In which there is technically a revolution that tears down the entrenched structures of power in Venetian society and shines a cleansing light into the dark corners where the mold of corruption has grown for centuries. From which it does not necessarily follow that any fundamental change takes place.
October 17th, 1893
Palazzo Aiello, Venezia
The sound of rifle fire was muted by the thick stone walls, but it couldn’t be escaped entirely; incessant, sputtering outbursts as one group or another took potshots across a canal, rising occasionally to angry crescendoes when some brave soul exhorted his comrades into rushing a bridge. It was not very intense, as these things went; Salomone had heard the distinctive snapping crack of the M1863 Retrocarica Fucile fired in half-company volleys by entire divisions, tens of thousands of bullets in a few seconds, with artillery support. A few dozen individual shots per minute didn’t really compare. But that had been in the Persian mountains, east of Suez and far from home. Rifle fire in Venice itself, in the back streets where he’d played as a child, bullets pockmarking the whitewashed walls and the marble statues, trenches dug through the gardens where he’d met his wife; that was something else again.
There had been a staff meeting after breakfast, and the cabinet would meet after dinner, but until then there was nothing for the Doge of Venice to do – or rather, there was an immense amount that should be done, but no way to accomplish it, since the rebels had cut off communication with the outside. Salomone refused to hold meetings or sit in his office merely to appear busy; there was no sense in attempting to generate orders and decisions that could not be sent to the men who would execute them. So the head of the seventh-largest state in the world ruled, in effect, a city-state smaller than the islands that made up Venice; the general who had led a hundred thousand men into Persia, and defended Baghdad with half that number, now commanded an improvised brigade of tenant militia, and held the canal crossings against a mob of workmen and anarchists. The army would win the civil war in Italy, or not; Salomone had no doubt that a relief column was marching for Venice even as he thought, or that the rebels were resisting its advance with every worker they could find a rifle for. But for the meantime there was a big hole in his day, that had once been filled by work.
The Palazzo echoed emptily as he restlessly walked the corridors, trying to think of something he could do. The men were at the front; the women were right behind it, filling cartridges, tending the wounded, doling out the carefully hoarded food. The children had been sent away when the rising broke out, except for a few hiding in the houses of loyal tenants; if the rebels came through the lines it would not be a good time to be a wealthy child. So Salomone was surprised, when he crossed the Bridge of Sighs to the Piombi. The ancient damp cells that had killed so many inconvenient Dandolo and Contarini patricians hadn’t been used to store humans for two centuries; and the servants were all fighting. So who were the men coming out of the deepest cell, the oubliette that had been reserved for the most annoying enemies and was now used to store potatoes?
With a rush of shocked relief, he realised that he knew them – the closest one was Eliezer, his grand-nephew, and the others were all hook-nosed Aiello faces, relatives, men whose names he could probably bring to mind given some minutes to think. Then he noticed the red armbands, and relief was replaced with dismay – but it was too late to try to hide, they’d seen him and could certainly run him down if they chose. Nothing for it but a bold front; he strode out to greet them, casual as though he had a hundred brigades right behind him.
“Good morning, Eliezer. What are you doing here?”
“Uncle Salomone,” Eliezer nodded politely. “Good to see you. I’ve brought some things you’ll need; firstly, information. I am about six hours ahead of the Milizia d’Lavoratori Porto di Ferrara.”
Salomone blanched; the most famous unit of the civil war – or infamous – and one of the best. He’d thought them safely contained in the siege of Milan – but then, he’d been out of touch for a month. If they were at even half the strength of his last report of them, his improvised brigade was about to be swept away.
“That is somewhat unfortunate,” he said calmly. “Why are you telling me? I thought you were on the other side.” He gestured at the red armbands, indicating allegiance to the Sinistra Veneta, the Venetian branch of the rebels.
“So we are,” said Eliezer. He waggled his hand, bob-bob-bob, to indicate that his statement, while true, required modification. “It doesn’t follow that we’re eager to have the Ferrara Militia dig through every part of the Palazzo Aiello.”
Salomone drew in his breath as comprehension dawned. The Ferrara branch of the communists were notoriously anti-Semitic. It was they who had added “and Jews” to the famous Milan Manifesto, containing the list of enemies of the people to be shot after the Revolution. “So you’re here to -” he stopped himself. Twelve men weren’t going to defend anything against the Ferrara Militia. “To present the Palazzo as already in the hands of the Revolution, and in no need of ransacking?” he guessed again.
Eliezer shook his head. “If I thought it would work, yes. The Ferrara Militia don’t go into battle without a stiff shot of whiskey; they’ll be roaring drunk by the time they get here, and not in the mood to listen to the local party cadre. Especially if the party cadre is just an Aiello class traitor out to save his own skin, yes?”
“And are you?” Salomone asked, curious. He understood the attraction of “kill the rich, take their stuff” for workmen who might earn a day’s dividends for Salomone in ten years; but it seemed a strange cause for wealthy Aiello to embrace. Eliezer smiled tightly, but shook his head.
