All of the text below the following line is copyright of Grey Wolf.
By Grey Wolf
The Kaiser was dying. Sombre courtiers padded softly around the palace. Government ministers came by more frequenly than at any time since the Syrian Crisis. A myriad of princes and princesses came to pay their final visits to the great man.
At nine o'clock that evening he received his final visitors, the Kronprinz, his son and heir, the Imperial Chancellor and the Archbishop of Berlin. By ten o'clock he was dead.
The bells tolled across the city. Halting in their evening ablutions, Berliners praised the memory of the great man, and wondered just what the morrow would hold.
In the old man's bedroom, Frederick looked one last time at the body of his father. He heaved his shoulders, “Emperor Frederick III” he tried it for size. It did not not seem to fit. Maybe he would grow into it. He rather doubted it…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Grand Duke Nikolai looked down at the twitching body of his elder brother, “What….what is happening ?” he whispered, hoarsely. The Tsesarevitch stirred his father's body with his boot, “He is dying.” he said simply. “Alexi !” his uncle used the familiar form, “That is no way to speak of the emperor.” Aleksandr Aleksandrovich met his eyes, cold steel seeming to lance from out of the blackness oif his pupils, “It is the truth, uncle.” “And you will soon be Tsar…” The two turned towards the door. The woman standing there was young, barely out of her teens. “Yes Theodora, I shall soon be Tsar.” The woman tossed her mane of dark brown hair. “That is good, brother; it is very good indeed.” Nikolai turned away from his niece, venom on his tongue. He bit down. It was true… Soon, too soon, Aleksandr IV would be dead… It would do him well to start minding what he said. He said nothing. Brother and sister exchanged a glance. Theodora sneered behind her uncle's back, “I will be back when I hear the bells.” she said. The Tsesarevitch turned back to the barely living body of his father, “Fetch a priest.” he intoned.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“I am glad that that is over”, Karl II heaved his bulk into an armchair and lit his pipe from the match a servant proferred. Across the expanse of deep red carpet, the Russian emperor nodded as if in sympathy, “Burying one's father is very hard.” he said softly. “Yes”, Karl looked up at the younger man, his face warm and open, “Sit, sit” he indicated the chair across from him, “Let us talk as fellow rulers.” “Indeed” Aleksandr V took his seat, “Thank you, your majesty.” “Nothing, it is nothing” Karl waved airily in front of him. “Indeed”, the young Tsar said again. Karl paused, frowned, then shrugged. No doubt it was a linguistic slip. After all, German was not even the second language of the young Russian. “I see a great future for our nations” the German emperor rumbled, “Do you not agree ?” “The future…” Aleksandr smiled as if at some private joke, “Yes, the future should indeed be interesting.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The British ambassador stared dumbfounded for a moment, then found his tongue, “I am sure that I speak for all my countrymen in offering you our sincere condolences.” he stammered, “There will be great shock at this news.” “Yes, I am sure” The young Spaniard turned his back on the British aristocrat and gazed out through the window across the vast lawns of the palace, “The Prince of the Asturias… No !” he snapped at himself, angry at the slip, “The King will be here tonight. He comes directly from Madrid.” “Has the…I mean, did the police…?” “No” Prince Jaime knew what was being asked, “Our mother's assassin escaped into the crowd.” He turned back towards the ambassador, “But be sure he will be found. And when he is…” “Yes” When he is… Lord Cecil knew exactly what the apprehension of Queen Mercedes II's assassin would mean for Europe…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“No, it shall not be !” Mustafa Ali threw the ultimatum down upon the floor. Another cannonade shook the royal palace, throwing more dust into the air. “Where is Orkhan Pasha ?!” he rose furious to his feet, “The empire promises aid and yet…and yet the British Navy sails into our harbours !” “He is dead.” For a moment the Egyptian Sultan turned his wrath-filled face upon the voice from the darkened doorway. Then he nodded; the Grand Mufti could address him as he saw fit. “Fetch my horse” he whispered to an aide. “Yes, your majesty” “You mean to fight, cousin ?” The speaker this time was his kinsman, Abdullah. “I mean to fight” he snapped, then waved a hand in the air, “Look about you - use your eyes !” “We should not have come to El Iskandryia” the other said. “Hmph.” Mustafa Ali turned his back on him. He would wait for his horse and then… And then it was in the hands of Allah. As ever, but perhaps this time more than ever.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“I have not forgiven you for the death of my father.” On the surface, to outside eyes the two men walked in step, in harmony. Born in the same year and allies by a long-standing agreement, Wilhelm I and Aleksandr V seemed like any two royal cousins would be as they walked into the palace from the courtyard. “You had better forgive his stupidity”, the Russian retorted, “My army was not bound to relieve Prague. He had been better never to have gone there at all.” “The final assault on Vienna need not have been delayed.”, Wilhelm spoke with all the pent-up anger of the last few years, “You could have spared Prokofiev's army if you had so wished.” “There is little point to this line of talk.” the Tsar stared into the eyes of the other. Wilhelm shuddered and looked away. It was true what they said about Aleksandr. “There are more immediate matters to talk of”, the Russian continued, “Your daughter first and foremost.” The German Emperor shivered to his boots. To imagine his beautiful Louisa married to a brute like this… But there was no avoiding it now.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
One year since… Just one year had passed but it already felt like an eternity. William V had waited so long to be king that by the time his father finally passed away he had grown old - and tired. The past year had been one of toil, relentless and never ending. “Cheer up father.” It was Prince Richard, his youngest, who spoke, “Christmas should be a time for joy. Grandpapa had had a good life and a long one. He would not want us still to be moping twelve months on.” “The sprat is right.”, Princess Sophie never missed an opportunity to tile the only one of her six siblings who was younger than she was, “Let us celebrate grandpapa's memory not mourn it.” Tenderly, King William looked from his youngest daughter to his wife, and felt his blood run cold. There was something distinctly odd about Maria these days. She was staring intently at their daughter, her eyes almost bulging as if in an attempt to bore into her skull. “Um, yes” William coughed and looked away, “We should, ah, celebrate indeed.” He staggered to his weary feet and padded across to the great bay window, “And here is Ernie !” He thought he had heard hooves, even through the snow that blanketed the courtyard outside. “Oh God” Sophie hung her head, “I do hope we do not have to suffer more of his tiresome tales of Paris.” The king frowned and looked to his wife. Marie was usually ever ready to scold their daughter for blasphemy. Instead he found her staring intently into the light of a candle. “Hmm…” he said, “Er, my dear, have some understanding of what happens when a man falls in love.” Sophie only stared at him. How crazy the older generation could be. She knew love. She just did not wish to hear about the Prince of Wales' tiresome bride to be ! As the king moved towards the door to greet his eldest son, Sophie met her mother's eyes and girnned a triumphal grin. Queen Marie looked down at the floor, her shoulders visibly shaking in an effort to control herself. “I think we shall have some fun this Christmas.” the young girl said. “Oh yes !” Prince Richard beamed in his innocence, “Let's do, what !”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Asar-i Tewfik sailed magnificently upon the azure sea, her six turrets trained fore and aft, a spotter kite flying in the air above, tethered to the mainmast. “The Sultan names a ship for himself ?”, Prince Richard of Great Britain, recently created Duke of Albany, asked his brother. Ernest II laughed, that good-natured throaty sound that always won his listeners over. “I am told the ship's name can be translated as 'God's Favour'. Whether that means our host is Favourable Ali, I do not know.” Prince Richard laughed at the joke.
A short way away upon the viewing platform, Tsar Aleksandr V frowned at the levity of the British. Egypt had suffered mightily at their hands in the 1915-1921 war. Indeed, the completion of this first Egyptian battleship of the modern era marked a turning point in her reconstruction. Tewfik Ali was at last able to say that his nation could stand proud where it once had stood. As Egypt remained an ally of the Russian Empire that was important to Aleksandr. The attitude of the British was unacceptable. He made a mental note to do something about it later…
It was cold - surprisingly cold. Alphonso XIV could not concentrate, could not get that thought from out of his mind. Truth, it was almost Summer, but standing up here amidst the spray and in this wind… He tried not to shiver… He tried not to shiver. At twenty, youngest of the monarchs present, he did not wish to give them any further ammunition to use against him. Concentrating hard, he gritted his teeth and tried desperately to focus solely on the display of Egyptian naval might before him
“The scene of your greatest victory, father.” Archduke Eugen looked down at his youngest son and shook his head, “It was a victory without meaning.” he said quietly, as if afraid to raise the ghosts of those desperate days, “While we were destroying the Germans here, the Russians were advancing on Vienna.” Leopold chewed his bottom lip, unhappy at the put-down. It did not seem right to forget such a feat of arms as his father had achieved before these very walls, fifteen years before. “What about the death of the German Kaiser - THAT was an achievement !” Eugen smiled fondly at his son's perseverance, “It merits a note in the history books” the Archduke allowed, “But it gave the world Wilhelm I in his father's stead. I am not sure that it was a good exchange.” “But we are come to meet him.” Leopold was puzzled, “Are not relations between our two houses better than ever before ?” “Yes, perhaps that it so.” Eugen did not feel able to discuss the details with the boy. There were things best left unsaid. Instead he simply added, “But it is because Kaiser Wilhelm quarrels with the Russians that he looks for new friends within Europe.” “And will we be friends with him, father ?” Eugen looked into the adolescent's shining eyes, surprised. Had he grown so much he could ask such a pertinent question ? Or did he mean it simply and naiively ? Perhaps the answer was the same either way. “Time will tell.” he said, then turned towards the window of the carriage, “Time will tell…”
February 1936 Saint Petersburg
“I will not listen to any more of this rubbish !” Tsar Aleksandr V stopped his aide in mid flow. Eyes blazing he further emphasised the point by sweeping the entire contents of his desk - papers, pots and statuery - onto the floor in one almighty crash. He heaved a deep breath, gripping the wood at the edge until his knuckles went white, “There MUST be a secret codicil.” he growled, “The Germans would not sign an accord with the Austrians on the basis of….of that !” He kicked at the mess on the floor, amidst which the copy of the Austro-German treaty could be found. “Our agents assure us that this is the FULL treaty…” “No !” the Tsar slammed a fist upon the desk. He glowered at them, “Get out !”, he growled, “Get out !” Exchanging puzzled and worried glances the generals backed away, at first slowly then more hastily as the Tsar jabbed a finger at the doorway. When they were gone, Aleksandr walked slowly over to the window. Looking down on his fleet, iced in upon the Neva, he shook his head. Surely it was not just the one thing which had pushed Wilhelm to jump into bed with the Austrians ?! He grimaced at his choice of phrase. Jump into bed… Was the Kaiser so angry at the dishonour to his daughter that he would ally with the enemy ? Were international affairs driven by such petty slights ? No ! Surely there had to be more. The Austrians MUST have offered Berlin something… He vowed to find out what…
“Well, there is the other matter, your majesty.” the Earl of Salisbury hesitated to put it into words. Ernest II nodded, “Yes, there is. How much of the tales doing the rounds in the salons is true, do we know ?” “Ah”, Salisbury had been afraid he would be asked something like this. As Prime Minister he, of course, had access to the best intelligence available. He could hardly lie to the king, but he hesitated to tell him of the conclusions they had come to. “'Ah' means the worst is true ?” Ernest beat him to it. “Ah…yes” Salisbury looked down at the floor, “We, ah, believe so.” “One can understand why Kaiser Wilhelm is rather more than upset with his erstwhile ally.” “Ah yes” Salisbury was well aware he was repeating himself, “He…ah…we believe he was never happy about marrying his daughter to Aleksandr in the first place.” “Who would be ?” Ernest could easily understand those sentiments, “And…is it still going on ?” “I have made discreet enquiries of Ambassador Fairfax” Salisbury said slowly, wishing he did not have to impart the news, “He reports that the situation both with regard to the Empress Louisa and the Grand Duchess is as per his previous reports.” “I see” Ernest sat back in his red leather chair and crossed his hands above his muscular breast, “Aleksandr truly places himself outside the family of civilised monarchs.” “And yet…” Salisbury began. “And yet we cannot but deal with him. Hungary, Egypt, the Principalities. Russia is the key to them all, and Aleksandr has made himself Russia.”
