Some people wonder all their lives if they’ve made a difference.

The Marines don’t have that problem.”

Ronald Reagan, President of the United States; 1985

Chapter One

The Parade Ground, Marine Barracks

Magdeburg Navy Yard, MagdeburgCity

United States of Europe

Early summer 1635, 0900 hours local

“Pla-TOON! Atten-SHUN! Pre-SENT ARMS!” The senior drill instructor had timed it perfectly, waiting until the last second for the adjutant to reach the prescribed distance before giving the command, performing an about face, and snapping a salute in one graceful motion. The process reinforced, in the minds of his startled recruits, the belief fostered throughout the training cycle that he had eyes in the back of his head.

Without breaking her stride the adjutant in question, Captain Annette de Ventron, USEMC, returned the textbook salute with a small smile and a sharp salute of her own. Personally acquainted with that particular trick—after all, she and the DI had been trained by the same man—it was a struggle for her to keep a straight face and not laugh aloud.

But keep a straight face she did, because it was her duty to act as if it was the most natural thing in the world and an ability to be expected from all Marine Staff NCOs. It helped maintain the recruits' mindset that the instructor's words and judgment were above reproach, and—as far they were concerned—something to be taken as gospel. From all the wide-eyed stares, the senior drill instructor had once more succeeded handsomely in that endeavor. That was why no leatherneck, officer or enlisted, ever forgot their first DI.

Her job done, she continued on her way to her office at First Battalion, First Marines Headquarters. Normally, she would have stayed to observe for a while and gauge the progress of the Corps's newest batch of recruits. But today had a chill in the air that easily penetrated the insulated liner of her field jacket, and she was very much looking forward to the first hot cup of coffee of her official day.

Besides, with only two more weeks remaining until graduation, this particular batch was almost done; another small step towards bringing the regiment to its full authorized strength. After completing their individual advanced training, the new Marines would take their places in the line and be ready, willing and able to serve “in every clime and place” as the hymn said—a far cry from what a certain Swedish chancellor had once described less than charitably as “thirty-four men, two women and one puppy, not exactly an invasion force.” The Corps performance since that time had belied his description and, although it would never achieve the numbers that the army boasted or the same speed to build up, that was fine, too. Marines saw themselves as the precision instruments of the USE national policy, able to function to advantage on both land and at sea, not mass-produced “items” like soldiers.

Smiling at the almost poetic insight, de Ventron continued on her way but something started to nag at her from the back of her mind, something from her past before the Corps and even before life in the convent and marriage. Suddenly, the buried memory came back full force, making her stop in mid-stride as a chilling sensation ran down her spine. De Ventron turned around slowly, staring in disbelief at the hard-drilling platoon, one of four in the drill area. The object of her attention was a young woman who,because of her height, was marching in the rear of the first squad. De Ventron continued to watch for several minutes while she tried to match the memories of a young child's face by her mother's side, which she remembered from her only visit to the French court while just barely a teen herself, to the sweaty girl mechanically following the commands of her leather-lunged drill instructor.

“No way, Jose,” she muttered finally, falling into one of the many colloquialisms learned from her up-time friends and housemates. She couldn't believe her eyes, and no matter how many times she blinked her eyes, the face remained the same. Shaking her head with a resigned sigh, she resumed her trip to headquarters at a slightly faster pace. Not running, of course—Marine officers, by training and tradition, do not run unless they are doing physical exercise or the situation is truly dire. Doing otherwise tends to destroy troop morale, a fact relentlessly hammered into them during the basic school. Barely acknowledging the greeting of friends and fellow Marines, de Ventron entered the building and, without stopping to drop her jacket or knocking on the door, marched into the office of her regimental and battalion commander to announce gravely, “Mon ami, we may have a problem.”

Colonel-Commandant Friedrich von Brockenholz looked up in surprise. Von Brockenholz not only commanded the Corps' lone regiment and thus the Corps itself, but also the Magdeburg-based first battalion. They had once been classmates. He was now her superior, and had been reviewing training plans with his regimental and battalion Sergeant Major, Charles “Duke” Hudson. Hudson, who was a former up-time American Leatherneck, was the force behind the creation of the down-time USE Marine Corps and had once been the bane of her existence as her DI. He was also a man for whom de Ventron held immense respect.

Von Brockenholz stared at her with a frown and then signaled her to sit in her favorite chair in front of his desk. Hudson pulled a notebook and pen out of his utilities pocket and got ready to take notes. “Ok, Annette, talk. I'm all ears,” he said.

“It’s one of our recruits, mon colonel,” de Ventron told him, sitting down after removing her cover and placing it primly on her lap. “I think I met her at court before I went into the convent. If I'm not mistaken, her name is, or was, Anne de Gonzague de Nevers de Majorque de Mayenne de Mantoue. Her father is Charles, Duke of Mantua, a small independent state in Northern Italy, sir.”

“I know where Mantua is located, Annette,” von Brockenholz said and stared at her for a moment before shaking his head in disgust. Hudson muttered unhappily, looking at his notebook, “Rats, not another one, not another Italian noblewoman.”

De Ventron did not have the heart to tell him that the girl and her family were, like her own, mostly of French extraction, and she certainly did not wanted to tell him of her imperial connections either. That could wait a moment or two.

However, she understood his attitude, and, despite her own background, shared it. Italian, French or otherwise, after last summer's successful summer naval campaigns, there had been a flood of new recruits flocking to the ranks of the navy and Corps. Together with them came a relatively large contingent of aristocrats, all wanting to make their mark and seek adventure in the newest and most modern of the USE armed services after the air force. The strict meritocracy came as a surprise to many of them, and some left just as fast as they arrived. Some, however, had stayed and a few, to the consternation of many, even opted to remain in the enlisted ranks, content with just the title of US Marine or fleet sailor. Regardless, given the political situation of the new nation, each case was a potential political minefield.

The very few noblewomen that had also rallied to the colors in spite of what culture, society and their families expected them to do in their narrowly-defined roles—which did not include haring off to foreign lands, in many cases without parents or family approval, and enlisting in the military, were a tough problem. The most notorious case to date was that of Lance Corporal Angelina Rainaldi, a former Italian noblewoman now assigned as a law clerk in the navy JAG office. Although to be fair to her, Rainaldi’s situation was particularly ugly: she had escaped from Italy after being raped by her uncle and delivered a beautiful baby girl literally moments after being sworn into the Corps, and then married her dying husband. Who, luckily for her, didn’t, after all, die. The resolution of her particular quandary had required the involvement of the Chief of Naval Operations and some decidedly illegal chicanery by naval law enforcement. No one wanted a repeat.

Von Brockenholz, also with a good idea of what lay behind the American's uncharacteristic outburst, looked at his Sergeant Major. “Right there with you, Duke, but before we get in a tizzy over potential consequences, let's look at her personnel file. With any luck, Annette may be wrong and the girl is someone else. Or perhaps she lied on her application and this can be dealt with without too much of a fuss.” He then turned towards de Ventron and asked, “Annette, whose training platoon is she with?”

“Noah Wilson's third, mon colonel.” Both von Brockenholz and Hudson nodded approvingly at her reply. The up-time-born Staff Sergeant Wilson was one of their best DIs and known for keeping meticulous records. If there was any opportunity for an administrative reprieve from the impending disaster, it would be thanks to his recordkeeping.

“I'll get the files, sir,” Hudson announced on his way out of the office, leaving de Ventron and von Brockenholz alone in his wake. Von Brockenholz looked at her and his face broke into a huge grin.

“What now, Friedrich?” she asked testily, dropping their official formality.

“Oh, nothing, Annette. You do look like someone killed your puppy, but I'm just thinking about the heavy hand of irony here. The two of us being of noble birth ourselves, now trying like heck to keep others in the same fix out of the Corps.”

She replied with an attempt at a frown, but couldn’t keep it up and ended grinning, appreciating the absurdity and humor of the situation. There had always been an undercurrent of trust and affection in their relationship, since they'd met as officer candidates at the basic school, first class—a relationship that both knew could easily blossom into something else, if they weren't honor-bound to remain simply friends as long as both wore the uniform and remained under the same command.

“Of course, after seeing some of the fops that have tried to join, I'm confident that they're not really like us—certainly not like you,” he explained, trying to soothe her. “Actually, we're lucky that you have the background to identify our newest potential headache before she becomes one.” Somewhat mollified, de Ventron nodded, lost momentarily in her memories. The road that had brought her from a novice ready to take her final vows in the Abbey of Poussay to an officer of Marines had taken decidedly odd turns, including an unexpected arranged marriage, the discovery of a soul-mate in her new husband, and the joy of motherhood. It had also included the devastating loss of the two persons in the whole world that mattered most after the passing of her parents and sister: Her late husband Pierre, Vicomte de Cornimont, struck down by assassins in Cardinal Richelieu's pay, and Jeanne, their baby daughter, felled by a disease that probably would be easy to counter now with the new knowledge.

