Redoute nationale de la France d’outre-mer
(National Redoubt of Overseas France)
November 26, 1916(b)
“¡Ay, Dios mío!” Luz said in astonishment, leaning on the airship’s gallery railing and looking down at Tunis. “Now, that’s all new!”
“What surprises you, my… Consuelo?” Ciara said, using the cover identity for this leg of the journey.
Her color was much better than it had been after disarming the bomb, or even when they’d left Recife on the Gettysburgeastbound across the Atlantic. Oddly, spending three days pitching and tossing into a Saharan sandstorm with half the passengers and some of the crew vomiting into every available receptacle had agreed with her. And she’d been mainly interested in the geology of the jagged fangs of rock passing nerve-rackingly close below while they sailed over mountains haunted by wild tribesmen who’d cheerfully rape and murder any infidel giaour who fell into their hands.
“Is it different from your last visit?” Ciara went on.
Luz shook her head. It was flattering that Ciara sometimes seemed to assume she’d been everywhere and knew everything about all those places, but she was only a well-traveled twenty-five years old.
“I’ve never been closer than Marseilles, but the guides give Tunis about two hundred thousand people.”
Being well-read was almost as good. The books put out by Baedeker and Cook & Sons were as indispensable for spies as they were for tourists.
She went on: “Those shanty-camps around it must have a hundred thousand themselves now, and see how crowded the harbor is?”
Tunis had an excellent modern port at the end of a canal the French had dredged ten miles eastward across the sparkling salt lagoon to the sea, all of it laid out below like a map. Numbers didn’t come naturally to Luz, but she’d learned to make good estimates quickly because it was a staple of the spy’s trade—numbers of troops, weapons, supplies, rail cars, people. Ships were crawling in and out along the canal nearly nose-to-tail, and at the quays they were two deep, with more waiting their turns in dangerous proximity while harbor tugboats dashed about like hysterical yapping sheepdogs with toots from their steam whistles coming faint but clear.
“At least four times as many ships as it’s designed for. And more people coming ashore all the time; they’ve got boats shuttling back and forth to the ones that can’t get a berth.”
Ciara nodded. “There are camps everywhere too, aren’t there? All the open spaces in town, and like mushrooms in the fields.”
“And look at the ships inbound along the canal. The decks and upperworks are absolutely black with people, like ants on a pastelito de guayaba left behind at a picnic. That’s insane overcrowding, dangerous even if they were empty belowdecks, and they’re not. All since the horror-gas attack on Paris,” Luz said. “Someone’s moving very fast, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.”
In the original sense of torpedo, meaning hidden explosives, she thought.
The old Maghrebi city of the Beys and the Barbary Corsairs spilled up a low hill in a pleasant mass of whitewashed cubical courtyard-centered buildings that reminded her of Mexico, spotted with occasional domes and minarets, and narrow alleys that opened out into small spaces too irregular to be called squares. The younger French colonial town along the reclaimed harborfront and on the low flat ground to the north was a vivid contrast with its broad tree-lined Haussmanesque boulevards and neat regular grid and scattering of parks and Beaux-Arts public buildings like some proud provincial center in the Midi showing off a nineteenth-century prosperity.
The gallery windows were tilted a little open, and she could faintly smell a frowsty compound of people and smoke and their wastes, even at eight hundred feet up, along with the salt tang of the lagoon.
Like essence of slum, Luz thought. Or displaced-persons camp.
“The rest of the country looked pretty,” Ciara said.
“It reminds me of the southern part of California—both get better as you get closer to the sea,” Luz agreed.
The desert had yielded slowly, first to scattered bushes and then to sparse steppe dotted even more sparsely with the goats and sheep and camels and black tents of nomads, with a herd of gazelle now and then, or an oasis dense with date palms. Closer to the sea was a landscape of olive groves and orchards, vineyards and fields plowed red-brown and smooth, planted with the winter wheat and barley and just starting to show sprouting blades. Field workers and carts were almost insect-tiny from the air, and then scattered adobe farming villages gave way to suburbs or villas. The overall color was tawny, with a first faint green tint from fall rains that had started early this year. The whole world’s weather had been unusually cold and wet lately.
“But give it time,” Luz added grimly. “The ripples of disaster are spreading out.”
“Like the ones from a stone dropped in water,” Ciara said, her voice troubled.
A few of the farming villages had been torched, recently enough that they’d still been sending squibs of black smut-smoke along the ground as the huge elongated shadow of the dirigible passed over them. Luz had seen that smoke before, during the Intervention—usually part of a procedure informally known as showing them you’re serious. She didn’t know if Ciara knew what the distinctive bent pillar of black meant, and there was no point in bringing it up.
As the Gettysburg sank lower over the outskirts of the city the aeroplanes that had met them twenty miles out buzzed near one last time, neat little modern single-seat biplanes with red-white-blue roundels on the wings; once they’d done a circuit of the airship they peeled off and climbed again, circling gradually upward to conserve fuel.
“SPAD Vs,” Ciara said, craning her neck to keep them in view through the gallery windows. “The latest model, with the two Browning machine guns and interrupter gear… so clever… and that lovely two-fifty-horsepower V-8 Hispano-Suiza. I wonder why they have a standing air patrol… oh.”
“Zeppelins,” Luz said grimly. “And a little after dawn… about now… is when they hit London and Paris and Bordeaux, to catch people on their way to work.”
She tapped her foot on the Gettysburg’s deck. Ciara nodded, her face sober for a moment below her delight in the novelty of it all. When something could travel thousands of miles to drop ten tons of Vernichtungsgas, you wouldn’t take chances… given that a single lethal dose was smaller than the period at the end of a printed sentence.
Then Luz looked down again; there was an endless fascination to seeing the maps come alive like this.
“It’s a tribute to the human imagination that we came up with maps at all, before we could fly,” she said, and Ciara chuckled.
“We’ve seen a whole geographical atlas worth of them by now!” she said.
They were down to about five hundred feet, close enough to see how the streets were jammed tight with everything from hordes of pedestrians and bicyclists through donkeys hidden under enormous bundles to big French horse-drawn military wagons and a fair amount of motor transport… and even a few strings of camels. None of it was moving very fast, though she could see several trains pulling out of the central station with trails of black coal smoke behind them.
And faint but unmistakable, she heard the rasping stutter of an automatic weapon—a fairly long burst, too long to be good for the barrel, then a pause, then another, and then it fell silent.
Hotchkiss machine gun, she thought with a soundless whistle. They feed from a thirty-round strip.
She’d noticed the people weren’t looking up as much at the great airship throbbing by overhead as she’d have expected, and that gave a hint of why.
Everyone’s preoccupied, and someone not very far away was preoccupied enough with what was in front of him that sending sixty quick rounds of eight-millimeter persuasion downrange seemed like a good idea.
More French fighting scouts and light bombers were on the graveled dirt runways of the aeroplane base a little north of town, marked by its crisscross of dirt landing strips and ugly complex of hangars, fuel stores, workshops, warehouses, barracks, and administrative buildings of boards, canvas, and sheet metal. The airship docking tower looked as new as the flimsy squalor of the shantytowns, but it was a substantial section-built American National Airways design from the works in Patterson, with two circles of rail around it and a landing cradle mounted on them so it could be put directly beneath the big dirigible as it came in to the tower with its bow to the wind, and then shifted easily to keep it that way for storms, or for taking off again.
You could land without it, using hundreds of ground-crew and lots of rope, but this was much safer; the installation had been flown out in pieces with the technicians to assemble it only a few weeks ago, though that meant plans and materials had been ready for some time. Pumps whined and there was a brief hissing roar as gas was released from the valves along the dorsal keel far above.
Most of the passengers were here in the lounge now, watching with interest as the ground came closer beneath the big slanting windows of the gallery. A few were sitting at the small tables, hands white-knuckled on the armrests of their chairs, and a few more would be lying on their beds in the cabins with their eyes closed. That was mostly just vertigo and funk, but while docking was as routine as anything so new could be, this actually was the most dangerous part of a voyage.
As a pilot in the Army Air Corps had said to her once—laughing, they’d been in bed at the time—taking off wasn’t a problem and flying was dead easy…
But landing? he’d said. Landing is hard.
A cable with a cone-shaped weight on its end dropped free of the airship’s bow. They could see it from here, unlike the similar one from the pointed stern behind the cruciform control fins. The airship bobbed slightly as both were caught by the ground crews and slotted into the matching winches in the tower and cradle. The cables pulled the great, fragile bulk gently forward, then down until it rested in the padded arcs that matched the traverse rings of the hull’s structure and the restraints could be shot home in the recessed eyebolts. The engines went silent for the first time since they lifted from the stop in Dakar, and the quiet was greater for the fact that the droning had become a subliminal thing no longer consciously noticed at all; the living quiver of movement was gone likewise, replaced with the feel of a building on solid land as the craft went heavier than air.
Most of the passengers knew enough to stay where they were, but stewards politely headed off a few who headed for the exit ramp early. There were clunking and clanging noises, and then rumbles as the ballast tanks were pumped full, and subtly different ones as the process of pumping the lift cells empty began, so they could be opened and blown dry. Ciara leaned her head a little to the side, as if she were listening to a complex piece of music, and her lips moved silently as she listed the origins of the sounds.
Luz found her expression fascinating. They shared music; she tried to share this, as if the machines and their human tenders were an intricately structured piece by Bach, genius talking to God in mathematics. To see the clamor as her lover did, part of a thing that was whole and beautiful, a mighty expression of human intellect and will and purpose; and for a moment she grasped the edge of it.
The lights flickered as the dirigible switched to exterior supply. Luz affected a yawn.
“One gets bored with the procedure, after you’ve experienced it once… or twice…” she said, affecting a yawn and patting her lips with the back of one gloved hand, and grinned at Ciara’s slight mocking Pfffft! sound.
