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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. Extras: Feast of DarkStar Art
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    And here's the second part of today's feast. Enjoy these pieces of fun art. I have a few more in the wings and being made but those can be posted later

    First we have this wonderful piece from LexiKimble showing Tauria's two sides as she wonders who she upon her third life.





    From DP we have the opposite end of introspection with this piece of Baroness VioletBlood being her best self. That is haughty and arrogant.






    Next from ScittyKitty we have a bit of a cross cultural summit with Coordinator Elena talking with her sister's favorite granddaughter, the reborn DarkStar. The two seem to be up to something.






    And finally from PlayerError404 we have this great piece of Tauria and her two Vs. Despite Tauria being in the most fluffy version of her nun's clothes she seems to be making the most of this, or at least plotting.
     
  2. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Getting sticky.

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    I loved the response from the DarkStar. "You're in restricted airspace!" "Yes, but I'm also in a battlecruiser, which means I get to cosplay the 500-pound gorilla, and go wherever I damn well please."

    Of course, this also implies the Silverhold is worth deploying a battlecruiser and its escorting battlegroup. We better get answers as to what it is, who wants it so badly, and why.
     
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2023
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  3. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Well, Tanya sure had a fun time innawoods with the unfortunates who had to try to hunt her down. Going to be real nice to get in bed with her Vs after all that nonsense.
     
  4. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    And the DarkStar's skipper thought she was being polite. She gave the Elenese commander a chance to leave.
    Heheh. Well we've seen hints as to what it can do. But as for those other questions... well ch30 will answer that.
    As a conversation will go in that chapter...
    Lady Legate: "Now that that part of the mission's over, here's some vital information to help catch you up on things. We hadn't told you earlier because it was a memetic hazard and you didn't need to know."
    Tauria: "So...why are you telling me now?"
    Lady Legate: "..."
    Tauria: "...Dammit"
    Thanks to ]Metaldragon for coming up with this conversation

    That she did! And being a polite fiancee she brought back snacks, drinks, and a new rifle.
     
  5. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I'm just imagining the trio in bed, an improvised charcuterie board with Tanya's findings and some soldier rations on Tanya's lap because she's in the middle, enjoying having come back from the mission alive and whole.

    Also Tanya's little spirit friends are vicious creatures. I'm curious if that's something natural or due to being Tanya's little friends.
     
  6. PaiRho

    PaiRho I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    What? that's silly. I mean, its not like being around Tanya since she was a little baby would have any effect at all on things.

    It's just that the air your breathing might like her a bit better than you. Nothing wrong with that right? Everyone has a favorite after all.
     
  7. Endymion2314

    Endymion2314 Making the rounds.

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    The spirits are most definitely naturally that playful. Just their idea of play is well, no where near what would be considered fun for the one being played with. Go Fast, play with air pressure, play with fidget spinners, please there bestest friend that helps them go faster then any other wind spirits. Jetstreams are boring once you've broken the sound barrier and if bestest friend would like a vacuum inside that ones lungs for spinning doodads and tasty treats later than here comes a pressure wave!

    Edit: hehehe soldier rations. Hahahaha. They're exactly what they say on the tin.......or in this case wrapped in their former uniforms. Invidia wasn't kidding when she called the ambush site a delicatessen.
     
  8. NHO

    NHO I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    That poor succubus soldier left alive may decide to change her job, orientation or religion.
     
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  9. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    More myth added to the rep of our protag.

    "She doesn't need power armor to kill you, she just wears it so her hoofs stay clean!"
     
  10. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Well. Tauria did bring back a variety of vittles.

    And air spirits do take a bit of the character of their mistress, but there's also the nature of Zephyr to want to go fast and be playful; they just don't understand... biologics.

    Yah, she has spent a long time learning how to care for her little invisible friends.

    Yah, one could make a parallel given how simpatico Tauria is with said air sprits. In fairness... Tauria is a demon and was hungry.

    In a way she was very lucky. But she may not feel that much.
    Also this wouldn't be the first former enemy of Tauria's who ended up converting to the Church of BlackSKy.

    Hehehe. Yeah there's gonna be so many more rumors and growth to her ledged.
     
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  11. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Only question now is if she'll get to enjoy them and if she's got access to anything that pairs well with it. Though I couldn't begin to speculate what goes good with raw succubus flesh or what foodstuffs are on the ship. I'd assume some sort of cracker type thing is available but cheese-stuff i'm less sure about. Much less fruits or wines which would complete the dining experience.

    Also Tanya being such an influence on her spirits makes me crave a fic where the core of combat, or at least Tanya's approach to it, is Tanya having a gaggle of spirits that play merry hell on anything of standard biology.
     
  12. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Getting sticky.

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    If she gets her haul back to the ship, she would probably be able to get it properly cooked and seasoned. Cannibalism is common and accepted enough there are probably some common recipies, even if it boils down to "treat it like [beef/pork/poultry/etc.], and you'll do fine."
     
  13. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I figured it'd probably just be treated like pork but the question does still remain what she can pair it with that she can access.
     
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  14. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Getting sticky.

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    They're on a Fleet airship, with a Fleet kitchen. Spices and seasonings are a given. Bread products are baked on-board, so if they don't have crackers right now, they can by tomorrow. Cheese is far more storable than milk, and probably comparable to meat, so as long as they have meat, there is no reason they shouldn't have cheese. Alcohol is more questionable, but that is because Tauria uses the drinking fund for coffee instead, not due to a lack of booze. She might be able to hit up other units if she needs a wine pairing.
     
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  15. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I was being a bit conservative with my expectations as I wasn't sure about the tech levels for rations of the civilization Tanya is part of.
     
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  16. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    *looks at the draft of ch29* Well.... that's pretty spot on. And yeah, Fleet ships are known for having rather good kitchens and with a pretty good supply of vittles and the like. And while Tauria herself doesn't drink, her Squadron does have a liquor stock. Not to mention Tauria did accidentally acquire a canteen of Elenese liquor.

    Not to mention that as the Heroine of the Hour, Tauria can get almost anything she wants from the ship's stores to make such a meal. From their culture Tauria's story is full of legend: RP Squadron Leader is shot down, fights the enemy, takes from the enemy, is picked up by SAR, her faith summons a battlecruiser, and now she returns to he betrothed in triumph with trophies to share with them.
     
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  17. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    So basically it's pretty much expected for Tanya to loot the kitchen for anything complimentary to her trophies, grab her girls, and disappear into her room for the night? And that basically nobody will have issue with her doing just that? Sounds like fun.
     
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  18. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Expected. In fact both her commanding officer and her Signifier explain to her point by point that they should have a good dinner and take time off.
     
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 29: Recall; Recuperate
    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 29: Recall; Recuperate

    I was no countess. I had not been born on the moon of Lantia or even on Diyu proper. Not one of Prefect DiamondDust's "Vs", I was the odd Flight Leader out in Third Squadron.

    Immigrants were hardly uncommon to the Great Houses; all had varying mechanisms of naturalization and assimilation. Technicality myself, my sister, and our friends were refugees. We had fled one war-torn world as teens... only to end up in one that was merely a simmering powder keg. Via deliberate machinations and desperate betrayal, we had washed up on the shores of Diyu, and like the eagerly piping shorebirds, the natives had squabbled over us until the most aggressive had claimed us as her prize. The end result of further bargains and compacts was an oath of fealty sworn to the Imperatrix.

    It could have been far worse.

    I pulled some of my black hair behind my horns as I walked Volantes Centurion Lady Adriana Melisande out of the Tarantula Hawk's medical wing. Her boots made dull thuds on the deck that contrasted with the ringing of my hooves against the brushed steel.

    Normally, I had little difficulty accepting my new appendages. Hooves were not the biggest change I had undergone as I grew into a young woman, not by far, but in moments like this, it was just another reminder of how far we had gone from what we had once been.

    Melisande’s arm was wrapped up and put in a sling, which did little to hide the stump. The ash-blonde woman gave me a wan smile, her fangs protruding just slightly between her lips. "We knew it was a risk, Lu... Lucia. You've brought us through worse."

    Despite her brave words, her tone was distant, and her tail hung limp.

    With Flight Three at seventy-five percent casualties, I did not feel like some great leader returning home to glory. Nearly everyone from our Demi-Wing was back aboard the Tarantula Hawk, but the casualty list was still mounting.

    "You're being too hard on yourself, Lulu."

    "I am not," I stated, trying to keep my voice down in the ringing hallway of the ship.

    Melisande eyed me, entirely unimpressed. "I know you too well to believe that tone of voice. I know when you’re about to go full drama queen. At least Charity's is going to get better." Melisande tried, she truly did, but her compassionate words still sounded hollow. She cared for Charity, but IronTalon Cardino had been her mate.

    We had already met with Charity as she and the other pilots wounded in the first phase had been transferred over to the Tarantula Hawk. Our Assault Carrier had the best medical facilities in the flotilla, not counting the DarkStar.

    Speaking of that ship and its appearance, I could appreciate the theatrics of an appropriately dramatic entrance.

    Especially one as well timed as the DarkStar's had been.

    Already, extra medicos and surgical staff had been sent over from the DarkStar, while the battlecruiser and her heavy escort relieved our RP by lending their own Combat Air Patrol.

    "Charity has dealt with a lot of our nonsense." I said, trying to smile, even though I knew the futility of the gesture. Faking reassurance was difficult to do with someone who’d known you for years. Even before becoming an empath, she could have likely read me like a book.

    "That's why an experienced pilot is assigned to a younger Flight," Melisande pointed out wryly as she idly rubbed her bandaged stump. I avoided staring; she was doing her best to steer the conversation away from her own injury.

    "It is standard practice," I agreed. "Even Prefect DiamondDust had been assigned Signifier GreyDawn to give the young Countess a quiet word before she had the pleasure of our company, or so I hear."

    "IronTalon always did like Charity's cooking," Melisande's laugh was bittersweet.

    "She made everyone feel welcome," Charity did not have our... shared past, but she did care for us.

    Melisande gave a wan smile.

    "I know." I was quiet for a moment, grappling with what to say. Words alone felt too hollow, yet I felt I had to say something, so I gave Melisande an emotional pulse. "We'll all miss her."

    "Yeah…” Melisande drawled, then pulled herself up enough to nod to me, pushing a smile onto her face. It looked somewhat wistful, hanging there, like a lonely condemned on a gibbet, her tail languidly squished behind her. "She really was trying too hard when she picked that name, you know. It must have been all that unsuppressable jealousy that you had the largest tail."

    I coughed and replied, "Well.. she wanted to fit in."

    A smile did creep up onto my lips, though. Melisande always was good at that sort of thing.

    "She doesn't need to prove she's a badass – she literally pilots a suit of combat armor. Well…" the blonde sighed, "she did. It's like it was her motorcycle all over again..."

    "She always liked those," I agreed, trying to be supportive. Due to my upbringing, empathy did not come easily to me. No... expressing empathy was the difficult part. When looking too soft could be a fatal mistake, when revealing your weaknesses could lead to lethal consequences, it was only natural to wear a mask at all times. Unlearning that reflex took far more effort than something as paltry as getting used to hooves.

    "It was something she kept from... before," Melisande sighed. "She knew the risks, but... I wish... If only I could just speak to her again." Almost frustrated, the blonde woman looked at me as if she irrationally expected me to somehow prove capable of facilitating the impossible one last time.

    I tried giving another emotional pulse. I knew what Melisande was talking about, really talking about, not just the wish that all bereaved held in common. Like all of us, IronTalon Cardino had written a Last Letter. It was in my possession, and I would hand it over. Not now, but soon.

    My horns tingled as we approached the hatch and stepped into the Tarantula Hawk's aft hangar.

    Not all of us could be pilots. It may be selfish, but I thanked DarkStar that my little sister, despite her protests, did not have the necessary affinity with air spirits. Still, our bargain came at a price, and she served Imperatrix too, in her own way. At least she was doing quiet, safe archival research far from any battlefield. And she had Milly's awkward friend to keep her company, a bright young girl who, I admit, had taken to BlackSkyvian culture as if she were a native.

    That just left our other friend; she was a physical therapist now and mostly spent her days helping wounded Legion, Fleet, and Auxilia recover. The latter group got the bulk of her attention, but Charity, or even Milly could have used SilverFlechette's help in recovering from their wounds and retraining the use of their limbs.

    "I know, I know… I think that's part of why she kept that hobby," Melisande rubbed her shoulders with her remaining hand. "And now… here we are."

    "The mission wasn't a total disaster," I admitted, trying to find meaning in the meaningless. Even the fleetingly transient meaning of victory is never enough to wholly justify the cost. "Even if it took a last minute save… A miracle, if you will."

    "The DarkStar showing up like that… can you imagine the odds?" Melisande asked, her tail flicking. "The Countess must be blessed," she said in a far too sincere tone, "since the Man of Miracles certainly isn’t here."

    "Milly...." I hissed. The Squadron we had been assigned to did have a reputation. To her credit, the Countess largely rejected such hagiography, not that the rejection seemed to particularly help.

    Her vivacious expression slipped. "I'm... I'm not jealous." Her eyes went across the hangar where my fellow Flight Leaders waited. Even at this distance, I could feel the prickly anxiety flowing off the baroness in waves while Primus Victorious Shadow stood with contented certainty.

    "It's okay to be angry. If the DarkStar had arrived earlier..." Spotting a certain haughty green-haired Fleet Pilot, I narrowed my eyes as my tail stiffened.

    Melisande tilted her head. "How much earlier?"

    Pulling my eyes away from the demoness, who I would have time for later, I rubbed my chin as we proceeded inboards toward a spot in the centerline forward area of the hangar, mostly used for storing cargo and waiting crew. A medical team was already there with a couple gurneys, idling about in the clear certainty that more work would soon present itself. Talking with a pair of weary Ritualista, the trio of medicos were all limp tails and wings drooping over their shoulders as they passed a canteen about and sat by their freshly restocked medical bags.

    "They couldn't have been with us from the start," I conceded, not without a hint of frustration escaping to color my voice. I could see that there were many reasons to keep the DarkStar in reserve. Perhaps I was a bit too wedded to the idea of keeping secrets for better dramatics.

    The blonde laughed. "The DarkStar's a battlecruiser; it isn't exactly subtle."

    "And trying to Veil it like the Tarantula Hawk would have likely been an exercise in wasting as much funding as possible. It would have been impossible to get as close to the Institute as we did with her. Besides, if we had steamed in with a battlecruiser from the start, then Elena could have just as easily called in a much larger fleet to respond."

    All very good reasons for the greater ship not to be there when it could have counted the most.

    Would such reasons be enough to appease the dead?

    "Fair, not at the start." Melisande nodded. "But what about later? We could really have used the, y'know, near-bottomless fire support. Plus her escorts, with a few more RP Squadrons, really could have helped out with the heavy lifting."

    "True. I would have brought the DarkStar into action right after Elena launched that second air strike, or maybe earlier, had the decision been left up to me" I said as we walked up to our Squadron mates.

    As Melisande waved, I bowed my horns to them.

    "Talking about the DarkStar?" Primus Centurion Baroness VioletBlood said, her green eyes appraising us. It was not a guess. Shockingly, the aristoi had somehow found the time to get her hair styled back into her customary curls. Maybe her Zephyr helped – that sounded like the kind of thing she'd train her air spirits to do. The aggressive redheaded pilot eyed me, as if she could hear my speculation and was unimpressed by my prying. "Summoning her was quite the trick for CSR."

    "You do not think it was the Hallowed Lady's intervention?" Prefect Crystal Candida asked, her carefully neutral tone not quite careful enough to mask the mocking lilt lurking just below the skin-thin mask.

    I narrowed my eyes at the green-haired Fleet Pilot. She, too, had found the time to clean up, this time changing into her Fleet Whites. The brace and bandages around her neck only highlighted how her somehow excessively poised level of spit-polished perfection. DarkStar's blood! We had just gotten recalled back to the Tarantula Hawk. Even the baroness was still wearing her flight suit.

    How the hell did the witch manage that little trick?

    "Fleet deployment is the domain of the Brass-Horns," Primus Shadow shrugged, Candida’s little joke seemingly lost on her. "But instead of landing right on the HFV Tamora's beacon, the DarkStar appeared... about a hundred miles to the north-west, right over the Countess's VTOL."

    "My, my, how… fortuitous," VioletBlood smirked as if she could claim her betrothed's reputation by proxy.

    I kept my smile firmly nailed in place, my thoughts held close to my… ugh, to my breasts. In a way besides the obvious, the entire situation was quite impressive: The Countess had set foot on the airship, and already the rumors were circulating frantically as if sped along by helpful Zephyr. We all had heard her final transmission before ejecting, broadcast as it had been over an open channel. Now, the battlecruiser bearing the name of the Martyred Lady appears, seemingly to save her. It would take only the most trivial effort for the Countess to weave all of those larger than life elements into her rapidly growing legend.

