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My Prima Donna Swamp Princess [ 14 ] : Cipher

  • 2005-11-30
Arva had enough of Kalvarija. Upon learning that the town prided itself on Christian tourism, an arduous annual walk along the stations of the cross, she was inconsolable. She suddenly understood the scope of her sworn mission - to rid millions of misguided Balts of Christianity and guide them back to their pagan roots - was daunting, and so she asked me to whisk her out of town and into the coaxing stillness of nature.


I drove in no particular direction, enjoying the silence and lush green pine forests that seemed to swallow us up. I was vaguely concerned about Arva's glum mood. Still waters run deep, I thought. I knew her for less than a day, but good enough to get a sense of her unpredictable disposition.

Sure enough, the princess grew fidgety, but instead of striking a conversation she looked around the Golf. Seeing a copy of Kauno Diena in the back seat, she took it and placed it on her lap. And began reading.

Reading!

But how could that be? I wondered. If Arva could read, it thoroughly disproved her claim that she was born in the first half of the 15th century. It showed she was a charlatan, and I felt an anger rising in my veins.

"But you can't read!" I said.

She looked as me as if I had just did the sign of the cross. "What do you mean I can't read?"

"Well, you can't - or shouldn't be able to!"

"American crusader - what in Perkunos' good name are you talking about?"

"Look, you say you were born just after 1400, yet the first book in the Baltic language didn't appear the mid-16th century. Medieval Balts were illiterate."

"A Teutonic lie!" Arva cried. "I can't believe what I'm hearing!"

"But it's true! The first book in the region was...

"Pure papal poppycock! Lies spread by the Christian invaders to denigrate us. We had a flowering culture 's art, theater, manuscripts. We wrote down our tales and passed them on to our children."

"That can't be! Then why haven't any survived?"

"I don't know 's you tell me, polyglot professor. Might it not be because the crusader scum burned them while baptizing us beneath the sword!"

I was flabbergasted like never before in my life. I didn't know what to say. I looked at the paper on her lap. "Okay, if you can read, what does the paper say?"

"Is this a test?"

"Yes, it is. This is the second time today you've asked me to believe what no one in the world will believe, so I'll repeat my question: what does the paper say, Arva?"

She looked at one of the headlines. "Minister Butkevicius resigns …Lithuania continues to mourn the death of the pope." Disgusted, she threw the paper in the back seat. "What horror! Everywhere I look, everything I touch 's pope, Christianity, God…What in Pikollos' worst nightmare has happened to my beloved Balts?"

Still reeling from this latest revelation, I didn't bother responding. Nor did I have to. The princess was on the offensive.

"Not only did we have books, we had one of the most advanced systems of ciphers in our day." She grabbed the paper. "Look! The Lithuanians still use them."

"You mean all the diacritic marks?"

"They were once enigmatic markings to throw off spies who tried to intercept our messages. Don't forget, we were at war all those years."

"No kidding," I said. "You mean all those macrons, umlauts, carons, tildes and superdots were once secret code to throw off the foreigners?"

"Precisely!"

I laughed. "That reminds me of this Estonian guy who always bitches and moans that The Baltic Times should start using all the diacritics when spelling Baltic names."

"Easy for him to say," Arva added. "The Estonians were some of the most enthusiastic code writers 's they love to make fun of foreigners who can't speak their language. When they had nothing else to do they used to sit around the winter fires and make up new grammatical cases just so the outlanders couldn't master the tongue. How many do they have now?"

"Fourteen!"

"That's not so bad," Arva said. "I remember a time when they had 49 's they were under attack by the Knights of the Sword. They had a grammatical case for everything."

"I can't wait to tell my students this," I said. "They believe all those markings in the Baltic alphabets are a conspiracy to prevent foreigners from learning the languages."

"Well, that's what they are."