Paris, France (TimeLine B)
There was a religious belief, based upon the Papal Bull created at the behest of a previous emperor that the Emperor of France had divine sanction for any action he took on behalf of his people. Among other responsibilities the Papal Bull – written largely by the Emperor himself – gave him was the ‘keeping of the balance,’ a reference to the supreme power that was held by the Emperor. To the Emperor not only fell duties to God, but the right to decide what those duties were.
In his private moments, Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier wished that he possessed such power – or that the Emperor possessed it in anything beyond the power-mad dreams of one of his predecessors. Keeping the balance would be so much easier if the Charles de Gaulle and the George Washington had never arrived – and there was always the nagging worry about what might have fallen into other hands.
Privately, without telling anyone apart from the Emperor, Pelletier had ordered a very quiet search for any other ships that might have appeared within the French Empire. They had found nothing, none of the developed territories of Indochina, Africa or new Spain held any more ships – at least as far as they knew. The Charles de Gaulle wasn’t unique though; the George Washington existed and therefore other ships might also exist.
Pelletier scowled, hoping that Admiral Quirion, Minister of Marine, would get to the point. It was bad news, he knew; the grim expression on the Minister’s face only conformed it. Greetings and salutations in Christ were important – he’d been raised a devout Catholic himself – but how did they compare to news that affected the entire Empire?
He didn’t even want to think about the Catholics on the Charles de Gaulle. Not all of them had been happy with the version of the Catholic Church that existed in TimeLine B, some of them had even attempted to reach the Pope. All information involving that particular can of worms had been carefully classified, just to ensure that it never got out of control.
“Unfortunately, the attack on Panama was very successful,” Admiral Quirion admitted. “In effect, it has managed to seriously cripple a large number of ships.”
Pelletier scowled, trying to take the news calmly. “What happened, exactly?” He asked. “How did they manage to do it?”
“They launched an aerial attack,” Admiral Quirion said. “They must have managed to get their own carriers ready to move; the attack didn’t come from any British-held territory.”
Pelletier allowed himself a moment of mourning for the lost crewmen. “How bad was it?” He asked. “How many ships do we have left in that region?”
Admiral Quirion took a breath; Pelletier prepared himself as best as he could. “We had fifteen superdreadnaughts in the harbour at the time,” Admiral Quirion said. “Of those, five have been destroyed outright or damaged beyond repair…and then the others all need repairs of some kind or another.”
Pelletier took a deep breath. “I see,” he said coldly. “How exactly did this happen, when we knew what the alternate technology could do?”
“The attack was in greater force than the commander on the scene anticipated,” Admiral Quirion said. “He died in the attack.”
“How…convenient,” Pelletier murmured. Admiral Quirion lowered his eyes reluctantly. “So…we have fifteen superdreadnaughts destroyed or otherwise out of commission?” Admiral Quirion nodded. “In effect, we have no choice, but to concede the Caribbean?”
Admiral Quirion flinched at his tone. “Yes,” he said flatly. Pelletier almost admired the honesty he’d shown. “There are still twenty superdreadnaughts, but they have to be moved to the western side of Panama…”
Pelletier thought rapidly. Naval matters had never been an interest of his, but if the British had gained such superiority, then the war might be within shouting distance of being lost. If there were only twenty superdreadnaughts to fifty, even without a second carrier attack – assuming that carriers were capable of attacking surface ships, which Contre-Admiral François Videzun had sworn was possible – then the navy would be destroyed.
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Admiral Quirion said, as soon as Pelletier explained his thoughts. “The Caribbean Squadrons cannot be sent up against the British now, or they will be lost for nothing.”
“I see,” Pelletier said coldly. “What about our own carriers?”
“We have seven of them working up now,” Admiral Quirion said grimly. “Unfortunately, they’re in the Mediterranean – and it will take weeks to have them moved to the Caribbean.” He paused. “And, of course, they will be perfect targets for the George Washington’s fighters.”
Pelletier scowled. He understood the reluctance to send the Charles de Gaulle up against the American George Washington, but it would have been worth it if both ships had been lost, along with their annoying crews. Both ships simply made warfare too complicated – it was like grasping for money in a lake filled with scorpions.
“I think we’ll have to find some way of dealing with that ship,” he said. “So…what now?”
Admiral Quirion paused for a long moment. “I request permission to pull the remains of the fleet out of the Caribbean and away from America,” he said. “If we do that, then once the new Spain aircraft factories have built up the aircraft, they can return and take control of the Caribbean back.”
Pelletier frowned. Retreat – surrendering even part of France’s rights – wasn’t within his authority, unless it was really urgent. It was, he felt, but it was still dangerous to usurp some of the Emperor’s power.
“We can do the same to the Orkney Naval Base, can’t we?” He asked, and wondered if Contre-Admiral François Videzun hadn’t been right all along. The fighting was about to get a lot worse. “We can hammer Home Fleet as badly?”
“They have to have been moving their own aircraft production upwards as well,” Admiral Quirion said. “In a couple of weeks, we could send the carriers to launch such an attempt.”
Pelletier held his eyes. “And are our carriers as capable?”
