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A Mother's Second Chance

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[b]***To: Prime Minister Therese Zelle of Aquitaine***
FROM: Anthony Harlem, Grand Duke of the Queendom of Australia[/b]

If we have grown harsh, it is not without reason. the nations that went into Australia, even before the unification, often got burned for their efforts of reaching out to others. While the reaction might have been a bit extreme, it is, when put in context, understandable.

I have passed on your invitation to the Queen, and she has expressed great interest in visiting Aquitaine. A member of her staff should be contacting you within the next day to make further arrangements.

~Anthony Harlem, Grand Duke of the Queendom of Australia


"Your Majesty, there are things I must--"

In a rare occurance, she outright interrupted him. "Anthony, there is nothing pressing at the moment that requires our specific attention. You recommended and I appointed competent leaders who can watch their respective Duchies, and if an emergency really turns up, you have your cellphone with you. And except for the party, you still haven't gotten out much. You need to take a break."

He grimaced. It wasn't so much that he didn't like seeing new places, or relaxing. Despite appearances, he never cared much for political meetings. But when the Queen was this insistent, like she had been for the Ball in Brisbane, there wasn;t exactly a lot he could do to changer her mind. Like him, she had the ability to be rather stubborn at times.


At least she'd given him enough warning, he thought wryly, before dragging him off to another continent. He'd had time to put off what he could, and settle what he could not. Idly, he glanced out the window of the government jet they were using. They were nearing their destination, and despite himself, he was curious. This region of Europe was one of the few he'd never visited...

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As the Australian jet slowly descended onto the runway of the international airport on the outside of Bordeaux, Therese looked up from the window of her waiting limousine. The sun was bright against the sky, though she felt kind of odd sitting there in the darkness of the town car. She looked down at her thin fingers, rouged to the perfect color, her face in the mirror, pristine according to her aides and dressers, but for some reason she had woken up a bit torn in the morning. Perhaps it was the pressure still formulating in the east, the eventual take over of Conti that was in the books, the military already preparing to mobilize. She was also nervous about meeting the proverbial xenophobes of the world, the Mirror Doctrine in North Germany was well established and it seemed as though the same would apply to Australia and she didn't want negotiations to break down before they had begun. Not that there was a pressing need to have relations with such a far off country, but any friend was important and the more the merrier, at least it was in Therese's mind. Plus, it was another guest that she would be able to share a drink with.

Once the plane landed, she walked out from her limousine, straightening her suit jacket and skirt, her blonde hair neatly straightened clung far down her back as she played with her lace gloves while the Grand Duke and Queen of Australia walked down from the plane. They were greeted by a contingent of the Knights of Aquitaine, for matters of state, they wore blue shawls, carrying rapiers along with wide brimmed hats, distinctive of the 17th Century Musketeers who were employed by the King of France. Therese enjoyed the pageantry and their rapiers sung as they extended the blades over the Grand Duke's head while Therese waited at the end, aside her aide, Jean Minot, as Anthony and Hannah stepped towards her.

"Your Majesty, Your Grace, it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. Welcome to Bordeaux, welcome to Aquitaine." She extended her hand and then she began to guide them towards her limousine. "Normally I would say we could go right towards the Chateau de Roquetaillade, my home. But if you both would rather take the scenic route through the city." She smiled. "Anything to dispel Australia's image of Europe as it is now. The continent is actually quite beautiful."

Edited by Sarah Tintagyl
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The day was bright and clear, a perfect day for a visit of this sort, Anthony thought.

Both he and Hannah were perfectly composed as they stepped off the plane, though the Grand Duke still felt a stab of annoyance that he'd been pried away from his job. However, as with the ball, he admitted to himself it would be a pleasant change from his usual surroundings. And since he'd never visited any Western European nation, it [i]was[/i] bound to be different.

As they raised their swords up above ina salute, He couldn't help thinking that, in a way, the Knights of Acquitaine almost reminded him of the Lillian Guard, with certain obvious differences, of course. "They put on quite the show, don't they, Your Majesty?" he whispered. He couldn't quite see her face to see how she was reacting, but her posture indicated she was confident as she strode forward to meet the woman greeting them. He didn't see the broad smile as she took Therese's offered hand.

"Yes, Europe is a beautiful place. It is a shame it was not more welcoming during our time here."

Anthony stepped forward to shake her hand as well, offering a small smile of his own. He exchanged a brief glance with Hannah before answering the Prime Minister's question. For once he was speaking for both of them when he replied. "We are in no hurry. The scenic route would be much appreciated."

Edited by Subtleknifewielder
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[i]"We are in no hurry. The scenic route would be much appreciated."[/i]

"Lovely, Your Majesty, Your Grace, if you would be as kind to come with me then. I would love to show you a small tour of my homeland." Therese led the two Australians to the Limousine helped them inside as they took off from the airport towards the center of the city of Bordeaux. However, Therese had no intention of strictly limiting the tour to a simple limousine ride, for the foreign fearing Australians and her own energy that day to dispel the mood she had woken up in, it was too bright of a sun to simply sit in a limousine the entire time. The architecture in the old city rose in front of them as they crossed the Garonne River, the river wide enough for Cruise Liners, Military Vessels, and Trade Ships to travel into the various harbors lining the shores of the city.

"You would be surprised." Said Therese as they crossed the bridge. "That Bordeaux functions almost solely as a commercial port and in truth, the nation has pushed much more of our maritime industry to La Rochelle rather than the capital, especially for military development. It has always been something that bothered me about European cities and especially the old regime in France, the most beautiful cities of the country are surrounded by military forces, military defenses, it would almost feel like you would be in a cage. Now don't get me wrong, I believe in defense and the people of Bordeaux and all of Aquitaine need to be defended from any chance of hostiles. Unfortunately, we are already broiled in a conflict of words with the nation of Burgundy to our north east and we have yet to make any communication with the new nation of Brittany so Aquitaine is always on the edge. War could erupt at any time, but my hopes are that Bordeaux would be able to whether anything thrown at it." She said as they crossed the bridge over the Garonne river to large areas of construction. "As you see here, bunkers, for civilians and along with that on the outside of the city, our missile defenses will be operational as well. But enough talk of dry military things. Come." The Limousine stopped and pulled off on one of the avenues. "We can do a bit of touring on foot if you both wouldn't mind."

