Tough Times Demand Tough Talk

A bit of a long-ish addition.  I wanted to wrap up Part One of Empress’ Crusade, at about 18k words, and get on to the campaign itself.  For the historically minded, it will be loosely based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars, always a good read.  In the meantime, I have some research to do about the populations of former Alabama and Mississippi and how that extrapolates one generation on into the Breakup.

Below the fold is a family who loves one another but find it increasingly hard to like one another.  That is probably an odd concept for my younger readers but is something we in our dotage just nod at.  Thanks for everyone’s support!

 

The smoke from Leslie Hartmann’s grille wafted east to reach their noses, prompting a smile from Henge.

“Steak!  That’s a treat!” she said to her sister-in-law while walking along the fieldstone wall with her, some distance from the house.  “Assuming, of course, you indulge in simple human activities such as eating!”

“Dear sister,” Faustina said, taking a swing at Henge’s chin with her left fist which was effortlessly avoided, diamond-dust and star-stuff being faster than a demi-human, “why ask stupid questions?”

“Because I enjoy taunting you, being about the only mortal on Earth who I can,” Henge replied, plucking Faustina’s hand out of the air and taking it into hers in a friendly embrace.

“For which you know I shall not forgive you,” came the young girl’s reply, “but let’s not fight.  Just as last time, before my first campaign, I want peace in my family.  It is one of the reasons I asked if you would take a walk with me.”

“I didn’t think it was because you liked me,” Henge said, holding her hand tighter to take the sting out of her words, “but to just be amongst your own kind.”

“I… could tell that father was about to start again, and I didn’t want a scene,” Faustina admitted.  “I think I made it worse by showing up here in my uniform rather than in civilian clothes.  But I’ve been so busy, sister!  I just didn’t give it any thought!  From MacRae’s election to effective dictator-for-life through the funeral of his wife to our departure just after New Years’ in a week…!  Hell, if my staff didn’t put out new panties for me each day I’d stink!”

Henge tossed her head to the sky and laughed, perfectly at ease with herself and her life; so different than her sister.  They turned left and north along the wall line.

“If you learned to delegate more…” she began.

“I’d be nothing,” Faustina instantly countered.  “Being demi-human and keeping things to myself with a tiny staff is a part of my mystique, as it were.  Had I the full staff of a human commander… well, who would follow me then?  How could I change the world?”

“The world needs changing?  More?” Henge teased, glad to be alone with her odd relation.  Humans did not think the Breakup and the death of over a hundred million a source of mirth.

“Yes.  And I am the one to do it.  For me and my kind!” Faustina turned her head to call over her shoulder at the little figure five steps behind them.  “Isn’t that right, cadet!”

“Yes!  Empress!” Aurelia paused for a moment to salute.  She wore a legionary uniform and had polished her new boots until they shined.  Between the insert and thicker heel on the left, her stride was normal.  Even her exacting father approved.  “We demi-humans will never replace normies, but we must take care of them!”

Well away from the house’s wifi, Henge also turned to use her face to signal her precocious daughter.

“But it is true, mom!” the little girl countered.  “Humans cannot be let to run wild!  Look at the Polar Alliance!  Look at what has been achieved since the Dawn!”

“We’re right,” Faustina said, now gripping Henge’s hand, “and you are not.  Stupid, that you are one of us.”

“I am, before anything else, a child of God and my husband’s wife,” Henge retorted, surprised at the heat in her voice.  “And you will obey both of us, Precious Life!”

“Yes, mom,” Aurelia agreed, not at all put out, following them again.

Until she follows me, Henge felt her sister say through their physical contact.

When did you develop this? She asked

About a week ago.  My lines are mostly back to normal and I wanted to rewrite parts of myself.  This is an experiment.  Oooo!

“And that is the end of it,” Henge said aloud.  “Can you do it with humans?”

“Doubtful.  Their nervous systems are too weak,” Faustina replied as they turned left again, headed back toward the house, a half-mile away.

Henge sighed.

“You want to rule them.  I just want to love them.” She admitted.

“Both statements are true.” Faustina agreed.  “We are very similar.  We are very different.”

“Does the Change,” Henge ventured the Machines’ name for the Breakup, “mean so much to you?”

“I was born into it.  Your father and step-mother pre-dated it,” Faustina replied.  “I… I am trying to make things as best as I can.”

She stopped to turn and face her sister-in-law.

“I’m arrogant and short-tempered.  But I will listen.”

“Because of what I am?”

“Because of who you are.  And, well, yes:  what you are.”

Henge closed her bright, golden eyes and lowered her head for just a moment.  Sensing something, her daughter came up and took her mother’s right hand.  Both were still.

“Hey?” Faustina lightly ruffled her sister’s purple hair.  Henge’s face came up and her eyes opened, shining like the sun.

“Then know this, my Catholic sister:  you will be hip-deep in human blood before the first shipment of uranium ore reaches the City.  You could have let it come by sea but for your dreams of empire.  It… it will exact a toll on you, Faustina.”

“Dinner!” they heard Leslie Hartmann’s call from the deck and grille.

“Henge?” Faustina leaned into her sister and blinked the tears from her eyes.  “I know.  I cannot stop.”

Now getting the feeling through her mother’s hand, little Aurie burst into tears.  Henge scooped her up into her arms and led them back to her husband’s parent’s house.

“If you cannot stop,” Henge said just over the crying, “make sure you win.”

“Hey!” Leslie called, looking up from the grille on his deck.  “What happened to my granddaughter!”

“Emotional overload, Leslie,” Henge called to her father-in-law.  Just at the edge of wifi she also summoned her husband Gary, who was out front, fixing the brakes on his little brother’s bike.

“Three girls alone talking!  I’m not surprised!” Leslie shouted back with a smile, waving his spatula, but letting his eyes linger on his daughter a bit.  “Food’s almost ready!  Can you help your mother, Fussy?”

“You bet!” Faustina yelled, sprinting for the deck, taking the three steps at a bound and dashing into the house.

Leslie said nothing as he watched his son’s odd wife stare into the eyes of their odd daughter for a few moments.  Aurelia wiped her eyes as she was put down and sat down in the grass, looking at nothing, her mind in the Void.  Henge walked up the steps and leaned her head onto his muscular arm.

“Problems?” he rumbled.

“Thousands,” she threatened.  “But none that concern you.  Be at peace, Leslie.”

“You make that,” he said, transferring meat from the grill to a platter, “hard with those statements.  Tell Callie I’m done here.”

“Done,” she said without moving, speaking through Faustina.  “Are we eating inside or out?”

“After that freak cold front and snow in late November, we get this warm front of almost sixty-five just after Christmas, so outside!  You kids need fresh air!” Leslie said.

“Kids!  You are so funny, my father-in-law, Leslie!  Is it any wonder I love your son so much?” she smiled up at him.

“And how much is that?” Gary asked, coming around the house’s north side, stepping up the three steps and putting both of his hands onto Henge’s swollen belly.  “You’ve only three more months.  Sit down, wife.”

Saying nothing but tilting her head back for a kiss, they carried on until Gary’s father sharply cleared his throat, wondering if they were about to tear each other’s clothes off.  Now apart, Henge’s eyes flashed gold as she said she would help set the table.

“Gary?”

“Father?”

There was a pause while Gary’s little brother came round and onto the deck.

“You’ve quite the woman, there,” Leslie concluded.

“I have the best wife in the world,” Gary said without irony.  His father tried to not drop the platter of meat onto the deck’s table for laughing so hard.  All the women were carrying side dishes and plates out so they got out of their way.

Once seated, there was a quick blessing.  Everyone froze when quiet, little Gabriel spoke up.

“Keep princess sister safe.  I… I am so scared for her.”

Being next to him, Faustina fell out of her chair and gathered her little brother in her arms before her mother and father could move.

“I’ll be okay!  I promise!” she whispered but so they all could hear.

“But… everyone says you’re gonna kill people,” he objected softly back to her.  “That’s wrong.  You’ll be bad.”

