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BLACK CHAMBER

by S.M. Stirling


 

 

Königlich Sächsische Staatseisenbahnen
(Royal Saxon State Railways)
Pockau, Kingdom of Saxony, German Reich
September 12th, 1916(b)

 

“There are special trains, and then there are special trains, Süsse,” Horst von Dückler said patiently.

At his gesture the orderly cleared away the remains of a rather skeletal breakfast which the two Germans had wolfed down with good appetite; boiled eggs, heavy coarse bread with a suspicious taste of potato, and tasteless margarine rather than butter. At least it was difficult to do anything very bad to a boiled egg.

“We are on a special train. That is a special special train.”

He nodded out the window of the lounge-car at the one chuffing by as they waited on the siding; he was looking relaxed and more natural in the uniform he’d resumed as soon as they crossed the border. The priority train was pulled by a big—by European standards—4-4-2 superheated locomotive; behind it was obviously a headquarters on wheels, with office and map rooms, kitchens and sleeping quarters and probably a message section with wireless and ready attachments for telegraph and telephone wherever it stopped. And just behind the locomotive tender and at the end were flatbeds with breast-high steel bulwarks. Each mounted an antiaircraft gun—twin-barrel pom-poms, Maxim machine guns scaled up to fire 37mm light cannon shells and mounted on X-shaped high-traverse beds.

That meant the train went places where Entente aero-planes were conceivable, though the storm of shells would also be a conclusive argument against partisans, and they had sloped steel shields for ground work. Their crews and the guard details weren’t boys or superannuated Landsturm; their gray-green uniforms were clean and newish, but they wore the simplified loose style now used in action, and topped with beetling gray-painted coalscuttle steel helmets. Many of them carried the drum-fed machine pistols the Germans had copied from the American Thompson, and had stick-grenades slung through loops on their harness, or crewed the light Lewis machine-guns they’d also duplicated.

If you steal, steal the best, Luz thought. And they came up with that quick-change barrel and we copied that and so it goes. Isn’t progress grand?

She added thoughtfully aloud: “Those aren’t play-soldiers.”

“Real Frontschweine,” he confirmed.

That was German military slang for actual fighting soldiers as opposed to bureaucrats and storekeepers in uniform, meaning literally front-line pig. Horst could claim the title himself; he’d let slip that he’d been wounded leading an infantry company in the first months of the war before going back to intelligence work. He hadn’t gone into details, but even nobly-born officers didn’t get the awards on his tunic from behind a desk, nor the puckered bullet-and shrapnel-scars on his torso.

The American forces had an equivalent slang term, picked up from their enemies during the Intervention and turned from an insult into wry self-identification and an ironic boast: sicario, killer, the ones who actually took and gave death.

Horst went on thoughtfully: “Given this duty as a rest, I wager, but you still don’t see guard details like that for just anyone. This conference is important, I tell you, to draw this sort of attention—particularly just now.”

“I need to get at my trunks,” Luz said. “And send off some laundry. And find out what this precious mission is!

Horst chuckled indulgently and went back to reading his morning newspapers. He’d been chortling over them since they got on this train, laid on for the three of them in Emmerich-am-Rhein. She could understand why; the headlines were banner-sized in that angular fraktur script Germans tended to use when they wanted to be solemn and historic and nationalistic or all three at once. Von Bülow was handling them reverently, like some sort of footnotes to Scripture.

She could read them easily enough, and if accurate, which she thought depressingly likely, they certainly justified the fuss: BUCHAREST FALLS and RUMANIAN ARMY SURRENDERS UNCONDITIONALLY TO GENERAL VON FRANÇOIS had been there the first day, followed by VON MACKENSEN PHALANX DRIVES BRUSILOV’S ARMY IN UTTER ROUT and VINNITSA FALLS TO OUR TROOPS.

Yesterday they’d added: TSAR ABDICATES and GRAND DUKE NICHOLAS TO BE REGENT FOR TSARIVITCH and RIOTS IN MOSCOW, MUTINY IN ST. PETERSBURG GARRISON. This morning it had been: RUMORS THAT GRAND DUKE ASKS FOR ARMISTICE BETWEEN RUSSIAN EMPIRE AND CENTRAL POWERS TO SAVE ROMANOV DYNASTY and excited variations on that.

When that rumor hits the Russian armies, it’s Katie-bar-the-door, she thought. Who wants to be the last Ivan Ivanovitch to die for the former Little Father in a lost war? Do they have enough cohesion left to stop men who’ve decided they’d rather go back to their villages? How many men have the Russians lost already, since the Germans cut them to pieces at Tannenberg right at the beginning and then broke their bones at Gorlice-Tarnow and Grodno last year? At least four or five million, counting prisoners, after the pincers closed at Brest-Litovsk. They’ve won battles with the Turks and Austrians a couple of times, but that doesn’t really count, it’s like trying to make up for a beating by kicking your opponent’s dog and assaulting his elderly aunt.

“These are events of world-historical significance,” von Bülow said, wiping up the last of his egg.

In that annoyingly sententious tone he used when in his Germanic-Sage persona, as if he’d mentally added a long white beard and a gray robe and staff and a mystic crystal ball, and possibly Wotan’s eyepatch and floppy hat.

