Copyright 2009 by EC
EC's Erotic Art & Fiction - http://www.ecgraphicarts.com/
(warnings: erotic discipline, sex between adults, medical fetish, forced public nudity, rape, harsh police interrogation)
Chapter 26 - Maria Elena’s Path in Life
The march continued into the countryside as the route left Danube City and circled around to the east. There were rest breaks to exchange used torches for new ones, to use the latrine, and to drink fruit punch. The punch stained the marchers’ lips blood red, and many of the men dribbled punch down their chests to give the appearance of having blood running down their bodies.
Finally daylight came. As the sky lightened in the east, Maria Elena could see the distant torches from the other group of marchers approaching from the opposite direction. The collared servants gathered at a large camp where they would spend the day resting and getting ready for the second night’s journey back into the city.
Jason Schmidt called the students together to explain what would happen throughout the rest of the day; that the group needed to eat and then sleep on cots that had been brought in by the Danubian Army. Towards sunset there would be a Church service and touching up of the body paint before the marchers resumed their trek, which would return them to the Temple of the Ancients by sunrise the next morning. He gave the students a quick lesson and some trivia about the Danubian Church and the Day of the Dead, ending by teaching the group a simple hymn. Everyone noted that he talked very naturally, with no arrogance whatsoever, but in a manner that compelled his listeners to pay attention to what he had to say.
A few minutes later the others went into one of the tents to find cots, while Cecilia and Maria Elena stayed outside. They walked to the edge of the camp, appreciating the total silence of the countryside. Finally they broke the quiet by talking about the march. Cecilia abruptly changed the topic:
“I think this is the last time we’re gonna be doing this. The march, I mean. It’s gonna be our last Day of the Dead in Danubia.”
Maria Elena glanced over at Cecilia’s painted face. Noting the surprise in her companion’s eyes, Cecilia continued:
“Jason was kinda depressed this morning when we finished walking. I asked him what’s wrong, and he told me that he knew where we were gonna be next year. We’re gonna be back in Chicago. By the next Fall Equinox we’re gonna be home.”
“And he’s upset about that?”
“Yeah, real upset, ‘cause he doesn’t wanna leave Danubia. He was kinda hoping that we’d stay here, but…I guess he got this dream telling him it wasn’t gonna be that way…that we’re gonna have to go back to the US.”
“Did he tell you why?”
“Yeah. He said we’ve got a lot we have to accomplish in our lives, but in Danubia we’ve done what we need to do, so there isn’t any point in us staying past next summer. He told me that’s when we’re gonna have to go back, next summer.”
“What about your collar?”
“It stays on until we leave. He told me that whenever the Priestess tells me it’s time to take it off, he’ll buy airplane tickets. I asked him, ‘but what about Mega-Town?’, and he said a year from now they won’t give a shit about us any more. There’s only a couple of guys on the Board of Directors who still want to get us, and they’re gonna be laid-off the next time the company restructures. When those two go, they’ll toss our records and forget about us. He saw all of that: it’s in the future, but he already knows what’s gonna happen.”
“What’s your thought about all this?”
“I’ve never told this to Jason, but I wanna go back. He’s not happy about it, but I am. There’s people in Chicago that I miss, who I wanna see again. I mean, there’s things here too that I’ll miss a lot, but this isn’t where I wanna spend the rest of my life, and I don’t really think Pedro ought to grow up here either.”
“But, Jason’s OK with it?”
“No, but he’s the one who told me that it’s our Path in Life to go back. He’s not happy about it at all, but he says it’s the will of the Creator…” Cecilia flashed a sarcastic smile under her face paint: “…and I’m not gonna argue.”
Maria Elena pondered the pending change in the lives of Cecilia, her fiancé, and her nephew. She realized that the departure of Cecilia and Pedro would leave her alone in the house with Victor.
“I’m wondering something. Do you think…maybe part of the reason I came here was so you could leave? I mean…you were taking care of Victor, and now I’m going to replace you. I’m the one who’ll be running the house…”
“You’ll be taking care of Victor, and his household, and you’re also gonna have some kids with him. Jason told me he saw that too; you with Victor’s kids…and you runnin’ Victor’s business. Someday that’ll be yours also.”
“But…I don’t want to run his business…”
“And if you’ve got kids, just how are you gonna feed ‘em? What’s gonna happen to the business if you don’t take it over? His sons don’t want it, ‘cause they’ve got other careers.”
Before Maria Elena could think of a response, Cecilia added:
“You know, after talkin’ to Jason, I realized something. Kim’s making a mistake by havin’ a problem with what you’re doin’ with Victor. I’m gonna tell her that she needs to lay off, ‘cause now I really do think your Path in Life is gonna be with him.”
The two women stood silent for a few more moments, listening to a cuckoo calling from a nearby tree.
