Men have called them the true lords of the land, and worshipped them in alabaster temples; men have thrown stones and curses, and broken eggs and nests when they could find them. It is no matter; the vultures know nothing and care less for what men think, and they survive, always. Even when there is no war in the land – and it is long and long, even by human lifetimes, since armies marched across Venezia-oltre-il-Mare – there is always something to eat, if you are indiscriminate enough. A stringy goat, a starved feral dog, a mule escaped from its masters and dying for its freedom. Enough to scrape by, decade after decade; sufficient, for a species that demands little of the world.
The vultures have forgotten, if they ever knew, why they draw together. But the species knows what the individuals forget, and the instinct moves the wings towards the scent and the sound, towards the place where men are gathered in a great host. They carry spades and not muskets, but the vultures care nothing for that; and their old instinct is true, though it is five thousand years since the pyramids were built that formed it.
Where men come together for a great work, of war or of peace, there will be food for the vultures.
April 10th, 1795
Near Damietta, Venezia-oltre-il-Mare
There were buzzards overhead; there always were. Salomone ignored them, as men always ignore the specter of death; what was the use of dwelling on it? He had long since given up the thought of going home, and felt only an abstract curiosity on what would cause him to leave his bones in this desert: Dysentery, heatstroke, the shivering fever, the madness – it was all one in the end, how you came to die in the wilderness. Meanwhile there was the great work to be done.
“Ten more cases today,” his aide Tomasso reported, and Salomone nodded, mentally reviewing the work schedule; ten was about the average, so there were no adjustments to make. “Any foremen?” he asked, and was mildly cheered when there weren’t; at least he wouldn’t have to promote any more hopeful teenagers. Somehow they still had the power to move him, when they ran off excitedly to write home to their families; promotion, responsibility, extra pay to feed the large flock of siblings – and a month later, or two perhaps, a small bundle of clothes, the last pay packet, a crucifix, and a job open for the next younger brother. It wasn’t so bad with the workmen, whom he could reduce to a blur of olive-brown faces and slight figures; but he had to know the foremen’s names to work effectively with them, and break bread with them once a day. Lots of quick promotion, on ten deaths a day, he thought mordantly. But not today, apparently.
In accordance with the custom, he presided over the brief burials before the work of the day began: The bodies put in the shallow ditch that had been dug the night before – the last thing done before the lanterns were doused; enough dirt shoveled over them to keep the vultures away for a while, at least until the camp moved on; words spoken in Latin by the black-clad priest. The men listened in respectful silence, as they always did; they knew well enough that it might be them, tomorrow or next week. Later in the day there would be black humour and nervous jokes; but for these ten morning minutes they kept their silence, giving the courtesy that they would want for themselves when their turn came.
Usually Salomone kept his mouth shut, confining himself to silently showing that he understood what the work was costing. After all it was he and his who would be drawing the dividends when ships could sail through the desert and pay their tolls, and he did not like to presume too much similarity between himself and the workmen. But today, perhaps because no foremen had died for some time, he felt a desire to say something, to try to explain.
“I have been here a year,” he said, and the stirring of men preparing to leave for the day’s tasks stilled. “A year, and eight miles, and three thousand dead. A man dead for every five yards we’ve dug.” He saw mute horror on Tomasso’s face, and several of the men blanched; though they could hardly have avoided knowing about the death rate, perhaps they had not done the arithmetic, as he had, and realised what a man’s death would accomplish. He soldiered on, nonetheless; what were they going to do, down tools and leave?
“Some of you, perhaps, have been here longer than I; but not, I think, very many. And I think you all know, that not everyone who stands here will live to see the day the waters break through and ships sail the desert. But there are only ten miles left, now, to the sea. Ten miles; a year, if we dig hard. Some of us will see The Day. And we will remember; and we will be remembered. As long as men go down to the sea in ships, they will speak of us, who made sea where there had been land; and raise a glass to the men who died for their ease and comfort, at five yards a death. For we are doing a Great Work, such as has not been seen in this land, or any land, for five thousand years; and not for the vanity of dead kings, but so that men might sail freely. And I tell you this: When Pharaoh built the pyramids, the slaves who made bricks without straw died nameless; we honour them, yes, but we must say “the slaves” or “the workers”, for we do not know their names. But our future shall know the name of every man who dies, and every one who lifted a spade to dig the Grand Canal. For we are all written into our books, the books of the Republic and of the Aiello both; and though we die we shall not die nameless.”
