Chapter complete! I'll add the titlecard picture later, since that's saved on my other computer.
The blade of the pearl-handled knife glimmered under the twinkling lights of the chandeliers dangling overhead. It sat on a red velvet pillow next to a towering monolith of a cake, a table-buckling testament to the power of human ingenuity. The legendary Brewster Bakery of Eagle Street, a century-old institution, had to build an entirely new kitchen just to have equipment large enough to prepare and bake the cake. As the sound of the military orchestra filled Independence Hall, the crowd of political creatures, party underlings, and assorted sycophants ogled the massive confection. It was fifteen feet high, with icing that had been applied with paint rollers and smoothed by hand with trowels by ten men.
It was six layers high, and from each layer dripped bright "Flag Red" syrup that overtook the white icing as it rose in height, until the very top was crimson. The edges were perfectly rimmed with a rich blue shade of icing, and encrusted with red, white, and blue edible star sprinkles. At its zenith, a set of fondant statues, lifelike representations of Charles Oswald and Wyetta Arkham Custer-Steele, stood with hands clasped under a miniature arch lined with flag bunting. Above all was an actual bald eagle, the symbol of the Union, taxidermied. Its talons clutched the top of the arch and seemed to almost be bestowing the tiny likenesses of the Oswalds with glory from above. Piano wire kept the giant bird aloft and its wings magnificently spread.
"It's so beautiful, isn't it, Charles?" Wyetta asked softly, a statement more than a question. Her jet black hair was swept back into an elegant bun, her bridal veil stowed away since the ceremony an hour earlier at the First Fundamentalist Church. Her billowing bridal gown had been swapped out for an off-the-shoulder number, also white, and that almost reached the floor. Although tastefully and elegantly done and almost unnoticeable at a distance, the dress was stitched with tiny bald eagles, rendered in the same white thread as the rest of it. "Charles, we are so fortunate. This is all like something out of a dream. I still can't believe you're home. Alive."
Charles Oswald, resplendent in his white formal evening wear uniform as Supreme Chief of ORRA, nodded his bronzed face and wrapped his arms around her shoulder as they took in the sight of the huge cake with everyone else. "I know, darling. It's resplendent. And I'm very glad this is everything you could have hoped for. Since Marcus' death, I know how sad and distraught you have been. For that, I'm truly sorry. I only hope you know I did everything I could to save him."
"Not now, Charles. Of course, I know that. Marcus looked up to you so much, dear. I only wish he could have been here. Perhaps he could have painted a picture of us in front of this beautiful cake." Wyetta delicately ran her fingers across the pommel of the pearl-handled knife. "Are you going to do the honors, or shall I, dear?"
"Together!" Chuck replied. He smiled a broad, signature toothy smile, grabbed her hand, and forced her ivory white fingers to pick up the knife. "Just as in life," he raised his speaking voice so the onlookers could hear, "We should share this event. Besides, I don't want you cutting the wrong way and sending this whole tower crashing down." They laughed. The crowd laughed.
As the orchestra bellowed out the crescendo of a ballroom cover of the ORRA March, Chuck and Wyetta Oswald both cut the first slice, a chorus of whoops and cheers and a thunder of applause almost drowning out the music. A slice was slid onto a special antique silver plate reserved just for them, and they lifted it to the crowd, resulting in even more applause. The clapping turned to cheeky laughing as Wyetta dabbed her finger in the icing and smeared a streak of crimson across Chuck's mouth and chin. A photographer's flashbulb burst through its second-long life and death. A classic American photograph was born.
As they each rose morsels of the cake to their mouths, Chuck rose his bit to the sky. "Ladies and germs!" he proclaimed, "Together! To a Pinnacle Future!" The crowd repeated the mantra back to the object of their adoration, raising wine glasses in the air. "And as the boys back at B.A.U.B. would so elegantly say, back in my college years... dink it and sink it!" The admirers reached new levels of hysterics over the joke as the Oswalds touched their bits of cake together and shoved them down their throats.
Outside Independence Hall, the same crowd that welcomed them back to Philadelphia that morning after a weekend at Arkham Manor erupted into cheers once more. Tens of thousands of Philadelphians and admirers from across the Union filled every conceivable spot of unoccupied space. Men, women, and children hung from balconies, waving flags and signs, blowing horns, tossing confetti. It was this way in many cities all over the country. In the west, crowds in Barnumsburg chanted slogans and danced in the streets. In Hell Gate, the factory line at Thomas Food's SPUD packing plant stopped for the first time in twenty years to allow all staff to celebrate. In a Metropolis still rebuilding from the Starry Wisdom Revolt, the promise of a Pinnacle Future under the Oswalds brought hope and smiles where they were sorely needed. After all, Oswald had been the one to acknowledge the Sootstorms for what they were and issue government funding to combat the problem. In Atlanta, the Southron Americans that two generations prior had fought and died to escape Union subjugation now celebrated the wedding of two of the most important political and dynastic scions of New England. On the frontlines of Manifest Climax, troops listened to the ceremonies via talkiebox. Parties were hosted in barracks and bunkers and even in trenches. Another famous photo taken that day captured five ORRA Torchboys in full uniform--chainmail and fuel tanks polished to perfection--lighting a giant handmade sign of oil-soaked wood boards that read, "Happily Ever After."
