Copyright 2008 by EC
EC's Erotic Art & Fiction - http://www.ecgraphicarts.com/
(warnings: erotic discipline, sex between adults, public nudity, harsh police interrogation)
Chapter 11 – Solidarity
Maria Elena spent the remainder of her second week in Danubia settling into her daily routine. In the mornings she gardened at the university, then she met with Carmen and some of the other norteamericanos for lunch, and later attended language class and physical fitness training. Afterwards she went home to fix dinner and clean, and finally, when Victor came home, she spent her evenings with him. She was busy from the moment she got up until the moment she fell asleep, but in her case being continuously occupied was what she needed. Her activities varied enough that each part of her day gave her something to look forward to.
In spite of her initial resistance to the thought of being a gardener, Maria Elena discovered that gardening really was not a bad job at all. She worked for people who were not particularly demanding and who left her alone once it was clear she understood what needed to be done for the day. The university grounds were attractive and peaceful, an excellent place to enjoy the warm late summer weather.
She often felt very erotic, being naked outdoors in that park-like setting. When she got on her hands and knees to pull weeds and grass out of flower beds, she thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the warm morning sun on her exposed bottom. When she spread her legs and leaned forward, the sunshine and breezes caressed her bottom-hole and vulva, a sensation she never could have experienced anywhere in Colombia. Her modesty had faded and she actually enjoyed the looks she got from men passing by the spot where she was working.
She enjoyed Carmen’s company during lunch and hearing about her life in Los Angeles. Carmen was curious about Maria Elena’s life in Colombia as well, but unlike many of her classmates, she had enough tact not to ask anything about the prisoner’s legal situation or the circumstances that brought her to Danubia. Carmen also had enough tact never to stare at her companion’s collar or uncovered body. She put her at ease and always treated her as just another classmate. There were times that Maria Elena wished she had some free time so she could hang out with Carmen, but her schedule only allowed her a few minutes around lunchtime. She hoped that after she was convicted that she might have some more time to spend with new friend.
She pushed herself hard during language class and soon surpassed many of the norteamericanos with her ability to speak and communicate in her new home. Speaking and understanding the Danubian language was vital to her future, because Kim had told her that she needed to be prepared to take another job by the end of September, one that would allow her to work indoors once the weather got cold. The law required that criminals had work in places where as many ordinary citizens as possible could see their nakedness and their public shame, so the only indoor positions suitable for criminals were customer service jobs. Already Kim was thinking ahead to what her client could do after September, but the range of options depended on how well she could speak and understand Danubian.
By the end of her second week, Maria Elena’s body was beginning to show the benefits of her physical fitness training and physical labor. The runs continued to be a challenge, but each day she experienced improvement. She was eating healthy, sleeping well, and felt better than she had in years.
Once language class had ended on her second Saturday in Danubia, Maria Elena visited Spokeswoman Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna at the Central Police Station, accompanied by her translator. The official informed her client that she wanted to give her a final update on her legal status before she went to trial. To have such a discussion during the weekly hair-braiding ritual would have been inappropriate, because it involved Kim talking to Maria Elena as a superior, something that was never done when women had their hair unbraided.
The most important update was that German investigators, after interrogating El Flaco, had located a few more of Maria Elena’s fellow couriers and already had rescued several of them. “For better or for worse, they’ll be going home. I don’t know to what, but I’d guess they’ll eventually get deported back to their own countries.”
Kim also explained that, under ordinary circumstances, she already would have insisted that Maria Elena call her mother to explain where she was and what had happened to her. However, she understood that in her client’s case to do so might put Señora Torres in danger from Alex or someone else in the smuggling group. To that Maria Elena had no response, because in her current situation she had no desire at all that her mother know what she was doing or where she had ended up. Noting her silence, the Spokeswoman commented:
“You’ll have to tell her eventually. Don’t think that I will let you avoid that responsibility, because I won’t. When I feel that it would pose no danger to your mother or anyone else in your family, I will pick up this phone, hand it to you, and in front of me you will tell your mother, in detail, why you are here.”
Finally Kim explained what was going to happen Monday morning. Cecilia would bring her to the Spokeswoman’s office at 8:00 in the morning. Upon entering the office she would kneel and be prohibited from speaking. A police officer, most likely the dog handler who had arrested her, would arrive, handcuff her, and then escort her across the plaza to the Central Courthouse for trial. Kim and Cecilia would accompany her, but she would have to make the trip across the plaza handcuffed.
“Couldn’t I just go straight to the courthouse, Spokeswoman?”
“No. There’s a lot of ritual with a criminal trial, and the walk across the plaza is part of that ritual. Anyhow, I wouldn’t worry about the trip over. The trip back will be a lot more difficult, after you’ve taken your punishment, but that too is part of the ritual of trial.”
Kim explained something that Cecilia already had mentioned, that during the switching it was extremely important that she try not to scream or cry for as long as possible.
“You’ll find out that criminals have their own unwritten code for what was considered honorable behavior. There’s a reason for that. Your honor, along with everything else in your life, has been taken away from you. It is your duty, to yourself and to those around you, to regain that honor through your actions. How you face the difficulties of your Path in Life as a convicted criminal is vital to your redemption. An important part of that redemption is to always display courage and stoicism, especially during times of pain or danger. The switching is your first chance to show the world, and yourself, that in spite of your situation, you are determined to regain your honor.”
Once Cecilia translated, Kim continued: “It’s not likely you’ll make it through your punishment without crying, but you need to do the best you can. You’ll have to remember that cops have their own measurement of honor, and for that officer punishing you, it’s as important for him to make you cry as it is for you to resist. The point is for you to do your best. That’s all anyone can expect from you.”
There was a final detail about criminal protocol that Kim needed to tell Maria Elena. Normally criminals shaved their pubic hair 24 hours before trial or before a scheduled punishment. The purpose of shaving was to show everyone around them that their Path in Life was to suffer as a result of their actions, and that they had accepted that as an obligation the Creator had imposed upon them. Shaving was the ultimate act of humility, because it completely exposed the criminal’s genitalia to the rest of the world; the acknowledgement and acceptance of a life in which modesty and hiding oneself from public scrutiny was not allowed.
Maria Elena was grateful for the explanation. She quietly responded that she understood and that she would be properly shaved when she presented herself for trial.
Upon finishing Prisoner # 101025’s final pre-trial interview, the three women took a trolley to Victor Dukov’s house for the weekly ritual of hair washing and re-braiding. Maria Elena reflected that the majority of the women she was with had been convicted criminals, the only exceptions being Cecilia Sanchez and Cynthia Lee. They had endured the switching table and faced the public shame of being collared with courage and dignity. Maria Elena understood that her Path in Life was to live up to the high standard that her companions had set for her. She needed the women around her to accept her and view her as an honorable person; the only way she could achieve that goal was to understand and always fulfill the demands that criminal protocol placed upon her.
After two weeks in her new home, her frame of mind was one of acceptance. As much as she dreaded the horrific experience that awaited her on Monday, she understood that it was the inevitable result of her own misguided decisions. The only choice she had left was to live as honorably as possible within her circumstances. She was determined that she would do her best, and not only because she was worried about what other criminals or cops might think. As important as what opinion others might have of her, what mattered most was Victor. What her lover thought of her mattered very much.
That night Cecilia went with her fiancé to the Socrates Club, but Maria Elena did not accompany them. She wanted to spend her evening with Victor. She would make love to him as usual, but before they made love, she had an important favor to ask of him. While he prayed, Maria Elena rummaged through the bathroom of the master bedroom and took out his shaving supplies. She put a fresh blade in his razor, filled a bowl with hot water, and put a towel over a small piano bench that she felt would support her weight. Once she had everything set up, she returned downstairs and knelt with his tea.
When Victor and Maria Elena went upstairs, she handed him the razor and pointed at her own pelvis. She still was not able to express what she was feeling with Danubian vocabulary, but with her expression she made it clear that it was important that he be the one who shaved her. He took her hand and nodded.
Maria Elena lay on her back on the bench and spread her legs. Victor dipped a washcloth in the hot water and soaked the area around his lover’s vulva, before covering her with shaving cream. Slowly and gently he scrapped off the black hair from her body, exposing more and more of her vulnerable womanhood. He was careful to get all of it, making sure there was no stubble left around the creases of her labia. Finally he instructed her to lift up her legs so he could shave around her bottom-hole as well. When he finished, he dropped the razor in the water, then took the wet washrag and cleaned off the remaining shaving cream. He gently dried her and ran his fingers over her exposed skin to make sure she was completely devoid of hair.
Victor gave Maria Elena his hand and helped her stand up. He led her to the large mirror he had in his room so she could see herself. As a child she had never looked at her body in the mirror, so seeing herself stripped of her hair was totally new to her. How strange…to be so completely exposed.
Maria Elena took Victor’s hand and placed it over her stripped vulva. As she felt his fingers touching her bare skin she commented:
“Ya kriminálika…ya kriminálika…”
Victor gently continued exploring her smooth skin. His only reply was:
Yes, she was indeed a criminal, but he fully understood what she really was trying to tell him. She had accepted who she was and what she had become. He had helped her make that journey in her mind, which was why it was so important that he should shave her. She lacked the vocabulary to express her feelings, but still she was able to convey to him what was going on in her mind. He understood perfectly, and only needed a single word to respond.
The following day was Sunday, the traditional day for family dinners and get-togethers. Victor had invited his sons and their families to have dinner at his house. The Prime Minister and his family would not be present, because they had accepted an invitation from the Grand Duke to have a state dinner at the Royal Residence.
Cecilia commented: “Be real glad we don’t have to go to that. Having dinner with the Royals might sound exciting, but once you’ve done it a couple of times, it’s something you try to get out of if you can. I don’t mind the Grand Duke; he’s actually fun to talk to. But the Grand Duchess is someone you want to avoid like the plague. That’s especially true in the Royal Residence. You do not want to be around Anyia when she’s at home bossing everyone around. I can tell you something else, I kinda feel sorry for her parents. They’re both very decent people, and to have that person as their daughter must totally suck.”
“She’s really that bad?”
“Well, you saw her last week. What’d you think of her?”
“I guess you’re right. I didn’t like her. She sort of scared me, to be honest.”
Cecilia took charge of cooking dinner while Maria Elena helped set up and cleaned pans that no longer were needed. Finally Victor’s sons and their families showed up, along with Jason Schmidt. Cecilia immediately ordered her fiancé into the kitchen to help serve, while she changed into a formal dress. She returned to the dining room and took her place at the table next to Victor and her nephew.
Because they wore collars, it was the duty of Jason and Maria Elena to serve the rest of the household. They would be allowed to sit at the table and eat, but if anyone needed anything, they were expected to get up and attend to that request. However, the very fact Jason and Maria Elena were allowed to have plates at the table at all indicated that Victor held them in high esteem, in spite of their collars. Ordinarily it was customary that a collared member of the household should kneel during a dinner while waiting to attend to the others’ needs and would be allowed to eat only leftovers once the meal had ended.
The dinner distracted Maria Elena from her impending trial, but she noticed the guests glancing at her shaved vulva. She did not really feel any shame, because she simply was trying to comply with protocol, through a gesture of humility that announced her upcoming ordeal in the courtroom.
Finally dinner ended, with Maria Elena and Jason tasked to clean up. Cecilia accompanied them to “help out”, but the prisoner fully understood that in reality she was watching over her fiancé. She was bothered by the fact the Dominican still did not trust her, but she knew that with Jason there was no way Cecilia was about to take any chances. She watched over him constantly, especially if he was in the presence of other women. She only felt confident allowing him out of her sight if he was performing services for the Danubian Church. Later Maria Elena would realize that Cecilia’s behavior was not so much a lack in confidence in herself or distrust of Jason, but instead a result of her controlling personality and desire not to have anything in her life out of order.
Much later, when Victor’s sons left the house along with Cecilia’s fiancé, Maria Elena lay on his bed so that he could enjoy her body one final time before her trial. For a very long time the prisoner lay on her stomach as her lover gently caressed and massaged her bottom. She enjoyed his tender touches on her soft skin, knowing that within just a few hours her entire backside would be brutally marked up, covered with welts and blood blisters. She would spend the next day injured, dispirited, and exhausted. It would take her days to recover, both psychologically and physically. She knew that, as she unsuccessfully tried to ignore the fear building up within her soul.
She was unable to relax. Finally she sat up. Victor sat up as well. She took his hand and touched his fingers to her collar.
With that he put his hand over her heart, which was beating rapidly. For a long time he simply held her as he tried to comfort her.
A few hours later Cecilia and Maria Elena walked to the university and boarded a crowded commuter trolley heading downtown. The Dominican explained the arrangement that Victor had made with the Spokeswoman; that he was to go to her office during the trial and wait for her to be brought up. She explained that he would not witness her trial or punishment because of Danubian protocol. It was considered inappropriate for family members or lovers to be present during a judicial punishment. There was a concern that family members might attempt to disrupt the proceedings. More important was the tradition that even a dishonored criminal should not have to endure the humiliation of having family members witness a switching.
Normally family members and lovers were prohibited from being present at the recovery table as well, but Cecilia explained that in Maria Elena’s case Kim had decided to make an exception. When she was brought back from the courthouse, Victor would be in the office waiting for her.
When the two women arrived at the entrance of the Central Police Station, they saw a small group of US exchange students, led by Carmen, waiting for them. Maria Elena’s friend explained that they wanted to “bear witness” to the inhumane treatment that she was about to endure. They had come fully prepared with protest banners and an inflammatory statement they had written up in both Danubian and English that they planned to read to reporters. It was apparent they wanted to stage a public demonstration and expected to be arrested.
Cecilia sighed, because the spectacle that Carmen was planning was absolutely the last thing that either Maria Elena or the exchange program needed. Protesting with banners and shouting slogans was not the Danubian way of handling situations like the one facing Maria Elena. Yes, the Americans would undoubtedly get arrested if they tried to disrupt the trial of Prisoner # 101025, but it was unlikely anything would happen other than the cancellation of their visas and expulsion from the exchange program. Cecilia knew that she would have to try to reason with her students, but she also knew that they were still unfamiliar with Danubian culture and would not understand why protesting Maria Elena’s trial would not do any good. Desperate for some advice, she dialed Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna on her cell phone.
