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Chapter Thirty-Six: Peace at a Cost




Iron Palace


Moscow, Russia (TimeLine B)
Petrovich prostrated himself before the Tsar. The Monarch glared at him, then switched his glare to some of his generals, including the ones who’d survived the French bombing of their manor house. Petrovich allowed himself a quick smile; the incompetent generals were getting the blame.
He grinned, his face pressed into the ground and unreadable. The Generals had been the most vocal against the new technology, both the damaged or destroyed Abrams and the home-built tanks. They had feared losing their positions if they were unable to handle the new level of warfare – and so they had blundered. The chance to destroy the French Army, at least in the view of the Tsar, had been lost.
“Incompetent dolts,” the Tsar snapped. His headsman, a grim-faced man who was completely loyal to the Tsar, smirked at the assembled generals. “We have lost seven priceless units, thanks to your incompetence!”
Petrovich shrugged. The Tsar had formal control of the combined army – and chose idiots to lead it. Of the Tsars, only seven of them had been legitimate in any way that made sense through the prism of the original history; the others had been successful usurpers or nobles who managed to plant their behinds on the throne. Holding Moscow, more or less, made one the Tsar; Lord of Lords.
One of the generals began to stammer an apology. “My lord, the peasants broke and ran,” he protested. Petrovich dimly remembered that the general had noble blood somewhere within him, clearly very diluted indeed. “They were unprepared for the new French weapons and their natural cowardice took control.”
“And what did they have when your father asked for my help in suppressing a riot on your estate?” The Tsar asked. The nobles got private armies; none of them big enough to pose a real threat. “I seem to recall that you yourself proved reluctant to take your Cossack unit and engage them…”
He allowed his voice to trail off suggestively. Higher-ranking nobles had many sons, few who would inherit, so the younger ones went into the army – or schemed to kill their brothers. It was a dog-eat-dog world, Petrovich had realised, one hardly capable of facing up to the requirements of modern warfare. The real problem was that Russia dared not educate its serfs and peasants, just to prevent them from revolting, which meant that they would always be at a disadvantage.
“You have betrayed me for the last time,” the Tsar said. The general made a noise of protest; the Tsar seized upon it. “Your conduct has led to a disgrace. Ivan?”
The headsman stepped forward, already lunging with his axe. Seconds later, there was blood on the ground. “Have these shirkers removed to a penal battalion,” the Tsar ordered another Court Jew. “Now…Stefan, Petrovich, attend me. Everyone else may leave my presence.”
Petrovich had never seen the process of departing the Tsar’s presence before. The nobles left, banging their heads against the ground in a process of extreme contrition. The headless body was removed quickly; the head remained where it had fallen. The entire process, he realised, was humiliating – it was designed to show their total inferiority to the Tsar.
He sat back on his haunches; it was as close as anyone got to being relaxed in the presence of the Tsar. Stefan entered the room and knelt as well; his semi-friend made no sign of his friendship as he knelt. Petrovich understood; the poor man cared deeply for his daughter, and yet he had no choice, but to watch her being used as a bargaining chip by the Tsar.
“You may talk freely,” the Tsar said, almost conversationally. Petrovich knew that he could believe as much or as little of that as he liked. “Why did the planned offensive failed?
Petrovich smiled. The trick, in these situations, was to place the blame on the person the Tsar had already decided was guilty. Never mind that it had never been planned as an offensive, nor that no one had expected that the French would have a weapon capable of harming an Abrams. Petrovich was still kicking himself over that little mistake; he’d assumed that the French carrier would be keeping all of its units together.
“We were successful at breaking the French offensive,” he said. “The Abrams turned enough of their tanks into death traps that the offensive could be broken quite easily. The intervention of the helicopters was annoying, but hardly a defeat.” He smiled; one helicopter had fallen to a SAM from the Stalingrad’s troops. The French must be as concerned about preserving the alternate units they had as the Russians were. “In effect, it was a rout.
“Unfortunately, certain generals” – he nodded towards the head on the ground – “were not prepared for the force of modern warfare. By the time our forces were ready to advance and crush the enemy, the enemy had already moved out of the trap that we had painstakingly created. When the two jaws of our trap met, only a handful of enemy units were trapped.”
