• Crusader Kings III Available Now!

    The realm rejoices as Paradox Interactive announces the launch of Crusader Kings III, the latest entry in the publisher’s grand strategy role-playing game franchise. Advisors may now jockey for positions of influence and adversaries should save their schemes for another day, because on this day Crusader Kings III can be purchased on Steam, the Paradox Store, and other major online retailers.


    Real Strategy Requires Cunning

Idhrendur

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So I just wanted to give an update to all my readers. I am getting ready to deploy with my unit in the next few weeks and we are getting toward the end of our work-up. It has been hectic and busy and the reason why I have been so sporadic with my updates. Most of the free time that I get is on the weekends and most of those I have spent with my family. Once we actually go overseas that free time will dwindle even further and be supplemented with very limited internet access. So, for the next 6-7 months updates to this AAR will be very few and far between, and I can't really promise there will be any at all depending on the tempo we maintain through the deployment. I do love writing this AAR and I think continuing that, even if it is just with paper and pen, may be a good stress release so I will likely work on it regardless of if I am actually able to get it up on the forum. I definitely want to continue it when I get back, so even if there are zero updates between now and the middle of next spring I absolutely intend for it to go on. I am trying to get one more update in before I leave, but I can't make any promises.
Thanks for letting us know! We'll be here once you return.
 

Casko

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Thanks for letting us know it'll not be dead even if updates will be not here for long time.
I'm certain you'll have all your readers waiting for your return.
 

Bullfilter

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So I just wanted to give an update to all my readers. I am getting ready to deploy with my unit in the next few weeks and we are getting toward the end of our work-up. It has been hectic and busy and the reason why I have been so sporadic with my updates. Most of the free time that I get is on the weekends and most of those I have spent with my family. Once we actually go overseas that free time will dwindle even further and be supplemented with very limited internet access. So, for the next 6-7 months updates to this AAR will be very few and far between, and I can't really promise there will be any at all depending on the tempo we maintain through the deployment. I do love writing this AAR and I think continuing that, even if it is just with paper and pen, may be a good stress release so I will likely work on it regardless of if I am actually able to get it up on the forum. I definitely want to continue it when I get back, so even if there are zero updates between now and the middle of next spring I absolutely intend for it to go on. I am trying to get one more update in before I leave, but I can't make any promises.
All the very best of luck on deployment, such well written work will surely always find an avid readership on this forum. Bon voyage.
 

Bullfilter

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And I have just nominated you for Character WritAAR of the Week (I know you got the award back in May, but enough time had passed and I wanted to be able to give your AAR an award). You will see from the nomination post that I fully understand if you won't have the time to search for a successor: no sweat, we can look after it if you are pressed for time or already headed off. Just wanted to give you a well-earned 'bon voyage' award!
 

Nikolai

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So I just wanted to give an update to all my readers. I am getting ready to deploy with my unit in the next few weeks and we are getting toward the end of our work-up. It has been hectic and busy and the reason why I have been so sporadic with my updates. Most of the free time that I get is on the weekends and most of those I have spent with my family. Once we actually go overseas that free time will dwindle even further and be supplemented with very limited internet access. So, for the next 6-7 months updates to this AAR will be very few and far between, and I can't really promise there will be any at all depending on the tempo we maintain through the deployment. I do love writing this AAR and I think continuing that, even if it is just with paper and pen, may be a good stress release so I will likely work on it regardless of if I am actually able to get it up on the forum. I definitely want to continue it when I get back, so even if there are zero updates between now and the middle of next spring I absolutely intend for it to go on. I am trying to get one more update in before I leave, but I can't make any promises.
Thanks for letting us know.:) Go take on those terrorists and come back whole and sound.:)
 

roverS3

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@JerseyGiants88 your deployment has allowed me to catch up and read this epic tale from the start to the last update. This has to be one of the most gripping AAR's I've ever read. I only found out about it recently and had no trouble finding time to read all of it in short order. I hope your deployment goes well, and that this epic tale of Italian greatness can continue. I feel like my own modest narrative endeavours pale in comparison to this masterpiece, and that's a good thing. If anyone deserves to win the "Best Character Writer of the Week" awAARd twice in one year, and for the same AAR, it is you. Consider me subscribed, probably forever.

Thank you @Bullfilter for pointing me towards this AAR. If I haven't been updating mine, it's because I have been reading this instead...

RoverS3
 

Bullfilter

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@JerseyGiants88 your deployment has allowed me to catch up and read this epic tale from the start to the last update. This has to be one of the most gripping AAR's I've ever read. I only found out about it recently and had no trouble finding time to read all of it in short order. I hope your deployment goes well, and that this epic tale of Italian greatness can continue. I feel like my own modest narrative endeavours pale in comparison to this masterpiece, and that's a good thing. If anyone deserves to win the "Best Character Writer of the Week" awAARd twice in one year, and for the same AAR, it is you. Consider me subscribed, probably forever.

Thank you @Bullfilter for pointing me towards this AAR. If I haven't been updating mine, it's because I have been reading this instead...

RoverS3
Nicely said @roverS3! Wasn't wrong, was I? :D
 

EmperorofMordor

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Wow. I just finished reading through this and it’s fantastically written. I’m sorry to hear that there’ll be less in terms of updates in the future but look forward to each one with great anticipation. Consider me subbed.
 

Bullfilter

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Wow. I just finished reading through this and it’s fantastically written. I’m sorry to hear that there’ll be less in terms of updates in the future but look forward to each one with great anticipation. Consider me subbed.
Pretty amazing isn’t it? We hope and trust the Jersey Giant will be back and writing again in a few short months. :)
 

Iwantdumplings

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It's amazing to think that one can put such depth into an EU game. Like everyone else, I look forward to a splendid return.
 