“Kim, you need to get down here. We’ve got a problem on our hands.” As soon as Cecilia started explaining what was going on, the Spokeswoman immediately hung up and rushed down three flights of stairs to the main entrance of the police station. Cecilia expected Kim to tell the students that they needed to disperse immediately and that the idea of protesting a trial was idiotic. She also expected that the students would argue and there would be an unpleasant scene. However what the Spokeswoman did totally surprised her. Kim called the students to attention with a very loud whistle. She explained who she was and gave a brief summary of what was about to happen to their Colombian classmate. Then she added:
“If you don’t like what’s happening to Prisoner # 101025, I can understand, because there’re some details about her case that I don’t like either. Don’t think I don’t understand your objections to what’s going on, because I understand perfectly. I’d also imagine that you think I’m going to tell you not to protest. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to tell you not to protest, because in this case protesting is perfectly legitimate. The problem I have is with the way you’re planning to go about it. To have a bunch of foreigners shouting slogans is not going to do your classmate any good, people are not going to understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and all it’s going to do to you is make you look like crazy foreigners. If you’re really serious about showing solidarity with Maria Elena, you need to protest the way Danubians would protest. If you protest in a way that people here would understand, you’ll have a lot more impact, not mess up your own futures, and make people understand that as Americans, you’re willing to respect the culture here. There’s a way to do all that.”
As the students calmed down, Kim continued:
“I’ll tell you what protesting will accomplish, and what it won’t. You’re not going to stop Maria Elena’s trial. Won’t happen, no matter what you do. You’re not going to stop her from getting punished today. She’s going to get her butt whipped, because that’s part of the trial. Everyone who gets convicted gets their butt whipped. But if you’re out there protesting, and protesting the right way, you might have an impact on her sentence. I say might. I don’t know for sure, but I would appreciate the support when I’m negotiating her sentence. But if you really want to help my client, you’re going to have to protest like Danubians. This crap you’re planning, with the banners, and chanting, and disrupting the trial and getting yourselves arrested won’t help her, nor will it help me argue her case in court.”
“So what do we have to do?”
Kim glanced across the street at the entrance to the Cathedral. The main door already was open. She addressed the group.
“Which one of you speaks the best Danubian?”
One of the men raised his hand. “I guess I do.” The others seemed to agree.
“OK. Then take everyone over to the Cathedral. Find the priest and tell him what you’re planning on doing; that you want to protest the treatment of your classmate. While you’re doing that, I’ll have to take her upstairs to my office. I’ll call the trial judge to ask him to start the hearing an hour late, to give you guys time to get ready. I’m warning you though, if I’m going to delay the trial, I expect you to protest the way people here would protest. That means, to show solidarity with my client, you’ll have to make a major sacrifice in your own lives.”
The students looked at each other. Finally Carmen raised her hand.
“What’s the sacrifice, Spokeswoman?”
“You’ll have to wear Temple collars. If you’re serious about showing solidarity with a criminal in this country, that’s how you do it. You put on a collar. And to let people know you’re serious about how you feel, you’d be expected to stay collared up through the Day of the Dead. That’s a month from now.”
The students gasped and looked dismayed. No one said anything. Kim became impatient.
“What’s the problem? You’re OK with making a spectacle out of yourselves and getting arrested and getting kicked out of the country, but you can’t wear Temple collars?”
“But…we’d…like…have to be naked?”
“That’s the rule. You can’t wear clothing if you’re collared.”
The man who had volunteered to speak for the group asked: “…and what else are we gonna have to do?”
“The Priest will tell you. There’s a protocol for protesting, and they’ll let you know when you’re over there.”
The Americans suddenly were very quiet. Now that they knew the extent to which they would have to commit their lives to protest a sentence in Danubia, it was obvious none of them wanted to go through with it. Kim snapped:
“Do you care about helping Maria Elena, or don’t you? If you do, then get over to the Cathedral! If you don’t, then get yourselves, and your banners, and the rest of your shit out of my sight!”
Carmen was the first out of the group to move. She was Maria Elena’s best friend and the organizer of the protest, thus she was the one who was most committed to continuing. She wondered why the idea of being collared frightened her more than the prospect of being arrested. However, she had started the day expecting to sacrifice for the benefit of her friend and would stay true to her promise.
The guy who volunteered to translate was next. Of all the students he was the one who knew the most about Danubian culture. He reflected that he shouldn’t have been surprised that, when he got himself mixed up with Carmen’s protest, things would take an unexpected turn. Had he known were Carmen’s adventure would lead, he would not have gotten involved, but now he felt committed. It was dishonorable for a Danubian to start something and then abandon it, especially if it entailed supporting another person. So, with Carmen signaling that she was ready to go to the Cathedral, he knew that he would need to join her.
Under the harsh gaze of Spokeswoman Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna, the others fell in behind Carmen. None of them actually wanted to wear a collar, and certainly not for a month, but none of them had the nerve to back out.
“Interesting,” commented Kim as she exchanged glances with Cecilia. “To be honest, I didn’t think they’d have the guts to go through with it.”
With that she turned to her client.
“You’re lucky, to have classmates who’d make that sacrifice. I hope you prove yourself worthy of what they’re doing for you.”
Maria Elena stared with dismay and guilt at the Americans as they entered the Cathedral. She felt terrible about dragging them into her situation, but also very grateful, especially to Carmen, for caring so much about her.
Kim didn’t give her client much time to think about what the exchange students were doing. She ordered Prisoner # 101025 to accompany her to the office on the third floor, where the dog handler who had arrested her already was waiting with his female partner. The criminal’s mood immediately changed, as the horrific memories of her arrest came back to her in full detail. She trembled as she knelt, eager to put her face to the floor so she wouldn’t have to look at her tormentors. However, the cop, noting her discomfort, ordered her to kneel upright and to look at him. He addressed her in Danubian.
“I’m pleased to see you again, Prisoner # 101025.”
“Ah…so you speak Danubian now. How good. I’m sure the Inspector would love to have another conversation with you. Wouldn’t that be pleasant?”
Before Maria Elena had a chance to answer, the Spokeswoman snapped:
“Officer, it’d be a good idea to skip the sarcasm with my client. If you’d really like to push that point, I think I could have a very pleasant conversation with the Inspector; and maybe with the rest of you as well. We can have all kinds of pleasant conversations, Officer.”
Maria Elena only understood a portion of what her Spokeswoman had said, but she noticed the cop’s demeanor suddenly become more subdued. Apparently Kim had said something that put him in his place. That small detail gave her some courage and a small account of confidence that she could endure what lay ahead.
The cop calmly cuffed Maria Elena and ordered her to stand up. Cecilia told her what was about to happen:
“You’re gonna get marched in cuffs across the plaza to the courthouse. It’s what everyone has to do before trial. Your Spokeswoman and I will be coming with you, but until you get into the courthouse, you’ll be under the control of the cop. Once he gets you inside, he’ll un-cuff you and then I’ll be telling you what’s going on and what they want you to do. Basically, as soon as you get over there, your trial’s gonna start.”
While Prisoner # 101025 was in her Spokeswoman’s office, Carmen and the other US exchange students were receiving a crash course in Danubian culture. Out of the 60 students in the program, a total of 13 had decided to demonstrate against what they considered a judicial system that violated the human rights of prisoners such as their classmate. Carmen had organized the protest with the idea of trying to disrupt her friend’s trial, while the others were hoping to protest against the Danubian justice system in general. They had just found out that the public disruption they had planned would not be possible, because if their goal was to change public opinion towards the treatment of their classmate, disrupting the trial would only achieve the opposite.
The only option available to the Americans was to perform a public display of solidarity with their classmate. The Priest explained how that was to be done. The demonstrators would have to be collared and perform Public Penance. Normally they would have gone first to the Temple of the Ancients to undergo a formal induction ritual, but the Priest understood that would have to wait. He ordered the Americans to undress and kneel. They exchanged nervous expressions as they reluctantly took off their clothing and stuffed it into a cloth bag. Once they all were naked, the Priest produced 13 large collars. He commented:
“We’re not supposed to do it this way, and when your friend’s trial is over with I will expect you to go to the Temple and properly submit yourselves for Public Penance. However, I understand that the point of what you are doing is to support your friend in her time of difficulty. Time is important, and I will not delay you.”
Carmen asked the question that the others wanted to know:
“Priest, we still don’t what we’re supposed to do. Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna told us that we had to come here if we were gonna protest the way we’re supposed to protest. Well, we’re here. We did what we were told, but we’re still gonna protest. So what is it that we need to do?”
The Priest passed out 13 legal-sized sheets of paper and 13 magic markers.
“Each of you…write the prisoner number of your friend on the paper I gave you. Write it well, so it can be seen from a distance. Write nothing but the number, so the world knows who your friend is.”
The protesters complied, each writing “Zék nom. 101025” on their papers, making sure the letters were bold and clearly visible. The Priest then took back the markers.
“You will go to the entrance of the courthouse, you will kneel with these signs and in doing so, you will bear witness.”
“That’s all that is needed. Your classmate needs you to demonstrate your solidarity. That’s all you can do for her, and that’s all you need to do. Your sacrifice will be noticed, and you will be heard. I will go with you, and if your efforts are sincere, the Creator will bless you.”
A few minutes later, 13 embarrassed, nervous, and very naked US college students filed out of the Cathedral behind the Priest. They approached the entrance of the Central Courthouse and listened to a short prayer given by their spiritual guide. Then they knelt in a row, each holding a sign with Maria Elena’s legal name clearly written. The Priest knelt as well. The group remained silent as two cops, two women dressed in white linen, and one naked cuffed prisoner made their way across the Central Plaza and towards the steps of the courthouse.
Maria Elena looked at her classmates with dismay, but also with deep gratitude. Never in her life had anyone done such a thing for her. She had always been alone, with no one to give her any support. She now knew that in Danubia she had people willing to sacrifice their own honor for her benefit. Kim gave the group an approving nod, because they had listened to her advice and were protesting properly. The arresting cops seemed to be uneasy about the latest development: the fact that thirteen foreign exchange students thought that the prisoner was important enough to demonstrate on her behalf. Maybe to the police she was nothing but a dishonored liar, but to her friends she clearly was much more than that.
Maria Elena and her escort went up the stairs and disappeared through the main court door, while the Americans remained kneeling in silence. After several minutes, press photographers descended the stairs to take pictures of the protesters. A television crew was next. A large crowd gathered around and quietly commented among themselves, but it was obvious that no one thought the Americans were out of line or doing anything disrespectful.
To make their point, the Americans would have to remain kneeling throughout the trial. The Priest remained with the group, to show the nation that the protesters had Church approval for what they were doing. He knew that the exchange students’ resolve would be sorely tested, but they had to learn that to protest in Danubia meant sacrificing one’s own comfort, especially in a situation that involved objecting to something the government was doing. As for the exchange students, each of them was asking; how in the hell did I get myself into this? However, none of them wanted to be the first to break ranks with the others, so they continued to kneel in silence throughout the duration of Prisoner # 101025’s trial.
Chapter 12 – The trial of Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres
While the student protesters continued to kneel outside, Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna, Director Cecilia Sanchez, Prisoner # 101025, and the two officers escorting the prisoner passed through the main door of the Central Courthouse. They walked through an ornate entryway and passed through a second set of doors that led to the main courtroom chamber. The main trial room was quite large, with old wooden furnishings and huge windows on the left side. On the right side were benches where spectators sat. The judge sat at a large desk on an elevated platform at the end of the room opposite from where the prisoner entered, and the prosecution team had a table near the judge's platform. The most important detail for Maria Elena was a second wooden platform about 5 meters in front of the judge's desk. It was round, about a meter and a half high, and had stairs going to the top. That second platform was where the prisoner would have to stand throughout the trial.
Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna took a deep breath as she looked at the prisoner's platform. Already she had spoken on behalf of more than 100 clients, all of whom had to stand during the proceedings. However, the memory burned into her mind was from the very first time she saw that platform, now more than eight years ago. She had been only 18, just out of high school, and had entered the room as Prisoner # 98945. She was a terrified and bewildered foreigner, with no knowledge of the culture or language of Upper Danubia (as the country was called back then) facing a 20-year sentence for marijuana trafficking. How much things had changed since then, but one detail remained constant in the Spokeswoman's mind. Every time she saw that platform, her memory flashed back to her own trial. No matter how many times she escorted her own clients into the Courtroom, for a second Kim's imagination brought back to her, in vivid detail, everything she felt the first moment she saw the platform. It was only for an instant, but that instant never let her forget what it felt like to be going on trial herself.
The Spokeswoman blinked and brought herself back to the present. The cops were un-cuffing her client, who would not be able to escape now that the door was locked. Kim took out the key to Maria Elena's temporary collar and unlocked it. She handed the collar to a courtroom attendant to return to the Ministry, since it no longer would be needed. Maria Elena felt the cool air of the courtroom on her neck, knowing that within a short time she would be collared again, this time permanently.
The Spokeswoman pointed to a worn spot in the Courtroom's very old carpeting and told her client to kneel. Then she issued the following instructions:
"Maria Elena, when the judge comes in everyone will stand and salute him, except you. You must kneel forward and put your forehead to the carpet. You will stay that way until the judge orders you to step forward. You will climb the platform and assume the prisoner's stance. That means you must stand with your legs spread and your hands behind your head. No matter who else is talking, you must remain in that position, facing the judge. Director Sanchez will translate anything you need to know or any answers you need to provide the court."