It was, he knew, a glossy version of the truth. The Tsar didn’t seem to care. “I have had to make one example,” he said. He waved a dismissive hand towards the head on the ground. “Will I have to make others?”
Petrovich felt his blood run cold, but the Tsar didn’t seem to be looking at him. “A defeat on this scale will provoke some of the Dukes or the Boyars,” the Tsar said. “They will feel that I am weak, that they can move against me with impunity.”
Petrovich scowled. One unbreakable rule was that no one, apart from the Tsar, was permitted troops within two hundred miles of Moscow and St Petersburg. That left personal guards and assassins to do the dirty work. An attempted coup would lead to a bloodbath – and whoever came out on top would enjoy the support of the country.
“Majesty, they will not feel that you are weak,” Stefan said. Stefan was loyal, he had to be loyal; a Court Jew had no friends or allies, apart from his master. “It may have been a failure, but it was not a defeat.”
“Ah, Stefan,” the Tsar said. His tone was mocking. “You always give good counsel. Still, I must do something to regain my power…and the French Crown Prince has offered me a way out of the war.”
Petrovich blinked. It was…unlike the tsar to abandon the war, just because of a few hundred thousand casualties. “Majesty?” Stefan asked carefully. “A way out of the war? Has he surrendered to you and your armies?”
The Tsar let out a bellowing laugh. “Oh, no, good Stefan; the Crown Prince does not feel defeated. He does, however, have other plans – mainly to face the British.”
Petrovich lifted an eyebrow. The Tsarist Secret Service had reported on the battles in New Spain, which were slowing down, and the successful strike against the base at Panama. If the French thought that they were losing – and they had no way to know about the weapons that had fallen into Russian hands – then they might want to sue for peace and…
They see Britain as the main threat, he reasoned, and realised what the French intended to do. Simple logistics, the bane of military plans, would limit their losses if they lost, and if they won…the rewards might be endless. But to do that, they needed the Russians off their backs.
“We cannot trust them, of course,” the Tsar said. “They attacked Russia treacherously, with the intent of dictating peace in this very palace. Still, a year or two of peace might be worth the effort, don’t you think?”
“Peace on good terms is always preferable to war,” Stefan said. His tone was hopeful. “My Majesty; is it your intention to accept their offer?”
Petrovich coughed. “Sire, what are their terms?” He asked. “It would be foolish to accept a halt in place.”
The Tsar leaned forward, his face smiling with a hellish glee. “They have agreed to give us China,” he said. “Their stations in China and their Chinese regiments will be turned over to us. They have also agreed not to contest with us over Persia.” It took Petrovich a moment to connect Persia with Iran, which was being fought over by all three empires. “Enough for peace?”
Petrovich considered, wishing that he dared to offer a completely honest opinion. “They will be planning to stab us in the back again,” he said. Stefan nodded beside him. “If we let them off now…they’ll be back.”
“Perhaps,” the Tsar said. “That is why you, Lord Petrovich, will be in charge if building the new army.”
Petrovich’s mind raced. I don’t have a power base, so launching a coup would be difficult for me. At the same time, the army is a power base in itself – one that will be a target for any rebellious noble with a grudge…
Stefan spoke calmly. “My Majesty, do you not feel that that will offend the nobles?”
The Tsar spat once. “That for the nobles,” he said. “Those who are plotting to seize my throne will have to face a loyal army led by a loyal man.”
Petrovich kept his face totally blank. “I live only to serve,” he said. “Exactly what do you wish me to do?”
The Tsar didn’t exactly lack for courage or cunning. It was one of the reasons he’d held the throne so long. “I will have to change some of my objectives,” he said. “With all of the new technology lose in the world, those who fail to master it will be destroyed. I will not be destroyed, and you are the person with the greatest experience of building a modern army.”
Petrovich hesitated. “Sire, the tasks will be harder than you imagine,” he said. The Tsar’s face darkened. “Building a modern army is not just weapons, but equipment and training as well. A massive conscript army is not…suitable for the task at hand.”
The Tsar held his gaze. Peasants with combat experience caused the worst riots in Russia. The Tsar approved of this, at least to Petrovich’s thoughts; it weeded out the worst or the stupidest nobles, who had to live on their estates.
“You would advocate creating a professional army and officer caste?” He asked. The Russians took those from the nobility; the concept of promotion from within the ranks was alien to them. “That could be…problematic.”
Petrovich nodded. “We will have to copy some of their structures,” he said. “It’s the only way to enforce parity.”
***

