Paris, France (TimeLine B)
The Crown Prince, Contre-Admiral François Videzun was amused to discover, had wasted no time converting the Throne room into his throne room. His father’s artworks, pictures that had been painted in styles that would not have been out of place in Napoleon’s France, had been replaced by paintings that were almost pornographic. The Crown Prince’s service, mainly consisting of French Maids – a thought that made Videzun smile – had been moved into the main rooms, where they were working on serving him.
“The attack has been a part-success?” The Crown Prince asked. They stood alone in the throne room; the Crown Prince had dismissed everyone else. His tone was surprisingly mild; revealing newer and deeper aspects to his personality than Videzun had even suspected.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Videzun said. He considered the situation at length. “We have managed to establish two firm regions of control on the British mainland, but we cannot take London, not now.”
“My forces cannot take London?” The Crown Prince asked. “The city has never been under siege for centuries. They’re not ready for a war at their city walls.”
Videzun shrugged. He’d been surprised himself; Britain had never been invaded in his timeline or the new one. He’d been curious enough to realise what was different; for nearly two hundred years the British had been far too close to a united Europe to feel safe, even with the Channel in the way.
“If we attempt to take the city now, we will bleed out the army for nothing,” Videzun said, and hoped that the Crown Prince would listen. “Their defences may not be as capable as anything we would build” – at least he hoped that that was true – “but they will be capable of bleeding us until we had lost most of the army. It’s happened in my reality.”
He paused to check the Crown Prince’s reactions. “In fact, we have to await the George Washington,” he said. “The Americans are on their way. If we can defeat them, then we have won. If not, then we can cut our losses and defend what part of Britain we hold.” He tapped the map. “If we just seal off London, we can envelop most of their cities and cropland, limiting their food supplies.”
He sensed more than felt the Crown Prince’s amusement. Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier had been shocked at the suggestion, of course; Sherman’s march to the sea had never happened in this timeline, never introduced everyone to the concept of total war. The Emperor had been reluctant to use any such methods; his son would be far less reluctant.
“Excellent concept,” the Crown Prince said. “A shame about losing that regiment of the Irish Bastards; they would be perfect for the mission.”
“There is already rebellion simmering in Ireland,” Videzun reminded him. “Perhaps, we will be able to send them some assistance.”
“Perhaps,” the Crown Prince said. He sat straighter; Videzun realised suddenly that he looked less…fat than he had been before. “How do you plan to deal with the George Washington and the Americans?”
Videzun frowned. He didn’t want to discuss the plan; it would only upset people. “The carrier is far more powerful than ours,” he said. He’d actually put some thought into trying to steal the Russian submarine Putin, finally identified by the French Secret Service, but upon learning that it had literally been grounded he’d realised that it was impossible. “A direct clash would mean that my ship would be sunk rapidly.”
He scowled again; the George Washington had to be handled carefully, just to ensure that it was quickly sunk. “We might be able to overwhelm it by weight of numbers, but that will be chancy, particularly with the British carriers nearby as well. I have given orders for submarines to attempt to intercept the fleet, but I don’t think that they will have any major success.”
The Crown Prince quirked an eyebrow. “And why have you sent them?” He enquired. “If they will be sunk…”
“They might get lucky,” Videzun said, and smiled. “You never know. However, we will have to attack the fleet as it approaches Britain, before it can launch against our fleet.”
“Your Hellfire missiles,” the Crown Prince said.
“Hellebores,” Videzun corrected absently. It was a natural mistake, he supposed. “The problem is that we have only twenty left…but if we use them properly we can use them to destroy the George Washington.” He scowled; the nuclear program had given them no results in a useable timeframe, although he wasn’t really surprised. A single nuclear-tipped missile would have really ruined the Washington’s day. “Still, one of those warheads was built to handle a ship with more armour, so using them…
“On the other hand, the George Washington carries missiles of its own,” Videzun said, and scowled. They’d used creative accounting to hide the Hellebore missiles; might the Americans have done the same? “It can sink the Charles de Gaulle and it can sink our seven carriers. At worst, we have to aim for mutual destruction of both carrier forces, which gives us a superiority in surface ships.”
He’d wondered if the Crown Prince would blanch at the possible death toll. The Crown Prince didn’t move at all. “You are talking about risking the Charles de Gaulle,” he said finally. “That ship is…important.”
“Not as important as taking out the Washington,” Videzun said. “A trade-off leaves us with an advantage.”
He smiled. He hadn’t shared that with Captain Jean-Pierre Mauroy. It would have only upset him.
“I do trust that you are right,” the Crown Prince said finally. “And the reinforcements for the troops in England?”
“Is proceeding as fast as we can,” Videzun assured him. “General Papule is reinforcing the two fronts as fast as possible and we’ll be digging in all the time. Even if they take back control of the Channel, they’ll have to force us out…and that will take them time – time which will devastate Britain.”
The Crown Prince nodded slowly. “Will you be taking command of the battle against the George Washington?” He asked. “You do not appear sure?”
Videzun ignored the questioning tone. The battle didn’t have a hope without him in command. “Yes, Your Highness,” he said. “I will be in command.”
“Very good,” the Crown prince said. “Now, send in my Consort and depart.”
Videzun bowed and left, smiling to himself. How lucky it had been to have the Crown Prince heavily attracted to one of his people. It had been more than he'd dared hope for.
Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier sat next to the bed and watched his Emperor as he slept. The Emperor’s chest rose and fell, but there was no other sign of life and his breath sometimes became gasping, struggling for air. When that happened, the nurses from the Charles de Gaulle had shoved him aside to work desperately on the Emperor, trying to keep him alive for a few more hours, a few more days, a few more weeks…long enough for him to come back and end the madness of the war.
Pelletier still had access to the reports; the army generals knew better than to keep them from him. The Emperor was still the Emperor – only he could sack the Prime Minister. Pelletier’s job wasn’t to be Mr Popular; it was to serve the Emperor and through him the Empire. In order to do that, he needed total access to all of the information. It didn’t look good, even though they tried to make it sound good; until the George Washington was wrecked it would not be decided. If Operation Sealion somehow failed, then…
If Operation Sealion failed, then a large part of the French army, including many of the reequipped units, would be trapped in Britain, unable to retreat. Even if the British were merciful, which they would have little reason to be, they had no obligation to return them to France…and the Russians were lurking on the border. So far, they’d been quiet – and there had been no signs of the wonder land ironclads that had broken what had been intended to be a decisive battle – but Pelletier knew that that could change at any moment. The Russian Tsar was far from sane, and he would want to snatch land while the French were busy elsewhere.
It didn’t work, Pelletier thought, and scowled. The slaughter on the New Spain front, the…stalemate in the east, the failure to take London – all of it meant that the attempt to use the new weapons and the new way of warfare had failed, almost completely. They’d stopped the British in New Spain – the Caribbean had been the only major loss – and the British had kept them out of London. Pelletier hoped that the Crown Prince wouldn’t order a futile attack – or that General Leblanc would have the courage to ignore such an order if it came – because if that attack happened, thousands of Frenchmen would die for nothing.
“And because we’ve stopped them and they’ve stopped us, the stalemate is back,” Pelletier muttered to himself, feeling the weight of his position pressing down on him. He looked down at the Emperor, wondering if his muttering would have awoken him, but he didn’t stir. Pelletier sighed; it was too much for him. How could anyone bear to live in a world where wars like this were a fact of life?
We have to have peace, he thought, and tried to compose the arguments that would have convinced the Crown Prince. He found none; the young man, like all young men who had never known the horrors of war, wanted glory – and he didn’t care who had to suffer and die in order to achieve it. He had seemed such a nice child when he was young, and then he’d grown into a stupid and lecherous man and then it had been revealed to have been a mask…
He hid his light under a façade of uselessness for twenty years, he thought, and shuddered. The Crown Prince was different; he was showing all of his father’s intelligence and none of his compassion, none of the hard-won experience of how the world works and…
“Is His Majesty feeling better?” A female voice asked. Pelletier turned slightly to see Princess Jasmine, smiling nervously at him. She shouldn’t be anywhere near the medical room, it was guarded by the Emperor’s Own, and…he found it hard to care. A ten-year-old girl could hardly be an assassin, could she?
“He’s still asleep,” Pelletier said grimly. He noticed that she was carrying flowers in one hand; they contrasted oddly with her purple dress. “How did you get in here?”
“Oh, the guard said I could go in,” Jasmine said. Her voice was serious; Pelletier realised that she was growing up, or trying to act the part. He remembered the young girl who’d climbed around the palace and felt like crying. “Will he be alright?”
“His Majesty will be fine,” Pelletier said. “I’m sure of it…”
“I meant my…husband,” Jasmine said. Pelletier looked sharply at her; her voice had broken on the last word. He shook his head in sympathy; the demands of state had robbed her of her childhood, of the pleasure of being an unmarried Lady of the Court and they’d done it in such a way that she was denied the pleasures of being married.
Bastards, he thought coldly. She was acting the role of a wife; she didn’t understand that it was for real. “He should be fine,” Pelletier said, with more harshness than he had intended. “He’s in the palace, at the centre of our defences.”
“The maids say that they hear noises from His Highness’s room,” Jasmine said. “The sounds of a person crying, a woman crying.”
Pelletier made a mental note to discipline the maids…and then his mind caught up with him. “A woman crying?” He asked. “Who?”
“I don’t know,” Jasmine said. “They’ve been saying that he hurts her.”
Pelletier felt a lump of cold ice congeal around his heart. “He hurts whom?” He asked. “Your husband?”
Jasmine leaned forward; Pelletier reached out and gave her a hug. She clung to him gratefully as she cried. “They say he hurts people,” she said. “He’ll hurt my husband.”