The avenue located near the center of the city led towards another smaller pathway that was only accessible by walking, but down the path the stone arches of Mediterranean designed jumped from house to house, small pavilion shops stood along the sides of the street, an open market if you will, selling various kinds of food, fruit, vegetables, bakeries had their windows and doors opened as the delightful smell of cakes and pastries wafted out into the city, along with the smell of freshly baked bread and coffee from the cafes that lined the streets. Therese led the two royals down the small avenue, amidst the population of Bordeaux as Therese exchanged light talk and greetings with the people she passed on the road.

"Before I became Prime Minister, I was lucky enough to have held the office of Mayor of Bordeaux, I grew up in this city, lived here my entire life. It really is a wonderful city." She led them into a smaller cafe, an old man behind the counter immediately bowed.

"Prime Minister Zelle, a good day to you Mademoiselle. The usual?"

"Of course Victor, as well as cups for my two friends here, you are in the presence of royalty here. May I introduce Queen Hannah Asgeirsson of Australia and her Grand Duke Anthony Harlem. Your Excellencies, Victor St. Luc, the best coffee maker in Bordeaux."

The old man immediately blushed as he placed three cups of steaming coffee on the counter in front of them. "Its on the house Mademoiselle, and Your Highnesses, please enjoy, I have never gotten the chance to serve royalty."

Therese guided the Australians back out to sit down at a table at the cafe and let a light breeze blow through her hair. "After we're done we can do a bit of the countryside and then go to the Chateau for more political talk." She smiled and took a sip of her coffee. "Everything up to par Excellencies?"

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As they got in the car, Anthony glanced once back toward the plane that had brought them, but a stern look from Hannah brought his attention back to their hosts, and the scenery they were passing by on crossing the bridge. As Therese explained Aquitaine's situation, about already being bordered by possible enemies, they both nodded. "All Australians know what it's like to have an enemy on their doorstep. You, at least, are more prepared than we were," he noted.

The day, while sunny, was not nearly as warm as Darwin--with the kind of climate their home had, it was bound to be more moderate here in Bordeaux. And evidently the Prime Minister was thinking along similar lines, because while they could see the city fine from inside the car, everything was muted by the tinted windows. They stopped and stepped out soon after crossing the bridge. [i]"We can do a bit of touring on foot if you both wouldn't mind."[/i]

Hannah smiled, shaking her head. "Not at all, Prime Minister. It will be good for us to get out and walk for a change." Anthony simply shrugged, indicating he was fine with the idea. It would be easier to see the city from the perspecitve of a pedestrian. Though their guards probably wouldn't be too happy, and he allowed himself a tiny smile at the thought. And besides, he agreed with Hannah--it would be good to stretch his legs.

The place almost reminded him of Brisbane--while the ultimate designs, background babble of the locals, and the food itself were obviously different, they were still vibrant, full of life, and not afraid to show it in their creativity.

As they walked, his personal estimation of Therese went up a few notches--a leader who was not afraid to mingle with the populace he or she served was a leader worthy of her job. [i]"Before I became Prime Minister, I was lucky enough to have held the office of Mayor of Bordeaux, I grew up in this city, lived here my entire life. It really is a wonderful city."[/i]

"In its way, it reminds me of Brisbane." Anthony glanced quickly at Hannah. Evidently they'd been thinking along the same lines, he thought, as they entered the little cafe they had been led to. Though small, its design was in keeping with what they'd seen of the rest of the city--elegant, pleasing to the eye. And their host was familiar with the proprietor, to whom they gave their thanks as he handed them their cups.

There was a pleasant, cooling little breeze as they walked outside to sit at one of the tables. "Indeed, Prime Minister," Hannah answered the woman's question. "I most certainly like what I have seen. Your people are as industrious as Promised Landers, and as creative as a Hanseatic."

Anthony managed a small chuckle at that. Maybe a little exaggerated, but it seemed true from the sights they had witnessed. Then his face became perfecly serious. "I think I know where I'm going to spend my vacation, Your Majesty," he said deadpan. "You see," he explained to Therese, "she's always telling me I need to take more time off work. I can already think of a few good reasons for taking some of that time off here."

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"We would be honored to have you Your Grace, in fact, if you do end up coming to vacation in Aquitaine, my residence is of course open for you and in fact. That is where we can head now." Therese drank down the rest of her coffee and then stood up and accompanied the Australians back towards the limousine. Getting in they traveled the rest of the way through Bordeaux, passing the symphony halls, salons, larger cafes than the one they had visited on the avenue and many other symbols and establishments signature to French culture before they broke free of the city limits. From here the scenery instantly changed from one of urban sprawl to one of rural delight. With the sun bright on the ground the entire earth seemed to glow with a yellow light, the grass, the trees all blowing softly in the breeze that ran across the countryside and with the windows of the vehicle down, the smell of fresh grapes and cooked food in the air. Finally the limousine pulled up towards the entrance of the Chateau de Roquetaillade, Therese's residence, a small medieval castle that ran a few stories tall.

As they arrived, two Knights walked out from the castle and opened the doors to the limousine as Therese helped the Australians out. "Welcome Your Highness, Your Grace, to the Chateau de Roquetaillade, my home. Please, follow me, before we do a tour of the inside castle and, which can most definitely wait for evening. I would like to treat you both to lunch out in the courtyard." She led them out back to what seemed to be like a veranda, a courtyard designed to look like the courtyard of Versailles, white tables in the Baroque design, while white stone floors echoed their footsteps as they walked to sit down. Over the veranda, a breathtaking view of Roquetaillade's vineyards. A bottle of Pinot Grigio was brought out, a white wine, this dated to around the birth of the Hansa's own independence from Confederate Tion, before Therese had even been born.