Admiral Quirion nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yes,” he said, and tried to essay a small joke. “After all, we’re both working from the same plans.”
Pelletier looked at him. “I hope that you’re right,” he said. “I have to see the Emperor as soon as possible.”
“You’ll need his permission to withdraw the ships,” Admiral Quirion agreed. “Your Excellency, I’m sorry about this…”
Pelletier glared at him. “We no longer control our lives,” he said. “What else is there to worry about?”
The Emperor looked…grey and went greyer as Pelletier reported the news from Admiral Quirion and then Viceroy Cortez. They’d chosen to concentrate on Europe; the United Empire had decided to focus on the Caribbean.
“There’s still heavy fighting going on, after a week,” Pelletier said. “It’ll be a while before they reach Mexico City, let alone Isabella. Now that they’ve overrun a few towns, we might see some resistance behind the lines.”
“Which will be crushed,” the Emperor said. The laws of war were very clear on that; soldiers and civilians out of uniforms could be shot out of hand. “They won’t stand a chance.”
“Even so, they’ll tie down some forces,” Pelletier said. “It’ll still take them time, in the new terrain, to hammer their way south.”
“They’ve already overrun the first two lines of defences,” the Emperor said. “My friend…do you think that we should call a halt to the war?”
Pelletier frowned. “Send a diplomatic envoy?” He asked. “That would show weakness?”
“We are weak,” the Emperor said. His voice was older than Pelletier cared to think about. “What happens when the Russians start building these land ironclads too?”
Pelletier frowned. “We do have land ironclads of our own,” he protested. “Indeed, the antitank land ironclads worked perfectly; there just weren’t enough of them. We’re building more in New Spain now and rushing them to the front. They may move forward, Your Majesty, but they’ll do it at higher and higher cost.”
The Emperor looked up at the map for a long moment. It was a work of art, drawn by a Lady of the Court. “And if we ask for peace, what will they demand?”
Pelletier hesitated. “They’ll certainly demand the Caribbean islands,” he said. “They’ve been on their want list ever since the Global War.” He paused to consider. “They might also demand a reduction in our naval strength, or even Indochina itself.”
“I might be tempted to let them have Indochina,” the Emperor said wryly. “It’s not as if it ever did us any real good, apart from the naval base.”
“We would lose influence in China,” Pelletier protested.
The Emperor snorted. “There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of competing factions in China,” he said. “How many are we backing at the last count?”
Pelletier checked his notepad. “The agents in China are backing seventeen,” he said. “Three of them are major warlords.”
“I remain unconvinced,” the Emperor said. “Other than that…”
“We can attack Russia now, while we still have the advantage,” Pelletier said. “The Russians have shown no signs of possessing their own super-ship. In that event, we can crush their defence lines and push towards Moscow.”
The Emperor nodded slowly. “That would ensure that the British stay away from us,” he said. “They want Russia beaten too.”
Pelletier smiled. “Is that your order, sire?” He asked. “What about Contre-Admiral François Videzun and his crew?”
The Emperor paused a moment to consider. “I think that it’s time we went ahead with his wedding,” he said. “Once that’s done, he will be one of us – and loyal to the Family.”
He meant Family in the sense of the entire extended family. People brought into the nobility became loyal to the nobility; it was the source of their status. Given everything that Videzun had done for them, he deserved to be brought in – and marriage bonds, even a formal arranged marriage, were the strongest way of doing that.
“I still don’t think that that’s a…safe idea,” Pelletier admitted. “Princess Jasmine is ten now, too young yet for…”
“Carnal pleasures,” the Emperor said. “It doesn’t matter; Videzun will be entitled to affairs – as many as he wants – as long as he’s kind to her.”
Pelletier nodded. At the bottom, noble marriages were about bloodlines and status, not about things like love and attraction. Mistresses – or their rarer male equivalent – were common; only the Crown Prince had a restricted field. For a moment, Pelletier sympathised with the young man; he saw all of his young male friends having sex with everyone in sight – maids, Ladies, even married women – and he had none.
“I shall have Contre-Admiral François Videzun informed of his impending marriage,” he said formally. “Might I suggest creating him Baron Charles de Gaulle?”
The Emperor nodded. “A good thought,” he said. “See to working with General Leblanc. I want this war over with, as soon as possible.”
The news of his impending nuptials was supposed to be a surprise, even though some Ladies of the Court had been hinting at it for weeks, so Contre-Admiral François Videzun reacted as if he was surprised. The news – that he was to marry the Princess Jasmine – wasn’t unexpected, but he did his best to appear surprised. It was…harder than he had expected; if he had to marry someone, he would have preferred someone more…mature.
“My heartiest…congratulations,” Picard said, as soon as the messenger had gone. His face twisted itself into an evil grin. “I wish you the most fun for your wedding night. You’ll have to give her a cup of hot milk and read her a bedtime story.”
“Oh, shut up,” Videzun said, without heat. “I suppose it won’t be too bad.”
Picard became serious, perhaps recognising the seriousness of the situation. “You will become a high noble – a middle-ranking noble,” he said. “Your position at Court is confirmed.”
“A very good thing,” Videzun said. His tone darkened. “I can’t go to bed with her.”
