Take Me to the River

My wife wafted through the dining room where I write.  “When did your Breakup stories stop being fiction?” she asked.

I never wanted any of this.  It was just to be a backdrop to the relationships I saw.

Anyway.  Part Two of “Empress’ Crusade” begins!  As is my wont, I skip forward almost three months and put Faustina at her destination:  Vicksburg.  But, as her father pointed out, and her uncle told her brother, “anyone can get into trouble; it’s the professionals who get out alive.”  I think I’m about to see what that looks like.

 

Faustina stood with her arms crossed over her chest staring across the Mississippi River, at once pleased and not pleased.  Pleased that she had led her boys so far with so little loss.  From their start at Huntsville to her standing on the bluff looking west was not quite four hundred miles in sixty days, far below what she knew they were capable of, but with all the stops to negotiate local agreements, or to make pointed threats, it was the best they could manage.

She was also pleased to see the engineers of the Texas Field Forces making good progress on rebuilding the rail bridge.  In the noonday sun, her eyes picked out the small gunboat halfway across and closing on the makeshift port her men had already constructed.  A boat carrying someone she longed to see.

The young general was not at all pleased to keep hearing reports about the Tupelo-Memphis Dual-Tyranny – her term – two hundred and fifty miles to her north and the so-called President of Mobile-Gulfport two hundred miles to her southeast, both making explicit claims to her time, manpower, and money.

Off to her left, masons were working on the pillboxes on both sides of where the rail line would be, with firing slits facing east and west.  Not that she mistrusted the Texans but was prudent in that they might not be the only ones to try to cross.  Rising next to those redoubts was something she had not seen since Huntsville:  a cell tower.  Only twice in those sixty days had Faustina splurged and allowed herself a linkup to a comsat.  Her lines ached from disuse.

“Going to the dock to meet them?” Owens asked from her right.

“A general does not go to a colonel,” she eyed her legate of Second Legion.  His blotchy, red skin was still peeling, what with him underestimating the winter sun in the old Deep South. “Nor does a demi-human fawn over mundanes.”

“He is your family,” Owens said with his irreverent smile, “so if you happened to be making a surprise inspection of the construction work on our side…”

“You’re a genius,” Faustina said, turning away and making her way through the trees and brush up the hill to the pillboxes.  Her legate and their staff trailed along in her wake, very used to her instant changes of mind.

The gunboat – it reminded her of Augusta, which had a snarl flicker across her face – was maneuvering next to the unfinished quay on the great river.  Faustina waved for the legionaries on construction duty to stop saluting and get back to work.  That half of the sweaty young men in their early twenties had their tops off in the near-Spring warmth was not lost on her at all.  Before she thought of Huntsville again, she climbed up onto a four-foot wall and yelled and waved down.

“Welcome to my realm, brave men!” she shouted.

The four men in Field Forces fatigues looked up, just joined by a much smaller figure stepping off the gunboat, his eyes covered by goggles and face by some kerchief.  Why?  Allergies?  Faustina pushed the question from her mind and instead waved again, this time at her uncle, Arpad Rigó.  She continued to watch as their little band was escorted up the newly constructed path from the quay to the railhead.

Not wanting to be ruder than normal, Faustina jumped down from the wall and beckoned Owens to her side.  He would speak first.  The group of five with her three minders came to the top of the path, halted, and gave a traditional salute.  Owens responded with a legionary before stepping forward and putting his hand out to Rigó.

“I am legate Owens, Second Legion, Imperial Army,” he said to the surprise in the visitor’s eyes.  “Welcome to the land of the American Imperium of Empress Faustina!”

The small one in the rear of their party issued something between a bark and a cough.

“Thank you,” Rigó replied formally, shaking hands.  Faustina knew one of his many roles was also that as a diplomat for his nation’s Department of State and knew he could play the role well.  Still, her enhanced perception told her of his mirth and this comedy as he looked past Owens.  “From the uniform, I conclude I am addressing General Hartmann?”

“You do!” she waited for his second salute before raising her hand into the air.  Faustina lowered it and also shook his hand, ignoring the pictures being taken of them by her staff.  “As this is a military mission, right now.  You can speak with Empress Faustina later today about politics!”

Another snort from the rear of their party was one too many for the young general.

“And who is it there with the bad allergies who keeps sneezing at such an historic moment?” she asked, making an exaggerated lean to look around her uncle.

“Ah.  That would be our boat’s pilot,” he explained, snapping his fingers once and making a small wave.  “I apologize for any misunderstanding or misconduct.”

The lithe figure stepped just next to Rigó.  No salute; no talk.  Close enough to smell and now understand the joke, Faustina was trying very hard not to laugh.  She watched her uncle gently whap his hand onto the other’s back.

The goggles and cloth were swept off, dark hair falling past their shoulders.  Careful, black eyes never left Faustina’s as they gave a short, formal bow.

“Empress Faustina,” the fourteen-year-old girl said tonelessly.

“Cousin Ryland,” Faustina slightly inclined her head in acknowledgment, “be welcome in my land.”

“Colonel Rigó,” Faustina compartmentalized and returned to business, pointing out at the six massive concrete piers in the river.  “When do you anticipate completion of the reconstruction?”

“Six weeks to get across the water.  At least three months for track,” was Rigó’s immediate reply.  “How about your end?  From here to Knoxville is a long way, General.”

