In which two powerless exiles struggle to find ways to make their new lives meaningful.
April 18th, 1913
The journey had been exhausting in spite of the famous timeliness of German railways – all the more true of special government trains with closed windows and armed guards, that didn’t stop at any station – but Salomone’s weariness manifested as a strange glassy clarity, with everything seeming sharp-edged and obscurely significant; he wasn’t the least sleepy. Instead he had to suppress laughter as he reentered the apartment building where he had spent his years in exile, and that he was now likely to die in; for Eliezer, of course, had been given the apartment next to his.
“Trust the German government to put both its ex-Doges in one house. A place for everything, and everything in its place!”
“Makes the security easier,” Eliezer pointed out; the younger man showed no sign of the bubbling laughter that rose up in Salomone’s breast. “This is all?” He looked about the apartment with disfavour; Salomone remembered his own reaction, when he had first come from the Palazzo Aiello to these three rooms, and said nothing. Eliezer sat down, heavily, in the couch that faced the fireplace; though his slumped body spoke of exhaustion, he showed no sign of getting up and going to his own apartment to sleep. Perhaps it would feel like finally accepting that he was an exile now, that the part of his life where his word could set half a million men in motion was over; perhaps he merely lacked the energy to think of it.
“So what did you do, the last time you lived here?” Eliezer finally asked, breaking a long silence.
“Very little,” Salomone admitted. “It wasn’t just because I trusted your word that I came back to Venice. If you’d decided to shoot me – oh well.”
“I saw that, yes. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely your own thought.” Eliezer sat for a moment. “I am perhaps more fortunate; I’ve got an enemy that can be fought even from exile.”
“Yes, well.” Salomone’s mouth twisted. “Remember Chiano?”
“I do,” Eliezer said. “But then, he didn’t know what he was up against. He thought he lived in a universe created by a rational god for humanity! So I won’t make his mistakes. No whining about bad luck; no complaints about the mad stubbornness of the other side. Just quiet talk with my good friends in the German government, and others; a man who has been Doge of Venice is not entirely without influence. People will listen, at least, so long as I don’t look like I’m just plain mad. And after all, is what I’ll say so crazy? Egypt has no friends in the world, that I know of; nor does any other nation; no friendships, only interests. But Egypt has nobody who considers their army a boon to national interest; and everyone is always interested in territory. It’s only unnatural influence that has kept it isolated.”
“Perhaps true; but what’s to prevent that unnatural influence from causing treaties of mutual defense to be signed, and the Black Army to be regarded as the guarantor of peace in Europe?”
“Yes… I don’t know.” Eliezer’s eyes were closed. “Perhaps it’s hopeless. But what can I do except try? The other option being, sink down into hopeless despair to the point where I’ll return from exile when a dictator invites me, at the risk of my life, merely for something to do.”
“Salt and moly and iron,” Salomone mused. “Perhaps… could you start a fashion for cold-wrought iron cufflinks? Moly flowers as hat decorations for women? Salt… I don’t know what to do about salt. Some kind of cheap jewelry?”
“Perhaps. Fashions run their course soon enough, and then what? Though I suppose governments might like those Faraday cages for important buildings, and there’s no reason they can’t be made of iron, it’s almost as conductive as copper…” Eliezer was trailing off, clearly about to go to sleep in Salomone’s couch; then he shook his head and sat up, snapping himself awake. “And what will you do, to fill your twilight years? How will you fight the Long War, now that you know you’re in it?”
“I’ll write a play, of course.”
Eliezer blinked. “A play? About what?”
That bubbling laughter was back, but Salomone suppressed it. “About two men in exile, living in neighbouring apartments kindly provided by a government that thinks it useful to keep them around – just in case it ever needs a figurehead for an installed regime. About how they scheme to fill their days; to outwit their comically-dim hosts on allowances and visitors and security. Capitalist and communist are forced to work together in the feelgood comedy of the year!”
Eliezer’s lips twitched, very slightly. “You’ll have plenty of inspiration for the comically dim part, anyway.”
“The main plot will be their scheme to return to their country and rule it again; each of them, of course, cooperating with the other against the current government, but secretly maneuvering to be the one to become Doge, or Duce as it may be, after they win. And at the end, they get the word that there’s been another revolution, but too early, so they’ve missed their chance to go back and lead it; and the Doux they’ve been plotting against arrives and is installed in the third apartment. A place for everyone, and everyone in their place! Exiled heads of state included.”
“And what will it be called, this masterpiece of comedy?”
“Ah, there’s a question. Waiting for Doux, perhaps. Or Third Time’s the Farce. Something with a pun in it.”
“You’ve decided to surrender, then, in the Long War; and make a separate peace.” Eliezer had lost interest, and settled back into the couch, eyes closed; his face was drawn and lined, without the energy that usually animated it.
“Not a bit,” Salomone said, and Eliezer opened his eyes, raising his eyebrows inquiringly.
“In a play you can say things that can’t be said seriously. You can’t make people believe it; but you can introduce an idea, give them a short phrase for it, make it a concept available to their minds. So if the villain is an Egyptian sorcerer, and his magics can be warded off by iron and moly and salt – well, at least the idea will enter the public discourse, if the play is successful.”
Eliezer shrugged, rising at last to find his bed. “Or you may make it the kind of thing that only people who take fiction too seriously talk about. But, yes, that would be better than having it only in competitively-obscure alchemical texts. Anyway we have plenty of time to think about it, now. What is there for an exiled Doge, except time?”
After enduring five or six increasingly large Jacobin rebellions – largely over the issue of public meetings, apparently; the POPs wouldn’t listen when I told them they were welcome to have public meetings so long as the Popolo in Armi could have machine-gun practice at the same time – I decided that, as army units were starting to go over, I would eventually be ground down and forced back to democracy. Not wanting to lose my army to rebellion in the process, I left Venice open and democratised on the next rising, in what will no doubt be known as the Venetian Spring; since then I’ve only had half a dozen minor nationalist rebellions, easily dispersed by my now-loyal troops of the restored Milice di Venezia. However, the elected government turned out to be dogmatically laissez-faire, and went through a disastrous privatisation process in which the guild-owned factories were sold to wealthy oligarchs – most of them with surnames beginning in ‘A’, oddly enough – at knockdown prices, “make it privately-owned” being a higher priority than “ensure the process is fair” or, absent gods forbid, “maintain an economy in being”. Consequently, roughly half my industry went bankrupt (no subsidies, thanks liberals) and I dropped two positions in the power ranking, and way out of any possibility of disputing the sixth Great-Power slot with Denmark. I confess I am a bit disgusted with the Victoria economic system, such as it is, just now.
I consoled myself by grabbing bits of Russia, but every other Power in the world had got some too and to be honest the resistance to the virile and penetrating thrust of my armies, even into the Persian highlands, felt rather loose and sloppy. Still, as they say, there’s no such thing as bad territory.
World map, 1917. Note the half-completed partition of Russia. Venezia-oltre-il-Mare looks like a tortured ghost, and remnant Russia like an angry monster coming to eat it, that bit of Germany being its mouth and Lake Aral its eye.