In which a Venetian general learns the difference between winning the war and serving your country.
June 24th, 1480
A pass in the Pyrenees, Iberia
They weren’t mercenaries.
Salomone rode along the line, where the broken bodies lay strewn and intermingled, and the single thought tolled in his head. They were not mercenaries, these men he had led to Iberia for an ally’s call; not Slavs or Germans or Bulgarians. And in its way that was well: This army had given him a victory to bring home for the next election, a victory that he could not have won with men who fought for gold; for such men would not have held this ground. A mercenary army was well enough in flank attack and grinding siege. But when ten thousand howling black savages came up the hill to kill you as though they were running towards their bridal beds; when a dozen stolid tercios of Iberian infantry tried to push their pikes into your gut; when a swarm of Berber horse swirled around your flanks and the arrows flew in sun-darkening clouds – then you wanted men who fought for their country and for the comrade at their shoulder, not for gold.
And yet; was it victory, when one-third of the men who sailed from Venice were going to stay in Iberia? They had held the hill, true, and even now an endless column of English troops marched through the narrow pass towards Tarragon, no more than a day late for Salomone’s battle. (And had they come as fast as they possibly could? Had their officers really pushed the men as hard for an ally, whose future weakness might be convenient, as they would have done if their own comrades had been holding an important pass and desperately in need of reinforcements?) To keep the strategic pass your enemy had to have, that was victory by any military definition; but in a Venetian election, it was the political definition that mattered. Salomone’s enemies could say, certainly would say, that he had squandered Venetian lives for English ambitions; that he had needed a victory and was trying to climb to high office on a river of backstreet blood. And they would have a point, even with the mixed metaphor. Salomone swallowed in sudden self-doubt; holding the pass had undoubtedly shortened the war, perhaps by as much as a year… but it was an English war, fought for English interests. England was an ally, and an ally that wasn’t supported might return the favour when you needed their aid; but there was a difference between support, and bleeding your army white for a strategic advantage.
“Strategos Aiello?” A sharp voice broke into Salomone’s thoughts, speaking Greek – the common tongue of the alliance – with a sibilant English accent.
“I am he,” Salomone agreed, looking up. The speaker was an English officer, a high noble by his silken tabard embroidered with the Shrewsbury arms.
“Excellent. I am James of Shrewsbury, Viscount Oxford. I am come to order you to march south to Tarragon, to support our army against the African counterattack.”
Salomone raised his brows, looking pointedly at the immense column still flowing by the hill, then at his exhausted men. “That is interesting,” he said. “I am compelled, however, to point out that I command the independent army of a sovereign ally, and do not, in fact, take orders from your king.”
The Englishman flushed red, either with anger or embarrassment. “I apologise,” he said with somewhat strained courtesy, clearly holding his feelings in a tight rein. “My words were ill chosen. I meant to say that I request that you march to the push of the pike. The Africans have brought up their Senegalese, and we are hard pressed.”
“I see,” Salomone said, somewhat dryly. “So naturally, your thoughts turn to your allies, who have proven they can hold off twice their number of Africans; and whose dead need not be accounted for to your burgesses and squires.”
“Our thoughts turn to concentrating all available forces to fight the enemy where he is!” James snapped. “That is how you win wars.”
Salomone nodded. “Do you see these men?” he asked, the sweep of his hand indicating not the living Venetians who sat or lay on the trampled grass, but the heaps of dead in front of them. “They are the Milice di Venezia; and Venice is only one city. We have only so many people in it. And they are our people, free citizens. Not conquered subjects like your French and Scots and Irish, to be conscripted by thousands and driven like sheep to die on African pikes. They are not expendable; and still I have expended them, today, for your war. Because I thought of how to win wars, and not of how to advance my country’s interests; and not of how to be chary of my countrymen’s lives. Fifty years from now there will still be gaps in the ranks, where the grandsons of the men who fell today ought to be standing. So go on, James of Shrewsbury, Viscount Oxford. Tell me again how best to win this English war with Venetian troops.”
The veneer of courtesy dropped from James’s face as he realised he wouldn’t get what he wanted; the controlled expression was replaced by a sneer of contempt. Even before he opened his mouth, Salomone knew what he would say – not the words, but the intent – and marvelled at the colossal arrogance that would let a man offer insult while standing alone in the middle of a victorious army.