As usual, with the memories of her loss came the pain and her eyes briefly misted, forcing her to look away. The wound in her heart remained raw, and de Ventron suspected that it would remain so as long as she lived, despite the counseling that she had received at the government house. Without a word, von Brockenholz passed her his handkerchief, and then busied himself with the reports on his desk, ignoring her and allowing her time to compose herself. It had always been like that: he did not push but let her sort out her feelings on her own, respecting her boundaries but standing by in case he could be of help. Finally, with a sad smile and heartfelt “merci” for his kind action, silent understanding and quiet support, de Ventron returned the damp cloth.

“I've got the file here, Skipper.” Hudson walked back into the office, preventing any further conversation. “But you're not going to like what I'm looking at, sir. I'm afraid that the captain was right.” He passed the file to the colonel.

Von Brockenholz carefully examined the enlistment forms and scanned the DI progress reports, frowning and shaking his head. Sighing, he passed the file to de Ventron and tipped his chair back to stare heavenward.

De Ventron quickly scanned the file and immediately saw what left them so concerned. “She never lied. Everything is here if you know what you're looking at. Maybe a small omission, but her dad is certainly a landowner.”

“You could say that he owns some land—a duchy worth of it, ma'am,” Hudson replied. “Besides, she didn't mention anything about her lineage—to tell the truth, we haven't been asking such questions lately. So she's off the hook, at least in that respect. Perhaps we need to revise the enlistment papers to close that loophole, Skipper. But, frankly, if we start asking that particular question some might assume that we are moving from merit to the more traditional promotion system—or worse, that we are taking sides. That's another can of worms that we don't want to open, not now.”

De Ventron shuddered at the mere thought of the USE political situation; von Brockenholz gravely nodded in agreement. The naval service, under Admiral Simpson's leadership, had striven to remain above all the infighting: it hadn't been easy, but the American, a man of strong convictions and moral character, continued to steer a course free of any entanglements.

Still, there were some humorous aspects in the current situation, de Ventron thought. “Besides, would it really be practical to ask all applicants whether the Empress Dowager of the Holy Roman Empire is their second cousin?” she mused aloud, and then giggled at her companions' stunned expressions. “Did I forget to mention that she is related to Empress Eleonora de Gonzague de Mantoue de Montferrat de Constantinople? Shucks, it must have slipped my mind.”

Hudson stammered as von Brockenholz shook his head and covered his eyes. “You're kidding me, right, ma'am?” De Ventron only grinned in response as her colonel politely “coughed.” Giving up, Hudson looked at von Brockenholz and after a moment both shrugged their shoulders, accepting a situation that was snowballing by the minute. The up-timer picked up the personnel file and examined it again. “On the other hand, Noah pegged her as a young woman with a lot of potential.”

“I agree with his assessment, Sergeant Major. Like Rainaldi, on paper she is quite a catch, just like we want all our recruits to be. However, I doubt that her father, the duke, will look at it in the same way,” von Brockenholz commented dryly, tipping his chair forward again. “That reminds me of something, Annette. Why didn't ONI give us a heads up on another runaway heir?”

De Ventron winced. Dual-hatted like all the Corps senior people, she was also the regimental intelligence officer in addition to liaison with the Office of Naval Intelligence. “I don't know, mon colonel. Perhaps because she is not a runaway, nor is she assigned to a ship-of-the-line. Mantua isn't close to any significant body of water, and, frankly, we lack the resources to look into non-naval matters. Perhaps the Nasi organization has something on her, I can check with them. In the meantime, what we are going to do with her?”

Von Brockenholz rubbed his forehead before replying. “She is two weeks from finishing boot camp. My first inclination is to cheerfully ignore your discovery and see what develops, but I ought it to take it to the admiral to keep him abreast of this situation. He may have some other ideas on the subject.”

“Skipper, Admiral Simpson is inspecting the Hamburg naval base and the new shipyard, and won’t return until next week,” Hudson reminded him.

“Right, but we can radio him an initial report about the situation as a heads-up, and present our findings on his return. For now we need a place to stash Her Grace and post a guard who is not going to announce to the world that she is a person of interest,” von Brockenholz said.

De Ventron nodded thoughtfully. “Mon colonel, I have an idea.”

Chapter Two

The Nunnery

4 Navy Strassen

City of Magdeburg, USE

1730 hours local

Despite the brisk walk from the navy yard having warmed her up, de Ventron felt the crisp chill in the air, but that didn't distract her from her conversation with Günther Schlosser. Schlosser was the director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service or NCIS, the American fondness for nomenclature and abbreviations spreading widely through the country. As such, he was the naval top law enforcement officer. Like many in the service, he had not started on that job by design, but had fallen into it as the right man, for the right job and at the right time. When she went to pick up Mantoue from the barracks, she brought Schlosser along in his official capacity.

But first they had to go through the gauntlet. Noah Wilson had been fierce in the defense of one of his prize recruits. So much so that de Ventron had to pull him aside to explain the situation, literally leaving him speechless. Quickly recovering, he doggedly resumed Mantoue's defense; reminding de Ventron that despite the many years that Wilson had been stranded in her century, he was very much an up-timer, lacking the awareness of the social realities that she had to deal with growing up. He also left her wishful about a world were people were judged more by their character and abilities than by whom they had as parents.

At her insistence—she stayed away from issuing a direct order—the young DI finally relented and agreed to take them to Mantoue. They found her on the platoon common area surrounded by fellow boots as she seemed to be conducting an impromptu class, complete with diagram and pointer. Wilson was ready to call the room to attention when she stopped him and indicated a quiet corner. De Ventron wanted an opportunity to watch the young woman. Schlosser followed her lead, found a comfortable spot, leaned against the wall and set up to watch with her.

“So in review, my dear maggots, magguettes . . . and Schneider, the Springfield Armory 1903 bolt-action rifle uses a caliber.30 round and can be either loaded one round at a time or use the built-in five round magazine. Maximum effective range for this particular firearm is a thousand yards and adding the issue telescopic sight, like our sharpshooters and snipers do, allows an already superb weapon to obtain mastery of the battlefield. Are there any questions?”

De Ventron was impressed. It was obvious that Mantoue understood her subject well but she waited, wanting to see how Mantoue handled the questions.

Mantoue recognized a tall blonde boy in the back row that de Ventron would bet had come straight from the farm. “Anne, why were we not issued those instead of the SRG flintlocks? Even the French Cardinals seems to be better.” This was a “hot button” issue, one being thoroughly debated throughout the Corps since the discovery of the French rifle in ’34.

“Fuck if I know, that's obviously above my pay grade,” Mantoue said and waited for the round of laughter to subside. “However, remember what Staff Sergeant Wilson told us. We only had around fifty ”˜03's in the whole inventory, so we had to go to the SRG for general issue even though in comparison to the Cardinale it’s a piece of crap. I suppose that we could make a good copy of the ”˜03 but then we will face the real bottleneck, ammunition. I suppose that someone out there is working on the mass production issues but no one had told this lowly maggot yet, Hans.”

De Ventron shook her head suppressing a grin. The girl had nailed the whole thing, demonstrating that she was not just another empty-headed recruit. It was impressive that she was able to do so without sounding condescending. De Ventron suspected, though, that His Grace, Mantoue’s father, would not approve of her new expertise in Marine lingo.

“Any other questions, my friends?” Mantoue asked. When there were no takers, she turned to the black-haired boy sitting in the front row. “What, Schneider, no funny cracks?”

“Who me? Heck no, Mantoue. I'm ready to admit that you know your stuff front and back. But that only makes the fact that, unlike yours truly, you can't hit the broad side of a barn standing in front of it, a lot . . . sadder.”

Uh, oh, de Ventron thought and prepared to intervene but Mantoue just smiled as a slight girl with an English accent beside the farm boy spoke.

“Heinrich, I think that Anne just lacks proper motivation. Show of hands, guys. Who wants to see Schneider put against the barn and shot for target practice?”

De Ventron grinned when the whole unit raised their hands. Wilson studied his boots, holding his forehead and shaking his head slowly. Schlosser tried to cover, unsuccessfully, a “cough” that finally brought the groups attention to them.

“Attention on deck,” the farm boy shouted.

After a momentary hesitation and with a few barked orders, Wilson cleared the room, holding Mantoue back and, bidding her to approach, made the introductions.

“Recruit Mantoue, these officers are here to see you. This is Director Gunther Schlosser of NCIS.” The girl went white as a ghost, looking up at Schlosser with alarm. De Ventron could hardly blame her; NCIS and their notorious director was the stuff that DIs used to frighten boots into walking the path of the straight and narrow and Schlosser looked the part. He was as tall as any up-timer, with a burly build to boot, and a face that had been in one too many fistfights.

“Calm down, Private. I'm not here to put anyone under arrest,” Schlosser said.

“No, he's not, Mantoue. This is the regimental adjutant, Captain Annette de Ventron,” Wilson said.

Mantoue went even whiter.

De Ventron addressed the girl in French. “Private Mantoue. Or should I say: Your Grace, Anne de Gonzague de Nevers de Majorque de Mayenne de Mantoue.”

Initially the young recruit was startled, but then, with a sigh, she seemed resigned. “I was not sure that you would recognize me, Madame de Ventron. I tried hard to steer away from your path. How much trouble am I in?”