“Always and forever” King Stephen was well aware that he was considered a traitor by the other branches of the Habsburg dynasty for his acceptance of the Hungarian crown after the 1915-1921 War. Thus his kingdom's alliance with the Russian Empire was more important than anything - whatever else may happen. Tsar Aleksandr V nodded and smiled a smile of triumph. The traitorous Germans may turn away from him. The perfidious British may ostracise him. But he could still control events. Europe would still dance to his tune ! The Hungarians, for example, could not do without him. “Our two realms are bound by a mutual destiny” the words slipped easily off his tongue, “Europe will tremble at our feet.” As ever King Stephen was unsure how to answer such a direct statement. As usual he parried it aside with a platitude, “Europe matters less than our firm friends in Saint Petersburg.” “Firm friends, yes.” Aleksandr emphasised each word in turn, “And so we will remain. A course of prosperity and power. A path of destiny. A road lined by Fate with the palm leaves of inevitability.” King Stephen smiled. It was both the confused smile of an old man and the tolerant smile of an old ally. The words themselves may be meaningless self-glorification. But he knew from long association what their intention was. He raised his glass in the air, “Together victorious !” he cried. “Together victorious !” the room echoed to his cry. Downing his drink in one, Aleksandr laughed to himself. Yes - whether the Hungarians wanted it or not they would be victorious with him !
King Alphonso XIV frowned and tried to concentrate on the words his Prime Minister was speaking. Youngest of the monarchs of Europe, albeit not by much over Ferdinando III of the Two Sicilies, he felt a heavy burden upon his shoulders. Well aware that his grandmother's assassination had sparked the greatest conflagration the world had ever known, the merest hint of international crisis exercised his mind like no thing else could. “Are we sure this new clause to the alliance is really necessary ?” he asked at length. Count Serrano nodded sombrely, “The assessment of the Foreign Ministry is that the Russian Empire is getting desperate. It is not 1915 now. They feel themselves hemmed in - by Germany's defection, by British military advisors in Khiva and Bokhara, by the signs that the Ottoman Empire and Egypt are moving towards a repair of the schism of 1920-1921.” “I see” Alphonso struggled to juggle all the facts at once, “And the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Yusef I has moved ever closer to Western Europe. Tsar Aleksandr fears that Egypt will follow this drift away from Russia ?” “Yes !” For a moment Count Serrano sounded celebratory, victorious even, then he remembered his place, “There are numerous signs for us to be wary of - the Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur is being strengthened once again. The Russian mission to Peking is pressing once again for a defensive alliance. Alaska's defences are being upgraded for the first time in twenty years.” “But…” Alphonso was loathe to interrupt his Prime Minister but felt that the point needed making, “All of that is outside of Europe. Why do we need…?” He petered out beneath the Count's determined gaze, “Your majesty” Serrano said, “No longer can the world be considered to be made up of discrete theatres. It is not EITHER Europe or the Far East. Russia's actions there are a part of their general strategy. Japan is an ally of Great Britain. Alaska borders the dominion of British Columbia. Russian influence in China threatens the position of Britain and France.” “I see” Alphonso cradled his head in his hands for a full minute, “So, Spain cannot remain aloof ? If we fail to support the Alliance, the Philipinnes, the Carolines, the Marianas, Guam - they are all at risk. If we support the Alliance - what then ?” “I do not know” Count Serrano spread his hands expansively, “But if we do not, we risk not only our Pacific possessions but our position within Europe. If we do not support our allies…” “I understand” Alphonso XIV let out a heavy sigh, “I really DO… Let us sign it…. and damn the Russians to Hell !” “Yes indeed” Spain's Prime Minister could only echo his King's sentiments.
Prince Mishkin's face was contorted with rage. Even his mother would not have recognised him. Even his son… except that it was not his son ! He spat at the picture of his wife upon the shelf. There was a word for his type - cuckolded… But this… this ! He could not take it any more. Cold steel… Hard and solid in his hands.. His service revolver… Had it really come to this ? His glass was empty… Port - the British drink, his brother-in-law had called it sneeringly. Brother-in-law ? Cuckoo in the nest ! He almost vomited upon the floor. How was he the last to know ? Why had nobody dared to tell him ? Had he always known ? He did not think so… Yes, looking back there were signs, but they meant nothing unless he knew what he was looking at. And that he only did now… Oh God ! But could there even be a God ? What did this mean ? It felt like some dark trick of Lucifer's. How could he believe in God after this ? Tsar Aleksandr V. Tsesarevitch Aleksandr (what else). Grand Dukes Mikhail and Dmitri. And then ? Who ? Where did the succession go ? To the sons of Aleksandr's uncle Nikolai ? Or…or … to his bastard ? Bastard… No ! He slammed his head against the wall. No ! No ! No ! Bloodied, hurting he stagged back to the desk. The gun was moving in his hands. Now ! He thought… Now ! “Damn you to Hell, Aleksandr !” he tried to sneer “Dmya ahelxuh !” it came out. He placed the gun against his head and pulled. Bang ! Grand Duchess Theodora's husband lay dead upon the floor.
Prince Aleksandr returned the salute, “You put on a very good display, admiral.” Admiral Crown grinned widely. No matter how odd the political circumstances, he was proud of his fleet - the Pacific Fleet. “Thank you, your highness”, it was safest to be vague, and correct - just not specific. How curious the ways of the royals. But it was not his place to care. “Tell me about your strength.” the young man requested, “The new arrivals from Europe, how have they added to your strength ?” Crown pointed out towards the bay, “The Rossiya, Gromoboi and Oleg are newly arrived from the Mediterranean. Each bears ten 16” guns. They are a match for the British Royal Oaks or the American Dakotas. They are more than a match for the French Orleans', far more than a match for the Spanish Reina Maria's“ “They are that good ?” Aleksandr was impressed. “There are better ships in Europe and the Americas” Crown conceded, “But strategic considerations prevent their stationing in this theatre.” “And we have better battleships in Europe ?”, Prince Aleksandr was genuinely interested. “Oh yes. The Petr Velikis in the Baltic and the Osliabias in the Mediterranean… But out here the Rossiyas rate almost as good as those.” “Excellent” Alexander clapped his hands together, “I see that Russian sea power is as good as the others!” “Oh yes.” Admiral Crown added his full agreement, “Here in Port Arthur we can take on the world - and win !”
“Sir, we have a problem.” “What kind of problem ?” Colonel Stewart's voice came back over the telephone. “A big one, sir” Captain Aloysius Hammond took a moment's pause, “Grand Duke Nikolai Aleksandrovich, his wife, sons and their families crossed over the border this morning. The Grand Duke is requesting our protection.” For a moment there was a pause, then the Colonel's voice came back, “You mean the Tsar's uncle ?” “Yes sir.” “Hell.”, the Colonel sounded momentarily lost for words, “I am going to have to telephone the Governor General's office for direction on this. In the meantime increase the guard - subtly. We don't want the Okhrana to snatch him from under our noses.” The line went dead. Captain Hammond slowly replaced the receiver and turned to the officer by the door, “Call out B Company…call it a test drill or something. And contact Garner at the bridge. Tell him to close the border - nothing more.” The man snapped off a salute and hurried from the room. Taking one last look at the rolling forest beyond the windows, Hammond passed through into the comfortable ante-room. “Well ?”, a heavily-bearded man looked up from his chair at the long wooden table. “Colonel Stewart will contact the Governor-General, your highness. In the meantime please continue to enjoy our hospitality.” “Hmm…” Grand Duke Nikolai simply looked down at his hands, gnarled and liver-spotted. Where had all the time gone…
Prince Ferdinand dropped the glass, the crystal splintering into a thousand fragments as it hit the ground, “What in the name of God was that ?!” he demanded. The reverberations still shook the building. Surely not an earthquake ? “Sir…er, your highness !”, the door flew open revealing an intensely fraught naval captain, “The Observation Tower reports that the Gloire just blew up in the harbour !” “It did what ?” Prince Ferdinand shook his head as if to free of it the dust of normality. “It just blew up…” “My God”, for a moment he was frozen in indecision, then his training kicked in, “Get a car. We shall go to the harbour and see for ourselves.” Nodding somewhat less than enthusiastically, the navy captain turned and ran back the way he had come. Prince Ferdinand frowned at the fragments of glass upon the floor, unsure of how they had got there. He smoothed down his uniform, that of an admiral in the royal fleet. Then he strode purposefully out of his office.
The scene at the dockside was one of pandemonium. The explosion had flattened several nearby warehouses, as well as causing a tidal surge which had swamped several smaller boats in the harbour. The Gloire had been one of France's newest and largest battleships. It now lay with its back broken, flames leaping high into the air, dense black smoke billowing up from her ruin. Men ran everywhere throughout the devastation. Sirens were screaming. An alarm bell somewhere sounded a discordant note. Several destroyers in the harbour were tentatively approaching the fiercely burning wreck, water houses spraying puny streams into the heart of the fire. Prince Ferdinand emerged from the staff car, a handkerchief to his face, his eyes watering almost immediately they came into contact with the smoke. “What happened ?” he yelled at one of the men who came running to greet him. “we don't know your highness.” the man yelled back, “There was no sign of a fire or anything. She just blew up !” “Just blew up ?” Prince Ferdinand turned away from the man. The pride of France's battlefleet 'just blew up'…?
“Sir, you need to read this…now” Prince John, Duke of Kent looked up. Was the man being impertinent ? Perhaps not - there was a look of alarm on his face as he proferred the telegram. Reaching across the desk, the royal duke took it from him, “From the Orkneys ?” he raised his eyebrows at the headline. As the officer did not respond he read on… Silence reigned for a full minute whilst Prince John read, then reread the message. At length he looked up. The officer was standing as if frozen in time. “This is verified ?” he demanded. “Yes, sir. This is the full report not the preliminary despatch.” Prince John tapped the arms of his chair, “The First Sealord is at Dover. Contact him immediately. I want the fleet on alert, never mind what Salisbury or the First Lord decide. I assume General Groves already has this. If he does not call in within the next ten minutes, contact him also. Then call in the regional commanders. Under the Defence of the Realm Act (1916) I am invoking a full session of the Home Defence Committee. I will inform the king.” “Yes, sir” the man could hardly get the words out. He left the room as fast as he decently could. Prince John picked up the receiver from the red telephone upon his desk, the one that was rarely used, “Laura ?” he recognised the voice of the palace switchboard operator, “Get me the king immediately…and I mean immediately !”