Don’t underestimate him, there’s a first-rate brain under that white thatch. And one full of romantic yeast. He’s an evil man but oddly innocent about it; it’s not because he takes pleasure in cruelty or is greedy for himself.

“Soon we will be in possession of the Heartland! Who holds the Heartland, rules the world-island; who rules the world-island, commands the world.”

Yes, yes, Herr Privatdozent, I too can read Mackinder. Who’s an Englishman, remember. ¡Dios me libre de un hombre de un solo libro! Though I admit if I were German I’d be breaking out the castanets and dancing a flamenco too... no, actually if I were German I’d be swilling bad wartime beer and yelling: Hoch! Hoch!

“Soon we’ll have all the food and petroleum and raw materials we need,” Horst said a bit more practically. “Rumania is backward but rich in grain and livestock; they were a major exporter before the war, and now we’ll get their harvest for this year. Germany’s cities won’t be eating turnips when winter comes, we’ll press them like beet-pulp in a mill to make sure of that.”

“Or take them by the throat and squeeze until their eyeballs pop out,” Luz said helpfully.

“Exactly,” Horst said with happy unselfconsciousness. “And Rumania has some of the world’s richest oilfields, which from the reports we’ve captured mostly intact, because the Rumanians ran so fast. I have heard that there is a regulation in the Rumanian army, forbidding officers under the rank of Major from using rouge and eye-shadow on duty, and I can believe it!”

Von Bülow chuckled dryly. Luz raised an eyebrow.

“I use rouge occasionally, Horst,” she said. “And eye-shadow. And sweetie... I never found it slowed me down much.”

She remembered a Black Chamber operative who’d been so swish he’d publically asked to borrow her compact powder-puff.

And he crawled into that Revolucionario camp at night, the one I got the location of down in the jungles in Quinatana Roo, and slit every second man’s throat with a straight razor so the others would have a surprise when they woke up. Even the Philippine Rangers were impressed.

And those little grinning brown devils from Mindanao didn’t impress easily. Horst gave her an odd look, and then an acknowledging nod, and went on:

“Though of course you are not a Rumanian... There’s more wheat and cattle and horses in the Ukraine, and coal and iron and manganese, and if... when... now that the Russians have collapsed the Caucasus are open to the Turks and they... which means Germany... will have copper and cotton and bauxite and half the petroleum in the world in Baku. Now the English can take their so-vaunted blockade which they thought would strangle us and starve our children and ram it...”

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and continued after a slight pause: “Somewhere sensitive, wrapped in barbed wire.”

“Much good their battleships will do them then,” Luz added, which was precisely what Elisa Carmody would think; and true, if short-sighted. “But the gringos...”

“Yes!” Horst said, slamming his fist down on the table, the blow a bit muffled by the papers but making the remaining chinaware bounce and rattle.

Ernst von Bülow nodded. “Exactly,” he said. He glanced at her. “You have summed up the next great challenge facing the Fatherland, gracious miss. And that is why we are here. Drastic measures must be taken, ruthless measures to grasp this opportunity to consolidate our hold on the Heartland while it is within our reach.”

She didn’t expect them to say anything more in detail yet, and didn’t ask, which she thought they appreciated. Instead she sipped at the last of the coffee, or at least what the orderly running the little kitchen annex in the rear carriage claimed was coffee; there might be some actual caffea arabica in the brew, or not. She’d diluted it heavily since at least the cream did come from a cow, and recently. Horst caught her slight grimace and chuckled sympathetically—Germans really appreciated their coffee. As if to confirm her thought he sang a children’s tune:

 

“C-A-F-F-E-E, trink nicht so viel Kaffee!
Nicht für Kinder ist der Türkentrank,
Schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blass und krank,
Sei doch kein Muselmann, der ihn nicht lassen kann.”

 

“I picked up a couple of kilos of beans from Java in Amsterdam for my chief,” he added with a laugh, acknowledging the vileness of the roasted chicory mixed with burned, powdered mystery vegetation. “And it will be appreciated!”

On her previous visits before the war she’d much preferred the way Germans made coffee, slowly and meticulously, to the usual weak or burnt American fashion, though Viennese style with whipped cream was even better. Austrians were still the patron gods of baked goods, café culture and music even if they weren’t much in geopolitical terms these days.

Soberly, and looking into her eyes, Horst added: “Please be careful with Colonel Nicolai, Süsse. A very able man, he rose by sheer ability from modest beginnings, but... hard. Not overly concerned with gentlemanly scruples. A very hard man. And very powerful these days.”

Which accords exactly with our own briefings, Luz thought. Except merciless bastard is the more the way they put it. And deeply involved in German politics now that his patrons Hindenburg and Ludendorff are running things—in charge of their censorship system, for starters. And there were rumors about his helping organize this new Fatherland Party they’re talking about; I’ll dance that flamenco naked in Times Square if the Herr Privatdozent isn’t involved with the Pan-German League too. Von Bülow wants Germany to be great and would like to have power so he could bring that about; I think Colonel Walter Nicolai wants Walter Nicolai... General Walter Nicolai... to be powerful for Walter Nicolai... which means making Germany great.