“As far as the Corps is concerned, you seem to be in the clear. Our problem, if there is one, is more a political one. But I think that you are smart enough to understand that. We just have one question. Why are you doing this?”

Mantoue stared straight ahead before replying back in English. “Ma'am, this recruit respectfully declines to answer that, ma'am.”

Regardless of the implied threat in Schlosser's presence, that was as much information as de Ventron could get out of her.

****

Mantoue’s platoon was informed that because of her superior performance, she was being reassigned to de Ventron’s office effective immediately. It spoke volumes about her when the lie was readily accepted by all. De Ventron had to keep her emotions under tight control as each and every one of Mantoue’s fellow recruits, including a curiously crestfallen Schneider, stopped by with words of congratulations, good luck and, the occasionally tearful, quick hug. It was obvious that the girl had found friends here. It made de Ventron think fondly of her own friends who were now spread throughout the USE, and beyond, in the performance of their Corps duties.

Von Brockenholz had approved her suggestion that the safest place to stash the young duchess was at the house that she co-owned with her friend Master Gunnery Sergeant Margaret “Lulu” O'Keefe, another up-timer. Their neighbors were not only accustomed to the unusual female owners but also to the goings-on of its military inhabitants at all times of the day and night. One more uniformed woman could certainly be expected to get lost in the crowd.

Schlosser escorted them there from the barracks. On the way, they both explained the in and outs of her new protective custody status and other defensive measures. It was probably overkill on their part but, after the Rainaldi case, no one wanted to take any shortcuts. Mantoue listened politely, but kept her answers to mostly monosyllabic responses, and grew more morose with each step away from the navy yard. That made de Ventron feel like she had kidnapped the still relatively young girl from the bosom of her loving family. Which, in a way, it could be argued, was exactly what she had done. The thought did not exactly assuage her conscience.

“Ladies, hide the silver. Günther is here!” de Ventron heard O'Keefe's booming voice proclaim as soon as she saw her and her two companions enter the room.

“Hah-hah, Lulu, you're so funny. But tell me, how's tricks?” Schlosser shot back with a mocking leer as he took off his coat.

“Slow. The fleet is out, you know,” Lulu replied in kind.

O'Keefe was not alone. Sharing the common living room area with her were two officers, two dependents and one bulldog. As was her custom in the Nunnery at this time of the evening, O'Keefe lounged on a couch with an open book in her lap. At a table nearby, First Lieutenant Marja Braun and their newest housemate, Second Lieutenant Sara Colfax, were playing cards with Heidi and Minna Hudson. The girls were the adopted daughters of Duke Hudson and his wife Claire, and were frequent visitors to the residence. De Ventron also spied the wagging tail of the Corps' mascot, Puddles, under the table, happily beating the ground in greeting. By the size of the chip pile in front of them, the girls seemed ahead in the game—somewhat surprising, given that Heidi was only eight and her sister, Minna, ten.

“Anyway, Günther, as always I’m glad to see you. Please pass my regards to Brunei and kiss that cute moppet of yours for me. So, Annette, who's your companion?” Lulu asked.

The girl snapped to attention and barked, “This recruit's name is Private Anne Mantoue, Master Gunnery Sergeant.” She then returned to a sharp parade rest position, despite the sea bag strapped to her back, and continued to stare straight ahead. Minna and Heidi giggled and the two lieutenants grinned. De Ventron exchanged an amused look with Schlosser. During her short observation at the barracks, de Ventron had discovered that she was full of the gung-ho spirit and zeal of the new convert, was eager to please and cute as a puppy, despite her relatively large nose.

So, despite—or because of—her over-exuberant personality, de Ventron found herself liking Mantoue and was happy that she seemed to be adapting to her new circumstances. Still, she wondered what had made the girl leave a life of leisure in sunny Italy for the decidedly spartan military lifestyle of the USEMC. So far, Mantoue had refused—politely, of course—to explain her motivations. Noah Wilson's discreet inquiries had shown that no one else in her platoon suspected her rather unusual upbringing either. Mantoue had taken her share of the shitty jobs thrown her way without complaint and with enthusiasm and diligence. Wilson confirmed that he had been planning to recommend her for consideration for an OCS slot and the basic school.

De Ventron added all this to the mental profile that she was making of the girl and liked what she saw. Still, there was the mystery of why such an obviously talented young woman had ended in Magdeburg and that intrigued her greatly. De Ventron hoped that living under the same roof would encourage Mantoue to loosen up, allowing her to get to the bottom of it.

Ursula Hoffman, one of their day maids, poked her head out of the kitchen to check on the commotion, which clarified de Ventron’s next set of actions.

Ursula was the sixteen-year-old eldest child of the director of the Scout Sniping section of the new Marine Amphibious Reconnaissance School, created shortly after the Bornholm Island debacle. At her mother's bidding, she had entered domestic service, marking the time until she was old enough and had enough of a dowry to consider marriage. At least, that was what her parents planned. De Ventron suspected that Ursula was going to throw a big monkey wrench on said plans by marching straight into the recruiter's office and following her father's footsteps into the Corps. De Ventron was not looking forward to those particular fireworks.

“Ah . . . Ursula, good afternoon. Will you take Private Mantoue to our guest room and draw a hot bath for her? Thanks.” Ursula smiled and threw a quick curtsy in her direction, then frowned curiously at their unexpected guest, who was still at parade rest. De Ventron realized that this girl and Mantoue had lots in common—Ursula dreamed of her first set of blues, too—and were close enough in age that maybe she could use her as a means to break through the young noblewoman's reserves.. Something to keep in mind, she decided.

“At ease, your—err, Private—Anne, go with her. After your bath, you can join us for dinner. Wear something comfortable, we are informal here at the Nunnery,” De Ventron told her and was puzzled immediately by the double take and the frightened look that momentarily flashed across her face at the residence's nickname, although she quickly recovered and tried to hide it.

De Ventron then got to watch, with amusement, Mantoue's internal struggle to remain in her tough gung ho persona. But even if the girl was this century's version of Chesty Puller and Manila John Basilone rolled into one and given a female form, there was enough desire to feel pampered. Especially after three months of grueling boot camp.

Finally, giving in with a sigh, Mantoue took a more relaxed stance and turned to follow the maid. Suddenly she stopped and turned with a quizzical frown. She hesitated for a moment before shyly asking, “The Nunnery, ma'am?”

O'Keefe answered for her. “Our fearless captain here almost became a holy sister, so, when we bought this house together, we decided that except for the occasional visitor and guests, no men were allowed in the premises. A certain lieutenant who will remain nameless—Marja—was heard to comment at the time that it would be like living in a nunnery. The name stuck.” She concluded amid the giggles of the Hudson girls and the wide grins of Schlosser and the other women present—except for Braun, who discovered a new interest in her cards and turned a deep red. Mantoue nodded, looking relieved and turned to follow Hoffman up the stairs.

“Sara, would you mind taking the girls to the kitchen and see if Frau Weir has a snack for them? I’ll talk to you later,” De Ventron asked the up-time-born officer.

“Sure thing, ma'am,” Colfax said. “Come on, kids. I think Mrs. Weir has some pastries left.”

Grinning, de Ventron watched the girls dash to the kitchen ahead of the lieutenant, pursued by Puddles, who momentarily stopped by her side to collect a pat on her head.

O'Keefe sat upright as Braun turned her seat toward her, and Schlosser took Colfax's empty chair. De Ventron addressed her attentive audience. “Like you Americans say, here's the deal. We have another Rainaldi on our hands.”

“Is she related to another churchman, Annette?” O'Keefe asked quietly.

“No, thank God—at least, not in the way that you are thinking—but it's worse from our standpoint, Lu. Her father is His Grace, Charles, Duke of Mantua, a duchy in northern Italy. Her sister is . . . or was supposed to, marry two of the heirs of the King of Poland. No, not at the same time, Günther,” she said, forestalling the obvious joke in the lawman's twisty mind.

“Darn,” he exclaimed, disappointed.

“Shit, Annette. Not another runaway bride—not with the CoC ready to start a civil war here. Marja, where's Britt? She's the Yard Provost Marshal, and ought to be hearing this first hand,” O'Keefe said, shaking her head.

“She's at the airfield, Lu. I’ll brief her later. Woody Woodsill brought some documents for the Prime Minister and she went there to arrange for security,” Schlosser answered.

“You mean more ”˜bootleg' flight instruction. Luckily, I think that Woody is sweet on her,” Braun said with a grin.

Schlosser snorted. “Yeah, that too, Marja, and the poor kid could use a break from all the bombing practice lately. Anyway, Lu, with that bet of yours, I think you created a monster.”

“Hey, don't blame me, Günther. When I made the damn bet with Britt, I was expecting her to puke her brains out after the first few minutes in the air. How I was going to know that beneath those red curls of hers lived Amelia-freaking-Earhart?” she replied, defensively. “Anyway, back to the matter at hand—Annette?”

“Well, thank you for that non sequitur, Lu. Bottom line, mes amis, she is going to stay with us until a decision is made about what to do with her. The admiral is in Hamburg at the moment, so it will be at least next week before we can present her case to him in person. Friedrich ordered me to gather as much information as possible. Tomorrow, I'm speaking with Don Francisco Nasi to see what his organization has on her and her father.

