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The War Chronicles of a Little Demon (Youjo Senki alt)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Sunshine Temple, Dec 25, 2021.

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  1. Tortoise

    Tortoise Know what you're doing yet?

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    I think the patterns "as <adjective> a thing as" and "not that <adjective> a thing" shouldn't have "of". I think I saw a more formal grammar recommendation about this somewhere, but I don't have a link.

    As for the third, if "outside" is used as a preposition then there absolutely must not be an "of". It's obviously not a noun here ("the outside of the box was painted blue" is valid as it's using "the outside" as a noun). The last possibility is using "outside of" as a phrase meaning "except for". I guess "the Crocelli except for the interior are more civilized" is kind of OK, but I think it doesn't fit well with "more".

    I searched the page for whether there were other incorrect cases of "outside/inside of", and the previous side story chapter had "stepping inside of the beam's arc". That's clearly wrong, as it's obviously using "inside" as a preposition. I think "inside/outside/off of" are the most common uses of bad "of" - it probably has to do with how it's possible to have the word combination "inside of" etc be valid with "the inside of" and such noun uses, so most people don't have such an obvious "this MUST be wrong" reaction as with something like "he's from of London", where they've never seen the "from of" combination in any context in any valid text.
     
  2. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Yeah Tauria was really out of it during the R&R, but at least she got tasty food and waifu time out of the whole situation.
    That makes sense.

    Also minor worldbuilding question but is it a thing for demons to sometimes get their horns stuck together by accident? Like if they move in their sleep or something and their horn shapes can lock together does it sometimes happen? Cus I've been rolling around some thoughts about the logistics of certain future possibilities between the possible triad and the idea that mornings might be difficult in a 3 person bed due to having not only a another person potentially getting clingy but the extra concerns of wings/tails/horns just adding more complexity and points of entrapment.for someone trying to escape still sleeping bedmates.
     
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  3. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Interesting, but I am not familiar with those and the use of "of" in those sentences is... minor and not using them sounds odd.

    Yeah, Tauria did need some time to decompress so it was good for her.

    And good question! It's not much of an issue because they can hide their wings and tails and horns. So "locking up" isn't a long term issue. It's also not as likely to happen given the relative tactile sensitivity of them.
     
  4. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Huh, did not know that those bits could be hidden.
     
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  5. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It's part of their ability to pass as human. It doesn't come up as much as so far almost all of the stoyr has taken place on Diyu, so there's been no requirement to try to pass as human.
     
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  6. Tortoise

    Tortoise Know what you're doing yet?

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    I doubt it would sound odd to you when reading it in other text. Pretty much all professionally edited text avoids using "of" in those contexts. So you've certainly read significant amounts of such text, probably just without paying attention to details like that.
     
  7. Extras: Image: Tauria Suiting up
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    From ScittyKitty we've got some sketches of Tauria doing part of her getting dressed in her Polyxo Advanced Multi Role suit.






    And here's her working with the head of her Ritualista maintenance crew, Optio Suzette Gibbs.​


    And as a bit of a bonus this link goes to a pic by SaturnXart of Duchess SivlerFlight. And as a duchess complete with vast tracts of land.


    There's a few more pieces together
     
  8. Hai-Spectrum

    Hai-Spectrum Know what you're doing yet?

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    It's strange that for a Tanya isekai the more things chance the more things stay the same. Kinda curious how other isekai victims like Visha will be handled.
     
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  9. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    In this case I had a world that was similar to her 2nd life, but had enough differences to have a good contrast.

    And as for Visha she does show up in latter chapters!
     
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  10. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    A Visha POV would be interesting for sure. As she's new to the isekai ride and is actively teaming up with another girl in pursuit of their mutual object of affection instead of being a dense harem protag misunderstanding her way into what is looking to become a throuple.
     
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  11. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Well... there was a Visha POV scene several chapters back. And I will do another.

    But in ch15 there will be a... VioletBlood POV scene.

    Added: There's also a really good Omake series on SBthat has VioletBlood and Visha joining up to help get Tauria. Just in case people here haven't read it.
     
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2022
  12. Extras: Dramatis Personae
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Better late than never. It's still incomplete but here's some of the top characters so far. This is still an in progress and I do plan to add more.



    Main Cast:

    Primus Volantes Centurion Countess Tauria Magnus DiamondDust
    [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]
    In a previous life she was Tanya von Degurechaff. Now reborn as an orphaned demoness, she once again she finds herself as an aerial combatant mage for an imperialist power. As some consolation, Being X is no longer interfering with her life. This means she is free to define her own life and to pursue her own goals. Unfortunately... she's still Tanya.

    Using her extensive experience, drive, and skills, Tauria tries to make the most of her life. She enlists in the House BlackSky's Imperial Legions as a Ritual Plate Pilot, using her magic to control and guide air spirits that drive an intricate suit of flight armor. Tauria is cynical and is looking for a comfortable position, one that mitigates the bloodshed caused by the "crazy demons" all around her. However, she's not quite aware that her emotional control and opacity is not as good as she thinks it is.

    Her plan to enlist as young as possible, would mean several years of her 20 year term would be in a non-combat cadet posting hit a snag when she is pulled into having to save several people's lives and fight an enemy RP squadron, all with only a sword and some pyrotechnics.


    Volantes Centurion Victorious Shadow aka "Visha"
    [​IMG]
    From the same previous life as Tanya's, Visha found herself also reincarnated as a Diyu Demoness and became a Pilot. She tracked down Tauria and once again became her wingwoman. Bright and optimistic she is a capable Pilot and was able to keep up with Tanya in two lifetimes. As she knows some, but not all, of Tauria's secrets, she is close to her commanding officer.

    Volantes Centurion Baroness VioletBlood aka "LoveBlood"
    [​IMG]
    Only a year older than Tauria, VioletBlood would have been one of the most skilled Pilots of her age. However, she was in the same Cadet class as Tauria, which drover her to new heights of skill, and jealousy. That she is cable of keeping up with both Visha and Tauria, despite her age and lack of past life experience is a testament to her ability. Haughty and arrogant, the Baroness is an orphan and tries to uphold BlackSkyvian noble values. She is also under Tauria's command and before Visha showed up was the Countess' wingwoman. She is one for rivalries, as she had one with Tauria before the Countess was ennobled, and one with Visha before she and the latter came to an accord with regard to Tauria.


    Other Imperial Legion associates:


    Volantes Centurion GreyDawn
    [​IMG]
    A career line Pilot, GreyDawn is dry-witted and the fourth member of Tauria's Flight. An experienced flier, she as assigned to help bring some advice and supervision to a Flight consisting of 2 very young noble Pilots and one relatively young commoner Pilot. Fairly easygoing, she shares a skill for gambling with Visha, and has grown to appreciate her new Flight Leader and her methods. In combat she is typically VioletBlood's wingwoman to help mentor her as well while overall she can use her experience to give Tauria recommendations.

    Volantes Prefect Centurion Artemis Magnus Quirinus
    [​IMG]
    Squadron Commander of 5th Squadron, Beta Wing of the 23rd Imperial Legion Air Group, and Tauria's superior officer. Before her posting to the 23rd, Quirinus was Tauria (and VioletBlood's) Cadet Instructor. An officer with considerable experience and honors, she has taught many young Pilots. When it was decided by the general staff (and with a recommendation from the imperial Family) that Tauria would be given an active duty posting early Quirinus made sure that both young noble pilots would be under her command. She sees great potential in them, especially Tauria, but feels that both Pilots need seasoning to keep them out of trouble, especially VioletBlood. A good cook, Quirinus has focused her life on being an Imperial Legion Ritual Pate Pilot both as a commander and improving the Pilot corps' capabilities.

    Ritualista Optio Suzette Gibbs
    [​IMG]
    The chief of Tauria's artificer maintenance team. Every Ritual Plate Pilot has a team of four to five Ritualista who help maintain, repair, refuel, rearm, enchant and genially service the very complicated and expensive components, enhancements that make up a Ritual Plate suit. It is Gibb's job to make sure Tauria's Mark 15, Gamma Block Power system, Polyxo Advanced Multi Role suit is kept in operating condition. Given the combat wear Tauria puts on it, Gibbs' work is cut out for her. Somewhat distant, Gibbs wonders if her superior will manage to survive her operational tempo, but will do her best to keep her suit up to spec.



    Relatives:

    Sister Clementia Lusria
    [​IMG]
    A nun of the Sisterhood of Our Hallowed Lady, a devotee of a faith that venerates DarkStar (a lost Granddaughter of Imperatrix BlackSky), Clementia is a kind woman who took it upon herself to raise Tauria, especially when no one seemed willing to adopt the orphaned little demon. She formally adopted Tauria as her daughter on Tauria's 12th birthday.

    Volantes Tribune (Rorarii) Duchess SilverFlight
    [​IMG]
    A reserve RP Pilot, the Duchess is a patron of the arts and many charities. In particular, she supports many widows and orphans funds and organizations, especially for those of lost Legion and Fleet personnel. She also supports many Ritual Plate endeavors. She has her own mercenary Squadron and helps develop and test several suit components. Another things she does is help find those with the fairly rare talent that allows someone to control a Ritual Plate suit and direct the Zephyr air spirits that act as the propulsion and maneuvering systems. It was she who discovered Tauria, loaned her her first trainer suit, and sponsored Tauria's early enrollment into the cadet program. Like Clementia, she adopted Tauria as a daughter after Tauria saved her life, defeated a Zioxan War Mistress, and made ace, all before her 12th birthday. Actions for which Tauria earned the Preserver Crown in addition to being adopted.



    There's many more characters can be added.
    But these seem to be the keymost ones and well... ones that I have headshots of.
     
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2022
  13. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    The V's having an explicit accord over Tanya will never not be entertaining.
     
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  14. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Excellent! I wanted to avoid the "will they or won't they?" or "which girl will get Tanya?" tropes. Especially given how.. clueless Tanya can be.

    And that VioletBlood is willing to go for a more transactional approach to such relationships and arrangements.
     
  15. Extras: "Snippet" 4: Lara's Bad Night
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Chapter 15 has one major scene written at 6 words.
    But, it's the start of a month so have another part of the Battle of Chicago side story.

    This one focuses on another succubus queen. Lara Raith the head of the White Court of Vampires and how she's dealing with a very bad night.

    +++

    I am a vampire queen. I am the power behind the throne of one of the most powerful supernatural nations.

    We are masters of subtle manipulation and temptation. We give humans what they want, what they think they want. We are powerbrokers, dealers, and keepers of secrets. We know where the bodies are buried and the little levers to pull.

    And I have ambitions.

    I had a certainty of how the world worked. I could look down my nose at the poor kine who were ignorant of the supernatural. But the seeds of that hubris lay in how my kind raised our young. Vampires of the White Court tended to be raised as humans, ignorant of their family's true nature, ignorant of the Hunger inside them, ignorant of what will happen to their first loves. It was thought that the shock, the sudden realization would strengthen us. It's one of many views of my father's that I disagree with.

    I am a monster but a polite monster. This means knowing the value of my word, of trust, of adhering to deals. And knowing when said value has become a sunk cost.

    I overthrew my father, a true monster who ruled through means most unpleasant, even by incubus standards. I am working to advance my people. And have strengthened bonds with powers such as the Winter Fae Court. I am also one of the few to have come out on top after fencing with the wizard Dresden.

    Dresden... Dresden is a force of nature. One who is easy, and tempting, to underestimate, but people who do that tend to end up dead or worse. The Wizard Dresden stated a war, then Mab the Queen of Air and Darkness got her claws into Dresden, and then Dresden destroyed the Red Court of Vampires

    He Faked his death, came back, and then... then BlackSky got her claws into Dresden.

    And Dresden was no longer human, no longer male.

    The Wizard of Chicago had become the clumsiest succubus I have ever seen in my long life. Empty Night, if having to seduce a guard, because a supposed succubus Princess could not do the simplest of tasks and break our brother out of prison were the low points of this day, then it would still have ranked as one of the worst.

    Father's first... well the ways he got control over me are still the worst days.

    But I had to deal with my brother seemingly going mad and trying to assassinate the King of Svartalfheim. At the exact time where it came at the highest diplomatic cost. The Svartalves nearly beat him to death.

    Dresden.... BlackStone. At first I was.... unimpressed. Oh yes, aesthetically BlackStone was a pretty enough thing. Exotic and inhuman. But she was still bumbling and clumsy.

    What kind of seductress was awkward? How could she ensnare her friends like that? I had shook my head seeing her interacting with those close to her. Though I suppose, they were still supporting Dresden.

    And the new "sisters" of Dresden acquired, did little to help raise my estimation. One was an arrogant, and crazed redhead with even less subtlety than Dresden. The other was quiet and sly and arranged deals with the likes of Vadderung.

    Then came the rumors. About House BlackSky, About BlackSky herself, about their world. It all grew as these succubae, these Diyu demons, came into the open and started negotiating their way into the Unseelie Accords.

    Their... diplomats were professional and skilled enough, but I got the sense of folks pretending to be Great Game-era imperialists. I remembered when the Winter and Summer Fae courts would dress up as World War 2 Soldiers and have dances and balls in spiffy uniforms they did not understand.

    People playing at war. That is not to say that the Fae are not powerful warriors. They are among the strongest factions of the Unseelie Accords. And if rumors are true, then Winter has the largest standing army.

    However, it is one thing to be a powerful supernatural force, it is another to have a military capable of something like Operation Overlord or Barbarossa.

    There is a reason the White Court worked to influence and subvert humanity, instead of trying to directly confront the bucks and does.

    Thus seeing these Great House demons in their gowns and brocaded, double-breasted uniforms strut about, as if they were 19th century European imperials plotting to divide up Western Asia, gave me... questions.

    And since I had lived through that period of history, I was less than impressed. Also one House, Great or no, negotiating entry? Why not the whole of the Diyu powers? It was not like House Raith was an Accorded nation on its own power.

    They had population and capable artificers, but the Fae had both of those, and the Svartalves were masters of the latter. And the demons were coming to us.

    And also well... a petty part of me thought it was a poor sign that they thought Harry Dresden was worthy of being part of their imperial family of being a princess of all things.

    Still, despite her flaws, Dresden had managed to concoct a rescue scheme that... amazingly worked. Of course it required I had to trust a clumsy demon with some ill-conceived hope of saving and protecting our brother.

    And then the night got even worse. I would learn how bad things would get. But at that time I experienced magic and monsters at a level that made me feel like I was freshly exposed to the horror and powerlessness that came with seeing the supernatural world.

    First, a massive hex destroyed all power, communications, and vehicles in the city, stranding us on the side of the road. At the moment all my power was reduced to one Vampire Queen, one incubus brother being killed by his own Hunger, and one redheaded Valkyrie mercenary.

    Not nothing, but stranded in the middle of a city in a massive blackout?

    And then things got worse.

    +++


    We split our time carrying Thomas. Freydis did not complain. The Valkyrie did not seem outwardly worried, but she was on alert.

    We were hardly unique. There were plenty of other people with wounded compatriots. Some stayed by their cars others were trying to move them, especially the walking wounded. There had been a lot of car accidents when everything had gone wrong.

    Right now the kine were lost and confused without their communications and lights. The fear would come later. As would the violence.

    Not helping was when the hundreds of flashes emerged as the sky opened up and.... ships poured through. My stomach chilled when I remembered the words of another combative little redhead.

    It seemed like Dresden's older sister was not so baselessly arrogant. Or at least that was the hopeful interpretation.

    Worse would be if the grand air fleet that appeared over the city after a massive hex and then swam off into the darkness was not House BlackSky's. Yes, the hopeful view was that the ancient demonic empress had just summoned an invasion fleet.

    Otherwise, it meant someone else was trying to invade Chicago this night.

    It turns out it was BlackSky's fleet and another power was trying to invade.

    Lovely.

    This had really been a bad day. And it was going to get worse.

    I'm not sure of our destination. We were heading roughly east. That was the direction of the nearest White Court cache. There would be personnel, supplies, and more at that location.

    It was also the direction of the marina where the Clumsy Succubus wanted me to go to. Though if the hex was caused by the most likely faction to betray all of us, then getting on the water would be near suicide.

    Again... if the hex was House BlackSky's doing... well it showed how bad things were that I hoped that air fleet was in reaction to the hex and... not something worse.

    Those ships, airships of all things, disgorging whatever troops they carried and striking against the Accorded Nations would be bad. And bad for the people of this city. Right now, the city's defenses were limited.

    I wondered what was happening at Marcone's castle. How were all the representatives of the Accorded Nations reacting to this? Did they have time to react?

    I took comfort in that if this were some sort of demonic coup that I would not be left out in the middle of nowhere. No, some hit team would be coming for me.

    And that's when I heard the soft rustle of membranous wings cutting through air.

    Thomas was put to the ground as quickly and gently as possible as I went nearly back to back with Freydis. She had pulled out a compact little rifle that had been slung under her light jacket.

    At least Justine was out of this. I had put my people to protect her, and Dresden probably did as well, but...

    Hooves and boots hit pavement. Most were the muted sounds of graceful predators. There was the slight rattle of gear. I looked around and saw helmeted, armored figures landing, their hands on rifles with slings that linked to their front harnesses.

    Horns poked out of matte helmets. Tails and wings swished behind them. Even in the less than figure-flattering grey and darker grey armor, they were all alluring and lovely women.

    Except... one of them didn't wear quite the same armor. Hers was a glossy blue and a long coat trailed behind her. She also bore no helm and... most reassuring she landed and had to take a jerky half step forward to avoid face-planting.

    "Dresden what the hell is going on?" I snarled as she wobbled around on those ridiculous hooves.

    "It's not my fault!" BlackStone whined.

    I grossed my arms. "Explain. Quickly."

    "Perhaps we should first look at your wounded sibling." A pale-green eyed woman landed with utter grace and silence behind Dresden. She had fine pink hair that looked oddly dull in the dark night and wore a dark green set of armor. She had a rather large handgun holstered that looked more plain than the slightly more baroque and brass-fitted weapons the others carried. "And stop saying things that make you look worse." She slapped Dresden on the back of the head.

    Ah, BloodMist, the demonic.... mother to BlackStone.

    "An explanation would help," I stated as one of the demonic soldiers slung her rifle and approached, gloved hands raised.

    She had primly-cut, fine lavender hair, curled horns that might have been a bit bigger than her comrades', and an inquisitive face. The gear packs around her hips and lower back were also a bit larger than on her compatriots. I supposed people with wings couldn't wear backpacks. "I am medic," she said in oddly accented English.

    I nodded to Freydis to let her approach.

    Kneeling down, the lithe succubus hissed as she murmured and held a hand over his wounds. "His... Hunger? Is killing?"

    I narrowed my eyes. "Yes, we know."

    The medic nodded and took out a little pouch and a syringe. There was a softly shimmering red liquid to it. She quickly injected it. "Painkiller and energy. Feed."

    "That's not going to save him."

    "Buy time. Maybe." She frowned and busied herself. "Princess BlackStone, consent did he?"

    I gave a sharp exhale. "Dresden. Don't make me ask you thrice."

    Dresden was working for me; Mab had transferred the favors she owed me to her Knight. Perhaps spending one on getting my brother out of Marcone's custodianship in his castle was not the wisest way to spend it, given the Clumsy Succubus had her own plans, but my brother was out. The question was if he would stay my brother.

    The Winter succubus shivered. "I didn't mean... er.... Look. The Fomor are attacking, King Corb went into the castle and broke guest-right. He killed a bunch of Marcone's people. His own goons got their necks snapped. He also brought his Mistress: Ethniu, the Last Titan. She was the one who hexed the whole city with a magical superweapon in her eye socket before stomping off."

    After taking a moment to process her rambling, I pinched the bridge of my nose. Wonderful.

    I noticed the four soldier-demons other than the medic had shifted and their guns were now facing out as they edged forward and took defensive positions.

    "I saw the fleet," I stated.

    "Marcone and Mab were gathering all the support they could. Your man, Riley sent a runner and is activating all of your forces. He can't commit them to battle without your countersign but he can get them ready and move them."

    I nodded. Good help was worth their weight in gold. "Where is he? At the castle or making for one of our facilities in the city?"

    "Last I saw he was getting on a demon dropship thingy," BlackStone said, earning another smack from her mother.

    "Riley asked if we could arrange for transport to your Chateaux," BloodMist explained.

    "Ah, I thank you for your assistance," I glanced up into the sky. I could see a few dark shapes buzzing about and there was a throbbing sound.

    "So, that fleet was your contribution to the Winter Queen and Marcone?" I asked while the medic pulled out a few tins of salves and other injections. There was even a bracelet made of stones she put around his wrist.

    She worked with a quiet professionalism and a degree of worry. Which I supposed was fitting. From what I knew of the sprawling imperial family, while Dresden might be the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter, letting a Princess' brother die would... not be great for the medics' future career.

    "The fleet is mostly there to transport and protect Corpus Incursio Reliance," BloodMist said.

    "Six Legions," Dresden added.

    "Fortuitous for you to have such a force already aboard troopships and to have them within range," I dryly noted.

    BloodMist snorted. "Did you honestly expect the Fomor to deal in good faith? We arranged insurance."

    "Better to have it and not need it," I tried to keep my tone light. This... the demons had expected the Fomor to betray them, and their "insurance" was reading half a dozen Legions, plus whatever else those airships carried.

    "Were you ever in scouting, Lady Raith? Pardon me for not knowing if that was a thing on this world when you were a child," the Empress's youngest daughter stated.

    "And on the off chance Corb aurally agreed to a full ceasefire, or didn't even declare war your fleet could have stayed hidden where it was," I surmised to the demon giving a slight head nod. "And what's this about consent? Was this your plan all along Dresden? Turn my brother, make him a succubus like you. Did you think that would keep the Accorded Nations from tracking him?"

    I kept most of the venom out of my voice. Abstractly, it had a certain logic. And it was a suspicion I had ever since we found out what the Svartalves had done to Thomas. The change apparently healed as a side effect of rebuilding someone's body into a demon succubus. And as Dresden, with shocking unsubtly for her, showed she could use thaumaturgy to track us down with trivial ease.

    But if Thomas were.... a female demon. Then that would change her.

    "Not without his consent," BloodMist stated, her tone icy.

    "He's dying."

    "Not without his consent," she repeated a flash to her eyes. "If you knew anything of us you'd know how much of a violation that would be."

    Dresden gave an exhale and her tail drooped.

    "If he would rather die an incubus than live as one of us then we will honor that."

    "I've... I've got a way to get us more time," BlackStone said. "We might not need to turn him."

    BloodMist glared at the both of us. I did not disagree with her. Well, the whole focus on consent was not exactly how the White Court worked, but in this specific case I was torn. If Thomas were turned into one of them, in many ways he... she would be even more distant. But if that were the only option? But... what did he want?

    "Your grace, Lady, Princess, I could probably awaken him. The right stimulant would do it. It would be painful but his constitution..." The lithe demon medic idly adjusted her tools. "I do not recommend doing it more than once. But... he'd probably be able to answer you."

    Any immediate response was cut off by the sound of throbbing... well engines was the best word. There was certainly a downwash as an aircraft swooped down at rapid speed with a bone-jarring deceleration before it came to a hover above the street.

    Detritus and litter blew away and we had the full attention of the various humans who were still in shock from the massive blackout.

    It was a few yards away and the soldier-succubae moved to protect it and us as the back ramp and side doors opened. Above in the sky figures in heavy-armored.... suits that had slight tracery and more of that wind-whipping throb circled around.

    The craft was a dark grey that had hints of red. It reminded me a bit of a helicopter or maybe a vertical takeoff and landing craft. What with the sliding side doors and back ramp. But instead of rotors it had a pair of stubby wings that each ended in a rotating pod that sucked air through and did other complicated manipulations.

    Everything thrummed with arcane energy.

    "Riley took one of those?" I inquired as a succubus in something that looked a lot like a flight suit jumped off the back ramp. She was carrying a stretcher and went right up to my brother and started helping the medic move him over and strap him down.

    Freydis cocked her head and gestured. I followed where she was pointing with her gun. The humans had been shocked by the arrival of the demonic soldiers and the dropship or whatever it was had not helped but they were getting more... interested.

    Which was fair, it was dark out and I'm sure many were ignoring the extra demonic bits and instead saw soldiers and a rescue crew with a working aircraft. Something that they had not seen since that Titan's hex.

    Damn. Between the Fomor's incipient attack and BlackSkyvians and all the other Accorded Nations, including my own, counter attacking. All in the middle of a major city.

    The fallout from this...

    I shook my head. The aircraft was small, it looked like it would just barely fit the ten of us, not counting the succubus who was now helping the medic lift Thomas up. "I accept your offer of transport."

    BloodMist blinked as we all made our way to the howling craft. The soldiers were still guarding our perimeter while the airborne suits did their thing. "Lady Raith, the Spatha is just going to get us up to the Patrol Carrier, we'll be taking that to my daughter's destination."


    +++


    The flight up was as smooth as could be expected. Given that the pilot, who once we were strapped in and the doors were halfway closed, decided to act as if the Fomor had access to anti-air missiles.

    Though given how secretive those foggy monsters were, and how advanced their bio-sculpting was, maybe they had some sort of flying mollusk that exploded on impact. I had no room to begrudge the demons their paranoia.

    I had put the White Court on high alert and brought in more of my sisters, and other members of the Blood, and had my household guard equipped and ready with Riley the head of my mortal forces having readied equipment and fallback plans.

    I thought I was prepared for treachery. It turns out Dresden, the most awkward succubus princess, had me beat. In addition to doing work for the Queen of Winter and thus working for me, the Wizardess of Chicago had been preparing for a demonic invasion.

    I was in an ill-fitting pull-down seat near the front which gave me a view of my brother's stretcher that had been strapped down in the center-line of the small cabin.

    The lights were a dim red color. I suspected it was to protect night vision, though given how well they could see in the dark... maybe it was to make the Spatha Light VTOL give off less light. The conditions were cramped in with the ten of us in back.

    To my left, the Load Mistress, which was what the cargo handler was called, had moved up near the cockpit and sat on a jump seat to one side behind the pilot. She spoke in a clipped professional voice.

    My Latin was not as good as my Etruscan, but it was handy to be able to speak the language of the White Council of Wizards. The demons spoke a different dialect and had a more flowing cadence but it was understandable, save for the occasional technical term, and loanword from some other language.

    I took some amusement that the cocksure attitude and careful speaking patterns of pilots seemed universal

    The pilot's controls and instruments were an interesting mix of switches, leather-wrapped yokes, brass gauges, orange glowing nixie tubes, and fully holographic displays in the center of the gauge cluster that also overlaid much of the canopy.

    I had seen such magic in the Svartalven embassy, and the aides to BlackSky were using similar displays. Though it was one thing to have a capability on a personal device, that a caster could presumably refresh, it was another to have something rugged enough to serve as flight displays for a combat aircraft.

    My atavistic tendencies grew with naked want at the temptation before me. Not of the succubae, but this whole aircraft system. Well, the succubae too. The soldiers in the back compartment had a variety of skin, hair, and eye colors and ranged from whipcord lithe to broadly strong, to compact and aggressive. They had a constrained anger as if they were offended by the presumption of the Fomor to dare attack a city under the aegis of one of their Princesses.

    They had a sharp allure to them and were more reserved than Dresden. At least the peace talks, Empty Night what a farce those ended up being, helped it exposed me to even more succubae. It was one thing to see Dresden and her crazy sister, it was another to see their empress and daughters.

    I gave a slight nod to BloodMist. Yes, their magic... their technology was alluring, but so were the succubae themselves. I cursed a bit for Etri getting closer with House BlackSky. His people's interests and desires would find these demons very appealing.

    The aircraft started to buffet a bit as the turbulence increased. I turned back to the front canopy and saw a dark shape suddenly appear in the leaden night sky ahead of it.

    It was a rigid-hulled airship. It had a single set of horizontal tail fins, but twinned ventral and dorsal vertical fins. Ahead of the fins were propulsion pods that extended a bit beyond the massive craft's envelope.

    We were now on a direct path for the rear of the airship. It had a long gondola that ran the length of the frame. At the very end, forward and between those downward-pointing tailfins was a large door that retracted up into the airship.

    Based on the display, the aircraft we were on was following a track to intercept with the airship. As we approached, there was a thrum of magical power and the turbulence faded. Maybe the spirits that were pushing the Spatha got into some kind of harmony with those pushing the airship.

    Either way, we slipped into the aft bay door. I might have clenched my hands as our aircraft slipped between the giant airship tailfins. It looked like I could reach out and touch the material.

    And then the Spatha's propulsion pods rotated forward and acted as reversers cutting out thrust. It turned out to be less of a tight fit than I feared. I mean... there were whole meters of clearance on either side left to right.

    Still... the aircraft's landing gears hit the decking and I saw a bunch of air crew scurrying around attaching cables and mounting clips to secure the aircraft as the door behind us rolled back down. The pilot powered down the Spatha, and even I could feel the spirits in the aircraft being lulled back to sleep.

    She gave some banter in Latin thanking us for flying Home Fleet Lines and reminded us to check out the duty free shop in the terminal.

    Shaking my head, I stood up and watched as the Spatha's side and rear doors opened. the airship moved, reminding me a bit of being on the ocean but with smoother longer frequency motions

    First up were a pair of medics. They weren't wearing the battle rattle of our lavender-haired friend, instead they had some type of body-hugging jumpsuit that had reinforcements on the knees and elbows and a few cuffs and pockets and loops for holding tools and the like.

    I nodded as they checked over Thomas and helped move his stretcher off the dropship.

    I followed and despite it all, suppressed a little smile. Naturally, BlackStone was a bit clumsy as she tried to walk given the airship's gentle roll. But more than any other time she was trying to act graceful. I noticed BloodMist's amusement. Ah, Dresden was trying to impress her mother

    "Welcome to the Kolibri class Patrol Carrier HFV Kestrel, Lady Raith," BloodMist said as the half-squad of soldiers walked past us.

    "Let me guess, you're going to take him to sick bay?" I asked, taking in the smell of machine oil and... incense. There was also grease and various other chemicals. Though, the whole bay was brightly lit and had white and grey paint as well as the expected black and yellow hazard stripes. That bit of familiarity struck out to me

    BloodMist nodded as the medics loaded Thomas' stretcher into a type of open freight elevator that lifted up into the deck above us. Honestly, I was reluctant to let him out of my sight, the Daughter of BlackSky had plans.

    And I doubted she would betray me, not over this.

    There were various docking cleats that could be folded up from the deck, which bore a few scratches and a lot of tire scuffs. Off to the sides were various carts that did all sorts of presumably maintenance tasks. A couple had been wheeled over to the drop ship and were doing some sort of servicing. There were equipment lockers and tool chests and other parts of kit. Everything was locked down and secured.

    Which was sensible on an airship. Still it was... interesting to see the shipboard crew doing their jobs. It was almost easy to forget that they were all perky little demons.

    BloodMist shook her head. "Yes, but the facilities are compact and limited; this ship only has a complement of 150 or so. Normally weight is the issue for airships and we can go with more space, but even that's limited on these little craft," she explained as she led us away from the Spatha, which had actually landed a good twenty meters inside the airship.

    Which left a good amount of space behind it for something else to land using that rear door.

    I looked around. We were going past a bit of a bulkhead wall that seemed to strengthen this part of the gondola and maybe give some fireproofing between the compartments.

    This whole lower deck was a good thirteen meters by not quite a hundred meters. And then I saw what was in the forward compartment.

    The incense scent was stronger. There was still the smell of machine oil, lubricants and something akin to the sharp, almost sulfurous, tang of hot metal.

    Immediately forward of the bulkhead were a set of benches, equipment tie downs, lockers and weapon racks that seemed to be a staging area for an infantry squad or so.

    But beyond that....

    There were several sturdy... not quite chairs that had been bolted to the deck. Consisting of heavy adjustable armatures, runes were inscribed on each one. Several very rugged looking concentric magic circles surrounded each seat. Around those was a grouping of tool chests, crates, lockers, and racks of parts and plating.

    I was closer and saw that while there were a lot of mundane metal-working tools, the swarming maintenance staff had a variety of what could only be called implements.

    Various crystals, wands, anathema blades, and other blatantly magical tools were used alongside, often in conjunction with grinders and engravers.

    What they were working on.... well many of the "chairs" were empty. And some had staff busying and organizing; others were empty and did not even have staff. Maybe they were somewhere off getting food.

    But the heavy duty seats that were occupied held something like a suit of armor. Breathtakingly complicated sections of plate armor were fastened together. Each plate consisted of several layers, and the inner ones seemed to be covered in engravings.

    Though even the outer layers had some engravings and many glowed with light. Most of the suits were occupied, with succubae shorn of their metal masks and helmets chatting with their staff. A few were grabbing a quick snack and hydrating.

    I knew the language, but their terminology was extremely specialized. It was like listening to some combination of pilot and wizard chatting with some of Etri's crafters.

    It was like looking at a race team and their pit crew. Or.... as I looked around, like a fighter pilot and her maintenance team.

    These were the suits that had been flying over-watch when BlackStone had... rescued us, and closer-up I could see variations.

    Not the minor details of engraving or filigree or even the painted on accents. But some suits were all stark lines and swept features and even when tied down looked to be cutting through the air. While others were built more pugnacious and aggressive. Something with the air of a brawler.

    Marching forward down the long gondola, these stations were two to a row. By my count there were twenty of these stations. Though two seemed to be unused and were probably spares.

    BloodMist had described this craft as a Patrol Carrier. I suppose this was the demons' equivalent of combat aircraft. The room thrummed with martial power. And I could feel the air buzzing. It was like the propulsion pods of that dropship but even more focused.

    Magic suits with enchantments, pilots who were Practitioners of some kind, and bonded spirits for speed and propulsion. There were also a handful of larger heavy duty containers that from their bulk had to be ordnance magazines. They probably held weapons, fuel, and other high density things that those suits used. I wondered if they had armored trapdoors so in the event of a fire they could simply be jettisoned.

    Glancing around the sprayers, hoses, water pipes, lockers of masks and hoods, and other bits of firefighting equipment were obvious. Intentionally so, complete with more painted stripes in hazard colors.

    Freydis' covetous look was even more blatant. Especially whenever we passed a seat that was occupied. Though by the numbers half were empty. Presumably, they were outside flying.

    That was confirmed when a couple flew in via person-sized doors, port and starboard that were about halfway down the compartment. They were angled to face aft ward on an oblique. Meanwhile at the far forward end of the compartment was some sort of chamber that would launch these armored demon flight suits off the airship and into the sky.

    "They're called Ritual Plate," BloodMist stated.

    "Oh?" I studied the suits. "Sort of a term of art?" Each suit had to have dozens of different spells and enchantments in all sorts of systems. Off the top of my head, I could guess there were collections of spells for propulsion, weapons, defenses, sensors, communications. Empty Night, there was probably a whole set of life support to give pressure and oxygen, depending on how high and fast these things went.

    And all of those required maintenance or at least empowering. One thing I learned about magic was that you did not get results for free, and it required a lot of work. Even the Fae had limitations and costs for their creations.

    And the craft of these demons looked well... there was an aesthetic elegance that came from the necessity of weight savings and being well-fitted to the succubus form, not to mention artisan flourishes. But these suits had a uniformity in parts and design that implied mass production and a ruggedness that indicated they were expected to get used in combat and have parts replaced.

    It was not the solid ruggedness of an armored vehicle, more of a fighter jet, or for some of the more brawler-like suits an attack helicopter.

    I pushed back a heady mix of anxiety and wonder. I suppose this was what mortals felt when they first saw the supernatural.

    BloodMist gave me a sly smile. "Less than 'tank' being used for a class of armored fighting vehicle."

    I nodded. "And their roles? I note several different types."

    "I suppose you could guess the roles they can fit and those they cannot," BloodMist said as we waited at the bottom of a steep set of stairs made out of skeletal spars and perforated plate. Of course they would save weight wherever they could.

    I snorted. "They would make poor troop, vehicle, or cargo transports. Unless you had a very small, very select bit of cargo, or..." I pondered. "One delivered some sort of teleport beacon, or a means to cut a Way into the Nevernever."

    BlackStone looked a bit nervous while BloodMist gave me a thin smile. "Perhaps. Still you can guess the main roles are such things as air superiority, interceptor, strike, ground support, all with recon sub-variants. Not to mention dedicated sensor and scrying suits."

    Nodding, I continued to study the suits. This many suits, in a mere patrol carrier... The things I could do with just a dozen of them. "This should give an advantage against the Fomor," I allowed. "They are probably lacking in air power."

    "A dangerous assumption to make," BloodMist said as she went up the stairs.

    "Still having nearly twenty of these suits will be useful, plus any other patrol carriers, and... larger craft," I allowed, following up behind her.

    BlackStone made a choking noise while her mother chuckled.

    We were up in a corridor that went aft to forward. It seemed a bit narrow but could at least fit two people passing each other if just. And there were more succubae in their little ship-suits, and a handful more in Legionary Armor.

    "Yes, the Kolibri in Patrol Carrier configuration can carry 2 light Squadrons. That allows for some power projection. But well..."

    "We brought the Valhalla," BlackStone said as we made our way forward.

    BloodMist flashed a toothy smile as we passed a couple open doors that went into bunk rooms. They had a lot of beds stacked in levels four tall, but at least the beds themselves seemed wide, and there was a lot of storage.

    "An evocative name," I calmly stated.

    "All of the Avalon Class Heavy carriers have names like that." BloodMist shrugged. "The Valhalla has an RP Air Group. That's four Wings. Each Wing has 8 squadrons. That is a full squadron, of 12 pilots."

    I did the math, that was nearly four hundred Ritual Plate. Lovely. Their assistance would make a difference. I had my suspicions that the Valhalla was only the start, but Legions with air cover would be a great help. Again, I wondered how much air power the Fomor had. Did they even know about air defense doctrine? How many supernatural powers did?

    Though nothing was free. Not with geopolitics. And more and more it was becoming obvious that House BlackSky was not playing at being a great game imperialist power, they really were a nation state.

    "And other Kolibri configurations?" I asked, the smell of fresh baked bread and stew tickling at my nose. Looking to the left though a large doorway, I saw a... cozy mess hall. It could seat maybe sixty people at half a dozen long tables. The tables were mostly empty, but the kitchen staff were busy organizing and cooking.

    BloodMist gave an indulgent smile while BlackStone's stomach grumbled. "Oh yes, the Kolibri Patrol is a flexible platform. The Spatha and one of the light RP squadrons can be swapped out for various things.

    "Such as a century of troops and an artillery system, a troop of scout vehicles, 2 Spatha and twenty troops, a supply of cargo, fuel, and munitions, or, in a more involved changeover such as adding launch tubes, converted into a corvette with 8 aerial Torpedoes."

    I nodded along. So even non-carriers have a minimum of nine Ritual Plate. That takes up a fair footprint on a ship this size, that means they're needed as a defensive measure.

    So, these airships have an acute vulnerability. Otherwise House BlackSky wouldn't give each ship such a defensive force. Not just in terms of the space on each airship, but in the expense in equipment and manpower. I was not sure how to take advantage of that weakness, but that they had it was reassuring.

    "Naturally, the cargo configuration is the most common," BlackSky continued while BlackStone looked into the mess hall.

    "How common?" I inquired.

    "Well among Kolibri, the cargo version is about a third, but that's not a fair count as many forces, especially corvettes, use larger cargo ships.

    "Of course. So, overall?"

    "Overall in the Household Fleet, it's about half the hulls are various cargo and supply. Especially if you focus on larger hulls," BloodMist's tone was mild.

    I nodded, trying to be calm. That was... a strong logistics capability. Having half of their airships be cargo ships was a very expensive investment, and reduced the number of hulls that could carry weapons or troops.

    But that showed that House BlackSky... used these airships. And was serious about having them deployed and supported. "Maybe we should get something to eat? Or at least have some food sent over to poor BlackStone?" I asked while pondering.

    Dresden pouted and tried to look mature in front of her mother. It was adorable.

    BloodMist quickly relented and led us into the mess hall. "And are you hungry Lady Raith, Miss Gard?"

    Freydis gave a slight shrug but her expression was hungry.

    "Redheads," BloodMist chuckled.

    "She does remind me a bit of a certain DarkStar," I ventured.

    BloodMist eyed me and resumed her chuckle. "Perhaps," she allowed. "This one is spirited."

    As we went to the head of the non-existent line, I looked over how all the tables and benches were secured to the deck. Even the condiment holders and utensils had compartments and locking trays. The presence of garum surprised me a bit more than it should have.

    I also did some rough mental math on just how big an Avalon Heavy Carrier such as the Valhalla somewhere over the city would have to be. It had over twenty times the Ritual Plate as this Patrol Carrier.

    Assume the same ratio of support equipment and crew... there's probably some efficiency of scale, but on the other hand a larger carrier may have more ancillary equipment or protection. Like more VTOLS or Torpedoes. Which I'm not sure if that means waterborne weapons or is some generic term for a large air-launched munition or both

    So a 20 times heavier airship. But weight scales with the cube so... like over three times longer, wider, and taller.

    Which for rough numbers... call this patrol ship 150 meters long meant anywhere from 500 meters to 600 meters, at least half a kilometer.

    "Are you eating enough?" BloodMist asked her daughter.

    That size was... mind-boggling, but only a rough number, as not all the airships I saw earlier were the roughly cigar shape that this one was. Quite a few seemed to be made out of clusters of two or three airframes.

    "Yes, Mother," BlackStone whined to my delight.

    Either way, immense ships. And ships that big were targets. Again I went back to what sort of defensive systems they had. With their level of magic some kind of ward seemed possible. But on that scale...

    I shook my head and absently picked out some quarter-meter long loaf of wheat bread filled with cheese and sausage and a pickled sauce that had a hint of nutmeg. There was a whole basket of the savory things that seemed to be some kind of portable meal.

    BlackStone, at her mother's prompting, took two and put in her pocket a string of dried sausages and a foiled packet of biscuits that smelled of molasses and cinnamon. Seeing Freydis take some of those as well, I made a note to take one of hers.

    "Lovely," I complimented the cooks who were more of the perky ship-board succubae. Though, a couple were a bit taller, and even the more lanky ones still had muscles. They also seemed cuter, or at least less lean in the face, than the others. I wondered if that was a side effect of their duties.

    I chewed thoughtfully as we got out of the mess hall. The sandwich, more of a wheat baguette with filling, was pretty decadent. The fresh bread, I guess they had a bakery up here, and the preserved meats and sauces and vegetables were a great blend. There was a bit extra to it; all in all not as good as sex, but could be a substitute. Well, for a human, not one of my kind. Still, it was rather filling and gave a bit of extra pep.

    "Is all the food this good?" Freydis asked as she bit into one of the biscuits with obvious relish and happy murmur. I had to take one of hers; if a Valkyrie found a baked good that was delicious it was worth a try.

    "Or is this a special meal before battle?" she asked.

    I nodded as I thought. Freydis came from a warrior culture and one that valued feasting.

    If House BlackSky had an airship that large for a carrier then they could make a troopship that large. Which could hold two or three thousand people. A few of those could move a legion of troops. Though if they have heavy equipment, artillery, tanks and mountains of supplies then it would require more ships.

    "Feeding is a critical part of our logistics. It would be very bad for a succubus to go hungry," BloodMist smiled at me.

    Ah, more reason why logistics was so important. Empty Night, it was challenging enough to feed representatives at the other White Court Houses when they came to the Chateaux for major events.

    Feeding thousands of succubae, for an extended combat deployment? I wondered what would happen to Chicago after the battle....

    If the Avalon Class was possible, then these demons could move a Legion in a flotilla, fleet, or whatever collection of ships. With... a lot of cargo ships to keep them fed.

    Which was in line with the amount of large craft and their escorts I saw. That was an extreme mobility and the capability of deploying troops anywhere in force was powerful. And this demonic nation picked Dresden to make a princess?

    I shook my head.

    We returned to the long corridor with its brightly painted walls, railings, ductwork and conduits mostly concealed behind panels.

    The door across from the mess was closed, but had a simple plate in Latin that translated to something like: Recreation, though with some connotations of brothel.

    That was not proof of anything. The name-plate by the galley called it a Ganeum. Which was either a joke or a shift in meanings, as a Ganeum in ancient Rome was their version of a greasy spoon dinner. And they got a reputation for attracting prostitutes.

    "We are succubae," BloodMist said, after noticing my pondering.

    "Oh, is that what that room is for? How does that work?" I asked, wondering if I had just reveled to her that I knew Latin. On the one hand the words had similar roots to English terms, on the other BloodMist might have just presumed I spoke Latin.

    "If you are still hungry, we can arrange something." BloodMist tilted her head. "But we might not have time."

    "Time?"

    "We're changing course. Come," BloodMist stated.

    I hung by the door for a moment. Was it a rota system? Did they have dedicated prostitutes as part of the crew? Humans that were fed on? Surely, that would not be enough to keep them supplied. I had not seen any humans since we boarded. Or was it simply just a recreation center for sexual release?

    With a slight bit of reluctance, I followed. This would not be the only mystery to me aboard this ship. For one I did not know what they used to power their propulsion and other systems. There was the slight buzz of some sort of process and there were lots of overlapping bits of excess magic about. I glanced over to Dresden.

    But her nervous, awed expression, she was doubtless feeling all sorts of things.

    ++++


    The... briefing room, command and control room, or whatever, was off-putting.

    It was less the captain of the ship in her gold and white uniform who watched me with deep purple eyes. With light red skin, she was short and had a controlled, haughty aggressiveness. Her sharp features were lovely and her pale blue hair was braided back and complimented her white horns and tail.

    If not for the order of a daughter of her Empress, she would not have let me in here, and maybe not even onboard her ship.

    But that was just one discomfort, the room's decor was... upsetting.

    Oh, there was nothing garish or macabre. No bodies having from chains, or war trophies or any other signs of indulgent bellicosity.

    Now, there were a few items in the room that were shrouded with grey sheets. Though from the outlines they gave I was reminded of things more like spherical astrolabes, sextants, or other bits of baroque finery. The artificer machinery that was unshrouded in the compartment was tantalizing enough. Most of the items were put up against the walls, though there was a large five-sized table in the center of the room.

    But the walls....

    They were tiled. From the stark, if comfortable utility of the rest of the airship that alone was noteworthy.

    The tiles consisted of just two rhombuses: a fat one in jade and a thin one in an alabaster marble. However, each rhombus was inscribed in a silver arch that went from one side to a neighboring side, and a and a gold arch that connected the two opposite sides.

    The gold and silver lines linked up with the next rhombus over. The pattern was a collection of five pointed stars and arcs and circles that somehow did not ever repeat.

    This formed a collection of shining silver and gold loops and whorls among stars of jade and whorls and arches of alabaster. The whole, interlocking mosaic was beautiful but also disquieting. The silver and gold lines never branched, never terminated, save for when a door or something was cut into one of the room's five walls.

    Perhaps the shape of the compartment itself was contoured. The pentagonal room had five walls and the ceiling vaulted up in five curved triangular sections. The tiling seemed... the most... regular from the middle of the ceiling where an orb-like light stood at the very apex and center of the ceiling. Surrounding us in something like a pentagonal dome of jade and marble, silver and gold

    The orb itself was odd as within it was a crystalline structure that reflected and emitted light in odd rings of five and ten points of light. Its light was bright but also a shade too far into the red. To be entirely comfortable.

    It was also... challenging to see the pattern go out as it filled the ceilings and then went down the walls, which I noticed were not quite straight vertical or flat planes. The rhombuses might have slightly changed their sizes. Or that might have been a trick. I did not look too closely, not after when I entered and peered at the silver and gold inlay and realized that each line was less a solid line and more a chain of interlocking runes.

    It was another example of something magical made.... mundane. The worst part was that if this ship had a room like this, that meant that these rooms were commonplace among the ships of the demonic empire's fleet.

    At least it was easy to not look at the floor. Beneath a clear polymer was a similar pattern of rhombuses with their silver and gold inlay.

    Freydis seemed immune to the issue. The five of us, including a tall aide to the captain, had crammed into the chamber around the central table. The Valkyrie was more focused on what was being shown to us.

    Though BlackStone at least had some disquiet about her, though it was mixed by a barely-restrained urge to kneel down and study everything in the room. I was not sure if I should take comfort or worry in the wizard feeling ill-at-ease but also tempted.

    The display itself, well... I was starting to get used to the illusionary holographic magic the demons had. The Svartalves had a similar capability. And the display over the table was deliberately simplistic.

    It was a map of the city. Buildings and other terrain features were done in simple grey-green blocks that roughed out footprint and size.

    The Formor were invading.

    I did not need a key to know what the sickly yellow markers coming up from Lake Michigan meant.

    "I suppose King Corb and his Master lied when they gave us several hours, you can never trust Titans," I noted.

    The captain, Principales Zariah Magnus Schechter, eyed me; there was some mirth there. "Perhaps. We may have sped up their time tables, or they may intend to sally at midnight."

    "We will show them their folly," BloodMist stated and nodded to the airship captain.

    "Not us, not at the moment," Schechter admitted and motioned to her tall, black-haired aide.

    The younger succubus moved her hands and the display shifted. Purple dots and symbols started to populate it. My eye went to a cluster of airships to the north of the Fomor landing zones.

    That was us. This ship was the Patrol Carrier HFV Kestrel. Also with us was the Torpedo Corvette HFV Orchid with its eight Torpedoes.

    BloodMist had been coy about exactly when those munitions could do, but I could do the math. Something that was equivalent to the weight of an eighth of a legionary century with a supporting artillery piece had to weigh several tons and this have a fair bit of capability.

    And I doubted they only had one kind of warhead. Especially on vessels like the DarkStar. Which depending on how big it was... could have at least a hundred of the things. No wonder these demons also had a lot of cargo ships with them: reloads.

    Again, I hated the feeling of surprise and shock. It was one thing to face one invading supernatural army. But now we were facing two.

    I was a bit curious why there was no cargo ship with our little formation. Perhaps it was hanging back.

    Instead our third airship was the Venture Scout HFV Juliet. A third the size of the Kestrel, from what BloodMist had said, it made this ship practically palatial. The Juliet existed as a reasonably high speed, and inexpensive platform for six Ritual Plate Pilots. They were outriders and screening assets for their Fleet.

    That did explain why we were going by airship instead of taking a group of VTOLs. We were still going faster than by boat, and with this we had a larger force, and would not be limited by fuel if things went wrong.

    Still, I was certain that the Juliet had other sensors, or scrying capabilities. And well... a small airship that had an endurance measured in weeks, could do more than fleet scouting and screening.

    That made up our force. Altogether BloodMist had a bit over thirty Ritual Plate pilots, eight Torpedoes, one small Spatha VTOL, a few squads of Legionaries, whatever other weapons I was not privy to, and my own resources.

    And we were taking a detour to avoid the Fomor Landings.

    At least I had gotten a chance to, via various means, talk to Riley and give orders to him and to my sisters. The White Court would be ready. There were still things I could contribute to this.

    Further, inland were more purple symbols. Many much larger than ours. Though all surrounded by a constellation of various escorts and screening figures. If my estimation was right, there was a group up to the north-west a bit past where O'Hare International Airport was.

    It made sense, no matter the escorts, no matter the number of Ritual Plate, no matter what other protections these ships had.... they were still airships. They were fragile.

    If the Fomor were attacking from Lake Michigan and as they had released a giant hex to disable mortal power systems.. then the demons would keep their troopships away from the enemy. Not too far, the more distance the more time it would take their dropships to make the round trip, but being able to hold their vulnerable troopships back was why they had dropships.

    Even the Valhalla and the DarkStar were not over the city. Which made sense, if their main offensive weapons were Ritual Plate and a kind of enchanted long range stand-off missile...

    I shook my head. All these precautions when White Court Intelligence was pretty sure that the Fomor had next to no air capability. Then again, said Intelligence also missed out on Ethniu and only heard rumblings that Corb was going to make a small strike later on in the Peace Talks. That was partially why I was willing to spend tonight rescuing my brother.

    Not to mention their estimations on House BlackSky's capabilities.

    I could not fault the demon's caution. If Corb had a way to take down one of their ships, he would. And if it were over the city... I did not want to think of the damage a half-kilometer long warship full of who-knows-what explosives, alchemical fuels, and magical energies would cause if it fell onto city block or two.

    Part of me was worried that the demons used hydrogen as their lifting gas instead of something like helium. But... I really did not want to ask, not when I was still on board.

    Alongside Freydis, I looked over the display. "All this intel is a composite of various land and air recon elements, no? Ritual Plate, Venture airships, and whatever Legionary scouts you've dropped in?"

    The captain gave an indulgent nod, like I was a slow student who had potential. "But do not get too fixated." Her English was an odd mix of clipped vowels but flowing words. "We can't see everything and we can be spoofed. Can look for specific threats, but it will miss others, but it does give an overall trend."

    BlackStone blinked. "What are the numbers?"

    "We have to extrapolate from what our scouts are getting," the captain glanced at her aide.

    BloodMist had a little grin as she studied the other purple marks on the map. Specifically, the octagonal symbols that had clustered around the Svatevelf Embassy.

    "Sixty thousand. Plus or minus a few thousand. The boffins are still working on the exact composition. We can only fully ID a third of that. It helps that they're forming up and preparing inland." the aide shook her head. "But they've sent their own scouts ahead. And the shore is long with many buildings, and they can veil some of their troops. Or simply use tunnels dug ahead of time. And this is just their first wave."

    Ah. That was going to be a problem. The map was sterile, but I knew, we all knew, that many Fomor, landing on the beaches were going to be murdering whoever they came across. Murdering and worse.

    "And what are you doing about that?" BlackStone asked.

    I made note of the use of "you" instead of "we".

    As did BloodMist, but the demon simply held up a finger and kept us waiting for a few seconds. Then several more.

    It was nearly half a minute before the yellow blocks near the shore started to break apart.

    "Ah sister, so that's your game," BloodMist said after the map updated and dark purple parabolas appeared connecting the octagons in the Svartelf Embassy to the Fomor locations.

    "You're shelling them," BlackStone noted with horror in her voice.

    "Strength?" Freydis asked.

    "Two reinforced Arachne batteries, call it thirty pieces," the aide supplied.

    "It seems my sister prioritized landing those guns and a generous supply of munitions and protective equipment and other assets. That plus the skills the Svartalves have in defensive fortifications should make that a secure enough firebase," BloodMist stated.

    "You're shelling Chicago," BlackStone stated as her tail twisted in knots. "Well... if it gets them."

    I kept myself under more control. I had been around longer than the wizard and had seen horrors and the power of mortal weapons. Still, even I had not expected this.

    "Damage Assessment is ongoing but.... artillery never gets everyone. We don't have perfect recon," the aide, Centurion Vilnus I think her name was, said.

    "And we're not indiscriminately bombing," Schechter stated.

    Which I wondered was because she thought it would be a waste of valuable ordnance or out of concern for human lives. I mean, Kine were... Kine. But we were fighting the Fomor, in part because we're better than them.

    But mostly because the Fomor would kill us, and then the humans would go to war against the supernatural.

    "Don't worry, it's not just Arachne." BloodMist gave a vicious grin. "The DarkStar and the 42nd Bombardment flotilla are using the artillery barrage as cover." She pointed to a few more explosions. "If I had to guess, those are Galatine warheads. Inexpensive, but in this situation, will do well against concentrations of troops.

    "Not as well as other options, but it seems Sister is not letting the enemy know all that we can do just yet."

    I blinked about the "inexpensive" part. The idea of a giant magical missile being cheap was... absurd. But every large organization had to manage a budget, and that meant whatever the demonic Legions was holding back was something... worrying.

    I started to sympathize with Dresden, living alone and poor in a basement apartment, having to fight against the might of the Vampire Nations, or the White Council of Wizards. She had spent much of her... of his life being the scrappy underdog facing far larger enemies.

    "If the enemy thinks we're mostly using mundane tube artillery, then they won't react as quickly," Schetler shook her head. "After this, they'll learn to distribute their forces and it'll be harder to catch them out in the open."

    I was not certain. Corb was a very prideful man, and as long as it was not him personally being killed he could care little for his troops. And from what I had been told of Ethniu, her arrogance was such that she would hardly notice her minions dropping like flies. "I am not certain an artillery battery wound count as mundane in the Fomor's eyes."

    "Their loss."

    The aide had, oh so helpfully, zoomed in. And the abstraction turned into a feed that jittered about. It also was not quite perfect as if it was taking something from a couple angles that almost got the whole picture. It was probably a composite of some forward scouts and maybe some airborne assets.

    I idly wondered how the data intake was being processed; the demons did not seem to have much in the way of electronics. Empty Night, how did their communications work? Were they using radio waves? Some sort of thaumaturgy? Something else?

    Were they secure against the Fomor? The White Council?

    The display was now showing a group of Fomor in parade-neat lines forming up out of the water on a park. There were the slimy octopus-ape hybrids, turtle-necked human servitors, lanky muscular humanoids, and groups of froggy-like Fomor themselves. All in blocks and under banners.

    There were a handful of scattered human bodies. Mostly pushed to the side like so much detritus.

    Then came the artillery strike. The first salvo cut most of them down. The next were even more accurate and cut through even more. A few of the Fomor mages put up wards and shields. I would like to think there was wild fear on their faces. That of an unknown killer that they could barely comprehend let alone stop, but the resolution was not good enough to make out their expressions.

    And that's when I realized this was not some macabre display for our benefit.

