October 5th, 1903
Casa del Popolo (formerly Palazzo Aiello), Venice
Salomone stood in what had been the Doge’s office – his office, once – with his hands clasped behind him; he looked critically at the walls, hung with maps and charts where there had been paintings by masters of the art. “You’ve redecorated”, he observed in a tone of mild criticism, doing his best to give the appearance of a man entirely unafraid for his life.
Eliezer smiled thinly. “There was a certain amount of regrettable collateral damage when the forces of the Revolution stormed the palaces of the exploiters. The surviving works of art are in the Gallerie del’Accademia now, where they can be enjoyed by all the people.” Or all the people who lived in Venice and had leisure to visit museums, at any rate; which was not likely to be a very large proportion of the workers with their six-day weeks of twelve hours a day. Still, Salomone had to grant that the number of workers who had seen, for example, Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Jackal” was probably not literally zero; and, yes, before the revolution that work had hung in the Palazzo Contarini and even an Aiello might have had some difficulty seeing it outside the season for dances.
Abandoning that line of thought as unfruitful, he got down to business instead: “Why did you want to see me?” He held his spine straight, ready for Eliezer to answer “so I could have you shot, of course”. He had a safe-conduct, which was written on paper and would not stop a bullet. The safe-conduct had been published in the major newspapers all over the world, and a reputation for keeping one’s word was still useful even to Communists; it wasn’t actively impossible that he would going back to his quiet exile in Berlin, as he had been promised. But Salomone would not have sold himself life insurance, if he were still in charge of the Aiello money.
Eliezer smiled, more genuinely this time. “You can relax, uncle; I was telling the truth when I said I wanted to ask you some questions in person. And no, letters would not do. I don’t trust the mail.”
Salomone blinked, relaxing slightly but not completely; he realised he wouldn’t be fully off his guard until he was back in his small apartment in Berlin, with the very large doorman and the unobtrusive squad of soldiers in the rooms below, courtesy of the German government. “You are Duce of the People’s Republic, and can’t get a courier you trust?”
“Not in this matter, no.” Eliezer’s mouth became a thin line. “When I redecorated, I had a grid of copper installed in the walls; I am assured, though I don’t understand the principle, that radio waves will get neither into nor out of this room. The mortar that covered up the copper was mixed with sea salt. There is a circle of silver inscribed in the floor, and another of iron just inside it; and again in the ceiling and each wall. Every morning I have the place blessed by a rabbi, and lightly sprinkled with salt, moly, and cloves. And, of course” – he waved his hand dismissively – “we are surrounded by men with guns, and we stand on an island in salt water. So if there is any place on Earth more secure than this, I do not know of it. That is why I wanted you to come here for this discussion, and went to such lengths to get you to agree.”
Salomone’s mouth had dropped open slightly during this recital; he closed it with a snap. A crawling dread went up his spine; was it possible his nephew – who commanded something like half a million soldiers and forty modern warships – was simply mad? He had agreed to this meeting partly because he was an old man and no longer valued his life much, howsoever the old instincts might make his heart run fast; and partly because it had been something to do, and time weighed heavy on the hands of a man who had commanded armies and nations, and now made his weightiest decision of each day when choosing where to dine. The safe-conduct, published in all the world’s countries, had seemed a reasonable shield for such a life, for all it was written on paper; the People’s Republic was not such a power as to completely ignore the public opinion of the large democracies, or to have no need for a reputation for keeping its word. But if Eliezer was mad, out of touch with reality, then those considerations did not apply; and however much he assured himself that his life was no longer valuable and there wasn’t much left of it anyway, Salomone found his mouth dry when he tried to speak.
“Well then – what was it you wanted to ask?” Salomone wasn’t going to touch the salt-and-iron bit with a stick; better to humour the madman, if such he was, take his delusions as given and get out of here with a whole skin. So long as he didn’t demand to know why Salomone had sold the Republic to the Georgian monks who had settled on the Moon, it should be possible to give reasonable answers and satisfy him, and get back to Berlin and deciding what cafe had the best wine, and never ever complaining about being bored again.
“Egypt,” Eliezer said, his eyes burning with intensity, and Salomone relaxed minutely; at least it was about something that actually existed. “What do you know about Egypt, uncle Salomone?”
“Not much,” Salomone was forced to admit; he cudgeled his brain for something better, to keep Eliezer from deciding that he was conspiring with the Egyptians and should be shot right away. “They were a Venetian ally for a long time; but even before the Revolution the status of that alliance was unclear – it hadn’t been tested in a century.” He cocked his head, thinking. “And just as well, too; the Egyptian army is notoriously bad, or was before the death of Pharaoh. Muzzle-loading muskets, if you can believe it.”
That was a mistake; Eliezer jumped like a shark going for a small fish. “Yes! Muzzle-loaders, like the ones the Indians issued; and a quarter of a million men under arms, to guard all the vast continent of Africa. Including Venice’s old possessions, the trading ports that made the Aiello wealth, the gold of Kilwa; and forts a day’s march from the Suez, the jugular vein of our empire. So why! Why, in the name of all profit, did you choose to attack India? Why did you not cross the Sinai, and blockade the Horn of Africa, and bring your army with the so-modern breechloaders to Sennar and impose terms on Pharaoh?”
Salomone blinked; attack Egypt? Why, you might as well – on second thought, he would have preferred the Moon Georgians; but he soldiered grimly on. “It’s not so easy to conquer a musket army as you might think, even if you have breechloaders,” he said dryly.