The prisoner sadly responded: "Dóc-doc, Advokátna Lee-Dolkivna." She remained kneeling, nervously looking at the numerous spectators and trial witnesses sitting in the benches to her right. She recognized almost everyone who had been with the Inspector in the airport interrogation chamber: all those cops who had fondled her and smiled while she was being paddled and humiliated. She saw that female medical assistant who had dishonored her. Unfortunately their eyes met and the woman gave her a very cruel smile.
When the Inspector entered the courtroom to take his seat among the prosecutors, Kim signaled that she needed to talk to him privately. She told Cecilia to remain standing with the kneeling prisoner while she walked over to him. Her heart was pounding, because she had decided to force him to request that the prosecutor drop the charge of perjury against her client. With every bit of effort to control her voice and maintain a calm, confident appearance she quietly asked:
"Inspector, are you aware that there are 13 demonstrators outside this courthouse who are protesting on behalf of my client?"
"Yes, Spokeswoman, I saw them as I was entering."
"Well, Inspector. I believe that the fact there are demonstrators will mean that we will have to play the entire interrogation video of my client during the trial. The demonstrators are not going to accept that my client committed perjury unless the actual footage documenting that accusation is made part of my client's trial record. I am going to have to call you and the medical staff as witnesses to explain your method for proving that my client is guilty of the crime of perjury. When we do that, I will ask that the demonstrators be brought into the courtroom to witness that footage for themselves."
Kim noticed the Inspector's face going pale. She knew that the last thing he wanted was for footage of his unit's interrogation tactics played during a trial. The fact that there were demonstrators, who had Church approval no less, present outside the courtroom, would obligate him to show the film of Maria Elena being beaten and throwing up. There was no question that would cause a huge scandal and possibly cost him his position at the airport. He knew that the Spokeswoman had backed him into a corner. He would have to drop the charge of perjury. He was defeated, but outwardly maintained his calm.
"Spokeswoman, I would imagine, thinking about it, that perjury really is not relevant in the case of your client. I am convinced that she did not understand what we were asking of her. It will not be necessary to enter the interrogation tape into the trial because it simply shows something that we cannot be sure of anyway. If you wish, I will notify the prosecutor of our misgiving about the perjury charge."
"Very well, Inspector. I appreciate your understanding about the perjury issue. If that charge is not included in my client's hearing, I would agree that showing the interrogation video will not be necessary. There is something else."
"Perhaps we might agree to minimize the number of switchings my client will face? I think that, given her sentence will still be 35 years; we could have her switched once a year? That would still be 34 switchings, which I think is enough."
"Yes, I would agree, Spokeswoman. That would be plenty. I will discuss our misgivings with the prosecutor."
"Thank you, Inspector."
As the Inspector turned to talk to the prosecutor, Kim struggled not to faint and not to scream with joy. She took a deep breath and returned to her client. She was trembling and trying to control her emotions. Maria Elena looked at her with concern, while Cecilia whispered:
"I...I think I'm gonna get the perjury charge dropped. If I do, I'll owe that to your students."
"Yes, your students. Because they're out there, I would’ve forced the Inspector to play the video where they were interrogating Maria Elena. He wants to keep that out, because he doesn't want a bunch of protesters to see what his crew did to her. So, without that video, there's no proof she committed perjury."
Kim and Cecilia watched as the Inspector and the prosecutor discussed the matter. They glanced at the Spokeswoman with worried expressions. The prosecutor then said something unpleasant to the Inspector, before crossing off several lines from his statement. He glanced up again at Kim, his expression full of resentment. It was obvious the perjury charge would indeed have to be dropped. Kim whispered to Cecilia:
"They're really pissed. Essentially I blackmailed them. But I couldn't have done it without your students. As soon as you can, I need you to get out there and let 'em know what they've accomplished."
The judge entered the chamber. The entire room shouted "Doc-doc Danube!" and everyone saluted, including Kim and Cecilia. As instructed, Kim's client knelt forward and placed her hands on the worn carpet, her forehead touching the ground. Maria Elena felt the cool air of the courtroom blowing against her exposed vagina and bottom. She realized how much she was on display, but after two weeks in Danubia, she understood that modesty was a privilege that no longer was part of her life.
The prosecutor read the charges, which included cocaine possession, cocaine trafficking, and violating the sanctity of her body. Kim signed with relief, because not included in the list was the perjury charge. She had scored a significant win against the Inspector.
The trial judge asked Kim in Danubian: "Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna, is your client properly aware of the charges she is facing and that you are her representative in this court?"
"Yes, your honor, although with your permission, I'd like to clarify to her what charges she is, and is not facing."
The prosecutor tightened his lips, because it was obvious his opponent was referring to dropped perjury accusation.
"Very well, Spokeswoman. Please make that clarification so we can continue."
Kim told Cecilia to translate what had happened, that the perjury charge and its resulting 20-year sentence had been dropped. That detail only heartened Maria Elena slightly, because she still was facing 35 years of being collared and a bunch of judicial switchings. Still, Kim's pre-trial victory heightened the prisoner's confidence that her Spokeswoman really was determined to protect her as much as possible.
The trial judge addressed Kim again:
"Spokeswoman, please tell your client to present herself to the court."
Kim tapped Maria Elena's shoulder and pointed at the platform. The prisoner approached it and climbed the steps, finding herself standing about a meter and a half above the ground. Reluctantly she spread her legs and put her hands behind her head. Four spotlights shined on her from different directions. She heard the murmurings of the spectators and saw the flashes of reporters' cameras.
The first portion of the trial was dedicated to presenting the evidence against Prisoner # 101025. The prosecutor stood before the judge with a metal cart containing the evidence. The most important item the official presented was a tray containing 100 grape-sized bluish-gray ovals, the "pellets" of cocaine that Maria Elena was carrying with her when she was arrested. The prosecutor called the dog handler to testify how his dog initially sniffed out the pellets Maria Elena had in her jacket, and then the head doctor to explain how Maria Elena had the other pellets concealed inside her body. That detail caused a stir in the courtroom, because to use one's own body for such a disgusting purpose was totally offensive to Danubian values.
Other evidence presented during the trial included Maria Elena's cell phone and the arrest record of El Flaco in Germany. Kim did not contest anything, because she already had eliminated the evidence that most would have mattered, the interrogation video. Anyhow, both she and the Inspector agreed that Maria Elena was much better off having been arrested in Danubia than she would have been had she continued on to Germany.
After two hours, Maria Elena's body was starting to cramp badly, and she wondered how much longer she could stay in her position. Just as the prisoner felt like she was going to faint, the judge stood up. Suddenly the Spokeswoman whispered desperately "Maria Elena! Quick! You must kneel!" The Colombian just made it to the platform on her knees when the entire room exploded with "Doc-doc Danube!"
Kim ordered her client to step off the platform and passed her a glass of water. Meanwhile, Cecilia went outside to tell Carmen and the other students what they had accomplished by demonstrating. They stood up along with the Priest, wincing as they stretched. Their knees ached and their muscles were horribly cramped from being immobile for such a long time. As for their initial unease of being naked in front of the Courthouse, that concern had passed a long time ago, overshadowed by their physical discomfort.
"So far, just by being here, you've managed to cut 20 years off her sentence. In this country that's a big deal. You really helped Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna and she wants me to tell you how grateful she is."
The Americans were relieved. They had accomplished something significant, so their efforts had not been wasted. Cecilia could tell that they were happy to be finished and thought they were about to leave. However, their commitment was far from over.
"Kim and I need you to get back on your knees for the rest of the trial. The next part is the defense, where the Spokeswoman’s gonna negotiate her sentence. Right now she's hoping she can get Maria Elena's switchings cut down to once a year. The Prosecutor wants her to get a switching every three months. So if you guys leave now, Maria Elena's still gonna get screwed. Keep at it, because you're making a difference for her. You really are."
Cecilia briefly summarized what had happened to the Priest in Danubian. He returned to his knees. Carmen immediately knelt and picked up her sign. Reluctantly the others followed, trying to ignore the mounting pain in their knees and the cramps in their legs and backs.
As soon as Cecilia returned to the courtroom to take her place next to the Spokeswoman, the judge stood up to resume the trial. There was a loud shout of "Doc-doc Danube!"
Maria Elena scrambled to get into her kneeling position on top of her platform as the rest of the room saluted the judge. He read over some procedural issues and then ordered the prisoner to stand. Cecilia relayed the order in Spanish and she resumed her position on top of the platform, legs apart and hands behind her head. The judge then called the Spokesman of the Criminal to speak up on her behalf.
Kim made no attempt refute any of the evidence or allege Maria Elena's innocence, because that was not her job. There was no question her client had entered Danubia while transporting a kilogram of cocaine on behalf of a drug trafficking organization. Her job instead was to point out mitigating factors. In Maria Elena's case there were several significant details that Kim was able to present to the court, the most important of which was the fact that, thanks to the prisoner's cooperation with the Inspector, her handler had been arrested in Germany.
As she translated, Cecilia noted that neither Kim nor the Inspector had any desire to tell the court the real reason Maria Elena had cooperated. The Inspector was worried about his unit's abuse of the detainee becoming public record, while the Spokeswoman wanted to portray her client in a way that would make the court sympathize with her. How ironic that the opposing sides shared the same goal, but for totally different reasons.
Cecilia was able to appreciate how difficult and complicated her friend's job truly was, because she had to use guile and tact to outwit prosecutors and police officials whose only goal in life was to treat all criminals as ruthlessly as the law would allow. Kim's job forced her to be cunning and opportunistic, to look for whatever opportunities she could find that would help a client avoid the maximum punishment. What made her position more difficult was that she had to be scrupulously honest about whether or not she believed that her clients actually did commit the crimes of which they were accused. Cecilia knew that if Kim ever attempted to declare a client innocent of a crime while knowing that person was in fact guilty, she could be put on trial herself for perjury and possibly executed.
The defense portion of the trial went very quickly, since there was no conflict between how the Inspector and how the Spokeswoman wanted to treat the prisoner. Finally the judge looked directly at Maria Elena and asked her a question in Danubian. Cecilia translated:
"They are about to pronounce the sentence. He wants to know if you have anything to say to the court. If you do, get on your knees before you speak."
Maria Elena thought for a moment before sinking to her knees. She was neither educated nor very introspective, but she felt that she did have something to say. Haltingly she tried to express herself in Spanish, while Cecilia translated and tried to put what she was saying into a more coherent format. The court heard the following:
"I don't really have a good explanation for what I did or why I did it. I know it was wrong...and when I was doing it I knew it was wrong. I guess I'm going to get what I deserved. But I am lucky. I realize I am lucky, because I didn't know what was really gonna happen to me. I didn't know that...I wasn't gonna be allowed to leave...that they were gonna keep me. And my Spokeswoman said to me that I have to ask myself, why did all those other women end up as...prostitutes...and why didn't that happen to me...why I was spared...and I don't really know. I mean...maybe it was so that you could stop them from what they were doing. But I'm sorry for what I did...I'm sorry for everyone I disappointed...everyone in my life..."
Cecilia gently cut off Maria Elena's rambling so the trial could end. She ordered the prisoner to remain kneeling during the reading of the verdict and sentencing:
"This court finds the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres guilty of the crimes of cocaine trafficking through the King Vladik International Airport, possession of one kilogram of pure cocaine in the form of powder, and violation of the sanctity of her body, an offense against the gift that the Creator gave to her soul. The conditions of the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres' sentence are as follows:"
"Item One: The Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres will wear the criminal's collar for thirty five years. Twenty of those years will be for bringing a kilogram of cocaine to the King Vladik International Airport while transporting that drug on behalf of an international criminal organization. For insulting the sanctity of her body the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres will wear the criminal's collar an additional ten years. Finally, for the possession of 1000 grams of powdered cocaine the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres will wear the criminal's collar an additional five years. The collar will identify her as a criminal, monitor her movements, and alert the police should she try to leave this city. For the next ten years the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres is prohibited from traveling more than 10 kilometers from this courthouse. At no point during her sentence will the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres be allowed to travel outside the Danube City collar zone, unless such moment is deemed necessary by the government of the Republic of Danubia."
"Item Two: For the duration of her sentence the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres is prohibited from covering any part of her body with any article of clothing. That prohibition will remain in effect for the full 35 years, regardless of any other changes to the conditions of her sentence. She has disgraced herself and our nation with her actions, and the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres' disgrace will be shown to the world as a result of this conviction."
"Item Three: the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres will receive 34 vigorous punishments on the naked buttocks with a standard leather switch. One of the punishments will be given in this chamber immediately at the closing of this hearing, the others on the anniversary of this sentencing in the Central Police Station each year for the duration of her sentence. The arresting officer or his assigned partner will administer all punishments."
"Item Four: Finally, Spokeswoman Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna will be awarded full legal custody of the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres for the duration of her sentence. Spokeswoman Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna will act on behalf of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Danubia, and as her custodian will be held personally responsible for any violations of this sentence that might be committed by the Colombian Maria Elena Rodriguez-Torres."
Kim looked up at her client.
"Maria Elena, you are now convicted and sentenced. You need to come down and kneel at the judge's table."
Once Maria Elena was kneeling on the floor the judge issued another command. The collar technician walked up to her and put a measuring tape around her neck. He checked the pulse of her jugular vein and wrote down the measurement from the tape. He left and shortly returned with the collar-fitting device, which looked like an enormous pair of salad tongs. Maria Elena glanced at it in terror.
"That's what they use to put the Ministry collar on you," explained Cecilia. "It won't hurt."
The technician slipped the imposing tong-device over Maria Elena's head and closed it around her neck. He checked to make sure it would not pinch her skin, and then clamped it shut. There was a faint hiss and a dull click. When the man opened the device and moved it away, Criminal # 101025 had a metal collar around her neck. Maria Elena now was marked as a convicted criminal by a collar that was virtually indestructible. Like every other person who had been collared, Maria Elena's hands went involuntarily to her neck to feel the device that permanently set her apart from the world of free citizens.