“Spitzbergen ?”, the Earl of Salisbury looked up in some confusion, “What on Earth is in Spitzbergen?” Lord Harcourt scratched his head, “Some mines if I recall… Fisheries ? Not much.” “So what are the Russians doing ?” The Foreign Secretary looked at the map of the Arctic that he had unfurled upon the table before them, “If they establish a base there ?” he suggested. There was a sharp knock at the door. Without waiting for an answer the flamboyant First Lord of the Admiralty bounded in to the Prime Minister's study. “I have just heard.” he explained, taking off his hat and adding it those already on the coat stand, “Prince John has called a session of the Home Defence Committee for 6 p.m. Rhodes is on his way back to London - he should be able to get there in time.” Salisbury nodded, “Why do you think the Russians have seized the islands ?” he asked the new arrival. Andrew Farraday looked down at the map, “It would be a good place for a forward base - bring the Arctic Fleet a lot nearer than at present. Or…” “Or ?” Salisbury raised his eyebrows “Greenland, Iceland, the Faeroes ? Who knows what Russian ambitions extend to ?” There was another knock at the door. This time the person outside waited for permission before entering. A young man still only in his early twenties, he approached the Prime Minister with a decoded despatch. Salisbury took it and read it. He looked up, pursing his lips, “From Stockholm. The Russian ambassador just presented Sweden with an ultimatum - surrender Spitzbergen.” “Or ..?” Lord Harcourt's voice tailed off, “Ah, I see.” Salisbury nodded and looked across to his First Lord, “Andrew, bring the fleet to full mobilisation.” “Agreed.”, snatching his hat Farraday left the room as suddenly as he had come. “Bertram”, the Prime Minister addressed the Foreign Secretary, “Cable the other members of the Alliance. Find out their positions.” “Of course” Lord Harcourt made to leave the room. “I will be at Endymion House” he named the HeadQuarters of the Committee of Home Defence.
“The ultimatum expires at noon.” Archduke Eugen remarked. Emperor Otto I sipped at his coffee - dark and strong, just as he liked it. He nodded sagely, “Yes, my brother. And we know what the Swedes will say.” “Russian troop movements are very worrying from all accounts” Eugen continued, “As well as massing forces in Lappland there are additional divisions in Finmark. Yet it is very late to start a war.” “It is difficult to read the mind of a Russian.” Otto remarked. “Perhaps” Eugen smiled grimly, “It is certainly difficult with Aleksandr.” Otto snorted, then launched into a coughing fit as he choked on his coffee. He set the cup down and steadied himself, “And my ministers wonder if I am getting more eccentric in my old age.” he wheezed, “What would they make of the Tsar !” “Grand Duke Nikolai Aleksandrovich is said to believe him insane.” Eugen referred to the Tsar's uncle, a man who had fled into exile from Alaska and whose current whereabouts were a closely guarded secret. “One supposes he would know.” Otto said carefully. “Is there any hope that Aleksandr will be overthrown ?” “Nothing that appears to be realistic.” the emperor replied, “Aleksandr has made himself Russia. To his people he represents progress and victory. Another war would perhaps not seem a bad thing, especially if it is against Sweden alone.” “And will it be ?” It was a question that raised all the sore points of international diplomacy. In the 1915-1921 war Austria had been a firm ally of Britain, France and Spain. But her defeat and dismemberment had left the rump Austrian state outside of the Alliance. “Our agents in London and Paris report confusion amongst the leadership of those nations. Spain will follow their lead, but what that will be ?”, the emperor could only shrug his shoulders. “They surely know that they must face Russia again eventually.” “Perhaps” Otto nodded, “Perhaps - but here, now, over this ? I believe their counsels are divided.”
“My God…” Prince Ferdinand looked at the report in his hands, “My God !” he breathed again, “This is absolutely one hundred percent genuine ? Absolute certainty ? Without a doubt ?! The intelligence officer before him nodded slowly, swallowing with difficulty, “Yes, your highness. There can be no doubt.” “My God…” Ferdinand let the document fall to the table and sat back, clasping the carven sides of his leather-backed armchair, “Do you know what this means ?” Claude Duvallier was non-plussed. As a captain in Military Intelligence he did not expect to be involved n detailed discussion with the high comand. He had thought himself merely the messenger boy, “It means that Russian agents blew up the Gloire.” he answered truthfully. Prince Ferdinand frowned, “It means that we have made a horrendous mistake.”, he stared at the chandelier upon the ceiling, “It means that history will judge us fools and knaves.” To that, Captain Duvallier had no answer.
Lord Harcourt was astonished. Rarely a man lost for words, he nevertheless found himself staring at his French counterpart, open-mouthed and dumb-founded. “It is most unfortunate.”, the Duc de Guise commented on the information he had just imparted. “Unfortunate ?” Harcourt squeaked. He coughed, “Unfortunate ?! Russian forces are poised to take Stockholm and now…” he could but wave in the air. And now, he thought, and now… “His majesty is of the opinion that to declare war now would be to enter a war that is already lost.” “Yes”, for a moment Harcourt fought his rising passions. King Louis Philippe IV had been the strongest voice against giving military support to the Swedes. Who cared if the Russians occupied some desolate islands ? Those had been the arguments with which his government had beaten down Britain's impulse to stand beside the Swedes and face down the Russian menace. He could contain himself no longer, “And so ?” he demanded, “Russia blows up the pride of your battlefleet and you will do nothing ?!” The Duc de Guise had the decency to blush, “His Majesty would like to assure his beloved allies that next time France will be ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in arms as previously we did before.” “Hmph”, Lord Harcourt addressed the carpet between the French Foreign Minister's feet, “Next time, eh? Next time… Next time WHAT precisely ? Tell me that.”
King Ernest II lowered the papers to the table, “My God” he breathed, “This is the full treaty ? I had seen the summary in The Times.” “Yes, this is the full document, your majesty.” the Earl of Salisbury replied, “Our agents are very good. We know that there are no secret clauses.” “That is something, at least.” the king agreed, “But not much… The public clauses are enough to make a Switzerland or a Belgium out of Sweden.” “Yes, your majesty.” the Prime Minister could only agree, “Somehow the Russian Empire has managed to strengthen its position in the North.” “Somehow…” King Ernest tried the word for size. It did not fit, “I believe that 'somehow' is my father-in-law.” “Ah…yes” the Earl of Salisbury could but agree. “We should have fought.”, Ernest's voice was stern, hard, “We SHOULD have fought.” “I must remind your majesty of the Treaty of Bayonne; the Alliance will act in concert in war, as in the making of peace.” The king ruffled the paper before him, “The cession of disputed border territory, the demilitarisation of the border, the surrender of the fleet, the 'indemnity'”, he laughed harshly at the word, “Sweden literally pays the cost of the Russian invasion. And all this on top of the loss of Spitzbergen.” “Yes, your majesty.” Salisbury could only face the truth, not deny it, “Should the Alliance find itself at war with the Russian Empire, Sweden will be a bankrupt and neutered observer…”
“Turfed out on our ear.” Andrew Farraday sank down into the plush blue armchair. He held his head in his hands, “We fought 1932 as the 'Guardians of Empire' ”, he seemingly addressed the carpet, “Now the Liberals use that to goad us with.” “I would like to see THEM do any better !”, the serious young man sitting opposite him spoke with venom. Farraday looked up and laughed a grim sharp laugh, “Mayhap we will. I doubt that Lewis, for all his Pacificist youth, will let the Russians get away with something like this a second time. Once bitten, twice shy, and the king still smarts from that bite.” “Lewis !”, the other could barely keep his contempt from out of his voice, “I never thought to see his type in Number Ten !” The First Lord of the Admiralty did not respond to the barb. Instead he looked around the sitting room, normally a bustling centre of life at the Carlton Club. Tonight perhaps it still bustled, but a more apt word would be shuffled, and where usually there was life there was now a feeling of death, as if at a funeral they were. Defeat had hit them hard. Confirmation had only come in the last half hour, and shock still rebounded round the hallways. Groups of men stood silently, unsure of what to say, or of when to say it. Farraday looked across to the younger man who was watching him intently; Lawrence Basset, last of an old breed of youth, first of a new breed of adult, “Salisbury will resign the leadership of the party. Harcourt will retire also, I have no doubt. For all his protestations the public blames him as much as it does the French.” “Will you let your name be put forward ?” the younger man asked. Farraday ran his tongue around the inside of his lips, “Derby will stand, Holmes too I should not wonder, but” he shrugged, “it can do no harm, I think.” “There are at least a dozen of us who will back you right now” Lawrence said fiercely, “I could have words…” He petered off as Farraday shook his head. “Let it wait.”, he said, “At least until all this is done with.” Lawrence hardly needed to ask what he meant.
Oleg looked up from the dockside and nodded to himself. The Okhrana's files had been right indeed; this trully was 'Granite City' “Mr McMillan ?” the voice before him said, the a moment later, “Here are your papers, Mr McMillan.” Oleg blinked, then smiled. He took the papers back from the customs inspector and walked along the gangway onto the quayside. He stood back as a steam tram rattled along the rails, crowded and no doubt stuffy inside. After his journey across the North Sea he could feel his stomach telling him that a smoother journey in a more pleasant environment would suit him better. Walking across the cobbled roadway, his keen sense noted the bustle around the goods sheds to the right, the cars and vans passing slowly as they manoevred around the horses and carts, and the goods wagons that a tank engine was hauling towards a loading bay. Across the roadway, in front of the Harbour Office, a number of automobiles were drawn up, their drivers smoking their pipes or reading the newspaper. Oleg recognised a rank of private charabancs when he saw them. Smiling, satisifed, he waited for an old van to rattle past, then made his way across to the foremost vehicle. “Passage into the city, sir ?”, the driver was alert and deferential to his prospective customer. Dress and aspect counted wherever you were. “The railway station” Oleg made his own entrance into the rear, and took a seat facing forwards. Only once he was seated did the driver start the engine, and roll forward into the lane of traffic. “If we go up Shore Brae we can get to Union Street much quicker.”, he explained. Oleg nodded. Two weeks ago, before he was detailed for this assignment, he would not have understood what the man had said, in fact he would not have recognised it as English. But the reason he had risen so quickly in the Okhrana was his gift for languages. In just two weeks he was now able to pass himself off as a perfect Scotsman…or at least what the Russian Empire considered a perfect Scotsman to be. “Did you know Union Street is built on a series of huge arches ?”, the driver threw over his shoulder. “Why is that ?”, Oleg asked. He, ofcourse, knew both the fact and the reason for it. The Okhrana did not send agents into foreign countries without a detailed briefing. “Before it was completed in 1805, the valley to the West bordered Aberdeen.”, he laughed, “The city was trapped, it couldn't grow - it was just the docks and the hills behind it.” Oleg sat back and let the charabanc's driver continue regaling him with his local knowledge. As they the stream of traffic heading into the city centre, Oleg sat back and watched the cars go by. His target was nearby, this was the best entry point into the territory. There would be no failure. Not from him. He may not get them all, but he would get the principle target. And, he was sure, he would get out. It was no good being in his line of work if you could not extract yourself.
“I suppose that you have heard the news ?” Princess Sophia looked up from where she was playing with one of the palace dogs, teasing the spaniel with a ball tied to a length of silk ribbon. “The news ? Oh”, she nodded, her long brown hair bouncing on her head, “What of it ?” Prince Richard, Duke of Albany, frowned deeply, “I cannot see the Liberals appointing an Official Censor as compliant as old Tovey was.” “You are afraid that your infatuation with that fat Wurttemberger will come out ?” she laughed, a beautiful yet at the same time mocking sound. Richard's frown did not go away, “Katherine has said she would convert if we married, it is not the issue that it once would have been.” “What then, brother ?”, Sophia at last tired of toying with the dog. Letting the fevered mutt have the ribbon, she turned her attention to toying with her younger brother, “Do you have secrets that even I do not know ?” Richard blushed. Perhaps that meant that he did. But it was not what he was on about, and his sister knew it. “Over the last year alone, Tovey had nipped in the bud how many stories about your…escapades ?”, he chose a more delicate word at the last moment, fearing to anger her. She did not answer him, but her gaze hardened and the fingers on her left hand clenched into a fist. Somewhat nervously Richard continued, “I know of at least ten different occasions… I am suire there are ones I do not know of.” “Nor will you.” her voice was stone to his ears, “My life is my business and mine alone.” “The public may not see it that way… Your expenses are after all paid for by parliamentary grant.” “Then we will have to make sure that the Censor understands his job, Liberal or no.” “Oh ?”, her brother tried not to sound too incredulous, “And how would we go about doing that ?! A smile suddenly animated her face, a dangerous light shining from her eyes, “Well” she said, licking her lips, “I can certainly think of one way.” Richard just stared at his sister. Surely she did not mean…? What else COULD she mean ?