“That’s one thing about here I’ll miss, hearin’ those cuckoo birds. We don’t have ‘em in the States.”
Cecilia turned towards the tents to re-join the rest of the group:
“Let’s go. We gotta get some sleep. It’s gonna be a long night, and we’ll be fucked if we’re not rested.”
“OK…I’ll be there in a second. I want to get a drink. Could you hold a cot for me?”
A few moments later, Maria Elena saw Carmen taking a second helping of fruit punch. As they sat under a tree and sipped their cups, the two women chatted in Spanish. Carmen seemed very worried.
“I had this dream…I was going to the airport…and I was just like I am now, you know…with nothing on…and my family was getting off the plane…and they were real nervous and embarrassed…because I was totally nude…and I told them I couldn’t help it.”
Maria Elena thought about her own family, who still didn’t know what had happened to her.
“I wish I could talk to my family…apologize to my mom…but I couldn’t face her like I am now. There’d be no way. She’d die from humiliation if she knew what’s gone on in my life.”
“My parents would die too…if they saw me…but the weird thing about my dream was; it was several years from now. My little brother was…a lot older…a teenager…and he’s just 11 now. And my mom was fatter and my dad’s hair was sort of gray. I mean, in my dream I knew they had to come to Danubia because it’d been such a long time since they’d seen me.”
Maria Elena thought about the significance of Carmen’s vision.
“I’m wondering if it means something’s going to keep you here. If…maybe you won’t be going home next year.”
“I’m wondering the same thing. I suppose I shouldn’t have taken that oath to stay collared as long as Cecilia stays collared. I suppose that’ll be what keeps me here.”
“Was Cecilia in your dream at all?”
“That won’t be the reason. It won’t be because of Cecilia. It’ll be something else.”
Maria Elena was surprised at her own answer, because she was totally confident about what she had just said. There now was at least one detail of her life that she knew with certainty. Carmen would not be returning to the US next summer.
Late in the afternoon Maria Elena was woken by the forlorn-sounding bell of a nearby Church. The ringing was accompanied with a series of whistles around the encampment, letting everyone know it was time to get up. She actually felt well-rested after having slept the entire day on a cot. Getting up was followed by a trip to the latrine, a meal, prayers, and having her body paint re-applied. The marchers assembled on the side of the camp facing the main road linking Danube City to the eastern provinces. They faced into the sunset, knowing that soon enough the road would be pitch-black and the only light in the entire city would be the fires coming from their own torches.
Still somewhat shaken from her experience the night before, Maria Elena reluctantly took a torch. She took her place in line behind Carmen and waited for everyone else to take their torches and get ready to move. She felt apprehensive as she watched the first marchers at the front of the two lines light their torches and move forward. The line became longer and longer, until it stretched into the darkness and looked like a fragile bridge of light stretching into the void. Finally the members of Jason’s group moved forward. One by one they lit their torches and started walking, plunging forward into the darkness.
Several hours went by and Maria Elena could tell that her group had been walking through Danube City for a while. The buildings were totally dark, but she could make out street signs and trolley stops reflecting the dim light given off by the torches. She also could feel the presence of thousands of black-clad civilians, even though the worshipers were absolutely silent as they knelt and prayed in the darkness. She began to wonder if she would be spared any further visions. As curious as she might have been to know what the Creator would want to reveal, she knew that anything she would see that night would be unpleasant, to say the least.
Eventually she realized that she was looking at white powder, a dry sea of cocaine that extended in every direction as far as she could see. It fell like snow and blew in drifts like sand in the desert. She saw nothing but endless powder in the pitch black night; nothing but black above and white below, stretching out to the horizon.
She saw pellets, similar to the ones she had swallowed in Panama before boarding the fight for Frankfurt. The pellets where not clean at all: they were soaked in blood and feces. A knife was cutting away at skin and intestines to expose more pellets, and a gloved hand was picking them out of a horrific mess that had been a young woman just a few minutes before. The most awful detail was that the woman was still somewhat alive. Her handlers had not even bothered to kill her before cutting her open. They counted the pellets to make sure they had them all, before leaving their victim to die alone in a bathtub. Others would come along in an hour or so to dispose of the body.
The dying woman was having convulsions as her soul separated from her body. She turned her head towards Maria Elena. She was staring into her own face. She realized she was looking at herself, seeing a different alternate reality from the one she had seen the night before: the death that would have awaited her had she completed her trip to Germany. She wondered why they would have killed her instead of simply letting her expel her pellets, but the fact remained that she now knew with certainty that she would not have survived her trafficking effort. The only reward awaiting her in Germany had been her own death.
Maria Elena came back to reality of the black night and the line of torches, barely able to breathe from the fright of her vision.
