Luc found Jenna in the library, on the third floor where the large tables were set against the high windows, and more importantly where there was a plug for her laptop. She had managed by dint of effort to conquer half of the table, which she begrudgingly shared with a pair of essay-writers, using a wall of cloth-bound geographies to demarcate her territory. Jenna herself was leaning back in a stretch, and one of the essayists was packing up, so Luc stepped forward, bearing a poisonously black doubleshot from the ground-floor Starbucks as he sidled into the empty chair. She accepted his tribute with a purr.
"How goes the book?" he asked.
Her eyes smiled as she sipped the steaming, bitter liquid caffeine.
Luc clapped politely, and scanned the book titles. Fat and heavy histories of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and cloth-bound collections of obscure journals sat on the bottom, more modern slick-and-shiny paperbacks on top - keywords seemed to be Russia, Cold War, Politics, and Eastern Europe; subdivided into piles for economics, geography, law, religion, language...
"This is the Adams project, right?"
"Yup." She said, staring at the screen between sips. "He likes to make fun, but it's a real place. Interesting people, interesting history."
"I'm sure. How far back does it go?" Marc said, sliding a copy of Herodotus' Histories from one forlorn corner of the wall to browse through it.
"Hmm, good question. Not much to interest archaeologists there, but the general feel is that the Elb region has been inhabited for at least four thousand years. In Medieval times a monk wrote a mythic history saying that the people were Egyptians who had immigrated from the isle of Elbo, which had been built up in the sea from piling ashes on top of each others; linguistic and genetic evidence suggests something closer to a migration from north and west, near the headwaters of the river Elbe in the modern day Czech Republic - but with a large Hunnic infusion as well. My guess is the Scythians chased these poor bastards into the mountain valleys and then the Huns stopped by when they raped their way through Europe."
She leaned back and closed her eyes, letting the heat of the coffee radiate through her fingers.
"There's a bunch of related microstates nearby, but this is the one everybody knows, because of Adams. Geologically the whole place is just a shallow mountain lake with poor drainage; lots of snow-melt, lots of mud. There are legends about the mud going back almost as far as there were stories about the place. To hear the locals tell, Julius Caeser's chariots got stuck in the mud when he tried to invade, so he went south. Only place he thought wasn't worth the trouble of conquering. But they were conquered."
Marc just listened; he knew Jenna liked the opportunity to compose in her head by talking about things. She sipped and continued.
"The place was a Byzantine client state, back around the time Armenia declared itself Christian. One of the emperors had heard about a magic spring, set up a spa and small fortress there to guard the passes and so he'd have someplace to stay. Turns out that the spa is actually a lithium water spring; it's probably why the locals have a reputation for being out to lunch. Anyway, the Christian priests rolled in and over the pagans, and that was that until the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453; the Turks made their way into the mountains a few years later and the local garrison didn't put up much of a fight, and the local people didn't blink much when the churches mostly became mosques. The capital city Phlimsk grew up around the medieval castle which the Byzantines built and the Ottomans expanded; it's still in use as the Presidential Palace today."
"That was the start of the problems, really; the Muslims introduced a strong taboo against left-handed people, which was quite common in the region - there's a genetic study in here somewhere, highest propensity for it in the world - " Jenna started fiddling among the journals then gave up and carried on, " - and it gained the force of law. Southpaws were a legally ostracized minority for a couple centuries, right up through World War II when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the Russians got the place as part of the spoils."
"Not much in English after that - never is with these Iron Curtain microprincipalities - and the Elb language is a mess with its own font that seems to be all vowels and diacritical marks; half the jokes Adam makes about the place are from mistranslations. The Soviets came down hard on religion, and there's strong evidence the place didn't even have a priest or imam for something like fifty years after they rolled in. The whole place was divvied up into collectives, mainly subsistence farming and using the spa waters to make cosmetic mud. The place was still very much off the radar until the USSR collapsed; the regional governor in Phlimsk - Yorgi - set up a referendum and declared the whole place a free democratic republic on April 2nd, 1990, promising capitalism would cure all ills. Then Yorgi declared himself head of the right-handed majority party and was elected president-for-life. A couple Communist recidivists kept control in the northern valley and declare themselves a separate state of North Elb - not quite like Korea, but not far off either."
She set the empty coffee down on a pile of books whose spines looked like the bastard spawn of Cyrillic and Hunnic, in chipped and faded gold leaf. Marc passed her his own untouched coffee, which she took as a cue to keep going.
"So, democracy was a hard sell. Capitalism too. And the only major export was literally mud. The United States tried to spur foreign investment and the government tried to expand its markets, but the country and the people weren't ready, which meant it was a posterchild for corporate abuse. Most of the villages still operated under the old collective structure, where individuals weren't paid for their labor; American corporations opened subsidiaries and branch locations and basically built sweat shops to pound out their products with slave labor. Lot of the people left for other countries where wages were higher."