“You don’t have to,” Picard assured him. They both shared a certain…horror at the thought of sleeping with an underage girl. “You’re just marrying into her family line.”
Videzun shrugged. Sorting out the confused lines of succession was…impossibly difficult. A woman inherited nothing – unless specifically willed to her – but she carried the family name, which was part of the vast and probably incestuous Royal Family. By now, Videzun suspected, Royal Blood was what the Emperor said it was – certainly a handful of really annoying nobles had suffered accidents from time to time.
Jacqueline Petal coughed, trying to attract attention. “The point is – the Emperor is going to seek a peace with the British,” she said. “If he does that…”
“The crew of the George Washington will have plenty of time to boost the United Empire forwards,” Videzun concluded. “We cannot end the war, not with Sealion in the works.”
“The Emperor opposes Sealion,” Picard said. His tone was artfully neutral. “We could take it to their Legislate, but that would…”
“Abandon surprise,” Videzun said. “Even in this crazy universe, Sealion” – he’d adapted the name more as a joke than anything else – “is only possible against a surprised opposition.”
“So…what do we do?” Jacqueline Petal asked. “It’s not as if we can accomplish it with just the Charles de Gaulle, is it?”
Videzun shook his head. “The Emperor…is not the only member of the inner line of succession,” he said. The Master of Protocol had been more than happy to provide a list. “There’s the Crown Prince.”
Jacqueline’s face twisted with distaste. “He tried to slip his hand inside the waistband of my trousers,” he said. “I had to twist away from him; you forbid us from starting fights. Admiral, that man is a menace to all the women and half of the manly men.”
Videzun shrugged. “If we asked him if he would like to claim power, before his father has more kids, what do you think he would say? Yes or no?”
“He’s a toad,” Jacqueline said. “Yes, he’ll take power – if you offered him half a chance. Bastard should be turned into a toad, or a snake or a…”
“Thank you,” Videzun said dryly. “Unless you have developed magic powers” – he waited for her negative – “kindly think only about the possible.”
“Yes, Admiral,” Jacqueline said. “Sir, the Crown Prince cannot pull of a coup,” she said. “The Emperor is well defended.”
Videzun smiled coldly. “We’re better than they are,” he said. No matter how competent the Emperor’s guards were, they were very much products of TimeLine B’s technological capabilities. “I think that removing him will not be…difficult.”
“Poison him,” Jacqueline said. “I really don’t think that we want to be in the position of having to work with the Crown Prince alone, so use something to send the Emperor into a coma.”
“Understood,” Videzun said. “I’ll get Doctor Mimi Rouge to work on it at once.”
Court Phillipe Lavich had never been happier in his life, wondering what he had done before meeting her. Serving maids, even the occasional Lady of the Court, all of them paled next to Belen, who was…perfect.
The perfect companion, he thought, as he lay next to her in bed. She’d fallen asleep after making love, something that only made her more special to him. Many women seemed to want endless reassurance of his devotion afterwards; Belen just slept in his arms. There was little…soft about her perfect body; she had muscles and a willingness to use them.
“I love you,” he whispered, to her sleeping form, and kissed her gently on the forehead. Her body moved against him in her sleep, her breasts pushing up against his body. “I love you.”
Absently, he reached out and gently stroked a breast. She murmured in her sleep, pushing harder against him, as he reached down and felt between her legs. He wasn’t used to trying to give pleasure by anything, but sex, but she’d taught him. Watching as she lost control was truly…exciting.
“I love you too,” she breathed, as he stroked her. “I love you.”
Lavich studied her as she opened her eyes. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said softly. “I’m sorry…”
“Did I say I was complaining?” Belen asked, her body rolling over to climb on top of his. “I’ve got something for you too.”
Afterwards, they lay together, enjoying one another’s company. “I think that I don’t ever want to let go of you,” Lavich said seriously, playing with one perfect breast. “I think…”
Belen stuck out her tongue, aiming a mock-slap at him. “If you think I’m going to go to the toilet like this…”
That was what he liked about her; she never pretended to high status or servitude. She didn’t put on airs and graces, nor did she faint dead away – or fall to her knees – at the thought of being with him. “I didn’t mean like that,” he said. “Love…will you marry me?”
Ladies of the Court would have fainted, or pretended to faint, at the mere hint of the suggestion. Maids…knew better than to expect that they would ever be asked to marry a noble, no matter how much they tried to please him. They would have cried afterwards, if it ever came, for it would have been a joke.
Belen…said nothing. “I love you,” Lavich said seriously. “I’ll look after you, take care of you…you would have equal rights” – something he knew would be important to her – “and a say in my business.” He paused. “It’s as much yours as it is mine anyway.”
Belen smiled, and then rolled over, exposing her naked thighs. “I’m thinking about it,” she said, her voice deep and warm. Knowing that that mouth had performed delightful delights on his body only made the voice sexier to him. “I’ve thought about it.”
There was a long pause. “And…?” Lavich finally asked. The entire universe seemed to have frozen. “And?”
“I was always taught to make a man wait,” Belen said. She leaned forward and kissed him hard. “But the answer is yes.”