When Maria Elena’s senses returned her to the Realm of the Living, already she could tell that morning was approaching. The sky was no longer pitch black. As the marchers continued their journey, more and more of Danube City was becoming visible in the increasing light. Church bells began ringing, breaking the dead silence that had shrouded the entire country over the past 36 hours. Minutes later the marchers were crossing the Plaza of the Ancients and retracing their steps through the Temple and the forest park that lead to the East Danube River. Following a 3,000-year old tradition, the marchers tossed their torches onto a huge bonfire before stepping into the river to wash off their body paint. The bath was cold and totally unpleasant, but the marchers were obligated to clean themselves as best they could, to wash off Death and return to the Realm of the Living. Before they could return to the Plaza, they had to have the paint completely removed from their bodies and faces.
When all of the marchers had disposed of their torches and cleaned-off their paint, they assembled in the Plaza for a final hymn before being released. The Grand Duchess stood in front of a microphone at the top of the steps to lead the singing and to close the ceremony. Her attractive figure contrasted with the black-clad Clergy members surrounding her. Unlike the naked crowd in front of her, the Grand Duchess was not shivering, because she had been treated to a hot bath in the Temple instead of a cold plunge in the river outside. It was a tiny privilege the Clergy had allowed her, but one that put her in a much better mood.
The Grand Prophet handed Anyia an announcement to read: that all criminals currently serving sentences had to report to the Central Police Station and talk to their Spokespersons to pick up their winter capes and boots. People serving Public Penance would have to remain at the Temple and write down their names and shoe sizes to be issued winter boots from the Temple. Once she finished the announcement, Anyia quietly stepped away from the microphone to join her husband and her parents, all of whom were wearing black prayer robes.
With that the naked crowd began to disperse as the collared criminals drifted towards the Central Police Station to pick up their winter clothing. Jason’s friends from his Church group departed, along with Cynthia Lee and her husband. Jason rounded up the students and led them into the Temple, because that morning Penance would end for 12 of them, and also for Victor Dukov.
The students gathered in the area where most people began wearing their Temple collars. The fire-pit where people had to toss their clothing was lit and the students were grateful for the heat it put out on that chilly morning. Jason organized the others into two rows and moved to the front with Maria Elena and Victor. Once everyone was properly kneeling, Jason left to summon the Priestess under whom he was training, the one member of the Temple staff who spoke fluent English and who was the most comfortable working with foreigners.
The Clergywoman showed up with two Temple attendants carrying prayer robes and a set of keys to unlock the collars. Jason knelt as she took his hands and smiled warmly. A twinge of jealousy rose up in Cecilia, because she knew that the Priestess had been a very important part of her fiancé’s life over the past four years. In a way she considered the Priestess a rival, because she had assumed a central role in her fiancé’s life as his mentor, a role that years before Cecilia had expected to fill.
Jason explained that 12 of the students, along with Victor Dukov, were satisfied that they had pleased the Creator and felt ready to resume their normal lives. The Priestess asked Criminal # 101025 to stand in front of her friends and thank them for the personal sacrifice they had made on her behalf. She was genuinely grateful and made sure the others knew it.
After a hymn and a brief prayer, the Priestess asked the students to step forward one by one. She unlocked each collar and handed it to one of the attendants. Once the students were de-collared, the other attendant laid 12 prayer robes at their feet. The students dressed together, with Cecilia and Carmen casting sad, envious glances at those who were resuming their normal lives. Within a couple of hours the others would go home, get properly cleaned up, and go back out dressed in their regular clothing.
The Priestess de-collared Merchant Victor Dukov separately. She grabbed his hands and commented:
“You see that the Creator answered your prayers and safely returned this young woman to your household. I expect you to spend the rest of your time in the Realm of the Living appreciating what the Creator did for you. I also expect you always to treat Criminal # 101025 with respect and love. Your task is now to teach her what you have learned about life and to assist in her redemption. Take this robe and return to your house.”
With that Victor put the robe over his head and knelt. The Priestess ended the brief service and abruptly left to attend to other worshipers in the Temple.
As soon as the ceremony had ended the norteamericanos asked their Colombian classmate to accompany them in the Plaza to have some tea, and from there the group would walk to the Central Police Station to watch Maria Elena pick up her Ministry of Justice boots and cape. The students wanted to go with her partly out of curiosity, because the capes were considered an abomination of fashion and were the source of numerous jokes. The students were curious to see an infamous winter cape up close.