Pelletier looked down at the sleeping Emperor. There were no procedures for disposing of an Emperor, even though noblemen could be impeached; the Emperors had made certain of that over the years. If the Crown Prince had become sadistic and cruel…who was there to stop him?
“What are you two doing there?” An imperious voice demanded. “Prime Minister Pelletier; you should not be there with a child.”
“I’m a wife,” Jasmine protested. Her dark face gleamed with tears. “I’m a married woman.”
Doctor Mimi Rouge didn’t bother to comment. Pelletier didn’t move, even slightly; he’d realised that a lot of people from Timeline A either thought that Videzun’s marriage was a joke, or something awful. There had even been a major fight over it, between some members of the ship’s crew. He smiled for a bitter second; more and more of the Charles de Gaulle’s crew were finding a new home in Toulon. They seemed to enjoy the French-ness of the town, something that puzzled him. Wasn’t Toulon French in their timeline?
“You may be married, but you’re not married to him,” Mimi said. Pelletier said nothing, even when Jasmine looked at him pleadingly. “Out.”
“One moment,” Pelletier said. “Doctor; we need him awake.”
Something flickered in Mimi’s eyes. “Prime Minister, trying to force someone awake is very dangerous to him or her,” she said. “If I try to awaken the Emperor, it could kill him, or risk serious brain damage, or any number of serious problems.”
“You may not have a choice,” Pelletier said. “Doctor…have you been asked to examine any woman recently.”
Her face flickered again. It hardened into an impenetrable mask. “Prime Minister, I do not disclose confidential details of anyone who comes to see me,” she said. “In this post, there are several women who come to see me and several different kinds of man, most of them who only want me to put some extra lead in their pencil.”
Pelletier smiled; Jasmine looked bemused. “There may be someone being hurt,” Pelletier said. “If that happens, would you mind telling the person that they can come to talk to me about it?”
Mimi nodded slowly. “I’ll do what I can,” she said. Pelletier was certain that she knew more than she was telling him. “Until then, out.”
Pelletier took one last look at the Emperor, bowed once to him, and then left the room. Jasmine curtseyed, a child’s attempt to perform an adult curtsey, and followed him. “Come with me,” Pelletier said, and led her into a small sitting room. The irony was almost killing him; he wanted to giggle.
“Answer me a question,” he said. She looked up at him expectantly, her dark eyes shadowed with concern. “What’s married life like?”
Jasmine looked oddly disappointed. “It’s the same as it was,” she said. “I sleep in a different bed – I thought that husband and wife slept together.”
Pelletier shook his head slowly, fighting the temptation to laugh. “Not until you’re older,” he said. “Seriously – don’t even think about it.”
Jasmine smiled, curtseyed, and left him alone in the room. Pelletier smiled ruefully, and then felt grim again. Whatever was happening, it was connected with Videzun. In the end, everything came back to him, these days. A thought struck him and he shuddered; had Videzun somehow poisoned the Emperor?
I wonder if he got more than he bargained for with the Crown Prince, he thought, and started to think as hard as he ever had. Something had to be done, and quickly…but what?
French Intelligence Agents, particularly the female ones, were trained in seduction techniques. A man would brag to a lover in ways he wouldn’t under truth drug – and would have absolutely no recollection of it the following morning. Jacqueline Petal, who had always suspected that it was an excuse for the instructors to have it off with the students, had scored top marks. None of it had prepared her for the Crown Prince.
She stared at herself in the mirror, examining her left breast. It was a nice breast – countless lovers had told her that – and she loved it, but now there were marks all over it. It wasn’t that the Crown Prince was into sadistic sexual play, in the form of a game, like Bondage; it was that he was sadistic.
She choked back a sob. He’d hurt her, hurt her enough to nearly make her cry, and she knew that he didn’t even have it in him to feel contempt or sadism. He was a child innocently pulling the wings off flies; intrigued by his own cruelty…but with no intention of stopping.
“The people with the high intelligence are the worst,” she recited, from memory. She’d thought that he was stupid, that his attempt to grope her had been from lust rather than from any other motive, but she’d been wrong. Her hand passed across her back; the signs of what he called lovemaking were still there, just hidden during the day under her uniform.
She slowly washed herself as best as she could, gasping in pain when the water hit a sensitive spot. She’d had bad lovers before, even an elderly atomic professor who’d been into bondage, but he’d been kind, if impotent. The Crown Prince…
“I can’t take this anymore,” she muttered to herself, cursing her decision to sail on the Charles de Gaulle. Even a Jihadi rape squadron, a group that had the sole intent to humiliate and demean western woman, even they hated! The Crown Prince…
“Come back in here,” his voice shouted. Jacqueline flinched, trying to contain the shuddering in her body, and tottered to the door. She wrapped a towel around herself, but she knew that he would tear it off…if he felt like another round. He did.