There was silence, only the sound of hundreds of men breathing in unison. For ten breaths, a dozen, the tableau held. Then a man turned, and hoisted his spade, and began to walk towards the great ditch that would become a Grand Canal; and others followed, still in utter silence. Salomone hardly knew what he had expected, but this non-reaction wasn’t it; he felt an urge to run after them to ask if they had understood, if his words had helped or harmed, if they were scorning the idea that not dying nameless was important. But he held his tongue, and the men went about their work silently.
April 10th, 1795
Near Damietta, Venezia-oltre-il-Mare
“We found another,” Tomasso said, without preamble, and Salomone felt a jolt of excitement course through him, though he wasn’t sure why. He knew, without asking, what they had found another of: Another buried temple, of course, another ancient fane where long-dead gods had shed the tranquil tears of tragic joy. There would be more cases of the madness, this next week; men running off into the desert “looking for something”, men seeing ecstatic visions and refusing to take food or water until they keeled over in the heat, men who simply disappeared in the night. That happened every time they uncovered one of the little shrines built in black obsidian inlaid with alabaster runes that shed the eyes; but in spite of the anticipated pain of loss, Salomone felt eager to see the place himself, to look for – something. “Was it there?” he asked, not sure what he meant; but Tomasso seemed to understand.
“This,” he said, holding up a necklace from which a cross hung, the size of Salomone’s thumb, wrought in a silvery metal he did not recognise. No – not a cross; the top was an oval. An ankh, ancient symbol of life and resurrection in Egypt; older than Christianity, older perhaps even than Salomone’s faith from which Christianity had been born.
“Yes,” Salomone said. “That’s it.” He did not understand, consciously, what he was talking about; but he knew, somehow, that the great work was done, in this place ten miles from the coast.
“Hassan found it,” Tomasso said, and Salomone nodded. “Then let him go; let him take it south,” he said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world that a poor workman, an Arab at that, should be entrusted with a valuable artifact and sent off somewhere as courier. But of course he would not fail in his charge; that was unthinkable, though Salomone was not sure precisely what his charge was, or how he knew that Hassan would go exactly where he was wanted.
Tomasso nodded and left to give the ankh back to Hassan, and Salomone felt something leave him; some certainty that had driven him this past year, something that had caused him to ignore the vultures, to shrug fatalistically at dysentery and heatstroke and shivering fever. Had he really thought that it was the Grand Canal that was worth so many lives? He contemplated the remaining ten miles to the sea, fifteen months and four thousand deaths perhaps, and shuddered. Men going down to the sea in ships, indeed; let them dig their own damn canals, if they wanted so badly to save a few months’ sailing. As for him, he would leave for Venice at first light; and was it only this morning he had thought “down tools and leave” as though it might be “grow wings and fly”?
A great work, indeed; something had been completed, today, whose planning had spanned centuries… but the canal that connected the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, that would tie the far-flung net of Venice’s eastern possessions to the motherland and cut six months off the journey, was not it. Perhaps he had known, and refused to understand; perhaps he had truly believed it was the Canal that was the Great Work; it hardly mattered now. Ten miles from the sea, and the task for which he had come to the desert was finished.
And if he were lucky, he might be allowed to leave.
The Suez Canal is complete, and my ships have made their final six-month trip around Africa. Apart from this, the session was dominated by the fall of Fandango, which fell victim to that enduring killer of empires: Its player lost interest, missed two sessions, and the jackals descended. It turned out that the AI was actually pretty formidable with most of India and Indochina to draw on, and with several godly generals it put up a good fight both against me and the other scavengers; in the end, nonetheless, I exited with Muscat and Hormuz, and thus control of the Persian Gulf trade. My trade income is up about 50%. I also fought a brief campaign in Egypt against his merchant rebels, which I’m sure Kuipy will spin as some sort of culmination of a plot spanning centuries. The reason all his forts were mothballed at the time is that it’s a particularly cunning plot.
The world, 1795. Not least of the crimes for which London shall burn is the repeated failure to upload the endsave after the session, forcing me to use midsession saves for my world-map screenshots.