She could feel it. Or at least she thought she could. Earlier she had swallowed the condom full of blud and now it was working its way through her system. She was a beautiful girl, shorter, darker skinned, plumper, a true blooded Crot. Her phony papers gave her name as Anya. Her instructions were explicit: Lane One at the checkpoint, no others. There were other girls, possibly around her, but she didn't know them and they didn't know her, so that if one was caught, none of the others would be in danger.
There it was, Lane One. "Anya" walked forward, pushing past a larger Slavonian man to make sure she was in the right line. The Border Guard, one of the new men brought in, was nasty looking. He leered at her as she stepped forward, maybe thinking to himself a strip search would be needed. But then he saw her papers and something changed. The man's lust was still evident, but he gave her a nod and waved her past just like that.
Elben... Freedom... Almost there...
* * * * *
The hotel had once been a fine establishment in the days when travel to CBS was easier during a period of stability. Now it was run by the Nekmet, its owner and operator an old man who was paid to sit behind his desk and keep his mouth shut. Her contact brought her in and took her to a room where other girls were sitting around; some were watching Elbenese TV, others were listening to one of the latest Ostwave songs.
Time passed and "Anya" eventually had to go. She raised her hand to get attention and an older woman who was running the show motioned for her to follow as she led the way to the bathroom. "Anya" started for the toilet, but the woman shook her head and waved to the tub. ("One girl took a shit and automatically flushed before anyone could stop her.") Its shower curtain had been torn away and some makeshift blocks had been placed in the tub well apart from each other.
"Stand up on those, honey."
"Anya" obeyed, removing her underwear, climbing in, and squatting while holding her skirt up. "Uhhhhh..."
"That's fine, that's fine. Here you are." The old woman handed over a roll of toilet paper. Before closing the door as she left, she called, "Wash it up good and leave it by the sink when you're done."
There was the sound of glass breaking and then a flashbang went off, blinding and deafening everyone. A door burst open and men in tactical gear came in, moving with precision as they cleared each room. One thug who had been in the john came out with pistol raised and was taken out with one shot. That was it. Another successful bust.
Later, the girls were herded into a corner of the lobby of the hotel, waiting for transport to a detention center. "Anya" stood with her hands ziptied behind her back, still a bit dazzled from the flashbang and the unreality of it all. She had come so close to her dream, life outside CBS. Now she was looking at jail and eventual deportation. Tears started to well up at the injustice of it all and then it was time to go.
U-102 was cruising submerged at a leisurely speed of four knots. It was at periscope depth for a quick sweep of the surrounding area visually and with radar/ESM. Her sister boats were a day ahead and behind her on the way to their new home at Karlshaven and the men were all looking forward to some leave ashore at that tropical paradise that all had read about, but never seen before.
The captain of the boat, Lieutenant Merten, was a young officer who had been chosen due not only for his merit, but also due to his youth. The Navy was building a corps for its new submarine service and Merten along with his fellows were pioneers.
Merten's second prompted his superior, who nodded and did one last 360 before stepping back as the periscope was lowered. "Take us down, back below the layer."
The second nodded and gave the orders, which were repeated around the control room. The submarine descended lower into its element and was gone.
The three submarines had before setting out been given a plan for training on their way to Karlshaven from Sylvania.
One of their simulated missions:
At various times along the way, one sub leading the way was to turn and attempt to intercept one of the subs trailing behind.
Today, U-102 had been in the lead and was at a minimum speed slowly heading back towards her sisters, rigged for silent running as she listened with her towed sonar array and other sensors. Lieutenant Merten was next to the sonar operator on duty, listening to a surface contact bearing 3-4-2 with a screw count of eleven.
"A merchantman, sir," the operator confirmed.
"Keep listening. U-101 is out there." Merten headed for the plotting table and exchanged a nod with the navigator before both looked down at the chart. A red square had been drawn around where the intercept was likely to happen if 101 was where they thought she would be.