    It's what I would have done.

    Melisande's tail flicked as she looked between the other two Flight Leaders, both of whom practically radiated joy, each in their own way. They had reason to be happy, of course, and that reason would soon arrive aboard the incoming Spatha VTOL. Victorious nodded to me, took my subordinate's hand, and went over to the side for a quiet word.

    Seemingly affronted at the familiarity implied by such casual contact, Crystal Candida sniffed and turned her back to us. Despite her stiff-necked dismissal, justifiable as it was right now, I could feel her brittle pain: For all of her masks and the walls she had built to keep people away, a living heart still beat within the witch. Besides, both our Flights had suffered similar losses. One KIA and one pilot gravely injured, hers being on the Spatha. The only difference being that I was not in bandages while I knew her second was still too injured to be ambulatory.

    Four VTOLs tied down to the deck left the hangar comfortably full. And with the DarkStar and her escorts sheltering us behind her Combat Air Patrol, almost all of our Ritual Plate were onboard. Soon, we would make our exit from Harp's World under the protective watch of the battlecruiser.

    Home beckoned from the far-distant end of the Dimensional Spine.

    My eyes went to the hangar's aft gates. Soon, all of our pilots would be back. All those intact enough to be recovered, at least.

    "I am sorry," VioletBlood stated, customary bombast absent, her eyes darting over to Victorious who was still having a comforting word with Melisande.

    I bowed my horns to her. "It happens."

    GreyDawn nodded from the far side of the baroness. "And a tragedy that it does," the tall Signifier added, her eyes thick with memory.

    Octavia from Flight One and one of the Baroness's green-horns appeared behind the senior Legion Flier. For the rookie's part, she seemed subdued; a far cry from the haughty pink-haired senator's daughter who had launched from the ship last night.

    Now, the Baroness's eyes gleamed, grief for the fallen giving way to anticipation for the quick. "It was close tonight, but our Countess made it back to us."

    "You did well for your first mission as Flight Leader," I offered out of the spirit that someone should say something to mark the occasion, and with Melisande too occupied to handle the social chitchat, the task fell to me.

    There would be, I considered, many such reshuffled tasks, great and small…

    For a moment, as Melisande and Victorious made their way back over to us, I could almost hear laughter, so familiar from illicit runs to and from underground gambling halls and so often shared during the halcyon days of another world’s life.

    "My condolences on your loss," Octavia said as the pair joined us, the gold band around her finger idly spinning as she channeled nervous energy, the meaningless words on her tongue.

    Tail curled, Melisande nodded as she tapped a gold locket hanging from a silver necklace. "It's... part of the life."

    Carrying on and keeping on, as best as one could.

    GreyDawn gave her a sympathetic look.

    VioletBlood looked to the senator's daughter, seeming to notice her presence only now. "Centurion Lavish, why are you here?"

    "Ma'am! I wanted to see the Countess," Lavish RoseTalon replied, her face a frown of focused concentration as her regal little nose scrunched into a maze of wrinkles.

    "I respect your eagerness to support your Squadron commander," the Baroness said, then bapped her on the crown of the skull. "But you should be comforting your wingwoman. Pulivia could use cheering up. You'll all see the Countess soon enough."

    More shocked by the contact than chastised, Lavish blinked, her emotions spiking before she exhaled and nodded to her Flight Leader. I wondered if VioletBlood would take her own advice; after all, her own wingwoman, SkySpear, had endured her first bout of combat tonight as well, though she had been fortunate enough to emerge from the scrim completely unscathed. Did she not need comforting?

    "You'll learn with experience," VioletBlood said with a massive confidence I was sure mostly served to cover for her own newness to command. "Go on, that’s a good girl. Take a bag of chocolates from the Flight's stash to give to Pulavia when you go."

    Lavish saluted before making her exit, more bemused than off-put by the Baroness's force of personality.

    Not long after her she left, our tails stiffened as the air was displaced around us, and we looked to the large door that made up the aft landing portal withdrawing up. The night sky was visible, and chilled air blew out a bit as the wards stabilized.

    For a moment, we all stood looking out into the darkness beyond the hangar. On a moonless night with heavy cloud cover above us and sea-water below us, the view outside the airship was a velveteen void.

    Tribune Quirinus strode up. The commander of Epsilon Demi-Wing was a tall woman with hard amber eyes, ruby coloration, and star tattoos on her cheeks. As senior commanders went, I had had worse, but I had a finely calibrated sense for ambition, and I could see it drawn around our Tribune. Her second-in-command, Prefect Caenis, followed at her heels.

    We all saluted, exposing our necks and tapping our fingers to our throats as one. Compared to other salutes I had seen, it was not the most unpalatable, incorporating only a bare minimum of groveling. Compared to a fist over the heart, the BlackSkyvian salute was more... aggressive, but there was an honesty to it, I supposed. It held a certain appeal in its unsubtle directness.

    Crystal Candida started her salute a heartbeat after ours but executed it with a degree of parade-perfection I knew had to be sarcastic. The Fleet Pilot, I noticed, was eying Prefect Caenis, the head of First Flight and her notional superior. I wondered if the Fleet Pilot blamed the officer, her nominal superior, for her Flight’s losses.

    "As you were," Quirinus returned the salute, not deigning to notice Candida’s deniable slight. Tail swishing, she folded her hands behind her back and turned to stare at the night sky out through the open aft door.

    Eager for a distraction, I watched the officer instead of the currently empty sea of night.

    The Tribune wore her aspirations for higher rank with effortless, complimentary grace. They were shaped into a stylish cloak perfectly fitted to match her ensemble; similar to how her reputation as an Imperial Heroine gave her strength and lifted her up like a second pair of wings. She did not come off as undeserving, unctuous, or perfidious. Instead, she gave off patient competency with a list of accomplishments that made a Legate's scepter seem inevitable.

    Moreover, her ambition was not entirely self-serving. That is to say, while Quirinus looked towards that scepter with an all-too-familiar hunger in her eyes, she did so by cultivating protégées who would reflect well on her, as opposed to merely stepping on their backs on her way to her "destiny". While Prefect Countess DiamondDust was the most notable example, the rest of her Squadron Leaders also counted, albeit with fewer political connections.

    I gave a thin smile as I thought of the now absent Lavish RoseTalon. Clearly, the patronage and favoritism tumbled down. It was a game I was familiar with, but at least the BlackSkyvians were more pragmatic about it than other polities I had the misfortune to include in my experience. They still dallied with the coupling of war and glory, privilege and honor, but as garnish to combat as industrialized brutality. This was the Fourth Epoch, after all. Diyu had made war into a profession saddled only with the merest echoes of the legends and majesty of ages past.

    No, when a Holy Countess summoned a battlecruiser bearing her patron's name it was for entirely rational reasons emerging out of sober tactics.

    Just nature’s course, selecting the most fit to survive and prosper. Clearly!

    Alright, that comparison was unfair. We were demons. Magic and the ineffable were undeniable. Hadn’t our ladies and mistresses just gambled our lives in pursuit of some unknowably arcane artifact? Magic required no belief, no more than the color blue did. To deny the spiritual and the devout was to damn yourself with the evidence of your own eyes.

    It could still be worse. The Imperatrix was less of a monster than other wielders of absolute power and was more of an active presence than many other kings of kings. Even her Imperial Legions were shocking in their self-service and corruption, namely by how little of either was in evidence, and most of such sins were rather venal as such things went. That House BlackSky was not the most prideful and imperialistic society I had ever had the displeasure of experiencing would have required willful blindness not to see.

    The irony of calling a literal demon empress less of a monster than a mere man struck me anew for a moment, and I couldn’t help the soft chuckle that escaped my lips.

    "What are you snickering about?" Melisande muttered quietly from beside me.

    "Oh, just thankful that we didn't end up in... House Elena," I added, catching myself.

    Quirinus gave me a respectful nod and then a more sympathetic one to Melisande that felt sincere. I suspected the Tribune's ambition got her hitched to CSR. It was blatant; this operation happened to be the inaugural mission for her new Demi-Wing. The question was how many missions it would take to balance the scales and at what cost to her pilots.

    There was a blur of movement out in the dark as a slightly brighter patch of shadow detached itself from the rest of the empty sky. Dim lights, hooded against undesired eyes, turned the approaching silhouette into a slim VTOL that slipped through the Tarantula Hawk's wards without noise or ripple.

    Gaining definition as it approached, the little Spatha almost perfectly matched the carrier’s speed and heading as it darted between the airship's ventral fins, almost seeming to drift its way into the hangar and down onto the landing track.

    With a gust of wind, the landing crew's Zephyr and those on the Spatha meshed to bring the VTOL to a stop, the landing cables pulling taut. A harsh mechanical hiss came on the heels of an equally unpleasant sound like the wheezing of vast, tubercular lungs as the Spatha settled onto its landing struts with a final spluttering flare of its propulsion pods.

    As the Spatha powered down, the hanger’s aft door slid back into place and cut off the noise of the wind, restoring the usual relative silence. The crew wasted no time and began to scurry around the Spatha, hitching a compact little tractor up to the front landing gear and towing the VTOL clear of the landing pad and out of the way. A chock and chain team secured it to the deck as other maintenance personnel began to swarm over the craft’s surface in a flurry of hasty mechanical diagnosis and triage. Similar tasks would soon be executed upon the living complement aboard the craft, I knew, as I could see the medico team and their Ritualista associates were already on their way across the hangar. They made it to the VTOL just as the side doors slid open and the back ramp lowered.

    "It's good that that's over," a deep voice rumbled at my shoulder. "Lares does fret about his Landlady."

    My tail flicked as I turned and looked up, and up, and up. A pair of Auxilia Scouts were standing behind our little waiting squad. The two Forest People looked respectful and non-threatening, but their sheer size was a bit off-putting, especially paired with their tendency to simply… appear. Someone that large shouldn't be so stealthy.

    And this was in the industrial halls of a warship! In their natural habitat, the shaggy humanoids seemed to be found only when and where they wanted to be found.
    The medicos were first to the Spatha and helped Centurion Nihilus wheel a wounded First Squadron Pilot off the VTOL in her gurney. As they began their examination of this first patient, the two Ritualista made sure the wounded pilot's mauled suit was secured and safe. The SAR team should have disconnected any parts that had lingering power, but given how energetic Ritual Plate fuel and weapon systems were, caution was more than warranted.

    As they worked, the Spatha's pilot came out of one of the side doors and started conversing with the maintainers and personally checking that the VTOL was secured and chained down to the deck.

    The thudding of heavy steps heralded the exit of the remainder of the SAR team down the back ramp, and Melisande squeezed my hand.

    The grenadiers came first, including another pair of hulking Forest People, the pallbearers for a thin, unevenly-filled bodybag. Behind this procession, almost superfluous given how light their burden had to be, was the Countess.

    With a click of her heels, she set foot onto the brushed steel deck of the hanger, the final cargo off the VTOL, the tardy pilot returning to the Tarantula Hawk at last. Her tail was limp, but her white feathers were just as luminous as always under the steady glare of the hangar's lights. As the procession solemnly neared, the Countess began to speak in a steady, mournful cadence.

    "Rough wind, that moanest loud. Grief too sad for song. Wild wind, when sullen cloud. Knells all the night long," she recited, her clarion voice carrying easily through the now-silent hangar, tools still and the unoccupied hands of all in attendance folded respectfully.

    New voices joined in until all the pallbearers took part in the dirge, basso counter pointing mezzo-soprano. "Sad storm whose tears are vain, Bare woods, whose branches strain. Deep caves and dreary main. Wail, for the worlds' wrong!"

    With the final line, the mortal remains of Centurion IronTalon Cardino were solemnly loaded atop yet another gurney the medicos had quietly wheeled into the hangar for just this purpose. Moving deliberately, back stiff at rigid attention, I helped Melisande over to the gurney. The dirge was familiar; if I remembered my theological lessons correctly, it was an original work by Shelley, later adopted into liturgy by the church.

    Falling to her knees, the Prefect Countess's wings went limp as a rifle and a bloody bindle also clattered to the deck. A moment later, the cracked and scorched mask of her Polyxo slipped out of her flight suit to clatter next to the sodden lump.

    I stared. At that moment, she looked so young. Bone-deep fatigue stripped away artifice and armor, leaving only a face marked with a vulnerability almost painful to behold in its nakedness. Husked out and sucked dry, she looked far further below the official minimum age of enlistment than the one year she currently lacked. At least VioletBlood, being a year older, looked that part. Immediately, guilt rose in my heart, and I averted my gaze. It was far too intimate to gaze upon, like the moment of birth or the split-second snap of a neck under a garroting wire. It was something I should not see, something not for me.

    Pointedly, I turned to stare at VioletBlood, who scarcely looked like her superior’s elder. It was easy to forget how our kind aged. Compared to humans, we grew quickly, then matured very slowly, and aged glacially. Elder Demons were still vital military assets, but most of the fighting, especially in this Epoch, was the domain of those far younger. My tail drooped. It seemed that I could run from my past and my family, but as I looked upon the remains of my friend... none of us could escape Moloch’s gluttonous maw.

    A sharp sound turned my eyes back to the Countess as her small fist attempted to hammer a dent into the deck.

    A medico, Primus Shadow, and Baroness VioletBlood converged on her while Invidia hovered above them. "I must thank you, Countess," she was saying. "You prayed for our deliverance."

    From the hanger floor, Tauria icily glared up at the CSR officer as the two Forest People who had been on the VTOL loomed behind her.

    "You are too kind," the Countess started with cool politeness, "Be assured that your own efforts will not be forgotten. Though I must ask," the Countess continued, looking up at her other two Flight Leaders and me, "how is the Squadron?"

    Victorious took her hand. "We didn't take any more casualties. Everyone is back on the Tarantula Hawk."

    Tauria nodded. Presumably Victorious, or perhaps VioletBlood, would tell her later how Victorious Shadow had commanded her in her absence: how her second had fully lived up to her name in the ruin she brought to the enemy.

    That would be their story to tell, I decided, and kept my peace. The Countess might have been informed how many casualties her Squadron had sustained during her VTOL trip back to the Tarantula Hawk, but I doubted she yet knew how the greater whole of the Ritual Plate force had fared, to say nothing of the toll extracted from the ground teams. Though the hoof-sloggers had fared comparatively better than the Legion Fliers and Fleet Pilots, “less dead comrades” was hardly a comfort when there were still plenty of emptied bunks to go around.

    As VioletBlood and Victorious Shadow helped the Countess back to her feet, Quirinus strode up. "Really Invidia, is that why the battlecruiser appeared over the VTOL you were on?"

    "I had no means to summon the HVF DarkStar," Invidia demurred with a shrug.

    "It's true, Ma'am!" the battered First Squadron Pilot in her flensed Harmonia suit said. She gave a bleary nod to Prefect Caenis and Primus Crystal Candida. "And it's also true for you and you, Ma'ams."

    "Thank you, Fulvia," Crystal Candida said as she walked over to her subordinate. "It's good to see you again." Bitter joy emanated from her. Before Fulvia came onboard, she was looking at having half of her Flight killed in action.

    Caenis, for her part, was looking at losing four of her pilots, fully a third of her Squadron. Not counting the losses from Crystal's Flight, which had been attached to her. Even with the Countess's help, First Squadron had still taken the highest casualties. Second Squadron, commanded by Lady Julia JadeTalon, was close behind. I wondered how our rookie Prefect was handling it.

    "Good to be back, Ma'am!" Fulivia agreed as Crystal came over to her and the rest of us. "And we have the Countess to thank for it!" she added.

    "You're too kind," my commanding officer politely repeated, her tail stiff. "But I have only my Zephyr to thank for my continued existence; they kept me alive until Lares and the rest of the SAR team rescued me."

    A small frown crossed my face. My own Squadron Commander was new to her position; given her age, that was something that should not be easy to forget. But, much like Caenis, she had an effortless command. Likely due to both of them being Quirinus's protegees, though now both would grapple with loss.

    Melisande's uninjured hand squeezed mine as her tail flicked, and my attention went to Cardino's mortal remains.

    "We'll be moving her, Ma'am," one of the medicos gently told Melisande.

    My blonde friend stiffly nodded while the baroness rummaged through the Countess's bindle. Tail happily wagging, she sipped from one of the Elenese canteens and wordlessly handed it to Victorious.

    "And if you'll come with us to the medical bay," another medico said to Fulivia, gently but firmly nudging her along.

    "We'll talk about your rescue when you get back, but you did good," Quirinus assured Fulivia before giving Crystal Candida a look. The rancor between the two was, by mutual agreement, suppressed for the moment.

