Chapter Thirty-Three: Why Doth Treachery Never Prosper?
Paris, France (TimeLine B)
Belen Lefunte looked…stunning; there was no other word to describe her. In a perfect white dress, with a single golden ring on her hand, she looked utterly fantastic. Contre-Admiral François Videzun, for the first time, saw her as more than a subordinate, seeing her as a desirable woman for the first time in his life.
“I think that we’re both due to marry,” Videzun said, “but not to each other.”
Belen smiled. The exact line of authority had faded slightly, simply because of the life of the Paris Court. By his arranged marriage to Princess Jasmine, Videzun would be her social superior, but as the wife of Court Phillipe Lavich, Belen would be close enough – close enough to make them almost equals.
“You have my sympathy,” she said, and meant it. “Sir…”
She hesitated, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out the question. “Don’t worry,” Videzun sighed. “I won’t be sleeping with her.”
“Perhaps it’s a good thing that title inheritance only proceeds down the male line,” Belen said, an odd statement from a self-proclaimed feminist. If Videzun had children by someone other than Jasmine, and that was almost certain, that child would still inherit whatever titles he gained by being married to Jasmine. By some curious alchemy, it would have happened – no matter who he slept with. If he had children by a peasant girl, they would still inherit.
“Maybe,” Videzun said. “They don’t see a marriage as the same thing we do. Here, it’s not a love match, but a cold-blooded arrangement to share…the metaphysical bloodlines.”
“Mental lines,” Belen said. “Phillipe and I have agreed that my children will be the heirs.”
Videzun shrugged. “I don’t want to know,” he said. He could imagine how that had proceeded – and he was almost envious of their wedding night. His wedding night would be…uneventful. “Have you made arrangements for the future?”
Belen nodded. “I’m going to remain onshore,” she said. “Now that the Russians have some tanks as well…”
Videzun made a grim face. Andre Arsenault deserved a large promotion, far more than the knighthood he had received; his action might have saved the entire front. The war had returned to stalemate – quicker than he would have believed possible.
“We’ll have to work on finding out what they have,” he said, and knew that there was only one shot left at winning the war outright. Without that, the war was as good as lost. “That’s something else we’re working on.”
Belen smiled. “Yes, dad,” she said. Andre Arsenault, who was going to give her away, poked his head into the room. “Andre?”
Arsenault saluted as soon as he saw Videzun. “Belen, the doctor is here to give you the final check,” he said. “Admiral…ah…I…”
“Thank you,” Videzun said. “Please inform the doctor that I would like to talk to her first.
Arsenault nodded and slipped back out of the door. “This is the one thing I don’t like,” Belen said. “At least I get a female doctor.”
Videzun nodded. The French Court wasn’t that concerned with little details like virginity – well, not unless the lady in question had a really bad past – but they did insist on checking for sexual diseases. Normally, the bride would have to go through the humiliation of being examined by a male doctor, but Doctor Mimi Rouge, who held the favour of the Emperor, had been volunteered for the task.
“I’ll leave then, if you don’t mind,” he said wryly, and headed out of the door. He heard her chuckle behind him and smiled; there were other things for him to worry about, such as…
“Admiral,” Doctor Mimi Rouge said. Her grey face had grown greyer; her hard blue eyes stamped with…disapproval. Her clipped voice was icy and cold.
“Doctor,” he said, as gravely as he could. “Have you…?”
“I have done as you have ordered,” Doctor Mimi Rouge said, her tone cold with disapproval. “It has been done.”
Videzun nodded. “And the timing?” He asked. “At what point can we expect to see effects?”
Doctor Mimi Rouge tried to smile. It didn’t quite touch her eyes. “Within an hour or two,” she said. “It takes time for the covering to break down and…”
“Spare me the details,” Videzun said. “All that matters is that it goes ahead.”
The Doctor caught at his arm. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “He was talking earlier about peace, Admiral.”
Videzun looked sharply at her, then his face cracked into a smile. “It’s a bit late, Doctor,” he said. “Is there anything else?”