"However, as to political talk. I realize that Australia has drawn away from Europe in recent times and I want to see what can be done to change that, to bring Australia, which really from what I have heard, has a great deal of European descent, back into the European fold at least as a diplomatic influence. Or if that cannot be done, what can be done to further Aquitaine's relationship with the Queendom." The wine glasses were brought out by this time and Therese talked while rolling the Pinot around in her glass.

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[i]"We would be honored to have you Your Grace, in fact, if you do end up coming to vacation in Aquitaine, my residence is of course open for you and in fact. That is where we can head now."[/i]

The expression Hannah wore was amused; it was anyone's guess what she found funny about the situation, though as they finished their cups, Anthony had a sneaking suspicion it was something he'd said or done.

Their initial impression of a similarity to Brisbane was not let down, but in fact reinforced, as they travelled further through the city. But like all cities, it had its limits, and clearly they were going beyond those. And if the city had been inspiring, the land outside it contained beauty that any Australian, regardless of their pre-unification nationality, could appreciate. Not just what they could see, but also what they could smell. And no doubt if they stopped for a moment, what they would be able to hear would be in perfect harmony with the rest of the serene setting.

However, that too, was not their destination. After all, one would not expect a national leader to live out under the open sky on a permanent basis. And as they drove to a stop, their attention turned to the castle in front of them. It wasn't as long to a side as the palace in Darwin, but it certainly had the advantage in height.

Hannah thanked the guards, and Therese, and Anthony nodded his own gratitude, as he stepped out, before turning his attention back to the residence. He wondered if it were perhaps as elegant on the inside as the city had been.

But, as the Prime Minister had stated, they weren't heading inside at the moment, but rather out back. The veranda possessed a truly magnificent overlook of the vinyards, among its other fine qualities--Hannah, with her Hanseatic background, clearly felt right at home. And though it was extravagant, Anthony found himself relaxing even further, with the view that was available.

[i]"However, as to political talk. I realize that Australia has drawn away from Europe in recent times and I want to see what can be done to change that, to bring Australia, which really from what I have heard, has a great deal of European descent, back into the European fold at least as a diplomatic influence. Or if that cannot be done, what can be done to further Aquitaine's relationship with the Queendom."[/i]

Anthony took a cautious sip of his own glass as he listened, and another once he discovered he enjoyed the taste. When Therese was finished speaking, Hannah set her glass down. "Yes. The pure idiocy of some governments, and the hostility shown where none was warranted, has left us with a rather jaded view, and not just of Europe. Until you formed, one of the few nations that I had any respect for was the German Democratic Republic, thought the Northern Germany has certainly turned itself around recently." She paused to take a sip of the wine. "If the nations of Europe can prove capable of acting in a mature manner, perhaps that attitude will change in time. As for Aquitaine, to start with we can exchange embassies, to further enable communication between our two nations. And perhaps after a little time getting to know one another, an economic treaty would be nice. Perhaps we have something to trade for this excellent wine."

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"Well that can most definitely be done Your Highness, trade relations, a rise in tourism, anything of the like would be favorable. As for Europe..." Therese took another sip of the Pinot. "I actually only just spoke with the North German Kanzler, Dierik Martens, a pleasant individual. But yes we talked about the current state of Europe and the artificial peace that exists because of the said German Democratic Republic and the Rebel Army. To be honest, I don't know how long the peace we have now will either last or when it will fall apart. But hopefully in this time, even an artificial peace, Europe can repair it's recent relations with the world."

She smiled and then a yawn escaped her. "Of course, if there is nothing really else to discuss, you two are welcomed to stay the night in the Chateau before returning to the airport the next day. I can have the servants show you to your rooms if you wish?"

Edited by Sarah Tintagyl
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"If rumors are to be believed, one of our own neighbors is reaching out to Northern Germany too. Perhaps this, too, will contribute to further peace and understanding." Anthony adopted a thoughtful expression, tapping a sinlge finger on the table in front of him. "Perhaps we should invite him over for a talk too, Your Majesty. It's not like he's ruling with an iron fist like others might have done had they inherited that name."

"I'll consider it, Anthony," came the neutral reply, as she finished off the last of her glass of wine.

[i]"Of course, if there is nothing really else to discuss, you two are welcomed to stay the night in the Chateau before returning to the airport the next day. I can have the servants show you to your rooms if you wish?"[/i]

Anthony offered a sypathetic smile as she yawned. He was used to staying up late, so the time didn't bother him, but if their host was getting tired, it would be rude to keep her up. "I was rather looking forward to a tour of what i'm sure must be a lovely home, but that can wait for another time when we're all more awake. It's easier to fully appreciate something when you aren't half-asleep."

He glanced over at Hannah, who was wearing that amused expression from earlier. [i]'Does she know something I don't?'[/i]

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"Not at all Your Grace." Therese sat back up and stretched. "There is ample time to tour the Chateau, if you both would follow me, we can see the castle and in the meantime I can personally show you to your rooms." She stood up from the table and beckoned Anthony and Hannah to follow her back around the outer courtyard and from there entering the large wooden doors that brought their entourage to the foyer of the Chateau. Therese's castle was nowhere near as large as Lillia Palace was in Darwin, in fact it was quite smaller than most castles found throughout Aquitaine and the whole of France. However what Roquetaillade did not have in majesty, it made up for in homeliness. A small fire burned in the room adjacent to the foyer, a room filled with tall bookshelves and stained glass windows, this being Therese's study. As they continued through the castle, they were taken to the dinning room, where the coats of arms and ancient images of previous rulers of France and Aquitaine were hung on the walls, though unlike many rulers, there was no picture of Therese herself to be seen. She had said it was far too early to contemplate putting herself as an image anywhere. Something like imagery could come later...much later.

