"I'm calling with good news," Matthew informed Ivan without preamble. He was lounging in his comfortable armchair, feet propped up on his office desk - after all, it was past eight o'clock, and nobody was likely to come in and disturb him. Which was probably a good thing, because the ear-splitting grin on his face while talking to a Russian representative would have freaked his staff out, never mind tipped them off.
"You calling is always good news," Ivan said, sounding absolutely sincere.
Matthew's heart did a little leap at that, but he was too excited about his news to dwell on that. "Gilbert and Roderich are together. Well, kind of together, anyway."
"Please explain to me, how one can be 'kind of together'?" Ivan asked, sounding amused.
"Well, you know... things are still in flux, nothing's fixed yet, but they do seem to have reached some sort of understanding. I don't know how else to interpret Gilbert French kissing Roderich, while he was cooking breakfast... and Roderich letting him, without resorting to Elizaveta's much beloved frying pan counterattack."
"I remember that one," Ivan replied, chuckling. "She's a fury when angered. Anyway... this is a positive development, isn't it? It's what Roderich wanted."
"Positive? Yeah, I'd say so. Of course, Gilbert will be insufferably smug for the rest of the century, if not longer, but that shouldn't be too hard on anyone but Ludwig and Elizaveta." He tried to imagine Ludwig's expression when he was told about this new development. It would be somewhere between despair and resignation. Probably closer to the former.
"But I do think Roderich is glad," he added. "I still don't understand why he was so worried in the first place. It's pretty obvious to everyone with eyes that Gilbert really likes him and cares about him, and that's a lot to say, because Gilbert doesn't like that many people."
"Ah, but there is more to it, Matvey," Ivan said slowly.
Matthew raised his brows. "Oh? Would you happen to know something I don't?"
"'Know' is perhaps not the right verb. Rather, I suspect."
"Tell me?" Matthew suggested. With Ivan, you sometimes had to state the obvious.
After a short pause, Ivan agreed. "Yes, I suppose I should." Matthew did not like the sudden air of gravity in his voice. "Have you ever wondered, why Gilbert, who is supposedly a dead nation, who lost his territory and whose population merged into that of Germany over a century ago, is still around?"
Of course he had. They all had. "Special circumstances?"
"Yes, but... The most basic concept of a state is that it is made up of three elements: population, territory and a central government that maintains - or, in many cases, tries to maintain - a monopoly over the legitimate use of force within that territory and upon that population. Now, a nation is a bit different. A nation does not necessarily have to hold territory, otherwise Poland would be dead several times over. Nor does it have to be in full control of its own fortune - take almost all of the former colonies, Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany after WW II, Austria after the Anschluss, and all my little satellites. A nation can be no more than a group of people who share the same ethnicity, language, religion, and so on. Ariel comes to mind at that. However, at least one of these elements has to be present. Now take Gilbert - no population, at least none that could in any way be separated from that of Germany as a whole. No territory, he lost that long ago. And no dominion over anything. He has been adrift since the 1940s, if not longer. By all definitions, he should have ceased to exist."
Hearing Ivan so calmly analyze Gilbert's situation and dispose of him as if he were merely a chapter in the history books, sent a chill down Matthew's spine. It was all too easy sometimes to forget Ivan's age, forget all that he had seen and lived through... but Ivan had been witness to the fall of Byzantium, that mighty successor of Ancient Rome in the East, and witness to both the rise and the fall of its successor, the Ottoman Empire. He had seen the Holy Roman, the Habsburg, the Spanish and the British Empires come to power and crumble away, had fought Napoleon's upstart regime in the West and Japan's centuries old one in the East. To him, Prussia must really be no more than a footnote in history.
In the face of such a lifespan of memories and deeds, Matthew suddenly felt small and insignificant.
Just another footnote. 451: Prussia, Kingdom of. 452: Canada...
"So why is he not dead?" Matthew asked, trying to shake off the sudden melancholy that threatened to overcome him.