A white-coated steward came through, rapping a little rubber hammer on a xylophone-like instrument held in the crook of his left arm in a pleasant chiming rhythm.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he said, a spiel that would be repeated every ten paces. “Mesdames et messieurs! ¡Damas y caballeros! Senhoras e senhores! Signore e signori! Please prepare to disembark. Passports and identity documents must be ready at this time!”
“If I know the French, if they had their druthers we’d also have to do a short test on Racine’s prose style and write an essay on Descartes or on the significance of the Realists versus the Impressionists,” Luz observed. “To prove we’re worthy of setting foot on their sacred soil… or I suppose on Tunisia’s quasi-sacred soil.”
“Did you spend much time in France?” Ciara asked curiously.
“About… eighteen months, counting long visits and the time I spent at school there in my teenage years. And one mission for our employers. It was all very educational.”
“What was it like, compared to that school in Munich?”
“Let’s put it this way; most Germans want to be liked and admired… or failing that, feared… but they’re usually secretly afraid you’re laughing or sneering at them, which is one reason they’re always trying to bully people. The French are sublimely certain they’re doing us savages an undeserved favor by letting us humbly approach the one true font of civilization, which if we work hard will let us become second-rate imitation French people, the highest state to which we could possibly aspire.”
Ciara laughed, though Luz had been…
What’s that expression? Kidding on the square?
They picked up their cabin bags and hatboxes; she preferred to keep those in hand. The hold baggage had been inspected and sealed in Dakar, their first stop inside the French Empire, and would come out directly since only the seals needed to be checked.
Though everyone anywhere near the European war had gotten much more persnickety about documents and searches lately, compared to the carefree years before Princip shot the archduke and blew up the world. They all walked forward and past the ship’s second officer, who stood at the head of the departure ramp nodding and wishing them a pleasant stay in Tunis in a downeaster r-swallowing Maine accent. The ramp was built into a hinged section of the forward hull, and as it went down, stairs folded up and a railing rose on either side. She could see figures moving behind the glass walls of the bridge high above as they disembarked.
“Before the war usually only Russia asked for passports and visas. And they might call you a spy even in peacetime, and threaten to call the Okhrana unless you bribed them,” Luz said, and then added: “Also fairly often they’d be drunk.”
American military and government personnel, of whom there were about a score, were whisked away immediately in a minor convoy of staff cars. The French did need the Gettysburg, and the goodwill of its passengers, and above all that of the American government, so they’d also given ANA’s on-site personnel the use of a Fordson tractor pulling an open cart rigged with benches to take the U.S. civilians and Latin American neutrals bumping and jolting through the mild sunny day to the big frame structure where they were processing the newcomers. That only took a few minutes to cross the aerodrome and its noises of engines and harsh military shouts.
One universal constant of Army life everywhere was that people in uniform yelled a lot. The French added a good deal of arm-waving, which Luz found comforting. She could mimic Anglo-Saxon body language easily without sitting on her hands and did so automatically in some contexts—ones that would get you classified, and dismissed, as a gibbering gesticulating dago monkey on a stick if you didn’t—but she’d never liked that unnatural stiffness.
The wood-frame building with the high truss roof was a hangar in ordinary life, judging from the huge open doors, the nameless chemical stains on its concrete pad floor, and the smell of exhaust and burned castor-oil, which French designers used as a lubricant on the Gnome-Rhone rotaries they preferred as power plants for many of their aircraft.
“Things feel… bad,” Ciara said, looking around doubtfully as they stepped down and walked toward the sign that had been hung from the roof truss.
It read Douane, which meant customs.
“You’re right,” Luz said. “Very quick of you, querida!”
Nearly everyone she saw was French military, and they were going about their jobs well enough. But there was a sour grating feeling to it, like clenching tinfoil between your back teeth. These were men doing what people usually did while a disaster unfolded, keeping going until it actually landed on their heads.
“Those aren’t a good sign, either,” she said, nodding.
Those were a large squad or short platoon’s worth of infantry standing in two ranks by at the former hangar’s doors, in neat but worn and slightly threadbare khaki uniforms and red fezlike caps with red sashes around their waists under their equipment belts, rather than the blue-gray outfit that French regulars wore and called blu horizon. They were Negroes except for their lieutenant, many with ritual tribal scars on their faces like chevrons of raised tissue and all of them looking tough enough…
To chew iron and shit rivets, as the old Army saying goes.
They stood at parade rest, not rigidly but precise, and the long, worn, and rather old-fashioned Lebel rifles they carried glinted with loving care. So did the coupe-coupe machetes at their waists and slim cruciform bayonets fixed to the rifles, stabbing weapons that French soldiers nicknamed “Rosalie.”
They called a bayonet charge taking Rosalie to breakfast.
“Senegalese tirailleurs,” Luz said. “French West Africans… mercenaries, basically, or men their village chiefs decided should volunteer to keep the French commandant de cercle happy with them.”
Ciara looked at them with interest. “How very black they are!” she said; the skins of some of the soldiers almost absorbed light like velvet. “Not much like most American Negroes I’ve seen.”
She’d learned that Negro was the polite, modern, Party-approved Progressive word to use for black people, and there were a fair scattering in Boston, which had been an important node on the Underground Railroad in their grandparents’ time.
“Which is odd,” she went on, “because our Negroes’ ancestors came from West Africa, didn’t they?”
“Their African ancestors mostly did, but there are a lot of white men in that woodpile; American Negroes are the mestizos of gringo-land.”
“And why are the Senegalese a bad sign?” Ciara asked. “They look like good soldiers, not that I’m a judge.”
“On average they’re better than French regulars, I’m told by people whose judgment I respect; the Germans certainly don’t like fighting them, and tell each other horror stories about their eating the dead. But the French use the tirailleurs the way they do the Foreign Legion: for nasty dirty jobs in dirty nasty places, or where ordinary conscripts from mainland France aren’t reliable, or because the conscripts could write to their deputies or to the newspapers and cause a scandal. I suspect they’re here because the French high command is worried about discipline in their regular army. The government in Paris is… gone, France is wrecked, so who’s got a right to obedience?”
“That’ll be settled by the bayonet, then?”
“Absolutamente; but bayonets are carried by people who can have opinions of their own. Smart generals worry about that. Especially French ones, given their history.”
Right now the hangars had a set of tables with clerks behind them in the quasi-military uniform of the Régie des douanes nationales, which in France included battalions of paramilitary border police. The hangar also had several dozen slightly frazzled but wealthy-looking civilians with their children and baggage off to one side waiting to get on the Gettysburg. Since turning the big airship around was going to take all day at least considering the storm damage to the outer fabric, that said something about how anxious they were to make sure they were aboard when it began its return passage across the Atlantic to safety in Brazil or Argentina or wherever they’d transferred their Swiss accounts.
“Or wherever they’re planning on selling the diamonds sewn into their clothes,” Luz murmured to Ciara. “Some of them won’t stop running until they reach Santiago de Chile, I’d guess!”
Which was about as far away from the Hell’s Cauldron of modern Europe as you could get, barring an Asia that was having its own agonies.
“Why would they sew… oh, much more concentrated and easier to hide than gold,” Ciara replied.
Everyone from the Gettysburg queued to have their documents examined and baggage searched, and with the meticulous care taken the lines moved slowly even though there were four of them. That didn’t bother Luz. Ordinary physical impatience had never been a problem for her, not since about age eight; you had to get over that when you learned to hunt, and she’d have done far more than learn not to fidget to see her father’s smile and nod of approval.
Some of her finishing schools had mistaken the result for placid ladylike decorum.
Two keen-eyed men waiting behind the bored customs officials did give her a prickle like the sight of a jaguar’s spotted coat glimpsed in the jungle.
The older one was in a blue frogged officer’s walking-out jacket and kepi and the younger in a civilian suit that might as well have had rank epaulettes, with a trench coat over his shoulders and a thin mustache in the modern fashion, as black as his senior’s was white and as close-clipped as his senior’s was bushy with turned-up tips held in place with musk-scented wax. She spotted a shoulder holster through the fabric, probably carrying the same 7.65-millimeter Star automatic as the one his uniformed comrade had on his belt, and then carefully avoided looking at them more than a civilian would.
Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major General, Luz thought.
Which meant the military secret service, who besides ordinary intelligence work did some of what the Black Chamber and FBS did in America.
Colonel Dupont’s little helpers, if he made it out of Paris alive, or whoever his successor is if he didn’t.
Not long ago she’d helped Horst von Dückler massacre an entire Deuxième Bureau snatch team in the Netherlands, in her Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez persona, a process that had included leaving stacked bodies in a bath on the seventh floor of the Hotel Victoria in Amsterdam with their throats slit as well as using rifles and grenades around a train the French agents had wrecked near the Dutch-German border.
The French secret service wouldn’t be very interested in how she had been playing the Abteilung IIIb man then, or how convincing that joint action had made her, or that she’d done her probably… unfortunately… not quite successful best to kill Horst herself in Boston a little later.
And she strongly suspected that if they knew or suspected the truth of it all they’d quietly disappear the Black Chamber operatives to various fates worse than death, followed by death, American alliance or not. Their mission had saved America’s coastal cities on the Atlantic, though it hadn’t saved London. What would be much more important to these men than either was that it hadn’t saved Paris, or stopped the breaking of the Western Front and the ongoing ruin of mainland France.
Though single-handedly preventing everything would be a bit much to ask… even of me! she thought whimsically, with an undertone of seriousness.
Vanity is a sin; also, in this business it leads to premature death and burial, not necessarily in that order.
Another prickle went over her skin as she moved willingly toward the danger, not entirely disagreeable, and she looked away with an appearance of bored insouciance over a tingling sense of aliveness. Between losing her parents and meeting Ciara, nothing had made her feel that way except an operation like this.
