neutral /’nju:tr(ǝ)l/ -adj. 1 not supporting either of two opposing sides, impartial. 2 belonging to a neutral State etc. (neutral ships). 3 indistinct, vague, indeterminate. 4 (of a gear) in which the engine is disconnected form the driven parts. 5 (of colours) not strong or positive; grey or beige. 6 Chem. neither acid nor Alkaline. 7 Electr. neither positive nor negative. 8 Biol. sexually undeveloped; asexual. □ neutrality /-‘trælɪtɪ/ n. [Latin neutralis of neuter gender]
stance /sts:ns, stæns/ n. 1 standpoint; attitude 2 attitude or position of the body, esp. when deliberately adopted 3 a ledge or foothold on which a belay can be secured [Italian/French stanza standing place]
April 1799 Zurich
Vreni arrived at her garden gate, filthy and exhausted. If she still had energy, she would have been furious. It was one thing to feel what her people were dealing with when she was far from home and preoccupied with her own personal indignities and trials; it was quite another to travel through her land, from village to village and see real suffering and desecration.
The French wanted tribute. The French wanted housing. The French wanted fresh recruits. And when they had drained what little there was, they had not been pleased. Vreni had passed by burnt crops, destroyed houses and the remains of hangings, where Swiss protesters and rebels had been made an example of. She hated herself for her laziness, for her collaboration. She should have set fire to her uniform before leaving; she should have left months ago; she should have never left her people, abandoned them to their fates.
Usually returning home lifted her spirits and filled her with a security and belonging she never felt anywhere else. Now all she felt was guilt and sorrow, mixed in liberally with her anger to herself and every one of her neighbours.
Why were the Italies so weak yet so rich, that France went stomping through her land to get to them? Where in God’s name was Holy Rome to reign in his collaborating brothers? What was Austria up to, because he was always up to something? And as for France…
Vreni’s angry triad ended abruptly as she reached her front door and found the lock broken off, the door propped open by a stone from the garden. If she had not been so preoccupied, she would have noticed the smoke from her chimney sooner and other signs that someone was in her home.
France has the key. She thought wildly, belatedly crouching down and hiding her presence. He would not need to break in; he could just lock the door behind him, rendering her completely surprised when she got in via the loose back window.
Mentally taking a deep breath Vreni calmed herself, pulled out her knife and readied her pistol. It didn’t have bullets in it but no one but her needed to know that. She slowly stood back up, having scanned her surroundings carefully. No one was in sight.
One swift kick opened the door wider, the door stop stone grating against the floor as it moved forward. Vreni was in the house before the sound stopped, up against a wall defensively. She looked left, then right and seeing nothing dived into the main room and behind a strongbox… which was no longer there.
The Archduchy of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary looked at the Helvetic Republic, crouched behind nothing, said chest having been moved over to serve as their tea table.
There was something symbolic in that, thought a part of Vreni dryly, while the rest of her mind curled up in a little ball of embarrassment and willed the last minute of her life away. She was on her knees, shoulders and head bent down, pistol still pointed up over where the top of the chest should have been.
Austria had his hand on his sabre and Hungary’s pistol was out and aimed at Vreni, although both of them seemed just as frozen as her. There was a plate of pastries on the chest, and a steaming pot next to it. Vreni’s hunger won over her embarrassment.
Without speaking she got up, went to her kitchen, which remained unchanged at least, washed her hands and got out one of her mugs. She walked back into the main room, the other two still frozen, pulled up a stool and sat down at the makeshift table.
Hungary blinked and holstered her pistol as Vreni poured herself a large cup of coffee, one pastry already in her mouth. “Would…you like some sugar?” She asked hesitantly, Hungarian accent as strong as ever no matter what language she spoke.
“Yes,” said Vreni shortly, holding out her cup. She did not move it back until four spoonfuls had been put in and stirred for good measure. After one big gulp, she felt composed enough to turn to Austria, face blank and ask “No milk?”
“The goats were not in a giving mood.” He responded, face just as expressionless, dainty coffee cup held delicately. He looked pointedly at her hand, poised to take another pastry and the silver tongs next to them. Vreni took two with her bare hand, just because she could.
It was a strange feeling, calmly sitting in her own home, sharing a table with one of her most conflicted neighbours and his favoured Kingdom. It was so surreal that the three were able to go through the meal calmly, with no conversation apart from a few “Pass the coffee pot,” and, “Anymore?” It was good to speak once more in a German dialect and not get disgusted or confused looks.