Criminal # 101025 took her place in line, waiting for Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna to hand her a garment bag. Her reaction was the same as nearly everyone else who had ever picked up winter clothing from the Ministry of Justice. The first thing she pulled out of the bag was a pair of boots, which were the same shade of orange used for road construction warnings. Bright orange boots. That definitely was not a good sign. Sure enough, when Maria Elena opened her garment bag she pulled out the most hideous piece of clothing she had ever laid eyes on. It was a bright orange top that looked something half-way between an army poncho and a cape. It had a hood and a sewn-in wool shirt underneath. There was a yellow stripe running up the middle of the cape and blue reflective strips sewn around the edges. There were several drawstrings to tighten the hood and waist. On the back was a large patch of Velcro.
Kim handed Maria Elena a white Velcro patch with # 101025 embroidered in thick black thread. She commented:
"You’ll need to wear your criminal number attached at all times…that is, IF you want to wear the top. The Ministry will let you wear the boots without the cape during the winter…which is what I always did when I was serving my sentence. If you keep your feet warm and stay moving when you're outdoors it's not so bad. Not bad enough to wear this."
The norteamericanos passed the cape around, impressed by what a ghastly-looking item it truly was. Maria Elena, like every other criminal, would avoid wearing it as much as possible, but at least she did have something to put on during cold snaps.
That night, Cecilia invited Maria Elena, Victor, and Carmen to accompany her and Jason to the Socrates Club. The night promised to be special, because Kim and her group would present several new songs. As always, the club would be the first to hear the newest music from Socrates’ Mistresses; the raw and unrefined versions of songs that later would be recorded and sold throughout Europe.
Jason cuddled Cecilia as they were sitting at the table. Cecilia had a nervous look on her face, because her fiancé was gently stroking her breasts and thighs. Every so often he traced one of her nipples with a fingertip or reached between her legs. Everyone at the table pretended not to notice. It was very strange to see Jason and Cecilia switch roles. For the past four years she had teased him, whispering to him what a naughty boy he was and how much he deserved to be spanked. Now it was his turn to do the exact same thing. He continued to tease her, warning her not to become aroused until he gave her permission. If she dared to disobey him, she would pay for her disobedience with a very long spanking. She resisted as best she could, but both of them knew that Cecilia had very little control over her own body and her impending punishment was inevitable.
Sure enough, she became aroused. He put his finger between her legs and showed her the wetness. He placed the wet finger against her lips, forcing her to lick her own juices. With that he took her upstairs. He carried her to one of the intimacy rooms and laid her on the bed. As always, before spanking her, Jason would make love to her, because there was no point in wasting a good orgasm.
For the next year Cecilia would be obedient to Jason, up until the moment her collar came off. Then their relationship would go back to normal and she would return to spanking him every time they made love. After all, nothing aroused Jason Schmidt more than having his bottom warned by Cecilia, especially after he had been a naughty boy.
While Jason and Cecilia were gone, Maria Elena noticed one of her fellow ex-Royal servants coming into the Club alone. He was one of Kim’s clients, the young missionary from the US who had been convicted and given a 10-year sentence for proselytizing a foreign religion. He looked a bit disoriented because it was obvious that he was visiting the Socrates Club for the first time.
Maria Elena felt nervous seeing one of her fellow ex-Royal servants in the Club, but she realized that she needed to get past the trauma she had suffered under Anyia. After all, she had only been in Anyia’s place for one week, and there were servants who had suffered under her for two years. Maria Elena stood up and greeted the American, and in broken English invited him to sit at her table.
The missionary’s name was Anthony. He introduced himself and talked a little about his background and his sentence, speaking a mixture of English and Danubian. It turned out that his home was only a few miles from where Carmen’s grandparents lived, and that Carmen knew exactly where his former church was located. From that point forward Anthony and Carmen chatted with each other about their lives and places they both had visited.
Carmen talked at length about her experience as an exchange student and the reason she had decided to wear a Church collar. Anthony talked about his own experience, first as a convicted criminal and then as a Royal Servant. Prior to his internment in the Royal Residence his religious convictions had encouraged him to stay aloof from his fellow criminals, and therefore he had never visited the Socrates Club. His traumatic experience under the Grand Duchess, the dramatic way it ended, and finally his participation in the Day of the Dead march, convinced him that he needed to accept what he now was; a Danubian collared criminal. He said sadly:
“I’m not a missionary anymore. That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do again…because my faith…it just isn’t there…it’s totally gone. And, anyhow, everyone points at my collar and calls me by a number…and I’ve realized…that whatever I was before I got arrested, right now I’m now I’m just criminal in this country, no better than a drug user or a burglar.”
Carmen invited Anthony to dance. They continued to exchange details about their lives as they became more intimate. Then they danced more closely and touched each other’s bare bodies. They were attracted to each other; that was something Maria Elena could see very clearly as she watched them on the floor. Interesting…Carmen and Anthony had met only because Maria Elena had invited him to sit at their table, and she had invited him simply out of being polite to someone she vaguely knew. And yet, from that simple invitation the lives of Carmen and Anthony would be changed forever.
