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For All Nails #116: The Garden of Forking Paths

by Johnny Pez

Warsaw, Kingdom of Poland, Outer German Empire
12 September 1974

It was an ill wind that blew nobody any good, President João Pedro Vieira thought to himself. The terrible events of 28 June had cost the Germans the life of their Chancellor, brought about an uprising and civil war in the Free Russian Republic, and resulted in an embarrassing electoral debacle for the ruling Germany Party.

He, on the other hand, had emerged from the assassination with the gratitude of the German government for saving the life of ambassador Gellmann. He had been awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, gained a very favorable trade agreement with the Zollverein, and been extended an open invitation from King Frederick of Poland to visit him at his palace in Warsaw.

Affairs of state had kept Vieira busy in Angola for the remainder of the summer (so many loose ends to deal with when you've just seized power in a military coup!) but at long last he had been able to get away from Luanda without having to worry about still being President when he got back.

It was everything he had hoped for. Frederick had held a magnificent state dinner in his honor the day after his arrival, had taken him on a personal tour of Warsaw, and had even invited him along for his weekly tea with Chancellor Zielinski. It had been fascinating to watch the two men interact. Zielinski, a tall man in his late 30s with spectacles and a shaved head, talked animatedly with an easy smile (and in deference to his guest, spoke German). Frederick, with his usual formal attire and old-fashioned scalp-lock, FN1 seemed taciturn and withdrawn by comparison. Vieira found the monarch's present behavior difficult to reconcile with the enthusiasm he had displayed at their first meeting in the Chancellery.

Following the meeting with Zielinski, Vieira joined Frederick in his locomobile for an outing to the Saxon Gardens. FN2 Surrounded by a discreetly cautious security detail, the two men strolled along a broad, branching path that wound through statuary, ornamental fountains, and banks of multihued flora. Frederick made a halfhearted attempt to expound upon the botanical wonders, but even a particularly vivid stand of azaleas couldn't engage his enthusiasm.

During a pause in the King's commentary, Vieira spoke up. "I can tell there is something troubling you, my friend. Forgive me if I intrude, but what is it that has you so vexed?"

They walked the path in silence for a long time before Frederick answered. "João Pedro, I am haunted. Waking or sleeping, no matter where I go or what I do, I see him lying before me, his blood staining the floor, his face as pale as death."

Vieira didn't have to guess what Frederick meant. "The General."

Frederick nodded.

"But Frederick," Vieira pointed out, "Gellmann survived. He's back in France now, overseeing the departure of the Schupos and preparing for La Fanchonette's snap election. Why does he haunt you?"

"Because I couldn't help him, João Pedro," the King answered in a quiet voice. "He lay there dying, and I could do nothing but stand and watch. You, my friend, you saw what had to be done and you did it, without hesitation. Because of you, General Gellmann is alive and well. Had it been only myself, he would have died, while I stood and watched."

Vieira felt pity for the King. "But I am a man of action, my friend. I've been trained as a soldier to act at need. Do not despair because you do not have the reflexes and training that I do. Your strengths lie elsewhere, in the fields of statecraft and governance."

"What statecraft, João Pedro?" Frederick demanded. "What governance? I do not govern, I sit on a throne while other men govern in my name. I wave at people who do not wish me to wave at them, who would be pleased to see me leave Poland and never return. My life is nothing, João Pedro." His voice fell to a whisper as he added, "I am nothing."

"No, Frederick," Vieira insisted, "you are everything. Those men who govern Poland in your name, do they care for this land, for these people? Did Herr Markstein care? Do Herr Merkel and Herr Voth care?"

King Frederick remained silent.

"You do not speak, my friend, but you know the answer as well as I do. They do not care about Poland. All they care about is troop levels and crowd control, taxes collected and subsidies paid. To them, Poland is only a black box to be manipulated as necessary, lines on a map and numbers in a column.

"To you, though, Frederick, it is a land, a people, a country. You temper the cold calculations of Berlin with the warmth of a human heart. You stand guard over Poland, to ensure that one voice at least in Berlin speaks for the people and not just for the Empire. Herr Kauffman FN3 knew what he was about when he restored the Polish monarchy and set your grandfather on the throne."

The two men continued to follow the path through the garden. Frederick, Vieira could see, was deep in thought. He slowed to a halt when they reached a fork in the path. There was a bush set at the juncture of the fork whose leaves on one side were starting to turn color with the change in season. Reaching out a hand, the King touched one of the newly changed leaves. At first, all he did was trace the surface with his fingertips. Then he began to speak.

"This," he said, "is the guelder rose, viburnum opulus, known as 'kalina' in Polish. It is found throughout the countryside, and has given its name to several Polish villages ... "

Forward to FAN #117: Hanging on the Telephone.

Forward to 14 September 1974: Kill All the Lawyers.

Forward to Frederick of Poland: Where Are They Right Now?

Return to For All Nails.