The orderly came through and snapped to a brace with true Middle European Ordnungsliebe.

“We will proceed to the Schloss now, Herr Hauptmann, I am informed.”

The train chuffed slowly into motion and off the siding onto the winding main line up the narrow curving valley of the little Flöha river, which was just a bit too big to be a creek by American standards. Pockau was a pretty village of farmers and laborers and small workshops making toys and lace and glassware, surrounded by sloping pastures and fields and forested hilltops, with old churches and steep-roofed cottages showing they got a lot of snow in this region. It would have looked more picturesque a few years ago, when there wasn’t a creeping shabbiness born of shortages of everything, and when the population hadn’t held so few healthy adult males and so many women in the deep black of mourning garb, and everyone hadn’t looked underfed and overworked.

This part of southern Saxony lay in the foothills of the Erzgebirge. Non-Germans called them the Ore Mountains for the minerals that had once made them famous, though they hardly qualified as more than massive worn-down hills by most American standards, with an occasional sandstone cliff. The geography reminded her of the Appalachians, or parts of New England, but more of the land was cleared than would have been the case across the Atlantic; mostly in faded green pasture, but often for fields of oats or rye or potatoes. Heights rose higher and wilder to the southward, where the Boehmerwald loomed at the edge of sight when breaks in the hills allowed, to mark the Austrian border.

“Not many horses,” she said, looking at the passing scene and comparing it with previous visits to this general area in peacetime.

Women in headcloths and drab skirts were cutting the last of the rye with bent backs over flashing sickles, or carting off huge bundles of it on their backs, or digging potatoes with thick-tined pitchforks and tossing them into wicker baskets or tattered burlap sacks dragged away by children. More children went behind the reapers, gleaning up every single grain of rye that had fallen out of the stalks. The only animal-drawn cart she could see was pulled by a pair of skinny oxen, if you didn’t count one little thing drawn by a large but discouraged-looking black dog led by a little boy.

At least nobody’s hungry enough to eat dog, yet, Luz thought; she liked dogs, who were more honest than men in her experience. Apart from the railway, there’s nothing in sight that might not have been here five hundred years ago, or a thousand.

Horst sighed, taken out of his happy daze of victory. “Yes, the farm horses were mostly called up like the young men, to draw guns and transport wagons, and more since. It is hard for those who remain, especially on the small farms of the peasants as you see now—there are plans to use more prisoners of war for farm labor here, though it is more difficult to manage on smallholdings than on the large estates like my family’s lands. We employed migrants before the war for the harvest, Poles mostly. Almighty Lord God knows we have plenty of prisoners, at least, we took a million and a half just around Warsaw last summer, and a million in the Bialystok pocket a little later. And they all have to be fed anyway.”

“It is only right for the under-man to serve the purposes of the higher,” von Bülow agreed. “And for the defeated to serve the victors.”

They passed into forest again; spruce plantations on the higher ground, oak and beech and other leaf-trees lower down, and then a steep narrow riverside clearing with a little stone-built railway station that had probably been put up a generation ago to serve the Schloss and its dependent villages but already looking old. They climbed down and stood amid an orderly bustle of men in uniform, motor-cars and horse-drawn wagons coming and going, and a very pink young lieutenant who strode up to them looking at a clipboard, his wispy mustache trained up into sad little points in what he probably thought was his monarch’s style.

“Hauptmann von Dückler?” he said, exchanging salutes. “Yes, we have transport and quarters in the Schloss laid on for you and the Herr Privatdozent and this Mexican who is expected. You are lucky! We’re quartering people as far away as the resort hotels in Marienberg!”

He looked down an aquiline nose at Luz, screwing in a monocle as he did so. Junkers used them the way ladies had wielded fans in the old days, to express emotion without words.

“Ah, there may be some difficulty finding space for your friend...

Luz gave him a smile of poisonous sweetness. She hadn’t long to wait; Horst barked:

“My colleague the good Fräulein whose name you are not cleared to know is an important intelligence source who has come here, at considerable risk, from the western hemisphere to provide data crucial to the operation being discussed... which she is cleared to be briefed on, and you, I would guess, Lieutenant, are not. I am under instructions to bring her as rapidly as possible to Colonel Nicolai... lieutenant, and I would be surprised if there was not documentation to that effect.”

The young man went from pink to pale at the name of the much-feared Intelligence chief. The German concept of military rank was surprisingly flexible, in some respects; authority attached as much to function as title. Nicolai’s functions were manifold, mostly secret, and occasionally involved sending people to the Somme front where an inexperienced junior officer pitchforked into a strange regiment had a life expectancy that averaged about four weeks. Or just ordering that some individual disappear, now and then.

“You will act accordingly,” Horst finished.

Tone and inflection joined in a way that suggested gross inferiority on the lieutenant’s part and desperate consequences if he didn’t obey sometime in the next few seconds; German was a wonderful language for telling people what to do and fine shades of who-is-boss.

The lieutenant’s respectful but man-to-man demeanor sifted to ramrod stiffness and a heel-click as the flat, cold words continued. Von Bülow stared at him silently with a look like an entomologist about to pin a specimen to a cork-board for eternal display.

Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann! At once, Herr Hauptman!” the young man barked, eyes staring rigidly ahead, then departed with a brisk stride.

“German discipline is a fearsome thing,” Luz said, and laid a hand on Horst’s arm; he was virtually bristling. “You have a knightly soul, dear Horst, but don’t cut him into dog-meat with your Glockenschläger just yet. I don’t want to attract too much attention. It might have been better to simply let him assume I was your mistress.”

Orders were called, and a blocky businesslike Stoewer staff-car with a driver pulled up. Horst handed her in, laughing ruefully.

“I would have been gentler if that well-groomed puppy had showed any sign of front-line service,” he said. “Ones like him give the Edel a bad name, like a spoiled apple spreading rot in a sound barrel.”

Von Bülow nodded. “One such helps the Social Democrats more than a dozen dirty Jew agitators with egg in their beards ranting Marx-gibberish on street-corners.”

Ja,” Horst said. “I may be misjudging him, but considering how many platoons and even companies at the front are commanded by NCO’s now, I do not think so.”

“I do not think so either,” von Bülow said. “The Fräulein is twice the soldier he is and has done the enemies of the Fatherland more injury, as I have seen with my own eyes.”

Luz felt a slight stab of guilt, of the type you couldn’t avoid in undercover intelligence work unless you were a complete reptile. Which many people in the business were, of course.

But I really don’t want to start to hiss cheerfully at my reflection in the mirror every morning with a flicker of a forked tongue to groom my scales.

“Thank you, Herr Privatdozent,” she said as she settled into the seat. “But please bear in mind that what I have done, I have done in my own country’s service, not that of the German Reich, to which I owe no national loyalty beyond our present alliance. I am willing to fight Frenchmen or Englishmen, or Italians or Russians for that matter, in the service of my country, but if—hypothetically, of course, ¡Dios me libre!—Germany were our enemy, I would fight Germans too.”

Aber natürlich,” he said and nodded respectful acknowledgment. “You are a true patriot, Fräulein.”

Which is true, but not at all the way he thinks it is. Sometimes in this line of work irony becomes more pervasive than air.

Then he raised a hand as they turned south and west to cross the Flöha on an iron bridge.

Schloss Rauenstein,” he said, pointing across the narrow valley and falling into an academic’s lecture-tone. “First recorded here at the very beginning of the fourteenth century, but parts may be older; built to command the crossing of the Flöha and the road between Frieberg and Annaberg. The estate is currently a possession of the von Herder family, who have given the building over to the Reich for the duration of the war.”

The Schloss stood on a low hill flanked by more wooded heights on the western bank of the river. It didn’t have the naked stone or high curtain-wall and multiple towers the idea of castle evoked in an English-speaking mind, but the lower parts were on an elevated terrace cut out of the hill-crest, and were made with white stucco over walls of either stone or brick that looked formidably massive and were pierced only by a few narrow slits.

Above, sitting on the older and grimmer part like a striped cloth cap on an armored knight’s head was a rambling half-timbered country mansion, with white plaster over the noggin between the black oak beams and topped with steep slate roofs. One square tower rose from the central roof, but nips and tucks and little protruding bits showed centuries of building and rebuilding, as means and fires and wars allowed or changes of ownership demanded. Off a little and still mostly hidden was an annex, a biggish building in its own right, whose larger and symmetrical windows and hipped roof and yellow stucco showed it had been built in a later age, evoking powdered wigs and minuets rather than Raubritter in bearskin cloaks feasting coarsely with their thuggish retainers.

Even that newest part was old by the standards she’d grown up with, probably older than the first of the California missions. She shivered a little; knights in chain-mail had dwelt here, and might have left on Crusade—to the east, or to the wars against the Baltic pagans. Vastly bearded Landsknecht pikemen had marched by in puffed and slashed finery with two-handed swords across their backs, cuirassiers with plumed helmets and wheel-lock pistols had trotted off to rescue Vienna from the Turks; those walls would have seen the mercenary hordes of the Wars of Religion, pigtailed musketeers of the Age of Reason when Germany was a maze of little courts and free cities... and all that time the lords of this place had held the surrounding lands in thrall.

We’ve had less time in America, but done more with it, she thought stoutly. Though...

“Is that a power line?” she said; wires looped up from the river through the woods on tall poles that were visible here and there amid the trees.

“Yes, the von Herders modernized extensively a few years before the war,” von Bülow said. “There is a small electrical station on the Flöha.”

“And we have put in more communications, of course,” Horst added.

The automobile swept up a forested gravel road and suddenly confronted a towering wall, real stone this time; she realized it must be the retaining wall that secured the platform on which the Schloss was built. An arched tunnel pierced it, leading up to the surface the actual buildings occupied. No doubt there had been iron-bound doors and a portcullis once, which would have looked more natural than the sandbagged Maxim machine-gun nest and moveable barbed-wire obstacles that did the duty now, or the electric lights and their cords stapled to the stone. A polite but implacable sergeant with the silvery gorget of the Feldgendarmerie around his neck checked their credentials; then the car swept up through the tunnel and on to a courtyard. That had a fountain and statue, and more windows showed on the inner side of the buildings.

