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The Calm Before the Storm

Sarah Tintagyl

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Even with the threat of national collapse, Maria had found her visits to China to see her sister the greatest medicine for any stress that happened to overcome her. Walking through the gardens at Zhongnanhai, the fresh air of East Asia seemed to calm her nerves as she searched around the garden looking for her sister. Every one was already arriving for the ceremony itself at the front of the palace, where Jia and his ministers, along with the Austria delegation awaited the celebration. Angelika had returned from her strange disappearance and even Bridgette had proposed a personal truce to honor the marriage of two people who wanted the best for their nations. It gave Maria much needed relief at least for a few days, where she could recuperate before going back to the internal war between the Parliamentarians, the Royalists, and the Slovenes.

As she rounded the bend on one of the garden pathways, her white dress flowing behind her, the Empress saw her sister sitting in the Lotus Position on a bench overlooking a small pond. It brought a chuckle to the Empress' lips. In only a few months, barely even three years, Theresia had undergone an incredible metamorphosis. She had become Chinese in style, mind, and spirit, Maria even believed that her sister had begun to lose faith in the Catholic Church favoring following Taoist and Buddhist thought. Perhaps that was better, Theresia didn't have the stress that Maria or Angelika had anymore, even though when Maria had ran into Angelika, she had changed a great deal too, seeming to have more power, more confidence in her physical abilities.

Not wanting to disturb her sister's meditation, the Empress waited quietly until Theresia finally opened her one eye and turned her head. "I'm assuming the ceremony is about to start?"

"Jia sent me to get you, you know sometimes I don't recognize you Theresia, if it weren't for your hair I don't think I'd recognize you at all." Maria laughed.

Theresia smiled, "Well don't worry, I'm not going to be dying it black. I don't think the people would approve either, I think most people like their Austrian Imperatrix." Standing up from her lotus position, the white robes softened out over the ground, beautiful spun silk befitting a princess of the Ming Dynasty of ancient years. "What do you think of the dress, Angelika and I picked it out when she came up from the south."

"Angelika was in the south? Is that where she's been for the past few weeks?"

The youngest Hapsburg nodded. "She said she wanted to get some time to relax, to meditate, to do what I'm doing. I was shocked, she looks amazing doesn't she?"

"Indeed, well its a wonderful dress, and I like the chopsticks in your hair?"

Theresia nearly bust out in laughter as she pulled her sister in close. "Close enough Maria, thank you so much for being here," the tears slowly began to spring from her eyes. "I promise, everything is going to be alright from this point on. Austria will be fine and we'll have one of the strongest alliances in the world for the rest of time. Everything is going to start looking up. I just kind of with Papa was here to walk me down the isle, like he was supposed to."

Maria patted the chopsticks and let Theresia rest against her shoulder. "Mama and Papa are both watching from Heaven, or whatever you've started to believe in."

"You mean that they're watching from the clouds and the leaves and the trees?"

"Sure, that, that'll work. Now, come on, I'm the one who's responsible to get you to the Imperator and I'd rather not keeping our al- our family waiting."

A few moments later, at the doors of Zhongnanhai, Maria and Theresia both walked out from the shaded terraces to the gathering of guards, ambassadors, guests, family members, and politicians. General von Hess sat next to Mr. Lao and for the occasion had even tied a white ribbon on his mustache while even Chancellor Saenger wore a bright bow in her bright hair and a smile across her face. It was the one place where conflict would never reach and as the lanterns danced in the dimming sky, a calm descended over the palace that every single Austrian hoped would last forever.

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Jia buttoned up the last golden button of his class a military uniform. He took a shot of vodka to help calm the pre wedding jitters. "How the hell is it that Theresia has gotten buddhist relaxation techniques before you?" Wei asked, dressed in morning dress.

Jia shrugged, "Drinking is more necessary for men than it is for women." he said.

"Right..." Wei said. "And this has nothing to do with curing a hang over."

Jia smirked, "I'm sure it does not." he replied thinking back to the rather wild bachelor party from last night.

"I swear if I didn't stay sober to enforce the rule of two, Torun would be a crater now." Wei said letting out a sigh.

"$%&@ off." Jia replied.

"Well its time to get going." Wei said, "I would once again like to remind you that this is an important occasion for the nation and the world as well as you and Theresia. Its important that we avoid any embarrassing incidents..." he began.

"Yeah yeah I know." Jia said dismissively. Jia picked up a final touch to the uniform. A Chinese jian style sword with a gold plated handle. "...I feel overly dressed." Jia complained.

"You have to." Wei said.

"Why?" Jia asked.

"Because you won. And the other guy lost." Wei said simply. "Lets go..."