"Why indeed..." Ivan said, drawing out the words. "Well, up until 1945, as you may have guessed, it was Ludwig who kept him alive. Prussia played a big part in the creation of Germany as a state, and in that it became a part of every German's history. Ludwig kept Gilbert around, because young as he was, he felt that he needed the strength, the cunning and the experience of his elder brother. Germany's imperial family, the Hohenzollern, were in fact a Prussian house. But then 1918 comes along, and the Germans, after a lost war, have had just about enough of the Kaiser and his ilk, and he is banished. That was the next serious blow to Gilbert's existence as a nation. And yet - the new Republic is placed in Berlin, and Berlin was ever Gilbert's city. He drags along. Skip a few years, and the Germans decide that the democratic experiment has apparently failed and it's time for a new form of tyranny. Along comes Hitler, who is many things, but definitely not a friend of the old Prussian aristocracy. He uses them as long as he sees fit, but he never trusts them - and probably with good reason, because some of them try to assassinate him later on. But, miraculously, those attempts fail, and it takes another World War and a coalition of the remaining Great Powers to bring him down. And in 1947, those Great Powers decide that they are done with Prussia once and for all. Weak and powerless though he is, there is power in symbols. Prussia is formally abolished. And that should have been the end of Gilbert."
Ivan sighed. "But I experienced a sentimental moment. Gilbert and I have a long history, and while we were never friends, it seemed a shame to just watch yet another once powerful nation, a nation that shaped Europe, disappear without a trace. So when I found myself in control of a sizable chunk of what had been Germany - coincidentally, a large part of what had once been Prussia, I thought it was a nice gesture to put Gilbert in charge of it. It was, in my opinion, the perfect deal: he got to live, and I got a secure foothold in Middle Europe and an ally, whose very existence depended on my goodwill. So when in 1949 the GDR rose from the ashes of Hitler's Reich, Gilbert rose with it."
"There's a gap, though," Matthew noted. "What happened between 1947 and 1949? Was Gilbert really dead?"
"That's a very good question. Ludwig wasn't, and neither was Roderich, although they had both drifted into a near comatose state of shock. But something... or someone kept Gilbert alive."
Matthew perked up. "Someone? It couldn't have been Ludwig... or Roderich, for that matter. They were hard pressed to secure their own survival. France and Britain could not have supported him either, they were weakened by the war. You already admitted that you didn't do it. So who...?"
"Would you like to hear my theory?" Ivan asked.
"Alfred?" Nothing could have surprised Matthew more. "But why? He had no reason to do so!" Alfred and Gilbert had never been cordial. At best, they treated each other with indifference.
"He made a deal."
"With whom? Gilbert had nothing to offer him."
"Roderich and Ludwig had, though. There was one thing Alfred was interested in after the war, and that was peace in Europe. He had to pay a price for that, and it was a cruel price indeed - he had to accept my involvement in what he considered his own backyard. But I was too strong to disregard and he needed my assistance. While our heads of government and their advisors pored over maps and drew up elaborate plans to pacify and stabilize Europe, Alfred cut a deal with Ludwig, and another one with Roderich. To Ludwig, he promised to do everything in his power to prevent the other allies from wiping Germany off the map for good. He also promised to keep Gilbert around, at least for a little while. In return, Ludwig pledged never to raise arms against his neighbors again, and to become what he is today - the pacifist center stone of Europe. To Roderich, Alfred promised to promote him as a victim of the war, rather than one of its parties. He also promised to keep Gilbert around. I assume that he was rather puzzled by this request, but Roderich was adamant. Roderich in turn swore neutrality, an oath his parliament confirmed in 1955."
"So between 1947 and 1949, it was Alfred who kept Gilbert alive?"