Since the official state funeral of Marcus Aurelius Arkham Custer-Steele just three months prior, and with President Steele making increasingly sparse public appearances, the nation had been in a state of malaise and depression. This was exactly what the country needed, from east to west and north to south. It was a shot in the arm, a collective moment that would embed itself in the American consciousness for decades. In many ways, rivaled only by the Declaration of the New United States in the 1950s and the Moon Landing in the 1960s, this was the premier moment of a generation. A generation ravaged by instability, its own hubris, and a nonstop march of conquest in South America damn the consequences. America had been going through a meat grinder, not unlike the huge SludgeMasters that ran day and night at Hell Gate.
The American poet and essayist Samuel Byron Champion wrote in his 1955 5000-page propaganda epic On the Oswalds
(Titania Publishing House, New York):
"It cannot be said that the Union was single-handedly resuscitated by the marriage of Charles and Wyetta, for our destiny is eternally written in the cosmos. But to say that it was not a beautiful day for all true and loyal sons of the Star-Spangled Banner, to say it was not a momentous occasion that will be held up forever as a source of pride, to say it was not a point in which the entire nation stopped, watched, and remembered everything it fought for... is sheer folly. There is a reason we celebrate Oswald Day on the fifteenth of March every year. For on March 15, 1942, we all came together as a society, raised our glasses on high, and cried, 'Onward! Onward! To the Pinnacle Future--and Beyond!'"
Even in the Confederation of the Carolinas, parties were held at government buildings, especially ones with American ambassadorial staff or military advisors present. President Gamble himself was present in Philadelphia for the event, bedecked in a seersucker suit and white fedora. It was to be their first formal meeting. As Gamble approached young Oswald at the party in Independence Hall, he struck out his hand for Chuck to shake. "Supreme Chief Oswald, I do declare, you Yanks know how to throw a party still. Absolutely spectacular. It is an honor to meet you, sir."
Chuck smiled and firmly shook the Southron despot's hand, both in a vice-like, almost painful grip, neither wishing to submit to the other's strength. "Chancellor Gamble, your reputation precedes you. Looking very dapper, I must say," Chuck declared, making dead eye contact with the taller man.
Gamble kept pumping the younger man's hand and guffawed. "Aw, well the way I reckon is that a Chancellor should look his best for the wedding of a close ally's heir-apparent. I hope we can have a long, happy, and prosperous relationship, Supreme Chief."
With an awkward hesitance, both men finally loosened their grips and tucked their hands behind their backs. Chuck never let up on the eye contact, though. Gamble was known for the "Gamble Method" of polite intimidation, something Oswald had multiple pages on in his file on the man. "Indeed. However, I am expecting you will be dealing with my father-in-law for some time to come still."
Gamble's face soured, jut a tad, just enough for Oswald to see the idea of Steele staying around deeply bothered the man. Gamble publically supported and cheered on Steele, and Cokie troops continued to die in South America for American Manifest Destiny, but he loathed Joe behind closed doors. "I do have a small matter to discuss, goodly sir. It's about Mittelafrika. I hate to bring up politics on such a momentous day, but the Reich is held together with gumption and frogspit at his point, and I was wondering if you would support, and if your new daddy-in-law would support, a Cackalack excursion to ensure stability. What with the Congo Dam pumpin' out God only knows how many kilowhatsits an hour, I would hate for something unfortunate to happen after such a major investment. We did, as a collective alliance now, literally reshape Africa in our own image, but the amount of riff-raff hippity-hoppin' across the border into Jacksonland, the Corridor, and Yonderland is unsavory to say the least, sir."
Oswald shrugged and answered, matter-of-factly, "I am sure the President has his own ideas for the future of the Reich that don't require me whispering his ear. Are you talking an intervention to prop up the Reich or are you talking a military takeover?"
"I was thinking about, just supposin' now, a full take-over. The Dam would still remain under the Dam Authority, of course," Gamble elaborated, taking an East Carolina cigar from his suit pocket and offering it to the groom. After a nearby officer extended a lighter to let them start puffing, the Cokie king continued. "This is a... humanitarian crisis, Supreme Chief. The Reich has proven incapable of handlin' this issue and it is impactin' the stability of New Cackalack like someone just dumped a big ol' raincloud on our picnic, so to speak, and by picnic I mean colonies and by raincloud I mean a bloodthirsty pack of degenerate, uppity savages. I could take care of this little problem. 'Gamblesia' has a rather nice ring to it, don't it?"
After an exhale of cigar smoke, Oswald said, "This, Chancellor, is an excellent cigar. Almost as good as any I have had in my country. And as Supreme Chief of ORRA, I would remind you that President Steele has written in the League Charter that an attack on one member is an attack on all. So if you violate Mittelafrikan sovereignty, I can guarantee economic sanctions at the least, and military retaliation at the worst. I personally could give less of a shit about Mittelafrika's government of Lutheran assholes, but I am telling you if you invade our ally like the slave-whipping tinpot vulture you are, America will respond in a way that will make your ass pucker and your heart stop."