Another aide was waiting, this one looking rather more businesslike.

“Colonel Nicolai will see you and the Mexican agent immediately, and the Herr Privatdozent,” the man said after exchanging salutes with Horst and a heel-click and bow with the scholar. “Everything is moving very quickly now, Herr Hauptman, as you will understand from the news.”

Like most of the men in uniform he looked almost indecently cheerful, under his stiff propriety. He was also looking around for the Mexican agent he’d been told to expect.

“There seems to be some error, the agent is listed as being assigned joint quarters with the Irish—”

Probably expecting a barefoot, sinister indio in a serape with a tattered straw sombrero whose crest is two feet tall and a machete between his teeth and a long droopy mustache. Or possibly a dashing vaquero, dressed charro-style with lots of buttons and holding a lance, or a somber Don in a short embroidered jacket and long black cloak flourishing a rapier. Germans all read those adventure novels by Karl May, like our Western penny-dreadfuls but worse; I don’t think May ever crossed the Atlantic. He got his ideas from the penny-dreadfuls. At least Edgar Rice Burroughs actually was a frontier cavalry trooper and a cowboy and a prospector.

I am the Mexican agent, Herr Lieutenant,” Luz said flatly. “The name is Carmody De Soto-Dominguez? You’ll have it there, I suspect.”

This time Horst was simply amused. The aide did another expressionless heel-click at learning that the glamorous and stylishly clad young woman was a revolutionary emissary and led the way.

And apparently Horst and I are in separate quarters. That will be useful. Fun and frolic and putting him off-guard are one thing, but a spy needs to do night-work which is hard if someone on the other side is sleeping on the next pillow or fondling your buttocks.

The interior of the Schloss was crowded with uniformed Germans from staff officers down to messengers and orderlies, bustling about and carrying papers and talking earnestly with each other or into telephones whose lines were looped along brackets on the walls, or huddling together over tables and eagerly pointing out advances on maps that were a tangle of curving black lines ending in arrow-points. Seemingly they were divided into those who’d been here for some time and those who’d just arrived in the train—literally—of some extremely exalted panjandrums.

Otherwise Schloss Rauenstein lived up to her expectations; whitewashed walls, lots of antlers and stuffed heads of bear and boar and wolf, huge gloomy halls down below and huge somewhat less gloomy ones above and fireplaces big enough to walk into or roast whole oxen in or both, though apart from the ancestral portraits and suits of armor and the bits and pieces of animals the lords of Rauenstein had killed over the years the furniture had mostly been removed and replaced with office gear. There was a continuous rattle of typewriters in the background, a smell of ink, ozone, tobacco and boot polish on leather, wool uniforms and clean male sweat and the odd whiff of scented mustache wax used to make the points turn up in Kaiser Wilhelm’s style.

Though fewer of those than there used to be, I think, Luz noted. Perhaps that’s intelligence too.

“Colonel Nicolai’s office is currently in the top room of the central tower,” the aide said.

“So I would expect. Best for security reasons,” Horst agreed. Then, sotto voce to her: “And to prevent people of high rank wasting his time by dropping in.”

That location involved leading them up interminable narrow turning stairs; Luz and Horst and the aide, who was in his late twenties and wore spectacles, all took them without effort but waited courteously on several landings to let von Bülow catch his breath. Heavyset generals with gray hair might indeed find it a little inaccessible. Two of those landings involved pairs of hard-faced guards with machine pistols who insisted on seeing papers for all three of them, despite knowing the aide. Their uniforms showed no waffenfarbe or unit designations at all, much like the Rangers who worked with the Black Chamber in the field sometimes.

Tsk, Luz thought, irritated but unsurprised. Everyone carefully following procedures really is inconvenient for a busy spy; it complicates everything and slows you down. Which is why procedures are important for security, of course. They don’t make things impossible, but they do make them a lot harder.

Colonel Nicolai rose from behind his desk as they entered, a considerable courtesy, and answered Horst’s salute; his office had probably been a study of some sort, since it was lined with bookshelves. Those mostly held document files and scrolled maps and reference works now, and the large desk had several telephones. Light slanted in from four small windows, one in each wall, but more came from a brace of electric lamps. The windows were open slightly, letting in a draft of mild early-fall air scented with forest, and also with horses and automobile-exhaust.

There was another person sitting beside the desk, surprisingly a woman, but tensely silent in the Intelligence chief’s presence.

That’s odd, Luz thought. And if it’s odd, it’s significant.

The American armed forces had uniformed women’s auxiliary corps now, volunteers handling noncombatant and clerical jobs, including things like driving field ambulances, to free up men for combat. So did the British. As far as she knew the Kaiser’s army didn’t. The woman was in...

American clothes, Luz thought.

There were a dozen minor differences of cut and sewing technique that shouted that out immediately, and fabric of that quality hadn’t been available here since before the war. Rather full, frumpy ankle-length skirt and jacket and shirtwaist, made at home and not very recently, but made skillfully and skillfully repaired since. Straw hat with a ribbon and a silk flower, over long hair done up in a rather old-fashioned way and held with several amber-headed pins that were the most expensive things she was wearing.