"'Frozen in stasis' would be closer to the truth. Gilbert was not the first thing on Alfred's mind back then. Which is how I managed to snitch him in 1949. Gilbert wasn't particularly grateful, but he kept his end of the bargain. He had no recollection of the past two years and very little of the time between 1945 and 1947, and to this day, he remains ignorant of Alfred's double deal with his brother and Roderich."
"I understand Ludwig's motives for wanting to keep Gilbert alive, and yours," Matthew said slowly. "But Roderich's? If anything, he had good reason to hate Gilbert and to want him gone for good."
"Love is a strange thing."
"It goes back that far?"
Ivan chuckled softly. "It goes back to at least the 1740s and the Silesian Wars. Prussia bloodied Austria's nose and bit a big piece of good land out of the Habsburg Empire; and Gilbert won both Roderich's hatred and reluctant admiration. Their rivalry made German politics a much livelier affair for the next century."
Matthew was beginning to feel like he was sitting through a revision course in European history, but he was quite fascinated by these new revelations. "Three hundred years is a long time."
"That depends on your point of perspective. Remember your parents. They look back upon a relationship that is over nine centuries old."
"True," Matthew admitted. "But back to the story. We are still in 1949. Moving on to 1990 - what happened after the German reunification? Once again, Gilbert lost his territory and his borrowed population. Did Ludwig keep him alive?"
"Yes and no. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ludwig welcomed Gilbert with open arms. He gave him a place to stay and all the support he could, because in his opinion, Gilbert will always be a part of him, a part of his people's national history and identity. We saw no harm with Gilbert staying in his brother's shadow and left him be. And I daresay Ludwig found it surprisingly easy to support his brother as well as shoulder the responsibilities the reunification brought on."
"He was quite strong by then."
"Yes. He had made remarkable progress. But there's another aspect to the story - Ludwig, even though he is probably not aware of this - is not shouldering the burden of Gilbert's upkeep all by himself."
Realization dawned upon Matthew. "Roderich."
"Roderich," Ivan affirmed. "Now, keep in mind that this is just a theory. I have no solid proof. But I have some experience in the matter, and what I have observed so far suggests that Roderich has been diverting part of his strength to keep Gilbert from disappearing."
"How? It cannot be an easy thing to do... I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it. I wouldn't even know where to start. Is it similar to the process of you healing me after my little disagreement with Alfred? A sharing of strength?"
"When you get down to the essentials, it is the very same thing, but on a larger scale. Most of us have supported others at one time or other... helped them to get back on their feet after wars and natural disasters and so on. When you take it one step further, you get alliances such as Roderich's marriages to Antonio and Elizaveta or Ludwig's ill-fated relationship with Roderich during the Anschluss. My relationships with my satellite states were based on the same principle, but I used them differently. Usually though, those unions are made up by two or more nation states that get together for a usually limited amount of time. They never merge completely, because they always retain part of their national identity and preserve part of their essence. The big difference in Roderich's relationship to Gilbert is, that Gilbert would vanish if Roderich decided to withdraw his support. And that's something neither of them wants."
"Let me get this straight: Gilbert doesn't know about Roderich's 'help'?"
"No. And Roderich would be well advised to keep it that way. "
"Can you imagine Gilbert's reaction, if he learnt that his former arch rival is responsible for his continued survival, and moreover, never gave him a choice in the matter? It would hurt his pride worse than anything."
You had to hand it to Ivan, he knew Gilbert pretty well. And if Matthew shuddered at the mere thought of his friend's reaction, imagine how Roderich must feel...
"And there's another reason," Ivan continued, "Roderich has taken it one step too far. He is not as strong a nation as I was during the Soviet Union era, or as Alfred was, when he helped to lift Ludwig up after WW II. So in his desperation, Roderich did what the general opinion has deemed an unspeakable taboo - he has tied his own fortune to Gilbert's. As in a full merger. Which is the most admirably foolish thing any of us has ever done. Especially since he did so without Gilbert's consent. The implications of this are... momentous. Roderich could lose literally everything. There are three ways how this could go wrong, and only a very slim change that it could succeed."
