I swear… I SWEAR that there is shooting in the next installment. I’ve already written it, so trust me. It’s just that I think it is so much more interesting to listen to them rather than *pew*pew* and *boom*boom*. It will be impressive once adapted into a visual series but it just takes up space in my mind and in my pages.
We get to know Ryland, a ‘normie’ but genius human, a little bit better. She’s not the self-centered shit I thought she was last week. That is one of the reasons I so love this job: discovery. Had I never on a whim written “The Fourth Law” five years ago, I’d not have met Lily. In the next book, her sister, Callie. Several books on, writing about Callie’s son and girlfriend, I met Faustina. And now her cousin. If this is not a miracle then tell me what is.
As was her wont, Faustina was the last one out of the marching fort. Much of the materials had been pulled out or down beginning at two in the morning to be used at their next stop: almost fifty miles on. Her legions had only covered ground like that on the old interstate highways and within their own territory. We are all in uncharted territory, both literally and figuratively. Everything is hinging on my cavalry screening the army until we get into position.
Beginning with Fourth Legion at the rear, she walked half-again as fast as her boys, moving up through their ranks and softly speaking her encouragement as she went.
“No worries, Empress!” a man whispered next to her. “We’ll clout those slaver scum like nothin’!”
Every century of every cohort had a man whose job was to listen much and talk little. This was one time men with that assignment talked: she wanted the nature of their first enemy known from tip to tail. Nearly ten score years ago, Knoxville and its surrounds had been in near-open rebellion against the pro-slavery State of Tennessee. Even all these years on, the sentiment lingered.
Faustina exchanged a few quiet words with legate Samson, currently two cohorts back in his legion. As she would be at his side when the balloon went up late that evening, she could sense his confidence.
Halfway up Second Legion was the artillery. After being older along the Savannah, every century had a 60mm mortar team. Each cohort had two 81mm teams. And this time, with no 105mm howitzers to be slowly pulled by oxen over the Appalachian Mountains, her much smaller 37mm field guns move smartly along pulled by sure-footed mules.
It was not so much the knot of men in the faint morning twilight that attracted her attention but rather her unconscious analysis of the movement of the men. Just found cousin Ryland! She moved herself to just behind the knot and listened.
“Cute gal like you…” “All the ways from Texas? So brave!” “A doctor? Really? You wanna play…”
“Hey, now.” All talk died off the deep mutter of Eigen, Centurion of sixth cohort. They were the organic security of the guns until the legions deployed for battle, later.
“Thank you for protecting my cousin’s honor, Centurion,” Faustina gambled on raising her voice just enough so his men heard her. “But, being my cousin, she’s of my family and I think you’ll find can look after herself!”
The knot dispersed instantly, everyone finding something important to do. No one saluted: were their snipers in the bushes? Faustina stepped quickly to Ryland, now in legionary BDUs and one of their helmets. No reason to make her stand out, either.
“I would ask ‘permission to touch,’” she said very low, taking her young cousin’s left hand with her right. “But that’s for legionaries. I’m Empress for the moment.”
A few of her boys still close enough to hear snickered. Faustina enjoyed feeling Ryland first try to pull away before relaxing and intertwining their fingers. She wants to talk!
“You call us family,” the young doctor noted in the cool, 41F morning air, “but we share no blood.”
“So your mother, Lily, is not my aunt? Henge not my silly sister-in-law? Cute little Aurelia not my niece?” she asked, now swinging their arms like little kids. “You have an attenuated image of family, Ryland Rigó!”
“I… didn’t say we weren’t!” Faustina alone could see the heat in Ryland’s cheeks in the still-faint dawn. “Just… pointing out a medical fact.”
“Of course, what with you being a young genius and a medical doctor, and all. Which reminds me…” Faustina leaned closer, but her stage whisper carried, “…some of my boys are pretty hot! I’ve been swimming with them! If you did wanna play doctor, I’ll not tell your dad – !”
“Not funny!” Ryland said, pulling her hand back. Neither one to back down or apologize they walked side-by-side for another mile. “It’s just… we don’t lie to each other in my family.”
“Good. I imagine your mother learned that from her friend Ai. Keeping secrets is fine for Machines,” Faustina tried bumping the back of her hand to her cousin’s, “but lies could kill the world in seconds.”
Slowly, Ryland retook her hand. Slowly, their fingers re-twined.
“Thank you for that,” she whispered.
“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” Faustina whispered back. Her voice returned to normal as she carried on. “Now, I’ve spent enough time here chatting with this naval underofficer! Time to take off my crown as empress…”
She let her hand drop away.
“And go be general… to all of my boys! Today will be a great victory for all of you!”
Impossible to yell or cheer on a stealthy march, they could only stamp their boots hard for four steps. Faustina responded with two claps and continued to move up through their ranks. The knot didn’t really re-form, but some of the men did drift closer. One finally spoke up.
“Y’alls… y’alls is cousins? Lordy! That means you is a princess!” a husky man’s voice observed.
Ryland didn’t know whether to be flattered or appalled to hear that being quickly whispered forward and backward in their line. “Another princess! Another princess!” echoed around her and into the first light of day.
Ten miles shy of the ghost town of Greenwood, where they would be turning due east to leave the flatlands of the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, Faustina caught up to her staff, as well as that of Gibson’s and her legate himself. He seemed deep in conversation with the only man not kitted out like a legionary, stopping every five minutes to take a verbal report from the horse trooper who swarmed about the column.
“I’ve already heard,” Arpad Rigó spoke first, showing off that he had been Special Forces and Special Operations for a reason, while she was still five yards away, “that my daughter is now a princess in your imperium! An army might move on its stomach but it loves its rumors!”
“If you’ll allow me, legate Gibson, to metaphorically only take off my helmet and put on my oak chaplet? Thank you!” she said to his nod, ignoring the small roll of his eyes. “Then to answer your question, you are only half correct! In my realms, your daughter shall be Princess Ryland. But you shall be Duke Arpad, my personal envoy to the Republic of Texas. Unless, of course, you choose to come to live here: I need a man to organize the entirety of central former Alabama. As his own land.”
Turned half backward to talk, the former Special Forces and Special Operations stumbled so badly only a quick save from Gibson kept him off the ground.
“You… your talking about…” Rigó stammered.
“About fifteen thousand square miles. A bit more than your one hundred and fifty-acre vineyard, isn’t it?” Faustina said still walking and coming to stay just a step ahead of him. “Your eldest son, Clay, would, of course, be your primary male heir. I guess that means his twin sister, Kalí, is a princess, too… How did I suddenly develop this rash of retainers?”
“My… my allegiance is to my new home, Texas,” Rigó began very carefully. “And as you undoubtedly know, I have some… contact with the Empire in central Europe.”
“Yes, yes,” Faustina said with a casual wave. “I like a man who’s flexible. You would have to take an oath of fealty to me and my heirs, of course. And I bet Aunt Lily would hate to move again!”
She jerked her head back over her left shoulder to stare, turquoise eyes afire.
“It will be months, perhaps two years, before we subdue this land to my will. You have time enough, Uncle Rigó!” The fire faded. He was looking at an eighteen-year-old girl with short dark hair dressed as a soldier. “Please fall back about twenty paces, Field Forces Observer, I must speak with my staff and legate.”
As he did, she moved closer to Gibson.
“Still think of me as a little girl?” she teased.
“That, obviously, general, was my mistake,” he said, taking a drink of water in nervousness only she could see. And he knows I see it.
“I’d like to talk a little more about what we might have to do if the Tupelo army beats us to Winona,” said the general, returning her metaphorical helmet to her head.