She knew that Carmen would eventually become more serious with Anthony, and he would be the reason she’d end up staying behind in Danube City after her classmates left. Her decision to remain collared would simply be the result of falling in love with someone serving a long sentence, someone who could not leave Danubia, and who she would not be able to leave behind.
Socrates’ Mistresses completed the presentation of their new songs. Kim asked if there were any requests before the group left the stage. A couple of hands around the room went up, requesting “The wall that divides my soul.” It was an old song, but the clientele of the Socrates Club never tired of hearing it.
As she listened to her Spokeswoman and her partner Eloisa perform the final song of the evening, Maria Elena cuddled in Victor’s arms, knowing that she was indeed where she belonged. Her old life was gone, ruined through her own stupidity, but there was no point in worrying about that. Over time she would learn Danubian and forget Spanish, she would raise Victor’s kids and run his business. Every day she would give thanks to the Creator for having given her a second chance, one that she really did not deserve.
Maria Elena touched her collar. Yes, the collar marked her as property of the Danubian Ministry of Justice. She knew that she would never again experience freedom in the way that most people understood being free. And yet, at that moment she was happier than she had been at any time in her troubled existence, because for the first time the world seemed to make sense to her. Her destiny would be to serve her husband, her children, her friends, and her new country.
Criminal # 101025 had found her Path in Life, her proper place in the Realm of the Living.
Just one week after the Day of the Dead heavy rainstorms swept across central Europe. The rain continued unabated throughout October and the early part of November. In December the rain turned into snow in the higher elevations. On New Years Eve a snowstorm hit and soon all of Danubia was buried under a solid white veil of ice. A major cold snap hit the Danubian Republic and the neighboring countries, a grip of cold that did not let up for three months.
As the winter dragged on and the snow kept falling, meteorologists started comparing that winter to the brutally cold winter of 1942-43, during which the weather played a major role in determining the outcome of World War II. All of the smaller rivers froze over completely, including the Rika Chorna that flowed from the eastern part of the country into Danube City. A thick sheet of ice formed over the Rika Chorna Reservoir, which forced the nation’s power plant to reduce operations. For the first time in many years Danubia had to import natural gas to get through the winter.
The cold was so severe that Danube City’s criminals were forced to wear their capes, which was considered a major humiliation. For several months the bright orange and yellow capes stood out among the mostly drab colors of civilians’ winter clothing. Of course, the capes had to be taken off the moment criminals stepped into any building, so they were a major inconvenience for their wearers, as well as being an embarrassment on the street.
Vladim Dukov became increasingly worried as the winter progressed and the snow-pack continued to build on the Danubian mountain ranges. By the middle of February the snow on the mountains was at record levels. Yes, right now the business was great for the ski lodges, but the Prime Minister’s worries went past ski season. Spring was coming, and with it the snowmelt.
At the end of February, the Prime Minister of Danubia stood on the top of the dam of the Rika Chorna Reservoir, along with the Minister of Energy and a team of engineers. The frozen lake was full to capacity and the snow on the mountains had not even started to melt. The Energy Minister and a couple of the engineers overheard their leader say to himself:
“This is the year…this is the year it’s going to happen.”
Dukov turned to the others:
“We’re going to need to put everything we’ve got into trying to drain off this water. I want evacuation plans set up for all of the towns along this entire region, because I can guarantee that we will need them. I want a plan to commandeer all trucks and buses…everything this country has. And we’ll need to rent some buses and dump-trucks from the other EU countries and bring them in. I want bulldozers and backhoes…lots of them…and diesel…and experienced drivers. I don’t care where you get them or how much it costs; we need them here by the end of next week. And sandbags and cement pilings. We need to get started on flood levies immediately.”
Three weeks later the temperature rose and heavy rains fell across Danubia. All of the nation’s criminals, along with all of the younger public employees, university and high school students, and army soldiers, worked feverishly on constructing levies and digging trenches. The drafted crews worked 16-hours shifts as they battled a seemingly hopeless situation. The rain poured down around the teams of workers as they shivered in the cold water. It seemed futile to stop the coming flood, but everyone knew that the country had to at least try.
There was one thing the levee crews did not need to worry about, saving civilians. Just hours before the flooding started, convoys of buses moved through the villages to evacuate the population. By the time the area was under water the civilians already were safely out of the way.
There was flooding along the entire Rika Chorna valley, but the hastily constructed levies kept most of the water confined to the agricultural areas and slowly moved it towards the East Danube River. Anyhow, the Prime Minister was not really worried about the situation in the valley. His concern was the dam. The spillways were filled to capacity and water was starting to flow over the top. The rain continued to pour onto the mountains and torrents of cold water made their way through the thick forests, carrying mud and fallen trees into the lake. On the news the Danubians watched their Prime Minister, in shirt sleeves and soaking wet, sitting with boat crews as they worked to try to keep ice and debris out of the spillways and away from the dam. It was vital those spillways not be blocked. While sitting in his boat, Dukov was continuously on his cell phone, talking to forest rangers who were monitoring the hills above the reservoir. He knew that if those hills gave way and collapsed into the lake, there would be, at best, about 30 minutes to evacuate Danube City.
