The birthplace of Elvis Presley! The things you discover when writing! And two tired, irritated legions of about ten thousand men just showed up in a mood for mayhem. Perhaps thinking about what her nurse told her about playing her role, Faustina decides to be what she seems to be.
A fifty-mile march to fight a battle at the end of the day, followed by another fifty-mile march, her legionaries were exhausted and thoroughly hating the local population. Coming up the old highway, her cavalry scout would take anyone who looked remotely interesting and drag them, in one case, literally, before the army’s command to answer questions. Yes, they said, things ‘round these parts weren’t too bad. Sure, they said, who didn’t own slaves? Wait… weren’t you-uns the ones we sent an army to beat…?
Gibson or Owens would thank them and release them, letting them make their way back home. Playing ‘pretend’ again, Faustina kept her eyes and ears open and her mouth shut, letting the results of each interview spread up and down the line.
I think the only thing that would stop them from burning the town is their exhaustion, Faustina thought, checking again that the second copy Forrester’s letter was in her breast pocket. The first had gone ahead some hours ago with a troop to find the so-called Tupelo city council and present it to them, along with Faustina’s ultimatum. As she knew rumors about her seemed to scare people, that letter went out over her signature.
“Dammit, girly,” her favorite, irreverent Centurion, Chesney, said to her, sweating in the last afternoon sun. “You’re still gonna make us build a marching fort for tonight, aren’t you?”
“Would it help if I was there with a hammer and nails?” she asked back, eyes twinkling.
“Yes, it would.”
“Then I shall. Oh, look ahead! Riders! Let’s see if we’re building a fort or burning a town tonight!” she said, louder.
“Hot enough already, Empress!” someone shouted from two ranks in front of her. “Just build a fort and let us sleep!”
Irritated as they were, the other legionaries muttered in approval.
Just as tired as everyone else, she forced herself to trot through her boys to the front of the line just as her troopers arrived with six Tupelo riders.
“Report!” Gibson shouted. Hot, sweaty, tired, irritated.
The front-most of the enemy riders handed an envelope down to a legionary who ran it back to the legate. Gibson popped the wax seal and pretended to scan it before handing it back to the presumed young boy who was a runner or secretary. No one noticed the boy fall back a few paces and open it.
A radioman at her legate’s right jerked when a harsh, metallic, sexless voice called out, “agreed.” Hearing that, Gibson pointed at the lead rider and nodded his head twice. In case there was a return message, her troopers accompanied the Tupelo riders back north.
“I didn’t really look at it,” Gibson admitted as Faustina came to his left side. “What’s up?”
“Formal negotiations,” she replied, “just a little south of the town. Near where an old school used to be. It seems they wish to apologize for the “hot-headed actions of the mayor which were not sanctioned by the city council.” A stupid lie, of course, but if they want to try to throw Forrester under the bus, I’m willing to watch the show!”
“Under the bus?” her legate asked.
“Sorry. Old term. Think instead: to betray him.”
Just past a broken and tumbled highway interchange, Faustina frowned at the woods ahead on the left and right. She waved at a rider and sent another message forward to the city council.
“We are not taking one more step,” she announced, verbally to Gibson and over the radio to Owens. “While we wait for them to pack up and come the twenty-five hundred feet to us, deploy for combat.”
Gibson began barking orders as First Legion fanned out to describe a quarter-circle on their right, Second doing the same on their left, the men immediately digging in. Ah! Speaker and Seeker Two were airborne. Faustina first looked to her own lines – the artillery was nearly ready – before sending that drone forward.
“They are just getting back onto their horses,” she whispered to her legate. “Be here in about fifteen minutes.”
“Pretend?” he asked.
“Not at all. In fact, we’re going to swing the pendulum in the other direction,” she announced, speaking orders to an aide who ran back toward the supply wagons. Five minutes later he was running back. In that time one of the reserve centuries had piled enough of the larger, flatter sections of the broken concrete road to make a small dais.
“I think we’ll start bringing a curule chair along for times such as this,” she smiled at Gibson, standing on a slab one layer below her on her right. Before anyone outside of the legions could see, she stripped out of her uniform and put on the sparkly one she had worn at some of her recruiting rallies. I wonder, she thought, are they looking at my girlish figure or my burns? She was closing the last buttons up to her neck when the horses coming toward them were close enough to hear the clops of their hooves.
“A what chair?” Gibson asked in the moment left after her striptease .
“Later.” Her last action was to re-pin her gold wreath onto her jacket.
A half-century before and another behind served as her honor guard, rifles at port arms. Except for the rare whir of rotors from the drones above when the wind was just so, the rest of her army was completely silent. The Tupelo emissaries slowed from trot to walk once they began to take in the display ahead of them. Fifty yards away they rudely stopped to confer. Faustina resisted the impulse to lob a shell at them. My boys are tired! Let’s get this over with!
Walking their horses the last twenty yards, five men in their thirties and forties slid off to the ground and walked up to legionaries just before the three stacked layers of concrete. None wore anything remotely military but their clothes, though handmade, were very nice. Faustina, face impassive, tried to see who was the real power here. The oldest, a going-gray man in his late forties took a final step but it was that weaselly looking, pale-skinned guy with dark curly hair to his right…
Just before he spoke, she had an idea. With a buzz, Seeker Two came around above and behind her about ten yards. She was going to record this.
“I’m Councilman Brown,” the eldest in their group began, “of the city of Tupelo. Whom do we have the honor to address?”
Here I go!
“We are Empress Faustina. In regulating our lands, war, from your little town, has been levied against us. We have destroyed your army. We seek a reason to raze your little town. Convince us otherwise.” It was a little difficult for her, while controlling the drones, to flare her eyes without making them bleed again.
“We… uh,” she watched him swallow, “we were woefully misinformed about you and your army. By the man who attacked you, the former mayor, Forrester. We offer our most sincere apologies and are willing to make reparations for his conduct. Please… don’t burn our cit… town.”
At the risk of her eyes, Seeker Two slid around to her left so she could shift the optics from their faces to hers and back.
“So you lay the marshaling of fifteen thousand men at the feet of your former mayor? Do we understand you correctly?” she asked.
“That… that is correct,” he looked around, getting no support from his fellows, “Empress Faustina.”
“What, exactly, kind of worms must you be to allow one man to run roughshod over your Council? What is to prevent this from happening again? Please, do not answer! We shall explain what is to prevent this: you shall sign a treaty with us. In that treaty shall be specific guarantees to us and our imperium. Know this, all of you: your little town’s life of independence is over. From this moment on, you are ours or you are gone.”
“Gone?” Brown asked.
“Gone. We shall make a desolation and call it peace.” She allowed a moment to look at all of them into their eyes, lingering on the weaselly fellow. “A lesson we are about to teach the fools of Memphis.”
With another fruitless look around, Brown nodded.
“We agree, Empress Faustina. You spoke of a treaty?”
“We shall dispatch a copy to you this evening. All,” another look to the weasel, “of you shall return to us at oh-one-hundred tomorrow morning for its signing.”
Faustina paused for several moments.
“This audience is over. Go.”
Besides the whine of the drone, as it moved position to watch them first quickly walk then quickly ride away, the silence remained perfect.
“General?” Gibson finally managed.
“Remind me to never, ever get you mad at me,” he said, seeming to sag a little as he did.
“Mad? But I was happy all through that!” she laughed at him, some of the legionaries joining in in disbelief. “But you are correct: none of you humans ever want to see me mad.”
She jumped down to the ground and began to strip out of her showy uniform.
“C’mon, boys! We’ve got a fort to build! Somebody get me a hammer and nails” she shouted, still laughing.