Finally they ascended the staircase towards the top floors where the bedrooms and Therese's personal office was here as well. But by this time the tour had pretty much come to close as Therese stopped outside the duel bedrooms where Anthony and Hannah would be staying and bowed. "Your luggage of course has been taken care of and is in your rooms. I appreciate what we talked about today, Your Highness, Your Grace, such talks will do much for the relationship between Aquitaine and Australia and perhaps Europe and Oceania. Have a wonderful night." She turned and walked down the darkened hallway until finally disappearing inside of her room.

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Hannah's earlier words echoed the loudest here. Therese's home was almost an ideal blending of the two primary cultures that dominated the Australian nation. While it was indeed comfortable enough to suit just about the most Hanseatic of tastes, it was not so...overly lavish (pretentious would be the word some would use were they feeling in a less charitable mood). To add to this, it wasn't lost on either of the visitors that though there were pictures of previous leaders of the region prominently displayed, such a display of their host's own image was somewhat...lacking.

Anthony chewed on that last thought for a while, even as they ascended the staircase.

[i]"Your luggage of course has been taken care of and is in your rooms. I appreciate what we talked about today, Your Highness, Your Grace, such talks will do much for the relationship between Aquitaine and Australia and perhaps Europe and Oceania. Have a wonderful night."[/i]

"One can only hope, Prime Minister. These talks certainly give a positive indication of things to come." Hannah agreed. "I thank you for taking the time to meet with us."

"Have a restful night's sleep, Ms. Zelle," Anthony added, nodding his head.


After the Prime Minister left, Anthony turned to Hannah. "I think, once our plane leaves tomorrow, you can consider my vacation to have begun. I won't be coming home for a little while."

Hannah looked anything but surprised, simply asking, "How long do you plan on staying in Aquitaine?"

He gave a rather uncharacteristic shrug. "I don't know."

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"He said what?" Therese stared at the maid in front of her, the Prime Minister's eyes sparkling curiously.

"He said not to pack his bags and that he would be staying in Aquitaine for a little while longer. The Queen approved of it, so I assume you want me to prepare a more permanent room for the Grand Duke?"

Therese wrapped a strand of hair around her index finger. "I guess I just wasn't expecting it. That's all. They are downstairs correct, in the parlor?"

"Yes Milady, Pierre had breakfast served about a half hour ago."

She rolled her eyes. "They would start without the hostess." Bowing to the maid, Therese walked down the rest of the flights of stairs to the bottom of the Chateau and into the parlor where Anthony and Hannah were sitting. She bowed again and smiled taking her seat at the head of the table, her plate of food already losing the steam from the kitchen. "I apologize for being so late, I didn't think that Australians were such early risers on the weekends. Though Anthony." Therese turned to the Grand Duke. "My maid told me that you were planning to stay in Aquitaine a little while longer." She sighed. "I'm afraid I won't be able to entertain you like I had yesterday with the work of running the country." She chuckled. "Of course your room will be prepared and you of course are welcome. I just hope I can be as accommodating to you as I have been so far. You both have been pleasant guests to deal with."

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"I did tell him, Your Majesty, that we should wait for the lady of the house," Anthony was saying to Hannah. "it does seem rather rude to begin without one's host or hostess."

He wasn't sure if the Queen had intended to reply or not, as the lady in question arrived in the parlor. Both guests inclined their heads in greeting.

"No apologies are necessary, Therese," he stated, taking his cue from her that they were going to be informal this morning. "I will admit my decision was a bit sudden, so really, if anyone should be apologizing, it's myself for springing this on you at the last minute. And," he smiled reassuringly, "I know all too well the pressures of helping run a nation. Especialy a new one. I wouldn't dream of trying to interfere with that."

At this point, Hannah was standing, ready to depart. She had a nation to get back to. "It is a relief to meet a European who is not so close-minded toward the rest of the world. If time permitted, I might have stayed for a few days myself. Au revoir," she finished, taking her leave of the two.

Anthony offered a goodbye of his own, turning back to the hostess of the castle once the Queen was out of sight. "I really don't want to impose on your duties. In fact..." he pondered something for a moment. "Should you ever require an outside perspective, I am more than willing to offer my observations on such matters. I do have experience in helping run a nation."

He allowed himself a small smile. "Though I do admit to an ulterior motive. I was hoping to explore the city in more depth, and such things are always more enjoyable when one has company, don't you agree?"

Edited by Subtleknifewielder
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After Therese had said good-bye to the departing Queen she turned back to Anthony as they continued to eat, Hannah would be guided out by the Knight of Aquitaine, back tot he airport in perfect safety. However, the Prime Minister couldn't feel a bit estranged that she had not accompanied another Head of State to the airport, but Anthony seemed intent on keeping her from company and Hannah seemed okay to let the two alone and so she quickly got over it. "No Anthony, I understand, but I don't believe I'll have an extreme amount of trouble at the moment either, with the unification of France nearly complete the people are in a celebration that I don't believe has rocked this nation since the creation of the previous republic. However I can safely say that I have no plans to fail like the previous regime. But if you're going to be vacationing here a great deal then I can't stop you from inputting little quips of advice." She chuckled. "I can't say I'll follow all of it though."

"However, though I'm not going to have a great deal of time, I can spare some things to take you around Bordeaux again or maybe even to Paris or Marseilles. We could go to the Riviera, swim in the Mediterranean, a great deal of fun I'm sure. But that's only if you would be interested in those things. France is a beautiful nation, it would take years to see everything. I don't even believe I've seen everything and you're a pleasant person to be around Anthony, so it would be my honor to take you around." She looked up at the grandfather clock across the room and rubbed her eyes. "I might have time today, I'm not totally sure. Is there anywhere you were interested in especially?"

But before Anthony could answer, one of the chamberlains walked through the passageway into the dining room holding a white envelope in his hand. "My apologies Madame Prime Minister, but we received this in the morning addressed to Grand Duke Harlem." Therese smiled and nodded for the chamberlain to come forward and deliver the letter. It was elegant, written in running black ink and Therese watched intently as Anthony opened and began to read the letter.

"Receiving mail even overseas Mr. Harlem, nothing bad I hope." She smiled, though she did find the entire fact that he had delivered a letter to begin with, a bit strange.


