Part #247: Home Stretch
The country’s official name is:
KINGDOM OF POLAND (Polish: officially Królestwo Polskie
, ‘Polish Kingdom’, but often called Rzeczpospolita Polska
, ‘Commonwealth of the Poles’).
The people are known as:
Capital and largest city:
Warsaw (1.1 million)
A red-white-red swantailed horizontal tricolour, traditionally charged with the arms, but today a civil version without them is also in use.
ca. 14,000 lcf.
: At present usually classified as part of the German-Danubian economic sphere.
Form of government:
Constitutional monarchy with a strong parliament, the Sejm. Poland in 1896 has built and refined representative traditions on the well-intentioned but ineffectively-designed foundations of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The King remains a significant player, in part due to brokering deals between bitterly opposed factions divided by class, region, clericalism vs anticlericalism, and views of which horse Poland should back in foreign policy.
Poland’s geographic position and topography renders it particularly vulnerable to being suborned or contested by its powerful neighbours, with the current players being a German-Danubian alliance against the Russians and their allies, including Poland’s former partner Lithuania. At present, the Polish government is run by those who regard the Germans and Danubians as the lesser of two evils.
Poland has a defensive army focus with an emphasis on fortresses and defensive lines, as well as conscription to back this up with manpower. At present, it is mostly aimed at the east against the Russians and Lithuanians, but there is an understanding that this could change...
Current head of state:
King Casimir VII (House of Lucca)
Current head of government:
– Taken from APPENDIX: GUIDE TO THE WORLD’S NATIONS AT THE EVE OF THE PANDORIC WAR, OCTOBER 1896, from
The World At War: From The Pages of The Discerner VOLUME I: THE GATHERING STORM (1981)
From: The World At War: From The Pages of The Discerner VOLUME V: THE QUENCHING ECLIPSE (1988):
The Solent, nr. Portsmouth, Kingdom of the Britons
June 10th 1899
Regretfully, having concluded that he had squeezed the last trace of goodness from it as persistently as those girls on the shore were squeezing their chordboxes, Axel Morris spat his plug of tobacco overboard. At least the Americans had brought good Carolinian tobacco with them when they had arrived with their transports. He watched the plug disappear into the waters of the Solent with a white splash like a miniature dive bomb, though it surfaced again soon afterwards. Though spring was turning into summer, those waters didn’t have a lot of blue to them: they were murky grey and brown with sewage dumped from the American ships (despite the Chairman of the Portsmouth Municipal Committee going apoplectic over this), strewn with debris from the dockyards, and even occasionally coated with an odd rainbow sheen. Those patches of water also looked strangely still compared to the small ripples around them provoked by the wind, and were moved and disrupted by the waves. Axel thought of when his newlywed wife, Pammy, had been doing the washing up and he had seen patches of grease and oil come off the plates and sit on the surface of the water. But who was spilling oil in Portsmouth harbour and the Solent? Whalers incautious about the whale oil they had rendered down? Someone had dropped an oil lamp overboard?
He shrugged—it didn’t concern him. For all his life, and especially for the past three years, he had learned that it was a very good idea not to think too much about the world. People who kept their head down were much less likely to come to the attention of the authorities.
He double-checked his uniform and rifle. Double? Double figures
of checks, maybe. Nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of Sergeant Cobham. It was as though a particularly unoriginal writer of bloodies for boys had been tasked with the challenge of writing the most stereotypically tyrannical drill sergeant possible, and then M. Lebec had used his confounded magic pen to bring it to life. Except perhaps he had run short of magic ink, because Cobham looked about seventy-five percent the scale of what he should be, and by hell, did he know it and hated the fact. He was convinced that all his soldiers were grinning behind his back about his diminutive stature. When, come on, it was maybe nine in ten of them at most. As a result, Axel had grown resigned to endless punishment duty. He half supposed, from his grandfather’s stories of fighting under Admiral Kincaid in the Great American War, that a long sea voyage to fight for the Americans in the Novamund couldn’t get any worse from what it was to start with. But Cobham might be able to prove him wrong.
Axel tensed as a shadow fell across him and held on tightly to the rail, staring fixedly back as the smoke of Portsmouth and the prominent shape of the modernised Round Tower shrank behind him. Was it the sergeant? But no, there hadn’t been a shout accompanied by spittle which, from the higher deck level behind him, the sergeant might actually be able to land on the back of his neck for once. Axel didn’t turn around, but risked a glance in the reflective brass buttons on his sleeve—for once grateful that Cobham force them all to buff them to the point that one shaft of sunlight would make them a sparkling target for any enemy sniper. Small and curved, the buttons were still poor mirrors, but they would do for his purpose.
It wasn’t eavesdropping, he told himself. Eavesdropping was when you sneaked around listening at keyholes. It wasn’t eavesdropping when you would have to bring those damn girls with their chordbox orchestra aboard to play the national anthem in your ear to avoid hearing the words. As it was, their performance, possessing in enthusiasm what it lacked in talent, was mercifully fading with distance. Axel hadn’t even thought up till now that even the professional musicians must have been called up. Called up, or...doing other things.
He carefully set that thought aside as well, as dangerous. But that did mean he had no choice but to focus on the words behind him: words uttered, as his distorted ‘mirror’ told him, by Captain Benton of this ship, the transport HMS Commissioner
, and the American envoy, Henry Smith.
Axel had seen Smith before. Americans were supposed to be bigger and taller than ordinary people, if you believed the writers of bloodies, due to their superior diet and endless farmland. This was certainly true of Smith, but he was also blond and blue-eyed and had an angular head, which led Axel to suspect that his father or grandfather had been a Heinrich Schmitt. A German, like so many Americans were really
. That wouldn’t have bothered him a few months ago: after all, Germany was BRITANNIA’S BRAVE ALLY according to the papers. But then the Bundeskaiser had thrown in the sponge, and the tone had changed overnight, castigating the Germans as cowards and traitors and suborned by insidious (insert group here). Alongside the more relatively logical suggestions like Meridian-backed secret societies, some of the papers seemed to have gone after the old standard of THE JEWS
. While Axel hadn’t met enough Jewish people to form an opinion, that didn’t seem to make much sense to him, given that the Russians were now busy expelling most of the Jews from Poland now it effectively belonged to them: why would Jews in Germany help the side known for persecuting their people?
Politics, again. He hastily shoved the thought aside. Thinking about politics made you a target. Don’t think about it, and the worst that could happen to you was being shot by the enemy or flogged by Cobham.
“And so we bid farewell to your shores, to the, ah, mother country,” Smith said, his hesitation over that term obvious: well, it wasn’t his
mother country if Axel’s surmise was correct. He supposed he couldn’t be too picky given he himself had a foreign name, the result of his mother being a little too giddy over a famous Swedish tenor at the time he was born.
“Hmmph,” grunted Benton. “With the Russians just beyond the horizon, if you believe some people. And...” he gestured wordlessly to a number of Royal Navy ships firing salutes as the transports and their escorts left. Part of the Channel Fleet was there, proudly flying the purple ensign, but not enough of it in Axel’s eyes. If the Russians really could stage an invasion, maybe with the help of the Scandinavians and the Belgians...
“The Russians are out of it,” Smith said dismissively. “His Imperial Majesty has made peace with them. The Empire has even given up territory at home to neutralise them.”
“Somehow, I don’t think getting the Russians off our back was the reason,” Benton grumbled, but then reluctantly nodded. “Very well. So at least we can concentrate on the Meridians.”
“Ya,” Smith said. Not yes
or even yeah
, the way Axel had heard some of the other Americans say it, but ya
. A German. “The unholy torchies...” Even in Axel’s small and very imperfect ‘mirror’, he saw Smith’s expression twist into a moment of anger. “We will
stop them this time. We will
make them pay. And they’ll never interfere beyond their own borders ever again, never bully other countries into toeing their line.”
“Never is a long time,” Benton said after a pause. Axel wondered if Benton was thinking that Smith seemed oblivious that his description of the Meridians’ crimes could also apply to the Empire of North America. It was aydub to think someone else
might be thinking that, right?
“We’ll smash them so flat they won’t be able to get up again,” Smith said resolutely. He shook his head. “I am glad the m...that England has seen fit to send so many of her brave sons to fight for the Emperor.”
