By Bobby Jones
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 41st contest was 'One Year Later'
15 Shawwal 1441 Anno Hegirae
Pfingstsonntag, June 7, 2020 Anno Domini
Hanover, Lower Saxony
Ernst August von Calenberg was a very rational man. It had served him well as an asset manager for the Islamic Investment Bank of Bahrain, as a professor of economics- hekmat-e-medani- at the University of New Alexandria and now here, back in his home, das grüne herz deutschlands, as Wazir-al-Qulam, Minister of Finance to the Most Catholic Republic of Lower Saxony and Thuringia.
It had made perfect sense in his life before- in his life away from the dreary forests, destitute towns and barren heaths of his homeland. It had opened doors which could have remained closed to him, let him into the halls of power, landed him where he was now, one of the most powerful men in all of the Germanies. The tax savings alone- especially for those years in the Gulf. No rational man could pass it up. “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad his messenger.” So simple a statement to be rewarded with such a bounty, the shahada. So Ernst August had said the shahada before friends and a certified accountant and kept quiet with his Saxon cousins, eaten pork sausages when offered and thought little about it except when performing his daily prayers before his more pious peers. He wasn’t alone- he knew plenty of the wealthy sons of Europe who did the same, who prostrated themselves before Allah in New Alexandria and wept before images of Mary with their mothers in Metz. The difference of course being that many of those same sons never meant to return to live in the cold Christian lands of the dar-al-Sulh.
He hadn’t thought much of it when he’d come back. He’d been invited back by the development arm of the Hiraqlian occupation, in those chaotic days after they had driven the Akademiker into their forest and mountain redoubts but still couldn’t find native Saxons to do the work of governance, afraid as they were of reprisals against their country cousins and of bombings in their offices and homes. The Hiraqlians knew he was one of the faithful and if they had thought him a Christian, perhaps they would have tugged at the threads of his family tapestry, discovered the half-mad uncle who left his estate to the Prieuré de Sion, the tragic second cousin from Strasbourg who had left a promising legal career in Istanbul to fight and die in the Balkans alongside the Marian Order. But they hadn't dug that far and in the smoke-filled haze of post-Terror New Alexandria, he had wanted to serve his country- both his countries, old and new- so he had agreed to return to Saxony. He’d managed payroll and public works in small villages, negotiated the mining rights to the Lüneburger Heide, completely rebuilt the tariff schedules and administration of the Hanseatic Port of Bremerlehe and then, on the conclusion of the country’s first bitter election, fought to the long knife, found himself appointed to head the finanzministerium by The Most Catholic Republic’s newly-minted Prime Minister Jan Schwarzkopf.
Jan Schwarzkopf could not have been more different from the motley crew of candidates of that first election. He was no wealthy member of the diaspora, he had no von or other pretension of nobility to his name, he was not a Sorb or some other minority lifted high by the occupation. He was a criminal, a pirate, a smuggler. He was proud of his facial scars- some the straight exacting kind once given as a mark of honor between aristocrats but in the modern day, only found among piratical scoundrels and others, more rough and uneven, from shrapnel and gunfire. He had no great love for the Hiraqlian occupiers- the Schwarzkopfgruppe, as his criminal gang was styled, had fought with occupation forces early on before laying down arms and then being given rank and title in the newly formed Landeswehr. They had no kinship with the Akademikers, having fought them to a standstill in East Frisia and the North Sea coast before the Hiraqlian invasion. In religious sentiment, he had something to satisfy everyone. He had a certain lusty Catholicism that impressed the Sorbs aligned with the Vicar in Rome while his maverick attitudes and mannerisms convinced others that he too thought the throne of St. Peter lay vacant, or close enough to vacant to not matter. The Hiraqlians were satisfied he was not a student of some radical priory with holy terror in his heart. He was a natural politician and deal-maker, slapping backs, fixing problems, greasing palms. And by hook or by crook, he had assembled the largest coalition in the Assembly and now found himself at its head. And he had wanted the very rational man who had sorted out the Port of Bremerlehe- because although he had been a smuggler once, following his election he had a keen interest in proper tax collection.
Schwarzkopf hadn’t known Ernst August was a Muslim. It wasn’t a fact one advertised in a country where dreamers and mystics found themselves molded into cold-hearted killers, willing martyrs, ready to die to drive out the Mohammedan and their lackeys and bring about the reign of the Emperor of the Last Days. So Ernst August had settled into the vague religiosity of his youth, attending church when he couldn’t make an excuse, going through the motions of fast days, letting other men make what assumptions they may about what lay in his heart. He hadn’t lived a very high profile life in New Alexandria and so he came to think his proclamation of faith was behind him, something he could tell his friends and family about one day in the safety of old age, write it off as the folly of youth. Perhaps if all his labors weren’t for naught, Lower Saxony would someday be the sort of high-minded secular society where nobody would care.