The court attendants were collapsing the prisoner's stand to reveal the switching table. Maria Elena glanced at it not so much in fear, but rather in sad resignation. Over the past two weeks, Kim and Cecilia had told her how to behave in court and what to expect, so there was no need to explain now. Kim would release custody of her client to the airport dog handler, he would punish her and present her to the judge, she would thank him, and she then would return to the police station to spend a painful afternoon on the recovery table in Kim's office.
Kim and Cecilia, with Maria Elena kneeling at their side, saluted the airport officer and his partner. There was the tap of the switch on Maria Elena's shoulder, which was the cop's recognition that Criminal # 101025 had been handed over to his custody for the duration of her punishment. The dog handler's partner tapped the criminal on the shoulder, pointed at the switching table and touched one of the straps, indicating that she needed to position her hands so she could be immobilized. Maria Elena reluctantly complied. The female officer tightened the leather around the criminal's right wrist, then took her left hand and immobilized her other arm. She tightened a thick strap around Maria Elena's waist before tapping the insides of her thighs to force her to spread her legs. The criminal felt the cuffs tighten around her ankles, forcing her legs to remain spread and completely exposing her bottom. The cop placed the switch in front of Maria Elena's face to let her see, close up, the implement with which she would be punished. That small taunt had the effect he wanted; the criminal began trembling with fright.
Cecilia whispered in Spanish:
"Maria Elena, a lot of people have sacrificed for you. You need to be brave and show everyone you have guts and honor. It's gonna be hard, but you've got to do it."
Maria Elena took a deep breath and nodded, but she couldn't stop from trembling.
The dog handler exchanged glances with his partner, and then with the Spokeswoman. He picked up the switch and tapped the implement to Maria Elena's bottom to let her know where the first stroke was going to land. He repositioned himself slightly, drew back, and struck hard at the base of her buttocks. A reddish line appeared and quickly began to darken as Maria Elena winced and clenched her fists. The pain continued to mount...and that was just one stroke...the first out of 50. Tears welled up in her eyes and she continued to tremble, but managed not to make any noise. Honor...stay silent and defend your honor, she thought to herself.
The dog handler slashed the switch through the air several times before tapping Maria Elena's bottom again and striking another vicious blow. A second line of solid pain marked her exposed bottom, soon to be joined by a third, a fourth, a fifth. The criminal bit hard on her lip. She couldn't believe how much the blows hurt, but she managed to stay silent. For a while she pressed her forehead against the table as she involuntarily pulled hard against her cuffs. She understood that there was no way the officer would show her any mercy and no way that either her Spokeswoman or anyone else could help her. However, as hard as it might be, she knew that she had to show Kim and Cecilia, as well as her two tormentors, the courtroom, and most importantly herself, that she could take a severe punishment would courage and dignity. It had to be that way, a vital step in her path to personal redemption and to the beginning of the rest of her life.
The dog handler punished Maria Elena in the normal methodical manner that was taught at the National Police Academy. He tapped the victim's bottom to let her know where the next stroke would land, drew back, and then delivered a fearful blow. He waited for his subject to fully appreciate the pain from the stroke. After about 40 seconds he tapped his target and struck again. He slowly worked his way up towards the top of her bottom leaving it covered with 20 welts. Starting with the 21st stroke he slowly worked his way back down, trying as best he could to aim at the unmarked skin between the reddish lines on Maria Elena's agonized backside. He wanted to leave her bottom a solid mass of evenly placed welts before moving on to her thighs and shoulders.
Sweat and tears poured down Maria Elena's face as she gasped through her clenched teeth. Her knees were shaking and her body jerked each time the switch landed. The punishment was a real judicial whipping, far more severe than the paddling she had faced in the interrogation room. As the pain intensified, it forced her mind off of everything else that had occupied her thoughts over the last several weeks. Her old life had completely ended. Even as everything else faded in her mind: the blows drove that point home. Her old life was gone and all she had left was her future as a Danubian criminal.
The cop continued striking viciously. He carefully laid a series of hard strokes at the base of Maria Elena's bottom cheeks and then continued down her thighs. As the painful area extended beyond her bottom, Maria Elena couldn't resist any longer. At the 28th stroke she let out a cry and began sobbing, totally humiliated that she had not been able to stay silent after-all. Kim and Cecilia exchanged looks. She still had 22 strokes and 30 minutes of punishment to go. As the cop continued to land blows on the criminal's legs she sobbed, but managed to avoid screaming.
As the welts swelled and darkened, the Spokeswoman carefully watched the final portion of the punishment. It was her duty to make sure the cop did not come close to breaking her client's skin, and if she felt that the criminal was in any danger she could order him to strike another part of her body. At the 43rd stoke Kim raised her hand and pointed at the Colombian's exposed back. The cop would have to finish by laying blows across his victim's shoulders to spare her badly swollen bottom. She screamed pitifully as each of the final blows landed.
Nearly an hour after the punishment began, the cop struck for the 50th time and Kim was able to raise her hand. It was the Spokesperson's job, not the cop's job, to make sure the switching did not go beyond 50 strokes. Maria Elena's body was jerking with sobs and her bottom was deep red, with a series of dark purple lines punctuating where the dog handler had landed his final blows before moving on to her shoulders. Seven solid reddish stripes crossed her upper back.
Kim and the cop saluted each other as the man's partner began unbuckling the broken prisoner. In spite of what she thought about her own resistance, Maria Elena had held up fairly well. She wasn't the bravest criminal Kim had ever defended, but at least she had not dishonored herself either. Once the straps were completely unbuckled, she struggled to get off the table. The pain seemed to be getting worse, not better, even though the punishment was completed. In spite of what everyone had warned her, she couldn't believe how much the switching actually hurt. Her legs trembled and barely supported her weight as she struggled to get up. She was unsteady while standing, but the dog handler and his partner grabbed her arms, walked her over to the judge, and turned her around. The judge counted the strokes to make sure she had been struck 50 times before signing the punishment certificate. Once he stamped that document, the two cops led the still-crying criminal to Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna. Cecilia translated:
"OK, that's it. All you gotta do is get on your knees and thank the officer. Just kiss his shoes and say 'thank you for correcting my evil behavior'."
Maria Elena clumsily got on her knees and between sobs repeated the required sentence in Spanish, which Cecilia translated for the court. The cop touched Maria Elena on the shoulder with his switch and saluted Kim. The Spokeswoman saluted back, and with that formal custody of Criminal # 101025 was transferred back to her.
With her client slumped on her knees at her feet, the Spokeswoman saluted the judge. He asked if Criminal # 101025 had gainful employment that exposed her body to public view. Kim responded that she did, explaining about the gardening position at the university. The judge was satisfied and stamped another document verifying that Maria Elena already was working.
There was one final indignity waiting for Maria Elena at the Courthouse, one that was a final ritual of her trial and conviction. Immediately following her switching, Criminal # 101025 had to pose for a series of photos for her official sentencing certificate. The certificate included two photos of her teary face, now complete with her permanent collar, and three shots of her body, with the evidence of her switching on prominent display. Sadly she turned around for the camera, knowing that the welts on her body would be forever part of her official criminal record.
A few minutes later Criminal # 101025 exited the Central Courthouse with her Spokeswoman and translator. Kim held her arm as she struggled to get down the stairs, but informed her that she would need to walk across the plaza unassisted.
She passed 13 naked kneeling classmates, who looked at her injured backside in horror. The Americans were not allowed to say anything, because they had been instructed that to maintain the dignity of their solidarity they needed to remain silent. As soon as she crossed the plaza they would be allowed to stand up, after nearly four hours of kneeling. However, they would have to accompany the Priest to the Temple of the Ancients and go through the purification ritual to begin formal Public Penance. The physical agony of kneeling in silence had ended, but their commitment to Criminal # 101025 had only begun.
Maria Elena made her way across the plaza towards the Central Police Station, a journey made by every criminal following trial and conviction. It was a long, agonizing trip that exposed her punished body to hundreds of ordinary people running about. A recently convicted and punished criminal always drew a lot of attention, so most of the people in the plaza stood still to watch as the injured woman made her way to the police station. Kim and Cecilia gave their assistance to help Maria Elena get up the steps to the entrance, and again assisted her as she made her way up the steps leading to the third floor and the Spokeswoman's office.
Merchant Victor Dukov was waiting for Criminal # 101025. Exhausted and traumatized she fell into his arms. She began crying again, as he did what he needed to do, hold her and not say anything. He gently helped her get on a recovery table and continued holding her hand as she lay on her stomach. Victor continued massaging his lover's hand as she quietly cried on the table. After a long time she finally fell asleep, happy that he was with her.
As they waited for Maria Elena to go to sleep, Kim and Cecilia stood in silence, enormously relieved that the trial and punishment had ended. Finally Kim commented:
"Go check on your students. And make sure they know that I am very grateful for what they did for her. Because of what they did, I got 20 years cut off her sentence and her switchings reduced by two thirds, if not more. Make sure they realize they made a difference, and that I am honored to have them in this country."
Cecilia nodded and left the police station. As she entered the Central Plaza, she realized that in one day 13 of her students had learned more about what it meant to have honor in Danubia than she could have taught them in an entire semester.
Chapter 13 – Criminal # 101025
Maria Elena spent the next several hours in Kim's office, recovering from the first of 34 judicial switchings that were part of her formal sentence. Victor moved a chair close to the recovery table and took a seat to massage her hands and the uninjured parts of her body.
Maria Elena did not move once she was settled on her stomach on the table. The pain searing into her was bearable as long as she stayed still, but any movement caused her welts to throb and burn. For a long time the pain and trauma from the switching filled her thoughts, pushing out anything else that might have worried her just a day or two before. But anyhow, it was done. The trial was over and her first punishment was over. She would fall asleep (or pass out), her welts would turn much darker, and eventually she would wake up and begin her life as a convicted criminal.
As happy as she might have been about her success during Criminal # 101025's trial and sentencing, Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna had to move on with other responsibilities. For the moment she was done with Maria Elena. The criminal had been switched, returned to her custody, and now was safely on a recovery table with her lover to comfort her. Meanwhile, she had to deal with other cases, including the recent arrest of a French antiquities dealer who had been caught smuggling some ancient artifacts out of the country. That particular case would be a real challenge, because Kim had never defended a suspect who had violated the country's antiquities laws.
The Spokeswoman glanced at her assistant, Criminal # 98946, who was more than eight months pregnant with a stomach that was painfully swollen. She had held up well so far, but within a week or two she would have to go on maternity leave, leaving her boss with a double-load of work. Not a pleasant thing to contemplate, especially with the trial of that antiquities smuggler coming up.
Program Director Cecilia Sanchez briefly went into the Central Cathedral to make sure her students' clothing and other personal items were safely stored. She smiled slightly as she picked up a bag full of unused signs and banners, the props with which the Americans would have created a public scandal had Kim not intervened. Cecilia thought to herself, better get rid of these, just in case they decide to get stupid again. She passed the bag of protest items to a Cathedral attendant and asked him to burn it. The director's next concern was herself. Because she had gone to trial, she was wearing one of her best dresses. She vaguely wondered if she might be called upon to perform Public Penance herself. If that happened she would have to toss a dress worth nearly $700 into a fire pit, something she had no desire whatsoever to do. Better to take off the dress and put on a prayer robe, just in case. She paid the attendant a copper coin to rent a black robe, changed into it, and put her dress with the items belonging to her students. If the Church decided to collar her for any reason, they would not burn the prayer robe. Cecilia reflected that it was a bit hypocritical that the clergy had no problem burning clothing that belonged to other people, but if someone went in wearing a Church-issued prayer robe; that was one item that would never go into the fire-pit.
Once she was properly attired in her rented outfit, the exchange program director was ready to go to the Temple of the Ancients and deal with her students. She walked several blocks from the Central Plaza to the nearby Plaza of the Ancients. She took a deep breath as she approached the Temple, still concerned about the possibility that she might be collared along with her students. She really could not think of any reason she would have to be collared, but she wanted to be ready just in case. She had been collared once before, during the summer of the first year she spent in Danubia along with her fiancé and her friend Cynthia Lee. After four months the Church released the three Americans from their Penance, but within a year both Jason and Cynthia returned to the Temple, burned their clothing for a second time, and resumed performing Public Penance. To some extent she could understand why Jason would want to return to wearing a collar, but Cynthia's motives were a total mystery. Cecilia did not ask, because if a person was performing Public Penance it was not considered appropriate for an outsider to ask why.
Cecilia climbed the stairs and entered the main Temple chamber. She expected her students to be on the back balcony, which was the spot where people usually began Penance service to the Church. As she exited the rear of the building, sure enough, there they were, along with the Priest from the Cathedral. The students were kneeling, each one with a Priest or Priestess standing behind them praying with hands placed upon their shoulders. Cecilia approached the group and fell to her knees. She stayed upright, however. She was not wearing a collar and therefore was not expected to place her head on the ground.
The director could tell that all of her students were scared out of their wits. Their eyes were wide with confusion and worry over the sinister ritual in which they were participating. She noted that their temporary collars already had been taken off and that each was holding a more permanent collar specifically fitted for his or her neck. Within a few minutes they would be asked to accept the collars they were holding, knowing that their lives would become very different from what they had been used to over the summer. Their daily lives would become comparable to the life of Criminal # 101025. For them to truly show support for Maria Elena, merely protesting for a single morning would not be enough. For at least a month they would be required to live like her, to become little more than criminals themselves.
Carmen, as the leader of the protestors, was the first to hand her collar to the Priest standing over her. She swallowed as he placed the device around her neck and locked it. As instructed, she knelt forward, placing her head on the ground and completely exposing her bottom and vulva. She would have to stay in that position until all of her companions were collared. Cecilia continued to kneel as she watched; hugely relieved that so far there had been no mention of her being collared along with her group.
A few minutes later 14 US citizens, one in a black prayer robe and the others completely naked, left the Temple of the Ancients. Each of the students was holding a sheet of paper explaining what was expected from a person performing Penance. Cecilia led her group directly to the university. Later she would have to send someone to the Cathedral to pick up the group's clothing and her own dress.