, Axel thought, not Britain
. The Scots and Welsh would be enraged if there were any on board. And calling the King just the Emperor, not even the ‘Emperor-King’. Smith either didn’t know what he was talking about or, more disturbingly, he just didn’t care about what to him were trivial distinctions.
“Hmmph,” Benton said again. “The Duke was very persuasive.”
“Ya...” Smith said carefully. Axel saw him scan the horizon, and he didn’t think he was looking for anything in particular. “Mr Courtland said to me that he was disappointed he did not get to see the Duke while he was in London. An outbreak of infectious disease, he understands.”
“Such things are best not to spread through the papers,” Benton said coldly. “We do not wish spies to pick up such useful information from the Daily Truth
Smith inclined his head. “Mr Courtland also said that his predecessor who came with the flotilla for the last recruitment tranche, Mr Arundell, was unable to have an audience with the Duke either. In that case the stated reason was that the Duke had been called away for an unexpected meeting in Scotland concerning a suspected spy ring.”
“Spies are everywhere, as I said,” Benton said, his voice like iron. He deliberately ignored the baited language of ‘stated reason’.
“In fact,” Smith continued blithely, “one might say that the last time any envoy from the Empire spoke with the Duke—”
“Lectel messages, suitably enciphered, can take the place of much of the crudities of our ancestors these days,” Benton cut him off. “The Duke has set an important example by taking advantage of this.” He gestured to Portsmouth and the whole of Portsea Island, slowly dwindling behind them; soon it would be obscured altogether as the sluggish flotilla turned for the Isle of Wight. “For example, imagine if an orchestra could capture a piece of music just as an Optel or Lectel operator can capture a message or even an image. We could take music wherever we went.”
“I trust that we would never seek to do so with that very energetic piece that those ladies presented,” Smith said, and then the two were chuckling politely at each other, the dangerous topic left behind.
“Speaking of Portsmouth,” Smith added, pronouncing it as though it was two words, port’s mouth
, “I noticed a peculiar wreck in one of the disused docks as we left the harbour—on the left, ah, port side. It almost looked like what remained of a ship of Jacobin Wars vintage.” Axel had also seen that, but hadn’t given it a second glance.
“It was,” Benton said laconically. “HMS Dragon
. Some chap in a pub told me it was Commodore Keppel’s flagship at the Battle of the Channel Islands in 1807. One of the first rocket ships.”
“Ah,” Smith said, then raised his eyebrows with surprise. “I saw a picture of that battle once...it hung on the wall of my kindergarten,” (whatever the hell that
was, Axel thought). “And I think I read of it at college...” He shook his head. “That was a moment of triumph for England, was it not, after the disaster with Parker and the invasion?”
“Hmm?” Benton said. If Axel was any judge, he didn’t trust himself to open his mouth and comment that the disaster had in part been caused by British forces being called away to fight the Meridians...just like now.
“My point,” Smith said, running a hand through his hair in frustration at being forced to carry so much of the conversation alone, “is that I am surprised you have not restored the ship and turned it into a museum to celebrate that triumph. I have been to Le Havre, before the war of course, and they have preserved the Améthyste
, the vessel on which Louie Dix-Septième returned in triumph. A very splendid commemoration it is.”
Benton turned to him and gave him a withering glare, clearly unable to entirely suppress his true feelings. “And that is a very French thing to do,” he said dismissively. “They are forever obsessed with past triumphs—it defines their whole character. They cannot look forward. When they once tried, they became Jacobin murderers. Here—”
He gestured to HMS Commissioner
beneath his feet, the Purple Ensign flapping at the mast, the coastline behind them. “Here, in Britain
, we don’t care about the past. The past is finished, it’s over. We look forward to the future, always. It’ll be the twentieth century in a few months.”
That hadn’t actually occurred to Axel, and the words gave him an odd mixture of terror and dread to think that he would be there as a new century was ushered in.
Benton concluded by folding his arms. “That old wreck of a ship—they used it as a training ship for a while, then an ammo store, and now it’s just rotting—that’s the past. The rule of aristocrats oppressing the peasantry, everyone dying of diseases the doctors can prevent now, illiteracy, superstition—why would we want to remember that?”