He was wrong. For much of the Occupation, Ernst August had been a gray man. He had hoofed it to an armored car under threat of gunfire, had near-misses with roadside bombs, evacuated an office for fear of a bomb threat or active gunman. But the Marian Order, the Akademiker, the fanatics who believed themselves Crusaders born again in the Blood of the Lamb, none of them had had any interest in Ernst August, specifically. That changed when they discovered that a high-ranking member of government was a Muslim, but not even just that- a secret Muslim. He didn't know how they had found out- whether it was a leak from tax records, some incidental mention in public records or just word of mouth from the diaspora community in New Alexandria, but it had made its way to the radical networks of Lower Saxony.
Their first strike against him was coordinated. A plain-clothes gunman had charged Ernst August outside of the Finance Ministry building, yelling “Gott Mitt Uns!”. He had fired at close range, but only got Ernst August in the leg. The suddenness of the violence and the bullet in his leg gave him only a red-tinged remembrance of it, but he was told details later. The gunman was shot and killed by the gendarmerie within seconds of firing on Ernst August. When they stripped the gunman’s body, they found a chainmail cilice to mortify the flesh and a white hairshirt with the black flared cross of the Marian Order. Unknown assailants had fired mortars on his family’s small country estate, and killed a groundskeeper. His cousin, George, a sober-minded young fellow for whom Ernst August had arranged a job in the finanzministerium, was found beaten and strangled in his Hanover apartment after a forcible entry. The murderers had left a note from some Syriac text their ilk had 'rediscovered' and were particularly fond of: “They will separate themselves from the congregations of Christians of their own accords, because that time challenges them to go after its uncleanness. They will be servants of that one, Mohammed, and their false words will find credence.” Ernst August left that first encounter with only a limp and an ache in his heart. It had cost his cousin and the groundskeeper he never even knew their lives.
After that first day, it was like returning to the chaotic days of the early occupation, only Ernst was now the payroll, the target of lone gunmen and roadside bombs. He seemed to live his life going from cramped armored car to non-descript concrete walled rooms, his only company the burly East Frisians hand-picked by Schwarzkopf; hard, mean men who seemed born into the bulk of their ballistic armor. Schwarzkopf could have cut Ernst August loose- the man who had stared down the sharp side of a sword and grinned as a friend sliced his face in clean straight lines had a calculated cruel streak- but he usually only displayed it to those who were no longer useful to him, and Ernst August was a very useful man. A very rational man, who had seen money going off the books and who had very rationally discerned what should and should not be questioned.
Schwarzkopf had been embarrassed, his government and standing weakened, but he had a plan. Ernst August would convert publicly to Christianity. It wouldn’t take him from the gunsights of the Marian Order, but it would likely please those Saxons who were closer to the middle, the ones who thought of Lent in terms of pints of beer and of Christianity as part of being a Saxon rather than a commitment in the struggles of the Last Days. And it would show that Jan Schwarzkopf, Prime Minister, had the strength and resolve to change what lay in a man’s heart.
It wouldn’t do to confess the faith during the dour and lean times of Lent and could be viewed as egotistical to convert on Easter Sunday, the day the hallelujahs returned to service and Jesus returned from the dead, so Schwarzkopf’s personal priest Father Aloysius had arrived on Pfingstsonntag, Pentecost Sunday, the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, a day of joy and exultation and the gifts and the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, as the designated day.
Ernst August had not seen Hanover proper since the first attack by the Marian Order. The city now was an explosion of color. Buildings were decorated with the greenery of birch and red flags and banners with the dove and the flame of the Holy Spirit, there were roses hung where they could afford them and everywhere laypersons wore red tunics and gowns. It was beautiful, one of the sights which someone in New Alexandria could not imagine- the colors, the vibrancy, the feeling of the crowd. More disquieting however, were the glimpses and flashes of pure white surcoats amidst the crush of revellers.
While Ernst August had been under security detail, the Hiraqlian government had been hard at work arranging the terms of their withdrawal. They had come to a truce with the Akademikers. There was even speculation the Occupation would force Schwarzkopf's government to allow Akademiker candidates to stand in the long-delayed and much-promised next election. The Marian Order had been given the freedom of the city and their white-jacketed street preachers and propagandists used every opportunity to invade public spaces and make themselves just enough of a nuisance to bother but not enough to be removed.