Cecilia told her group that instead of taking the trolley they would walk to the campus, which was nearly two kilometers away. She explained that the students needed to get used to being naked in public as quickly as possible and that walking fully exposed along a major street was the best way to do that. More importantly, she needed the time to explain protocol required of anyone performing Penance and make sure the students understood that what they were doing was a very serious commitment. She reminded the group that regular university classes would be starting the following week.
"Before you get into class, you need to make sure you completely understand the rules of Public Penance. You'll have to kneel whenever you talk to anyone who's a public official, which means if you need to talk to any of your professors, you gotta be on your knees with your head on the floor before you open your mouth. In theory that would mean me as well, but I'm not gonna make you kneel unless you screw up and piss me off."
Cecilia gave the students a chance to think about what she had said and continued:
"The Danubians are gonna be watching you, especially now. I want you to understand that as long as you follow protocol, you’re doing something that they'll consider very honorable. You break protocol, and they'll consider you dishonored, so make sure you memorize what's on that paper the Temple gave you. And another thing. Don't you be talking about what you're doing to anyone. People don't talk about Public Penance. You don't have to justify why you're collared, because that's between you and the Church. Public Penance is not something you discuss; it's something you just do. If you start talking about what you're doing or trying to explain why, you'll be dishonored. Get it?"
Carmen answered, "Yes, Cecilia."
"Anyhow in your case there's no mystery, 'cause everyone knows you're doing it for Maria Elena. And that's another thing. I want each of you to be proud of... well, not exactly proud, because the Danubians make fun of that, being proud, I mean ...but...I guess...just understand that you made a big difference in her life. Not just with the perjury, but also the switchings. Without you, she probably would've been sentenced to somewhere around 100 switchings throughout her life. Thanks to you it got cut down to 34. And keep in mind it'll probably be less than that, 'cause they won't switch her if she's pregnant and they won't switch her if she's done some outstanding act of public service. So, you accomplished a lot more here than you could have in the US or anywhere else. I mean, in the courtroom they did pay attention to the fact you guys were out there kneeling and holding up your signs. Anywhere else, you would've gotten blown off."
Cecilia and the others walked quietly as they approached the university. They had missed language class and would barely be in time for physical fitness training. There were 47 students in the program who had not participated in the protest that the director needed to talk to. She gathered the entire group, with the 13 naked protesters standing off to one side.
"OK people. I think you all know that your Colombian classmate went on trial today, and that 13 of you went downtown to protest what was gonna happen to her. Well, we all found out there's a correct way to protest here, and what your classmates are doing is the way it's done. After the protest they had to go to the Temple and get collared. For those of you who don't have it figured out yet, they're performing Public Penance. Now, I really don't give a shit how curious you might be about it, because the Danubians don't talk about Public Penance. Do NOT ask them anything about what's going on. As for how long they'll stay collared, that's between each one of them and the Church. I'm warning you again, don't you be asking a bunch of questions, 'cause they can't answer! So don't ask!"
Maria Elena woke up late in the afternoon. Victor, who had been reading a book while she slept, immediately stood up and took her hand. She needed to get off the table to get a drink, go to the bathroom, and leave the office. Very carefully he helped her get down as she winced from the welts that covered her backside and shoulders. A few minutes later Merchant Victor Dukov and Criminal # 101025 slowly walked down the stairs leading out of the Central Police Station. He held her arm as she went down the steps on unsteady feet. She noticed that people were watching, but was too tired and in too much pain to really care.
They took a trolley to return to the university, and from there slowly walked back to Victor's house. Cecilia gave her a glass of blackberry punch, while Pedro looked at her with a terrified expression. Cecilia later would have to explain to her nephew that Maria Elena had been a naughty grown-up, and what happened to her was how naughty grown-ups had to be punished. A few minutes later Maria Elena was on Victor's bed, completely exhausted and desperate to just lie still.
The next morning Criminal # 101025 woke up and went to the kitchen. Her body still throbbed and ached from her punishment, but Cecilia had told her that she needed to resume her normal life within 24 hours of her trial. She would be expected to help with breakfast and to return to the university to resume her classes. Her cruelly-punished body would be on display while she gardened and when she was with the norteamericanos. She would understand that it was an important part of her sentence for everyone in her life to see her after she had been switched.
Maria Elena's employers were understanding of her situation and gave her a very light assignment, sweeping sidewalks. The welts still throbbed, but the gentle movement of sweeping and the hot late summer sunshine on her skin began to heal her more quickly than she could have expected. She felt humiliated anytime she noticed someone looking at her, but for people to see her after a switching was part of her Path in Life as a criminal.
Class was more difficult. The norteamericanos gathered around her, some of them wanting to express sympathy and some of them just curious to see, up close, a person who had received an infamous Danubian judicial switching. Cecilia explained that there was a tradition that all punished criminals had to perform when surrounded by people who knew them. Maria Elena had to put her hands on the language instructor’s desk and bend over slightly, to allow her classmates to examine her more thoroughly. The criminal's face flushed with humiliation and resentment as she stood still and her wide-eyed classmates studied the painful welts that remained from her first judicial switching.
Equally painful was having to face Carmen and the 12 other students who now wore Church collars on her behalf. The 13 naked exchange students all looked very uneasy with their situations. The most difficult adjustment was attending language class in the nude, especially when they were called upon to answer a question. The rule was that a collared university student had to stand up, kneel, and place their head on the floor before responding. If the student answered correctly, the language instructor granted permission to “recover” and sit. If the student answered incorrectly, that person had to remain kneeling, with their bottom and genitalia fully exposed to the rest of the class, until called upon again. The instructor tried to go easy on the collared students, but protocol was protocol and he was not in a position to tell them not to comply with what Public Penance required of them.
After class Criminal # 101025 asked Carmen to gather the collared classmates together. She let them know that she was well-aware that it was because of their sacrifice that the perjury charge was dropped and she had been sentenced to a single switching per year. Now that she already had endured the first of those dreadful punishments, she could fully appreciate the huge favor they had done for her. To be switched once a year would be bad enough, but without them she would have faced the switching table at least once every six months. She tried to express her gratitude, but then tears welled up in her eyes. Although she had started to cry, she forced herself to give her classmates the real reason she was so affected by what they had done for her. Carmen translated:
“I…in all my life…there’s only been two people who ever cared about me…I mean cared about me to ever actually do anything for me. One of them was my mother. The other was my boyfriend…my first boyfriend. I’ll never see either of them again. My boyfriend is dead, and I am ashamed to face my mother. So I am alone, and there isn’t anyone to care about what happened to me. Or that’s what I thought. You all cared about me, and you were going to go get yourselves arrested to try to help me…and now you’re all…naked…because you cared about me. I…I love you…for what you did for me…I mean…I wasn’t worth it…but you did it anyway…and I will always remember…and I would give my life for any of you…”
Maria Elena broke down crying. One by one she accepted a hug from each of the classmates who were sacrificing for her.
She knew, at that moment, that in spite of the difficult existence she faced as a collared criminal, she had gained so much more by coming to Danubia than she ever could have imagined. Exactly two weeks had passed since that moment in the airport when she was desperately trying to get that drug dog to be quiet and those two cops came running up to her with their pistols drawn. Just two weeks, but already she knew that she had been redeemed…redeemed so that she could learn to care about other people and have a life worth living.
The following day was Wednesday of Maria Elena’s third week in Danubia. She woke up and gently kissed Victor. She had spent yet another night in his bed, but still was too sore to have sex with him. She hoped that by that evening she would be recovered enough that she could resume that portion of her life. She got up and looked at herself in a full-length mirror. Her welts were still very dark and painful, but she noticed that they had just started to fade. Excellent. Another day gardening in the sun would help, and hopefully by the beginning of the following week her skin would be completely healed.
She helped Cecilia with breakfast. They chatted about the upcoming fall semester and a likely change in Maria Elena’s work schedule. Because the norteamericanos would be enrolled in normal classes with Danubian university students, the language training would end and Maria Elena would have to work longer hours in the garden. The Ministry would pay the university for a tutor, but only for two hours a day. Also, because she no longer would be part of the exchange group, Maria Elena would not have to attend physical fitness training.
“I guess the point is you’ve gotten to know my students, but after next week you guys won’t be together in class anymore. They’ll all be in different classes taking different subjects. That’s when things are gonna change in the exchange program and people will start going their separate ways. It's like that every year, the summer group splits up once they start normal classes. The way things normally work is that several cliques will form; you’ll have groups that end up not having much to do with each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if the collared group forms its own clique at the beginning, but once their collars come off, I bet they’ll split up. Anyhow, whether or not you hang out with any of my students is up to you, but you’ll have to remember they’re free and you’re not, so they’ll always have more time than you.”
Once she had cleaned up from breakfast, Maria Elena went to the university and reported for work. Her boss decided that she was healthy enough to rake leaves, so he handed her a rake. He then departed, leaving the criminal alone to reflect on her own situation. She realized that, as much as she idealized her classmates, it was true they would move on with their lives as soon as the semester started. She felt she was close enough to Carmen that their friendship would continue, but she did not feel she knew any of the others well enough to predict what would happen. One big problem was the reality that most of them spoke no Spanish and she did not speak English, so they would only be able to communicate in Danubian.
As she raked, Maria Elena realized something else that troubled her. She did not much care for Cecilia. The Dominican’s abrasive and bossy personality grated on her, so she hoped to be around her as little as possible in the future. The sooner she did not have to rely on that irritating woman, the better. Cecilia had been extremely helpful and never did anything to offend her, so outwardly she would have to remain cordial. However, over time she hoped to build a life that would allow her to distance herself from her housemate. Being friends with Carmen offered one opportunity to not have to deal so much with Cecilia. Another opportunity she had was to finish taking over the responsibilities of the house, which would free Cecilia to spend more time away with Jason or with her students.
Maria Elena had lunch with Carmen and the norteamericano who had translated for the group when they were at the Cathedral getting ready to demonstrate. It was strange to see them sitting in the nude at the university cafe. However, it seemed that Carmen was more at ease with being naked than she had been the day before. The guy still seemed a bit uneasy. From the cafe the three went to class.
Maria Elena's love-making sessions with Victor resumed Thursday, three nights after her switching. Her body was still somewhat sore, but she was determined to put the punishment behind her and make her life as normal as possible. She got on her hands and knees so his weight would not press on her welts. She placed her body on display for her lover, showing him her markings as she assumed a submissive position and spread for him. To see her punished body presented for sex was a strange and rather sinister sight for Victor, because he never had made love to a woman who had been punished. Like everything else with the Colombian, it was a new experience for him, one that he found intensely erotic.
The criminal's summer routine lasted one more week. In the morning she got up and prepared the kitchen for Cecilia to cook before helping Victor get dressed. She quit going to the university with her housemate, because Carmen started passing by to pick her up in the morning. Carmen admitted that she was still embarrassed walking around naked on campus by herself and liked having Maria Elena go with her for company. Every morning there was gardening and every afternoon there was lunch, class, and exercise. Carmen often went home with Maria Elena and chatted with her while she was setting up for dinner. She started staying for dinner and studied with her Colombian classmate in the evenings.
That Saturday Cecilia and Maria Elena planned an interesting surprise for Carmen and the other protesters. They invited the 13 collared students to go with them to the Socrates Club. Cecilia realized that one way to reward the group that had shown solidarity with her housemate was to show them a place that none of her other students had ever seen first-hand. Yes they were foreigners with a sketchy command of the Danubian language, but their collars made them welcome among the city’s criminals. Jason accompanied his fiancé, of course. For the couple it was a typical night, socializing and dancing periodically interrupted when Cecilia took Jason to an intimacy room to spank him and make love to him.
The next two weeks passed uneventfully as Maria Elena pursued her expanded work schedule and her reduced hours of language studies. She spent her free time with Carmen and her nights with Victor.
There was one indication that Maria Elena’s life would have to change at least somewhat by the end of September. Very rapidly the days were getting shorter and the early mornings were beginning to get chilly. Often the prisoner shivered during the first part of the morning while she was gardening, which forced Cecilia to change her class schedule. She had to be tutored in the morning so she could be indoors when it was still cold and started working at 10:00, when the temperature outside was more comfortable.
Summer was drawing to a close, but in Europe the richest weather often immediately precedes the cold rains of autumn. The warm late summer sunshine and cool breezes caressed Maria Elena’s bare body as she worked, making her feel sensuous. She knew that the final weeks of sunshine were something to enjoy, because soon enough it would be cold and rainy. Undoubtedly she would spend the rest of the year indoors stuck behind a customer service counter or serving food, so she knew that she had to appreciate the final days of her gardening position and the chance to be outside.
There was nothing to indicate anything other than she would lead an ordinary existence as a criminal…or so everyone thought.
Chapter 14 - A summons from the Grand Duchess
On Friday morning at the end of the second week in September, Maria Elena began her normal routine at home before reporting to the university for language tutoring and yet more hedge-trimming. However, no sooner had she reported to work and picked up the hedge trimmer, than her boss told her that she had a call from her Spokeswoman. The news was that she and her translator needed to report immediately to the Central Police Station.
Although the man was speaking in Danubian, Maria Elena had learned enough of the language that she could understand what he was telling her. She knelt, was dismissed, and immediately located Cecilia in her office. The urgency of Kim's request worried both women, but they rushed to the University trolley stop to catch the next trolley going downtown. As usual, Maria Elena had to stand; her hands gripping the pole above her head and her body totally exposed to the other passengers. However, she had become used to the restriction and no longer really thought about it. As much as she would have liked to take a seat, she knew that seating on public transportation was off-limits to anyone wearing a collar.
A few minutes later, Cecilia and Maria Elena got off the university-line transport, entered the Central Police Station, and ascended the steps to the third floor. When they entered the Spokeswoman’s office, they noticed two men wearing tunics with the Royal House emblem engraved on their chests. Both men wore ceremonial swords on sword-belts and sported ridiculous-looking hats with large feathers. Maria Elena knelt, trying as best she could to not laugh at the two men’s silly clothing.