And revenge on Villa and his men, but that was… hotter.
And she felt a new and unpleasant shiver and gut-clench of actual common-or-garden-variety fear, but that wasn’t for herself.
I’ll just have to get used to that.
She valued her own life, now more than ever, but the knowledge that the mission was more important had long ago sunk down to the level of the heart. With Ciara, she only knew it with the head. But Luz had studied Aristotle in her philosophy class at Bryn Mawr: the difference between animals and human beings was that if you were truly human, the dianoētikon, the intellectual part of the soul that knew reason and duty, was meant to rule the rest of you as an Oriental king did his subjects, tolerating no other power.
It was natural for two young women traveling alone to be a bit nervous around foreign officials, anyway. Just letting a little of an unrelated fear show was easier and more authentic than outright acting. You used everything that came to hand.
There were posters on the inside of the hangar, presumably there to keep up the troops’ morale. One was rather old and a bit ragged and ripped; it showed a muddy French poilu in horizon blue and ridged steel helmet brandishing his rifle and backlit by shell bursts in a landscape of flooded craters and tumbled wreckage, with the slogan below:
On ne passe pas!
That had been about Verdun, but the Germans had passed, back in the spring, albeit at hideous cost. That had been an unrecognized tipping point leading to a downhill slope. If she’d been in charge here she’d have had the thing torn down long ago, but they might simply have been too busy to get around to it. Or just reluctant to be seen doing it because of the admission involved. Still…
Nothing is more demoralizing than a reminder of a boast you couldn’t make good.
A more recent one showed the citadel of Angers, a medieval castle in Anjou, with:
La Loire tient!
That meant: The Loire will hold!
That would have been much better propaganda without the previous one about Verdun on the wall mocking it. The current Western Front ran mostly along the Loire River, and then through the difficult hilly terrain eastward to the Swiss border. If you didn’t count the shrinking perimeter the British held around Calais and Dunkirk as the Germans hammered them back and back and back toward the waiting sea and the frantic shuttle of boats large and small.
“Will it?” Ciara said softly, tracking the direction of her eyes to the poster. “With… the help they’re getting.”
Luz used a blunt proverb current all over the Spanish-speaking world:
“Cuando las ranas crian pelo.”
And that meant it would happen when frogs grew hair. Which was even appropriate, since amphibians with fur were more likely than pigs with wings, but not much more so than the Loire holding. As far as she knew the Germans had just stopped and dug in when they outran their supplies, with the smoldering wreck of Paris and the poisoned horror-gas wasteland of the old trenches behind them, and were marking time against the French until they kicked the last British troops into the sea and repaired enough railways and bridges to bring up the heavy gear for the next push.
“We have enough troops and equipment to tip the balance thanks to… you-know-who… but we can’t send enough to Europe fast enough, not now that we can’t stage through England, or supply them if we could. Probably not enough shipping, certainly not enough ports to put the ships in if there were. Everything has to come all the way across, into the Mediterranean, and then to the harbors in southern France… and there are only two of any size.”
“You can only put a certain volume of water though a given diameter of pipe no matter how hard you pump,” Ciara said sadly, which Luz thought expressed it very neatly… if you thought like an engineer.
There wasn’t much chance of being overheard, but they were both being careful. Fortunately, it was entirely natural for them to speak softly with their heads close together; half the other passengers were doing that too, the ones who didn’t bray self-importantly at the world in general. People who had the money, pull, or both to get passage on a transatlantic airship were very important people, and if you didn’t know it already many of them were quite willing to tell you about it, in detail and at length.
“We can delay things long enough for more of the French to get here,” she replied equally quietly. “The new leaders in charge here are… playing a long game. Though I’ll bet anything you care to wager that… you-know-who… have told… the other two…”
Uncle Teddy and General Wood would have stood out from the flow of the Spanish conversation. So would Foch and Lyautey, the men currently running France and its possessions. As much as anyone was.
“… has told them the last rearguards outside Marseilles holding the Germans out of artillery range of the docks will be French, not Americans. The delay will keep France… or at least France-outre-mere, overseas France… in the fight. Though the Germans aren’t stopping the civilians from running south even where they’re in effective occupation. They’re letting them through their lines—the fewer French people in France, the easier to control.”
And she knew the Germans were squeezing every last loaf from the occupied zone for their troops and not even trying to feed the civilians anymore now that Hoover’s Belgian Relief Commission had closed up, also for the same reason; they wanted the territory but not the population, and there was nothing like the prospect of dying of starvation to set masses of people in motion. There was a poster here about that, too. It didn’t say or even outright imply anything so pessimistic, but it was big and new and it was right behind the customs officers.
It showed two generals in embroidered kepis, Foch and Lyautey, both trim figures in their early sixties with old-fashioned bushy mustaches upturned at the tips like the horns of a Cape buffalo and that grim predatory I-am-going-to-kill-you-right-now stare that some men had and a good photograph could convey.
Foch currently commanded what was left of the French army in Europe as it fell back inch by slaughterhouse inch, scorching the earth as it retreated. Lyautey—a longtime colonial bigwig, the conqueror of Morocco in the last prewar years, and very briefly minister of war in Paris—was heading up the new Committee of National Salvation in Algiers. They were effectively military dictators now, along the lines of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in Germany.
Between the generals was a drawing of burning ruins with machine-gun tracers snapping over them and a gaunt-looking woman with a child in her arms crouching behind a snag of broken wall. A French soldier stood beside her and fired the odd-looking Ribeyrolles machine carbine his army used back over it, while a Frenchman and a German lay dead inches from each other in the background, each with a bayonet buried in the other’s body.
The caption on that one was blunt, too:
To the Last Man and the Last Bullet.
It was considerably more honest than the others, which said something about the two generals.
They came to the head of the line. The blue-uniformed clerk was methodical; also middle-aged, balding, with olive skin about the same shade as Luz’s. He went through their cabin baggage carefully but neatly—without noticing any of the expertly concealed secret compartments—and then his bushy black-and-gray eyebrows went up as he examined the documents.
Their cover identities were from Chile, which was a prosperous country and quite advanced, not an impoverished, caudillo-ridden backwater like Bolivia or Paraguay where even the police couldn’t afford shoes or count to twenty-one without dropping their trousers. But it was very remote and hadn’t gotten around to putting photographs in travel documents yet.
The beautifully forged entry visas purporting to be from the French and Italian embassies in Buenos Aires—the forged German ones were inside the secret compartments—did have them, stapled to the documents. The likelihood of the orphaned French authorities here checking with their embassy in Argentina any time soon… now that central France was a wasteland and the Quai d’Orsay was a tomb… was probably in the frogs-grow-hair range.
That wouldn’t be true in Germany.
“Aïa! Chileans! We don’t see that very often!” the customs official said, speaking singsong Algerian-French that was melodic and guttural at once; the dialect of the colons here in North Africa bore strong traces of both Spanish and Arabic.
He made a sign that brought the hard-looking young man in civilian clothes over. The intelligence officer went over the passports and visas again, and used a jeweler’s loupe he pulled from a jacket pocket to examine the details, glancing up at them in turn. Ciara met his eyes and then glanced away, which was perfectly normal; Luz raised a brow. Their ladies’ day dresses were in the best French style and suitable for travel… but the style was that of 1914, just before the Great War, with ankle-length skirts pleated a little in front, and with plumes on the brow of the low-crowned hats.
“You two ladies are Mlle. Consuelo de la Barrera y Meza and Mlle. Maria O’Doul?” he asked, pronouncing the Hispanic names as if he spoke Spanish well and speaking French like a graduate of one of the Grandes Écoles, as precise and as uncolored by anything regional as water in a mountain spring.
“Oui, monsieur,” Luz said.
French was certainly the foreign language an educated Chilean lady would be most likely to speak well, but the problem was that Luz would be too fluent if she used her perfect upper-middle-class colloquial Parisian. She reminded herself to speak slowly and hesitate now and then, rolling her r’s and hissing a little on the sibilants to put an underlayer of the archaic Chilean version of Spanish into her pronunciation. And to think in that language and then translate mentally, composing her French sentences as if she were reading them from a book, formal diction like using the full ne… pas for the negative rather than the pas alone after the verb that was more common in younger people’s ordinary speech these days in Paris.
Or that had been until October sixth, when there still was a Paris.
“We are representatives of the Circulo de Lectura de Señoras de Chile,” she added, producing a—forged—letter from that worthy women’s rights organization.
While he read it she went on: “We are here to study developments in the education of women and of girls in Europe and to make a report. Our founder and leader, the very distinguished Señora Amanda Labarca, studied at the Sorbonne before the war and is a great admirer of French culture.”
She smiled as she took the name of Chile’s foremost feminist in vain and touched her bobbed shoulder-length raven hair, modeled—except for the absence of curls—on that of the famous and scandalous French actress Polaire.
Who’s probably dead, whether she was in Paris or doing one of her fund-raisers in London, Luz thought suddenly. That’s a pity; it really is. She made thousands of people smile and laugh and be happy, and she never hurt anybody.
The bob was a fairly daring style even in Europe or the United States, and would have been extremely daring for someone who actually was from South America, but the man’s half-conscious glance said he knew its origins. He was much more likely to know Polaire’s name than to be closely familiar with the social customs of Santiago de Chile.
From a secret agent’s point of view it was very convenient sometimes that there was no universal reference book that could be accessed on the spot and used to look up obscure facts about faraway places.
“And… our trip was planned before the… the so-terrible events,” she said, letting her face fall.
It is terrible to think of Paris. I wouldn’t want to live there, but it was a splendid place to visit, an ornament to the whole human race, all politics and nations aside. So many generations to build it, and all destroyed so quickly… Who knows if the Germans even managed to secure the Louvre before fire or flood got to it?