JerseyGiants88

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Wow! Thanks everyone for the very kind words. I'm glad so many of you are able to enjoy this AAR. From my own perspective it's been very fun to write and knowing that there are actually others reading is a huge bonus. Anyway, I am putting the finishing touches on the next update which I've been working on. It's going to a historical vignette and I also have the next chapter update in the chute after that. I try to put work into it when I have some free time and am currently in the process of transferring stuff from notebook to computer which will go into future updates. Hoping to get it up in the next 2-3 days depending on what we have going on over here. Thanks again everyone for reading.
 

Bullfilter

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Great to have you back JG! And writing too :)
 

JerseyGiants88

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Historical Vignette 20: Amsterdam, 5 December 1599


Margherita dé Medici, Princess of Reggio and Lady of Canossa, rode into camp trailed by three attendant ladies and two armed guards. She may be a princess of the royal blood surrounded by soldiers of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, but a military camp was never a place to skimp on security. To the west, Amsterdam, the once proud capital of the Dutch Republic, burned. The smell of burning timber, and the sounds of a city enduring a sack, hung over the Tuscan camp.

In the early morning hours of the previous day, Massimiliano del Rosso, commander of the Reggimento di Canossa, Margherita’s own regiment, which she’d paid for and outfitted herself, took a group of men over the walls, fought their way to the Regulierspoort, and opened it for the Austro-Tuscan army waiting without. Now, the soldiers from both armies were enjoying the fruits of their conquest. While the princess shuddered to think of the horrors occurring within the walls, she was nonetheless filled with pride that it had been her men, her brave captain, who won the siege.
https://i.imgur.com/swYtqdk.jpg


Margherita dé Medici, Lady of Canossa and Countess of Reggio

Margherita and her small party rode toward the largest tent in that part of the camp. Outside flew the banner of her half-brother Alessandro, stark black save for the six red orbs of the Medici coat of arms. Nearly two dozen horses were tied up outside. He must be meeting with his officers, Margherita thought to herself. She and her party tied up their own mounts alongside the others.

The princess led the way, throwing aside the tent flap and walking in. Every man turned to look at her immediately. Margherita had expected that. Indeed, she’d chosen her outfit expressly to cause such a reaction. During her stay in Vienna during the summer and autumn of 1597, Margherita befriended Maria Theresa of Austria, who taught her that men on campaign respond best to women that dress themselves similarly to them yet retain their feminine beauty. Though she was four years younger than the Tuscan princess, the ruler of Austria had campaigned with her men and possessed a level of experience in military matters that Margherita envied. Accordingly, Margherita was wearing a woman’s riding outfit of the type made popular among high-born ladies in southern and central Europe by the Archduchess. On her legs were tight fitting khaki riding pants stitched in gold and adorned with red circles reminiscent of her family’s arms. On top, she wore a vest of fine black leather over a red cotton shirt. To complete the outfit, was a magnificent satin cape lined with white fur, spangled with Medici red orbs and the rampant dogs of Canossa. The cape was fastened with a magnificent golden brooch, with a red enameled hound’s head in the center. Her political adversaries back in Italy had taken to calling Margherita, “the red bitch,” behind her back, so she figured the best response was to embrace the symbol. Her heroine, the woman she aspired to emulate, Mathilda of Tuscany, had never let the slurs and hatreds of men bring her down, she’d embraced them and used them to armor herself. Margherita sought to do the same. The riding outfit hugged the princess’s body, accentuating her womanly curves. She’d left Florence in the fall of 1590 as a soft, slightly chubby girl of thirteen who had nevertheless stood her own against the political forces that took her birthright away from her. She was now a woman grown, twenty-two years old and already seasoned in politics and intrigue. Her years being the “Lady of Canossa,” riding around her lands, helping with her own hands to improve and expand the formidable Castle of Canossa, hunting, and occasionally even training with weapons of war, had hardened her, though, she proudly noted, without taking away from her beauty.

Margherita could hear the muffled mutters and feel the men’s eyes on her as she strode into the tent. Alessandro was in the center. “My sweet sister!” he said, smiling as he looked up and saw her, “what a pleasant surprise, though I fear our strategy meeting is just wrapping up. Give me ten more minutes and we will be finished and I can receive you properly.”

Margherita fixed her eyes on her half-brother. “There may be a day when a princess is kept waiting on the word of a bastard,” she said, mustering up her most commanding tone, “but that day is not today.”

Alessandro laughed loudly, though the rest of his officers seemed unsure how to react. If any man ever called him a bastard, especially in front of his own men, it could send Alessandro flying into a rage and lead to him drawing the two blades that he always wore. From her, however, it was an inside joke dating back to their childhood. Her half-brother was a fierce man with a short temper, but he’d always had a soft spot for Margherita and their younger sister, Benedetta. “Well, you heard our princess,” Alessandro told his men, “the meeting is adjourned, you should know what to do.” The officers began filing out, bowing to Margherita as they passed her and taking the time to ogle her handmaidens who had come into the tent behind her. Alessandro pointed to the three women. “Are they staying?” he asked. Margherita nodded. “Good,” Alessandro said, “having four beautiful women to look at always keeps me in a good mood.”
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Alessandro dé Medici

Margherita ignored the comment as she walked over to Alessandro. He wore a satin doublet, wired whisk, short cape, and hose over cannions, all in black. The only colors visible on his outfit were the gold of the badge of the Order of St. Stephen Pope and Martyr with its crimson cross. “It is good to see you again brother,” she said embracing him. Alessandro hugged her tightly, holding the embrace for several moments. When they finally let go of each other, they stood for a moment in silence.

