I like an episode arc that starts in sunshine and ends in clouds. It guarantees further action. Under the fold, the empress meets with a diplomatic embassage of rump Louisiana, trying to find out what is going on between them and the Gulf Short States, who she and her boys are on their way to visit. At the end, Ryland startles Faustina very badly… something I’m still seeing and will try to wrap up Thursday.
Another seamless morning for her three legions saw them on the broken road south an hour after dawn. Faustina made it clear to her boys as she walked among them that they were getting their dessert first: when it came time to swing into action – if they had to – against the Gulf Shore States, she would be expecting them to run fifty miles and fight a battle at the end of it.
“Don’ you’un worry, Empress!” a legionary from Third had shouted to her. “Make it sixty and see if those old men up front can keep us with we’uns!”
“Careful what you wish for!” she’d shouted back. “I may just!”
They turned southeast onto an old four-lane highway, broad enough to not be overgrown. She increased their pace to what the mules pulling artillery could tolerate, just to push them. About eighteen miles short of their day’s destination, they passed through a nearly deserted village. The bridge over the creek there, the Homochitto River, was down but her scouts had found a ford only knee-deep about one thousand feet upstream. Faustina waited until First and Second had secured a bridgehead before helping to push the artillery through the sandy riverbed. Once that was across, Third carefully broke their defensive line and followed them.
It might be overkill, as they only locals were maybe five score Blacks eking a living out of the farms along the creek. The passage of an army of fifteen thousand was an event that could not even be imagined. When they broke out into one of their marching songs it even caught Faustina off guard.
Cross the world, back again!
We’re her boys, we’re her boys!
Treats us like, a pack of mules:
Not sure if they chose one of the less ribald ones because of the tiny audience or because Princess Ryland, Faustina nonetheless tramped along with a broad grin on her face, letting the warm air dry her pants and resolving that every legionary had their boots and feet checked that evening.
With the sun still westering and her scouts having informed her of possible sites for their fort, she marched her army two miles east past the former city of McComb before having them begin construction just south of the highway. When she heard the blast of a train’s steam whistle from behind them, she told Gibson he was in tactical command while she took a team, including her naval expert, back to the depot they had seen as they marched through the little village.
Once back to the railroad, Faustina and her retinue turned due north to ride the half-mile to the station. Closer, they saw a pre-Breakup (obviously) diesel locomotive leading a flat car with a dual fifty-caliber machine gun mount in the middle. Behind that were two passenger cars. Coming as they were from the rear, she noted that there was a 25mm machine gun mounted on the rear of the second car. A black man in an old army uniform stared at the approaching riders but was polite enough to not aim at them. At the rail repair yard, about 200 feet from the station, they halted and dismounted. Ahead, they could see a group of civilians and presumed military, some white, some black.
As they had talked on the march from Fayette, Owens knew to not ask about “playing pretend.” Both Faustina’s long-range scouts and her diplomatic message through her uncle’s contacts in Texas made it clear: the Empress herself was coming.
The group ahead of them waited on the platform with only those in the rear whispering to one another. The forty-ish mixed-race man in a dark blue business suit seemed to be their leader. At the base of the five steps up to the train platform, Faustina removed her helmet, the signal for the rest of hers to do so, as well. Not wanting to detract from the uniqueness of her sex, her cousin was way to the rear, behind two tall legionaries.
She handed her helmet to Tapscott who passed it onto a ranker. Only she and her two legates ascended the stairs to the platform. Showtime!
“We are Empress Faustina. We rule from the Ocean of Atlantic to River of Cumberland to River of Mississippi to the Southern Gulf,” she began in a stilted voice. “We recognize the independence of the state of Louisiana. We are troubled by the lack of peace in the south of our imperium. We have asked you here to hear your story before continuing on to speak with President Dysart.”
The surprise in their front ranks was mild, but she saw it.
“Miss Faustina…” their leader began.
“Empress Faustina. These are formal negotiations. Our army can move south as easily as it can southeast,” she corrected, dangerously.
The air on the platform seemed cooler.
“Empress Faustina,” the man began again, unhappy. “I am Secretary of State, Carl Larue, of Louisiana. Our Governor Arnaud personally axed that I meet you here. I am pleased that in your opening statement you recognize our independence.”
“If you are independent, why did you allow three Gulf Shore gunboats past your lands into the middle Mississippi?” Faustina was delighted her blank, hollow tone was unsettling them. Someday, with a new body, I can do what those Somi androids do to normies!
“If you have heard rumors to that effect, I can assure you – ” he tried.
“We saw them with our own eyes. Two old PBRs and a modern Mark Six, less than fifty miles from our bridgehead at Vicksburg. Less than fifty miles from the eastern anchor of our imperium. Were your shore batteries asleep or shall we see you on the other side of the hill, Secretary Larue?” she asked.
In his face and body, she saw she had won. Faustina would wait for his confession before throwing him a lifeline.
“Empress Faustina,” Larue said, opening his arms, palms up, “We are being strangled. Our sea trade has dropped to almost zero in two months. Once both Texas and the Gulf Shore were our allies in patrolling the Gulf of Mexico… and of course, we still see Texas as our friends. We…”
He trailed off then tried again.
“I, as Secretary of State, do not know what provoked President Dysart to this new policy,” Larue sighed, defeated. “When they demanded passage for a “reconnaissance in force” as they put it… Empress? Louisiana cannot feed itself. People are already hungry. By the grace of God, we made it through the Breakup; we cannot take another hit such as that!”