"The political situation didn't help. There was an armed revolt led by an American businessman called Dagobert or Dogebert or something on October 7th, 1991; he claimed he was the messiah and set himself up as king in Phlimsk. Didn't last long though; he mistook an annual gardening festival as an armed uprising and fled. Yorgi returned to power almost immediately, but the left-handed minorities had had enough and staged an open rebellion behind a leader called 'The Fox.' The conflict became protracted because neither side had access to modern weapons - imagine if the Taliban had tried to get Al Qaeda out of those mountain caves and neither had anything heavier than some cheap AK-47s - so in '92 Yorgi asked an American economic advisor in to arbitrate the negotiations."
Jenna sipped the coffee.
"It was all a plot to kill the Fox, of course. And it worked! Crazy Yorgi's stupid scheme worked! But it backfired when the American advisor joined the rebels, and forced Yorgi to the table and to make concessions. But there are still reports of rebel leftist activity through 2007. 'scuse me."
She got up and made a bee-line to the bathroom; Marc took the opportunity to flip through one of the top books - a legal history - and read the first article at random. It seemed that after the Soviets had left, the People's Republic of Elb had written a constitution, but in a fit of bizarre backwards nationalism had reverted to its pre-Russian legal system - the bizarre medieval Corpus Juris Civilis, straight up Roman Law as codified by the medieval glossators, with the addition of several hundred years of precedents and laws set down by whatever king, governor, or melik had been in charge. On top of which was juris elbonii, the folk law of the villages, which included trial by combat and other bizarre practices and punishments, not a few of which involved the omnipresent mud. There were no formal courts; the village collectives served to hear cases outside the capital, and inside the capital the president was the supreme arbiter. No bill of rights either; they'd tried to pass one under "King Dogebert," but it had never got out of committee.
The part that Marc most enjoyed was the digression on "Animals in Public Office" - apparently the small nation had a history of pigs, cows, and things heading up posts like Secretary of State and Secretary of the People's Treasury. It had been used as far back as Byzantine times by local kings to keep certain positions filled, based on the supposed precedent of Emperor Caligula naming his horse Incitatus a Senator - and Yorgi had revived the tradition to consolidate his power from both Leftists and overreaching subordinates in the Righthanded majority party.
Marc closed the book as Jenna came back.
"Where was I? Oh right, Yorgi back in power. So the technical skillbase and infrastructure were terrible, but with their cheap labor companies in the People's Republic could underbid pretty much everyone else. Led to a couple disasters; in '94 the French wanted a satellite put into orbit and it was left up to them...the engineers miscalculated or used the wrong technology or something and the rocket actually hit the French embassy in Phlimsk. Well, that caused an incident - the French responded with a brief retaliatory aerial bombardment, but there wasn't much to hit, and the country claimed it actually made a profit selling the scrap from the munitions. The 'war' became a point of national pride."
"1995 saw an overmining of the ubiquitous mud, combined with a drought in the mountains that dried up several important streams; a couple businessment reaped massive profits but devastated the local ecology, then skipped out with their money overseas. The mud levels dipped so low that the locals actually discovered a new species of amphibian - genetically it's a salamander, but it looks like an eel with teeth - which the locals called 'mud weasels' or 'leprechauns' or something, though that last one might be a mistranslation. Lot of local stories about people getting bitten by unseen things swimming in the mud, y'know?"
"Anyway, the sudden rise of GNP with the overmining caused foreign speculation in the ikruhd - same root as the Czech koruna - and the currency crashed. Mass inflation. President Yorgi scrapped it and replaced it with a new currency, the gropnik. I think he was trying to cozy up to the Russians."
Jenna pawed through the pile of books until she found a slim one in library rebinding, and flipped through it to show a grainy photo of a short, rotund figure with white hair and glasses.
"This is Dogebert. He came back in 1999, this time as the American diplomatic liason - nobody else wanted the job - and basically went hog-wild with his diplomatic immunity. Looted the ancient burial mounds of the pre-Byzantine kings, parked wherever he wanted, etc. Yorgi was busy with the rebels again this time; the Lefties had appealed to the masses with an effort to unionize against the foreign corporations, appealing to old Communist sympathies, and Yorgi arrested the leader and tried to execute him. Eventually Dogebert intervened and intimidated Yorgi into surrendering - again. Dogebert spend a couple months strip-mining the mud to fill his own pockets while building 'the Las Vegas of Eastern Europe' - where gambling and prostitution weren't just legal, they were mandatory!"
