A special guest appearance! This is only the second time I’ve seen Fussy in-person in this novel. She was playful when messaging Robert through his tablet but is a much harder person in the flesh. I wonder if being an absolute monarch wears at her? She almost sounds relieved to think someone else will have the burden of the incorporation of the Midwest. And, just who might be her heir?

This is the conclusion of what will be chapter ten. There’s one more, with Centurion Hill taking his team further west then up to the Ohio River, but that’s another day. Please look forward to my next podcast, in two days; I’ll be getting into the details of the Machines of Machine Civilization.

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Walking down the front steps of the Capital Building, a small dais had been set up with a few cameras before it.  A swarm of a half-dozen drones buzzed in the sky like angry bees.  The huge, rectangular troop ship, having disgorged the Household Troops of Her Majesty, was motionless two hundred feet over their heads.  A psychological warning of the imperium’s potential.  Robert guessed there was a company of men on the ground.

“Dear God,” the mayor muttered, almost stumbling down the steps.

“Out of shear intellectual curiosity,” Webb asked to no one in particular as they walked down the red brick steps toward the platform set up for them.  “What if I had said no?”

As the Empress took that moment to step up onto the dais directly opposite them, no one chose to answer him.  As was her wont, she was dressed as a ranker legionary, with the exception of the golden oak leaf circlet on her left chest.  Her long, dark hair was in a loose braid.  Wearing no makeup, she didn’t look a day over thirty.

Her turquoise eyes blazed at them and she smiled like the sun.  The legionaries stopped and tossed their arms into the air in salute.  Rather than just a wave, she gave a proper return.

“Deke Webb!  Step forward!” she shouted.

He walked right up to her.  Robert couldn’t hear the words she whispered to him, with her hands on his shoulders, but had a pretty good idea, having seen all this before.  Webb knelt before her with his hands up, as if in prayer.

“You!  And your descendents!  Will serve me!  And my descendents!  In perfect loyalty!  Until we discharge you and yours!” Empress Faustina called to the assembled with a great smile, placing her hands over his and pulling him up.  “Rise, Marquis Webb!”

 She released his hands and took a single step back.  Marquis Webb made his first, not well done, imperial salute to his Empress.

“Deus vult!” he yelled.

“Deus vult, indeed,” Robert breathed.  That got him an elbow from Hill.

“You are so explaining this shit, later, Hardt!” he whispered.

After another quick whisper to her new marquis, the Empress looked about, still smiling.  Robert noted the whine of the drones was now gone but the troopers remained where they were.

“We would speak with our legionaries:  Atkinson, Hill, Hardt,” the Empress called.  “Walk with us.”

She stepped down from the platform and took slow steps to the east, toward the Governor’s Mansion.  Webb was just behind her left and the three men fell in at her right, in the order they were called.

“You are now Senior Centurion Hill,” Faustina announced in a normal speaking tone.  “But your mission is not yet over!  Now, not only will you sound our new subjects from here to past Owensboro, you shall also tell them the good news of the marquis, here!  And, we shall tell your uncle how proud the throne is of you!  Dismissed.”

Hill saluted and turned away without a word.

“I am pleased you still live, Kev,” she said, dropping into familiar.

“It,” Atkinson coughed twice, “is more than I deserve.  Just like your attention, Empress.”

“Kev?” she said with an edge.

“Sorry, Faustina, I meant to say.”

“Better, my friend!  You know my kind and my friends would cure you if we could, but there is not such for your degenerative condition,” she said with her hand now on his left shoulder.  “I tasked my brother with this and he is most apologetic.”

“No need, Faustina.” Another cough.  “My family is kind of buckshot right now but I’m glad I got to serve you.  It’s…”

He stopped and turned toward her.

“Permission to speak freely?” he asked.

“You have always have that, Kev.”

“I know what you are, as best as a human can, I think.  Never met you ‘till way after Atlanta.” He drew a breath and coughed some more.  “God, but you were so beautiful!  Maybe that’s why my wife left with our kids:  she knew a part of my heart was always somewhere else.”

The Empress tilted her head slightly.  Out of experience and training, Robert pivoted to look around.

With her hands on his shoulders, Faustina leaned up to touch her lips to Kev’s.

“Dismissed,” she whispered.  Atkinson, Hero of the Imperium, drew off with a nod.

They stood before the dilapidated Mansion.

“You will not only fix this, Marquis Webb, you shall improve it,” the Empress told him.  “As you know, we have no capital city; I am the government wherever I am.  Yet, I would this be a jewel of the north of my realm.”

“For a while!” she suddenly laughed, turning to face the new peer.  “The Canadians cannot maintain their new lands much longer, even had you not joined us!  When their nation falls to pieces, I shall pick them up and make the old Midwest mine!”

“That will take decades,” her voice and eyes were now down.  “Perhaps it will be my heir who finished that job?  Oh!”

Head and eyes back up.

“Marquis Webb!  May I present my son, Crown Prince Robert!” she said with a twisted smile at them both.

“That, I admit,” Webb said, hand out, “explains a lot.”

“An accident of birth, I assure you, Marquis,” Robert replied, having been outed.  “I just want to make my own way.”

“Prince?  None of has that kind of choice.” He pivoted to his sovereign.  “I’m going to need a crash-course in the imperium’s duties and politics, Empress.  Is that this prince’s job?”

“Certainly not!  He’s just a lowly legionary!  Just above,” her eyes went up to the huge transporter, “are some aides I have who are now seconded to your service.”

“Very good, thank you,” Webb said.  “I’ll let you two – ”

“No.” Her tone froze the human so fast he nearly fell over.  “Listen to how I speak with my son and be older about imperial family politics.  You agreed to your cousin’s marriage, in the face of my possible opposition.”

“Yes, mother,” Robert said, holding his ground.  Webb and Kentucky was largely his gift to her and they both knew it.  It gives me room to maneuver.

“Albinism is a genetic fault,” she declared.

“No.  You’re wrong, Mother.” He saw Webb flinch at that.

“My nephew Roland never petitioned me for permission to marry,” she noted, walking ahead again, onto the grounds before the old Mansion.

“True.  Had he married a demi, I don’t think he would have asked you, either,” he tried with a little laugh.

“Watch your tenses, my son, he’s not married yet!”

“He thinks he is.  And they’d best be, for their son.”

It was the Empress who now stopped fast enough to nearly fall down.  Her eyes blazed blue as her breath hissed out of her.

“It would be poor form to start a civil war in your newest province for such a small matter, Mother,” Robert said, trying very hard to not grin.

No movement.  Three deep breaths.  A blink.

“Why did I have to have such clever relatives and children?” Empress Faustina asked.

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