    The footage was from multiple angles, triangulating coordinates. The Fomor defenders, the Formor survivors had marked their positions. And were now hit by the third barrage. An entire cohort of Fomor had just been functionally obliterated

    BlackStone sighed. "You said that's not going to get them all."

    BloodMist shook her head "The front is too large. Even if we were willing to level every block that butted the waterfront, they'd still come through. The rubble would give them cover.

    No, they're going to make landfall. If we had more time we could position our troops and fight them on the beaches, but then they'd be fighting with their back to the water, to their domain."

    Dresden's eyes were flat. "They're going to get into the city."

    "Daughter, you knew that; you knew that would happen with or without us."

    "You could have landed your troops anywhere in the city, you could confront them on the shore."

    "They would go around and flank us. Besides, it takes time to organize our forces. If AshRain can avoid a hot, contested landing straight into combat, especially for our heavy equipment, she will do that."

    "She focused on the artillery..." BlackStone's hands clenched as the display zoomed back out. "She wanted to hurt them. But they'll still get through."

    "Not without heavy losses," I said. "And you don't want to use up all of your munitions now, on targets that may not exist, instead of later when you're directly fighting them. Harry, this is the right move. It's terrible, but this is war."

    BlackStone gave me a hurt look. As if she expected me to take her side.

    BloodMist nodded. "Yes, and while attacking them now does let them know of some of our capabilities, and teach them to disperse and avoid traveling in the open in a dense mass. We are doing more than thinning their numbers.

    "We are spoiling their attack, ruining their formations. Keeping your enemy from organizing in good order is vital. Their Landing Zones are under heavy bombardment, ours are not."

    Freydis took the baton. "Right, they'd want to gather their forces and organize them for a push. They'll send out small raiding, scouting, probing attacks, but to hold land they'll need a large, coherent, group. And anytime they form up in neat parade rows they're at the risk of getting blasted." The Valkyrie gave a vicious smile. "And that means you can take apart their scouts."

    "And we're pretty sure they don't have communications, not to the tactical level," I stated. "They'll have to spend more time on runners and coordinating distributed forces."

    BlackStone frowned at all of us.

    "You saw Ethniu, you know what she's like. You know her weaknesses, her pride, her inexperience. She'll order the Fomor to push through," BloodMist said. "She is going to get an education."

    "And that's how you beat a numerically superior foe. You whittle them down in stages, you break them apart into separate units and kill them one at a time," I added. "And with my men providing translators and local scouts. Along with Marcone's men, we will have the advantage of home territory."

    "The Chancellor of the White Court is correct," the Captain said, in a tone that indicated she took a bit of thought to not start that sentence with "even"

    BloodMist gave her daughter her full attention. "We can drop you off here. If it is your wish to get them right now it will be granted. Mother would even send support with you. Like a Cohort or two.

    "But such a salient, so close to the beaches, to their lines..."

    "You'll get surrounded," Freydis said.

    "It will help defend the Svartalf Embassy," the aide helpfully said. "By focusing the enemy's attention on you."

    "Beyond encirclement, you will have the full wrath of Corb and the Titan." BloodMist's tail stilled. "Having a hardpoint like that right on their lines, would be a major thorn in their side. It is not a complete waste, it will buy time, and keep them from moving off the beach."

    "Knowing Dresden, Corb and Ethniu will not be able to just bypass her," I added, appreciating the option they were giving the pouting princess. "She is annoying to her enemies in that way."

    BlackStone's Mother nodded. "However, those attached to her will be volunteering for a forlorn hope."

    The wizard seemed to deflate. "I can't put people in danger just because I want to stop something."

    The captain quirked an eyebrow.

    "Not just because. There has to be a reason, and sending people to die isn't much better if I'm there with them."

    "A forlorn hope is not, technically a suicide mission," BloodMist stated. "A formation of Fomor with the Titan's support, or the other way around, will be formidable and high casualty. But you would have considerable air support and resupply."

    "Yeah, well that's part of why I want to go to my island," BlackStone snapped then seemed to droop a bit more.

    "Ah, you've secured some equipment, weapons, or other assets there?" BloodMist's eyes sparkled.

    I frowned. It was easy to underestimate Dresden. Yes, she was stubborn and had a strong moral sense, but she was also... well Dresden. If it were anyone else I would assume her "clumsy succubus" thing was an act.

    That said, Dresden was connected to that cursed island in some way. She had fought enough on it and used it to her advantage and claimed it. It was also where she had some means of protecting our brother.

    And... she had secured things there. Wizards were frustrating like that. They would ferret out secrets and artifacts and hoard knowledge like a squirrel with nuts. Maybe after events such as a group of Necromancers trying to empower themselves, having to slay multiple Fairy Queens, and taking out the Red Court... maybe BlackStone... maybe Dresden started preparing.

    We were on a demonic war-zeppelin due to her after all.

    I glanced at BloodMist. She knew. Or that is to say she suspected. Hence this little flotilla.

    I watched as the barrages moved to different Fomor concentrations. "You've made an incorrect assumption."

    The captain looked skeptical, as if someone who did not have their experience could miss something. That I was some minor power with a negligible military force.

    BloodMist however nodded to me. "You do live here."

    I raised my arms to encompass the magically charged and assembled compartment, the airship, their whole fleet. "This is professional. You value your troops and will work to keep them alive. I'm sure your rivals do as well. If not for moral reasons the simple realpolitik that a Great House that has thrown away its military forces will cease to be a Great House."

    I shook my head at the map. "The Fomor don't care; they'll sacrifice their minions, and they don't plan to stay in the field that long. And the titan doesn't care if all the Fomor die."

    "Still... every Fomor killed trying to get off the beach is one less to fight in the city," Schetler countered.

    I nodded to the captain. "And that's why you need to keep up the pressure. Don't think that you can break their will or get them to retreat. You can't have them be combat ineffective but still alive."

    "Even the Fomor's human servants have been modified to put no value to their lives," BlackStone agreed.

    BloodMist and the captain shared a look with some mix of subtle and not so subtle body language. They then went to the aide.

    The almost-mousy-looking woman lifted her hands and with a soft pale green glow at her eyes many of the silver and gold circles and whorls on the walls and ceiling started to flare with antic light.

    There was a series of exchanges that started simple and then BloodMist got involved and after maybe a minute the map in the table split.

    One half was still a map, the other was a monochrome pale green projection of a prim woman in Legionary battle-dress. She looked to be in some sort of armored vehicle that was bouncing about. I caught the image of a few other officers and troops before the feed cuts to an image of just House Legate AshRain standing there.

    Another of the Imperatrix's Daughters. I wondered what BlackSky herself was up to?

    As was her wont, BlackStone gave some inane comment, something about us nearing the main power generator and a shield being down in moments.

    BloodMist ignored that. "Sister, we've got confirmation. The Fomor won't break. They won't pull back and redeploy."

    "Oh?" AshRain's tone was mild and she seemed to be splitting her attention between us and another conversation she was having without words.

    "Legate, you saw Corb and Ethniu, do you think they care about their troops?" I asked.

    "Well." AshRain's full attention was on me as she gave a sharp smirk. "Are you certain? The Council thought they might break and the Fae courts were non-committal. I was balancing between showing more of our cards to hit them harder or seeing if they would shatter under the current barrage."

    "That won't work." I said. "Oh yes, those you kill will stay dead. Unless they have a necromancer. But they won't waste men caring for the wounded. They won't run because you've killed half their number. They'll reform shattered units. If only to avoid Ethniu's wrath, they'll keep fighting."

    "She did seem prideful, inexperienced, and disdainful of machines," AshRain noted, and that distant expression was back. She was not ignoring us; she was giving orders.

    "She is a being from another age. From a time more terrible than even you can imagine, with rampant magic and gods," I cautioned.

    AshRain showed teeth. "Then we will give her an education in modern magical warfare. If she is willing to send her troops into a meat grinder, then we shall oblige."

    BloodMist nodded. "Make the rubble bounce, Sister."

    AshRain bowed her head. "Get what your daughter requires and get back. We need her and we need your expertise." AshRain said, "And we need you, Lady Raith."

    I bowed my head to hers.

    AshRain paused. "Oh, be careful over the water, I'm releasing the 42nd's corvettes and torpedo bombers and some other assets. They'll be depth charging using our stock of tridents and Galtines anything under the waves that looks funny. I recommend changing course to not get in the way"

    BloodMist gasped. "Surely not..."

    Her sister laughed. "Stars no. These are Madhu's Tridents. I don't believe Mother will authorize Shiva's. But please, do be careful, I leave you in Principales Zariah Magnus Schechter's hands. Good Luck." she stated before cutting the connection.

    Oh. That last bit... that was... meant for me. Shiva's Trident also known as Trishula was a mighty weapon in mythology. One of three of Shiva's weapons. She was a goddess of creation and creativity, but also one with the moniker "the Destroyer". Created using matter from the sun, the actual Trishula severed Ganesha's original head.

    And the demons used it to name a Torpedo, a Torpedo that required the authorization of their supreme leader to deploy.

    If that was not blatant enough I thought of what other giant missiles were called "tridents"

    The demons were telling me, in a deniable way, that....

    Empty Night.

    The DarkStar. I knew the stories. The tales of demonic invasions seemed less fanciful now. Less so the idea of BlackSky deciding to destroy an entire rival House in a pique of vengeance.

    These demons were prideful and arrogant. Even Dresden had a bit of that when she returned. And DarkStar was insufferably, but adorably, prideful. And it seemed, in some ways, justified.

    I was sure their troops were capable and professional and could be supported and deployed in good order. I was also sure that the various spying and recon they had done before the peace talks would serve them well.

    But this was not their world, they were strangers here. No wonder they were working with Marcone's men and mine and took my advice over that of Winter and the White Council. The Fae and the Wizards were powerful, no doubt, but in many ways both were distant from the mortal world and the kind of war the Fomor had been fomenting.

    But with the Trishulas... I was not certain that such weapons were even on the Battlecruiser DarkStar. It was an obvious platform, and well-defended. But perhaps they were kept on some anonymously smaller ship. Empty Night, a corvette could hold eight Torpedoes. How many Shiva's tridents did they really need?

    I could imagine some little patrol craft in an out of the way area, crewed and guarded by troops especially loyal. But other than that the airship would ac perfectly normal, save that one or two, gotta have redundancy, if its Torpedoes could kill a city. I gave a crazed little laugh at the realization that one of those ubiquitous little corvettes was part of our formation.

    It probably wasn't that one. I mean... we were going over water. It probably wasn't us.

    "Lady Raith?" BloodMist politely asked, a bit of mirth in her tone.

    From the horror in BlackStone's expression she had figured it out as well. The demons had brought weapons of mass destruction.

    And the older demoness seemed proud of both of us.

    "You are not nuking Chicago!" BlackStone shouted.

    "I would rather hope not," BloodMist stated. "Given, my mother, several of my sisters and. oh yes, twenty thousand and rising Legionaries are down there. I would rather they not all die."

    Dresden blinked and it took her a bit to process. We were in the sky and could escape. And I was certain that the rest of Dresden's family, save that stubborn old Scot, were being evacuated up to some airship.

    "Daughter, the Eye of Balor is a magical weapon of mass destruction. It is in the hands of a petty but powerful being who thinks of us as ants. We need a contingency plan in case all others fail."

    "And that's using magic nukes of your own?" BlackStone waspishly asked.

    Her mother gave a toothy grin. "No. BlackStone, that's you. You are our contingency plan."

    I managed to keep my composure. And it would be my job to make sure the wizard did not fail.


    End Part 4
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2022
  16. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I'm beginning to feel bad for Chicago. For it seems like it just can't catch a break right about now.

    Anyways, I'm curious to see how a meet between all three known reincarnates might go. For it seems like the full trio might be dangerous toe assemble.
     
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  17. Gremlin Jack

    Gremlin Jack I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    So I have to ask, but it seems like Tauria is not part of the battle for Chicago series? Or if she is, it's as a side character?
     
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  18. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    From what I can tell, the battle hasn't yet hit a POV with a character close enough to where Tanya would be involved. I think one of her moms shows up during the diplomatic part and this chapter had a bit of contact with some of her family's fleet but given that there' indications of something being held back aside from the nukes I suspect that Tanya is part of that if she's not part of the piles of ritual plate about to be deployed.
     
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  19. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It cannot. This side story is basically.... well Battle Ground from OTL but with evenworse.

    Oooh? There's Tanya/Tauira, DarksStar/Ranma and.... Serenity/Usagi?

    She is in it! She's inthe first part. It's just given the huge size of the battle I wanted to get a POV of Dresden, show the Titan fighting, and then Lara's POV.

    This project is... ambitious. But things will go back to Tauria.


    That's true. And her Wing was mentions in the first part as above.

    As this takes place in the future (relative to Little Demon) I was able to give some hints at her development and increase in rank
    Thanks again!
     
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  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: One with the Sea
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Return Verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic thingy.
    By Sunshine Temple

    Naturally, I do not own Youjo Senki. So here's the disclaimer:

    Saga of Tanya the Evil its characters and settings belong Carlo Zen, Shinobu Shinotsuki, and NUT Co., Ltd.

    Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
    http://www.fukufics.com/fic/


    Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
    http://fukufics.com

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 15: One with the Sea

    After checking that I was not transmitting, I gave a sigh of frustration. House Trosier had fired a brace of submarine-launched missiles at an Alecton cruiser. They had also deployed roughly seventy Ritual Plate, about a light BlackSkyvian Wing.

    From their disposition and numbers, it seemed that there were two Trosic Strike Escadron; each consisting of twenty-seven Baptiste strike RP and fifteen Rochefort air superiority models.

    It was a robust formation focused on heavy strikes with reasonable escorts that could be split into sub-groups. House Trosier had sent one formation as a second barrage against that Howe class missile cruiser, while the other had been sent against the freighter we had been inspecting for contraband.

    We had found all that and more, and House Trosier had decided to tie up a loose end. Personally, I found it excessive and a reckless escalation. People would die over the uncaring sea.

    But Trosier had not asked my opinion. I had sent my Flight out ahead of the rest of the squadron to blunt their attack.

    Inspecting the composite data on the map display that my Gorgon Rig and the various other scrying systems, I made a few range calculations and flashed my fangs.

    We were outnumbered and our Polyxo suits were in Strike configuration which was not ideal for anti-air.

    "Here's the target list and weapons selections," I said over the Flight channel. While Trosier had tolerable Veiling systems, their Ritual Plate were more easily detected. Multiple Gorgon Rigs on our side, something I would report as further evidence of the system's broader utility, and their decision to move at their maximum possible velocity essentially killed any hopes for stealth the Trosic Pilots might have harbored.

    There was a brief pause as my Pilots took in the fire mission. "We're not targeting their Baptistes?" VioletBlood asked.

    "Correct. Now is not the time to focus on their strike RP," I stated

    "But our Lances outrange theirs," Visha replied. She was correct. The high power emitters on the Baptiste were not as far-ranged as the Telephe, or a strike-Polyxo. The Baptiste was also rather less maneuverable, but more robust for naval operations. Overall, it made a cheaper suit than the Telephe. One that could still hit hard and at long range but was more vulnerable to airborne threats. It did mean that a strike package was less expensive to field, but required dedicated escort.

    "Exactly." GreyDawn chuckled. "There's still a fair bit of time before their strike suits get in range of that freighter."

    "Meanwhile. we can fire on them while staying out of their range," I added.

    "But... they won't accept that. They'll send their escorts to take us out and they outnumber us four to one," VioletBlood countered.

    I laughed. "Hopefully, I doubt they'll leave their strike forces naked but..."

    I could imagine Visha nodding along as I quickly switched to the Flight Leader channel to inform the other Flights and Prefect Quirinus of my plans. "The squadron commander of those Rocheforts may be tempted to split her forces. Two Flights to guard the strike suits, and then two Flights to hit our single Flight," she said

    "Cutting their escorts in half," VioletBlood chortled. The little war maniac automatically assumed we would prevail on two-to-one odds.

    Her arrogance was not entirely misplaced. The enemy was likely flying a navalized Rochefort which had more waterproofing and a broader performance envelope. As an air-superiority suit, it lacked the performance of a Harmonia, while also edging into too broad of a remit by having some light anti-ship and anti-surface roles. Unlike other Trosic RP models, they also carried a respectable amount of the one-one shot mortar-like tubes loaded with short-range anti-mage payloads.

    The Rochefort did not have the performance upgrades of the Tjardu, a Zioxan derivative. Thus it was a less expensive suit. But also one that, absent Pilot skill, needed a numerical advantage to take on a Harmonia. "Careful, the Grand Admiral does not assign poor quality Pilots to critical escort duties," I admonished.

    At least VioletBlood had the sense to not transmit her haughty sniff.

    ++++++

    Occasionally, I disliked being proven correct. Whoever was commanding that Trosic formation was clever. After our focused Lance Strike at beyond recommended max range destroyed a Rochefort and, in a bout of mistaken identity, critically damaged a Baptiste, the enemy commander did peel off a force to counter us.

    I had a bit of sympathy for that Baptiste Pilot. Going down over water was a bad fate for an RP Pilot. If she had to ditch, she would have to eject out of the suit or be pulled under. And even with flotation devices, she'd be at the mercy of the elements. At least the water was a bit warmer here.

    She could try to go back to the submarine that launched her but that would just lead her enemies, us, straight to the vessel which we would endeavor to sink. Having a submarine near to recovery depth was a risk and one not worth a single Pilot. Honestly, her best option was to broadcast her surrender on an open channel, dump her suit in the Gaudia sea, and hope House BlackSky and not House Alecto picked her up. We were more inclined to do prisoner exchanges than our Alecton allies. And it was not like either House flogged our POWs.

    But that singular tragedy of someone drowning cold and alone was at the back of my mind. Tonight was going to be a night full of loss, what was one more?

    The Trosic commander had been clever. She had sent a force after us. But Instead of two Flights of Rochefort, she sent what looked like six of the escort suits and four strike suits. They planned to return the favor and counter-fire.

    It weakened their overall strike package, but they were trying to take out a freighter, one filled with munitions. It was overkill and honestly, she would be better served with more fighter RP, but the Trosic commander had a set amount of each type of suit and that was that.

    Attention was a critical resource in battle. One had to be focused on immediate threats but an officer had to keep an eye on the larger picture. Fortunately, I was merely a Flight Leader.

    If I were still a Field Officer, as in my previous life, I would have to put more focus on how the Alecton Howe class cruiser and its RP Combat Air Patrol Squadrons had just barely managed to defeat the incoming missile barrage. And how that had left them somewhat out of position to deal with the second Escadron which would be in target range sooner than the one we were fighting.

    That was just the defensive aspect. Those Trosic submarines had to be tracked and hunted down and our own Mulberry Fast attack craft were also being attacked and could fight back as well.

    Nearer to me, I would also have to keep abreast of what was happening on the Sunset Breeze. Was it being evacuated? Where were the VTOLs? Even at the Squadron Commander level, Quirinus is coordinating with the Sarpedona Flights running escort to the Spatha VTOLs and any other BlackSkyvian RP in the area.

    But that was all above my pay grade. My focus was on two reinforced flights worth of enemy RP that was on an intercept vector.

    I had my Flight change course, at max power, as if we were swinging around the intercepting force to try to get back to threatening the main enemy RP force.

    "They're still coming," VioletBlood noted. "But we can't draw them out too far."

    "Right," GreyDawn agreed. "If we're no threat to their main force then they'll simply rejoin them."

    "Then we better keep their force divided," Visha said.

    Listening to them and taking part in the Flight Leader channel, I smirked. I then finished up and went back to my Flight. "That's right girls. Now, let's get their attention."

    The enemy formation was moving aggressively, but sensibly. The six Rochefort fighters were spread in a staggered arrow formation of three pairs with the four Baptiste strike suits back and in the protective "pocket" of their escorts.

    Timing was key. We could get a couple more Lance shots in before the Baptiste got into range. Thus it was their imperative to try and intercept us as soon as possible. Their evasion was minimal but they would increase it the closer they got in.

    "Mark targets," I ordered as I checked the composite display. We had a handful of Lance shorts left and this was the time to make them count. Being proper escorts, Rocheforts provided some measure of protection and their own Veils and countermeasures helped protect their charges.

    It was a solid formation.

    It was also one that was built around a tactical mistake. One the Pilot in charge should have realized.

    And yet we would give them one more chance to learn.

    Mercy's Flight had burst in and opened fire with their Lances on the main force. They only took out one escort RP. But the reaction was the same and sensible enough. Two more flights peeled off one of each type. There was some risk as that left the main strike force with only four escorts. But letting another BlackSkyvian flight freely harass them was unacceptable.

    Second Flight should be able to handle that. If not, if not. I could only put a bare bit of attention on them. Most of my focus was on the enemy before me. The range was almost right, the targeting was getting better. Just a bit more...

    "Fire Solution, Two," I ordered as each of us fired our projectors. Eight blinding, relentless Lance beams speared out. Lances were very powerful weapons. And now my Flight was down to just a single Lance shot remaining. Not counting myself, as I had fired that warning shot across the freighter's bow earlier tonight, I was already empty

    And those Baptiste would be hard targets.

    But this time the enemy force was moving with greater focus on us, was at closer range, we had a bit more time to refine our targeting, and there was far more ordnance in the sky.

    The House Trosier Pilots reacted well. They were in a good formation and had solid enough training. When faced with enough firepower to burn through a battleship's active defenses, Wards, and armor they did not panic and reacted as a cohesive unit.

    Unfortunately, it was the wrong reaction.

    They had trained to protect the RP they were escorting above all. For a RP escorting a strike force to ensure it can fire on a large high-value target, it was the sensible reaction. For a small formation going out to attack enemy RP, it was the wrong reaction.

    The Lances sliced through the formation. The hit ratio was lousy, RP were rather small and fast moving compared to the normal targets of Lances, but with the power levels involved even a glancing blow could be sufficient to cripple an enemy suit.

    Three Rocherfort were destroyed, or were sputtering wrecks, two more were moderately damaged and one unlucky Baptiste Pilot had her wards overload from a grazing shot which also heated up her own flasks causing chain detonation of her munitions and power cells.

    "Charge Emitters! Drop flasks!" I ordered. The alchemical power cells that stored the bracing power channeled though Lance Projectors were massively-intricate artificer creations . The cells were stored on conformal flasks that bolted onto the outside of the suit's torso, sort of like an extra-thick bodice. They could be ejected if damaged, or to recoup some weight savings and gain a slight performance edge.

    If I survived, I would justify the expense to Quirinus, but I doubted she would object much. Right now this meant that my Flight had three Lances ready and were not weighted down by the flasks.

    The formation was rattled; half their escorts were down, but they still had teeth.

    If we were flying Harmonia that would not be as much of an issue. As House BlackSky's air superiority and interceptor suit, its high-end performance and maneuverability gave it a primary defensive role of taking out enemy strike Ritual Plate, in addition to its offensive roles in establishing air dominance.

    An interesting thing about the Polyxo suit I wore was the primary difference between the Air superiority configuration and the Strike configuration was that the latter had the projectors, power feeds, and flasks to fire Lances. While the former had extra thrust capability, maneuvering, and more capacity on the anti-air Ballista projectors

    But of the three primary configurations Strike and Air Superiority were the closest. Which meant that without our Flasks weighing us down, I had, after the Polyxo configuration for this role, the third best thing to a Harmonia Flight.

    "Match course. And ready for evasion, they are going to fire at maximum range," I stated.

    "But they should wait until we're just out of our Ballista range. That way they can get the better targeting data and have the least time for us to maneuver," VioletBlood countered.

    "That would be their best move." I agreed. "But that ignores the psychological factor. They've taken losses, heavy losses. And more of their comrades have peeled off to protect the main strike team from Mercy's Flight."

    "And here's my Flight," I purred. We were under a moderate Veil, but I was doing little to obscure our approach. I was focused more on maneuvering to avoid their fire and close than hiding who we were.

    "You think they have intel on us?"

    "I know if a Zioxan 'mercenary' Pilot could figure out who a white feather-winged Polyxo Pilot in this theater was, I don't have to ask you what the odds were that Pilots from their ally House Trosier were also informed," I lightly said.

    GreyDawn laughed.

    A few moments passed. "We'll be nearing the range that our boffins and spooks think their Lances max out at, so unless they're wrong or Trosier has a new model... well I guess we'll find out soon enough."

    There was more laughter, but we had started adding more maneuvers to our flight paths. Three Baptiste meant a max of a dozen Lances, more likely nine. That was still a good amount against four enemy RP.

    "Besides, they'll think we're empty on our Lances; let them think they have the superior range," I ordered. Keeping my Flight's Lance projectors, their focusing apparatus and emitters, charged up did add wear to the system. My Flight would also have to fire soon or the entire apparatus would have to be refurbished. Storing that much arcane energy in a ready-to-fire state also meant that if someone got hit, a sympathetic detonation was more likely.

    It was a risk, but if I were in the enemy's hooves and I had superior range I would endeavor to keep my distance. Meanwhile, I wanted to close so those last Lances will have a better hit ratio.

    "Incoming fire," GreyDawn stated, her voice oddly cool. The tracks that appeared on the map made the massive arcane blasts look far slower and sterile than the danger they represented.

    "Evade. Evade. Evade!" I ordered, not because my Flight was not already scattering, but because it was part of our training.

    The three enemy Lances blinked across the distance to us. I was in the lead position. From my display, I gauged that two strikes would miss VioletBlood and Visha due to their jinking and sudden accelerations. The third was one to my left I could evade, but... after me, it would pass GreyDawn.

    And she, however, would have a far harder time evading. The Lance would miss. But with an arcane weapon designed to blow though capital ship protections, close was enough to kill a Ritual Plate. It would be almost far enough for GreyDawn's wards to protect her.

    Almost. Not enough.

    We had all moved the most we could and it was rotten luck that it would hit her. But... in another twist of luck, I was also positioned to do something.

    My reaction was automatic. I had an instant. I slammed to the side, Zephyr and wings screaming in pain. I dumped all my spare power, including my earrings, into my port-side wards. Silver light flared around me like a comet as I tried for just the correct intercept angle.

    Too close and I'd immolate myself, and not even save GreyDawn. Too far and I'd deflect but still blow myself up. I had to kiss the Lance with enough force to brush past and alter its deflection while not detonating it.

    I only needed a couple of degrees. And for a moment, my Wards screaming, alert lights flickering to orange and red, I thought I had it. The pressure on my Wards eased as I pulled away pushing my Zephyr to get maximum separation. My Display updated. Alarms were still blaring, but the Lance was racing past me on its new heading.

    And then it detonated.

    My Wards flashed over and then my alarms cut out and my display crashed. I tumbled with my suit burning and prickling agony as I fell.

    The worst was in my tail as it felt boiled-over and my wings had almost been blasted back. I had a splitting headache that felt like my horns had been pounded into my skull

    The pain was good. It meant I was alive. I started casting the ritual to restart my suit's systems. It was supposed to be an automatic process, but the procedure was for the pilot to do it as well. There was a squealing noise; something had torn away above my left hip. My suit smelled of hot metal fragments and burnt leather.

    And my display remained off.

    I could see out of my eye lenses but that was just barely enough for basic flying. Navigation, especially over water at night, required instruments.

    Though I only had until I crashed into the sea. I glanced down at a mechanical altimeter with its luminous dial in the corner of my vision. It was spinning down. Maybe I would be hit by the enemy, maybe I would have to ditch my suit. Other backups such as the compasses, aetheric and magnetic, and gyros were still operational.

    I tried restarting my suit again and this time a few indicator lights flickered on. They were a sullen amber instead of a bright green but it was something. Now able to be fed suit power, my Zephyr were coaxed back awake, they had been shaken but the spirits accepted the inputs. And then my display flickered back up and I winced.

    Half of my ward projectors were just... gone. My power systems were battered and I had damage to my Lances, but more worryingly one of my Ballista air to air weapons systems was out. At least I had ditched the Flasks and my Lance emitters were not charged. Even my Verutum launcher was down with both a fault in the fed mechanism of the pebble-like munitions and the power to the launcher itself severed.

    In all, my weapon choices were rather low. Worse, my suit was in strike configuration which meant I had a lower energy capacity with Ballista than if I were in fighter configuration.

    The map came up as my comms and scrying returned.

    "The enemy's slowing down," Visha noted. I saw her highlighting velocity and heading estimates on the Display.

    "They'll be trying to maintain distance and get a more accurate follow-up." I gasped, barely audible. My throat suddenly became very dry. I drank some water, thankful that system had not failed.

    "What about the countess?" VioletBlood demanded, apparently not hearing me.

    "She would want us to use this opportunity; she has time,' GreyDawn stated. "Mark your targets. If they'll give us that chance we will take it."

    The enemy strike suits should have given an immediate follow-up shot. But they waited a few seconds to get a better targeting. Having only hit one of us must have spooked them.