“And in the meantime?” O'Keefe asked, frowning.

“My agents will be maintaining an unobtrusive watch over her around the clock, at least off naval premises, until the matter is resolved. The good news is that as far as we know, no one is going to send an assassin looking for her, like in Rainaldi's case,” Schlosser said.

“Well, thank God for small favors. And I presume that the extra guards could be explained by the classified material that we occasionally bring here?” Braun said.

Oui . . . that's exactly what I thought; officially she is being assigned to my office as a reward for her outstanding performance,” de Ventron added.

“Is that part true or is it the cover story?” O'Keefe asked, curiously.

“If I hadn't discovered her this morning, she would have likely ended up as her platoon's honor graduate with a slot in OCS for sure. She's the real deal, and we were lucky to discover her before it got any further. Like Marja said, thank God for small favors.”

“She looks like a very motivated young Marine. I doubt that she is going to see it that way,” O'Keefe said thoughtfully. De Ventron nodded in agreement.

Chapter Three

Adjutant's Office, First Marines

Marine Barracks, Magdeburg Navy Yard

1600 Hours local

Four days later, de Ventron looked up from the last piece of paperwork requiring her signature and took the opportunity to stretch her back. She gazed out the window in an attempt to calculate the hour but, gave it up due to the overcast sky and pulled out her new pocket watch instead. Almost quittingtime.

From the outer office she could hear the relentless clickety-clack of typewriters producing the endless reams of orders and reports that kept a rapidly-expanding service on an even keel. During her studies at the basic school, she had read about a military man of the future who had commented that an army marched on his stomach. As the battalion and regimental adjutant, de Ventron felt qualified to debate that. From her standpoint, the Corps sailed happily on a sea of paper, most of which required her signature or initials. She had always thought that all bureaucrats were obsessed with record keeping and, God knows, during her marriage she had done enough administrative chores on her husband's behalf to have seen her fair share. However, that was nothing in comparison to what an expanding military machine generated.

De Ventron stood up to take a break and check on her people in the outer office. From her door she observed her busy clerks hard at work.

Seated at one of the desks, Mantoue worked laboriously at one of the typewriters under the patient supervision of her administrative NCOIC, Staff Sergeant Kimberly Chaffin. The girl seemed to be up to two-finger typing now, and to de Ventron's amusement looked like the poster picture of total concentration as she hunted for the keys, her tongue protruding slightly between her lips. She expected Chaffin to transition her to two-hand typing as soon as she mastered the basics. Overall, she seemed to be doing better with the machine than even de Ventron herself could and had integrated into the section operations seamlessly.

“She's a fast learner.” Startled, de Ventron looked to her left to see Duke Hudson standing there offering her a fresh coffee mug. How does he dothat, she wondered, not for the first time envying his ability to pop up from nowhere. She hoped to be able to imitate him one of these days. She accepted the offered mug with muttered thanks and sipped it slowly, enjoying its aroma and warmth.

A hot brew on a chilly day was always much appreciated and she sighed contentedly. “Merci, Sergeant Major, as usual you are a lifesaver. But how did you know?” she asked, curiously.

“Trade secret, ma'am. A good NCO knows when his officer needs a break to help her keep her edge,” he answered, smiling. In companionable silence, they continued to watch Mantoue's introduction to office equipment.

“Has she been more forthcoming, Captain?” he finally asked.

“I'm sorry to say no, Duke, despite all my attempts to entice her to talk. On the other hand, as you can see, she seems very keen on staying and pulling her weight. I couldn’t get any additional information from the Nasi organization either, although I got to see their dossier on her father, including what future historians will say about him. Nothing rang a bell: he's a military man with a happy family, although his wife died in 1618 and most of his sons died young. Not too much there about Mantoue herself: it seems that she was destined for the convent life, always a handy place to stash spare daughters.”

“You're too young to be such a cynic, ma'am.”

“Like you guys say, having being there myself, ”˜I got the t-shirt,' so I know what I'm talking about—although Rainaldi explained to me that her situation was markedly different. I went into the convent with the idea that I had a real calling, but when my parents needed someone to take my late sister's place in the contracted betrothal, I was pulled out so fast that my head spun. On the other hand, when parents—well, fathers—in that part of the world sent their spare daughters away to a convent, it's a rather permanent solution and a way to avoid paying dowries. You've probably heard about Galileo's daughters? Both are cloistered nuns. And it explains why the poor girl almost fainted on me the first time she heard our house nickname.”

Hudson looked down at her with a raised eyebrow and the obvious question in his eyes.

“Long story, Duke, but suffice it to say it makes me happy that I was born in Lorraine. However, Noah was right; she is good—very good—and, gosh, can she run! She led the office PT formation yesterday and had to slow down to let us catch up. I'll hate to lose her. She's exactly what we need in our officer candidates.”

He snorted. “Yes, she kind of reminded me of a certain candidate that tended to forget her English and German when flustered and could only babble in French. Of course, the problem was that she seemed flustered all the time.”

De Ventron felt her cheeks warm at the memories of her officer candidate days and tried to keep sipping her coffee nonchalantly, until she could no longer contain herself and blurted. “Mon Dieu, I hope I wasn't that bad, Sergeant Major.”

“Nope; you actually were pretty good, especially after you learned to keep that temper of yours in check. But I think that Mantoue over there has you beat in that department,” he told her, grinning.

“Granted, she remained as cool as a cucumber despite my best efforts to ruffle her feathers for information—but don't knock my temper. At times, it was the only thing that kept me sane after I lost everything I held dear. Heck, it even got me here to Magdeburg and the Corps,” she replied, somewhat defensively.

“I thought that was your sister-in-law's doing?” he replied.

“Well, the witch certainly did encourage me. But I always thought that the real reason my brother-in-law asked me to come here as his emissary to seek the emperor's help was a way to get me out of Brussels. He was probably afraid that I might end up murdering the little bitch if she reminded me one more time of my dowager status in that whiny voice of hers. Umm . . . perhaps I ought to send them a thank-you note one of these days.”

Hudson laughed. “I think hell will freeze over before I see that happen.”

“Back to the business at hand, I think that if Mantoue doesn't make up her mind, come clean and tell us what made her flee to the USE, the admiral may end up making the decision for her, and I doubt that is going to go in her favor. You've probably heard about Anne Jefferson's ”˜special' student in Amsterdam. I doubt he'd like to have a similar headache here—not with everything else going on right now.”

“Who could fail to hear about it, ma'am? It was all over the papers. But I agree with you, that particular brand of headache is one that nobody needs at this moment, especially when we are trying to steer clear of the whole political mess. But I also heard a different side of the coin from a letter that Lulu's friend, Beulah MacDonald, sent her. Do you know that since Anne's anatomy class, the applications from women to the medical school have skyrocketed? Some have even started to talk seriously about the possibility of building a medical school just for women. So having Mantoue joining us is not necessarily a bad thing.”

“I'm surprised that you have such progressive ideas about us nobles, mon ami. I presume that this means that you have finally forgiven Rainaldi, Oui?”

“Of course. My main issue with her was that she didn't trust us enough to give us a heads-up about her situation, and we lost one of ours because of that. Of course, given her history with her uncle and the way that she joined us, I can understand her lack-of-trust issues. Since then, however, she's worked hard to become a true asset to the service; and I'm looking forward to the time when she will become our first JAG officer.” Hudson stopped, seemingly to collect his thoughts

“I've been blessed with four daughters, one natural and three adopted. All are very smart with even the littlest ones having the potential of becoming remarkable individuals. I want Kathee, Minna and Heidi to have as many opportunities to develop their god-given talents as my oldest daughter Katherine, who was left behind, or my sons, regardless of their perspective of being the wrong sex in the wrong century. If Rainaldi, Mantoue and even that crazy princess in Amsterdam manages to succeed, they will pave the way for others to follow—the same way that you, Strausswirt, and even that nut Braun have done here for the women in the naval services.”

De Ventron nodded in agreement and, for a moment, wondered what her daughter's fate would have been like if she had lived. So many possibilities . . . . But one thing was sure, she would have made damn sure that Jeanne was free to follow her heart's desire, regardless of the obstacles. As usual, thoughts of what could have been darkened her spirit until his next words caught her attention.

“One more thing, ma'am—and don't let this go to your head. But Kathee told me last week that when she grows up, she wants to be like you. So you must be doing something right. Keep it up.”

Despite herself, de Ventron grinned, her mood instantly lightened. She allowed herself to consider that perhaps there were other little girls—and not so little ones, she thought, catching Mantoue's furtive looks in her direction with something akin to awe before diving back into her typing lesson—who needed someone like her to blow their way open and deal with obstacles, just like Marines are supposed to do. Something to give more serious thought, de Ventron decided as she continued to slowly sip her coffee.

En route to the Nunnery City of Magdeburg, USE 1830 hours local

Ignoring the potholes, de Ventron and her companions picked their way carefully through the obstacles in the road, thankful for their utility trousers and boots. Even with all the time since the burning and sacking of '31, the roads around the yard remained very much a work in progress. She hoped that the city management would extend the current paving campaign to them soon, but, unless the navy decided to foot the bill, was not planning to hold her breath. However, it did make her remember fondly her visits to Grantville.