The chief of the general staff was still furious. The purchase of the submarines had really been a secret and the navy had kept it well, right up until the official announcement. The army chief had immediately demanded a meeting with his opposite in the navy and the defense minister to demand answers. The purchase of foreign fleet units had of course too big to keep hidden as well as sending men overseas for training. The navy had left a careful trail indicating the "fleet units" were for shallow water (which was true, relatively speaking) patrol duties. The army considered the navy to be a subordinate in function if not in the chain of command; it existed to safeguard as best it could the Elb River's mouth, the river itself, and the Innensee while the army carried out the heavy lifting of defense operations. The Augustine Islands didn't even enter the minds of the continental thinking of the general staff... Defending islands in the middle of the ocean?!
Today's meeting, the army chief would have to keep his cool. The crown prince himself would be present and it would not do to lose one's composure in front of the future king. The general and members of his staff were seated on one side of the table and on the other was the navy chief and his people. At the end of the table was the defense minister. All rose and stood at attention as Crown Prince Karl came in and took his place at the head. He sat down and all followed him.
"Gentlemen, I understand the army is curious as to the navy's latest acquisitions and its thinking on the strategic importance of the Augustines."
U-102 slipped deeper into the ocean, her hull creaking easy to hear as the boat's propulsion systems were virtually silent. The men had been aboard Sylvanian subs as part of their training, but still a few of them looked a little disturbed.
The boat evened out, become level again. "Now at 150 meters, Captain."
"Good. Call me at 1500." Lieutenant Merten gave the con to the officer of the watch and went to get something to eat. She is a good boat, he thought. The crew is performing superbly. Already some of them are rising above the others, showing their worth. Elben's submarine service will be a success!
"Captain." It was the XO.
Before he could continue, an alarm blared and over the intercom, someone shouted, "FIRE IN THE GALLEY! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!"
The two officers shared a look and then sprang into action as the captain headed back to control and the XO to the galley to take command of fire suppression efforts...
It had been a simple grease fire, but still, the men had known what to do and had done it quickly, efficiently. Only one man, the one who had shouted, had lost his head. Merten wrote a detailed report for his superiors.
Sub Force One was the movie tonight. It was a foreign film, horribly subtitled, but it was a crowd pleaser with plenty of action and drama as the men under the sea fought a commie destroyer out to sink them with depth charges. U-102 had performed brilliantly and its trip to its soon-to-be home was almost over.
Merten sat at his desk working on reports and other paperwork, the bane of all captains everywhere. He was looking forward to some sun himself as well as learning what his fellow captains had been up to with 101 and 103. Then the real work would begin with needed maintenace, workups and finally regular patrols.
There was no rail to line, but all the men who didn't have duties below were topside in their best uniforms. U-102 was being moored beside the quay. A band was playing a mix of classic Elbener patriotic standards and some tropical music. Navy officlals, the governor, the bishop in white tropical cassock, and other dignitaries and townspeople were waiting waiting and cheering.
A lot of the men were slack-jawed as they got an eyeful for the first time of Elbener ladies in the tropics. None wore anything really revealing, but the shapely figures wearing light airy dresses and different hairstyles were like aliens from another planet compared to the girls back home.
Lieutenant Merten was the first ashore. In his dress uniform, he approached his superior and the governor and saluted. Bows and handshakes were exchanged with one and all. Eventually the men were released and they streamed ashore to begin their leave with a party where the daughters of Karlshaven, with chaperones present of course, were ready to entertain their guests as they had the night before for U-101 and would the next day for U-103. It was quite the party.
Leopold and Mireille were having breakfast alone this morning. The prince's wife, not much older than Queen Julian herself, had naturally fallen into a maternal tone to go with being a wife and expecting mother.
The prince swallowed what he had been chewing on and agreed, "Everyone agrees. I believe she was considered when the matchmakers were looking for someone with whom to pair me up. But all the turmoil after her father's death and the dynastic and political consequences of even a short personal union with Gunnland..."
"So now you have me." Mireille looked a little put out at the idea she was some kind of second choice, but the twinkle in her eye said otherwise.
