End. Middle. Begin.

The design contest for the cover of my short story collection, “Empire’s Agent” is complete.  I hope to have a proof copy in my hands in less than a week and a commercial release days after that.

At 57k words I have passed the MS of “American Imperium: Princess’ Crusade” onto one of my new copyeditors.  He’s a little spastic about “?!” punctuation but I like the cut of his jib.  Once “Empire’s Agent” is loose in the wild I shall likely begin another cover design contest.  Tricky:  the main character, 18-year old Faustina, spends half the book in a hospital bed with 2nd degree burns and no hair.  Not the stuff for an eye-catching cover, is it?

And… speaking of Faustina:  if there’s a part one, there better be a part two.  Below the fold is the opening scene of “American Imperium:  Empress’ Crusade.”  Faustina is utterly full of herself and as arrogant “af” – as the kids say.  I wanted to start things slow and humble.  I have tiny, faint glimpses of where she might be going, but I won’t know until she gets there.  Enjoy the ride with me!

 

“While it is very obvious what you are doing,” First Councilman of the city of Knoxville, Michael MacRae observed, stepping through the door and into the small chapel of the permanent legionary camp, just about a dozen miles of the city center, “I am curious why it is you who are doing it.”

Pausing to wring out the mop in the old aluminum pail, Faustina Hartmann tossed a look over her left shoulder and flashed an ambiguous smile to her visitor in his charcoal gray business suit.  She returned the wrung mop to the wood floor before the altar table and continued to clean the floor.

“I’d just popped in to try to mentally recharge after seeing to the widows and orphans of the boys of my last campaign,” Faustina replied, her smile faded.  “The state of the floor caught my eye so I thought I may as well make myself useful.”

Originally planning to be back from her conquest of the port of Savannah in four weeks, it was six before she marched into her camp at the head of her Second Legion.  First Legion remained to do important engineering work, as well as work out who was interested in staying for good:  becoming colonists with land-grants and titles issued by their General and Princess.  Besides a brief written summary of her actions across the Appalachian Mountains – nominally in the name of Greater Knoxville – the Council of Five who had executive authority had heard nothing.  That silence bred rumors that bred concern.  MacRae decided to act before concern bred panic.

Not giving a look to his staff still outside and down the three steps, MacRae closed the door behind him.  It looked as if she had finished the right side and was now cleaning the left, working her way back to the door.  He took a seat in the rear pew on the right.

“Will talking bother you?” he asked.

“Depends on what you say,” she rejoined, wiping her forehead with the left sleeve of her unadorned uniform.  From when he had last seen her, seven weeks ago, her little stubble of black hair on her head was now about a half-inch long pelt she had slicked back and down.  Her body was that of a well-conditioned eighteen-year-old girl, but MacRae knew it was what was inside her that made her different.  Made her dangerous.

“Are you fully recovered from the injuries you received during the orbital kinetic bombardment of the port?” he asked politely.  “A report I read said you died at one point.”

“Twice, actually,” she corrected without turning.  “Got better, though.”

And, he had come to learn, had the same very peculiar sense of humor that her brother and her brother’s wife had.  Her brother who he once tried to arrest and nearly had his career handed to him along with his head when Faustina’s brother’s then-girlfriend took over Knoxville’s power grid.

“I… am pleased you are better,” MacRae allowed.  “You forwarded the Council a copy of the casualties.  You said you are visiting their families?”

He watched her pause in mopping but still not turn around.

“While there may be some soiree for those families of the wounded, I have one more day to personally meet with those whose sons and brothers died under my command,” she clarified for him.  “It is the least I can do.”

He watched her head tilt a little to the right.  One of those times she looked into what she called the Void.

“You are here to scotch rumors that I have been acclaimed empress and will take power here, in Greater Knoxville,” Faustina said, clearer.  “You do not have enough firepower in your staff, just outside, to arrest me, so you must be genuinely curious.”

“Is that correct?” she asked, turning about, her ambiguous smile back onto her face.