Jia entered into the gardens of Zhongnanhai where the ceremony was to occur. It had undergone some restorations and renovations for the ceremony. The Austrian Flag had been added to the flag of the UFE atop the flag pole, with the flags of the member states of the UFE and members of the Austrian Commonwealth flying below them.

As he made his way up to the altar he looked on to see many members of the elite of both countries as well as diplomatic delegations, heads of state and government among the audience. Televisions cameras were broadcasting from one of the balconies. His eyes glared at Wei whose Foreign Ministry was responsible for the arrangements.

Covering his microphone he looked at him, "You really are a horrible best man, you know that right?" he asked.

Wei shrugged, "Oh well."

Ding and Kou merely smirked at the comment remaining silent in their military uniforms and duty as groomsman. Just then the People's Liberation Army Band began playing music indicating the beginning of the ceremony.

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"Well, this is it, are you ready to be the first Austria royal to marry on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains?" Maria said as she heard the military bands begin to play.

"That's what we've been about since the beginning, breaking tradition, our parents would be so proud."

As the music reached it's crescendo Maria began to lead Theresia down the dimming isle between the wave of officials and guests between them towards the makeshift altar at the other end of the Zhongnanhai complex. With every step she took, the Princess of Austria erased centuries of horrible history between Europe and Asia and stood as one of the sole figures that could keep a genuine peace between the vastly different cultures of West and East. More than that, she had taken pride in the fact that the stone facade of the Eastern Federation was beginning to crack, it probably wasn't her actions solely, but perhaps she had, in her own little way, brought the world closer to true peace. Now, that she would be married, Theresia promised to herself that she would continue her work both in China and throughout the world.

Finally reaching the altar, Maria turned to Jia and placed Theresia's hand in his own. "As Empress of the Austrian Empire and as caretaker of my sister, I entrust her care to you. Look after her as you would your own, for she is, your own."

"And so help me God, Jia," Angelika shouted from the crowd. "You disrespect her, you're going to deal with me next."

Maria glared back at the audience before turning back to Theresia. "Take care Princess, the next time we speak, I'll have to address you as Your Imperial Highness."

"You mean we're equals Maria?"

"Not by a long shot." The eldest Hapsburg smiled and then bowed back to the priest as she retreated back to her seat in the plaza.

Theresia turned to Jia and then to the priest. "Good evening Your Imperial Majesty, shall we shock the world?"

Afterward, the vows of marriage would begin...

Though in the audience, for Chancellor Saenger, she sat uneasily, for as beautiful as the ceremony was becoming. She felt a coldness over her shoulder as if someone was watching her as if someone had their eyes set on her. Perhaps other had heard of the trouble in Austria and her engagement in it. She rested her hands over her lap and closed her eyes, listening to the vows, waiting for the feeling to pass.

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The hall rose to their feet as the bride went down the aisle. UFE Military Officers for the first time would snapped into attention for her new soon to be rank as the Imperatrix, second in order of precedent only to the Imperator himself.

A large smile formed on Jia's face as he saw Theresia come down the aisle, admiring his bride's beauty. Jia smiled politely and nodded as Maria gave Theresia's hand to his, "You have my wor.. ." he said to Maria before the voice of Angelika interrupted. Which of course drew a rather disapproving stare from Wei.

Jia's eyes met Theresia's smiling, "Yeah what could possibly go wrong?" he said light heartidly to Theresia in response to her question. The priest began the ceremony.

In the audience Kang looked from his seat in the back, he had not minded the intended snub that Jia gave him by putting him further back. In fact he welcomed it. It gave him a chance to scope out the attendees without many noticing.

He could see the blond hair and distinct eyebrows of the Austrian Chancellor down towards the front of the bride's side. He was glad that she had come, he had expected that with the tensions in Austria the royal family would want to discard her or at least keep her locked up during a world wide media event. Making a note of it he would intercept her between the end of the ceremony and the reception when the security would be the most distracted. His attention snapped back to the ceremony.

"Do you, Jia take Maria Theresia von Hapsburg to be your wife in sickness and health for as long as you both shall live?" the priest said.

"I do." Jia said.

[i]Enjoy it while it lasts.[/i] Kang thought to himself with a smirk.

Edited by Triyun
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As the vows were said and the wedding ring was slipped onto Theresia's finger, she and Jia kissed and the ceremony ended in gleeful celebration from both sides of the reception. Both Chinese and Austrians rose from their seats in applause as the bride and groom would descend from the altar and now it was official, Theresia was now the Imperatrix of the United Federation of the East. It was amazing to think that this had all risen from a fluke accident of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. She had gone from being a temporary ambassador of Austria to the Federation, to being one of the country's lead reformists and consort of it's leader. In only the course of three years, it was impressive.

Reaching the plaza, the couple would no doubt find themselves swarmed by politicians, friends, and others, all wishing them a happy and fruitful marriage. Theresia found herself nearly tackled by both Angelika and Maria as they held her hands and shook her back and forth. Screaming and crying how happy they were and how they were going to visit at least once a month now that she would probably spend most of her time in China.

"And think," Maria clutched so tightly on her wrists that the Imperatrix's hands were turning red. "Soon there will be all kinds of little children running around these palaces."

Theresia chuckled then looking at Wei, she simply winked.

After the two sisters had given the Imperatrix room, General von Hess and Bridgette were the next to come up, bow, and rest their hands on her own. "Well it's a pleasure to be one of the first people to meet the new Empress of the Chinese." Von Hess began, "Though I hope that you never forget where you first came from. I'm sure you'll teach these guys the proper way to do a waltz and maybe in turn, I'll try to grow one of those droopy mustaches like their philosophers do."

"I'm sure you could try, General, thank you for the well wishes." Then she turned over to Bridgette and laid her hands on the Chancellor's shoulders.

"Thank you, Your Highness, for not showing any hard feelings that your sister has. I...I appreciate it." Bridgette began, looking at the ground.

"It's supposed to be a joyous occasion Chancellor Saenger, we can all leave politics at home. Whatever happens in the future, happens. I know both you and my sister will make the right decisions, but as for now, just enjoy the party. All right?"

"Of course, Highness."

"Now then." Theresia smiled addressing the crowd, "I believe it's time we all have something to eat as well as a little bit of cake too. Anyone else?" And with a delightful cry from the crowd, Theresia and Jia led the throng of people through the corridors of Zhongnanhai towards another plaza where the reception could be properly held.

Meanwhile, not in the mood to be able to party, Bridgette wandered off by herself into the garden where Theresia had been meditating an hour or two before. She was on her second glass of wine, trying to get rid of the guilty feeling that was coursing through her heart. Could she really be the one to destroy the happiness of this family? Weren't there better ways then revolution to achieve freedom and power for her dreams of Austria? She may not have gotten along with Maria, but Angelika and Theresia...well...at least Theresia was an absolute angel. To watch her cry if the revolution got out of hand would be heart-wrenching. So she threw back the rest of the wine hoping that it would clear out her pain and maybe open her mind. It was then when she heard the sounds of footsteps upon the sand of the garden.

She turned back as a figure stepped out of the silhouette of the lanterns. "Can I help you?"

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Having followed Bridgette from the reception, Kang did not reveal that he had an advanced remote listening device to essentially bug the conversation between the Chancellor and the Royal Family. Little had anyone known, but Kang's men were surrounding where they were looking on from a distance and keeping an eye out for the Imperial Guards.

Kang smirked, "Being in the shadow of another never is easy is it?" he said stepping forward. "You are forced to follow someone who is in charge by the accident of birth alone." With his shaven head, mustache, and goatee, Kang appeared almost as Fu Manchu the Chinese villian of early 20th century literature. "How does it feel to suck up so hard to someone who thinks they are better than you purely because they got to grow up in a life of excess privilege and wealth, who you are a [i]subject of[/i]? Even with Jia's power, at least we still enjoy the title of citizen, we still have dignity." he continued tauntingly.

At the reception after Jia and Theresia had finished the first bites of cake the greeting of guests was starting. "Its a good thing we put the vows first, if we had to do this part first you'd probably have said no." Jia whispered to Theresia as the long line of well wishers began to come forward. The line progressed progressed slowly, only about 30 minutes, but Jia felt like it was three hours, however when it finally ended he noticed something. Kang... he was missing, as was the Austrian Chancellor.

Frowning, Jia made a motion to Ding, whispering to his executor, "Somethings up, look for Kang." he said. Ding nodded, making his way to the Imperial Guards in the corner slowly.

Jia turned back to Theresia putting a smile back on his face a waltz began to play by the military band, "Shall we dance? I've been taking secret lessons." he said taking her hand.

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"Oh, Jia, of course, it would be a pleasure." Theresia said as she took his hand and the couple moved towards the dance floor. It was only proper for the bride and groom to start the dance and surely everyone else would follow their lead.

Meanwhile Bridgette was having her own problems with Kang, having been approached by a man she barely remembered, aside from him not being a friendly guest to the Austrian delegation. "Well, sir, that's you're problem. I don't discuss my own problems with my country at the drop of that hat. Don't get me wrong, you make some good points, but if you're trying to stray me into a direction to suit your own needs forget it. If I remember you, you didn't much like me, so there's no point in me sticking around to talk to you." The Chancellor got to her feet and began to walk away from the gardens and from Kang. "Even worse to come and talk to me how great of a position you have here, rather terrible conversation skills. But I guess I shouldn't have expected much from a man who obviously hates Europeans." She said, walking away from Kang, but still definitely in ear shot of the man.