The railway station was not what he had expected. He knew it from photographs that he had seen in Moscow, knew it from the copy of the designer's plans he had also seen. But somehow, in reality, it seemed smaller and more dirty, as if the photographs, by manipulating the angles, had tried to exaggerate. Such things did not bother Oleg - he noted them, he filed them away in the tidy boxes of his mind. But it was not something to knock him off his assigned track. He passed across the concourse, noting the time from the giant clock hanging over the centre. He was early, but of course he was not really - he was here deliberately at this time. Only that way could he be sure. The station tavern did not seem to have a name. He had been puzzled not to see one on the photographs, but now he assumed that was because it just did not have one. Whether that made it unique - or even interesting - or whewther it was common to all Scottish railway stations he did not know. His training told him not to make any mention of it. Even if Aberdden was the only place in the whole of the British Isles with such a phenomenon, as a Scotsman he might be assumed to already know. He made his way across the floor to the bar - noticing things. The absence of sawdust upon the flor. The spitoons discreetly in the corner. The empty ashtrays which showed that the patron took a care with his premises. The old men in the corner, perhaps the only regulars this place had. The individuals, alone at their tables, luggage piled beside them, newspapers spread open upon the flat surfaces. “Yes sir ?”, the patron was a florid white-haired man, his Scottish accent bearing the unmistakeable overlay of the regimental Seargant Major. Ex-army, no doubt that went a long way towards keeping order in a place like this…or in place like this could have been with a weaker character in charge. “Ahh…” Oleg made a brief show of studying the pumps upon the bar, the heavily-polished and uncluttered bar, “A pint of pale, please.” While the patron pulled the pump, Oleg made a show of searching through his pockets. Let the pickpockets wonder if he were not in fact poor, let the better quality folk wonder if he was so rich he did not carry loose change. He found two shillings, one from King George VII's reign and one minted that very year, and placed them on the bar. The patron settled his pint down and nodded at the money, “Its two and six now sir. We had to put our prices up after last month's run.” “Oh, I am sorry.” Oleg was genuinely embarassed. How had the Okhrana missed that ? He paid the extra sixpence, then took one of the newspapers from the rack. “Its quite a turn-up for the books.!” the patron commented. For a moment Oleg was confused; surely no one had expected the Conservatives to survive. He opened the newspaper up, “Oh !” he said in some surprise. The Midday Edition it declared itself to be, 'Absolute Majority !' it declared the main item of news to be. That was certainly a shock. “Mr Lewis can appoint whomsoever he wants”, the patron opined, “They don't need to rely on the Radicals. I should not but wonder that it means he can also do away with the Socialist wing of his own party.” he laughed, “It states that Bellingham has already been asked to be Foreign Secretary. The Tsar is not going to find any walkover in THIS administration.” “No, indeed.” said Oleg. Well, that would make things interesting, would it not…
“I don't believe it.” The whisper was hoarse, was hard with despair. Although it was daylight, had been for many hours now, the heavy curtains remained closed from the night before. Perhaps no one should be permitted to gaze in upon their misery. The day that had started with joy was now ending more heavily laden with doom than anyone could have predicted. He gazed upon the brown envelope by his side upon the chaise long, 'Arthur Mulligan, Party Leader' it was addressed simply. Party leader, he nodded grimly, but what a party… Beside the envelope was its contents, strewn carelessly where he had thrown them down, the few type-written sheets of paper which so irked his heart. A heavy hand lifted the topmost one, upon which was the summary; the percentages told a cleaner story than did the numbers of seats won. 'The Liberal Party - 52% of seats' That was the only one that mattered. An absolute majority ! And where did that leave the Radicals ? He dd not have an answer to that question. His party had more seats than before the election - but less relevance. It had been assumed that Lewis would need him to be able to rule. But not with an absolute majority. There would be no coalition now, none of his men in government, no Deputy Prime Ministership for himself. Just five long heart-breaking years of opposition - again. It hardly bore thinking about… He blinked…well, what if he DIDN'T think of it ? A growing anger exploded inside him. What if Walter Buckmaster was right ? What if…? He was on his feet now, pacing the wreck of his office, kicking over piles of papers, piles of books, folders and reports. This was NOT politics ! This was shit. Kick it over, kick it away. Were they not called the RADICAL Party ?! Well, then, let them BE radical ! He would talk with Buckmaster. He reached for the telephone, then paused. It would probably be best not to involve his secretary - Ellie might be a fierce sufragette, but this might be too much for her. Yes, there was a better way of doing this. He picked up the telephone, cradled the bulk in his arm and placed the receiver under his chin. Dialling the number dragged from the depths of his memory he moved to the window, pulling the curtains slightly apart. Blinking into the sunlight he smiled as the device on the other end was picked up. “New Model Army” came the reply. “This is Mulligan. Your people and my people, we need to talk.” There was a pause, the sense of a hurried whispered exchange, then “Name the place. We will be there.”
He looked up. The train for the Highlands was coming in. Among the places listed amongst its stops - Balmoral. Oleg smiled a happy smile.
Flames leapt up the sides of the ruined charabanc, smoke billowing into the air as the driver relinquished all control to the forces of nature. Careening across the carriageway it swiped aside a van that was little more than a motorised cart, and ploughed into the tables of a pavement cafe. Warned by the explosion and subsequent chaos as the burning apparition headed towards them, all of the mid-morning clientele had managed to hastily evacuate their tables. Over-turning on impact, the charabanc spilled screaming and bloody bodies from its upper deck as it careened through the window of the establishment, coming to a final rest inside. “Holy mother” Archduke Friedrich Franz managed before the wrecked vehicle blew up, sending masonry flying into the roadway and causing a huge cloud of black smoke to billow out from the hole in the Champs d'Elysee's elegant facade. The Archduke slowly stood up from his crouching position. “What happened ?” a voice cried behind him. Friedrich Franz looked vaguely around for his hat, then gave up. His mind was not functioning properly. What HAD happened ? There had been a flash of light. For some reason - instinct ? - he had ducked, then behind him the charabanc had exploded. He had a vague impression before that of it pulling away from a stop, a ticket-collector standing at the foot of the stairway that wound up the back, passengers crowded on the open upper deck. Had the flash of light caused the explosion ? Had some kind of mortar been fired ? What would have happened had he not ducked ? “My God” a secret policeman - one of his invisible shadows - stepped forward to draw alongside the Hungarian exile, “Are they all dead ?” “I…” Friedrich Franz struggled with his voice, “I think so”, he finally managed. “My God” his shadow echoed, this time more devoutly.
Princess Sophia leant back and luxuriated in the soft embrace of the couch. She raised the cocktail glass to her lips. Who knew what was in it ? She did not care. She took a large swallow and gazed beauteosly at her friends who sat around her. Similarly attired in fine yet risque outfits, and drinking who-knew-what with the devil-may-care attitude of the Old Rich, they represented the best blood that Britain had. And she revelled at being the centre of it all. “So”, Robert, Lord Moreseby, grinned across at her, “What do you think of this Liberal lot then ?” Sophia ran her tongue sensuously over her lips then laughed, “I do not think much of the new Official Censor.” “Why ?”, the young man was genuinely puzzled, “Isaac Charles has a reputation for being a toady towards you lot.” He meant the royal family and he, indeed, spoke the truth. Sophia wrinkled her nose and ran a strand of her long brown hair through her fingers, “He's fat and he's ugly.” “Sophia”, Sarah, one of Lord Cotton's several daughters sounded amused, “You lot only have to work with him, not live with him.” Sophia took a hearty swig of the unidentified cocktail, “I bet he's a pig in bed” she said. Sarah spluttered. Robert grinned a good natured confusion, “Well, thank goodness you are not his wife, then” he said. Sophia met his gaze and nodded, suddenly sober, “Yes” she agreed, “There is THAT at least.” Her friends just stared at her in confusion, before breaking into nervous giggles. The princess was being more strange than ever tonight…
“Yes, I understand. Yes, I will make sure of that.” Hector Bellingham hung the telephone back upon its stand. He took a deep breath then exited the small study, striding down the stairway with a measured pace as he categorised the facts within his mind. The two guards in the hallway, ornate-helmeted and breast-plated ceremonial elite presented arms as he passed. A manservant seemingly materialised out of nowhere. Bowing deeply to the British Foreign Secretary he indicated that he should accompany him, “If you would please come this way, sir.” Hector followed him down a carpeted passageway to a pair of large doors. One was ajar, and beyond it he could see shelves of books, a roaring fireplace and three armchairs arranged around a coffee table. One of the chairs was occupied, “Msr le duc will see you now.” Hector frowned at the man; the phrasing did not feel right and, besides, should HE not have been the one being introduced to the Frenchman. Seeing only stone in the manservant's face, Hector turned towards the door and stepped on into the room. The French Foreign Minister rose slowly at his approach and nodded sharply, “I trust you are sufficiently refreshed ?” he asked. “Yes, the facilities are quite adequate.” He found it hard to disguise his contempt for the Foreign Minister. Like all Liberals, except for those from the Socialist fringe, he had no problem with aristocrats in government. There had always been great Liberal Lords, and there were again with Vincent Lewis having appointed three to his cabinet, the most senior being the Earl of Oxford. But the Duc de Guise was not only an aristocrat, he was also a scion of a junior branch of the royal family and by all accounts he owed his position more to his Orleans heritage than to any idea of merit. After the events of the previous year over Spitzbergen, Hector found this easy to believe ! The duc indicated that he take one of the vacant seats. Hector did so, and waited. Maybe the Frenchman would play the host and provide him with a drink ? None was forthcoming. Instead, the duc settled himself back down, “We await Archduke Friedrich Franz” he said. Hector nodded, as if he had been informed. “He was involved in an incident on his way here. Luckily he was not hurt.” “I see. That is most fortunate.” They lapsed into an awkward silence. Hector turned his thoughts inward…
Archduke Friedrich Franz was from the Habsburg dynasty's Hungarian line. As decreed by Emperor Francis II his ancestor Archduke Josef Anton had been made Palatine of Hungary in 1795. Ever since, his family had lived within Hungary. However, in 1921 this was to prove a mixed blessing. As the Habsburg empire collapsed before the twin hammer blows of the German and Russian empires, Hungary had risen in revolt. His father, his brothers and himself had commanded units of the imperial army - his father a corps, his older brother Ludwig Karl a division, himself a squadron of cavalry. From an endangered Vienna, Emperor Otto I had ordered the imperial army to suppress the Hungarians. They had tried. With Russia's help, the Hungarians had prevailed. At the peace they had their independence - and the choice of who should be king. They rejected the Hungarian line in its entirety because it had so recently - and so bloodily - fought against the insurgency. But a Habsburg was the only option to keep the country united and to keep its independence from the Russian Empire. Karl Stefan of the Teschen line had been chosen, and the Archdukes of the Hungarian line driven into exile. His father was soon dead from despair, Ludwig Karl killed a year later leading a rebellion withni Croatia. Their middle brother had been assassinated in Vienna in 1930, leaving him the head of the house. He had already survived one assassination attempt - last year in Milan - and perhaps now he had survived another one after the morning's unexplained circumstances. The manservant announced him properly, “Your highness, Msr Bellingham, may I present His Imperial Hiighness Archduke Friedrich Franz of Hungary and Austria.” The Archduke, freshly attired, entered and doffed his brand new hat, “Your highness, Mr Bellingham, I am honoured to meet you.” The Duc de Guise smiled a pleased smile, “Please be seated, we have much to discuss.” “Yes indeed.” Friedrich Franz took the vacant armchair, “There is indeed much to discuss if my country is to to be free of the Russian yoke.” “That, of course, is why we are here !”, the duc informed him. Hector raised his eyebrows. Well, that was certainly news to him !