She’s American too, Luz thought. Lower-middle-class, big-city.

Ways of sitting and holding yourself were as distinctive as clothes. Strawberry-blond hair, natural from the pale Celtic complexion and bright turquoise-blue eyes. The face was innocent of cosmetics and distorted by tension, but with the big eyes and snub nose and pointed chin probably had a cheerful open golliwog prettiness normally; her figure was fuller than was fashionable these days but perfect for a Gibson Girl a decade ago.

Nicolai gave Luz and von Bülow another of the inevitable little half-bows, his rather ordinary-looking face expressionless; he was a man of medium height in his early fifties, with close-cut graying dark-brown hair and mustache, and his eyes were of some mixed color that might be hazel in better light.

Gnädiges Fräulein,” he said to her. “You will pardon a necessary discourtesy,” he went on, and it wasn’t a question.

“Is this indeed Elisa Carmody?” he asked the woman sitting beside his desk.

Luz’ eyes had flicked over her as part of her scan of the room. Now they snapped back in horror, and she controlled her expression just in time. The one thing she couldn’t talk her way out of: someone who actually knew her cover identity’s real face.

Her first impression had been a woman of about thirty. Now she saw that the other was younger than Luz’ mid-twenties if anything, but under some tremendous stress she was concealing well. There was a slight shock as their eyes met and locked for a long instant.

If I get Horst’s gun—

It was a Luger 08 parabellum, with an eight-round magazine.

I might be able to take them all, I know he carries it loaded but no round in the chamber, Luz thought with icy detachment as the blue eyes studied her solemnly; her own face bore a slight enquiring smile. Or at least make sure they don’t take me alive. Horst first, of course, I’ll draw it with my left hand and put two rounds through the body with the muzzle touching...

“Well, I seen her for years have not, six no seven,” the young American woman said, in fluent but slightly clumsy German. “And myself was a young then in among a crowd at a function of social, so she would not me probably know.”

American-born, the ear of Luz’ mind said automatically. Big-city, east-coast, Irish neighborhood. Boston, probably. Book-learned German, but also being around someone who spoke it... spoke it like a Bavarian peasant from half a century ago.

“Please think carefully, Fräulein Whelan,” Nicolai said. “This is of the very first importance.”

The other woman stood up, walking closer and studying her carefully. Then she smiled and stepped close, opening her arms.

“Elisa!” she cried, and went on in English. “I was just a brat then, but I’ll never forget you!”

Luz returned the embrace and felt a stab of thankfulness that she’d spoken in that tongue.

Which I am in turn glad Nicolai doesn’t speak well, because that is the most welcome and one of the least convincing lies I’ve ever heard! She knows perfectly well I’m not Carmody. It won’t matter with Horst, he knows I’m who I say I am, poor man.

She could feel quivering tension in the arms that gripped her, and heard a single whisper:

“Talk later!”

The girl turned to Nicolai and said in her slow German: “It is of a complete certainty the Miss Elisa Carmody, Colonel. She older of course is, but the face the same remains and the eyes remain, and the little nick below her right ear, that remains also to be.”

Which nick Luz had gotten two years ago, from a rock fragment peened off by a bullet from a sniper, and hadn’t really noticed until later. It was embarrassing; a spy didn’t want identifying marks, contrary to popular fiction which was full of one-eyed, scar-faced agents with limps, missing ears, or dramatic stripes in their hair, but it was also something that could only have been seen at very close range. The girl was improvising, but fortunately Horst hadn’t noticed the mark and so she hadn’t supplied him a story which would contradict the little detail.

She’d probably have given the truth, just modified to fit her cover—it was much simpler to keep track of things that way. Al mentiroso le conviene ser memorioso, as the old saying went: a liar needed a good memory.

There was a palpable relaxation in the room as they all sat, and Horst was hiding a smile behind the ramrod machine-stiffness he could put on.

“Fräulein Elisa Carmody, of the Mexican National Revolutionary Party; Fräulein Keera Whelan, our liaison with the Clann na nGael,” Nicolai said, as the two women shook hands briefly in the double-handed clasp ladies often used.

Calluses, Luz thought. Strong fingers. Did some work with her hands, but not just laboring—something with fine tools, artisan’s work. And a few burn-marks. One from acid. People who handle laboratory equipment get those. And she’s still tense, but less so. She knows I’m not Carmody, and that makes her feel much better.

Clann na nGael meant the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and did probably mean Boston.

The name would be spelled Ciara, Luz thought.

Though pronounced with a sharp k at the beginning and a long vowel, Keera. She couldn’t remember anyone of that name in the briefing papers, which had said the IRB operation had been thoroughly pulverized by the Federal Bureau of Security after the Dublin thing, when the embarrassment with the British became more important than not offending a constituency that mostly voted Democratic anyway. Luz tended to think the FBS was a bit pedestrian and unimaginative, and apparently the Brotherhood had been almost absolutely smashed. Which, as the saying went, was not the same thing as absolutely completely smashed.

