tagNovels and NovellasThe Freshman Ch. 30

The Freshman Ch. 30


Chapter 30 - Americans in Danube City

The three Americans completed the final leg of their journey about 10 hours after beginning it in Chicago. Only a short time after rising to cruising altitude the plane began its descent into Danubian airspace. Jason and Cecilia looked out of their window at a range of heavily forested mountains that gave way to open farmland punctuated with villages and crisscrossed by railroad tracks. There was a large lake off in the distance that must have been the Rika Chorna Reservoir. The plane banked to the west and briefly followed the Rika Chorna River westward as it descended towards the capitol. Finally it veered away from the river and passed over potato fields and some ancient-looking buildings as it approached the nation's only international airport.

The arrival was a surreal experience because the airport was so primitive. The plane simply stopped next to a 1930's art-deco style terminal building that looked like a prop from a very old movie. Workers rolled two staircases on wheels next to the plane and the passengers stepped out into the open air. The final part of the journey into the building had to be completed on foot.

It was obvious there still was a lot of tension because of the recent coup attempt. There were police snipers and anti-aircraft batteries on the rooftop of the terminal, and an over-all air of concern among the officials working the Customs lines. Jason knew the Danubians had reason to be worried because, until the situation of the mercenaries was resolved, there was the constant possibility of an escape or rescue attempt.

Cynthia led the group through Airport Customs because she spoke Danubian and her companions did not. It was obvious the Customs officials knew who she was and simply waved her through. Jason and Cecilia noticed her exchanging salutes with several people in uniform.

The person picking them up was none other than Vladik Dukov, the Prime Minister's son. He was in full uniform and accompanied by two lower-ranking police officers. Once their suitcases were retrieved, the three Americans and the three police officers traveled into Danube City in a van owned by the Danubian Police. For most Danubians, even riding in a police van was considered a luxury, since there was a very strict prohibition against personal vehicles of any type in the Duchy. Why that rule was needed became very evident as the van entered the Danubian capitol. The crowded streets and tightly packed buildings simply could not have accommodated anything other than trolleys, bicycles, and the occasional police or military vehicle.

The fact that Vladik was the Prime Minister's son made no difference as far as his transportation was concerned. Cynthia explained that Danubians liked to keep things as simple as possible when it came to their daily lives. It was a cultural value that even politicians were expected to uphold, and certainly one that Dukov supported. Even the Prime Minister tried to be as unobtrusive as possible as he went about his business. For example, if Dukov needed to go anywhere, usually he just hitched a ride in whatever police van happened to be nearby. If his situation was urgent, or he needed to go to several places in a single trip, the cop driving the van might actually need to stay parked outside and wait for him. If it was something really important or a major trip by a Parliamentary entourage, then three or even four police vans might be needed. That was considered extravagant. Upper Danubia had no equivalent of Air Force One or the Presidential Limo.

As they passed rows of well maintained solidly built houses, small street shops, attractive schools, and clean trolley stops, Cecilia was able to appreciate an urban environment that was totally different from the one where she grew up. The first thing that struck her was the complete lack of graffiti. There was none: not a single spot of spray paint on a single wall, anywhere. There was no trash on the streets and absolutely nothing that appeared broken. It was obvious the country was not rich, but what wealth it did have seemed very evenly distributed.

There was one quirk of the Danubians that became evident right away, and that was their love of griffins, their national symbol. Griffins were everywhere; not just on the national flag, but also painted on any large wall throughout the city and in the form of numerous statues guarding the entrances of parks and public buildings. There were big griffins, small griffins, medieval-style griffins, and even abstract modern griffins. Every society has its oddities, and the obsession with depicting griffins was a major one of the Danubians. Cindy joked:

"If you don't like looking at griffins, you're in the wrong country."

The van passed an area where there were a large number of naked criminals moving around carrying musical instruments or other items needed to perform or record music. Cecilia couldn't decide what shocked her more, seeing a bunch of naked people on the street or seeing them with their instruments. Cynthia explained that the area was where the city's thriving musical recording studios was located and that the naked people in the street were musicians from various groups who were working on their music.