“Yes, uncle, I know that. And so do you, now; no man better, perhaps. But you didn’t know it then, or you wouldn’t have attacked India; and perhaps there would have been no Revolution. You believed the breechloaders would let you beat the Indians “like a drum”; your exact words. So why India, and not Egypt? Why the country with twice the army, and the Persian mountains to fight in, and nothing of any value within three hundred miles of our borders?”
“I – I -” there was a pounding pressure behind Salomone’s eyes, and he found himself at a loss for words. “You can’t attack Egypt!” he said at last, which was entirely unconvincing even to himself, but was also the truth. To his relief, it seemed to settle Eliezer, who sat down again with a grim smile.
“No,” his nephew agreed. “You can’t, apparently. Or at any rate nobody has done so, these two hundred years. Not since the Tapestry of Wars. And their army was weak even then.”
“I never thought -” Salomone was confused, and the pain in his head was not improving matters; just which of the two of them was mad, anyway? On the one hand, yes, Egypt clearly had been weaker than India, and had been a better target for some convenient annexations, and had no mountains to fight a grinding attritional campaign in and bring a superior army down by plain logistics. And on the other hand: “It never occurred to me,” he said. “I just – I didn’t think of it.”
“Indeed,” Eliezer said, nodding. “You didn’t; nobody else did, either. So why can I think of it?”
Salomone licked his lips. “Iron?” he suggested tentatively. “Silver, copper, salt, moly?”
Eliezer shook his head. “No. I installed the copper grid a year after the Revolution, when I first thought something might be eavesdropping; the other precautions are newer – moly only this past year, after I finally tracked down an unexpurgated copy of al-Hazred. Mostly useless, but he seems to actually have done a real experiment with moly; so I added it. Can’t do any harm, anyway. But that can’t have been the original difference.”
“Not the Secret Room, either,” Salomone said thoughtfully; the pain was receding. “Or I would have been protected.”
Eliezer waggled his hand, bob-bob-bob, to indicate a true statement in need of nuancing. “Yes and no,” he said. “You didn’t think of attacking Egypt. But you were able to hear it, even to think about it, when I suggested it to you. I’ve spoken to Contarini and Dandolo, and even the ones who hadn’t spent ten years in the camps just – they didn’t understand what I was talking about. They just stared at me blankly. I might as well have suggested invading the Moon.”
“And those secret rooms you found in their palaces…?”
Eliezer nodded. “Animal-men hybrids. Not the only thing, not even the most disgusting thing; but the one thing they all had in common, from Contarini to Ziani. And – I had some historians of art in to consult; they said they couldn’t quite put their fingers on any one decisive trait, but it [i]felt[/i] Egyptian. One of them’s in an asylum now.”
Salomone took a deep breath, and forced aside his image of himself as a modern man; it was good to be educated and rational, but not to the point where it got in the way of looking at actual evidence. Anyway, he was only having a hypothetical conversation with a man who might be mad, and trying to find the words that would get him out of this office alive; so what did he care whether he sounded superstitious or not?
“If we are talking about…” he trailed off, then forced himself over the hurdle, “magic, or alchemy, or even mysticism…” They were only words, after all. There was clearly something he didn’t understand; he might as well label it ‘magic’, to mark his lack of understanding. When he knew what it was he would find a better word. Eliezer nodded, encouraging him to go on. “And if symbols are important, as those animal-men statues might indicate – then we should look at what we have, that might have a symbolic or spiritual effect. And you were young, as these things go, when I gave you the gift of the Knife.”
Eliezer’s eyes widened. “The knife of my grandfather,” he said. “It has a new handle and a new blade. But it is the knife that protected the Aiello fortune when three bezants were all we owned in the world.”
“And the coins,” Salomone added. “I didn’t see them until I was fifty; you were what, twenty-five?”
“Yes.” Eliezer spoke abstractly, but after a few seconds he looked up decisively. “Thank you, uncle; I think you’ve filled in the last few pieces of the puzzle for me. I wonder if I can persuade the Army that a ritual with bread and salt would be good for morale?” He shook the thought off. “Later for that. I have my answer. You’ll be going back to Berlin?”
“I have tickets for tomorrow evening,” Salomone confirmed, dizzy with relief.
“I think you had best use them, so the world will know I kept my word. But if you wish, come back here. I’ll find a place for you on my staff. I need a man who understands the nature of the enemy.”
Salomone clenched his jaw; on the one hand the man was mad – and on the other, to have actual work again? Something useful to do, that wasn’t just waiting for death to come, or for the regime to crumble so he could be installed as a figurehead Doge by German bayonets? And then, perhaps Eliezer wasn’t mad at all; perhaps his reasoning seemed compelling because it was true, and not because it had the internal consistency of insane moonbat logic… or perhaps Salomone was forced to think so, because the offer of a position was so tempting.
“I’ll consider it,” he forced out, and Eliezer nodded.
“That is wise. But when you think, have salt and iron near to hand.”
Nothing much happened this session; Tazzzo has returned to Fox, his anger cooled by a free Containment peace against England, and Gollevainen has taken over Japan, leaving Russia unplayed and about to be ripped apart like a carcass thrown to hungry jackals. There is much rebellion, which is not very interesting; we are discussing means of reducing it. After a twenty-year hiatus Venice has a navy again, small by Great Power standards but perhaps enough to be at least a factor in the balance of power. And with the improvement in my factories now they are not being managed by insane moonbat logic, I am a Great Power again, pushing down Denmark at least temporarily; it remains to be seen whether I can keep it.
England is again at war with the American continent; Blayne, breaking his NAP, has joined Fox in attempting to contain the hegemon. The stopping power of the Atlantic protects them to the point that they are able to defy a power with 1400 brigades; I would not care to try it myself, at least not until there are mountains on my English border.
World situation, 1908.