About to reply, he stopped.  For the first time ever she wore something on the front of her gray-green BDUs:  what looked like some sort of little, golden half-circle, open at the top.  Seeing his look she leaned the mop against a pew and loped over to him in an odd, slow gait.

“I also had heard you were badly injured, General Hartmann,” he said, standing, as she came to stand before him.

“Upper right leg compound fracture; lost two of my little toes of my left foot,” she explained.  “No big deal.  I’ll be fine a fortnight.  You wanted to see this?”

She pointed her right index finger toward the little medal just above her small left breast.

“An ornamentation of a laurel wreath?” he asked.

“Yup!  Between my victory, saving my boys from the rod, and being hailed as imperator, I agreed to wear this.  For their honor, not mine.”

“So…” he dragged out carefully, “you do accept the title of empress?  Should I be cleaning out my office desk?”

“No and no,” she said before turning and making her way back to her mop.  “Imperator is a hail to a victorious general.  Emperor is derived from that and empress is the feminine version.  I am far too busy to take your desk and the day to day concerns of the city and its surrounds.”

He watched her, a victorious general, re-wet her mop and wring it out.  To clean the floor of a little chapel.

“But if my young brother, Gabriel, were to marry your daughter?  Perhaps he will be a duke and she, his duchess?  Hie yourself back to your office and your desk, First Councilman.  Start making plans for my triumph when elements of First Legion come home in a month.”

“Just elements?” he asked.

“Yes.  I was able to make some sweet deals with about fifteen hundred of my boys to found a colony,” she noted, mopping her way back toward the door.  “Some of the local Whites and Blacks were less than thrilled but reminding them whose granddaughter I am shut them up quick!  Here, let me get the door for you, sir!”

The last line she uttered loudly as she opened it.  Theater for his staff and grist for the rumor mill of the City.

“Always a pleasure, Victorious General Hartmann,” MacRae said in the doorway, his right hand out to take hers.  His trained staff immediately took pictures.  “I look forward to our continuing cooperation.”

“And I thank you, First Councilman MacRae,” she replied, bright turquoise eyes filled with mirth, “for being an essential and integral part of my imperium!  Deus Vult!”

His smile froze as he realized she had once again beaten him in public after being circumspect in private.

Faustina closed the door with a wave and waited until she heard their electric car pull away down the gravel path of her camp.  I do have a role to play and it does not involve me looking like a charwoman with her cleaning bucket!  Which, with that in her left and the mop in her right, all she could do was smile and nod to the salutes she got from her legionaries as she carefully loped her way to the Maintenance Building.

There was only one step – to keep things dry in the event of heavy rain but otherwise to facilitate moving material in and out – and the little bell above the door tinkled as she pushed her way in.  Jones was around the counter and taking the objects from her hand in a flash.

“If you cleaned it, Princess,” the non-combatant in his fifties said with a smile, “mebbe I should swing by the chapel, too!”

“Yes, you should,” she said with a smile, trying to ignore the pain seeping past her lines from her healing broken ribs.  “All of us, human and demi-human, should give thanks to God.”

“Reminds me!” Jones said with a snap of his fingers, reaching to the array of shelves behind him.  “These came in late last night!”

He put two little legionary boot onto the rough pine counter between them.  Jones gave a kind smile to his general’s confused look.

“Your sister-in-law thought you’d be too busy to recall – even for yous, if you’ll forgive the presumption, Princess, so she passed the size of your niece’s feet onto us,” he said softly, picking up the left boot.  “We’s even built it up for her’uns foot!”

Faustina was ashamed for a timeslice that she had forgotten Aurelia’s request:  that she have one of her legionaries make marching boots for her little niece.  I… let down one of the two demi-humans I know…!

“Yeah,” Jones sighed.  Faustina came back to herself, aware that he had just gone away.  “Need to thank God.  How did I survive the Breakup?  And now… to live with angels on Earth…”

He lowered his head and was quiet.  Faustina touched her hands to his.

“Thank you; for all of us!”

She picked up the boots and carefully made her way back to her office.

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