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The Emperor's Companion -- War Games

Since according to my poll the other day the book that the most people are waiting for is The General's Mistress, I thought I would share a scene from its sequel, The Emperor's Companion, which I hope will follow it into print. Elza has just arrived in Boulogne in June, 1805 on a mission of vital importance. She has run into an old friend of hers, Major Jean-Baptiste Corbineau, and gone to have dinner with him. Corbineau is currently on duty at the School of War, Napoleon's new advanced training center for officers, who learn through war games refighting the great battles of the past.

I'd love to hear what you guys think!

We had dinner together in a crowded, noisy tavern at a table by the window as far from the bar as possible. Unfortunately, that wasn't very far. Our men gave good custom, but there certainly were a lot of them!

"You can tell me what you're doing," Corbineau said, "And not worry about being overheard. I can barely hear you myself!"

"What I'm doing?" I glanced around the tavern, hoping the barmaid would hurry. I was hungry.

He gave me a skeptical look. "Come on now, Elza. If you're not here for the Marshal, am I to believe you've come for the sea air?"

I took a deep breath. It was time for the cover story. "I'm here at the invitation of Marshal Lannes."

"Oh please!" Corbineau laughed. "Lannes is not your type at all! And the way you looked at the Marshal…." He waved exuberantly to attract the barmaid's attention. "I don't believe for a second you're here for Lannes."

At that moment Colonel Subervie pushed his way through the crowd, his scabbard banging into random diners. "Madame St. Elme, I wanted to tell you that your things are being put in Topaze House." He gave Jean-Baptiste a nod. "Good evening, Corbineau."

"Hello, Subervie," Corbineau said. "Care to join us for dinner?"

"Do you two know each other?" I asked. It was all beginning to seem a small and incestuous club.

"Of course we do," Subervie said.

"We're close as brothers," Corbineau expanded. He caught the look on Subervie's face and grinned. "All right, close as distant cousins. Exceptionally distant cousins who only see one another on holidays."

"We're both part of the School of War," Subervie supplied. "What was it we were teamed up for last?"

"Pharsalus," Corbineau said. "And a misery that was. I had Pompey's heavy cavalry. Might as well shoot myself right off. Gervais got to be with Caesar."

"I played the Eighth Augusta Legion," Subervie said. "It was a good game. Jomini ran Caesar himself and Ney took Pompey. But Pompey's in so deep he can't really win that one."

"The Marshal says it's important to learn how to lose," Corbineau said. "And admittedly it wasn't a total rout, like the real Pharsalus was."

Subervie winced. "I try to avoid losing, myself."

"Yes, well," Corbineau said. "Tomorrow it's Carrhae. There's no joy in that for anyone. Not either of us, anyway. Maybe for the Parthians. Who's playing Parthian anyhow?"

"Reille's the Parthian horse archers," Subervie replied. "Don't know who else has what. I suppose we'll see at nine. So don't stay out too late drinking with the lady!" He looked at me sideways, as if trying to decide if he was onto something or not.

"What do you learn by fighting these ancient battles?" I asked. "Surely this was a long time ago. They didn't have rifles or cannon, so how can this help?"

"The strategies of war stay the same," Corbineau said. "It's like a chess game. The capabilities of each piece may change over the centuries, but the game itself doesn't. The tactics don't. There's not a centimeter of distance between our flying wedge and Alexander the Great's."

"But the Persians didn't have riflemen in square," I pointed out.

"They had horse archers," Subervie rumbled, still standing in the aisle beside my chair. "Persian horse archers could fire at six times the rate of modern infantry, and at nearly twice the range. Also, because they were mounted they were more mobile. Modern infantry is more like hoplites in terms of their mobility and their ability to change facing." He shrugged, as though he had suddenly remembered who I was. "But that's a rather technical explanation for a lady. I apologize."

Corbineau snorted. "Don't apologize to her! My dear sister is a veritable Amazon! You should have seen her at Apfing. I turned about in the middle of it, and there she was with her saber sticking out of a man's breastbone, trying to get the point loose without breaking her wrist. I think Madame can comprehend our poor simulations."

Subervie blinked. "Is that so? Or is Jean-Baptiste having me on?"