Once the food was finished Vreni wiped her hands and stood up. “That was a lovely meal. The coffee was excellent.” She pointed at the still open door. “Now: get out.”
Hungary pulled a face, somewhere between admiration and disapproval. Austria did not even look up from his perusal of the coffee pot, making sure there really wasn’t anymore left in the bottom. “Don’t be ridiculous. We are not going anywhere until I have sorted out this mess you’ve created.”
“Me?” Vreni was indignant. “This mess I’VE created?”
“If you had dealt with your insurgents from the start and not dithered over peasant’s rights-”
“The peasants are my people too!” Interrupted Vreni. “They have just as much right to a good life as anyone else.”
“So you show no respect to your nobles, the families who have loved and cared for you for centuries,” Roderich sneered. “I always knew you have no loyalty to others, but to your own-“
“Loyalty.” Vreni interrupted again, “Yes, yes, let us talk about loyalty.” Her voice was low and dark. “Let us talk about your beloved Hapsburgs. Let’s talk about your dear Maria Antonia to whom you owed so much of your loyalty. Let’s talk about when the mobs came for her and her children; when my people laid down their lives for her husband; when they died at the hands of starving peasants. You. Did. Nothing.” She smiled bitterly at Roderich’s silence. “I’ve always wondered: when you sell your royals off, like cattle at a market, do you still feel them as your own? When the guillotine came down, did you feel it too? Did you feel the little Dauphin slowly starve to death, alone and scared. Maybe you just didn’t ca-“
Hungary slammed a wooden tray, down on the chest between the two Alpine Nations. She didn’t bother to pretend it was an accident. “Mister Helvetica, could you please show me where you keep the kitchen rags? I want to wash the crockery before I put it away.” She asked calmly.
Vreni scowled at her, but the interruption was enough for Roderich to visibly gather himself and return to his usual unruffled self. She had had him, dammit!
Ungraciously she led Hungary to the kitchen, secretly shocked at how stiff her legs were from sitting for such a short amount of time. She had to clutch the edge of the sink as she fished out some rags from under it and point to the dusty soap sitting on a window sill.
Hungary eyed her paling cheeks and gently moved her away from the sink and to a stool. “You really should try to save your strength. You have a rough time ahead of you.”
Vreni grumbled tiredly. Her own body and the strain her country was under was starting to get a bit too much. Maybe she should have given herself more time to acclimatise before entering her capital.
“I know Roderich may seem a bit overbearing at times,” Hungary continued, not seeing Vreni’s scowl behind her as she bent over the sink, doing her best with cold water. “But he means well and I really think you should listen to what he and Russia have to say.”
Russia? Vreni’s crowded mind tried to understand why Russia would be mentioned.
“For all their faults they really do mean to deal with France, once and for all this time.” Hungary scrubbed at the hardened sugar at the bottom of Vreni’s mug. “When you get your freedom back I’m sure Austria will have a reasonable way for you to pay him back. Then everything can go back to how it was before.”
Vreni tried to find a sore spot to poke. “Poland seems to be happy now,” she said blandly. It was a bit too much effort to put emotion into it.
Hungary paused, and then put down the cloth to turn and face Vreni. She wiped her hands on her hussar pants as she walked towards Vreni’s slumped frame, face kind. “I know it’s really hard for you and Poland to understand.” She bent down onto one knee to meet Vreni’s eyes. “But sometimes you have to choose the lesser of two evils, not hold out for a better choice that won’t come.”
Vreni tried to keep her eyes open and look at Hungary’s sympathetic brown eyes. “It’s happened before.”
“A better choice.” Vreni’s eyes slid closed and she could not open them. A new wave of fleeing refuges slid over her border and away from her. “I… made one.”
If Hungary had not been kneeling next to her, Vreni would have hit the floor as consciousness left her. Fortunately Erzsébet caught her easily and shifted her into a comfortable grip, standing and walking back into the main room.
Roderich sat when she had left him, staring blankly at nothing. He started as Hungary came closer and he saw what she carried.
“I think the strain just hit him suddenly.” said Erzsébet calmly as he stood and came to join her. “Here,” she passed the unconscious Nation into Roderich’s arms. “You get him to bed and I’ll finish the cleaning.”
Roderich had gone scarlet in the cheeks. “Erzsébet.” He hissed, awkwardly shifting Hevetica’s head to his shoulder, “I can’t take her to-. She’s a gi-, a wom-, female. She’s female.”