Gary spoke to her mind quickly.  Henge did too, much faster.   Little Aurie tilted her head and waited to listen.

“I am going to save our home,” Faustina said, pulling her head back and looking into her little brother’s eyes.  He was used to the turquoise fire in hers.  “If someone tries to stop me… well, that’s on them.  So let’s pray no one does, okay?”

“Okay.”

She kissed his cheek and returned to his seat with a short thought to her older brother.

“I’m told,” Gary said conversationally, “that we won’t talk business at the table, please?”

After dinner, as the sun set and the temperature dropped, there was one human, one semi, and three demi-humans standing on the Hartmann’s patio deck.

“No worries!” Callie had called, sensing the dynamic and taking Gab inside with her.  “Just make sure you tell me ‘bye’ properly, little general!”

“Your surface thought calls this a freak-show, dad,” Faustina said without preamble, not sparing Aurelia’s feelings.

Leslie spat some of his beer over the railing.

“Fucking Christ, but you can be rude!” he yelled at his daughter.

“Non-denial denial,” Faustina replied, curling up in the lounge chair and pulling a blanket over her.  “I don’t know why it was you, father, who ended up with all of us – no coincidence, of course – but here we are.  And we do love you.”

Gary heard his wife telling their daughter to not ever repeat what her grandfather just shouted.

“Why are we here, father?” Gary asked.  “I don’t know any more than you do.  But we are.  Here and now.  My beloved wife changed the world to be with me.  My beloved sister is changing the world for… well, for a number of reasons.  My beloved daughter will likely do things we cannot begin to guess – ”

“Thanks, Daddy!” Aurelia called.

“And my son as well,” he continued after the interruption.  “will effect great change.  Just as my aunt proved to be an agent of change and co-creation in the home of tribe Tohsaka, and I inadvertently in tribe Mendro, we are all doing our best.  You were forced to lead a mutiny and later lead men into the blackest part of the Breakup to find our mother.  Why?  We don’t know.  Then I was changed and born.  Then my sister.  My wife loved me so much as to become mortal and our daughter is the mix of that.”

“The time of the Breakup is past, father,” Gary said, stepping to the edge of the deck and putting his hand onto his father’s left forearm.  “This is the Change.  My egotistical little sister…”

They shared a glance and a smile.

“…is doing very dangerous but necessary work.  Imagine, for a moment, if she wasn’t what she was:  Savannah charging a thousand percent tariffs, no source of uranium… Knoxville would be dead.  But it’s not.  Because of Fussy.”

He stepped back to allow his father time to think.  Faustina thanked him with her eyes and Henge smiled at him while Aurelia ran her hands over her mother’s belly.

“It…” Leslie Hartmann, veteran soldier, paused to take a long drink of his homebrew, “it is not the distance from here to the Mississippi River.  It is what will happen when you try to hold the supply line.”

“I will hold the supply line, Dad,” Faustina began.

“That’s the problem!” he said turning about, his beer mug missing the deck’s edge and falling to the ground.  “At what cost?  At what cost?!  You are taking twenty thousand men against what?  Two million?  More?  Even the damned Machines don’t know!  You cannot beat those numbers!”

“Of course I can,” she said softly, trying to calm her father down.  “Numbers are nothing.  With four legions I could beat any army in the world.  As for controlling the population?”

Gary had gone down the deck’s steps to retrieve his father’s mug.  He looked up at his sister’s pause.

“I have grandfather’s example for that,” she said, eyes bright in the falling darkness.

Henge turned her face away and placed her hand over little Aurelia’s eyes, telling her no.

“If… if you take that path, my daughter,” Leslie Hartmann said slowly are carefully, “you will not be welcome here again.”

It was much colder than just a moment ago.

“Understood, father.”  Faustina stood and walked to him, giving her father a kiss onto his cheek.  “I… hope to come home.  Some day.”

They watched her run inside to give a hug to her mother before dashing back out to jump off the deck and circle around the north end of the house.  She’d no car waiting but Gary and Henge heard her summon her driver.  Faustina wouldn’t be running far that night.

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