"One, Gilbert learns of it, one way or another, throws a fit, runs off and breaks their connection," Matthew mused. And with sudden dread he added: "Would that kill him? Or both of them?"
"That would be the most likely outcome, yes," Ivan stated calmly.
"Two," Ivan said, apparently unshaken by the idea of both Gilbert and Roderich dying a gruesome death, "Gilbert doesn't learn of it, the status quo persists and Roderich goes on suffering his silent martyrdom forever. The role suits him, by the way. He makes a very pretty martyr."
"Unlikely," Matthew dismissed the idea. "Gilbert may be oblivious, but he isn't stupid. He'd figure it out eventually."
"Exactly. Which brings us to option three: Gilbert figures it out, throws a fit, but instead of running off, he decides to use Roderich's weakness to his advantage. He overpowers him, takes control of Austria, and there goes Roderich."
"No... Ivan, no, he would not. He could not... Has that ever happened before?"
"Several times. Remember Turkey? Turkey used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire. But when Osman lay dying, Sadiq stepped in and took over."
"But Gilbert wouldn't..." Or at least Matthew refused to believe that he could be capable of betraying Roderich.
To his surprise, Ivan agreed. "Probably not." He didn't sound entirely convinced, though.
Matthew decided to deliberately ignore his doubts. "Alright," he said. "So how do we prevent Gilbert and Roderich from killing themselves? Despite the odds, they've made it this far. There has to be a happily-ever-after."
There was a thoughtful pause at the other end of the line. "Well," Ivan said finally, "the old me would say, let's wait, see what happens and keep out of it, because there's nothing to be gained by getting involved."
"The old you?" Matthew asked, somewhat amused.
"Never mind. You wouldn't let me get away with just standing by and doing nothing, would you?"
"Nope. I'm going to save the world - or at least Roderich and Gilbert - and you are going to help." Matthew grinned to himself.
"That's what I feared. What if there isn't a happily-ever-after solution?"
"Ivan. Wanja. There has to be."
Ivan sighed. "In that case, I hope your matchmaking skills are above average. Because that's what we are going to need, and as various people have pointed out at numerous occasions, I lack even the most basic understanding of what makes up successful relationships."
"I'm in a relationship with you," Matthew pointed out. "Against all odds. I think that pretty much makes me an expert in the matter of maintaining impossible relationships. Besides, I can always go to Francis and Arthur for advice. Theirs is not only the most messed-up relationship on the planet, but also one of the most successful ones. In terms of length, at the very least. Besides, nobody said that we had to do it all by ourselves."
"You want to involve others? Whom?"
"Ludwig, for one. Maybe Feli and Elizaveta."
"No. Absolutely not Elizaveta. It is her ex-husband and one of her former lovers we are talking about. She might still have feelings for one or both of them. She would be a liability. And Feliciano is incapable of keeping a secret. Ludwig... that might work. Most of this will hardly come to him as a surprise, anyway."
"Do you want me to talk to him?"
"Okay. But I want to see his face, when you tell him."
"That's not going to be possible, unless you want Roderich to be there, too. I'll tell you about it afterwards."
"Vienna. Ten days from now." Matthew stated, unable to keep the longing and anticipation out of his voice. Talking to Ivan on the phone was not and could never be the same as meeting him in person.
"No need to remind me," Ivan said, and there was a slight tremble in his voice, as if he, too, was trying to hold something back. "How could I forget that?"
"The long-distance part of this relationship sucks. It really does."
Admit it, some of you were beginning to think that I had abandoned this story. Well, I haven't. I just feel that there isn't as much to say anymore as there was in the beginning, so I want to draw it out a bit (I'm not ready to end this story yet, I love it too much).
By the way, this is not the way the history of Europe unfolded. Well, some parts of it are true. I just took some liberties to make it fit my story.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter!