When the boy is eight days old, he passes through the Hidden Gate for the first time, and in the Inmost Chamber he is cut, very slightly, with a knife, so that three drops of blood trickle from his foreskin. This is done in token of the ancient Covenant of his people with their god, without making a visible and obvious alteration in his penis that might, in later years, betray the secret. When he dies, if the body can be recovered – and the Aiello go to great lengths to ensure that all their men return, in the end, to Venice – the foreskin will be entirely cut off, so that he may tell his god that he has fully met his obligation; the Aiello, like their deity, are great believers in the letter of contracts, and in delivering precisely what is due and not an ounce more.
The second time he enters the Inmost Chamber is around his thirteenth birthday, when three respected elders of the family – who are not his grandparents nor their siblings, nor any closer relation – all separately testify that they believe in his ability to keep the secret. The precise age varies; a few prodigies have been admitted as early as ten years of age, and some clowns and pranksters, or boys who otherwise made themselves unpopular with their elders, have had to wait until sixteen – in one famous case, eighteen. (A later consensus agreed that the elders had been unduly influenced by the episode of the salted wine cask, and should have reconsidered their grudge earlier. The boy in question went on to command the expedition that founded the Venetian colony in Australia, and administered it so ably that the colony was able to hold its own, without help from the motherland, in several sharp wars with the competing English settlements – not to mention sending home regular shipments of gold.) Some, sufficiently dull or careless, never gain the Hidden Gate, and go to their deaths not knowing that the Aiello are anything but what they seem, the foremost family of Venice. These unfortunates are the ones the Aiello send to administer dusty trading posts in minor African ports, or to lead regiments – not armies – in grinding Mideastern wars.
On his second visit the boy is told the great secret, and swears on his life – indeed, on the life of every member of the family down to the unborn child in the womb – never to reveal it; he is taught the words of praise and faith that are to be said every day, and in the hour of his death. He then begins to study the old language, and the sacred law and the centuries’ worth of rulings and commentaries; he learns to make hair-fine distinctions, and the importance of the precise words and the exact meeting of obligation, with not an ounce over or under. When he has learned enough, or when his parents feel it is time that he make his way in the world, he enters the Inmost Chamber for the third time, and his elders examine his knowledge of the law; after this, he is considered an adult, and may participate in all the rituals held beyond the Hidden Gate. It is not possible to formally fail this examination, since it is sufficient to answer a single question correctly and one of the questions is always “what are the words of praise and faith?” But to do well, to answer difficult questions without stumbling, is a point of pride for the boy and his parents, and a source of prestige in later years; those who master obscure areas of the law, or have insights that impress the judges, will find themselves sent to prosperous outports, assigned to important factories, or given preferment in matters of Navy patronage. They are also the ones who, when at home in Venice, are considered “the youngest” for the purpose of asking the four questions on the night different from other nights – sometimes well into their twenties. As for the rest of the liturgical year, all adult men may participate, but it is the clever students and incisive lawyers who lead the rituals and gain prestige and visibility by doing so; the Aiello family, like all large organisations, has its internal politics, and the man whose character happens to be suited for the studies that are officially admired is at an advantage in his struggle for preeminence.
In their twenties and thirties the Aiello are rarely in Venice, for the family does not believe in sitting about drawing its dividends and rents; every boy, once he has passed his examination (or when his parents sadly decide that he will never enter the Inmost Chamber) is sent out to take charge of some part of their trading empire – or of Venice’s thalassocratical one; the distinction is not so strictly observed, in this third century of Aiello Doges, as it once was. To rise through the Navy’s ranks, to command an important garrison (or a neglected one, or worst of all, Damietta) in Venezia-oltre-il-Mare, to be the chief factor of a warehouse serving the trade routes across the Indian Ocean, these are the careers of Aiello males. Far-flung, most of them, often somewheres East of Suez, where a man can raise a thirst; the ones who come back – not all do; the Indian Ocean is not noted for its rules on workplace safety – are no longer boys. Most of them have seen action, if only to defend their warehouse in a riot against the foreign merchants; some have fought battles with half a dozen ships on either side, against pirates and privateers and enterprising officers of foreign navies, who are not above supplementing their regular pay with a little plunder. The convention in Europe is that there is no peace beyond Africa; on the Indian Ocean each ship’s captain is a sovereign, and the ones who fail to defend their wooden kingdoms suffer the fate of all doomed dynasties.
When they return to Venice, sometime in their early forties, they are usually wealthy men in their own right; most have lived off their wages, and let their dividends pile up at interest, or invested it into trading on their own account, or in shares in other people’s mercantile ventures. Twenty years of compound interest, operating on a twentieth of a percent of the dividends paid on so vast a trading network as the Aiellos’ – at any given time there are perhaps two thousand adult males with the right to receive a share – tends to produce a fortune impressive even by the standards of a Venetian gentilhuomo. In addition, many men inherit their fathers about this time, getting a share of an estate that has had another forty years of accumulation. The least of the Aiello, the saying goes, can buy a king; and if that is not precisely true, it is only because the market in kings is somewhat overheated, due to all the non-least Aiello striving to get one to show off their wealth! The ones who cannot afford a king often buy, instead, a French noble rank (either from the rump state that the Shrewsburys keep around to administer the wine country, or directly from the English viceroyalty) or a Byzantine peerage – the precise title does not matter so much, nor whether it comes with any actual privileges, just so long as it has a suitably impressive patent, laden with official seals and ringing phrases (“the Senate and the People” is especially popular), that can be hung on the wall to show that its owner is a man of consequence. For this is the time when the Aiello marry; the brown-skinned women they usually acquire on their travels are stashed in a separate wing of the mansion they build or inherit, and they go courting among the notable families of Europe. In Italy it is considered a coup to have your daughter marry an Aiello, and those who intend to go looking inside Venice’s borders often skimp on the noble title; but in Germany, in England, and in Byzantium, where the cosmopolitan Aiello often go looking for wives, mere wealth counts for less – especially if it was made in trade.