“How long has it been since we’ve seen each other?” he asked her.

“Nearly four years,” she replied, “since the Armata del Nord left Florence.”

“Quite some time,” he said looking her over, “and where did you get this wonderful riding outfit?”

“The Archduchess of Austria had it made for me,” Margherita replied, “it’s modeled on the riding outfits she wore when campaigning with her army earlier in the war.”

Alessandro laughed, “ah, like the one that she used to seduce our dear cousin Giulio?” Margherita knew from Maria Theresa’s own mouth that Giulio had indeed shared the Archduchess’s bed after the Battle of Mantua, though she’d promised her Austrian friend not to speak of it.

The princess shrugged, “your officers seemed to admire it.”

“I believe they were admiring the curves of your hips that your outfit show off so exquisitely,” he replied, “and no doubt hoping to catch a glimpse of that tight butt you are hiding under your cape.”

“They must have good taste in women,” she replied.

Alessandro shrugged and smiled, “I wouldn’t flatter myself too much if I were you. A man on campaign would look as longingly at a shriveled old crone as a plump, fair maiden. Though the women here in the Netherlands have not been as frugal about giving up their affections as one might think. The Calvinists’ women are not as conservative as their men would like you to believe.” He walked past Margherita and over toward her handmaidens. “Though your handmaidens are quite pretty.” He stood in front of one of them. “What is your name sweetling?” he asked.

“Livia Cuordelmare,” replied the girl, looking Alessandro in his eyes.

“Quite the name,” he replied, “I do know it however. You have African blood as I do, though you don’t show it quite as much.”

Livia smiled. “It is true, my Prince,” she replied, “my grandfather was not born with the name Cuordelmare, he took it after he was knighted and ennobled.” Livia’s grandfather was Sabir al-Din Leta, a Saracen pirate, turned smuggler, turned hero of Tuscany after the Battle of the Venetian Lagoon. As a reward Grand Duke Francesco Stefano I made him a noble and Sabir took the name Cuordelmare, meaning “heart of the sea” as his new family name. He’d married an Italian woman and settled in Rimini. Livia, his granddaughter, still bore the dark hair and some of the dark features of her gradfather. She was Margherita’s favorite handmaiden. Free spirited, smart, and quick of wit, she made the best conversation partner and the two of them often stayed up late into the night talking of all matter of things. It was not uncommon for the two to fall asleep in the same bed.
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Livia Cuordelmare

“We have much in common I see,” said Alessandro smirking as he took her necklace into his hand. It bore the sigil of her house, a black galley in the center of a red heart on a blue field. There was black Arabic script on the gold band surrounding the pendant.

“What does this say?” asked Alessandro.

“The strong do not fear the lash,” replied Livia proudly.

“Indeed, they don’t,” said Alessandro, “that is a good motto.”

Livia curtsied, and Alessandro moved on to the next of Margherita’s handmaidens. “And who are you pretty one?” he asked.

The girl bowed her head, “Ceciglia Cercignani,” she replied softly.

Alessandro looked surprised. “Are you the daughter of our dauntless Commander of Infantry?” he asked. The girl nodded. “Quite interesting,” said Alessandro, “and how old are you dear?”

“Sixteen,” Ceciglia said, looking up finally at Alessandro.

“Sixteen,” Alessandro repeated, “and with such a pretty mouth.”

The girl blushed. “Thank you, my prince,” she said, biting her lower lip.

“Don’t thank him,” snapped Margherita, “he just wants to fuck you.”

Ceciglia instantly lowered her head again while Margherita’s two other handmaidens giggled. Alessandro shot a mildly amused look at Margherita before turning back to Ceciglia. “I’m sorry my sweet sister is so crude,” he said, his words dripping with false modesty, “a sweet girl like you should not be subject to such harsh words.” He turned and walked back to the table in the center of the tent.

A map of Amsterdam and its defenses was laid out on it, different parts of the city circled with names of various Tuscan and Austrian regiments scrawled within them. Margherita examined it, then realized what they meant. She laughed darkly, “that was no ‘strategy session’ we walked in on,” she said, “you were planning how to loot the city.”

“I prefer the term ‘repossession’ over ‘looting’,” Alessandro said, “looting is what barbarians do.”

“The Dutch pamphleteers seem to think you are quite worse than a barbarian,” said Margherita.

“Indeed, ‘the Black Butcher of Utrecht, the Bastard of Abyssinia, the Black Raper,’” said Alessandro, naming various epithets assigned to him. He seemed amused by them, “I must be the only Medici in history whose family name is not the primary tool used against him. Indeed, it would appear having African blood is even more loathsome to these people than being a ‘Papist Medici usurer,’ which is what they love to use against our beloved cousin Giulio and the Grand Duke, our uncle.”

Her half-brother had always had a complicated relationship with his ancestry. His mother was a serving woman in the Medici household from Abyssinia. Margherita’s father, Grand Duke Filippo I, had gotten her with child and begun to raise the baby within his own household. However, when he married Margherita’s mother, Isabella of Montferrat in 1576, the Grand Duke’s new bride forced her husband to put out the serving woman and her three-year-old son. Alessandro’s mother, whose name was unknown to Margherita, died shortly thereafter and the boy was taken to a convent. However, Filippo’s brother, the current Grand Duke Francesco, took the boy into his own household and raised him along with his three children, just as he did with several other orphans and wards. Alessandro had never forgiven either Isabella nor his own father for that. Thankfully for Margherita and her sister, he never held that cruel treatment against them. In fact, Margherita could hardly remember a time when their half-brother had ever been cruel or unkind towards them. Nonetheless, he was sensitive about being half African. In part, he embraced it fiercely, even travelling to the lands of the Kingdom of Alodia in East Africa during his teenage years. However, he bristled whenever his African descent was held against him, which was often.