Andrew Farraday walked slowly down the pavement. He was vaguely aware of the secret policemen trailing him, a necessary precaution in this day and age but they were relatively unobstructive, allowing his mind to focus on the problem at hand. The coming weeks would see the culmination of the leadership contest within the Conservative Party. It was a shadowy and clandestine contest, to be sure, held behind closed doors, present only in briefings and in private meetings. Yet by the end of the month the party managers would be aware of the general - or majority, if that was not forthcoming - consensus. And a new man would be named to replace Lord Salisbury. He turned the corner, and the Carlton Club came into sight on the left. Ah, he thought, finally, where it all went down… He never saw the blast. Later he would think maybe he had glanced down at his feet - to check whether he still walked between the puddles. He had seen the car - but vaguely, a presence before the building. Rather than an exact article in itself. The explosion blew him off his feet.
“Sir ! Sir ! Get back please, we don't know if it's safe !” Farraday stared at the man, aware that he knew him from somewhere. Since picking himself up off the floor, he was not at all sure that he was thinking straight. His instinct had been to rush up to the Carlton Club, to help….with what, he wasn't sure. And now this man was trying to stop him. A fire engine pulled up, all screaming siren and revolving light. He watched, almost mesmerised, as the London firemen leapt down from the sides and began to hastily unravel the hose. Around them a crowd of curious and shocked onlookers were gathering, all staring at the devastation. For the first time Farraday's brain registered a comparison between the blasted ruined facade before him and the Carlton Club as it was supposed to look. “Oh my God…! he managed. The man in front of him had moved on, trying to clear the way through the crowd for several ambulance crews to pass. Farraday just stood, numb and rooted to the spot, watching. The whole front of the Carlton Club was gone, blown away into the interior if it had not crashed down upon the pavement. The car which he assumed had contained the bomb had disappeared, turning instead into a crater in the roadway. Fires could be seen leaping into the air from the exposed innards of the building, smoke billowing upwards from a dozen blazes. Like any of the gathering crowd, Farraday just stood and watched. The police soon arrived to keep people back from the immediate area, and firemen soon had the smaller fires under control. Numbed survivors either staggered out of their own volition, or were beginning to be hauled out by the ambulance crews. Farraday started as two ambulance men, smoke-stained and grim-faced, emerged carrying a stretcher between them. Lying on his back was a man whose face was unmistakeable, even tensed up in agony as it was. “Lawrence !”, Farraday's gasp was louder than intended. One of the ambulance men turned to him, “Are you a friend of this gentleman, sir ?” “Yes…my God” Farraday fought down an attack of bile, “Is he going to…is he going to be alright ?” The ambulance man frowned, stepping out of the way to let another pair pass with another stretcher, “He's lost his right arm, several ribs are broken, and he has at least one punctured lung.” He stopped seeing the shock on the other man's face, “Yes” he conceded, “in time he will be alright - apart from the arm of course.” “I see”, Farraday could not manage much more. He just stood there staring as they carried Lawrence away… Who on Earth was responsible for this outrage ?
Sebastian threw the papers down upon the desk. “Sam !” he yelled, “What the hell is this ?!” Samuel Carson appeared in the doorway, his journalist's visor a peculiar affectation left over from a past career, “The order came in from Washington while you were out.” he drawled. Sebastian gestured wildly in the air, “But for God's sake” he spluttered, “What are we supposed to do ? Just call everybody off ?!” “I guess so.” Sam sounded rather less concerned than his boss, “If they tell us to stop, we stop.” “Hmph”, Sebastian gazed down at his navel for a moment, thinking quickly as was his forte, “I don't like it.”, he commented. “Washington doesn't care if we like it.” Sam pointed out. “Yes”, Sam had come to a decision, “How many operations do we have logged ?” “Three - one on the embassy, one on the ambassador's residence, and one on Barakov”, he named a prominent businessman. “So Andy and Larry don't appear in the log ?” “They're down as seconded to Special Operations.” “Good.” Sebastian stood up, “Call off the three we have logged and inform Washington that we no longer have any Russian operations on our log.” “And Andy and Larry ?” Sam flicked his visor with his index finger. “There's a reason why Special Operations are not logged.” “Alright.” Sam disappeared from the doorway. Sebastian walked across to the great bay window and looked down on the busy streets outside. Why, he wondered, just why would Washington order him to stop watching the Russians ? Just what did that signify ? He ran a few possible answers through his mind and found that he did not like any of them.
“Cruiser Farraday reports Borodino and Gangut at Latitude 57 degrees, 45 minutes Longitude 8 degrees, increasing speed to 20 knots, bearing North by North-West.” “Danish Coastal Command reports cruiser Bogatyr and 3rd Destroyer Flotilla at Latitude 58 degrees, Longitude 10 degrees . Speed estimated at 25 knots, bearing West directly.” “HM Airship Celeste reports Russian 2nd Battle-squadron at Latitude 57 degrees 30 minutes, Longitude 9 degrees. Speed increasing to 25 knots, bearing North-North-West. Estimate 20 minutes until they catch up with the scouting pair.” “Right,” Admiral Withers took command of the situation, “We have a definite scenario. The Russian Fleet is exiting the Skaggerak.” “It is a story with only a beginning, admiral.”, Prince John had crept up behind him. The white-haired veteran of the 1915-1921 war turned slowly around, “I agree, your highness. The middle chapter is the most crucial. We must cover all possible scenarios for that.” “Intelligence reports a build-up of Russian personnel at Spitzbergen over the last few weeks. There could well be a connection.”, an officer from that service commented from the doorway to the Operations Room. “We need to read Aleksandr's mind.” Admiral Withers just stared at Prince John. To have made such a statement ! “Sir !”, it was the intelligence officer again, “We have a serious problem. Signals Intelligence in Halifax is reporting that the U.S. Atlantic Fleet is putting to sea.” “Coincidence ?” asked Withers. “I rather think not.”, Prince John sounded almost scornful at the idea, “I am calling a meeting of the Home Defence Committee for two hours' time. If you are unable to be there, send a deputy with plenipotentiary powers.” “I understand”, Admiral Withers turned back towards his radio operations, “Get me Commander Laxton in the Westmoreland. I want a patrol screen thrown across the Forties immediately.”
“Maintain contact.”, the voice came over the radio, “Keep turrets trained fore and aft, and only the duty crew on deck. Report in at regular intervals.” “Understood, sir” Commander Octavius Farrington looked up from the radio station, wondering just what a regular interval in these circumstances was. He made his way over to the bridge rail and looked out. Ahead, the sky was a silent white, giving no indication of which way the weather might go. To port, however, in a roughly Southerly direction, line after line of ships could be seen steaming on a heading of almost exactly West-by-North-West. “Any change ?” he asked grimly. “No sir” He nodded. Ever since the Russian Fleet had altered course, and it had become clear that it was not heading for Spitzbergen, British scouting cruisershad had it under visual observation. The Bacchante was one of the newest in the fleet, based out of Inverness and capable of 32 knots under pressure. Needless to say she had been one of the first vessels to make contact - and one of the few cruising to the North of the Russians. He swept his binoculars over the nearest ships - two large cruisers he was almost sure were the Bogatyr and Boyarin, and a flotilla of eight very modern-looking destroyers. It was the same in the rest of the fleet - the three newest classes of battleship, the most modern scouting cruisers, fleet auxiliaries which he knew from reports had only been completed the year before, and only the largest ocean-going destroyers. Just what was Aleksandr doing sending his entire first-class fleet out of the Baltic and into the Atlantic ? There came a chatter of code on the radio, a moment's pause then a call from the radio officer, “Sir, message from Northern Tracking Station - Halifax reports that the U.S. 1st Battle-squadron with attendant vessels is heading due Easr into the Atlantic.” “To meet the Russians ?”, Farrington was confused. Relations between Russia and the United States had always been friendly. Within North America they both had the British Empire as an enemy. But what, quite, did this signify ? “Any movement from the Russian fleet ?” “No change, sir.” “Hmm”, he looked at the brass clock screwed tightly onto the wall. Perhaps in these circumstances ten minutes constituted a regular interval. “Inform London - no change. Russian fleet is still proceeding West by North-West at 15 knots. “Yes sir”, the radio officer flicked the voice control open.
Princess Sophia let go of the arm of the guardsman and staggered into the centre of the paved walk. Her vision was blurred from an incessant cocktail of drinks, and she was tired, so tired ! Drinking, partying, and the bedroom, her eyes glittered at the memory. She tripped on a paving stone and fell flat upon the ground. Where was that guardsman when she needed him ? Angrily, muttering curses that would have put to shame any fishwife, she raised herself to her knees…
A wave of intense heat washed over her. Then a blast wave drew her breath from out of her, toppling her upon her back. Pieces of sharp burning debris rained down around her. And a roaring sound assailed her ears.
She waited. No one came. Slowly, painfully, she groped her way onto all fours and blinked away the tears. Her dress, white before the night had started, grubby and stained with various substances a moment before, was now shredded, hanging from her in blackened stripes. Her skin smarted from dozens of tiny puncture wounds and burns. But she was alive - and all her limbs remained whole.
Ahead of her the wreck of the limousine burned brightly in the night. Testing her legs gingerly she stood up. The ruin of her dress slid from her shoulders. Almost absent mindedly she stepped out of it, kicking it away, either not remembering or not caring that her underwear remained in some young buck's bedroom back within the mansion house.