“You have chosen a very bad time to travel in Europe, mademoiselles,” he said severely.
Luz nodded anxiously and made her eyes go wide, since it would be entirely out of character for Consuelo de la Barrera y Meza to simply tell a functionary to mind his own business, though completely in character for Luz O’Malley Aróstegui. Of course, Consuelo wouldn’t know what the man was, apart from some French bureaucrat, either.
Ciara silently frowned and clutched her hands together in quite genuine grief and horror at the fate of Paris.
“But surely Italy and Switzerland are neutral?” Luz said with appropriately naïve hopefulness.
“Belgium was neutral until 1914, mademoiselle. The Netherlands were neutral, until last month,” the Frenchman said dryly. “Now they’re both under Germany’s boot.”
“But we are going to Italy and Switzerland, not the Netherlands also as we originally planned.”
“I do not think that the Boche or their Austrian hangers-on have forgiven Italy for their… one supposes they will call it treachery. They are merely biding their time until more powerful enemies have been destroyed.”
Italy had formally been one of the triple alliance of the Central Powers in 1914. Rome had stayed out of the war on the technicality that it was a defensive alliance and Austria-Hungary had attacked Serbia rather than vice versa. Which was even true if you didn’t count the head of Serbian military intelligence engineering the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
Not even the Black Chamber was sure if his government had known about the plot, or whether they approved if they did, but they were quite sure Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, code-named Apis, had been behind it. He’d paid for that with his life, along with, by now, well over half of Serbia’s total population… and still counting.
The Chamber was also sure that Rome—and nearly everyone in that pit of cannibalistic vipers collectively known as “the Balkans”—had been planning on jumping in and biting off chunks of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy or German-aligned Turkey if things went against the Central Powers. Except Bulgaria, which in 1914 had decided to bite a really juicy chunk off Serbia instead, by way of revenge for the Second Balkan War of 1913 in which Serbia had done exactly the same thing to them. Italy was now thanking God they’d—just barely—managed to resist that sort of temptation at least. Unlike, for example, the dim and luckless Rumanians, who were now paying a very high price for their optimistic greed.
Luz thought the Deuxième Bureau agent was probably right in the long term, though; Germany wouldn’t forget Italy either. And there was that old Hungarian joke that Zsófia from Budapest had told her at the Reichsgräfin’s school, asking why God had created Italians.
The answer: so that even Austrians would have someone they could defeat.
Just as he’d said, it really was a very, very bad time to visit Europe.
“The Circulo de Lectura de Señoras and our own families have spent a great deal of money to send us here,” Luz said, firming her lips like someone taking their courage in both hands. “We cannot simply turn around and go back, as if we were… were nothing but tourists concerned with being safe and comfortable.”
The man shrugged in a resigned Gallic fashion, apparently accepting that they were interesting international flotsam but not professionally significant. Getting themselves gruesomely killed would be their problem and none of his, since Chile wasn’t a player in this game.
“Be very careful here in Tunis, then, mesdemoiselles,” he said.
He probably wouldn’t have bothered to warn their male equivalents.
“And make your passage to Naples as quickly as possible. Food is already growing very scarce throughout the National Redoubt, despite what the Americans have sent us, though they promise more soon, which the Good God grant. Many of the refugees are hungry; les indigènes even more so. And people who have been through much fear, much horror… sometimes it makes them very strange, very dangerous.”
He tapped a finger on his temple to show what he meant:
“We keep order vigorously in general—”
Well, vigorous is one way to describe firing multiple thirty-round bursts down a crowded city street, Luz thought dryly, behind her anxiously intent expression.
“—but unfortunate things still happen in particular, to individuals, if you take my meaning.”
He gave them an ironic salute as he waved them on; a portly Argentine exporter who’d been chattering to his secretary in Italian-flavored Rioplatense Spanish was next in line, no doubt with mountains of grain and tinned corned beef waiting for a market if he could find ships that the U-boats hadn’t sent to the bottom. And if the esoteric problems of industrial-scale credit and payment could be solved, now that the Bank of England and the currencies it had anchored were one with Nineveh and Tyre. Shock waves from the hammer blows that had fallen on Paris and London were rippling and stuttering back and forth through the world’s networks of commerce and finance as surely as they were through war and politics, leaving deathly famine from France to China while farmers went bankrupt for want of customers and food rotted in warehouses on the other side of the ocean.
The two Black Chamber operatives walked through the back of the ex-hangar, not the first of the passengers to clear the officials but far from the last, with a soldier trundling their trunk from the baggage compartment behind them and dumping it unceremoniously by the roadside in a puff of dry dust. Luz took a long slow breath, fighting down the dizziness of relief with one hand braced against the trunk.
“Darling?” Ciara said, her voice worried.
“That was… more dangerous than it looked, mi corazón. Just give me a second.”
In an actual fight action purged your blood and left exhilaration, at least for her, but right now it surged in her veins for a moment with a feeling almost like nausea. Something deep in her knew she had been fighting for her life… and Ciara’s… and had primed her for anything but standing quietly and waiting, which was precisely what she had to do. She fought the feeling back and down with a practiced effort of will and returned to the moment. Suddenly bending over and depositing her breakfast on the roadway might attract attention.
Then she blew out a breath and felt her lips twist wryly. “You know, life is too short and too full of risk and pain to take seriously all the time.”
Ciara smiled, but with a little puzzlement in her eyes.
“Let’s see about getting to the hotel. I suspect that’s not going to be as simple as I’d like, judging from what we saw.”
A sign by the rear entrance promised with pompous assurance that transportation would arrive… but didn’t specify exactly when, or how, or in what form.
Whoever came up with that maxim about French being such a clear, precise language never ran into a Frenchman trying to be vague, Luz thought as she read it again. It’s actually the perfect language for sounding so absolutely definite that you don’t realize until fifteen minutes later that nothing was said at all.
“You should have gone on the stage, Consuelo,” Ciara said admiringly, rolling her eyes a little back toward the French officials. “You had me half-fooled!”
“We both have done exactly that, Maria,” Luz replied, feeling what she thought was pardonable pride.
I did save both our lives, after all. My imitation of an earnest, naïve, brave, but slightly dim Chilean do-gooder completely out of her depth and swimming with sharks was enough to convince a professional. ¡Viva la magnifencia suprema de mi! It’s just that it wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. I don’t think I’ve ever done it better, though. I had double the reason! Lying for two, you might say.
Then she chuckled, and at Ciara’s look said: “Plato once said something about an army of lovers being invincible. I see now there’s something to that, as far as motivation is concerned, and it seems to hold for… teachers… too.”
The word for spy was another of those conversational standouts, and very similar in all the Romance languages… and for that matter in German and most of the Slavic ones too.
Ciara nodded solemnly and quoted a free translation of Plato’s Phaedrus:
“For love will guide a human being to strive for imperishable honor in the eyes of the beloved, more strongly and beautifully than public acclaim, or wealth, or even blood ties. That makes more sense to me now.”
Luz nodded back with equal gravity, thinking for a moment of the Lion of Chaeronea sitting its long watch over the bones of the Sacred Band of Thebes, where they had stood to meet the charge of Alexander the Great and won the hero’s privilege of a common grave. Stood, and died in their tracks to the last man—to the last pair of erastês and erômenos, lover and beloved, their locked shields facing the Macedonian lances side by side.
The roadway was graded dirt with gravel, and fairly busy. Dust settled on them, and Luz was glad of her broad-brimmed hat, though not as much as Ciara would be with her tender milky skin; even in late November the sun here had a California-like authority, and it was rising toward midmorning. The passengers standing near their piles of baggage were getting more and more restive as they realized they’d be waiting for some time for transport, since they were mostly people accustomed to the world catering to their whims or at least their convenience. Luz thought that discontent would get worse soon; she also thought that ANA’s civilian passengers weren’t all that high a priority for the French army right now when it came to allocating road vehicles. This was a bigger pond than the ones they came from, boiling hot and full of piranhas.
There are times when fast beats subtle, and when it comes to people not talking afterward, there’s nothing like complicity and self-interest. We already lost days in that sandstorm. The closer we get to Germany, the more likely someone is to trip over us. The clock is ticking.
She decided to solve the problem while she could and before it occurred to the other travelers to take direct action, and put her cabin bag on top of their trunk and opened it to rummage for a moment, stripping off her gloves as she did. The Technical Section had made the secret compartments in this version much more accessible without being any more conspicuous.
“What an age of progress we live in!” she murmured; the best flavor of irony came with a piquant sauce of literal truth. “Cover, please, querida.”
Ciara stepped between her and the other passengers, pulling out her compact to examine her nose and apply a little dab of powder with the puff… while examining everything behind her as well. Compacts were still a new and slightly racy fashion in the United States, and possibly out of character for respectable Chileans, even members of a feminist organization. For a spy they were so handy… not least for giving you an excuse to have a mirror in your hand. Luz bent over the open case as if rooting for something, slipping her automatic into the holster sewn into her jacket’s lining and two rolls of coins into her purse in the process. Nobody was in position to see, and wouldn’t have even if they were closer because she palmed the objects neatly.
Official French wartime regulations banned civilian firearms; she knew exactly how much attention she was going to pay to that, with Tunis so unpleasantly reminiscent of Mexico City at the beginning of the Intervention and before the new proprietors got things well in hand. She’d drawn her automatic there half a dozen times in the first month. That wasn’t counting Chamber business, just times she deterred or shot dead locals who thought she was Mexican too and could be robbed, raped, murdered, or various combinations of the three amid the initial chaos.
Nowadays Mexico City was safer than New York, which meant by no coincidence at all that she was unlikely to be sent there very often.