"The Danubians have an expression 'to sing like a criminal', which falls back on their idea that only a criminal, a person who has gone through a lot of personal anguish, can really express themselves with true emotion. There's a belief in this country that only music that comes from criminals is genuine, that has that genuine feel of suffering that people here like to hear so much."

The trip took the van around the Old City Wall, which was largely intact except several spots where openings allowed streets to pass through into the oldest section of town. Huge 600-year old stone watchtowers, which at one time looked out over open fields, now looked out over the old business district of the Danubian capitol.

The group's destination was Danube City's largest hotel; an elaborate 19th Century building that overlooked the East Danube River. It was in that hotel where Cecilia, Jason, and Cindy would spend the next several nights, and where Kimberly Lee would meet with them later in the afternoon.

Cynthia translated an explanation from Vladik.

"The Prime Minister apologizes for not being at the airport to greet you himself, but he's down in Athens, 'cause they're getting ready to put that baggage handler on trial... you know, the guy who was going to load the bomb on their plane. Anyhow, he'll be back in a couple of days and in the meantime wants you guys to get settled in."

Vladik checked the Americans into three adjoining rooms, but Cynthia explained that they actually would have only two rooms, because two police officers assigned to protect the group during the trial would have the third room. She added that Cecilia could either sleep with Jason or with her. It was obvious that Cindy was the one who would have a room to herself.

Kimberly Lee, dressed in business attire and accompanied by a tall female criminal, showed up shortly after the three Americans were checked in. Like every other criminal, Kim's companion was completely naked except for her metal collar. The taller woman was attractive and couldn't have been much older than 21. It turned out she was yet another fellow American, Kim's client Tiffany Walker. Tiffany shyly shook hands with Jason and Cecilia, said hello to Cynthia, and then did something that totally surprised Jason. She knelt in front of Kimberly, touching her forehead to the ground.

"Goodbye, Apprentice Lee, may the Ancients protect you on your journey home."

"Goodbye, Criminal # 98946. You are released for the evening. May the Ancients protect you until we meet again."

With that Tiffany stood up and hugged Vladik. They took off, a uniformed cop and a naked criminal, who just happened to be engaged to each other.

Noticing the bewildered expressions on her guests' faces, Kim commented:

"It's sort of an interesting story, how they got together. I'll fill you guys in on that later on, because I think it will help you understand this place a bit better."

Cecilia's heart was pounding now that she finally was meeting the woman whose music had so profoundly changed her life. She had corresponded with Kim plenty over the past two years, but now, here she was, in Danube City, with Kimberly Lee right in front of her, and not able to say anything. She was just too overwhelmed.

Kim understood that Cecilia had been through a lot, and perhaps needed a break from anything that required any thought or making decisions. She suggested a walk through the old section of the city, the heart of the place that would be their home for an indefinite period of time. It gave Cecilia and Jason a chance to just follow someone else's lead and not really have to worry about anything apart from seeing the city. They would need time to adjust to where they were and what was happening to them.

Kim led them past the Old City Wall into the downtown part of the capitol. They walked through the National Parliament Building and exited into the Central Plaza, where they contemplated the National Cathedral and the sprawling headquarters of the National Police. It was weird to think, in the basement that very building, were many of the prisoners and nearly all of the weapons from the failed coup that had landed Jason and Cecilia into Upper Danubia in the first place. Several old tanks and military trucks guarding the main entrance, as well as the police snipers stationed on the roof, served to remind the four Americans of the continued tension the nation suffered because of the recent traumatic events.

"It's a strange building, the Central Police Station. A lot of it's underground, which is why they got so much room. There's chambers and vaults down there that are over 1000 years old, and even a catacomb. It's a lot bigger than it looks, 'cause of all the parts you can't see. Anyhow, the Central Courthouse, where you're gonna be testifying, that's over there, opposite the Police Station. You guys want to see my office?"