“Have you heard what they are calling you in Italy?” asked Margherita encouragingly.

“Yes,” replied Alessandro, his face brightening, “The Black Prince.”

“You’re a hero back home,” she said happily, “I was so proud whenever news of your battlefield accomplishments reached my ears.”

“You would’ve been less proud if you knew what I planned to do with your mother if I happened to capture her at Montferrat.” He spat out the words, “your mother,” with such a visceral hatred that Margherita took a step back. Margherita did not want to know, yet a morbid fascination with her brother’s darkest fantasies caused her to ask, “what would you have done?”

“What are you here for sister?” he asked, ignoring the question.

“I am here to see you brother,” she replied, saddened suddenly at her brother’s change of demeanor.

Alessandro’s face softened, “I know that sweetness, I meant what else did you want to discuss with me? I know that you have great love for me yet I know you well enough too. The proud Margherita d´Medici wouldn’t cross half of Europe just to chat with her brother.”

She did have another motive, though she also did sincerely want to see him. “Well I was hoping that Giulio would be here as well,” she said, “he is integral in what I mean to propose. I sent for him," added said Margherita, " to meet us here."

Alessandro shook his head. "I doubt you'll get a reply," he said, "and certainly no obedience to your command. I hope your time being 'The Lady of Canossa' hasn't caused you to forget yourself: our dear cousin now outranks you in the order of princes."

Margherita had not forgotten. Indeed, most of her life revolved around that fact. Well, in truth, around the position of Giulio's older brother, Alberto, in the line of succession. Grand Duke Francesco's second son had hardly factored in when the deal was made nearly a decade ago. Now, however, things were different. "Well do you know where he is?" she asked growing impatient.

"Inside the walls," replied her half-brother. "General Campofregoso has ordered a halt to all raping and killing inside the city and our dear and noble cousin is the type of man who would risk a shot of lead or a pike's point from a drunken soldier to enforce that sort of foolishness."

"Then I will go into the city," she said, "I need to speak with him."

Alessandro laughed. "Well good luck, you think two armed guards will save you and your little ladies in that hell hole? I pity the fools. You're talking about entering a city in the midst of a sack. The lot of you will be bent over a pile of rubble with a line of soldiers waiting to have their turn with you before sundown, and it won't matter how many times you holler that you're a princess."

"That's exactly why you will provide us with a heavily armed escort to accompany us. I figure somewhere near fifteen to twenty men ought to suffice."

Alessandro gave her an annoyed look, "my men are fierce warriors, not glorified bodyguards. You have your own regiment, why didn't you bring your own armed escort? I figured the brave Captain del Rosso would accompany you everywhere. Word in camp is the two of you have grown quite close.”

Margherita ignored the comment about her relationship with Massimiliano. The truth was she hadn't thought of an armed escort, but that wouldn't do to say. "Because I order it from you," she said, then added more warmly and with a smile, "and because I know you'd never let any harm come to your sweet little sister."

Within forty minutes the party was mounted and on the move. Alessandro led the way with Margherita at his side. Behind them were her handmaidens and the young lieutenant Alessandro had picked to lead his armed guard, a dashing youth named Mario Inzaghi. Margherita caught him exchanging flirtatious glances with Cecilia Cercignani, who seemed to be infatuated. Behind them were Margherita's own two soldiers along with sixteen from her brother's command. They entered the city through the Sint Antoniespoort, and inside found a grim scene.
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Amsterdam

A group of children, some looking no older than seven or eight years, were fighting over what looked like a few loaves of bread. Further along the street inside the gate, a family of six, with the mother holding a baby in her arms, was sitting outside their home as an assortment of Tuscan and Austrian soldiers carried their belongings out. Judging from their dirty yet clearly well-made clothes, they must have been rather well to do.

“That family,” said Margherita, “those soldiers are stealing their things.”

Alessandro looked at her. “Be glad they are only taking their things,” he said. Then he pointed at the girl who looked to be the oldest child, “they are leaving the eldest daughter alone. It could be much worse. They ought to be thankful that it is only their property being violated.”

“Our men are supposed to be the good ones,” she said.

Alessandro laughed. “Our men are men. There are good ones and bad ones and those in between. There are honest men and there are thieves. And war makes thieves of many honest men.”

It made Margherita sad but she decided she’d steel herself for whatever else they may encounter. It did not take long. As the party turned a corner, a row of bodies, which included those of women and children, lined a street on one side. Nearby, some soldiers were drinking and joking and laughing. How can they do that? she thought to herself.


They stopped and asked a group of Tuscan officers if they knew where Giulio was located. They were finally directed to the center of the city. They found Giulio in the middle of the Oudekerksplein barking orders at a group of surly-looking soldiers. Their old friend, Federico Boncompagni was mounted at his side along with two other officers, his hand resting gently on the pommel of his matchlock pistol.

"You are not being denied your rightful spoils," Giulio was saying firmly, "but by order of General Campofregoso, there is to be no rape of women, nor execution of any person without the say of a military tribunal. Any man caught violating this order will be hanged as a common criminal on the command of the General and in the name of Grand Duke Francesco I. Are there any questions?"

There was a brief silence before one of the men spoke up. "So we can still rape boys though Your Grace?" the soldier asked, causing his comrades to burst out laughing.

The faintest hint of an amused smile flickered over Giulio's lips but his face remained grave. "If you wish to test the General's ordnance on a technicality you may do so," he replied, "but I don't want to hear you crying to me when they're stringing you up on the gallows. The General is a just man, a harsh man, and he has no sense of humor. Mock his orders at your own risk." The men muttered among themselves.