Gamble's entire demeanor shriveled like a piece of burnt pocket bacon. "Goodly sir, I pledge on my honor as a Southron gentlema-"
"-I pledge on my honor as the future President of the largest empire this world has ever known that I can have the might of the Yankee nation barreling toward Charlotte like a freight train of piss and vinegar if you ever violate the sovereignty of our allies. And know that because I value the cherished memories made here today far too much to besmirch them by making a scene, I will not drag you out by your mustache and throw you onto the street." Oswald said all of this with the calm yet assertive coolness of a Osage riverboat gambler. And then he took another drag of cigar. "This really is a beautiful cigar. Thank you."
With the Cokie Chancellor still sputtering and desperately trying to salvage the situation, Oswald smiled one of those toothy smiles and waved over a nearby man to come to join them. A dumpy-looking man with a handlebar mustache several years out of fashion and a sharp suit that couldn't salvage his rather porcine frame waddled over, patent leather dress shoes clicking on the floor. "Mein herr,
such an excellent party. Really very much wunderbar!"
said the man, a pinch of nervousness in his voice.
"Ambassador Graetz, it's a pleasure to have you here!" Oswald patted the man on the shoulder. "Chancellor Gamble here and I were just talking about our wonderful alliance! I propose a toast! To the Reich!" Oswald ordered a nearby server to pour some bubbly wine into three glasses. With a smiling, bumbling Mittelafrikan lackwit and a floundering, confusticated Gamble, joining him, they toasted to the health, good fortune, and eternal reign of the Reich. The humiliation would never be forgotten, and a rivalry was born.
Directly after a small chat with Graetz, Oswald was greeted by Henry Ford, the aging, near-mythical figure that still acted as the unofficial spokesman for the Economic Clans. The bald man's head was ringing by whispy white hairs plastered to his scalp, and his eyes looked weak behind the pair of round glasses he sported. He wore a dignified navy blue suit and a white corsage was pinned directly under the flag pin on his lapel. Ford had been one of the groomsmen at his wedding, despite the two barely knowing each other and being many decades apart. Ryan Hendrick was the best man, but Ford, Nixon, Franklin Johnson, and Manasseh Wende made an odd set. "A wonderful day in this country's history, sir," Ford said, sipping from a small cup of lemonade. The man was a teetotaler. After a bit of trivial conversation, the elderly titan of business asked Oswald what had been on his mind the entire day, and really the entirety of the last several months since he was asked to be a groomsman. "Supreme Chief, why did you choose me as your groomsman? I am thoroughly honored and overjoyed to participate in this historic day, but I have barely made your acquaintance. So pardon an old man's curiosity, but I was just trying to figure it out."
Oswald laid a hand on Ford's shoulder, just as he had with Graetz, and answered him. "Mr. Ford, I represent a new future for this country. One day, as I am sure everyone knows, I will be President. While corruption among the Clans is unacceptable by all means, I believe the whole Yankee Stadium thing was a bit... over the top. In my opinion, the Clans were formed, largely by yourself, to act as a self-policing government of sorts to root out felonious intentions and corporate espionage. My father-in-law, in his march to eternal glory as the Father of Manifest Destiny, mind, has been a bit... overzealous... in some aspects. Mr. Ford, I promise you that my token of esteem to have you as a groomsman was no random choice. It was a sign. As we approach our destiny, the wartime economy will be unshackled from its bindings. When I am President, I will be a captain of industry, and the Clans will be allowed to handle their own affairs without needless intrusion. I trust you find that idea acceptable, sir?"
Henry Ford nodded. "Indeed, Supreme Chief. I find that quite acceptable. The Clans will never forget this, I assure you, and I thank you."
This was what it was to be Charles Oswald on his wedding day. Still living a lie, a splendid little game, as all the world looked on. It was a game in which he held all the pieces, or damn near all of them. Indeed, there were few obstacles remaining that could ever hope to stop him. As he looked down the table and watched his father Joe Oswald share drinks with a bellicose Southron gentleman in a seersucker suit, his blood boiled. His father, and his drinking habit, were a huge potential liability. If ever Joe should say too much about their splendid little game, or about Chuck's institutionalization as a child, or be blackmailed by Gamble or Jev only knows who, the whole house, no, -castle- of cards Chuck had been stacking from such a young age could come crashing down. His father would need to be dealt with.
Johnny Gamble looked over at Chuck as the Chancellor pumped his father's arm. Gamble was smiling a disgusting, shit-eating grin, and so was his father. Gamble was sending a message. He was trying to use Joe as a pawn. Much to the Cackalack overlord's disappointment, Chuck was smiling right back, still puffing on the cigar. A disgusting, shit-eating grin. No one was going to manipulate him. He pictured the flamboyant Southron floating in a Moose Factory lake, maggots writhing from his empty eye sockets. Chuck smiled even more. A disgusting, shit-eating grin. Raising his glass in Gamble's direction, arching an eyebrow, he silently, inconspicuously mouthed the words, "Up yours."
Gamble frowned, his veneer breaking once again. Oswald's smile remained unflinching.
A disgusting, shit-eating grin.