Still, an almost absolute smashing might account for why they were using a woman who might or might not be old enough to vote. And who also just happened to have once seen the woman Luz was pretending to be; but that sort of thing happened more often than you might think. Generally speaking people weren’t more than ten degrees removed from anyone else in the same country, and if you added a common interest like revolutionary politics it became more likely still.

And she was willing to lie truth out of creation about it, thus saving me from probable torture and certain death. And look how she flushes! I am once again glad that I inherited Mima’s complexion, not Papá’s, so that isn’t such a problem for me.

Ciara Whelan’s face was lightly freckled across her snub nose, and otherwise pale as milk, and right now there were spots of near-crimson on her cheeks and her ears glowed. Luz’ father had been what they called black Irish, black of hair and dark-eyed and relatively swarthy by the standards of that damp misty island full of extremely pink people. The natural olive of her skin and control of her breathing was keeping Luz from going corpse-pale at the sudden brush with death and the lurching emptiness in her stomach. She didn’t flush with the giddy-nauseous rush of relief either. Luz didn’t think Colonel Nicolai’s eyes missed much normally.

I don’t show every passing emotion like a book written in blood below glass, and I don’t burn and peel with a little sun.

Nicolai tapped a set of papers on his desk. “I have read your report on your return from America with interest, Captain von Dückler,” he said. “Most stirring. A pity we cannot release it to the popular press, the Fatherland is in need of heroes, but until after the war... probably long after the war... they will have to make do with the Stoßtruppen and the pilots of the fighting-scouts. Like this new one, your relative the, ah, Red Baron.”

“A very distant relative, Colonel.” Horst tucked his head. “A certain degree of... flamboyance could not be avoided, sir,” he added apologetically, and then with perfect sincerity: “That I have served the Fatherland is reward enough. Fame is nothing.”

“Certainly it could not be avoided after the French identified the Herr Privatdozent,” Nicolai agreed. “Probably the English on the zeppelin were merely acting opportunistically; typical amateurism. I would like to go over certain details.”

They seemed mostly to be concerned with Luz, or more precisely Elisa Carmody. Horst confirmed the written report he’d telegraphed ahead; von Bülow added a little on the bits he’d seen himself. The actions did seem a little...

Dramatic, Luz thought.

Ciara Whelan was staring at her, with eyes going wider and wider as the catalogue of beating large Indian rumal-wielders into submission, identifying French agents, pursuits and ambushes and rearguards and high-speed chases by pistol-wielding enemies on motorcycles went on.

I really didn’t have any choice, though. If I hadn’t given it everything I had, we’d all have died. ¡Por Dios! Most importantly, I would have died!

Horst left out the naughty bits, but Luz thought that Nicolai had probably deduced that anyway. The head of Abteilung IIIb brought out a cigarette in a holder, looked at her for a nod of permission—but not Ciara Whelan, she noticed—and lit it.

“So, Captain von Dückler, you judge this... gracious miss to be capable?” he said, exhaling smoke.

Bulgarian tobacco, or possibly Turkish, but very high quality, Luz thought absently.

“Very capable. Frankly... astonishingly so, sir. I would not have believed that a woman could do any of it, if I had not seen it with my own eyes. I must reconsider certain assumptions.”

“I also,” von Bülow said. “Furthermore she has an excellent education, and a good if unorthodox grasp of our German culture.”

Which was nice of him, though kultur actually meant something subtly different and much more all-encompassing than the English cognate.

“Yes. I bow to your direct experience. She is very good; in fact, a little implausibly good. For a member of a revolutionary group. Not, perhaps, for a trained international spy of the new type, now that intelligence work is no longer simply a matter of blackmail of homosexual staff officers or slipping a few marks to seedy Balkan adventurers and grandes horizontals and the doorman at a foreign embassy. Yet now we have a direct confirmation of her identity, which is... most reassuring. She will be useful in the Boston operation, since she is known there; the other agent may not be up to the needs of the matter.”

Luz smiled very slightly and inclined her head. “Those of us who have survived the Black Chamber are often very good, very lucky, or both, Herr Oberst.”

Or just hid in a cave and didn’t come out, she thought.

“Indeed.” He turned back to Horst. “You would say then that she is strong-willed? Not squeamish?”

Horst actually chuckled. “No, colonel. Quite the contrary. Very strong-willed; not bloodthirsty, at least not to those other than the occupiers of her country, but with a true soldierly ruthlessness when necessary.”

“Good. You will all attend the demonstration, then. Of the, ah, breath of Loki.”

A slight grimace of distaste, either at the thing itself or more likely at the name, which to Luz bore von Bülow’s mental fingerprints. His type of romantic pan-German nationalist often insisted on plucking terminology out of Wagner or the myths the composer had drawn upon, as if they were spiritually bellowing at some Rhenish dragon or brooding on a misty rock in a forest all the time. Nicolai didn’t strike her as that sort of sentimentalist.

The intelligence officer went on: “Then there will be a conference with the Chief of the Great General Staff and the Quartermaster-general, at which you and the Herr Privatdozent will be present and required to summarize your observations. You will understand that this plan, far along as it is, must still be given final operational approval at the very highest level before we move.”

“The very highest, Colonel?” Horst murmured.