“I thought that that was very clever myself,” Stefan said, afterwards. They were seated together in his office, drinking mulled French wine. Most Russians drank Vodka, or a beer produced by the peasants, but the nobility drank French wine. Petrovich, who remembered the Soviet attempts to break into the wine market, thought that that was probably a good thing.


Petrovich lifted an eyebrow. “What do you mean?” He asked. “I thought I was responding to a situation.”
Stefan smiled thinly. “The nobles control all the…what did you call them? Means of production? If you have some control over them…”
Petrovich nodded slowly. “If I have that control – if the Tsar has that control – then Russia will have a chance,” he said. He shook his head. Russia in this world was more of a collection of medieval states than anything else, certainly not a modern nation in the conventional sense.
“Ah,” Stefan said. “But if we adapt as you suggest, we’ll become the enemy.”
Petrovich smiled grimly. “Answer me a question,” he said. “Do you think that Russia can win a renewed war?”
“It would be treason to disagree with the Tsar’s attitude,” Stefan said. “Whatever I personally thought, it would not change anything…”
“But you argued for peace,” Petrovich said. He lifted an eyebrow. “Stefan, it can’t be done.”
Stefan blinked. “For a moment, I almost believed you,” he said. “This is a joke?” Petrovich shook his head. “You’re serious?”
“Russia simply lacks the ability to adapt in time,” Petrovich said. He paused. “This entire world seems to have remained in technological stasis until the war, but the war only pushed forward some areas of your technology. The British and the French will adapt; Russia…will not.”
Stefan narrowed his eyes. “And what exactly do you plan to do about it?” He demanded. “Why can’t we adapt? You’re not even from this nation!”
“It’s not my Russia, that’s for sure,” Petrovich said, and acknowledged that, deep within himself. “Listen; in order to build a modern state, you need a modern educated workforce. Neither the Tsar nor the Nobles will establish that, for fear of revolution…”
“And they’d be right,” Stefan commented. “Every month, some estate or another goes up in smoke. The effects of the war are really starting to bite.”
“You also need a politically liberal system, and that would be resisted by the establishment,” Petrovich continued. “We’re doomed.”
His flat statement seemed to astonish Stefan. “It can’t be that bad,” he said. “What about the tanks you’ve produced?”
“They can’t be improved,” Petrovich said. “Yes, now every noble-owned arms factory is churning them out – but they’re not improving them. Those who have that sort of ability…don’t rise.”
Stefan scowled. “The nobles don’t want to create possible rivals,” he said. “Those who make the suggestions often have their ideas stolen.”
Petrovich scowled. “You see my point?” He asked. “The war is going to be lost.”
“But if he makes peace with the French,” Stefan said, “won’t that make it harder for the British to defeat us?”
Petrovich shook his head. “The British will have new and terrible weapons, sooner or later,” he said, “and we will be unable to match them.” He frowned. “Tell me – how loyal are you to the Tsar?”
***

The Tsar didn’t waste time. Formal control of the local armies were passed over to Petrovich after the formal execution of the previous commander in chief; a man chosen for his limited intelligence. The more Petrovich looked at the situation, however, the more he understood; the Russian system was doomed. In the original timeline, there had been some slack – the Duma and the socialists – but in this timeline there was nothing.


“Get rid of the nobles and Russia vanishes,” he muttered to Rebecca, one night in bed. It was true; the nobles were in the position, more or less, of a ruling tribe. Whoever controlled Moscow controlled the armies and the methods of communication; whoever controlled those controlled the country. He was certain that many of the nobles had their own private communication links, but it would be hard for them to have too many of them.
He smiled suddenly. The Tsarist Secret Service watched constantly for forms of disloyalty – and betrayal was one thing that was rewarded constantly. Three of the Grand Dukes had been minor dukes – before betraying the last people to hold their position. In the heart of the Tsar’s castle, he was probably safer than any of them.
She leaned over him, her breasts brushing against his chest. He felt himself grow harder as she tantalised him. “Are you sure that it will work?” She asked. He’d discussed it with her; if he went down, so did she. The Tsar would never trust her again. “If it fails…”
“I will die,” he said, without showing any emotion. Inside, he was mourning for the Russia he’d left behind when the Stalingrad had…fallen through a wormhole or something. He'd discounted the ravings about UFOs; they didn’t make sense at all. He gently squeezed her breast; she’d been relieved when he hadn’t simply raped her on the spot, as soon as they’d been introduced so long ago. Since then, they’d been forced together through circumstances – and making love had taken on a new meaning.
“Yes, you will,” she said. “Is your life worth nothing?”
“I am very attached to my life,” Petrovich said. “Indeed, losing it to a man who would be better off – and probably happier – leading a Mongrel horde would be embarrassing. However, I have no choice, but to risk it – to win or lose it all.”
Rebecca leaned closer to him, almost climbing on top of him. “You might succeed,” she said. “There are those in the civil service who will help you.”
She meant the Jews, Petrovich realised. “If your…companions can help me, then yes, I would love their help,” he said. He paused. “If I win, you will be safe with me.”
The bitterness in her voice was unmistakable. “A lot of Tsars have said that over the years,” she said. “Perhaps you’ll be the one, perhaps not.”
Petrovich rolled over and mounted her. “I always keep my word,” he said, as she opened her thighs for him. “Now…I’m going to make you very happy indeed.”
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