"That is all," said Giulio, "carry on with your business." The men began to break off in groups of threes and fours, clearly intent on returning to their looting. Federico was the first to spot the princess and her group.

"Princess Margherita," he said excitedly, bowing his head from horseback as he spurred his horse toward them. Giulio looked over as well, though Margherita saw no trace of warmth in his stare.

"It is good to see you Federico," said Margherita trying to ignore her cousin's less than welcoming demeanor, "it has been too long."

"Yes it has," he replied, before turning to Alessandro. "The Black Prince," he said with an exaggeratedly low bow, "I thought you'd grown tired of looting after you filled your wagons at Utrecht."

"I'm not here for loot," replied Alessandro, "I'm here escorting my sweet sister on official business."

"And sweet she is, as always," said Federico blowing a kiss to Margherita, "and so are her ladies I see." Federico was always the most suave of their group, ever since they were children. His laid back demeanor and easygoing southern charm always had great appeal. However, despite his ability to talk his way into the bed of nearly any woman, his heart had always belonged to one in particular. Margherita had glad tidings for him in that regard.

"I have some good news for you," said Margherita.

"Oh?" said Federico, arching an eyebrow, "news of what?"

"A happy thing," she said, "or so I'm told."

"I'm eager to hear it."

"In time, I think it deserves a good buildup."

By then Giulio had ridden over to the group. "To what do we owe your visit, Princess Margherita?" he asked formally.

Livia Cuordelmare cut in. “My Prince,” she said excitedly, “it is an honor to meet you. I have followed closely the reports of your bravery and skill.” Giulio looked at her, surprised.

Livia,” hissed Margherita, shocked her handmaiden would be so forward, “you forget yourself.” The girl lowered her head.

“She caused no harm,” said Giulio, “your words are kind my lady, I am honored.”

The way Livia smiled one would think she’d just been made a queen. “Forgive my handmaiden” said Margherita more to Livia than to her cousin, “she does not know we have important business to discuss.”

“Do we Princess Margherita?” asked Giulio, resuming his formal tone, “what business is that?”

"A number of things, Prince Giulio," Margherita replied, matching his formality. She looked at him curiously, “what you said to your soldiers…would you really hang your own men?”

The question seemed to take Giulio by surprise. “It is not something I take any joy in if that’s what you mean. Yet discipline must be maintained, and orders followed. An undisciplined army is a defeated army, a broken army, poised to crumble at the first blow from a foe or else unleash its fury on the helpless. Whether with us or against us, we have to hold the line; war makes monsters of us all.”

Margherita glanced over in Alessandro’s direction. He was talking with Federico, laughing and gesticulating. “Where do you do it?”

“The hanging?” asked Giulio. Margherita nodded. “They usually set up the gallows in a square whenever we are in a city or large town. Otherwise any sturdy tree will do.”

“You hang enemy soldiers next to your own?” she asked. For some reason she assumed that there would sides in this matter as well.

“What does it matter?” asked Giulio, “on the gallows tree all men are brothers.” He paused and watched a group of soldiers march past. “As I said, it is an unpleasant business. Why don’t we go elsewhere?”

“Yes, yes of course,” replied Margherita.

"Very well, I have taken up residence in a home along the Damstraat. We may speak freely in there."

The group made quite a site, cantering down the street as Tuscan and Austrian soldiers and Dutch citizens alike moved out of their way. Giulio led the way, riding alongside Federico, the two talking in quiet voices that prevented Margherita from hearing what they were saying.

The group arrived outside a handsome row home, built in the Dutch style, that Prince Giulio dé Medici had occupied. Eight men, each wearing the crimson fleur-de-lis of the Reggimento del Fiore, stood guard outside. They snapped crisply to attention when the group arrived and saluted their commander. Giulio returned it and gave them a warm “at ease.” He turned to Alessandro. “If your men wish, they can find food, beer, and a warm fire to sit by around the corner,” Giulio said, “my men have appropriated a warehouse that belonged to a local trading company. Just ensure they maintain discipline, this district is under the jurisdiction of the Reggimento del Fiore and I’ll have no wanton cruelty on my watch.


“Their behavior shall be beyond reproach,” Alessandro assured him, with a feigned look of innocence, “your white knight’s reputation will not be tarnished by me and mine.”

Giulio glared at him. “See that it’s so,” he replied dryly. Margherita sensed a tension between the cousins she’d never felt before.

“Captain Inzaghi,” said Alessandro, turning to his young subordinate, “see to it that our men reach this warehouse in good order, that they get themselves food and drink, that no locals are molested, and that any maidens you come across remain maidens when you leave them.”

“It will be done, sir,” replied Inzaghi.

“Also,” added Alessandro, looking over at Margherita’s handmaidens, “take the ladies in my sister’s service with you and keep them safe.”

Margherita was filled with a sense of dread. She was loathe to let them leave her side for fear of what could happen. “Will they be safe?” she blurted out, her voice dripping with concern.

Captain Inzaghi looked at her, dismounted his horse, unsheathed his sword, and dropped to one knee. “My Lady,” he said with all the bravado of youth, “I stake my honor and the honor of my family on the safety of your ladies.”

Federico guffawed. “How valiant,” he said sarcastically, “do you even know how to use that thing?”

Inzaghi either did not hear Federico or chose to ignore him. “Rise my brave captain,” said Margherita deciding to intervene, “I entrust you with the protection of my ladies.” She turned to the three girls, “do you trust Captain Inzaghi to protect you?” All three quickly began nodding emphatically, their faces beaming. Inzaghi was smiling proudly himself as he remounted his horse. He gathered up his men and the girls, and rode off.

