right, in the face of a personal enmity? Fausto closed his eyes and groaned in humiliation; if that was so, then he had, indeed, been shown. And perhaps Pietro had derived some pleasure from that thought, in his last months – but the showing was there nonetheless. Fausto had thought Pietro would pass him over; Fausto had thought he would be denied his rights and his inheritance; Fausto had been a fool.
He took a deep breath; very well, he’d been a fool. The only thing that could be done about it now was to do better in the future. He looked again at the knife, and thought of the rebellion surrounding him. “A rebel army held together by its leader,” he said slowly.
“If you like,” Eliezer said, “perhaps the events of the past few months can be recast. Of course you never joined the rebellion in your heart; you were our man on the spot, working your way into Burso’s counsels so you could end it at, quite literally, a stroke. And return to Venice a war hero.”
Fausto thought about it. Burso was a near-hypnotically charismatic speaker, as well as a friend; without him the rebels would scatter, fleeing Venice’s vengeance. And he trusted Fausto, would welcome him if he said he had war business to discuss. As Doge of Venice, it would be well to end this rebellion, the sooner the better. Mercenaries cost money, after all, and the coffers were depleted. He picked up the knife and thrust it, decisively, into his belt.
“The gift of a knife severs a friendship.”
It was not a good session for me. I had to pay through the nose for foreign troops to overcome the Rum, winning the Duchy of Cibyrrhaeot for Blayne – still cheaper than surrendering, but it emptied my coffers at an important moment. I did manage to take Veglia, but then I was faced with a massive independence faction that included my heir. Who, indeed, inherited in the middle of the war. The rebellion ended when I killed its leader in battle; but I prefer the explanation above.
Vitale, my current character. Not, alas, the shiniest gold coin in the purse.
Unfortunately, Fausto didn’t last very long as Doge. In the middle of another interminable war for one of Blayne’s claims, he was hit in rapid succession with Infirm, Incapable, and Dead; and due to the aforementioned draining of my reserves, I hadn’t been able to arrange the election. Thus I’m currently playing a three-province minor again, albeit one with lots of income and a pretty good chance of inheriting Venice again in a few years. I’m also at private war with another patrician family, who think they have a claim to one of my baronies. Nonetheless, I am not totally displeased with these events; as a mere patrician family I have some opportunities that the Doge doesn’t get. More of this next week, if it works out.
Meanwhile, Jacob (as Germany, shortly to be independent from Britain) has taken northern Italy, which is clearly my sphere of interest; and the blobs are forming everywhere. The days of easy conquest against AI Muslims are coming to an end. I will have to step up my game and unite at least Italy-south-of-Rome if I’m to even survive, much less be a significant player.
Venice, 1277; Veglia, my one lonely conquest of this session (excepting Blayne’s expansion) marked in red. Note that British pink encroaching on northern Italy.
Final note: This game has Komnenoi in it! I didn’t keep track of what happened to him, but I hope he won his war.