Paris, France (TimeLine B) It happened very suddenly. One moment, the Emperor was enjoying one of the handful of times that he could be himself in front of everyone; the next he folded at the knees and fell to the ground. Prime Minister Vincent Pelletier cried out as the Emperor hit the floor; an eerie silence spread out across the room.
“The doctor,” he snapped, taking control. If the Emperor was to be out of commission for any length of time, then…his mind refused to think about it. “Fetch the doctor!”
Doctor Mimi Rouge pushed her way through the crowd, which had gathered to surround the scene. Pelletier glared at the crowd, forcing them back with the remains of his tattered authority, his mind already able to hear the odds calculating behind their heads. He’d never believed in telepathy, but he could read their minds now; it would be a good idea to be nicer to the Crown Prince… “Doctor?” He asked. “What’s happened?”
“Get everyone out of here,” Doctor Rouge snapped. “I need room to breathe.”
“Everyone out, now,” Pelletier snapped, and motioned to the guards. He was grimly certain that some crawler had already sent for the Crown Prince. “Guards…”
“We have a right to know what’s happened,” a Duke said. Pelletier grimly recognised him as one of the main proponents of the war against Russia. “If His Majesty is dead…”
“He’s not dead,” the doctor snapped. “Prime Minister…”
“Everyone out, now,” Pelletier snapped. “A Court will be called as soon as we have something to tell you; I swear it. Guards?”
The guards closed in. They were lowborn to a man; it wasn’t often they got the chance to manhandle a noble. The nobles took one look at them and melted away; the guards had no nametags, no way of identifying them. The system had been started by the current Emperor’s father; a way of keeping his Court under control.
“Thank you,” Pelletier said. Lowborn himself, he knew the value of the common man. “Doctor?”
The grey-haired doctor, a minor doctor in her world, the most capable in TimeLine B, shook her head grimly. “A stroke, I think,” she said. “He needs to be moved at once to the medical centre here, the one we made by pulling equipment from the Charles de Gaulle.”
Pelletier frowned as Contre-Admiral François Videzun – no, the Lord François Videzun now, he reminded himself – entered. As always, the alternate Frenchman seemed calm and composed; unwilling to get excited. Prince Jasmine followed him, her face drawn with shock. Pelletier allowed himself a flicker of relief; she didn’t look as if she was being abused.
By the time she’s ready to be taken to bed, he’ll be too old, he thought, with a sudden burst of gallows humour. That assumed, of course, that they would live so long.
“My Lord Admiral?” He asked. “What’s happened to you?”
Videzun didn’t answer. “Doctor?” He asked. “How is he?”
There was something unreadable in the doctor’s expression. “A mild stroke,” she said. “He has to be moved at once, to the medical centre.”
Videzun nodded. “Would it be better to move him to the ship?” He asked. “It still has a more capable medical centre and sickbay.”
Pelletier scowled. Why didn’t I think of that? “He wouldn’t survive the trip,” the doctor said. “As it is, it’s going to be close.”
Pelletier took a deep breath. If the Emperor recovered quickly, then everything would be fine – until the next time. If he was unable to discharge his duties, his son would have to take over…and the Crown Prince was unfit for the role. And yet…no one would challenge him and call the principle of male inheritance into question. It would be too risky; all of the higher nobles were vulnerable to that kind of charge.
“Doctor,” he said slowly, “how long will it be before he’s fit to resume his duties?”
Doctor Mimi Rouge stared at him. “A long time,” she said. Her tone was filled with disbelief – and a certain kind of horror. “His system has been abused for years and he just kept putting more pressure on it.” She poked his body thoughtfully. “If he recovers soon, he will need a total fitness program to aid in his recovery, not the stress of running a global empire.”
One of the guards had had the presence of mind to send for the nurses and their stretcher. With some help, they lifted the Emperor onto the stretcher, preparing to move him to the medical centre.
“I may have to operate,” she said. “If that happens, he could be out of it for a very long time.”