"It's true," I said quietly. "A few engagements, and I do not claim to have played any part in the Battle of Hohenlinden, though I was there." I wasn't sure if I would have chosen to explain any of this, but there was little point in denying it now. I could see that there would be too many people here who had been with the Army of the Rhine on that campaign, and who would recognize me all too easily. I might as well own up to it.

Subervie blinked again. "I did not know there were any real Amazons, but trust Corbineau to find one."

"She's not bad," Corbineau said. "I'd have her for a troop leader. She'd be fine with light cavalry."

Subervie's brows rose toward his receding hairline. "Really? Knowing she's a woman?"

"I'd know, but you'd not guess seeing her kitted out as a trooper," Corbineau said. His eyes met Subervie's with a hint of a challenge. "Tactics isn't all about having a big prick, you know."

Subervie raised his hands. "Never said it was, Jean-Baptiste. Manhood's not the measure of a man. I know that."

I wondered what he knew of Corbineau's proclivities, and if words had passed between them. If they had, it had not gone too badly if Subervie was so quick to back down. He seemed genuinely determined not to insult a friend.

Corbineau shrugged, the tension in his shoulders fading a little. "Anyway, I'd have Madame for a troop leader. She's quick and she's got good common sense. She'd pick up the tactics in no time."

I had not seen the flying wedge, not in the snows of Hohenlinden, but I could imagine very clearly what it must look like, what horse and rider were supposed to do. I could do that, I thought. I truly could.


( 40 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 15th, 2012 07:48 pm (UTC)
Brilliant! Easy to read but so meaningful. I love books that make me quarry in all sorts of other books, trying to look into every historical detail.

Could you tell me what is Apfing? Is it a place? Could't translate it or find any reference :(
Apr. 15th, 2012 11:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you like it!

I'm not surprised you can't find Apfing. It's a very minor skirmish the day before the Battle of Hohenlinden in December, 1800. But it is where Elza met Corbineau -- and that's in the first book, The General's Mistress. So this reference is here to remind the reader "Oh, that's where she knows him from! Yes!" :)
(no subject) - evgenicheva - Apr. 16th, 2012 05:31 am (UTC) - Expand
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Apr. 16th, 2012 04:57 pm (UTC)
Hi!I'm from Russia. I'm keen on translating bélles-léttres from English into Russian. I like your "The Emperor's Companion" very much, but sometimes it's difficult to understand what this or that phrase means.For example, "It was time for the cover story"... Does it mean that Elza is trying to cheat Corbineau telling him another story??? Does it mean "It was time to think up reasons why she was there"in other words?
Apr. 16th, 2012 05:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Hello!
Hi! Thank you for dropping by!

Yes, she's lying to Corbineau and telling him a reason why she's there that isn't true. Of course he doesn't believe her!
Re: Hello! - pinkishdream - Apr. 16th, 2012 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hello! - jo_graham - Apr. 16th, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hello! - pinkishdream - Apr. 16th, 2012 07:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hello! - pinkishdream - Apr. 16th, 2012 07:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 17th, 2012 01:48 pm (UTC)
School of War
Hi, Jo!
Fantastic books! I wonder when Corbineau talks about the School of War, what kind of school is really meant? Is it The École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr founded in Fontainebleau in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte? Or maybe The Prytanée National Militaire transferred by Napoleon Bonaparte to La Flèche? Or maybe other military courses for high-ranking officers of the staff (IMHO, strategy games described in the book are mostly needed by staff officers)? Thanks for any clarification on the matter.

Edited at 2012-04-17 01:50 pm (UTC)
Apr. 17th, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Re: School of War
Thank you!

Yes, the School of War was a staff college operated by the commands of the Army of the Coasts of Ocean in Montrueil Sur Mer. It was established about the same time as Saint-Cyr, but was intended for upper level serving officers. One of the instructors was Baron Jomini, future father of Jominian Tactics.
Re: Thank you - dmitry1977 - May. 5th, 2012 07:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Thank you - jo_graham - May. 7th, 2012 12:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Thank you - dmitry1977 - May. 12th, 2012 09:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Re: Thank you - jo_graham - May. 13th, 2012 11:50 am (UTC) - Expand
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Re: Thank you - dmitry1977 - May. 17th, 2012 11:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Re: Thank you - dmitry1977 - May. 17th, 2012 11:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 25th, 2012 11:20 am (UTC)
I'd love to read your new book. Could you answer if Topaze House is a real place? I've been living in France for a long time but never heard about it. Where is it?
Sorry if I'm leaping ahead but does "companion" from the name The Emperor's Companion mean Madame St. Elme or somebody else?
Apr. 26th, 2012 11:37 am (UTC)
I certainly can answer, and thank you for asking!

When the Army of Coasts of Ocean was billeted along the Channel coast, lots of houses in Boulogne were turned into boarding houses. These weren't big hotels or regular inns, just houses that people rented out rooms. After the army was no longer there, they turned back into regular houses. Elza is staying in one of these boarding houses, which the owners have decided to call Topaze House, and which caters to respectable ladies, mostly wives of officers stationed in Boulogne. Because these houses came and went, they're not really well documented, so Topaze House is a "typical" converted boarding house, not an actual one.

Yes, Mme St. Elme is "The Emperor's Companion" of the title -- but not in the sense that she's in bed with him! She is a courtesan in his service, and she is a Companion and a comrade. The double meanings of the word are so much easier in French than to convey in English! :)
Apr. 26th, 2012 12:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks a lot! It's so kind of you to explain that in details!
May. 12th, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
Hello, Mrs Graham! I enjoyed the extract of your book above. I'm translating it and I'd like to ask you what does this phrase mean: "But Pompey's in so deep he can't really win that one."? Thank you for your attention!
May. 12th, 2012 09:07 pm (UTC)
Sure -- it means he's in such a poor position that victory has become impossible. Subervie means that, in his opinion, Pompey didn't have a chance of winning the Battle of Pharsalus, that Caesar was clearly going to be the victor, so that it doesn't reflect badly upon Ney that he lost the battle in simulation. If he began with what Pompey did, his loss was assured.
May. 16th, 2012 02:58 pm (UTC)
Mrs Graham, I like very much that you find time and emotional energy to answer our questions. Will you please answer some more of them.
1) Does the phrase "Our men gave good custom, but there certainly were a lot of them!" mean that the men had spent a lot of money before but still went to the tavern?
2) "I turned about in the middle of it, and there she was with her saber sticking out of a man's breastbone, trying to get the point loose without breaking her wrist" - as I understand it, Corbineau turned about in the middle of the battle field and saw Madame who had plunged her saber into some soldier's breast and tried to jerk it out, am I right?
3) "Modern infantry is more like hoplites in terms of their mobility and their ability to change facing" - if "to change facing" means "to change the position in formation", then what is the difference between "mobility" and "ability to change facing"?
4) "But the Persians didn't have riflemen in square," I pointed out. What does square mean here?
5) "Reille's the Parthian horse archers," Subervie replied. Of course, "'s" means "has", he plays their head?
Sorry for the long question and thank you for your attention!
May. 17th, 2012 10:49 am (UTC)
Ok! Here you go!

1. Our men were good customers, but there were too many of them!

2. Yes, you're right.

3. Mobility is how fast they can move or march. The ability to change facing is how quickly they can turn around. The hoplites were carrying 6 m sarissas, and each sarissa had to go between the ranks ahead when they were holding or advancing. In order to turn, everyone had to be drilled to lift their sarissas straight up at the same time, then everyone turn around, then everyone lower them again, otherwise you'd hit people with your 6 m pole! With a musket, it's possible to just turn around.

4. The square is a drill formation for infantry, particularly when they're waiting to receive a cavalry charge.

5. Yes, he plays their commander.
May. 17th, 2012 09:25 am (UTC)
Mrs. Graham, thank you very much for so a fascinating reading! I'm looking forward to get your new books in print this fall!

By the way, do you smell smth tricky in this branch? ))))
Most respondents here are from Russia, and they politely interrogate you about the meaning of this or that phrase, and in this branch of "The Emperor's Companion" only and in no other... "It was all beginning to seem a small and incestuous club" )))))))))))
May. 17th, 2012 10:50 am (UTC)
Thank you! I hope you enjoy them!

I expect this entry was recced on a Russian site. Since I don't read Russian I can't follow the links.
(no subject) - armalite - May. 17th, 2012 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jo_graham - May. 19th, 2012 12:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Contest - dmitry1977 - May. 17th, 2012 10:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Contest - jo_graham - May. 19th, 2012 12:24 am (UTC) - Expand
( 40 comments — Leave a comment )