    They were angry and afraid. They had been thrown into a mission they had not expected and now, in this moment they thought they had us at their mercy. And so their strike RP slowed and took a steadier course. They took that extra time to ensure their targeting. Maybe they were afraid, maybe they were overconfident, but they forgot the most important part of air-to-air combat:

    "Fire," I ordered, my voice returning. I knew my input was not necessary. I had trained my Flight. My focus was on regaining my position, speed, and altitude.

    GreyDawn had beat me by a half second with her own command.

    The three fired, and this time their my Flight's last Lances targeting the three remaining Baptiste. Two were solid hits, one was a graze, but the suit flared and she jettisoned her own flasks.

    "Well done!" I congratulated as I caught up on the greater tactical picture. It was... hectic. Mercy's Flight was similarly mauling the small Trosic detachment chasing them.

    Quirinus' Flight, supported by nearly a squadron of Sarpedona that had been escorting the Spatha, was moving to intercept the remaining sixteen Baptiste before they could get in range of the Sunset. That was still a powerful strike package, especially against a freighter, and one that could also target smaller surface assets like a Mulberry Fast Attack Craft. But, due to our efforts, they only had a Flight of four Rocheforts escorting them.

    The Alecton forces were still in the fight. Though, it seems our allies had been wounded, as their cruiser had been damaged and was billowing smoke. The Trosic forces were pulling back but were under pursuit. They would have to break contact somehow if they wanted to make it to their submarines without endangering the u-boats.

    That was all beyond me and just taken in with a glance at my restored map data. Head still pounding, I focused on what mattered right now. I could feel everything sharpen and a bit of the pain dull as my suit's medical system responded.

    The enemy before us was now down to a Flight in strength. They had two damaged Rochefort, one that was fresh, and one damaged Baptiste with no Lances.

    Even with my own damaged suit... I was comfortable with those odds.

    The enemy managed to get a fairly coherent formation. They were well-trained enough and capable of taking losses, but they had to be in a bad state. Not just of their own fate but of the rest of their strike Escadron had been eviscerated. Admirably, they were still trying to keep us from reuniting with friendly forces.

    It was unfortunate that they had dedicated themselves to an already doomed task.

    With Visha in a protective spot at my wing, GreyDawn and VioletBlood formed up and led the assault targeting the two Pilots on the forward half of the somewhat out-dated elongated diamond formation.

    Opening fire with their Ballistas, they caught two damaged enemy suits and started soaking their wards. The enemy peeled off and flipped into a more aggressive stance.

    Cutting off from the rest of their Flight, I was not sure if they were trying to draw VioletBlood and GreyDawn away to protect the rest of their flight, but it was a risky move, damaged as those two Trosic Pilots were.

    The sole fully-intact enemy RP launched herself at me. I could appreciate the Rochefort Pilot's logic. At a glance, I would look like the easy target, and taking me out could be a quick way to get numerical superiority.

    That was the dire part about Flight-scale combat. The first casualty, then the second, could turn an even match into something prohibitively lopsided.

    But Visha was there; she took the lead, immediately firing and cutting off the enemy Pilot, nearly diving into knife-fighting range.

    I had a moment of indecision. The classroom correct choice would be swooping in to assist Visha. I was combat capable enough that I could contribute and two on one would make that fight much quicker.

    But then I saw the last Baptise trying to fly off. "We've got a runner," I said over the flight channel and went in pursuit of the errant strike suit.

    I chanced a quick gaze over my display, and noted that my Flight seemed to have things well in hand. The enemy RP, for all they were ably piloted, were getting more damaged with each passing second.

    Adjusting my Gorgon Rig, which was also damaged, I found that the fleeing pilot had dropped her emissions even lower. It was hard to tell if she was attempting stealth, or if her suit had been more badly damaged than I had thought?

    As best I could, given my own damage, I followed suit and cut down my emissions. The heading was strange. It was vaguely in the direction of the forces that Mercy and Quirinus were engaging. Was the pilot going to a rally point? Was she going to their enemy sub?

    A bit of anger flared within me. If that was the pilot's goal, then she was showing a treasonous level of cowardice. Ritual Plate was not the best at anti-submarine warfare. The suits had less capacity for underwater scrying and sonar systems and were not the best for carrying depth charges arcane or otherwise.

    But we could do airborne tracks and surface scans and we could call in VTOLs that were equipped with anti-sub capabilities.

    "She spotted me," I stated, giving in a little curse as her course changed just a bit and her Scrying swept over me. Both our suits were damaged enough that our Veils and other low observable systems were fairly shot. "Moving to intercept."

    I dove down. The range closed and I opened fire, only for my targeting system to malfunction and the indicator on my instrument display flicker off. Even after manually correcting, only a few of the arcane shots splashed against the enemy's wards. I would have to be careful; a cornered Pilot would fight with every weapon at hand.

    Rolling over, she fired back, and I pulled tighter into my curve to evade. Above, the battle was going well for the rest of my Flight. Quirinus' Flight and the Alecton sub hunters seemed to be having quite the field day, having a broken strike formation and forced the surrender of several pilots, and hinting multiple subs respectively.

    I flipped over and got tagged flaring my wards as the amber arcane energy blasts hit. Some hit the weak spot where my projectors had burned out and started hitting my armor.

    Darting, I took careful aim, making sure to lead to compensate, and fired. My remaining Ballista's capacity dwindled in the profligate burst, but I was rewarded with the enemy pilot's wards flashing out.

    Turning, she went into a powered dive that gained her speed but brought both of us closer to the ocean. I had to give her credit for her skills. Despite the damage to her suit and the fear I could begin to sense as our distance closed, she managed to pull her dive to prevent her from becoming an obvious target.

    Angling her shoulders back, she started firing off her own anti-mage weapons. Unlike the more complicated, but higher capacity, Verutum launcher, House Trosier Ritual Plate had a handful of single shot mortar-like launchers. They were rather similar to the pyrotechnics mortars I had used in the ballet troupe.

    Annoyingly, that comparison was proven far more accurate than I had anticipated as a brace of blinding, bursting explosions flashed in front of me. My helmet's eye lenses automatically closed, and my Veils were burned away as my Wards began to lose cohesion. The headache rooted in my horns increased as my display grew very sparse.

    I was just barely able to see that the Pilot had jackknifed in front of me, firing her own anti-air weapons. I powered through the blinding attack and, turning so that my side with the remaining projectors bore the brunt, returned fire.

    It was inelegant and brutish as we pummeled each other. Her targeting systems must have been damaged as well, given the spread of her fire. This close, I could tell that there was more than fear in my enemy; there was a bitter resignation.

    Setting my jaw, my lips pulled back I plummeted to her in a direct controlled dive. Alarms screamed around me, but I could tell by the overlapping tones that none of them were that critical.

    Taking an instant to steady my aim, I fired. I had to be careful. I was nearly empty. Ballista charges shot out, and the enemy's forward wards collapsed. I grinned when I saw part of the enemy's skull shatter and fly off into the night.

    My mood dampened when I realized that it was merely a piece of her helmet and the whole faceplate that had been torn away.

    I blinked. The Pilot was young, not much older than VioletBlood. And now her fear had turned into naked terror, but more than that, her radiating resignation had curdled into fatalistic despair.

    She had a shot but her gauntlet did not fire. Aching loss, loss of sisters, or near sisters, of family had made the young Pilot's emotions brittle, sharp. Well, if Quirinus was taking prisoners...

    "Surrender. Eject your suit. Parole will be granted," I said over an open channel in semi-memorized Akoccitan. The language of House Trosier was a Romance language so there was enough similarity to Silvan Latin to be confusing.

    At this low altitude, the Pilot could see her suit fall into the sea, which all but guaranteed that she was not surrendering military secrets to House BlackSky. She'd be able to soothe a guilty conscience, if any troubled her, that her surrender hadn't' cost her House anything it wasn't already going to lose.

    My Ballista was aimed over her as we closed in. Her eyes were wide and almost panicked. I wondered if her communications systems were down.

    But... she was no longer pointing her weapons at me and she did glance down at the sea below. Maybe she could see reason.

    We had slowed down, and she was hardly trying to shake me. The fight above us was nearly concluded. "Surrender; die," I repeated in Akoccitan, keeping target lock as my Wards recovered while hers seemed to stay down. "No difference for me."

    Feeling complete resignation, the young Pilot exhaled. Glancing back up at me, she whispered. Wings snapped inward and she plummeted.

    I almost fired as she pushed her Zephyr and went into a vertical dive.

    At this altitude, it did not take long.

    Even if she somehow survived impacting the water at that velocity, the weight of her suit quickly pulled her deep below the surface.

    I took a moment focusing my Gorgon Rig on the heaving sea to make sure this was not some... desperate way to reunite with her submarine.

    There was nothing there.

    And there was nothing I could do.

    It was all such a waste. Glancing at my Display, I cursed myself. I had gotten target-fixation and let my Flight down. That they had defeated their enemies was small comfort. Giving the sea one look, I ascended to get back to Visha and the others I also had to check in with Quirinus, though it looked like the air-to-air part of this battle was over.

    ++++++

    My feet treading the metal decking, I strode down the airship's long passageway with a confident step. There was the constant hum of the airship's various systems and the deck rocked ever so slightly. Nevertheless, I strode with the effortless confidence; I might be lower nobility, I might be young, but I was raised and trained from birth.

    A Legionary through and through, I rightfully felt that the Imperial Legions were superior to the Household Fleet. Also it was important for both my military and social rank to conduct myself with proper bearing. After all, the Imperatrix in her wisdom encouraged commoners, and nobles, to better themselves, both for their benefit and for our House's.

    And Countess DiamondDust was a prime example of just what sort of advancement was possible, if one had special drive and skill. And her elevation had pushed me to heights of ability and potential faster than I had dreamed.

    My future, my duty, seemed more secure than I dared hope... provided some savage Minor House missile crew or lesser Great House Pilot in an imitator's suit didn't get a lucky hit on me, of course. However, death was part of the Legions. It was something I tried not to think much about. If I died unwed my land and title would go to my cousin.

    But after months and months in a stinking FOB, it was nice to be aboard a true symbol of BlackSkyvian power. As a Nova Class Fleet Carrier, the Obsidian Corona carried two Wings of Ritual Plate. Granted, they were Fleet Pilots in Fleet Wings, each of only eight Squadrons, but combined with nearly two dozen Fujiwara torpedoes and two VTOL squadrons, the Obsidian Corona was a mobile force to impose our House's will upon our enemies.

    With all those assets, the Damocles Light Carrier and the Mace Destroyer in escort were almost an afterthought. And there were ships in the Household Fleet that made the Obsidian Corona seem insignificant.

    It was awkward to have some other Ritualista team strip me out of my armor, but the Fleet girls were competent enough and could do the repairs necessary on the countess' suit.

    I also had the chance to get my hair back up into my preferred curls. However, when I got out of the head's wash station, I found that my countess had wandered off after getting a medical check. She was not in the galley, or at least the one a deck above and two frames aft of the RP bay we had been assigned as overflow.

    However, the Islander girl was there having a snack. She was getting ready to play a game of chess. To her credit it would be a proper Diyu-style game. And she was a skilled enough aggressor in the skirmishing phase, and could use those extra points to get a favorable positioning on a full board in the second phase. Her picking a more knight and scouting heavy build was interesting, enough that GreyDawn rarely lost betting on her.

    I did stop by to talk with her, but mostly to get a cup of posca and a pork-filled pita. As expected, the Fleet galley had better meat, garum, and herbs. Now that we had access to better food, I was slightly jealous that the Islander could easily eat her fill without any noticeable effect on her physique, save perhaps further buttressing her admittedly formidable assets. But, that envy was tempered by our new alliance. Now that we had come to an understanding; she was dutifully helping me capture my countess's heart. Even a commoner like her could understand how my victory would benefit us both, I would wed the duchess' youngest daughter, and the Islander would become her mistress. I hadn't been so crass as to mention the last part out loud, but it was clear to me that she understood her place. Ultimately, a countess's mistress was a very reasonable role for one such as her, and the Islander had a passing adequate mind. Both commoner and noble would have our lives improved by this.

    Ultimately, I had to seek assistance from Prefect Quirinus before I found out where the Countess had hidden herself away. I suspected that GreyDawn and the Islander had known but opted not to tell me for some obscure reason. In the end, their obstinance, commendable though it might be, would not be enough to keep me from my quarry. After all, to hunt you must understand how the game thinks, and I understood the Countess. And so, I had known that she, being a stickler for the rules, would ensure that her commander knew where she was, and thus my success was assured.

    I strode confidently past some Marinii fleet ratings and then a couple of Centurions from Helm, Navigation, and Meteorology on their way to their duty stations. While I could afford to not notice the scurrying of the lower ranks, I did make a point of slowing to brace and expose my neck in a salute to a naval Tribune. Her white fleet uniform bore the insignia of the Powerplant and Propulsion Section, and judging by her weary emotions, limp tail, blank expression, and perfunctory returning salute, the amber-haired Tribune had just come off of shift. Judging by her tired resignation and complete lack of any hint of anticipation, she was off to attend some other duty instead of going to her rack and sleeping.

    After passing her, I went down several more frames until I got to Legionary Country. A Fleet Carrier was assigned a century of Legionaries for various security, search and rescue, shore patrol, and other roles. Being assigned to a Fleet airship was not a glamorous posting, but it did come with access to a good galley and superior bunking.

    All at the cost of possibly going down with the ship if an enemy attack got through the Combat Air Patrol and other defenses. I stopped and saluted the two Legionaries on guard. They were of lower rank but I was not saluting them; I was saluting what they were guarding. The Armory inside Legionary Country had its own security. However, this was an RP carrier; a saboteur had a wide variety of various alchemical fuels, detonators, and munitions to pick from all over the ship.

    "I'm here for Primus Centurion DiamondDust," I said, using a shortened name for the countess.

    The two Legionaries on guard looked me over. I was in the bodysuit and harness that went under my Ritual Plate and had taken time to put rank pins and awards into my hair after I redid my curls. I was not sure why the Countess normally eschewed such awards. The pins were a convenient way to wear one's awards when out of uniform.

    Or in this specific case, when only wearing the inner layer of flight armor. I suppose the countess could simply wear the Crown of the Preserver. Though why she had yet to commission one was beyond me.

    The two imposing Legionaries were taller and older than me. One was a grenadier, which, more than the weapon she had slung, meant she was skilled in combat magic. Not at the level of a Legionary Flier, or even a mage, of course but she would be destructive.

    The other had a standard Mark 36 battle rifle. Though the flashes on her uniform and her hair pins marked the lean woman as an Evocatus veteran on her second twenty-year term who had a few campaign ribbons also woven in her dark purple hair.

    However, both did bow their horns and with crisp salutes let me into their compartment. I might be a Pilot and a noble, but I was an Legion Pilot.

    Going through a small passageway with a few doors on either side, I entered a common room that was rather spacious. That was the advantage of the larger Fleet hulls. While weight was always a concern on an airship, vessels of this size had more volume to play with.

    There were a few posterboard prints, mostly landscapes though a couple portraits were rather risque, mounted on the walls and a few skeletal tables and light chairs. One side of the room had a nook that worked as a kitchen and a bar. Though one end of the room had a few pillows, some thick carpeting, and a pair of Ondani shepherds. The two large fluffy grey and black dogs, in contrast to their normally energetic nature, were at rest. One was drowsing while the other had a slack tongue and was happily having its ears scratched.

    With her own tail swishing, my countess was sitting on the floor between both of the dogs.

    I paused and watched her for a few moments. I had known her for years and the times she had let her guard down were rare and precious. Even before her ennobling, she tried to hold herself to strict standards of comportment. Her emotional control might not have been as skilled as she thought, but she made an attempt.

    I will admit at first I thought she was putting on airs and aspiring above her station, but the countess has proved me wrong in that regard.

    "Yes, LoveBlood?" she asked before turning to look at me.

    One of the big dogs woke up and shifted its muzzle closer to her and rolled to the side.

    "I wondered where you had gone."
    "The squadron's on stand-down," she stated. "We'll be debriefed soon enough."

    I stepped closer. "And you decided to come here?"

    "I was not hungry, and this way the inspection team's dog handlers can go to the galley and get some food."

    Keeping in a frown, I nodded. There was no reason that Legion working dogs would not be allowed in the galley. And that there were only two of the four dogs that had helped inspect the enemy freighter put lie to her statement. But I would let her have a face-saving white lie. "How kind of you. Such a burden to spend time with such handsome animals."

    On the upside, she had decided to spend time with dogs instead of some of the ship's cats. The felines were perfectly fine creatures and skilled at their jobs, but I appreciated the directness of dogs. They were also bigger. Though the working cats some legionary scout units used were elegant, and large enough animals.

    Tauria smiled and scratched both dogs on the neck.

    I circled around so she wouldn't need to crane her neck. We were not alone with the dogs - there were a few legionaries sitting around a table with raised edges, apparently playing a dice game. For common legionaries, they were admirably skilled at containing their emotions; to my senses, they felt almost flat. One of their little quartet was a Drow and smelled male. That was quite odd - an airborne posting was unusual for someone without wings.

    I supposed the Auxilia have some useful skills to justify his place here, instead of down in the mud of some jungle or another. The markings on his uniform indicated he was a combat engineer, which also seemed like an odd specialty for an airborne posting. Still strange specialties and muted emotions or not, they weren't any concern of mine.

    After all, both myself and the Countess outranked them, militarily and socially.

    "Are you worried about the debrief?"

    "Why should I be? Our squadron's casualties were light. Everyone should be back on duty soon," the countess stiffly stated.

    "Our squadron was lucky," I allowed. The other squadrons had heavier losses. Though the enemy...

    I was unsure. If our performance had displeased the countess she would have made it known. For the moment, I was at a loss as to why she had... sequestered herself. She had taken more damage but it was to ensure GreyDawn could fire her last Lance. In the cold calculus of combat it was a sensible sacrifice.

    The blonde gave me a weary look that for a moment made it hard to believe she was a year younger than me. Maybe that was why the quartet of dice playing Legionaries suddenly stank of pity, their emotional muting cracking just a bit. They did not understand the duties that fell upon their social superiors.

    I gave a haughty sniff as I pointedly turned away from the Legionaries; we were not some savage broodlings, dominated and drugged to the horns and used as shock fodder. We were young, yes, but we were highly trained cadets given special dispensation for active combat, as a sign of the Imperatrix's personal trust in us.

    "I do have some good news," I announced. "Reinforcements have arrived; you really should see it."

    "Why?"

    My tail swished. "It'll be a good surprise." Seeing the countess here having.... time to herself was trying, but she did have emotions and limits.

    "A surprise?" Tauria sighed.

    "I suppose it's less... tangible than playing with dogs," I knelt down and let one sniff my hand.

    "I like puppies."

    I patted the Ondani shepherd who eyed me curiously. "They're bigger than you."

    "Puppy," she repeated.

    "I can't argue with that," I admitted, noting how stern her expression was. "Is everything alright?"

    "Our squadron's injuries were light, and my Flight came off without any casualties. We took out a force or Trosic regulars that outnumbered us three-to-one," she stated.

    I felt she was holding back. For her that was normal. "But are you okay? Maybe you can ask the medico for a draught of laudanum?"

    The countess stared at me.

    "It's not recreational," I huffed. "If it's from a doctor, it's medicinal."

    Tail stiff, her expression hardened.

    "I'm not suggesting you drip it over a cube of Yomi sugar into some absinthe," I defended.

    "Oh? Pixie too weak, you want a full hallucinogen? Why not ask for some Vualian Marching powder to dust the rim of the glass," she dryly remarked.

    "Um..."

    "I am aware of the recipes Mercy and her wingwoman were swapping over our last R&R. Honestly, you have to learn that soldiers, especially Pilots, exaggerate. A drink like that could easily make you very sick. Really compared to all the other stuff, the wormwood has barely any effect."

    I tried to not look bashful. "So... you won't need any?"

    The blonde's gaze intensified. "I'll be fine."

    I nodded. "But not now?"

    She gave me a toothy smile. "You're being bold, Baroness."

    I exhaled and stilled my tail. "And I'm having a quiet word with my commander." I lowered my voice and glanced at the Legionaries who were carefully preoccupied with their dice game. "It's just the two of us." There would be no undermining her authority with her Flight and our Squadron.

    The countess slowly nodded.

    "Tauria, I've known you longer than everyone else in the Squadron. Well... myself and Prefect Quirinus."

    She stared at me.

    "You've got people to talk to," I stated.

    "I am aware of Legion counselors; I have had to talk to them before." The countess then pulled out a couple ship's biscuits and gave them to the dogs who started to happily crunch. "I'm sure that'll help me deal with my emotions," she dryly said.

    "But Countess, emotions are for commoners," I loftily said.

    She snorted.

    I sat down on the other side of one of the dogs from her. "You're distant." I paused. "More distant than normal."

    The countess's glare returned. Her gaze was very far for a moment. "I'm just struck by the waste of it all."

    I gave her a sympathetic pulse. I knew that was one of her issues. She was an ardent supporter of House BlackSky, and put herself at risk in the Legions, but she also knew that the Legions, Fleet, and Auxilia existed to support and protect the House and Empire.

    It was a question of resources: spend directly on the military or invest in growing industry, research, infrastructure, and arcana. Making the Empire more prosperous would allow for more spending for the military and more capability could be built. As the countess explained, it was the classic short term versus medium term versus long term investment issue.

    Running a barony, or a county, had similar concerns, if on a much smaller scale. The last correspondence I had with the seneschal I appointed to run my barony while I was deployed, and under age, indicated things were doing well enough. It was hard being a noble without much in the way of family. There was my cousin Lady LavenderFang, but she was even younger than I was.

    "I guess the Trosic Armada did take a lot of casualties to try, and fail, at sinking their own illicit freighter." I patted the dog who seemed to be eyeing me a bit less suspiciously.

    The tip of Tauria's tail curled.

    "It's not that?" I tilted my head.

    "Not exactly," Tauria looked down. "Your birthday is in three weeks." It was not a question, the countess had memorized a lot of information about those in the squadron, especially the Pilots, and Ritualista, under her command.

    "Yeah?" I was looking forward to my fifteenth birthday. Granted, I doubted we could get away with a weekend pass to somewhere nice, not with us having that beach trip a month ago. And the countess was willing to suffer a birthday at a jungle posting. It was the least we could sacrifice for the House.

    My family had sacrificed much: both my mothers and my older sister. Despite all that, the Barony of Lilla was prosperous and well-enough run. It had population and resources and was near good trade borders. Without me... well LavenderFang would grow with time.

    The countess sighed. "Our situation is abnormal."

    I shrugged. I had been a cadet and been alone since I was twelve and the countess was only a year younger than me. My jealousy of Tauria had turned into admiration.

    Her parents had also died for House and Empire. And if a commoner like her could become a noble and run a Flight and a county then I had no room to complain about the obligations of station. If I had to give up the independence of Barony Lilla by making it part of the Duchy of Argenia then I would take that.

    I would simply have to make sure that one of my broodlings, sired with my countess of course, was appointed to take my family's Barony, and her line would continue to hold it. In a way I envied the Islander Girl's simplicity. She just had to keep loyalty to the House, Empire, Legions, and the countess. She served diligently and would be rewarded for it.

    "We are very good Pilots," I stated.

    I could have abdicated and simply been another fantastic ace Pilot. But I would not willingly place such a burden on my little cousin, nor would I risk my barony's subjects being put under someone who was not ready. There was only so much even the most competent a seneschal could mitigate before things started to slip.

    "That Baptiste Pilot wasn't." Tauria's voice was quiet as she petted the dogs.

    "Which one?"

    The Countess exhaled. "At the end, when the rest of the scratch squadron sent to take us had been whittled down to a Flight, she wouldn't surrender. The others made the sensible choice, but not her. Maybe it's because we had killed the rest of her Flight, but instead of surrender, she chose to dive straight into the sea."

    I tilted my head. "And?"

    The blonde's pout grew. "If she had surrendered, she could have waited until the next prisoner exchange. Such a waste."

    I nodded. "Yes, Grand Admiral Trosier did spend a lot getting her trained up, and if she was young she could not have spent much time on missions to recoup that value. Where if she surrendered eventually she would be repatriated and maybe could spend her time and her life in a more useful way for the Armada."

    The countess snorted. "Close enough."

    I frowned. There was more to life than military service, at least for us. House Trosier was nowhere near as civilized as we were.

    "I do have something you might like," I offered.

    The countess eyed me. "Did you bring food? Or coffee"

    I kept in my frustration. I should have gotten something for her when I was talking to the Islander girl. And she just said she was not hungry.

    "We can get that on the way to an observation deck."

    The countess tilted her head; her errant blonde bangs bouncing about.

    "A Celestial Class arrived," I said triumphantly. The largest class of airship in the Household Fleet was a sight to see.

    The Countess seemed appropriately impressed or at least incredulous. "Is..."

    I laughed. "No, it's not the Vault of the Heavens. The Imperatrix isn't here or at least her personal flagship hasn't arrived. Interestingly, it's the Lunar Firmament from the Third Fleet."

    "Interesting," the Countess flatly said, as she went back to petting the dogs.

    "It is." I rallied. "The Celestial Spheres, being detached to Vordurium, has more experience with heavy naval transport and recovery. Maybe it's on some other mission, or under a bit or minor refit. Last I heard, it was on active duty, but these are maintenance-intensive airships. And thus the Firmament teleported down from the quick reaction fleet up on Lantia."

    "Wait? What exactly is the Firmament here for?" she seemed to be intrigued.

    I popped to my feet. "I can tell you, but that would spoil the surprise."

    The countess rolled her shoulders and fluffed her wings. Her feathers were somewhat exotic, but their color combined with her blonde hair and white horns was what gave her a dangerously angelic look.

    "You can stay here. It's not like a chance to see a Celestial is all that unlikely." I glanced over. The Legionaries playing dice were hardly the only people I had seen who were off duty and seemed disinterested.

    The countess tapped her chin. She looked delicate, with a classic Florentine style, if heavenly, beauty but that was contrasted, no it complemented, her iron will and those sapphire eyes. I wondered if our daughters would have feathers.

    "I guess that explains why a fleet carrier of all things was sent in. Taking out a Celestial would be a major blow to our heavy lift capacity," she said.

    I nodded. "Not to mention our ability to deploy a whole Legion with one airship."

    Between my wings down to the base of my tail chilled as the Countess' cold attention focused on me. "That is the least noteworthy capability of that class. We have many airships that, collectively, can deliver a Legion but few with such an extreme carrying capacity."

    "Well, it's not here to deliver a Legion," I said as I quickly stood up.

    The countess gave a chill smile. "Oh? Now, you have my attention."

    "I can show you!" I assured as my tail swished behind me.

    Standing up, she patted the dogs.

    ` "Who shall watch them?" I asked, spotting a flaw in my plan. The two shepherds looked up at me with perked up ears. They were very well-tempered dogs. That the countess liked dogs did give me some ideas.

    "Optio Claudius!" the Countess barked out.

    One of the Legionaries looked up from the dice game. She had braided silver hair and looked to be a designated markswoman. "Yes, Primus!"

    "Can you watch the dogs of the rest of your Contubernium?"

    She relaxed a bit. "Of course, Primus."

    The countess spread her hands to me.

    She must have read my expression and the unease I was broadcasting.

    "Come now, I was watching these good boys so the Optio could concentrate on her game."

    I simply nodded along.

    "Lead the way, LoveBlood." Giving the dogs a last pat and a set of treats, the countess headed to the main passageway.

    "It's not long, just a few frames forward of here," I explained.

    "You're familiar with the layout of the Nova Class?"

    I tried not to flush at her approval. "I have a basic familiarity with the Fides Fleet size hull that the Novas are constructed from as well as the other basic airship hull sizes."

    I could feel the countess's attention on my back between my wings. "Ah. Any concentration on ship types?"

    "I'm working my way through all the classes!" I assured. "I'm just focusing on the troopships, Long Range Insertion craft, and RP carries."

    I relaxed, feeling her approval. "Good. Keep it up."

    Soon, we got to an alcove with ladders that went up and down. There was a hatch on the deck that could seal off to the level below us, and another hatch above us.

    "After you," the countess said after waiting for the ladderway to clear. "It is commendable for you to have put in the effort to study such things."

    I shrugged and went down. "Most of our airships have a similar overall layout."

    "I am aware," I could feel her amusement. "An Embarkation Deck is vital for any Fleet Airship. Where else will you have space for various VTOL, RP, Torpedo, cargo and vehicles to be landed, stored, and launched?" the Countess asked.

    I flushed a little bit once we reached the Embarkation Deck. "Yes, but that means that the main deck above this one has to have everything else: all the powerplant, engineering, crew berths, galleys, control, storage of consumables for the airship."

    "This isn't an exam, Baroness," the blonde chuckled.