Naked, smeared with blood and sweat, she walked unsteadily towards what surely had been intended to be her death. Behind her, upon the paved walk, the guardsman escort lay decapitated in a spreading pool of his own blood
Sometimes it still did not seem real. If going through clouds, one had the feeling of somehow being suspended in limbo, an expedition to nowhere, perhaps a wraith captured by the mist. There was still the throb of the engines, the vibration of the hull, and the bite of the wind, but the mist seemed to dampen it all, to swallow up all sound, to leave the traveller marooned to drift forever in this netherworld. Jonathan shook his head to dispel such thoughts, and moved slowly along the passageway. The heavy whine of the engines told him that HM airship Lysander was dropping out of the clouds, descending for a better view at what was below them. “Ah, Lieutenant Carstairs”, the Commander looked up as he entered the operations room, “Take ownership of that observation point.”, he indicated a spot to his left, “The Admiralty has requested a report in detail.” “Yes sir.” Jonathan moved to the window, and swung the view-finder round. Similar in appearance to what might be found at any seaside fair, the machine was far more powerful and would give him as good a view as if he held a telescope to each eye. “Tracking say that you should be able to make them out roughly to the North of West.” Jonathan did some quick calculations and swung the view-finder round until the compass needle was pointing a degree or two beyond West. Ah, there they were ! He focused in, bringing the long line of grey ships into clearer view. Sweeping along the line, he did a cursory examination of the auxiliaries - nothing noticeable there, no suspicious crates or covered loads on board, nothing at all really. The destroyers, he noted, had all been built with ocean-going qualities in mind. Somehow the implication of this seemed to have escaped the many learned commentators in the naval journals, but they were assuredly seeing them now. One of the cruisers appeared to be lagging behind the others, struggling to keep up. It was impossible to be sure, of course, but as there were no obvious signs of damage, he assumed the ship must be having some kind of engine trouble. Then he came to the battleships, and truly magnificent they were too ! He may have chosen the navy of the air, but the power and the glory rested with the battle lines upon the water. There was history there too, one could not help but be inspired by names such as Salamis, Lepanto or Trafalgar. Despite predictions by scientists and advocates of aerial warfare the massed battle of airships had singularly failed to happen during the 1915-1921 war. Now, perhaps it never would. In close combat and defence the aeroplane had grown superior to its big brother, but the airship remained dominant at longer ranges, and in scouting, the purpose to which the Lysander was ideally suited. Closing in on the battleships he wondered whether some day, even such behemoths as these would fear attack from the air, and whether it would be the airship or the aeroplane which might deliver it. “First battlesquadron steaming in order Borodino, Gangut, Poltava, Navarin” he began his report…
“Monsieur Hubert d'Entressangle ?”, the train guard looked down at the passenger, his passport in his hand. “Mais oui ?” Archduke Friedrich Franz smiled up at him. French may be his fourth language - after German, Hungarian and Italian - but he was certainly fluent in it. “Travelling to where, sir ?” the Hungarian was trained to be naturally suspicious. “To Pesh, on business.”, Friedrich Franz produced a document from the briefcase beside him, “Wine merchant.” The train guard took the document and flicked through it. He pursed his lips; well, it WOULD be in French, wouldn't it ! Unfortunately he could only read Hungarian, German and Croat. He scanned the first page, recognising a few words, place names he supposed. Well, it looked genuine and there were other passengers in need of checking. But he would keep an eye on the Frenchman, something just smelt wrong about him. “Thank you sir”, he handed passport and papers back, “The next stop is Agram. Please enjoy your stay in the Kingdom of Hungary.” “Merci” Friedrich Franz pocketed the passport and made a show of opening his briefcase. The guard nodded and moved on down the carriage. Shutting the briefcase, Friedrich Franz sat back and breathed out heavily. Well, time would tell if the fellow had bought his story, but he would certainly be careful to watch his step once they got to Pesh…
Oleg watched, thinking himself the hawk above the field mice. It had taken a while, but he was not surprised by that. In other circumstances the church across the river at Crathie would have offered the perfect opportunity for an ambush. But that did not work when his target was not a member of the Protestant-Anglican faith. The estate staff, the local villagers, those were the people who went to the church. But the target spent Sundays inside the castle, rarely coming outside at all. No doubt that was on the advice of his protectors; calm and lazy days could be deceptive, and could be the ideal opportunity for a hunter who hid not amongst people but amongst the surroundings. Such as Oleg… So, it was not a Sunday, and the target was surrounded by his guards, hardly making any attempt to hide the revolvers on their belts. The locals expressed little surprise. Although they did not know the target, or his family, they were used to royal visitors in Balmoral and one of the royal dukes was always in residence, so this unknown other raised little surprise. Although some did mutter that it was unusual that his identity had not been made public. Looking down from his perch, Oleg watched as the royal party made its way across the courtyard. The current royal duke in residence was Prince Edward, Duke of York, an uncle of King Ernest II and older brother to the Duke of Kent. He was a man in his mid sixties, relatively undistinguished looking, but able to carry himself with a certain bearing. Today he walked beside his target, and - as a bonus, Oleg had known there would be one - both of the target's sons. They paused in their progress as the management team from the distillery came out of the building, and approached their guests. Oleg hefted the weapon. It had been easy to acquire a hunting rifle, easy again to have made specialist adjustments to it. He had been out on the estate, paying the going rate for a deer stalking license, making his presence in the area anything but a secret. He had practised, and made himself familiar with the weapon, its inconsistencies, its peculiarities. Now he was ready.
“Your royal highness”, the distillery manager beamed widely, “It is an honour to receive you again to our humble premises.” Prince Edward laughed, “Humble, Aaron ? I think not.”, he turned to the target, “This establishment makes one of the finest whiskies in all of…” A shot rang out. No one knew where it had come from. But Grand Duke Nikolai Aleksandrovich collapsed soundless to the ground. Before anyone had a chance to make a move a second shot rang out. Andrei Nikolaievich, the oldest of his sons, collapsed beside his father. The courtyard erupted into uproar. The bodyguards, weapons drawn began running around. Others hustled Prince Edward and Nikolai's second son into one of the limousines from whence they had so recently come.
Oleg removed the additions to the gun, and pocketed them. He moved slowly backwards and made his unhurried way back across the stream. He had a license to shoot in the forest, and he would finish the day as he had purportedly begun. The Okhrana did not train men to ignore local features or leave their route of escape open to observation. No one saw him as he made his way back into the cover of the trees. Now, to stalk those deer…
“All engines stop !” Captain Karoli commanded. “All engines stop, aye.” The giant battleship which had been slowing down for the past ten minutes finally drifted to a halt. Without the sound of the engines there was an eery silence upon the bridge. The officer of the deck did not hesitate to break it, “Launch heading out from the USS Sonora” he reported The radio officer listened intently withn his headphones, then reported “The Nevsky reports she is stable in position, and awaiting guests.” “Sir”, Commander Ossiesky put in his own report, “The Bogatyr and Boyarin have taken up station as instructed. We are secure.” “Thank you, comander.” Captain Karoli turned towards the other presence upon his bridge and bowed, “Your Majesty, may I report that your battleship Borodino is at the pre-arranged location, and that the Americans have dispatched their party to the Nevsky as requested.” Tsar Aleksandr V nodded once. He was of course well aware of the facts already, not having had his eyes closed and his ears bunged during his time upon the bridge. But he appreciated the captain's form and smiled a rare smile, “Inform Admiral Timoschenko upon the Gangut that he now has control of the fleet”, he turned towards one of the aides hovering outside, “Everything is ready ?” “Yes, Your Majesty.” “Then I will to the launch.” Without looking back, the Tsar of All the Russians departed from the bridge. Aides and guards fell in around him, as they headed for the launch. With one last look at his flagship, Aleksandr stepped aboard and settled onto the bench. His aides, and the gun-toting members of his personal guard, did likewise. Then the crew started the engine and the launched turned in the water. The journey across the the Nevsky passed relatively quickly, and entirely without incident. Aleksandr used the time to study the American battleship beyond - the USS Sonora, flagship of the US Atlantic Fleet, and at least a match for the Borodino. Except of course that they would never fight each other.
The Nevsky had started life as a transport, but during the previous year as part of a reconstruction programme it had been entirely rebuilt. On the outside it still looked the same, but inside it resembled nothing more than a luxury liner. Initially intended as an incognito version of imperial yacht, it served well enough in its current duties. Leaving all but two of his guards on the deck, and divesting himself of all but his most senior aides, Tsar Aleksandr followed the captain of the Nevsky down a marble staircase and across an expansive room in the centre of which a fountain poured its water from out of the mouth of a statuesque Venus. It would have seemed incongruous had he not himself drawn up the design from a scene envisioned in one of his dreams. “The Americans are through here, your majesty.” Aleksandr allowed himself to be led into one of the smaller rooms that exited the hallway. Whilst the Grand Dining Room and the State Ballroom would have had magnificence, the two parties would have been lost within their expanse. Instead, for practical reasons, they were meeting in the library. The American delegation was standing in one corner, being served with wine by a smartly-attired court waiter. In their top hats and tails they looked every inch the American politicians that he had seen pictures of. “His Imperial Majesty, Aleksandr V, Tsar of All the Russians !” The captain's voice boomed across the room. For a moment the Americans looked startled, then they removed their hats and bowed briefly. One of them stepped forward, gripping his lapels in a pose that would surely have seemed affected coming from anyone else, “Your majesty, I am Herbert Prouse, President of the United States of America.” “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr President.” The mood noticeably lightened, the normally taciturn Prouse breaking into a smile that did strange - and unnerving - things to a face scarcely used to such an expression, “May I present Dr Robert Reid, Attorney General; Mr Simeon Spake, Secretary of Defence; Mr Abraham Jenkinson, Under Secretary of State; and Mr Lucas Riley, Under Secretary of the Navy.” “Gentlemen” Aleksandr nodded a global greeting. With his personal guards standing by the doorway, the Tsar had only two men to introduce on his side, “This is Nikolai Vaskkov, Head of my State Secretariat, and my cousin His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Boris Mikhailovich, Chairman of the Grand Council.” In his turn, the president noded a greeting at the Tsar's aides. Aleksandr smiled and pointed to the table, “If we can make a start, gentlemen. Mr Vashkov has our copy of the treaty.” As they sat themselves around the table, the American Attorney General opened a leather document wallet and produced a wad of papers, “And this, your majesty, is our copy.” “Excellent”, Aleksandr paused, “Then let us begin.”
Charles Heyward was concerned. He could never remember the Americans taking much notice of Egypt. They had always maintained an embassy here, but a minimal staff. But now - suddenly - the Ambassador had received a proper-sized contingent, and he was paying a visit to the Khedive. He looked across the dusty road. The two fez-wearing Egyptians in the locally-built limousine were, of course, aware of his presence. But it was like that, the shadow world in Cairo. They watched, they saw, but rarely did anyone act. He started as someone knocked on the opposite window. Biting down a curse, he reached across and wound it down, “What the devil are you playing at ?” he asked the man who was standing there. Rannulph Carstairs had been braced for his superior's ire. He let it wash over him and instead handed a newspaper into the interior of the car. Charles took it, perplexed and opened it in front of him. “Holy…!”, he bit off the curse, remembering that Carstairs was a man who took his religion seriously, “Aleksandr is in Yucatan ?!”, he could scarcely believe it. “The Russian Fleet put into port yesterday, and he surprised everyone - EXCEPT the Americans - with his appearance.” “Well now”, that certainly added a different dimension to recent events here in Cairo. And the American delegation had already been with the Khedive for a full half hour. “We need to find out what's happening in there.” he decided. “Ali ?” the other asked Charles nodded, “Yes, and as quickly as possible.” As Carstairs made a hurried exit, Charles turned his attention back to the two Egyptian officers sat across the road in their limousine. Just what had they made of the brief and hurried exchange ? Out of habit he checked for the service revolver beneath his seat, and nodded. In the last resort there was always that.