Smith gave him a long look, then shrugged. “Very well. I suppose it’s one less ship to repaint.”
Benton arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, hadn’t you heard?” Smith sounded suspiciously innocent. “Your ship left before it could be completed, so it’ll have to wait till we reach Norfolk, but I think they already did it on, hmm, yes, the Delegate
...” He gestured to another transport of the same class, floating about one-third of a nautical mile to port and ahead.
Benton instantly had his telescope in his hand and was focusing it. Even in Axel’s tiny distorted mirror, he could see the captain’s lips move as he read something. He stiffened as though in shock, though he did not let it show on his face as he emotionlessly folded up the spyglass. “So. Not HMS Delegate
“No,” Smith agreed. “HB
. As this is HBMS Commissioner
, officially at least, though you don’t yet have the paint job to match.”
“HBMS,” Benton repeated, like an old lady picking up something nasty with a pair of tongs, or a man who has just bit down on a bone with a crack and is cautiously probing his teeth with his tongue. “HB
“Ya,” Smith said. “Apparently there was an incident where an English ship was shot at by one of ours,” every bit of language he used seemed calculated to wound, “because the lookout saw a three-letter prefix, and you see, every other ship on our side has a four-letter one...”
MS,” Benton repeated catatonically like a soldier in a trench who’d just seen his mate blown apart in front of him by an enemy shell.
“His Britannic Majesty’s Ship,” Smith clarified helpfully. “I think they also considered HRMS for His Royal Majesty’s Ship—I have a cousin who clerks for that committee in Fredericksburg—”
, not clarks
. And using it as a verb
“I see,” Benton finally managed. “Right.”
Smith patted him on the shoulder. “I knew you’d like it. Like you said—being English is all about looking to the future, and who cares about silly past traditions?”
Axel had to try very hard not to think about politics this time.
 Lucca was of course a republic until the Jacobin Wars and their aftermath; the ducal house briefly installed by Carlo of Tuscany in 1800 (then unseated by Hoche but restored after Hoche’s retreated from Italy) was a branch of Tuscan nobility which officially chose Lucca as their house name in an attempt at legitimising their rule. They also counted regnal numbers as though the names of prior Luccan republican Consuls of Justice counted, hence why the Duke who later became King of Poland was Rainaldo IV.
 Interestingly, in OTL the prominent Poniatowski family also claimed to be descended from Italian nobility, though this may not be true.
 Accordions, essentially—invented, like OTL, in the early 19th century.
 This is a reference to a groundbreaking speculative romance book written by the French author Paul Lebec in 1878, The Other Side of the Shadow
, which spawned many copycats. In it, an author imagines a fantastic alternate world to write about, but loses his pen at a crucial moment when he has an inspiration while walking around and needs to make notes. In desperation he buys a pen from a mysterious shop, which turns out to be a mystical artefact which actually causes his world to come into being, or else opens a door to it (it is left ambiguous whether the author created the world or merely had an inspiration to describe something that was already there). He is trapped there and goes on a quest with companions he meets there (including a centaur, a pixie-like ‘elf’ and a mermaid cursed to live on land with the aid of a wheelchair) to find the Ice Palace of the Shadow Lady, who is secretly influencing the Good King of the White City to become a tyrant. In the end, the protagonist is tempted by the Shadow Lady with a magical way home if he abandons his new friends, but decides he would rather stay. As was common in 19th century literature in both OTL and TTL, there is a literary agent hypothesis where the protagonist’s journal supposedly did made it through the magic gateway and was discovered by Lebec. The Other Side of the Shadow
created a whole genre of ‘travelling to invented magical worlds’, likely because it came at just the right time when the world had been sufficiently well-mapped that authors could no longer plausibly invent surviving dragon colonies in South America or lost Roman legions in Africa.
 This author is rather unsubtly reminding us that voice recording does not exist as a technology at this point in OTL.
 Of course, in 1807 this wasn’t at the instigation of ‘the Americans’ and Britain was still firmly in the driving seat of the Hanoverian dominions, but hindsight historiography has tainted the 1890s Britons’ views of this incident.