For a week the situation stayed the same…the countryside was flooded but most of the towns were kept dry. Water continued to pour into the lake at about the same rate it poured out through the dam. The water level rose along the East Danube River and completely flooded out the beaches and the forested area behind the Temple of the Ancients. There was a moment during which the water was within a few centimeters of the platform where most people began Public Penance. The docks were underwater and part of the industrial area of Danube City flooded, but fortunately the private residences and downtown area were spared. There were scares, of course, and a few broken levies that were quickly fixed. The nation held its breath…
The rain did not let up until mid April. There was a week of hot, sunny days and slowly the water receded from the landscape. Eventually even the situation in the reservoir improved. Water stopped flowing over the top of the dam and went where it was supposed to go, into the spillways. Dukov, as always, was out on the lake in his boat with teams of engineers, constantly checking on the dam. The cell phone was always in his hand, as he continuously called to monitor what was going on in the mountains. News commentators noted that he was being reckless with his own safety, because if that dam were to give way, he most certainly would be killed. To that the Prime Minister responded:
“I am just a single citizen of this country. I have my job to do, just like everyone else I drafted to come here and assist in this effort. In the eyes of the Creator, my life is no more important than that of anyone else.”
By the beginning of May, the flooding in the farming areas had partially receded. Water still continued to pour off the mountains, but the dam’s engineers had managed to lower the level of the reservoir to a level that no longer put the structure in immediate danger. Finally Dukov was able to leave the crews on the water and go into the mountains to examine the hillsides that overlooked the lake. Forest rangers pointed out that the woods were heavily damaged and covered with fallen trees. There were large portions of hillsides that barely were being held in place by tree roots. One geologist commented:
“I’d hate to think of what would have happened had these trees not been here, Prime Minister.”
“This hill…all this dirt…it would have all gone down into the lake.”
“Yes, Prime Minister Dukov. I think it’s safe to assume that’s what would have happened.”
“…and the dam would have broken.”
“Yes, Prime Minister. Given the weakened condition of the dam, I’d say that would have been possible, yes…probable, in fact...we would have lost the reservoir.”
Dukov climbed down a hillside to where a large section of ground had pulled loose, but was held in place by the exposed roots of several trees. He grabbed a root, sinking his fingers into the ooze that still covered it. He knelt in the mud and closed his eyes, as the bewildered geologists nervously watched him.
For the first time in seven years, the images of Danube City’s final moments were not present in Prime Minister Vladim Dukov’s mind. That vision had tormented his thoughts and affected his decisions, but now, kneeling in the mud with his hands holding onto one of the real heroes of the flood, he tried to bring the image of destruction to his mind and couldn’t. His question finally was answered. What he had seen was not the inevitable future, but only something that could have happened. It would have happened, but because the hills had not been deforested by Mega-Town Associates, the disaster had been avoided.
Cecilia’s exchange program group was included among the crews that were tasked to build, and later to dismantle, the emergency levies that protected the towns from the flood waters. Neither the Danubian government nor Cecilia were concerned in the least that the Americans were not Danubian citizens: the fact was that they were university students and all university students had been called upon to help out in a national crisis. Anyhow, classes had been suspended during the flood, so there was not much point in staying in Danube City anyway. The students got to see a part of Danubian life they never would have seen otherwise, so there were few complaints. The only problem was that their classes resumed in May and would not end until July, so all plans for summer travel around Europe had to be abandoned. As Cecilia pointed out, however:
“Don’t you be stressing about havin’ to stay here ‘till August, ‘cause there’s a lot worse places you could be spendin’ your summer…like New Jersey, for example…”
Cecilia exchanged several e-mails with her US coordinator Dr. Halsey to try to figure out who was going to replace her as program director. Halsey recommended that she try to find a candidate from the current exchange group, maybe someone who was planning on staying in Danubia past the end of the semester. Cecilia shrugged her shoulders…because that was easy enough to figure out: the one person who fit that description was Carmen. The outgoing director knew that her student was dating a criminal and that she had expressed regret about leaving Danubia. Well, if Carmen took the director’s job; that would solve two problems.
The moment she got the offer from Cecilia, Carmen realized that her Path in Life was indeed to remain in Danubia. That vision from the year before was no dream; it was to be part of her future. She would stay in Danubia at least as long as Anthony remained collared, which would be seven more years. Now she knew how she would support herself, by taking Cecilia’s position at the university.