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Kang smirked, "You should not be so eager to turn away help you need." he said as she walked away.

"It is true, that I do not like Austrians, I make no secrets about that. I venture to guess you truly aren't that big a fan of the Chinese either. But do you honestly give a damn? Business is not about likes and dislikes. It is about getting what you want at a price you can live with. I live in China, you live in Austria, we can get what we want from each other and rarely have to see and speak to each other." he began, "And I have what you want." he said walking towards her.

"You and I both know that the Empress has absolutely no reason in the world to negotiate with you beyond the most minor of concessions. Even if you could get the army on your side, something unlikely with the drunkard von Hess at the helm, you still have to deal with the Athenians and eventually Jia's armies too." he explained. "The Empress is not a fool, she knows this. At the end of the day she may humor you with talk of compromise but when the chips are down she has the guns you do not. If negotiations fail, she will beat you either with or without the Austrian Army. You need leverage of your own. You need power."

"Are you ready to pay for keeps?" he said holding up a small flash drive in his hand.

Ding had begun a search of the compound to find Kang. The Imperial Guards marched in precision to check the rooms of the compound for him. Ding had a bad feeling in his gut that the man was up to no good.

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Bridgette stopped as he said his last words. For as much as she didn't want to deal with intrigue at the ceremony, Kang spoke the truth and surprisingly enough, he was sincere in his own way. Before reaching the gate of the garden, Bridgette turned and looked at him, holding his flash drive. "So you dislike your government, I dislike mine. They are intertwined so why not we intertwine as well. I assume you're rather familiar with the saying of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Herr Kang. Well then, what do you have to offer me and more so, why are you offering it and what do you expect in return. I'm well aware the the world knows of Austria's civil unrest and that I am most likely behind such moves, but that doesn't mean that China would be worried about such a thing, aside from being a player in maintaining the civil order."

She walked toward him. "That all said, yes, I'd be happy to play for keeps, so long as I'm not signing a binding contact with a man who obvious doesn't like me. What do you have to offer me?"

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"China does not worry at the moment at least, because China doesn't see you as a threat. By the time it sent an army over you'd already have been crushed if not by your own forces then by Athens." Kang said, "What I offer you is nothing short of an army unlike any other."

He placed the flash drive in her hand. "It will take time but you will find instructions on that drive that you must not share with anyone else. Go to the Port of Trieste when you return, you will find an associate of mine there waiting for you with the first of several packages aboard the freighter [i]The Spirit of Malacca[/i]. It is important that you find a way to get this cargo to where you need it in secret." he said.

"... One more thing, I have leverage on you too. If you think about screwing me over as a bargaining chip in your negotiations with the Empress, or for the favor of her sister, I have taken steps to ensure that you will be destroyed, I advise you not to test this." he said. As he said this Kang saw one of his men round the corner with a look on his face.

Kang nodded, "If you'll excuse me." he said to Chancellor Saengar. "It is time we part ways and get back to the festivities."

Kang walked off with his body guards vanishing into the background right as Ding rounded the corner with two Imperial Guards in tow. "Madame Chancellor." Ding said recognizing her. "They are looking for you at the party, are you lost can I help you find something?" he said, although he spoke to her his eyes seemed to dart back and forth looking for signs of Kang's trail.

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Bridgette didn't have time to sneer or scowl at Kang's disposition as he had already disappeared and left the flash drive in her hands. By the time the Imperial Guards had come up to her, he was far away and the evidence of his visit was buried deep within her dress, unable to be seen unless the guard was to violate her corset and other articles of clothing. It wasn't that she was going to rat him out, like some kind of school girl, it was was that Bridgette was fiercely independent and the sheer fact that someone may have a card over her, made the Chancellor extremely frustrated. However, if he spoke in truths and what was on this flash drive was truly amazing, perhaps it could drive away her doubts of the revolution, perhaps an enemy had given her the keys of victory. He'd be sorry at the end, if he thought of somehow double-crossing her, but as of now it was best to simply play along and go for the ride.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, sir, I did get lost." She smiled innocently playing the part of the slightly tipsy lady. "Everyone left in such a rush that I was barely able to keep up. Plus I needed some fresh air and I felt like this was the perfect place to come to. However, if they're looking for me back at the party, I'd be happy to head over that way." She bowed her head. "Thank you Herr Ding, I appreciate your help."

Bridgette wandered back to the reception where she found Theresia already spinning the dance floor with Jia in her hands and the other two Hapsburg sisters watching happily. Now it was simply time to wait to return to Vienna and see, just what Kang had given her and if it would be any use in the future. Meanwhile the festivities of the dances and music continued well into the night, with every Hapsburg and member of Jia's court dance and sung the night away.

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