The three Germans looked at each other. Nicolai cleared his throat and said rather formally:

“It has not been thought advisable to bother the All-Highest with... tedious operational details.”

Meaning, the Kaiser is an idiot who’s the creature of whoever talked to him last, and his generals don’t tell him anything if they can avoid it, Luz thought, her mind working smoothly once more. Amazing how quickly one can recover from the shadow of the Death Angel’s wings.

Kaiser Wilhelm still had the constitutional power to appoint men to the highest posts and dismiss them at his pleasure, like the Chancellor and the Chief of the Great General Staff, but nobody outside Germany was sure how much actual authority he retained these days. Von Falkenhayn had been more or less his man, or vice versa, but von Falkenhayn was dead now, and von Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the ascendant. Because of the victories they’d won, but also because they had a much better grasp of modern politics. They were popular with the masses, whereas Falkenhayn had been a product of the traditional court system of favorites and camarillas and Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg was a colorless bureaucrat. They’d be much more popular when the latest series of victories had sunk in, too, and the booty flowed in to make Germany less hungry, dark and cold come winter. High morale produced victory... but you needed victories to keep high morale. Everyone had a breaking strain, even if this war had shown it was often much further away than anyone would have thought.

“The All-Highest is attached to... possibly outdated humanitarian scruples,” von Bülow said, as if that were some sort of mild vice. “He was... unhappy with the experimental raid on Paris in May when the details became public knowledge. I was not altogether sorry to leave Europe then.”

“Things are no longer as they were in May, Herr Privatdozent,” Nicolai said, contemplating the end of his cigarette. “The Crown Prince, I might add, was not unhappy with the May experiment, which he regarded as a suitable coda to his great victory at Verdun, and has been kept briefed on this operation, which has his enthusiastic support. Of course, he is more militarily active, as a man in his prime actually commanding forces in the field and doing so very ably.”

“Ach, so,” Horst said, with much meaning and little expression, and von Bülow nodded.

Before the war Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor August Ernst of the House of Hohenzollern had been mainly noted for chasing—and catching—society women, driving fast cars, wearing fantastically extravagant uniforms running to fur busbies with silver death’s-heads attached, and in general being even more of a deranged parody of a Prussian militarist than his father. Since then he’d commanded an army group on the Western Front; doubtless his chief of staff had done most of the actual work, but he’d shown considerable talent, and had made some crucial and successful changes to the plan for the Verdun offensive in the confused period between Falkenhayn’s sudden death and the new Chief of the General Staff really settling in. Particularly in driving forward positions that enabled the Germans to use their artillery to interdict French resupply of the fortress town through the narrow neck that was all that connected it with their main positions. That had led to the final chaotic collapse of the position into a pocket that was starved and battered into surrender, despite frantic attempts to break out and even more costly attempts at driving relief forces through the encircling German positions.

The Crown Prince had also had the usual German relationship of a royal heir to his father; they detested each other, which meant he detested his father’s favorites and favored the new team. With his status as a victorious field commander, that meant a great deal; all the ur-Adel and military elements who’d worried about his father damaging the prestige of the monarchy were rallying around him.

All useful intelligence, Luz thought. And Horst and von Bülow and Colonel Nicolai are all contemplating futures as members of the new, triumphant group under the benevolent rays of to-be-Imperial favor, achieved by bringing glory and power to the Fatherland. Anyone who thinks monarchies don’t have politics doesn’t know much about politics or monarchies. Or hasn’t seen some of the stuff that goes on around Uncle Teddy these days, come to that. And speaking of monarchies...

All four of President Roosevelt’s sons were in the US Army as of this spring. They were all hard-charging, able and ambitious young men, and she knew Ted Jr. was brave to excess, and would bet the his younger brothers would be too. If any of them came out of the war trailing the sort of clouds of glory their father had in Cuba and went into politics...

Though Alice would have a better chance at making herself Empress of the World, if merit were the only consideration.

Luz shuddered mentally at the thought, even now. Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a force of nature in a very decorative package, the only one of the President’s children to inherit every scrap of his wits and willpower, and with much less of his Victorian-era scruples.

Von Bülow continued in his Germanic Sage voice, and the other two nodded agreement: “The Crown Prince accepts the stern necessities of modern absoluten Krieg. The days of Cabinet wars with limited means for limited aims are past; this is the era of war between whole peoples, for stakes that are without limit.”

“And so,” Nicolai said, standing and taking up his peaked officer’s hat. “Now we will see the practical demonstration of the Herr Privatdozent’s inspiration.”

Horst nodded. “Many reports cross a high commander’s desk; reading them is one thing... but seeing something in practice, another,” he said. “Come... gnädiges Fraulein.”

Luz was glad Horst had enough social sense not to call her sweetie in this context, and to offer an arm to them both. But from the grim look on his face, and the way Ciara Whelan had gone paler than milk, the demonstration wasn’t going to be anything she’d be happy to see.

Absoluten Krieg meant absolute war, though the usual English translation these days was total war. It had become more and more popular to describe what the Great War and the twentieth century were doing to Europe; and to the United States, for that matter. It wasn’t an accident that the Germans had been the first ones to come up with it, though.

And people generally use either version when they’re about to do something totally, absolutely beastly.

 

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