She glared at him. “Yes, there is,” she said. “As per procedure in this place” – her sniff would have done credit to any of the Grand Dames in the French Empire – “I have conducted an…examination of the Lady Princess Jasmine. Admiral, she is physically immature.”
Videzun felt sick for the first time since arriving in the strange new world. “Doctor,” he began, his tone harsh, “I am not going to sleep with her.” He took a breath, grimly aware of his growing rage. “I am as annoyed at this turn of events, Doctor, as you are; I cannot say that I wanted them.”
“She wants to do her duty,” Doctor Mimi Rouge said. “Admiral; be careful with her. She’s smart, but not…knowledgeable enough.”
“I will take care of her,” Videzun said, sharply. “Now, go see to the Lady Belen.”
The Great Hall was filled with people, all hanging around and talking in loud voices. Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier disliked it on sight; it was the perfect place to stage an assassination attempt. The great and the good of France and the empire – Spanish, Italian, Arab, and American Indian – were all within the room, waiting for the Emperor. The golden glitter of lights from the chandeliers flickered around the room, illuminating faces with a suddenness that was almost shocking.
He allowed himself a moment to look for familiar faces. There were the people from the Charles de Gaulle, a handful of people in unfamiliar uniforms. They looked out of place; spectaculars like this one were hardly common in their France. They held their wineglasses oddly and moved with a deliberateness that was almost awkward. There were the Court Phillipe Lavich’s family; here to see his wedding and to take a look at his new wife, those who hadn’t seen her before. They hadn’t all been happy; the guards had intercepted several attempts to assassinate her.
He frowned inwardly as his gaze met the Crown Prince’s smile. The fat young man was wandering through the crowd, causing a chain reaction of happy fake smiles and hidden frowns. He was, Pelletier realised, doing it on purpose; as he watched the Crown Prince pinched the bottom of a young woman. Her squeak of protest was music to her tormentor’s ear.
Shaking his head, Pelletier headed away from the Grand Hall, entering the antechamber without bothering to knock. The Emperor, looking better than Pelletier had seen him for a while, smiled up at him. He was reading a letter, written on the parchment that the British used for their formal messages, and smiling.
“The British have agreed to meet with my representatives,” the Emperor said. “They have proven amiable.”
“A masterful settlement,” Pelletier said, and meant it. “What are their terms?”
“The Caribbean, the Philippines, the East Indies, a demilitarised zone in New Spain and an end to our support for Quebec,” the Emperor said. He smiled. “Not that we’ve been able to do much supporting anyway, eh?”
Pelletier nodded. “And how much are we going to offer?”
The Emperor paused in thought. “We may as well give up the Caribbean, subject to arguing over the exact limits of territorial waters for the fishing fleets,” he said. “It’s not as if we can take it back. The same goes, more or less, for the East Indies. The Philippines, on the other hand, hadn’t been taken and indeed beat off an attack last year, so…”
“Let them take it if they can?” Pelletier asked. “That sounds a little…”
“We can’t roll over completely,” the Emperor said. “Not with the Russians sharpening their knives and pulling on their condoms.”
“Majesty,” Pelletier said, more than a little shocked.
The Emperor grinned, almost like a child again. “The demilitarised zone, well we can accept that,” he said. “Quebec? That costs us nothing anyway. With the exception of the Philippines, we can afford to give everything else up.”
Pelletier considered. “The Philippines will be the great sticking point,” he said, thinking aloud. The Emperor snorted dryly. “Perhaps we could offer to trade trading posts and influence in China,” he suggested.
“Perhaps,” the Emperor agreed. “When was the last time anyone ever got any good out of China?”
“The Year of Our Lord 2000, I think,” Pelletier said. “That was when the Chinese Emperor died.”
“True,” the Emperor agreed. “Perhaps they’ll accept that, or maybe a part of Indochina. That place has been nothing, but trouble.”