“Your boy thinks himself quite the shining knight,” remarked Federico to Alessandro.

“That boy,” replied Margherita’s brother, “led the flanking attack against the Bohemians at Dijon and the charge that broke the French line at Paris.”

“Sure, sure,” yawned Federico.

“Are we having this discussion or not?” asked Giulio impatiently.

“Sure, let’s do it,” said Margherita, trying another smile for her cousin. Once again, she was met by Giulio’s stone-serious face.

They entered the row home with Giulio leading the way. They settled into a handsomely furnished sitting room a fire was already burning in the hearth.

Alessandro plopped down onto a plush divan. He smiled and exhaled. “The fruits of victory,” he remarked, reaching forward to grab an apple off the center table.

“The sooner we get out of this city the happier I’ll be.”

“Enjoy it, cousin,” said Alessandro. “Ever since that idiot Luther nailed up his little list in Frankfurt the Protestants have been beating us left and right. Now we just struck back in the best way possible. Or worst way I guess from their perspective.”

Giulio shook his head and shrugged, “and what of it?”

“When we marched north from Italy, your father told me ‘defeat is a disease, and victory is the cure.’”

“I don’t feel cured,” replied Giulio, “do you?”

Alessandro bit into the apple and smiled. “I certainly don’t feel diseased. And I’ll feel even better if my sister let’s me bed one of her pretty little maids tonight.”

“Well I have some big news for all of you,” said Margherita. The conversation was making her upset. These weren’t the care free, fun loving boys who had left Italy. The war had hardened them, especially Giulio. It made Margherita sad.

She reached into her riding pouch and produced a letter. She handed it to Federico. The seal was light blue wax with an eagle stamped upon it, the bird’s wings spread wide.

“This is from Riccardo,” remarked Federico, referring to Riccardo d’Este.

“It is,” replied Margherita, “I meant to give it to Giulio to give to you, but I am happier that I get to present it to you in person.”

Federico cracked the seal on the letter and looked it over.

“Read it aloud,” said Margherita.

Federico looked at her, smiled, and began to read: “Dearest friend, it pains me to know that you are out on campaign and that I am not able to join you. I hope, however, that what I will tell you in this letter can bring us both joy. Knowing the deep love you feel for each other, and have always felt, I would be honored to accept your proposal to wed my sister, Marietta. Upon your return, we will discuss the details. As part of her dowry, I will grant you the new castle at Mesola, along with its attendant titles, lands, and incomes, so that he two of you may make a home there. I know that you will love, respect, and honor Marietta as she will you. I look forward to the union of our two great, noble, and ancient houses and wish you victory and a speedy return to Italy. Until we see each other again, I remain your loyal and devoted friend. Riccardo I, Duke of Ferrara.”

By the time Federico put the letter down, he was grinning ear to ear. Alessandro was hooting in celebration and patting their friend on the back and even Giulio was smiling. Federico and Marietta had been in love since they were children and now they were to be married. Marietta was a headstrong woman, three years older than Margherita, and she had refused numerous potential matches, including one to Maximilien von Hohenzollern, second son of Duke Johann Georg I of Brandenburg. hoping to one day marry the charming southerner. The Estes were one of the oldest and most noble houses in Italy, though they had fallen on hard times, and the wedding would be a huge boon for Federico, whose own family, once proud Kings of Naples, was only a few decades removed from being totally dispossessed following the Tuscan conquest of the Mezzogiorno. For Margherita, thinking of the Estes evoked bittersweet memories. The current duke’s father, the legendary Camillo d’Este, “the Shield of the Protestants” and himself married to a Medici princess, had risked it all in an effort to make Margherita Grand Duchess of Tuscany over her uncle Francesco. The plan had been thwarted in Bologna by Alessandro, Federico, and Pantaleono Gattilusio and led to the exile of Duke Camillo and his two eldest sons. That left Riccardo, the youngest boy and a friend of the Medici children, to inherit the Duchy. Margherita was sure that neither Duke Camillo nor either of Riccardo’s two older brothers would have consented to marry Marietta to a landless exile from Naples. Such were the vagaries of life.

Once the boys settled down, Margherita produced a second letter from her satchel and handed that one to Alessandro. He took it and examined the seal. This one bore the seal of the Grand Duke himself, gold and embossed with the Medici orbs. Alessandro eyed her curiously as he tore it open. He glanced down at the paper, his eyes scanning the words. He smirked and looked up at his sister. “Did you know what was in this letter?” he asked.

“I did,” replied Margherita, “but I thought I’d surprise you.”

“What is it?” asked Federico, walking over.

“It seems I am also to be married,” said Alessandro, “though unlike you I am to be a tool of diplomacy.”

“Who?” asked Giulio, still seated.

“Vera of Holland,” replied Alessandro, “daughter of Duke Eberhard. Your father has decreed it.”

Federico shrugged, “congratulations, I guess.”

“And to think,” said Alessandro, “I was starting to get bored with Dutch women.”

“I feel the same way,” said Federico, “they’re pretty and eager enough, but not nearly as lusty as Italian women.” He smirked and winked at Margherita. She replied by making a disgusted face at him.

“Shouldn’t affect you much,” said Giulio, walking over, picking up the letter, and looking it over. “You’ll marry her, leave her here most of the time, and still fuck whoever you want.”

“You sound like you’re judging me cousin,” said Alessandro, “would you do any different?”

Giulio shrugged, “I suppose not, if my wife were forced on me.” He put the letter down. “A queer sort of diplomacy my father has in mind.”

“How so?” asked Alessandro, arching an eyebrow.

“Well you aren’t exactly the most beloved man in these parts, and to force the soon-to-be reinstated Duke’s daughter to marry you isn’t likely to endear us to the locals.”

“Well why don’t you marry the wench then?” snapped Alessandro, a note of annoyance in his voice.

“It would probably be the better course.”

“You forgot to remind me I was also a bastard,” said Alessandro venomously.

“I’ve never held that against you,” replied Giulio, sounding wounded. It was true, Margherita could not recall a single instance, dating back to their childhood, when Giulio had ever mocked her brother’s illegitimacy.

“Do you have a marriage offer for our dear Giulio as well?” asked Federico, trying to sound jovial and ease the tension as the two cousins glared at each other. The question brought Margherita’s thoughts back into focus. The answer to that is the real reason I am here, she thought to herself.

“Well, no,” she replied, “I have something better.”

“And what would that be?” asked Giulio.

There was no time to hesitate now. “I propose to make you Grand Duke,” she said boldly. The three men exchanged bewildered looks.

“Has something happened to my father and brother?” Giulio asked, his voice suddenly filled with dread, “you should have told me right away!”

Margherita realized her error, the proposal had not come off as she’d intended. No matter. “No, no, no,” she replied quickly with a reassuring tone, “I meant after your father.”

“Well then there is still Alberto,” he said.

She should have known subtlety would not work with this group. “Alberto should not be the Grand Duke, you should.” Better to just lay it all out there.

Giulio shook his head. “What you think should happen is irrelevant. That isn’t how this works, there are rules.”

That angered the princess. “Are there!?” she shot back angrily. “Were there rules when I was denied a crown because I was a woman?” Giulio and Alessandro knew how to rage when they wanted to, but so did she. They were all of the same blood after all. “I agreed to give up my claim because I respected your father, and I knew he would make a great ruler,” she said, her voice rising. “Grand Duke Francesco has been everything I hoped he’d be: true, courageous, fierce, efficient, all the qualities Tuscany needed.” She stood and jabbed a finger in Giulio’s direction. “Your brother,” she said fixing her eyes onto his, “your brother is different. He is soft and weak. You all remember how he was too frightened to join you boys in the yard to train with swords or to go out on the hunt. He is unfit to lead. I refuse—refuse, to follow him. There are many back in Italy who feel the same way. I was denied the throne because I was a woman and was told I could not lead men into battle. Well tell me, which of your men would follow Alberto? Give each of us an army of equal strength and I’d sweep him from the field within the hour.”

“Cousin,” said Giulio, his expression and voice softening toward her for the first time, “you honor me, but what you talk of is treason, and you should let go of these fantasies.”

That only angered her more. Her cousin might be trying for kindness, but all it sounded like to Margherita was condescension. Not that she wasn’t used to it. All her life her sex was held against her. Now, she proposed to help and was still treated as a child. I am the Lady of Canossa, she told herself. Margherita looked to Federico and Alessandro for assistance but for once, neither had anything to say. “I do this for our realm and our family,” she managed finally, more calmly this time, “and for you. You deserve it, you have sacrificed and bled for it.”

Anger flashed in her cousin’s eyes “Don’t ever presume to tell me what I deserve or what I have sacrificed. You know nothing. You might think yourself some scheming politician but you’re just a foolish girl whose ambitions are stronger than her wits and who is going to get herself and a lot of other people into trouble.”

Margherita felt the tears well up in her eyes. Then, after a moment, she began to cry. She hated them. She hated them all. The Lady of Canossa stood and wiped her tears. “Excuse me but I must go.’ She turned to leave.

“Wait cousin.” Said Giulio, his tone softened again, “I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you.”

Margherita wanted to turn and run to him, embrace him, tell him how he had always been her prince. Him and Alessandro. How she’d always looked up to them and wanted to be like them. But the moment was passed. She could not tell them that now, not after what Giulio had said. Perhaps there would be another time, but not today, not here in this sad, ruined city. She did not look back, but continued to the door.

“Come back,” shouted her brother, “it isn’t safe out there for you.” All three men were on their feet now and starting toward her. She quickly opened the door and stepped out onto the street. She did not know what took hold of her, but she could not face them again, not after that embarrassment. She started running. Margherita turned down an alleyway then onto another street. Her riding attire and boots made her much quicker than if she was in a gown. She passed by a group of soldiers emerging from a building with the second story aflame. Too weighed down with loot to consider a pursuit, they merely gawked at her as she sprinted by. She turned left down another alleyway then right onto a small street. She rounded a corner and ran straight into a wall of steel plate, which sent her stumbling nearly to the ground. Margherita regained her footing and looked up.

Two men were standing before her, one short, about her own height, and the other a towering giant. The giant had been the one she’d run into.

“Well what do we have here?” said the smaller one, his voice high pitched but raspy. He was bald with ugly scars on his face. The other, the giant, towered over her with a black bushy beard and a wild tangle of black hair on top. Both stank of wine and their eyes crawled up the curves of Margherita’s body, undressing her in their minds. It left her feeling disgusted and dirty.

“I—I—out of my way!” she stammered, trying and failing to sound commanding. Aside from the two before her, the street was deserted.

“We ought to take you into that alley there and have our way with you,” the giant thundered, a cruel smile on his face. “Yeah, you’d like that I reckon,” cackled the other.

“No, no,” replied Margherita, horrified.

The “no” seemed to only anger the giant more. “I’ll fuck you until you love me, slut,” he said and went to grab her. He was clearly drunk and his attempt was clumsy. Margherita jumped back in terror, temporarily out of his reach.