“I should have expected that,” James said. “The Venetian state at war was always noted -” but before he could complete his quote, Salomone had whipped out the stiletto that every Venetian gentilhuomo carried in his sleeve, grabbed the man’s right arm, and punched the knife through the hand.
“There’s some viciousness for you,” he snarled. “Now shall we see who is the more valorous?” James was gasping for breath and trying to pull the stiletto out of his hand; the angle was awkward and the steel grated on bone with every movement, making him grit his teeth against the pain.
“Easy to talk about valour and when it’s not your own hands in the line.” Salomone regarded the struggling Englishman for a long moment. Probably he would have to be killed, close relatives of allied kings had all sorts of tools for vengeance, but there was no hurry. “As for me, I’m taking my army and going home.”
I opened this session with a major metagame fail: Arriving to TeamSpeak just in time (I am the most westerly player in this game, and it starts at the ungodly hour of nine in the morning for me), I downloaded the wrong save. This delayed me sufficiently that the game began without me (after some long waits in earlier sessions, we are now enforcing a five-minute rule) and the AI ran Venice for the first thirty minutes. Well, I say AI; it seems probable that the corrupting influence of the Hound has reached our host’s computer, because whatever processor cycles it devoted to Venice were evidently more malicious than incompetent. Starting with tech superiority, naval superiority, occupying two fortresses, and 20k manpower in reserve, the “AI” somehow managed to get kicked out of Mutapa and reduce my manpower to zero. I was eventually able to restore my position, but not so quickly as to prevent Egypt from jumping in (presumably using its free CB from full Expansion ideas) to reap what I had sown; I ended up with the northern third of Mutapa, Egypt with the southern two-thirds. Though, of course, you can hardly blame Egypt for jumping on a weakened AI minor when it gets the chance; it has yet to win a war against a player, to my recollection. I did get enough land to get a free merchant from giving some of it to a trade company, so I’m now collecting from Zanzibar.
While all this was going on, I also got dragged into a war with Africa. The Wicked Wardenate of the West (also known as England) is apparently unsatisfied with having most of the African coast, and wants Iberia as well. On the sea this was trivial; on land, the Africans put up a surprisingly effective fight in the Pyrenees, including an attack at Girona that led England to squeal piteously for Venetian troops. These arrived just in the nick of time, and saw the Africans off, but with sufficient casualties that when the English then peremptorily demanded help, in similar circumstances, for Tarragona, I laughed in his face. (For values of ‘laughing’ and ‘face’ that include “told him no in the ingame chat”.) My 18 regiments had been reduced to 3000 men, and were going exactly nowhere, thanks. (He later told me that his laptop hadn’t updated, and he was seeing my army at full strength; no doubt this misinformation accounts for some of the Viscount’s arrogance.) It is admittedly possible that a Venetian officer, acting on misplaced zeal, may have ordered an assault on the fortress at Girona, which could in principle have contributed more to the casualty list than the African attack. But in his defense, that fortress was just then blocking considerable forces from moving south. That was the end of my contribution to that war, except for some looting.
To the east, Russia seized this as its final opportunity to recover some of its lost lands, and declared war on Byzantium (also allied to England and therefore with its armies in Iberia and Africa); although formally belligerent I sent no troops to this conflict. (Neither did England, that I noticed.) Byzantium managed to fend off the attack, albeit at a ruinous cost in loans and manpower; this leaves both of England’s allies exhausted for the next generation of game time, while England itself made territorial gains. The Iberian distraction did prevent England from sending its navy to uphol Malaysia, as it has done before; Malaysia is now half absorbed into Japan, prompting a major reshuffle of player positions. Russia and the Mongols quit; Gollevainen, playing Malaysia, moves to take over the Mongols. Malaysia will presumably be fully absorbed by Japan; Russia will be split among all its neighbours, and it is unclear who will get the larger share; probably this will be the source of the next set of European conflicts. Not that I care, all I want to do is run my trade mpire in peace and quiet.
Europe at the dawn of the sixteenth century. Note the enormous German gains in Russia.
Competing African expansions. The absent gods alone know what the Hound may do with all these new subjects, hidden away in obscure corners of the world where few white men go and even fewer care what happens.