One of the men pointed at Maria Elena while speaking to Kim in Danubian:
“Spokeswoman, is this the foreign criminal who was assigned the number 101025 by the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Danubia?”
“Yes, Lord. She is my client, Criminal # 101025.”
“Excellent, Spokeswoman. You and your translator will have the honor of standing in the presence of the Grand Duchess of the Republic of Danubia and performing a service for Her Graciousness. You are ordered to bring your client to the Royal House and present her to Grand Duchess Anyia.”
Kim went pale, but managed to reply: “Yes, Lord. What time are we to comply with the wishes of the Grand Duchess?”
“Now. You will bring this criminal to the main entrance of this building, where one of the Royal transports will be awaiting the three of you.”
“Lord, I will accept the honor the Grand Duchess has bestowed upon me. I wish for one favor in return. I’d like 10 minutes, so I can do several things, including calling my supervisor to tell him you’ve summoned me, turning off my client’s collar transmitter, and dressing more appropriately to be in the presence of the Grand Duchess . Can you grant me that favor, Lord?”
“It is inappropriate to keep the Grand Duchess waiting, Spokeswoman. But we will grant you that request.”
With that Kim and Cecilia saluted and the two Lords saluted back. The Spokeswoman left her client and her assistant kneeling in the front office, while retreating with Cecilia into the back office. She shut the door. As Kim dialed her supervisor, Cecilia whispered in English:
“What’s going on?”
“What do you think is going on? Anyia. Our ‘gracious’ Grand Duchess. That crazy bitch wants to ‘honor’ us by having us go to her place and see how ‘gracious’ she is. We get the privilege to escape from our own pathetic existence and see the true splendor that…”
Kim interrupted when her supervisor picked up. She quickly explained that she was summoned to go to the Royal House with her Colombian client and her translator and would not be able to make it an arraignment hearing she had with a new client in the afternoon. She vaguely hoped that the hearing would be too important and that Anyia would have to wait. However, her supervisor told her to immediately go to the Royal House and that he would call the committee to postpone her client’s hearing. Kim hung up.
“How great. How fucking wonderful. Now Anyia even gets to mess with the arraignment schedule! In other words, I’ve got a client who’s sitting in a holding cell and he’s got to stay there until I get back…whenever that is!”
Cecilia said nothing, noting that her friend was seething with anger. The Spokeswoman opened her closet and began tearing off her clothes. She grabbed a linen dress from her collection and tossed another to Cecilia. There was no way the two women could wear everyday clothing if they were going to visit the Royal Family. From experience Kim knew that she needed to be prepared for suddenly having to change into fancier clothing and kept her office closet well-stocked with outfits.
Once Kim and Cecilia were properly attired in fine linen dresses, the Spokeswoman opened the door. Maria Elena was still on her knees with her forehead pressed to the floor. She didn’t have a clue what was happening.
After stopping on the ground floor to have the criminal’s collar deactivated, the three women followed the two Lords to a waiting minivan. In any other country a ride in a minivan would have been no big deal, but in Danubia, where privately-owned vehicles were illegal, to ride in a car was a luxury that few people had experienced. The Royal Family was a major exception to the prohibition of cars, because the Estate had several minivans at its disposal. Unlike nearly everyone else, the Royals and their servants never rode on public transportation.
The two Lords escorted the three women to a waiting van, where the driver and a kneeling naked male servant were waiting. As soon as everyone was on board, the vehicle pulled away and moved unimpeded towards the western edge of Danube City. The van passed Vladik Dukov’s house and the yellow sign that ordinarily would have marked the edge of Maria Elena’s world. It emerged into the Danubian countryside and descended into a valley, passing several potato farms and fruit orchards before turning off the main road and passing through an ornate gate. It continued along a tree-lined road that traversed a beautiful park. Finally the van stopped at a pretentious 19th-Century brick mansion that boasted a multitude of turrets, balconies, and towers.
A man dressed in a tunic blew a horn as the van pulled up to the front entrance. Eight naked young men filed out of the door carrying Royal banners and lined up along a red carpet leading into the mansion. They draped the banners over the carpet, but as the two Lords and their guests approached each banner, it was lifted out of their way. Maria Elena noticed two details about the young men. Like the female servants she had seen at the Prime Minister’s house, all of them were quite handsome and in excellent physical shape. Also, the men wore ornate collars identical to the ones worn by Anyia’s personal escort.
Maria Elena and Cecilia still did not understand what was going on. Kim suspected that she did know, and her expression reflected a combination of anger and worry. She had noticed Anyia intensely studying her client at the Prime Minister’s residence. That gave her a very bad feeling, and the call from the Royal Household in the morning confirmed her concern.
The two Lords and the three women were escorted into a reception area. They stood at attention while Maria Elena knelt. The Lords were perfectly silent, while Kim and Cecilia were too intimidated to move or make any noise. The group remained still for several minutes, enough for Maria Elena’s body to start cramping from staying immobilized in an uncomfortable position for too long. Finally two of the female servants Maria Elena had seen at the Prime Minster’s dinner appeared and opened the doors to the main ceremonial chamber. As soon as the doors were open the servants knelt and put their heads on the floor.
Bewildered and frightened, Maria Elena followed her Spokeswoman and her translator to the main reception room. The room was the most attractive place Maria Elena had yet seen in Danubia, made from finely-crafted wood and decorated with amber, with stained glass windows covered with dark silk curtains. A red rug led to a throne in which the Grand Duchess was seated. Her naked attendants were kneeling on both sides of the red rug, absolutely still and expressionless. Their uncovered bodies sharply contrasted with the rich colors of the room and Anyia’s elaborate clothing.
Kim and Cecilia led their trembling companion before Dukov’s imperious daughter. The Spokeswoman pointed at the carpet, indicating that Maria Elena needed to kneel. Kim and Cecilia remained standing, but they had to salute Anyia before she would speak to them.
The Grand Duchess held a finely crafted leather switch, which she used to point and to threaten servants she felt were not performing to Royal House standards. She used it to point at Maria Elena and addressed Kim in Danubian:
“Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna, I am pleased that you have fulfilled your duty by bringing me this criminal."
Kim saluted and replied: “Yes, Grand Duchess.”
Anyia reached forward and tapped Maria Elena’s bare back with the tip of her switch.
“I want to examine your client. Tell her to stand up and assume the prisoner’s stance.”
“Yes, Grand Duchess.”
Cecilia translated, telling the criminal to stand and face the Grand Duchess, then to spread her legs and put her hands behind her head. Anyia’s eyes scanned her exposed body. For a Latin American woman she was tall and light-skinned, but her jet black hair and dark eyes set her apart from women in the Danubian Republic. Maria Elena could tell that the obnoxious young noblewoman was fascinated with her. The Grand Duchess explored her body with light touches of the switch, poking one of her breasts, pressing her inner thigh, stroking her cheek, and placing the tip of the switch under her chin to make her life up her head. With a quick tap Anyia instructed Maria Elena to turn sideways, then with another tap instructed her to make another quarter turn to display her backside.
“Spokeswoman, tell your client to face me and kneel.”
Once Maria Elena was kneeling, Anyia spoke again:
“Tell your client to kneel forward, then to get up and get a tray from the kitchen. Tell her to pour me a glass of wine and to serve it to me. Tell her that she will bring me the wine on a tray, upon returning she will kneel without spilling the glass, and then she will hold out the tray to present the wine.”
“Yes, Grand Duchess.”
Cecilia translated the command, adding: “Please don’t mess this up. The trays are in the cabinet on the right side of the main kitchen door. Just say ‘vinókt’ and the cook will get you a bottle and pour you a glass.”
Still trembling, Maria Elena did as she was told. First she retrieved a tray, then approached the head cook and said “vinókt”, waited for him to fill a glass, and returned to the Grand Duchess. She managed to kneel without spilling the glass, in spite of being totally bewildered and terrified. When Anyia took the wine she spoke to Kim again:
“Spokeswoman, has this Criminal gone on trial yet?”
“Yes, Grand Duchess, she was tried and convicted about three weeks ago.”
“What are the crimes of which she was convicted, Spokeswoman?”
“Drug trafficking, cocaine possession, and violating her body, Grand Duchess.”
“Hmmm…so her sentence is…”
“She was sentenced to 35 years, Grand Duchess.”
“Good, a nice long sentence. Then, I want her for the Royal Estate. You will go to the judge who sentenced her and tell him that as of next Monday, the Ministry of Justice is ordered to surrender custody of this criminal to my representative. Next Monday morning you are ordered to take her to the Central Courthouse and have her collar removed so she can be fitted with a Royal House collar. You also will understand that from this point, any official working for the Ministry of Justice is prohibited from touching her. Do you understand me, Spokeswoman?”
Kim’s face went pale upon hearing the command, but she managed to respond: “Yes, Grand Duchess.”
Kim and Cecilia exchanged nervous glances. Anyia snapped:
“Is there a problem, Spokeswoman?”
“Grand Duchess, I’m…concerned about one thing. My client still doesn’t speak much Danubian. The only language she knows is Spanish. We’re working on that, but right now she needs to have a translator and…”
Anyia cracked her switch hard against the chair and stood up. She then pointed the implement at Kim, as though she were threatening to punish her:
“Listen, Spokeswoman…I don’t appreciate you arguing with me…questioning a decision I’ve made on behalf of the Royal House! You’re nothing but a low-level Public Servant and you need to remember that when you talk to me! Now, if you don’t think this criminal has the language skills she needs to serve the Royal House, then it’s your responsibility to fix that! The Royal House has made its decision and it’s your duty to do what you need to do to facilitate that decision!” She cracked the switch on her chair a second time before touching it to Kim’s cheek in a menacing manner. “Do you understand me, Spokeswoman?”
Kim’s eyes went wide with shock and anger. It was clear that both she and Cecilia were taken aback by the Grand Duchess’s outburst, tone of voice, and the fact she dared to physically threaten her. Maybe it was true that she was the wife of the Grand Duke, but it was also true that it was not the Middle Ages. Even if Anyia was Royalty, she had no business speaking to a Public Employee in such a manner. However, Kim remained calm. She took a deep breath and replied:
“Yes, Grand Duchess. I will do what I can to prepare my client for her duties in the Royal House.”
“Very well, Spokeswoman. I will overlook your vile display of disrespect. You are to inform your Ministry that this criminal is now property of the Royal Family. I am granting you the privilege of temporary custody, pending her delivery to the Royal Estate.”
“Yes, Grand Duchess.”
“Good. Now you are dismissed. Make sure this criminal is properly cared for. I want her in top physical condition when she is brought to the Royal Residence.”
“Yes, Grand Duchess.”
Kim and Cecilia saluted the Grand Duchess before doing a crisp about-face. Cecilia instructed Maria Elena to get off her knees and follow them out of the room. The Colombian was totally bewildered, because she had not understood very much of the conversation between her Spokeswoman and that weird queen, or whatever the hell she was. She knew something very unpleasant had happened in that room, but didn’t have a clue what.
The two Lords presented Kim with three sets of documents printed on Royal House parchment and decorated with Royal House seals. The Spokeswoman was ordered to present one set to the Minister of Justice and the second set to the judge who had presided over Criminal # 101025’s trial. The final set would be placed into Maria Elena’s folder in Kim’s office. The documents officially transferred custody of her to the Royal Household once she was convicted. A representative of the Royal Family would show up next Monday at the Courthouse to collar her and transport her to the Royal Estate.
Maria Elena watched the proceedings with concern, every so often casting a pleading glance at her translator for an explanation of what was going on. Cecilia said nothing, because she was afraid to speak without being given any instructions to do so. However, the Dominican’s expression clearly indicated that something was not right.
Finally the Lords returned the three women to the minivan for transport back to the Central Police Station. Kim held a folder containing the Royal House documents as she took her seat. Maria Elena noticed there were tears in her eyes and her hands were shaking. Cecilia’s eyes were wide open and nervously looking around as the van quickly passed through Danube City on its way downtown. When the van stopped, Kim and Cecilia saluted the two Lords while Maria Elena and the naked servant responsible for opening the car doors knelt.
As soon as Lords had returned to the van and departed, Kim clenched her teeth and began trembling with rage. She calmed down enough to speak to Cecilia in English:
“That fucking meglomaniac! See what I told you? See what I told you? You didn’t think she was that bad, did you?”
Cecilia was at a loss for words: “I…didn’t…I mean…but how...I mean, what happened to her?”
“How would I know? I don’t know what happened to her! I guess all that nobility crap went to her head…It pisses me that the Grand Duke puts up with it…It pisses me…because they’re State employees, just like me…I mean, all that Royalty shit is just ceremonial…that’s all it is, Cecilia…ceremonial…and they’re nothing but a bunch of spoiled actors…She doesn’t realize…”
“So, what are you gonna do?”
“With Maria Elena?”
“I’ve got to turn her over. I don’t have any choice…”
“Do you think she’s gonna be OK?”
Kim thought for a moment.
“I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t think she’ll be OK at all. The Royal House isn't where she ought to be. I wanted her to have a normal life, and she’s not going to get that from our little Marie Antoinette.”
“Can’t you talk to anyone?”
“To who, Cecilia? Who am I gonna talk to? The Prime Minster? He’s got his hands too full as it is and right now can’t afford a fight with the Grand Duke. To my supervisor at the Ministry? No…’cause he’ll support Anyia. It’s a tradition the Royals get the pick of any criminals they want…it’s a privilege that goes back eight centuries. I’m not going to be able to argue over who’s getting custody of Criminal # 101025, ‘cause no one’s gonna support me. Everyone will say she’s better off with the Royals ‘cause it’s tradition and they’ll treat her nice…and they’ll say that because they don’t know what a crazy bitch Anyia’s turned into!”
“What about talking to Anyia, or the Grand Duke?”
Kim shook her head.