The princess looked over her shoulder. Somehow she’d gotten turned around and the small street behind her dead ended into a building. As she looked back at the two, her heart racing, she realized they’d both spoken to her in Italian, meaning they were soldiers of Tuscany. “I am Princess Margherita dé Medici, Lady of Canossa and Countess of Reggio,” she said, once again assuming an authoritative tone.

The little one laughed, “yeah, and I’m the King of France, now you’re going to suck my royal cock.” He drew a dagger and stepped toward Margherita. She took a step back, almost to the wall. I’m so stupid,” she screamed at herself, I was with three skilled soldiers who would die to protect me and I ran into a lawless city by myself. She steeled herself for what she knew was about to happen. The only choice left to her was whether she should fight and resist or let it happen and hope for the best.

It turned out to be a choice she never had to make. The giant’s left shoulder suddenly exploded in a burst of blood and flesh and smoke. He let out a loud cry, both terrifying and pathetic. The little man whirled around to see what happened as his companion crumpled to the ground, whimpering now he gripped his wound with his right hand as blood flowed from it. Behind the giant, a rider emerged from the smoke.

Sitting atop the horse was one of the most beautiful men Margherita had ever seen. His jet-black hair fell to his shoulders in loose curls and his almond shaped, mahogany-colored eyes seemed to shine through the smoky haze his pistol left behind. On his face a well-groomed, curled black mustache sat above a well-shaped mouth formed into a wicked grin. “Excuse me my princess for arriving so late,” he said, ignoring both the groaning giant on the ground and the shocked smaller man wielding the dagger. “I have never seen such a beauty,” he said as calmly as if they were on a walk in a park, “and though you may be a strong woman this is not a place you should visit.” His voice marked him for a southerner, likely from Naples if Margherita had to guess. But it was infused with something more exotic, perhaps a language of the Balkans or even the Levant.

Margherita was in complete shock. One moment she’d been bracing to be raped or murdered or both, and now she was being spoken to as if nothing untoward were going on. Of her two tormentors, the one still standing seemed to be as taken aback as she was. “Who the hell are you?” the small man finally managed.

The rider regarded the man as if he were a puddle of filth in which he’d just placed his boot. “You need not know my name,” said the rider, holstering his pistol and drawing his sword, “I will tell it to my Tuscan beauty once I have dispatched you two disgusting creatures.” He looked back to Margherita, “my princess, turn around, I do not want you to see what I am about to do.”

Margherita wanted to tell him she was a Medici, a Lady and a Countess in her own right, that she could watch whatever it was he was about to do. She remained silent however. Against her better judgment, she trusted the word of this strange man and turned around, her back to her aggressors. As soon as she did she heard the clomping of hooves on cobblestones followed by a grunt and then a loud scream. From the voice she could tell it came from the smaller man. Despite her efforts, tears were again streaming down Margherita’s face. Next she heard the sound of boots descend onto the street and then those same boots stepping slowly, deliberately along. She heard a sword slicing the air followed by the deeper yet still awful scream of the giant. Then, there was silence.

Suddenly, a hand gently but firmly gripped her shoulder and turned her around. When Margherita opened her eyes, she was looking into the face of the rider. The two men who had threatened her lay dead on the ground behind him. “Why are you here alone, my beauty?” he asked her softly.

Margherita did not know what to say. Should I tell him about my argument with Giulio and me running away, she thought to herself, no he will think me a fool.

After a moment the man continued, “what a fool I am! Questioning the actions of a princess. I am not worthy of such questions.”

“Do you—do you know who I am?” Margherita finally managed.

“Of course,” replied the rider smiling easily, “you are Margherita dé Medici, the legendary beauty.” Then, he dropped to one knee. “I am Camillo of the ancient House of Durazzo. I beg of my princess the opportunity to be her protector. With me at her side she may go where she wishes, and do what she pleases.”
https://i.imgur.com/KvpzcbP.jpg


Camillo Durazzo

“You do me a great honor,” replied Margherita.

“The honor is to protect a beautiful and noble woman like you,” he said, head still bowed.” “I know the truth of it as well,” he added, “you are the rightful Queen of Italy.”

Margherita studied him. “Rise,” she said finally. Camillo Durazzo stood up. “Tell me more of this.”

“I know that your crown was usurped,” he said, suddenly turning serious. “I also know that my family too has been the victim of usurpers. The Durazzos are rightful rulers of Naples and Albania.” Margherita had never heard this. Then again, there were so many tangled and twisted claims through history she had no reason not to believe it. When she said nothing, Durazzo continued. “Perhaps, my princess,” he said, “we can help each other. Perhaps, we can both get what we want.” Margherita’s eyes fixed onto Camillo’s. He has beautiful eyes, she thought to herself, and he acknowledges the truth of my rights.

“Very well, Camillo of Durazzo,” she said finally, “you may be my escort for today and maybe for beyond that. See me safely around as I tour this city.”

“You honor me Your Grace,” he said bowing, “though I have but one horse. You may mount it and I can lead you on foot, though that will make me less intimidating to our potential threats. We can share my horse until the time we may find another.”




“Yes,” said Margherita, her heart suddenly beating a bit faster, “I will share the horse with you.”

“Excellent,” said Camillo. He helped Margherita mount up then leapt effortlessly on behind her. His arms reached around her body to grab the reigns. Durazzo whispered into her ear: “you need fear nothing so long as I am with you.”

Margherita’s heart fluttered. This was indeed turning out to be an interesting day.
 
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roverS3

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First off, welcome back... I put on some Boccherini and had a great time reading your latest masterpiece.
What a wonderful tale, now I want Margherita to win... Will she still push to put Giulio on the 'throne' or try to seize power herself?
And your portrayal of the sack of Amsterdam. Powerful stuff.