[i]Mr. Harlem,

Or should I say 'Subtleknifewielder', yes did you really believe that you could hide yourself forever? I do not mean to bother you as you tour France for Australia and I appreciate what you are doing for my newly adopted country, I believe the French can benefit greatly from an Oceanic friendship and it is good to see Australia getting over its prejudices with Europe, perhaps this will be the start of a new friendship for both continents in time even after the horrid things that have occurred to both your people and to the people of Europe. Needless to say, I write this in the wish of meeting you face to face and to talk to you about a new ideology that could be swept across the underbelly of the Earth, a new watchful eye that will take precedent on Earth. Do think about it as I hope you travel to my chateau near Limoges. I look forward to our meeting."


Her Grace,

Therese continued to stare at him..."Anthony?"

Edited by Sarah Tintagyl
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[i]"I can't say I'll follow all of it though."[/i]

"I wouldn't expect you to," Anthony replied, allowing himself to chuckle as well. "After all, being the outsider, I certainly don't understand your people the way you do."

It was all the man had a chance to say, because once she was finished, they were interrupted.

[i]"My apologies Madame Prime Minister, but we received this in the morning addressed to Grand Duke Harlem."[/i]

He frowned as he took the envelope. Therese wasn't the only one who found the letter odd. Not many people knew he was even gone. And the Grand Duke could not think of any among those who would bother to write him a letter when they had his phone number. So it was understandable that when he opened the letter, he might feel a little wary.

There was something peculiar about the handwriting, too, though he couldn't quite place what. And such thoughts were pushed to the back of his mind by the time he was halfway through the first sentence.

[i]"Receiving mail even overseas Mr. Harlem, nothing bad I hope."[/i] Perhaps she picked up the faint hint of a worried expression, or the whitening of the fingers that gripped the paper. He shook his head, continuing to read through to the end.

He was almost tempted to brush it off, but for those fateful words right at the beginning. [i]'Or should I say "Subtleknifewielder."'[/i] Subtleknifewielder. He knew telling anyone had been a bad idea. Who had talked? He trusted each individual that was entrusted with his secret (and still alive, for that matter)--but the only way anyone could find out would be through loose lips. His jaw hardened, but his line of thought was interrupted at the sound of his own name.


He forced himself to smile reassuringly, masking the inner turmoil that single phrase had produced. Yes, this was disturbing, but he was not going to let a few words ruin any friendship that might be developing here. He tried a small joke to lighten the mood. "Someone who apparently knows me from way back heard I was 'in the neighborhood,' and has invited me over to visit."

Glancing back down at the missive, he could feel the smile become less forced, though it was still not indicative of happiness. No, he was certainly not pleased. But perhaps he could find out more about this mysterious Saint-Germain before he visited. And when he did, there would be a reckoning.

"Someone called Saint-Germain. They own a chateau near Limoges." Almost casually, if one didn't notice the tightnening of the eyes, he crumpled the traitorous dispatch down to the size of a pin.

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"Saint-Germain?" Therese's thoughts went wild for a moment, she had been to the Countess' residence only days before Hannah and Anthony had arrived. How did she know of Anthony and his disposition at the table was nearly just as grim as her own had been when approaching the Chateau du Pompadour. Though given the Countess' mysterious nature as well as the power she already had at her disposal, Therese tread the ground beneath her carefully. "Yes, the Countess near Limoges. I know of her, though I don't know anything about her besides that she is from Carthage. Anyways." Therese continued. "Will you be visiting the Chateau because I can arrange for a limousine to take you there and I'm sure after which you and I can start our tour of the countryside and such." Her smile betrayed no sense of awkwardness and smiled pleasantly at the Grand Duke. "It would be a nice relief from the pressures of work and all."

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Her words were far from reassuring, only serving to create more questions than they answered. How would someone from Carthage know who he was? This was a potentially disastrous security leak if the person who had sent this letter was hostile in any way.

Anthony nodded. "Yes, I think it's only right that I accept her invitation. I wouldn't want to be rude." His expression was still grim, but now a more thoughtful hue seemed to have been added to the mix. "I appreciate the offer of a ride, and I most certainly look forward to the tour afterward." That last helped him manage a smile that seemed a little more heartfelt. "I'm sure the countess just wants to catch up on a few old times."

Edited by Subtleknifewielder
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Therese smiled and got up from the table. "Right then, I'll have my chauffeur take you himself, just go out to the garage and Pierre will take you to Limoges. It shouldn't be that long of a ride really Anthony, only two to three hours at most and Pierre is a good driver. You should have a comfortable ride. They said good-bye to each other and Therese walked back up the stone staircase to her quarters to start work for the day, the entire way up she gently fingered the small silver quill necklace that the Countess had given her. "What could she possibly want with the Grand Duke..."

Anthony of course would find the garage easily enough as it was right at the back of the Chateau and Pierre was friendly as they got into the car and the Grand Duke told the driver where they were heading. The chauffeur bowed and got into the limousine, adjusting the temperature to exactly as the Australian wanted it as they took off down the darkening roads of the French countryside. The hills towards Limoges were a sparkling green and they seemed to stand still, in contrast to the hectic moving sky whose gray clouds threatened a thunderstorm to disturb the pristine stillness of the countryside. In the distance, he would see farmers taking in their livestock to the barns, and through the little villages, the children on the streets looked up at the sky as the first beads of rain began to fall on the paved roads. Finally as they neared the outskirts of Limoges, the rain began to fall. Pierre sighed, a slight chuckle escaping his lips. "Well Mr. Harlem looks like you'll be meeting the Countess in the environment of her choosing. I heard she's a fan of thunderstorms..." A few moments later they approached the ivy strewn walls of the the stone rim of the Chateau and stopped at the gates that would allow them into the courtyard of the mansion itself. It was a black iron gate that separated the car from the inner courtyard and it lifted slowly, pulled up by old machinery, the spikes on the bottom of the gate, seemingly sharp.