“Talk to Anyia? Anyia is worried about one thing in life, and that is, what’s the latest thing that can make her happy. The Grand Duke is worried about one thing in life, and that’s what’s the latest thing that can make Anyia happy. Everyone else around here is worried about just one thing in life, and that’s what’s the latest thing that can make Anyia happy. It’s all about keeping Marie Antoinette happy.”
Kim calmed down enough to talk in a normal tone of voice and stop trembling from anger. She reflected:
“The tragic part of all this is that the Royals are still popular. Not much of Anyia’s behavior has leaked out to the public…yet. Once the truth gets out and the people become disillusioned with her…I don’t know what’ll happen. It’ll hurt the Prime Minister, I can tell you that, because she's his daughter…and the reputation of the Royal Family…”
“Then you need to talk him. You’re not doing any good by telling me all of this. You need to tell it to Anyia’s father.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. I ought to talk to Prime Minister Dukov about Anyia. At least I can try to warn him. I can tell you though; this is not something he wants to deal with right now.”
“So…what about Maria Elena?”
“I’ve got to tell her. I don’t have the right to keep it from her. Anyhow, I’ll have to tell her to learn as much Danubian as she can over the next couple of days. I’ll try to put a positive spin on it, tell her she’ll be living in a nice place, that she won’t have to deal with the scheduled switchings, that she probably won’t even have to do anything that will get her hands dirty. It’s best that she go into the Royal Household with a positive attitude…”
“That’s not gonna happen, Kim…the positive attitude, I mean. She’s not gonna want to go there.”
“Like that matters? It isn’t what I want either, but I’m holding three sets of papers telling me that what I want, what I think is best for my client, isn’t worth shit.”
Kim’s plans to sit down with her client and calmly explain what was going to happen to her went awry the moment the three women entered the Spokeswoman’s office. It turned out that Tiffany had gone into labor and it was unlikely she could be safely moved to a hospital. Fortunately the Central Police Station had a staff of doctors and nurses, so medical help was just two flights of stairs away. As a doctor and several assistants came into the front office, Kim and Cecilia moved a recovery table into the center of the room and tossed a sheet over it. The medical staff quickly took over and lifted the naked criminal onto the table. The Prime Minister’s second grandson was destined to be born on the third floor of the Central Police Station, in the very office where he had worked when he was a Spokesman himself.
Kim called Vladik to let him know that his wife was giving birth in her office, then turned to Cecilia and Maria Elena to dismiss them. There wasn’t any point in having them stay because the room was barely large enough for the medical staff, let alone any witnesses. Cecilia was not too concerned about Tiffany’s safety; after all, the child was her second and the medical staff helping her was comparable to what she would have had in the hospital. She would stay out of the way and congratulate her the next day. Kim would remain in the office and comfort her, because Vladik was too far away to make it time to actually see the baby being born.
It was late afternoon when Cecilia and Maria Elena exited the Central Police Station onto the Central Plaza. With Kim occupied with her assistant, it was up to Cecilia to break the news about the Colombian’s pending transfer of custody. She decided that it would be best if they walked back to the university so they could talk. They would be walking for about an hour, which would give her enough time to fully explain what Maria Elena could expect.
Cecilia was not a subtle or tactful person, so she simply told Maria Elena what was going to happen the following week. At first Maria Elena simply thought that she no longer would be working at the university, but Cecilia corrected her:
“No. You’re not just changing your job. Your custodianship is being changed. The Ministry of Justice won’t have any control over you at all. Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna won’t be your custodian anymore because she can only be the custodian of a criminal who’s assigned to the Ministry. You’re going to be handed over to the Royal Family. They’ll be your new owners, so my guess is that your custodian is gonna be the Grand Duchess.”
“But I thought that…my Spokeswoman said…the Danubian government owns me.”
“They do, but if the Royals want a criminal, it’s a custom that the Ministry of Justice hands ‘em over. They have a special arrangement that’s a tradition. If they want you, they can take ownership of you at any time.”
“But…I don’t want to go there…to that house…”
“So? Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna doesn’t want you to go there either. She’s very upset, but right now there’s nothing she can do about it.”
Tiffany's second son was born after a relatively short labor, which confirmed the decision of the doctor to have her deliver in Kim's office instead of transporting her to a hospital. However, as soon as it was clear that she and the baby were in good health, the medical staff moved both of them to the infirmary, for subsequent transportation to a nearby clinic. Vladik arrived on the scene, which allowed Kim to excuse herself and deal with her newest problem, the pending transfer of Criminal # 101025 to the Royal Family.
Kim did not think she could prevent the transfer from happening, given that she had such short notice. It already was Friday afternoon and the transfer would take place on Monday morning. However, the Spokeswoman decided to file an official petition to have the transfer reversed, which would work its way up through her supervisor to the Minister of Justice. It was possible that the Prime Minister himself would get involved, given that the Grand Duchess was his daughter and Criminal # 101025 was the lover of his brother.
Kim cringed at the thought of involving the Prime Minister in a dispute between his brother and his daughter over the custody of a criminal, because the prospects of the affair blowing up into a public scandal were daunting. To file a petition was a very grave decision for her own future as well. There was a possibility that officially confronting the wishes of the Royal Family would cost her career. However, she felt that she had no choice, because she had taken an oath to pursue the interests of her clients to the best of her ability. If she failed to uphold her oath, she would be dishonored, and to be dishonored was much worse than to be unemployed. She felt that it was very clear that it was in Maria Elena's best interest to remain with Victor Dukov and continue her life working at the university.
Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna would do everything she could to have custody of Criminal # 101025 returned to the Ministry of Justice. She was determined that her stay with the Royal Family would be as brief as possible. She had heard stories about some very improper behavior going on at the Royal Residence...and knowing Anyia, she suspected that the stories were true.
Chapter 15 - The Priestess
Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna decided that, before anything, she needed to talk to Victor and let him know what was about to happen to Criminal # 101025. She called to make sure he would wait at his office, before turning her attention to the detainee who was supposed to appear before the arraignment committee that afternoon. Fortunately it turned out the three committee members were still in the building, so Kim's newest client could be arraigned after all. Kim noted that the committee members were furious about the delay and an explanation that she had been summoned to talk to the Grand Duchess calmed them only slightly. Kim sighed, because the delay had not been her fault and it seemed things were only going to get worse for her.
Once the arraignment was finished and her client was fitted with a temporary collar and released for the weekend, Kim went to Victor's office. She explained what his niece was planning to do with Criminal # 101025. Before Victor had the chance to react, Kim added that she was going to formally petition to have formal custody of Maria Elena transferred back to the Ministry of Justice. Fortunately she did have a good justification: the Colombian only spoke Spanish and would need a translator until she could learn Danubian. In truth Kim was not particularly worried about her client's lack of language. She was much more worried about what Anyia might do to her. She also was worried that Maria Elena's mental health was rather fragile and that it was important that her life be as normal as possible. Victor offered the hope of a normal life in a fairly normal household, and the university offered the hope of a normal life through a routine job. The Royal Household offered nothing that could be considered normal.
Kim could tell that Victor was very distressed upon hearing what had happened that afternoon at the Royal Residence, but outwardly he did his best to appear stoic. He said, “Kim, I'm afraid that your efforts would accomplish nothing other than get you in trouble. There is also my brother to consider. I'm concerned about doing anything that would reflect badly on Vladim Dukov's government.”
To that Kim replied, "Cecilia pointed something out to me today. I told her that I am very worried about what's going to happen when Anyia's behavior becomes a public scandal, which at some point it will. She said 'what good is it gonna do to tell that to me? You need to tell it to the Prime Minister.' I realized she's right. Anyia's behavior is only going to get worse until someone brings her under control. And besides, I took an oath to defend my clients' interests to the best of my ability. I do not believe that Criminal #101025 should be moved to the Royal House. It is my duty to try to get her transferred back. I realized that if I get fired, I get fired, but I cannot allow myself to be dishonored. And if I get fired, then I will know that the Creator wants me to pursue a different Path in Life. I suppose I could always go back to singing."
As they walked back towards Victor Dukov's house, Cecilia told Maria Elena what was going to happen on Monday; that she would have to report to the Central Courthouse to have her Ministry of Justice collar removed and instead be collared with a Royal House collar. Then Maria Elena’s trial judge would sign the documents officially transferring custody from Ministry of Justice Spokeswoman Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna to the Grand Duchess. Criminal #101025 would officially become property of the Royal Family. The Royal Representative would shackle her and she would be taken to the Royal Residence. Upon entering the Residence, she would receive training to become a Royal Servant.
Cecilia explained that Royal Servants had lives that were very different from criminals that belonged to the Ministry of Justice. They ate extremely well and each had a private room with a bathroom. At night they were allowed to cover themselves with a sheet or a blanket. They were expected to be extremely clean; to bathe in the morning and in the evening, and also any time before they performed an official duty for a member of the Royal Family. Royal Servants also had excellent medical and dental care and were forced to exercise on a daily basis to keep their bodies fit and attractive. They were highly trained and took pride in their positions in the Royal Household.
Traditionally to be a Royal Servant was considered an honor among criminals. Unlike ordinary criminals, who often performed menial or dirty tasks, Royal Servants served the Royal Family during meals and tea time, and participated in ceremonial functions such as carrying banners and unrolling carpets. When not performing official duties they practiced and trained, so that every movement was perfectly choreographed. Part of their training consisted of staying perfectly still for long periods of time, even if forced to stand or kneel in an uncomfortable position. Cecilia warned Maria Elena that much of her training during the first week would consist of learning to stay immobile.
There were other differences between ordinary criminals and Royal Servants that were not so pleasant. Ordinary criminals were considered property of the Ministry of Justice, and thus belonged to an institution, not an individual. Apart from adhering to protocol, staying within their collar zone, and performing adequately at their assigned job, criminals assigned to the Ministry did not face many restrictions on their daily behavior. They were free to talk, move about within their designated area, buy and eat what they wanted, have relationships, make love, and even marry and have children. Royal Servants did not enjoy any of those freedoms, because their status was totally different. Their lives were very restricted and they did not have any free time. When they were not working, they were exercising or training. Talking was not allowed unless responding to a superior and correspondence with the outside world was prohibited. There was no such thing as having a personal relationship, because the Royal Servant's Path in Life was to provide undivided loyalty to the member of the Royal Family holding custody.
Although in theory he or she belonged to the Royal Household, in practice a Royal Servant always was assigned to an individual member of the Royal Family, usually the person who demanded the transfer. In Maria Elena's case that meant she would be the personal servant of Grand Duchess Anyia. Cecilia explained that, from what she understood, Anyia would be more than Maria Elena's custodian; she would become her owner. She commented:
"For some criminals it's not that bad of a life; there are some people do well under total control. But to keep servants under those conditions, the members of the Royal Family have to respect them and not be abusive. Traditionally that's not been much of a problem because of Royal protocol, but things have changed under Anyia. For one thing, she's got a lot more servants than the previous Grand Duchess had. The old Grand Duchess only kept five servants, and she had the same ones for decades. Anyia's already got at least 20, after being on the throne for just a couple of years. Another problem is that she's not nice at all. She keeps that switch in her hand all the time, because she's constantly using it on her servants. And I hate to say this, but you can expect her to be using it on you."
"But...why? Why does she punish them? What do they do?"
"In most cases, nothing...the servants don't do anything wrong, or at least nothing major. However, the Grand Duchess feels that, because she's wearing this country's crown, the world owes her treating her like a goddess. If she thinks a servant is disrespecting her, she'll punish that person immediately. She's got a real violent temper, and the least little thing can set her off. The least little thing, and there's no one to control her."
Maria Elena said nothing for a long time, as she walked in horrified silence with her translator. What else could she say? She had just become accustomed to her routine as a criminal and was looking forward to living a fairly normal life, but it turned out that the productive life she had expected wasn't going to happen after all. Instead she was destined to become the personal slave of that maniacal young queen. Cecilia didn't know what to say either, because she felt horrible for her companion. Whatever her faults, she certainly did not deserve the grim life that she faced under Anyia.
When Cecilia and Maria Elena returned to the university, they ran into Cecilia's fiancé. Jason had just finished his classes for the day and was about to go in the opposite direction of the two women, downtown to the Temple of the Ancients. As a condition of his Public Penance, most Friday nights he had to report to the Priestess who held custody over him to receive the Church taskings that he had to perform over the following week. The taskings normally entailed manual labor for the upkeep of buildings, or assisting in moving food and other supplies for Church charity work. Increasingly, however, he was being called upon to provide counseling for recent converts and for people who had just started performing Public Penance.
Jason could tell that both his fiancé and the Colombian were miserable from dealing with some very bad news. Cecilia told him what had happened that afternoon at the Royal Residence. She didn't expect him to have much to say about the matter. However, without any hesitation he responded:
"Did you go to the Temple and discuss this with anyone?"
"No, we didn't. What does the Church have to do with it?"
"To me it's pretty obvious. The Creator has determined that Maria Elena's Path in Life will be to serve the Grand Duchess. The problem is that the Duchess has a broken soul, and to deal with a person with a broken soul, Maria Elena is gonna have to seek guidance."
Cecilia looked at Jason with a stunned expression. It had not occurred to either her or Kim that Maria Elena might benefit from talking to a member of the Clergy. Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. She turned to the Colombian and translated what Jason had just told her. Maria Elena thought for a moment.
"You mean...Jason thinks I should talk to someone from their Church?"
"Yes. I hadn't thought about it, but I think he’s right."
"But...I'm not a member of their Church. I don't know anyone there...why would they want to talk to me?"
"That's what they do at the Temple. People go there with questions and the Clergy talk to them."
"And do they get answers?"
"Yes, they get answers. Sometimes not the answers they want to hear, but they always get answers."
Maria Elena turned to Jason and asked him in Spanish: "If you're going to the Temple, can you take me there? And get someone to speak with me? Can you do that?
Cecilia translated Maria Elena's Spanish to English, and Jason's response:
“Yes, I’ll have you talk to my Priestess, the one I work for. She’s the most perceptive person I know, and I’m sure she’d be very curious to hear about your Path in Life.”