    My tail froze. "Of course... but still. Larger airships, like this one, have another deck higher up with yet more berthing and storage. Part of my studies were to find out which airship classes had large enough trim ballast tanks that they could double as..."

    The countess let me trail off awkwardly. "Double as?"

    "Well... swimming pools," I admitted. "They have to be set up as them, and lack size. There's also saunas and the like."

    She chuckled. "Recreation is important, especially for long-duration missions. Doubly so when considering Fleet sensibilities. And I have seen the moral boosting value of swimming."

    I tittered at that.

    "And above?" the countess asked with a wicked gleam in her eye.

    "It's an airship." I dryly said.

    "Pretend this is an exam," she stated evenly.

    I exhaled. "Well, further up, are the lifting sections and structural frames. That's where the gasbags, Teleportation Runes, warding projectors, dorsal point defenses, many of the propulsion pods, various power trunking conduits and damage control systems are all placed. There's even a dorsal observation deck, but it's about 50 yards above us."

    She tsked at me. "You did not fancy a dozen story hike?"

    "I did not want to waste too much of your time?" I offered. "Still, there's an irony that we're in an airship, especially a Ritual Plate carrier, and we can't fly inside."

    The countess sighed as she followed behind me. "Those would be some very wide passageways to fly in."

    I nodded. "I mean, yes..."

    "What did you learn? Beyond the basic summary?"

    "If something goes wrong up here or an airship gets hit then Damage Control would be an all-hands affair. Fleet Doctrine is well set up and drilled but there's a point where it switches from containment and repair to a delaying action to allow for evacuation." I glanced down at the deck.

    The compartment we were in was starboard amidships. It was a storage and standing area with pass-throughs that linked up the VTOL hangar to the aft and the starboard RP Bays forward.

    She looked out onto the Well Deck that was inboard on the centerline. The cavernous opening gaped with the Guardia Sea visible thousands of feet below us. In the roof of the Well Deck were a series of overhead cranes that allowed for small airships and large VTOLs to dock and also allowed for the loading and unloading of cargo.

    "You raise a good point. Each Household Fleet ship has a layered defense which comes at an expense in power, warding projectors, RP Combat Air Patrol, and escort airships. It all increases survivability. And yet if a hit gets through... I mean that Alecton Howe Class cruiser weathered a lot more damage than one of our airships could."

    I nodded. "That's why Fleet Doctrine is to use standoff capability as much as possible."

    "And yet precious tonnage is spent on those," the Countess gestured to the overhead cranes. There were a variety of types and capacities. "Not the docking fixtures for airships and heavy VTOLs but the ones that can lower cargo. A bit of a risk, no?

    I knew despite her assurances, the countess was still testing me. She was challenging like that. My tail swished, I would not let her down.

    "Yes, in a combat zone there are many problems with hovering an airship, lack of supplemental dynamic lift and making a large, relatively slow-moving airship into a low altitude and non-moving target are two biggest. One can use the Well Deck to lob supplies via guided parachute with a bit less risk. But this capacity is mostly for loading and unloading at secure locations, especially bases."

    She smiled. "We'll make a logistics Tribune out of you yet, LoveBlood. Please continue. Why not just land an airship at a base?"

    I gave my own, somewhat forced, smile. "Sometimes landing is prudent, especially for a long-term docking and a maintenance check. But for a quick loading or unloading, it's less time-consuming to hover near the surface, with or without guide cables. And using the cranes has a greater throughput than using workhorse Umbra Medium VTOLs to ferry supplies."

    "Which is the common use for a combat cargo transport?" she asked.

    "Yes, the Umbra is useful in that role. It keeps the Motherships safer and it is easier for us Pilots to escort a group of dropships. And... " My tail stilled.

    "And?"

    "And in your words... both us and medium VTOLs are 'more numerous and less labor-hour and resource-intensive assets'. We're more expendable than a Fleet Airship."

    The countess laughed. "Good! Now you understand how logistics is not some dry and dusty subject, it informs our doctrine, strategy, and tactics. And how it ends up with us being sent on risky missions."

    I nodded to her. "Still, it does contribute to how Legionaries see Fleet officers," I quietly said as we walked down the compartment.

    The countess shook her head at the rivalry between the Houses' two dominant service branches. We went aft and inwards to a set of stairs that went down below the Embarkation Deck. "It is a factor. Though it also can influence how Fleet Pilots see their superiors," she noted in a low voice.

    We had arrived at one of the ventral Observation Decks. The platform was only half a deck lower, but the reinforced windows that were angled up from the deck gave a panoramic view. On each of the four sides of the platform were large caissons that held some of the landing jacks.

    "What do you know about the mechanisms of landing an airship of this size?" the countess asked.

    "I know it's a very carefully done affair that required coordinating hundreds of air spirits and propulsion systems, retracting the airship's ventral aft fins, many of the lower propulsion pods, and extending dozens of landing jacks to take the weight of the airship on the ground," I stated, looking at the reinforced caisson which contain the whole mechanism for extending the landing pads.

    "That's a start," she admitted, giving me a somewhat approving look. "Perhaps we should make a study of it. It's fascinating given an airship normally has great control of its buoyancy. Other than major refits, even a landed airship will still retain a fair degree of lift."

    I merely gave an agreeable nod and emotional pulse. Doubtless, the countess had already researched the subject looking for flaws in our doctrine, things an enemy could exploit. If not for her skills as a Pilot and aggressive command style, she would be perfect as some dusty researcher in the capital's War College.

    The Observation Deck was surprisingly open. I would have expected more people would be enjoying the view.

    The atmosphere was fairly quiet on the platform, as the couple Fleet ratings on observation duty gave gimlet looks to any of the other crewwomen who got a bit too loud. The observers were using various binoculars and scopes and had a direct connection to local Flight Ops and the airship's defensive coordinators.

    Their main role was to serve as a backup for the Obsidian Corona's scrying systems and to give a live visual confirmation of what was going on around the airship. This was most acute on the observer who was facing aft, quietly giving range readings on a VTOL that was approaching from the stern.

    I noted that while the other guests were focused on... well the reason we were here, the countess's attention was on the approaching Umbra and did a scan of the sky and water below us.

    Her expression was controlled and her tail moved slowly. For a moment I wondered if it would have been the best to stay with her and the dogs.

    After a moment, she turned starboard looked out at gargantuan construct hovering at a lower altitude.

    "That is a big airship," the countess admitted, tail still, and a bit of grudging admiration in her voice.

    "The largest and heaviest flying object on Diyu," I said with pride.

    The Celestial Class was built along the lines of the larger airships in the Household Fleet. Multiple parallel hulls, three in this case, ventral Embarkation Deck, with a central Well Deck, large maneuvering fins, and propulsion pods in the aft.

    It was just on a breathtaking scale. Part of its escort, a Mellona Medium Carrier, and a Maul Cruiser were in the vicinity and were, at a quarter the length, puny in comparison.

    "It's not quite a white elephant," the countess grumbled, using one of those exotic turns of phrase she would occasionally lapse into. "In terms of expense..."

    "There are only four Celestials in class."

    The countess shrugged. "I suppose. And there are some things that only one of them can do. But it's just so many resources and value in one location. I mean compared to this ship.. "

    I smirked at her implied question and took in the sight before us. "Two thirds of a mile long, the Lunar Firmament is two and a half times longer than the Obsidian Corona."

    A couple weathergirls who had also been sightseeing looked over to us.

    Preening a bit, I continued. "Using three larger lifting hulls instead of two smaller hulls, it has twice the width and height of this fleet carrier. In many ways, it's easier to think of a Celestial as less an airship and more a mobile garrison and base, given it has a footprint equivalent to... six... eight... city blocks? "

    The countess bowed her horns to me.

    Her approval was measured, but it was a start.

    "It is still a lot of eggs in one basket." A bit of her melancholy at waste and loss crept back into her. I wondered if she would have felt better if I had been the one to kill that final enemy Pilot and saved the countess the trouble.

    "Yes, but that has some advantages of scale. That frankly ridiculous size allows for a truly massive airship that has over eight times the gross lift capacity of this fleet carrier."

    I pointed to the Alecton Howe class missile cruiser that was steaming on the sea as part of the surface ship compliment. The fires had been put out and the ugly column of black smoke had dwindled to wisps. "The Lunar Firmament outweighs that vessel by a couple thousand tons."

    "It's also several times larger," the countess noted. "And a much bigger target. A much more expensive and valuable target."

    "But more mobile. And while much of that mass goes structural weight, power, propulsion, crew and crew facilities, fuel, water, provisions, a Celestial has as many RP as the airship we're on, three times as many Torpedoes, plus a Torpedo Bomber squadron."

    I gave a fanged smile. "And with enough left-over capacity to move over four thousand tons of supplies. These ships act as mobile depots and with a Teleport Gateway can function as a continually replenished forward staging area."

    The countess shook her head. "Four Bacchus Class heavy cargo ships have the same capacity and are far cheaper. Or use two with Atlas Lift Packages. Not to mention, the Fleet has over a hundred Bacchuses. Everything has a trade-off, Baroness. There is no perfect solution. What is the real value of a Celestial? Where does it fit in the Fleet?"

    I tried not to fret. "The ventral Well Deck is large enough to act as a mobile dry-dock for any airship smaller than this fleet carrier? A Celestial can also move all but the largest of ships in the Fleet's naval assets such as a submarine pack or transport a Jarngreipr frigate or any other large and oversized bit of equipment. Which gives a high-speed strategic lift capability for transport on Diyu or off-world."

    "And cases such as this?" the countess inquired as she looked closer. She glanced over to one of the observers and I could see her ponder on asking for a set of binoculars.

    "The Firmament is at a quite low altitude and speed isn't it?"

    The countess frowned. "And there are a lot of VTOLs and a few Mulberries doing work right under it." She blinked. "I can't quite make out the flags but... I think there are divers in the water, maybe an AngelShark mini-submarine."

    The two Tempestarii tittered. "We're taking a Trosic submarine!"

    My tail flicked. The surprise was ruined.

    She exhaled. "Bold move. Interesting that the Primus Anchorage had a lifting gantry ready to go."

    "Is it?" I put on a coy smirk. "The Celestial has extra heavy lift capacity and from the moon of Lantia can appear anywhere on Diyu. That seems to be an ideal place to store various underwater recovery assets. I did say Voduri was the main place, but 3rd Fleet should have been my next guess. "

    Tail swishing, she bowed her horns to me. "Very true. And with a sunk submarine... The coastal waters are fairly shallow here. Yes, there's an intelligence operation to conduct. Good thing we're already on stand-down."
    "And maybe a rescue operation?" I asked.
    The countess shrugged. "A Murat class pocket submarine carrier has a crew of?"

    I blinked as my tail flicked. "About sixty, plus another fifty Ritualista for Demi-Wing of Ritual Plate. Call it a hundred fifty?"

    "Three Light Squadrons of nine Baptistes strike suits each escorted by A Squadron of Three Heavy Flights of five Rochefort air superiority each; a standard Trosic Strike Escadron of forty-two RP," The countess absently corrected.

    "I know that! I was just fighting them." I huffed. "As a unit made up of multiple squadrons of distinct RP suits, our Demi-Wing is the closest to their Escadron in size and role."

    A Demi-Wing could range from four Squadrons to six Squadrons depending on if one was using a Fleet or Legion size of Wing. In terms of overall capacity, the Murat was between one of our light and medium RP carriers, ignoring that our RP carriers were airships and the Murat was a submersible ship.

    She bowed her horns to me in apology.

    "Well, I doubt any pilots went down with the ship." Her expression warmed. "Don't be too nervous. Our intelligence is an estimate, as it's a newer class. Having one to take apart would be a boon. Especially since one of their Murats got away and that missile u-boat was reduced to small bits of wreckage. I did hear these little subs are quieter than a typical Trosic sub."

    I snorted. The Murat was maybe fifty percent heavier than a Wobbegong class, the larger of our House's two main submarine classes. "Fine. House Trosier's submarines are not bad, but they are not as stealthy as ours."

    "Being smaller allows for that. And, with a smaller sub fleet, we can afford more stealth systems per boat."

    "And the Torsic Armada's new, and smaller classes, were a move in that direction. Still... they have only one Ritualista per RP plus what ten extra? So few maintainers really does limit their operational capability."

    "Based on our experience, yes," the countess agreed. "Our thinking is that the decreased hull size would be detrimental to a submarine that has Ritual Plate as its primary offensive weapon. And we have an even higher ratio of Ritualista to Pilots on our subs."

    "Our own submarines are the opposite; we use Torpedoes, both the big Fujiwara aerial torpedoes and aquatic Kaitabha torpedoes as our primary weapons while the RP complement is smaller and supplemental." I frowned. Serving on a submarine would be challenging. Beyond the cramped conditions and limited maintenance, launching and recovery were fraught for a variety of reasons. It was galling to admit, but House Trosier might have more experience and capability with amphibious RP launch and recovery.

    "Their operational tempo must suffer," I added.

    "House Trosier's airship fleet is far smaller than ours and built around a patrol and small-scale air assault. They don't have the scale of airborne carriers we do. And their own large seaborne carriers are formidable but require extensive protection."

    "And we can still sink them with a Telephe or Torpedo strike," I smirked.

    "Possibly," the countess allowed before going back to the Celestial Class. "It seems the Murat is intended as a relatively inexpensive way to get a respectable strike package near enough to a target, launch said strike, make an attack run then slip away and attack later. I don't think they intend to have them do round the clock missions. That would expose them too much. Meanwhile, our airships require the capability to have a persistent RP defense which requires constant use, which increases the number of Pilots, suits, and Ritualista."

    "They sank a Mulberry and damaged that Alecton cruiser but at the cost of, what, half their Pilots and a submarine?"

    The countess shrugged. "If that Howe were not here this would be a different story. Or if they just focused on the Howe they could have sunk it. Still it's not a great exchange. There's also the flaw with any RP strike mission. Unless your escorts defeat the target's air assets or you break contact you'll bring the enemy back to your Mothership."

    Her face twisted into a frown. "Though I suppose a full Escadron is still cheaper than a Murat."

    "They'll learn from it," I spat. "House Trosier hates Alecto enough. I wonder if that's why we're recovering that submarine and pulling off the crew."

    "As for the rescue operation, that's what our AngelShark mini-subs are for. And if anyone got out using the escape trunks. It's a bit risky at that depth, but if they have the right hydromancers they could mitigate things." She shook her head.

    "It is a waste," I stated, taking a bit to relish the approval from the countess.

    In contrast to her feelings, the blonde gave me a sympathetic look as if she did not fully believe me. "Even if you don't value them as thinking beings with intrinsic value, us trading them back to House Trosier can be a diplomatic token. Given, they fired on us and we sank some of their subs." She exhaled. "And nearly killed a wing of their pilots.

    "This wasn't even the largest submarine that was sunk."

    "No, but it's the one that has survivors on it."

    "Who doubtless sabotaged everything of value we could learn."

    She waved a hand. "Yes, yes, codebooks, communications systems, and critical artificer tools. They might even scuttle the whole sub, have the last officer blow a magazine and go down with the ship."

    "It's a risk," I soberly stated. "Vengeful Trosic curs. They fight for dominion while we fight for honor."

    I felt her incredulity spike before she got herself under control. "Each of us fights for what she lacks the most," the countess murmured.

    I gave her an inquiring but respectful look and emotional pulse.

    "Ah, LoveBlood, an officer of the Armada is many things but she sees herself as upholding the will, the word, of her Grand Admiral. Before we rescued the crew, we would make a deal for the captain, or the senior surviving officer's parole. If she breaks that parole by scuttling her boat?"

    I gasped. "They could do such a base thing?"

    "Perhaps, especially if a Minor House were trying to take their ship. That would be an insult to their pride. And by letting them destroy any truly sensitive documents, we let them save face." The countess shook her head. "The only thing worse than these games of polite fiction atop a bloody-handed war is a war without them."

    My tail curled in curiosity. The countess was a student of history, and not just that of Diyu.

    "Do you think that will work? Letting House Trosier keep some of their honor?" I nearly spat out the last word.

    "Possibly, or maybe these were the first shots of a Fourth Great House War." She knelt down. "I almost want to sign out my suit and try to get part of a patrol that'd be closer. But it's still being patched up. Optio Gibbs will insist on inspecting the Fleet Ritualista's work."

    "You won't be able to get close; a Celestial has a pretty large restricted airspace," I noted.

    Tail curling, she nodded. "Ah, there goes the lifting gantry."

    We watched with the others as a long crane-like structure with several pairs of grasping arms along its length lowered out of the bottom of the Lunar Firmament. It was about a thousand feet long and the size of a mobile drydock.

    A cluster of Ritual Plate was around it at a safe distance, helping guide it to the cleared patch of water. Slowly, inexorably, it sank beneath the waves

    "The stabilization required to keep the crane, cabling, and airship from drifting off target." The countess shook her head, but I could feel her gratitude to me.

    I quirked a smile. The strangest things impressed her. But the important part was that I had found one, and got to experience it with her. I had learned much from my time with the countess, lessons that would prove well for our future together.


    ++++++

    I stepped outside into the hot, bright light and wished I had my hat on. I know the floppy sun-hat was seen by many of my squadron as a silly affectation, but it was practical. Still, I was a Volantes Prefect Centurion in command of an elite squadron and I did have to project the proper values of an Imperial Legion senior Centurion.

    This was especially true for the two youngest members of my squadron. I had managed to train those nobles from cadets to combat Legionary Fliers and had seen them handle a hitch in a somewhat unpleasant posting. Though there were worse places to be than a FOB in some Crocelli jungle.

    But they would learn that. Right now, I would let them enjoy being back on a well-provisioned base. Though, this collection of barracks, bunkers, hangars, runways, and tarmacs was not exactly a scenic place. It did have enough facilities, and a local town, that our baroness could have a belated birthday celebration. Which would double as the squadron's "going home" party.

    I was a supporter of the cadet program. It was a great way to grow talent and build a cadre of Pilots who would have more training time that would serve them well when they were old enough for active duty. It was useful when, for whatever reason, the Pilot Corps found a need to expand or had a shortage of Flight Leaders.

    However, I had opinions on the subject of letting such cadets join active service at a younger age. As a general matter, it undercut the primary aims of the cadet program, giving pilots more experience, and cut into the supply of new Pilots. Used en masse, it was like eating one's seed corn. Yes if one had to, one may avoid immediate starvation, but at the cost of the next year's crop.

    And yet, giving a bare handful of cadets special dispensation to an early active posting would not make a statistical difference. The Imperial Legions needed about six hundred new Pilots every year. With that much grist for the mill, what did it matter if a couple cadets were dropped in early?

    While my approval was not required, the brass horns did talk to me about the Countess and the Baroness. The propaganda value of her exploits aside, including her ennoblement, I could have stopped all this with a negative review on their performance.

    I paused to glance up as a couple VTOLs came in and went to slow and land. I was approaching a cluster of buildings that served as an arcade. There were a few shops, a Legion and Fleet bank, a few proper restaurants, and even a couple guild-bonded brothels.

    But I had trained DiamondDust. I might not know what she was capable of, but I had a better idea than anyone else. Which was why I made sure she was under my command.

    I will not deny that there were other considerations. Being adopted by a duchess, one who was a patron of many pilots and had her own mercenary squadron and other interests meant I have to consider other issues when dealing with young DiamondDust. It was not without upside. Her innovative interpretation of regulations and connections meant I was able to upgrade my Squadron from half Polydora suits to all Polyxo.

    Some amount of court politics was inevitable in the Legions, but it was a bit more acute among Ritual Plate Pilots. Part of it was that it was a high status position, both in rank, the lowest Pilot was a Centurion, and social status. There was a reason cadets were disproportionately nobles or had noble patrons.

    The countess was a prime, if exceptional example, of how patronage, skill and glory could turn into lands and a title. Doors had been opened to her. Granted, much of that was due to her drive and ability, but being a countess, with all that entailed, and a bearer of the Preserver Crown gave her that extra push. Additionally, that DiamondDust had gotten the attention of multiple Librarians, and a Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance Officer gave her yet more avenues of networking.

    Invidia was a snake, but in a way that was more honest than the Librarians who used masks of perky smiles. Adjusting the leather valise, I exhaled. That was not my concern. I had done my best to mentor Primus DiamondDust, I had a lot of help, and I felt the results were better than I feared. Though now, she was going off to Silvana where she could make yet more connections.

    I did wonder if the assignments of my squadron, mostly Minor Houses south of Diyu, was in part to keep DiamondDust in active, respectable, but somewhat obscure postings. Helping protect a series of mines and a refinery complex to ensure that Standard Alchemical Products and Alecton Duraluminum had a steady supply of rare metals critical for the production of military enchantments was important but it was not something that would make you a darling in the capital.

    I smiled. Well, from my experiences in Silvana, the quiet but important salons and gentlewoman's clubs would find our efforts here to be very useful. So-called Sword Nobles, mistresses of industry, and officers who understood logistics were the reason we were out here after all.

    As I got closer, the smell of fruitwood and charcoal became more prominent. It was a pleasant contrast from the alchemical stink that was around most air bases. We had been spending more and more time here as my Squadron's term was ending.

    We did periodically return to FOB EmeraldInferno, especially to give follow-up training to the Squadron that had replaced mine. They were skilled enough, and the lesson plan, complete with intel briefings, procedural updates, and training scenarios, DiamondDust had come up with should hold them in good stead.

    My subordinate even had the good grace to restrain her prideful reaction when I informed her that the in-theater Volantes Tribune had agreed to propagate her training supplement to all the Legion Pilots under her.

    It was another ribbon in her hair. And I was relieved that a nine-month slog of a jungle posting, including the mess last month when a simple merchantman interdiction turned into open combat with Trosic Ritual Plate, had not eroded Primus DiamondDust's adherence to proper procedure.

    She had performed her usual best in splintering the enemy attack and, along with Mercy's Flight, stripping the strike force of escorts, though not without some trauma accumulation.

    I stepped up to what was a reasonable simulacrum of a cafe. The chairs and tables were all mismatched and the sliding doors that linked the interior to the patio section were obviously reclaimed from another building. But the smell of coffee, of frying meat, a smokehouse, and pastries was welcoming. There was a metal drum oil smoker to the side of the building merrily puffing out clouds of fragrant smoke. Centurion Shadow was right, DiamondDust was here, but she was not alone.

    The diminutive Pilot perched on a metal chair that despite being the smallest in the house was too large for her. In contrast, her companion's chair, the largest there in the ramshackle cafe, was too small for the massive shaggy-pelted Forest Person wedged between the armrests.

    Ah, so she was saying her goodbyes to the Auxilia Scout she had befriended. I waited at a respectful distance as it seemed they were wrapping up. I wondered if it was a personal matter or something that dealt with how the Auxilia, Lares I believe he was named, lived within DiamondDust's county.

    It was good that she was balancing the responsibilities of her stations. I was bestowed an honor name for gallantry, I was not burdened with any lands to administer, and that was something I was glad for. While my responsibilities to the House have increased, I was not eager to get further involved in the games of nobility.

    However, I would not spurn the advantages such connections would bring. DiamondDust's wrangling and trading did upgrade my squadron. And those Polyxo suits were a considerable factor for me losing as few Pilots as I did in this posting. Her help with the squadron's training in general and the performance of Flight 3 in particular were also great benefits.

    I would miss them.

    Lares had stood up and I kept my surprise in as they shook hands. Physical contact, even for a farewell denoted a closeness that was... unexpected. Yes, DiamondDust was a terrifying little thing, but she was always within the letter of regulations. Moreso this was another bit of evidence that she did have emotions and could get close to people. That was reassuring; it was rare but there were some among our kind utterly without empathy. Many could function well enough in a combat role. That is until they did not.

    She had bonded well with the other members of her Flight. That was not surprising. She had been a cadet with, and in the same ballet troupe as, the baroness. They had grown comfortable over time, and even the young Pilot from Amber Island did little to derail that. Even GreyDawn, an obviously sober, experienced voice, had helped gel the Flight into an effective formation. Though she did seem amused by the antics of the young noble Pilots. I know GreyDawn had made a fair amount of coin wagering on that and other actions.

    Including the various schemes that DiamondDust came up with.

    Maybe this was part of one of the countess's business plans. She had made mention of mushroom farming, fisheries, and other novel ways to get some extra business for her county. I did note a bit of trepidation on the Forest Person's part.

    It was amusing; he towered over her and could effortlessly pick the little blonde demon up, and yet he was utterly respectful of her, and as cautious as if she were live ordnance. No... as if she were old munitions, improperly stored old munitions, that had started to sweat-out the more evocation-based alchemical components and had acids start to eat the stabilizers.

    I could not fault him for his caution. But I still had a tiny smile as he gave a head bow to her, which she returned and then walked away, just slow enough to make it look like he was not fleeing her.

    I gave the young countess a few moments to collect herself before I approached

    Her wings fluttered with a bit of shock when she noticed me, but she recovered her composure admirably. "Prefect Centurion Quirinus, what can I do for you?" she said as she got to her feet and saluted.

    She wore the tropical variant of her dress blacks. The shorts did give some relief in the heat, though combined with the tall boots she wore and the long-sleeved tunic with cuffs only folded up to mid-forearm did have her match the regulations perfectly. On her short frame, it made the young pilot look faintly absurd and more like she was a still a cadet or wilderness camper dressed for a jamboree.

    There was a reason many RP Pilots took to wearing a field jacket over their inner flight suit even in situations where it was technically against regulations. On the upside, DiamondDust was no martinet; at a FOB or other deployable position she would dress practically, citing regulations allowing for readiness status. However that meant other times she would dress up with full polish, pins, and ribbons.

    It was to her advantage that the Crown of the Preserver only needed to be worn as a crown with the most formal of uniforms. Under most other cases the award could be worn as a choker clasp.

    Keeping a sober face, I returned the salute. "Just a moment of your time," I said, before flagging down a waitress and asking for some coffee for myself. Despite just having had brunch, the meat from the smoker was tempting.

    "Of course," DiamondDust said in a professional tone that was at odds with her youthfulness and diminutive size. "May I ask what this is about, Ma'am?

    I put the valise on the ground and pulled out a slim portfolio. "We both know you have a future in the Legions."

    Despite her calmly sipping her drink, DiamondDust's tail flicked about wildly. "I serve the House to the best of my abilities."

    I dropped the portfolio in front of her. "This is an informal talk so there's no need for false modesty." The waitress came back and gave me a cup. I bowed my horns to her and drank some of the coffee. Unlike the countess, I was fine with the mid-grade stuff which in this case was some surplused Fleet Issue.

    She exhaled. "What is this about?"

    "An offer for your next posting." I pushed the portfolio to her .

    There was the most tiny bit of hesitation before she opened it. Her eyes scanned the text of the memo and looked at the seals and despite her emotional self control I could feel... resignation. "The Imperial War College," she stated, with a thoughtful aspect.

    I sipped the coffee. The brass-horns thought that was a good step before promotion, and I knew that the countess had a couple Legates very interested in her development even without her family's connections. "Read on."

    DiamondDust flipped to the next pages and found more similar memos. "My whole Flight is being reassigned?"
    "Temporary secondment to the capital's garrison forces, including your Ritualista."

    The blonde closed the folder. "I see."

    "Do you?"

    She gave me a wry look that belied far more experience than she should have, even counting what she had seen in the last two years or so. "Aye, Prefect. When an entire Flight is sent to Silvana to attend the War College and is kept together it gives a strong implication."

    I simply gave a small smile. A Flight Leader and her three Pilots could be readily promoted into a cadre of Squadron Commander and three Flight Leaders. Eight line Pilots added to that would make a Squadron. It would require a degree of training, but it was a way to bulk out a Flight into a Squadron.

    "I do wonder about GreyDawn. She is a career Volantes Centurion. Will she accept a promotion to Primus Centurion?" DiamondDust opened the portfolio and flipped to a specific memo. "Ah."

    "Indeed," I smiled. "What do you make of it?"

    "As much as that development track suits GreyDawn's skillset, it does raise questions."

    I motioned for her to continue.

    "Visha and LoveBlood will make good Flight Leaders. And GreyDawn's temperament is suited to the Aquilifer senior Centurion track. However..."

    Noting her use of nicknames and the bit of emotional uncertainty she was letting out, I drank some more coffee. "Yes?"
    "First, this means I would need a third Flight Leader. Hypothetically, I'm not being presumptive enough to think I'll be promoted and given a squadron command after War College." The blonde gave a pensive drink.

    "I said this was an informal meeting." I snorted. "And your input would be key in finding a third Primus who would fit into your command style."

    DiamondDust bowed her horns to me. "Yes, Ma'am. The other part is from two aspects. Namely, a squadron is too small of a formation for a Signifer, let alone an Aquilifer. Specialized senior Legion Flier postings like that are attached to Wings, Demi-Wings at the smallest."