“I have engineering teams from my legions as well as contractors spooled out over the four hundred miles we just covered to meet you,” she explained.  “And before you ask, I have another light legion under training at Chattanooga to provide additional security.”

“Light legion?”

“Eight cohorts.  I was going to use them to plump out my army but decided they would better serve to ward the rail line.  I am, er…” she looked about, wondering how much to say, “updating my operational plans based upon how I am older about these lands.”

Faustina saw that he fully got her meaning, giving her a tiny nod before looking past her.

“May my team see what you’ve done on this side?  There may be ideas we can share,” he said.

“Please,” she said, turning and waving her hand.  “Pretty simple, so far… you’ll see more once we’re back in our marching camp.”

“Are you building a permanent fort?” a young voice asked out of turn.

“Yes,” Faustina said without turning, “but up on the bluff to the north.  I always want my boys safe as I can make them.”

“But what about – ”

“Seaman Rigó!” her uncle barked at his daughter.  “In the wheelhouse, on the water, you were acting captain.  You will not speak unless spoken to!”

Faustina could sense in a variety of ways that her cousin was very, very unhappy about this development.  Perhaps a kindred spirit for me?  Faustina wondered.  And, as a normie, she is no threat to me at all!

As they walked through the short tunnel under the dilapidated highway overpass, her uncle continued his briefing of the state of affairs across the river with the Field Forces.

“So about a brigade opposite us and another holding the line back to Shreveport?” Faustina summarized.

“With, like you, tech units working on the railroad, the power lines and,” Rigó looked hard at his niece’s eyes, “the telecom towers.”

“We, er, I appreciate that last, Colonel,” she replied, always a little unsettled by how handsome he was.  “On my end, the railroad is the overarching factor, for obvious reasons.  The basic infrastructure for electricity will have to come almost a year before I dare cell towers.”

“Much trouble with the locals?” Arpad continued as they walked out of the short tunnel into the bright, late winter sun.

“Nope, at least along my line of advance.  Per your intel, Birmingham was a ruin, but wow!” she said, stretching her arms over her head.  “I would love to re-establish its steel industry!  They could make arms and munitions for ten legions, permanently in the field!  Anyway.  From there to Tuscaloosa and Jackson, I concluded non-interference treaties with the locals.  For anything from the little farms along the way I made sure to pay in silver coins, winning hearts and minds!”

“Everything all sewed up, then?” Rigó asked with a smile as they walked up to the roadside.  Faustina abruptly stopped and looked at nothing.  He waited.

“Montgomery, and beyond that, Columbus and Fort Benning, are far in my rear… from which I’ve heard… uncertain things.” He watched her spread her arms to point north and south.  Rigó saw the permanent scarring on her left arm, pointing north.  “And, Tupelo and Gulfport look to give me trouble.”

“How so?” he asked, aware of two of her horsemen closing on them at a gallop.

“We’re about to find out,” Faustina said quietly.

“Shall my team give you some space?”

Faustina leaned to whisper into his ear while staring at her cousin.

“Stay with me,” before turning toward the riders.  They both saluted but neither dismounted, staring at the uniforms of the Texans.

“Speak freely!” she called to them.

“Trouble in the north,” the underofficer said.  “Guesstimate twenty thousand men from Tupelo and the same from Memphis, on their way south.”

“Guess they didn’t like my diplomatic proposal,” Faustina said.

“Which was?” her uncle asked.

“To stay the hell out of my business.  They are the aggressors, here!” she raised her voice to carry.  “I want First, Second, and Fourth ready to move out at oh five-hundred tomorrow!  Half of Third will continue infrastructure and the other half will make improvements to our camp!  Details to follow in thirty minutes!  You!”

She pointed at the underofficer.

“Get four squadrons together.  I want constant intel from what’s coming from our north!  You!” she pointed to the man’s second.  “Find Connor and tell him to do the same to our southeast!  We will not be caught in some rabble pincer movement!”

Faustina paused to take a deep breath.

“We are here for our homes and families,” she spoke for her men and the record, both.  “We bring peace.  They want war.  I will kill them.  All of them.”

Both men rode off.

Faustina barked several more orders at her aides while beginning to jog north to their main fort.  After ten minutes she took time to address her allies.

“You may stay and observe, if you so desire,” she flashed a smile at her uncle.  “Demi-humans are fast.  Try to keep up!”

“I will,” Rigó said with a nod to two of his men, “send word back and have our scouts move north along the river’s edge to, say, opposite the Greenville area, to keep an eye on things.”

“Do so,” she commanded, watching them turn and run for the gunboat with one of hers next to them.  She noted her cousin stayed.

“Think you can keep up, seaman Rigó?” Faustina laughed, running now.

Spoken to at last, she could speak back.

“I’ve had to hear about the ‘great princess’ for years,” she spat, easily keeping pace, “and would like her to know that humans are better than she thinks!  Ouch!”

Almost too fast to see, Faustina reached over to flick Ryland on her forehead.

“Owens!”

“General?”

“For tomorrow:  standard marching order, but I want our light artillery…”

Arpad Rigó ran along with them.  Having long years in the Hungarian Special Forces, then the Imperial SOG, and now in the Texan Field Forces, it was something of an eye-opener for him how effortlessly this eighteen-year-old girl issued order after order to get almost fifteen thousand men on the road in a war footing in hours.  His report would likely make many in Austin take note of what just arrived on their eastern frontier.

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