The courtyard by now was soaked with the rain water, but the fountains of various figures, some angels, some demons gracefully spat their water into the marble fountains across the courtyard. Whilst at the doors stood two black cloaked guards. They had thin figures, graceful movements as they approached the limousine, but their faces were hidden by the white masks, almost like theater masks, some frowning some smiling, all unsettling. However when Anthony was escorted by the guards a new figure greeted him at the door, Jess Atrides, the Countess' butler bowed low to the approaching Duke.

"Your Grace, Anthony Harlem, it is an absolute pleasure to see you arrive in our humble home today. The Countess de Saint-Germain has been waiting for this meeting anxiously, for some time." He took Anthony's hand and shook it firmly. "Please, if you would be so kind as to follow me, she is waiting for you in her study." He turned and led Anthony through the corridors of the Chateau, through the literal museum of history, culture, and art. The walls decorated with tapestries of reds, blacks, and blues, busts of leaders and poets lined the staircase, while the thunder and rain pounded from outside. Finally they reached the large doors of the study, Atrides knocked on the door twice. "Your Grace, Mr. Harlem is here for his audience with you."

The voice inside was young...it was cold as well. "Come, I have been expecting him."

Atrides pushed open the door, the room was dark and ushered Anthony inside before closing. The black figure, the Countess de Saint-Germain stood against the windowsill, her body outlined in the light of the dark sky, thunder still roaring from outside. She turned, her face veiled, her hands gloved, the skin of her neck a deathly wine. "Subtleknifewielder, Anthony Harlem, how nice to make your acquaintance finally. The famed leader of Promised Land finally standing before me. It is good to see you in good health, would you care for a drink?" She gestured at a bottle of Merlot and two glasses already filled. "After all, there is a great deal of talk we have to do, concerning well...the future of the world."

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“Thank you, Therese. I really appreciate this.” She might never know just how much, he mused, as they bid each other farewell for the time being. He stared after her for a moment before turning to do as she had told. Though he took a small detour to retrieve something from his suitcase, something he had not had a use for in some time.

Five two minutes later, he was calmly striding into the garage, to be greeted by the affable Pierre. Another time, under other circumstances, he might have been willing to make friends with this man. As it was, his still decidedly grim countenance was lessened even further by the encounter, to the point that when he gave the man his directions, it was in a neutral tone.

And the limousine...he wondered about some of those pompously pious politicians he'd dealt with, people like Wallace, how they would react to such luxurious comforts. With that thought in mind, he had the chauffeur turn up the temperature a few degrees. Probably a little warmer than the man was used to, but definitely in the comfortable range for himself.

And another benefit of this little side venture...even with the inclement weather front fast approaching, he got to see a great deal more of the countryside. He'd seen plenty on their way to Therese's chateau, but this was new ground, after all, he was being taken away from the city in which he and Hannah had landed.

The local citizenry were keeping a watchful eye on the heavens, he noted--several farmers bringing in their animals to shelter them from the storm that was nearly upon them, and children staring up with fascination at the ever-darkening sky even as the first drops made their presence known.

The rain was starting to fall heavily enough to begin obscuring the sights, but by that time, they had nearly arrived at their destination, and there was no more time for sightseeing. “Thunderstorms? What a coincidence,” he responded absently, almost as mysteriously as this…Saint-Germain. He’d often found that for some aspects of his work, this was the best kind of environment, and so he had grown to think of storms as a friend.

The residence was surrounded by walls, but of course, that was a given. What he took more note of was the ivy that nearly covered them. Such coverings might be utilized by either an assassin trying to gain admittance, or a prisoner making a break for freedom. Hopefully he’d have no need for that, but he needed to note everything that could possibly be of use later, even in unlikely circumstances. Because there was certainly no way anyone would be getting through, around, under, or over those massive gates without the permission of the Countess.

Once inside the courtyard, he was reminded of the palace gardens back home, though even there the statues had not been in such abundance. But the guards banished such thoughts. Never had the Palace Guard been required to disguise themselves in such a manner; the attempt to look intimidating would have probably worked on most others, but he merely noted, with unexpected amusement, that someone was trying to display the classical idea of comedy and tragedy.

“Is everyone around here so mysterious?” he mumbled, barely loud enough for Pierre to hear. He had his answer a moment later, as the guards escorted him to a clearly unmasked figure at the door, who introduced himself as the Countess’ butler. He acknowledged the man’s bow with the slightest inclining of the head, and shook the man’s hand firmly when it was offered.

“She’s been anticipating my arrival, has she?” She must have sources of information inside a number of government circles. Not really surprising when one considered the single phrase that had prompted him not to dismiss this as a simple prank or moment of curiosity.

The inside of the Chateau was as elegant as the courtyard, with enough finery and culture to satisfy even the most enthusiastic of Hanseatic ideals. Tapestries, busts, even the flooring itself was lavishly decorated.

But despite the size of the home, it was still not long before they were at the door of his would-be hostess’ room. An even shorter time until he was inside. The voice that had bid him enter…it reminded him of himself in his darkest years. Was this someone who was driven by something similar as he had been?

He studied what little he could see of her, standing in front of the window and illuminated mainly by intermittent flashes of lightning. Perhaps it was the dim nature of their surroundings as punctuated by such flashes, but what skin stood bare seemed pale, almost deathly so.

Like himself in an earlier time, she wore a covering over her face and hands, so he would only be able to judge from what he heard.

Anthony’s own face could almost pass for a mask itself, that or it could have been a model set in stone, for all the warmth it displayed. Even the attempt at courtesy was lost on him, which would be quickly apparent to anyone even halfway observant.

And when he spoke, his voice was ice. “You know a number of things you should not, Countess. If you know who I am, and you have a reasonable level of intelligence, you should also be able to infer what usually happens to those who uncover what should be better left buried…and that I don’t trust easily,” he said, with a pointed glance at the wine. As he spoke, his hands drifted closer together, each eventually ending up covered by the sleeve of the other as his arms folded across his chest. “You better talk quickly.”