The French rules also required travelers to exchange bullion and foreign currency for a paper franc that had been heading downhill rapidly even before the Bank of France and its gold reserves became a poisoned ruin with the rotting corpses of its directors and accountants slumped across their desks and ledgers. Fortunately, they said nothing about people on French territory spending pre-1914 currency, probably because even in good times French citizens trusted the glint of precious metals far more than government promises.
A boxy snub-nosed Berliet CBA motor truck was coming toward them, with two French soldiers in the cab and three more riding behind. It wasn’t going very fast, because the roadway behind the hangars was narrow and crowded, and besides that the only way to get that model above fifteen miles an hour was to drive it off a cliff. Luz fished in her purse as she stepped into the roadway, slit open one of the paper rolls of coins with her thumbnail, and raised her hand, swinging it out with the palm toward the vehicle’s steering wheel.
Five twenty-franc gold coins showed in it, one slotted between each finger, one more held by her thumb and the last resting in her cupped palm.
To anyone more than a few paces away it would look as if she were just hopefully waving at them, but the man behind the wheel got a much better view, especially since the truck had no windscreen. He showed alertness and quick wits then. Berliets didn’t have very good brakes either, but the driver managed to stop it with a spurt of red dust from under the smooth-worn solid rubber of the forward tires. Someone riding a motorcycle-sidecar combination behind him just barely managed to halt in time too, with a hoog-hoog-hoog from a squeeze-bulb horn and a heartfelt scream of:
Which was imbecile in chtimi, the patois spoken in Picardy, up near the Belgian border. The shout sputtered on in the thick peasant dialect with variations on con and merde and comments about the truck driver’s mother and sisters and his relationships to and with them and livestock and God and Satan, and as the motorcycle swung past, the beefy blond-mustached driver with the leather helmet and aviator’s goggles made a gesture which meant everything OK in America and either you are a zero or you are the lower end of the digestive tract in much of Europe.
The corporal driving the Berliet ignored him—while the trio in the rear of the truck replied in kind—and leaned out of the doorless cab toward Luz as she stepped closer, a delighted yellow-toothed smile on his stubbly ratlike face beneath the blue fore-and-aft Bonnet de Police cap. A rice-paper Gitane sent up a trail of harsh-smelling smoke from one corner of his mouth.
The smile grew even broader and yellower as she made the coins disappear with a stage magician’s gesture—the Chamber had retained a couple of those, too—stepped closer, and showed them in the palm of her hand in a neat overlapping row for an instant before returning them to her pocket.
“Oh, the roosters, such a great big flock of pretty little roosters!” he crooned.
In slurred argot right out of the gutters of the 20th arrondissement; the gold pieces had a Gallic cock on one side and the head of Marianne, France’s incarnation, on the other.
She’d been fairly certain someone would stop, and not much surprised it was the first one by. Not many French soldiers ever saw a twenty-franc piece even in peacetime, since their daily wage was a miserable twenty-five centimes, less than a tenth of what a farm laborer made and worth about an American nickel. The attitude of the Third Republic was that a citizen privileged to bear arms for France should be glad to suffer for la patrie without being shocked and insulted by the offer of gross, demeaning material incentives like decent pay, edible food, regular leave, or adequate medical services. And late in this year of grace 1916 they’d get that nickel’s worth in collapsing paper money.
Whereas twenty gold francs would buy, for example, a hectoliter—nearly thirty American gallons—of quite drinkable vin de table. She judged it was just the right weight of bribe, lavish enough to be irresistible but not quite so outlandish that it was frightening.
A quick glance at close range made Luz sure that the driver wasn’t an Apache himself, the sort of tattooed street-gang horror who ended up doing his military service in the Saharan penal units of the Bat d’Af. He was definitely the smarter first cousin of the type, though, which was promising. The other soldier beside him in the front of the truck was still blinking in slow yokel bewilderment and visibly trying to decide what he’d seen and whether it could possibly be what he thought he’d seen, like a mental equivalent of a cow chewing its cud.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle!” the noncom said, pulling off his cap with one hand and putting on fine manners like a duck trying to tap-dance. “What can I do for you ladies on this fine day?”
Who do you want killed? ran beneath the statement, though that would probably require a little more cash if she took it literally.
“My friend and I need to get to the Grande Hôtel de France, 8 Rue Leon Roches,” she said briskly.
This time speaking like someone born and raised in the household of a banker or senior civil servant in the 8th and who’d gone to the sort of schools Luz had, in fact, attended long enough to absorb the dialect.
“One beautiful rooster for each of your comrades and two for you if you take us there now. It’s worth that much to me. It isn’t worth any more… so decide quickly now, Monsieur le caporal de Ménil’muche. Vite!”
He blinked and his eyes went wide, along with an involuntary grin that meant she’d picked his neighborhood correctly.
The soldiers would know she was well-to-do—stinking rich, in their terms—from her excellent if slightly old-fashioned clothes and Ciara’s similar outfit, and the mere fact that they’d come in on the airship whose spine loomed over the hangar behind them. That she’d guessed the noncom’s specific stamping ground and knew that Ménil’muche was the nickname in Apache argot for that extremely louche part of the rather louche 20th arrondissement would make him more respectful in an entirely different way, rather than thinking she was un pigeon, an easy-mark rich girl with more money than sense.
The corporal met her eyes, nodded in instant decision, and snapped over his shoulder without disturbing the cigarette:
“Erwan! Jean! Henri! Help the beautiful, generous ladies with their bags! We’re taking a detour, and telling Lieutenant Le Haricot—”
Which translated as Lieutenant Dimwit.
“—we had another block in that salope de merde of a fuel line.”
When the three soldiers in the back of the truck looked at him, he added:
“A rooster for it. For each of us.”
At that they jumped down and slung their stubby Ribeyrolles machine carbines—they had curved box magazines jutting out below, rather than the Thompson’s drum—and grabbed the brass-bound brown leather trunk and the two cabin bags and heaved them enthusiastically onto the bed of the truck.
Luz gave a half skip and sprang lithely after them, extending a hand down and pulling Ciara after her, just as one or two heads started to turn toward them among the other stranded travelers. There were wooden bench seats along the sides, but the women folded their skirts around their knees and sat on the floor cross-legged with the plain brown trunk between them and the tailgate of the motor truck… which kept their heads below the level of the sides as well. That left them nearly invisible unless someone leaned in the rear where two of the men stood, each with a hand on the overhead hoop that carried the canvas cover when it was up and the other on the grip of his weapon.
The soldiers gave them brief happy grins of complicity over their shoulders; the corporal looked back at them, nodded approval at how they were making things easy for him, and the truck lurched into its slow racketing motion once more.
“Is this safe?” Ciara said quietly, in Spanish and leaning close. “That man driving looks like a nasty thief to me.”
“¿Quizás un pícaro?” Luz said, giving her own quick estimate of the man; perhaps a rogue rather than simply a thief, though certainly anything lying about unguarded would find its way into his knapsack. “So it’s… reasonably safe.”
She touched the side of her jacket where the little FN 1910 automatic rested in the molded silk-and-chamois pocket.
Needs must, three head shots for the ones in the back with us, catch one of the machine carbines as it falls…
“The corporal knows I’m probably French and certainly rich and that I recognized where he came from and its name in street argot, so he probably thinks I’m a very successful criminal or more likely the daughter or mistress of one,” she told her partner softly.
She was watching what she said, since French North Africa also had plenty of Spaniards and Italians in it; so did the slums of Paris, for that matter, or had before the city was gutted by the horror-gas and then abandoned in panic, riot, and fire.
“Just dropping us where we asked is much, much safer than trying to rob us. Besides… professional courtesy.”
They came to the perimeter of the air station quickly; there was a trench all around it, coils of barbed wire, a swinging gate… and two bunkers of sandbags and concrete on either side of that, with overhead protection and a pair of Hotchkiss machine guns pointing their finned barrels outward through the firing slits, which said something. The bunkers were very new, which was also a comment on the situation.
A sergeant came out and spoke to Corporal Willing-for-the-Golden-Roosters, then waved them through as he got a glib two sentences about checking the docks for the arrival of the families of the garrison; the defenses were to keep things out, not in. The trio in the rear hadn’t made any attempt to talk to or even leer at the two attractive women, either, and as soon as the truck was beyond the perimeter they all looked alertly outward, their automatic weapons ready.
That was also a comment on conditions… which were already very unlike the orderly and mildly prosperous colonial city described in Cook’s Practical Guide to Algeria and Tunisia with Maps, Plans and Illustrations (Thos. Cook & Sons, 1914).
She touched Ciara’s elbow and they both rose and sat on the trunk; that put their heads above the sideboards of the truck without making them too conspicuous. Spies had a duty to be curious when they could, and the U.S. security services hadn’t been looking this way much until very recently.
At the first major intersection that crossed the southbound road they stopped for a column of people on foot, several thousand in all, moving out westward toward the open country and carrying bundles and bags wrapped in bedding. They didn’t look much different from anyone else around the Middle Sea, dark hair and olive faces that would have been only a little more swarthy than average in Palermo or Cadiz or Athens. It was their clothing that marked them as locals; striped hooded robes, jebbas and burnooses in various combinations with Western dress, huge sefsari shawls wrapped around the women and drawn over the head and across the face.
Squads of Senegalese with fixed bayonets kept the column moving in the cloud of dust it raised, sometimes with air-jabs or threats from the steel-shod butts of their rifles. After a while the West African troops made a pathway through the crowd for the truck, at the corporal’s obscene urging and frantic arm waving, deliberately delaying a little, pretending to misunderstand him and then grinning whitely at the regular’s fury.
“Oh, les joyeux,” one of the French soldiers she’d bribed muttered in a sour tone; it meant the happy ones, and it could be a compliment… or, as now, very much not.
