Paris, France (TimeLine B) The Bourbon Palace was the centre of the Bourbon Empire, an empire that was a French empire in all, but name. Frenchmen held the highest posts; Frenchmen were the first-class citizens everywhere, closely followed by their Spanish and Italian fellow citizens. Prussians and Indians from New Spain only had powerful positions in their home countries.
Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier stepped inside the centre of the Bourbon Palace, the fortress at the centre of Paris. The Crown Prince and many of the crowned heads of Europe – it was not for nothing that Emperor Napoleon XI’s titles included King of Kings – lived within the Palace, a vast inbred family. Louis the Great had created the aristocratic system, Pelletier suspected, to keep the nobles under control – his control. After the example of Napoleon – the Corsican who had become Prime Minister – all Prime Minister’s had to be from the commoners; the middle class that handled most of the business of the Empire.
“Excuse me,” the guard said. Pelletier didn’t protest; it wasn’t often that a low-born guard from the Emperor’s Own had the chance to manhandle a noble, and they tended to make the most of it. Pelletier had designed most of the layers of protection around Emperor Napoleon himself; no one wanted the Crown Prince to inherit the throne.
“There’s my sword and my dagger,” Pelletier said, and allowed the guard to remove them. Challenging the Prime Minister to a duel wasn’t permitted, but it had happened on occasion, particularly during the rule of weak emperors.
“You may proceed,” the guard said. Pelletier bowed once and stepped inside the inner palace, the most-protected place in the Empire. Below Paris, safe from the British bombers that raided Paris on occasion, the entire Civil Service worked, running the empire. Above Paris, the Emperor himself lived, protected by the unspoken agreement not to try to kill the members of the Royal Family.
The great hall opened in front of him, the civilian throne room. A young princess jumped off the civilian throne, a throne fully as ornate as the one reserved for formal occasions, and smiled guiltily. Pelletier smiled at her; a princess had nothing to look forward to, but an arranged marriage to a prince, perhaps even an Englishman or a Russian.
“Your Highness,” he said gravely, and bowed.
“Prime Minister,” Princess Jasmine said, and curtseyed back. Pelletier smiled; she was the product of a marriage between a Prince of the Blood and a Turkish Princess, binding the empire closer together. She was nine years old; soon enough, she would be betrothed to someone. Her lightly-darkened skin and strong cheekbones promised great beauty in the future.
“You are excused,” Pelletier said. Technically, he supposed that he should have rebuked her for sitting on the throne, but he didn’t think that it was really that important. Jasmine ran out of the throne room, and Pelletier headed into the inner inner rooms, the ones that no one outside the Bourbon Palace knew existed.
“You are expected,” the guard said, as he entered. “You may proceed.”
Pelletier nodded and stepped through into his Emperor’s inner sanctum. Unlike the rest of the Bourbon Palace, it was Spartan, designed for work, not self-indulgence. The only sign of debauchery – the debauchery that British propaganda swore blind happened inside – was a decanter of red wine, sitting on the side of the room beside a large loaf of bread. In public, the Emperor was something of a pig; in private, he liked to eat sparingly.
“Your Majesty,” Pelletier said, and went to one knee. He’d been told by the previous emperor that a lecherous emperor had started the custom, although popular rumour put the blame on the first Napoleon. “Lord of Europe, defender of the faith…”
“Not in private, please,” the Emperor said. Pelletier rose to his feet, taking the chair that the Emperor indicated, and studied the monarch. The Emperor looked weaker than he had been before, his face was paler than Pelletier liked to see. “You have served me for so long, ever since the Civil Service.”
Pelletier bowed from his seat. He had joined the Civil Service after passing the heavy barrage of tests from the Empire-wide examinations. The then Crown Prince had picked him out to serve as his assistant – and then Prime Minister, once he had reached the throne. They were friends – or as close as they could be friends, given the disparity in their positions.
“How fares the war?” The Emperor asked. His thin angular face, more stern than handsome, frowned. His eyes were dimmer than they had been, Pelletier noted with alarm. “Has the mad dog abandoned the war?”
Pelletier coughed. It had been Tsar Nicolas XX who had started the war, with his paranoid belief that the French and English were conspiring against him. In Alaska, in Iran, in Turkey, in China…the Tsar’s belief in his own infallibility – and the plots against him – had sent thousands of men to their deaths.
“I’m afraid not, Mon Emperor,” he said. Emperor Napoleon XI might not want titles in private, but he deserved them. He tried to put some enthusiasm into his voice. “We gained two miles in Poland.”
The Emperor laughed harshly. “Two miles,” he said. “A tiny amount of land, just enough to bury the dead. I don’t suppose that the diplomatic approach has worked?”
“Only if you want to give up Turkey, join him in war against Britain, and surrender a chunk of Prussia,” Pelletier said. “He still believes that the war can be won.”
“Giving up East Prussia, perhaps even part of the Germanys, would really annoy the German Princes,” the Emperor mused. “It might be worthwhile, just for that alone.”
Pelletier coughed. The confused noble system might no longer have the parasitic effect that it had had before Napoleon and Louis the Great, but there were still hundreds of noblemen who were descended from the German princes who had been absorbed into the Empire. In actuality, they were hardly distinguishable from the French or Spanish nobles, but they persisted in claiming special status in Germany because of it. Some of them had never set foot in Germany –and faced death if they ever went near the Prussian Congo – but they would howl if the Russians were given the territory.
“That was a joke,” the Emperor said mildly. Pelletier sighed. “No, we cannot back down. What about the Falklands plan?”