Brown eyes widened in surprise. “Are you sure?” she asked looking over the body in question carefully, while Roderich continued spluttering adorably. On close examination Erzsébet was prepared to concede that the stern sleeping face could belong to a young woman, if a boyish, half starved one. The blonde hair was too much of a mess to be a clue as to either gender.
“Does she know?” Erzsébet leaned closer, one hand reaching up to the collar of her coat. The bulky thing did not give anything away, not at chest or hip.
“What are you do- …of course she knows.” Roderich turned clumsily, preventing her from grouping the top of Helvetica’s coat. He clutched his burden closer, scandalised. “She used to run around in skirts and waist long hair, before she decided that armour and halberds were more exciting.” He regarded the sleeping face with a mix of hurt and exasperation.
“She has a point there.” Hungary grinned at him, remembering the sword he had given her before they had left Vienna. “I had better get her to bed myself, then.” Her grin widened as Roderich gave her a sharp look.
“She won’t thank-you for your trouble.”
“We’re not here for gratitude, are we?” Hungary easily took the weight of Vreni once more as Roderich relinquished her gently. Her head lolled back to rest on Erzsébet’s shoulder as she started to walk to the very back of the chalet, where Verni’s stark bed resided.
Rocerich looked at his hands for a moment, warmth still lingering with Verni’s faint metallic scent mixed with grass and dirt. Then he roughly wiped them off on his trousers and turned briskly back to the strongbox, pushing his thoughts elsewhere. There was work to be done and borders to defend.
28 November 1800, Swiss-Holy Roman Empire Border
Within the murky and contradistinction myths and theories that exist about the nature of Nations, one rule existed undisputed: a Nation had to obey their appointed leader, their ruling personage, their boss. It was a rule that had never been broken, not by any Nation. Even in times of chaos and confusion, that rule held a Nation immobile and obedient, even as the rest of the population tore the land apart. Direct civil disobedience was never an option. Never.
Technically the Helvetic Directory was the Helvetic Republic’s boss. Technically she had to obey every command they uttered. Technically she had never been formally introduced to them and had managed to avoid any and all of the urgent summons they sent to her. Technically serving in the rebel army was not so much disobeying as being wilfully ignorant of any orders she may have been obligated to obey.
But then Vreni had always worked a bit differently to other Nations. While others had a central form of government, until France had seen fit to gift her with a shiney new constitution, the Swiss Confederation had been so loosely joined together that other Nations assumed she was just one of the multiple Cantons dotting the hillside. She was not. She was all of Swissland; all the cantons, all the dialects, all the religions united in their distrust of others. She knew how to float above all internal conflicts, drift to the side, wait and always end up on the victor’s side. It had always worked for her, before France showed up.
Her habit of disjointed governing meant she managed the war better than anyone else could have. Even as the Russian, French and Austrian armies carved up her towns and cities in battle after battle, even as her people fought on both sides, she kept mobile and active. When the Directory raised the age of conscription and forced more men into France’s army she fought on. When the Helvetica Army was outright disbanded and merged with the Army of Danube, she did her duty.
France thought she had been summoned home by the Directory and was still on his side. Austria thought she had finally seen sense and would follow his commands. Russia thought she was a brave soul, aiding his men. Hungary wished she’d engage in more girl talk when they sat by the campfires plotting their next move.
Lithuania, who was in a similar position to hers, stretched between Russia and France on a tightrope of diplomacy and promises, said nothing and gave nothing away, when word of Poland’s exploits reached them.
And Vreni, trying not to show the wounds they were inflicting on her land, vowed once more to never, ever be involved in a political union. They never ended well. And she worked and she waited, for a chance to act and reclaim some of her own power.
Vreni took as neutral a role as possible within the various armies she worked with. She scouted ahead, finding routes away from innocent civilians and tempting farms. She nursed the dying in the night hours when she could not sleep and buried their bodies in ground no one else could break through. She found supplies no one knew of, that would not be missed and tried to lighten her people’s load in any way she could.
It was on one such mission, on her border with the Holy Roman Empire that she came face to face with the Electorate of Bavaria.
Bavaria was as always, a tall and intimidating figure, even if most of his bulk was gone and his brown hair had thick strikes of grey. His eyes were as calm as ever, even as he eyed Helvetica’s brandished musket.
“And you’d shot me with it, too.” He said in dark approval as he gave up his own weapon willingly. “Been looking for you Waldstȁtten, need to have a word, People to People.”
The small squad of scouts and jȁgers Helvetica had been commanding looked to her in worry, even as one took Bavaria’s weapon and another searched him hesitantly for more.