“Father,” the Crown Prince’s voice said. Pelletier felt a flicker of pure anger; the Crown Prince didn’t seem to be too concerned. It was almost as if he had expected it. “What’s happening to him?”
“We’re taking him to the medical bay,” Doctor Rouge snapped. “Young man; you will end up running the Empire.”
The Crown Prince hesitated. Pelletier looked sharply at him; there was something hidden within him. “I see,” he said finally. “I see…what you mean.”
Pelletier looked at him for a long moment. “Until the Emperor recovers, you may have to discharge his duties under the Regency Protocols,” he said. “Are you fit for the task?”
The Crown Prince swallowed. Pelletier wondered if he would be smart enough to allow his civil service to run the Empire. And yet…there was still the strange feeling of…wrongness around the Crown Prince. He scowled and looked down at the Emperor’s body. How could such shallowness have come from such nobility of blood and behaviour?
“Yes, Prime Minister,” the Crown Prince said finally. Pelletier wondered exactly what had happened to him; had the shock of suddenly facing the throne forced him to develop into a genuine man? “I will discharge it to the best of my abilities.”
Pelletier nodded slowly. There wasn’t a choice; not one that wouldn’t have triggered a civil war. “Then I invoke the Regency Protocols,” he said. “If you would care to have the Master of Protocol dress you and…”
The Crown Prince nodded. When he spoke, his voice was different; harder and more calculating. “Yes, Prime Minister,” he said. He didn’t even show his previous distrust and dislike of the Master of Protocol. “I’ll do that now, and then we can make the formal announcement.”
He swept out of the room. Pelletier watched him go, a feeling of foreboding growing within him. “Admiral?”
Videzun frowned. “The British could have poisoned him,” he said, as the Emperor was carried out of the room. “This place is filled with spies and agents. You can’t scratch your nose without someone taking it as a sign to start something violent.”
Pelletier gave him an icy look. “The British have accepted our Emperor’s decision to offer peace,” he said. “There will be a price – there always is – but it is better than defeat.”
Videzun’s gaze was oddly triumphant. “That’s up to the new Emperor,” he said. “The Emperor is dead; long live the Emperor.”
“The Emperor is out for the moment,” Pelletier corrected. “He will recover soon.”
Videzun shrugged. “I hope you’re right,” he said, and left the room.
As he walked quickly through the palace, Videzun wasn’t unaware of the small groups, chatting away in corners. Attention focused on him, people wondering what he knew and what he could tell them, but he ignored them. The ornate corridors were strangely quiet; people were nervous, unsure of the ground changing underneath them.
He’d asked Princess Jasmine to go to his quarters. Snide comments aside, they would be in separate beds, even though she would be the Lady of his House. He allowed himself a moment to plan the manor house he intended to build in the future, before entering the private room. As soon as he entered, he stopped; Jacqueline Petal was lying stumped in a chair.
“Jacqueline?” He asked. She looked…almost beaten, almost raped. If her clothes, the neat dress she’d worn, hadn’t been intact, he would have wondered…but she didn’t even seem mussed. She just seemed…beaten. “Lieutenant, report,” he snapped.
Jacqueline Petal looked up at him. Her delicate face, speaking of a Chinese or – more likely – Indochinese ancestor somewhere within her family tree, was torn. She might not have been crying, but she was…shocked, upset…stunned.
“We made a mistake,” she said. Her voice, normally so vivid, was flat. “We made a mistake somewhere; didn’t look at the signs. We made a mistake.”
Videzun glared at her. He didn’t have time for this, whatever it was. “Explain,” he snapped. “What’s happened?”
“The Crown Prince,” Jacqueline said. Her voice seemed almost…scared. “We underestimated him.”
“The man’s an absolute swine,” Videzun said. Something wasn’t right; he could tell that now. How could the Crown Prince have molested her so badly without hurting her or even leaving her un-mussed? “What happened?”