"Now I have you, liebchen." The pair shared a look and then came together for a kiss.
The chance encounter began when he stepped outside for a breath of fresh air during the ball. Or maybe he had seen her slip out earlier? There she was, wearing a fur coat against the chill. He knew from seeing her inside that underneath the coat was a gown of white studded with jewels that glittered in the light. They talked of simple things, but their glances said so much more.
He touched her rosy face and soon their lips met. His arms found their way under the coat around her corseted waist as he embraced her and he closed his eyes...
Leopold sat up in bed, suddenly awake. Blinking a few times and adjusting to the low light, he slowly got his bearings. Yes, he was in his own bed. A soft snore came to his ear and he turned to see... not Julian, but Mireille. Again, oooh. The prince got out of bed and went to the bathroom. He ran some water and splashed his face. A man is not responsible for his dreams. Looking at his barely visible face in the mirror, Leopold frowned. Yeah, right.
I haven't heard from you since before Christmas. The mail here is always late. I hope my letters are getting through to you. The fighting has gotten worse as peace draws closer and they fight for final positions. There are fewer and fewer Elbeners, but they fight so hard. I do my best to help them. What I learned back home seems so inadequate for this place. They do seem to cheer up when they see me, a girl from 'back home.' Some of the bad ones hear my voice and talk to me like I'm their mamas. At night I go back to my tent with the other girls and weep into my pillow. Don't tell Mama, she'll just worry.
When the Elbener Brigade wraps up, I'll be coming home, hopefully by Easter! Give my love to Mama and Sisi.
Your loving daughter,
I must inform you that your daughter was killed last night in an attack. I enclose this letter I found in her locker and some of her personal effects I think you'd like. We are making arrangements for her to go home in the coming days. May she rest in peace. The chaplain said a Requiem for her and we are praying for her. She was one of our best nurses and her loss is felt.
God be with your family.
A Little Brother of St. Dumas sat around with the other members of his troop as one of the moms handed out cups of hot cider. The boys had been outside all day and now they were warming up. It had been a great day for playing in the snow, climbing the local hill and sledding down it, and riding with one of the dads who owned a snow machine.
Later, after the boys had been fed and had settled in for the night, the troop master came in and began leading the boys in prayer. Once that was done, everyone climbed into his sleeping bag around the fireplace and one of the boys read a letter from his older brother telling of stories from Loago fighting the commies for God and the King!
The master turned down the lantern and the room was lit only by the fire. Soon the boys were asleep, resting up for tomorrow's adventures.
The palace was a busy place with relatives fluttering around and government officials coming and going. The new king and his only daughter had retreated to the snowy garden for some peace. Karl was wearing the formal uniform of the army and a great coat. His daughter was dressed in a mourning gown and a fur-lined cloak.
"Yes, my dearest?"
Alexia paused and then said firmly, "I love you."
"I love you too, my dearest." Karl smiled and felt better.
Maria Alexia's entire world had been her father since she was three years old and her mother had died. Karl, having lost his own mother early, had done all he could as a father to see his children brought up well, cared for, nurtured, knowing love and attention.
Now she squeezed his hand and they started walking again. There were ceremonies to attend in the Heilige Kapelle as the Brothers of St. Dumas honored their dead grandmaster.
Mireille came into the room and took her father-in-law's hands briefly before they both sat down. Karl smiled inwardly a bit at the sight of his son's wife. Even in black, she pulled off that Gallian elegance the Serenien emigres had taken with them to Eiffelland and had not lost in the subsequent years.
"Father, you wanted to see me?" It came naturally for the new crown princess to join her husband in referring to the king as father.
Karl handed over a copy of the Serenien communique. "You've seen this?"
"I have, yes." Mireille glanced at it briefly, skimming it, and then met Karl's eyes. "Do you intend to reply?"
"That depends on you. We've never really talked about the pursuit or the renunciation of your claims, which will someday pass to your child." Karl's eyes flicked down to the woman's belly. Maybe it wasn't the Gallian elegance, but rather the glow of pregnancy he had noticed.