She and Chaffin had closed the shop at 1730 hours and given the heads up to the incoming staff duty officer when they signed out. By coincidence this was Colfax, who cut a striking figure in her full dress blues and duty officer sash, complete with Mameluke sword. The young up-timer woman promised her in earnest—and with a straight face—that she would hold the fort—or at least the office coffee pot—safe until relieved in the morning with the last drop of her and the Staff Duty NCO's blood. A notion shared neither by the NCO in question, Staff Sergeant Haas, nor his runner, Private Schlitz, as shown by the severe glance he gave Colfax's back. So when de Ventron finally took her leave, Mantoue and Chaffin in tow, she did so thinking that American humor, like coffee, was an acquired taste.

Hudson had been walking home with them for the last few days to unobtrusively augment their escort. The house that he shared with Claire, an executive assistant to outgoing Prime Minister Michael Stearns, and their four children was close enough to the Nunnery for his actions not to attract undue attention. However, today his two oldest children were present: fifteen-year-old son Stoffel and thirteen-year-old Kathee. Both were trained musicians and junior members of the Marine Band, and were scheduled to play at evening colors, forcing him to stay behind to walk them home. She bid goodbye to the Hudson's and to Chaffin, who also stayed behind to go see her husband, Noah Wilson. Wilson was off that night. The young couple wanted to start a family but his busy schedule forced them to make use of any available opportunity for quality alone time. Instead, de Ventron picked up her NCIS provided escort, Special Agent Annelise Schuhmacher and, with Mantoue, started home.

De Ventron had also received a cryptic message from Schlosser via Schuhmacher, advising her to take her time on the walk on the way to the nunnery, no further explanation added. De Ventron was very familiar with his penchant for cloak-and-dagger operations, having been an unwilling participant in more than one, and was not exactly reassured. With Schlosser playing his cards so close to his chest, de Ventron felt as if she were carrying a target pinned to the middle of her back. But there was only so much she could do to slow their travel without being too conspicuous and, as they got closer to the Nunnery, her anxiety levels started to increase,

When the expected threat finally materialized in the form of eight large men barring their way, she was almost faint with relief. As instructed and drilled, Mantoue mirrored Schuhmacher's actions by taking a sidestep away from de Ventron to clear her line of fire and snapped open the flap of her holstered fake sidearm as she remained in her pretend guard role. Of course, she was also supposed to run away if the balloon truly did go up, with the two other women covering her escape.

As she snapped open her own holster after letting the satchel drop to the ground, de Ventron analyzed the situation. Their opponents' lack of modern firearms was compensated by their larger numbers, flintlock pistols and their long blades, which still rested in their scabbards, or so it seemed. They had also chosen their ground well, and their timing. The street was relatively quiet at this hour with most residents inside; military personnel and even the city guard were nowhere in sight, and most of the few street people around wisely melted away from the confrontation. It seemed that all the advantage was theirs.

Like most men of the times, when first confronted by armed women with unknown weaponry, they had hesitated, creating an impasse with neither group apparently having the upper hand. De Ventron noticed that their travel-worn clothing was of superior quality and Italian style, and the manner they had blocked her way, together with their discipline, indicated soldiers—probably mercenaries rather than brigands. This was good, as it decreased the chances of hostilities starting by mistake. Their leader, a distinguished older gentleman who simply yelled “professional fighter” stepped forward and with a courtly bow addressed her in serviceable but accented German.

“Good day, Signora, I am Capitano Giuseppe Falaguerra and I have the privilege of being in the employ of His Grace, Charles, Duke di Mantova.” Despite his apparent courtesy, de Ventron felt that Falaguerra did not think too much about her, her escorts and probably women in the USE in general. Offense being the best defense, she decided to turn his prejudice against him and take the initiative away by playing to his misconceptions. He expects an airhead, let's give him one, she thought before starting a rapid delivery.

Monsieur Falaguerra, you seem like a new arrival to our fair city, and I suppose you are lost and looking for directions. Don't worry, tourists ask me for those all the time—it's the uniform you know. Well, I recommend that you visit downtown and watch the change of the guard at the imperial palace. I’ve been told that is quite impressive. You must also find the time to visit our new opera house. I think that they have a Brillo revival showing that's appropriate for children of all ages. If you are looking for a bite to eat instead, I suggest the Eagle, Globe and Anchor kneipe. Their mutton stew is to die for. The proprietors are the parents of a good friend of mine and if you give them my name, they will set you up with a good table—”

The startled Italian couldn’t take it anymore and roared. “Basta, Signora. Stop this babbling at once. Don't waste my time or tax my patience. I have from good sources that you know the whereabouts of Her Grace, Donna Anne di Gonzague di Mantova, our ruler's daughter. I demand that you provide that information at once, so she can be released from her captivity. Do so now and you may be spared, unnatural woman.”

De Ventron was momentarily relieved that the man has failed to recognize Mantoue, despite being mere steps away. Of course, with the stern expression in her face, military haircut, utilities and a cover placed low over her eyes, she doubted that even the girl’s own mother would recognize her. She couldn’t fail to notice and appreciate that Mantoue was keeping her mouth shut and sticking to the plan of not attracting undue interest. Still, de Ventron’s first priority remained to keep their attention away from Mantoue.

She stood as tall as she could and looked at Falaguerra, straight into his cold eyes. “It's captain to you! Captaine Anne-Charlotte-Marguerite de Ventron de Faucogney, vicomtesse-douariere de Cornimont and an officer in the armed forces of the United States of Europe by the Grace of God and the Constitution. I serve his Imperial Majesty, Gustavus Adolphus and . . . I. Don't. Talk. To. Dogs.” She growled in a mixture of her most aristocratic manner, best court French and parade ground voice. As she'd intended, the Italian mercenary and his men bristled at the deliberate slur, but their attention was now completely on her. She could also see some uneasiness on their part. She might not be a duchess like Mantoue, but neither was she a CoC commoner like they had first assumed. She hoped that the knowledge would create some hesitancy and buy her time.

But where is the goddam cavalry, she wondered, worried, but did not allow those concerns to be reflected on her face.

Falaguerra was the first one to react, moving forward with a scowl as he pulled his sword partly out of the scabbard in an aggressive gesture. De Ventron had her service side arm out in a two-handed grip and aimed at his forehead before she could even think about it. Schuhmacher, and to her immense distress, Mantoue instantly followed her cue with weapons drawn and aimed—a real one in Schuhmacher’s case.

She wished that she had the time to order Mantoue to run, but one glance at her determined face and she recognized a kindred spirit. De Ventron knew that the girl—like any good Marine—would never abandon comrades in jeopardy. Besides, such an order would bring attention to the young woman, so she kept quiet.

Putting her fears for the younger woman aside, de Ventron concentrated. Considered a crack shot, she knew that as far as anyone was concerned, the mercenary officer and his henchmen were already dead. She calmly assigned the order in which she would dispatch her human targets, confident that Schuhmacher, who was as good with pistol as she was, had already made the same calculation. Her finger slowly started to tighten on the trigger as she waited for his sword to clear his scabbard before opening fire.

Suddenly, a small rotund man forced his way from behind the men, shouting in a mixture of Italian and French before interposing himself between de Ventron and Falaguerra. Astonished, she could only gape at him.

Basta! Stop this, for the love of God. There is no need to shed any blood. Giuseppe, stop this nonsense at once. His Grace would not like this. Forgive our manners, Signora . . . scusi, Capitano.”

Reluctantly, Falaguerra slid his sword back into its scabbard and took a step back. In response, de Ventron and Schuhmacher lowered their weapons, but continued to maintain extended grips while aiming at the ground. Seconds later, Mantoue holstered her weapon, and, without any warning whatsoever, stepped forward to embrace the short man. “Padre Benito, it’s me, Anne.”

A huge grin split his face. “My child, I'm so glad to finally found you. We thought that you were held captive against your will—or worse.” He was almost at the point of tears, and moved his cloak aside to reveal the garments of a Capuchin priest.

De Ventron's mouth dropped open at this and she exchanged a worried glance with Schuhmacher. Oh, merde, now what. She asked, “Private Mantoue, would you care to explain what's going on, please?”

“Ma'am, this is my confessor, Father Benito Alberti. I've known him since I was a child.”

De Ventron could only nod, but took perverse pleasure in seeing the same expression on Falaguerra’s face.

“My child, you look, er, well,” Alberti said diplomatically as he took a good look at his former charge for the first time, holding her at arms' length. De Ventron struggled to keep a straight face as the poor priest gaped at the slim, sun-tanned, and well-toned woman in strange clothing.

“Thank you, Father. Do you remember what I told you? I finally found my place and I'm at peace,” Mantoue told him with a satisfied smile.

“This is good, child, but it’s so far from home. His Grace misses you so terribly.”

“My lady, I have orders from his Grace to escort you back to Italy as soon as possible,” Falaguerra interrupted.