“He wants me,” Jacqueline said. Videzun could tell that wasn’t the entire story. “We missed the signs; saw him as a spoiled brat, nothing more. He’s intelligent, Admiral; more capable than we thought.” Her voice was running on. “He’s his father’s son, Admiral; and we missed it.”
Videzun took a breath. “In what way?” He asked. Panic could wait until they knew what was happening. “In what respect is he his father’s son?”
“He’s clever, cleverer than he let us know,” Jacqueline said. “He played the fool, the lecherous spoiled brat, to keep everyone fooled. He did it well enough to fool everyone, even his father – even us, even me.” Her voice twisted. “The Emperor is dead?”
“The Emperor is in a coma,” Videzun said. He paused. “Do you think that he will try to kill his father?”
Jacqueline shrugged. “I have no way of knowing,” she said. “He wants me.”
Videzun thought quickly. “It won’t be bad,” he said. “Perhaps if you’re the mother of his Heir…”
Jacqueline looked up at him for the first time. “It will be,” she said. “That man is a dark man. It’s like seeing a mirror shatter; he’s not stupid, not stupid at all.”
“Pull yourself together,” Videzun snapped. “What do you have to report?”
Her voice remained dead. “Apart from the Crown Prince being dangerous,” she said. “Very little. People are only talking in hushed voices and…”
“You had other things on your mind,” Videzun concluded. How dare she fail him now? “What about the ship?”
“The preparations for Sealion are completed, including the special weapons,” Jacqueline said. “Captain Jean-Pierre Mauroy pretends high confidence.”
Videzun smiled at her tone. Few people respected Mauroy. “That’s good,” he said. “By now, the Americans on the George Washington must know that we exist.” He smiled; he’d given up hope of keeping it a secret when the British-Americans had invaded New Spain. Once Havana fell, they would have all the proof they could have desired – enough to convince even the American Congress, which didn’t exist in this timeline.
Jacqueline nodded. “Their AWACS might have tracked the Russian transmissions as well as our own,” she said. “Even without that…”
Videzun nodded. The Paris Court was so full of spies and agents that it was completely porous. God alone knew how many Frenchmen – to say nothing of the other nationalities within the Empire – took the British shilling. If the British didn’t know about the defeat in Poland, then it was through the fault of their spymasters.
He scowled. What else might have fallen into the hands of the Russians? Coming to think about it; there had been German ships and troops in the multinational force. Might they have landed in the Congo? Might the Japanese ships have gone to Japan? If a German troop contingent had landed in Prussia, they would have found out about it, wouldn’t they?
“Then they will have some knowledge,” he said, and adjusted his plans. “If Sealion succeeds, then we will have the ability to hold them off long enough to build our own nuclear warhead and negotiate an advantageous peace,” he said. “If Sealion fails…well, we’re no worse off.”
“The total number of troops that could be landed won’t make any serious difference to the Eastern Front,” Jacqueline said. A low gong rang through the Bourbon Palace. “What’s that?”
“That’s the call to the Throne Room,” Videzun said. “Our new Lord and Master is about to announce himself.”
Not exactly to Videzun’s surprise, Princess Jasmine met him at the door, taking his hand and leading him in. Her behaviour would have been amusing in an older woman; for a child, it was just strange. He glared at Jacqueline, to make her wipe her smirk off her face, and entered the main Throne Room. Unlike before, it was draped in black; black banners and decorations hung everywhere.
“Silence for the Right Honourable Crown Prince,” the Master of Protocol intoned, as the Crown Prince entered. Videzun narrowed his eyes as the Prime Minister followed him; his face drawn and old. Vincent Pelletier was getting old, he felt; too old for the job.
“My father has been taken gravely ill,” the Crown Prince said. Videzun frowned; he heard, for the first time, what Jacqueline had meant. The dandy and lecherous man had vanished; replaced by an almost psychopathic man. “His recovery is not expected anytime soon.”
There was a long pregnant pause. The Court had expected that – most of the discussions had been about what to do with all of the power balance suddenly shattered – but they weren’t prepared for the new Crown Prince. A lot of plans would suddenly have to be redesigned, or perhaps put off until the new power balance had settled down. An internal civil war was fine; chaos – dreadful disruptive chaos – was not.