Blue and white. Those were Tsar Aleksandr's initial impressions of the gateway to the Yucatan Canal. The blue - unending, bright and dominant blue - of the sky. The blue - oddly, unexpectedly - of the water. The white of the American officers in their uniforms. The white - dazzling, shiningly so - of the US warships anchored in the bay. And the white of the town, rising gently on the hillside. Against all this, the grey lines of the battle-fleet looked like a school of whales which had swum inadvertently up to the locks of the canal. “Your Imperial Majesty”, the American who addressed him was taking no chances with his title - or with his increasingly famous temper, “May I welcome you to Port Jefferson, jewel of the Eastern canal.” “Thank you, Governor” Aleksandr was not one to be caught unbriefed, “It is a beautiful day., he paused enigmatically, “and a glorious day ! As my fleet passes through the locks, our two nations seal our recent agreement in action, not in words.” Alfred Cass was momentarily taken aback, but soon recovered. Not for nothing was he a scion of an old and noble family, “Yes indeed, your majesty. And it is a most mighty fleet indeed !” “Of course it is”, Aleksandr's tone was difficult to establish. The Americans found themselves staring at the Russian emperor in a pregnant pause. For his part, Aleksandr laughed inside, whilst relaxing his inscrutable pose. He turned to look at the Petr Veliki, flagship of the 2nd Battle Squadron as it entered the first of the locks, “My ancestor had the right idea”, he said slowly, “Russia's future lies on the seas. Only then are we assured of our rightful position.” “Most true, your majesty”, one of the men behind Governor Cass dared to break strict etiquette, “The navies of both our nations secure our position beyond our shores.” Aleksandr gave him a curious look, just long enough for the Governor's blood to begin to run cold, then he swept an arm across the bay, “Four battleships,” he said, “The USS Wyoming. The USS Sonora. The USS New Jersey. And the USS Virginia. In their varied names and the varied states that they represent, they show the power and diversity of the United States.” “Oh yes indeed, your majesty” Governor Cass was quick to seize an opportunity to retake control of the conversation, “And the cruisers - the Mexico City, the Portland, and the Miami. What more represents the strength of these United States ?” Aleksandr slowly turned back from his perusal of the boy. He shrugged, then rubbed his nose, “Where are your presidents ?” “Er”, Cass did not know what to say. “Your warships - where are the ones named for your presidents ? The great Petr Veliki is named for my forefather. The same with the Nikolai I, the Pavel and the Ekaterina Velikaya. I see states and cities, but I do not see your great presidents.” It was the admiral who had spoken before who dared to answer the Russian emperor, “Ah, your majesty. The only presidents in our armed forces serve in the air !” “In…the…air ?” Aleksandr sounded as if her were weighing up the idea. The American blanched, “Er yes, your majesty. Although strictly they are not part of the armed services, the federal government took over airship operations after the crash of 1932. There are twenty great leviathans of the air, all named after presidents.” “Washington ? Jefferson ? Jackson ? Scott ?”, Aleksandr named those foremost amongst the historical presidents in his opinion, “Seward perhaps ? In time there will be one named Prouse.” Alfred Cass beamed to hear his president spoken of in such glowing terms, amidst such illustrious company, “Ah, glorious names indeed, your majesty.” Aleksandr nodded. Again there was a peculiar silence. He looked across the canal to where a moving picture crew were filming his reception. He looked closely at them, the camera on its tripod, the film can hanging from it, the crew working it with expertise. Without a doubt his face would adorn American moving picture theatres in just a couple of days. A thought formed in his mind. He summoned one of his aides with a flick of his hand, “Vladimir”, he spoke quietly, and in Russian, below the level of the Americans' hearing, “There are airships across the Pacific ?” “Ah”, the bearded youngster, renowned for his lightning-quick mathematical mind, did a quick memory recall, “I believe there is a service from Acapulco, another from San Francisco… The airships are federal property. You could probably pay to alter the destination.” “I had thought as much.” Aleksandr turned back towards his American hosts, “I wish to hire one of your airships”, he announced, “The planned liner from Portland is too great a time away from my beautiful country. From Acapulco to Muckden - I believe that shall be possible. The Manchurian Airship Company flies to Alaska from there. I do not think your airships would be too far beyond their capabilities.” “Ah…” Cass was certainly caught by surprise, but he was a politician. As such he had become used to dealing with unforeseen events. The greatest issue was to be caught dumbstruck and unable to voice any words. And, besides, sometimes words once voiced would BECOME truth by the very fact that they had been voiced, “I am certain that such passage can be arranged at once for a personage of your exulted eminence.” “Good”, Aleksandr looked across the lock to the moving picture crew. If he had had a hat he would have removed it. As it was, he waved, an image that would go down in history
The sun glinted off the shining black paintwork. Steam and smoke rushed headlong into the clear blue sky. Rhythmically, not straining at all, the super-cooled locomotive pulled the Edinburgh-to-London express rapidly across the rolling expanse of the North Yorkshire Moors. Rays of light picked out the gleaming gold letters 'GNBR' on the side of the tender, as Britain's foremost railway companied notched up another deadly-punctual journey.
The guard slid back the door of the compartment and gave the fixed smile of a taciturn man forced to be pleasant to strangers, “Your tickets and documents please, sir.” Oleg handed over his papers, every inch the man who expected no problem at all. The guard ran a practical eye over them; Edinburgh-to-London first class, open return. He glanced at the documents, “Mr Hays ?”, he always asked - occasionally he got lucky and some fool travelling on forged papers would panic. He had a stick on his belt for those moments. “Yes”, Oleg affected the slightly puzzled, slightly affronted look. “Enjoy your stay in London, sir.” The guard handed his papers back and retired from the cabin, closing the door behind him. Although Oleg could not see him, he could sense the man remaining without a few seconds longer, no doubt listening, just in case. He say back, crossed his legs and looked out of the window. The change of identity was all part of the plan. Mr McMillan had retired home to Edinburgh, except that the address given was one number more than the street possessed. Mr Hays had been 'born' at Edinburgh Augustus Railway Station; as yet he was but a couple of hours old. But the next part of his business was to be found in London. Oleg opened the second of the newspapers he had bought for the journey. The headlines were the same, but the detail of this national paper was a good deal greater. He spread it on his knees, open at the editorial, the self-glorifying words that 'The Britannic' had become famous for over the last few decades.
“Tsar Alexander's unexpected appearance at the Yucatan Canal both answers some questions and raises many others. The ultimate purpose of the Baltic Fleet's 'Grand Tour' remains a mystery. Tsar Alexander's next movements - away from the fleet - are a puzzle. What has been agreed between the Russian Empire and the American, is a danger. There can be no doubt that it is a danger ! We do not need to know the details to know that British Columbia is less secure today, that even Canada can no longer rest in peace. British Honduras, the Mosquito Coast, even Jamaica - all are at a greater peril due to this union of souls. The dark hordes of Russia and the grasping hands of the United States of America. Britain must heed this warning !”
And so it went on. Oleg looked once more out of the window as some market town flashed by, no sooner here than gone. The details of the great events were unknown to him. The short term implications were obvious. He leant back and smiled to himself. He had been told his next target would present itself to him in due course. Now he knew what it would be…
The aide spread the map out upon the table in the viewing gallery. Smoothing the creases he placed in the corners several coins - heavy silver dollars he had picked up as souvenirs. “That island down there ?” Tsar Aleksandr poked a finger towards the window where a brown dot could be seen amidst the silver sea as the airship flew over it. “Guam, your majesty.” the aide pointed it out on the map, “The furthest East of Spain's Pacific possessions.” “It has never struck me as natural that second rate powers such as Spain should rule over so many parts of this planet.” The aide nodded, deciding from experience that it was not a question that he was expected to answer. Aleksandr looked at the map and jabbed a finger repeatedly at it, “Guam, the Caroline Islands, the Marianas, the Philippines. All remnants of an imperial glory long since gone.” “Yes, your majesty”, it was usually safest just to agree. Aleksandr was quiet for a moment, pondering the map. From the Himalayas in the West to the Rockies in the East, from Siberia in the North to New Guinea in the South. The nations, and colonial holdings, that made up the Pacific theatre. He smiled at the thought that the large brown-shaded mass of the Russian Empire was but less than half of its total, lacking its European and most of its central Asian extent, and yet it dominated the map, seeming to lord it over the other nations. “Khokand, Kashgaria, Dzungaria, Kokonor, Mongolia, Manchuria…” he rattled off the gains that Russia had made in the East over the later decades of the nineteenth century. Together with the Amur Maritime province, the territory that hsi predecessors had taken from the Chinese Empire was greater than what remained of that nation. “Tibet”, he stabbed a finger at Russia's Himalayan vassal, then drew a line with his thumb across Mongolia and Manchuria, “Korea” he said, licking his lips. The Yi Kingdom remained independent, a series of competent rulers having navigated a path between Russia, and China, Japan and the European imperialists. To this day they all meddled in Korea's affairs, sometimes a one gaining ascendancy, sometimes another. Like the situation in the whole world perhaps, He looked across at his aide, “Have you ever pondered on that nature of empire ?” he asked. The aide was clearly discomfited by the question. Obviously he was expected to say something - and something intelligent, but what precisely ? Reckoning that an essay at an answer would be better for him than dumb silence, he ventured to reply, “Of the dynamics of international relations, your majesty ? Of how world politics is dominated so far from their homelands by a handful of global powers ?” It was trite, but Aleksandr did not seem annoyed. Perhaps he simply continued with what he was going to say, anyway, “There are vibrant empires, undefeated in their quest for the glory of their people. There are decadent empires, that no one has yet dismembered because their holdings are of less value to the predators. And their are failing empires, constantly eaten away at by those whose future is on an upwards curve.” “Yes, your majesty…China, the Ottoman Empire…Austria.” he ventured. “Precisely.” Aleksandr seemed to be looking through him, “Before 1920 who would have said that Austria would be reduced to her Germanic and Italian basis ? But I achieved that !” For a moment he stood as if frozen, then he strode across to the window, looking down upon the Pacific. Later that day the US airship 'President Chase' would be crossing the international date-line. Time would appear to go back by one day, but he vowed that he would use that extra day to move forwards. Russia's future lay not backwards but ahead, revealed before him like a vision. He glanced once more at the map and smiled widely to himself. His aide swallowed hard and concentrated on not looking at his master…
“Honeypot”, she ran her hand over the hairs of his chest. His brown eyes looked up into hers, “Honeypot ?”, he asked, “Do you think that is an appropriate way to address a minister of the crown?” “Hmm…”, Sophia pursed her lips together, pretending to consider the matter, “Yes”, she said with a laugh and poked him in the ribs. “Ouch !”, he sat up, pulling her towards him. Running a hand through her long brown hair, he leant back against the bed-head, “How about inappropriate for a peer of the realm ?” She kissed his nose, “So Richard Neville, 2nd Viscount Honeypot is not allowed ?” “I think the ghost of my father would take out an injunction.” “Spoilsport, Cirencester it will have to be then.”, she gave as if to give up, then took hold of his nose with her fingers, gently yanking it, “But as a princess of the blood I outrank you…Honeypot.” He smiled good-naturedly, “That is the kind of attitude that causes people to put bombs in your cars.” He meant it as a joke, but a shiver ran down her back as memory washed over her. She lay down at his side, her breasts rising and falling as she simply thought for a while. Sensing what he had done, Richard let her take her time to recover. After a pause that could have been moments, could have been minutes, she raised herself up on one elbow and turned towards him, “Do you not know who is behind the bombs ?”, she asked. Beads of sweat burst upon his forehead like a rainstorm. He had hoped that she would recognise the delicacy of the situation and not ask questions the answers to which he was not supposed to reveal to anyone, not even to the sister of the king. But she had asked and he could deny her nothing, and besides they HAD tried to kill her, “We have the beginnings of an idea.” he admitted. Surprisingly Sophia bit her lip, “What does that mean ?” “Words, rumours” he tried to hide his reluctance to go into detail, “As yet it is meaningless. Our intelligence operatives can give us no substance, only an inkling. As yet there is nothing definite to set the dogs upon.” She lay back down, one hand upon the upwards curve of her belly. For a moment she focussed only on the carvings upon the ceiling, then she asked, “These words and rumours, do they have a name ?” “Sometimes” he admitted. She turned eyes of cold steel upon him. A chill ran through his body. “They are just words, phrases - nothing more.” he said weakly. “What words and what phrases ?” she asked. For a moment Richard wondered how he could ever have been attracted to a woman like this, then he looked down, followed her contours and remembered. Torn between two worlds, he swallowed hard, and spoke, “Cromwell, Manchester…New Model Army.”, the words were but a whisper, but she heard. “Oh” Sophia closed her eyes. Oh indeed… She knew just whom she had to talk to about THIS. Oh yes, indeed…
The Trans-Siberian express pulled into Moscow's Pobieda station. Newly-painted for the last stage of the journey, and decked out with flags and banners that very morning, it had served as the imperial train since the Tsar had joined it. Aleksandr, for his part, was glad to be home. The twin journeys, both naval and airship, had been interesting and pleasant. He was still a strong man despite now being in his late forties, and his stamina was enormous. But being away from Russia was always a risk, and always a worry. That was why he had left his sister in charge… There she was now - Grand Duchess Theodora, standing regal and resplendant under a gigantic flag of the Romanov arms, Prince Aleksandr - Prince Mishkin now, he laughed - at her side. As he disembarked, aides, functionaries and personal guards milling around purposefully, he looked up at the youth, examining him. There was no doubt he was his child. The newspapers, the court, all had been told by the doctors that Theodora had come early to term, but it was not so. It had been nine months, six weeks longer than the first time she had lain with her late husband. The young prince was a fine-looking lad, strong and long-limbed. And he had carried himself well since learning of his true parentage. He smiled in satisfaction…just as the Mayor of Moscow approached. That worthy beamed to be - apparently - the object of His Imperial Majesty's pleasure. He almost couldn't find his voice, and mumbled through the obsequities, before clearing his throat. “And may I welcome you back to the heart of Russia. I hope your journey around the world was a great success ?” Usually Aleksandr would have brushed the man aside, but he caught the glint in his sister's eyes. Sometimes the unexpected was an amusement of itself. “Yes indeed”, he addressed the mayor directly, looking him in the eye, “Russia is a safer place for my journey. And soon the world shall knnow it.” The mayor tried hard not to flinch before that famous gaze, but a nervous tick beneath his left eye socket betrayed him. His quick mind searched for a suitable reply, “On behalf of your great city of Moscow, I offer up hearty congratulations.” It was weak, but Aleksandr was not of a mind to spoil the mood. He nodded, then resumed his progress along the platform towards where Theodora and their son awaited him. Oh yes, he thought, the world shall indeed soon know it !
Sophia rolled off his fat body and padded naked across the wooden floor to the water jug upon the wash stand. Behind her, on the bed, Isaac Charles lay spent and exhausted, bathed in his own sweat. She doused herself down, drying quickly with the towel that the Official Censor knew to leave out for her. Dressing in silence, she gave the figure upon the bed a hearty wave, then exited the apartment. Down on the street, the two bodyguards were waiting, watchful and alert. One took up position behind her, as the princess clambered into the black limousine, its shapely exterior belying the steel armour and bullet-proof glass that had been installed on this vehicle after the demise of the previous one. Sophia settled into the back and waited whilst the two men seated themselves in the front. “Back to the palace, your highness ?” “No” That surprised them. She startled them further, “Head for Gables Gate.” Although the two men exchanged glances they did as they were told. Gables Gate was the mansion house where she had been partying the night that someone had planted a bomb in her vehicle. One of their colleagues had died in the blast, and the princess left with superficial injuries. The front passenger turned towards her as the limousine entered one of the the main traffic arteries of central London, “I have heard, your highness, that there is a theory about going back to the scene of an incident in order to speed the process of recovery.” She smiled at him, “Oh yes, Sylv, I have heard that theory also,” she paused then added, “Do you carry a knife ?” Non-plussed, he nodded. “Hand it to me.” Somewhat taken back her reached down to his boot, and unstrapped an ankle sheaf. He was about to remove just the knife to pass to her, when she shook her head, “All of it.” Mentally shrugging he did as he was told. Perhaps the psychological impact of the assassination attempt had been so great she had the feeling of a need for the physical reassurance of a weapon in her hand. Seeming to put the lie to that, Sophia examined the sheaf then strapped it to the unorthodox position of her right forearm, hidden from view by the sleeve of her dress. “Use the private entrance at the rear.” she commanded. The driver switched course. Having until that moment assumed they were headed for the scene of the explosion out by the front, he now shot down a narrow side street, and into the mansion grounds through a covered gateway. Tehy pulled up in a small courtyard. “No”, Sophia said forcefully when they made to get out of the limousine before her, “Stay here. I do not think I shall be long.” Somewhat reluctantly they acquiesced, watching as the princess trotted up a small flight of steps and knocked slowly on a shiny black-and-gold door. The owner of the establishment, himself, answered, “Sophia !” Robert, Lord Moresby looked from her to the limousine then back again, “I mean your highness”, he laughed, “Please come in. To what do I owe this pleasure ?” She followed him inside, the door closing behind them. “I need to ask you something”, she bit her lip and fluttered her eyebrows at him, “About last time…” she added. He nodded soberly, presuming that she ws not referring to their brief after-dinner fling in the bedroom, “Come into my study” he beckoned her. Behind his back she smiled. Seated opposite him, she was all dark seriousness again, “I have been thinking about the bomb” she explained “I do not doubt it” Robert said, meaning it. “It had to have been planted by someone who knew I would be here.” “Your guard maybe ?” Sophia wrinkled her nose, “It is bad taste to speak ill of the dead.” she reminded him, “Besides, it would have been too great a carlessness to have perished in the blast.” “Perhaps”, he allowed “I think that the person responsible was form this end” “One of…the guests ?” he asked She shook her head, her long brown hair swooshing from side to side with the emphatic nature of the gesture. “One of my staff ?”, he frowned at her, “Who ?” As if stalling for an answer she reached up her right-hand sleeve and slowly drew out the knife. She put it to her lips and flicked her tongue gently across the blade, “Cromwell” she said. Lord Moresby visibly blanched. “I thought it strange that that was the first word you said when you answered the telephone from the bed”, she carressed her cheek with the flat of the blade, “I supposed it was the name of who you spoke to, but I remember wondering how you knew who it would be.” “I…” he began, sweat breaking out upon his forehead. “You spoke very quietly. I was too flushed to hear, but I remember thinking that you discussed buying an automobile. Do you know why ?” He stared at her in horrified confusion. “Because you spoke the words 'new model'… I know now that what you said was New Model ARMY.” The sweat was pouring off him now. He made a visible effort to control himself, but after several sessions in bed with her, he knew just how strong the princess could be, “What…are you going to do ?2 he ground out. “This” In an instant the knife had passed from her hands to his chest. Too dead to be surprised, Robert, Lord Moresby, slumped to the floor. Sophia gave him one last stare, then rose and opened the door, ready to make a quick exit. A terrified girl stood there before her ! The princess took a deep breath, recovering her composure before the girl. She looked her over. She was more than a girl, but less than a woman, a few years younger than herself perhaps. “Who are you ? What were you doing ?” The girl reddened, “Molly, if it please you miss. I was cleaning the landing when I saw you go in with my lord. I thought you were going to do it… I wanted to watch.” “Oh!” Sophia could not help but laugh, “Unfortunately you saw something else.” “Is…is he dead ?” “Oh yes”, Sophia saw no point in beating around the bush, “I think you should come with me. I can always use another girl in my Household.” Molly looked from her dead employer to his killer, and knew where reality lay, “Yes miss” she said “Good. Come now” It was a command and the girl followed her out of the mansion house and down the steps. Sylv was out of the limousine in an instant, eyeing the girl. “She comes with me.” Sophia told him in a voice that would brook no opposition, “Make sure the rest of the household staff realise that I was never here.” He frowned deeply, “And Lord Moresby, your highness ?” “He will not be a problem.” Sophiua ushered the girl into the vehicle, and nodded to the driver. Someone would be along to pick Sylvester up later. The limousine turned neatly and headed swiftly down the driveway.
Count Serrano indicated that they be seated. Since the crisis of the previous year he had taken the Foreign Minister portfolio as his own, in addition to the Prime Minister-ship. Hence, this was formally a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Alliance. But he was host, and by dint of his position he was most senior. Unwilling to give up the rare advantage, the Spaniard remained seated behind his desk whilst his visitors sat on chairs before it. The Duc de Guise looked slowly from his British counterpart to the imperious Spaniard, then sighed, “The Russian fleet is halfway across the Pacific.” he pointed out, “There is a certain urgency to this conversation.” Hector Bellingham frowned, “Whilst I agree”, he said slowly, “There is time enough observe the formalities.” Serrano failed to pick up on the hostility between the two allies, and simply smiled, “The Grand Tour continues”, he shrugged, “The fleet will pass close to Spanish possessions in the North Pacific. But our intelligence tells us it heads solely for Port Arthur.” “Why ?”, Bellingham was sharp and to the point, “Why is it going there ?” “I agree”, the Duc de Guise sounded loathe to admit it, “We must put the most worrying perspective on these actions. The fleet should not be there if it were on its way home.” “Which quite plainly it is not.”, after their first visit Bellingham had learnt that only brusque directness got him anywhere with his French counterpart, “As it is going to Port Arthur we must assume that its presence there is part of the plan.” “What plan ?” Serrano began to wonder if he had been absent from some important discussions. “Why would the Russians double their strength in the Far East ?”, the Duc de Guise asked the obvious question. “Because it serves their needs to do so.”, Bellingham's response was not so much an answer as a reinforcement of his counterpart's question. “What needs are these ?”, the Spaniard still felt somewhat excluded from the topic of the current conversation. “that is exactly the question”, the duc responded, “Why does Aleksandr need a fleet of twenty-five first class battleships at Port Arthur.” “In addition to half a dozen second class”, Hector made sure that the numbers game was accurate, “Twice the number of cruisers, twice the number of destroyers. This does not speak of a peaceable intent.” “Not peace” Serrano licked his lips, “What exactly does that mean ?” “The opposite of peace is usually war”, the French royal pointed out. “War ?” Serrano fairly squeaked, “In the East ? With whom, why ?” “Those are the right questions.” Bellingham allowed. The count looked down at the papers on his desk. Anything for a moment's thought. Why had he not been briefed as well as his French and British counterparts ? He knew the answer to that one. Damn the sloth of bureaucracy !
The newspaper performed a somersault, spread its wings upon the air, and crashed to the hearth rug in disarray. “How…” the senator was literally speechless. Across the room, his colleague, one of the Congressmen from his state of Chihuahua, struggled for an explanation that would calm the outraged septegenarian, “Hubertus…” he tried the soft and calm and approach, “The Congressional National Security Committee” he spread his hands out in front of him, ”- it is hardly a body to question Prouse on anything.” “But it should be !” Hubertus Pope was adamant, “After Fillmore's misuse of the Emergency Powers Act in 1873, the committee was established to ensure that the constitution was being adhered to.” “Prouse still has the executive authority to negotiate with foreign powers.”, Congressman Samuel Philips was as certain in his facts as the senator was in his, “The constitution says that any treaty needs congressional consent. By the interpretation of the law upheld by the Supreme Court in 1912, the National Security Committee fulfills that duty.” “We both know that is a fabrication”, Hubertus was beginning to sound more glum than angry now that the initial burst of outrage was dying down, “The Committee is hardly representative. Prouse knows as well as we do that if the treaty with the Russians was ut to a vote in the House or in the Senate it would fail to pass as it stands. At best it would get through with heavy amendments, ” he paused and heaved a deep breath, “It certainly would not tie us to that beast Aleksandr.” “What we have is intended to be a halfway house”, Samuel pointed out, “It seats between allowing the president to do as he pleases, and making everything go through a full congressional vote.” “I know that”, Hubertus snapped, “Heck, it might even work if Prouse didn't control the appointments to it.” “There is that” Samuel allowed. He bent down and recombined the dishevelled newspaper. On the front page was a photograph of President Prouse together with Everett Lodge, the National Party leader on the Committee, and the man supposedly charged with putting limits on the power of the Republican president. But that was theory. Practice worked out differently. “Prouse's people would never let someone like myself, or Ignatio Holme, be elected to the Committee. Only those who can be bought are paid for.” Samuel frowned, “That is a good line. You had better be advised not to speak outside of this room.” For a moment Hubertus glowered at his colleague, then he nodded and turned away. On the wall behind him was a painting of Thomas Jefferson, “I wonder what he would have done, to see the Constitution in such wise.” “Hmm” Samuel was not about to be drawn down that avenue of discussion. Jefferson's America had not known two civil wars, had of course still been a slave-owning nation, and the great man the owner of his own slaves. Many would say that today's United States was a freer and more equal society. Hubertus turned back, his eyes suddenly tired, as if suddenly deflated by his colleague's lack of passion, “So…” he said at length, “Is there nothing we can do ?” “As the Post says, the treaty is now law.” “Our future”, Hubertus sat down heavily in the armchair and fixed with the Congressman with a stabbing gaze, “Our future is now not only tied to Russia, it depends upon them.” “It is a defensive alliance”, Samuel tried to sound hopeful, but failed “It is an alliance”, Hubertus removed the equivocation Samuel could only agree. Together, they lapsed into silence, all conversation spent. There was nothing more that needed to be said.
(C) Grey Wolf, ca 2002-2003
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