“No. Or not only that. Would you believe, I’m actually motivated mostly by family loyalty?”
“Oh?” Salomone raised his eyebrows.
“If the communists win, and at the moment it looks rather good for them, they’ll start shooting capitalists. Excepting the ones who have useful skills and are willing to serve the Revolution. And who is going to make that determination? The party cadre, that’s who.” Eliezer’s smile grew cynical. “And who becomes cadre? Not the ones who just want to smash heads in street riots; no, the Revolution demands organisational skills, the ability to make a meeting agenda and stick to it, a certain amount of book-keeping…”
“I see.” Salomone’s mouth twisted in amusement. “Plus ca change…”
“No, no. In the Movement we all speak Italian; only the bourgeouis can afford to learn French. So we say, meet the capo nuovo, same as the capo vecchio. Providing the old boss plays his cards right, of course. The advantage of being a family of several thousand is, you can put a few people on both sides of the civil war, and end up on top no matter which side nominally wins.” Eliezer shrugged apologetically. “Though there’ll be a few sacrificial executions, of course.”
Starting with Salomone, presumably; he smiled back coolly. “Whichever side wins, yes. But if the Ferrara Militia finds out about -” he gestured in the direction of the Hidden Gate, unwilling to actually speak the secret outside the Inmost Chamber even when only Aiello could hear.
“Exactly,” Eliezer said. “And they’re certainly going to find the place, because they’ll know to look for it; because there turns out to be a secret door in every damn patrician’s palace in this city.”
Salomone blinked. “What?”
“Every. Damn. Palace.” Eliezer repeated. “Secret chambers. Catacombs. Mystery cults, or one cult, rather – seems to be the same one everywhere. Except us.”
Salomone licked his lips, surprised mostly by how unsurprised he was; so many things fell into place, that he had half-consciously known but never really thought about, if you assumed that there was a vast cultish conspiracy running through the wealthy families of Venice. “I see,” he breathed. “So you’re going to install some tapestries” – his eyes fell on the ones Eliezer’s men were carrying; even rolled up, the patterns made the gaze slide off the fabric – “some statues of animal-headed men, and make ours look like theirs. Disappear among the herd, as it were.”
“Precisely,” Eliezer said. “We can’t do anything about the mosaics, we don’t have time, but we can cover them up. Nobody’ll look too closely at these things.” He gestured to the tapestries, which were indeed obscurely horrible in a way Salomone could not put his finger on, but which he didn’t care to look closely at. “Chuck the menorahs and the books into chests, store them in the tunnel that leads into the oubliette – you can’t get in there unless you know exactly where to look. It won’t stand a really thorough investigation, but the thing about the dreaded Ferrara Militia is, they’re not all that bright and they’ll be more interested in finding some bourgeouis women. That’s why they’re not going to be in charge after the Revolution.”
“The cream rises to the top,” Salomone said drily.
“It might actually be useful not to have to get things through the Senate and the Thousand Committees,” Eliezer observed. “The family will survive, if we can just avoid the inevitable post-Revolutionary purge. Thrive, even. Rule! But we do need to avoid being exposed and slaughtered like those poor Jews in Milan.”
“Yes,” Salomone said decisively; not that he could have done anything to stop twelve young men, but it seemed Eliezer was still, somehow, wanting to persuade the head of the family that he was doing the right thing; that he wanted Salomone’s approval. Old habits died hard, perhaps, even in Revolutions. “You know where to go,” he said, nodding to the silent men who had followed Eliezer out of the oubliette; “but Eliezer, come with me. I want to show you something.”
“There is another secret,” he said as they walked back across the Bridge of Sighs. “Or not so secret, but known only to those Aiello who have some chance of succeeding me as Doge.”
“Only to men over fifty, in other words,” Eliezer observed.
“As you say. And now I will tell it to you; for if the rebels win, the greybeards will be shot, and the knowledge lost. And besides, who knows? Perhaps the title will not be ‘Doge’; but there will be someone in charge after this Revolution is over, and we can agree that that person should be an Aiello.”
“And a fair chance that I will be the man,” Eliezer said.
“Yes; and so I tell you this, which has been passed down from one head of the family to the next, for hundreds of years.” They had come to the Doge’s private chambers, furnished in green silk and ivory. Salomone moved a painting aside – an original Giovanni, worth perhaps ten thousand ducats at auction – to reveal an expensive and ultramodern safe built into the wall. “You know the combination, of course,” he said, and Eliezer nodded.
“Obviously,” he said. “One for the Word; seven for the Covenant; three for the coins of the Aiello arms.”
“And so would every Aiello guess,” Salomone noted. “Which is why nothing truly valuable is in there. Some gold, some jewels, some identity papers; bearer bonds drawn on banks in London, Berlin, and Delhi.” As he spoke he rotated the dials into position. “A few pistols, ammunition, knives. A map of Venice, including the tunnels and secret hiding places – though we’ll have to update that, perhaps.”