“In discussions with my father’s advisory council, it has been decided, under the Regency Protocols, that I will rule as his regent until he recovers, or until I come into my own,” the Crown Prince said. Videzun frowned; the Regency Protocols established a line of succession that only applied if the Emperor was wounded or mad or otherwise unable to rule. “That decision has been accepted.”
The pause expanded again. No one spoke. “The Legislate has accepted the decision,” the Crown Prince said. “The French Empire, until my father recovers, will be ruled by me.”
It was a mistake, Videzun knew; in public, the Empire was always the Bourbon Empire. In private, the French could admit that they ruled, but never in public. The Bourbon line was a confused mishmash of ruling families, intermingling bloodlines together, and they came from all over the Empire’s noble families.
The Crown Prince seemed not to care. “For the moment, everything will proceed as my father wished,” he said. “I will hold a formal Court one week from today, when we will place the situation on a more formal footing. Until then, I ask you all to pray for my father, and for the empire.”
“The meeting is over,” the Master of Protocol intoned. There was no dissent; everyone was working rapidly to rethink their plans. “You may leave.”
“Lord Admiral Videzun, attend me,” the Crown Prince said, before Videzun could leave. “Lady Jasmine, Lady Jacqueline, attend me.”
Jacqueline shuddered beside him as the crowds passed her, some of the courtiers giving her envious looks as they passed. They didn’t know, didn’t understand, and so they thought that she was honoured – just as they would have been.
Videzun stepped up and knelt in front of the Crown Prince; the two women curtseyed. “You may rise,” the Crown Prince said. He looked down at Jacqueline for a long moment. “My future consort,” he said. “How are you now?”
The question was so inane that Videzun almost laughed. “My Emperor,” he said carefully, “we have the small matter of Sealion.”
“Indeed,” the Crown Prince said. He smiled to himself; his eyes suddenly dark and intelligent. As if…as if he had chosen to take off the mask for good. “Tell me, Lord Admiral; can Sealion succeed?”
“Of course it can,” Videzun said. He smiled. “It all depends on us damaging the British Home Fleet – and we have the weapons to do just that.”
The Crown Prince nodded slowly. “Are our carriers as capable as the ones that the British have built?”
“They’re a different design,” Videzun said. “We have concentrated more on anti-shipping capability. Only one carrier has a full complement of defending fighters.”
“Indeed?” The Crown Prince asked. “Aiming for a sucker-punch?”
“With the weapons from the Charles de Gaulle, we can ensure that most of the fleet is taken out or seriously damaged – or driven out into the open seas,” Videzun said. “My Emperor, it can be done – but it has to be done now.”
Vincent Pelletier, perhaps no longer Prime Minister, spoke in a cold dead voice. “Your farther wanted peace,” he said. “If you launch an invasion of Britain, and it succeeds, there will still be the other sections of the British Empire.”
“And we will have peace – with Russia,” the Crown Prince said. “You personally will contact the Tsar, offering him our share of China in exchange for peace.”
Videzun frowned to himself. France might have had influence within China, but very little formal territory – not after nearly nine years of civil war in China. “They will accept that,” the Crown Prince said. “That will give us time to build up and destroy them later, when they run out of wonder weapons of their own.”
He paused, significantly. “Britain remains the greatest threat to us,” he said. “They have the Washington; they have one of the largest resources of technology from your timeline. Defeating them…is our only priority.” He looked down at Videzun for a long chilling moment. “I am placing you in command of the combined assault,” he said. “You will have total authority. Do not fail me.”
Videzun knelt again. “I will not fail you,” he promised, thinking furiously. How did this alter his plans? “Britain will fall before us.”
“Good,” the Crown Prince said. He nodded at Pelletier. “I will be making a few changes later, of course, but for the moment we will leave them.” Pelletier bowed. “Now, leave me and the Lady Jacqueline alone, if you would.”