“True,” Pelletier agreed. “Sire, perhaps…”
A low gong rang through the palace. “Sire, it’s time…”
“Yes, I know,” the Emperor said. He suddenly seemed very old. “Not even an Emperor can be late for a wedding.”
His attendants appeared around him. With their help, he stood up and mounted the chair, which was carried by four of his servants. Pelletier had never quite approved of that custom, but the one thing the Emperor could not afford was to show that he was ill. The Emperor adjusted his crown, placing it firmly on his head, and then nodded to Pelletier.
“Be seeing you,” he said. “Have fun escorting the young lady.”
As soon as the Master of Protocol hit the gong, the room had fallen silent; the crowds parting to open a path towards the throne at the end of the room. The main doors opened and the people bowed, as the Emperor was carried along the path, to his throne. Observed only by Videzun, the Emperor stumbled slightly as he climbed into his throne; it was big enough for three people his size to sit comfortably.
“Where are the men who stand before me,” the Emperor said. His voice was firm, thanks to a small microphone from the Charles de Gaulle. “Where are they…?”
Videzun stepped forward, standing below the Emperor. “I am here,” he said, keeping his voice calm. Beside him, Lavich echoed him; the Count seemed almost nervous. “We stand before you, you who are God’s appointed on Earth.”
They spoke the last line together. The Emperor smiled weakly; the commoners might believe that – they heard it from their priests every week – but the nobles knew better. Videzun smiled to himself; if there was a better demonstration of the power of faith, he had never seen it.
“Marriage is a holy state, conceived by God,” the Emperor said. “If either of you are not worthy, stand down now and seek repentance for your sins.”
His voice echoed across the Great Hall. TimeLine B’s French didn’t ask if there was anyone who objected; it was assumed that such did indeed exist – and that they didn’t matter. Videzun said nothing; Lavich said nothing.
“Where are the women who would marry these men?” The Emperor said. “Let them now come before me.”
Videzun shivered, struck suddenly by a memory of attending a wedding in a nation whose name had never been breathed here. The bride, if she struggled, was tied up – and she was expected to struggle so she could be tied up. In this wedding, the ropes were invisible, but they existed just as much as the light ropes used to bind the brides.
Bastards, he thought coldly.
The main door cranked open, revealing the two women. The gasp that ran through the male crowd wasn’t faked; they were awed by Belen. In her simple gown, she outshone all of the other women in the room, all of them. Beside her, the slightly darkened face of Princess Jasmine contrasted nicely with a purple dress; her dark hair coiled up into a very adult style.
Videzun sucked in his breath. She walked like a child, sombre and serious, aware of the situation, but not truly understanding it. Her eyes glittered with intelligence – and a curious seriousness that would have been laughable under other circumstances. Despite himself, Videzun felt his heart melt; without him, she would have been married off to someone else, someone who would have seen her as only a burden on him.
“Stand before me,” the Emperor said. Videzun took Jasmine’s hand and smiled at her; beside him, Lavich did the same to Belen. “You have come before me to be married, in the eyes of God,” the Emperor said. “Do either of you wish to end this now?”
It was, as far as Videzun could tell, a serious question. “No,” Belen said, to be echoed moments later by Jasmine. “This is my will.”
Videzun winced. Whatever the origins of the wedding ceremony, it was not of Jasmine’s will. “Contre-Admiral François Videzun; you have accepted her hand in marriage. Do you swear, before God, to accept her, to love her, to take care of her and to be with her, until death do you part?”
Videzun bowed. “I do,” he said.
The Emperor smiled. “Count Phillipe Lavich; you have accepted her hand in marriage. Do you swear, before God, to accept her, to love her, to take care of her and to be with her, until death do you part?”
“I do,” Lavich said. “I do.”
The Emperor said nothing for a long moment. “The Lady Belen, daughter of Marie; do you swear to marry this man, to love, to obey, to respect, until death do you part?”
Belen smiled slightly. “I do,” she said.
The Emperor repeated the statement for Jasmine, who also agreed. Videzun wondered, absently, what would have happened if she’d disagreed. “Then I pronounce you man and wife,” the Emperor said. “You may now kiss the brides.”
