Azure Three Bezants: Six Narrow Escapes

It is true: Obviously I should have been more suspicious. That’s why I’m writing this down, as a warning. Descendant of mine, who reads this, listen to the voice of experience, heed your grandfather who has seen much and learned many things: Don’t trust the Aiello.

Abramo Aiello, 1319

Would you buy an officer’s commission from this man? Cheap?

First Escape

I said I should have been more suspicious, but it wasn’t as though I had great faith in the good intentions of Abramo; after all I watched him buy the Doge’s robes that should have been mine. The problem was that I suspected the wrong thing: I thought his health was failing and he wanted me out of the city at a crucial time for campaigning. And what’s more, I thought he was being rather stupid about it; I didn’t need to be in the city to campaign effectively – the electors know quite well who the money comes from even if they don’t see his face – and a bit of military experience was just what I needed to round out my resume. So I thanked him kindly and said, why yes, it would be an honour to lead Venetian troops in the field. Which was true; but note the lessons: One, don’t assume that you understand an enemy’s plot just because you see one obvious disadvantage to yourself. Two, and this applies more specifically to the Aiello, don’t look for a hidden dagger before you’ve checked for sledgehammers.

Venetian election 1313

Not that I would dream of assassinating anyone just because they were making the election immensely expensive. The more so when he has diplomacy 28 and nobody dislikes him enough to say a harsh word in his direction.

So, as ordered – like a fool – I took ship (one of my own galleys, in fact) for Lecce, spent a week there gathering our garrisons and recruiting them up to strength, and marched north for the siege of Bari to reinforce and take command of the Army of Apulia. And, just as Abramo had planned, we ran right into what was left of the Sicilian levies, retreating south into Calabria to try to recover from their defeat and come back for another go. After the beating we’d given them at Bari there were only five hundred unwounded men who hadn’t deserted; but I’m here to tell you, five hundred men is a large army when you are yourself leading two hundred, not expecting any trouble, and the five hundred spot you first and joyfully seize the opportunity to get some of their own back.

Had Abramo told the Sicilians where to find us? Call me insufficiently suspicious, but I don’t actually believe that of him. If nothing else, outright treason is hard to hide; he couldn’t very well have served as his own courier. But there are only so many roads an army retreating south from a defeat at Bari can take; only so many routes for reinforcements heading up from Lecce. The enemy commander and I were both taking the obvious route, the old Roman road along the coast. It was, at any rate, a good bet for Abramo: An excellent chance for his rival to run into a superior enemy and get himself killed, and if it didn’t work out, well, sieges are chancy things too. And much more deniable than the crude means his grandfather Pietro had used, knives in the dark and poisoned wine. But then, by all accounts, Pietro wasn’t the best-polished coin in the purse.

Demetrio Contarini

Demetrio Contarini, some years before these events; when he describes himself as “Not a Great Captain”, it is fair to say that he is not being unduly modest. Nonetheless, he does have the essential skill of extracting himself from lost battles.

I’m no Great Captain, but I can count to five without looking at my fingers; at odds of five to two I wasn’t going to fight any battles. But it’s not entirely trivial to get two hundred men to turn around; they all spoke some thick southern dialect, slow as molasses and twice as sticky, and seemed to have some difficulty with my crisp Venetian consonants. Being honest, they were none of them all that bright, either, even the officers. And as for their women! But fair is fair, the women were actually the most useful people in the entire army: We left them in our dust, and they distracted the enemy long enough for us to get away. Most of us. The important ones, anyway – that is to say, me.

Second Escape

You might think, after this little adventure, that I’d look twice at any further “opportunities” for military glory in Apulia; and you’d be right. But, to speak truth, losing my entire army three days’ march out of Lecce – even if it was a tiny one – didn’t do me any good with the electorate. And even with a second look, there really didn’t seem to be any way for the second one to go wrong: No raising the garrisons in Lecce this time, just sail to Bari, take command, finish the siege, come home a hero, win the election. Still, I took precautions; instead of going in my own personal galley, I brought the entire Contarini war-fleet with me. If Abramo had arranged for me to “accidentally” meet any warships the Sicilians might still have had, well, they had the good sense to stay out of our way; we never saw any. No, it was the storm that got me this time. At least it struck far enough north that when I crawled ashore from the shipwreck, I was on Venetian soil. So I didn’t have to make my way through hostile countryside; I just had to get to a city with one of our factors in it, and commandeer a ship to take me back to Venice. And on the credit side of the ledger, fully half the fleet survived. Nonetheless, I must say I was not in the best possible mood when we entered the Laguna.

Third Escape

In hindsight, I should perhaps have admitted, at this point, that I’m just not cut out for military glory, cut my losses, and campaigned on being the richest patrician in the city. But I was angry, and had blood in my eye; and anyway it wasn’t as though Abramo could have caused the storm. Enemy warships, possibly, but I had a counter for that; storms, no – or if he could, then he had no need for elaborate plotting to get rid of me! So I gritted my teeth and said I’d try again.

This time, at least, I reached Bari; and so far as I could see the siege was going well. We had galleys outside the harbour and fortified camps astride every road. I don’t say there was no food getting in, there’s always some little leak through secret gates and down ropes over the wall, at night when the patrols can’t see. But they were surely getting hungry in there, and there was no hope of any relief; the Sicilian army was still licking its wounds in Calabria. So it looked good; and that was when the camp flux became epidemic, with the autumn rains.