Mantoue looked at him with a jaundiced eye. “I'm sorry to have to disappoint you, Captain, but as you can see by my uniform, I have a prior commitment.”

“Your Grace, I must insist,” Falaguerra said, starting to advance toward her.

De Ventron stepped in front of him. “Private Mantoue has stated that she doesn't want to go with you, Monsieur. I suggest that you back up. It is time for our superiors to deal with this situation.”.

“Madame, I can't see how you can stop me,” he said, cavalierly discounting her threat and ignoring one of the “street people” who suddenly jumped to his feet.

At least until he spoke.

Herr Falaguerra, I suggest that you do what she says. You really don't want her mad at you,” Schlosser said loudly, letting his disguise fall away. The gold badge pinned to his lapel shined like a star, and he held a double-barreled shotgun.

Falaguerra swore.

“I'm Imperial Special Agent Schlosser, Naval Criminal Investigative Service. I urge you to follow the advice of the good captain. There are villages that stand empty on account of her wrath.”

De Ventron tried not to wince or roll her eyes at his boast. It had only happened once, in a small hamlet full of ignorant fools that thought that she could curse them due to her family relation to the Maid of Orleans on her mother's side. Their real danger had been how close she came to putting all of them to the sword—she hated witch burners. Her so-called friends seemed to enjoy embellishing the tale with every retelling.

Falaguerra stared at her, then Schlosser. De Ventron knew that the mercenary saw a street fighter and one not to be trifled with. But by the same token neither was Falaguerra a man to be trifled with. And he was not alone.

Signore Schlosser, how can one man stop us?” he mocked him. He made a gesture and several of his men aimed their flintlocks at the NCIS Director.

Schlosser smiled mildly. “But, Capitano, I never said that I was alone. Leiss!”

Schuhmacher's partner stepped away from his hiding place in a nearby doorway to let out two long blasts from his police issue whistle. The remaining “street people” let their disguises fall away and, badges and service weapons in hand, moved forward. From a street corner behind the Duke's men, a reinforced squad of the city guards double-timed into position before stopping, turning and grounding their halberds in their direction, closing the street behind them. From the opposite direction, a mixed horse troop of Marine MPs and masters-at-arms rode into position with weapons drawn and formed a line abreast, closing the street in front of them.

His point made, Schlosser turned towards Falaguerra. “Capitano, gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to my better half, Special Agent Spitzer,” he said, indicating the pretty but unsmiling young blonde woman who now stood at his side, shotgun at the ready. “She and these other good folks are going to escort you to a place where you can rest, eat and wait until you can make your case to my admiral tomorrow.” He stopped and grinned in a truly frightening manner. “Let me warn you, we were just blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby girl, our first, and we are not getting enough sleep. So far you have not violated any laws that we can't ignore, but don't get on her bad side. It could be extremely hazardous to your health.”

Falaguerra nearly argued, but took one look at Spitzer and threw his hands in the air, exasperated, and walked away, trailed by his men. A smug Spitzer and her NCIS detail followed, with the Marine troop in close attendance.

De Ventron closed her eyes momentarily and exhaled slowly, putting her fury back in its mental cage. Smiling, she turned to greet Schlosser.

“I'm sorry, Annette for cutting it so close, but we didn't know who the good father was, and waited to see what he was going to do,” he apologized.

“No problem, Günther, you and Britt's ”˜cavalry' got here in the nick of time, and you even brought along the city guard. Now, that's impressive.” The less-than-harmonious relationship between NCIS and the guard was well-known throughout the city and sort of an inside joke in law enforcement. He acknowledged the compliment with a nod, grinning, and turned with her to watch Mantoue. She was having a very spirited discussion in fast Italian with her priest.

“They do tend to move their arms like windmills around a lot when they talk, ja?” he observed.

Oui. Remember the time that Angelina had a difference of opinion with her husband about diaper changing?” she replied, grinning.

“How can I forget it? My sweet Brunei reminded me that if I ever wanted to be allowed back in our bed after our baby's arrival, I needed to understand that diaper duty is everyone's responsibility,” he said smiling. “What do you think is going over there?”

“Meeting of the minds and hopefully some clarity—and here it comes.”

Mantoue marched towards her, trailed by Father Benito. “Ma'am, I need your help. I want to stay,” she blurted out.

De Ventron looked at her young, earnest face and remembered the girl that could have fled and did not, and the baby girl that would never grow up. How could a mother say no to such a request?

Chapter Four

Conference Room

Headquarters, USE Navy

Magdeburg Navy Yard, City of Magdeburg

1400 hours, the next day

De Ventron looked around and tried to appear calm as she sat beside a very nervous Mantoue at the long table in the conference room. The powers that be, in the form of Senior Chief Petty Officer Dietrich Schwanhausser, the admiral's chief yeoman, having decreed that with the large amount of people involved or interested in her case, his office was just too small. She was already missing the cozy space, and with the bigger room she'd half-seriously considered the possibility of selling tickets for the event. It was not like the Corps couldn’t use the funds.

Von Brockenholz sat on the girl's other side. Behind them in chairs against the wall, sat Hudson and Schlosser. De Ventron had planned it that way to show Simpson that the Marine and NCIS senior leaders stood as one in her support. That was one of the many decisions that had been taken during the impromptu conclave that had been summoned the night before after Mantoue came clean and finally told her whole story.

Mantoue, like many others around the continent with the means and resources to do so, had read the few scraps of what future historians had said about her life. Like many, she didn’t like what she saw and, that was when the wings of the butterfly started to flap like mad. Her Grace, like half the women in Europe, had found the odyssey of the former Austro-Hungarian Archduchess Maria Anna toward love and a queen's crown in the Netherlands as romantic as a fairy tale. She also found her travails inspiring and the idea that perhaps a different path was possible for her was born.

The news in the local press, although couched in derogatory terms, couldn’t hide the freedom and influence that women were gaining in the new USE. The final encouragement to implement the plan that had formed in her mind came indirectly from an unexpected source. Her father, Prince Charles, who also had access to her biography, decided that perhaps an early marriage was the way to prevent some of the future events. She found some of the proposed candidates unsuitable and others frankly disgusting and presented a counterproposal of her own.

Strangely, her father found her idea of entering convent life early wholly acceptable, so Mantoue, under the guise of checking convents and with the help of a pair of loyal servitors who had cared for her since her mother's passing, made a beeline for the USE instead. Ironically, that was successfully accomplished by stealing a page from her future history and donning the disguise of the young son of her pretended parents. Once in Magdeburg, Mantoue had laid low to sample the smorgasbord of opportunities now open to her.

But, once more the butterfly flapped her wings, and the deteriorating political situation helped her decide to try her luck in the apolitical Corps. Her servants, stashed in a local inn, now waited for her to finish boot camp.

No one had to tell de Ventron that they were in way over their heads. Happily, in her circle of friends, she found the necessary expertise to help her cope with this thorny challenge. Claire Hudson, technically only the Prime Minister's office assistant, had gained a practical knowledge of the USE political scene through her exposure to its operations. It was amazing what you could overhear and learn if people considered you no more important than the furniture around them. Her housemate Lulu O'Keefe had a strong common sense developed during her time in the up-time Marine Corps and her tenure as general manager of O'Keefe Plumbing and Heating. Angelina Rainaldi, although just a paralegal, had a deep understanding of both civilian law and the UCMJ.

After Mantoue retold her story to all, the group had brainstormed most of the night. De Ventron hoped that their preparations would serve them well today.

Across the table, Captain Falaguerra, together with one of his lieutenants and a very reluctant Father Benito, sat ready to make the duke's case. Falaguerra seemed uncomfortable, perhaps because behind him sat Brunei Spitzer and Annalise Schuhmacher staring daggers at his back. He was thus surrounded by adversaries. If someone asked, de Ventron was ready to swear that this particular seating arrangement was not of her or Schlosser's doing—and that was the story that she planned to stick with.

Since the duke's side had an ecclesiastical advisor—a canon lawyer—it was decided that help from a higher source would be handy. Said help was being provided by Lieutenant Commander Jose Manuel de Alvarado, S.J., the Corps Catholic Chaplain, sitting beside her. The good padre was widely regarded as the Cardinal Protector's eyes in the naval service. After being introduced, Father Benito had been unable to keep his eyes from him for a long time. De Ventron suspected that it was because in his combat boots and utilities, he looked just like any other Marine in the room, set apart only by the silver cross in his left collar and did not look at all like your typical Jesuit. Of course there was a reason for that; as the hidalgo had once served his king as an officer in El Tercio de Infanter’a de Marina, the Spanish Marine Corps, before discovering his calling, and still looked very much like the warrior he once was. Falaguerra, knowing his type well, couldn’t keep his eyes away from him either.

So, this unusual and very uncomfortable gathering had been waiting for Simpson's arrival for the best part of an hour past the announced time. Falaguerra didn't look too happy with the wait, and de Ventron tried to tell herself that she was not nervous as she glanced at the wall clock for the umpteenth time.