A few minutes later Jason led his companions to a plaza in a section of the city center that Maria Elena had not yet seen. Most of the buildings were older than the late 18th Century architecture surrounding the Central Police Station and were made out of stone. Dominating the plaza was a very old temple that obviously had been built long before anything else in Danube City. It had pillars and a large staircase leading off the street to the main floor. The stairs were full of people going in or coming out, most of whom were dressed in black robes. There were many naked people as well; some of them wearing Church collars like the one Jason had on, and the others wearing collars from the Ministry of Justice. Unlike the Cathedral and other churches Maria Elena had seen so far, there was nothing Christian about the building’s architecture at all. Jason explained, “This is the Temple of the Ancients. It’s the main building for the Danubian Church and the holiest place in Danubia. The building itself is 3,000 years old, and it’s been used non-stop ever since it was built.”
Maria Elena’s prejudices urged her to get away from that Pagan building as quickly as possible. However, Jason’s confidence that he knew what she needed to do gave her the courage to follow him in.
Cecilia had to borrow a prayer robe. She paid a copper coin to an attendant and received a garment similar to the one Victor used. She slipped it over her clothes before joining her fiancé and her housemate. Jason quickly located the Priestess who was his Church custodian and fell to his knees and placed his head at her feet. Maria Elena followed his lead. Cecilia also knelt, but unlike Jason and Maria Elena, did not have to put her head on the floor.
The Priestess told the three foreigners to stand up in Danubian. They saluted her and she saluted back. The woman was unlike any religious authority Maria Elena had ever seen. She must have been about 40 and was tall, elegant, and carried herself with an air of dignity and severity. Like every other female member of the Danubian Clergy, she wore a black dress with dark red trim that was her only worldly possession. It was obvious that she was intelligent and perceptive of other people’s emotions. She was extremely intimidating as her gaze seemed to penetrate the depths of the soul of anyone she was conversing with. Even Cecilia, who normally dominated other people with her abrasive self-confidence, was quiet and timid in the presence of that Priestess.
The Clergy woman spoke fairly good English, but Jason and Cecilia had long since mastered Danubian and conversed with her in her native language. While Maria Elena stood by nervously watching, Cecilia explained her situation with the Grand Duchess. The Colombian could make out just enough of the conversation to realize that both the Priestess and Cecilia were talking at length about Anyia.
The Priestess suddenly turned to Maria Elena and spoke to her in Danubian. Cecilia translated:
“She wants you to tell her why you came to Danubia.”
Maria Elena started giving a short summary of her trip and her arrest. As soon as the Priestess realized that the Colombian was not giving her the detail that she wanted, she impatiently drew her fist across her chest, which in Danubian was an impolite way of saying “Shut up!”
After several unsuccessful attempts the Priestess explained that she did not want Maria Elena to simply tell her what happened. She wanted to know why the Colombian had chosen to violate herself by using her body to store cocaine. She did not want to know what happened to Maria Elena; she wanted to know why it happened.
Maria Elena haltingly started explaining about her past, and how she got mixed up with the man who introduced her to Alex. A few probing questions got out of her the story of her ex-boyfriend Jose Pablo and how she indirectly caused his death. Now the Priestess felt that she was getting out of Maria Elena details that she needed. However, it was not until Maria Elena repeated what Kim had told her, that she actually had been duped into a white slavery operation and only by sheer luck had avoided that by landing in Danubia, that the Priestess was satisfied that she had heard what she needed to know. She spoke and Cecilia translated:
“Your soul is broken, Maria Elena. Your soul, and all of the souls of the women who went before you to Frankfurt. Your companions remained in the grasp of the Destroyer. You did not. The Creator rescued you and brought you here. Now, can you tell me why that is? Can you tell me why you were spared?”
“I don’t know…but my Spokeswoman told me the same thing, Priestess. She told me that El Flaco was responsible for the disappearance of a bunch of women, and I was spared. She told me to ask myself why I was the one who didn’t end up like the others. I guess it was so he could get arrested…El Flaco, I mean…that’s the only thing I can think of.”
The Priestess told Maria Elena to put out her hands. Cecilia translated, adding: “She’s gonna squeeze very hard and it might hurt. Don’t get scared, ‘cause it’s the way they pray when they’re with another person.”
The Priestess grabbed Maria Elena’s hands and clamped down in a vice-like grip. She closed her eyes and began shaking her arms violently. Maria Elena, in spite of the warning, was totally terrified as the woman painfully gripped and spasmodically shook her hands. After the longest minute of the prisoner’s life, the Priestess suddenly stopped. She continued holding the Colombian’s hands, but turned to Cecilia and asked yet more questions about Grand Duchess Anyia.
Finally she had enough information to give Maria Elena the answer. Still gripping the Colombian’s hands, she pulled her within a few centimeters of her own face, staring hard into her eyes. She spoke in Danubian:
“The Creator brought you here to Danubia. The Creator brought you here not to save you, but to save others. You are here because you will have to perform an important task for the Danubian people. Your Path in Life has not been completed yet. The arrest of El Flaco wasn’t the purpose of your Path in Life; that wasn’t your contribution…or I should say; that wasn’t your most important contribution. The most important part of your Path in Life has not yet transpired.”
The Priestess waited for Cecilia to translate, and continued.
“You understand that the Grand Duchess has a broken soul?”
“I…I guess so, Priestess…”
“That is not a guess, Maria Elena; that is a fact. The Destroyer has taken control of Anyia’s soul and she is broken. What you must understand is that through corrupting the Grand Duchess, the Destroyer can inflict a great deal of harm on our country. You have to understand that before you can understand anything else. You also must always remember that the Creator brought you to our country for a purpose. You will be placed before the Grand Duchess for a purpose, and you will suffer under her for a purpose. The Creator has not enlightened me of what that purpose might be. I do know that your Path in Life, your destiny before you ever came to Danubia, was to serve the Creator, and in doing so repair your own broken soul.”
Maria Elena whispered to Cecilia: “Who’s this ‘Destroyer’ she’s talking about?”
“That’s their version of the Devil. What she’s saying is that she thinks Anyia is possessed with evil. It’s kinda different than the Christian version and more complicated, but that’s the simplest way I can put it so you'll understand.”
The Priestess continued, “I am convinced that you are more important than you realize, even though you are just a humble criminal. I am convinced that, through Jason, the Creator brought you to me. There is a reason that happened. And I believe it is my Path in Life to listen to your troubles, so I can try to better understand what has happened to the Grand Duchess.”
“But…I won’t be able to come here, Priestess. I’m gonna be locked up.”
“I can provide you a letter saying that I am your spiritual guide, a letter that you can take with you to the Royal House. That letter would give you the right to see me once a week. The Royal Family does not have the authority to cut you off from the Church, not if you have officially declared someone in the Clergy as your spiritual guide. Also, if I am your spiritual guide, I can provide you with correspondence that others may wish to give you. When you are with me, I can let you see letters from other people in your life, and allow you to respond.”
There was no question that Maria Elena would jump at this opportunity, which she did. To have a few hours a week away from the Royal Household, to be allowed correspondence, to have someone sane to talk to…of course she wanted all that. Who wouldn’t?
However Cecilia, who was always suspicious of other people’s motives, realized that there was a huge benefit for the Priestess as well. It was certain that Maria Elena would tell her new mentor, in graphic detail, everything that was going on in the Royal Residence. The Priestess would have access to a lot of inside gossip about Anyia, something that would give her and her superiors valuable information that they possibly could use against the Royal Family in the future. At that point it was hard to tell whether or not the Priestess’s intentions were altruistic, but the fact remained that she had just acquired a window into the opaque world of the Royal Household.
Maria Elena left the Temple of the Ancients in a much different mood than when she entered. She had been fearful and resentful upon going in, but after talking to the Priestess, she was calm and resigned. She was not looking forward to entering the Royal Residence, but according to the Priestess she was going there for some higher purpose. Another detail that calmed Maria Elena considerably was the fact that she would continue to have some contact with the outside world and that she had placed herself under the authority of a person who had at least some power over the Grand Duchess. It also occurred to Maria Elena that, if there was a possibility that her actions would be reported to a Clergy member of the Danubian Church, Anyia might moderate her behavior and not be so vicious to her.
The inward calm that Maria Elena took with her from the Temple lasted throughout her final two days as a Ministry of Justice criminal. She made love to Victor Friday night and managed to get him to understand that she had spoken with Jason's Priestess. She showed him the letter the Priestess had given her and repeated the Danubian phrase "Path in Life". Victor seemed to calm down as well. "Path in Life"...well, if it was indeed inevitable that he and his lover were destined to be separated, then at least they could enjoy each other's company for the last three nights they had together. It was as he suspected, the Creator had given them only a fleeting moment to be together. The moment would come and go, and there was nothing that could be done other than to enjoy what little joy the Creator was willing to grant.
As she had since her arrival in Danubia, Maria Elena spent Saturday braiding her hair with her Spokeswoman and her friends. Cecilia felt that it was very fortunate that Kim could hear first-hand about Maria Elena's conversation with the Priestess, because that was additional information the Spokeswoman could take with her when she spoke to Vladim Dukov about what should be done concerning the custody of Criminal #101025. It would be better if the Prime Minister knew right away that the Danubian Church now had direct access to what was going on inside the Royal Residence, and thus be forewarned of the impending scandal. Kim seemed not as concerned as Cecilia about the Priestess's motives. Instead she was glad about the correspondence, because she had every intention of staying in contact with her client while she appealed the transfer of custody.
The following day Maria Elena and Victor went together to the see the Priestess in the Old Temple as a couple. They went alone, without Cecilia, without Jason, and without Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna. Victor, as usual, wore his black prayer robe, which was the only garment he normally wore when attending worship services. He and Maria Elena knelt in front of the Priestess as she prayed in archaic Danubian.
Maria Elena did not understand much of the conversation between Victor and the Priestess, but she understood enough to realize that the Clergy woman was asking about his relationship with her. Victor nervously responded to a series of questions. Maria Elena felt very uneasy, because it was obvious that Victor had to confess that he and the criminal were having a sexual relationship without being married. What she did not know at the time was that, to a member of the Danubian Clergy, a sexual relationship outside of marriage was not as big of a taboo as it was to most other religious sects. The Priestess was more interested in Victor's intentions than in the fact that he and Maria Elena were not yet married. When the questioning ended, the Priestess took Victor's hands and prayed. That didn't surprise Maria Elena, but what came next was a total shock.
The Priestess let go of Victor's hands and led both her guests to the back part of the Temple. They ended up on a large stone balcony overlooking a forested park that led to the East Danube River. In the middle of the balcony was a round stone pit with a smoldering fire. Both Maria Elena and Victor knelt. The Priestess placed her hands on Victor's shoulders and again prayed in archaic Danubian. Maria Elena could tell that Victor looked very nervous. When the Clergy woman was finished, she ordered him to stand up. He stood perfectly still as she pulled the robe over his head and handed it to a Temple attendant. With the robe taken away from him, Victor was as naked as Maria Elena.
The Priestess then placed her hands around Victor's neck and wrote down a number, which she handed to an attendant. A moment later the attendant returned with a metal collar. Victor knelt, and the Priestess put the collar on and locked it. It turned out the Priestess had ordered him to perform Public Penance.
Although she was totally shocked and bewildered at the moment, later Maria Elena would learn what exactly had happened at the Temple. The Priestess did not have any problem with Victor's affair with her, but had decided that the relationship needed to be tested while she was interned at the Royal Residence. It was indeed Victor's Path in Life to be with Maria Elena, but only the Creator knew when he would be reunited with her. Therefore, until they were reunited, he would wear a Temple collar and perform Public Penance. Along with praying over what had happened to his first wife, he would pray every night to be reunited with his lover, and until that happened he would live in humility. The collar, and his own nakedness, would be a very public display of Merchant Victor Dukov's commitment to Criminal #101025.
Maria Elena knew that performing Public Penance would be extremely difficult for a man used to running his own business and giving orders. However, it was obvious that he loved her enough that he was willing to make the sacrifice for her. He would wait for her, collared and naked, until her custody could be returned to the Ministry of Justice and she could return to his house. That might take years, but it didn't matter. During that time, it would be his Path in Life to remain collared for her.
Sunday night was the final night that Criminal #101025 and Merchant Victor Dukov would be together before she was taken away to the Royal Residence. Victor reflected that if he had not taken Maria Elena with him to his brother's dinner; Anyia never would have seen her and the transfer of custody never would have happened. However, the Priestess would have told him that to think like that was to pursue a false vision of the Destroyer, because the Colombian's Path in Life was to serve the Grand Duchess. The change of custody had nothing to do with any actions that Victor took or did not take; it was the Creator who had decided that Anyia would see her and want to add her to her collection of servants.
Maria Elena and Victor made love one last time in his bed, and spent a very long time quietly caressing each other's bodies. She touched his collar with both regret and fascination, feeling very bad that he had to perform Public Penance on her behalf, and yet extremely grateful that he would do something like that for her.
Finally he fell asleep, which gave her time to stand up and spend some moments looking out the bedroom window. She contemplated the moon, which was almost full and already starting to go lower in the western horizon. Just a few more hours…and the sun would come up in the east and Criminal #101025 would return to the Central Courthouse and have her Ministry of Justice collar removed, not even a month after it had been put on. She touched the device, regretting that it no longer would be part of her life. She realized that, while the collar marked her as a convicted criminal, it also gave her official status and some legal rights and protections. The collar destined to replace it would offer no protection at all. The she would endure that awful moment when she would see Kim, and Cecilia, and Victor for the last time, one last glance over her shoulder before she was taken away and loaded into a minivan. That moment would be painful.
Maria Elena went downstairs and stepped out of Victor’s front door. For a long time she stood in the street listening to the rustling of the leaves and the strange twittering of creatures that were either birds or bats…she couldn’t tell which. Finally she went back inside and snuggled up to Victor…to be with him one final time…for a fleeting moment in her life.
End of Part 3