The days and weeks went by as the country continued to dry out from the flood. What had been a wet disastrous spring turned into a pleasant summer. The end of June was rapidly approaching and along with it the Summer Solstice celebrations. As usual, Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna’s group “Socrates’ Mistresses” would be performing a live concert in the Plaza of the Ancients.
Maria Elena went to the Plaza with Victor and a large group of others, which included Carmen, Cecilia, and other members of the exchange program and various boyfriends and girlfriends. Jason was not with Cecilia because he had been invited to formally participate in the Church procession. Cecilia had mentioned that was a huge honor, because as far as she knew, no other foreigner had ever participated with the Clergy in the main procession.
Maria Elena knew another person participating in the procession: Grand Duchess Anyia. The nation’s Grand Duchess traditionally played an important ceremonial role in the Solstice festival, and it was obvious that Anyia took her duties seriously. Her behavior was a huge change from the previous year, when she had snubbed the Church by not even bothering to show up.
Everyone noted something else important about Anyia, that she was pregnant. The nation now knew that the Grand Duchess was carrying the heir to the Danubian Throne. Within a few months the Danubian Republic would be excited over the Royal baby and the symbolism that child would have for the future of the country. To see that Grand Duchess Anyia was pregnant was something that most of the Danubians found comforting. The public knew that, no matter what, the Royal Family would go on, in spite of whatever crisis they might have to overcome at the moment.
The Grand Duchess was, of course, totally naked except for her Church collar. She was the first Grand Duchess in three centuries who attended to her duties at the Summer Solstice festival while performing Public Penance. The change of her behavior and her lifestyle affected the lives of many of her fellow Danubians. A couple thousand young people, mostly women, but a few men as well, were following suit by wearing Temple collars. As for the followers who had taken oaths to remain naked as long as the Grand Duchess remained naked, eventually they would come to be known as “Anyia’s generation”.
It wasn’t long after the Summer Solstice that Jason’s Priestess asked him to bring his fiancé to the Temple of the Ancients. Jason knew why: it was time for the couple to stop performing Public Penance and begin the process of returning to their normal lives. The Priestess correctly assumed that her protégé and his fiancé would need at least a month to adjust to being “normal” before they left Danubia. They would spend their final month in Danubia dressed in regular clothing and psychologically preparing themselves to return to the US.
The Clergywoman knew that readjusting to the United States would be harder than either Jason or Cecilia could possibly imagine. Perhaps Jason understood that it was the Creator’s intention that he return to North America, but doing so would be one of the most difficult tasks in his Path in Life. In Danubia everything made sense, everyone had his or her place in society, and from day to day one could be sure of knowing what was going to happen. To leave such a secure life for the chaotic and aggressive life that the US had to offer would be hard on anyone, and certainly on a couple who had lived the past five years of their lives in the Danubian Republic.
The Priestess regretted that Jason had to go back, because with another year or two of training, he would have made an excellent Priest for the Danubian Church. However, the Priestess understood why Jason could never become a Priest, because there was no way that Cecilia would ever be able to join him as a Clergywoman. It was Jason’s path in Life to be with Cecilia, and ultimately Cecilia would have to return to the United States. So, Jason’s Path in Life would be to return as well.
The Clergywoman reflected that there must have been some important reason why the Creator would have asked her to spend so much of her time mentoring Jason, even if his Path in Life was not to serve in the Danubian Clergy. He would return to his homeland and apply what he had learned in Danubia to his own future and hopefully to the future of the US. He was an intelligent and charismatic person and one of the best public speakers she had ever known. His Path in Life would be to mentor the people surrounding him, and maybe that would eventually include all of the United States. Anyhow, the Priestess was satisfied that her task with Jason Schmidt was complete. Within a month they would have to go their separate ways, but throughout his life he would always carry her in his heart.
Jason understood what lay ahead. He picked July 4 for the date that he and Cecilia would report to the Temple…an appropriate day to begin the transition back to being US citizens instead of guests of the Danubian Republic. Cecilia had expected that the ceremony would be a big deal, in the same way that the Ministry of Justice always conducted a special ceremony for criminals when they were being de-collared and released from their sentences. As they made their way to the Temple of the Ancients, Jason explained that de-collaring with the Church was different.
“This is a private matter between us, the Priestess, and the Ancients. It is not a public spectacle, unless we want to make it into one later on with a party or something.”
Cecilia may have been happy about her impending freedom, but she noticed that Jason seemed a lot more reflective.
“You’re…still not really happy about this, are you?”