It does sometimes occur that an Aiello will insist on marrying the girl he met East of Suez, ignoring what is customary and proper. In so doing he usually gives up his chance of being invited to the very best parties; but Venetian high society has few other means of making its displeasure known. What sanctions can one impose on a man who can buy a king? His relatives, it is true, may snub him with more effect; it is a rare man who will lightly alienate his siblings and parents. But the Aiello judge wives, in the main, by how likely they are to be able to keep the secret, to be admitted within the sanctum and continue the rituals of the secret faith. Cosmopolitan or not, they are not entirely immune to the opinions of their age; there have, no doubt, been some women of Zanzibar and Oman who died ignorant of the Hidden Gate, who would have entered within it if their birthplace had been in Europe. But for a sea wife to sufficiently captivate her man that he will bring her home to marry is unusual, and indicates rare qualities in her; most such women, in the end, will enter the Inmost Chamber. It has even been known for a Jewish woman of the Orthodox sects to marry outside her faith – to the scandal, no doubt, of her family – publicly convert to Christianity, and later sit kaddish in secret, having discovered that her public conversion was a sham and that her husband shared her original faith all along! In truth, most Jews would consider the Aiello as heretics, bordering on apostates, if they were told the precise nature of their observance; but they could, perhaps, agree that their god enjoys irony.
In their retirement from active trading and military careers, the pastime of the Aiello tends to be politics – Venetian, family, and – if they play the first two well enough – international. It is not, by any means, an invariable rule; in a group that over three centuries has included ten thousand men, there are bound to be many exceptions to any trend. There have been Aiello who preferred to garden, or gamble, or raise their children; even a few eccentrics who built mansions in quiet mainland cities, and spent the rest of their lives being big Aiello frogs in tiny Italian ponds. But most Aiello make at least a pro-forma attempt at election, appointment, or lottery to the Senate, the Council of One Hundred and Twenty-Three, the Guildmasters’ Committee, or one of the many other civic bodies Venice has accumulated over the centuries. Most have lost any formal power they once had, or can legally command only narrow technical subjects such as sewers or canal-dredging; but formal power is not everything. Men have launched successful bids for the Dogeship, or been grey eminences within the city, while their only formal powerbase has been a seat on the zoning committee. Conversely, election to the Senate has sometimes proved an empty honour, for though you can give every Senator equal rights to speak, you cannot make them equally compelling orators.
For most, Venetian politics is a hobby, a social club which, though it may occasionally drive a new canal through a poor district or rezone a social rival’s warehouse as residential, exists mainly as an excuse to fill rooms with smoke and stories of “when I was East of Suez”. Those who really master the skills, however, may rise to treat as equals with European nobles; at the very top, the Doge of Venice is not considered the least among the world’s sovereigns. Although the position is in principle open to anyone who wishes to stand for election, even (in abstract legal theory) to the confessed Jews of the ghetto, it has been many centuries since any but an Aiello was elected; and longer still since any of them announced his candidature without first receiving the gift of the knife. The family politics of the Aiello, therefore, become magnified into geostrategic significance; and where Venetian politics tend, for lack of high stakes, to be laid-back and genteel, the scramble for internal status within the family has at times been literally cutthroat.
Most men will eventually tire of this; those who do not reach the pinnacle of power generally retire from the fray sometime around their sixtieth birthday. If they reach their allotted threescore and ten, they most often spend their final decade studying the sacred law, sitting within the Inmost Chamber where they can discuss it freely with others of a like mind. It is these elder Aiello who form most of the congregation when the old rituals are upheld, and who sit in judgment over the young boys to decide whether to tell them the secret.
Child, student, scholar; trader, lover, politician, elder: These are the seven ages of the Aiello.
Our final Europa session is more than a month ago as I write, and my memory of it is somewhat dimmed. Two things stand out: I build a lot of buildings in the hope of converting well, and I started a war with Byzantium partly to pick up some more Mideastern land (I hoped to connect my Suez holdings to my Persian ones) and partly because finding new places to put buildings is not that inspiring, considered as gameplay. The Byzantine war soon became a grinding attritional affair through the Balkan mountains, which, however, I’m reasonably sure I could have won by the simple expedient of using my navy to outflank successive defensive lines, if not for the intervention of 1836 and conversion time. The war continues into Victoria, which will give me something to do other than build factories in my first session; on the other hand it will also absorb sorely-needed investment capital. Perhaps a compromise peace can be reached; on the other hand, perhaps it is time to reunite the two successor states to the glory that was Rome. There’s a lot of cheap labour in the Balkans, in Anatolia, and in Persia that is not being exploited efficiently; corvees and conscription, if you can believe it! I may have to drag them kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century; everyone knows that factory jobs, with taxes so you can pay for mercenaries, is a much more efficient way to run an extractive state.
World map, 1834. Not 1836 because the Hound has corrupted our hosts and GMs and their raddled brains, lost to love and truth, are no longer capable of posting the dang endsave – this is also why no screenshots of the Greek war, it has only just started in the latest save I have – but the borders won’t have changed in those two years.