Assignments

Things I didn’t know two hours ago: what happened to St. Louis and how easy it is for these people to make work for me. You will see that, by the time you get to the end of the addition to this little story, below the fold, I now have the genesis of three more stories. Turn what I have written into a Prologue and each son becomes Parts One, Two, and Three of another book.

Just like that: another novel. What an odd hobby I have.

“The succession, of course,” Faustina said with a smile for her boys.  Only her youngest, Julian, at eight-years-old, wasn’t present.  All three pairs of eyes locked on hers and Robert coughed into his whiskey.  “But, not so much who, as what?”

“You have no intention of retiring, that is obvious, mother,” Laszlo led off, “so you intent to use us as your pack horses to do your bidding for the imperium.”

It was a statement, not a question.

“Why did I have to have such clever children!” Her eyes twinkled turquoise as she sipped at her fruit juice.  She paused to snip off the end of her cigar and light it, blowing gray smoke at the ceiling.  “Ah!  Nicotine!  I will never forgive Tapscott for introducing these to me!”

Faustina knew they knew she was playing with them, so they waited.

“Your short answer, Les, is yes,” the empress, their mother began.  “Barring a few assignments here and there, I have given y’all great rein to pursue your own lives and interests.  Liz’s activities on the deep space listening complex on the dark side of the Moon.  Your involvement in internal politics.  Ed’s, for lack of a better term, shuttle diplomacy between us and the Polar Alliance.  Caillie’s research in medicine, like my brother.  And you, Robert:  your seeming choice of a career as a legionary.  Imagine my surprise when you tried to enlist as a ranker under a false name!”

“And imagine mine, mother, when you let it pass,” he replied, hand shaking just slightly as he set down his highball glass.  He loved his mother but it was always as if she was looking right into his soul.  “I’m a ‘normie’ as you sometimes dismissively let slip.  I want to make my own way, as Robert Hartmann.  Not as Prince Robert.”

“And knowing that is why I allowed your enlistment, Bob Hardt!” She laughed at him.  “Not a very clever alias!”

“I… I will never give up my father’s name, even though I never knew him.  And the Hartmann’s saved this corner of the world.” He took several puffs off of his cigar and looked over her shoulder out the window at the woods beyond.

“And yet, here you are dressed as a Chekist rather than one of my loyal legionaries!  No matter!” Faustina laughed at her youngest issue from her first love, Robert Wade, once mayor of Huntsville.  Who had died in a hiking accident a month before his son’s birth.  It was her tribute to award her posthumous fifth child his father’s name.  “I suppose that makes sense at some level as your MOS is intelligence.  I’m glad by centurions can still recognize talent.”

“So as said pack horse,” Robert’s eyes tracked back from the window to his mother’s, “you will using this new skill-set of mine?”

“Exactly.  The Canadian Governor of the Mid-Ohio Province is making noises about Kentuckiana being a better fit under his control rather than its current neutral status between them and my imperium.” When her voice dropped and eyes flared light blue, her power was almost tangible.  “Unacceptable!  After some weeks further training, you and a team will be dispatched to sound the hearts and minds of those from Richmond to Frankfort; from Morehead to Bardstown.  If the humans there are foolish enough to let their eye look north, then I shall take more direct measures!”

None of her sons moved.  Just under ten years ago, in a joint operation, the Texans and the empire ended the city-state of the Black Muslim Brotherhood in St. Louis.  More precisely, Faustina ended it, using a fusion weapon on the North American continent for the first time.  The Texans had tried to veto that act, having lost Texarkana to a fission bomb when the Federal government tried to keep them from seceding in the Breakup.  Empress Faustina did not want to lose five legions, over twenty-five thousand men, in a house-to-house fight, and acted unilaterally.  It worked, of course, but now both her Texan ally and her potential Canadian adversary regarded her and the imperium with wariness.

“Let us hope, Empress,” Edward spoke carefully, “nothing to… direct.  This is merely a political difference after all.”

“And that is why I want you two places at once, my little diplomat!” his mother replied, seeming to ignore his admonition.  “Physically, I want you in Austin and Galveston.  Our commercial ties to Texas are strong but per what was behind your words, they treat your Empress so coldly!”

“Those two cities mean you want me to talk politics and also to their navy?  And, you said two places, mother?” His cigar had gone out in the pause of their mother’s threatening statement, so he used a match to relight it.

“Yes.  We have our shipbuilding industry in Savannah and Mobile, but we lack training and experience.  I want you to steal your cousin, naval leftenant Rigó – Princess Ryland – and bring her to me.  We need our own Naval Academy and I want her to create it.”

“Steal?” her son said with the same care.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Faustina tossed her hands in the air, letting go of her cigar with her right but catching it with her left without looking.  I want you to recruit her!  I’ll take care of the diplomatic niceties later, but bring her back!  She’s my cousin and well regarded in the imperium.  She’s also thirty-seven and divorced.  Promise her anything, Edward.

Laszlo was aware his mother spoke directly to his brother’s mind; Robert suspected it.  They both wondered at the little spot of scarlet that came to their brother’s cheeks.

“As for the second?” Faustina resumed her human voice for Robert.  “That will be using your mind in the construct of tribe Mendro.  I… I may come along for that ride, Ed.”

“Given some of the people there, I assure you your presence would be welcome, Empress,” he said formally.  No one thought less of him for it.  The machines of that tribe, especially their first-among-equals, Reina, Prime Minister of the Russian Empire, were both very dangerous and very formidable.

“So that’s espionage and politics,” Laszlo, first to speak was now last.  “What’s left to me?  A campaign?  Where?  Unless you want plans for four legions against the Ohio River Valley?”

“Such drama!  No, eldest son, we already have such plans, as all of you well know!” she laughed at him.  “You are almost halfway through your twenty-second year, Les.  Why aren’t you married?”

In the act of pouring himself more whiskey, Robert’s hand jerked so bad a splash went into the hardwood floor.  He set the bottle aside and knelt to pull a handkerchief from his pocket and clean up the small mess.

“You dated that cute, little thing, Emilia, a year ago!  I know you were banging her.” Their mother often spoke very directly about their private lives, subtly reminding them that they were her heirs first and foremost.  “Then you broke up; seemingly amicably.  Since then, nothing.  As my First Son, you are setting a very poor example to our subjects, Laszlo.”

His given name.  Not really in trouble, but he knew he could see it from where he was.

“I have… been too busy to court a girl, moth- Empress,” he replied, their eyes locked.

“Unacceptable.” The empress’ harsh tone of command, again.  “You, packhorse, have the hardest assignment of all:  find a mate, marry her, get her pregnant.  I give you one year.”

No one had to ask “or else.”  That was self-evident.

“I obey, Empress,” Laszlo said, bowing his head.

“A good afternoon’s work!” Faustina Hartmann cried, standing.  “We’ll meet again at dinner, boys!  I love you all!”

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