It was a very grave emergency before anyone would bother the Emperor of France while he was in his study.
Napoleon very rarely invited people into his study. He had other places to meet with his advisors, usually somewhere that Lien could also participate in the discussion. His study was where he went to be alone with his thoughts. Most of those who worked closely with him knew this, and would not have disturbed him for anything, but every so often there would be some new person who would feel it prudent to interrupt him for something trivial. He tried not to be short when this happened, but it was often difficult if they had interrupted a particularly significant train of thought.
On this occasion the knock at his study door thrust all thought from his head, and he suddenly found himself struggling to even remember what problem he had been trying to puzzle through. As a result he found himself completely out of temper, and could not prevent himself from shouting “What the devil is it!” through the door.
“Your Majesty,” said a rather young looking guard, opening the door far enough to poke his head in. “Someone desires at audience with you. He says it cannot wait.”
“Who would dare?” Napoleon asked, too frustrated to even speculate on which of his advisors would be so stupid.
The young guard swallowed, but not in fear. He seemed more disbelieving than anything. “It is . . . it is Captain William Laurence.”
All feelings of irritation fled, and Napoleon stood up quickly from his desk. Laurence, here? Laurence, in Paris? Laurence having left his beloved England to come to France, to beg an audience with the Emperor? What could have precipitated such a thing?
“Send him in,” Napoleon said at once, forgetting to sound reproachful and instead letting a note of impatience creep into his voice.
He did not have to wait long. No sooner had the guard’s head vanished than the door was being pushed open fully. Captain Laurence stood in the doorway, his eyes downcast and with a dead, hollow look in them. He was not wearing his aviator’s coat, or any mark or symbol of rank. His hair was down from its queue, and it looked more than windswept, rather like he’d been running his fingers through it.
This rumpled appearance did not suit him, and Napoleon found himself wanting to repair the damage. He wanted to tame Laurence’s hair back into a neat queue, and replace his plain coat with the uniform of a decorated officer. He envisioned Laurence in the colors the Armée de l'Air, and the image gave him great pleasure.
“Come in,” Napoleon invited in English, beckoning Laurence into the study. “My friend, you are welcome here.”
Laurence obeyed, stepping forward through the doorway and then shutting the door smartly behind himself. Once he was standing before the great mahogany desk however, he did not seem willing to speak. Instead he kept his hooded, lifeless eyes on the floor, refusing to meet Napoleon’s gaze.
“William,” Napoleon said firmly. “Look at me.”
Again Laurence obeyed, lifting his gaze to meet Napoleon’s. His eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot, almost as though he had been weeping, and certainly without sleep for several nights. There was an almost pleading look in them, pleading for something Napoleon could not identify but ached to give nonetheless.
“Your Majesty,” Laurence began, also in English, his voice rough and cracked as though from disuse. “I . . . I know not . . .”
“William,” Napoleon interrupted, using his Christian name for the second time. “Have no fear, you are safe in my company. Tell me, what has happened?”
Laurence shook his head, and let out a shuddering breath. He seemed unable to master himself, but when he looked back at Napoleon it was with determination in his eyes.
“I can deny it no longer,” he said urgently. “The British government have heaped injustice upon injustice on me, and on every one of their devoted officers. They have proved themselves to be wretched, cowardly creatures, devoid of any morals or sense of justice. Their only aims are to maintain their own power and line their own pockets, the people they claim to govern be damned. I can no longer, in good conscience, serve them.”
His voice shook a little as he gave this speech, but he pressed on despite the obvious difficulty he was having. He kept his eyes locked on Napoleon as he spoke, at once beseeching him to accept the explanation and searching his face for signs of understanding. Once he had finished though he dropped his head, drawing ragged breaths. It seemed as though he were fighting not to break out in fresh tears.
“My dear Captain Laurence,” Napoleon said, coming around the desk at last to stand before him. “Your words gladden me, but your distress gives me great anxiety. Tell me what I may do for you?”
Laurence did not speak, did not even look up at Napoleon. A soft, wounded noise escaped him, nothing more.
“William,” Napoleon said, cupping Laurence’s face and tilting it up to look at him. “Tell me what you need.”
“I . . do not know,” Laurence confessed. “I do not know what to do. I have lived my life under the rule of those who used me only for destruction, and now I scarcely know what to do with myself. Please your Majesty, you are the only person I trust. Give me an order.”
“Kneel,” Napoleon said immediately.
Laurence dropped to his knees. He did it without compunction or hesitation, keeping his gaze fixed on Napoleon. Once he was kneeling he lowered his eyes submissively, and he bowed his head as though in prayer. Napoleon reached out and carded his fingers through Laurence’s golden hair, and Laurence released a shuddering sigh at the feeling.
“I will swear loyalty to France,” Laurence began.
“There is time enough for that,” Napoleon said. “First, you will prove your loyalty to me.”
Laurence bent down, clearly intent on kissing Napoleon’s boot.
“No,” Napoleon said sharply.
Laurence paused, turning his head upward again to look at Napoleon through his lashes.
“Straighten your back, Captain Laurence,” Napoleon said. “You will not debase yourself any further. I am not that kind of monarch.”
Laurence looked confused. “I do not understand-”
“I am the only man to whom you must kneel,” Napoleon said. “To all other men, you are their superior. You will bow to no one but me.”
“Your Majesty,” Laurence said hurriedly, “you have many-”
“There is no one in the world I value as highly as you,” Napoleon told him firmly. “If you are mine, you will know your own worth. I will not have my most trusted advisor wallowing in shame and self doubt.”
Laurence paused, obviously conflicted, then dropped his head again. “I have defied you. I have fought against you. I have killed your men, and your dragons. I am unworthy of such trust.”
“You have also made me wait for the pleasure of your company,” Napoleon added, making Laurence flinch. “I do not begrudge the sins you committed while you were so deeply misguided. You are here now, William, and you are mine. That is enough for me.”
“But Your Majesty-” Laurence protested, nearly trembling with his resistance to Napoleon’s forgiveness.
“You served your country well,” Napoleon cut him off, “better than she deserved. That is all that can be asked of a man like you.”
“A man like me?” Laurence asked. He kept his eyes shut tight, as though in resistance to Napoleon’s words.
“My white knight,” Napoleon crooned, “you are a soldier. You are a man who craves direction. You do not want to make choices; you want rules to follow and to know that if you follow them everything will be alright.”
“Yes,” Laurence whispered. He did not need to say it. His desire to be ruled by another was evident in every line of his body.
“If you wish to serve me,” Napoleon said slowly, “you will know that you are worth every honor I can bestow upon you. What say you to this?”
Laurence was silent. He was trembling with the effort to remain so, to hold in the self-debasement that had been his habit for so long. It made Napoleon ache inside.
“Answer me, William,” he commanded gently.
“I am sure that I must . . . that I cannot . . .” he stopped, at a loss for words.
“Do not fight me, William,” Napoleon said softly. “You do not need to fight anymore.”
Laurence drew a little hitching breath, as though holding in a sob.
“You have fought bravely Captain,” Napoleon continued, just as softly, “but the fight is over. You are here now, kneeling before me. You do not need to resist me or the truth of my words any longer.”
“Please bestow no honors,” Laurence begged, “I am . . . I am not . . .”
“You are worthy,” Napoleon told him, his voice grown husky. “You are brave and loyal and just. You have been ill used, but you are wise enough to see it. Your actions, even when misguided, have been noble. You are worthy.”
“No,” Laurence’s voice shuddered, and he turned away, clenching his eyes shut tighter.
“You are worthy,” Napoleon repeated. “You will say it.”
“I am not,” Laurence protested.
“You are!” Napoleon insisted. “You will say it! If you are mine, if you believe me to be the rightful ruler of Europe and a man on the right side of history, you will say it.”
Put so plainly Laurence could not refuse. “I am worthy,” he forced out, the words sounding pained coming from his lips.
“There,” Napoleon cooed, “was that so difficult? I will make you see, my white knight, I will make you see how precious you are to me.”
“I cannot see what you see, your Majesty,” Laurence shook his head wearily.
“Look at me William,” Napoleon ordered.
Laurence obediently raised his eyes to Napoleon’s face. Reaching out a hand Napoleon cupped his cheek, caressing the smooth skin. Even so distracted, Laurence would not present himself to the Emperor of France unshaven. Beneath Napoleon’s gaze Laurence quivered, ever so subtly leaning into the touch. Any man could see that he longed for it, for that firm hand to guide him.
“If you will renounce England,” he explained carefully, “you will renounce what she has taught you about yourself. That you are a traitor. That you are disposable, replaceable, cheap. That you are anything less than what you are.”
“What am I?” Laurence asked, eyes searching Napoleon’s face. The question was sincere. He did not know himself for what he was.
“You are a hero,” Napoleon murmured. “You are a great man. You are one I would be proud to call my own.”
“Your Majesty,” Laurence said hoarsely. There was a look of such undisguised longing in his eyes. “I-”
With a start, Napoleon jerked awake. For a moment he struggled wildly to extricate himself from the smothering weight on his chest, but once he had it off he realized it was only the heavy covers on his bed. He was in his bedchamber in the palace, and he was alone. He was not in his study, with Captain William Laurence kneeling broken and beautiful before him.
He was not ashamed to admit that a curse escaped his lips at that realization. The dream had been so real, so true to what he thought might happen if Laurence ever did come to him. He pressed his fingers to his eyes and tried to recapture the image of Laurence’s pleading face, but it was like trying to hold water in his cupped hands. Still, the dream had made necessary certain indulgences.
Settling back further against the pillows he removed his hands from his eyes and laid them by his sides. He breathed deeply through his nose and tried to think back, tried to imagine what Laurence would look like, what he would sound like if he were pleading for Napoleon’s grace. By increments he forced his muscles to relax as he transported himself back to that scene in his study, and only when he was once again standing in front of his desk, Laurence kneeling before him in his mind’s eye, did he take himself in hand.
Your Majesty, the phantom Laurence whispered, his voice a caress on the honorific. Napoleon shivered, stroking lightly.
“Say it,” he demanded into the dark of his bedroom.
I am worthy, said Laurence, shuddering at the admission. I am a hero. I am deserving of honor.
“What else are you?” Napoleon prompted, wondering if Laurence would guess what he wanted or if he’d need to have it spelled out for him. He stroked harder.
I am what you will me to be, Laurence said, gazing unblinkingly into Napoleon’s eyes. I am yours to command.
“You are mine,” Napoleon rasped possessively, feeling dragonish in his desire to take and hold and keep. “Say it.”
I am yours to command, Laurence repeated dutifully, and Napoleon groaned. I am your soldier, from this day-
“No,” Napoleon shook his head, tugging at himself. “Not just my soldier! You are mine! Say you are mine!”
I am yours, Laurence said earnestly, begging with his eyes to be believed, to be owned and possessed. Not just as a soldier, but wholey. I shall be whatever you desire of me. I give myself to you, completely.
“Yes!” Napoleon cried, spilling over his own hand.
For a few moments he lay there panting, trying to master himself in the aftershocks of taking his own pleasure by his own hand. Some distant part of him thought he ought to be ashamed, but he had learned not to listen to that voice many years ago. There was no room for shame or regret in the person he was now, the person his country needed him to be. The person Laurence needed him to be.
Taking a deep breath, Napoleon wiped his hand on the sheet and pulled the covers back over himself. Tomorrow was another day. Another day to conquer the world. The world, and William Laurence with it.