June on the Adriatic coast, and the summer looks to be a fair one; day after day the sun shines from a cloudless sky. It is weather to make crops ripen and men cheerful; on the mainland such weather is greeted with joy, as a sign for good harvests and low prices. In Venice men do not speak thus, for the fish will come, or not, whatever the sun does, and heat makes the scarce water of the wells still more scarce and brackish; but even so, it is difficult not to be happy when the sun shines. Even in Venice there are many Easter children born, after a year with a good summer. But not this year. In this year of Grace 1412, Venice is at war. And no distant war, no matter of dominion over the mainland or trade in the far Levant; not a war of mercenaries and hired men, that would touch the back streets but lightly whatever it did to patrician pockets. Nor even a war of great empires, to mobilise the Fleet and call the working men out of their tenements, to die in distant lands among angry strangers. This year the angry strangers have come to Venice, and the working men die in their own streets. This year Venice is besieged.
They call themselves English, those who command the foreign army, and on high formal occasions might bring out a few words of that tongue, carefully rote-learned. They have estates in Spain, and trade along the Iberian coast, and their fluent speech is in the liquid syllables of Castille. But their army is African – Moroccan, Tunisian, Mauretanian, Senegalese – and it is for dominion over Africa they have come, to join Libya to their African Republic and bring its grand name closer to truth. The back streets of Venice care nothing for that; what is it to them, who rules in distant Libya, whether it is their own landlords or some English-Castillian-African foreigner? But there are foreign ships in their Laguna, and the fishing boats lie idle in the marinas for fear of being sunk; there are foreign soldiers – black soldiers, speaking incomprehensible tongues – walking the streets of the Lido. The workmen of Venice grind their teeth in hatred, and turn out for Milice drill; there is grain and dried fish enough for the militia, and little other work to be had in a blockaded city.
It is a puzzle to the English-Castillian Africans, the resistance of Venice; an unwalled town should be easy prey for a passing army. But islands are defended by water, not stone; the canals make every neighborhood a fortress, every tenement a stronghold. Lido has fallen, to speed and surprise and overwhelming numbers; and the Forte di Sant’ Andrea has an African garrison now. But to take these outliers is not to seize the heart of Venice. Even where the invaders have gained footholds on Venezia itself, the central island, they find that a breach in the perimeter of this unwalled city is not an opportunity to pour in men and end the siege in an orgy of killing, but merely another island to be garrisoned.
They have fallen back, therefore, on the oldest weapon in a besieger’s arsenal: Blockade and starvation. There is only so much grain, only so much dried fish and salted meat and twice-baked hardtack, in Venice’s stores; with the Laguna closed there is only a trickle of fish from the canals – and it is best not to think about what they eat – and a trickle of mainland grain rowed across at night in tiny boats. The Milice men know it, and grit their teeth against the bitter knowledge; they can fight the invader where he attacks, but they cannot fight hunger. They look south, to where the relieving navy must come; for if they did not believe that the siege would be lifted, then hatred or none they would surrender on the best terms they could make. It is the talk of the long watches, when for the thirtieth day in a row the enemy does nothing and the grumble of half-filled bellies must be stilled: When will the Doge come?
It is not without reason, the faith of the Venetian workmen in their Doge; once already he has tried to break the siege. But his fleet was scattered by contrary winds, and his mercenaries, landing piecemeal, were driven off by the African soldiers; and where is the money that could raise a new army and build new ships? It is in Venice, in the Aiello mansion, in the mansions of the other patricians – behind the African blockade. The mercenary is not yet born that will fight for a promise of money; they demand to see the yellow gold and shining silver. While the enemy holds the Lido and the Fort di Sant’ Andrea, there will be no mercenary army to raise the siege; without an army, the Africans cannot be driven from the Lido. A pretty dilemma! But the men of Venice do not despair; not when the Doge is an Aiello. A Dandolo, perhaps, or a Contarini – if one of those honorable and straightforward families wore the signet ring, then Venice might surrender. But an Aiello Doge will find a way, money or no money. “The Doge will come,” they say in the tenements of Venice; and tighten their belts against hunger, and keep the watch through the night.
This session I’m having a small colonial war, Dragoon attempting to seize my African possessions. I currently have a pretty consistent lag of five days, which makes it very difficult to fight effectively; I lost about half my retinue to being unable to move their stack out of the way of Dragoon’s attack. I also lost a vast mercenary army in an attempt to raise the siege of Venice; that 50% morale penalty is murderous. This puts me in the annoying situation of having plenty of money to raise new fighting men, but being unable to do so anyway: Because Venice is an island with no strait, any mercenaries I raise will appear there and only there – at zero morale, which will cause them to be immediately slaughtered by the besieging army. My strategy is thus reduced to besieging Dragoon’s Genoan possessions (with help from m’liege), in the hope that this will give me enough warscore to offset his taking of Venice and the disputed African lands; there’s always the possibility that Dragoon will run out of money. Of course, the Venetian trap cuts both ways – if he moves that army away, I will immediately hire the largest mercenary stack in the game and come looking for vengeance. Nonetheless, on present trends I will eventually lose this war; which is not to say that the present trends must inevitably continue. There’s such a thing as diplomacy.
My attempt at raising the siege of Venice. The morale penalty turns 3-to-2 odds into being outnumbered by the same margin.
Central Med, 1413. It must be admitted that the war may not be going entirely in my favour.