Of course Jason and Cecilia were curious to see where Kim worked, so they made their way into the main entrance and up two flights of stairs to the hallway of offices where Danube City's 20 Spokespersons and 17 Apprentices worked. They entered one of the doors and passed into the back room. There were two desks, because, as Kim explained, she shared the office with another Apprentice. Once she graduated and sworn-in as a Spokeswoman, she would have the office to herself. Kim added that the office where she was working was Spokesman Vladim Dukov's office before he became Prime Minister.

Seeing all of the places she had heard about in Kim's music and correspondence greatly put Cecilia at ease, and allowed her to start asking her questions about her life and about Danube City in general. Gradually the conversation became more two-way, and Cecilia and Jason started relaxing enough to talk about themselves.

They stepped back out into the Central Plaza. Off in the distance loomed King Vladik's Castle, but Kim announced there would not be time to see that landmark, because already it was getting late. Instead she had something much stranger and much more revealing to share with them. They returned to her office, where the two sisters changed into black prayer robes. They invited Jason and Cecilia to go with them to the Temple of the Ancients.

"We've both converted to the Danubian Church." Kim explained. "If you guys don't mind, Cynthia and I need to go over to the Temple, and we'll take you to see it, if you're curious. After that I'm gonna have to head down to the river and meet up with someone."

With that the four Americans walked past Danube City's 15th Century National Cathedral, which now was used mostly for ceremonial instead of religious functions. The real center of the nation's religious life was the Cathedral's predecessor, the Temple of the Ancients. The Temple was much older than the Cathedral; parts of it 3,000 years old, dating clear back to the mysterious origins of the Danubian nation. Before there was anything else in Danube City, there was the Temple.

The building seemed fairly busy for a weeknight. There were no worship services going on, but plenty of people were present, praying in front of Priests or Priestesses, performing penance services, or getting counseling. Cindy took a candle and lit it, indicating she wanted a member of the Clergy to talk to her. She knelt and began praying while holding the candle. Within a few minutes a middle-aged man in a black robe approached and they stepped outside into the park behind the Temple. Kim explained a few details about the history of the Temple during Cynthia's absence, which lasted about 20 minutes. When Cynthia re-appeared, the four went down to the river.

It was a warm late spring night. They silently walked along a very dark trail until they got to a sidewalk that paralleled the East Danube River. They turned upstream and walked until they got to a park bench, where a naked muscular young woman, barely visible in the darkness, was waiting. Kim and the other woman knelt facing each other, touched their heads the ground, then knelt upright and turned to face the Temple. They scooted closer together, placed their heads back on the ground, and began quietly praying. Cynthia motioned Jason and Cecilia to step back.

"They're gonna be at it for a while, so we might as well go for a walk. We'll follow the river down to the Castle, then we'll come back and see how they're doing."

They began their trek along the shore, their walk partially illuminated by the moon reflecting off the East Danube River. The Castle loomed ahead, looking quite forbidding, with its black shape silhouetted against the moonlit night. Cynthia glanced back in the direction of her sister to the spot where she was praying with the naked woman. Cecilia looked back as well, wondering what Kim was doing.

"So, who's that woman Kim's with?"

"Her name is Criminal # 99348. Before she was convicted, she was known as Officer Malka Chorno, and Kim, even though she's an Apprentice, still calls her by her former name. Malka Chorno's the cop that arrested Kim...four years ago. Hard to believe, it's been four years already. Anyhow, Malka Chorno was a person whose soul was very damaged, perhaps as much as Jason's father, but in a different way. She was really mean to Kim during the first year of her sentence. Then, while she was switching Kim a year after she arrested her, she lost control of herself and beat Kim so hard she cut her skin open, which is illegal. When Spokesman Dukov tried to stop her, she kicked him in the stomach, in a courtroom right in front of a judge. Well, that ended her career as a cop real fast. She was convicted of a bunch of stuff and became a criminal, no better than Kim. Ever since then Kim and Malka have trying to come to terms with each other, because they both know the path of their lives requires them to do it. Their souls are tied together. Each of them became a criminal because of the other, but each was redeemed as the result of her arrest."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"Yes it does. The path of each of their lives was to get arrested. It had to be that way, because each of their souls was damaged. Before she got arrested, Kim was getting heavily into drugs. Her arrest stopped that, dead in its tracks. As for Malka, she was obsessed with what happened to her younger sister. The girl disappeared with seven other Danubian girls because of a white slavery trafficking ring that hooked teenagers on drugs and then sold them in the Middle East as sex slaves. Malka became almost psychotic over what happened because she blamed herself for not watching her sister better. She became a real monster around criminals, and especially foreigners. Her arrest, and the way Kim handled it, made her realize hatred had consumed her and destroyed her completely. She changed, became repentant, overcame her hatred, and took back her life. Malka accepted herself for what she is, a criminal. Now the Path of her life is totally different. She's the city's most popular gym instructor."