    The commander of the Fleet Flight nodded and helped her subordinate out of the hangar.

    "A moment, Miss Hood?" the Tribune then asked me.

    "I'll catch up," I assured Melisande. "And... we'll all catch up about Cardino."

    My friend gave a light chuckle. It almost seemed genuine if not for the cold tightness around her eyes. "Thank you, Lulu."

    "I need to go talk with the Lady Legate," Invidia said, and she gave the Countess an appraisal. "Despite her strong spirits, I would recommend DiamondDust get a checkout by the ship's doctors."

    "Yes, that is a good idea. And you can make sure the SilverHold is secured both physically and magically," Quirinus stated, her tone crisp. There was perhaps a ghost of resentment emanating from the Legion Flier. She had lost a fair fraction of her Demi-Wing to capture said artifact.

    "Indeed, Tribune," Invidia's cold smile returned as she bowed her head before taking off.

    Melisande hugged me, her wings wrapping over my shoulders.

    After a moment of not being sure what to do with my hands, I put my arms around her torso.

    "Don't feel guilty, Lulu. It was our choice to sign up, too," Melisande squeezed tighter; she released me and followed the medico pushing the gurney with its nearly empty bodybag.

    After watching them leave, I turned back to the rest of my Flight Leaders and our commanding officer. We were clustered in the forward end of the hangar in an out of the way space that served as a staging area for cargo and passengers.

    Her straight-backed posture returned, and the Countess tried to present an imperious air. That impression, however, was marred beyond repair by VioletBlood gleefully holding up the bloody bindle for all to gaze upon while Victorious sniffed the canteen.

    Tribune Quirinus eyed the collection of muscle and organ meat. "Ah, I see. To the victor, the spoils. Vae victis."

    "Vae victis," Countess Tauria Magnus DiamondDust exhaled in a gust of breath. "To the victor their just wages." Her tail curled, her emotions roiling. It seemed she had thoughts on that phrase. I, too, had my own thoughts. It was a sentiment I had grown up being told was justification enough for any cruelty.

    The Tribune held a hand. "Prefect, we will have time to discuss things later, and your Squadron is in Primus Hood's able hands," she nodded to me before shifting back to Tauria. "If I may suggest perhaps after your checkup, you should spend some time to unwind with your Vs."

    Tauria tried to pout but was pulled inexorably into the arms of Visha and LoveBlood. "I do have things to do," she protested. "The Squadron's status alone..."

    "You did bring treats back," VioletBlood said. "Which was very kind of you, Countess."

    "Oh, and liquor too," Victorious added.

    "Have you given any thoughts on preparing the Countess's bounty?" Tribune Quirinus asked

    "Oh! Er…well, Ma'am... I was thinking..." Baroness VioletBlood stammered as she studied the bloody bindle's contents with a pout.

    Quirinus's tail flicked as she glanced at Signifier GreyDawn.

    GreyDawn cleared her throat. "I can borrow an enclosed burner from the galley for them. The bakery also just made a batch of naan and some red potato curry. That and some garum and spices to make more of a meal?"

    "That does sound lovely,” Victorious gushed with an enthusiasm I would have called feigned had it come from the other V. From Victorious, it rang with a simple sincerity that reminded me of another girl, long lost, who once had reveled in the joy of the kitchen.

    Even though Euphy never could cook worth a damn… So perhaps the comparison isn’t quite as relevant as I had first thought it… DarkStar, I’m exhausted…

    The Countess coughed, unknowingly pulling me away from my tired thoughts. "There's no need for any of that."

    "Nonsense, Ma'am. I'll be more than happy to help," GreyDawn assured.

    My stomach did grumble a bit. Naan did sound good: chewy, bubbly, and fluffy. If ever there was a bread that did describe Primus Centurion Shadow. Maybe the galley had some simmering stew or other midnight-rations. Which was clearly what made me hungry. Certainly not the scent of raw meat, fresh from the battlefield.

    Lares gave an earthy chuckle. "Rest and recover, you have earned it."

    "Little demons are always hungry," one of his fellow Forest People grumbled.

    "Especially when it's a rare treat," GreyDawn said, with no small amount of covetousness in her voice.

    Turning my head to the Tribune and Signifier, I respectfully bowed my horn as I tried to move past the "foibles" of my adopted culture. "I'll make sure to get something out of the galley for the rest of the Squadron, including the Ritualista; they've been working through the night too."

    "You don't have to do that..." Tauria caught herself. "Er, no that's a good idea, Primus." Giving a wicked grin, the Countess nodded to Victorious.

    My fellow Flight Leader slipped up to me with a... morsel held between her claws. My tail stilled as I licked my lips.

    I saw Lares putting a hand on the Countess's shoulder, and the two exchanged a moment that was only slightly farcical due to their massive height disparity.

    "Eat it now or share that meal with them," GreyDawn murmured, bringing my attention back to the offering under my nose.

    Taking the meat, I chewed and swallowed. Some of the tension I was holding eased. I was not sure what I was so afraid of. I knew since I was a child that revenge was sweet; was it any surprise to find that the blood of my enemies was really that good?

    I wonder if my older sister would be proud or disgusted? I thought idly as my tongue licked the morsels from my teeth. Wherever she is… I wonder if I’d still care what she thought about me?

    I turned and, for a moment, thought that Lares and the other Forest People had vanished. The reality was more mundane: they had simply slipped away and were leaving via the hangar's forward doors.

    "Thank you for the-" I caught myself just before I said "offering". I was of the Order of Our Martyred Lady which, compared to my commander's Order of Hallowed Lady, focused more on the meaning and example of DarkStar's sacrifice than on the other aspects of her life. Worship in both branches of the Church was rather similar, though my sect did have theological differences in which rituals were sacramental, ordinate, or both. Navigating such doctrinal disputes had been something I had dealt with my whole life.

    This whole thing was awkward, but it would not be the only feeding going on tonight. Plenty of my fellow pilots, not to mention the ground team, would want to burn off stress or sate their hunger. The baths and galleys would be quite busy, not to mention the recreation rooms.

    "For that sample. You three deserve a nice... meal." I tried on a toothy smile for fit, intimately aware of how the expression left my own fangs menacing and bare. I raised my arm, unsure. We were in the same unit; would physical contact, even a pat on the back be too... intimate?

    "Think nothing of it," Tauria tried to wave my praise away. She also looked at my arm with a sense of awkwardness.

    Inwardly, I cursed finicky demons and all their societal rules. For a species of alluring, empathic succubae, we could be strangely prudish.

    "It's only polite. You did bring us through this mission," I insisted, bowing my horns to Tauria and repeating the gesture to Quirinus.

    "I'm getting too much credit," she waved off, her fingers brushing mine. There was a surge as I felt the Countess's anxiety and fatigue intensify.

    "Battlecruiser," VioletBlood reminded with a chirp.

    The Tauria's tail straightened. "Not now, Baroness," she said, staring at how our hands were linked.

    Steeling myself, I pulled the shorter blonde into a hug. Her body tensed for a moment, but as she relaxed, I could feel her appreciation. Unbidden, my tail began to swish to and fro as I likewise eased into the embrace. However, my over-long appendage betrayed me and, without my conscious decision, entwined with the Countess's tail, immediately adding an entirely new dimension to our embrace. My eyes widened as a mass of emotions flooded into me, and I got an almost invasive view of the concerns and fears lurking behind my superior officer's imperious mask.

    A spike of jealousy flared from VioletBlood, though it soon tempered with a possessive... hunger. The baroness smiled at me. I quickly disentangled from my Squadron commander and stepped back, my hooves ringing on the deck.

    "I'll help them get that burner and the other supplies from the galley while our Squadron Commander gets checked out," GreyDawn offered as she tried heroically to usher the Countess and her Vs towards the door.

    Soon, it was down to myself, Tribune Quirinus, and Prefect Caenis. Despite being alone with not one but two superior officers, I was more at ease now that the eccentric trio were well gone.

    "Well, at least that helps those three," Caenis remarked and nodded to me, "and the rest of the Third too."

    "That leaves the other Squadrons," said Quirinus, shaking her head.

    I could sympathize. The losses we had taken were recoverable, but we would need replacement Pilots and, if possible, time to integrate them into our formations. Crucial teamwork required time, and nobody wanted to learn about their new wingwoman’s foibles first under enemy fire. We hardly had enough time to form up these Squadrons in the first place, and already we would have to alloy in replacements.

    "And somehow getting shot down only lets the Countess up her kill count. She even managed to get some choice cuts of meat and fucking drinks. Unbelievable" Caenis shook her head. I noticed she made no mention of the battlecruiser.

    "All while trying to be humble about it. Despite coming onboard with a dirge," the Tribune rubbed her horns. "I suppose there's one upside to this being a CSR spook-show."

    "And that is, Ma'am?" I asked sensing the hanging prompt.

    "Otherwise the Librarians would be all over this ship, and I'd have to fill out even more paperwork" Quirinus sighed. "And the church is doubtless going to find out about it."

    "Centurions do gossip like old biddies," Caenis stated with a twinkle in her eye. "Give them time."

    Tribune Quirinus shook her head and made to leave. "Come, Primus Centurion," she said over her back.

    I dutifully followed alongside Caenis as we made our way to the aft side of the hangar and exited forward to the rest of the ship.

    "I am sorry; IronTalon was a good pilot," Quirinus stated, almost off-handed. Despite that, the non sequitur did feel sincere. The Tribune was hurting from the losses to her unit. The Fleet Squadrons seconded to her from the other airships had also been mauled, which was something she also doubtless felt.

    Battle had a kind of sanguinary alchemy all its own. Skill, training, and luck could mitigate its acid bite, but any chance at victory required some sacrifice, lives wagered and risked. Upon that blood-slick and ever spacious altar, sacrifice was more than becoming, per church, state, and every other pillar of our civilization. The possibility of defeating the enemy, the probability of capturing a city, a bridge, an artifact, the prospect of returning in glory to the City of Trees to regale the eager crowds with tales of conquest… Yes, those were the carrots suspended upon gut-strings, dangling over the ravenstone called Nike. But no amount of glory could reverse the process, could recall the athame, could restore the blood.

    I held firmly onto the hope that the SilverHold was worth the risks, worth the lives lost tonight, worth the lives yet to be lost. The hope that this victory was worth the cost.

    "She was," I agreed, and bowed my horns.

    "With all the VTOLs secured and everyone back on board, we'll be teleporting soon enough," Caenis stated, obviously trying to direct the conversation to safer grounds as part of her duty as the Demi-Wing's executive officer.

    "Good riddance." The Tribune's tail flicked as we crossed the cargo bay. With most of the Mules having been scuttled on the ground and a lot of its material expended, the compartment was almost completely empty. The port cargo bay, on the other side of the ship, was practically packed with an assortment of miscellany. It was where all the "mundane" trinkets stolen during the operation were being examined, stored, and guarded.

    "We got CSR's accursed bauble. Our part is done. The DarkStar and her escorts will cover our exit," Quirinus continued.

    I nodded. The Tarantula Hawk and the rest of our little flotilla had charged teleport runes and were ready to go, but the DarkStar and her escorts, having just arrived, would have to wait out their cool down and recharge cycle. I was not terribly worried about the battlecruiser staying behind on Harp's World, though. The DarkStar could more than take care of herself. Especially as she had twice the normal number of escorting destroyers and light carriers.

    "Good work, Primus," Quirinus said, her own weariness beginning to peek through. "Your Squadron is on stand down, so things should keep until the Countess gets some time to recover."

    "Yes, Ma'am," I readily agreed. Despite her words, I was already going over the Third's status in my head. Everyone's Ritual Plate was damaged to some extent, but there were enough functional suits and Pilots that we could get at least a reinforced Flight into the air if required.

    Our next jump would take us back to Outer Jaffna, nominally an Alecton Colony and thus friendly territory, but the world was thinly populated, and if Elenese task forces were sent out after us that would be one of the routes they would follow. Worse, it would take the DarkStar and her escorts the better part of a day to catch up to us.

    Quirinus studied me, and for a moment, I felt utterly unmasked by the older demon's penetrating gaze. "Primus, Outer Jaffina is a large and mostly empty colony."

    "And our little flotilla has the whole world to hide in," Caenis added. "Besides, the DarkStar's VTOLs had enough time to top-off our corvette's magazines."

    "Yes, Ma'am." That was true, and hiding was something the Tarantula Hawk, Desert Strix, and Tamora were quite skilled at. And while the prefect was exaggerating, a few more torpedoes were better than the nearly empty magazines our Kolibris had.

    "I am far less concerned about being followed. And after that, Ma'am?"

    Her crimson features got a bit tight as a wisp of irritation flashed on her. "That is an excellent question. Doubtless CSR had some plan to return the SilverHold to the entities whom House Elena had stolen it from. I'm not sure if they'll transfer the cursed thing to the DarkStar or keep it under lock and key aboard this ship, however."

    "After all the hassle an' blood spent to get that DarkStar-forsaken thing, I don't see the Lady Legate lettin' it slip through her claws," Caenis said, her Midlands accent coming into prominence as the three of us stopped by a ladderway.

    "But, for now, we have a respite," Quirinus nodded to me. "Primus, as you were,"

    "Ma'am." I acknowledged as the two officers climbed the rungs to the deck above. I knew they had their own work to do. I took a moment to compose myself in the brief solitude and resumed my journey in the direction of the airship's bow, towards the starboard aft RP Maintenance Bay.

    After the events and horrors of tonight, going into the incense, chemical, burnt-metal, and coffee smelling compartment was reassuring. However, seeing only ten of the twelve arming chairs had Polyxo suits bolted to them was like a knife to my heart.

    The suits had burnt engravings, and all had some degree of damage. My own suit would need most of the ward emitters replaced. With the cracked bone-white death masks and the suits splayed open with Ritualista rooting around in their battered, innards the whole room had a macabre cast to it.

    Gibbs came up to me, a bit of sympathy coloring her eternal ill-humor. "Primus, I take it you have command," she stated, handing over a clipboard. Behind her, almost two dozen Ritualista were hard at work on the suits. Despite the number of maintainers at work, it was still a fraction of the total complement under Gibbs' wing; it was hardly like any of them had enjoyed an easy night either.

    "Rumor travels that fast?" I asked, giving each status summary a cursory once-over. Each page gave the condition of a Flight's worth of Ritual Plate with a brief on each major subsystem. Every one of which contained an alarming number of variations on the phrase "not cleared for active duty use."

    "The Prefect Countess brought back the flesh of her vanquished foes and then did some holy nonsense on the flight back." The chief Ritualista shrugged while her subordinates chattered excitedly on. "Meanwhile, I got to have my girls inspect the power distribution runes of every suit that exceeded power ratings, which was all off them, and then triage all the damage the enemy did."

    "Have you taken into account the medical status of the casualties?"

    Centurion Gibb's withering stare made me immediately regret the question. "Yes, Ma'am," she crisply said in a tone that was almost, but not quite, blatantly insubordinate. "No reason to spend time fixing a suit that'll stand empty. I will ask the Countess if she wants to have a surplus suit assembled for her, but I have my doubts."

    "That wouldn't be the most efficient use of your time," I agreed mollifyingly. House BlackSky was efficient like that, as of course were her Ritualista, who were best not offended by accidental, stupid slights. I had seen some nobles, when deprived of their precious mounts, bully the maintainers into spending whatever time it took to fix their equipment. Even if doing so came at the cost of maintenance time that could put four other pilots back into the saddle, to say nothing of the thousand other ways the Ritualista could make their displeasure known. Thinking on that particular malfeasance was, in an odd way, something of a nostalgic reminder of home.

    Other than taking someone else's suit, Gibbs had enough spares and assemblies to build Prefect DiamondDust another Polyxo, but that would take a lot of time and gobble up a mountain of parts.

    "I'm glad we're in agreement." Gibbs' tail slowed as she saw me staring at the summary sheet for my Flight. "You look like you could use something to drink, Ma'am. Coffee?"

    "Uh, yes please," I sighed, handing the clipboard over.

    "It doesn't get easier, Primus," Gibbs said as she filled a mug from the coffee machine the Countess had ordered be installed at one side of the Maintenance Bay. "Well, no, that's a lie. You do learn how to manage it."

    I accepted the cup. "I suppose you've seen Squadrons get more chewed up than this?" I asked, taking a sip. Instead of the bitter Fleet brew, I tasted something actually flavorful. Clearly, Prefect DiamondDust had broken out her personal supply for tonight's mission.

    Gibbs gave a shrug as she filled her own mug. "Focus on what's in front of you, Ma'am."

    The overhead speaker chimes as the Primary Circuit came on. "Teleport Warning. Teleport Warning. All hands prepare for Teleport. Secure all equipment and safe all arcane systems," a cool voice stated.