    I gave an amiable nod but let the silence draw out.

    "The other part is that these orders keep me in the 23rd Imperial Legion Air Group and include mentions of continuing training and coordination with 5th Squadron and successor formations."

    I emptied my cup. "Quite so."

    "Prefect Centurion, should I be congratulating you on your pending promotion?"

    My tail swished. "That may be presumptive. However, if I am to make Tribune, I would want my Squadron Commanders to be of the highest caliber."

    "Even a Demi-Wing would have four to six squadrons..." She tapped the portfolio. Any resistance or resignation to her new assignment evaporated in the contemplation of fitting-out a unit. "And a Legion Demi-wing is a flexible formation that can supplement a lot of Landing Operations."
    "And you have shown the flexibility of an advanced multi-role squadron, especially in the right hands."

    Her expression turned calculating. "I can see the mutual benefit. If we assume the promotions and assignments happen."

    "If we assume that." I pulled up the corner of my mouth. There was a lot she was not stating. Such as her star rising meant that mine, as her mentor, could rise as well. Not that I was not without my own patrons and honors. I did have some trepidation. Squadron Command had a good amount of tactical authority but was not overly burdened with paperwork and politics. On the other wing, a Volantes Tribune was firmly a staff position under a Legion's Legate.

    However the part she was, oh so politely, taking extra care not to state was that continuing to be my subordinate meant she would be both under my supervision and aegis. And that her inner circle was being retained to form the core of her own squadron while also expanding her base of support. Combat losses could affect that. Though a capital posting would be relatively safe.

    If anything, it was more likely that I could be killed in action. Death was a part of being in the Imperial Legions. Hence, the dissemination of training skills and the promotion and encouragement of leadership talent. In war redundancies were vital. And while the Countess was a very skilled pilot and officer, that merely meant she was a more flexible cog in the House's war machine. It was simple pragmatism to extract the best value out of her talents.

    DiamondDust sipped her drink. Nodding, she smiled, her blonde hair bobbing about. "It's a sensible plan. It is not like I could languish in an obscure posting, not with... everything." There might have been a ghost of a wistful tone in her voice.

    I noted her trepidation. "Are you concerned about a rear echelon posting not being exciting enough?"

    She snorted. "Unlike our baroness, I'm no war maniac; I can appreciate a boring billet."

    I gave her an indulgent smile. She was covering up her.... trepidation with a stoic resolve.

    DiamondDust shook her head. "Even if I were... wouldn't giving me training and more authority just encourage things?"

    "Perhaps," I allowed. The War College would do more than just supplement her training; the instructors would evaluate her command capabilities. There was a chance they might not like what they found.

    The blonde looked at her coffee and closed the portfolio. "At least I'm not being rushed."

    I snorted. "You're still on track to be one of the youngest squadron commanders. Not counting battlefield promotions."

    The countess gave a tired chuckle. "Well, the Legions do have me for no more than sixteen more years."

    "And they're going to get the most out of it," I assured, not believing for a moment that the little blonde demoness would simply take an honorable discharge and walk away from all this.

    End Chapter 15

    Things are looking up for Tauria... right? She's getting a nice rear posting in the imperial capital. She should be happy.

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Readhead, and Preier for checking and reading over this chapter.

    Special thanks to Readhead for the chapter title, it comes from Ensiferum's song One with the Sea, where the chorus and the overall lyrics are rather on point.



    Update: I've been going through a revision project for this story and all preceding chapters have had some editing cleanup done to put them to a bit higher level of polish.
     
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2022
  21. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I feel like Tauria somehow dodged her waifus scolding her for her heroics. Which is impressive but a bit odd.

    Also seems like the 2nd V is thinking about kids, and is a bit jealous of the 1st V having less responsibilities to consider when shacking up with their mutual object of affection.Who was just too happy playing with big ole dogs and being adorable during that bit of thinking Loveblood was doing.

    I'm quite looking forward to seeing how the more peaceful times when the lot of these girls are older and can actually spend the time to relationship play out.
     
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  22. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Well, VioletBlood was trying to talk to her, but did see Tauria was being a bit sad.
    Heh, yeah glad that the VioletBlood Scene went of well, and managed to have them be okay.

    And to sow that there's still some rivalries between the two V's

    And I'm sure that a rear echelon posting will be totally calm and peaceful.
     
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  23. Extras: Image: Tauria Suiting up 2 (Full Sequence)
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    From PlayerError404 we have this wonderful sequence of Optio Gibbs helping Tauria into her Polxyo RP Suit.


    Step 1:
    [​IMG]

    Step 2:
    [​IMG]


    Step 3:
    [​IMG]

    Step 4:
    [​IMG]

    Step 5:
    [​IMG]

    Whole Sequence:
    [​IMG]
    Full Size


    I really like this sequence as it shows the weight of a Ritual Plate suit and between Tauria's expressions and how the completed suit looks, I think it really shows a great setup of the concept.
     
  24. SmollGenocide

    SmollGenocide Getting out there.

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    Hi there, it seems that Chapter 4 isn't available here? It just shows Chapter 3 again, only marked as chapter 4.
     
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  25. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Oh dang. I thought I fixed that.

    Okay it should be correct. Thanks!
     
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  26. Extras: Image: Tauria and the 2 Vs dresscode misscommunciation.
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    From ScittyKitty we have this great pic of Visha, VioletBlood, and Tauria ( It seems the 2 Vs by some means managed to get Tauria into one of her outfits from back when she and VioletBlood were in a ballet troupe.

    Or maybe it's a custom ballerina outfit. Either way the countess is not too pleased.


    [​IMG]


    I've got some good news as well. Ch16 has been written (~15k words) and I'm going over it and having it be edited as we speak.
     
  27. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    It's these sorts of shenanigans that should be teaching Tanya to value of controlling her girls better. 2 on 1 is not nearly sufficient odds to outdo our twice over isekai protag.
     
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  28. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Heheh. Yeah Tauria is starting to realize what is going on.

    Though one could ponder.... what if the actual isekai protag is.... Visha?
     
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  29. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: Pride and Punishment
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Return Verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic thingy.
    By Sunshine Temple

    Naturally, I do not own Youjo Senki. So here's the disclaimer:

    Saga of Tanya the Evil its characters and settings belong Carlo Zen, Shinobu Shinotsuki, and NUT Co., Ltd.

    Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
    http://www.fukufics.com/fic/


    Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
    http://fukufics.com

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 16: Pride and Punishment


    Silvana, the City of Trees, residence of the Imperatrix and the pulsing heart of BlackSkyvian culture and the arts. The House's largest city, and its greatest. The region, city and adjacent provinces are collectively garrisoned by a full Coetus Malleus of twenty legions, including Corpus Incursio Reliance. A garrison befitting homeport of First Home Fleet

    In Diyu, it is said: all railways lead to Silvana. A take on an older aphorism, but no less true for its derivative nature.

    Sitting astride the Phlegethon river, the city has considerable dockyards. From the riverine ports, barges laden with trade goods could easily access Lacus Superum, one of Diyu's two great interior lakes, and from there go to any other port on Diyu.

    Splayed indolently across eastern portion of the Romwell Alps, much of Silvana rests atop the carefully sculpted terraces lining the meandering river valley. Downstream of the Phlegethon, to the west, the land flattened out into now-drained alluvial plains. The flatlands were filled with vast stockyards, Fleet-ports with titanic hangars, sprawling rail yards, airship-fitting and fabrication plants, and various other manifestations of BlackSkyvian industry.

    Along with the great southern city of Vordurium and our biggest offworld city, Mursa Victrix, Silvana is one of the key economic, industrial, arcane, logistical, and military pillars House BlackSky stood upon.

    More personally relevant, it was also nearly ideal as a rear-echelon posting. Yes, the city was busy, and the press of that many people in a close area took some getting used to after my prolonged postings in the Diluvian jungle. However, besides the crowds, a Silvan posting also granted access to the city's plethora of restaurants, bookshops, and a multitude of other diversions. Furthermore, my assignment was absolutely plum. Between studying at the War College and leading my Flight in cadet evaluations and aggressor training, I would be able to sharpen my mind and my skills without any risk to live and limb beyond training accidents. The possibility of participation in the development of the next generation of general scrying upgrades even presented an opportunity to further distinguish myself away from the front lines.

    In short, Silvana was everything I had ever dreamed of in a military assignment.

    No matter the organization, I wanted to provide value, obtain job security, and advancement in status. Additionally, in a military organization I also wanted to minimize physical risk. My new assignment easily fulfilled all of those requirements, at least when taken at face value.

    Which brought me to my conundrum as I sat on an early fall day in a cafe sipping some coffee with a platter of nice nutmeg turnovers.

    The cafe was a favorite early morning spot of mine, a perfectly place to take a moment and watch the city wake up before going to the War College. Though, to be fair, few of the cities on Diyu ever truly went to sleep. Even Bovitar was large enough to have a considerable nocturnal population.

    Right now, I was having a midday nosh. Between the coffee and the various puff pastries, the fruit-filled turnovers were a delicious temptation; this was a nice place.

    This posting was indeed a welcome reprieve, but as Prefect Centurion, soon to be Tribune, Quirinus had cautioned, excelling here would merely bring me more status, responsibility, and physical risk.

    Looking through my paper, I sipped with a frown as my tail flicked.

    If I were to become a Prefect, in command of a squadron, all Piloting the always scarce advanced Multi-Role Ritual Plate suits, with said Pilots trained to the standard that Quirinus knew I was capable of... well, it did not take a great deal of imagination to see that a new Tribune would love to have a Squadron of such flexible, capable trouble-shooters.

    But that was in the future. I could, and would, prepare for that, but...

    I should also focus on the present. The international news was, as usual, a mix of obvious bluster and saber-rattling with talk of ominous alliances and mysterious trade negotiations in the background. Nothing of immediate interest, thankfully.

    I smiled when I saw Visha walking down the winding cobblestone street. She adroitly picked her way thought crowd of pedestrians, side-stepping the occasional raptor-pulled cart or gently chugging Sterling-engined delivery vehicle. Engine power or even equines were more common for heavier loads, but the feathered sauropods were useful for pulling something more select that required a more intelligent beast of burden. They filled a role similar to a dog pulling a cart, but with greater intelligence.

    I lifted my mug to her in a casual salute of greeting as she sauntered over to me. I scooted over so she could join me in the shade of one of the poplar trees that lined the side of the cafe's patio.

    A waitress came up as she sat down and with a knowing smile asked if Visha would have the regular.

    "You seem happy," Visha noted, sitting down as she nodded to the waitress, who scurried away without even bother to write down my partner's order.

    "My operations class had a war-game today. I got to play the Intel Tribune for the first scenario and the Logistics Tribune for the second scenario." My tail may have swished.

    "Both roles that play to your strong points," Visha said, smiling happily at me.

    "The instructor said as much." I knew it would be next to impossible to go from a Volantes specialty to something in the logistical branch but there were slots for Volantes Tribunes who were more on the logistics end of RP operations. Legionaries who were highly skilled in both roles were in demand. And my Logistics instructor seemed to also be impressed with me.

    Though knowing my luck, I was less likely to get a position as someone helping develop and implement component integration, and more likely to end up as a Volantes Tribune supporting a Corpus Incursio's Ritual Plate Air Groups.

    As I'd pondered - definitely not brooded no matter what VioletBlood had said - Visha's tea had arrived and she was now sipping it with evident enjoyment.

    "How was your morning?" I asked, trying to reignite the conversation.

    "I helped GreyDawn and our Ritualista check out the simulators," she brightly replied.

    "Are we good to go?"

    My wing woman's tail flicked. "We have nine that are fully operational. The bulk of the rest need some parts swapped out and spirits propitiated. The remaining two need a full workup and maybe replaced."

    "Has Gibbs looked at those?" I asked.

    "She thinks she can harvest the parts for one to get the other to work," Visha admitted.

    I drummed my fingers on the table. "What about the projection systems? Can we run a scenario?"

    Visha nodded. "And the Ritualista say we can get fourteen simulators operational in four days."

    Smiling, I nodded. "Good work. That will allow us to get some training."

    "Do you have a lesson plan in mind?"

    I gave a vicious smile.

    "Well... they do have to learn, and better to take lessons in the simulator than in battle."

    I gave an ironic smile. "And we are dealing with some hot-headed noble Pilots."

    Laughing, she gave a happy nod to the waitress, who had just returned again, this time dropping off a plate of rye toast with pear butter. Visha paused and took a couple bites. "So, the Feast of DarkStar is in two weeks."

    I looked out over the city. "Mother Clementia did mention there were a few ceremonies of note."

    "We are in the capital."

    I patted her hand. "Don't worry, I'm sure we can do something."

    "And VioletBlood?"

    "I'm sure she's got plans for me." I sighed then caught myself. "I mean I'm sure she'd arrange something entertaining enough. And she's invited you too."

    Visha shook her head. "That's not it but.... you're still worried about her?"

    "My birthday is coming up next month." I was still very young for a Pilot, but being one at fourteen was less of an aberration as being one at twelve.

    Her tail swishing, Visha finished the first piece of bread. "You think she'll get some extravagant gift?"

    I sighed. "LoveBlood does want to impress me. And she'd got a lot more access to luxury items and frivolities in the capital than she does in a FOB in the middle of some DarkStar-forsaken jungle.

    "You think she'll go too far?"

    "I wouldn't say that..." Visha ate some more of her lunch.

    I gave her a look. "What had she planed?"

    She looked bashful. "I don't know, but... she does want you to come over to our quarters."

    I gave a slow exhale. We were not lacking for accommodations. In addition to the Legionary dormitories for Centurions, my mother Clementia and my own reputation meant I could request placement in rent-free housing supplied by the Church. Luddy, my Duchess's friend, also had a residence in the capital and was more than willing to give me the run of the place, in light of what I had done for her

    All these options had, of course, their own sets of pros and cons. From proximity to the War College, and other faculties, to the various favors both spoken and unspoken required in lieu of rent, not to mention which coffee houses were nearby. However, I had ultimately taken the one option that allowed me to bring my whole Flight with me. I had done so hoping that it would allow me to circumvent anything that might cause jealousy between my two Vs.

    The four of us were currently staying at the "townhouse" my Duchess had in the city. The accommodations were quite comfortable; the baths while not palatial were very well-appointed. GreyDawn as a long-serving Legionary was not one to turn down a free cot, even if her staying there might have fed into rumors.

    The building had plenty of space for Duchess SilverFlight's daughters, and granddaughters to stay in when visiting the capital. At the moment, my Flight had the place nearly to ourselves. We also had pooled our housing stipends and used it to supplement our Ritualista's own stipends.

    Most of them were staying at a long-term hotel frequented by many of my Duchess's personal Pilots and their Ritualista when SilverFlight's mercenary squadron was in Silvana. Trading on my Duchess's name, I had secured a very reasonable rate, which was almost covered entirely by our combined stipends was ready enough to arrange.

    I might have paid out the balance. It was a prudent investment to ensure harmony among the women under my command.

    I finished my coffee. "And does the baroness request my presence at my convenience?"
    "Well, you have History of the Second Great House War in three hours, and VioletBlood has statistics class in four hours."

    "Probability," I corrected. "And she has rhetoric before that." The course load VioletBlood and Visha were taking was a bit less intensive than mine. Seminars were only a small part of what we were being evaluated on. GreyDawn also had her own lesson plan for her senior non-commanding Centurion track.

    "It can't be that bad then. If she's only got a couple hours, how involved could it be?" Visha offered as she ate the last bite of her meal.

    After flagging down our waitress, I paused. "That's a valid point. She can't spring some fancy event and whatever she wants to give me is almost certainly mother's house. It must be tickets to a spa or retreat. Nothing too substantial, at least"

    Visha shrugged.

    After I paid for our meals, we left the cafe and went down nearby alley that let out onto a tree-lined avenue, with tall trunks framing both sides of the broad street. Walking in the shade, Visha paused every now and again to indulge in a moment of window shopping. I coughed a bit after she spent a full minute peering at a leather clothier and accessories boutique.

    I eyed some of the items draped on velvet in the display window. At least her attention wasn't on the corsetry adorning the dressmaker's dummy.

    "Anything catch your eye?" I carefully asked.

    "You are teaching a new crop of cadets," Visha lightly noted.

    "I do have a reputation as a disciplinarian but not quite... that level," I shook my head at the implements on display. Though some of the saps and coshes were functionally appealing, others were just... excessive fripperies.

    "Maybe that's what LoveBlood is getting you," Visha said as we resumed walking.

    "I already have a vine-staff." I snorted. Corporal punishment was not exactly rare in the Imperial Legions. Not that I had been particularly shy about such corrections in my previous life either.

    We waited between some bollards for the street traffic to clear so we could cross the plaza..

    "What if she's getting you something more fun?" Visha teased while we crossed over to the plaza.

    "Visha!" I cried as my tail went straight at the implication.

    She gave me an innocent look as we crossed the plaza. In the center was a red stone statue of a broken dragon, cast prostate on a massive plinth and splayed wide over the stone, water jetting out of its numerous wounds. An imperious black marble statue of the Imperatrix stood over the fallen wyrm.

    The plinth also doubled as a bit of a diving platform, as many broodlings and other young folks had clamored up to the top and had jumped into the fountain pool that surrounded the statuary.

    The Imperatrix statue was pristine but much of the plinth was worn smooth by generations of playing broodlings.

    It was a good thing we had just eaten, as the scents wafting from the food vendors setup around the fountain were quite tempting. I confess I did purchase a few loaves of freshly baked bread.

    Visha looked at me with some amusement as I tried to juggle the large warm bag. She had taken one as well. "You're too kind for the cooks."

    "It helps. Now, they won't have to send a scullery girl out to get bread," I said when we went up the stairs to the funicular station.

    "It still shows that you think of your servants. Just like always." Visha looked down the inclined tracks as they went towards the river. There was also a good view of the stone massif that was the Palace. Though it was hard to be in a part of the Silvana and not see that cyclopean city within a city, the seat of BlackSky's power.

    As much as the Celestial class airships, like the one in the air above us to the north, were a mark of House BlackSky's imperial grandiosity, the Palace was another such giant edifice. With about two hundred levels, it was less of a structure and more modified geography.

    The base and the bulk of the Palace was carved out of a great mesa-like uplift that had been encircled by water. The higher levels were built out of material that had been excavated from the structure constructed to give the impression of a titanic vertical city.

    The cars of the funicular train were trundling up. Their bright green lacquered paint glittered in the sunlight as we waited, many steps away from the edge of the stepped platform. If Visha noticed that habit of mine, she did not comment on it.

    "They're not my servants. They're my mother's," I stated as we boarded, after most of the other people who had been waiting at the station.

    The funicular trundled upslope. I looked out the window and studied the city. It was a blend of architectural styles over the centuries. True to our Roman influences, there was an underpinning of classical imperial style. However there was also a fair bit of Victorian ironmongery and glass vaulting and even some stark Art Deco buildings contrasting with baroque structures filled with bas relief and other ornamentation.

    And threaded all throughout the grand city were the trees: glens, parks, arboreal slopes, and long rows of leafy colonnades. Compared to the provincial capital I had grown up in, Silvana was a far busier and more bustling place. In many ways it was like Bovitar but magnified in power and potential. There was a sense of mercantile possibilities, heady almost libertine excess of choice.

    Khemi, the Luxon capital, might have more opulent options for stupefaction and indulgence. The Alecton city of Mourning, may have more gleaming stone edifices to commerce and industry. Andromachin Myr may be the true crossroads of Diyu and the most cosmopolitan.

    But Silvana was the crown jewel of our Imperatrix's wisdom. It was not perfect, but there were far worse places and Houses to live. At least here there was opportunity, someone did not have to enlist as a Janissary to have a hope of founding a business. This city could be an ideal place to find meaningful work after I got out of the Legions.

    I could feel Visha's amusement. "Enjoying the view?" she asked as the funicular slowed to a stop. Ours was the next one.

    "Just thinking."
    "Oh?"

    "About opportunities. You know... after." I gestured down to my uniform. "There's a lot we could do here."

    The funicular car started moving again, and Visha smiled.

    "Maybe set up a consulting firm on Ritual Plate tactics and systems. Or we could do research." I watched buildings pass by as we gained altitude.

    "That would be a good business to run while raising a family," Visha said, practically dripping with innocence.

    The bag of bread nearly slipped from my hands. I stilled my tail. In part I was concentrating to not brush past anyone else. By Diyu standards the train car was a bit full, by those of my first life it was nearly empty. "Yes... I suppose heirs would be a requirement."

    "For you and the baroness, yes," she cheerfully agreed while she enjoyed the view out the window.

    "I can't leave you out," I blurted. "That is..." I exhaled and tried to keep from flushing. "That is all in the future."

    "Of course," Visha stated. "It's against regulations to get pregnant while on active duty."

    I tried to give a flat look. "Even if not, we are far too young."

    My wingwoman gave a little smile. "LoveBlood is patient; she's waited this long after all."

    I tried not to pout. Nobility came with a price, and I knew an arranged marriage could just well be part of it. I was the youngest daughter by far, so my value was less... imposing for my Duchess' political considerations. However, that gave her more flexibility. And my Duchess would be more than happy to have me with someone I was... happy with.
    "Her maturing is not all positive," I muttered.

    House BlackSky took a dim view on forced marriages. Any bride could object to an arranged marriage, and their concerns would take primacy. In my case I had enough personal status and honors that I could make quite an issue. And yet... why cause such a scene?

    Not when my Duchess could have me with someone I had been.... close to since my cadet days, and get the Barony of Lilla as a bonus.

    Visha smiled as the car slowed to our station. "I wouldn't worry about it," she assured.

    Following her, and the other passengers, out, I huffed. "I suppose it does help her family issues as well."

    In the light of gas-lamps, we exited the platform and went up a series of steps to street level. Each of the city's funicular lines had a constant slope. That meant that some stations were elevated, others were below grade. The Jade Crescent Avenue station was deep enough that it could pass for a subway stop.

    While I enjoyed the smell of fresh bread, it was a still bit of a relief to get back into the open air. At least out under the sky, I could at least open my wings up a bit more, letting taut muscles stretch that delicious extra half inch.

    I had lived in many different cultures each with their own conventions for public rail transport. Silvana was cosmopolitan which meant that, especially in warmer months, fashion options were extremely flexible. However, the societal rules against casual, even accidental, physical contact with strangers applied year-round, and were highly respected.

    While the rules regarding stray touching were universal, the fashion sense of Silvana's denizens was far less so. The variety of styles worn on the street would whiplash between esoterica seemingly sourced from the more "fashionable" parts of Tokyo to the gowns, suits, and uniforms, including my own, that befit those engaged in the Imperialist Great Game, or the industrialists and workers supporting that endeavor. All without mentioning the prevalence of complicated leather, latex, or silk garments or even those made from even more exotic materials.

    I followed Visha's gaze as she watched a couple passing us as they glided into the station. The ratio of skin covered by glittering jewelry versus carefully-sculpted minute leather straps was impressive from a sheer structural engineering aspect. Anchoring and discreetly supporting that much material was an impressive feat in and of itself. Furthermore, the nearer of the pair had her amber hair up in an intricately shaped coiffure of bejeweled excess. The carefully sculpted pile made her gem-adorned horns, gilt hooves and talons, and ornamented tail seem almost understated.

    Her companion, with her hair shorn save for an emerald-colored topknot, was dressed in sleek lavender and silver silks tied with a sash. Overall, the rode seemed like blended combination of a kimono and a toga. Her ebony features were severe but confident. Clearly, the couple were ready for a night on the town.

    Or given the hour, a very... opulent lunch.

    "It's never dull in the capital," Visha said with maybe a bit of wistfulness as she gave the amber-haired woman one last look. Then the insolent girl smirked at me. "See something you like?"

    "The other woman looked a bit like Octavia. I was wondering if they were related," I coughed.

    "Swimwear is very common in Amber Island. Even when you get away from the beaches, the style lingers," Visha replied happily.

    "Crazy demons," I smirked as we went down the avenue. We were in a more upscale district. Or, at least, the presence of the reserved businesses ensconced in the stately storefronts of stone buildings were anything to go by, the area was upscale. The fact was reduced by the presence of the seemingly omnipresent food vendors hawking street food from their carts.

    Managing our burdens, bread and briefcase, we continued down the avenue for a well-trafficked block and turned to cut across an oblong park with a grove of impressively old beech trees with immense trunks that split into broad canopies. Most had benches that took advantage of the shade.

    There were families playing and more than a few people enjoying the sun. I smiled a bit seeing a drow reading under a dark blue sun parasol not far from a Forest Person who was napping with his back to one of the beeches. A slightly less shaggy dog was curled up at his feet.

    Visha chuckled. "You could get a pet."

    I shook my head as we left the park. "It wouldn't be fair. Any dog would have to stay with family when I deploy."

    "Plenty of units bring mascot animals to forward positions."

    I tilted my head to her as a family of humans passed us to go into the park. I wondered if they lived around here or were from further up-slope.

    "It could help morale," Visha offered

    "Gibbs says she has her hands full enough keeping my suit operational."

    "You have other Ritualista," Visha countered. "Maybe IvoryTail could help."

    I shook my head. "She prefers cats."

    "And we can't have a cat as our Flight's mascot," Visha said with excessive sobriety as we went down a side street. I almost asked her what she had against cats, before noting the mischievous gleam in her eye. Instead of rising to her teasing, I focused my attention on our surroundings. It was a very quiet and rather exclusive street, lined with truly impressive architecture that could only fit in a very broad, very expansive, definition of the word "house".

    The houses here were... well, at the end of the street was my Duchess's "townhouse". It was not the largest nor the most opulent manor house on the small lane: that title was contested by the marble-encrusted edifice that served as the Silvan residence of a territorial governor and a faded-ivory baroque pile that belonged to a board member of Imperial Blimp and Freight

    The dark slate narrow-windowed house of a Standard Alchemical Products heiress were also in the running for the top spot, albeit via a more subtle approach. More than the main house, the heiress's clear interest in outdoor entertaining was reflected in the various pools, the grotto, the portico, and the intricate grounds surrounding the estate, and the same features gave her bid for top billing a less ostentatious air.

    Compared to all of that architectural tail-measuring, my mother's grey and copper four story residence was almost dowdy in its somber color choices and unadorned walls, as mundane as an urban mansion could be.


    "It's great that your mother agreed to have us all stay here." Despite the appreciation in her tone, Visha managed to keep her amazement in check as we approached the townhouse. I wasn't overly impressed myself; I suppose one could get used to anything, given time and exposure. As far as billets went this was by far the most comfortable I'd ever had in my military careers, although it lacks a certain something in terms of practicality.

    Thankfully, despite her periodic awed gasps, Visha managed to keep her eyes firmly in her skull, and still managed to maintain situational awareness. It was always pleasant to have a trustworthy and competent second by my side.

    Comfort aside, our current location in a very exclusive part of the capital did not mean that we could assume there would be no threats against us. It did not seem likely that other high status functionaries in the interlocking machine of nobility, industry, and armaments would have anything against a more militant noble faction. But it might happen.

    Best to stay wary, and always vigilant.

    "Mother SilverFlight would say the expense of such an investment would be wasted, if it were never used. Having her family and their..."

    "Retainers? Subordinates? Flunkies?" Visha offered one term after another, her smirk widening with each "helpful suggestion".

    "Friends," I retorted, firmly settling on a degree of comfortable ambiguity on. In this situation, ambiguity was my strongest shield. I knew something of office politics as well as the drearily similar politics that surrounded staff and field officers, but noble politics were still something of a mystery to me. The tune might be similar, but the steps of the danger were subtly different. Until I found my footing, best to stay vague and free of commitments.

    Visha and I strode up the cobbled entry drive and across the front yard, immaculately landscaped but far more restrained than those of our neighbors. The broad front doors opened ahead of us, and a pair of maids in the purple livery of my duchess bowed as we climbed up the short flight of stairs before ushering us inside.

    As the maids fussed over us, I handed the bread bags we had picked up over the shorter of the pair. The slender, periwinkle skinned maid gave me a little smile as she gathered up the still-warm loaves.

    Freed from my deliciously crusty burden, I turned to the candle-lit alcove just to the left of the entryway. Inside, beneath a silver four-pointed star in the center was a statue of my eldest sister, Invidia. The one who had died before I was even born. Also in the alcove were many other statues, including a pair I'd been told represented my birth parents. Bowing my horns slightly, I brushed a finger over one of my earrings while whispering a quiet prayer, in honor of their memories and to show respect for my adoptive family.

    In my first life I had done my share of Shinto rituals and showed obeisance to the kami. It was less an act of faith and more one of social and cultural cohesion. The difference here was I knew that kami, or some spirits, were quite real and it was prudent to respect my new family's traditions, especially given my reputation as a custodian of holy relics.

    The older maid, her cap and lapels ornamented with strands of gold thread, waited patiently for me to finish. "You are too kind, Countess."