“Well, to be happy or unhappy about what’s going on is kinda like being happy or not happy about the sun coming up every 24 hours. How I feel about it at the moment doesn’t matter, because it won’t change anything. Our Paths in Life are to go back to the US. I know that if we tried to go against the Will of the Creator and stay in Danube City, we’d end up being unhappy. I know that for a fact. Yes, I’ve enjoyed my time in Danubia and learned a lot and like being here, but in the end it’s not important. Our lives here are over and next month we’re going home.”
With that the couple ascended the stairs of the Temple of the Ancients and made their way into the main chamber. They took a pair of candles, lit them, and knelt, to let the Clergy know that they needed attention. A minute later Jason’s Priestess showed up and led the couple to the back balcony of the Temple. An attendant followed behind, carrying two prayer robes.
The two Americans knelt naked for the last time. The Priestess took Jason’s hands, closed her eyes, and prayed. For a long time the Clergywoman was perfectly quiet. However, Cecilia noticed tears running down her cheeks. Jason seemed to be fighting back tears as well. At that moment Cecilia realized just how important Jason and the Priestess had been in each other’s lives. She said nothing, but inwardly she was glad to see that relationship coming to an end.
The Priestess regained her composure and ordered Jason and Cecilia to stand up. There was a brief prayer before the attendant handed a key to the Priestess. A moment later the collars were unlocked and off the couple’s necks. Jason and Cecilia put on their prayer robes. Already Jason looked uncomfortable in the garment, because it was the first time in four years he had been dressed at all. He was a natural nudist, so having to return to wearing clothing would be a major sacrifice for him.
A month later Jason Schmidt, Cecilia Sanchez, and her nephew Pedro Mejia, boarded a plane and left the Danubian Republic. Before they departed there were, of course, numerous parties and send-offs, including a state dinner at the Prime Minister’s official residence. Finally all that ended, and the day came when Cecilia and Pedro left Victor Dukov’s house for the very last time. A police van passed by the house to take them to the airport. There were a final series of hugs before Cecilia and Pedro boarded the van and disappeared from lives of Victor and Maria Elena. Perhaps they would return someday, but…if they did, it would only be to visit. Everyone’s lives would be different. Everything would be changed.
For the first time Victor and Maria Elena were alone in his house, truly alone. Yes, they had been alone in his bedroom plenty of times, but very rarely had they been in the house when Cecilia or Pedro had not been there as well. Now, except for the days when Victor’s sons came over as guests, the house would be empty.
As they stood in his front yard, Victor and Maria Elena were very nervous, not only because of the departure of the other members of the household, but also because each had something important to tell the other.
Victor went first. He handed a small wooden box to Maria Elena. When she opened it, she saw that it contained three pieces of jewelry: a silver hairpiece, a necklace, and a ring. Following protocol, he stood at attention while he waited for her to respond.
She understood that he was proposing to her. To accept, she had to take the items out of the box, one by one, and hand them to him to put on her. Once he had placed the three items on her, the couple would be formally engaged. Maria Elena smiled and was hugely relieved as she took out the hairpiece and Victor placed it in her hair. Next came the necklace, and finally the ring. When he took her hands she responded in accented Danubian:
“I have news for you too, Victor. I just found out I’m pregnant.”
“I suppose that’s just as well. I was thinking the house was going to feel terribly quiet with just you and me in it.”
Victor and Maria Elena walked towards the East Danube River. They crossed the university and stood on the beach, looking out over the water. By pure coincidence a plane flew overhead, having just taken off from the King Vladik International Airport on its way to Frankfurt. Victor commented that he was sure that was the plane carrying Jason, Cecilia, and Pedro out of Danubia, on the first part of their trek towards the US.
“I don’t envy them at all. From what I know about America, it’s not an easy place to live. I know it’s not somewhere I’d want to be.”
Maria Elena cuddled up to Victor. She took his hand and put her head on his shoulder. They watched as the jet vanished into a frail vapor trail in the western sky.
“It’s strange, thinking about how those three are having to start over. I couldn’t do it. Too old…”
“You’re not too old to start over, Victor. You are starting over. I’m starting over too. It’s all going to be new for us…the baby…being married…and…” Maria Elena giggled: “…having step-sons who are older than me…”
“…and you with your collar…we are indeed a scandalous couple…and you really want to spend the best years of your life putting up with an ill-tempered, tiresome old man?”
Maria Elena moved in front of Victor and kissed him. She then moved his hand to her stomach. There was just a hint of swelling, but that would change quickly enough. They’d have to get married shortly, to avoid an even bigger scandal than the one they were causing already.
“I want that more than anything, Victor. More than anything.”
Because clothing was prohibited on the beach, Victor stripped off his clothes and folded everything into his shirt to carry. The couple walked several kilometers the along the water’s edge of the river shoreline in the warm summer sunshine.
It was dusk by the time they got back to the University District. In the fading light they returned to Victor’s house, ready to begin the next phase of their Path in Life.