The door opened and everyone looked up to see an unusually hesitant Francisco Nasi enter the room and stop, looking back at everyone goggle-eyed before murmuring a greeting and quickly finding a seat in one of the chairs against the back wall. De Ventron found that very interesting, as his presence as an observer implied that the Prime Minister was showing enough interest in Mantoue's case to send his chief spook. She wondered if that was good or bad as they exchanged polite nods with each other. Then the door opened once again and Senior Chief Schwanhausser took stock of the occupants and counted heads before popping out again. De Ventron, like the rest of the naval people present, moved her chair back and waited until the door opened once again.

Attention on deck.”

At Hudson's roared command, she and the rest sprang to their feet, followed belatedly by Falaguerra, his lieutenant, Nasi and Father Benito as the admiral entered the room. He was followed in by Commander Kratman, the navy JAG, Lieutenant Chomse, his flag lieutenant, and was trailed by the senior chief, who closed the door behind them. Simpson sat at the head of the table, Kratman and Chomse behind him. Schwanhausser sat at a smaller table and made preparations to take notes.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please sit down,” Simpson said with a stern expression. “I must apologize for the delay. I was waiting for the arrival of another party to this conference. He seems to be delayed, so I've decided that we can get the preliminaries out of the way while we wait. Colonel von Brockenholz, I read your report. Do you have anything else to add, sir?”

The Marine stood up, giving Mantoue a reassuring grin. “Admiral, I stand by the report prepared by my adjutant. Private Mantoue's performance so far had been outstanding and shows great promise. As far as the Corps is concerned, her enlistment is valid. We urge you to allow her to remain in our ranks, sir.”

“Thank you, Colonel. I have been so advised by Commander Kratman, who concurs with the Corps assessment of the legality of Private Mantoue's enlistment.” The admiral then turned towards the corner where Nasi was trying hard to remain inconspicuous. “Don Francisco, although your presence in these proceedings is somewhat of a surprise to me, as usual, you are welcome. Does His Majesty or the Prime Minister have anything to add to these deliberations?”

Following von Brockenholz's example, the spymaster also stood. “Admiral Simpson, I'm here as an impartial observer, and I have not received any instructions concerning the matter in discussion.”

Simpson's stern expression softened to a small grin. “Straight and to the point. Thank you, Francisco. I just wish that you could set the example for some of my officers to emulate.” Nasi grinned and gave him a graceful nod in return.

“Captain Falaguerra, your turn, sir.”

The Italian mercenary reluctantly came to his feet. “Signore . . . s'cusi, Admiral, I understand that by your laws what Her Grace did was quite legal. The fact is, given what I've seen so far, I'm ready to admit that maybe Her Grace is where she is supposed to be. However, by our laws, she still a minor and more importantly, those laws don't supersede the obligations that Her Grace has to her family. I'm sure that by now you know her family history.”

Simpson nodded once.

Bene. I feel that any precipitous decision made here will be detrimental to the good relations between our two countries. This is a connection that could become critical, given the current state of affairs between His Holiness and the Spanish Crown in the Italian peninsula.”

De Ventron felt like someone had punched her in the stomach. They had hoped, perhaps naively, that no one would drop the political argument bomb this early because, despite many hours of discussion, no one had been able to find a good counter argument for this particular issue.

During Falaguerra's statement, one of the Admiral's yeomen had come into the conference room and murmured something in the ear of the Senior Chief. Schwanhausser had sent her back out immediately and quickly penned a note that he passed to Chomse, who read it and passed it forward to Simpson.

The admiral glanced at it, nodded and with a look of satisfaction and relief stood up as Chomse stepped out of the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, the last party in this conference has arrived. Attention on deck.”

Bewildered, de Ventron sprang to her feet like the rest. Through the corner of her eye she saw a short, corpulent man dressed in fine clothing and with a very familiar nose enter the room, followed by the flag lieutenant. Mantoue, who so far had remained as quiet as a mouse, blanched; and with a strangled voice murmured to her in French. “MonDieu . . . it’s my father!”

Her comment, in the silence of the room, sounded as loud as a shot and immediately attracted the duke's attention. With bulging eyes he stared at her for a seemingly long time until, with a voice more accustomed to the battlefield than a conference room, he asked “Is that you, Daughter?”

Over Mantoue's head, de Ventron exchanged a pained look with von Brockenholz.

Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, USE Navy

Magdeburg Navy Yard, City of Magdeburg

1500 hours local

After brief but very strained pleasantries, Mantoue had been sent to the admiral's office to wait for his decision. Von Brockenholz had ordered de Ventron to escort and wait with her there. Since their arrival, the girl had stood staring tearfully out of the window that faced the Marine side of the yard and refused the refreshments offered by his yeoman. De Ventron quietly kept her company, sipping her coffee and alternating between watching the clock and wishing that she knew what to say to soothe her fears. But, like Mantoue, she suspected that the girl's great adventure was at an end.

The door to the admiral's outer office opened once again and de Ventron waited for Yeoman Metzger’s head to pop in and ask if they needed anything else. Again. It was getting on her nerves, this constant attention.

Instead of the yeoman, His Grace, Charles, Duke of Mantoue strolled in. De Ventron quickly put her coffee mug down and sprang to attention. Curious, the Duke looked at her, and she bowed her head, clicking her heels.

Returning her bow, he chuckled. “Funny. Since I arrived, I have not seen any woman curtsy to me. I don’t know if I like that, but I think that if my Catherine was still alive, she would have found the whole thing terribly amusing. It's a damn shame that she is missing all this, although I suspect that she may be having that laugh at my expense up in heaven. And I was almost sure that I was about to see her again when I got into that monstrous thing that flew me here.”

“Your Grace, I’m sure that you have a lot to discuss with your daughter. So, if you will excuse me, I will wait outside,” de Ventron said.

The distressed look on the girl's face and the duke's raised hand brought her to an abrupt stop. “Madame de Cornimont . . . excuse me, Capitaine de Ventron. I'm sure that Anne would prefer for you to stay and so do I. The matters that we have to discuss will be part of the public record soon enough. But first allow me to present my very belated condolences for the loss of your husband. I knew his father and if he was half the man that he was, then I can only imagine how devastating his death was for you.”

“Your Grace is too kind,” she replied, bowing her head once again with suddenly moist eyes.

“Nonsense. Although I’m loyal to the French crown, I have to admit that I admire the way you found to get back at the king's chief minister, the good cardinal,” he said, indicating her uniform.

Despite the sudden pain of her memories, de Ventron smiled and discovered that she liked him as much as his daughter.

“But where are my manners? Please sit down, Captain,” he said, and sat in one of the chairs in front of the admiral's desk. “Anne, come here and let me look at you.”

Shyly, Mantoue moved away from the window where she had been trying her best to blend in with the background and stood in front of him, at first timidly but then straightening her back. She returned his gaze with fearless eyes. The duke nodded approvingly at what he saw in them, and tilted his head to leisurely examine her from the severe haircut and neatly-ironed camouflaged utilities to her highly-shined boots. De Ventron wondered if he would ever believe that his daughter had prepared the uniform expertly all by herself, politely refusing the help offered by her new friend Ursula.

“Well, at least it’s not a nun's habit, so maybe we still have the possibilities of more grandchildren in our future. Anne, sit down please.” He waited until Mantoue found her seat, then continued with a sly grin. “Today has been an interesting day; and not only because—in the immortal words of my pilot—”˜once more we have cheated death.' Any day that you see a Jesuit and a Capuchin agreeing on anything is indeed a special one, and I'm sure that an angel gets his wings somewhere. On top of that, it’s not every day that you see the spymaster of a great nation pulling for a lowly recruit.”

“Excuse me, Your Grace, but Don Francisco Nasi actually said something?” de Ventron blurted out in surprise.

The duke grinned. “Indeed he did and, by the reaction in the room, not unlike yours by the way, the man doesn't seem to have the custom of saying too much. I now understand his reputation.”

Intrigued, de Ventron wanted to ask him what Nasi said, but the Duke's attention was back on his daughter. “It’s ironic that of all my children, you are the one that takes more after me—to your lady mother's dismay when she was still alive. I suppose that I ought not to be surprised that you did this; going willingly into a convent did not seem like you at all. So tell me, Daughter, how do you think that I ought to resolve this? Because technically, I'm not even supposed to be in a country currently fighting France.”

Mantoue nervously moistened her lips before replying. “Father, I can't presume to tell you what to do. However, I need to follow my conscience and must definitely don't want to follow the path of that other future me.”

“Anne, do you think that I like knowing that your sister Maria's children are not going to grow up, or that you are going to have a loveless marriage before ending up in a convent after all? Whatever you think about me, I hope that you never doubted my love for you.”

Eyes shining, Mantoue stood up and quickly move to kneel before her father and grasp his hands. “Father, your love has never been in question, but I must seek my own path. After all, I'm my father's daughter.”

The duke smiled at the pride in her statement and bent forward to kiss her on the forehead before raising her to her feet. “Yes, you are, and in this new world I suppose that I must make allowances for this strange path that you have chosen, but I confess that I'm afraid for you.”

De Ventron felt her mouth drop open, but her hopes rose as she watched Mantoue smile tentatively. “Father, does this mean that you are going to let me stay? But how—what made you change your mind?”