“So far, the British haven’t responded, at least as far as we can see,” Pelletier said. “The Minister of Marine, however…”
“A fig for him,” the Emperor said. “I know what the old woman keeps telling me; can’t risk a battle, better to keep the British guessing. He’s been working on submarines for ages, and there hasn’t been any result, has there?”
“The attempt to build a long-range submarine hasn’t yet worked,” Pelletier said. “It’s a technical matter; fuelling the craft is a problem.”
“I’m sure it is,” the Emperor said. “How much more appropriations does he want?”
“Several million Napoleons,” Pelletier said reluctantly. “With additional testing in the Aegean Sea…”
“We should be using the Black Sea, now that we took Sevastopol,” the Emperor said. Pelletier shrugged; the battle to land a massive force at Sevastopol and march to Moscow had been a partial success. Sevastopol was now French territory, but the Russians had trapped the force in the Crimea, preventing them from moving any further. Only French naval superiority had saved the twenty thousand Frenchmen dug into the ruins of the city.
“All the testing locations are in the Aegean Sea,” Pelletier said. “They might produce something worthwhile.”
“It won’t be long before Indochina falls,” the Emperor said. French Indochina had been ignored by the British – the massive and confused seven-way war in China had kept them from looking at Indochina, but there was no denying that the colony was horrifyingly vulnerable. “And, of course, we’re cut off from New Spain.”
“That’s not quite accurate,” Pelletier reminded him, starting to get very worried. Were the Emperor’s responsibilities starting to get the better of him? “We do slip convoys through.”
“Bah,” the Emperor commented. Pelletier nodded; with the British Home Fleet in the United Kingdom itself, and the Royal North American Navy in New Orleans, Halifax and New York, slipping a convoy through to New Spain was difficult. Fortunately, Viceroy Cortez was extremely competent – and New Spain was fairly self-sufficient. “We need a silver bullet.”
“Then we have to keep investing in new technologies,” Pelletier pointed out. “My Emperor; we have little choice.”
“I am aware of that,” the Emperor said. He was, Pelletier knew; the Emperor understood the vast problems in paying for the massive battle fleet and equally massive army that the empire needed. The Russian hordes might not have quite the technology of their French enemies, but there were so many more of them…and the British had an easy lead in shipbuilding.
Nation of shopkeepers, he thought grimly. “We could always open up a new front in Ethiopia, or make an alliance with the Prussians in the Congo.”
“They would hardly go for it,” the Emperor said. “I’m surprised that they haven’t joined the British.”
Pelletier understood. The Prussians, the descendants of those who had managed to gain their independence in 1945, were pushed up against the French in the north, and the British in the south. With Ethiopia to the east, he had expected the Prussians to engage in a land-grab – except Ethiopia was hardly unarmed. The black Africans, determined to keep their independence, had built a formidable army and an equally formidable transport network.
“They’re probably waiting to see who loses the war,” Pelletier said, knowing that the war would probably go on for years. “If we lose, they’ll head north. If the British lose, they’ll head south.”
“Bastards,” the Emperor said. “Is there anything else of urgent priority?”
“There was an odd report from Toulon,” Pelletier said. “It was strange; a report of a strange ship being sighted in the Mediterranean. It was signed by Commissioner Phillipe Lavich, whom you might remember.”
“Ah, the boy who got Mimi in trouble,” the Emperor said. Mimi had once been a popular – and lowborn – dancer, until Lavich had seduced her and knocked her up. His family had agreed to support the child – if Lavich went off to the most obscure placement the Ministry of Marine could find. “What did he have to say?”
“Only that the ship would be visiting Toulon later, and that it was of the utmost importance that it be kept secret,” Pelletier said. “Given the young man’s character…”
“You were going to ignore it?” The Emperor asked. “Even Lavich wouldn’t risk incurring the wrath of the entire Ministry of Marine.”
“Not exactly,” Pelletier said. “I gave orders for Admiral Rancourt – that’s the station commander at Toulon – to conduct his own evaluation of the…incident.”
“Good thinking,” the Emperor said. “If the Honourable Lavich is wasting time, Admiral Rancourt will see to it, and to his punishment. I won’t intervene.”
“It is my pleasure to obey,” Pelletier said, and meant it. Some Emperors had always acted to save noblemen from the consequences of their own actions, but Emperor Napoleon XI knew better. “I shall await his report with interest.”
The Emperor nodded. “I have to look good for the meeting with the German noblemen,” he said, as his dresser came in. The young woman was carrying a pile of silk clothes that were almost as big as she was. “I think we’ll have to talk again later.”
“There’s been no major change,” Pelletier said. “I’ll inform you at once if there is such a change.”
The Emperor grinned. “Feel free to interrupt the meeting with the princelings,” he said. “After a few minutes, I’m going to be praying for a major emergency. Speaking of which, is the Pope behaving himself?”
“He has had prayers for our victory preached in every church across the Empire,” Pelletier said. The two French divisions in Italy, near the Vatican, kept the Pope honest – and on side. “Apart from losing his right to send Bishops to Quebec, he hasn’t had much to howl about anyway. Besides, he would be delighted if the Russian Church was squashed flat.”
“A shame,” the Emperor agreed. “We had a lot of spies moving through Quebec. Oh well, it’ll keep the Pope in the right state of mind for obeying me and my people.”
Pelletier stood and bowed deeply. With the dresser in the room, it was no time for forgetting court etiquette. “I will call later today,” he promised, bowed again, and accepted his dismissal. The Emperor winked at him as he left the room.