The column included women of all ages, old men, and plenty of children, but no healthy young men fit to bear arms that Luz could see, interpreting those conditions liberally. A few faces turned blankly toward the truck; others wept or prayed; most just stolidly trudged with their eyes down. Luz winced slightly as one toddler with big dark eyes riding on his grandfather’s shoulders where he could look over the edge of the truck waved a hand holding a piece of flatbread at them and called out to Ciara in shrill pidgin:
“B’jour, joli mam’zelle blonde!”
Ciara blinked and looked away quickly.
“Que se passe-t-il ici, soldat?” Luz asked; what was going on?
One of the soldiers—he was the big one named Erwan, and had a reddish mustache and a musical Welsh-sounding Breton accent when he spoke in his very basic French—shrugged and said:
“Pas de logement, pas de pain.”
Which meant no room, no food.
The next east-west road had traffic in the other direction, inbound toward the city center, and it made them wait longer: flocks of sheep and goats giving off an earthy barnyard smell, and wagons drawn by mules and oxen piled with farm gear amid sacks of grain, green fodder, clay crocks of pickled olives or olive oil, baskets of fresh or dried fruit and vegetables or wicker cages full of chickens… and it was all much more heavily guarded, this time by white French soldiers whose knapsacks looked suspiciously full.
Since most of the troops were peasants themselves they weren’t having much difficulty keeping the livestock moving, but they were getting a lot of fixed stares from the crowds to either side and hanging out of the windows above. Occasionally someone would make a move toward the passing bounty, and stop at a harsh warning… or when they ended up looking at the points of half a dozen bayonets, or once when a round was fired into the air.
They’ve certainly got flexible rules of engagement for a supposedly friendly urban area, Luz thought—what went up always came down somewhere. That’s another sign of the situation.
Overwhelming firepower and an obvious willingness to shoot to kill at the slightest resistance were keeping the lid on.
The French refugees they saw crowding the streets more and more densely as they got closer to the docks didn’t look much happier than les indigènes as they milled around with their miserable bundles and crying children, or lined up for meager bowls of slumgullion at soup kitchens mostly run by harried-looking nuns or soldiers, or argued with harassed bureaucrats and policemen and soldiers trying to move them somewhere else or just slumped on the ground and dully watched with exhausted indifference. A good many of them had countryman’s tools as well; sickles and scythes, shovels and pitchforks and hoes and the like, or bundles of the gear rural artisans like carpenters and cobblers and harness makers used.
The refugees obviously hadn’t been eating very well lately either. And even when you mentally subtracted the heavy military vehicle traffic crowding the streets there were a lot of them, from everywhere in metropolitan France.
And I swear ante Dios that I heard someone shout: How long must we stay here in this awful Corsica place? In Burgundian patois, to boot.
“Why are they dropping so many of their people here?” Ciara asked in a subdued tone.
She was awed by the sheer scale of it all, and so was Luz. Not to mention by the smell; it was very fortunate that Tunis had an excellent drinking water system based on repaired Roman aqueducts from sources in springs a long way out of town where they couldn’t be contaminated by the insane chaotic crush.
“This isn’t even the closest port to France; Algiers is much closer. Wouldn’t it be better to spread them out instead of sending everyone here?” she asked Luz.
Luz translated, though she suspected the answer. The corporal laughed, a harsh humorless nasal honking that made a newly lit Gitane dance at the corner of his mouth, and spoke over his shoulder with a very French disregard for looking where he was going.
“Merde alors, madam! She thinks this is bad? Tell your petite amie espagnole blonde—”
Which was possibly disconcertingly sharp of him. The phrase petite amie literally meant “little (female gender) friend” but usually implied a more intimate relationship. “Little blond Spanish girlfriend” definitely did, in context.
“—that it’s like this at every port in the National Redoubt! From here to Casablanca! Or to Agadir, for all I know. I do know Sfax and Bizerte are just like this because I’ve been there; Bône and Algiers and Oran farther west are ten times worse, they say.”
“¡Dios mío!” Ciara blurted, crossing herself as the implications sank in.
Luz whistled very softly herself, as they looked at each other. She’d known refugees were pouring across the Mediterranean, but the scale…
Her mind drew maps and calculated numbers. It wasn’t that far from France to Tunisia or even to half-pacified Morocco, and as Ciara had said the Algerian ports were closer still, two days’ sailing or less. On that short a voyage you could use anything from liners down to little fishing smacks and cram people in as tight as convict ships and slavers had in the old days. On today’s ships that would mean multiple thousands even on a single ordinary-sized freighter. And probably the convoys of American transports landing in Marseilles and Toulon were doing a dogleg to the nearest part of the National Redoubt on the way back west as a favor to their new allies.
There had been forty million people in France when the war started, though she mentally subtracted a couple of million dead since. The French colonies of the Maghreb stretching between Italian-ruled Libya and the Atlantic had around twelve million, including a million or so long-established European settlers, the colons. So…
How much of A can you pump into B before something goes boom? Or splat? she thought.
Luz’s expert guess from the air had put at least a hundred thousand refugees in the camps here. The view from the ground perhaps doubled that, if you counted everyone who’d been stuffed into an attic or was dossing in a warehouse or—with appropriate bribes or influential friends and relations—was inheriting some luckless local’s house and was happy to get a place in what had been a native-quarter slum before the war. Multiply that by every port along the shores of the Maghreb… or what had been the Maghreb…
At least a million already, maybe two, since Paris was destroyed. And something like… ¡Recórcholis! Ten thousand… twenty thousand a day? No, even more than that! Just one big passenger liner like the SS France could take that many tight-packed and they’ve still got a fair number of those. The mind boggles. The biggest mass movement in history!
“Most of France will be over here by spring,” the corporal said over his shoulder. “And nobody’s going back north for a long, long time.”
He spat into the roadway—again without shedding his cigarette, but with magnificent disdain.
“La Loire tient, les ânes disent-ils? C’est des conneries absolument!”
He was quite right; saying the Loire would hold was absolute bullshit told by donkeys who obviously didn’t believe it themselves. Ordinary people weren’t necessarily stupid, and they didn’t necessarily swallow propaganda whole all the time either, not unless it told them things they at least half-believed already.
All the major intersections they passed had sandbagged machine-gun nests, or once a pair of back-to-back seventy-five-millimeter field pieces with their muzzles depressed to point straight down the roadways, no doubt loaded with zero-fused shrapnel to dispense the proverbial whiff of grapeshot.
Sometimes the oooga-oooga-oooga of the truck’s squeeze-bulb horn would clear a path, sometimes the horn and curses, sometimes the waving muzzles of the machine carbines. Once the soldiers in the truck had to fire a burst into the air to get past a mob besieging a feeding station that was handing out big round loaves of coarse dense Army ration-issue bread; even then most members of the mob just moved slowly aside as they tore the loaves apart and stuffed them into their mouths with ferocious concentration or scurried off to find their families, hiding the bread beneath their clothes or glaring around murderously.
Also an indication.
French tricolor flags were everywhere, but Luz noticed that many of them had a highly unusual addition sewn onto the resolutely secular banner of the very secularist Third Republic, a stylized red heart shape and cross: the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Aha, she thought, as things she knew clicked together. Foch is extremely Catholic, in the French political sense of the word, and I seem to remember reading or hearing somewhere that Lyautey said in public that at least the war might make the Députés and party politicians shut up. The Third Republic is gone with Paris, and the things it kept its foot on are springing up again. Countries dying, countries being born.
Ciara jumped slightly at the ratcheting clamor of rounds going up and the shower of hot brass that rained down on the front of her dress—the soldier obviously wasn’t worried about where the bullets would come down either—and then craned her neck as the truck pulled over to the side of the road and slowly crept by a long, long convoy of big wagons pulled by hitches of eight horses each.
That transport meant a high priority. The wagons were moving at barely walking pace themselves, and loaded perilously high with rough slatted crates holding mysterious metallic shapes; there were armed French troops in filthy ragged uniforms riding—or sleeping—on the loads too. Several of them were bandaged, walking wounded, and they all had the haggard hollow-cheeked look of men pushed to their limits.
Another train of lighter four-horse wagons right behind was full of people—a few of the soldiers but mainly family groups, with the adult men all wearing cloth caps or berets and what the French called bleu de travail, tough blue overalls that were a virtual uniform for factory workers. They were just as physically miserable as the other refugees but unlike most of them looked relieved and happy as well, except for the uncomprehending children.
They came here with the equipment and knew where they were going, Luz thought. Or escaped with it by the looks, rode with it on the roads, on the railway, on the ship, and now they’re all keeping company to the final destination because it’s so ground into them it’s automatic by now and they’ve all turned into a nomad clan who don’t trust anyone else. There’s a story there, and it’s an epic by the look of it.
“Machine tools on the big wagons,” Ciara said quietly to Luz. “Turret lathes, drill presses, milling and boring machines, and the power shafts and belting for it all and a knocked-down Corliss-valve engine… there’s the boiler shell under that sheeting. Gauges and jigs in the smaller boxes, I think, and maybe a disassembled steam forging hammer, too, under the tarpaulins. Very capable equipment, you could make a lot with it.”
“Make what?” Luz asked.
Ciara gave her a baffled look that Luz had come to recognize; it meant she’d just asked a question that revealed she didn’t even know enough to ask the right questions.
“Well… anything, darling. Lots of… anything. That’s everything you’d need for a fair-sized jobbing engineering shop, one big enough to make… oh, a locomotive or whatever. And to duplicate all its own equipment. That’s if you had a foundry too for castings, but a foundry’s mostly a cupola furnace and some masonry and sand-molding work. The complicated stuff there is—”
She tapped her forehead and made a gesture with her hands, indicating that it was in the memories stored the minds and muscles of the workers. Luz remembered that Ciara had mentioned visiting her brother when he was working on repairs to machinery in a foundry in Milford near Boston and that she’d looked at what they did there.