"They are my family's, our birthright, our responsibility." Mireille crumpled up the paper she held for effect.
"You sound like a proper Elbener." Karl winked.
The woman patted herself. "I should, I'm carrying one."
The intelligence briefing on Gunnland had been underway for awhile. The intelligence analyst just then covering the very technical ins and outs of Gunnish law to do with censors and other arcane offices.
Factions controlling different levers of government, it all seemed so pelasgian to the king. And now they faced the same thing in Bourgogne. Karl took a sip of water and refocused...
"...With Integrity possibly overplaying its hand with these latest moves. The charge of murder for moving for so-called 'pro-choice' rights is extremely provocative. Our own analysis of public opinion is inconclusive, but there does seem to be a definite shift in Gunnish opinion away from Integrity that could be exacerbated. A fundamental realignment in Gunnish society with modernism in the ascendance would have implications for Elben that cannot be calculated."
Integrity had come through and one of its own was now leader of Gunnland. Karl Maria loafed comfortably in a leather chair in his study, a fire burning merrily while rain pattered on the glass of the windows overlooking the garden. The news had called for a day off, at least as much as a king could take a day off. Count von Schlabrendorff was coming over from the foreign ministry with reports on the aftermath from Elbener sources in Windhaven.
A knock and then an attendant showed the foreign minister in. "Your Majesty. Thank you for receiving me." Earlier in the day, Schlabrendorff had sounded pretty chipper over the phone, but now he looked and sounded rather serious.
Sitting up and standing, Karl Maria asked if anything was wrong and then it hit him, "My God, has there been a coup in Windhaven?!"
"No, sire, no one has died and power has not changed hands. But one of our operatives has reported in with some intelligence." The count handed over a folder marked with various classifications, TOP SECRET being most prominent.
The king accepted and sat back down in his leather chair as he opened it and started skimming. Included was a dossier marked MAGISTER that detailed the life of one Théophile Gladstone-Pape. After the dossier was the latest report from MAGISTER...
"'Vive... Vive l'empereur,'" read the king aloud and then it dawned on him. "Oh my God! This is real?"
"Quite, Your Majesty. The Amt station chief in Windhaven is MAGISTER's personal handler. As soon as he found out, he used the secure line to contact me personally for a heads-up before sending along the detailed through encrypted email." Schlabrendorff's throat was feeling a bit parched and he took the liberty while the king continued reading to make himself a drink.
Karl was trying to read about this MAGISTER character, but his mind was still reeling at the idea that some Integrity academic was toasting him as emperor in a roomful of key members of the party.
Team Alpha and the others had been reorganized into more orderly army unit. Their stated mission remained the same and they continued to practice at a dedicated kill-house and other facilities around Elben, including urban environments, ships at sea, aircraft, and wherever surgical application of force might be needed.
Some of the Teams were seconded to Amt with members sent overseas to serve as bodyguards and intelligence gatherers. Not a few recent "volunteers" in Loago were Team members sent not only to learn more about the conflict down in Himyar, but to gain valuable experience.
Karl sat in his father's study (wrong, your study, he had to remind himself now and then) leafing through his morning briefing papers. There were clippings and printouts from the major newspapers and online outlets from around Europe along with summaries of less public news collated by Amt.
Robert Gunn was making headlines. The media all had their analyses of the situation and the ramifications. Elben's own people of course had their own opinions. These included not only how the clans of Gunnland would react, but also the outlaw clans of Elben. Many of them had contacts with their legal brethren in the homeland. In years past, there had been cross-border Troubles... The king made a note in the margin of the relevant briefing paper for the necessary minister to look into preventing any interference from Elben in Gunnish business.
Putting aside his papers for a moment, Karl stretched his arms and relaxed to think. Emperor Karl... It had a nice ring to it, he thought. The king had been thinking about Gallogermania and where things were going lately. He had read a memo prepared by Mellentin of the Council of the North's recent meetings. Theophile's sudden appearance there was interesting.
There was a knock at the door and his youngest daughter came in. Time for a walk.