Vreni ooked at the brown-haired Nation, the closest thing she and Austria had ever had as a father figure, and nodded. “I can spare some time.” A few sharp commands sent her men off into the bare landscape to find something, anything for the army to eat. Once the humans were gone, Bavaria slumped down, a worrying hunch showing under his uniform.
Vreni id not put down her musket. Bavaria had tolerated her at best, attempted to take her German speaking people from her at worst. Just because he too was stuck between France and Austria was no reason to trust him completely.
Bavaria sat down heavily on a rock, his breathing heavy and loud, like an old man. He looked like an old man Vreni’s common sense told her although she could not believe it. Nations did not get old. She crouched down on her hunches, waiting for him to speak
For some time there was silence, as Bavaria stared off into space an Vreni elt armies settle down for the night. Tonight there would be no battles, tonight she may have had a chance to sleep.
“You look like Uri.” He said finally, startling her out of her light meditation. “You have Schwyz’s colouring, but you scowl just like Uri when someone entered his domain.”
Helvetica didn’t show any of her curiosity about her predecessors, although she had often wondered about them. Though she had always been too much of a mongrel to claim any direct lineage, her birth place had been on Schwyz’s lands. And she remembered Uri’s voice cursing her as she fled on young legs from his deathbed.
“Me, I don’t look a thing like Germania.” Bavaria continued contemplatively, still looking away at nothing. “Got his eyes, of course. But everyone does, even Sweden and he never claimed her.”
Helvetica held her tongue back from demanding he get to the point. Bavaria had wrinkles on his face and his hands were gnarled and stiff. There was no escaping it, Bavaria looked old.
“Holy Roman Empire now, he is the splitting image of Germania, on his good days.” Bavaria looked down the bare ground, frowning. “There are very few good days, lately.”
Helvetica swallowed back her involuntary objection. She was no longer a part of the Empire and did not have to hear about the child who had done nothing to aid her when she struggled to forge herself. She did not have to care that he was undoubtedly experiencing the same chaotic pain that she felt, magnified ten fold by all the individual Nations within him sending him their pain. She did not feel sympathy for anyone.
“You were in France’s house for a year.” Bavaria said changing topics abruptly. “Did he bring home any new People? Did you hear rumours of sightings of strange children in new Republics?”
These were questions Vreni never thought she would be asked. She answered hesitantly. “There were many new Republics. Batavia, the Nine Providences, the Parthenopean Republic-“
“No.” Bavaria cut her off, “New People, not old ones with new names. Completely new ones, born this very decade.” He clicked his fingers, “Like Lemania or Rhodania, got any new sisters running around?”
“No, I do not.” Snapped Vreni, losing her temper, “Vaud and Valais are mistaken in thinking they are anything but a part of me. And as soon as I have dealt with France I will show them how wrong they are.”
“You sound like an Empire, when you talk like that.” Observed Bavaria calmly. Vreni’s musket was in his face before he had time to fully close his mouth.
“You take that back.” She hissed, barrel of her gun almost against his cheek. “I am nothing like the rest, storming in and taking what belongs to another. All I want is to be left alone with MY land, no one else’s.”
“Burgundy would argue against that.” Bavaria countered mildly.
“Burgundy can come and argue with me any time he pleases.” She shot back.
“But he can’t, can he, Waldstȁtten? Because he’s dead.” Bavaria finally reacted to the gun in his face by pushing it away gently. “Dead like so many other of my companions, worn out by you and yours with your strange strengths and expanding natures.” He cocked his head to one side, looking up at her, “In my day, the idea of a People embodying so many different tribes was absurd, an abomination even. Then Roman Empire changed everything.”
“Look.” Helvetica interrupted him, still angry, “This is all very interesting and if I didn’t have several armies waging war on my land I’d love to listen but-“
“Be still, you stupid girl!” Bavaria raised his voice and a sting of ancient memories that weren’t her own hit Verdi and made her silent.
“Rome changed everything.” Continued Bavaria at a normal tone, “Went on until Germania finally formed to get rid of him and killed himself in the process. Thought it was all over, thought it would go back to being a People for each tribe.” He scowled at nothing remembering the distant past. “It never did, those killed never came back. Instead we got you and yours, small and weak but slowly growing. So slowly we didn’t notice until you were too strong to be rid of.” Bavaria looked her over, fitted in her jȁger green uniform and red armband, the white cross the only thing identifying her as the leader of the Swiss troops within the army.