    "It's just..." I coughed, "I mean, I was raised by the Sisters of Our Hallowed Lady."

    Both maids smiled, before the taller of the pair continued. "Not that, your piety is lovely. No, it's that you'll go out and do errands and bring in things."

    "It saves the scullery girl a trip," I shrugged. It cost me little in terms of effort, energy, or time, and I was already living off the Duchess's money, sot he cost for the bread was essentially trivial.

    "Practical things," the older maid stressed as she adjusted her glasses. I idly noted that a strand of her glossy bottle-green hair had escaped from the simple, prim bun that was her habitual style.

    "The baroness is... enthusiastic," the younger maid said, her vague compliment covering a barbed critique. Which was a rule when it came to interacting around servants: they were always listening.

    I nodded. "Well... LoveBlood tries."

    "Oh, she does," the younger maid laughed.

    Her superior shot her a look and the younger maid curtseyed her way out of the room, presumably sent away to the kitchens. "Yes, the Baroness is already in residence and Centurion GreyDawn is still out."

    "And what is VioletBlood up to?" I asked.

    "I can't rightly say." The senior maid adjusted her glasses, her tail swishing with emotion. The subtext of the maid's thoughts on the young baroness was quite clear. "But she did insist that your company would be... appreciated."

    I shifted my gaze over to Visha, who gave me a very innocent shrug paired with an almost offensively sunny smile. "It seems a little early for a birthday gift, but..."

    "I see." I sighed. "Thank you Lilly," I gave a respectful bow to the maid, carefully inclining my horns.

    "Shall I have you announced, my Lady?"

    My tail stilled as I sensed danger looming in my near future. "LoveBlood didn't request a special room like the little theater or the solarium?"

    Lilly thankfully shook her head. "Nor did she reserve the baths. I believe that she is either in her quarters, or in... the guest apartments."

    I nodded, ignoring the maid's mildly distasteful tone. The staff had expected me to take a more... sumptuous set of quarters, befitting to my station. Instead, I had opted for a single bedroom that opened onto a common room, one that half a dozen other similar bedrooms also connected with. It was still the most luxurious bedroom I had used in any of my lives but perhaps a bit humble for a Countess.

    Giving a final little bow, I motioned for Visha to follow and we crossed the townhome's foyer. By the standards of a Duchess, it was rather understated, though, I was certain that every bit of statuary, painting and piece of furniture had a story and pedigree. Now that I was inside the aristocratic fold, it increasingly seemed to me that most noble families had a streak of magpie hoarder to them. They squirreled away endless trinkets and trophies, and held onto them for generations, to the point where the intrinsic value of the object was secondary to the sheer fact that it had been in the family's possession for so long. Parried with the long natural lifespans of demons, and the sheer quantity of knick-knacks sourced from multiple worlds exploded

    "Well... Maybe this isn't about your gift?" Visha did not sound very convinced as she broke the brief silence.

    We went up the sweeping stairs. "Or maybe it's something that needs to be fitted to me and has to be adjusted before it's finished." Despite my matter of fact tone, I shivered slightly, imagining what sartorial horrors I would have to endure in the name of friendship. This was just the type of staircase LoveBlood, and my Duchess, would love to see me descend wearing some puffed-up collection of ribbons, bows, laces, and skirts. Truly, I was a pawn, subject to conspiratorial forces.

    We stepped off the stairs at the second floor landing. Conveniently, the guest rooms were mostly on that floor, along with a study, the library and the games room. The Duchess's personal chambers and more opulent suites were on the third floor. Above those were the observatory, rooftop garden, and roughly half of the servants' quarters, with the other half located down on the first floor by the kitchens.

    As Visha and I proceeded down the hallway towards the common room, we both started to frown. I stretched my wings slightly, shooting an inquisitive look towards my wingwoman as we neared the common room's door. The baroness's presence inside was obvious; I could hear her humming merrily to herself through the closed door. Or perhaps not to herself.

    "I feel it too; she's not alone," Visha whispered as the baroness's chipper tune suddenly stopped. I could faintly hear the sounds of two or more people shuffling around in the room.

    And the person she was with.... did not feel like one of us.

    Presuming I would be faced with a seamstress or tailor, I bypassed my typical politeness of knocking and I pulled the door open.

    "Countess, you are so hard to surprise!" VioletBlood pouted. She stood by one of the leather wingback chairs that faced the window, a fluted glass in hand. Several more glasses, a full tea service, and a collection of pastries were on the round oak table that served as our venue for card games and most meals.

    And demurely standing before the table was a maid. She was not one of my Duchess's. Yes, her livery was purple but only on the ruffled accents. The bulk of her outfit was black, with a white apron and top.

    It was possible that she was just a maid who I was personally unfamiliar with. This seemed unlikely, since I knew all of SilverFlight's personal maids as well as those on the staff at her Eastern Province home, and those here at the townhouse.

    More to the point, the maid with fluffy apricot-colored hair was the wrong species. Her pointed ears and surplus of tails were not exactly common features among Diyu demons. While many of my kind could be said to be "fox-faced", with lean features, few of us had literally vulpine ears or multiple fluffy tails. Though, the maid was pretty enough to be one of our kind.

    Indeed, the maid was a kitsune. She was also taller than me by half a head and had an air of experience behind her polite, if amused, stance. Majestic, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, I could see how many would find the vixen to be very winsome and alluring.

    The fox-folk were an uncommon but hardly rare people in House BlackSky. I had been a bit amused when I first learned that some of the creatures from my first life were not so mythological. But, why was she here?

    "Who is your friend, Baroness?" Visha asked. "I don't think we've been introduced."

    VioletBlood gave a tiny pout of distaste. I doubted my bloody-minded baroness would consider any servant a friend. "This is Reinhild SunShower."

    "Charmed." I slightly bowed my horns to her. Why would VioletBlood hire a maid? Was it a coincidence that she had a Germanic first name? Combined with the Japanese connection...

    I gave VioletBlood a cautious look. How much did she know? Was this "gift" some sort of devious plot? She was an aristocrat. I knew the only staff she had in the capital was a fiscal manager assisting her seneschal, though she was more an advocate for the Barony of Lilla than a personal servant to the Baroness.

    "The pleasure is mine. I am happy to serve," SunShower curtsied and then poured me a cup of coffee.

    I thanked her sincerely before taking a sip. If she'd brewed the coffee as well as she poured it, she was skilled indeed. I could see VioletBlood taking on extra staff for a special event but, as I glanced around the room, it did not seem like anything special was going on.

    "You're not excited?" VioletBlood's tail curled.

    "Should I be?" I blinked.

    The baroness threw her hands up. "How picky can you be? What's wrong with her?"

    "Pardon?" I then looked to Visha for support, but she gave me an innocent look. "I mean, LoveBlood, she's nice enough, but I'm not sure why you need a maid today."

    "She's for you!" VioletBlood stomped a foot. "She's a gift for you."

    I stared. "You can't just give people, people!"

    VioletBlood gave a haughty laugh. "Countess, you need a personal servant. And you do like dogs."

    Careful to not spill my coffee. I studied the kitsune, she seemed capable but... After a moment, I shook my head. "I don't need a maid! And, VioletBlood, you can't call her a dog. Haven't you learned yet how unwise it is to insult people with access to your drinks? Perhaps I need to administer some remedial etiquette lessons..."

    VioletBlood paled, but rallied admirably quickly. "She's better than a dog, and she's a veteran of a full term in the scout Auxiliary!"
    I sat down at the table and Reinhild SunShower immediately went up and moved my cup, put a saucer under it, and placed a plate with some pastries in front of me. They were some of my favorites.

    "She was in the Legions?" My experience was with the large Forest People. I knew they could be devastating but stealthy scouts. Kitsu were purportedly even harder to detect and had effective magics of their own.

    "The Auxiliary," VioletBlood sniffed.

    I made a sharp motion with the blade of my hand to silence the baroness. "Go on... Miss? Is that correct? Miss SunShower?"

    Still standing just to my side, she bowed to me again. "I most recently served with the 67th Infantry Legion Valentinian. The bulk of my service was based around Eastern Province. I am still in the active reserves. But I have served in several offworld campaigns and many minor House theatres. I heard about your time in the jungles of Crocelli."

    "How long ago were you there?" I inquired.

    "About two decades ago. At the last uprising on the eastern edge of the Alecton concession. Our Legion was doing a southern flaking action for Corpus Incursio Merciful's landing. It was... complicated. The enemy expected our attack from the air, but not our ability to bypass their defenses overland."

    I nodded. The fallout from that battle contributed to the reorganization of House Crocelli, the formation of their Interior Confederations, and the various movements against that minor House.

    She smirked. "No woodlands are denied to us."

    "A regular jungle fox, eh?" I lightly asked. The Crocelli Fox was a sleek, large-eared canid And despite having a water-proof double coat, always looked a bit bedraggled out in the heavy rains. Not that I had very many opportunities to spot one of the sly foxes.

    "We might have gotten a nickname or two." Her grin became toothy. "The Diluvians may still tell stories about us."

    "And how are you finding the City of Trees?" I asked, pointedly not wondering if Miss SunShower did work for CSR in helping spread rumors and fears among the enemy populace.

    "Oh very busy, but as you say, the trees do make it more comfortable."

    "Would you care to sit?" I asked.

    The maid frowned.

    "Don't push her," Visha admonished as she sat down next to me.

    "I knew you'd like her!" VioletBlood cheered.

    "She's not yours to give," I replied firmly. VioletBlood really needed to learn about how unwise it was to insult servants to their faces, and I had no desire to be caught in the blowback when the tiny vengeances began. Perhaps she was insulated, or even coddled, by the servants who helped raise her as they took pity on the orphaned baroness and bore her slights without retribution. However, how she treated subordinates, in general, was my responsibility, especially if she was to be, one day, promoted to Flight Leader.

    "Ah, but you are wrong." The baroness triumphantly placed a thick stack of papers onto the table, just in front of Reinhild. The folio was trussed with purple ribbons and a big floppy bow.

    I glanced at it, sighed, and started reading through the first few pages of paperwork.

    "Don't worry, it's a standard contract. She can quit at any time. Though, since I am paying for her first two years, if her resignation is with cause I will be cross at you for making me pay out the severance bonus." VioletBlood chattered on as I scanned subsequent pages. It looked like an employment contract, just as the baroness has stated.

    "Why?" I paged between the duties and compensation sections, before looking over at the seemingly happy, but very lethal, fox-woman. I knew a bit about staffing costs. I had my own county to run and while my hirelings were not personal servants they were also not inexpensive. LoveBlood was paying a premium.

    "You deserve it," the baroness assured.

    "I will do my best to be of service," the maid assured me as her fluffy tails wagged.

    "Why do you want this job?" I clarified, sipping my coffee.

    "It is less risky than being a Scout. And I have served as a lady's maid previously."

    "I managed to poach her when her previous employer left Bovitar to work on some colony," VioletBlood added. "That's why I'm doing this now instead of your birthday."

    "I am in the Legions, I could be deployed anywhere."

    "I didn't resign, Ma'am. My previous mistress let all of her staff go. She would be hiring all new ones at her next location."

    "Is it just the premium pay? What is your interest in this position?" I inquired. If she was going to be my employee, I wanted to know what motivated her. Being motivated by money was fine and all, but I wanted to be sure.

    "You have an impressive record."

    I lifted an eyebrow.

    "Not the flying stuff. But that you connected with people in your county and the Auxilia. The Forest People have their flaws, but they are good judges of character." Her tails flicked about as she spoke. Their movements were hypnotic, but to me the constant shaking and wagging betrayed a hint of apprehension.

    "And?"

    "There are opportunities," she admitted. "If you forgive my presumptiveness, but unlike many young nobles you look to your future, even past your military service. I appreciate that long term planning. I may be a widow and my children are grown, but I still look in on my family."

    I smiled. Ah, so my talking with Lares about business opportunities in my county had paid off. It was good to see an entrepreneurial spirit. "That is good to hear, but you are aware that it will be many years before I can leave the Legions?"

    Her smile was sharp. "I am very familiar with counting the years and months until one's term is up."

    "I knew you'd like her," VioletBlood said with a smug, toothy smile as she leaned forward before sitting down at the table and waiting for the maid to serve her.

    "Yes, she's charming; I don't mind her." I nodded to SunShower then as she poured tea, met the Baroness' gaze, my expression flattening. "To be frank, I'm more concerned about you at the moment."

    VioletBlood blinked.

    I decided to be direct. "You... got me a kitsune... with a German name."

    Visha smiled reprovingly at me. "You mean she hired a maid for you."

    "Uh... yes." What had I said? Was it that different? Was I objectifying people like LoveBlood?

    VioletBlood's confusion grew. "Does her name matter?"

    I stared. Crazy noble demons.

    "My father named me after his best friend's sister. They met in the Auxiliary," SunShower diffidently explained through a playful smile.

    "I can get you a different one," VioletBlood pouted, her tone equal parts sullen and confused.

    I frowned at her. "Another one?"

    "She's right here, VioletBlood," Visha said, a mild amount of irritation in her tone. Even Visha's patience wasn't endless. "You can't act like people are interchangeable."
    "But they are, dear Islander girl." VioletBlood sipped her coffee. "We are. That's the whole point of being in the Legions. Yes, we may have special skills. But within our occupational specialty and our flight certification we are supposed to be replaceable. Otherwise how could an officer replenish losses?"

    I sighed. She was not wrong, at least in a military organization. "And you think that applies with household staff?"

    "You don't?" VioletBlood seemed baffled. "I'll grant Miss SunShower has a set of skills that will be a bit hard to find again, especially on short notice but, the Legions have had many Auxilia over the years."

    I forced myself to take a drink of the admittedly delicious coffee. She was not necessarily wrong. From the perspective of the BlackSkyvian Imperial Legions, we are all cogs in the machine; some of us happened to be more expensive to replace. The baroness had lost enough family to learn that lesson, and for her part was very proud of being a particularly useful cog. This was not unique to the Legions; the military of my previous life operated the same way, as well as the company of my first. That was the way of large organizations.

    A chuckle escaped my lips, and seeing my cup refilled by a maid, my maid, I laughed again. I had no place to look down on LoveBlood for reaching such a conclusion. I was no idealist when it came to banners, institutions, or causes. Logical things like economic freedoms and individual liberty were what mattered.

    And the contract was beneficial to Miss SunShower with terms and obligations biased to her. I could not punish my baroness for taking my lessons to heart.

    "It is a very thoughtful gesture," Visha assured VioletBlood, doing the yeoman's work of keeping the conversation flowing through my moment of introspection.

    "And the background checks for a replacement would cause some delay," VioletBlood nibbled on some strudel. "Not to mention another expense."

    I sipped. "Ah, yes, she would be living here."

    "And have access to your and your effects. This is where her being a Rorarii means her file is still up to date and she can be checked," VioletBlood explained.

    I kept my expression carefully stoic, only expressing my irritation internally. Wonderful. Private detectives, as well as much of law enforcement, beyond the basics was subscription-based. Legion Counter Intelligence knew I had a maid servant. I suppose that didn't really make much of a real difference. My social status was a matter of public record and both the Librarians and the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance knew of me.

    In fairness, I had plans to leverage those networks. The Zioxan "mercenary" Samoth Rodswor was still out there, and she had sacrificed a whole Diluvian assault to try and kill me. I had enough experience with people out for familial revenge to know that remaining passively reactive would do nothing to help me with the situation.

    "It is a prudent precaution," SunShower agreed. "I will have a broad set of responsibilities."

    At that, I flipped through the contract and reread a few sections. "There's a hazard pay rate." I sighed. "LoveBlood, do you expect me to bring her on a deployment?"

    "Not to a FOB, no," the baroness replied, complete with her somewhat haughty laugh. "But there's always a chance fighting could break out. Why do you think I got you a maidservant who could fight?"

    "The equipment and arms allowance is generous," SunShower happily stated.

    "Good thing you're so thorough," Visha told VioletBlood.

    She smiled at my wingwoman. "It's not done yet, our countess still needs to sign."

    I flipped to the end of the contract. SunShower and VioletBlood had already signed and sealed it. My kitsune passed me a silver pen and had started to heat a purple wax-stick with a blue flame that came from a fingertip

    I signed; she dripped some wax onto the appropriate spot on the document. I then unclasped the Preserver Order award that hung at my neck and pressed it as my customary wax seal.

    VioletBlood clapped. "Now, don't worry, I'll get you something nice for our birthday, nowhere near as expensive as your real gift of course." She gestured to the kitsune who curtseyed.

    "You really don't have too," I said. I'd needed an aide, so accepting Reinhild wasn't too big of an issue; more staff would only get in the way. "You've already gotten me a valet and handmaiden."

    "Don't just use her as a personal secretary and to take dictation," VioletBlood replied with just a touch of insinuation, "She has far more skills than simple stenography."

    I flicked one of my bangs to the side, trying to remain as diplomatic in my reply a possible. "Be that as it may, you've been more than generous, LoveBlood."

    "Nonsense," Visha interjected. "Maybe you could help me pick something?" she asked the baroness.

    "Ah, that would practically guarantee that we'd pick a proper gift, between my fine taste and your second opinion." VioletBlood made a satisfied noise as she leaned back in the chair and seemed to take things in.

    "Your expertise in such things is very helpful." Visha's skills at flattery remained impressive.

    "We do have to help take care of our Countess," VioletBlood tittered

    My tail stilled. While I was happy to see them getting along so well, at times their cooperation seemed somehow ominous.

    "She does push herself too hard," Visha nodded. She was about to help herself to a pastry, but my maid moved in to fill her plate.

    "And now we can have another set of hands to help!" VioletBlood gave a broad smirk as she watched SunShower busy herself.

    I swallowed. "You do know she's my maid."

    "Oh, I'm well aware of that," the baroness laughed.

    "Ma'am," SunShower demurely asked.

    I flicked my tail, trying not to let my annoyance show in my face. I suppose she had a role to play. "Yes?"

    "If you'll allow me, I can familiarize myself with your schedule. Perhaps you could put aside some time to help me learn your preferences and methods as well?" Her tails wagged. "I want to make sure I can get your uniforms exactly how you like them."

    "Why don't I get you in contact with my chief Ritualista?" I responded, only half joking.

    "If you think a letter of introduction with Optio Gibbs would be helpful, then I can draft one for you," the kitsune said diffidently.

    "Sure, and I might as well inform my seneschal and my mothers."

    She nodded. "I can get started on the missives. Now, my rating as an accountant is as a novice and while I still have a measure of sensitive document access, I am not 'read in' to the ways of the Volantes. Are those areas that I will need to get training and further certification?"

    "Isn't she perfect for you?" VioletBlood gushed, her voice a purr, all but openly patting herself on the back in self-congratulatory approval.

    I slowly sipped my coffee. I would need to get to know her better, but if my maid performed as advertised then I would have a very capable assistant. It felt like some sort of Faustian bargain, but what was one more? I was a demon due to making a deal with an archangel, everything after that was just an outgrowth of that.

    I smiled at her. "I think that will suffice for now. I will let you know if I find you... insufficient in any way."

    ++++++++++

    "Ah, Primus DiamondDust. I shouldn't be shocked to see you here," a Tribune said as she walked up to my reading table. The main library of the Imperial War College had more than a wide-ranging collection of reports, documentation, journals, and other publications.

    They had a small, if efficient, reference collection of historical, contemporary, and offworld weapons, mostly small arms and equipment. Some could even be signed out for evaluation purposes, but that often required approval from an instructor.

    "Tribune ShadowWhisper," I moved to stand and salute, but she waved me off. The tall woman had short silvery hair, pale skin that seemed almost translucent, and ivory wings that did have transparent membranes. Taken together with her white Fleet uniform, she had an almost spectral look. Her coloration was vaguely similar to IvoryTail, one of my Ritualista, but the Tribune was more lightly built.

    She carried a dark purple valise and had placed it on the table. "Working on anything interesting?" my supply and logistics instructor inquired.

    The War College's Library was a rich source of academic and study assets, ranging from big things like print shops, conference rooms with full projector suites, simulation and computation time, to simpler items like study carrels, copiers, meeting rooms, and a hall that was a series of broad flat tables.

    That last asset had proven useful for group work, unrolling maps, or, in my case, studying multiple books at once.

    "Just collating some of the reports on House Elena's production of scrying components versus the projections on their Rital Plate production numbers. I'm suspicious of their claim that they have that many Mokosh suits in production." Our rival on the northern border, Elena, was the most populous Diyu Great House and the only one with a larger economy and population than ours.

    "Their version of our Occultia?"

    I nodded. "It's their most expensive suit. That is, depending on were one puts the research and development cost of their Volos." I pointed to a couple budget tables I had worked up. "It's a tossup between a theatre grade scrying suit and a highly-veiled stealth air superiority suit."

    ShadowWhisper looked over the tables. "Hmm... the development of the Marzanna?"

    "It seemed prudent. Yes the Volos is an outgrowth of the Marzanna, but the latter is a competent enough air superiority suit. At least now that the relatively weak warding projectors were fixed, and the whole training issue."

    The ghostly tribune's grey eyes studied the figures. "Are you trying for some extra credit in my class?"
    "No, Ma'am. It's just a personal project."

    The Fleet officer's lips went to a thin smile.

    "It's a shame we can't have you in Logistics," Tribune ShadowWhisper chuckled as she opened her valise and handed me the report I had submitted yesterday.

    I gave the grade and comments page a quick glance as I bowed my horns. The previous empire I had served had become extremely skilled with rail-based logistics and had a good hand with forward supply. House BlackSky also had a good rail network, and had considerable experience with fleet-based logistics, both air and sea-based fleets.

    My tail stilled as her words sunk in. "Ma'am?"

    "Oh don't worry, I'm not talking about poaching you for the Fleet. Though with your wings you would look lovely in white." ShadowWhisper's tail swished. "I could see you being fantastic at running a Logistics Cohort. But..." she shrugged.

    I kept my composure. A skilled Ritual Plate Pilot, especially one being positioned for squadron command would be very unlikely to be transferred to Logistics. "Thank you Ma'am, it is an important skillset, and one I want to refine for my future."

    It was easy to hide my disappointment. After all, that was hardly a safe rear echelon position. Centered around two dozen Thalia utility trucks and three dozen Nymph light transports, a Logistics Cohort was built for forward supply. Yes, there was a group of Ritual Plate and Centuries of Legionaries to provide escort, but providing direct combat logistics was hardly my dream position.

    The Tribune chuckled. "Yes, a shame. More than a few Volantes House Legates have gotten their ground combat and supply training by operating a Logistics Legion."

    I tried not to stare. A Logistics Legion was based around four Logistics Cohorts, two Umbra VTOL heavy Long Range Insertion Cohorts, and two Triarii IVF Armor Cohorts. Including the Legionary HQ assets of Ritual Plate, heavy VTOLs, Artillery, and other assets, a Logistics Legion had thousands of tons of ground cargo capacity and nearly a thousand tons for airborne cargo, plus strong escorting assets in terms of thousands of Legionaries, a Legion RP Wing , four troops of armor, and multiple artillery batteries.

    And this Fleet officer assumed I wanted to be in command of such a unit, and worse to use it as a stepping stone to a rank that was equivalent to a Corpus Incursio level of command.

    "While I appreciate your vote of confidence, and I will serve the Imperatrix to my abilities, that is very flattering," I said, glancing over. Ah, I had company, well that Centurion had a habit of being early. "But I am focused on being worthy of my promotion to Prefect."

    "Of course, Countess." The fleet officer smiled. She gave a slight bow of her horns. "If you would like to share your latest project, I would find it interesting, and I might know some people to forward it to who might be as well."

    Ah. That was the game. Clearly, ShadowWhisper was interested in networking with my mother and was working her way to asking for an introduction. It made sense, my mother had many guild and commercial interests that were suppliers for both the Imperial Legions and the Household Fleet. Those would be useful connections to a Tribune who specialized in logistics.

    I gave a gracious nod. "I would appreciate such an offer."

    "Lovely, see you in class, Primus," she nodded and walked off, her tail slowly swishing behind her.

    After a moment, my subordinate walked up. GreyDawn shook her head, causing her wavy flame-colored hair to swish about. "You do have a knack, Ma'am," she remarked, offering a salute.

    I waved her off and gestured for her to take a seat.

    "Part of having a Duchess for a mother," I shrugged. "People try to curry her favor all the time."

    Her amber eyes stared. "That may be true, but she was trying to get your favor."

    My tail went limp. "That's absurd. I'm just some Pilot." I continued before she could counter. "And even if we play the noble card, I've got a border-region, provincial county."

    GreyDawn flashed her fangs. "She thinks you're destined for flag rank, House Legate DiamondDust."

    "That's not funny," I growled.

    "Ma'am, it kind of is," GreyDawn countered.

    I rubbed my forehead. I had not reached flag rank in my previous life, but I had gotten close. The Legions were a bit different in that there was a considerable gap between Tribune and Legate, apart some semi-official gradations of Tribune to help bridge the divide.

    The time for keeping my head down was long past, like being awarded the Crown of Preserver past. Honestly, it had passed when I had become a ballet soloist. "Please don't joke about that."

    "Who's joking?"

    I grumbled.

    GreyDawn smirked. "Tribune ShadowWhisper may be very serious." She sobered. "You should take care with that. Plenty of officers use War College to brush up on their networks."

    "And you know this because?"

    "Centurions do too!" she laughed.

    "Can we change the subject?"

    "Of course Ma'am, do you want to talk about your cadets? Or the Elena RP production project? Oh! I have been writing with Octavia. She's been asking about you."

    "You have?" Octavia had been in my Flight before Visha had transferred in. Last I heard, Octavia was still with Mercy's Second Flight. "How is she doing?"

    "Doing well. She'd got engaged."

    "Congratulations, she's a lucky girl." I tapped the table. "I wonder if we'll be able to make it."
    "Oh, they haven't set a date yet." GreyDawn waved it away.

    "Still, I should send a gift."

    GreyDawn's eyes sparkled but she nodded.

    "No comment?"

    "What could I say, Ma'am?"

    "That I would have my pet fox pick a gift out for me?"

    "Perish the thought," GreyDawn shook her head. "I would never think such a thing."

    I gave the taller woman a level glare.

    "Honest." GreyDawn shrugged. "Octavia was one of yours. You would personally pick her gift."

    I nodded, a touch reluctantly, at that.

    "I'm sure you'd have your fox do the actual mailing, but there's nothing untoward about that."

    Organizing my notes, I sighed. "Did you have fun last night?"

    "It was an entertaining spectacle."

    I suppose that was a way to put it. I was not too fond of blood sports, but with our healing capabilities gladiator games were no worse than boxing or martial arts bouts. Hopefully. "Did you bet on the winner?"

    She chuckled "No, Countess, I didn't bet on last night's gladiator bout. "

    "Oh? why not?"

    She helped me pack up a couple books. "It's fixed, Ma'am. It's as choreographed as one of your ballets. Well with more fake blood."

    Ah. So it was all a spectacle in a preformative meaning. Still... "You've never seen how March over the Resh River ended?" The last act required me to wear a blood-red leotard with bits of white accents, and a crimson wig. Mother Clementia said I looked like DarkStar dressed up like that.

    GreyDawn laughed. "Fine, more real blood and bruising than ballet."

    I snorted. "Tell that to my feet. But point taken. So, what did you wager on?"

    "Ma'am?"

    "I know you, GreyDawn. You wouldn't go to some sporting event, especially a fixed one, if there wasn't some sort of juicy action."

    She gave me a neutral expression before slowly smiling. "I might have had a few side bets after leaving the amphitheater. Plenty of folks have their blood up after seeing a good match, even if it's fake."

    I tilted my head. "Do I really want to know?"

    "Maybe when you're older," GreyDawn laughed.

    There was no pouting on my part. "That is... acceptable."

    "You're remarkably patient, most young women can't wait to grow up."

    "I'm no fledgling. Besides, I know what'll happen when I get older." I organized the books and put my ledgers into my bag.

    GreyDawn laughed. "Did your fox explain things? Or did you finally realize what the other two members of our Flight are after."

    My expression darkened. "I am well aware of the baroness' machinations."

    The older woman just smiled.

    I huffed. Competent subordinates were valuable, and that meant a wise commander gave them some latitude, especially if they were not undermining your authority. And GreyDawn was a well of experience. "Are you volunteering to do comms training for the cadets?"

    Her tail flicked. "The noble flower of BlackSkyvian youth do need training," she carefully stated.

    I laughed. "Yeah, they're like my nieces, way too eager, clueless and pestering me for stories."

    "Ma'am, are we talking about your nieces who are younger than you?" GreyDawn's tone was utterly respectful.

    I did not give an exasperated exhale. "I think it's worrying that the fantasies of little broodlings are indistinguishable from those of new cadet pilots."