Those words from Ciara Whelan meant memorized everything she saw and put hands on anything she could wheedle them into letting her touch.
“And you could use that gear to build specialized machines for mass-production lines,” she finished. “It’s tools to make tools.”
Luz nodded grimly. “Our friend the corporal was right to be skeptical. I don’t think those… two generals whose faces we saw on the poster… expect frogs to grow hair either. This load’s probably from someplace like Schneider-Creusot.”
One of the soldiers looked at her for an instant in surprise, and Luz quietly cursed herself for naming the famous armaments and heavy-industry firm. It wasn’t as odd for a woman to mention it as it would have been before the war, but the French names interrupted the flow of a Spanish sentence. She made a note to be more careful and continued:
“And the people are the workers and their families. Probably they’re running all the factories they still hold until the last moment, then stripping everything they can and shipping the labor and machines here to the National Redoubt as soon as the German shells start landing within a kilometer or two.”
“Could they do that?” Ciara asked, numbers flickering behind her eyes.
“Some of it, obviously. A lot of the other refugees we’ve seen are peasants. Some with the basics of their farming gear. Next season’s wheat and barley has already been planted by the local farmers here, but who’s going to be around to bring in the harvest come next May is a different matter. The French are relocating their whole country across the Mediterranean, or as much of it as they can. It’s… impressive, especially for a quick-and-dirty improvisation. Probably the leaders just told their local commanders and the departmental prefects what they wanted done and left them to get on with it—messy compared to detailed planning, but it can work if you care more about speed than wastage.”
And they’re kicking the previous inhabitants out of the way to make room and killing anyone who resists. That’s an old, old story in every time and clime, over and over again; older than America, older than the Old Testament.
“Salus populi suprema lex esto,” she murmured, then translated: “The good of the people is above all law.”
They turned off the broad Avenue de France—a French colonial civil engineer planning a city could be absolutely relied upon to put one of those anywhere he worked—and right again on to a relatively quiet side street lined with newish buildings in a densely packed southern European style reminiscent of the recent quarters of Barcelona or Nice. People there had enough room to get out of the way of a truck full of soldiers with automatic weapons, at the sound of the horn and vigorous verbal encouragement and waving gun muzzles. They looked to be mostly local French settlers or at least Frenchified Italian and Spanish ones anyway, from their dress and demeanor.
“Voilà!” the corporal said as he halted the truck, as proudly as if he’d built the place himself. “Le Grande Hôtel de France!”
They hadn’t made much better time than an ordinary walking pace over the same distance, but Luz was profoundly glad they’d done it in a motor truck, and with armed… heavily armed… guards.
Cheap at the price, she thought. Very cheap, even if it wasn’t Uncle Sam’s cash. It’s dangerous here, and getting worse fast.
The hotel’s five stories loomed over them in a bulk of cream-colored stucco decorated in a vaguely Art Nouveau–Moorish style; the main train station was a block farther north, and the harbor only a little farther east, with the old Arab town about the same distance westward. They wouldn’t be here more than a day or two unless things went badly wrong, but it was time and more than time to be careful about possible bolt-holes. They had several sets of French identity papers for several different identities, and given how…
“Masivamente jodido” about sums it up, Luz thought.
… things were here it wouldn’t be hard to walk two blocks and blend in to the ongoing chaos if they had to run for it. Luz could fit in perfectly, and Ciara could be of Breton or Norman or Alsatian stock without much of a stretch.
“Erwan, Jean, Henri—give the fine ladies a hand, you ignorant peasant salauds!”
The hotel had its own security. Two soldiers in khaki with white covers on their kepis that had flaps to cover the neck and broad blue sashes underneath their equipment belts stood on either side of the entrance. One was dark, one fair, both tanned to the consistency of old leather apart from the white marks of scars and both wore full beards. They had the latest Meunier semiauto rifles, and they ignored the regulars with lofty disdain as Erwan, Henri, and Jean dropped the luggage before the door. The Legionnaires were probably the reason there wasn’t anyone lingering around the building with Grande Hôtel de France on the sign above it in the hope of begging or stealing something, and their eyes moved ceaselessly down the street and along the rooflines.
Picking up a little drinking money by working while they’re off-duty, Luz thought.
Which was an old tradition with their corps; before the war the French Foreign Legion’s daily pay had been a princely fivecentimes, which made one whole sou… and not worth a sou had been a French proverb for worthless for a long time, like one red centin English. You didn’t actually have to be suicidal or on the run from the law to join the Legion, but you did have to be very thoroughly out of better choices.
These two looked as if they’d been chasing Tuareg through the Sahara and fighting Berbers in the High Atlas or wading through the jungles of Indochina looking for Can Vuong guerillas for years before Archduke Ferdinand ignored one last piece of good advice and took his trip to Sarajevo. The Legion had turned out to not be such a bad choice of career for them after all, since they were alive when tens of millions of cautious stay-at-homes weren’t.
She shook hands with the driver as he sat behind the wheel; he transferred the coins in her palm to his pocket gracefully and without exposing the glint of gold to the inquisitive, but his eyes went a little wider as his nimble fingers counted the extra one.
“In case you must make a little gift to someone to smooth things over about your blocked fuel line,” she said quietly. “And because none of us will see Ménil’muche again, not as it was, and I learned some very interesting things there. May luck ride on your dice, Corporal, and drink a toast to the gars of the 20th arrondissement for me; also to les minettes.”
“A pleasure, miss,” he said soberly, a faraway look in his eyes for a moment, something different from the feral wariness they usually showed.
He and his squad bundled back into the truck and left without further ado, anxious not to have more time than they must to blame on the conveniently troublesome fuel line. Luz looked at the tall arched door and its intimidating guardians and whistled a snatch of a slow rhythmic tune, then spoke casually with her eyes on nothing in particular, while rolling a silver one-franc coin across her knuckles:
“Ils sont les dégourdis, et peut-être les lascars aussi! Mais jamais des types ordinaires.”
The faces of the Legionnaires remained impassive, but she thought she saw the hint of a smile in their eyes, and the fair one turned his head to shout in rough Slavic-accented French that substituted a for o, mangled r-sounds, and was laden with a deadly contempt besides:
“Sartez ici, petites andouilles, mes mignans, petites tiweurs au cul! C’est sur, nous sammes ici.”
Two men in badly fitting hotel livery scurried out to take the baggage at the assurance that it was safe because the Legionnaires were there… which it was, except that it wasn’t safe from the Legionnaires themselves. Who’d just called them thick, dim, cute little shirkers fit only to shoot themselves in the ass. Luz stepped closer, and the coin slipped into the hand of the black-bearded soldier.
Gold would have been suspiciously excessive here. She’d bribed the corporal with the truck heavily, to take five men off-base with a valuable vehicle during a high-alert emergency. This was just a pourboire to smooth things a little… though at two days’ pay for each, a generous one.
Both the bellhops were middle-aged European French, and from their looks they’d been provincial bourgeois town dwellers until recently, solid respectable fathers of families, and still couldn’t quite grasp that they were abjectly thankful to have servant’s work in a colonial hotel. And thankful enough for the two ten-centime bronze coins she bestowed, a regular tip this time.
They glanced sidelong at the Legionnaires out of the corners of their eyes as they picked up the trunk and the bags and hatboxes, rather the way cats would at a pair of large, unfamiliar dogs on the other side of a screen door.
Luz and Ciara stepped through the hotel’s busy lobby, all cool white-and-blue tile and horseshoe arches on columns with gilt tops, while a doorman in a uniform with more gold braid than a field marshal bowed them forward toward the desk… though usually he’d have been outside himself.
Ciara leaned closer as they waited in line again. “Darling, what did you call the soldiers at the door?”
“Dégourdis, et peut-être les lascars,” Luz said, smiling. “Clever rascals, or possibly cunning thieves. Mais jamais des types ordinaires; but never ordinary respectable folk.”
“I thought so, but… you insulted them? Why did that make them so helpful?”
Luz laughed, and whistled the tune again.
“That’s ‘The Blood Sausage,’ the Legion’s marching song. And those words are in the lyrics, which they made up themselves. I was showing I knew their history, sweetie, which is a complement to a Legionnaire’s way of looking at things. Donating a franc to their Inebriation Fund helped too, but showing respect for their true homeland—”
“Homeland?” Ciara said, puzzled.
“Legio Patria Nostra; the Legion is our Fatherland. That did just as much to put them in a friendlier frame of mind as the money. Not that they’d be safe company if you were alone with them. Not at all. They have the only honest recruiting slogan in the history of armies, after all.”
At Ciara’s look, she quoted a Legion commander’s well-known words, ones inscribed later above the depot in Marseilles: “You legionnaires are soldiers in order to die, and I am sending you where you can die. It doesn’t attract… des types ordinaires.”
She looked past the desk to the courtyard, which was full of an affluent but frazzled and rumpled crowd milling about, too many of them for the seats and tables.
“Let’s hope our reservation holds. I have a feeling that Tunis isn’t a safe place for us… Chilean feminists… to linger.”
Luz sat on the edge of the bed and dried her hair contentedly on a large, fluffy towel. One of the many advantages of the Polaire bob was that it dried out much faster than the style—long enough to sit on—she’d had to wear for most of her life after she turned twelve.
And it doesn’t get caught in things as much, she thought. Mima would never let me just braid it once I was in my teens, either; she said that was common.
The Grande Hôtel de France was rather recent, and while not quite as luxe as the very best European or American establishments, it had several water closets on every floor and bathrooms with big enameled tubs and hot water. The shower-baths with hand nozzles on ANA’s airships were as progressive and modern as next week and quite satisfactory when it came to keeping you clean, but just not the same as a soak.
