“Damietta,” they said, “and damnation; who’s to know the difference?” And for the generations of soldiers that went out to garrison Venezia oltre-il-Mare – conscript, mercenary, “volunteer” two steps ahead of the gallows as fortune and custom changed – it did indeed seem that Damietta was the last stop, the penultimate destination in a career’s – or a life’s – downward slide. No state sends its best and brightest to garrison muggy fortresses in sullen cities; but of the many distant places that Venice acquired for stashing failures and broken men, and of the many drunkards, rapists, and disgraced officers it sent to hold them, Damietta was always accounted the worst, and got the worst accordingly.
And yet, when the Caliph negligently signed over this minor Nile port in reply to a Venetian ultimatum plainly intended as a provocation to war, it had no such ripe reputation. Like any port city it had its bars and its brothels; what it did not have was a vast undercity in which, year after year, one in twenty of its assigned garrison would vanish. Nonetheless, that is what the plain numbers of the garrison reports show, decade after decade, like clockwork; and while it’s true that commanders of backwaters garrisons unlikely to be attacked have sometimes over-reported their muster strength, to draw the pay of men dead or deserted for their own pockets, the famous one in twenty are those officially reported dead, crippled, or (most commonly, and most disquietingly) Missing, Not Accounted For. Any tricks in the paperwork should increase, not decrease, our estimate of the numbers lost. And, looking through the centuries of muster-out payments in the archives at Venice, it is noteworthy that almost none of the men discharged by this regular channel had served in Damietta, and those few, not for long. The longest-serving Damietta veteran had been in the garrison seven years, apparently assigned there as an alternative to being hanged for cowardice in some now-forgotten border skirmish in East Africa. In the end, he did not escape the city; he died shortly after being discharged, in a multiple murder-suicide (himself, and no less than three expensive courtesans who had presumably cost him all his mustering-out pay) that was the talk of Venice for a year afterwards.
That was Venice; in Damietta, such an event would have provided gossip for a week at most. Of those soldiers who were not reported simply Missing – and knowing what we do about the catacombs under this ancient city, we can only shudder for their probable fate – most were suicides; the opium and hashish grown in the fertile back-alley gardens (and of which there is no trace in the records before the handover in 1512) seems to have been both more addictive than the regular varieties, and more given to inducing despair. The women of Damietta, too, are famous for their ability to cause murderous jealous rages; but this is based on a few highly-publicised incidents. For the most part the exotic dancers, the back-alley courtesans, and the negotiable masseurs seem to have used their dark allure to draw soldiers into the bars, the hashish houses, and the opium dens – generally in that order. There was no need for risky dramas of passion, when drugs would do the job just as well.
The officers did a little better, perhaps mainly because the stronger drugs were seriously declasse for them; it’s a rare man who can overcome the disapproval of his social peers in his choice of vices. Most of them did hit the bottle very heavily, as the mess accounts for the garrison show; but alcohol is a slower poison than Damietta opium. Rather than dying, most of them acquired the characteristic stigmata of the decadent upper classes of an empire much older than Venice’s: Petty corruption and peculation, jaded sexual appetites craving ever-more-exotic acts, utter indifference to the problems of anyone not of their own class. It is to these gentlemen that we are indebted for our accounts of the infamous dancing-houses of the back alleys; and to be fair, many of these stories are still serviceable as erotica, centuries after they were written. The intolerable muggy heat of the city seems, even now, to rise from the dry paper, where wide-hipped women writhe dangerously on crowded stages; even aged scholars reading in well-lit libraries, for publication in academic journals, occasionally feel their cheeks flush with fever, and a longing for strong drink or sweat-damp sheets. The effect of the actual dances, on ill-educated young men seeing it with their own eyes, must have been something like being hit between the eyes with a large hammer – as is done to cattle before they are slaughtered.
In hindsight, of course, it is all too obvious: The quiet (and unprecedented) handing-over of a city for the mere demand of it, without a shot fired – and the garrison become a running sore into which generations of Venetian soldiery drained, its returning officers little corpuscles of corruption in the fabric of Venetian society. Just so does the Hound work, always, gnawing at the supports of its enemies’ states so they are half-rotted by the time anyone puts weight on them. The Caliph’s remark about “plots spanning centuries” was exactly to the point.
Men, alas, are rarely able to think in terms even of decades. Most people at the time thought the Caliph was referring to the Crusades; and, in the imperialist fervour of the Indian War, the Venetian war party even took up the phrase as a political slogan for themselves. The Hound’s reaction to this piece of cultural appropriation is nowhere recorded; but if that alien entity is able to laugh, we may take it that the rafters of Hell shook with its humour.
From Early Skirmishes in the Long War,
Dr William Wilcox,
Miskatonic University Press, (C) 1989.
Kilwa has been annexed to Venice, or more accurately to the Compagnia Africa dell’Est di Veneta; as a result, my trade income has shot up since I am now collecting considerable sums from Zanzibar. Which is not to say that I appreciate Egypt trying to join the action; interfering in another state’s comfy monopoly? It wouldn’t happen in libertarian utopia. Which is why I got myself some claims and threatened war if I didn’t get Damietta; much to my surprise, Egypt handed it over without a word. Very sad, for I was all fired up for a nice 1vs1 war with no Great-Power interference; just me, the Jackal’s pawn, and shots of the Long War fired at last. Instead we get this intrigue-and-diplomacy stuff, very thematic to be sure. “PLOTS THAT SPAN CENTURIES”, quoth he.
I was glad, therefore, to find Persia wanting help to invade India and get a couple of border provinces back. Tracing the trade, we find that Aden, which feeds both Alexandria and Zanzibar, gets money from Ceylon; having trade power in Ceylon, therefore, is my next logical step in building up my trade network in Asia, and the island is easily defensible for a naval power. It turned out that when Persia said ‘help’, he meant “actually show up with serious armies on the main fighting front” rather than, for example, “snipe some islands around the edges and blockade”, which is always my first inclination in war. But since I do in fact have an army, I marched to the sound of the guns and helped win some battles:
Battles of the Indian War.
From there we could surely have gone on to invade the Ganges River valley itself and bring Peshawar to its knees; but it turned out that Byzantium had pledged to defend the Indians, presumably on the principle of neighbours of neighbours being friends. Which was a bit embarrassing, because Byzantium has a largish army and is also my ally. He pointed out to me that he hadn’t been consulted on the Indian project; I pointed out to him that he hadn’t mentioned being an Indian ally. We compromised on both of us remaining formally in the war but not actively fighting. Unfortunately, Persia then walked his victorious army into an ambush at Thatta and got perhaps a fifth of it back. After various threats of intervention by powers from Siberia to the British Isles, a compromise peace was eventually hammered out by which Persia loses Delhi, which is hardly crippling. The causes of the war remain as before: The Indians hold territory that Persia considers rightfully his, and are not powerful enough that Persia cannot possibly do anything about it. It follows that a rematch will certainly occur.
Some ingame statistics, presented without comment.
Europe and the Middle East, 1524. Note the English occupation of Iberia.
The Indian Ocean, 1524.