"Kim's had a very important role in Malka's life. Here's an example, just one out of a whole bunch. After she was sentenced, Malka met her husband Tuko at the Socrates Club, because Tuko was a friend of Kim. Then, last fall, Tuko (who's now a cop) went to the Middle East as part of an international police team trying to find out what happened to the victims of that trafficking ring who were still missing. Just before he left, Kim had a vision about where her body was buried and told him about it. He went to that spot, dug around a bit, and sure enough, there it was, the body of Malka's sister. Tuko came back to Danube City with her body and a couple of others. If nothing else, at least the girls had a decent burial in their own country instead of rotting out in the desert. So, ever since Tuko got back, Malka and Kim have prayed together, even though they don't really like each other. There's some sort of spiritual bond between them, something neither of them understands. And that spot where they pray, that's where Malka arrested Kim for smoking weed."

Cynthia's companions were silent, not knowing how to react. The story of Kimberly Lee and Malka Chorno was strange and very frightening. It was a very Danubian story.

Jason and Cecilia felt uneasy as they glanced off into the wooded park that seemed full of both the living and the dead. They could feel there was something in there: something ancient and mysterious. Cecilia asked why that relatively small plot of land was so important.

"This spot is the holiest place in Upper Danubia," explained Cynthia. "They call it the Sacred Ground of the Guardian Spirits, and it's been important for 3,000 years. They have all kinds of beliefs about the Sacred Ground, but the one they're really big on is that it's the only spot in the Land of the Living where you can confront whatever you did wrong in your life. The Ancients are here, and they'll answer if you call out to them. So people come here at night to pray. What they do is go to the Temple first and explain to someone in the Clergy what's bothering them. The Clergy member gives their own perspective about what's wrong and what to ask the Ancients. Then the person comes out here to face their...sins, although that's not really a good way to translate it. Maybe 'damage to the soul' is a better way to say it."

Cynthia glanced at her companions in the dark and continued.

"It's sort hard for me to explain, but anyhow, the Danubian Church teaches that the soul is a living thing, something you need to maintain and protect. You suffer, and your soul suffers, but what you need to do is come to terms with your suffering, and above all, not pass it along to anyone else. You have to repair your spiritual injuries, and the wise person asks the Creator to help them come to terms with the pain in their lives. This is where they come to do it, this ground behind the Old Temple. I've had issues...a lot of things built up in me and a lot of hatred that I carried with me since I was a little kid...and it wasn't until I came here that I found a way to deal with it."

"By converting to the Danubian Church?"

"No. That came later. Not 'till last summer. There was a lot of stuff that came before I converted, and plenty of stuff that's come since. When I converted, that was just one small part of a very long spiritual journey I've had to endure."

"So, how come you converted, anyhow?"

"I think...maybe out of all the religions, this is the one that makes the most sense to me. The faith is all about repairing the damage to your soul and doing the best you can, so you can follow the path in life the Creator laid out for you. A path not for anyone else, but only for you. The point is, to follow your path in life, you have to meet the Creator halfway by understanding how your soul might be damaged, and how you have to fix it. You're not going to do anything perfectly, but the Creator wants you to do the best you can."

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