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"Oh don't be such a bore Harlem, honestly, I can see right through your facade and if you're not going to drink..." The countess swatted the glass of wine onto the floor where it shattered into thousands of pieces on the cold marble, while she picked up her own and pressed the glass to her lips. "I know how you men act, you leaders of this age, all sweet and sound on the outside to your population, the people in Australia adore you don't they? The Hanseatics and Promised Landers alike, hell the Dragonisians probably worship you almost as much as they do that..." Her fingers wrapped around the glass of wine tighter, anymore and the glass would surely shatter like the glass before it. "Dead Emperor, worshiping a secular man as a god, who was nothing but a hegemonic builder and they worship him in front of your very..." The Countess shook her head and regained her composure. "Nevertheless, please don't try and act like you're too busy to see me. You're staying in France for God sakes to what? Business, the Queen of Australia already departed so I know you are most definitely on vacation time. You can enjoy your time with me."

Relaxing further the Countess crossed the room towards a center globe where an illumination mechanism stood above it. "I've been watching you Anthony and you've become quite the interesting character. Still leading Australia to the best of your abilities and now even a war with Tahoe." She shook her head. "For revenge of course and turning the entire population into a rage to destroy those Tahoean !@#$%^&* when it could have been just as easy with peace. But see, I know you're hurting deep down inside." The veiled woman continued to come closer. "I know that you want what's best for the world and you're doing it in such a way to destroy the enemies of Australia. I like that, I like where your mind is at, I like that you're removing your rage like that and I want to harness that rage." She clicked on the mechanism and the globe sprung to life as a projection of the entire world enveloped them. "I had everything taken from me as well and I'd like act as tough as you, but I know that would just be foolish because I don't care about outlying strength, just what lies in here." She touched his heart and ran her finger up to his neck. "You see this around you Anthony? The world? There's a problem with it, something just didn't click the first time, whether because the grip wasn't tight enough, or maybe there were just too many loose ends, I don't know. But something has crossed my mind and that is that the world is too foolish for its own good. No one looks at the long term, they look at the short term, they look at what wealth they can amass in a short period of time, they look at what power they can take right then and there, they look at a plethora of things that don't matter. But you aren't like that Anthony, that's why you're still around to talk to me."

"In this war, your people are going to die and for what? Why are you going to send Australians to their death? For some stupid surrender term that barely exists and when your own policies are so far pushed away from the Americas anyways. What favors is your Queen going to get, what favors are you going to receive. Nothing, your people are going to die for nothing." She shook her head. "But what ever helps the world right? Tahoe is the villain after all." She looked up at the map on the ceiling. "However, I can give you another opportunity Mr. Harlem. There are powerful figures in the world, figures that I trust, figures that I have grown up with over the course of my life who are influential, who are strong, who have the possibility to change this world, for better or worse. I envision a new world, a world where there is no fighting, where the war of all against all is eradicated. But that cannot be done by handshakes and peace treaties because as you are no doubt aware. Humans are too foolish. Acca Dacca makes peace with Cochin and then destroys itself. Foolish. Tahoe inflicts surrender terms on Asia, millions will die because of it, all in the prevention of war. Hundreds of thousands died in Brisbane, millions maybe, millions because people believed in what they did was right. But if you remove man's desire to fight, his energy to fight. Then you have something. Then you have peace." The Countess chuckled. "Not the peace that leaders want, they want a peace so they can go back to their drawing boards and prepare again. No..." She smiled, took a sip of her wine and stared up at the map above. "This will be an eternal peace." Looking back, she smiled underneath her veil. "Or are you too tough to do something like that?"

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The broken glass prompted a response that broke the facade of a mask--with a single raised eyebrow. Though the expression was still as cold as marble or granite.

"And what makes you or me any better than those you despise? The man you speak of was a friend of mine. Granted, I am not pleased with a friend being deified, nor would I wish to be worshipped, but he had good intentions too while he was yet alive. His was a vision of a unified Asia...and he did not hoard his power, so spare me your melodramatic speeches and gestures." His eyes flickered to the remnants of the wineglass she had so casually demolished. "A facade? You take my mistrust personally when I already exlained, quite clearly, I don't trust just anyone. And certainly not some pretentious !@#$%* I've never met before who happens to know a secret greater men and women have been eliminated for learning. By all rights I should have just killed you already." As the rest of his words, it was said with little inflection, but that made them no less serious.

"Now...yes, I would be lying if I said the war with Tahoe isn't in the least about revenge, but I hardly had to stir up the people for that. They did that themselves quite nicely. There were friends, remnants of an ancient ally of my nation, on the Hawaiian islands, that for too long were under the heel of an enemy that they hated, an enemy that drove them from their original homeland and then pursued them across the sea. And thrice--not once, nor twice--but [i]three times[/i] allies of Promised Land were attacked and broken by Tahoe while we were helpless to stop them. So yes, I am confident my choice was the right one, though I hate that anyone has to die for it." His eye locked with hers, or at least where he assumed her eye was under the veil, watching warily as she drifted closer and closer, though his gaze wavered momentarily as she activated the globe.

Only to lock once more with her own as she stepped inside his reach. He could have reached out and snapped her neck with barely a thought, but he was still listening to what she had to say. And if appearances didn't deceive, she was trying to seduce him. She had nerve, he had to admit. But Anthony couldn't allow that--he stepped back, out of reach once more.

Once it was clear she was done, he spoke once again. "You speak of a peace enforced upon the world. It may work, it might not. But what makes you think you are any more likely to succede than the coalition once put together by Mykep the Younger? By taking away the will to fight? Mankind thrives on challenge and advancement--take away the will to fight, and the human race might not just fall into a state of peace...they might fall into a state of apathy, lacking the wil to even live. Unless you plan on simply replacing the urge with challenges of another nature..."

"And the admonition to speak quickly...that was for your benefit, not mine," he abruptly finished in a lower tone, like a dog baring its teeth just before it growls, withdrawing his hands from his sleeves. And from the silvery gleam of sharp metal in each, it was clear they were not empty. "Your time is up. Why should I join you when I'm working just fine on my own?"

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She shook her head as another strike of lightning flashed outside silhouetting her thin figure once again, even not looking at her face, the figure was strikingly beautiful. "Yes, you could have killed me already Anthony, but for some reason you stopped, for some reason you wouldn't do it and I can see it in your eyes. You're only calling me a !@#$%* to save face, I can read you, like I always have, I know how you think and you would never stab a woman, even one that knew your darkest secret. As to Maelstrom, I know you talk to him or have your hallucinations, so have I, and if I've learned anything it is only to question my own power, I will not listen to a man that was deified when I could simply be deified myself. Not that I would want it, at this point, I doubt Heaven will accept me anymore and I have no rush to burn in Hell."

"As to Tahoe." The Countess continued. "I always knew that you would seek revenge eventually, I would be a hypocrite if I said revenge was bad. However, your 'friends' in the coalition. You see how they are already abandoning the goal. You see Anthony, you can't trust the world, you can't even trust your friends. Friends like Mykep the Younger, though last I heard he was found dead with a rapier through his neck in a pool of his own blood." A chuckle escaped her mouth. "But yes, where Mykep failed, I will succeed. Because unfortunately, he was so close, until he decided to betray those closest to him. Those who believed in his dream, those who SACRIFICED EVERYTHING for his dream to come true. Will you stop all war, no, you will never stop all war and I guess in a way I am just asking for you to lend me your strength to craft my dream. But..." She stared at him through the veil. "You always thought my dream was beautiful and I will do everything in my power for the world to see that beauty."

"Look at you." She approached him. "Pulling knives out on me, if this is how you deem yourself a man Anthony then run me though and end the misery. But if you do, you are keeping a dream from forming ever again, you are keeping a love from forming." Removing one of the black gloves, her hands were pale, her fingernails red. "Don't you see beyond the veil? The love we made together that bonded two peoples together for eternity. Why should you join me Anthony Harlem?..."

She took her hands and ripped over the veil revealing her face in its pristine beauty, her sapphire eyes staring at him, piercing deep into his soul as they had always done. "Because you promised me that you would always serve me, that even though we were not joined in matrimony that I was your 'everything', that my dream was the most beautiful of all." Staring back was the face, the eyes, the smile of Sarah Tintagyl.

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There was something hauntingly familiar about the voice. And the words were not those of one who considered herself a stranger. Was it, perhaps, somone who really did know him? His hands trembled. Impossible. No, not impossible, just highly improbable, he corrected himself, trying deperately to flee into a logical frame of mind. But he was a man, after all, not immune to the attractiveness of the figure silhouetted by the intermittent light.

As she approached once more, he held up the knives, in an almost futile attempt to ward off the approach, and the words that battered at his consciousness like the unrelenting storm outside. Love...?

And then the veil was ripped aside. All the objections that had begun forming on his lips, every thought and protest--that he was perfectly aware of the vastly differentiating motives of many participants--how she was mistaken in his belief he'd never killed a woman--about how he knew the halucinations for what they were--it all died away in a wordless gasp. He didn't even feel the loosened grip of his hands, only dimly aware of the clattering his weapoins made against the stone floor.

Nor did he feel a thing as his legs gave out, sending him to his knees in front of the only woman alive who could claim his love., but he did not miss the obscuring of his vision, from the tears that formed in his eyes as he reached forward, desperately trying to feel if the woman in front of him was real, if it wasn't all a torturous dream...


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She looked down with the same loving face that he had seen years before and wrapped her hands around the arms that grabbed on to her dress. "Yes Anthony, in the flesh and blood, I was never killed after Hank kidnapped me, I just never went back into public life, but I am very much alive and real." She smiled and dropped to her knees staring deep into his eyes. "Everything I am telling you is real. There is a new age coming, one that I plan to create from my own flesh and blood if I have to, an age of art and understand. There are greater things than wars and treaties and artificial friendships that don't mean anything. If I have to I will change the worlds with these very hands." Sarah grabbed his face and held it tightly. People will be safe, to be able to live peaceful lives without fear of being destroyed. Anthony there is more to life then war, politics, there is art, there is strength, there is everything that this world that has become...I...what I've realized about myself. We are poets you and I Anthony, there are many of us, we are a new breed of thinkers. You've been with me for so long Anthony, you still love me, I know you do and though I know I am not worthy of your love. I could never even brace myself to leave you forever."

Her face softened further as her nose touched his own. "Please, help me remake the world in the vision of my dream." With that she leaned in further and kissed him passionately on the lips. "Together, there is an almost limitless universe above us."

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Anthony's mind was still struggling to accept what he saw, despite the assurance that yes, he could feel her, that she had in turn reached out to gently grasp his questing arms. And the face--it was exactly the same as one, it seemed a lifetime ago, that he had stared into so tenderly as they...he swallowed at the memories, letting her reassurances wash over him as she knelt down to his level to further reassure him. And to catch him up in her dream with the passion that he'd thought she had lost, but had now recovered. His resistance was gone, no longer feeling the need to protest as she took his face in her hands.

His focus was returning, but now, now it was for an entirely different reason. A deciedly less dark mood than he had arrived with was swiftly overtaking him now, and he nodded as she explained her vision, how the world had not only violence, hatred and death to offer, but also life, peace, and free-thinking. And, and...she thought she was not worthy of him? How many times had he thought himself unworthy of her? So close their noses were just barely touching, he reached up a hand to cup her face, letting his eyes and hand say what his tongue was currently unable to express.

Perhaps it got through to her somehow, as she leaned just the slightest bit futher in and pressed her lips to his. It took a moment to sink in, but when it did, he returned the feeling in equal measure.

And when they withdrew, he rested his forehead against hers to maintain the connection with their eyes, and reached up with a single finger to, with the lightest touch, carress her face. "You have my word, my life, my service. I offer what help I may to bring about your dreams."

Edited by Subtleknifewielder
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