    "Ah, well when you are right, you are right, Centurion," I noted.

    The Ritualista snorted. "Shall I make sure everything is squared away?"

    "Do it, Centurion."

    "Ma'am," Gibbs spun on a heel and started shouting orders to her maintainers, who were already making sure everything was secured and powered off.

    Sipping the rather good coffee, I watched as the ship got ready for teleport.

    A true tragedy that I will have to bid such a lovely locale farewell so soon. I mused, a familiar bile curdling in my gut. Harp’s World has done such a wonderful job reminding me of all the most enduring memories of home.

    And I do mean that from the bottom of my heart.

    +++++

    Outer Jaffna's sun rose not long before lunch, shipboard time. Which was effectively my only temporal reference point. Spending a week traveling through six different worlds had thoroughly disconnected my sense of time and obliterated any vestige of my circadian rhythm.

    Bearing food, I stepped into the Tarantula Hawk's medical wing. The smell of antiseptic hung in the air as a medico looked up. The tall woman's lips creased as her tail flicked. "Our patients already have lunch," she stated.

    "It's just some treats," VioletBlood said.

    "From the bakery," Visha added.

    "And some coffee and hot chocolate. For those who can have it," Lucia added, holding up a pair of carafes. For this phase of the operation, I had once again dipped into my personal, if diminishing, supply.

    "I did bring enough for everyone," I said pointing to how the four of us were carrying multiple flat boxes. "Medical staff included."

    It had taken a bit of trading to get the bakery shippies to run us an order, but that was the main reason I contributed to the Squadron's liquor stock. Or more accurately, I let VioletBlood toss more bottles into the pot. Personal use was not high up on that list. A position freshly reaffirmed by last night’s sampling of Elenese pomegranate-based rotgut. Not to be outdone by my Baroness, Primus Hood had also sacrificed applejack brandy for the cause. Generous though her contribution was, it was also of a far more... common earthenware jug vintage that would be best appreciated by those who favored quantity over quality in their spirits.

    That, and a couple bottles of Eastern Province's finest plum brandy, managed to raise the bounty of various fried and sugared treats to a standard that met with Quirinus's lofty approval. Aided, of course, by the fresh batch of zeppole I made sure would find their way to my Tribune’s desk.

    After giving the medical staff their due, I set my Vs to distributing the lion's share of the food among the other wounded while I went to check on our Squadron's casualties.

    "You should really be under observation," the medico who had admitted us stated, standing by my side. Though much of the edge to her tone had been smoothed via a turnover with an ersatz filling made from rehydrated peaches.

    "I'm fine," I insisted. "I was checked out when I came on board, and again this morning."

    "Ah yes, after a very filling meal and a restful night's sleep," the medico's tail swished in amusement.

    "That is what I heard happened," Lucia said in a deadpan with just a bare amusement in her purple eyes.

    My wings ruffled a bit at the implication.

    "It's true," VioletBlood said as she bounded back to us. I eyed her, but she did have a right to be here. One of hers was among the casualties. Though Lucia's formation had taken the brunt of the damage in my Squadron.

    The room we entered had brightly painted walls and gave a credible illusion of natural light. Melisande and RoseTalon were already present sitting by Charity and Pulivia's beds respectively.

    "Ma'am!" Pulivia said as she straightened up in her bed. Her words were less slurred, that was a good sign. Others followed suit and saluted.

    "At ease," I waved them off and motioned for my Flight Leaders to give out the refreshments.

    "You brought sweets?" Charity asked, adjusting in her bed. Under the blankets, I could see that her leg was longer than it was before. Our regeneration was a boon, but it did come at a cost.

    "It was the least I could do," I said. Simple luxuries were a way to boost morale. At least in the short term. In the long term, I would have to gauge how everyone handled the fallout from this mission. Melisande would require special care; I could only imagine what she was going through. Fear of her loss falling upon me hung over my horns adding to the anxieties from the fate of my birth parents and VioletBlood's mothers.

    "I'm not complaining. A pastry and coffee is more reward than I've gotten after other missions. The less said about those the better." Charity stared down into her cup, her tail flicking.

    "You've had worse missions?" Lavish asked, disbelief in her voice. Unlike before, there was no eager awe at the idea of daring do but instead a far wiser cautious trepidation. I feared that all too soon, distance would cloud her memory, causing pride to turn the combat over Harp’s World into some grand adventure where she had cut her teeth and wetted her talons with gore.

    "I have," Charity asked. "Last night was bad, but as things go... it was no marathon."

    Lucia and Melisande looked to the senior pilot in their Flight.

    "Before your time, kiddos." Charity sipped her coffee and bit into a pastry. "Supporting a Legion landing operation is an endurance march. The enemy knows us Legionary Fliers can only operate for so many hours before we're combat ineffective, so if they wait us out they can strike after the Legion's air cover crashes."

    "That's standard doctrine though," Visha said. "Don't most Tribunes try to pare down a few Squadrons after the initial landing to try to have a reserve they can rotate back in?

    "Sometimes the enemy isn't so gracious. Kinda hard to build up a reserve of pilots who are rested when facing increasing losses while being harassed by constant enemy raids," Charity shrugged.

    "As bad as cloak and dagger nonsense is, it can always get worse," I said with a sardonic air. "The truth is we all know how many years, months, and days we have left in the Imperatrix's service."

    "Unless you plan on serving another term!" VioletBlood cheered.

    "Yes, unless that." My tail stilled as I eyed my betrothed. Piercing her brittle mask would do her no good. Losing face in front of her subordinates was not worth it. "I want to show my gratitude for your work and sacrifice and do what I can to help you all. The rest of the Squadron will be visiting when they're no longer on ready status."

    Melisande stared down at her lap, her partially-healed arm in a sling. Visha came over to her with a cup of coffee and gave the blonde a new pastry before returning to me and refreshing my drink.

    "I should explain some of the things you will hear mentioned quite soon." I looked over my pilots. "You are all going to hear a great many pretty words about sacrifice and what it means to die in the Imperatrix's name, what it means to bring glory and honor to our House." I sipped some coffee.

    "That," I said, licking a stray bead of coffee from my lips, "was never our mission. Our mission was never about the recovery of whatever it was that Elena stole. Our mission was to make sure that all of us – the hoof sloggers, the spooks, and even the other RP Pilots – had somewhere to land once they were done reclaiming our missing property."

    "And to provide close air support to give them a fighting chance on the ground," VioletBlood added, her own tail languidly swishing.

    I nodded. "And because of all of our efforts, nearly ninety Hoof Sloggers made it back. Yes, a couple dozen are right here being worked on, but it could have been much worse. Not to mention four hundred ship's crew, all of our Ritualista, and the other ships." I looked them hard in the eyes. "Girls, this is the job you all agreed to when you became Legionary Fliers. To make sure that when the scrivener tallies her butcher's bill it falls more on the enemy than on our sisters."

    My gaze whet to Lavish RoseTalon. The spoiled senator's daughter idly scratched one of the silver flashes on her uniform tunic denoting the Volantes specialty. A more sober and quiet pride welled in her as Pulivia reached out and snatched a pastry from her hand.

    "There will be a memorial service for IronTalon. Not just the shipboard service, but our own. The Tribune made it clear that every Squadron will, in due time, be given space to grieve. We all took casualties, but First and Second got the worst of it, including the most deaths." Of nearly fifty pilots, our Demi-Wing had lost seven. Over half a Squadron's equivalent was gone. That did not include the losses the Fleet Squadrons took, including Lady Primus Felicity IvoryQuiver, the Svalinna Pilot who died shortly before IronTalon.

    "And we would have lost almost a full Squadron if not for the search and rescue teams," Visha murmured, giving voice to my quiet thought.

    "We will certainly need to do something for the SAR crews," I agreed and looked over my pilots. "Know that I'm proud of all of you. Regardless of your experience, you completed a difficult mission."

    "One that's not over, not quite yet," Visha reminded, being the executive officer's stick to my carrot. "Our Ritualista are hard at work to get our Polyxo repaired." She gave me a sympathetic wince.

    "It's part of the risk." I waved her off, forcing down the useless pain I felt at the loss of my suit. "But Primus Shadow is right about readiness." I sipped some more coffee. "I won't say I won't pressure you. We do need pilots. But if you need to talk with me in private, my door is open. And I can recommend counseling when we get back to Mursam."

    "What about religious issues, Ma'am?" Pulivia asked, her voice almost shy.

    "Well yes, there is a ship's chaplain; she seems nice enough." I shrugged.

    "No... I mean..." Pulivia's cheeks flushed a bit as Lavish patted her hand. Clearly, she was still getting over her injuries. "What about talking to you about religion?"
    I blinked. "I'm not.... no?" I looked to my Flight Leaders for help.

    Visha gave me a ghost of a smile. LoveBlood's grin was manically gleeful. And Lucia simply stared at me, disbelief written in large block letters across her face.

    "Don't be so humble, Ma'am," Pulivia continued. "You're a Sister; you're clearly touched by DarkStar. You've seen more and... you were shot down and you came back. You're not afraid." she added the last part in a small voice.

    I coughed. I suppose I did know about what lay beyond the veil of death, but given what those experiences had taught me, it was hardly a comfort. Being X was no god, and Uriel was an even more mysterious, if less blatantly hostile, entity. I might have factual evidence, repeatedly confirmed evidence, even, that there was a kind of life after death, but that, if anything, had only added to the troubles in my lives, nevermind how much stranger they always got.

    "Pulivia... I was terrified after I got shot down. No sane person would be anything else. My return was simply a matter of… putting that fear aside, doing my duty, and having faith in my comrades to aid me. Nothing more than what any other good Legionary should."

    My concentration slipped as I sensed LoveBlood's amusement at my statement.

    "I'm sure if the Prefect has time she could arrange something," Visha smoothly offered. "But maybe it would be best to ask me so I can check her schedule."

    I tried not to pout. She was doing her part as my executive officer in supporting my authority. It would be nice if more of my pilots were like Octavia, a member of the Baha'i faith. At least Pulivia was already an adherent to Our Hallowed Lady. One of my pilots petitioning me as a potential proselyte to the DarkStar Church and then guiding them toward penance perturbed me in a way I couldn't quite articulate.

    "Having more people to talk to would be... good," Melisande admitted. Even I could see the vivacious pilot's spirits were down. Which was understandable.

    I gave Lucia a nod as I thought. Melisande's pain was obvious, a feeling that was... It was something I could relate to. My gaze went to my Vs. What were the odds both of them would survive the decade and a half of combat operations to finish out their terms of service?

    I suppose I will simply have to endeavor to “stack the deck”, as it were, I resolved. After all, when any good soldier is faced with long odds, there is always one clear solution. Cheat.

    I gave them, Lucia and all my wounded pilots, my largest, brightest, and most reassuring grin. For some reason most of their tails stiffened. "Girls, I will not make promises I can't keep. Obviously, I cannot promise you a safe life. Those of you who wanted that-" my gaze went to Lavish and Pulavia, "I gave ample opportunity to change specializations.

    "However, I will endeavor to make sure you are all the best equipped and trained Legionary Fliers. Death stalks all of us, but I'll make sure you're all shooting back." I snatched a pastry out of VioletBlood's basket. "And that, by DarkStar's Grace, is something that it is within my power."


    End Chapter 29

    And Tauria's back on board and can start helping her squadron deal with the fallout of Operation Epimetheus. Now, they just have to hand over the SilverHold. That should be a simple enough task.

    Thanks to Ahuva, DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Larc , Readhead, metaldragon868 , and ScarletFox for checking and editing this chapter. They all put in extra work to go through this and make this whole story so much better than it could have been without them. Special thanks to Readhead for helping get Lulu's voice, dramatics included, correct and to Larc for going over this one with a fine-tooth comb.

    I'd like to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and wish you all well this time of year. I would also like to thank everyone who has read, commented, and helped with this story. I'm still amazed at all the support and interest this crazy story has gotten over the last couple years. Thank you all for being here on this and I wish you the best. I think you'll enjoy some of the upcoming plotlines for Tauria, her Vs, and everyone else.

    Chapter 30 stands at nearly 8k words. I've also got some more art that I'll be posting in a couple days. And there's another map in the works. This one that's a... larger scale than the map of the continent of Diyu
     
    Last edited: Dec 25, 2023
  20. MikeyTheMaster

    MikeyTheMaster Know what you're doing yet?

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    Oh hey its a Christmas present in the form of a chapter! Happy holidays and thanks for the update was checking the other day if a new one came out.
     
  21. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    I see somebody's smile isn't taken quite like she thinks.....
     
  22. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    There was significantly more to do before Tanya can take her girls and hole up in their quarters than I expected.
     
  23. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Oh wonderful! Happy to give you a nice present. And hope you enjoy the chapter!

    It's a perennial problem with Tauria. She tries to be reassuring and friendly but....

    She did have to do a few things, but the other RP pilots could see she needed a bit of a break for the night.
     
  24. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    They probably rather appreciate Tanya's dedication to them when she's got a sack full of snacks and booze to enjoy with two beautiful women in bed.
     
  25. Menosay

    Menosay Lazing in a shadowy corner.

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    So the Code Geass cast alikes are they just expys or is this a full on stealth crossover?
     
    averagejoe32 and Sunshine Temple like this.
  26. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Even if Tauria's not quite sure what's going on, but she could use a relaxing meal.

    It's a bit of a mix. It's not like the Code Geass world will really matter (aside from omakes) but I thought it was a fun Easter Egg.
     
    Menosay and Wild Transient like this.
  27. Extras: The gift of DarkStar & Xmas Art
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Merry Xmass, Happy Holidays, and a somber SBRs Watch.

    Yesterday may have had a chapter 29 posted but the gifts aren't over!

    Please enjoy this bit of art, but not before a bit of lore dump.


    White Feast of DarkStar is on the 16th of September, is one of the Church's most important events, and one of the few ones that most of the sects largely agree on the same day of observance, the faith does have other holidays thought the year.

    Known for her charity, piety, and skill with the blade that gave her the nickname: the Saber, Saint BloodRuby was known for her standing vigil of her village, especially in winter where she said she was "Awaiting Her return."

    What had started as a minor Saint's Day at the end of a long fasting period, had in the modern DarkStar Church grew into a ritualistic fasting period followed by a celebratory feast with the exchange of gifts. This includes a lot of cross pollination with the plethora of other solstice time celebrations on the variety of other Diyu faiths (both native and imported).

    Like many Saints Days, there is little consensus on when to celebrate SBRs Watch among the branches of the DarkStar Church. Though all the largest branches do recognize BloodRuby as a saintess. For example: the Order of Our Martyred holds observes on December 15th while the Order of Lady Our Hallowed Lady observers nearly two weeks later on the 27th. There is some merit to the idea the BloodRuby's profile was raised to give the DarkStar Church their own major solstice-time holiday.


    But now onto the art.





    First from Lexi Kimble we have this slick piece of Reinhild helping Countess Tauria get dressed for a social event with Baroness VioletBlood. This piece has some fantastic coloring and shading.






    Next from Player Error 404 we've got the woman of the hour, DarkStar herself returned to Diyu and in formal attire. Though she's adding a bit of her own touches for her big gown.






    From DP we have Chief Librarian, and adviser to BlakSky, Mira Heartwood in drawn in spiffy business wear with a lot of fun detil.





    Next, Player Error 404 shows the two aspects of Imperial Heroines.
    Fabia Firmitas HarrowFang in her Sarpedona RP suit shows the warrior side while Countess Tauria Magnus DiamondDust in yet another gown shows the pomp and pageantry side. The contrast is really fun, and I do like how the renditions of Ritual Plate have gotten more to how I envision the flight suits (more armored segments and less skinsuit)








    And from Scitty Kitty we've got a great set of wonderfully expressive emotes of VoiletBlood, Tauria, and Visha. They've all been getting great use in the Little Demon discord.







    And finally from Player Error 404 we have this wonderful piece of DarkStar bringing holiday presets for SBRs Watch while Tauria and her mother Sister Clementia watch with joy




    Again wishing you all a Merry Xmas and holiday season and thanking you all for enjoying this story.
     
  28. Extras: Map: the Dimensional Spine
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    With ch29 being posted, the current arc may be wrapping up but a map of the various worlds on the Dimensional Spine will still be pretty handy. As it will give some context to events. Thanks to Readhead for coming up with the name, and for the LD Discord for helping revise the map.

    Map of Diyu itself can be found here. And the Map of House BlackSky's provinces on Diyu can be found here.




    Diyu Demons have three main forms of teleportation. There is the persona teleportation magic many Elder Demonesses have, some of them have the ability to teleport between worlds. Due to the relative rarity of Elders with this ability and the limitations they have on where they can go and who they can bring, this method has been supplanted in many cases.


    Teleport Runes are a common way to allow a vessel (typically an airship but other conveyances can be setup) to jump from one world to the next along the Dimensional Spine (and to different Aether Layers). However, this method is limited to surveyed routes. This results in many worlds being travel hubs, bottlenecks or dead ends. Finding new routes (and new worlds) is the primary goal of the Transcendental Survey Branch of the BlackSkyvian Cartographer's Guild. The other Great Houses have similar services as such explorations have strategic consequences. There are two primary frontiers on the Dimensional Spine one in the Up-spine direction, the other in the Down-spine direction. That the Dimensional Spine has directionality, implies it has a structure and many theorize that it means that this region of space has importance as some type of cosmic mega-structure. Diyu seems to be some type of central lynchpin as it has an unusually high number of connections to other worlds.


    The final method are Teleportation Gateways. These are large, expensive structures that are built in pairs to maximize their thaumaturgical similitude. Then the two Gateways (each with a large chamber inside) are transferred to other worlds using a Teleport Rune equipped ship. Once emplaced, calibrated, and given considerable power, instantaneous travel between the Gateway pair is possible. Note that a given Gateway only allows travel to its twin. Father travel requires using another paired Gateway. However, unlike Teleport Runes, distance is functionally immaterial. Thus a critical colony can have a direct connection to Diyu (or another critical colony) no mater how far out it is on the Dimensional Spine. In addition to the great expense of production and operation (which means only the most vital colonies have Gateways), the dimensions of the chamber inside the Gateway does limit transportation to objects to the weight of tanks and lighter, and to medium VTOLs and smaller. Still this allows for teleport Gateways to supplement other forms of travel.






    House BlackSky's primary holdings are in the Up-spine/Sinister region. This is a large contiguous territory that is well developed and has access to the Up-spine frontier. Closer to Diyu is the one colonial holding of House Andromache and the Up-spine enclave of House Trosier, which acts partially as a buffer between BlackSky and Luxon. Father Up-spine, the minor independent world of New Van Zandt has a similar buffer effect with Elena's holdings.

    The Dexter half of the Up-spine region is primarily split between House Alecto and House Elena. With the latter braiding their territory across the Alecton Worlds. Elena has considerable holdings but also has them spread out over many areas, while Alecto is even more of a narrow strip of worlds. Both Great Houses also have access to the Up-spine frontier. Ziox's holdings are also here, as well as the fractured Harp's World. The Independent world of Redemption is on the far Dexter corner. Continuing their tradition on Diyu, House Alecto supports and acts as a patron for all the independent worlds. Though Elena, BlackSky, and Luxon have their own alliances with various breakaway colonies.

    Down-spine on the Sinister side is House Luxon. They have a rather large contiguous territory with plenty of worlds and access to the Down-spine frontier. However, economic troubles have prevented full development of its holdings, but this is changing with Luxon's revitalization as of late. Also in This region is Mard, the largest independent world. Mard has good relations with the other independents, Alecto, and Luxon as patrons. Mard is a world where many independent traders hang their banner. The Dimensional Spine has considerable merchant traffic as there are dozens of colonies that need supplies and have resources to trade for what they require, not to mention various garrisons in need of support. Also in this region is Trosier's Down-Spine enclave as well as Elena's toehold onto the Down-spine frontier.

    These small holdings also border on the Down-spine Dexter region which is a collection of smaller territories: RedStorm, BlackSky's Down-spine enclave, and Irkella, However, it is the Empty Quarter that dominates this part of the Dimensional Spine. The site of much of the fighting, and the concluding campaign, of the War of Reprisal, this area was always desolate, but after the conclusion of that war, and subsequent explorations, a parade of dead, frozen, charred, and just inhospitable worlds were found.

    Haven, the only marginally habitable world, was picked as a forward base for the Empty Quarter Patrol. The last legacy of the grand alliance of the War of Reprisal, the EQP is a multinational force where each Great House contributes a formation of ships, troops supplies, or other war material on a rotating basis. Each of the larger Great Houses contributes to ensure that they still have a say in how the EQP operates, while the smaller Great Houses do not want to be cut out of the loop, and all are interested in seeing what lays on the other side. The EQP works to survey and observe the Empty Quarter and to carefully explore Down-spine to ascertain its limits. While Haven does have a pair of Gateways, they do not go to Diyu, but instead go to secured, isolated bases on Nida and Huido controlled by BlackSky and Elena respectively.
     
  29. Threadmarks: Chapter 30: Info Hazard
    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 30: Info Hazard

    "Excellent work," I handed the clipboard back to Gibbs. "You've all worked miracles."

    Something like amusement poked through my chief Ritualista's perpetual scowl. "What you call a miracle, I call a passing grade. We had two full days under friendly guns to make repairs, Ma'am. More than enough time for any competent Legion maintenance team to bring a Squadron's worth of suits back to full readiness. Frankly, anyone who couldn't even manage this isn't worth their jumpsuit."

    I nodded politely, "Well, I'll have take your word on that, Chief."

    My eyes crossed the maintenance bay and spotted the two empty chairs. One was IronTalon's, late of Flight Three, and the other was mine. Soon, all the chairs would be empty, but that was because my Squadron would be taking to the air to do their part of our flotilla's Combat Air Patrol. Not that the need was terribly acute; the DarkStar and her plentiful escorts had caught up to us before we jumped, which left us traveling in a rather strong, if entirely unsubtle, flotilla.

    The air thickened with incense as the Ritualista ran their final checks on the suits and made them welcoming for my pilots' Zephyr.

    My pilots, who would be taking to the air without me.

    Contrary to the intent of the incense to lull and reassure air spirits, my own Zephyr remained very active and highly excited. My feathers puffed up a bit at their swirling interest. In their experience, this particular ritual always preceded flight operations.

    "No suit today little ones," I said under my breath, trying to reassure my Zephyr. I would have to find some other way to entertain them once it sunk in that they wouldn’t be going into the sky. Otherwise, they would spend the rest of the day sulking moodily.

    As she countersigned the maintenance certifications, Gibbs looked up from the paperwork. "Thinking of your replacement Polyxo?" she asked with bland disinterest as she flipped to a new page and continued to carefully read.

    I held up a placating hand. "I'm not going to order you to raid our spares to bodge together a suit for me."

    "That's good Ma'am, seeing as I don't have enough parts to do that. Even though you did manage to bring back a mask and some odds and ends." Gibbs gave the final signature with a flourish and handed the clipboard back to me. Thankfully, such forms didn't require anything so arch as a wax seal with my personal sigil. A simple counter-signature sufficed. "Third Squadron is certified flight ready, excepting Suits One and Eleven."

    I gave her a dry look.

    Gibbs shrugged. "Once we get out of comms blackout you could wire MuArc's Mursam office for a factory-fresh replacement."

    "I lost my suit in combat," I pointed out. "The Imperial Legion will provide a new Polyxo suit out of depot."

    "I may disagree with the 'new' aspect Ma'am," said Gibbs in the long-suffering tones of one familiar with Legion procurement services. "Mursam may be the major colonial posting, but it is still a colonial posting. Yes, they'll have plenty of Mark 15s in stock but not many of the new model."

    Folding the clipboard under an arm, I shrugged. "That's what I started out with."

    Gibbs gave that cynical smile. "Yes, three years ago it was MuArc's cutting edge production model. There is a reason I have installed refit packages to upgrade all of my-" the Ritualista coughed, "-your suits to the Mark 16."

    "And you have done excellent work, given half of these came out of MuArc Amalgamated as Mark 14s," I said, once again looking over the ten newly polished and engraved suits. True to Gibbs's word, they did look like they had just been pulled out of their shipping crates, fresh from the factory. I only had nine pilots at the moment, but hopefully, the medical staff should be able to certify Charity as flight-worthy at tomorrow's check in.

    Soon, my Legionary Fliers, those who had survived, would be fully healed. Physically, at least. Without a blemish or scar, it would be like they had never been injured. So long as one ignored the mental trauma, of course. With a species capable of such rapid healing as ours, it was easy for a Legionary to deny she had any trauma accumulation. Doubly so for those in the Volantes specialization, where self-sacrifice was emphasized past even the point it was for hoof-slogging soldiers. Our scars were invisible, and a grizzled veteran could look just as peppy as a green-horn recruit, as long as one did not look too closely at her eyes.

    This sort of behavior, an unfortunate but seemingly inevitable product of a system that prized toughness and rewarded those who took on heavy burdens for the benefit of their comrades-in-arms, was an active drag upon force preservation. On the surface things may seem as pristine and enduring a fresh forged steel, but just below the fault lines lay waiting nonetheless. Fracture points liable to tear open under just the wrong kind of stress, which frequently translated to "at the worst possible moment".

    As their commander, it was my responsibility to make sure my pilots and my Ritualista were not keeping their pain inside or in denial about their traumas. This was just as much my duty as making sure that all under my command received adequate provisions so they could fly and fight. An army might march on its stomach, but bread and blood alone could not sustain life. If only Zephyr were the only spirits I had to concern myself with.

    "Countess," Gibbs's emphasis on my noble title got my attention She seemed almost concerned for me for some reason. "You have a chance to get a suit that does not need retrofitting, and may even have the latest power system variant; an advantage that has saved your life before. You might even use your reputation to once again get MuArc's best."

    "No prototypes," I immediately snapped. "If they want me to be a test pilot, they can pay me for the privilege after I muster out!"

    Gibbs snorted. "Production only. I wouldn't trust anything our test pilots and Ritualista haven't put through trials. Those boffins will come up with some too-clever bit of magical mumbo-jumbo without considerations about little things like maintenance or stability."

    Her words made me consider something, and I tilted my head slightly. "Speaking from experience? Well, you have spent many years maintaining Ritual Plate..."

    "Exactly," Gibbs flashed her fangs. "And when they're not being too-clever, it's just buzzwords or nonsense. Remember the canceled follow-on to the Gamma Block power system?"

    It took a moment, but eventually my brain made the connection. "Ah yes, the Medium Runic Conduit Circles with Dynamic Etheric Controls in the Delta Block would improve power output by fifteen percent." I nodded as the annoying, and best kept forgotten, memories washed over me. "That made quite the buzz for a while, didn’t it? Although, I can’t recall hearing much about it these days…"

    "That’s because it was literally just marketing nonsense, Ma'am," Gibbs stated evenly. "A line of random words strung together to sound clever and stand out from the market and catch the idea of Legates, Generals and Admirals."

    "That's why it was canceled for the Epsilon Block?" I asked.

    "Partially. It wasn't all bad, just not as good as they made it out to be, and they covered it up with bullshit fancy talk."

    My opinion of MuArc dimmed a bit, but I could still understand the kind of pressures a defense contractor would be under to maintain their performance edge. "Well…at least they were straightforward with having no idea why the starboard flight stabilizer array had that 44-C Amplification rune when we visited them at their factory in the capital," I conceded.

    Gibbs scoffed, "Because we blindsided them with the question. You know that in the latest manual they call it a Zephyr enrichment and engagement module?"

    "That's not... entirely wrong," I weakly defended the design and immediately wondered why I was bothering to carry MuArc's water. They were big girls, they didn't need little old me shilling for them.

    "You won't believe the things our suppliers have tried to slip through or the obvious issues they missed." Gibbs's eyes momentarily went hollow and distant, as if every overly-engineered horror from her whole career were parading through the maintenance bay.

    It really brought me back to the question I’d asked earlier. How many years has she been at this? I should look up her service record when we get back to Mursam.

    After a moment, she refocused enough to add, "Though I'll admit MuArc is better than Imperial Blimp and Freight."

    "Then why the instance on the latest version Polyxo?" I asked.

    "Because that way it'll come from the factory with most of the known problems already fixed," Gibbs explained reasonably. "And that means I can focus on the unknown problems, in addition to the expected Pilot-induced damage."

    I pointedly ignored the minor slight to my piloting skill. "While a special model designed just for me...."

    "Would be a shiny death trap." Gibbs snorted. "And you would never stand for the efficiency loss of forcing me to stock special components just for you."

    "Fine.." I relented. "It would be better if I could get a fresh modern suit, instead of having you do all the updates on an older depot model. But I'm not sure MuArc would ship me one in time."

    "Countess," she repeated, staring right at the Preserver award I wore around my neck.

    "I know; I know," I held up my free hand in grudging surrender. "If not for the blackout, I'd wire them right now. New Batavia is a civilized world."

    "It's Alecto's primary colony world," Gibbs neutrally said.

    I put her comment down to inscrutable senior NCO humor. Between her, GreyDawn, and, increasingly, Charity, my command did have a generous number of experienced Centurions; their foibles were a small price to pay for the benefit of their knowledge.

    "Still plenty of time to have my mask fixed up," I noted hopefully.

    "Being sentimental?" Gibbs wryly asked.

    "I saved it because, if I hadn't, the church would have pressured me to get a saintly face with my next suit. But with me recovering my old one, the Church can't complain about me reusing it," I explained, only slightly smug at having seen that particular bullet in time to dodge it.

    "Yes... and certainly not out of any sentimentality for something your mother gave you," Gibbs drawled, but shrugged. "Well, hopefully for you, the Church doesn’t decide that your mask'll become an increasingly holy relic the longer it remains in proximity to your face. Otherwise, your plan’s gonna backfire just a bit, huh?"

    I stared at Gibbs.

    "Anyway," ignoring my attention, the senior Ritualista looked up at the wall clock, "we still have a bit of time left to get everything ready."

    Shaking myself, I surveyed the maintainers as they finished up their work, a small cluster around every Polyxo. "I'd say you're ahead of time"

    Gibbs grunted. "Enough to have them finish the power checks and have a twenty minute stand down to use the heads, hydrate, and have a quickie snack before going back to finish the pre-flight and suit up your girls."

    There was a knocking on the hatch of the compartment, and a taller pilot, muscular with short blue hair and wings iridescent with blue-grey feathers stepped in. I bowed my horns to Prefect Centurion Fabia Firmitas HarrowFang, commander of Fourth Squadron.

    "There you are Countess. Come on, we've got to talk to the boss lady," Fabia said after returning the bow.

    "Oh, good. I've got some paperwork for Tribune Quirinus," I replied and waved my clipboard as evidence.

    Fabia gave me a sympathetic look. "That's not who I'm talking about."

    My tail drooped. "I don't suppose you mean Praefectus Commodore SharpTail?" I asked. Being called before the ship's captain would be... unexpected, but it was still better than the alternative.

    "Nah, I wish it were the Skipper." Sympathy radiated from the older centurion. If a superior officer who wasn't our direct commander in the Imperial Legions or someone in the Household Fleet command, then that left one option.

    "Right." I stared at my fellow Prefect Centurion for a moment. I turned and handed the clipboard back to Gibbs. "Have someone run this up to the Tribune."

    Gibbs took the paperwork with a sober nod.

    "Why does the Lady Legate want to talk with us?" I quietly asked Fabia once we left the compartment.

    "And only the two of us," she clarified as we went aft a frame.

    "Is it because..." I trailed off as we climbed a ladder up to the next deck.

    "Because once again we both took reckless and violent actions worthy of an Imperial Heroine and somehow lived to tell the tale?" she pointedly asked, a gleam in her steel-blue eyes.

    "I didn't do that much. I just tried to stay alive," I demurred as we stepped to one side to let some shippies go the opposite way down the corridor. A minute later, we had to go through a security checkpoint being run by a bored but thorough group of grenadiers. Ever since we had left Harp's World, shipboard internal security had been elevated.

    "Sometimes that's all you can do." Fabia's gaze went distant. "Sometimes that's not enough."

    The vision of IronTalon's suit being blown up flashed in my mind. If things had been a bit different, I would have been the one fried in my armor, and she would have been the one shot down. I nodded, and we walked aft for a bit in awkward silence. "How are your pilots doing?"

    "I'm down to ten active suits, like you, and almost as many pilots." Fabia shrugged.

    "Yours hasn't been repaired yet?" I asked, making an educated guess. She had led that "daring" attack right into the heart of Building 37 two days ago.

    "Maintenance triage," Fabia stated. "Due to extensive damage and burn-out to the power systems, my Sarpedona got booted to the end of the priority queue. It was only today that I could spare the maintainers to work on my suit, but it'll take some time to repair."

    "At least it's still salvageable," I replied then winced. "That... wasn't meant to sound so snippy."

    Fabia's tail swished. "First time?" she asked, her voice quiet

    "First time as a Squadron commander, though I did a tour in the Crocelli Jungles. But if you mean the... ground stuff, well..." I tapped the Preserver award pinned to my collar. "Not my first near brush."

    The taller woman stopped walking and shook her head. "No. First time losing a subordinate."

    "Ah." I exhaled. That was... complicated. In this life, however... "Yes," I admitted.

    I saw something shift in Fabia's gaze.

    "But I've talked with Quirinus about it!" I quickly added, hoping to assure Fabia that there was no need to bother our senior officer about the matter. After all, our Legate was dealing with her own mourning as well: her first multi-Squadron command had incurred fifteen percent Killed-in-Action.

    The lights of the ship corridor tinged Fabia's eyes purple as she studied me. "Well, she is your mentor. But if you need someone to talk to… I do have experience."

    Fabia was right about that. While the other two Prefect Centurions in our unit had more time in the Legions than I did, both Caenis and Julia were, like me, newly raised to Squadron Command. "I will," I assured.

    After another checkpoint, we arrived in Hoof-Slogger Country, the part of the Tarantula Hawk set aside for berthing the ship's infantry complement. This was also where they had some of their exercise and trailing halls, baths, auxiliary storage, conference rooms, and other miscellaneous compartments. Two of Lares's men gave us a discreet escort, which, given their great size, was surprisingly subtle. Although, really, at this point, how much of a surprise was it that the Forest People were so adroit at being understated?

    It was to one of these anonymous rooms that Fabia led me too. Invidia was waiting outside, arms crossed and wings folded to her back, ruining in the process the pretense that this room contained nothing of interest.

    My mirth quickly died when paranoia struck. Was that the reason why we had been called in? Did CSR have some esoteric operation that only women with feathered wings could accomplish?

    Invidia's angular features shifted to her own cold pleasure as she read my disquiet. "Ah, the Imperial Heroines have arrived." She bowed her horns with what I could not help but take as a slightly mocking edge and knocked on the door to her side.

    A few moments of silence passed before a chill ran down my spine from my neck to the tip of my tail. By the way the other two women shivered, I could tell that I was not the only one bothered by the strange sensation. Even Invitia's tail straightened, and her black feathers ruffled a bit before flattening back down.

    The sensation was a bit like a privacy spell, but instead of vibrating the air, the buzzing sensation lingered more in my bones than my horns or ears. I should not be surprised the CSR had some sort of detector or scanner. I knew Legion Counter Intelligence had a whole suite of arcane tricks to evaluate personnel and secure facilities. Despite doing critical if unglamorous work, LCI was very much a junior intelligence service when compared to the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance.

    There was a warbling buzzer that sounded like it should have set my teeth on edge, but did not. The oddly pleasant feeling that came in its wake disturbed me more than the door unlocking and creaking open a few inches revealing a dim gloom.

    Fabia gave Invidia a flat look, and to my further disquiet, the spook actually looked somewhat guilty at all the theatrics.

    An overhead light flickered on, revealing a dim, cramped chamber. Little more than an alcove, it was barely large enough to allow the door to swing open, let alone fit three people with fluffy wings and swishing tails. The room was bare save for another door to our left. Invidia closed the outer door behind us. Before I got too comfortable with my fellow legionaries and the risk of skin to skin contact, Invidia pulled a little leather-bound binder out of a cubby bolted to the wall. After signing us in, the room's second door to our left clicked open with another buzz.

    Thankfully, the next room was far more spacious, if decorated with all the personality of a hold full of properly-secured cargo crates. There was a drab green lightweight desk, a set of locked filing cabinets, a few vibrating anti-scrying devices, and a handful of chairs. The only personal items seemed to be a tea service secured to a table by the desk and an open case that looked for all the world like a cosmetics bag complete with jade-colored combs, a few pots of various powders, and a chromed hand-mirror.

    Looking at the stern features of Lady Legate JadeJavelin, I doubted the case was something so mundane as a mere makeup kit. "Prefect Centurions, thank you for seeing me. Please, be at ease. Tea?" the architect of Operation Epimetheus asked, her prim Alecton accent coming to the forefront.

    The tea did smell fairly good. I glanced at Fabia, who simply shrugged and took one of the two chairs in front of the Legate's desk. Invidia took two mugs that bore a satirical version of the ship's seal: a large cartoony wasp aggressively pouncing on a hairy spider and filled them with the fragrant tea. I wondered if Invidia thought using such cups was some sort of breach of operational security.

    Fabia took hers with a bit of honey. I asked for a splash of milk and a spoon of sugar. Unsurprisingly, Invidia had her tea unadulterated, but the Legate, for her part, used a peppermint stick as a stirrer that partially dissolved in her cup.

    "I did not invite you here to congratulate you for your work on Harp's World, but congratulations are nevertheless in order." The elder demoness took a sip. "Your efforts were instrumental in a successful recovery of the SilverHold and related assets."

    Invidia sat on a chair to the side by the tea set, looking somewhat like a glorified stenographer.

    "You can surmise that I have more tasks for the both of you. Our mission is not over," the Lady Legate said.

    I took a drink. The tea was a good Alecton breakfast blend. The elder demon across from us gave a polite smile that did not meet her bright blue eyes. I suppressed a shudder.

    The Lady Legate was imposing and had a quiet, terrifying air about her. Not just because she was a much older and much more powerful demoness, but also due to her rank. A Legate typically ran a legion of over seven thousand personnel. A Volantes Legate, such as my commander's commander, was in charge of an Air Group of nearly four hundred Legionary Fliers. Either formation could change the course of battles, and in the process, potentially of history. In the Fleet, the equivalent would be members of the Admiralty. Regardless, a Legate's scepter represented massive authority in the Imperial Legions. The same would have to hold true in CSR.

    However, given how Invidia, a mere Centurion, was quite familiar and chiding to Quirinus, a Volantes Tribune, it indicated an informal power greater than the official rank. Thus, a Legate in the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance would have yet more pull. Lady JadeJavelin was a woman who managed to secure the services of the assault carrier, escorts, RP Pilots, and ground combat specialists required to execute her mission, as well as the assignment of a capital ship and attached support elements as our standby reinforcements.

    She had been given authority sufficient to conduct an operation that could have, and might still, result in a declared war between Diyu's two largest Great Houses. And she had invited me over for tea.

    The elder demoness gave a rasping chuckle. "My, you are a skittish thing. The Duchess said you were nervous, but I didn't believe it."

    I stared at her. "You know my mother, Ma'am?"

    "Only in passing," JadeJavelin waved her hand. "Duchess SilverFlight is very proud of you, keeps pictures of you and everything."

    "She has supported me all my life," I said, trying to look less awkward. I should not be surprised. My mother was a reserve Legionary Tribune and had her own mercenary force of RP pilots. Doubtless, someone like the Lady Legate could find ample work for a duchess capable of quiet operations requiring a large amount of deniable firepower.

    "It is good that you got back safe to us after being shot down." She bowed her horns to Fabia, "As well as you, HarrowFang. Very bold and decisive of you to take a Flight down. Risky, but you cracked Building 37 like a nut."

    "Ma'am," Fabia bowed her horns.

    "I expected no less from a pair of Imperial Heroines." The Lady Legate lifted her cup. "And a pair of Legion Fliers without functional suits … Well, I would just hate to leave you under the impression you had somehow been overlooked."

    My tail stilled at that, and the dread in my stomach grew as Invidia pulled out a pair of forms. They were the basic bulk-printed security forms. The anodyne text and layout bellied the horror beheld in two simple pages.

    "On this day the Fourth of November, in the 432nd year Aprues des Represallia, I, Legate Lady Angela Prudentia JadeJavelin of the Office of Strategic and Cultural Reconnaissance, confirmed by the Senators of the Curia, serving by the grace of the Imperatrix, do hereby authorize this briefing to Volantes Prefect Centurions Fabia Firmitas HarrowFang and Countess Tauria Magnus DiamondDust of the Imperial Legion's 78th Infantry Legion, Epsilon Wing." The older woman put down her mug and gave us a sharp smile. "You may sign now."

    Fabia had a rather good poker face as she quickly read the proffered document. With great reluctance, I took the document, pen, and wax stick Invidia held out. The initial appearance was correct. This was a standard security form with the standard boilerplate about the consequences of unauthorized dissemination of any privileged information. The entries in the boxes looked identical to the form we had to fill in to initially get briefed into Operation Epimetheus.

    Except for two factors. First, instead of Invidia's spidery scrawl, the lettering was done in a neat copperplate that had to be the Lady Legate's. Second, a single anonymous box labeled MIH had been ticked by a hand not my own. Near the bottom, it was one among many in a long row that included such banalities as species, service branch, and province of birth.

    Neither hardly seemed worth such pomposity, which only meant that I was failing to understand the importance of one or both. Regardless, knowing I was trapped regardless, I sighed, signed, and, heating the wax, sealed the document a second after Fabia did.

    Invidia gathered the forms and smoothly gave them to the Lady Legate who, with deliberate thoroughness, scanned over them, countersigned, initialed the little MIH box, and then rolled them together into a narrow tube that bulged in the muddle around the curved lumps of still-soft wax.

    As the Lady Legate worked, Invidia watched with the tiniest bit of impatience leaking out. After the older demon picked out of the case a bottle of pale green powder, she sprinkled it onto the rolled up forms. Then, leaning over the cased mirror, there was a flash of emerald fire, and smoke billowed for a moment as the mirror's surface rippled like quicksilver. The thin plume shivered and my air spirits stirred with renewed interest as smoke was pulled down and sucked into a small silver whirlpool. The Lady Legate snapped a finger, and the mirror's surface stilled and became solid once more, placidly reflecting the room.

    "I do apologize for that theatrical tediousness, but alas, it is a necessity," the Lady Legate sighed, her prim accent making her sound slightly sarcastic. She sealed up the leather case and handed it over to Invidia. "Let that be the end of it. I assure you there will be no reading of entrails, though my subordinate is a trained Haruspex."

    Invidia gave a thin smile as she checked the case's seals.

    "Personally, I prefer augury when it comes to dubious means of gathering intelligence." JadeJavelin's narrow smile returned. "But that is not why you three fine feathered women are here."

    "It's about the SilverHold," Fabia frowned into her mug. "About how we're going to hand it over?"

    The Lady Legate gave a dry look at the mirror case. "Correct. Personally, I care far less about what the SilverHold does than who wants it back. As for all these theatrics, I do apologize for the extreme compartmentalization on Operation Epimetheus. I hope you will understand."

    I gulped down some tea, hoping it would settle my stomach.

    The senior officer smirked "Perceptive, Countess. Now that the acquisition part of the mission is over, we will begin the next phase. This requires briefing you in. We hadn't troubled you with this information earlier because you didn't need to know, there was a risk of enemy capture, and, of course, on account of the memetic and info-hazard concerns."

    My tail twitched as I tried to get it under control. The first two points were valid enough, and both of us had set foot on Harp's World, but the last...

    "But you're telling us now," Fabia flatly said.

    The Lady Legate merely arched an expectant eyebrow.

    My fellow Squadron Commander gave a long exhale. "Damnation."

    "Elena decided to play a rather dangerous game and steal from a powerful polity," the Lady Legate stated in a tone that suggested this was a simple observation, one that bore little relevance to the topic at hand, despite all contrary evidence. "One that has a very acute sense of justice. One that makes examples of those who dare affront them. One that can be a bit... indiscriminate in its retribution.

    "That alone,” she continued, the airy tone vanishing from her voice, "is enough risk to BlackSkyvian interests."

    "But the info-hazard?" Fabia pressed.

    "An advantage of said polity." The Lady Legate finished her tea. "We are dealing with beings of stories and myths. Ones that do not hail from reality as we know it, that exists in a symbiotic relationship with humans, of all things. Their power waxes in the minds of those who know of them, that grows with every story told about them. As does their influence."

    I tilted my head in disquiet while Fabia went very still. "Stories and myths? They are known to Diyu? If this 'polity' is no secret, then why the compartmentalization?

    The older demon bowed her head ever so slightly. "Ah, let me clarify. My associates and I are not chiefly concerned about the strategic implications of Diyu learning of these entities. Yes, they are known to the public, mostly as stories, folklore, and tales of their own. We are more concerned about the handful of individuals capable of extracting reality from fairy tales. Including a handful of that handful who are in positions of great influence, and are thus able to render actionable knowledge that was previously only scholarly in nature."

    "It's more a tactical issue?" I ventured. "That is, keeping the secret of who and what these entities are?"

    "More operational, but yes. The info-hazard that the knowledge that these entities are real presents to the planning and execution of this mission is a significant risk. This risk, by the way, is cumulative: The more people speak of them, the more of their attention our activities attract. Hence the circumlocutions and the compartmentalization."

    "So, discussing these entities draws their eyes to this mission…" Fabia frowned. "But, this mission was all about recovering their artifact?"

    The Lady Legate gave a slightly bitter, dry chuckle.

    "The beings we talk of are not unified," Invidia explained, a somewhat pained, almost constipated expression crossing her face. "They have peers, internal factions… Not too dissimilar to our own Great Houses, in that way. They also possess an enemy who is their perfect mirror. Should this rival, their sister polity, learn of this operation, the consequences would be almost as damaging as Elena learning of it."

    I exhaled. Great House politics was one thing, but getting into some sort of internal tiff between entities that gained more influence the more people spoke of them seemed like exactly the kind of horrifying mess CSR would wade into.

    "Who are they? What magical nonsense are we dealing with... Ma'am?" Fabia asked, apparently tired of dancing around the drake in the room.

    "The Lords and Ladies," JadeJavelin stated with clear distaste, as if she found even the euphemism tiresome. "Also called the Gentry, Those Below the Hill, or half a dozen other equally florid titles."

    My wings lowered. It sounded like she was talking about some kind of fae creature. She was correct that legends of such things were common on Diyu, largely stemming from human myths appropriated by the same demons who had appropriated so much else of human culture. According to virtually all of the stories I had heard, speaking the name of one of the fae was the surest way to gain its attention, to summon them. My stomach also sank as the concept of being with such powers reminded me too much of an echo of Being X's so-called omniscience.

    The Sarpedona pilot stared for a long moment. "You're serious? El-"

    "Yes Primus," the Lady Legate interrupted, "I requisitioned a newly refitted assault carrier, escorts, a Wing's worth of Ritual Plate, and a heavy Century of specialist infantry, then threw you all at a research facility, got two dozen of our people killed, risked a battlecruiser, and potentially started the Fourth Great House War on a lark," the Lady Legate's tone was dryly acerbic.

    Then her gaze was as sharp and cold as drawn steel. "And do not, under any circumstances, say that word."

    Fabia bowed her horns in apology.

    The older demoness waved off the gesture. "It is a bit much to take in, I know,” she said in a mildly conciliatory tone. “It always is. Peer states out on, or above, the Dimensional Spine are often... troublesome, and the Lords and Ladies all the moreso given the difficulties involved in reaching their territory, which is all I'll say about that."

    She pushed her cup over to Invidia, who dutifully refilled it before passing it back. The Lady Legate took a delicate sip, and then primly announced, "The first thing to keep in mind is that the Fae lie."

    "The stories make it seem like the opposite," I noted, dozens of stories of oaths and technicalities coming immediately to mind..

    "Quite." The Lady Legate put the cup down. "The Lords and Ladies, as I will refer to them again, are beings of deception. They are not, to say the least, particularly ladylike."

    I managed not to snort at a mistress of spies making such a statement.

    "They can weave falsehoods via implication, omission, supposition, and deflection. They can quote someone else. They can ask a question that can be taken as a statement. Given all of that, does it matter that, within the pure strictures of Boolean logic, they cannot utter an untrue statement?" the Lady Legate asked.

    "Surely, some value can be derived from their statements nonetheless," I said, answering the clearly rhetorical question despite Invidia's sharp look. This seemed important enough to justify a minor faux pas. "If one of the Gentry makes a direct statement, then by the strictures placed upon them, that direct statement must be true, at least to a certain specific quality or in a particular light."

    "Which is why they are loath to make direct statements," Invidia said, subsiding with a shrug.

    "They hate to make such statements, yes," the Lady Legate agreed, "but the Lords and Ladies relish the edge they gain from over-confident outsiders believing that they have put one of them into a position of disadvantage. They delight in enlightening such individuals as to the depths of their hubris once the threshold of no return is well and truly passed.

    "But, because the Lords and Ladies have a compulsion about pacts and deals, dealing with them can have small measure of worth. Though they are very inclined to play games with their word, it is still their currency, their social lubricant, their diplomacy. They are bound by their oaths and by their word, which is why they never fail to ensure such arrangements are to their advantage. No matter how it may seem to be in yours."

    "It is safer to assume trickery and deception. Do not make a deal, do not incur a debt, even inadvertently," Invidia added unhelpfully. "Their inability to speak false is a technicality in name only, for they will ruthlessly seek to deceive and enthrall you with every breath."

    Fabia gave me a glance.

    I picked up my own cup and managed to keep it from trembling. "I presume this briefing and etiquette lesson is not academic. You're going to give the SilverHold back, and you want us to be with you."

    This time when the Lady Legate smiled, a ghost of the mirth sparkled in her eyes. "Quite."

    "It would be foolish, as well as impolite, to not have some kind of honor guard," Invidia explained.

    "The impoliteness would be the foolishness," the Lady Legate sighed, and for a brief moment, her true age, the long fatigue of deep weariness shone through her controlled facade. "The risks, the losses… In the grand scheme of things, all of those are worth what we gained, but they will only remain as such if we return the SilverHold without giving the Lords and Ladies cause for offense."

    "Which polity of fae are these?" Fabia asked.

    JadeJavelin's hard gaze returned.

    "It's no coincidence that the SilverHold was used to drop temperatures and generate snow."

    "Ah," Fabia nodded understandingly. "Our embassy will be with no wildfae or minor polity but with the Unseelie Court itself."

    The Lady Legate held up a quelling hand. "Allow me to reiterate this point: do not speak the names of any sovereigns or nobles or factions you may have heard mentioned in stories. Some of the named parties might oblige your call."

    Speak of the Devil, I thought, tail growing cold. How ironic that now that I have become a demon, it is I who has to worry about my tongue?

    Externally, I carefully gathered my words so as to maintain at least some level of decorum. "I'm... in no great hurry to see which legends are true."

    JadeJavelin's bleak smile returned. "Do not fret. The Lords and Ladies are beings driven by their nature. And while all of Diyu may earn their ire, my associates doubt they are a truly existential threat. But make no mistake: they can hurt us, and given the cosmology of where they hail from, any expeditionary force we send would have great trouble exacting revenge."

    "One can see that famine, even on a small scale, is a natural threat such beings could pose to us, by dint of their nature," Invidia observed, flexing her fingers as she spoke. A spike of fear and anger flared from the CSR spook before she tamped it down, which was understandable. While no society reacts well when faced with starvation, our species tended to be particularly extreme in our reaction to hunger.

    "Still, we have contingencies," Invidia declared in a particularly wintry voice, failing entirely to be reassuring. "Take comfort in that existential posturing is not one-way."

    I could imagine just what dread measures lurked behind the word "contingencies." The bulk of the stories claimed that the fae were weak to iron, of all things, while a minority insisted on silver. Either way, the Great Houses of Diyu did not lack for creativity in arms, nor stocks of base metals. The War of Reprisal and the Empty Quarter were evidence enough of that.

    "And since you want Imperial Heroines to be your Honor Guard, who better than a pair of Legionary Fliers who, without suits, would be waiting on the airship anyway," Fabia stated.

    Invidia gave that smarmy grin again, perhaps my least favorite of all of her expressions. "But of course," she said as she secured the mirror's case in a locking cabinet but also withdrew a ribbon-wrapped folder and handed it to the Lady Legate.

    "More than that," JadeJavilin added as she opened the folder and put out a few cheaply-printed chapbooks. Most of these were heavily fictionalized propaganda pieces recounting my adventures, but a good number were slightly older ones featuring similar nonsense about Fabia. "You are both beings of story and legend, quality of course varying. You have also been named by the Imperatrix and fall under her aegis. In these circles, such factors are of great importance and bear great weight."

    Fabia's features hardened a bit at seeing the pile of little books with their crude illustrations. The beginning of an exasperated sneer only just held back. "Ah."

    "Oh yes,” the Lady Legate continued with a relish I found distinctly unlovely, "you both are known across the empire in song and story. From the cheapest cinema to the highest brow ballet, your names receive top billing in whichever productions you might appear in. And you both, protests aside, have used that narrative to advance your positions.

    "Not a statement of judgment, mind," she clarified, "Leveraging such advantages is both natural and rational. It does, however, add a certain degree of… let us just call it narrative weight to your roles. And with such weight comes worth, at least to beings whose sweetest sup is story-telling."

    I tried not to fidget in my chair even as my mind and gut twisted uncomfortably. It was... audacious, to say the least. If the Lords and Ladies truly craved mortal stories, if they were influenced by them, if such stories were their meat and bread, then bringing two living legends was a very definitive move. Although the full implications of that move were admittedly somewhat lost on me, I could certainly see the logic, no matter how distasteful.

    When faced with beings who gained more influence the more people talked about them, beings about whom even the CSR was afraid to speak openly about for fear of their meddling, JadeJavelin had decided to go on the offensive. After all, if the narrative magic of the fae was real, then it had to be a two way connection. If I were not a pawn in this gambit, I might have appreciated her daring.

    "Meanwhile, both of you have studiously worked to minimize the odds of having such popular... weight attached to your names?" I ventured a guess.

    "Names have power," the Lady Legate agreed, though I couldn’t help but notice how she refrained from answering my question. "Still, both myself and my protege also have our own honor names."

    I glanced at Invida and wondered what hers was. Perhaps she had been awarded Fidelis; that seemed appropriately ironic. "And our notoriety brings us a measure of... protection?"

    "Indeed,” the Lady Legate agreed, just a bit too quickly for my liking, “that, and a message. Both you and Centurion HarrowFang went through the crucible at quite young ages and have since shown remarkable tenacity even at great personal risk. Take Harp's World: Countess, after being shot down, you could have merely stuck to evasion. Given your skills, you could have even baited your Elenese pursuers into an ambush of your choosing. Instead, you seized the initiative at every angle, turned predator into prey, and set the forest ablaze with your passion."

    A halfhearted protest died in my throat, and my wings slumped. I'm never going to live that down, am I?

    The elder demoness turned to Fabia. "And while I appreciate how decisive you were in leading a ground assault, we both know that your actions had considerable risk... both from the enemy, and from your superiors, had you not proven yourself victorious."

    Throat dry, I sipped my own tea. "Okay I can see why you wanted us. But what would have happened if Fabia or I had died? It was hardly an outside risk. DarkStar's Blood, I was shot down! I'm lucky I wasn't killed."

    JadeJaviln didn't look up as she gathered up the little chapbooks that had been spilled on her desk. "Not to worry. We have a list of backup candidates."

    I blinked. "Oh."

    Invidia accepted the refilled folder with a toothy grin. "Besides, what makes you think you were at the top of the list?"

    My mind flashed back to Lady Primus Felicity IvoryQuiver, she was a Svalinna Pilot of some renown in the Household Fleet and had died two days ago. Having seen her in battle, I could say that her legend was warranted. Did she have an honor name? If so, I wondered which of us was her replacement. A shiver went down my spine to the tip of my tail at the all too chilling reminder of just how replaceable I was, even as a “Heroine of the Empire” with “narrative weight”. Ultimately, I was still just a cog in a very large machine. The story of my lives.

    The Lady Legate gave Invidia a disapproving look. "But yes, our plan will be to have the four of us be at the handoff when we return the SilverHold. Other assets will be in position and in the air."

    Trying not to glare, I nodded. They were still keeping secrets from us; Fabia and I still had no idea what the SilverHold was.

    "The handover is at risk,” I said, stating the obvious. If it was not, there would be no need for airborne reinforcements to just hang around burning time and fuel. “Does that risk stem from rival factions among the Lords and Ladies?"

    "Internally and externally. There are factions within the Unseelie Court but they also have their historical rivals in the Seelie Court. Not to mention their external enemies." The Lady Legate stared at her cup. "Also, we cannot discount our own rivals making an attempt to spoil the soup. It is possible that Elena or some other Great House would attempt to interfere."

    "Or perhaps take the SilverHold from us and hand it over to the Lords and Ladies to claim the credit?" Fabia asked. That the DarkStar had continued to escort us was ample evidence that no chances were being taken.

    "Perhaps, which is why all assets taken from the Onyx Institute are secure. Quite secure in the case of the SilverHold. No one is taking it from us." The Lady Legate's eyes twinkled, indicating that she would not elaborate.

    There were plenty of secure and secure places on the Tarantula Hawk to stow the SilverHold. The Torpedo magazine in the bow was just one possibility. More than the hatches that limited access, the literal tons of ordnance and fuel stockpiled there could be detonated, in extremis. Such a detonation would destroy, or if we were very, very lucky, cripple the ship, but that would certainly be enough firepower to ensure no one else would get ahold of the damnable fae artifact.

    Thus, a highly secure facility.

    "And these measures are sufficient to secure the SilverHold from beings who we cannot freely name?" Fabia asked.

    The Lady Legate's smile turned vicious. "I told you, it is quite secure. Even if they were able to locate the Tarantula Hawk, unless they were invited aboard, the actions they could take would be severely circumscribed. You see, the Lords and Ladies are also limited by the rules of guest-right and hospitality.

    "Another reason to restrict knowledge," JadeJavelin added. "The only people who can invite them are those who have been read in."

    "Unless invited, these people…" Fabia trailed off inquiringly. "What? Can't take the SilverHold?"

    "Or harm anyone, or use any knowledge gleaned," Invidia added as she went back to the tea set to refresh everyone's cups. "They can hire mercenaries, who of course do not have such restrictions, but that is why I have assigned the ground teams to augment ship-board security among other such containment measures."

    I rubbed my eyes. I could dismiss the concept of powerful beings limited in such a way as silly mumbo-jumbo, but... wasn't I sitting on a ship that kept a number of ship's cats with the express purpose of helping firm up the vessel's own Threshold? All to help better anchor things like wards, jammers, and teleport systems. Even Uriel had admitted that he was “limited in his remit” when we had met, and he was a supposed archangel sitting outside of time and space that apparently helped me kill a so-called "god".

    Besides, what was a ward but a magical shield that acted as a direct means of blocking out the uninvited? It just also happened to work well against energetic guests at sufficient velocity.

    JadeJavelin accepted her freshened cup with grace. "We need to give you a crash course in conversational tactics: etiquette, informational security, and diplomacy. You will need to understand the basics of fae culture and motivations. This is all with the aim of keeping you from accidentally incurring an obligation or debt with them. Fortunately, this is exactly what CSR was founded for. I will free up as much of my schedule as possible but, given my commitments, Invidia will supplement your lessons."

    Invidia gave Fabia and I an almost apologetic shrug.

    "After we finish our resupply and recharge here on New Batavia, our next jump will take us to Forlorn Prospect, the location of the handover, but we expect to arrive several days in advance, giving us adequate time to get into position and reconnoiter the site," JadeJavelin said. Which explained the continued presence of the HFV Tamora and its complement of Occultia recon suits.

    "Ah," I said as I took in the full capabilities of the reinforced flotilla around the Tarantula Hawk. It was, I noted, a very quiet little force that nicely complemented the DarkStar and her rather heavy escort. The poisoned dagger and the cavalry saber. I glanced at Fabia, who nodded to me.

    The elder demoness watched us come to the realization. "We may have taken losses during the raid on Harp's World but we have teeth. It is my hope that the Lords and Ladies will parley in good faith and accept the SilverHold, but if not, we will be ready for them."

    +++++

    Considering the world it glared down upon, it was a cruel irony that the sun shining on Forlorn Prospect was a bright blue inferno. I was not sure if it was orbital distance atmospheric attenuation or what, but the Alecton colony world only had a very narrow equatorial band that was even remotely comfortable during their long year.

    Alas, we were not at a temperate latitude, and thus there was considerable ground shine that reflected up from the craggy permafrost surface below us, turning the planetary surface below into white-blue hell. However, that same view did make up for the brightness, and the long climb it took to get all the way up to the secondary dorsal observation station.

    A hexagonal blister consisting of panes of glass with metal shutters on the top of the starboard hull near the front of the ship, the post gave us an unobstructed view of the Tarantula Hawk's entire upper half. Nearly two hundred feet to our left was the primary forward station atop the ship's port hull.

    Under most operational conditions, the compartment we were in lay idle, but in case of emergency or poor visibility, could be used to direct high tempo operations. More commonly, posts like there were a relatively popular hangout spot on the ship. Though the difficulty in getting to the dorsal posts did make them at the bottom of the list. It had taken some favor trading to get private use of the observation post, but only minimal dickering had been required; after recent events, my star was on the rise among the ship's complement.

    Marching down the hull were the recessed hatches that contained the Vel launchers and other close-in defenses, and behind us were some of the propulsion pods and the giant twin vertical tails.

    However, GreyDawn, my Vs, and I were all focused on the leviathan bulk of HFV DarkStar as it flew with its escorts off to our port side. Lit from above and below, the twin-hulled vessel shone like a quarter-mile sculpture. VTOLs glinted like tiny dragonflies as they darted into and out from the aft sections of the high-altitude behemoth.

    The DarkStar's camouflage systems had blended its coloration to match that of the sky around it, leaving the appearance of a ship outlined in silver tracery, grey fog, and blue crystal.

    The Tarantula Hawk's own low-profile systems were superior but for the last couple days, our assault carrier had been pretending to be a plain old Mellona medium carrier. Similarly, we were traveling slower to keep in formation with the larger vessel. Faster than the Fleet's battlewagons, the DarkStar could cruise at a standard fleet speed of around ninety-five miles per hour. The Tarantula Hawk was about ten percent faster than that.

    Compared to the other observation posts, the dorsal ones were less popular given the difficulty in reaching them, but after today's events, I was more than happy to have a bit of privacy.

    "It's a shame you can't fly next to such a legendary ship," VioletBlood said with a slight pout. "Although, perhaps it isn’t quite all that it’s been cracked up to be; I expected more ornamentation from a vessel of such renown."

    "What, like hundred foot tall gilt bas relief icons of DarkStar and various saints?" GreyDawn sarcastically asked as she made sure we had privacy. The baffling magic made my horns buzz annoyingly.

    "Don't be silly!" VioletBlood huffed. "That'd be far too much extra weight."

    I stared at my betrothed. "That... is a valid critique."

    "Quite so," Visha remarked. "Were you thinking something painted onto the hull? Or maybe some smaller devotional symbols?"

    The Baroness nodded. "See, Countess? The Islander girl gets it."

    "Fine, I suppose there would be a number of gold stars and other icons when the ship is gussied up for over-flights, formal reviews and other events." My tail flicked as I sighed, one frustration to the long climb up here was the outfit I was wearing that VioletBlood had oh so thoughtfully brought for me.

    "The DarkStar's not alone in that," VioletBlood noted with a triumphant smirk.

    I smiled despite my better judgment. "Your foresight was appreciated."

    "I knew you wouldn't think to bring anything like that," she proudly said.

    "It did come in handy," I allowed.

    "That's what I'm here for: to do the thinking for you," the Baroness smirked at Visha's light chuckle. "And I'm glad you got to wear it today. Do you know how much of my luggage allotment I sacrificed to make sure you had something proper to wear?"

    "I admit I didn't think to pack a nun outfit," I sighed in defeat.

    "One of your poofiest and most formal nun outfits," VioletBlood added, as if that helped. Admittedly, her wings around my shoulders did soften the blow somewhat and made the insufferably frilly dress almost tolerable.

    "It did come in handy for this morning's ceremony. Maybe you should thank LoveBlood for her generosity," Visha suggested, always the peacemaker.

    I did not huff, nor did I stamp a foot, and I certainly did not lean into her hug. "Thank you, Baroness. Formal attire certainly leant the ceremony some additional gravitas." Somehow, I managed to say all of that with a straight face and even avoided pointing out that, unlike me, the ship's chaplains had not worn wimples large enough to act as sails, let alone any billowing gowns.

    "Could you imagine how embarrassing it would be if, after a mission like this, after a ship like that appears," the Baroness flicked her tail in the direction of the battlecruiser, "if you were found lacking for anything proper to wear?"

    "Perish the thought," GreyDawn said straight-facedly, her amusement nevertheless obvious for all to feel.

    I frowned. Curse her eyes, she was right. After yesterday's briefing, it was clear that CSR deliberately requested the DarkStar. I was certain that they hoped the venerable ship would not be needed on Harp's World, but even having the battlecruiser for the handover here on Forlorn Prospect would add to the story the Lady Legate was trying to build. But now... now they could spin a web about my great piety praying for DarkStar to save us all.

    Damnable spooks and the webs they weave. May their blood boil in DarkStar’s enmity, I cursed as my tail lashed at the deck.

    "And you were lovely." VioletBlood preened as she broke the hug to look me over. "Then you even made time to talk to your subordinates. You're very caring and a wonderful Squadron commander."

    "Thank you LoveBlood." I eyed her. "But are you sure this is just sweet talk?"

    "I can't just be nice and complement you?" she blinked innocently.

    Visha and I exchanged a look. "No?"

    She pouted at us, but I remained resolute in my skepticism. Eventually, she gave first.

    "Fine. Are you sure there's not more we need to know about this operation? You know, to better help support you when you go down to the surface tomorrow night?" Baroness VioletBlood asked, bold as brass and instantly justifying my very grounded reservations.