“Anne, during my trip here, after I reassured myself that the blasted contraption was not going to fall from the sky and send me to meet your mother before my time, I had a long opportunity to think as I watched the world pass underneath me. It’s so beautiful, Daughter, from the air. No frontiers, no death nor pestilence seen from above, just God's creation in all its wonderful glory. I admit that I started with all the intention in the world to drag you back to Mantua, by force if I had to: but I started to contemplate other possibilities for you, for your siblings and me, and then we landed.” He stopped and shook his head, grinning.

“Your Admiral is not a subtle man. He made the arrangements for me to fly here despite my known support for the French crown. When I arrived at your airfield, I was met by a carriage and mounted escort under a very polite but very efficient young officer, I think that Strausswirt was the lieutenant's name, and every trooper in her gendarmerie escort down to the carriage driver and footman, every one . . . was a young women. The remarkable fact was that on our way here, I saw nary a raised eyebrow; everyone acted like this was a normal occurrence.

“I don't expect that such a thing will become Mantua's custom anytime soon, or even in our lifetimes, but it seems that's the way that the world is moving. Perhaps it will be handy for someone in the family to be well-versed in such things. And let's not forget that with the current Spanish adventures in the Italies and against the Holy Father, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend.”

With a happy shout, Mantoue jumped in her father's lap. For a moment de Ventron did not see a Marine recruit and a startled ruler, but a father hugging his beloved daughter hard, not minding the tears that ran down her face.

“There, there, little one. I was assured that Classiarii—I mean Marines—were made of sterner stuff, so no blubbering, you hear?” he ordered through his own tears.

Mantoue, wiping her face with her hand, stood up proudly in front of her father.

“I was also told that your initial training is almost over, but some kind of final test called the crucible still lies ahead. Are you willing to finish without any of the resources that your birthright entitles you to?”

“Father, I have made my way so far on my own merits and the only title that I have sought or aspire to is United States Marine,” she replied with grim determination.

“I see. I think that Capitano Falaguerra is correct, you Marines are as stubborn as the old religious fighting orders and probably as bad as Jesuits. You will make a fine addition to their ranks, my child,” he said, smiling before turning serious. “Our ancestors led armies and ruled empires, and now I see that in your veins flows the martial blood of our family. So hear me well and obey: You will complete your training and any other that your superiors deem necessary for you to bring credit to the family name. Swear it on your honor.”

“I swear that by God's grace and my sacred honor, I will bring credit to our family,” she replied without any hesitation. But then she tilted her head, puzzled. “This means that your idea of the early marriage is out, Father?”

The duke chuckled. “Now, you are acting just like your late mother. Yes, Anne, is off for now. Besides, Don Francisco told me that a young officer with the proper social qualifications and posted to an imperial capital will have great opportunities to, in his words, ”˜network' with similarly qualified young people of the opposite sex. The rest is in the good Lord's hands. However, Anne, do me a favor and let your hair grow—for the sake of your mother's beloved memory?”

With another happy shout, Mantoue once again landed on the duke's lap and hugged him tightly.

De Ventron, smiling happily, took the opportunity to leave the office. Her departure went unnoticed.

Epilog

The Ballroom

ImperialPalace, City of Magdeburg

United States of Europe

Five months later, in the late afternoon.

The high collar of her dress blues, together with the tight fit of her Sam Browne belt were uncomfortable and, as usual, a reminder of the leather stocks that in the future that would never be, had given Marines their most enduring nickname. It also made de Ventron think fondly of her very comfortable utilities and how long would it be before she could get back into them.

Looking at the scene in front of her eyes, though, she decided that the temporary discomfort was acceptable and much welcome. Their numbers were greatly diminished from those that had started their studies four months earlier. It was the nature of the beast and the price to pay for high standards. Still, the newly commissioned officers of the basic school class 035-03 had lots to celebrate with their family and friends. Only two of the original six women made it to the finish line.

It gave her a special pride to know that the women had been number one and two in overall class standing. If they had been men, they would have been shoe-ins for the coveted troop command slots. Still, their success advanced the cause for all women in general, and perhaps one day, probably not in her lifetime but maybe in the Hudson girls' lifetimes, that too would come to pass.

Meanwhile, she enjoyed the look of total contentment on the face of Her Grace Second Lieutenant Anne de Gonzague de Mantoue, USEMC. As she, the young prince Oginskis, and her father Duke Charles—surrounded by more relatives and noble retainers than she could shake a stick at—admired the Toledo steel blade of the Mameluke sword presented to her on behalf of her other siblings. After Mantoue’s frail sister Bénédicte and Father Benito pinned on her gold bars, de Ventron had given kudos to the duke and his family for risking more air travel to see Mantoue graduate. With his daughter a solid number two in her class standing, His Grace and her family could be justifiably proud of her. Looking on beside them stood Captain Falaguerra, the new head of the Duchess' bodyguard in Magdeburg. The jury was still out as to whether his new posting was a promotion or a punishment.

The number one graduate, class valedictorian, and a surprise for many, Lieutenant Angelina Rainaldi stood proudly with her naval officer husband, members of her “other family” in the JAG office, and Günther and Brunei Schlosser and their child. Rainaldi's daughter, Charlie, was completely fascinated with her mother's butter bars as she rested in her arms. De Ventron smiled at the homey scene.

Mantoue's identity had remained sort of a secret until today, and it had been necessary to provide the young duchess with a battle buddy and a roommate that was already aware of her real persona and background. Like many, de Ventron had been surprised when the Sergeant Major pushed forward Rainaldi's name for consideration. But during the basic school, she had demonstrated an inner strength tougher than Toledo steel. Now, it seemed that too had been another of Hudson's leap of faith moments.

“Penny for your thoughts, Captain.”

De Ventron almost jumped out of her skin at the unexpected comment and frowned at “the legend” himself, resplendent in his dress blues with full medals as he stood beside her. “Sergeant Major, one of these days you are going to give me a heart attack,” she protested.

He grinned down at her. “Captain, you're too young to worry about that. Besides, I've got good news for you.”

She raised her eyebrow in query and disbelief, making him chuckle.

“I just saw Noah Wilson back at the barracks leading his new recruit platoon in an impromptu serenade to his wife. They were singing—very off-key I might add—a lullaby, and Kimberly Ann was beaming with happiness. So I think that we can assume that the rabbit croaked. When did you and Günther bet that it was going to be?”

“Summer, and a boy—I think that we have the first of the two conditions down pat,” she said, ecstatic at the news.

“Darn, spring and a girl for me. Oh, well. So tell me, Annette, when are you going to do something about Friedrich?”

At first, de Ventron did not register his question, happy for the good fortune of her friend. But suddenly, it dawned on her and she turned to look at Hudson with mouth agape and a look of horror.

“How . . . how do you know?” she stammered.

“Easy. You two make calf eyes at one another every time one of you isn't looking—rather pathetic, if you ask me.”

Startled at his insight, she could only stare at him as her cheeks burned and then blurted the first thing in her mind. “Duke, even if I was interested, there is that thing about fraternization.”

He grinned. “Funny. Scuttlebutt says that both ONI and the former Nasi organization, impressed with the way you handled the duchess situation, are vying for your services, ma'am. Regardless which you choose, it would mean that you will transfer to the naval staff and a different chain of command. I see that the opportunity is there.”

De Ventron looked around until she saw von Brockenholz making his rounds around the room, congratulating the new graduates and their families. She allowed herself a moment to admire the dashing figure he cut in his uniform and felt a glow that warmed her insides, but then her practical side tried to assert itself. “Even if it was allowed by the circumstances, Sergeant Major, I don't feel that it's in the cards at this time. We must accept God's will.”

He snorted. “Oh, really? By my estimate there were over two hundred boots in that parade ground that day and you picked up the only one that could be your replacement in the regiment—and the one that needed your help the most. Me, I think that the Lord moves in mysterious ways but if he gives you a chance, you better take it, ma'am. You deserve it and so does the colonel. Think about it.”

De Ventron nodded and weighed the idea, finding it not bad at all. Perhaps it’s time to moveon, she thought. So perhaps tomorrow, I can start making the rounds around ONI and the new USE CIA organization—Lord, I'm going to miss Franciscoand explore what they have to offer. But she knew that regardless of the outcome of her research, Mantoue was in for a heck of a steep learning curve as her assistant. I hope that she hasn't set her heart on doing too much “networking” for the foreseeable future, and particularly not with too many young princelings, she thought smiling and then noticed Hudson's frown. “Penny for your thoughts, Duke.”

He looked at her with a sly smile. “Just thinking, in all my years in the Corps, up-time and down-time, I never expected to see an honest-to-God duchess in our ranks.

De Ventron withheld the crack on the tip of her tongue about his own nickname and looked back at the proud Marine lieutenant and her family. “Better get accustomed to it, Sergeant Major. That Duchess is now a leatherneck.”

****

To Marines, past, present and future.

Thanks to Mic Sjostrom for the suggestion of Anne as a character, and his genealogical expertise. Thanks also to Virginia DeMarce for general information, Janice James-Watson and Leonard Hollar for proofreading. All mistakes, of course, are mine.