A crowd of the white-jacketed street preachers had gathered by the church where the ceremony was to be held. Ernst August's pulse quickened even though he was shielded by the bulk of his East Frisian bodyguards, and he worried what the Akademiker rabble might try. But as they let them pass unperturbed, he heard only fragments of that same Syriac text they had left on the body of his cousin George:
"A King of the Greeks will go forth against them in great wrath, and he will be aroused against them like a man who shakes off his wine, and who plots against them as if they were dead men." Ernst August knew some of the venom in the words was for him alone.
The ceremony was to be small, for security- only a few of the city's notables and journalists to cover the event. The church chosen was that of Father Aloysius- the Father was of the rather unique opinion in Lower Saxony that the Vicar of Rome was a duly-elected Pope but that he lacked Papal authority until he fully renounced the better part of a century of his predecessors. That was the religious position which Schwarzkopf had landed on when pressed, which satisfied no one and had led to the withdrawal of most of the Sorbs from his government.
The East Frisians removed their hats after they entered and took the splash of salt water offered as asperges to the worshippers. Ernst August did the same, and saw a brief glimpse of contempt in the priest’s eyes as he mouthed the words of the asperges in Latin- “Commixtio salis et aquae pariter fiat en nomine patris…”
The ceremony proceeded much as Ernst August remembered it from his youth, although it seemed more archaic and old fashioned than in those days. The entirety of the Mass was in Latin, and although the parishioners for this mass were drawn primarily from the wealthier burghers and the government elites of Lower Saxony, he knew most of them had only a passing knowledge of spoken Latin. Ernst August had studied Latin in his youth, and had come back to the language only to understand the legal documents and records of the pre-Occupation government, which were often written in a confusing mixture of Latin and Saxon. He felt as though all eyes were on him, searching for inauthenticity or lack of understanding, even as the priest moved from the Oremus to the Introit to Kyrie Eleison to the Homily. Father Aloysius here read the Bible verse he found appropriate to the day and Ernst August felt it could be meant for none other than him. “For the spirit of the Lord hath filled the whole world: and that, which containeth all things, hath knowledge of the voice. Therefore he that speaketh unjust things cannot be hid, neither shall the chastising judgment pass him by. For inquisition shall be made into the thoughts of the ungodly: and the hearing of his words shall come to God, to the chastising of his iniquities." The Wisdom of Solomon made Ernst August’s ears burn at the embarrassment, this intended slight, couched though it was in the obscurantism of the Latin Vulgate. Father Aloysius then moved into the Nicene Creed and thus concluded the Mass of the Catechumens and began the Mass of the Faithful, from which those not baptised in the faith should retire from the Mass.
Ernst August could feel Schwarzkopf’s eyes boring into the back of his head, so certain was he that the scoundrel, his savior, was watching him for any sign of hesitation or uncertainty. He would not be embarrassed by Ernst August twice. Ernst August remained intent upon the Mass, hanging on to the Father’s words and the echoing of the servers, trying to appear as though he were losing himself in the chant and in the ceremony. Finally there came the lighting of the elevation candle upon the altar and the illumination of the sacrament for the congregation, and the priest spoke several small prayers as the congregants came up to receive the Host.
“Behold the Lamb of God, Lord I am not worthy, Lord I am not worthy, Lord I am not worthy, May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul for eternal life, amen.”
Perhaps he did lose himself for a moment in taking the Host, finding himself taken back to the time before he had left dour and dreary Saxony, when he believed in the promise of eternal life and when he had wept real tears at the image of the Holy Mother Mary. Perhaps the incense of the Mass had irritated his eyes, perhaps that brief flicker of real emotion and faith and belonging had stirred something in him. If it had, it was only fleeting. As the Mass concluded, Ernst August was thinking not of the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles, but of the spectacle of his conversion, of the return to security this spectacle was to bring him, the cementing of his place in things to come.
Ernst August was a very rational man.
I. And when the days of the Pentecost were accomplished, they were all together in one place:
II. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
III. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them:
IV. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.
Pfingstsonntag, May 23, 2021 Anno Domini
11 Shawwal 1442 Anno Hegirae
The collapse of Schwarzkopf’s hold on the country had proceeded faster than anyone could have imagined. The Marian Order In Lower Saxony and Thuringia, MONT in the popular parlance, had seized control of most of the country over Eastertide, even exceeding the height of the Akademiker’s control of the country before the Hiraqlian invasion. They had managed to convince some of the hetmen of the Sorbs to join a reconciliation government and had negotiated the surrender of Bremerlehe the Saturday prior. The Hiraqlians had not yet completed their withdrawal and the city of Hanover was already encircled, waiting only for the peace and truce of Pentecost Sunday to end before it would fall.