Though speaking of satisfying… she thought. I doubt the engineers who designed the hand nozzles were thinking of the uses my darling found for them. There are unforeseen advantages to having a lover with engineering expertise!
Their room was pale and high-ceilinged, with a marble fireplace, an overhead fan not working right now, and an interior balcony behind folding doors that looked down on the leafy plantings and umbrella-studded tables of the hotel’s courtyard. That it was on the fifth floor and the elevators weren’t working was acceptable if you were young and fit… and she suspected that no amount of inconspicuous bribery would have made “M. Ferrier (propriétaire)” honor the quite genuine reservations made falsely by wire in the name of the Chilean feminists if they insisted on a room lower down.
Ferrier was elderly, shrewd, and looking to his family’s future if her guess was right. That meant that the hotel was stuffed with influential people or the metropolitan relatives of people who he thought would be influential soon in the still embryonic structure of the National Redoubt of Overseas France, after things settled down a bit. Even hard currency couldn’t always buy you that sort of insurance.
“What is it, mi corazón?” she said gently.
Ciara was also in a robe, and her hair was dampened to a darker red than the usual fiery half-golden blaze, spread over her shoulders and back to dry. Her mood seemed to be likewise subdued, and she wasn’t really reading the book on wireless transmissions she held in her lap.
“Luz…” she began. Then: “Luz, I keep remembering those poor people the Negro soldiers were driving out of the city. They’re going to starve, aren’t they? Like… like what the English did to our ancestors in Cromwell’s time, driving them out to hell or Connaught. I know the Germans are doing more and worse, but… these are our allies. It makes me feel… sort of bad. Guilty.”
Luz put aside the comb and went to sit in the chair across from hers, taking the younger woman’s hands.
“Mi corazón,” she said, meeting the troubled turquoise eyes. “No, it isn’t like Cromwell or the famine, though it was ugly enough.”
Even the actual famine hadn’t been as simple as the Fenian mythology of English wickedness tormenting Irish helplessness either, but Ciara didn’t need a lecture culled from the Bryn Mawr history faculty’s demonstrations of the way incompetence and ignorance were more common than malice and conspiracy. Best keep to the simple truth, which worked even from a perspective formed by Irish Nationalist visions.
“The English were the strongest, richest nation on Earth then, and at peace; it was their responsibility to help when the potatoes failed. The French are losing a war now, and are beaten and desperate and starving themselves. They’ve died by the millions this year, civilians and soldiers both; they’re dying by the thousands every day; and God knows how many millions more have been plundered bare and driven from their homes in winter and are a week’s food or another bit of bad luck away from death by cold and hunger and the plagues that come with it and with sleeping in ditches and haymows.”
“Well… that’s so,” Ciara said. “But do they have to do this?”
“It’s this or submit to the Germans… but I suspect the Germans want them dead anyway, or most of them, to make an end of any threat of vengeance by their children or grandchildren.”
“The way the Turks have with the Armenians?”
“Close enough. And they’ve got a way, if famine and plague aren’t enough, that doesn’t involve doing it face to face.”
“The Germans haven’t been using the horror-gas since… since Paris and London, though.”
“They haven’t been bombing cities with it or using it on the battlefield in France, because we captured two hundred tons of it from the U-boats in Boston and New York and the other harbors the same day they bombed London and Paris—which was our doing, you and I. And we’ve told them through secret channels that if they use it that way we’ll send it right back at them.”
“Oh. And we’ll be making our own soon, too. It’s a… what do they call it…”
“Mexican standoff. But,” Luz said with a prompt in her voice.
“But—” Ciara’s brows knotted in thought. “But that’s us. We can retaliate in kind, and if both sides have a weapon there’s no defense against, it’s a lot less likely to be used.”
Luz nodded; Ciara was rarely slow on the uptake. She went on:
“Right. But behind their own lines… you could spray that cosa horrible on whole countries from the air, town by town, village by village, and farm by farm, and then when it washed away you’d have an empty wilderness to settle, but with the roads built and the fields cleared and the houses ready.”
Once you’d sent in cleanup teams to bury the bones, she didn’t say.
Though you’d have to be careful about decontaminating cellars and such.
You could use prisoners for that, and then shoot them too.
“Couldn’t we take them in, like those English we saw in Los Angeles?”
Luz sighed regretfully. “No, not this many… not nearly this many; the ships would have to travel so much farther, exposed to the U-boats. There’s no time. France isn’t going to hold that long, not unless those frogs get hairy.”
Ciara nodded unwillingly, obviously doing the numbers in her head; there was a huge difference between one trip in two weeks and three trips in one week that couldn’t be wished away, any more than two-plus-two could; and the shorter trips could carry four times as many people per voyage tight-packed, many in vessels that couldn’t cross the Atlantic in any case. She was naturally much better at math than Luz anyway, and numbers were instinctively real to her soul in a way that Luz had had to learn by hard effort. Luz went on:
“The generals and politicians could get to America, maybe, and some of the very rich… but they’re getting out as many ordinary people as they can instead.”
“Well, that’s to their credit,” Ciara said, a little unwillingly; she had radical reflexes.
“It is,” Luz said, and thought:
And to be sure, it also means the generals get to stay big… frogs, shall we say… in their new pond here in the National Redoubt; but still, it is brave of them. Because it means staying nearer to the Germans. Who’s to say they won’t find some means of getting the horror-gas here sooner or later? And here they can govern themselves and stay French… not in the old way, but in one way or another.
“And there’s not enough room here for all?” Ciara said with a sigh.
“No, there isn’t,” Luz said flatly.
Which was true; simply not enough farmland between the sea and the Sahara to feed the influx and the locals both, even with the most careful rationing, and not enough surplus anywhere else or enough shipping to carry it here past the U-boat packs if there had been. If the movement was anything like as big and rapid as she thought, there still wouldn’t be enough when the local harvest came in… and it wasn’t as if you could wait six months to eat anyway. The Germans would be reaping whatever crops there were in mainland France next year.
“Some problems don’t have solutions. Or no good ones, at least.”
“The Great War… it’s a Moloch, devouring the world,” Ciara said sadly.
Luz nodded. “Truer words were never said, querida,” she said. “And they worshipped Moloch here when it was Carthage.”
And sacrificed their children to him in the red-hot brazen belly of the idol… and Rome slaughtered the Carthaginians and sowed Carthage with salt. So have things changed all that much?
“And if someone’s going to starve no matter what you do, you keep what there is for your own folk and your own kin and your own children, don’t you?”
“I suppose so,” Ciara said. “It would be a strange breed who didn’t put their own children and their own folk first, and I wouldn’t want to meet them.”
She frowned in thought. “All those French people looked… well, like they’d lost everything.”
“They have,” Luz nodded. “Everyone has a right… and a duty… to be on their own side.”
“Well… yes,” Ciara said, after a moment’s thought.
It was refreshing to be with someone who not only had native wit but actually used it even when her feelings were involved. Too many smart people simply treated their abilities as a way to think up better reasons to not change an opinion once they’d grabbed on to it.
“It’s happened before,” Luz said.
“Something very like it. Back a long time ago, in Roman times, the Huns beat the East Goths in what’s now Russia. The survivors fled the Huns and fell on their neighbors to the west, the people they hit moved, and then the people they hit moved…”
“Sounds like billiards!” Ciara said, startled.
“It was, and it finished with Vandals from Poland trekking all the way across Europe and crossing from Spain to Morocco and then cutting and burning their way east again until they ended up right here in Tunisia! Folk died, by the sword and by hunger and by plague all across Europe and North Africa, and farms and villages and cities burned at the hands of desperate famished warriors storming out of nowhere, all because of a battle on the banks of the Dniester between two tribes nobody else had ever heard of before.”
She tapped her bare foot on the tile floor. “This is the same… and once again it’s all the Huns’ fault. Nobody made them invade France because a Serb killed an Austrian, or drop horror-gas on Paris and London and Bordeaux, or try to destroy New York and Boston and the others.”
“Yes… yes, you’re right, my love. Still… I feel sorry for the people here.”
“So do I, querida,” Luz said, and added to herself: truthfully enough.
Though she wouldn’t lose any sleep over things she couldn’t affect happening to strangers outside the bounds of kin and country and oath—whether they were French or Tunisian or for that matter Siamese or from the mountains of Peru. Her loyalties were she-wolf fierce, but just as tightly held. The important thing about your own pack or tribe or barrio was that it was your own, as your comrades and your loves were.
Uncle Teddy is my clan chief and war chief, the lord I’ve given my oath to as they said in the old days; America is the land of my folk, where I was born; and the Chamber is the pack I run with. And Ciara is the darling of my heart and the mate I’ll share a life and home and make a family with, if we’re spared by mala fortuna.
Aloud: “They didn’t ask to be caught in the gears; but neither did that corporal who drove us here who’ll never see his home in Paris again, or those factory workers we saw on the wagons, or those French peasants on the streets outside who’ve lost their little farms forever and the churchyards where their ancestors were buried for a thousand years. What we do, you and I, is make sure that it isn’t Americans who lie starving on some roadside somewhere with their children dead beside them.”
Ciara sighed and nodded and sank down beside Luz, who put an arm around her shoulders.
“And if we’re going to fight the Germans, we need every ally we can get, I suppose.” Ciara sighed again. “It’s a hard bit of history we’re caught up in, though, my darling, and that’s a fact, and I’m glad I have you to hold me while I sleep.”
“No dispute, querida. Let’s get some of that sleep; we’ll be dealing with the Società Nazionale Servizi Marittimi tomorrow to get passage to Naples, and that will take all our strength!”
She rose and extended a hand. “Come. You need to be held so you can sleep… and so do I.”
Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling