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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. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Making the rounds.

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    How many of the students in that class were known to the Family?

    Also, some of the names seem slightly on the nose. SaphireFiligree the jewler/goldsmith/silversmith, GracefulGold the noble etiquite teacher.

    Also, Violetblood seemed reallly touchy-feely for a demon. Was this mostly an attempt.to 'mark her territory,' now that the engagement was about to become official?
     
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  2. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Ahh good! Made the fixes.

    That is a major concern. Given that getting out exposition and world building is a major... issue with this story, and one I've been working on. I was happy with the one where Tauria was explaining her thesis, because that wasn't about the exposition but to show she's still enthusiastic about these things and it got away from her to her embarrassment.

    Or some of her lessons to her cadets being not about the history of their enemy's weapons systems but showing the issues the cadets have and what values Tauria is trying to teach them.
    But yes, that, and the dialog tags is part of the things I've got to work on.


    Technically? All of them. Given they were in that class and Felisia did talk with all of them. But Tauria is a bit more well known, but it is more of a matter of degree.
    Only slightly? We do have VioletBlood. ^^; Though I suppose there are names that are more poetic in their implications like AshRain.

    Very much! Also the rules are casual contact with strangers and those you're not close to.

    As you point out by being touchy-feely with Tauria, she is making a statement that they *are* close (IE their engagement is nearly official) and thus is staking her claim, and doing so in a public, high status environment, full of gossips.

    That Tauria did not dress her down for such actions adds to the impact.
     
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  3. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Making the rounds.

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    I could have phrased that better. Obviously, Felisia would have been briefed on everyone in that room before entering, but she made a point of stating that Tauria (and VioletBlood) were known to the Family, implying she'd heard of them before this lesson was planned and briefed. How many other students had she heard of before the briefing, and how many would any of her sisters or mother have recognized without a briefing?
    Tauria was trying to pull free, though how hard and how visibly hasn't been specified. She also seems to be big into the "praise in public, punish in private" school of thought, which doesn't help in this case.
     
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  4. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Not as many of them. Though those other young nobles are of note. But Tauria does have a *bit* of an advantage over them. (Being the youngest and in a more "exciting" role of RP pilot, and her history of orphan made good) Much to her chagrin.

    Half-heatedly, if she really wanted to get free she could have cut or pulled her way out. Or made a scene... but that goes to your second point, as Tauria didn't want to make a scene to punish VB in public.
    Which.... VB has spent a while around Tauria and knows her quirks, so she likely took advantage of that.
     
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  5. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    And that part worked fine! The problem isn't exposition in itself, or even having a character explain something to someone who already knows; the problem is when the dialogue becomes stilted and unnatural as a result. Tauria had a perfectly good, in-character reason in that case to exposite on the subject, so it ended up sounding fine - a cute moment of excitability.

    Other good methods include finding an excuse to include a character who genuinely doesn't know whatever information you need to present to the readers, so that someone can give an in-character explanation.

    Failing that... just channel Dave Weber and narrate an infodump. It's not the most elegant solution, but at least it doesn't break immersion.
     
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  6. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    That's good to hear. And yeah, I've had Tauria be on both sides of the instructor/student dynamic (and often being quizzed on information or giving new information). Which also thematically shows the whole cycle of teaching and mentoring that's going on in the Legions.


    Yeah for narrating an infodump it helps that Tauria (and Tanya) is the type of person who would do that amount of research, especially things like the geopolitics and enemy capabilities. So it has an in universe reason why she would have learned that information.
     
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  7. Extras: Images: Special Rewards: Ritual Plate Models & Fancy Dress
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    To give a status update, and to showcase some new art, but mostly to showcase some new art here's.... some new art.

    But first the status update:

    Chapter 21 of Little Demon is at 8,500 words. And is hopefully at maybe halfway to 2/3 written.

    The Omake Peer Rivals Ch2 is ast 5,000 words and should be at nearing the last scene.





    First from we have a future preview of a day Tauria has been telling herself she dreads and her Vs have been looking for. In an amazingly sparkly and frilly piece by PlayerError404


    In fairness to her concerns, a countess officer of her note marrying a baroness, with their mistress would be quite the fanciful event.



    And here we have a symbol of the alliance between Great Houses Elena and Luxon. Done by LexiKimble


    [​IMG]
    Fullsize,

    Yes. that is an Elenese Mokosh recon suit and a Luxon Anupet multi-role suit.




    And now we come to some excellent work by PlayerError404 showing all three configurations of the Polyxo Advanced Multi-Role.


    First we have the Ground Attack Polyxo configuration, which is roughly analogous to the Sarpendona. Pictured with the Pilum (anti-armor) and Falx (anti-infantry) projectors and heavier armor and protective wardings.






    Next we have the Air-superiority Polyxo configuration, which is comparable to the Harmonia. This is pictured with the Ballista air-to-air optimized weapons, and suit add-ons for superior high speed performance and maneuverability.




    Finally we have the Lance Strike variant Polyxo configuration, which is comparable to the Telephe. This is pictured with a massive Lance system, including the arcane projector and the various high magical energy storage flasks that power the weapon's limited capacity.






    There are a few artistic liberties with the design, they may not glow this much, but the colors are also veiled and muted when in combat mode, and the strike modes may have two lances, their verutum launchers aren't shown. But those are minor, I'm really happy as this shows vast differences in the configurations the Polyxo has when the different weapon and maneuvering and warding kits are attached.



    Next we have a picture of Tauria's maid... er... aide in a slightly more human-looking guise, from Saturn13


    Reinhild SunShower has found some quirks of her new mistress but overall is pleased with her new job.




    And finally we have the frilly, but technically official, Legionary uniform variant from chapter 20 done by PLayerError404.​



    [​IMG]
    Fullsize
    VioletBlood is her usual exuberant self, and even the kitsune seems amused, while Tauria does wonder how bad this meeting will go, little does she know that soon she'll meet another Daughter shortly and be given some "good" news.
     
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  8. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    My, what big... tails she has.
     
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  9. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    You could say she's a.... vixen. Now we don't know all the factors VioletBlood considered when picking her, but we do know what LoveBlood is like.
     
  10. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Would be nice to see Tanya be able to get into suits again.Lot of art out there of her being real dashing and I think it's a waste to waste that potential of hers if it carries over into this life.
     
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  11. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It's possible. Suits are popular on Diyu as well, and she could wear a suit, though for a lot of formal events her uniform or a dress is expected, but for off duty wear it is possible
     
  12. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    BTW, are you interested in a beta?
     
  13. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Oooh, Commentary would be good. The draft (it's still early) of ch21 is variable onthe Little Demon Discord.
     
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  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 21: Officers and Obeisance
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Diyu Demons verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic.
    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/

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 21: Officers and Obeisance

    Mursam was House BlackSky's largest colony. Located on a dimensional crossroads that made further travel easier, similar but lesser than that of the Homeplane of Diyu itself, Mursam was a central location that served as a logistical, commercial, and military hub for most of House BlackSky's other colonies.

    I was not a member of the Cartographers' Guild, let alone the Transcendental Survey Branch, but I could read a map. Mursam was a key holding and thus needed considerable defense for itself and nearby colonies, especially since a direct transit from Diyu to Mursam had been charted about forty years ago, around the same time as the Third Great House War.

    A full Coetus Malleus of twenty Legions, including Corpus Incursio Tenacity, was held here with enough Rorarii, first line reserves, to form at least ten more Legions. I was not sure how many second line reserves there were in Mursam, but this colony was a favorite place for Legionaries to retire to. The Emurian Fifth Landing Fleet was stationed here to transport Tenacity to any location on Mursam or any other colony and, if needed, could ferry another half-dozen legions in a second wave. The Colonial Domitianus Fourth Fleet was not quite as powerful as the Home Fleets, but the Fourth had about twenty capital ships, half of them stationed on Mursam, including the Celestial class Empyrean Zenith.

    Of more relevance to the task of defending colonial holdings was the larger number of smaller combat airships also attached to the Fourth Fleet. Of course, the large contingent of assorted supply ships was the most vital component of the Fourth by far, and the key element to projecting BlackSky's Legions across the House's far-flung colonies. This mission was further advanced by a whole constellation of smaller bases and outposts standing watch over the secondary colonies.

    Positioned over a natural harbor where the grassy steppes met the ocean, the colonial capital Mursa Victrix was a sprawling city of broad horizons. After spending about a year in Silvana, I had felt a twinge of agoraphobia when I was first exposed to the vast vistas, seas of grass or brine stretching endlessly in all directions around the city. Though, after a period of acclimation, I had grown familiar with the starkly beautiful landscape; it reminded me of Bovitar, the city I had grown up in, one orphan among many.

    I stood on the balcony of the offices my squadron had been assigned while we trained with the rest of Quirinus's Demi-Wing. Today, the westerly breezes had obligingly brought the cool sea air directly to the balcony, cutting the edge off the alchemical stink of the industrial yards and mechanical stench rising from the massive base known as Colonia Mursam Castramagnus. I had gone from spring in Diyu to early fall in Mursam, which was only part of dealing with a slightly shorter year, a longer day, and other differences that gave a lingering feeling of unbalance and disquiet. Accepted wisdom held that it took a month to acclimate to life on a new dimensional plane.

    I turned away from studying the sky. As always, the burning cloudless blue was busy with the expected aircraft. If one wanted to return to Diyu or to travel even further along the dimensional spine, then the only realistic options were a Teleport-rune-equipped airship or access to a proper Gateway.

    Sipping from my mug, I stepped back through the privacy wards and into my squadron's offices. I took my time to enjoy the brew; it was the only cup I would allow myself for the day. Getting good coffee out here was far more expensive, hence the local popularity tea enjoyed.

    Putting aside fears of another House War, of deals with Archangels, and the sundry other concerns I labored under, I allowed myself a moment of pride. The Third Squadron of the 78th Infantry Legion's Epsilon Demi-Wing was mine. Granted, I was still just over halfway filled on Pilots, but that would be fixed soon.

    Passing Flight Two's Pilots, I looked over their shoulders and was gratified to see they were going over reports. Without any reminders necessary, would wonders never cease! Before I could congratulate them on their diligence, I felt a pressure at the base of my horns. The sensation was familiar and I was surprised at the sudden chorus of feelings that welled up with me at that nostalgic touch. My senior Pilot, Volantes Signifier GreyDawn opened the door to admit our visitor.

    The willowy Centurion who stepped in looked more mature and grown up than I remembered her, but quite a bit of water had passed under the bridge since we'd parted. Octavia was a dark purple-skinned woman with glossy black hair and amber eyes. Even her wings, which I remembered as seeming vaguely oversized, now fit her slender frame perfectly. Not much older than LoveBlood, she walked with more confidence than the green Pilot I had first met over two years ago.

    "Pri- Prefect Centurion DiamondDust!" she said, correcting herself as she saluted, exposing her neck and flicking her claws.

    Returning the salute, I smiled, pleasantly surprised at our reunion; that is, I was surprised that Octavia had arrived today. "Centurion Octavia, it's good to see you, please come in."

    "Thank you, Ma'am."

    "You can be at ease," I chuckled, before continuing in a louder voice so the rest of my Squadron could hear. "Anyone who helped get the crew of a downed Spatha out of Ortov while the city burned and suffered alongside me in FOB EmeraldInferno in the Crocelli jungles has earned a bit of leeway."

    "Thank you, Ma'am," Octavia agreed while GreyDawn chuckled.

    My two Flight Leaders ambled over; Visha and VioletBlood also knew Octavia, of course. Though my wingwoman had missed out on all the fun of Ortov and minor House Vualia.

    "Welcome to Third Squadron," VioletBlood said, sizing her up. "Congratulations on getting married," the Baroness added, her gaze upon me weighty.

    "Thank you for sending us such lovely gifts, all of you." Octavia smiled and bowed her horns to us. "And congratulations on your engagement, to all three of you."

    VioletBlood gave a smugly confident smile while I stammered an appreciative response.

    "Thanks! It's great to have you again." Visha handed her a cup of coffee. "You'll be in Flight One, that's with the Countess, GreyDawn, and myself."
    "We'll be wingwomen again," GreyDawn said with a toothy grin.

    Octavia steeled herself. Being in a Squadron's First Flight was an honor, First Flight considered of: the Squadron Commander; her second, and the Flight Leader; and, in this case, the Squadron's senior pilot. "I wouldn't have it any other way," she said with more assertiveness than I expected.

    The new Pilots of Flight Two looked up from their work, seeming to finally notice the new arrival, although in all likelihood they had simply been tactful enough to give our reunion the illusion of privacy.

    "How much do you know of the assignment?" I asked

    Octavia's usual cockiness faded slightly. "Junior Tribune Artemis Quirinus has four Squadrons. First Squadron, commanded by her wingwoman, Prefect Centurion Caenis, consists of Harmonia Air Superiority models. Second and Fourth are Sarpedona Ground Attack models. Which leaves Third Squadron, which is equipped with Polyxo."

    "Ah, I see someone's read the briefing," I said, giving a bit of levity.

    "I am Legion; I had help with the bigger words," Octavia smoothly replied. "But if you want me to elaborate..."

    I shook my head. "It's pretty basic. Nearly fifty Legion Fliers, my guess is Demi-Wing Epsilon is intended to provide extra support to Legionary formations. Which, out in the colonies, has some implications. We'll be the swing Squadron. Our role will change depending on what Quirinus needs."

    "It sounds like a good fit for someone of your skill," Octavia acknowledged.

    I chuckled; from a stranger that could come off sycophantic, but Octavia knew my command style and had been trained under my wing. "You already know Flight One. LoveBlood, care to introduce Flight Two?"

    "It'd be my pleasure." VioletBlood clapped her hands and snapped a summons at the trio of former cadets.

    I allowed myself to fade into the background, free to enjoy my coffee as the newly minted pilots made their introductions. Those three had fought, suffered, and demanded exactly this. After Felisia had recommended I take some cadets into my Squadron I had spent the months after increasing the tempo of my training.

    The rest of my Squadron had helped; we all knew that whoever would be picked would have to be reliable, capable, and able to learn. Beyond passing the examinations to proxy for Flight School the three winners had undergone personal evaluations conducted by Quirinus. I was grateful my commander had invested the time to put them through their paces, coming to her own conclusions about their fitness to serve. Conclusions that would be independent of my history with my former students, and the mixed feelings I had still harbored once Quirinus had confirmed that they passed muster.

    The other cadets had gone onto Flight School with my letters of recommendation in hand, and were by and large taking the more conventional path of study, training, and waiting until the proper age before trying for a combat slot. I had done my duty and had provided the Imperatrix with a baker's dozen of Legion Fliers.

    And yet, none of that was my concern now, thankfully. I had done all that had been asked of me as an educator, and now I was no longer forced to ride herd on a flight of ungrateful whelps and pampered daughters.

    It was a drop in the bucket, as the BlackSkyvian war machine went. Every year the Imperial Legions graduated about seven hundred Legion Fliers. The larger Household Fleet needed well over three thousand Fleet Pilots annually, and that was just for Ritual Plate; VTOL, airship, and other aircrew were a whole other personnel pipeline.

    "It has been my burden to command my fellow nobility and mentor them in what it takes to be a Legion Flier," VioletBlood said, stepping next to her fellow baroness. "This is my wingwoman, Centurion SkySpear. As the most capable and willing to put aside foolish ideas of being a duelist mistress of the air, it has not been entirely unpleasant flying with her."

    With her side-shaved and braided silver hair, curled horns, and finely aristocratic periwinkle features, Baroness SkySpear almost looked like she would be better off in Fleet Whites than Legion Blacks, but she had proven that she could step out of her mother's shadow.

    "Ma'am." SkySpear nodded to VioletBlood before turning to Octavia. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I've read a lot about your missions."

    Octavia bowed her head, presenting her horns.

    "And these two I've put together in the hopes they'll keep each other out of trouble, but the countess decided to give Centurions Pulivia VibrantFang and Lavish RoseTalon a chance. Amazingly, neither has broken their new Polyxo suits yet. Yet."

    Behind my coffee mug, I somehow managed to not grit my teeth. That those two had stuck with my program and managed to rise to the top was not entirely unexpected or displeasing. Lavish had a dogged stubbornness that was almost admirable. Things got easier for her when she realized I was not someone she could bully past using her force of personality or the weight of her senatorial mother's reputation.

    Pulivia, the closest thing to a friend Lavish seemed to have, was rather studious and, despite a meekness out of the suit that seemed at odds with being the daughter of a duchess, third-in-line or not, she was decisive in the air. I just had to look past the two spoiled, pampered girls who thought they could crash a meeting with the manufacturer of our suits.

    Which, admittedly, had been a very large ask.

    Pulivia seemed a bit nervous and almost in awe of Octavia. "You were with the countess at the start?"

    "That was me," VioletBlood haughtily interjected, as keenly defensive of her claims as always. "Isn't that right, Countess?" I keenly felt the conversational gravity drawing me back in, just as surely as if the baroness had stooped to looping her arm around mine and pulling me back in by main force. Fortunately, she'd retained a small measure of discretion. "But Octavia does go back very far."

    Lavish gave a respectful bow to the both of us. It was odd to see her in a proper Legion uniform and not one with a cadet's green trim. "It will be good to fly with you."

    I gave a sharp smile. "Quite so, now your Flight doesn't have a numbers advantage."

    VioletBlood gave a small huff. "You do realize how unfair it is. Your Flight is full of aces with years of experience, while, aside from my own brilliance, I merely have cadets," she whined theatrically.

    "Then you'll have to use your brilliance to close the gap," I said with a shrug equally theatric in its nonchalance, capping off my studied disregard with a long sip from my now-lukewarm coffee.

    VioletBlood went from an exaggerated huff to a more sinister mien. "I'll just have to work them harder then," she crowed and cackled with malicious glee, and Pilots' tails went limp.

    "Did your Ritualista transfer too?" Visha asked, diverting attention away from VioletBlood's minor power trip.

    "They came with me on the same supply ship from Silvana." Octavia nodded and gave a smile. "I also may have brought a few goods from home."

    My subordinates looked at my mug.

    "Among other things," Octavia assured. "I did manage to get you a few things as well Ma'am."

    I gave the Legionary Flier a wary look.

    "Ma'am?"

    "The Prefect is just weary after writing thank you notes for all going away presents she got before leaving Silvana," Visha explained, her tone placating and infuriatingly tolerant.

    "I don't see why! Honestas and SaphireFiligre did wonderful work on her crown, and the coat of arms the duchess presented her was lovely, and long overdue. Not to mention getting you a proper sword," VioletBlood huffed, taking a moment way from harassing her pilots to shoot me a frustrated look as if I were to blame for such delays, which was only partially true.

    "You have a coat of arms?"

    "Oh yes," VioletBlood chirped, turning to smile at Octavia. "a lovely design of azure over sable. A constellation of nine crimson stars mount the black lower half while a pair of white wings rise up over them to the blue field feathers up protecting a golden star of Our Hallowed Lady." To my mild amazement, VioletBlood's tail was swishing enthusiastically, as if she were flaunting her own honors instead of dealing my own frippery. "I'd show you, but the countess doesn't want to put her coat of arms up in her office, let alone the common room."

    I gave my betrothed a withering look. I appreciated the effort put into such gifts, but I was never one for crowns, and my coat of arms was rather... blatant in its symbolism. I was fortunate the design had been publicly entered into the registry after my business with Samoth had concluded. The Zioxan mercenary could have easily taken offense at the clear references to her sister's death on my arms, and surely would have taken the opportunity to claim insult if only to claim another bargain chip during our negotiations.

    Still, the crown, sword, and coat of arms did suit the legend of Countess DiamondDust and would be useful when I was compelled to leverage that reputation. I suppose that was the real meaning of the gifts my sisters and mother gave me.

    "It would compliment your crown wonderfully," VioletBlood's sober tone belied how petulant she was being.

    "I don't keep that here either."

    "At least your sword is in the office." This time VioletBlood didn't bother to conceal her pout behind any measure of decorum.

    "It was her elder sister's," Visha said, trying to be conciliatory.

    Thankfully she was not speaking of my late elder sister. Even I would have found that to be an ill-omened artifact. Still, ArgentShroud had honored me with a gift of one of her blades. She also had good humor and hoped that I, like her, would never need to use it in combat. "I can show you that if you wish," I said in a tone that indicated it would be best if Octavia wished for no such thing.

    "No need," she said, full of assurance. "And I think you'll be happy with the items I procured. Signifier GreyDawn gave me a list."

    "Unlike the rest of you, I've been off-world before," GreyDawn put in. "Things are better than they were back then, but there's always a few items that are hard to get out here."

    "Good, and we'll go over our stockpile and see if there's anything we need to restock before we get posted further out." I turned back to Octavia. "Have your Ritualista contact Centurion Gibbs for their slotting and Miss SunShower, my aide, for any personal issues."

    "I made sure my suit never left my Ritualistas' sight. They're offloading it right now." Octavia stated with justifiable pride; getting your suit lost due to a bureaucratic mix-up would be embarrassing and frustrating. "Your aide?"

    "The Prefect's kitsune maid," GreyDawn clarified, a spark of humor danding around her eyes.

    "Ah." Octavia politely nodded, her face a study of bland disinterest

    "She's great at being both aide and maid!" VioletBlood insisted, although her point was decidedly undermined by the lingering petulance in her voice.

    "She has been an excellent find, Ma'am," GreyDawn agreed with a face just straight enough that I couldn't chide her for the almost audible laughter at my expense.

    I put my mug down on the table in the center of the room, deciding that it would be best for my dignity to simply ignore the entirety of the digression. "Octavia, I want your suit's records submitted to Centurion Gibbs. It took her long enough to accept the promotion; she might as well have something interesting to look at. First, is there anything you need fixed, anything you want? We might as well get your Polyxo refreshed when we're still at the biggest depot in the colonies."

    "It was refitted to Mark 15 last year; overall it's good. But the stabilizers could use recalibrating, the survival kit is getting a bit old, it could do with a standard seal replacement, and the Ballista projectors are reaching the end of their lifespan, Oh, and my comms need syncing."

    "Understandable, all standard," I said quickly drafting a memo as I listened. The survival kit, a set of relevant supplies stored on the inner suit layer, was easy to overlook. Fortunately, nothing was too time-sensitive, though fresh batteries, supplies, and munitions were beneficial. Getting her comms systems aligned with the rest of her Flight, Squadron, and Wing was, of course, the highest priority on the list. Bad communications may kill, but no communications was scarcely better.

    Visha gave me a look and quietly took the pen from my hand and finished writing out the memo. Ah, this was her Flight, and as such standard suit issues were more her responsibility than mine. "Do you have a Gorgon Rig?" Visha asked her new Pilot as I took a step back, trying not to look too obviously chastised.

    "Unfortunately, no." Octavia seemed a bit bashful about that. "My scrying systems have been updated but not to that level."

    "We'll make sure you're consistently equipped. I won't have one of my Flight being the odd girl out," Visha said, disarmingly charming as always.

    "I simply strongly suggested to my Pilots that they purchase that option when they bought their own Polyxo suits," VioletBlood said, giving her Flight a predatory smirk.

    I eyed my least experienced Pilots without much sympathy. That was one advantage of dealing with spoiled nobles; they were able to buy their way up to par. "It's a shame that equipping Flight Three with Gorgon Rigs won't be that easy."

    "Who will be in Flight Three?" Octavia asked.

    "I've got a Flight transferring from the Primus Anchorage," I answered, pleased with the announcement. It would be nice to have another experienced Flight attached to my Squadron. Hopefully, we would be able to have the luxury of familiarization training to get all three of my Flights to work together as well as acquainting my Squadron with Quirinus's other three Squadrons.

    "We're getting some moon succubae?" Lavish asked, blunt as always.

    VioletBlood and I gave her arch looks. Pulivia winced by proxy at the somewhat crass slang.

    "Sorry, that was too informal of me," Lavish said, trying to sound contrite and mostly failing. The green Pilot had the sense to not point out VioletBlood's nickname for Visha, nor the baroness's own nickname.

    "Are they natives of Lantia? Did they grow up on the Anchorage?" VioletBlood asked, thankfully moving the conversation past Lavish's faux paus. Although, judging by her enthusiasm, she might be inquiring from genuine curiosity about her new comrades. If so, I could easily understand her curiosity. Lantia had a different culture, more reserved, than Diyu proper. It was also the heartland of House Andromache. The Lantian Primus Anchorage was the homeport of Primus Third Fleet, the Emuria Eighth Landing Fleet, and had a large Legion presence. All that meant a large population of support staff and dependents.

    On first blush, the Primus Anchorage seemed like a safe rear position. In some ways, the Third and Eighth gave better service as fleets-in-being being unlikely to ever leave their berths in earnest. The possibility of having about ten capital ships, with full escort and fleet support, and Corpus Incursio Vigilance appear anywhere on Diyu within a couple hours was a considerable threat to any opposition, leaving the Anchorage as a quiet but prestigious post.


    That impression, while not entirely untrue, was also exaggeration. It took time to collect, load, and stow the Legions on their troopships, not to mention charge their Teleport Runes. If it ever came time for the Third and Eighth to deploy in earnest, any enemy intelligence would surely see them coming and take immediate countermeasures. Still, when it came to rapid deployment of significant troop capacity, House BlackSky had invested considerably in that capability and it would be very through countermeasures indeed to even impede the massive lunar deployment. Even knowing an attack by the Third and Eighth was imminent, an enemy would be unable to concentrate their defenses unless they knew where the assault was to fall.

    Both as a first strike capability or as a rapid reinforcement to either First or Second Home Fleet, these formations were a figurative Damocles Sword suspended over Diyu. It was the latter aspect, with even faster assistance if Beacons were used, that was what Third Fleet and its supporting Legionary assets were more frequently deployed as. I had enough experience to know that a posting on Lantia would be far from calm and sedate.

    "Their Flight Leader is a veteran and did grow up in the garrison," I explained, moving on from considerations of Lantia. The relative value of that posting was academic in my case. While it was theoretically possible for me to acquire a slot based on the Primus Anchorage, I could only do that if I ceased to be Quirinus's subordinate.

    "Oh? Why's she having her Flight transfer out here?" GreyDawn asked, just managing to keep the suspicion out of her voice. A trained Polyxo Flight was a valuable commodity in the Legions, and a transfer of an entire Flight was entirely worthy of comment.

    "Was she floored by the opportunity of serving under you?" VioletBlood's haughty tone had undercurrents both gushing and snide.

    I gave her a level look to indicate she was being just a bit too familiar in front of the Legionaries.

    Tail curling, VioletBlood gave a small nod.

    Looking at the clock I ran a few numbers. "Your suit's being offloaded?" I asked Octavia.

    She nodded. "My Ritualista should be moving it to join the rest of the squadron. We're in hangar 38, the one just down the hall and on the ground floor?"

    "Good, good. And have you had lunch yet?" I asked, giving the suddenly worried pilot a sharp smile.

    Octavia shook her head warily, eyes fixed on mine. "I'm still getting used to the new time. Acclimation period and all that."

    "Well, how about we all have a quick meal?" Despite my cheerful tone, my Pilots were skeptical and worried. "I'll talk to Gibbs and see if all our suits are flight-ready."

    "Do you want me to get clearance from Flight Ops?" Visha diffidently asked.

    "Yes, let's see what slots they have available, worst case we might have to get some simulator time," I said, giving my Pilots a reassuring smile. Half of the cowards openly flinched away. "Don't worry, this is just some familiarization training. It's not like even I can get a live fire exercise approved on this short notice."

    For some reason the seven other Legion Fliers did not seem terribly reassured by my words.


    ++++++++++


    Some things never change. When your commanding officer requests your presence "at your convenience" or invites you to dine with her, those are just polite formalities. You will find your convenience coming very shortly, and even if you just stood up from a meal you will abruptly find room to be peckish, or at least you will if you desire to have a future in the military.

    Volantes Tribune Artemis Magnus Quirinus, commander of the 78th Infantry Legion's Epsilon Demi-Wing, was no martinet. Still, she expected all her squadron commanders to attend when she issued her summons, polite wording or not. The location she had chosen for today's meal was rife with hints about the true nature of this "impromptu get-together".

    This was not a formal dinner that required mess dress uniforms, nor one requring the reservation of one of the Colonia Mursam Castramagnus' officers' dining rooms. Instead, the invitation was to an upscale restaurant just outside of downtown Victrix.

    Stepping inside, I gave a short bow to the hostess, resplendent in her silk dress with intricate sash. A bouquet of both familiar and novel spices filled my nose. A further good sign, if only for my palate, was that the restaurant served Paymonish cuisine.

    The western peninsula of Mursam had a rather large, if legally informal, colony from that Minor House. Over the generations, and adapting to local differences in food and climate, the Mursam Paymonish had started to diverge from their Diyu cousins.

    I was led to a private room that with a good view of the bay. Three people were already waiting at the broad table: Quirinus; Prefect Centurion Caenis, her second and commander of First Squadron; and a third Prefect Centurion I didn't recognize.

    On the shorter side but muscular and broad of shoulder, with short blue hair, and a rather demure set of grey horns, the new woman's wings were iridescent with blue-grey feathers. She gave me a calculating look. Putting her wine glass down, she bowed her horns to me. Ah, this must be the commander of Fourth Squadron; she looked younger than I expected, but still quite aggressive.

    I gave her a quick but respectful nod, before bracing and saluting Quirinus. "Wonderful that you could make it;" the Tribune said by way of greeting, returning my salute, "please, sit."

    I nodded and took one of the two empty seats.

    "Countess, have you met Prefect Centurion Fabia Firmitas HarrowFang?"

    "I have not had the pleasure," I said, giving the newly named HarrowFang a smile. The Legion Flier certainly looked tenacious, and pugnacious, enough to have earned the honor name Firmitas, even at her young age. "You've got one of our Sarpedona Squadrons?" I asked, out of politeness' sake.

    Cold silver eyes twinkled. "Aye, and we've got something in common, DiamondDust."

    "Oh? I've been out in a capital posting and been away from the real fight."

    Fabia snorted. "Please. You're one of Artemis's girls. And she may be flying a prissy Harmonia suit, but she still makes sure her protégées all know how to get down in the mud."

    "Ah," I glanced over and saw that Quirinus did not object to the familiarity. "There may have been some... popular embellishments to my-"

    "Not that," Fabia cut me off. "I don't care about the crap and pap the capital and the brass-horns will serve up to try to get more tails in suits. I'm done dancing that dance. That said, we do have other things in common." She smirked as she sipped her wine, clearly enjoying dragging out the mystery. "Though my brats aren't quite as spoiled and noisome as yours."

    Caenis shook her head. "Now, now, the countess only has to deal with one Flight of green pilots."

    "My sympathies," I said sincerely, bowing my horns to Fabia in solidarity. "You have an entire cadre I take it?"

    "Yeah," Fabia said, idly flipping the menu open. "My Flight Leaders are solid, and the girls are good, but it's still a green formation."

    "You could have commanded Second Squadron," Quirinus said with a bit of resignation, clearly rehashing an old argument.

    Fabia shook her head. "Nah, Julia is a good commander, but she still needs time to grow to her position."

    "She's ten years older than you and has two more years time in-grade," Quirinus replied.

    "I stand by my statement. Experience isn't just measured in time. Not everyone is as blessed by the Martyred Lady as our Countess."

    "Or you?"

    Fabia shrugged.

    Evidently I still needed more practice. "I'm still quite new to all this," I said as the waitress came in and gave me some water. I managed to slip in na order for some amber tea before the uniformed server withdrew..

    The ground-attack Legion Flier eyed me. "You're not the only one who got in early as a cadet. I just didn't make quite the same splash, fortunately. My actions weren't quite as evocative you see; no saving my noble mother, no making Ace in a day. As a result, the stories and plays with my so-called heroism died off within a year. And, thankfully, since I only saved hoof-sloggers, I never earned that cursed crown."

    I tried to conceal my jealousy.

    Fabia laughed, her sardonic humor spiced with sympathy. "Ah, so you have some sense after all. Wonderful."

    "I managed to avoid having a Preserver Crown made for me for two and a half years," I stated obscurely pleased as I sipped my water. "How old were you?"

    Fabia took a drink. "Thirteen. I'm Mursam, born and raised. Had a guild mistress, a cousin of my mother, who patronized my training, got me a cadet slot early. You know how it goes."

    I nodded.

    "And there was an exercise on Vikram; it was a wave-the-banner show off to try and up recruitment on that little secondary colony. Trosier tried to raid us. There wasn't much there but local colonial Auxilia." Fabia's face clouded but her expression twisted into a nasty fanged smile. "Unfortunately for them, we were doing a live-fire exercise and after the first combat losses, well... there was plenty of ammunition for those of us who were left."

    "Ah, I guess I should not be shocked that something like that has happened before," I said as tactfully as I could. Border raids and brushfire wars were a constant if under-reported facet of BlackSky life, especially on the offworld colonies; notice of villages burned and civilians kidnapped did little to sell broadsheets and nothing to raise general morale, and generally slipped out of the awareness of any not directly involved.

    Fabia played with her glass. "With an empire of our size, the emergence of a young Imperial heroine is a matter of statistics."

    I tapped the table in thought. The evolution of a heroine could be calculated I thought, based on the number of cadets, the frequency of those cadets being exposed to safe missions, the fraction of said missions that turned out not to be safe after all, and other factors including how often the cadet lives and the odds they had a particularly noteworthy life story.

    Given a bit of effort and access to enough data, it would be easy to calculate the window of probability in which the Powers that Be could expect a new heroine to emerge from the faceless morass of mission statements and loss reports. And once the emergence of such a media-ripe darling could be calculated, then it could be included as a factor for any propaganda campaign, any recruitment push...

    Caenis snickered. "You don't have to try to work out the odds, Tauria."

    Tail stiff, I gave an embarrassed nod to the head of First Squadron and pulled my head back out of the clouds. Such a model was a foolish idea anyway; pinning any major policy on such an unpredictable factor was individual heroism was absurd.

    But given the right timing, and perhaps by ridding the deck in advance...

    "Glory and fame are fleeting," Quirinus noted.

    "That's a small mercy," a fifth voice drawled as a new figure was ushered into our room by the hostess. She had braided black hair, silver hooves, and with her skinny horns and a pair of slightly too big wings for her voluptuous frame, she looked more than a bit too young to be a squadron commander. There was also something off, about her accent. It was familiar somehow, but not in a way I could easily place.

    Despite her youthful appearance, she was clearly at least ten years older than I was. Upon further inspection the impression of youth came at least somewhat from her deliberate, yet peculiarly weightless, almost floating, gait. When one wore a Ritual Plate one either had to deal with carrying a very heavy suit that weighed down your torso, and limbs or, when the suit's Zephyr were active, with controlling a suit with its mass buoyed by air spirits but that still possessed its full inertia. In neither case did Ritual Plate use lent itself towards such an airy step.

    "Apologies, I got held up straightening out a supply issue with my Ritualista," the woman said in a slightly odd cadence, bowing her glossy green horns to Quirinus. It was then that I placed it; she had the smoother, more rounded vowels of a Luxon accent. It was not quite the flowing Otic I was exposed to in Bovitar, a border province butting up to House Luxon. No, this accent was slower than the accents around Great Bazala Lake in eastern Luxon; instead she had a bit more of the speech of someone from Yomi, Luxon's second city, in the central part of that House.

    Interesting. I wondered if she was a refugee or had begged asylum. Perhaps her parents had been the immigrants. Even more interestingly, the woman walked as if she was still getting used to a set of flight armor, not as if she were an experienced pilot. I wondered if it was a deliberate affectation. Even my cadets had rather quickly abandoned any effort to exaggerate their strides.

    "No worries; we haven't ordered yet," Quirinus said, gesturing to the open seat. "Everyone, this is Prefect Centurion Lady Julia JadeTalon, Second Squadron. Julia, these are your fellow squadron commanders: Caenis, my second in command, in charge of First Squadron; Countess Tauria DiamondDust with Third Squadron; and Fabia HarrowFang with Fourth, the other Sarpedona, Squadron."

    "Charmed," Julia nodded to each of us. Her eyes did linger on me for a moment, perhaps surprised by my age.

    We had time for a bit more small talk before the waitress came and took our orders. I decided to go with a savory and spicy shrimp soup, especially since VioletBlood had seemed eager to try the seafood here, which was a welcome break from her normally dismissive attitude to non-Diyu cuisine.

    "What was the supply issue?" Caenis asked Julia.

    Julia paused to roll her shoulders back. "Oh, just some cartridges for the portable etching and engraving systems for when Ritualista work in the field. There was a mix up when we came out here. Fortunately, I have solid Flight Leaders and the issue was found quickly; they just needed someone with a bit more shoulder-braid to push on supply."

    "You're still down a couple Pilots?" Quirinus asked, leaning into the conversation.

    Julia put down her own mug of fragrant narrow-leaf tea. A spicier blend that was popular in Khemi, Luxon's capital, but also everywhere else on the coast of the Great Bazala Lake, which included much of Eastern Province. I cursed my overactive paranoia; Quirinus did know and trust her. "Yes. I am supposed to get a pair from here, but..." Julia trailed off.

    "The Countess is in a similar position; she's got a Flight coming all the way from Lantia."

    "I'm hoping they at least managed to get off the moon by now and are waiting for transit on Diyu. That way they don't have as much distance to catch-up," I said, doing my best to contribute to the conversation. I was still immensely thankful for the pull Quirinus seemed to have as a new minted Tribune. Her reputation, as deserved as it was, must have helped her get some status for her requisitions and personnel needs. As a consequence, transit orders and supply requisitions were being met with unusual speed.

    "Especially if, or when, we get sent to some other colony and the distance increases?" Fabia dryly asked. "At least they're not green, purportedly." Her tail swished with amusement.

    Julia nodded. "I'm lucky. I got assigned to a squadron that had only three gaps due to Legionnaires' terms ending. Granted, one was their previous Squadron Commander, and Demeter left some big boots to fill, but I have all my Flight Leaders."

    I made polite noises of agreement. I could see why Fabia was assigned the Sarpedona Squadron of rookies and Julia had the experienced ground-attack unit. Tribune Quirinus was trying to strike a good balance with her pilots' and officers' relative levels of experience. The real upside of all that was that we had a surplus of experienced Ritualista and our new maintenance personnel were learning from them at a good rate.

    Amid more small talk and, thankfully informal, ice breakers, our food came and we got a bit more comfortable as we settled down to eat our meals. Fabia did have a knack as a raconteur and was able to tell some rather colorful stories, and, despite her relative inexperience, Julia had a good eye for detail.

    Far from the worst comrades to serve beside, I decided. So far, my fellow officers seemed like a professional bunch, yet still willing and able to relax in non-professional settings. Compared to some of the professional pains in the ass back in the Imperial army, they're practically the souls of easy comedy.

    As our meals started to wind down, Quirinus tapped her glass and our private room fell silent. "Now, I still haven't heard official word on where we will deploy, but I have been given assurances that we will have time to work up our squadrons, muster a full headcount, and have time to train as a Wing."

    We all gave light chuckles at the value of assurances.

    Our Tribune gave a slight smile. "Quite. While I don't have an official word on our next action; I would recommend those of you new to the colonies look into the history of Harp's World."

    I concealed a sigh. There were certainly worse places we could be sent, but Harp's World was a morass, and not even one of our colonies. I also pushed down the flash of guilt that I would have to take her advice as my knowledge of that place was cursory at best. I cursed myself for doing insufficient research and trying to focus on what colonies I presumed we would have to protect.

    Let that be a lesson, I told myself sternly. Always expect an out of context assignment when things are running too smoothly.

    "We're going to Ziox's Folly?" Fabia asked.

    Julia seemed a bit perplexed. "I thought it was called the Great Alecton Write-off?"

    "And the Trosic Scrap Harbor." Caenis picked at her meal. "It has a lot of names."

    "I've been focusing on familiarizing myself with our colonies, worlds that are one jump from our colonies, and critical enemy holdings. Was a new route to Harp's World discovered recently?" I asked trying to figure out why we would be sent so far afield. One of the main tasks of the Cartographers was to find routes between various worlds, as discovering a "shortcut" could bypass defenses, early warning systems, or simply shorten routes. If a new route had been discovered, our assignment as part of a new element sent to secure that route would make sense...

    "No, there was no route change. So, hypothetically, if we were to go there it would be by indirect means: via Vikram to Alecto's rather... sparse colony of Forlorn Prospect and the Alecton hub world of New Batavia."

    "Ziox's only significant off-world colony isn't a critical enemy holding?" Fabia asked, giving me a teasing look.

    "You're the one who called it Ziox's Folly," I replied, not at all waspishly.

    "Why is that? What happened there? I know Alecto sunk a lot into it, and I presume made even more money out of it. Why did Ziox let them in? Were they that desperate?" Julia asked.

    "In short, yes. It's the consequence of repeated efforts to keep a failing colony operational," Quirinus said before chewing a dumpling. "Harp's World was full of potential, good mining assays, with various minerals, metals, and some rare arcane prospects, middling landmass, but what was there had great potential for cropland, and good climate. Overall, ideal for colonization, save that they didn't have a direct route there from Diyu and still haven't found one. Ziox had it all to themselves for a long time."

    "That's where the problems started. It's the typical story: colonists and settlers wanted to get out from under the bickering Great Houses, only to realize that the Dictatrix's agents were right behind them and wanted to ensure that their new world's economy would profit Ziox," Fabia said before eating more of her curry and battered fish. "And of course, in the time honored tradition, the people most interested in xeno-colonization are the ones least invested in supporting their former home."

    "There was a resistance movement?" Julia asked, digging into the spicy bed of shrimp fried rice and mixed vegetables with a beef broth.

    "A completely organic one, yes. It's not like the Household Fleet has been seen operating on Harp's World beyond the occasional show-the-flag visit," Caenis assured in a pointedly dry tone while forking a piece of her steak-like cut of fish. We all knew that the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance was more than willing to meddle in the affairs of other Houses and we all knew that the Household Fleet had a small selection of, discreet and small, airships at the beck and call of august organizations like CSR, or the Palace Librarians.

    That said, it certainly sounds like our spook shave no shortage of martial to work with already waiting for them on Harp's World.

    "Ziox was quite new to the off-world colony game when they settled Harp's World," I commented, taking a guess based on what little I had read about the disputed colony in question, "and I'm sure that certain Great Houses on their border would not want a stronger House Ziox".

    Fabia smiled. "Quite so. Ziox was soon faced with a choice: abandon the colony or go bankrupt trying to keep it under control while also building up infrastructure. Paying for the same refinery over and over again gets rather costly, and shipping in food for your occupation forces is not a good long term prospect."

    "But they picked a third option?" Julia ventured, her confidence growing. "That's when they opened settlement on Harp's World up to other Houses, but... not Alecto?"

    Fabia laughed. "Correct, although that was sort of recognition of the pre-exiting state of affairs more than a real change in policy. Alecton rates on investing in an area under open revolt were too much for Ziox at the time. House Trosier on the other hand...."

    "Made efforts that were only desultory at best, and generally kept to their own enclaves," Quirinus added. "The armada had narrow ambitions but was willing to take advantage and help a dear ally."

    "But that got the ball rolling, right? Ziox got more funds out of their concessions and..." I paused to recall. "They started granting local autonomy to the settlers, didn't they?"

    "They had to. After the last Great House War scuttled their dreams of sweeping over central Diyu, Ziox was left in a bad enough position, at least in the near term. They had to do something to stop hemorrhaging money, material, and lives, and xeno-world colonies are edge budget items to divest when the cuts come calling. Pacifying Harp's World became utterly untenable when the post-war austerity hit." Fabia gave a slight chuckle. "Though their pride was loath to admit to it, Ziox did relent. That much red ink has a way of making even stubborn necks bend."

    No wonder Samoth focused on mercenary work for Diyu Minor Houses; Harp's World probably had plenty of opportunity for work, but the locals likely had no love for their erstwhile masters, which greatly increased the risk with no commensurate increase in profit. Anathema to a mercenary.

    "Placating the locals was only part of it," Fabia continued. "They needed more investment, more people, more resources, more than they could scrape up from within Ziox."

    "House Ziox is not exactly long on friends," Lady Julia noted with a smugness that was rather typical of our kind, although I did note she seemed to hold a special animosity for House Ziox. If her origins were as I thought, I could easily understand why.

    "Especially with Trosier being miserly, only transporting the minimal number of rust-buckets to secure their enclaves, and Irkella focused on their own imperial colonies," Fabia agreed, taking an unmistakable glee in Trosier's woes.

    Julia's violet eyes lit up. "That's how Alecto got involved! Harp's World stabilized enough to be worth their while!"

    "Not just them, Elena got involved too, right?" I ventured testing my recollections and cursing my insufficient diligence as I heard my own hesitancy. "Though not as much, mostly to secure access to choice pharmacological and alchemical extractions?"

    "Correct, both of you." Quirinus gave a nod of approval. "Things progressed from there, autonomy became independence over time. Territories fractured and fought, but by that point there was enough Great House investment to put a lid on local affairs... vehemently."

    "And thus Harp's World became home to two colonial Minor Houses. House Douha with House Ziox and, to a lesser extent, House Trosier as patrons, and House Umic with Alecto and, to a lesser extent, House Elena as patrons," Fabia explained whilst finishing up her plate. "And all the involved Great Houses also maintain territorial enclaves. Not to mention the various fragmenting Free Cities."

    "And... we might be going to this snake pit?" Julia asked with exasperation.

    "Welcome to the offworld colonies," Fabia announced grandly with a broad smirk.

    "I didn't hear anything about House BlackSky's involvement in this mess," Julia point out, with the air of someone probing a contract's article in search for a way out.

    "I am greatly reassured that even without the pressures of Diyu itself, our people's standards of diplomacy and harmony continue," I replied with false levity to ritual amusement around the table. Even with the potential of vast territory already under our talons, our Houses would squabble, bicker, and bleed, spending more and more into a colony that would almost certainly never generate sufficient provides to balance the sheet in the next century. Sunk cost upon sunk cost, all reason blinded by pride and ego and a need to always contest every scrap of territory over which another banner flew.

    "What kind of resources - that is, military assets - do Houses Douha and Umic have?" Julia asked, eyes serious as she scanned the faces of the senior commanders present. And also mine.

    "I don't have the exact numbers memorized but by Minor House standards they're populous and fairly coherent, so good in infantry but lacking in heavier equipment. No off-world capability, air assets aren't bad, mostly fixed wing, but not much in the way of carriers or large ships of any kind," Fabia shrugged. "Generally short-ranged projection if they extend outside of their enclaves at all."

    "Douha is larger but worse off, as their patrons don't have as much to sell and are less inclined to make them stronger; Ziox likely still dreams of 'reunification' and doesn't feel like nurturing any impediments to that end," Quirinus said, with a wry smile as she dug into to her salad. The Tribune had a habit of eating her greens last, just before dessert.

    "Meanwhile Umic is smaller and Alecto will be happy to sell them whatever they want, either for hard currency, trade, or leasing mineral rights." Fabia shook her head. "What would be our role there? If any Great House were to play peacemaker on Harp's World it would be Elena," she said before her tail flicked, understanding blossoming in her eyes. "Oh."

    "That is speculative," Quirinus sternly stated. "Though it is known that the Great Houses who patronize Harp's World do keep... reasonable garrisons."

    "Can we speculate as to our, theoretical of course, role? Epsilon Wing has considerable air to ground capability. If this was just an air action, or a large target, why not Fleet assets?" I asked sipped my tea contemplatively and pointedly not meeting anybody else's eyes.

    Picking up her wine glass Fabia nodded along. "Yes, the girls in their spiffy white uniforms are good as long as the enemy is large and slow or small and fast. Anything in between or on the ground is why the Imperatrix has us Legionaries."

    Julia idly toyed with her own cup, lost in thought. "Four squadrons is a fair bit to move, that'll take at least a Mellona Medium carrier. Or maybe a Damocles Light and a Kolibri Patrol carrier."

    "And that's not even taking whatever ground assets we'd be supporting into consideration," Caenis added in a tone so pointedly mild I wondered what she knew that we did not.

    "I don't know if we will be sent there," Quirinus said, giving us all measured looks. "But I want us to be operating as a cohesive unit one that can provide significant, precise, powerful ground support on demand while also defending ourselves from aerial counterattack."

    I spooned up some more of my soup as I turned the matter over in my head, savoring the savory and salty broth. That little nugget all but confirmed we would be supporting some type of ground operation, which was admittedly the general remit of a Legionary Flier and thus not a significant surprise.

    "Do we have a timeline? Even a vague one?" Julia asked with the air of a woman already making plans in her head. "It would be good to know how much training time I have with my girls."

    That was a very good question. It would make a big difference if we were shipping out tomorrow, next week, or next month.

    Quirinus smiled indulgently as she looked over us, clearly enjoying the finger of brandy left in her crystal flute. "I can't give you a firm answer, but we should get at least a month before embarkation. As I am sure you have all surmised, we won't be the only assets tapped for this role."

    I kept in a tiny frown. Unless the mission were very short and we'd quickly make it back home, I was likely to spend my birthday and even the Feast of DarkStar out on Harp's World. Though it would take a lot for eitehr to be worse than my thirteenth birthday, spent out in the Crocelli jungles, let alone all the birthdays of my previous life spent out in the Rhine Front or other muddy hell-holes.

    "And they'll need training too?" Fabia asked. "Another new unit? Or a specialized mission?"

    Quirinus gave a thin smile. "It would be rather risky to have all freshly founded units sent out on a mission."

    That caused a generally pensive reaction from us. BlackSkyvian doctrine, developed over centuries, frequently made for complicated ground missions. Of all the mission types that doctrine accounted for, there were few operations more fraught and intricate than a contested landing. Indeed, the Imperial Legions specialized in the sort of air assault often paired with those landings, that is, deploying anything from a Century to Cohort to Legion to Corpus Incursio to assist the hoof-sloggers in their efforts to bite and hold. And now our Tribune was implying that we might be going to Harp's World to support something above that already-high bar.

    With only four Squadrons involved, the ground component had to be a few Cohorts at most, also called a Vexillatio, in size. Unless other RP assets would be attached at a further date, of course. The number of Legionaries involved would be even smaller than that scant handful if our Squadrons were tasked with providing heavy fire support in lieu of armored vehicles, as was often done in raids where mobility and a quick egress were of primary importance.

    "What about an opportunity to train and coordinate with these hypothetical other units?" I asked, keeping the concern out of my voice. I was not sure what our mission would be, but based on our numbers I suspected we would not be part of a conventional invasion.

    And while it was reassuring that my House was likely not going to jump into a pit with half a dozen other factions as part of some grandiose imperial land-grab, I had a personal and acute worry about the kind of operations my House would conduct with a small number of RP Squadrons. A Demi-wing could facilitate a lot of BlackSkyvian skullduggery.

    "I am trying to get that arranged, sooner rather than later," Quirinus assured, seemingly taking in my concerns.


    "If scheduling does not allow for this we will have to lean on our standard training and the expectation Legionaries have for their Legion Fliers," Caenis said piously.

    Julia and Fabia both gave her minutely aggrieved gazes as their tails flicked. There was nothing insubordinate in their brief glares, but I could understand why the Sarpedona Pilots would feel they were more familiar with supporting the poor hoof-slogger than some Harmonia fly-girl.

    I was not so perturbed, in part because I knew Caenis was not trying to be patronizing, but also because I knew her personally. I had fought beside the Prefect Centurion and I knew she had experience giving precise fire-support and had been eager to learn and apply my training improvements during our time back at FOB EmeraldInferno. "There are a few methods we can apply to help with our training, even if we can't work with the forces we'll be supporting before the fact."

    "Yes, I have tried some of the methods you developed last year. It's a good refinement, ideal for small units that have dedicated support," Fabia confirmed, nodding as she telegraphed support in front of the two other commanders present.

    Quirinus gave me a sharp smile.

    "Ah, then perhaps I can give a lecture on the subject or..." I glanced around the table. "Set up a training scenario based around it after you've had time to instruct your squadrons?" I offered, adjusting my schedule on the fly.

    "That would be excellent," Julia said, nodding along with an appreciative smile. Clearly, she grasped the conclusion our Tribune had led us to reach. I had my suspicions why she was unable, or unwilling, to tell us exactly where we were going or what kind of forces we would be supporting, and they were not pleasant.

    "If you'll forgive me, I may have been threatening my rookies with your reputation, Countess, both facing your squadron and your training exercises," Fabia's smile turned icy. "Please tell me you won't disappoint and your fancy girls will be set up in ground-attack configuration for such an exercise?"

    I returned with a toothy grin. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

    Quirinus sipped some of her plum brandy, a sly smile dancing on her wet lips. "Fabulous. I thought the four of you would get along. I am sure we shall accomplish great things together."

    ++++++++++

    A gaggle of broodlings watched me, wide-eyed. Attention rapt, their tails swished as they sat around me in a loose semi-circle. I held a folded paper figure in each hand and used them to simulate the position of myself and my wingwoman. Overhead, my Zephyr blew around four more bits of folded paper.

    "And then what?" a too-adorable orphan with brown hair in pigtails asked.

    "She killed them all, dummy!" a younger broodling with long amethyst hair said waspishly.

    "PurpleFire, language!" snapped the stern Sister standing behind them.

    I held up a hand, idly twisting the folded shape that represented myself. "It's possible that my war stories might be over-stimulating them," I admitted as overeager air spirits decided to spin the enemy Flight up into a curving climb and down into a strafing run over the broodlings, much to their amusement.

    "You have been telling... cleaned up tales." The Sister sniffed, though she smiled fondly at the display. "And I suppose that keeps them more engaged than if you had come to quote scripture at them."

    "Still, I think we're getting close to lunch-time." I bowed my horns and with a slip of concentration some of the paper figures began to glide down to the grass. My wings ruffled and all the figures began to rise up again on renewed currents. That I was at the orphanage in my capacity as a Legionary Flier meant I could thankfully wear my uniform instead of my novitiate sister habit. There were many reasons I had no interest in proselytizing to these girls.

    "But how did you defeat the nasty Diluvians?" PurpleFire whined, eager to hear the end of my story.

    "Okay, I'll finish it up," I said, waving my hand in a placating gesture, simultaneously tossing out a handful more figures to be caught by my Zephyr. Made of scrap paper, the figures were folded much like a paper airplane and could similarly glide like quite nicely, but in a concession to my story were vaguely demon shaped.

    Resuming my story, I started to pace. The colorful paper cloud swirled around me, and as I regaled the children with stories of ardent glory, I could reflect that Company-Kapten Samoth Rodswor had a point. Here I was, telling stories of BlackSkyvian aggression and might to entice young war orphans to one day sign up for the service, to quest after honor and renown in the same uniforms their parents might once have worn.

    After all, was I not an example of how an orphan raised by Our Hallowed Lady could go on to achieve great things? And didn't the martial glory I exemplified in their young eyes give a meaning to a life robbed of relations and family, left to the Church to raise and one day advance the cause of the House onwards?

    The bloodthirsty little terrors cheered when my story reached its brutal crescendo and they mobbed over the figures that represented each fallen enemy flier to claim their prizes. The tatters of shredded papers rose where those prizes fell into dispute, each combatant striving to seize that which was rent asunder by their efforts.

    The petty savagery of greedy little demons aside, it was nice to use this skill for something entertaining. Using my Zephyr for this style of minute control was something I had figured out towards the tail-end of my rotation as a cadet instructor. It was an amusing turn that I would use it first to awe broodling before I use it to overawe my House's foes.

    Glancing up at the orphanage's clock tower, Sister Dignitas at last clapped her hands. "Girls, time to wash up for lunch. Thank the Prefect Centurion Countess for her time."

    The broodlings, thankfully all younger than myself, bowed their horns before scrambling back up to their feet. Picking up my case, I handed out the remainder of the paper figures I had made to ensure that each got at least one intact poppet. I also handed out some small gift sets of chocolates, crayons, chew-sticks, and a couple DarkStar coloring books. Practical gifts like socks would be given later. We were in a partially-enclosed courtyard that overlooked some undulating fields to the south of Mursam Victrix.

    "Looks like rain," I conversationally said as the Sister watched her charges make their way back inside the stone building. Remarkably solid, it dated to not far past the colony's founding.

    Tail flicking, Dignitas glanced up at the sky. "Perhaps; you would know," she said, her tone a bit tight. She was a tall, austere woman with just a tinge of violet to her features. The Sister's duty was a challenging one, given the biological, and developmental, dependencies broodlings had.

    "I am sorry for imposing and distracting the girls."

    "Oh, it's not that," she said as we followed the orphans inside.

    Entering the plain foyer, I frowned. Perhaps she was worried about the negative influence of my presence.

    "Countess, a moment?" a merry voice asked respectfully.

    "Of course, Reinhild," I said, giving a slight bow of my horns to the kitsune. I put the now-empty wooden crate by her feet among the others.

    "I trust your aide's work has concluded?" the Sister asked me. "But... were all of those forms really necessary? I don't think I've ever seen their like before..."

    "The paperwork is all in order," the maid assured her while giving me a tiny nod. She carried a briefcase for papers and several large cases for later on. Only one contained socks and other sartorial sundries.

    Well, that was one less matter to worry about. "I do apologize, Sister," I explained, turning to the nun. "But given my age, a tithe at such a level has to get the approval of my seneschal and my Duchess. I even had to go through the same process to become a patron of the orphanage that raised me."

    "Ah, I suppose that does make sense." The sister seemed mollified with my excuse.

    It helped that it was the truth, technically. While Duchess SilverFlight and Seneschal Alexi Frugi would have to approve the funding, when it came to supporting a Church-sponsored orphanage I doubted they would do anything but rubber-stamp my request. However, I wanted to make sure the Sisters were not skimming funds, abusing the system, or engaged in any other malfeasance. Hence, setting a fox into their - fiscal - henhouse under the guise of due diligence.

    "Well, let us go in and have some lunch; it is simple fare but...." Dignitas caught herself. "You would know, I suppose."

    "Honest and filling," I agreed and put on a smile. "Besides, some of the rations in the Legions made me quite homesick."

    I sat with the sisters and it was less awkward than I feared. It helped that the stew was good and the bread was fresh and the broodlings were getting plenty. One upside of going to Church functions with my Mother Clementia as a novitiate was that I learned how to make ecclesiastical small-talk.

    "You've really brightened up the girls' day," a Sister sitting across from Dignitas said.

    "I'm happy to have given some small measure of help; you have been wonderful hosts," I said, dabbing my napkin to my lips. "Being here reminds me of home." I took a moment to realize that was... true.

    "What is the City of Trees like?"

    "Silvana is bustling; it has some lovely cathedrals and history, but it can be very busy, almost overwhelming," I admitted, worried about how open I was being with the sisters. I concentrated on my lunch, hoping the conversation would return to dormancy.

    "The chapel won't be used for a couple hours." Sister Dignatas offered, seemingly misreading my apprehension. "If you would like some private worship, we can make it available."

    "That... I would be honored for such an opportunity," I said with a smile. Some quiet time alone would be a good way to wrap up this visit. I would avoid having to tell more impressionable young broodlings about the Legions and Ritual Plate.

    As the meal concluded, I tried to help cleanup and police the dishes. However, Reinhild practically shoved me out of the kitchen seizing the load of bowls from my hands as she "escorted" me out of the way, and I soon found myself in the orphanage's modest chapel bereft of any task I could assist with.

    Built from the same cut stone as the rest of the complex, the chapel was a humble affair, which was a reassuring statement on fiscal priorities. Though I found I could not begrudge the sisters for having spent a bit extra on comfortable pews. The chapel had a hushed presence and light shone in through the stained-glass windows. Plaques on the bottom of the ones on either side of the nave proudly listed the notables of Mursam who had donated generously to the orphanage over the years.

    I brushed past those and went to the altar and knelt in the light of the four pointed star in the center of the large window over the altar. Simple, almost abstract statuary made up much of the altars accoutrements along with a rather modest reliquary to one side.

    Moving by familiar rote I lit candles for my late adoptive sister, my birth parents, and made the requisite donations befitting my station and the social obligation of charity. With a bit of will, I lit the candles and put them with the other offerings. The flames burned purple-red and flickered for a moment before steadying.

    Aged wood beams supported the roof far above my head. Hanging from the seasoned wood were endless banners bearing the names of all of the orphans who had passed through this institution. The banners rustled in a slight breeze that I couldn't feel so far below them as I knelt in front of the altar again and let the peacefulness of the place overtake me. The chapel had much of the same comfortable, timeless serenity as the rest of the orphanage.

    My wings twitched as my hands clasped tighter. In quiet moments like this, I truly felt my age, both physical and mental. Familiar words mechanically crossed my lips as I beseeched the long-gone DarkStar for wisdom, tenacity, and grace. In truth, I wondered what the real DarkStar, the demon instead of the venerated goddess, would have thought of the worshipful cult that had spring up around her memory. When... no if she returned, per the dogma, what would her reaction be to the religion which had grown around her and all the things done in her name?

    Religion had been a key part of the cultural bonding and civic rituals common across all three of my lives. While my participation in the rituals of my first life had been entirely performative, my relationship with religion in my second life had bee much more contentious. Adversarial even, Being X had demanded I comply with its wishes or die. No contract made under such duress could be considered binding, and like in my first life not a hint of sincerity entered my rituals.

    Suddenly, my mind sprang from meditative calm to sharp-eyed clarity as a tiny bit of warmth radiated from my earrings as they filled with just a bit more energy. Above me, the name-dripping banners whipped a bit in a phantom wind and my tail stilled as I felt a presence drawing close.

    For a horrified movement I thought the archangel might appear, disturbing this moment.

    Instead, the door at the far end of the nave opened, revealing a woman waiting at the threshold. She was not one of the sisters nor anyone else I had met today. I finished my obeisance, stood back up, and turned around and tried not to give her a gimlet stare.

    Given that the woman looked away, clearly I had failed. "Ma'am!" She saluted. "I apologize for disturbing you!"

    Striding across the nave as the candles flickered anew, I studied the woman. She was quite tall, willowy without being gaunt. She had long glossy hair with somewhat messy bangs. Her legs were long enough that, despite my decided lack of vanity, even I felt a pang of jealousy. She must have been just under the maximum height limit for the sizes Ritual Plate components were produced in. I could sympathize given I was towards the other end, but not as close as I had been before I had started to grow taller in my teen years. Alas, my Vs had also continued to grow, which was... not entirely a negative, even if they still towered over me.

    Sharp-featured to almost patrician levels, my visitor had a narrow chin and calculating amethyst eyes. Her tailfins, horns, and hooves were gold and she looked down before she met my gaze with a flash of hauteur that I found rather familiar, perhaps from long experience with troublesome aristocrats. But that quickly passed as she took in the chapel. It was still but for the flickering candles and rusting banners. Based on some sort of internal calculation, she opted to give me a gracious smile that was only slightly tinged with apprehension, which was also rather familiar...

    Ah, I did know her. "Primus Centurion Lucia Hood?" I asked, returning the salute with a tilt of my head and flick of my wrist.

    "Yes, Ma'am!" she replied eagerly, glancing over to the tiered rack of votive candles with their purple flames as she did so. Odd, was she unfamiliar with the symbolism?

    This was the head of my new third Flight. I had been told to expect her in two days, which would have been a week after the Squadron Commander dinner where Quirinus had hinted at our deployment. Stranger and stranger, as Lucia was BlackSkyvian and stationed on the Moon of Lantia, so she should have some familiarity with the Church of DarkStar.

    My eyes narrowed at the towering demon before me, all sharp edges and darting eyes.

    "You're impressively early. Do you have your routing orders?" I asked affecting, a casual tone. It might have been paranoia, but I wanted a measure of assurance that I was not talking to someone who had merely taken the form of my subordinate and purloined a Legionary uniform with the markings of Primus Centurion with the Volantes specialty.

    Looking to the altar, she quickly made the four points of DarkStar's eponymous star over her chest. It was not a gesture that the Order of the Hallowed Lady, the faith I was raised in, used for everyday ceremonies, but others, such as the Order of the Martyred Lady, did use it as a part of their routine obeisance.

    "Sorry!" Lucia opened her slim messenger case and pulled out a missive.

    I took it and read. The orders were valid and an idle trace of my finger elicited the correct magical responses from the various seals. More reassuring was that a memo slip was added to the order stack. With the heading "3rd Squadron, Epsilon Wing, 78th Legion", it was one of the lot Reinhild had ordered for my command.

    I paused; when had I become the type of officer to bring her own servant to a combat posting? Stationary and staffing aside, the memo was signed by Visha, who said she had started integrating Flight Three's personnel and equipment. The suspicious part of me noted that someone could still have waylaid the real Centurion Hood and taken both the documentation and her form.

    "My second told you where to find me?" I asked, folding the orders up and offering them back.

    "Yes, Primus Shadow was quite helpful, but no, please keep them," Lucia said with her tail idly swishing. "After I gave her the status reports and maintenance logs for my Flight and made our introductions, I asked if I could meet with you." She somehow made the routine request sound like it was some dearly held wish on her part.

    "And... she sent you out here?" I asked, keeping my tone level as I slipped the communiqué and orders into a hidden pocket on my uniform blouse. I might have to give Visha a quiet word about boundaries.

    "I'm not surprised that you're at an orphanage. Myself and my younger sister had conflicts with our mothers but..." Lucia trailed off awkwardly, clearly aware that she had made a blunder and equally unclear about how to extract her hoof from that hole. After a moment, she opted for blunt sincerity. "And I am sorry to disturb you at prayers!"

    "No need." I waved it off and pondered on her fidgeting disquiet. "If you're not comfortable here, we can step outside. House BlackSky is pluralistic and I have members of many faiths in my Squadron."

    Lucia gave a graceful, but practiced, smile. "Oh no, Ma'am, I'm a member. I'm not that pious but..." Her admission came with an unconscious step back. "But I did do some joint missions with an Andromachin Pilot who was also a chaplain, so I am used to those of a fervent belief."

    I laughed, understanding just what she meant. "Well, you don't need to worry; I'm not that religious either. I'm clearly not one for proselytizing..." I slowed as I remembered my recent encounter with the broodlings, and amended my statement with, "for the Church."

    Looking around at the nave and altar again, Lucia gave an obliging nod. "I am a tiny bit surprised to see you being so deeply engaged in a chapel like this and not a grand cathedral."

    "Oh, I've been to the cathedrals in the City of Trees. They are nice, but overstated. I prefer the small honest chapels like this one; it reminds me of my childhood," I said, my tone reassuring. I did not want my new subordinate to think I was someone obsessed with pomp and ritual.

    Lucia nodded dutifully.

    "How did your Flight get in so early?" I idly asked.

    "I managed to get us a slot on a Teleport Gateway," she replied with deserved pride. Providing a direct point to point transit, Gateways were always in high demand and their considerable throughput would be used for critical assets in spite of their limitations.

    Weighing over a hundred tons and very expensive, Gateways had to be built in twinned pairs which could only teleport items between each other. Requiring considerable shipboard power or a dedicated power-plant, they also had to be retuned whenever one of the pair was moved. The least restrictive part was the size of the teleportation chamber which objects had to fit fully within; just about everything in the Imperial Legion's inventory could fit. From artillery pieces to trucks, from tanks to Umbra VTOLs, almost every piece of gear could be maneuvered to fit into the chamber. The Household Fleet was less lucky.

    Regardless, a Gateway pair was an excellent line of communication that allowed for the transit over four thousand tons per day one way or half that if items and people were being shipped in both directions.

    "And how did you manage that?" I asked. "Did you get a direct transfer from Lantia to here?" The Gateways linking the Colonia Mursam Castramagnus back to major bases on Diyu were very busy. As were the Gateways linking the Primus Anchorage to Diyu, but maybe the links between Lantia and Mursam weren't as busy.

    "It was a bit of lucky timing and cashing out some favors with the girls in the embarkation facility." Lucia's smile faded. "It's not like they'll do me any good out here. I tell you, I've done plenty of teleporting but going via Gateway feels more... intense and focused, you know?"

    "I haven't had the experience; this is my first time off Diyu," I admitted, affecting a casual tone. The charging and cool down times to go from Lantia to Diyu and Diyu to Mursam would add up to about a full day. Another day could easily be added in time, waiting at the Anchorage, then unloading at a base in Diyu, waiting to board an outgoing airship, and unloading in Mursam. "But glad to hear you were able to save time, that'll give us a leg up on training."

    Lucia seemed surprised at my lack of colonial experience, but she hid it politely enough. "Yes Ma'am, I promise my Flight shall not slow you down. We are poised and prepared," she promised eagerly with a reassuring, almost courtly, diction.

    I gave an encouraging smile. Primus Centurion Hood was experienced and her file brimmed with glowing recommendations, but I made a mental note to make sure her exuberance did not lead her into trouble. I had enough trouble as it was, worrying about LoveBlood, who I was certain would be trying to prove her Flight of greenhorns were worthy in short order. "Do you mind if we talk outside?"

    Guilt flashed over Lucia's face as she studied the altar. "I'd like to, um..." Tail flicking, her eyes went to the votive candles merrily burning. "Have a moment to say some prayers first."

    "Of course, I'm so sorry for being presumptive," I assured. "Please, take all the time you need."

    "Thank you, Ma'am." Lucia gave a tiny laugh. "And don't worry, I never thought you, of all people, would get in the way of obeisance."

    "Perish the thought. If you'll excuse me," I said before making my way down the aisle to the back doors to the chapel. Reinhild was waiting there for me, tails swishing.

    The kitsune watched the centurion make her way to the front row of pews over my shoulder as she asked, "A new subordinate?"

    "It looks that way." I passed Reinhild the routing orders and Visha's message. "Do you have it?"

    After inspecting the paperwork, the maid's more-vulpine-than-usual grin turned somber as she lifted up the large cases she carried, one in each hand, by the rope handles stapled to their lids.

    "Good," I said, existing the chapel and letting the door ghost shut behind Reinhild, "we have time for a little trip."

    Reinhild nodded thoughtfully. "Are you concerned about this new centurion?"

    "Should I be?" I quietly asked. We were thankfully alone in this part of the orphanage.

    "I can't say, Ma'am, but if this isn't one of the memo sheets I ordered for you then it is an exquisite forgery, as are the orders and Visha's handwriting. Still..."

    Tail flicking I gave Lucia a final look before stepping into the corridor beyond the chapel. "She looks like my third Flight Leader and has the uniform and paperwork."

    Reinhild SunShower shrugged.

    "I'm just being cautious. When we get back to base, I can confirm she is who she is," I explained as we walked a bit further down the hallway and looked out a set of windows onto the grounds. The sky had turned overcast but it did not feel like rain just yet. Good.

    "Prudent," my maid remarked, her voice diffident without a hint of reproach.

    I sighed. "She is promising, and it will be nice to have my Squadron up to strength."

    "But?" Reinhild asked

    "She's not a rookie, thank DarkStar, but Primus Hood is still young and keen."

    "And you prefer cynical subordinates tempered by experience," Reinhild said in the overly proper tone servants cultivated to deniably imply impertinence.

    "We shall see."

    "Maybe she's intimidated by finally meeting an Imperial Hero and is trying to puff herself up."

    "She's a foot and a half taller than me."

    "All the more reason to paint herself as sufficiently hard-charging to someone she sees as a young, pious, and aggressive leader."

    My tail curled as I saw the logic. Fear of not impressing the boss could cause all sorts of cascading problems in an organization. "Perhaps," I allowed.

    Patting me on the shoulder in a gesture that was not a hug, the kitsune smiled and stepped back.

    Turning, I walked back to the chapel and found that Lucia had lit a votive candle and was crossing the nave towards the door, where Reinhild and I stood. She looked oddly serene as the banners fluttered above her and a gust of wind went past her to circle around me before turning quiescent. Purple eyes widened slightly, she saluted again, baring her neck and motioning with her fingers. "Thank you for your patience, Ma'am."

    I returned the gesture. "Come, let's have a walk outside before it starts to rain."

    "As you say!" Her eyes went to Reinhild.

    "This is Miss SunShower; a Rorarri Auxilia Scout and my aide." I tried to sound offhand.

    Seemingly transfixed by the waving fluffy tails, the tall Legionary Flier nodded and quietly followed us down the hall, out a set of doors, and down some steps. Thank DarkStar someone on my staff, other than LoveBlood, was accepting of having a maid around.

    "What got you to agree to a transfer to a colonial position?" I asked as we walked down the pathway that skirted past the orphanage's vegetable gardens and meandered out roughly towards the orchards. Reinhild had slipped behind us and with a subtle enough nudge got the dark-haired pilot walking next to me instead of dogging my foosteps.

    "Have you ever been to Lantia?" She winced. "Sorry, you said this is your first time off Diyu."

    "No apologies," I said soothingly with a warm smile. "I was ambiguous; some do think of Lantia and Emuria as part of Diyu, that is if the colloquial definition of Diyu as our Homeplane instead of Diyu as the continent is used." I looked up into the mostly cloudy sky. "I'm still getting used to looking up and seeing only one small moon."

    "I was told that not seeing Diyu above us could be disconcerting. That's part of why I wanted the transfer."

    "Ah, 'Join the Legions and see the Worlds'?" I chuckled.

    "Getting a broader experience base does help in many ways. " Lucia's hair billowed behind her like a banner as she nodded enthusiastically.

    "Such as for promotions?" I asked, keeping my tone open.

    She nodded. "And my sister wants me to describe to her all the places I'll go."

    My tail swished. Well, someone who wanted a more exciting posting to help her career was less risky than someone who wanted more excitement for glory's sake. "Tell me about your Pilots."

    "Beyond their dossiers and their Polyxos' maintenance logs, I presume?"

    "Just so."

    Lucia nodded. "Charity's my wingwoman: solid, experienced flier. She has a wife and twins; cute girls that just hit their teens..." Lucia trailed off as her gaze went down to survey me.

    "It's alright," I reassured her, long since familiar with this particular song and dance, "I've had years in the Legions to get used to people noting my age."

    "It's not that," the Primus Centurion coughed awkwardly into her hand. "Not exactly. I think Charity's going to ask for maternity leave... Not until, um... What season is it here? Seasons are different up on Lantia, but..."

    I laughed. "Early fall. And don't worry. I still feel like it should be spring."

    "Yes, we've got a year before it should be an issue," she said as we walked uphill and reached the orchards. The bare trees rustled.

    I gave a shrug. Getting maternity leave was a complex process in the Legions. The main part was time in grade but your commander's recommendations could really put a talon on the scale. "Will she be bringing her dependents here?"

    "She already put in for on-base housing for them," Lucia said, before breathing in with sudden appreciation. "Oh, that's a lovely view!"

    For a moment the three of us silently looked out over the ocean in the distance; the view was part of why I wanted to go on this little walk. "Primus, I don't want to ask this, but do you think Centurion Charity BreezeFlower is at risk of getting pregnant without leave?"

    The wide-eyed, horrified reaction Lucia gave was exceptionally open and aghast. "Of course not! She'd never do a thing like that. I was just warning you that she does plan to have more children and her term will be up in a couple years so if she doesn't get maternity leave..."

    "Ah, I understand." That was a relief. Soldiers were not perfect and things could happen, but there were many very good reasons no one made Ritual Plate maternity suits. "Honestly, if after twenty years, she thinks she's done enough for the Imperatrix, I can't blame her." One term and out was my plan too.

    Giving a smile, Lucia nodded. "That's very gracious of you to say. But I think Charity does want to give more time. Pilots like her are the backbone of the Legionary Flier corps."

    "Very true. What of the other two in your Flight? Any minor vices like gambling or drink?" I asked as we started to follow the path down the other side of the hill, closer to the water.

    Lucia shook her head. "Nothing."

    "Nothing?" I gave a sharp smile. "Primus, so far I'm the only teetotaler in my Squadron. Wait no, Octavia, in First Flight, also doesn't drink." I shook my head ruefully, mildly embarrassed at having forgotten that. I could blame it on her being newly under my command after roughly year of being apart, but that was a poor excuse.

    "Well, they enjoy a tipple now, and then but IronTalon and Adriana are dependable and depend on each other," Lucia stated, her voice still obediently diffident but I could hear a core of firmness under the subordinate fluff.

    "No need to be circumspect. Their relationship is documented in their files." I assured her as my tail swished.

    "Naturally, I put that there," Lucia said.

    "It's understandable. Many of our pilots are in that prime age, especially the new ones, and are leaving from home for the first time to head straight into a high stress environment full of death and uncertainty." I shrugged. It was a situation that was universal as far as I could tell, no matter the war, no matter the soldiers, no matter the species.

    Lucia gave me an opaque look as she, for just a moment, seemed to calibrate her response. "And Legion Command and the Imperatrix are very accommodating, given our natures."

    "Naturally." It would be the height of hypocrisy on my part to come down on fraternization in the ranks. Thankfully, Reinhild kept her poker face. "As for the drinking, Signifier GreyDawn maintains the Squadron liquor stock; she also is a deft hand when it comes to cards and other wagers. Between her and Primus Shadow I think any minor concerns can be addressed."

    My new subordinate nodded. "It doesn't hurt their flying, and they're competitive with each other." Lucia gave me a calculating look. "Something, you may understand quite well, if rumor is to believed, Ma'am?"

    "Yes," I nodded before clarifying. "I am engaged to both Primus Shadow and Primus VioletBlood."

    "As the odd Primus out, am I expected to... Well... If not..." Lucia dithered nervously until she rallied and recomposed herself. "I understand."

    "No, it's not like that!" I replied immediately, eager to nip this clear misunderstanding in the bud. "I'm informing you of the relationships already existing in the unit so you understand the dynamic."

    Lucia gave a slow, thoughtful nod. "I'll just have to carry my weight. Unless the dynamic were to change."

    This time Reinhild gave an ever-so-subtle smile. The damned fox!

    "That won't be necessary." I rubbed my forehead as we walked down the surprisingly well-maintained path. "But if LoveBlood propositions you, please tell me and I'll take care of her."

    "Is that a concern?" Lucia asked, frowning when she saw where we were.

    "It shouldn't be." I motioned for Reinhild and she came up and opened the cases revealing a handful of wreaths and numerous individual bouquets of white lilies. The kitsune pulled a list out of the case and handed it to me. Rituals were important, as much for the dead as for those they left behind. For all that I was doing for the living orphans, I could spare a small gesture for those who came back here, for those who had no family plots to go to.

    Lucia looked over the small cemetery with its modest headstones. "Can I help?"

    I bowed to her. "Of course. We have wreaths for those who were in the Legions, Fleet, Auxilia, and other services, but everyone can get something."


    End Chapter 21


    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, ScarletFox , afforess, WrandmWaffles and Preier for checking and reading over this chapter.

    And special thanks Macdjord for giving this chapter and a couple of the starting chapters a look over, and to Readhead for the polish and extra editing especially with the emotional interactions. And don't worry about Lucia.

    Good news is that ch22 is also written (it turns out I wrote so much I split the chapter) so there should not be much of a delay for the next part being released.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2023
  15. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Huh, so Tanya is straight up engaged to both her Vs? Thought Visha was getting stuck as a consort but I guess not. Also they sure are being mischievous in this chapter and I'm beginning to wonder when Tanya will learn to not let her subs get out of control...
     
  16. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Well.... legally Visha will still be her consort, but it is still a contracted agreement. And Tauira was just simplifying for conversation with a new subordinate. As for out of control. One could argue that Victorious Shadow is the mastermind.
     
  17. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    That explains things. Also I could definitely see Visha as the mastermind. She's the sort to set up things for her mistress' pleasure and entertainment. With their developing ages and relationships, it was only a matter of time for what Visha worked on to expand from luxury goods and stuff for the unit to trying to instigate sexual and romantic engagements. Like apparently constantly trying to get Blueblood and herself sexually punished/dominated by Tanya.
     
  18. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Visha is the one helped nudge and "solve" the love-triangle. And now that the engagements are set, it's just a waiting game. And at the pace of this story, she won't be waiting too long. Heck they'll be married in just a few years.
     
  19. Extras: Images: Coat of Arms, Fleet Uniforms, in the Air, and meeting the Imperatrix
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Today is a banner day (sorry for the pun) with a bunch of new art.

    Ch22 is being revised and the middle scene is being written out.

    First we have the unexpected piece from steamrick where he made a rather impressive bit of AI art of Tauria in a gown that can be seen here
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    From @Endymion with a bit of revision on my part we have Tauria's Coat of Arms as mentioned in chapter 21.
    [​IMG]



    Next from @FishTheTaco232 we have this wonderfully shaded and evocative piece.

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    Here we have from PlayerError404 another example of Tauria meeting someone important. This time BlackSky herself. The audiance was setup by her Daughter Felisia (from ch20), who also was happy to supply Tauria's gown.

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    And finally from ScittyKitty, we have Household Fleet Tribune ShadowWhisper (also last seen in ch20) giving Tauria some pointers for her thesis defense. This image is also a great example contrasting Fleet Whites and Legion Blacks.

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    Mandabar, Kyryst, EyeofTobs and 8 others like this.
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 22: Simulations and Secondment
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Diyu Demons verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic.
    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/

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 22: Simulations and Secondment



    A ways south of the city of Victrix and the major base nearby, a vast plot of scrubland claimed by the Fleet and Legions spread out across the uneven hills and plains. The parcel was a long-standing training grounds where generations of personnel had practiced landing operations as well as the use of ordnance across its various ranges. Several mock settlements and facilities had been built over the years, mostly from cast-off shipping containers, but over time the crude structures had been expanded upon and made increasingly permanent with the efforts of each training cohort and their attached budget.

    Compared to the Adria Testing Range near the capital back on Diyu, the Juno Training Facility was several times larger and even more impressively fitted out. It was handy that land out here in the boonies of Mursam was far cheaper than in Shoreline Province. Plus, the lower population density meant that there were fewer people around to object to the sounds of late-night artillery fire.

    Today, however, my unit was not making use of any of those facilities. Instead, the pilots of Quirinus's Demi-Wing were plugged into nearly fifty simulators, all crammed into a broad, low building that had clearly been a disused hanger until recently. Still, impromptu surrounding or not, as a training tool, the RP simulators were absolutely invaluable. Short of actual wing-time, they were perhaps the best way to prepare fliers for their upcoming maneuvers.

    And of course, plenty of scenarios were all but impossible to fully model out in the training grounds. In such cases, the simulators were really the only viable option for preparing Ritual Plate Pilots for the tasks to come.

    The current scenario had our Demi-Wing supporting a full-blown Corpus Incursio-sized operation. Specifically, "we" had been tasked to provide support for a secondary landing zone. Admittedly, this was a scenario that could be molded here in Juno, especially if our suits were in training mode with illusionary data put into our scrying screens. In this case, the use of the simulators came down to expense rather than necessity.

    An hour in a simulator was far cheaper than an hour in the air. Time on wing was, in my opinion, the best form of training available, but such training carried many, many costs. Fuel for one, munitions for another, if it the exercise involved live-fire. Maintenance pre- and post-flight required separate billing, as did field support for any emergency repairs necessary mid-exercise and of course, transportation had to be factored in as well. Most exercises didn't require a carrier, but some did, which required an additional budged outlay. For an eight-hour exercise consisting of nearly fifty suits, the savings afforded by simulator training were considerable. Savings that could be folded into still more training, or perhaps more equipment.

    The simulators did have a downside. Taken together, the optical illusion spells, artificial scrying speed, and harness system combined into a reasonable simulacrum of motion, but even still, the gap between simulation and reality remained. Adding in the illusion of inclement weather highlighted that gap, as generating sufficiently convincing rain was enough to noticeably task the simulator's capacity for graphic generation. Admittedly, snow was easier to generate, and I could decrease the efficiency of the simulated wards to mimic the impact of precipitation on the shields, but.... It just wasn't the same.

    Summed up, the only way simulators could remain an easy and cheap training option was by sacrificing a degree of verisimilitude, widening the gap in experience between the simulation and the real deal. Such tools could help us keep our skills sharp, but there truly was no substitute for reality.

    The secondary landing zone in our scenario was supposed to be a lower-intensity front, though the weather had played havoc on both LZs. Thus, only three Cohorts, temporarily organized into a Vexillatio, were sent down to secure several bridges to cut off Luxon's northern line of communication and reinforcements. Our Demi-Wing was sent in to provide overall air-support at the standard ratio of a bit under one Flight of RP per Century of Legionaries. For the purposes of this exercise, we were serving as their organic RP components; normally a Cohort would have a dedicated RP detachment, and a Demi-Wing like ours would be a supplemental force.

    In the scenario, Luxon had anticipated such a landing and had dug in. Driving off their own Ritual Plate assets, mostly Anupets, was our first complication. The enemy were fielding two Flights of Sekhmet air superiority suits over the secondary landing site, and taking down that protective umbrella was our first task. Fortunately, the enemy seemed to have neither Thoth sensor platforms nor Neith scrying RP units in our area of operations, giving us an edge in information.

    A more pointed complication was the realization that our Legionaries were facing three Janissary Mechanized Infantry Battalions down on the dirt, half of a full-blown Mechanized Brigade. They were already bunkered down and were making use of the poor weather to further complicate the hoof-sloggers' approach. Intelligence had suggested that there would be only a single reserve battalion here giving our Legionaries a comfortable advantage. Instead they had rough numerical parity, against a foe on the defensive that had superiority in heavy equipment, and ours were landing in a storm.

    Air assets were our only decisive advantage, especially in the opening phase of the exercise after First and Third Squadrons drove off enemy RP. Even then, the air assault phase of the operation almost became a debacle as Luxon strike aircraft counterattacked during a particularly bad part of the ice-storm, and almost took out a squadron of Umbra VTOLs.

    Once the Cohort's Forward Scouts got on the ground, they were able to searching out the Janissary's concealed positions and stared calling in targets. Throughout the exercise, Second and Fourth Squadrons kept busy with near-constant air-to-surface fire missions. As the bulk of our Cohorts touched down with "acceptable" losses, the Legion hoof-sloggers slowly began to establish their own anti-air network around the secured beachhead, finally giving our own armored elements the opportunity to touch down. Protecting the heavy transport VTOLs kept our Harmonia First Squadron thoroughly occupied.

    My Squadron was in the swing overwatch role, using our higher number of Gorgon Rigs to supplement the two Sarpedona Squadrons' Scrying systems and providing that extra fire support when required. Also, whenever the Janissaries concentrated into an armored column to try to dislodge our Legionaries, I had my Third Flight drop Lance Strikes on their heads on my own recognizance to show them who had the biggest stick.

    Even with a judicious, and minimal, heavy fire support, hitting armored vehicles with the capital ship grade weapons left an immediate and highly-visible impact. Much of the small city that the Janissaries had lodged themselves in was already in ruins, and most of the buildings still standing were engulfed in rapidly spreading flames that the heavy snow was only minimally slowing. After the second major armored formation shattered under our onslaught with the survivors picked off by Pilum fire from Julia's Second Squadron, the Janissaries learned to disperse their forces and bide their time among the broken city's bones. By my estimate, Lady Julia JadeTalon was still the weakest Prefect in the unit, but she had the sense to listen to her wingwoman, possessed a creative mind, and by becoming more decisive was growing into her position.

    "Third Squadron, Third Squadron, enemy air assets detected on the following vector. Estimated strength is two Squadrons, tentative identification is Marzanna air-superiority suits," Flight Ops chimed in my ear before giving the coordinates. "Are you available for intercept?"

    "This is Diamond Actual," I responded, briefly checking over the update on my map display. The view outside my eye lenses had a low ceiling due to oppressive cloud cover and was further hampered by a mix of sleet and hail. Engrossed as I was, it almost felt like I was in the air, despite the petulance of my Zephyr. "Confirm. We can intercept. Note, my Third Flight is configured in Strike mode."

    "Understood," the woman playing the role of Flight Ops said with textbook, if a bit forced, unflappability.

    "Epsilon Actual, this is Diamond Actual," I said, switching over to the command channel.

    "Go Diamond," Quirinus replied. "We have been informed. It sounds like Luxon got some Elenese assistance."

    The scenario was that we were supporting a landing operation in the western part of House Luxon. Given where I had trained and that Quirinus had been one of my early instructors, I found the location of today's scenario unsurprising. Snow was infrequent in that part of the world, but on the rare occasions that the storms brought icy fury with the rain, the resulting storms of slushy sleet tended to be nasty.

    "HarrowFang, are you okay without the extra air cover?" I asked the commander of Fourth Squadron, switching off the general command band to her channel.

    Asking the question, even though I was all but certain of the answer, was part of the by-the-book procedures good training emphasized. In this scenario, where our role was to support the Legionaries on the ground, the textbook maneuver would be to intercept the incoming Squadrons of Elenese fighters before they could arrive to make things hard for our Sarpedona Squadrons.

    Which wasn't to say that HarrowFang's answer bore no weight. If she asked for us to stay, I would trust her judgment and remain in place, even if I felt she was being overly cautious. Fabia had spent the last five weeks honing her rookies, taking every bit of extra training to give them that much more time to learn. I had volunteered my Squadron to act as the opposing force to help, which Fabia took with toothy relish.

    To whit, this was a training scenario, not an active combat zone. My role here was not to advance the BlackSky banner, but to help others learn how to carry that banner forwards as well.

    "I'd rather you fight them further out than over our heads," Fabia stated firmly. "These Janissaries are being mighty coy with their Hathors and Tefnuts."

    The Hathor was Luxon's main dual-purpose armored vehicle. While superior in anti-ground roles, mostly infantry and light vehicles, they were capable enough as anti-air platforms, if a bit low-charged and somewhat slow in tracking. Integrated and well-positioned formations of Hathors were more than capable of taking out incautious enemy Ritual Plate, especially if they were given telemetry by Luxon RP. That said, part of the reason they were being cautious could be that tracked vehicles required extra care on iced-up streets, which would make it difficult to position said tracked vehicles to gain maximum utility.

    The Tefnut was a fairly compact VTOL that carried some missiles for anti-air work and some evocation projectors for ground targets. It was not as robust in the latter role as a dedicated fire-support platform like the Sobek, but the Tefnut could do some of the forward targeting roles for a Hathor. It was inexpensive enough that they could be attached to Janissary formations at the Battalion level, much like the Anker ground combat golems with their cottiers of smaller Baset infantry-support golems. With limited magazine capacity and wards due to size and power restrictions, the Tefnut was a fair defensive platform, unless it was overwhelmed and outmaneuvered, as we had done here.

    That the enemy had an integrated air defense system of multiple air and ground platforms that needed taking-out delayed the timetable for landing operations. Our losses were been... acceptable. Our Sarpedona Squadrons had taken the brunt of it.

    Better them than us. Even if it was all just training, casualties were never welcome.

    Overall, in my consideration, our four Squadrons were working together well enough. The stiffness that had marked our first couple weeks together had eased and our coordination was more fluid. It helped that Quirinus's stern but quite capable instruction worked well with her willingness to use First Squadron as a training rival. I returned the favor and volunteered my Polyxo suits, in, mostly, air-superiority mode to give the greenhorns some aggressor training as well.

    "Confirm," I agreed.

    "Diamond..." Quirinus caught herself. "Never-mind. See you after the exercise."

    "Understood, Ma'am," I said and switched back to my Squadron's channel before the other Squadron Commanders could start wondering aloud what was going on. Sometimes the Tribune could be sentimental, but she realized I would not take things personally.

    "Good news girls," I said with bright cheer to my entire Squadron just as their displays updated with the new targeting information.

    "Is... that the good news, Ma'am?" Lucia inquired primly.

    My newest Primus Centurion had done more than just keep pace. Indeed, her ability to parry LoveBlood's retorts and keep her own Flight admirably squared-away enough to give Second Flight a real challenge had rapidly become quite useful as a tool to keep my noble pilots' egos in check. Still, I was keeping a close eye on watching her Flight's performance; snow was, after all, none too common up on Lantia.

    "Flight Ops has found some Elenese reinforcements that we'll need to clean up and your Flight is equipped with Lance Batteries." I smiled, knowing they could hear it in my voice as I spoke, "You're going to be our big guns."

    There was a tiny pause. "Do you think we'll need them against enemy RP?"

    "It wouldn't be the first time Countess has done it," VioletBlood replied, smug even now as was her wont.

    "That is correct," Lucia admitted, "but I hardly think that Elena would enter this combat with such paltry numbers and, even if they did, two Squadrons can't turn the numbers. No, this is part of a larger attack. My guess is that their Marzanna are here to escort and clear the air."

    "Escort. Like a bomber run?" Visha asked.

    "Something like that." I took in the map display. The ground situation was... chaotic. In many ways, the imperfect resolution of the simulator was more accurate than if it had perfect fidelity. Static and snow were close enough analogs for visual impairments. "Our ground assets are spread out, but there's still a few nodes large enough worth risking a Kupala or two for. In part, there is a non-negligible chance that, they could be loaded with missiles as part of trying to clear-out our Ritual Plate assets. Overwhelming force is preferable to allowing the Elenese to freely conduct air-to-surface fire missions."

    "Understood," Lucia soberly said. For a Legionary Flier, ceding air superiority back to the enemy when you still had Legionaries on the ground was anathema. "Priority target then?" she asked. A Lance Strike on a bomber formation was still overkill, but quite justified in this case.

    "Correct," I confirmed. "We don't have many Lances, but those bombers could do a lot of damage if they get through. Take them down."

    Lucia handled, I turned to directing my Flights into an overlapping formation, with First and Second on either side separated and at slightly different altitudes with Third hanging a bit behind. I let each Primus Centurion organize their pilots. To my gratification, my subordinates had all opted for similar of staggered diamond formations. For an intercept track, the textbook diamond provided a good compromise between mutual support and expansive coverage.

    Taking a moment to broaden the focus of my map display, I surveyed the progress of the greater operation. It was all too easy to grow overly focused and fall into tactical tunnel vision and target fixation, especially as miles of terrain raced below my wings on the way to seek out and destroy my enemy, whoever that may be. Even without the action-oriented influence of one's Zephyr, that hunter-killer urge was native to the aggressive pilot eager to prove her worth and her their wage; it was the job of officers and noncoms to direct those urges in a productive manner towards out objective.

    The landing was a massive affair, even rendered on the tiny convines of my heads-up-display.

    The operation plan had called for fifteen Ritual Plate Air Groups, a force totaling well over five thousand Fleet Pilots and Legion Fliers. There were also nearly four hundred Umbra Medium VTOLs, about fifty Pugio and Gladius Heavy VTOLs, a hundred Spatha Lights, fifty Hasta Torpedo bombers, and over three thousand Torpedoes joining us on the wing as we bit and held the burning coast. And that vast skyborne hammer was just the aerial component of our invasion force. Fully six legions with all their equipment were also being deployed, infiltrating the mud and ashes after we devastated the current tenants.

    Unfortunately, little of that terrible strength could be spared for our secondary theatre.

    Six Legions, a full Corpus Incursio, were landing on the headlands above a pointedly-fictitious Luxon base that, for the purposes of the exercise, represented a major linchpin defense of the whole Southern Front. The landing force was also experiencing nasty weather bad enough that landing operations were only barely feasible due to the intercession of the Fleet's Tempestarii.

    Intercession aside, the landing was not going well. The first waves had battled their way down to the ground, but air control remained tenuous at best. Fleet support was disappointingly anemic; both the ground strikes from Torpedo Bombardment vessels and the number of Fleet Pilots deployed to supplement the two Legionary Air Groups already engaged didn't seem to be leading any great shifts in the battlefield's calculus. Admittedly, beyond contenting with high winds and poor weather, the Fleet Pilots had good reason to be distracted. The Landing Fleet was under attack.

    Sipping some water, I resisted the temptation to study the far-off simulated battle in greater detail; doubtless the exercise proctors had added such a wealth of information specifically to act as an attention trap. Still, it seemed like a significant number of Elenese and Luxon Ritual Plate, fixed wing, and even airship assets had been committed to the struggle for the fortress. They had timed their arrival well, swooping in just after a probing attack along another vector and while the Landing Fleet was distracted with the launch of its second VTOL wave.

    As mighty as the enemy Great Houses' air assets were, they faced a massive armada of carriers shepherded by dozens of escort craft, including a full cruiser squadron and multiple Torpedo bomber tenders. If they could batter their way past those defenses, then the enemy could land a crippling blow to the ability of the Fleet to support, supply, and expand the invasion beachhead. Such a crippling blow would also inflict strategic damage to House BlackSky's continued Legionary-lift capability.

    The sterile weapons tracks, blinking icons, and cold notations told the story of a nigh-apocalyptic battle. One that my Squadron was just a sideshow to, or perhaps even a sideshow to a sideshow as the Legionaries fought their pitched battle below our hooves. However, my interest did not stem from some voyeuristic desire to witness destruction; rather, my inattention was to see if any enemy assets would be splitting from the main assault and winging their way across the storm-torn skies towards us.

    "Flight Ops, Flight Ops. I'm seeing a breakaway," I said, rattling off the coordinates after switching to the proper channel. "Kupala squadron with supporting RP elements. Estimate on composition or numbers?"

    There was a pause. "Diamond... we're not sure what their intent is."

    I exhaled through my nose. "Flight Ops, I'm not asking for intent. Do we have any assets that can even give a tentative ID or numbers?" I asked, keeping most of the rebuke out of my voice. This was not just an exercise for Legionary Fliers; Flight Ops Dispatchers were also getting some simulation training. Given the attack on the Landing Fleets, it was entirely possible that the room the Flight Ops officers were in was full of klaxons and other distractions.

    "Uh, yes Diamond," the dispatcher cleared her throat. "We are reading a heavy Kupala squadron with three to four squadrons of RP. A mix of Marzanna air-superiority and Perun strike models. If they change heading, their distance and speed does allow for them to enter your area of operations, possibly even support the Squadrons you're intercepting."

    I resisted the impulse to snort with disdain, if Kupala unit changed their heading to the secondary landing zone, there was no "possibly" in their moving to support. Those first two Marzanna Squadrons would try to draw my own Squadron out of position, but there was a limit to how far we would chase and any sensible Elenese officer would know that. While leading us on a merry chase far from the operational area was out of the question, drawing us out and hitting us in a pincer was an entirely valid tactic for some enterprising dandy of a Squadron officer to try.

    "Understood, Flight Ops. Pass this information to Epsilon Actual. Also, any support, such as a Torpedo strike would be appreciated." My tone was a bit brusque, as I stated my reply, old authority rising from instincts deeply ingrained as danger approached my command. Some Fleet heavy fire-support would be very handy, but the Fleet had their own problems right now, and that was likely both beyond the remit of this exercise and their currently limited capacity.

    "That might be challenging. Good luck, Diamond," the dispatcher said; I could hear a squealing, tearing noise in the background. I wondered if they would have to do an evacuation drill, and who our fallback Flight Ops would be, or if this would be one of those exercises where we'd lose all dispatch support. Seeing how Legionaries and Fleet reacted to the loss of central command and control was an irritating but necessary part of these exercises.

    I changed comms channels. "Tribune, did you get the new intercepts?"

    "I did. They might be going after the northern flank of the primary LZ," Quirinus said, a contemplative note touching her voice for a moment before vanishing behind the bland tone of the detached commander.

    "I agree," I replied, stating the obvious, "but we'll know in a minute based on which way they change heading. Will your forces be freed up if that does happen?"

    "Not comfortable with five to one odds, Countess?" The slightest hint of gallows humor shone in Quirinus' question.
    "We both know exactly what my odds are, Ma'am," I said, answering her query frankly without any attempt at false modesty. She had asked for my assistance in setting up the training scenarios. "but this is the exact type of relief force those Janissaries have been hoping for. Additional support will likely be necessary."

    "I would think the Janissaries would be hoping for some air to ground missile and arcane fire from their RP and golems," she argued.


    "I don't think the Janissaries are particularly picky about who kills us," I countered. "And even if my Squadron pushes them back, we will likely sustain sufficient losses to endanger our air superiority over the LZ."

    An ideal option for the opposing force would be to have Sekhmet air-superiority suits direct missile fire from Tefnut drones to clear us out of the way so their Anupet ground-attack RP and Sobek VTOLs could engage the ground troops and clear the landing zones with their freshly purchased window of opportunity.

    However, given Luxon's air power doctrine, the Sekhmet was a rarer model, unlikely to appear over a secondary front in significant numbers. The Sekhmets also relied on heavier protection to compensate for their somewhat lackluster maneuverability, lackluster at least compared to other air superiority Plates. More than the stronger wards, which required more power to operate, the Sekhmet made up for their clumsiness with good Scrying systems and some of the best in class combat directing and data sharing capability.

    Though not quite on par with the Harmonia, the Sekhmet remained an adequate fighter. It was clearly superior to the Trosic Rochefort and unlike the Elenese Marzanna, there was no first generation failure to blemish its name. Luxon also had the manufacturing capacity to make enough Sekhmets to lower the per-suit cost, something Ziox was unable to do with their tricky-to-fly Tjardu.

    In the hands of skilled pilots, especially ones who knew air combat was a team effort and not dueling, an experienced Sekhmet formation could challenge even a Harmonia Squadron. Indeed, the only casualties First Squadron's had taken during today's exercise so far had been inflicted by Sekhmets.

    "Even without support," I sighed into the channel to my commander, "I'm sure our girls will be facing plenty of Marzanna and Sekhmet suits today."

    Quirinus seemed to consider that for a moment.

    "I'll be vectoring to provide support," Quirinus eventually said, her tone firm and committed as she sent the plan to my display. "We will approach along this vector, allowing us to support you while maintaining cover over the landing zones. I'll have Second and Fourth Squadrons pull back to help backfill."

    "Understood, Ma'am. Thank you." I did not begrudge her for her choices today.

    As the commanding officer, Quirinus was in a tough situation, contending against a rapidly increasing number of enemies with very finite resources; then again, all training exercises weren't necessarily supposed to be fair. I do not mean fair in the sense of fighting an equally skilled and equipped enemy. I mean fair in the sense that the situation presented is one that is winnable and the proctors will not artificially change the scenario and enemy capability to ensure an outcome should the trainee threaten to seize victory from the jaws of predestined defeat.

    Still that sort of deliberately invincible scenario was rare, and it was possible for our Demi-Wing to win today's scenario. At the end of the day, the purpose of any training exercise was to simultaneously instruct the trainee while providing an accurate gauge of their skills and capacities; constantly moving the goalposts might teach a lesson but altering criteria on the fly only muddled test results.

    Besides, enduring an unrelenting string of defeats in purposefully hopeless scenarios was corrosive to the morale of even the most elite units, nothing to say of a newly fledged formation that included green troops and units still getting used to working with one another. Simply brutalizing Quirinus's command would serve, as far as I could tell, little purpose.

    At the end of the day, though, training was limited and approximate by nature. Our knowledge of the enemy's capabilities, doctrine, and decision-making would always be imperfect. Beyond that permanent flaw was the level of unpredictability in war, a factor notoriously hard to measure. As such, even the more creative scenarios could have value, if only to stave-off complacency.

    Or to knock a sense of humility into pilots and officers whom Command had judged to be suffering from hubris. A duty that often fell upon me.

    I switched back to my Squadron channel. "We have still more good news!" I said in the saccharine tone officers used only to indicate things were quite the opposite. "We are getting backup. The Tribune is coming to play support."

    "Ah," GreyDawn said, her voice grim and toneless as she doubtlessly digested her freshly updated map of the local airspace. She knew exactly what the sudden arrival of reinforcements in the middle of a mess like this heralded.

    "And we're ready to lend our fire!" Lucia said with the enthusiasm I expected from a Flight Leader. At least the news of our impending backup had lifted someone's spirits.

    "Excellent," I stated in my pleased commander voice. "The plan will require some slight adjustments, but if we play this right, we'll get the first Elenese relief force before the second can catch up to it, and then we can envelop that one between our two Squadrons."

    The quick briefing was almost rote. Practice helped a lot with that; practice also helped make sure it was not actually rote. That was where mistakes would come in, with things missed and assumptions made.

    We were outnumbered roughly two-to-one and we were getting closer.

    "Charity, IronTalon, Lances now!" Lucia ordered.

    A pair of highly-energetic beams shot out, their passing searing the impression of brilliant blue lines cutting through the air, not that the simulation could fully-realize the intensity of such a weapon's backscatter, and obliterating the Elenese suits. Third Flight had a limited number of shots with their powerful Lances, but they were worth breaking up the enemy formation. One suit was tagged and blew apart while two more were damaged, which was a nice bonus, but the real goal was shattering their unit cohesion at the critical moment of our assault.

    The two enemy Squadrons fractured into half a dozen Flights and tried to reorient around us. I tightened in my own Pilots and moved to slice off the two northernmost enemy Flights.

    Twelve to eight, we had local numerical superiority. While the second generation Marzanna was a capable platform, these simulated pilots were middling at best, and may have been calibrated to be weaker fliers, overly dependent on their instruments in the middle of the fight. Perhaps the simulation had decide that they would be spooked, their morale disrupted, or maybe their Flight Leaders were not aggressive enough; either way, we sliced through them almost effortlessly, taking minimal hits by using superior coordination and maneuvering.

    As we raced past, we left only broken suits flaming out vanishing down into the embrace of the snowy squall.

    "Redline acceleration!" I ordered over the Squadron channel, feeling my suit strain and stir as I poured on every scrap of thrust I could muster. The quicker we got to the others, the less time they had to reorganize. As any cavalryman could tell you, the rout was where the real business of killing was done. Soon we were at the apogee of our climb.

    The four remaining Flights, still trying to huddle together for safety, turned and opened fire as we swept down upon them like Cuirassiers on a disintegrating square, like raiders from the steppe descending on a piddling line of village militia. For all of the ordered opposition and fighting spirit the Elenese could muster, they might as well have been peasants rousted from their huts.

    Less, even; at least in that case, their shoddy response could be blamed on their lack of training. The simulated Elenese pilots had no such excuse for their tactical plodding. This was the type of “glorious” slaughter that my noble brats in the capital had fantasized about.

    "Smoke. Smoke. Smoke!" I ordered as a dozen Verutum launchers each shot out a quartet of enchanted obsidian pebbles. Black Fog was a somewhat new and niche munition; like most such the ordnance, they were a short-ranged affair but within their envelope of effect each arcane munition would explode into an obscuring, hot cloud of magical distortions.

    Chaff, smoke, and other countermeasures very much held a niche role in RP combat, given their relatively short range and the ability of Wards and intercept systems to give active protection against incoming fire. Launched counters aside, the sheer speed of Ritual Plate encounters led many pilots to put a low premium on such tools. After all, the clouds could only provide a moment's protection, and measures like using the Verutum to launch the baffling ordnance ahead of your flight only slightly increased that window of effect. I, however, held that the pilot who dismissed such measures did so very much at her peril.

    Obscured behind a layered, burning cloud, my Squadron quickly shifted thrust, changing headings as we maneuvered to avoid the blind-fire from the Elenese suits. I had to give the Marzanna pilots credit, while their choice of action may not have been optimal, it was decisive.

    Firing their own chaff, the enemy dove through the resulting cloud, their lead elements pulsing their Scrying arrays and closely followed by the remaining Flights, who kept their sensors in a passive mode. It was an aggressive response straight out of the pages of their textbook counter-ambush doctrine.

    The Elenese chaff system, codenamed Prompt Candle, worked by releasing spirals of metallic ribbons that were hypergolic with the atmosphere. When the small canisters burst, the tightly-wound strips would fly apart and ignite with a incandescent intensity. That heat was mostly released to distract targeting warheads, but secondarily was used in powering the enchantments inscribed upon the ribbons which generated localized and randomized Veils. Despite rather protected casings, the individual Prompt Candle munitions were... delicate to handle, but the result was a set of charges that made a thorough hash of our Scrying systems.

    The problem for the enemy was that Third Squadron had been thoroughly trained to fight in as many operational envelopes as I could come up with, which meant they knew exactly how to handle this rarest of combat scenarios, close-range blind-fighting. A place where the margin of error was nonexistent and the sensor suite-was half trustworthy at best. It was one thing to fight ghosts when they were far off, it was another when they could practically grab you by the horns.

    As a result both formations were fighting half-blind, but my side still had the edge. I did not order my girls to target the Elenese pathfinders lit up by their active systems. Oh no, here was where I wanted to show the advantage of a full squadron equipped with Gorgon Rigs. There was enough backscatter to target the two Flights right behind the leading one.

    Yes, there were nearly thirty sets of Ritual Plate swirling around trying to kill each other in the middle of a burning, if rapidly dissipating, cloud in the heart of a raging blizzard. But if the conditions and chaff munitions had conspired to render my enemy blind, then my suits with their expensive sensor suits were only half-blind... And if those countermeasures would last for just another few short but crucial moments....

    "Flight Three, get ready to clear the fog!" I ordered Lucia.

    We split in a pincer, evading the lead Elenese elements to pinch down on the middle of their formation, dragging eight more Marzannas into the brawl. Neutralizing them was not entirely without cost; poor Pulivia became my Squadron's first and so far only casualty. Even as she "fell" through the generated sky, a cold part of me noted that the exchange was still magnificently unbalanced in our favor. Provided that the rest of us managed to survive this combat and full fill our objectives, of course. Leading in material counted little if the slaughter of the enemy distracted form the true goal..

    The Marzanna Flight with active sensors detected what was going on behind them and flipped. And now, my Squadron had one Flight ahead of us and two mostly intact Flights to our rear.

    There was no way they could all get away from us now.

    "Clear!" I ordered.

    Lucia obliged. She fired a single Lance directly at the leading Elenese Pathfinder. At that range, hitting an actively emitting target was a near certainty. And then everybody had the opportunity to learn what happened when a massive evocation blast of Lance energy detonated within a clout of burning Prompt Candle ribbons and Black Fog pebbles.

    The sky burned like an acetylene torch as over a dozen wards flared as one. While the three Ritual Plate caught directly in the Lance's blast were destroyed, without even shrapnel to mark their passing, the focused intensity did not diffuse enough to meaningfully damage the rest.

    The Marzanna Pilots, or whatever simulacrum was making their decisions, hesitated. This was not something they had trained, or been programmed, for. It would only take them a moment to recover.

    I smiled. My girls had trained for this. "Take them," I ordered over the Squadron channel.

    It was a slaughter. The nine or so remaining pilots, already wrong-footed, were shattered and overwhelmed. Where the previous hits were using positioning and concealment to separate the enemy and defeat in detail, this was the full force of Legion Fliers running down the enemy. Though one understrength Flight, consisting of heavily damaged, suits did manage to successfully break off. As they fled for the nebulous cover of a low-hanging fog bank, I opted not to have us pursue them in their rout, instead surveying our newly conquered aerial battlefield.

    I exhaled and took a moment of satisfaction on a job well done.

    We took a bit of time to adjust, hydrate, and reassemble our formation. The next phase of the battle would soon be upon us.

    The second formation had a larger group of Marzanna air-superiority suits at its core, supported by Perun strike models and a number of Kupala fixed-wing aircraft bristling with missiles. While the fixed-wings were primarily an air-to-ground model, such ordnance could be pressed into an anti-air role, albeit at a performance cost.

    That inefficiency was what saved my Squadron. Acting as fire directors, the Elenese interceptor suits provided telemetry for both the missiles and the Perun's Lance strikes; unfortunately for those spotters and the formations coming up behind them, those weapons were designed to rain down on the heads of groundbound forces, not swat highly mobile airborne assets from the sky, especially not airborne units armed with countermeasures against those weapons. Still, the sheer accumulated mass of firepower resulted in a rather prickly target we could not simply charge headlong into, as we had the previous batch of Elenese suits.

    We still retained the range advantage thanks to our air-superiority kit and while the enemy had greater numbers, they could easily be drawn into a Pyrrhic victory if they attempted to simply rush and overwhelm us. Defeating my Squadron was, after all, only the first probable objective of their mission; once we were gone, they would have had to take out Quirinus's as well, while retaining sufficient forces to combat our Sarpedona Squadrons before their survivors would likely press their advantage to attack our Cohorts left exposed in the landing zone.

    "Flight Two, advance and feed data to Flight Three. Flight Three, take out their missile boats."

    "Confirm," VioletBlood said with obvious relish.

    Ahead, on the course I was directing my Squadron towards, the thick storm clouds loomed.. Visibility, even enhanced, would be cut down to almost nothing, leaving us all reliant on our scrying systems and other sensors. Despite this factor, I had faith in my pilots; they were fully capable of decisive action in spite of such a limitation.

    "Flight Three, you can go for a full salvo. The enemy needs to keep this Kupala Squadron mostly intact if they want to relieve their allies. Flight One will take point and run interference," I ordered.

    "Understood," Lucia acknowledged, her tone easy and professional.

    The enemy had put a number of missiles in the air, but nothing like their full load-out, just barely enough to call it a volley. Obviously, they were holding back.

    I eyed their positioning on my display; they had a tight and defensive formation that fit my expectations of an Elenese commander trying to conserve her forces; her goal was to get past my Squadron with her forces intact, after all, not to squander her people in a slugfest. That was fine with me. At this range, we still had the range advantage and could evade return fire with ease as well as deploy countermeasures practically unimpeded.

    Then, the simulated Elenese surprised me.

    Immediately after Flight Three destroyed a Kupala and crippled two more, the two Marzanna Squadrons shot forwards at max acceleration abandoning, their escorts. For a moment, I found myself shocked by the flagrant violation of Elenese doctrine. I half expected to hear some Pukovnik or Bojonik screaming a vendetta over the Open Channel because I just killed her little sister. But, aggressive though their charge was, their formation remained strong and cohesive.

    I did not begrudge Quirinus's decision; she had her priorities for this exercise.

    Her First Squadron went after the bombers and Strike RP. The Peruns and remaining Kupala missile bombers were the more dangerous target to the Cohorts we were assigned to protect. While their escorts were chasing after us, they were almost defenseless, especially in the face of a Harmonia Squadron.

    As the Marzanna came in on their indulgent - and mission-destroying - attack, the doomed bombers released their entire payloads. My display was filled with the clutter of new missile tracks, practically whiting-out our sensors and dropping us into true near-zero visibility.

    Third Fight opened up with their Lance Batteries. Their solid fire support winnowed down the enemy attack at range, the smoke clouds and chaff further confused the missile's attempts to achieve a target lock, just in time for our projectors to fire on the missiles. With all those factors combined, we somehow survived the desperate moment.

    There was a place for the shock of blind aggression in combat: were I proctoring this exercise, I would not have chosen this moment as one of those places, but perhaps that why they had opted to throw that tactic against my unit. They knew I'd be surprised, and, to their presumed credit, they had been proven correct.

    I suppose that was an upside to this training exercise I hadn't anticipated, along with the surprise opportunity to evaluate the simulated performance of the latest model of Black Fog countermeasures. First Squadron took a number of critical casualties in their strike, but they utterly destroyed the bombers and Peruns in exchange.

    First Flight was in the lead, and I was front and center at the head of First Flight. Predictably, the enemy assault zeroed in on us, and I took advantage of their target fixation. Their supporting elements were using heavier Veils and relying on Scrying data forwarded by their lead Flights. Still, they were obvious enough and I gave targeting data to Lucia.

    On my direction, Visha did not lead First Flight into an attack, declining to pit strength versus strength. While the Marzanna was very maneuverable, even their second generation suits had weaker protection relative to other Great House fighter-role Ritual Plate.

    We had superior rate-of-climb and, as long as the missiles volume was thinned, our Ballista projectors had a slight advantage in offensive power. My wings ached as Visha sharply maneuvered her Flight as a dagger to split apart the enemy formation so that the rest of the Squadron could pick them apart.

    "Smoke!" Visha ordered as First flight snap maneuvered and, perilously-close, hit the lead Marzanna. This time, we would deprive them of their targeting data. Two of their suits blew apart as they tried to recover and evade and another died as she flipped to retreat back, but managed to cover her wingwoman's escape in the process.

    Despite their maddened aggression, the Elenese fought well. They had a choice; they could focus on First Flight and have their flanks picked apart by the rest of my pilots enfilading them, or they could fall back, regroup, and attempt another assault run.

    This time, I expected them to make the irrational choice and to target me instead of my wingwoman. Aiming for leaders and officers, not to mention the leading unit in an attacking force, was rational, and to press the issue I accelerated to put myself between the enemy's strafing run close to literal knife-fighting range.

    Well, that was a mild exaggeration. I had no sword this time. What I did have was the internal magazines of my Verutum Launcher. The small physical projectiles were notoriously short-ranged, a factor of little issue in this particular aerial brawl. Their arcane payloads, especially the ones that acted as conduits for my own magic, would drain me, but I would worry about that later.

    I waited until I was extremely close to the tightly-packed formation of Elenese RP before I fired my Ballista and my Verutum, caring nothing for the ammunition drain as I rammed all my remaining power into my Wards. Beams of evocation energy and exploding arcane pebbles that would arc lighting, fire, and other elemental energies blasted though the enemy suits.

    My Wards flashed as I rippled off the last of my Black Fog and obscured the Marzanna Squadron swarming me. The chaff would not last long, mere moments only, but that was all I needed, and all I had.

    There was a frantic moment as the enemies flashed into brief visibility and were promptly hit, vanishing into the simulated sky as their suits tumbled down. These virtual pilots began to panic as I continued to evade, maneuvering at levels just outside what they must have been programmed to think a Polyxo could do. Warning tones chimed and lights flickered amber as power loads and suit stresses exceeded their limits.

    My Wingwoman, the rest of the Flight, the rest of my Squadron, DarkStar's Blood, even Quirinus's Squadron took the opportunity and harrowed the distracted enemy. Numbers were starting to tell as the display started to clear of the enemy, but their myopic focus on me could not be dislodged.

    There was a moment's indecision among the nearest Flight. The glossy Marzanna flickered as her Veils shorted before recovering. It was as if their imperative to attack, and attack me above all others, was conflicting with their tactical sense's yammering demand to pull out regroup.

    But as long as they remained fixated on me, I knew where all their attack vectors would terminate. Wings burning silver, I shot forward into that momentary conflict and robbed the enemy of the decision.

    I fired on the closest Marzanna, using a Verutum pebble to blast away her wingwoman. Designed to clear landing zones, the Blue Daisy was a balky yet small munition that was shorted-ranged even by Verutum standards, and thus extremely ill-suited to air-combat. Except in edge cases like this.

    Fighting alone was about the worst thing one could do in combat. Fortunately, I was far from alone. The rest of my Squad was taking advantage of my reckless plunge forwards, and when a bomb capable of cutting through dozens of trees to make a hundred-foot clearing went off right in front of the second Marzanna, my girls pounced.

    The luckless pilot nearest to the explosion was shredded. Her wingwoman staggered back, her wards down and along with much of her power systems, the rest of her Flight only slightly better off. Under most circumstances they would all have been fine. Normal doctrine was to keep formations spread out for reasons like this, and one did not close with the enemy beyond the required amount to get a hit via conventional weapons under a similar rationale.

    But, I had forced their hand. By keeping the enemy single-mindedly focused on me, I had denied them the luxury of spreading out. Snapping into a dive, I clipped one of the surviving suits with a tackle.

    It was then that I learned that some very bored, or perhaps very thorough, artificer had gone above and beyond the call when it came time to set the parameters for emulated melee combat. My claws flicked out as my tail sliced through the Pilot's tail and my hand went over the weaker neck armor.

    As this was a simulation, I did not get any energy from the intimate kill. I suppose no one had added that to the program.

    The enemy, however, was able to react to my attack. The last Pilot in the Flight was about to fire but a Ballista bolt blew her helmet, and head, off. Another formation of the Marzanna pilots managed to run that gauntlet of the rest of my Squadron and their diminished remainder opened fire upon me.

    The dead pilot I clung to was a questionably effective shield, after her rendered corpse absorbed the first few shots I let her go, springing away and delighting at the sudden drop in drag as my aerial profile abruptly shrank. My Verutum launchers were soon empty and my Ballistas were flickering overheat warnings, though they would soon run dry along with the rest of my suit's systems.

    And then a shot breached my wards.

    Suit alarms went from insistent to frantic. As my wards rekindled, I got another kill, but at the cost of a second hit which dropped the protective bubble. Ward projectors burnt out, the system's indicator lights turned red.

    I managed to damage another Marzanna, but now the exchange had become utterly unsustainable. The latest energy blast had disabled my propulsion and flight control systems, leaving me all but dead in the air.

    I tried to get a handle on the situation beyond my suit. This particular Marzanna strike was blunted, shattered and being enfiladed by my Squadron with an assist from First Squadron. Concern and cheering came over my Squadron channel, which gave me an instant of regret. I had done another thing that would lamentably give a bunch of impressionable young pilots the utterly wrong idea.

    Despite it all being an exercise, my wings strained with pain and felt aflame as I went into a flat spin, my suit's systems failing. All my indicator lights were flashing, most of them turning red. My altimeter spiraled down as I felt, my gimbals spun, my stomach tried to exit via my mouth, and my Zephyr treated this all as though things were finally getting interesting.

    The vision outside my eye-lenses was a blur of grey sky and white ground that altered and gyrated until all the indicator lights blinked out, and my suit went dead. I still felt the spinning motion, but I saw that the purely mechanical altimeter and other backup instruments were not moving.

    My heart pounded. I took a sip of water. It was dark and there was a moment of calm.

    I blinked as the illusions faded and the lights came on, revealing I was suspended on an articulated arm within a white cylindrical chamber. The arm mounted to my back, just between my wings, pulled me up into a vertical position before locking into place. A rounded door opened and two of my Ritualista came in and started disconnecting cables that ran from the arm to the back of my suit.

    When they were clear, I put my hands to my helmet and lifted my faceplate up.

    Laurentia undid the catches on the articulated arm and the taller blue-skinned woman helped me down to my feet. I took a step, feeling the weight of the suit again. My Zephyr were giddy as if they found this to be an amusing overture but wanted to go into the air for the first act.

    The grey-winged and horned and white-haired IvoryTail used a smoking censer to calm down the spirits and handed me a cup of coffee. I pointedly did not think about any parallels between the two actions. After I took a sip, my two Ritualista then assisted me out of the simulator chamber. I was still just a bit disoriented, and I was wearing an RP suit, something heavy and expensive.

    Outside of the simulator, I took a few steps. With the incense making my Zephyr lethargic, much of the weight of the suit rested unsupported on my shoulders. At least my Polyxo was devoid of mission modules such as weapons or ward projectors, making the gear somewhat lighter.

    That was an unfortunate end for the exercise. It could have been worse: most times when you get shot down you're not immediately given some coffee to enjoy. At least there was no evading enemy capture module to today's training. I rolled my shoulders and motioned to IvoryTail and she closed some of the censer's slots. Taking in the liquid stimulant, I nudged my air spirits out of their torpor, just enough to help make my RP easier to walk around in. We stood in a long hallway that had five rows of about a dozen simulators.

    I could hear other Ritualista helping pilots out of their pods. That was expected. Fortunately, it did sound like our losses were less than I feared. Pulivia had exited hers and was talking with a pilot from Fourth Squadron. Glancing over, she gave me a nervous and apologetic look.

    She needn't have worried. Some casualties were only to be expected, after all, although I suppose being the only casualty had to be somewhat embarrassing. Though now she was no longer the only casualty in Third Squadron.

    Drinking out of a water-flask, Quirinus strode over to me. Her Harmonia was similarly stripped of armaments and other components that were best left off for simulation work. It all made her suit look even sleeker than mine. There were some similarities of course; both our suits were designed and manufactured by MuArc Amalgamated.

    "Tribune," I said before bracing and giving a salute. Our respective entourages of Ritualista had dispersed and went to help the other technicians overseeing the simulators.

    "Prefect." Her crimson features were stern as she returned the salute and motioned for me to follow. "That was an interesting bit of air combat at the end there," she said with mild disapproval.

    "Ma'am, the scenario was that I was to be shot down during this phase of the exercise." I shrugged my shoulders in a motion of articulated, enchanted plates. "I decided to do it in a way that minimized suspicions and limited how incredulous the proctors would be in having the opposition target me over all mission-oriented priorities," I said with an absent tone as we walked towards the double doors that lead out of the simulator hall.

    "Where I was taken out by a Lance attack from a Perun," Quirinus admitted as she undid her helmet, pulled it open and then slung it on her suit's waist.

    "Unfortunately, my Squadron did not get close enough for that to be a reasonable option." I held up a placating hand. "That's not my choice. The proctors could have had some Perun Strike units in that attack on my Squadron, or have a max range Lance reach out and hit me. Those fluke one-in-a-million shots do happen in battle."

    "I suppose that was the proctors' choice to go after you like that." Quirinus sighed as we crossed a hallway and knocked on a plain, grey-painted door.

    An artificer opened the door for us and ushered us into the larger room on the other side. At first glance, it looked like we had stepped into Flight Operations. There were over a dozen Legionaries at various control stations, each sat in front of their own displays with a giant map projection dominating one whole wall. Many of the Legionary technicians were wearing headsets and were having quiet, deliberate conversations with unseen partners.

    However, the simulated Flight Ops was headquartered in a different room, further down the hall. These technicians were the proctors running the exercise. Quite a few of whom paused in their work to look at up wide-eyed at us. I don't know why they looked that shocked to see me. One hastily clambered up from her seat, hustled over, saluted us, and handed Quirinus a clipboard. While she read that, I studied the wall map removing my helmet as I took in the details of the unfolding scenario.

    "Are they holding together?" Quirinus asked me as she passed the clipboard and handheld display over.

    "Primus Centurion Shadow has rallied Third Squadron with minimal losses."

    "Yourself excluded," Quirinus's tone was light and her orange eyes twinkled the way they did when I tried to be respectfully formal on the topic of Visha.

    "Myself excluded." I gestured to the main map. "Prefect Caenis used her Squadron and Third to take out the Elenese assault before pulling back to cover the landing zone. A bit cautious but understandable; it looks like the Janissaries had been pressuring the Legionaries quite severely."

    As I spoke, I checked the Demi-Flight's current status. A significant aspect of this of this training scenario was seeing how our pilots responded to the loss of their leaders. It was not a full wipe, there were still three Prefect Centurions left, but the loss of a Tribune and a Prefect Centurion would still alter the Wing's dynamic considerably.

    "They seem to be doing well enough in our absence," Quirinus nodded. "Could have a bit more coordination with Second and Fourth Squadrons; this is a good opportunity to push those Janissaries out of that bridge."

    "Maybe they're waiting for another escort run," I glanced back up to see how the main landing operations were going. The combined Luxon and Elenese counter-attack on the BlackSkyvian Landing Fleet had been driven off, thought not without casualties.

    "It's possible." Quirinus conceded as she stepped further into the room and examined one of the observer seats. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of this room, the chair was rated for Ritual Plate. Sitting down next to her, I passed over the clipboard.

    "At least this gives us a head start on the exercise debrief," I offered as I put my mug down and took up one of the spare notepads and slipped a headset over my ears. Examining the blocky little brass and glass contraption it was plugged into, I moved the selector over to the command channel and started listening in on the Demi-Wing's transmissions.

    "Always the optimist," Quirinus said with a slight smile.

    ++++++++++

    Diffusion of responsibility is a curse that becomes increasingly insidious as an organization grows larger. While it is one that plagues military organizations on the broad scale, small groups down to the squad level can fall afoul of its siren call just as easily.

    In this case, there was more than enough blame to spread it equally over all of my subordinates. It was GreyDawn's suggestion to have a celebration and morale building exercise. Reinhild contracted the caterers. It was Visha who pointed out that the event could be expanded to include our Ritualista. VioletBlood picked the venue.

    And it was my newest Flight Leader, Lucia who, taking in all of the above, came to the natural conclusion and informed others of the sartorial themes for today's event. Standing on the boardwalk, I crossed my arms and gazed down at my subordinates. My wings twitched. It was no one's fault. It was everyone's fault.

    I looked over the crowd below me, standing in the sand with the water at their backs. Ritualista and pilots gazed back up as a warm breeze came over the ocean. Full of ships, the water was a deep blue, with a lovely view of the city to our north, complete with hulking masses of the base's cyclopean hangars looming like artificial peaks in the distance. Behind us stretched the Nolas Hills, the few points of any real elevation in this portion of Mursam.

    Ice chests, grills, and tables of food were laid out across the sand, the scents of cooking meats adding pleasantly to the bouquet. Reinhild's always capable efforts provided the atmosphere. An almost leafy scent lingered on the wind, mostly wafting from the torches and braziers she had placed around our reserved portion of the beach.

    I could ignore how I was dressed. Really, if one looked past the frills, the swimsuit was not that bad. It was shockingly demure and sensible, considering it was one of VioletBlood's suggestions.

    "Third Squadron, Epsilon Demi-Wing, 78th Infantry Legion!" I cried as I spread my wings. Over a hundred eyes were upon me as I dipped into the rhetoric training of several lifetimes. "In the months, I have become proud to see you've grown as a team and have earned the confidence our Imperatrix has given you. You have done well."

    I gave a sharp smile. "Most of you are familiar with my teaching methods and know the precious coin such praise means. Lucia, your Flight in particular has caught up impressively. Well done."

    I met the purple eyes of my newest Primus Centurion. Her black and gold bikini complimented her svelte form and made her legs appear even longer. Thankfully, seeing Visha and VioletBlood's outfits kept me from getting too jealous. Lucia's broad-rimmed and pillowy hat was a bit... indulgent, though I supposed it did an adequate job of keeping the sun out of her eyes. And it was no more absurd than the floppy sun-hats Tribune Quirinus enjoyed. Maybe there was something about horns that gave in some of us a taste for bizarre haberdashery....

    I pushed the nonsense thought from my head and gave Lucia a tiny acknowledging nod.

    "I'm happy that my Flight managed to catch up to the one full of cadets!" She shouted back, a smile on her sharply-regal face.

    "Cadets trained by the countess herself!" VioletBlood shot back to the laughter of the assembled Legionaries.

    I let them have their moment of levity before motioning for silence. "We are not the only Squadron being melded together. Our entire unit is training hard, and I would like to thank our Ritualista for keeping us operational; without them, we would not be here," I gave an expansive wave as I bowed to Centurion Suzette Gibbs. "You know what our Tribune expects from us. What you do not know is the mission."

    Now, the silence was total; I had the full attention of dozens of demonic soldiers. I glanced at my kitsune who was standing by the food-prep station by the grills. Reinhild also had a cousin and a niece with her. Willing to moonlight for some extra pay, they were also Auxilia Scouts but on active status. I was loath to trust nepotism but as they both were Legion, and Quirinus had recommended them, my disquiet was minimized.

    Bringing multiple foxes to a social event might get tongues wagging, though. In keeping with this event's theme, my maid had also dressed for swimming, but in contrast to her role she was wearing an apron, at least while she was working. Meeting my gaze, the fox nodded.

    Good, we had privacy, not that I would be revealing anything particularly ground-breaking. I pulled my wings in and looked over my Legionaries. "To be clear, I cannot tell you quite what our mission will be. But, I can tell you that we have been assigned to a ship of the Household fleet, who in their role as Diyu's premier taxi service will graciously transport us on the HFV Tarantula Hawk, one of their Mellona Medium Carriers"

    That triggered a bit of murmuring. The Mellona was a workhorse carrier that was a good compromise of capacity and expense. It would comfortably fit our Demi-Wing's four Squadrons with space for two more, likely a pair of Fleet Squadrons to protect the carrier, run escort, and handle similar tasks.

    "We don't know what Legionary formation we will be supporting or what ship they'll be transported on. Once that is known we will focus on their capabilities and joint training missions." My tail flicked as I took a pondering pose, finger to my chin. "We won't be supporting a formation larger than a Vexillatio, but if I had to guess, I would say we'll likely be attached to a Cohort."

    If my last comment had gotten their interest, this morsel of information had grabbed their attention. A Demi-Wing for a Cohort of troops was a fairly standard role for a heavy strike. That was roughly the mix the Hadian class Long Range Insertion airship was fitted out to transport and deploy. That we were not being assigned to one of that class could be due to several reasons. The most innocuous explanation was simply that ships of the larger class were simply not available for our mission. There were, after all, four times as many Mellonas in the Fleet's grand inventory as Hadians. Thus, the operational planners could just be making due with whatever Fourth or Fifth Fleet had available. That was certainly an explanation.

    I smiled disarmingly at my assembled personnel. "We will cross that bridge. We are Legion. And we are the Tribune's force-multiplier. While the rest of her Fliers are skilled specialists, we are expected to excel in every role. And," I stated emphatically, "we will not disappoint."

    The skilled part was not entirely out of politeness' sake. Fabia's greenhorns in Fourth Squadron weren't rookies fresh out of Flight School and they had grown impressively over these months.

    "But, you're not here to get a lecture from me. Not today, at least. Please, enjoy yourselves." With that, I waved to the kitsune

    At my signal, the trio opened the ice chests with a flourish, as if they were priestesses offering libations. The grills were also lit and crates heaped with cheese, bread, fruits were proffered, and there were still yet more boxes of provisions to be opened. I had even ordered a few exotic items including some gelatos and other cold sweets to supplement the beachside feast. However, the meat and fish seemed to send the greatest thrill among the crowd as my subordinates went about their refreshments and, using their towels, started staking claims on the beach.

    Fluffing my wings, I jumped off the boardwalk and onto the sand, relishing the soft warmth between my toes as I padded my way down the beach. I would have scheduled this later in our training, but GreyDawn had pointed out that we were in the midst of fall and soon the water would become too cool for swimming, even at this latitude.

    The fine, pale orange sand was hot below my feet. It felt hotter than the air around, which was entirely possible as it was a clear cloudless day and the sun had been beating down on the beach all morning.

    I was tempted to use my Zephyr to try and hover over the beach, but my eager wind spirits would likely kick up a lot of sand. Additionally, I was unacceptably out of practice which such precise maneuvers; it had been years since my time in the ballet troupe, every move held up to professional rigor by the hard-eyed coaches. I made a mental note to try to add that to my ground-side training regimen. Besides, the biggest reason to hold off on prospective experiments was striding my way.

    Centurion Suzette Gibbs was a dark-haired, straight-horned, cynical woman whose face seemed locked in a perpetual scowling. The chief Ritualista of my Squadron had years of experience and a deep skepticism of the wisdom and judgment of Ritual Plate Pilots and the damage they caused to her suits. Repairing said damage had presumably engraved the scowl into her face over the years, like the slow action of wind and rain upon some pale and particularly standoffish stone.

    "Prefect," she said, her tone casual but her salute textbook.

    I returned the salute. We were both out of uniform and the situation did not call for such a gesture; that she had led with such formality indicated, some mild displeasure on her part. "Anything awry, Gibbs?" I asked, glancing up at the taller woman. I noticed most of my personal Ritualista were nearby, having spread out a large beach blanket.

    "Nothing much. The new Ritualista are meshing well."

    "Really, only Flight Three is new," I observed.

    Gibbs smiled thinly. "And Primus Hood runs a tight Flight."

    The pale and vivacious IvoryTail looked up from the beach blanket she was straightening; her tail curled questioningly.

    "Do we have an issue, Centurion?" I quietly asked. "We will be deploying offworld soon enough, and I would like to know if there are personality clashes before everyone is crammed onto an airship."

    "Perhaps a word where we can speak freely?" Gibbs asked.

    "By all means." I nodded to her and we started to walk. Instead of heading to a more secluded part of the beach, as I expected, she led me over to where Lucia and her pilots were lounging on their blankets.

    Looking up, Lucia hopped up to her hooves as we approached. I waved her and the others off before they could salute. The gold and black bikini Lucia wore emphasized just how long-legged she was and I felt the prickly-old jealousy of my own diminutive height.

    "Countess! This is quite the event you've set up." The head of Flight Three's smooth tones faltered when she saw Gibbs at my side.

    "I heard we might have a problem?" I asked, pitching my voice so it didn't carry.

    Lucia looked to Gibbs who gave a small nod.

    "Yes, Ma'am. I mean that there's not a problem with my Ritualista. It's more..." Lucia's sharp aristocratic features stilled as she groped for a diplomatic wrapper for her complaint.

    "Poaching," Charity BreezeFlower murmured.

    "That's putting it kindly," Gibbs commented with all the blunt delicacy of a Torpedo volley.

    I rubbed my forehead. Like many specializations, Ritualista were always in high demand. The magical aptitude and rigors required were not as rare as necessary for a Ritual Plate Pilot, but there were, altogether, over six times as many Ritualista in the Fleet and Legions as there were RP Pilots. And that count only included the Ritualista required to maintain Ritual Plate. Vehicles, VTOLs, airships, and other systems needed their own Ritualista.

    "Are we at least dealing with Legion officers trying to tempt them?" I asked, my tail flicking irritably. I had heard that getting qualified maintainers was a bit harder on the offworld colonies than on Diyu, but surely Mursam wouldn't have that issue.

    "A Tribune OpalWing from the 43rd Legion, one of the training legions, was struck with a brilliant idea and has been making the rounds to various maintainers with the pitch of no offworld deployments," Gibbs said.

    Anger struck me, a deep rage roiling off of me in waves as all the thorny implications twisted trough my mind. "Without informing me?"

    "I just found out about it; she went over my head too," Lucia snarled.

    My tail went still, and it as all I could do to keep it from writhing in indignant fury. That was very poor form, to say the least. I had questions about this Tribune's sense of decorum. "Right. Are any of your girls tempted? Anyone who has the leverage to finagle a transfer?"

    Officially, the Legions were meritocratic. By and large, they were, but they also bowed to the reality of existing in a monarchical and aristocratic environment. As an imperial heroine, a countess, and the daughter of a duchess, I was well aware of that, given both my own fast promotion track. On the other wing, I had earned all of those honors and titles via my own skill, even if my connections had smoothed any complications out of my path.

    "So far, no," Lucia shook her head, "but some of the younger Ritualista are having a bit of a culture shock having gone from the Anchorage to the colonies."

    "Right..." I frowned as the pieces began to come together.

    In many ways, the Lantia Anchorage existed as a sort of fleet-in-being. Especially the Legionary aspects. that lead to some non-standard situations, this latest irritation very much included I turned my thoughts back to them, orders already on my lips as the semblance of a plan formed. "Gibbs, you put out feelers. See if we actually have anyone setting up the necessary deals to get a formal transfer. Anyone who's stopped thinking and started acting. Lucia, I'll have a word with Quirinus, both to see if any of the other Squadrons are being poached and to see if anyone can assign this logistics Tribune some nice and helpfully informal coaching."

    Lucia nodded, her full lips pursed in a severe line.

    Gibbs bowed her horns and instead of going back to her part of the beach went into one of the lines for cold drinks. The pilots of Flight Three watched her go.

    "You don't need to stay on my account," I assured them.

    Rising up, Charity bowed to me. While not as tall as Lucia, the woman was broader of shoulder, hip, and had a more statuesque form. Her long gold-blond hair was tied back in a tight ponytail.

    The Flight's other blonde, Centurion Lady Adriana Melisande also stood. Her shoulder-length ash-blonde tresses were styled with a lot of body and showed almost as much care as VioletBlood put into her hair. Her horns were a sky-blue, like her tail, and curled back from her brow. Like her superior, she had a noble cast to her appearance, though not quite as sharp. Her periwinkle eyes glittered.

    "Will you duel this Tribune, Countess?" she asked with affected idleness, adjusting her rather daring swimwear with a casualness so natural it had to be deliberate.

    I was used to nudity. It was a part of life in the military. Diyu also had different cultural norms than my previous lives, and this was a beach. There were plenty of my subordinates who did not bother with swimsuits, including half of my personal Ritualista team.

    Lady Adriana Melisande was not one of them; more's the pity, she was technically dressed. But the gossamer strips and chains adorning her admittedly lush curves were so scandalous that it would have been less blatant had she simply had forgone any suggestion of clothing. Especially with how she drew attention to her state of dress with sinuous movements more shamelessly licentious than I had seen in quite some time. Not since a particularly avant garde Luxon ballet that VioletBlood had dragged me off too shortly before we left the capital.

    Blinking, I drew my attention towards Lucia. Which was a different kind of issue, but one I could manage better. "Pardon?" I asked.

    Her wingwoman and mate, IronTalon Cardino was the last to stand. The shortest in the Flight, she still had a bit of the more lanky morphology of someone born on Lantia. Her steel-blue hair contrasted nicely with her cerulean skin and grey eyes. Her jade one-piece swimsuit was enviably less frilly than my own confection. I noted the fine silver thread of an old scar shimmering across her right cheek, either a deliberate keepsake from some tiresome duel or a sign that she'd had to make some past Apology and the offended party had been remarkably merciful in the punishment doled out upon her.

    "Adriana, you don't say things like that to our Squadron commander!" Centurion Cardino stamped her foot and tried to force her guileless, open face tried into a mein of stern disapproval. While the expression did bring attention to her scar, which shone silver on her sea-blue cheek, I couldn’t help but notice the expression of amused delight that darted across Centurion Melisande’s face before she shuffled an unconvincing mask of remorseful regret into place.

    "I am sorry, Countess," Centurion Melisande said, lowering her head in what I could only presume was an attempt to conceal the smile dancing in her eyes, reinforcing her gambit with a pointedly lavish presentation of her horns in a gesture of submission.

    "I'm surprised you didn't ask her to be light with your punishment," Charity noted full of a maternal sternness that tole me not only that she hadn't noticed the other blonde's cheeky shamlessness but also she hadn't even a hint of private amusement. Adrianna, it seemed, was a good bit more subtle than her swimsuit might lead an observer to beleive.

    "We have learnend that the Countess is not one to spare the rod when it comes to discipline," Adriana agreed with an unseemly eagerness that didn't so much as hint but scream its undertone for all but Charity to hear.

    I rolled my shoulders and then smiled at the blonde temptress. "Lady Adriana, we are relaxing and while I appreciate your... " I looked to Lucia for help.

    She shrugged, seemingly defeated but with a private smirk of her own. "Candor?" she offered.

    "Yes," I conceded, "let us go with that. While I appreciate such frankness, I will note that we are both in committed relationships."

    "Oh, that's not a problem for us? Right, Honey?" Melisande said as she pulled her wingwoman into an embrace.

    "You did chip in to help pay to have my motorcycle shipped out here," IronTalon admitted before nuzzling the blonde.

    Admittedly, the shipping to move a vehicle, even a small one, from Lantia to Mursam would have been quite a burden on the typical pilot's wallet. "Ah, well...." My horns tingled a warning and I smartly stepped to one side.

    A shadow fell over us as VioletBlood leapt into the conversation with a wing-and Zephyr-assisted long-jump. Despite my attempt to strategically sidle aside, no sooner had her feet hit the sand then she wrapped her wings over me in an embrace so ostentatious that it put Adriana and Melisande to shame.

    A carnally-addled and traitorous corner of my mind was disappointed that I had been successful in my earlier attempt to convince VioletBlood to show a modicum of modesty by wearing a suit for our beach excursion. I shook off those thoughts, but not the surprisingly warm membranous wings that nearly cocooned me.

    "How... affectionate," Lucia noted, a strangely cautious look in her eyes as she glanced form her paired pilots to me and back.

    Entirely unmoved, VioletBlood gently but firmly perched her head on my shoulder, rubbing her horns against mine as she made pointed eye-contact with first Adriana and then Lucia. My tail straightened in shock as my head began to swim with a strangely pleasant tingling fuzziness.

    "They are engaged," Charity said, perhaps to herself, as if she were trying to mollify herself at such a instead of scandalous public display, at least for an event such as this.

    "Well, who needs some mere fashion statement? Wearing your partner as a wing-wrap is plenty daring already" Adriana said, her tone complimentary yet waspish as she pulled her own mate closer. I could almost hear VioletBlood preening.

    "Something like a Paymonish yuka?" IronTalon noted, boldly striking out toward congeniality.

    "Oh, I was thinking more of formal Elenese high fashion." Adriana's smile grew, needle-teeth as sharp as her tounge on full dipslay between plush lips.

    The less formal and rigid House Paymon often made me nostalgic for my first life, especially on the many times I’d enjoyed its food. And while some House Elena's courtly dress was kimono-inspired, the garments, accessories and requisite tresses were exceptionally ornate and tedious to don correctly. Unsurprisingly, I had little desire to dress in such a manner.

    At least musing over Elena's impractical garb offered some distraction from the way the way LoveBlood's attention was making me feel.

    "I do not see how a wing-like dress would be anything like an Elenese Furisode," I replied, trying to ignore my betrothed's long-suffering pout in favor of the desultory conversation about.... fashion, I supposed.

    I’d never realized LoveBlood’s head was quite this heavy before… Or is she pushing herself down into my shoulder?

    "I suppose you are correct, Countess," Adriana said in an exaggeratedly-magnanimous tone. "After all, you are missing the mask."

    The other pilots nodded, Lucia still looking decidedly squirrelly, wings twitching, as if she were seconds away from propelling herself up and away from the conversation. I wondered if her discomfort was a result of the mention of Elena. They were notorious for their cultural fixation on masks, and many demons found the Elenese disquieting for this reason. Besides, we had just gone up against a simulated Elenese force; perhaps the newly transfer Flight Leader was still flinching with leftover stress..

    "You know, that's a funny thing," Lucia said, her voice calm and thoughtful, as her body language wasn't, as if she were some academic expert on masks holding forth in her lecture hall while preparing to escape from a pack of undergrads pesting her about overdue grading. "Elenese Ritual Plate has blank-faced helms, where our House is the one that uses sculpted death-masks."

    "That is indeed a fascinating cultural quirk," I dryly noted, trying to deal with the amorous VioletBlood. Most pilots, myself included, used a faceplate cast in her own likeness. There were a few who used masks of noteworthy ancestors, and among the more religiously-minded various saints were popular. It took a very pious, or presumptive, pilot to wear the likeness of DarkStar herself, however. Nobody but me, it seemed, and perhaps Lucia were focusing much on the conversation.

    Handling VioletBlood was easier said than done. An invasive but not unpleasant intimacy flowed between us. The anxieties and angers of a lifetime nearly bereft of family, a lifetime isolated, a lifetime of working to prove herself, a lifetime of burbling, haughty bloodlust swept over me. VioletBlood's life may have been short, only a year and a half longer than my life as Tauria, but it was focused and glistened with a cold intensity like a precisely-cut diamond.

    VioletBlood's embrace became less desperately limpet-like as... as if she was reading my innermost emotions. My tail went limp as the horrified realization sunk in. For all the talk about masks, VioletBlood was seeing me without mine.

    "You worry too much," she whispered in my ear.

    "I was thinking of getting some refreshments." Lucia dimpled a diplomatic, albeit strained, smile towards her pair of amorous Pilots... and towards VoiletBlood and I... "Does anyone require anything in particular?"

    Summoning all the dignity my years as an officer could muster, doing my best to disregard both my perpetual lack of stature and the noblewoman draping herself over me, I nodded gravely. "That would be good, Primus."

    "It looks like Primus Shadow is bringing refreshments to us already," Adriana observed as she shifted her balance to better cuddle.

    My tail straightened as my interest rose. It was a bit surprisng that I hadn't noticed Visha's aproach, but I excused my oversight by dint of how... distracting LoveBlood was being.

    IronTalon blinked, frowning. "Is that a male kitsune with her?"

    All but pinned by VioletBlood, I could not see them approach, but by way of deduction I knew which fox they were talking about. "Yes, that is Reinhild's cousin, Uwe."

    The blue-haired pilot blinked with mild surprise. "Huh."

    "There's not many forests up on Lantia," Adriana said by way of apology.

    Purple eyes calculating and glittering with a suddenly renewed certainty, Lucia's smile broadened and she bowed her head to VioletBlood in respect, like a duelist acknowledging a touch.

    "What?" I tried to turn but the baroness' hold grew a ever so slightly tighter. Being wrapped in LoveBlood's arms and wings was not entirely unpleasant, but this was perhaps not quite the right time. Though, that silky little voice in me countered, if beachside R&R on wasn't the right time, when was?

    When it's just the three of us! Another fragment of my mind rejoined. The traitorous thoughts added fuel to both my mental turmoil and the infernal furnaces steadily heating my cheeks.

    "Just a moment- do you really want to ruin the surprise?" VioletBlood whispered with a gentle, reassuring caress.

    There was no pouting on my part, but I did stop squirming and let myself relax in her arms and wings.

    "You trained us to work as a team," VioletBlood whispered, her tone teasing. With the benefit of experience, the noble was becoming quite the skilled temptress.

    That was not entirely reassuring. Glancing about, I could see the rest of VioletBlood's Flight approaching. GreyDawn had crossed her arms and wore a small smirk while Octavia was watching with undisguised amusement. Even Gibbs and the rest of my crew had also drawn near while all of the other Ritualistas' attention was focused on us.

    I could feel VioletBlood's ill-contained mirth as her tail swished to and fro; before I could brace myself she snapped into action, releasing me from her wings and spinning me around in a single leaping burst, leaving me facing back the way we had come. Only feet away stood, Visha who along with and the male fox was carrying a large multi-tiered cake. Even across the salt-sea smell of the beach, I could pick up the first hints of chocolate on the breeze. Behind them, SunShower and her niece approached, laden with plates, cups, and an ice chest of drinks.

    "My birthday isn't for two weeks," I petulantly said, for lack of any other immediate reaction.

    "Shall I call off the cake then?" VioletBlood murmured in my ear, before raising her voice to ask her question a second time to all in attendance. "Everyone, do you want to wait a fortnight for cake?"

    There was a chorus of light-hearted protests.

    Visha helped Uwe, a rather literal silver-fox, set up a table to present the cake. Then my wingwoman held up a knife and gave me an eager and expectant smile. Stepping over to me, she gave VioletBlood a warm smile. While not making quite as blatantly overt of a display as LoveBlood, Visha still pointedly took my arm in front of the assembled Squadron, her wings brushing against mine. Somehow, her feelings sounded... quieter, less "shouted" and more murmured. Despite the lower mental volume, they were if anything equally emphatic. The blade flashed in Visha's free hand, before the hilt was pressed firmly into my hand.

    I tried to clear my mind and focus on something safe, on something simple: the cake-knife was well-balanced. It was good Voduri steel; I'd recognize that distinct patterning anywhere. I wondered where Visha purchased it...

    Yet the pressure from my two Vs was overwhelming, like a warmly weighted cashmere blanket on a cold winter's night. I somehow managed to remain stoically dignified, taking it all with good grace expected of someone of my position. My right and left hand subordinates were very capable pilots and pleasing to be around and it was... gratifying that they valued me as well. It was all perfectly sensible, even the feelings in my chest that made it a bit hard to concentrate.

    But I had fought on with far greater distractions, and I could not disappoint the rest of my people. "I suppose no one minds if we have dessert before the meat's grilled?"

    All in all, it was not an unpleasant fifteenth birthday.

    ++++++++++

    As an immense Legion and Fleet base, Colonia Mursam Castramagnus was a city unto itself, a complex of barracks, warehouses, training facilities, offices, dockyards and hangars of all sizes, strewn across acres of land. Getting around the base required lots of walking, even after using the base's somewhat sparse tram system to cute the travel time down considerably. There were other transit systems available, of course, but they were less frequent and mostly focused around the main airfields and administrative structures. Amusingly, for the stronghold of a winged race, flight was not really an option on-base, as the airspace had to be controlled for obvious reasons.

    There were nine of us: Quirinus and her four Squadron Commanders and each of our seconds. Our subordinates were still digesting last week's simulator exercise. The beach interlude had helped with morale. Not that they needed much of a morale boost; combat losses aside, Epsilon Wing had won the exercise handily; By the end of the scenario, they were left with sufficient combat effectiveness to hold the landing zone until reinforcements could arrive.

    All things considered, Hangar 143-A was not too far from the tramway stop. The walk was unfortunately short enough that I knew there was no hope of convincing Quirinus to sign out a couple carts from a motor pool. At least, not yet, the distance from our barracks and from the hangar our Ritual Plate was currently stored in to Hangar was a potential issue in the future.

    Despite its cavernous volume, Hanger 143-A was barely more than a shack, lurking in the literal the shadow of the massive Class C Hangar next door.

    The better part of a mile in length and over fifteen hundred feet wide, with an interior height of about fifty-five stories Hangar 4-C was a titanic structure of support towers and cable-stays that could fit a single Celestial class, the largest vessel in BlackSkyvian service. It was an enclosed and controlled environment complete with overhead cranes and other mechanisms to provide the servicing and refit for any airship in the Household Fleet. Not only was the interior protected from the elements, it was temperature controlled to boot, with each Hangar regularly visited by Tempestarii who used their weather magic to control the humidity and chase away the cloud formations from the upper gantries. The Empyrean Zenith was assigned to Colonial Domitianus Fourth Fleet and Hanger 2-C in specific, but the base had a number of Class C Hangers.

    Giant doors more akin to hollowed-out track-mobile buildings than simple doors were partially open to allow for the slow, careful egress of a fleet carrier. Even the most jaded among us paused to watch the group of Ritual Plate on observation and wind-duty swooping about the airship like pilot fish around a vast whale, while a group of ground vehicles with guidelines helped nudge the airship free of its birth like tugs around one of the leviathan cargo vessels back in the City of Trees. Most of those vehicles, dwarfed into comparative insignificance, were heavy-duty train engines that ran along the dedicated surface rail-lines servicing the hangar. It was hard to keep a good grasp of scale when looking upon such a structure, , so utterly did it dominate the surrounding area and the pygmy side-buildings and structures bowing before its titanic presence.

    A Class C could easily swallow up a pair of Avalon Heavy Carries and a pair of Nova Fleet Carriers or equivalently-sized airships like two Tonbokiri class battleships and two Kanabo class battlecruisers. Troopships like the massive Typhoon class and other heavy Legionary Lift assets could easily vanish inside. An entire Legion Landing Flotilla, including escorts, could be maintained within a handful of Class C Hangars all with a good amount of space to maintain and work on said airships. The entryway to the Hangar and much of the interior had several long trenches of various depths and widths that allowed for installation and maintenance of an airship's various ventral structures.

    "They look so much more... delicate, when they're stuck down on the ground," Julia noted as we waited to go down a set of steps that would have us walk under the large taxiway avenue.

    Beside us, another railway line ran under the taxiway. Each hangar was served by two sets of rail lines. The ones cut in trenches just below the surface avoided at-grade crossings and allowed for cargo and personnel transport, though less frequently than the trams. The surface rail lines allowed for the transportation of oversized components but those trains had to stop to avoid getting in the way of the taxiways that connected the hangars with the aprons and runways.

    "More like a wallowing hog," Fabia countered.

    Julia gave a slight smile to the more senior Sarpedona Squadron Commander.

    "Careful, you don't want the Fleet girls to hear you badmouthing their precious hulls," Quirinus lightly said.

    "Given the size of the vessel, that's actually a lot of control and precision," I noted as we went down the steps and into the echoing subterranean corridor.

    "It wouldn't be a practical weapon if a slight breeze could prevent their deployment, or if a bit of rain could ground them at the slightest notice," Fabia shrugged.

    I chuckled, a bit hollowly. Airships had tended to be highly niche transportation platforms in both of my previous lives, albeit for different reasons. My previous empire had tried deploying aerial mages from Zeppelins with some good results. However, Germania's limited colonial holdings had left the Empire with only little need for such of extreme-endurance aircraft, especially considering the infrastructure and maintenance costs they required.

    In my first life, well… a botched landing in New Jersey, a windblown crash in France, and a crash off the coast of California had doomed the dirigible to the pages of history books, outside of limited novelty commercial engagements.

    Visha clearly shared my amusement, judging by the way her tail swished as she walked ahead of me.

    We climbed up to another part of the complex. There was one giant hangar, albeit still smaller than the colossal that was Hangar 4-C and clustering around it were a bunch of even smaller hangars. All were in the shadow of that massive Class C, which in addition to blocking out the daylight also provided a rather effective wind screen. The base layout tried to minimize wind-funnels and other such areas that would make the maneuvering of giant, rigid lighter-than-air ships even harder.

    The big hanger on this side of the taxiway was merely a Class B. It still used buttresses and cable stays. At under two thousand feet in length, seven hundred in width, and with an interior height of a mere forty stories, it was still the size of several blocks of office buildings.

    It was sized to fit a single Avalon Heavy Carrier or equivalently-sized hull such as a Bacchus class heavy cargo ship. For major bases, the Class B was a useful size for working many of the mid-range vessels in the Fleet. Four Maul class cruisers could comfortably fit inside with ample overhead space for refitting, removing, or installing major ship components. This made them a common workhorse hangar for the bulk of the Household Fleet. The standardization gave some efficiencies that offset the large investment in such structures.

    Our journey took us briskly past the open doors of this Hangar and we had plenty of time to confirm that Hangar 43-B held a trio of Mellona Medium Carriers. The quarter of the hangar that was empty of airships was still crowded with structural frames, giant cabling spools, racks of equipment modules, and a few sealed up out-buildings secured with privacy screens.

    None of those ships were our destination: our orders were to report to Hangar 143-A. Freestanding arched structures, Class A hangars could be taken down, transported, built in the field, and were a key infrastructural component of minor bases. Just over a thousand feet long, five hundred feet wide, and twenty stories tall, they were still large structures. It was only proximity to their larger cousins that rendered them... small.

    Well, relatively small. The vast base was an exercise in extravagance, given the endless fields of buildings and industrial equipment and personnel required to keep Fourth and Fifth Fleets operational. It was a world of concrete, cables, rail-lines, tank-farms, warehouses, and hangars.

    And that was just the heart of the base; the considerable civilian infrastructure required to support, supply, feed, water, and train everyone who worked here sprawled out around the base itself in a web of logistical veins supplying the garrison's every need. A large part of the populations of Mursa Victrix the city and Mursam the entire colony worked for this base, directly or indirectly. Entire family lines had dwelt in the outbuildings of the larger hangars for generations, their society a guild and apprentice system of skilled tradeswomen of crane operators, artificers, welders, seamstresses, machinists, enchanters and all the various tasks required to maintain and refit the Household Fleet.

    Still, a single Mellona class could fit inside a Class A Hanger or a pair of Damocles Light Carriers, Mace class Destroyers, or other similarly-sized ships. Though the Class A was more commonly used for the Kolibri Patrol class or the Venture scout, of which it could fit four or seven within its walls respectively. Our assigned vessel being kept in a relatively small Hangar by itself was not unheard of, but it was a bit unusual.

    "I wonder how cramped it'll be to work in there," Julia noted as we walked up to the main gate for Hanger 143-A.

    "For us? Not cramped at all," Fabia shrugged. "We'd be nothing more than gnats inside even one of these. Now, the Ventus pilots and their VTOLs may find it a bit cramped, but they'll just wheel those in." She trailed off when we got a better eye at the gate guards.

    All military bases had gate guards, but I'd seldom worked out of a hangar with its own guard post at the entrance, complete with a pair of sentries clearly checking names against a list. No wonder Quirinus had reminded us to keep our military identification handy, and a second, civilian form of identification, to boot. In the case of most of our pilots, that second ID was our library cards, but clearly Quirinus hadn't been joking in the slightest. Security was, to say the least, tight. People couldn't just walk into a hangar even if they had already been gladly waved onto base.

    Honestly, the level of verification and security warmed my heart, even though my peers grumbled. This more than the mere assignment of a dedicated hangar, was the best way to emphasize to the Wing the importance of our maiden operation as a unit.

    The guard shack and gatehouse were the tip of the complex of support buildings that encrusted both sides of the hangar like fungal colonies. The front and back had been kept clear, allowing the massive doors to petal open. Once we had satisfied the stonefaced guards that we were authorized personnel, out little party descended down a corridor lined with offices, lockers, and workshops for the various yard workers and maintenance crews. Many of these subsidiary rooms were secured areas, complete with a variety of ocular and occult scanners and combination pads. I was used to airship hangars having sensitive areas such as those for the Teleport Rune inscribers, the communications specialists, the power-drive gang, or locked-down rooms where dismounted scrying arrays were refurbished, but Hangar 134-A seemed endowed with an overabundance of windowless rooms, restricted corridors, and places that were locked-off to even senior Legionary Fliers.

    My tail flicked a bit in nervousness.

    We were being assigned to a Mellona class which was a good mix of small enough to be common with over a hundred in the Household Fleet, yet large enough to have good all-around capability with six RP Squadrons, half a dozen Torpedoes, and a small, but varied, compliment of VTOLs for cargo delivery, search and rescue, and other utility roles. While six Fujiwara Aerial Torpedoes was not very many, it did give the carrier some organic fleet-defense or fire-support capability, depending on load-out. The smaller RP carriers did not have that flexibility in VTOL complement and did not carry any Torpedoes. The larger ones were more capable, but were slower, more expensive and fewer in number.

    My worry grew as we trotted past still more Fleet personnel and clannish dock technicians hard at work on unknowable tasks, until finally we passed through a set of double doors and entered the hangar proper. It was always an awe-inspiring sight to see such a vast cavity, even if, or perhaps especially if, it was filled by the resting form of a Mellona class.

    From an almost directly bow-on angle, the vessel's class was obvious: the airship used the side-by-side lifting hulls of the Virtus modular design, a single forward Torpedo launcher was visible, and there were the four starboard Ritual Plate catapults near the bow as well as the matching landing ramps with presumably the same number on the port side, VR62 was painted on one of the aft vertical tail fins as a finishing touch, the pennant number prefix code for a Mellona medium carrier, V for Virtus and R for Ritual Plate.

    There was every visual indicator that this was a standard backbone-of-the-Fleet carrier. One ideally sized to carry a Demi-Wing for legionary support with room for two Squadrons to protect the carrier and other Fleet tasks. Yes, the Nova Fleet Carrier held two Fleet-sided RP Wings for a total of nearly two-hundred Ritual Plate, plus about two dozen Torpedoes and a couple VTOL squadrons. Relative to the rather rare Avalon Heavy Carrier, the Household Fleet had nearly four dozen Fleet carriers, but that was still well under half of the total number of medium carriers.

    Many in the Household Fleet had a joke: "Pray for a Nova, expect a Mellona." Which amusingly enough indicated that the culture of the senior BlackSkyvian military branch was not quite as cynical as the Imperial Legions. Our version of that joke would be "Pray for a Mellona and expect nothing."

    Visha sensed my unease. "I think the Tarantula Hawk looks pretty."

    Many of the Mellona class were named after eusocial stinging insects or similar creatures. Last year, my cadets had completed live-fire training while deploying from the HFV Hornet, which had infamously gone so badly awry that I had been left facing down an entire Elenese Vanguard Strike unit with just three other pilots.

    Decidedly not an outcome envisioned by whoever had designed that particular training scenario’s parameters.

    The hull was the standard semi-matte Fleet-grey when the camouflage system wasn't powered. Many of the airship's propulsion modules were missing and based on the double row of replacement pods to one side, that whole system was being replaced. Like most of our hardware, upon activation, the hull would change to a pattern that matched the surrounding environment, which along with a few other tricks, made it so a giant airship was not blatantly obvious in the empty sky. However, truly Veiling over eight hundred feet of airship would be very costly. Such high stealth applications were limited to platforms like Ritual Plate, VTOLs, and for smaller, highly specialized airships.

    The tiny Venture Scout and the various Kolibri Patrol craft were often modified into examples of the latter. The former was the smallest airship in the Fleet and little more than a platform for Scrying systems and a Mothership for six Ritual Plate. The latter being just large enough to be configured into the various troopship, reconnaissance, VTOL Mothership, cargo, Torpedo corvette, and Patrol Carrier roles the Fleet uses, albeit all on a small scale. However, if one wanted a very quiet, but very small, troop insertion, bombardment, or carrier strike, then a high-Veiled Venture and Kolibri or two would get the job done.

    "I suppose," I admitted as the nine of us walked up towards the ship. Closer, I could see that parts of the envelope were being worked on; presumably elements were being replaced while the gasbags were being inspected and refurbished. Strangely, the areas where the envelope peeled back had all been tented up and covered in tarps over frameworks that prevented any sight of the airship's structural interior. One would think that being in a restricted hangar would be privacy enough, but there seemed to be an abundance of caution around the Tarantula Hawk.

    What I could make out was that the team of artificers moving in to work on a particularly heavily draped section looked rather large in number, and, based on the equipment they were bringing, up doing some serious work. Indeed, so serious that a crane's assistance in hauling them a spool of very thick high-arcane energy cabling up to the work site. That was a bit odd; the Tarantula Hawk should be new enough that the teleport system's distribution network shouldn't need replacing. The thought of what other power-intensive systems might be up in an airship's envelope and greater structural frames left me full of disquiet.

    Crossing the hangar's interior was a simple evolution only because there was a marked and railed path to the airship. Without the markings, the journey would have been considerably more difficult, as the pathway meandered parallel to the airship before joining a veritable temporary roadway, crossing over one of the service trenches on a modular bridge.

    Right after the bridge squatted a portable gangway to a somewhat large entryway in the starboard amidships hull. To our right was one of the Tarantula Hawk's two VTOL launch ramps.

    Yet more security waited for us at the top of the gangway. Interestingly, these seemed to be part of the ship's shipboard Legionary complement. The detachment were all Evocatus veterans on at least their second term with a rather high ratio of grenadiers represented. There was no tail-measuring, as even the most hard-bitten Hoof-Slogger appreciated Legionary Fliers. That is, unless after a mission they found their air-support to be too timid or too uncaring about friendly-fire, then the claws would come out.

    After making it through the checkpoint, we were directed towards the left, into a corridor heading towards the ship's bow. "Wow, quite the refit! She even has that new-blimp smell," Julia remarked as we walked down the decking. She wasn't wrong. Everything was freshly painted and the hatches we passed did seem newly refurbished.

    Fabia, however, gave her a dark expression as we walked. Her wingwoman was even more blatant as her tail started to turn limp.

    Something was wrong.

    "We didn't get turned around?" Visha asked.

    "No," Fabia stated.

    My wingwoman gave me a questioning look.

    "Just a moment," I said, holding out some hope as we went forward by another frame. As expected the corridor opened up. However, where on any other Mellona Medium Carrier the aft starboard RP maintenance bay would be, instead this ship had a stripped-down compartment.

    Like most compartments, there were plenty of tie down points in the decking and many of the storage options were left in place. But all of the Ritual Plate specific items, the arming-chairs, the spirit sanctums, the engraving and enchanting rigs, the other maintenance and machining equipment, the power cell vaults, and even the bins for parts and spares had been pulled out. The only trappings of the Ritual Plate bay left behind were some of the munitions lockers and a handful of benches and auxiliary seating.

    We were not Fleet Pilots, but still being onboard an RP Carrier that had stripped out a major portion of its Ritual Plate compliment felt wrong.

    "Maybe they've just pulled everything old out and they'll replace it with new stuff?" Visha's tone put on a hopeful front.

    Fabia shook her head. "They might replace the vaults, if their material was found to be flawed or cracked. But they'd leave the floor open to slot the new ones in." The Sarpedona Squadron commander gestured to the entirely new, and contiguous decking in the room.

    "They also wouldn't downgrade the sprinkler heads and other fire suppression systems," I said with resignation as I slowly ambled forward, studying the ceiling. Like most compartments it was a mass of pipes, conduits, and tubes all color-coded. Every compartment had some damage control capability, but RP maintenance bays, given the energy densities of our equipment, had some of the higher levels, second only to places like Torpedo magazines, the main power plant, and the Teleportation controllers.

    "And no Fleet officer or crew would ever reduce that, unless the compartment was fully de-rated," Julia's grizzled wingwoman stated.

    "Carol, do you think they did this to the port-side aft bay?" Julia asked her second.

    The shaved-headed older Legionary Flier gave a slow nod. "That's my fear, Ma'am."

    And there it was. Removing one maintenance bay, that is one Squadron's worth of Ritual Plate was bad enough, but two... A Mellona only carried six squadrons. Why would one remove a third of an RP Carrier's capability?

    It would free up a fair bit of capacity. Not just the Ritual Plate and their pilots, but the maintenance and parts and that every single Ritual Plate suit required four to five Ritualista. VTOLs and armored vehicles also required Ritualista. The average Legion required over a thousand of the arcane maintenance staff.

    Which was why people like Tribune OpalWing might be desperate enough to use... other means to fill the empty slots in her organization. Fortunately, Tribune Quirinus had managed to get ahold of the 43rd Legion's Legate's ear and had explained a few things. I might have played some small part in the explanation. Normally, I was loath to lean on my mother's reputation, but when Quirinus had put forth the argument that Legates were political creatures and that few would want to cross a Duchess, I had conceded. While the Duchy of Argenia was a provincial Duchy, it was a rather important border holding, one held by a reserve officer who had some influence over the training of Legionary Fliers and thus not a personage that a Legate, especially a Colonial Legate, would want to offend.

    Counting Ritualista, for two squadrons that came to over a hundred people, over a sixth of the complement of a Mellona. All Household Fleet airships had some number of Ritual Plate, but the entire purpose of an RP Carrier was to launch, transport, support, rearm, and recover Ritual Plate Squadrons.

    Visha slipped up to me. My examination of the fire suppression system had taken me towards the far end of the compartment. Her tail brushed past my leg as she turned around to face me. I looked up at her questioning face.

    "I'm fine... just thinking."

    "About the mission," Visha surmised. She had lost that puppyish worship from when we first met, but somehow she could still go through two worlds' worth of wars with a smile.

    "Harp's World is a pit of factions," I lowered my voice. "And if we're being sent there on a ship like this..." I had no idea the capabilities of the Tarantula Hawk, but the space freed up by removing two Squadrons would be put to some use.

    "Enough to send a message? A small strike on one of our rival's interests?" Visha whispered back. At least four Great Houses had enclaves on Harp's World: Alecto, Elena, Trosier and Ziox.

    "Maybe, maybe as a catspaw for an ally..." My tail curled in thought.

    Alecto wouldn't shed any tears if something happened to Trosic assets and if we could do something against them. Memory tickling, I recalled that there were some recent Elenese actions that Alecto could have chosen to take exception with.

    There was a tug as Visha put her hand on my shoulder. For a moment I thought to resist, we were in a professional setting but she wasn't pulling me into a hug, just getting my attention, though her hand did linger.

    "I'm okay. Just thinking."

    Visha nodded and led us back towards the others.

    "Yes, ladies, I am sure you can all count," Quirinus stated as she rejoined the group as well, "Don't worry, there's enough space for Epsilon Wing. We won't be cramped or split up. Come on."

    At her urging, we continued forward. True to her word, the starboard side still possessed its two remaining maintenance bays. Interestingly, as could be seen from the outside, the Tarantula Hawk still had the normal count of Ritual Plate Catapults and landing ramps. Removing a proportional third of those would have been a potential weight savings, but someone had chosen to leave them in place. I suppose with a reduced RP count this decreased the deployment time, but my disquiet grew nonetheless.

    Quirinus brought us into the main briefing room at last. At first glance, it looked identical to similar rooms in other carriers of its class. Then I noticed that only two-thirds of the chairs in the room were rated for Ritual Plate. The rest were the far lighter shipboard models that only had to worry about supporting a Diyu Demoness. Even here, things were pared down to match the reduced capacity. Except... the room could still seat over seventy people.

    Our commander motioned for us to take seats in the front row. That we were not kept waiting long immediately raised my suspicions.

    Someone had put a good deal of thought into the stage management of this little tour.

    As if on cue in strode a tall, demoness, the contrast ivory skin and long black hair made all the more striking by the drab matte grey of the room. Her black feathered wings pulled in as she entered, jet-black hooves ringing on the deck. She wore a legionary uniform with a Centurion's rank badge and recon unit's badge, along with a handful of service ribbons. Notably, her uniform lacked a name badge or any specialization insignia.

    My tail curled in recognition.

    Quirinus stood. Her crimson skin and glossy emerald hair were a bright contrast with the other woman's more corpselike appearance. "Ladies, this is Centurion Invidia Nihilus. Myself and others who are familiar with Invidia can vouch for her, and for her associates in the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance."

    "Thank you, Artemis. Wing Command suits you. Congratulations." Invidia's grey eyes sparked s they swept over the room. "Ah, and Prefect Countess DiamondDust and Prefect HarrowFang, lovely to see you as well." As if to punctuate her greeting, she placed a small valise on the lectern at the front of the room, smiling pointedly as she awaited her reply like a teacher coaching a pair of particularly slow pupils.

    For politeness' sake, Fabia and I bowed our heads to her, and if my nod came a bit more grudgingly than Fabia's, nobody remarked on it.. Unease rippled through the other centurions. CSR had a reputation and being assigned to a carrier that was... not normal, failed to improve the collective mood.

    Invidia smiled at that before she addressed all nine of us. "I'm sure you all have noted that the Tarantula Hawk is quite the... special ship. You do not know just how special she is. Indeed, you will not fully know that. However, as I am the operational liaison to the ship's RP complement it is my job to get you up to speed on your role here and what the HFV Tarantula Hawk can do."

    Quirinus gave her a slight nod then turned to us and leveled a stern, but reassuring, look at us. For my part.... I wondered. The Legions used a larger Ritual Plate wing than the Fleet, which meant that many new Volantes Tribunes would take an executive officer position in an established Wing under an established Tribune. Despite her qualifications and record, Quirinus was still a new junior Tribune and had gotten her own command and a relative pick of Legionary Fliers; had she made a deal to get those things? Was this the price for it?

    "Yes, this ship is part of a new subclass to the Mellona. However, take heart, it is an expansion of an existing concept and built on a solid foundation!" Invidia's bright smile was as artificial as the one chiseled on a saint's statue, with eyes just as cold as sculpted marble. "In terms of Assault Carriers this is more like the Fortuna subclass than the Arcadia refit."

    There was some amused and confused murmuring, but Fabia and Quirinus nodded. I had not heard of the Fortuna but the HFV Arcadia was an Avalon class Heavy Carrier. An experiment with the Assault Carrier concept, the standard complement of four Fleet Ritual Plate Wings, had been reduced to three, and the freed up space and tonnage was used to increase the Legionary complement to a full Cohort, heavy equipment included.

    The Arcadia concept had failed because it was a waste of limited hulls. The Fleet only had six active Avalons and having one put into a niche role was a major burden. An Avalon could put an entire Ritual Plate Air Group anywhere the House wanted and it was a waste to spend one to give air-support, even overwhelming, to just a Cohort. The Hadian class, which was half the size and numbered into the dozens, could do that. Toss in a fleet carrier for backup and the lucky unit got extra air-support to boot.

    Invidia took in our emotions. "We all can agree that the Arcadia's refit was an oddity, a curiosity, perhaps even a failure. Even the brass-horns agreed as she was converted back to a conventional Avalon after, what, ten years?"

    "Eight." Quirinus mildly corrected.

    "Eight," Invidia nodded. "And that stained the whole Assault Carrier concept." She raised a forestalling hand. "Yes, I know you'd point to the various sizes and types of Long Range Insertion craft, all a key part of Fleet and Legion doctrine. All well and good, if the goal is to have a major set-piece air-assault as part of taking and building up a beachhead," Invidia gave us her cold smileagain . "And I suppose for smaller more... intimate, operations a Rhodian or a Phoenician can put down a century or two."

    My tail stilled. I did not like where this one-sided discussion was going. A Phoenician class was the same size as the airship we were on, but it only had two RP Squadrons. The rest of the space was dedicated to two centuries of Legionaries, their equipment, and four Umbra medium VTOLs to transport them to the ground. It was a good platform for a small-scale, but not tiny, air-assault. The airship we were on would have twice the Ritual Plate.

    "And now we go from the second largest to the second smallest." Invidia spread her hands. She looked back as if the massive screen at the front of the room was projecting some schematic. "The not-so-humble Kolibri. Just imagine what one could do with a highly-Veiled platform carrying say... twenty crack legionaries, a pair of Spatha dropships, also variants with extra Veiling, all supported by an RP Squadron."

    I kept in a small sigh. That was the exact variety of mission profile I had most wanted to avoid. A very small, very important mission where individual capability would be of maximal importance. In my past life, I had experience forming and leading such a unit, and I had long known my own skills in the Legions could easily send down much the same path. I had hoped being part of a Demi-Wing would produce a unit too large for such skullduggery, but it looked like Invidia and her associates had other ideas.

    Fabia had an appreciably cynical look, which was reassuring. Even Julia, green as she was, seemed perturbed by Invidia's sales pitch. Quirinus gave her a very patient look while the rest of us digested it. All twelve of those in Ritual Plate would not be available to support the Legionaries; some would have to stay to watch their Mothership and escort the Spatha VTOLs. That still gave a Flight or two of air-support for a mere twenty Legionaries or whatever specialist infantry conducting that operation.

    "The Fortuna subclass was an idea built on those very special Kolibri LRI craft." Invidia's smile seemed to turn genuine for a moment real amusement brushed that empty expression. "Same concept, but on a hull twice as large and based around a Light Carrier."

    Invidia looked right at Fabia. The large room fell quiet for a moment.

    "Where this ship is based around a Medium Carrier," Fabia stated. "You wanted more infantry, more air-power."

    "Can you blame us?" Invidia shrugged. "I know you Fliers don't like to brag, but in terms of combat power you are a very useful platform. You just happen to be very expensive and in very high demand. Fortunately, my associates conduct relatively small operations. We're not talking about Cohorts, let alone Legions."

    "And the expense?" Quirinus asked, her tone dry. I suspected she already knew Invidia's answer, and the question was purely pro forma.

    "We all know that a Veiled airship, that is a truly Veiled airship, is far more expensive than a regular version. Compared to that, what is the cost of a Demi-Wing or two?" Invidia gave us all an appraising and hungry smile. "You would be amazed what forty 'Legionaries' and nearly thirty Ritual Plate can accomplish. Well, you won't be amazed for long. Regardless, the Fortuna has been quite the little success, unlike the poor Arcadia."

    "It helps that there's over a hundred Damocles carriers; pulling a handful off to the side to refit into your little raiding platforms is a comparatively small ask," Quirinus pointed out not bothering to mention that an Avalon would be quite impossible to turn into a hole in the sky.

    "Certainly," Invidia agreed, "and that's the rub. My associates have found that sometimes, it would have been... less troublesome to have a larger platform to work with. Scalability is also a wonderful thing."

    I must have made a small noise as it fell into place. This project was more than having something that a group of smaller Assault Carriers could accomplish; the idea was to get a ship that had more all-around capability.

    "Yes, Countess?" Invidia practically purred.

    "The Mellona isn't any longer than the Damocles; it's basically two Damocles carriers side by side. Helpful in Veiling to the level you want. And it helps in other ways; both require only one RP squadron to defend the carrier. You also get a Ventral well deck for all sorts of oversize cargo, transport, and docking purposes. Finally, the Mellona has enough extra space to carry some Aerial Torpedoes."

    "Which the Wasp Assault Carrier subclass still retains. I told you: we're not the trailblazers here. The Wasp herself showed this could be done." For just a bare instant Invidia's mask of aloof disdain and false gregariousness cracked and a genuine passion leaked out. This was a project she cared about, maybe for what the Wasp represented for her associates, maybe for what she could do with it. Perhaps in the shadowy intraoffice games of prestige and power that Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance played, this whole scheme represented and investment of her personal capital and she stood to personally gain from its success.

    "What's the infantry contingent?" Fabia asked. "Omitting Two RP Squadrons frees up a lot of berths."

    "Not entirely removed. You will be joined by a Flight of Fleet Harmonia Pilots. They'll supplement in for CAP and escort roles. That should make Prefect Caenis's job a bit easier. The refit also omits a couple Fujiwara Aerial Torpedoes from the reload magazine."

    I raised an eyebrow. Four total Torpedoes was not much. A Kolibri corvette had twice as many. I suppose that did give this ship some long range fleet defense or heavy ground support capability.

    Invidia gave me a simulacrum of a "don't worry about it" smile. "We have about the same overall complement as a normal Mellona so most of those freed-up berths are put to use. Specialists to control the enhanced Veiling systems make up a small part. Systems neither you nor I nor our Legionary ground team will be read-in on."

    "How many Legionaries?" Julia asked. "Or equivalent. This thing could carry a Broadcast Recon Century for all I know."

    "If only we were getting that many," Invidia sighed.

    They were one of the few specializations in the Imperial Legions rarer and more demanding than Ritual Plate Pilots or Combat Evocation specialists. Broadcast Recon were tactical teleportation infantry, which made them extremely useful for covert insertions, raids, and other commando operations. While Imperial Legions had about fourteen thousand RP Pilots, we only had about three Cohorts, a tenth as many, Broadcast Recon.

    "But yes, total ground troops amount to a bit over a hundred. Call it a Heavy Century's worth. We'll have a VTOL squadron of three Spatha Lights and two Umbra Mediums. That's a bit generous in terms of air mobility, but our infantry won't be bringing down much in the way of heavy equipment." Invidia's winning smile returned. "But with your help, the Tarantula Hawk will be most capable."

    Nodding, I focused on the platform's capabilities, it helped push aside my personal concerns. It was all trade-offs and something had to go to make the Wasp subclass function. There was space for a Heavy Century of troops, but they would have no artillery, no Nymph light vehicles, and not very many Mule cargo striders. On the other wing... they would have two Sarpedona Squadrons, the better part of a Harmonia Squadron, and my Polyxo Squadron. That explained why this briefing room was still kept so large; it was intended to seat about half of the total Legionary and Ritual Plate complement.

    Fabia was more succinct in her evaluation. "It's a fancy Cloak and Dagger toy for your associates?"

    Invidia gave a thin smile. "Now, now Prefect, your reputation and those of your fellow Squadron commanders precedes you. For this mission, I would say less 'cloak' and far more 'dagger'."

    Fabia crossed her arms.

    I could not blame her or her skepticism. In theory, a Wasp could be used as a Mothership for a long duration intelligence-gathering mission. Two Recon Squadrons using their Occultia for signals intelligence, ground-mapping, and other forms of airborne spying could be carried leaving enough space for ground support and air defense. The ground team could even be pared back to make room for linguists, cartographers, tactical anthropologists, and other analysts. And instead of combat specialists, those going to the surface could be CSR assets capable of going undercover.

    On the other hand, we would clearing not be supporting that kind of mission. Thank DarkStar for small favors. I shivered at the idea of having to support some long-duration covert observation and strike mission.

    No, if I had my suspicions, we would be delivering a message to prevent a shifting of alliances among the Great Houses, or at least to send a message to a mutual rival. After all, war was politics by other means. That said I felt my fear of the consequences of such correspondence were entirely reasonable; such missives and their replies had a way of getting rapidly out of hand.

    "Epsilon Wing is ready for this role," Quirinus stated in a clear voice, every inch the decorated, experienced, Volantes Tribune.

    I kept my private reservations to myself. I would not undermine my superior, especially not one I respected and who I saw as a mentor figure. We hardly had three months to gel as a multi-Squadron formation. Fourth Squadron was still generously semi-green, as was the Second Flight of my Squadron. And now CSR wanted us to be the air component to one of their shiny new spook ships? Couldn't Invidia's associates find a more experienced RP unit for this assignment?

    The longer I thought about it, the more my apprehension about being pulled into the world of shadows, spies, and lies grew. This whole setup felt wrong. Maybe this was some esoteric variety of shakedown cruise. If so, our Demi-Wing would not be the only new element present. It sounded like there were not many Fortunas out there let alone Wasps. There could not possibly be many Fleet personnel familiar with operating raiding Assault Carriers; they'd need time to familiarize, surely. Every part of the Tarantula Hawk's complement would have to train together to perform at a high performance for a high value mission; otherwise why bother with the massive expense?

    Visha took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. I returned the gesture. It was not that I thought we could not do this, but we both knew where this could lead. That was why I had made sure my pilots had the best equipment and training I could get them.

    "What can you tell us about our mission? How long will we have to train?" Fabia asked.

    "Alas, not as long as you would like; my associates have already found opportunity too perfect to pass up." Invidia tapped her valise. "Allow me to stress that the mission profile is nothing new, and that your part in this will be standard doctrine. Albeit, you will be providing air-support at far greater level."

    "You could just about give every single eight-person Contubernium their own Flight of RP," Julia said.

    "We considered that," Invidia admitted with every sign of seriousness. "It lacks efficiency. Instead, you will be slightly more concentrated: allowing Flights rotation to give persistent fire-support, layered air cover, escort, CAP and account for combat losses. It's still a massive investment."

    "Does the mission need this much air-support?" Julia asked. As a Sarpedona Pilot, she thought in terms of neutralizing ground-based threats. Under normal circumstances, her Squadron would be pretty heavy support for a Cohort of six Centuries. Here, her Squadron was being asked to protect fifty Legionaries.

    Invidia put on a sympathetic face that was slightly more realistic than the ones painted on theatrical masks. "While intelligence has indicated we have time to train up the Tarantula Hawk and her complement, I must confess that, we are very much a Plan B option. Higher profile, higher risk, but with greater potential rewards, if enough goes to plan. Hopefully, when we get to a certain world we will not be required. And we can be given more time to train and ready for a later mission."

    "If we're the fallback... what's the primary plan?" Fabia asked, a nervous chord thrumming under her admittedly steely professionalism. I leaned forward slightly in my seat, curious despite myself how Invidia would answer.

    "Oh, it's far more destructive, but if Plan A goes off, no one will have to set hooves on this contested colony world. I'll confess, I'm earnestly hoping we won't have to go through with Plan B, but we still must train for it, just in case my wish doesn't come true." Invidia's sincerity rang out so clear, so honest, and so truthful that, for a moment, I felt myself being taken in. Then I remembered all of my previous encounters with her, and felt an iron weight plunge in my stomach.

    Invidia and her “associates” were not the type to merely hope for some development. Indeed, the fact that she had vocalized how sincere that hope was only told me that Plan A, whatever it was, was already dead in the water. One way or another, I was gloomily certain that the Tarantula Hawk would be winging its way towards Harp’s World, and I and my two Vs would be aboard.

    End Chapter 22

    This chapter took a bit longer than expected; basically, I added a whole new scene to it.

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, ScarletFox , afforess, WrandmWaffles, metaldragon868,Wyrme and Preier for checking and reading over this chapter.

    And special thanks and to Readhead for the extra editing and polish, especially in getting Tauria's voice at just the right level. And metaldragon868 for helping with the combat and technical descriptions.
     
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2023
  21. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    From training to beach episode/surprise birthday party to being set up to do the same shit she did in her last life. What a time to be Tanya.

    Also Tanya's reactions to nudity are kinda interesting. For in the manga there's a scene where her uniform gets destroyed and she's got zero issue continuing the fight in the nude.

    The warding off of the girls interested in a bit of swinging does have me curious when Tanya and her Vs will get some more explicit showing of their feelings as right now I think we've only gotten some touches and posturing.
     
  22. Ct613hulu

    Ct613hulu Experienced.

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    Can you share some worldbuilding on this multiversal setting and the various Succubi House empires? Do the Succubi invade alternate worlds full of their own native civilizations or are they just setting up outposts on empty planets? Are there any non-succubae forces that pose a serious threat to their expansion or must be subjugated for the Succubi Houses to gain territory? This is something that has serious implications for the overall morality of the Succubi Houses and Tanya's future military adventures. You could have a fun story arc centered on Tanya participating in the military conquest of a more traditional fantasy world or a modern Earth. There are some seeds for this in the Dresden File crossover fiction and sidestory snippets.

    I am also a bit confused about the population dynamics of the Succubi Houses. The magic mechanics you have shared make me think that there would need to be a majority population of subjugated races providing energy if they are to keep the apex predator succubi fully fed. This makes the fact that the only non-succubi we have encountered are a few kitsune a bit confusing. Is there a vast population of non-succubi that simply had too low a social station to interact with the viewpoint characters or am I missing something? Ritual collectors could provide life energy from the sacrifice domesticated animals but allowing this to serve as a full replacement for human predation would contradict much of the past story elements that focused on Succubi feeding on people as a moral quandary and effective means of gaining power.
     
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2023
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  23. mapu

    mapu Know what you're doing yet?

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    Wow that's a lot of filler and empty words with side of lots of (probably irrelevant) exposition. Haven't seen so many empty "Yes, I agreed." paragraphs in long time.
     
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  24. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    ..... That end bit was painful to read.

    The whole "I'm being dragged back into spy crap, hell!" got me wishing that Tanya just said "No. And if you push, you'll be dead in a week."
     
  25. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It would be cathartic for her. And Tauria does have the status and political connections where she could get out. It would really cost her. It might even destroy her reputation. "Oh the Countess got out of the nasty duty and left hte rest of us to rot". And she wouldn't be able to bring her Squadron with her. Which also means taking her Vs would be even more tricky.

    It's one of the many unfortunate parts of military service. And worse she'd be going right against Quirinus who has been a mentor figure for a long time.


    It is mostly setting up on empty planets. Or if you are a cynical and suspicious mind "empty" planets. Subjugating large populations on other worlds is something the Houses tend to shy from. BlackSky in particular has some nasty cultural memories of the Invasion (where they invaded an alternate earth) which was a massive over-commitment that cost them much (DarkStar died there) and nearly lost them everything. There is also the population aspect where the Houses don't have the numbers to take on a populated world. Not directly, but as you mentioned with the side-story there are opportunities.

    I'll confess I did have some idle thoughts of a Gate style cross. (The BlackSkyvian Fleet is already teleport capable so once they figured otu a route...). But on the other hand after a punitive expedition House BlackSky would see Falmart as more trouble than it's worth.

    That's a lot of words to say yes there are plans for a more conventional off-world campaign, and exploring the nitty and gritty of the off-world colonies. And the various threats out there to the Diyu Houses as a collective.


    There's a post on SB that touches this subject. In addition to Succubae, there have been Forest People, and a few humans shown as well. But yes non Diyu Demons are in a minority (~20%). Basically you got it on the head with the last one. To have a large population supported there has to be sacrifice of domesticated animals, basically a modification of slaughter houses. Where when the animal is killed their life energy is harvested and stored. This does mean that on Diyu there quit a lot more livestock..

    The quandary comes in that feeding on humans does give more energy. (Killing them too). And feeding on other succubae yields even more. But for a large population, feeding on sapient creatures that take a long time to develop doesn't scale. And in the Return, since it was on earth, the mechanisms to get replacement life energy was not as set up, though in that story DarkStar did get most of her food by combat. (Which is also not sustainable for a large population).

    That does mean that Tauria did get a boost from eating that War Mistress. And that a Diyu demon who wanted more power, could get her into a situation where she fed on more people (either as a solider in direct combat, a duelist to the death, a close-in assassin, or simply a serial killer).


    Hehe, yeah I wanted to have some whiplash for Tanya where she's got her ups and downs. Well for the nudity she isn't minding people just being nude. She noted that most of her maintenance staff were nude, as well as a bunch of pilots. Also there's where Melisande was more distracting because she wasn't nude. Not to mention. She's a soldier in a 99.9% female military. She's been in close quarters with other Legionaries for years. However, having VioletBlood draped over her, does shift the calculus a bit.

    It's not like VioletBlood is against the idea, in ch20 she was trying to get Tauria on dates with a couple people in that last chapter. But VB is very much a "I'll pick your mistresses"

    To be fair, by Diyu standards any physical contact, especially in public, is considered quite a lot. I suppose I could have emphasized that a bit more: as they're empaths casual contact with strangers, and acquaintances, is considered rude/presumptive. Even more that VioletBlood was rubbing her horns against Tauria's. Which was how Tauria was knowing exactly what VB thought of her. It also shows a degree of closeness between them as a group and the amount of trust.

    And yes, Tauria is thick-headed enough that it takes a direct horn-to-horn contact to get through to her.
     
  26. Tortoise

    Tortoise Know what you're doing yet?

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    If this has really been proofread by so many people, there are a surprising amount of typos left. Especially around the beach scene there were lots, as below (most of the rest wasn't that bad):

    A repeated error I noticed in this chapter was inappropriate use of dashes. Generally (as in elsewhere on the net) such errors are pretty common in writing in cases where you have a verb phrase with no dashes ("set up"), and noun or adjective versions are formed by writing it together or with dashes ("a setup" for noun, "hard-to-use thing" for adjective). None of the following should have dashes:

    "to cut off" as a verb, "the cut-off part" as an adjective

     
  27. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Well, this is embarrassing. The sad part? About all of those errors were corrected on the Google Document that gets edited. Long story short: because gdoc does some stupid things with the text's meta data / formatting I can't just copy the google document's contents over directly to the program where I keep my master document and paste it here. So I have to put the corrections in a local manuscript and accept them into the gdoc. And to my shame I missed those.

    That's entirely my fault and I am sorry. I've got a quick sweep done and I'll see about checking a stripped out plaintext. And see about getting a better way to deal with the formatting issues.

    As for the dashes that's another mistake on my part.
     
  28. Extras: Images: Beach fun, Elenese Fashion, Assault Carriers, a old "friend", and more Elense and Luxon RP
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Okay we've got another crop of great and fun art for Little Demon.

    Let's start with this great piece by PlayerError404 showing Tauria having some fun with her newest Flight Leader Lucia Hood. And if she looks a bit.. familiar, don't worry about it.




    Next we have from Lexi Kimble a great demonstration of Elenese High Fashion. Though this does imply that Duchess SilverFlight and her youngest daughter are visiting their neighbor to the north for some diplomatic reason. Don't worry about it.




    And now a bit of a small digression. Here we've got some schematics showing the evolution of the "Assault Carrier" concept. From using a small Kolibri Patrol ship to the Fortuna Sub-Class and finally the Wasp Sub-Class. One can see how the Assault Carrier is, in many ways, a blending of the Long Range Insertion (IE troopship with full complement of VTOLs) and a Ritual Plate Carrier. (And that the Kolibri is a bit too small to have a true Assault Carrier).






    And now we go back to PlayerError404 with Tauria a novitate sister of the Sisterhood of Our Hallowed Lady meeting an.... old friend: Sister Maaria RedLash of the Sisterhood of Our Martyred Lady. And Tauria may not have taken Maaria's complaints with all due seriousness. One may note that the Andromachin branch of the Sisterhood of Our Martyred Lady dresses slightly... different.


    [​IMG]
    Fullsize.​




    And finally we close out with Lexi Kimble showing the "close" alliance between Houses Luxon and Elena. With a rather tall Luxon pilot in a Sekhmet Air-Superior suit and a rather slender Elenese pilot in her new Volos Stealthy Air-Superiority suit.


    [​IMG]
    Fullsize
     
  29. Extras: Images: Jungle Fox, Goths of DarkStar, Invidia & Lyrics: Never Leave Silas Alive
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It's been a while, and I have news and some goodies.

    First, chapter 23 is at 12,500 words, then penultimate scene is almost written and I hope that the final scene will be fairly short. Operation Epimetheus is a go. There's been some more work on the omake Peer Rivals Part 2 as well.




    Next from ScittyKitty we have Centurion Invidia Nihilus who is looking her cheerful, open self.





    Now for a slight change of pace. There's an unofficial soundtrack to Little Demon, with up to 17 entries!
    But one song on the soundtrack in particular seemed relevant to the life of those living in a part of Midlands Territory, a obscure County by the name of Silas, that's part of Diyu's coal country. And with apologies to Darrell Scott and with the help of @Readhead

    You'll Never Leave Silas Alive
    (original lyrics)

    In the deep dark hills of northern Midlands
    That's the place where I trace my bloodline
    And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone
    "You'll never leave Silas alive"

    Oh, my grandmother's dam crossed the Vyhraj Mountains
    Where she took a pretty girl to be her bride
    Said, "Won't you walk with me, out of the mouth of this holler
    or we'll never leave Silas alive"

    Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin'
    And the sun goes down about three in the day
    And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you're drinkin'
    And you spend your life just thinkin' of how to get away

    No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains
    Till a Lady from the northeast arrived
    Wavin' hundred Aureus coins, said, "I'll pay you for your minerals"
    But she never left Silas alive

    Granny sold out cheap and they moved out west to Artrax
    To a farm where Big Plutum River winds
    And I bet they danced them a jig
    And they laughed and sang a new song
    "Who said we'd never leave Silas alive!"

    But the times they got hard and poppy wasn't sellin'
    And old grandmother knew what she'd do to survive
    She went and dug for Silas Coal
    And sent the money back to granny
    But she never left Silas alive

    Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin'
    And the sun goes down about three in the day
    And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you're drinkin'
    And you spend your life diggin' coal from the bottom of your grave
    You'll never leave Silas alive.




    Back to art, we have this from PlayerError404 where Tauria is spending some quality time with DarkStar (who is reliving her own goth phase). Tauria is just happy that it doesn't have to be so formal and stiff. Though the whole experience is surreal to her.​




    Finally, we have a bit of in universe propaganda made by ScittyKitty. We all know that Tauria likes to present herself as utterly loyal. Tauria also is seen as a loyalist, and a subject to propaganda. Add in her hated nickname "The Jungle Fox" and that part of her time in the capital was devoed to "sanding off her rough edges" one gets this piece. Yes, that is Imperatrix BlackSky doting over her.​
     
  30. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Making the rounds.

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    Is it just me, or does the "Civilizing the Jungle Fox" tagline for the propaganda poster seem a little insensitive towards kitsune? Or are species relations in House BlackSky so good that isn't potentially offensive?
     
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