The City had a certain frenetic energy, a palpable sense of doom and uncertainty that reminded Ernst August of New Alexandria in those days after the Abraj al-Khalifa had fallen at the hands of the Prieuré de Sion. The unthinkable had happened, and now what could come next? The radical priors of Lower Saxony and their students, the Akademikers, had sheltered, supported and trained alongside the French mystics of the Prieuré de Sion, those tragic and comical souls so convinced that their suicidal attacks against the dar-al-Islam would bring about the Emperor of the Last Days, and had in truth only brought the might and the fury of Hiraqlia down upon their Saxon cousin’s shoulders. The Prieuré de Sion had burned itself out but their scattered embers had kindled a flame that seemed set to engulf Europe. The Akademiker had gone from strength to strength after a short period of immiseration where they lived like anchorites in the wilderness of Lower Saxony and Thuringia, and now they looked poised to wipe The Most Catholic Republic from the map and replace it with the Marian Order In Lower Saxony and Thuringia. The Prieuré de Sion had thought that the Emperor of the Last Days would be crowned after striking holy terror into the hearts of the Mohammedans and MONT still held that tool close at hand, but believed that raising the flag of the vacant Throne of Saint Peter and the flared cross of the Order would have more value, that they could perhaps by might and by right win a whole continent of martyrs for the coming struggle of the Last Days. The Hiraqlians had spent the better part of two decades of blood and treasure in the cold, poor lands of Europe but now seemed content to watch it all evaporate and let the Christians murder their own as they had done for millenia.
Ernst August was done with his home and longed to return to New Alexandria. He had money there- more after the long hard years in Lower Saxony- and he could live a life of peace and luxury, perhaps teach about his experiences developing the country, perhaps just enjoy the life of leisure he had surely earned. He had packed his life into one small suitcase- he could always buy new things when back in New Alexandria and besides, it hadn’t been safe to leave the Green Zone cordoned off by Hiraqlian forces- and had crowded himself into the Hiraqlian embassy, alongside the other luminaries of The Most Catholic Republic. Schwarzkopf was there, looking tired and older and betraying for the first time a hint of some emotion beyond vengeance, magnanimity or pride, looking almost sad. Father Aloysius was there, dressed in the red of Pentecost- perhaps his flock would not miss him, for his congregation had grown more and more lean as his particular take on the state of the Holy See grew less and less popular. Others were there- the Lord-Mayor of Hannover, the head of the Landeswehr, the Schwarzkopfgruppe head of the gendarmerie and others Ernst August knew only in passing.
An embassy official gestured for Ernst August and he gathered up his suitcase and followed. They sidled into an office where there was seated a member of the Hiraqlian Occupation military.
“Passport, please,” he said and gestured for Ernst August to produce the document. He did. The military man let in a sharp breath and pulled a stamp from the drawer.
"Ernst August von Calenberg? Formerly of New Alexandria?"
"Yes, sayyid." Ernst August said.
"You are seeking an emergency airlift to Paris, am I correct?"
"Yes, sayyid." Ernst August said, and the military man again drew in a sharp breath. He quickly stamped the passport and handed it back to Ernst August.
“Gott mitt uns,” the Hiraqlian said in flawless Saxon, smiling, and Ernst August had only a second to wonder if he had misheard before two burly men he hadn’t even noticed in the room grabbed him bodily, dragged him out of the embassy, and tossed him unceremoniously on to the cobblestoned streets of Old Hanover.
There were white-jacketed preachers on the corner, preaching from that same Syriac text which had haunted Ernst August since George was strangled and beaten:
“Their servitude will be one hundred times more severe than their yoke. And they will be in harsh distress from hunger and from torture. And they will be slaves, they and their wives and their sons and will minister as their slaves to those that had been ministering to them, and their servitude will be a hundred times more bitter than that of their own slaves.”
Ernst August pulled himself up and sat and looked at the stamp that had been put on his passport. There it was- in green, glossy ink- زنديق. Zindiq. Secret apostate, permanent unbeliever. He rubbed at the mark but the stain would not come off. He would not be getting on a helicopter to be airlifted to Paris. He would not be rescued and spirited away to New Alexandria. No, he was going to sit in the gutter and wait to die at the hands of the Marian Order. There was no way out.
Ernst August sat in the gutter and wept as he had once wept before the image of Holy Mother Mary.