    "The ones with imaginary tea and stuffed animals? Or the ones of daring do against sinister enemies of our Great House?'

    I snorted.

    "You have to give our cadets some slack. Not everyone can be as..."

    Glancing over to her, my gaze hardened.

    "As experienced as the baroness was at that age," GreyDawn completed.

    "Most of our students are older than LoveBlood was when she was a cadet."

    GreyDawn pointedly did not say that most of them were older than I was right now, let alone how old I was as a cadet.

    My wings stretched a bit. "In a way I'm jealous of your simple pleasures and plain ambition."

    "Ma'am." she stated neutrally.

    "I'm serious. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a solid pilot and having a comfy cot and warm grub." My tail swished. I tried to have such plain goals, but military life ended up going... too well for me. "We both know the burdens that come with all of the awards and decorations, as well as the problems caused by those who hunger desperately for shiny pins and ribbons."

    "Ma'am" GreyDawn stated with what was almost approval. "Not everyone can be sober and mature. Most Pilots are very... aggressive."

    "That's why cadets are under long-term evaluation for skill and temperament before being put into active service." Closing my leather bag and piling up the books I would be returning, I stood up.

    GreyDawn took most of the books to carry under her arm.

    "No remark? No sidelong or skeptical sigh?"

    "And not respect your authority?" GreyDawn noted. "DarkStar forbid."

    I snorted.

    "Prefect Quirinus had trained you and the baroness for a year before your fight south of Narvos. I didn't have that many hours in a suit before my first combat deployment."

    "You were also half a decade older than me." We walked to the library's return desk.

    "And I was a cocksure, arrogant greenhorn brat who was in way over her head," GreyDawn shook her head as she put the books onto the counter.

    I frowned but got them checked back in with the librarian and we left the library and went out onto the main quad of the War College. "You? A greenhorn?"

    "There's a reason Quirinus assigned me to your Flight. I may have matured over the years but I do remember what it was like to start out with talent but no experience." GreyDawn smirked while I shook my head.

    ++++++++++

    I sighed as SunShower fussed over my hair and uniform. Pulling at my wings with a professional, direct touch, the kitsune checked over my feathers, fussing any that were less than perfectly smoothed. I twisted and stretched a bit at her touch. Preening was a bit of a pain, but compared to membranous wings they were a bit less likely to tear.

    "Is this necessary?" I asked after she completed her work.

    She gave me a vulpine look as she straightened the Preserver Order award at my neck. "With the impression you have to make? I'd suggest you wear your crown."

    I looked up at the taller woman, her bushy tails swishing. "I never actually ordered a Preserver Crown."

    "Eventually your mother will do it for you, either one."

    I shivered a bit at the idea of Mother Clementia and through her, the Sisterhood of Our Hallowed Lady, commissioning a Preserver Crown. They might even have one in a reliquary somewhere, though that the Church had not offered to make me a custodian of one, like they did my earrings, was suggestive that they either did not have a crown, that it had a current bearer, or they did not want to bestow such at thing to me. Regardless, there was some flexibility in the exact design of a Crown of the Preserver, and one made by the Church, or one of the major churches of the House, would make my purported piety even more blatant.

    Reinhild chuckled as she poured me a cup of coffee. "Fair. I can see why you're not keen to be so blatant."

    I sipped. "I'm not that worried. I've done far riskier things."

    "Physically," my maid agreed as she put a thermos into my valise as well as a small bag with fresh turnovers. She also looked down to confirm my papers were there. Smiling, she pulled one of the pastries out and handed it to me. "Don't get frosting on your uniform."

    "I know how to eat without getting it on my clothes," I replied tartly as I nibbled on the blackberry pastry.

    Nodding, she gave me a final critical look.

    "I'm fine," I assured her. Reinhild had washed my hair and had overseen my laundry. After the sparring match this morning I was happy to have the time to bathe and get my hair cleaned. Though the latter really meant she interfaced with the household staff. Being fussed over was both frustrating and relaxing. Though I had gotten used to it to some extent by my Ritualista and the times my Duchess had me dress up for some function or another.

    Taking the empty cup from me, she handed over my valise and a yard-long staff of polished vinewood, a fairly sturdy swagger stick.

    "Far be it for me to counter that," the kitsune bowed her head to me. "I am neither a noble nor a pilot."

    "But?"

    "I have spent time working with the Legions. I know when faced with fresh fish, Centurions tend to relish breaking them in, especially if they are haughty and have ideas." Her eyes glanced at my staff.

    I smiled. "You're concerned I'll go too far?"

    "I can't speak to your training methods, my Lady," she diplomatically stated.

    My grin expanded a bit. "I suppose I am paying for your expertise."

    Ears perking up, her tails swished. They were very fluffy, almost tempting.

    "Yes, LoveBlood is paying." I waved off.

    "Perhaps some diplomacy... at least until you gain their measure?"

    I flashed my fangs. "Ah, but you see, GreyDawn and my baroness are taking their measure right now." I looked at the grandfather clock ticking in my room. "They should be getting out of the simulators right now."

    I gave another sigh. "I wanted to be there, even as an observer, but I had an exam."

    "Close combat skills need to be evaluated," she gave her own sharp-toothed grin. "My Lady, have you been told when you'll be going to Advanced Evasion School?"

    I tried to give a casual shrug but my tail had slowed. "In a couple months. I've gone through the basic course in Bovitar." Evasion School was all about teaching a pilot how to survive if she got shot down behind enemy lines. Including such things as survival, field medicine, avoiding enemy patrols, escaping capture, and linking up with friendly ground units.

    "During my time in the Auxiliary, myself and other Scouts would assist the Instructors by playing the aggressor side," she brightly said.

    I finished my pastry. That made sense, scouts, both Kitsune and Forest People, were very good at tracking and stalking. Having a Pilot have to evade such pursuers...

    Her smile widened. "I would be more than happy to help give you some preparatory training. Provided, we can fit it into your schedule."

    My smile turned glassy. Being chased in the forest by kitsune was one thing. Being chased by my own maid was.... Well, I would not turn down training. I would just have to find a way to make sure people wouldn't talk... much...

    I bowed my horns. "That sounds like a wonderful idea. Pencil in some time for that training in my schedule."

    "Of course, my Lady," SunShower said as she opened the door and then followed behind me. As we made our way through my Duchess' townhouse, she had a couple quiet words with the other servants before seeing me off at the front door.

    I exhaled and made my way to the funicular station. I had a training session to be debriefed on and a cadre of cadets to introduce myself to.

    ++++++++++


    I strode into the lecture hall, my boots ringing on the hardwood floor. The tiered room was fairly small, but even so, the cadet squadron failed to fill the first couple rows. Instead of standing behind the lectern, I hopped off the small stage and stood by the table where the three members of my Flight sat facing the cadets.

    "Volantes Cadet Optios, I do apologize for not being in person for your first training evaluation," I said, making sure my voice echoed through the hall. "I regret not being there to evaluate your performance in person."

    They were attentive. A few seemed to be a bit awed by me; a few were embarrassed; a couple were sullen. All needed to be watched.

    I picked up one of the reports Visha had put at the corner of her table and made a show of paging through it. I already knew the records of the dozen or so cadets in front of me and the debriefing had been quick but thorough.

    "Ah, you were flying Polydora Mark Sevens in the simulators. My my, I was trained on the Mark Five. Time flies." Sticking my vinewood staff under my arm, I tossed the report back onto the desk.

    I looked over the cadets. They were so young; the eldest was sixteen. Which at least gave me some time. None of them should be put into active combat, maybe they would get enough training time to live. They were in cadet uniforms, which were the same black as Legionary ones but had a green trim.

    "From what Centurion GreyDawn said, I was worried the only way I could make you made into something useful would be to serve you as lunch for some Fleet pilots."

    I gave them a grin that was full of cheer to show I was joking.

    "Let us begin with the positives. None of you broke the suits the Imperatrix was gracious to loan you, or..." I gave a sharp smile to five of the cadets one after the other, "the ones your mothers purchased for you. You also managed to avoid breaking any of the simulators by shattering your tethers or having your Zephyr actually accelerate you. Mostly." I added, locking gaze with the pink-haired, long-horned cadet who sat front and center.

    "Any other positives of note?" I asked my Flight.

    "They were able to get into their suits and could tell their left boot from their right boot," GreyDawn stated. "They know which way is up and down. They're very good at finding the ground."

    I made note of which of my students got heated at a commoner daring to mock them. Cadet Optio Lavish RoseTalon, the pink-haired Senator's daughter, was among them.

    "So, there we have it." I swept my arms around the room. "Collectively, you all spent... how many hours on private tutoring? How many aurei spent on trainer suits? Not exactly an efficient usage of time, money, or Ritual Plate."

    I went over to the table and poured myself a cup of coffee. "The expense in Ritualista alone," I theatrically murmured, my back to them.

    Turning to face the young demons, my smile returned. "I have good news, cadets. You're now in the Imperatrix Legions, and we will not waste BlackSky's money in having you play brave, heroic warriors."

    "Is this because we lost?" Lavish demanded, her voice cutting over the hall. She blinked, realizing the breach in discipline.

    I paused to let the silence linger and slowly put my mug down on the table. "Cadet, do you have something you wish to say?" I asked, striding over.

    "You've got more experience than us, your Flight ambushed and cut us apart, and then you had missiles come up from the ground and...."

    I stopped before her. "Yes? It wasn't fair? Or maybe they cheated?" I flipped out my staff and the cadets winced at it. Well, that would not do. I used it to tap the gem at my neck. "I did not earn this by playing fair. And our enemies won't; they'll happily trade a missile team to take one of you out. The scenario was not impossible, you could have won if you had focused on the Landing Zones and maintained a coherent formation."

    The daughters of Senators, Guild Leaders, Nobles, Legates, and Navarchs, these girls were the cream of the capital's young fliers. Or at least the ones that had been dumped in my lap. A bit of fear seemed to creep into them. I tapped my staff on the desk in front of Lavish.

    "The problem is not that you are bad fliers. On the contrary." I looked around them all. "Oh no, if I was looking for someone to compete in a race or to do an acrobatics show, I would be happy to have any of you. But I'm not looking for racers or acrobats. I'm not even looking for a ballet troupe. A ballerina knows how to move as part of a team.

    "Just because I could outfight any one of you one on one is irrelevant." I was being generous here. As they were now I could take them out by defeat in detail, and it would take a massive weight of numbers to stop me. "You should be more ashamed at how abysmal you are fighting as a Squadron and your piss-poor reactions to ground fire. You were fighting as a rabble not as a team."

    I gave them a warm, toothy grin. "However, once you have a remedial proficiency as a team then you may, in your copious free time, request some one on one aggressor training from myself or one of the other instructors."

    Lavish's green eyes smoldered but the short jade-haired cadet behind her lifted her hand.

    "Yes, Cadet Pulivia."

    "Ma'am, we tried to fight as a team, but we were just thrown together. And... not all of us listened..."

    I kept the same sharp, toothy smile on my face. "Yes. We'll start our lessons, shall we? There is a reason the Legions and the Fleet train our Pilots to a uniform standard. Yes, obviously, there is better cohesion with a team that is experienced flying together. You will not always have that luxury. This was a test of the standards to which your tutors trained you. Similarly, the chain of command is vital for establishing clear communications. Consistent protocols and training are vital in case of combat losses, you have to know what to do when things go wrong."

    I lifted my staff back up. "That is why we train you. So when everything goes wrong, when you find yourself without leadership and out numbered, you don't shatter into a bunch of panicked, pointless last stands."

    Staring at me, Lavish lifted her hand. Pulivia, in the second row, had started taking notes.

    Going back to get my mug, I nodded.

    "Are you saying we're not strong enough warriors?" Her pride had been wounded, but since it had been someone with my record, and station, who had inflicted the blow, she was still striving to keep her anger in check.

    I sipped my coffee. "What use do I have for warriors? The Legions want professionals. I reviewed the footage. Some of you are very deadly in a duel. That's why my Flight used numbers, position, and firepower to ensure such a dogfight didn't happen."

    "But you made Ace all by yourself!" the purple-skinned daughter of a Guild Leader burst out.

    I gave her a withering look. "Yes, as a last resort on a night when everything failed. Sending a twelve year old - oh I'm sorry that was a couple days before my birthday - into combat with just a sword and some fireworks is not a tactic any Great House should aspire to, not if they want to stay a Great House."

    She wilted, I exhaled, and continued. "If you saw the propaganda reels of my actions and thought that was a situation to emulate, then you learned the wrong lesson."

    "We shouldn't try to be as skilled in close combat as you?" Lavish asked after getting approval to speak.

    I shook my head. "Do not measure yourself against me. Not yet. The goal is how you perform for a given mission, as a group. There is a time for individual heroics. Usually, it's after everything else has gone wrong and you are alone and will die unless you are very good and very, very lucky. We train to give you tools to limit such an eventuality."

    I ruthlessly quashed my awareness of the hypocrisy of that comment.

    "I do not offer you glamorous training where you will become a Mistress of the Air able to take out enemy champions and Ace of Aces." I sipped my coffee. "But I can teach you the book. I can teach you how we fight and why we fight. And then... maybe... just maybe once you know the book, once you understand why the book is the way it is... then you can start to think about how to break the rules."

    There was almost a sense of disappointment among the young fliers, but a few were intrigued, and now two more of them were taking notes.

    "It is not enough to know how we are training and how we fight. You need to know our enemy's doctrine. How they conduct operations. What we know of their equipment. The formations and tactics they use. To defeat the enemy one must know the means by which they will try to achieve victory."

    The wind seemed to be knocked out from under their wings. Good. These were girls who were not used to being told no. And, if anything, discovering they had the fairly rare talents required to operate a Ritual Plate just made their pride worse.

    "Maybe it was how I was raised. At the orphanage we didn't have much time for fantasies of gallant knights of the air," I loudly mused as I went back to my Flight's table. "Maybe that was just a commoner thing."

    Refilling my mug, I turned away from the cadets. "Tell me, Baroness VioletBlood. You had a proper noble upbringing. And clocked in a good number of hours before you became a cadet. Did you have such fantasies?"

    "No, Ma'am. My training was on practical things that would improve my combat performance," VioletBlood stated, a sneer in her voice.

    I pointedly kept my back to the cadets as a couple murmured something about "jumped up provincials". Lavish was telling them to shut up. Interesting.

    Idly glancing at my staff, I let my tail swish. "Visha, what is the allowable penalty for insubordination?"

    "It ranges from loss of privileges, to loss of pay, time in the stockade, and flogging," she answered smartly.

    "Now... Cadet Optios. Will there still be chatter when I turn around?" I glanced back and just smiled.

    The hall went silent. I put my vine staff down at the table and walked towards them with just the cup. "You can call me a martinet. You can make all sorts of unkind words about my parentage, heritage, class, and upbringing. You could even do the same about my Flight. However-"

    I stopped before their seats. "If I hear such talk. If my Flight hears it. If the other instructors hear it. If you undermine my authority. If you go against the Imperatrix. I will bring the appropriate charges and punishments."

    I saw a few resentful faces and a couple that seemed disbelieving that someone like me could talk to them in such a way. DarkStar help me for being saddled with this assignment. I would rather be teaching a bunch of orphans, girls someone like my Duchess had discovered. At least they would be more likely to listen and learn.

    "Please, if you feel I am unfair do complain to my Squadron Commander, or the Commandant of the War College, escalate to House Legate AshRain herself for all I care. Or... I suppose you could whine to your mothers and then have such august personages take umbrage on your behalf.

    "I believe any of you willing to try such a thing will find the results... illuminating." I sipped my coffee. That took the fight out of most of them. It was a trivial bluff to call. Oh, I would get into trouble if I whipped the cadets without good cause on jumped-up charges, but as long as I had my paperwork in order, and could prove that the rod was indeed used to prevent spoilage... the higher ups would be happy enough.

    I chuckled. Like I would be so uncreative to merely flog a subordinate.

    "Now, if one of you is willing to take your grievances in a more direct and... honorable means. Then please note I will be obeying the letter of the military regulations with regard to duels. As the challenged party, I will get to pick the weapons used and I will endeavor to limit damage to any Legionary property."

    "But Primus, don't you own your Polyxo suit?" VioletBlood innocently asked.

    "Yes, yes I do." That was a bit of a bluff. While I still retained ownership of the suit, the Legions had replaced many of its components and paid for its regular maintenance and upgrades, to Mark 16, over the years. Still, as that wear and damage had happened while serving the House, I still retained ownership even if a considerable fraction of the suit was composed of parts different from those when I got it at my twelfth birthday.

    Despite all that, the Legions frowned on Ritual Plate duels. Suits were valuable, Pilots more so, and a duel was a way to lose combat strength without even fighting the enemy. It was a textbook example of honor resulting in a pointless waste.

    Now, the cadets were worried. It was one thing for a noble brat full of vim, vigor, and wounded pride to try to challenge me to a sword fight or some other tediousness. It was another to realize that they would be challenging against my strengths.

    After glancing at my mug, I looked around. "Am I clear?"

    The cadets nodded. Except for Lavish who looked thoughtful. "Question."

    "Yes?"

    "Ma'am, you're trying to dissuade us from a tendency towards one on one mid-air duels by, in part, using your own exceptional skill in such things. Is that correct?"

    I laughed. "Don't get me wrong. It's a valid skill-set, but it's only a part of what you have to know. And most of you are nowhere near as good as you think you are, but that we're even talking shows you all have promise."

    A small frown creased her face.

    I eased my stance. "Tell me, who is familiar with the Marzanna?"

    All their hands went up.

    I pointed to Pulivia who could write while talking and making eye contact with me. "It's the air superiority RP model House Elena uses."

    "And who is familiar with the first generation of the Marzanna? And why was it designed that way?"

    Lavish's eyes widened. I pointed to her.

    "It was intended to surpass our air superiority suit, the Harmonia. The Marzanna had exceptional maneuverability but was weak in protection and long range scrying. They were intended as 'duelists' to counter our suits."

    Good, she knew that much.

    "And they failed. When they were first deployed in number, on many of our off-world colonial fights with Elena, they did not perform well. Their combat losses were even worse than the times they fought us with their preceding model. All that money, time, and manpower for a suit that was somehow a step backwards? The whole line had to be revamped," I explained. "But do you know the real problem?"

    Lifting her hand, Lavish took the incentive. "Was it more than just their design limitations?"

    Taking a drink, I nodded. "Don't get me wrong. It did the Marzanna little good to have problems in protection, in scrying integration, and in communications. But those could, and were, fixed in their next generation. The real problems were one of doctrine and of the unintended consequences of training and Pilot mentality."

    I pointed to the daughter of the head of the Mason and Runewright Guild. "Elena Air doctrine is?"

    "They use golems, piloted craft and Ritual Plate. Much of their development is domestic, but they use a lot of Luxon designs as well." She blushed a bit, her purple skin darkening. I could tell she was explaining the background to buy herself more time to think.

    She got some of her composure back "Their air doctrine is similar to their overall doctrine. They like to complement small numbers of high mobility, sometimes low observable, high power units with larger numbers of slower, cheaper, but hard-hitting units. Sort of a hammer to anvil."

    Noticing that half of them were now taking notes, though some had to share copy books, I waggled a hand. "That is close enough for today. We will be going into the doctrines and more of all of the Great Houses. Now, consider: the first generation Marzanna were given to their Vanguard Strike units, specifically their most independent Pilots, the ones with the most skill in dog fighting. Who can see the problem?"

    "But they were given suits that matched their abilities." Lavish tilted her head. She blinked. "Wait, did a Great House really have to revamp a whole suit design because it encouraged Pilots to go off and try to fight us one on one?"

    I gave a small smirk. "It's not that simple, but consider your own actions. Consider the power and excitement you had when you first flew. Think of what it would be like to be in a suit more powerful, more agile than your hated enemy's best. And then the terror of finding out that your enemy has better training, unit tactics and scrying. That it does not matter how maneuverable your suit is when the enemy knows this and works to negate that advantage and without it you have... little else. Combat is unforgiving, as are its lessons."

    "That's why Elena had a harder time fixing their training than their suits?" Lavish asked.

    "Correct. First, consider the losses in skilled pilots. That represents a massive loss in institutional knowledge, not to mention to their families. There were issues affecting their entire House structure, and families. Making shifts in power. Even Elena has to bow to the reality of social dynamics."

    I stepped back to the table to refill my cup once again. I poured in silence to see if the cadets would dare to start whispering to each other. The sound of their pens at work was good to hear. They seemed to learn that much at least.

    "Second, this required them to redouble their efforts in trying to counter us. Remember, our enemy is trying to learn from us as much as we are trying to learn from them. And Elena thought they had a counter to our doctrine, a wonder weapon, in the Marzanna." I had to smile at that. I was certain that House BlackSky had their own versions of Schugel, but at least with my own deployments I was insulated from any mad scientists trying to make super Ritual Plate models.

    That did give me pause at one of my goals of moving to a more testing and evaluation role. "Elena learned from their mistakes. The refit Marzanna in the hands of a proper squadron of Pilots is formidable. There is a reason it is now their mainstay and has become an effective weapon system on par with Ziox's Tjardu and, yes, our Harmonia. It remains to be seen if their derivative design: the highly-veiled Volos will be worth the cost and represent a leap forward in capability.

    "It is some note that in the time House Elena has gone through three major variants of air superiority model, our House has continued to refine and improve the Harmonia. Our more conservative approach is due to us having far more Harmonia than House Elena has total Ritual Plate. Ritual Plate is just a portion of their tactical air power expenditures where it is the lion's share for us. The Harmonia represents a major training, logistical, and hardware investment. That is why we try to make our suits as modular as possible to allow for mid-life refits. I could go on."

    I put on a sympathetic expression. "Your performance today is not entirely your fault. Group training is hard and realistic training missions are not exciting nor glorious. Even ground support missions, while flashy, are very precise and tedious because you do not want to bombard our own troops.

    "You probably didn't get many private lessons on how to run a convoy escort. And few pre-cadets would spend eight hours of flight training on learning how to do a boring scouting mission where nothing might show up."

    "I did Primus," VioletBlood haughtily said.

    "Yes, so did I. But our tutors had a generous budget," I replied.

    The cadets bristled, but there were a few shamed-faced ones and more than a few with expressions full of poorly-concealed anger. Maybe not all at me; hopefully some of that spleen was directed at the instructors who had taught them what they wanted, exciting dogfights, and not what they had needed.

    "You should have been spending more time in a ballet troupe than trying to master one on one dog fighting," I absently noted and then took in their incredulity.

    "You are aware that precision acrobatic flying is an effort that requires great skill and teamwork?" VioletBlood archly asked. "It is more than just prancing about in sequins and using fireworks displays and glitter bombs."

    "Neither of which I recommend as ordnance." I gave a vicious little smile. "But if you want to get extra flight time to learn some intricate formation flying and more importantly how to function as part of a team, there are worse extra curricular activities."

    If I had to spend a years suffering as a ballerina then I could spread a bit of the pain around. As a bonus I was sincere about the increased training time being part of a troupe would give them. And at least a few of them did make a note of my recommendation.

    "You're all very privileged. Most pilots," I gestured to Visha and GreyDawn, "will not get nearly the suit time, the training time, you will all get. There will be an assumption of competency, that your time under my training will have actually improved you."

    I happily drank from my mug. "For my own sense of pride and professionalism, I will make you lot into something worthy of the Imperial Legions. Do not think of your mother's station, of your station. We are Legionaries. If some provincial commoner centurion gives you an order, you will obey.

    "And even if you make Volantes Centurion and, DarkStar-forbid, Volantes Primus Centurion, some Optio hoof-slogger will still be calling you in for air support. If you have a problem with that, you can join one of the shabbier mercenary guilds where you can play at war and have your servants polish the expensive toys you think of as war machines."

    I gave one of my most open smiles. "Remember what you swore when you agreed to join the Legions? That was a question." I pointed to the cadet next to Lavish.

    "I swear by the various gods and unbreakable oaths that I will follow my commander wherever she may lead me. I will obey orders enthusiastically and without question. I will relinquish the protection of BlackSkyvian civil law and accept the power of my commanders to put me to death without trial for disobedience or desertion," the ash-haired cadet recited, her prim voice halting at the last part.

    "Continue."

    She nodded. "I promise to serve under the standards for my allotted time of duty and not to leave before my commander discharges me. I will serve BlackSky faithfully, even at the cost of my life and respect the law with regard to civilians and my comrades."

    "These oaths are not idle boasts. There is some allowance for your status as cadets but," I spread my arms and then gestured towards myself. "Clearly, they still have weight on someone of my age, or yours. You can still resign if it's too much."

    I eyed them. "This is an open offer, consider my words and if you want to quit, talk with me in private. I will do my best by writing a letter of reference to your mother, mitigating the shame and endeavor to help put you in a position better suited to your talents."

    Lavish raised a hand. "Why would you do that?" she asked.

    "Incentives. Because an unfit pilot with too much pride to admit her failures, and too many connections to be drummed out, will get good people killed. I will take a social hit to prevent that from happening. There are plenty of jobs in the Legions and outside to support the House and Empire. And while a negative evaluation from me would ruin your career as a Legion Flier, forcing me to do that, against your will, will result in unnecessary turbulence." I exaggerated a bit. The Legions, and Fleet, had learned how to sideline incompetent nobles, but one way to do that was having a connected officer make a deal like this.

    "None of us want to quit," Lavish stated, her voice icy. "None of us are quitters."

    "We'll see," I amiably said. "I have some training ideas involving some Istarii Centurions." Visha gasped at that. I honestly didn't see what the big deal was.

    I continued. "If you make it into Legionary service, you will be protecting some group of hoof-sloggers. You'll either be providing direct fire support, escorting their transports, or keeping air superiority over their Operational Zones.

    I finished off my cup. "If that's not glamorous enough for you, you can always transfer to the Fleet. There you can spend your time guarding a giant gas bag full of ratings, officers, and explosives."

    I chuckled lightly at the deflated expressions from my cadets.

    "Either way, the expectation is that your life will be put at risk to keep others alive. And since the Imperatrix, in her wisdom, has seen fit to invest a considerable amount of time training, equipping, and having Centurions spend their precious time beating sense into you, BlackSky will get a return on her investment."

    Scanning the cadets, who seemed to have paused in their notes, I smiled and looked at a clock on the wall. "Good, now that that is all done. We will have a ten minute break. Stretch your wings, use the facilities, get your own notebooks. When you get back we'll have refreshments."

    The cadets' expressions were mostly wary.

    "When you get back, we will begin your debrief of today's training. Point by point. I'll also be giving you a breakdown on basic Flight level tactics." I sipped my coffee. "The clock is ticking; you should go now."

    They got up and most of them shuffled out to the door. I pointedly ignored the conversations that were starting up outside in the corridor. Pulivia took a moment to finish up her notes before exiting. Lavish was the last out. She hesitated by the door and then eventually left in a huff.

    I walked back to my Flight. "Well, I think that went well enough."

    "Sure, you might just make all sorts of new, exciting, and connected rivals," GreyDawn noted.

    "It's all part of the game. Coddling them would have ruined my reputation among the officers," I stated as Visha handed me some of the pastries SunShower had packed for me. I motioned for the others to help themselves. "And would have gotten a lot of good Legionaries killed."

    "And ruined your reputation among the troops," Visha noted.

    "And among the nobles who back the Legions and Fleet," VioletBlood added.

    "Both good points. No, the way to deal with a gaggle of spoiled nobles with flight armor is to try to beat some sense into them."

    GreyDawn's expression indicated she was trying to calculate the odds on that wager.

    "Should I go get the refreshments?" Visha asked.

    "I'll go with you. A walk to the college's canteen can do me some good," I rolled my shoulders. We had a lot to cover and not much time. As we left the lecture hall, I wondered how Quirinus was able to stay so resolutely unflappable.

    "At least this won't be as bad as the 203rd's training," Visha quietly stated once it was the two of us.

    Now that brought a smile to my face. "Don't worry, this time you're one of the instructors," I assured.

    End Chapter 16

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Readhead, and Preier for checking and reading over this chapter.

    Special thanks to WrandmWaffles for the chapter title. And extra thanks to Readhead for going over this chapter and giving some extra polish.

    I've also got some great art pieces in the wings, both in "annoyed Tauria has to deal with her mother wanting her to dress nice" and "Tauria in her Ritual Plate" style.

    Update: Well this chapter didn't need much correcting, maybe I'm getting better. Or maybe I was at the end of this project
     
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2022
    illerayn, Merior, Rock1244 and 14 others like this.
  30. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Well. Seems like Tanya is now well aware of her admirers' intentions and doesn't seem unhappy at all with them. That Visha is trying to get Tanya into dominatrix gear from what I can see is exciting as hell and I really want to see how the trio finally get up to something.

    Also how much fucking coffee did she drink during her little cadet wrangling scene? Feel like she refilled her mug like half a dozen times.
     
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