Princess Jasmine tilted her lips up towards Videzun. He pushed her gently down and kissed her once on the forehead. He muttered an apology under his breath; how could he explain the revulsion at the thought of touching her like that? It would only upset her.
The worst thing that a spymaster, or spy-mistress, could do was to be out in the open. Contrary to endless novels filled with trashy heroic spies and shifty government officials, the real spymasters remained in the background. Under other circumstances, Jacqueline Petal would have enjoyed the wedding ceremony, but it had problems.
“I was hoping that I would see you here,” an oily voice said from behind her. Jacqueline winced and kept it from her face; the last thing she needed was to be groped again. “I have been wanting to make your acquaintance.”
Jacqueline turned slowly to see the Crown Prince, standing there and smiling his oily smile. As always, he smelt slightly; not of shit or waste, but of too many scents. Perfumes and costume smells, all blending together to create a slightly…disagreeable smell. She shuddered inwardly; it wasn’t disagreeable, it was awful.
“It is a pleasure to see you again,” she said carefully. Beating hell out of him would have only led to her swift and certain execution. “What can I do for you?”
“I have some questions about your world,” the Crown Prince said. His name was Louis, Jacqueline remembered, but he never let anyone call him that. He pulled her out of the Grand Hall and she shivered. “Perhaps we can discuss it in a room.”
Jacqueline wanted to object, but she couldn’t find the words. He pulled her into a room, showing more strength than she had expected somehow, and then he leered at her. “Tell me,” he said. “Is it true that you have weapons that can destroy entire cities?”
Jacqueline stared at him. There was something in his eyes…
“My father has plans, your Admiral has plans…and they all hinge on me,” the Crown Prince said. His voice was somehow…harder than normal; he wasn’t even trying to grope her. “Why should I do anything to help you at all?”
Jacqueline suddenly realised what had flickered within his eyes. A sudden flash of razor-sharp intelligence. It was so unexpected that she almost reeled. “Don’t you want to be Emperor?” She asked, trying to regain her balance. “Don’t you want to rule the world?”
He leaned closer to her, somehow not creeping her out like he had before. “Ah, but who’s going to pull my strings?” He asked. “That’s what you have in mind, is it not?”
Jacqueline changed the subject, wishing that she could tear off her dress and distract him that way. She had the feeling that it wouldn’t have worked. “You have the native capability to rule this Empire,” she said. She shuddered; she had to talk to Videzun about this. “Do you even need strings?”
The Crown Prince leaned closer. “I have chosen to play the role of the idiot,” he said, all of the lustiness and desire having fled his voice. “If I rule, I rule; that’s what is going to happen. Do I rule?”
Jacqueline felt pure fear for the first time in her life. The Crown Prince could rape and murder her – and no one would even care. “You will rule,” she said, and held herself together. “I will see to that.”
“Good,” the Crown Prince said. “You will be beside me, on my throne.”
Jacqueline shuddered. The old Crown Prince, the mask, would have been preferable to this…stranger, this new face that had appeared out of nowhere. Consent seemed to be the only course of action; she nodded frantically.
“Good,” the Crown Prince said. “Now…let us celebrate our impending union and your rise to the status of Royal Consort.” He started to unbuckle his belt. There was a sudden banging at the door. “Yes,” he bellowed, in a tone that promised suffering for whoever was interrupting them. “What’s happened?”
“Your Highness, your father has been taken ill,” a servant shouted. “Your highness…”
“Right on time,” the Crown Prince muttered, redoing his belt. “Now, I’m going to claim my Empire…and I’ll catch up with you later.”
He swept out of the room, leaving Jacqueline to fall back on the bed, shaking. She knew – now – that she’d made a dreadful mistake, one that would have earned her a dismissal from the Charles de Gaulle; if she’d remained on the ship. Instead…she looked into her future and shuddered. The old Crown Prince would be…truly preferable to the new one.