Napoleon put down the report he had just received on his desk. He let his eyes travel on the full magnificence of the general's tent, the biggest of all, decorated with drapes of imperial pourpre, made of the finest Lyonese silk, his bronze eagle delicately embroidered on them – a caprice, really. The furniture was sparse, made for speed: a desk, a bed with heavy blankets, a chest for the less important documents, the essential ones being transported on his person. Yet there was a void in the tent. Something missing.

The atmosphere of victory.

Usually when he was there, he would hear his soldiers bawling loudly around campfires, playing games of cards, recounting past battles… But now there was a miserable silence, broken only by the reports of sentries. Every man felt wretched, their spirits beaten by the cold, by the lack of food, by the loss of their friends. Above all, their spirits had fled with the defeat. Arriving to see Moscow, the city they'd been dreaming of conquering, devoured by flames had been one strike too many.

And now, the report said it was rumored in Paris that Napoleon was dead.

Napoleon pulled back the curtain of his tent, trying not to flinch as the dreadful cold hit him. He had been under the burning sun of Egypt, and under the searing cold of Russia. He knew, now. Hell was not, as religion had it, hot. It was cold.

Napoleon looked at the camp sprawling around his camp. Men were gathered around the fires, heating up their meager rations. Some of them were rolled up in their blankets already, folded on themselves to keep warm, catching as much sleep as they could because tomorrow would come too soon. Most of them were young, but they looked even younger now, with that haggard expression on their face. Usually, they all noticed whenever the general came out of his tent, but now they didn't see anything.

And they were saying he was dead in Paris.

Cabot came up to his left shoulder. A tall, plain man with dark hair and dark eyes, he was the kind of man whose face people often forgot, but he possessed a surprisingly excellent memory. He was perfect for the task Napoleon had chosen for him. 'The one on the left is called Martin Allais, he has a wife and two children. Been with you from the beginning. Next to him is Paul, he has a hunchbacked sister. Joined at the beginning of the campaign. Facing them…'

Napoleon held up a hand and the man trailed off. The emperor couldn't help but smile a little. He remembered the good days when his men would look at him admiringly as he sat to have dinner with them, how awed they would be when he chatted with them and called them by their names. All of this had been thanks to Cabot, but of course they didn't know that. They believed him to be the brilliant yet simple, caring general he made himself out to be. And he was so – had been so, he corrected mentally… at least in the beginning.

They were saying he was dead in Paris.

For a brief moment, Napoleon wondered if that was true.


He stood silently, watching his men. They were still his. They still loved him, despite the defeat, despite the dead. Images of the burning palace of Moscow floated up before his gaze, a hazy vision that shimmered before that of the camp, but Napoleon chased it away. Those memories would only reawaken his anger, which would in turn cloud his mind and prevent him from thinking clearly, as he needed to do now.

They were saying he was dead in Paris.

That was the fact. Now, what should he do about it?

As each time he considered a problem, several paths appeared in his mind. He dismissed a few. Cabot was still next to him, waiting patiently, though out of the corner of his eye, Napoleon could see him trembling in the freezing, blasted cold.

He had two choices, really.

The first would be to take the south route. It made sense. It was winter, so the north route was most likely closed off by now. But it would be long. And the people in Paris were not known for their patience. By the time he got back, they would have established a new government – anguish seized him – for it would be finished for him, he would be pushed to the side, forgotten, he would be just another emperor who made great things but who would be remembered for his poor end in history books.

Or he could take the north route. It would lead to many deaths. It would lead to his own, maybe. It would be insanely dangerous, especially since Russians might still be pursuing them; they would have the terrible advantage of knowing how to deal with the climate. But perhaps, perhaps, it would allow him to make it in time.

It might cost him his men. It might cost him his support. It might cost him their love, their admiration, their awe.

It would most certainly cost him half of his army. Half of those soldiers sitting there right in front of him.


They were saying he was dead in Paris.

Slowly, Napoleon turned to Cabot. The man almost flinched at the intensity burning in his emperor's coal-like eyes.

'Please advise the officers that we're going back to Paris tomorrow. By the north route.'

'What? But sir–'

'I know. The command stands.'

Napoleon went back inside his tent and left any trace of Bonaparte behind.