With nothing else to do but wait for her centurion, Chesney, to return with some human intelligence as to what the local situation is, Faustina takes a tour around her army’s line before a short nap. A bit of a transitional scene.
After changing into a dry uniform, while waiting for her senior centurion’s and the other four’s return, Faustina busied herself checking on the non-combatants who were making smokeless fires to try to prepare hot soups and stews for when the combatants awoke, exhausted and damp from their night march. An army marches on its stomach, that other short general said. I think I should pay more attention to my support units. We’d starve were it not for their cleverness.
She ran into her cousin Ryland in the small woods to the southwest of their position. Looking tired, the girl was nonetheless stirring a large kettle over a banked fire. Faustina froze to observe before she was noticed. She watched Seaman Rigó raise a ladle to her mouth and grimace slightly before tossing a handful of salt in.
“May I try?” Faustina asked, ambling out of the trees into the tiny clearing to stand next to Ryland, who raised the ladle without a word. “Mmm! Not bad! You’ll make a great wife, cousin!”
“Certainly not to one of your horn-dog legionaries, who have, what was it? ‘One hand down their trousers’ when getting food from me?” Ryland snarked quietly.
“Heard that one, did you?” Faustina smiled. “We’re girls in a man’s world and must comport ourselves accordingly. I’m sure you already encountered that in what naval service you have had.”
“Yeah,” Ryland agreed, stirring, “the navy is only about ten percent female now and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Your men can be at once so deferential and come on so strong at the same time…”
“They do think you a princess. And, they see you as a hot girl.” Faustina waved to take one more taste. “Better! It would suit you to use the second to reinforce the first, cousin: Let them love you, and make sure they know it is hopeless.”
“That seems cruel…”
“This is a cruel world. You must be older quickly. Good morning to you, Seaman.”
A half-hour later saw the general at the northern bound of their laager. It was an open space of about a thousand by thousand square feet filled with rusting buildings, probably an old industrial park. She knew there were patrols in the woods further north but walked on ahead to see why a century had their entrenching tools out and was systematically burying one of the more intact buildings. Seeing her, the junior centurion nodded rather than saluted.
“What’s up?” Faustina casually asked.
“Orders from legate Owens, General,” he replied. “We took a look to find a place that seemed solid to begin with and now we’re trying to insulate it against noise.”
Ah! To put one of the generators in here! My legates are determined to be cleverer than I and reinforce my immature behavior of yesterday. That’s fine; I cannot think of everything.
“In fact…” the centurion pointed over her shoulder. Faustina turned to see a cart pulled by one of their mules and escorted by a dozen of her boys. On the cart were a generator, fuel, and a satellite-link communication system.
“Thank you for your hard work! I’ll likely be back this afternoon to take advantage of it!” she smiled at him with a little head tilt. Just like I told Ryland. “See you!”
Finishing her circuit, she went back to the house in the center of it all, where she had her drubbing at dawn, to sit, lean her back against an outside wall, and take some water and cool soup. From the bland taste, not from her cousin’s fire. Faustina heard Gibson and McFall from cohort nine before she saw them coming up from the south, where Gibson’s legion was dispersed in a loose arc. From that, Second covered the east and Third the north and west. They saw her, nodded, and continued their talk if not their walk. McFall saluted and trotted off back south.
“How’s things?” she asked as her legate squatted down at her left.
“Quiet. I’d have thought somebody would have noticed an army of fifteen thousand showing up,” he almost smiled, “on the edge of their town, but no. Either there are much fewer here than we guess or their security is abysmal.”
“I’d hope the latter,” she replied after a drink. “People, of all kinds, are how we build my imperium and rebuild civilization.”
“That, General, was almost humble of you,” he smiled now.
“I had a salutary lesson in humility earlier today,” smiling back, “and am trying to put it into action. Any guess about your centurion’s return?”
“Our centurion and his men will return when they are good and ready,” Gibson’s smile faded as he returned to his professional demeanor, “and in a way that doesn’t have a trail of townspeople in their wake. If that is before sundown I’d be surprised.”
She watched him look at her again. “Things is quiet now, Empress, and you are in the center if we need you. Try to rest.”
“Agreed.” Faustina lowered her eyelids and shut down most of her mind.
At any unusual sound or smell, there would be a flicker of consciousness as she assessed the data, such as the time some of the mules had to be forcibly stopped from hee-hawing, or when one of her aides put a rough blanket onto her. At the sound of three pairs of running boots, she opened her eyes and considered the time: barely seventeen hundred. A good nap.
Coming at a run was her favorite, Chesney, escorted by two who were not a part of his team who departed that morning. Standing, Faustina was concerned only for a moment until she could read his face at fifty yards and realized that all was well. They drew up before her and saluted.
“Short version,” she ordered as she returned the salutes.
“About two thousand in the town, Columbia, and surrounding farms. Trade down the Pearl River. Consider themselves part of the GSS,” Chesney rattled off. “Those soldiers you saw? From Camp Shelby, about thirty miles east. About a brigade of them. Light infantry with some armor.”
“Armor?” Faustina was surprised. “With fuel from where? Texas?”
“Nope,” he grinned at her. “The GSS has a functioning refinery in Pascagoula.”
“Do they, indeed? Grab some chow while I get the staff together, Ches.”