    "Ah…" I glanced away, knowing the hurt I would see in their eyes from my admission. "I'm afraid… unfortunately, ladies, further details are well and truly restricted. All I can disclose is that it is for good reason."

    I took no joy in having to hoard secrets from my Vs. It was not like I had been told any truly game changing truth, other than the nature of who owned the SilverHold. For DarkStar's sake we had spent two hours this morning going over meal etiquette, which was especially rich given the primary rule about food when around the Lords and Ladies was: Don't.

    I glanced at Visha for support. She smiled at me, but even she did not know everything.

    Part of me worried that Visha had her suspicions about the few things I kept from even her. She and her too-perceptive friend, Erya, had harbored suspicions about my own maturity and command skill all the way back when I was still Tanya von Degurechaff. But now... as Victorious Shadow, she possessed the advantage of the memories and experiences from her life as Viktoriya Serebryakov. Would she make the deductive leap? Had she made it already?

    VioletBlood gave me a skeptical glance, then pointedly put her full attention onto the magical tuning fork GreyDawn was operating.

    "I'll confess Primus, I suspected you wanted to talk to us about something important, but private, when you had us go all the way up to this isolated spot," GreyDawn admitted. "But even if you wanted me to play chaperone, I doubt you would have insisted on me casting a baffle for you."

    "Not to mention you did not bring Primus Hood up here, so you only wanted those of us from the old days," VioletBlood said with a little grin on her face.

    "She's taking some extra time to help her Flight mourn. A more personal memorial instead of the pomp and ceremony the chaplains and I could provide." I rubbed my eyes. There was a lot I wanted to tell them, but despite my innate paranoia, I found it hard to disagree with CSR's assessment of the threat. Even now, I was loathe to think too much about the Lords and Ladies.

    I had spent a lifetime planning, plotting, fighting, and defeating a being of near omniscience. And after all that toil and trouble, the concept of going up against creatures with even an echo of Being X's powers was not an experience I relished.

    I looked over the trio of pilots. "Your mission tomorrow will be critical. If the situation requires it, you may get some... strange targeting orders."

    Visha gave a sad little nod while VioletBlood's customary laughter stilled. and GreyDawn looked thoughtful. "That does explain why the brass horns wanted a Strike Squadron despite having an over-abundance of Torpedo launchers."

    "Lances do give air strikes a personal touch." I gave them a hollow smile. "Invidia and her associates aren't lying. This mission, the SilverHold it... it actually is important. Quite so."

    GreyDawn's expression turned thoughtful. "There's only a few reasons to have such restriction of information, especially after the mission's complete."

    Visha gave her a calculating but cautioning look.

    The older Legionary Flier held up a hand. "I know better than to speculate on such matters. Especially with how both of our Wing's Imperial Heroines were tapped for honor guard duties."

    VioletBlood exhaled and gave me a toothy smile. "You want us to be your special backup," she purred.

    "Nothing so arch." I held up a hand. "For tomorrow you'll get a briefing, but that won't give the full context. You will be one of the contingency plans."

    "And if we are... hypothetically told to fire right by your position, you'd rather have Lance fire close than some angry spirits maneuvering multi-ton Torpedoes a stone's throw away?" Visha asked.

    "Hypothetically, of course," VioletBlood added once again embracing me. "You have trained us to provide pin-point targeting even with the most powerful of weapons."

    "Something like that," I allowed, wondering why she was being so amorous today. "Regardless, we should let Invidia and the Lady Legate have their secrets and schemes."

    GreyDawn shook her head.

    Visha also gave a little smile.

    And VioletBlood's amusement was blatant.

    "What?" I demanded.

    "You brought us up here for a private, secret, intimate, meeting" the Baroness put her wings over my shoulders for emphasis, "all to reassure us that we need to trust the spooks no matter how crazy their orders were."

    I sighed as my tail flicked. "There's more to it than that..." I admitted. In truth, there was little my Squadron could do to change events if I felt that CSR had... overstepped their bounds. The DarkStar was at the center of a battle group that out-massed and out-classed us in every way and every asset. I suppose the Tarantula Hawk was a quieter platform, but it was not like I had any influence over the ship's commander Praefectus Commodore SharpTail.

    But I did have the utter loyalty of my pilots, I could only hope my good works would be enough to nudge the needle in a less catastrophic direction. "You all have Gorgon Rigs and I've trained you to keep situational awareness. Visha, you may have to take the initiative, like we've trained in the past. "

    Visha's sunny disposition clouded slightly. "Like the good old days?" she asked, picking up my subtext. In our previous lives, we often got a lot closer to the ground.

    I nodded. "Fabia will be down with me, so unfortunately we won’t be able to rely on her for those kinds of heroics this time."

    VioletBlood cackled with partial understanding. "You want us to react before we get orders?"

    "That's a fine line," GreyDawn said with studied neutrality.

    "Legionary officers are supposed to show initiative." I flashed my fangs. "Invidia should be well aware of what she's getting into when she dragged us into this."

    My moment was ruined a bit by VioletBlood putting her chin on my shoulder to where her horns rubbed against mine. Her amusement and lo…loyalty coming through the now very close connection. Her tail had also wrapped around my leg which in a more public setting would have been at risk of undermining my authority. However, given the smiles Visha and GreyDawn were trying to hold in I suppose I had less to fear in that regard. If only I could keep my own tail from nervously curling.

    +++++

    The walk back down to the second deck where our bunks and briefing rooms was a laborious journey down twelve stories of ladderway after ladderway, helped not one bit by the heap of fripperies under which I had to labor. Sometimes, the route had a detour with a platform that went to one side before we resumed the seemingly endless set of steps. These corridors had hatches that led to the various inspection gantries that weaved among the lifting cells that kept the massive assault carrier aloft. They also provided access to the wide array of warding, veiling, and teleportation systems that had been built into the structural frames and skin of the airship.

    It was at the first of these landings that we ran into a pair of grenadier friends of Lares's. My notoriety only extended so far, but his vouching for me did give us a measure of privacy as the Legionaries pocketed their dice, picked up their kit, and escorted us the rest of the way. I appreciated their vigilance but, if I wanted to sabotage the ship, I literally had access to magazines containing ship-killing ordnance.

    If anything, the workout was a nice distraction for my mind. I knew that many Legionaries, especially members of the ground teams, would climb up and down these ladders as part of their PT. There was also a set of corridors on the third deck that roughly circumnavigated the ship, giving a running track that was over eleven hundred feet long. Five laps was close enough to a mile for most purposes.

    My own pilots made use of those facilities. The greenhorns were long used to my training ethos and did not complain, and Lucia's mob also was fine with burning off excess energy.

    It was fortunate that we were not winded or fatigued when we made it out of the upper reaches of the ship and into the bow area of the second deck. Our bunks were not far from here, nor were the rest of the amenities of "pilot country".

    We had just gotten down to this deck, and were passing the smoking lounge, when the outer doors opened and Invidia stepped out. She gave me her cold self-satisfied smile and stepped aside to let a pair of Fleet officers exit the lounge.

    To my surprise, both bore the Praefectus rank. The shorter of the two was a pugnacious looking woman with a rounded face framed by a short bob of amber-colored hair, dusky grey skin a few shades darker than my Signifier's, and a solid fire-plug like body. I recognized her asValentina SharpTail, mistress of the Tarantula Hawk. Wearing the basic dark blue coveralls all shippies wore as their default duty-wear, the only sign of her station were the gold saber-over-oar pins at her collar.

    Next to her, however, was a woman resplendent in Fleet Whites. DarkStar's Blood, she even had a sword buckled to her waist and a Preserver Award tied around her throat! The gold-winged ruby teardrop was the mirror image of the one I bore with my own set of immaculate Legion Blacks.

    Willowy and well-formed, the white-clad demon moved with an utter confidence and grace perfectly matched by the haughty expression carved into hauntingly familiar aquiline features. Her skin, an interesting sapphire shade, contrasted strongly with the pair of deep amber eyes that, for all of her studied aloofness, were focused intently on me. Her proud head was crowned with tresses pulled back into a severe bun whose structure was maintained by silver pins adorned with quadripoint stars.

    The Lady Legate followed up close behind her, cutting off any possibility of a conversation absent her contributions. "There you are Countess DiamondDust, I'm sure you know of our skipper SharpTail, but please allow me the pleasure of introducing Praefectus Commodore Countess SunsetFrost, commanding HFV DarkStar."

    "Please, do." I saluted, keeping in my apprehension. "A pleasure, Ma'am."

    SunsetFrost gave me an imperious smile and an approving glance to VioletBlood before returning the salute. "We've heard much about you," she said in the same elegantly vicious voice that I had heard when her ship had arrived on Harp's World. "I must say, Countess, a most impressive display," she purred, her words as sharp as the sword on her hip.

    It was quite impressive when you summoned her ship with your prayers, wasn’t it? a traitorous voice teased in my mind.

    "You are far too kind. I just did my duty to House, Empire, and Our Hallowed Lady." I added the last upon noting the other myriad of DarkStar regalia she wore. Like me, she bore a set of ruby earrings that practically had to be relics, as well as some silver bands near the end of her tail and a set of engraved bracelets. That the iconography on all of her jewelry indicated that we shared the same sect in the Church was the deciding factor in the pious addition. What use were cultural connections if they went unused, after all.

    Something like genuine joy, with a dash of religious fervor flared across her narrow ascetic’s face, and immediately I regretted my impulsive choice. Oh Hallowed Lady, was this the kind of madwoman the Admiralty put in charge of a battlecruiser? And thanks to LoveBlood, I’m meeting her dressed up as a nun!

    "My, she really is a pious thing, Angela," SunsetFrost noted to the Lady Legate in a breathtaking bit of familiarity as her tail swished.

    "Her record is quite clear on the matter," JadeJavelin dryly stated. I noticed she had refrained from expressing her own thoughts on the matter.

    "In fact, she was just giving religious advice to one of her pilots who is interested in converting," VioletBlood merrily chirped in with her own eager pride.

    Her fellow noble redhead eyed her approvingly. "That is right and proper. She clearly has taken the oaths of the Sisterhood as well." The DarkStar's commander studied my fiancee and then looked over Visha, and finally GreyDawn.

    "Forgive me for the lack of full introductions. May you have the pleasure of meeting Primus Centurions Victorious Shadow of my First Flight, Baroness VioletBlood of my Second, and Signifier GreyDawn, my senior pilot. The Baroness is my betrothed and Victorious is my mistress." Somehow, I managed to keep an even tone throughout the ludicrous introduction; it all sounded so tawdry when laid out so bluntly.

    SunsetFrost nodded to them and gave me what seemed like a reassuring smile but there was also that glee about her. I pushed down any misgivings; having the approval of the commander of the DarkStar was a good connection to have, in the military, the church, and among the nobility. "Ah, young love. You'll treasure this time, but... enough reminiscing. I'm not just here to exchange pleasantries."

    Behind her, Invidia gave me a wintry smile.

    "Volantes Prefect Centurion Countess DiamondDust, it has come to my attention that you will not be properly dressed for your upcoming honor guard duties." SunsetFrost's tone was mild, but I had been around acerbic nobles enough to spot the adder in the grass. She tapped the hilt of her sword. "I would be more than happy to loan you a weapon as well."

    My mind raced as I went over the lessons in deportment and high-society survival I had been given in the capital last year, not to mention the diplomatic refresher Invidia had been running me through recently. I wasn't sure about the game she was playing at, but I had a reasonable guess.

    "Then if I'm not too forward, allow me to thank you for your generosity in helping in such a way," I graciously said, bowing my horns. "You must allow me to make this up to you."

    "It's no grand gesture," SunsetFrost assured. "I'm happy to help another servant of the Imperatrix and a member of the faith."

    "Oh, but I insist," I pressed, trying to keep my wings from fluffing. I had no idea what she was offering, but at least I was correct that there was some sort of deal. Besides, insisting seemed like the right and aristocratic thing to do.

    Meanwhile, GreyDawn seemed bemused by the noble dance happening around her, but wisely held her tongue.

    "If you insist..." SunsetFrost gave a theatrical sigh as she undid her sword belt and held the ebony scabbard with its silver-fitting out to me. "I shall have to take your favor in return as an act of charity."

    I may have miscalculated. I privately admitted within the confines of my skull. Externally, I numbly took the blade and said, "That is more than acceptable."

    "I told you, you should have brought the sword your mother and sister made for you," VioletBlood remarked before helping me belt the bloody thing around my waist.

    "You should listen to your Baroness," SunsetFrost laughed, obviously amused by LoveBlood's outburst.

    I simply nodded and kept in a sigh. What was the point of all these bloody rules of etiquette if a noblewoman could blatantly violate them whenever she pleased?

    Centering myself, I bowed at her. "Thank you for the loan. I will use it with honor and return the blade to you or forfeit my life."

    "I expect no less," SunsetFrost waved and glanced to her fellow ship commander. "And you were worried about the Hoof-sloggers, Sharpie. Both Imperial Heroines are impeccable young ladies."

    SharpTail shrugged. "I am glad they met with your approval. I'll pass your compliments on to Tribune Quirinus."

    I kept a glassy smile. The Lady Legate was having the commander of the DarkStar loan items to Fabia and myself? I wondered what she had gotten. Maybe a sidearm. I wondered if I could trade Fabia the sword for the pistol.

    "We shall do that directly! I have a bit of time before I must go back to my own ship. Angela, are you free for a bit more?" SunsetFrost asked the Lady Legate.

    "But of course." JadeJavelin nodded.

    I was slightly in awe of the battlecruiser commander's force of personality. Not only did the Lady Legate outrank her, but CSR's sinister clout made it so that most officers would listen to the "suggestions" of someone even of lower rank. It seemed that SunsetFrost felt that such rules were for people who didn't have a capital ship at their beck and call. Or maybe it was specifically that capital ship that gave her the political cover for such familiarity.

    Or maybe SunsetFrost is simply like that. I thought. She wouldn’t be the first officer I ran into with such an odd kind of charisma. Always best to steer clear of their chaos, I say.

    "Let us go talk to the Volantes Tribune then," Sharptail said, giving a slight nod to the Lady Legate. Yes, despite being the same rank as SunsetFrost, the Tarantula Hawk's captain was more accommodating to CSR. Which was expected, seeing how the high-veiled assault carrier was made for the exact kind of sketchy operations JadeJavelin and her associates got up to. Fleet or not, Commodore SharpTail was clearly beholden to the force sinistre the CSR represented.

    Invidia coughed. "If you'll accept my apology, Ma'ams; I have other duties."

    "Nor a formal Apology I'm sure," SunsetFrost warmly said. "I just loaned out my sword and my sidearm, Centurion."

    "Nothing so arch," the Lady Legate assured. "Invidia is merely entertaining some of our other... guests and should make sure that all their needs are seen to."

    SunsetFrost nodded before turning to me. "Best of luck Countess DiamondDust, and may DarkStar guide your hand."

    "May Her wisdom bring you enlightenment," I automatically replied.

    The DarkStar's captain bowed her horns to me while the Tarantula Hawk's shook her head slightly. The Lady Legate then left with them going further forward towards the ship's bow while Invidia slipped off to a side passage.

    "That's certainly a positive development for tomorrow," GreyDawn stated.

    I gave her a look and eyed the rest of the corridor. It was just the three of us. Where had the grenadiers gone? Were they helping route traffic to detour around us? Or did they have the sense to, upon seeing a gaggle of brass-horns, slip away to avoid the attention of senior officers?

    Damnation…how do they do that? I wondered, half bewildered and half jealous. If I could sneak off half as easily, I wouldn’t get stuck in these impossible situations nearly as often.

    "Oh yes, I think she likes you, Countess," Visha cheered.

    "Clearly, she has good taste," VioletBlood eyed the sword before giving me a toothy smile. "And you were worried about tomorrow."

    "Yes, I was," I sighed, patting the hilt.

    End Chapter 30

    And we're nearing the end as the SilverHold will soon be given back to its rightful owners, and everything will be fixed. The next chapter REDACTED has over 8k written and is on the last scene of the last chapter of this arc.

    Thanks to Ahuva, DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Larc , Readhead, metaldragon868 , and ScarletFox for checking and editing this chapter. Special Thanks to Endymion for the idea of having the DarkStar's captain loan her sword to Tauria. There's been great contributions from all my editors as they help really polish this work.
     
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2024
  30. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Poor Tanya. Fae bullshit is never fun. At least she had a presumably great night with her Vs with her loot before all this shit. Also
    this particular flavor of suffering is some of the most entertaining I've seen Tanya deal with and I want to see more. Especially if it involves cultures who wouldn't take such a blunt introduction nearly as well as her current one does.
     
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