Robert is busy in what little is left of western Canada, as the Russian Empire slowly devours it. I don’t know why Aurie tagged him for this particular assignment, given what he was doing is more important. When I find out, y’all will.
First discussed in “Obligations of Rank,” I cannot begin to imagine the complexities of internal imperial family politics.
PS I’m guessing she chipped him on their third go, when he was on top.
“Yeah,” Bob mouthed, “typical human reaction. Try to maintain noise discipline or I’ll take you back north myself and collect the reward.”
“Sorry,” Burns muttered, abashed. But is he related…?
“It’s a complicated subject,” this Hardt said, “and one between you and me. Blab to my men and you’re dead.”
He paused but didn’t turn about.
“My family is really good at killing people, Burns.” He resumed his careful walk.
Okay, that means he’s a part of their family, Jimmy thought. Brother? Cousin? Even in the light of the little stove, I’d have guessed him maybe a year or two younger than me. But he also seems to be in charge here. Jimmy winced when he stepped on a dry branch with a sharp crack.
“I take back what I said about your fieldcraft,” Bob Hardt mouthed. “Get closer to my right. Can you listen, rocket tech?”
They know everything. “Yes.”
“I am Crown Prince Robert Hartmann. I joined the legions because I was sick of being my mom’s plaything. Out here, I’m Junior Centurion Bob Hardt, got all that?” he asked.
“Yes.” That seemed the safe answer.
“Cousin Aurie whistled me and my team off important work we were doing out west,” the young man continued. He would pause his steps now and again to listen. “I’m trying to stop a war. I cannot do that here. But, as she’s Regent, I go where I’m told. And I was told to find you.”
“How did you?” Jimmy asked. “It’s a long border. What?”
The last was as this Hardt jabbed him between his shoulder blades with his fingers.
“My cousin chipped you when you were fucking her,” he said simply. “Using short, pulsed signals, we could narrow down where you were and where you might be going.”
He stopped again.
“How did you manage that car?” the prince asked.
“Are you kidding? The gal at the rental place knew who I was,” Jimmy replied, getting his tone back down. “She’s with you, right?”
“No clue what you’re talking about,” Hardt admitted. “Describe her.”
Jimmy did. They walked along for another half-hour without a word, always bending right. A patrol about their little camp?
“Not from the imperium,” he finally admitted. “Might have been one of the Machine’s androids, though.”
After another fifteen minutes or so, Jimmy spoke.
“So, what now?”
“My patrol is over in thirty minutes. We rest. Before dawn, we move out. Don’t worry, we’ve a spare uniform for you. No one would dare stop us. We’ll go just south of the village you almost stupidly wandered into. A boat will take us downriver,” the centurion explained.
“How far? Aurie, er, the regent said her army was…”
“Further away now. And no, I’m not telling you where.” He gave a tiny snort, as if in laughter. “Aurie. Besotted with her, Mister Burns?”
Jimmy had to think about the word he just used.
“Your cousin,” he said very carefully, “told me she would come for me. And for me to have an answer for her. And I know what that answer is. Hey…”
Now it was Jimmy’s turn to reach out to the other.
“Are you… that is… one of those…”
“Demi-humans?” Jimmy could barely see his face in the moonlight but the tone of his voice was not pleased. “No. Plain, boring normie, as mom lets slip now and again.”
“Your mom… the Empress?”
“Burns? I’m busy rescuing you. Please don’t piss me off,” he replied, moving out again. They had only taken a few dozen steps when there was a voice in the dark and the passwords from before were exchanged. Without a word, back around the aluminum stove, he was handed more coffee. Hardt gave him a rough blanket.
“Rest. We move out in three hours.”