“A bugout stash,” Eliezer said, and Salomone nodded.
“Paranoid, perhaps. But then, in six hours I will be very glad of that paranoia, yes? However.” He reached in and moved the gold bars aside. “See this hole? Put your finger in; twist it thus, and hold for half a minute; then turn it the other way.” The back of the safe slid open, revealing a tiny chamber, no larger than Salomone’s head, cut into the bricks of the wall.
“Three for the coins,” Salomone observed, reaching into the space. “And here they are; the three bezants, the source of everything.” The coins lay quietly in his palm, glittering; each the size of a man’s fingernail, stamped with the head of a forgotten emperor; each with a tiny letter aleph cut into it by a later hand.
“Not very much gold, to be the seeds of a fortune larger than some countries,” Eliezer observed.
“True. But invested at ten percent a year – more than that, in the early days – over eight hundred years…” Salomone shrugged. The mathematics of compound interest were, if possible, even more thoroughly ingrained in the Aiello than the words of the Torah; when you got right down to it, there was no profit in Hebrew. He reached into the safe again, and drew out the knife. “And the other symbol; the knife that defends the coins. Virtu, as the gold was fortuna; and it took both, to build our business. Still does, as you know.”
“I know,” Eliezer said, reverently handling the coins, then putting them back.
“Symbols,” Salomone said. “Like that red armband you wear. Not actually important anymore; and yet, what would we be without these things? Just another wealthy patrician family, living off the dividends of investments made a century ago.”
“And dying, when the Revolution came,” Eliezer said.
“First against the wall,” Salomone agreed. “I had better not be here, when the Militia arrive.”
“Yes, go,” Eliezer said. “Take the bugout stash. The government still holds Ancona and the south; get there and you’ll be all right.”
“Fortuna e virtu,” Salomone said. “Communist revolutions be damned. As long as we have those, we’ll come out on top.”
It wasn’t my intent to have a Communist revolution succeed; but when they occupied Venice, I thought I had a year to retake it, instead of a year’s MTTH. However, now that the thing is done I, like Eliezer, see some advantages. For one thing I can finally control my industry and get some synergies going. And, of course, the hold of the Jackal over the minds of my ruling elite has been, at least, interrupted; which can only be good. Perhaps the Long War will come out into the open, now; and while it’s hard to fight a creature whose plots span centuries, it’s even harder when you don’t even know you are fighting.
It’s also quite difficult to fight a Great Power. During the week Baron, playing England, attempted to trade his Greek provinces for my African ones; to trade, in other words, his three-quarters of a million workers, with five factories, for my million-and-a-half, with ten factories and iron mines. I told him no; he decided that questions of justice do not arise between unequal powers, but instead the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. On the first day of the session England declared war; once again my armies were in the Levant and Italy was swiftly occupied. Germany had joined the war on my side; we were able to establish a line in the Alps and to retake a few Dalmatian provinces. But as for pushing back and retaking Italy, it was hopeless. At the third militancy-raising peace offer, we ceded most of Venetian Algeria. One of the reasons for the success of Communism in Venice is that classical liberalism has utterly failed to produce a credible defense of the Italian mainland, instead squandering blood and treasure in colonial adventures. “Italian blood for Italy’s defense” is the demand; and the rebels have, perhaps, got a point. There is a permanent defense line, now, across the Po plain; I do not say it would necessarily hold against a truly determined English attack, and of course a power with naval superiority can fairly easily outflank it, but at any rate the days of just marching through the peninsula unopposed are over.
I am rebuilding my army, but for everyone else adventurism is the order of the day; currently Denmark (with English help) is trying for bits of Japanese Indonesia, while Russia (with German help) is trying for bits of Japanese Siberia. Japan was subbed by oddman this session, and defended itself ably even without a navy; that is to say, all the islands that didn’t have an army sitting on them when the war started are occupied, some bits of Siberia are occupied, and Japan is still fighting. Japan’s permanent player has been away for some time now, and oddman cannot commit to playing every Sunday; if anyone wants to take a somewhat degraded Great Power and lead Asia to glory in the twentieth century, this might be a good time to speak up.
I realised afterwards that the conversation between Salomone and Eliezer would have been better if Salomone had been scrambling to evacuate the Palazzo Aiello and Eliezer had intended to kill him in addition to redecorating the Inmost Chamber. Then Salomone would bargain for his life, threatening to throw the coins and knife into a canal where they would undoubtedly be eaten by a shark and disappear from the knowledge of man; which would give me a chance to use the phrase “let my people go”. Unfortunately I don’t have time for a rewrite, but you are free to imagine the much better AAR that, unfortunately, didn’t make it through my fingers and onto the keyboard. I assure you it is a truly awesome one.
World map, 1892. Note the blood-red hue spreading into what was the peaceful and well-ordered garden of northern Africa.