Of course Abramo couldn’t very well have arranged either the rains or the flux; but then, why would he need to? He knew perfectly well, and so does every child of three, that epidemics go with sieges as risk does with profit. For that matter, he would have had monthly reports detailing the number of people killed. To send a man nearing sixty into such a place, when the siege had been going on since the beginning of the year and the rains were just coming on to make the swamps extra marshy… well, as assassinations plots go you wouldn’t call it subtle. Deniable, yes; subtle, no.

If the city had been about to surrender I might have risked it for a week or so; but our spies said they still had rats and dogs enough to last them two months, and that their mayor was negotiating with Pisa for an army to lift the siege, in exchange for allegiance. Clever of him, though nothing ever came of it; but it meant I’d have to stay in that unhealthy air for months, not days, if I wanted the triumph of entering the city. I weighed the odds, and concluded that dead men are rarely elected Doge; a week later I was back in Venice. At least, this time, I wasn’t fleeing disaster.

Fourth Escape

A page has been torn from the manuscript here, and in a different hand is written: I have removed this tale to preserve my grandfather’s memory. Any future Contarini who want to dishonour themselves will have to invent their own stratagems; they shall have no help from their ancestors.

Fifth Escape

After that episode, my credit wasn’t any too high in Venice; if Abramo had done Giacomo a favour and died that week, I wouldn’t have bothered spending money on the election. But to give the bastard his due, he didn’t commit suicide for political reasons; some things, apparently, are too low even for an Aiello. Electoral memories are short, and there’s always some new gossip; if I got out of the city for a while, things would eventually blow over and enough gold would put me back in contention. So you might wonder, if you had a suspicious nature, why did Abramo offer me yet another commission? But then, there was nothing preventing me from taking an extended trip to the Contarini estates in Ragusa; and that would be quite unlikely to kill me. We were both gambling, then: Abramo, that this time the Sicilians would finally kill me for him; me, that this time I’d finally get the victory and glory that would tip the election to me.

Unfortunately, I had to give him odds: When he ordered me to collect some of our Umbrian garrisons, to make up for the losses we’d suffered in the camp flux, I couldn’t very well object. So that is how I came to be marching across the purple Apennine with four hundred men, right into a rebel ambush.

The worst thing was, the damn rebels were on our side! Or we were on theirs, if you prefer; or at any rate, we were both at war with King Tador. But they, thick Campanian peasants that they were, apparently thought that we were Tador’s troops come to restore them to obedience; or they just didn’t like having armed men come through their district. In any case, thick-headed or not, it was a beautiful ambush. If I hadn’t come prepared, not a man of us would have escaped. But, if I’m no Alexander the Great, still I’m not slow. I was, in fact, mounted on the fastest horse money would buy; its price was not that far off being its weight in silver, and worth every ounce. The moment I realised what was happening, I spurred my horse north. The soldiers were better off without me – their own officers knew better than I what to do, and spoke in an Umbrian burr that they understood without time-consuming repetitions. And, obviously, I was better off without them, free to take my horse in whatever direction offered escape; if they won, I could always come back and resume the command. So it was a mututally beneficial transaction, and if I alone escaped to speak of it, that’s not my fault; obviously they should have fought harder.

Sixth Escape

The massacre actually worked in my favour; as the only survivor, I could tell my own tale of what had happened, and (as you may know; if my chroniclers do their jobs, all Venice is well aware of my glorious exploits, and will remain so well into the next century) the account I gave differed in some minor details from the one I’ve set down here. So I was somewhat more sanguine about my chances in the election. Notwithstanding, Abramo had the nerve to offer me yet another command! But enough is enough; I told him where to stick his command, and ended my military career on an up note. The wars were, in any case, drawing to their end; the news of Bari’s surrender came in the day after I refused to take another reinforcement column to the siege. Abramo must have known it was near; obviously, he had no intention of actually strengthening a siege that was practically over. Soldiers cost money, after all, and the Aiello are well known to squeeze every ducat until you can see their finger-marks in the soft gold. No, it was another attempt to kill me and hide the deed in a mountain of corpses, and I was well out of it.

Demetrio Contarini never commanded in the field again; shortly after the surrender of Bari, he led the peace delegation that ended the war. While he was in Amalfi, negotiating the treaty, he contracted the Great Plague and died. It is not clear whether Abramo knew that the plague had broken out in Amalfi.

Azure Three Bezants

I hear there was a war of some sort in the East, nomad hordes attacking Russia and the English defending them; but we in peaceable Italy know nothing of these great affairs – we mind our own business and don’t get our trade posts where they’re not wanted. This session, as the previous ones, my main business was to continue the unification of Italy; I now have dominion over the whole Balkan coast of the Adriatic, and am picking apart Sicily city by city. I also finally got around to kicking the Pope out of Rome; and my esteemed overlord has kindly agreed to sell me the north-Italian city-states. So the map of my expansion looks fairly nice:

Central Med 1319

Central Mediterranean, 1319. Note the conquest of Rome; note also the Iberian colonies (labeled ‘Britannia’, but the loose confederation of kingdoms that acknowledge Britain’s nominal suzerainty is a legal fiction that’s particularly threadbare in the Med; those are lands of the Spanish kings) surrounding the Tyrrhenian sea like a noose and interfering with trade. Admittedly mainly Pisan trade, but the point stands.


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One response to “Azure Three Bezants: Six Narrow Escapes

  1. Pingback: Azure Three Bezants: Dominion over Palm and Pine | Ynglinga Saga

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