“You should never have been able to defeat Burgundy, all disjointed as you were. Your people still don’t speak the same language, let alone the same dialect.” Bavaria sighed. “But here you stand, despite everything.” He looked down at his aged hands. “And here I sit, with age on my face, like Rome had when he died.”
Helvetica felt a niggle of fear deep within her distrust. “Just what do you want Bavaria?”
“Straight forward at least.” He remarked to no one, “You’re still German enough, in some ways.”
“Bavaria.” Helvetica demanded “Talk. You spoke of Holy Roman.”
“He’s dying.” Bavaria said simply. “Been dying for years, but now he really means to finish it. And it’s not just him. Whole family has been dropping like flies.” He looked to the ground, rubbing a bare wedding finger, “Palatinate, Luebeck, all of the City States.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “They survived the Thirty Years War, but they couldn’t survive Nationalism.”
Helvetica had no words. She simply stared at him, eyes wide and unbelieving. Then a thought popped in her mind and she spoke before thinking. “Austria, is he-“
“Aware?” Bavaria smiled without expression. Vreni, who had been about ask if Austria was alright, stopped speaking. Of course Roderich was alright, she had seen him a week ago insulting the officers’ rations while on the march for Munich. “He knows, is intent on hiding it from everyone, but he knows.” He frowned at the ground.
Cautiously Vreni moved a little closer to him. “Is that why you asked me about new Republics? Have the German Republics got new People?”
“No. Like your Lemania or Rhodania, there is no one claiming them. And we’ve all tried.” He made a ruefully grin. “Saxony, Swabia, even Prussia butted in to try and absorb them. But,” he shrugged. “They are like blank areas in our territories; we can’t feel them as our own no matter what we do.”
Vreni hissed in sympathy and involuntarily turned her mind to Vaud and Valais, the alleged separate Republics. She could still feel them, far away but still ultimately a part of her. She drew her attention back to Bavaria. “No, there are no new Nations about, not in my land nor else where.”
Bavaria nodded and got to his feet unsteadily. Vreni stifled down the urge to help him, he was still a powerful Elect in his own right. “Then I thank-you for your time and will see myself off of your land.”
“Wait a minute!” exclaimed Vreni moving after him. “You can’t just go without telling me the rest. What about Holy Rome Empire, is he really dying? How-,” how will his death affect me, she wanted to ask. “Will his death change things? What will change within his lands?”
Bavaria sighed, a deep old sigh of many emotions. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll all die with him. Maybe we’ll get all the unclaimed land and everything will be as it should. But probably.” His face twisted. “His land will be split between France and Austria and maybe Poland will get her bit of land back as well. And what’s left of us Germanics will have to scrape and fight for our own piece. Like we always have.” He sighed again, lighter than before. “Like we always will.”
There was nothing Vreni could say to that. She nodded her head and handed him back his musket. As he looked the gun over he spoke again.
“Piece of advice, Waldstȁtten, from one People to another: this war is dragging on and Russia has already abandoned it. Austria will strike a deal with France before the year is out. I’d try and get there first if I were you.”
With that the Electorate of Bavaria walked off into the night, disappearing from sight.
Vreni sat down where he had been and let out a sigh of her own. She had many things to think on and important decisions to make.
- To clarify: yes Vreni is androgynous and goes about in military dress and masculine hair, so most people assume she’s a guy. Austria knows because as he said, he grew up with her and France knows because his perception of genders is outdone only by his ability to exploit weakness and grope them.
- The Second Coalition from 1799 to 1802 was basically Austria and Russia vs France on Swiss, South West German and North Italian ground. Everybody else jumped in and out of the war as their supplies and military alliances allowed. After a promising start and a difficult middle in the Alps Russia ducked out due to England going nuts and insisting on searching every ship he came across which pissed off everyone. And then Austria basically went “Time Out!” gave up most of North Italy (but not the city of Venice) and went home to plot revenge… I take my history very seriously.
- Waldstȁtten (literally, "forest settlement") refers to the three founding Cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy: Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden.
- The Thirty Years War was a disastrous religious war when Europe used the Germanies as a battlefield and lead to the decentralisation of the Holy Roman Empire. It was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history, and one of the longest continuous wars in modern history. It sucked and I really pity any German State who had to live through it.
- I wrote myself into a corner and now have to support the Holy Roman Empire ≠ Germany. Sorry.
- There should probably be more notes but I don’t know what else needs explaining, this chapter is such an info dump… Please point out anything you think needs clarifying and I’ll do so!