"Yeah. Anyway, then there was a famine in 2000 - genetically-modified crops brought in to prevent starvation, spread like a weed but nobody would eat it. Worse, they claimed it sucked all the nutrition out of the local mud - geophagy was pretty common there historically, probably due to frequent bad harvests, but a lot of locals make claims about the mud that border on the supernatural. Anyway, they cleared out the crops but a resident plutocrat named Petru Vlasdomovitch used it as an opportunity to seize power; the massive stock of nitrate-based fertilizers for the GMO crops were turned into explosives and he blackmailed and bullied the surrounding microstates with them, but the explosives were unstable and not stored well and exploded - and that was the end of Petru."
"Next chapter, oil!" she said with an excited squeal. "Massive deposits from all those prehistoric lake-fish or something, trapped under the mud. Foreign company goes in to drill, right in the Wildlife Preserve, because there's no environmental regulations or corporate taxes; it's cheaper than getting a pipeline built in the United States. Killed seven species, including the oryx elboni, sometimes mistaken for a unicorn in medieval texts. Turns out there's a lot of coal and gas under the People's Republic, and the people in charge start using the money to improve the infrastructure, starting with a nuclear power plant which began construction in 2002 - I don't know if they've ever finished it. Of course, that turned out to be a cover for their nuclear weapons program; they bought a Russian warhead around the same time, but lack any sort of delivery system for it, and the intelligence community has stymied their ability to get any actual plans to build their own yet, which is probably for the best."
Tapping a bit into her laptop, Jenna flipped it around to show something that looked like a prop of the Death Star. "Remember that group in the North that broke off? Still Communist? Yeah, they were doing the same thing. This is supposed to be a version of what Ronald Reagan wanted for his Star Wars program; big ol' commie-frying laser that the Commies have stolen the plans for. No idea if it works yet, natch."
Spinning it back around. Jenna started typing, still talking.
"Things got okay after that. International vegan appeal against the Elb selling mud weasels meat, the first call centers open, some idiots hire them to launch a private communications satellite in '04, first cell phone network implemented in '05...nation-building, really. Of course, once they had access to the global communications network and with no laws or regulations in place, everyone was a cybercriminal. Hacking was frequent, identity theft commonplace, and the United States still suspects it's guilty of massive software piracy. Then the global recession hit in 2008, and the People's Republic hit another wave of hyperinflation - a billion percent a day or something, it was ridiculous."
Marc moved behind her and started rubbing her shoulders; Jenna made appreciative noises.
"So, politics are covered. What was that about Dogebert as the messiah?"
"Oh, yeah." she said. "When the Russians rolled out, the region had been basically atheist for a generation or two. There were still a lot of holdover practices - they all dress like Orthodox monks, the left-hand taboo thing - but for actual religion, notsomuch. Somebody got the idea to recreate the old ethnic pagan religion, kind of like Romuva. What they got was a polytheistic conglomeration with deities like the Übanübá the monkey-god and the sky-god Düg or Doüg or Dœg or Doge - hence, Dogebert claimed to be the descendant of Dœg. There were some fragmentary Holy Scrolls which nobody made much sense out of because it was in the Old Elb dialect, and they made up holidays like Holy Week - first week in August - which are normally celebrated with pranks. Then there's the ЖӊrӨdrüк or Hatstone, a megalithic monument that's become the centerpiece to the whole movement, their big sacred symbol; it's taboo for a human to touch it, or the new age will begin or something. Lot of folk superstitions persist, which I think shows an Oriental influence - the concept of breath and soul and image or reflection are kind of all jumbled together, which is why people like Adams say they think if take their photograph or yawn in their direction you're stealing their soul...it's one of the things I want people to know about. Like, the animal thing."
"The animal politicians?" Marc said, still rubbing.
"Right. Like, the new Church says that 'all others have the same value as livestock,' but that was written when a frickin' pig was the Secretary of State! It's not saying the guys over in Kneebonia are subhuman or whatever."
"Uh-huh." he said.
"Don't get me wrong, the Elb aren't perfect people. Along with the lefty-thing, there's deeply entrenched misogynism, especially in the workplace. Parents don't traditionally show a lot of affection to their kids. Cutting hair is another taboo, hence the long beards. Medicine is a joke; tuberculosis is rampant and there are even cases of bubonic plague - which is part of the reason that the leading cause of death is self-inflicted gunshot wounds; if the Elb get the plague, they pretty much know they're going to die and prefer it to be quick instead of slow. Some human trafficking, mainly from people looking for a better life somewhere else. Rampant corruption at all levels...well, you know. Eastern Europe in microcosm."
Jenna placed her hands on Marc's, and he stopped massaging.
"Well hon, you've certainly done your homework. So what are you going to call the book?"
"Elbonia: Adam's Ruritania." she said.