In the nearly sixty seconds of her silence, Faustina thought as fast as one like her could. He is telling me the truth but is not telling me everything. Still, it is enough for a beginning.
“We understand your assessment of the situation, Secretary Larue,” Faustina replied, “and in the company of our bodyguard, shall continue to the southeast to hear President Dysart’s assessment, as well. However, until you hear from us again, you will allow the passage of no more vessels or people of the Gulf Shore or their affiliates up the great river. Clear?”
“Your… bodyguard?” he had to ask.
“We are Empress. We are demi-human. Three legions are only the beginning, Secretary Larue,” Faustina struggled to keep the smile off her face. “This concludes formal negotiations. Our staff needs details from your staff that shall be provided now. At the same time, we will speak to you. In private.”
“Of course, Empress,” he looked over his shoulder and called “just like we planned!” before turning back and waving with his right hand to McComb Station, proper. “This way, please.”
“Plan one,” she voiced before moving to her left. Two legionaries and one smaller figure, apparently some boy, accompanied her. Inside, Larue indicated the office to their left. Her two men took station on either side of the door with their battle rifles as the Empress and her presumed personal aide passed inside. Once the door was closed Faustina turned about, her face completely changed.
“You now behold General Hartmann of the Imperial Army,” she began. “This is my naval expert Seaman Rigó. I would like to discuss logistics and strategy.”
“Who? What?” was all Secretary Larue could manage at that moment.
“Normies!” Faustina breathed. “I play many roles, Mister Secretary, just as you do! Out there I was Empress. In here I am the commanding general of the imperial army. And I need answers!”
“Of course. I see,” he took a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and rubbed it across his forehead. “How can I help you and Master Rigó?”
“You can start,” Ryland said, pulling her ponytail out from under her flak vest and free of its hair-tie, letting her black hair tumble past her shoulders, “by not calling me a boy.”
It was not her place to speak, but Ryland was getting older very fast as to how her demi-human cousin attacked human minds to keep others confused and on-edge.
“What? Wait…” they watched his eyes flick back and forth between them. “Are’s you two related?”
“That is unrelated to what I need to know, Secretary Larue,” Faustina said briskly, punning on his question. “I’m sure our subordinates are discussing details, but I want a summary from you, right now in less than five minutes, about your overall relations with the Gulf Shore. Following that, I want five more minutes as two why things went to shit in the past two months.”
“Go. Clock’s running,” she smiled as her godmother taught her: when about to sink your teeth into something.
Larue sighed and waved at the four chairs around the rickety old wood table. “If you’d care to sit…”
“We’ll stand, thank you,” Faustina replied quickly. “Time is of the essence.”
The Secretary quickly recapitulated what they both knew: the initial waves of refugees from Louisiana halted by ExComm – and Faustina’s and Ryland’s grandfather – Texas using newly-occupied Oklahoma to help feed the survivors along the Mississippi. Everyone knew that, on paper, there were no changes to Louisiana’s borders; de facto, they were nothing more than the arc from New Orleans to the old capital, then west to Lafayette.
“Once we got things stabilized and re-opened our sea trade,” Larue continued, “it was the small Texas navy who helped sweep the Gulf of Mexico clear of Cuban pirates and Mexican privateers. Hell, once the Gulf Shore cities coalesced into a government centered around Mobile, they helped, too.”
“Ma’am? Er, General? The only thing that has changed in these here parts recently is you and your army,” Larue said with a wry look. “Now as to why that made Mobile turn against us? No clue.”
“I see,” Faustina said with a nod. “Then I shall ask them myself. Do you have any questions, Seaman?”
“No questions, General,” Ryland replied. “May I comment?”
“Surely,” Faustina agreed, eyes dancing.
“Secretary Larue? For the past few years, you and yours have been free-riders on the security of the Texas Navy. I suggest you start arming your merchant ships immediately. After Gener – Empress Faustina visits Mobile, we three powers can revisit this issue.”
“But,” Larue countered, “that would violate the laws of the sea regarding…”
“The only law, Mister Secretary, is with us in this room right now,” Ryland interrupted. “Plan accordingly.”
He nodded once before asking: “You just said “we three powers.” Who else is represented here?”
“Seaman Rigó also serves the Republic of Texas,” Faustina clarified. “Further, she is a princess of the imperium.”
They watched him once again scrutinize their faces. Yes, he knows we are related. Time to end this.
“Thank you for your time, Secretary Larue,” Faustina said with arm up and palm toward him. “Once the other briefings are complete, we shall return to our marching fort. Send a runner if you need anything else. Otherwise, we’ll be over the horizon just after dawn.”
She lowered her hand to shake his. He was sure to also extend his hand to her cousin, as well. They walked quickly out, with the two guards falling in behind them, first onto the platform then down the steps next to the rails. Ryland began sniffing hugely and staring at the sky.
“Smell something for dinner? Or just trying to get out of kitchen duty?” Faustina smiled.
“See that?” Ryland asked, not at all amused. She pointed at the bands of clouds stretching east to west across the sky. The wind was picking up, too.
“It’s cloudy,” Faustina noted. “Storm coming?”
“Not just a storm,” her cousin took her eyes from the sky to her general, “but a hurricane. It’s going to rain like hell for days. If the bridges are out over the Pearl River, we’re stuck here for over a week… hey! Wait!”
At the word “stuck” Faustina was sprinting for her horse and yelling orders to her staff to tell her legates and the rest to make their way back to the fort at a gallop. She was on her horse and off while Ryland was still swinging up.
“What did I say?” she wondered.