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The officers of the Reichspolizei who were detailed to provide security for the impending ceremony in the Great Imperial Hall found themselves in a curious condition. It was, after all, an exciting and momentous day, and both a great honor and a major responsibility to be tasked with the safety of the Emperor and of his many very important honored guests. Many of the most important figures in the world were inside the Hall right now. Exceptional vigilance was called for.
On the other hand, nobody expected anything to actually happen. Neukarlsland was a very orderly place, and though important, few (if any) of the Kaiser's guests were terribly controversial. To be sure, there was always the possibility of some lunatic trying something crazy for the sake of craziness, but no one in the security force believed that possibility was anything other than remote; and though the country was, of course, at war, the war was far off over the sea. Even if the Neuroi had understood the strategic possibilities inherent in striking at this gathering of their enemies, no Neuroi had ever ventured within a thousand miles - at least! - of either North or South Liberion.
And so, despite being on the highest possible alert, and despite approaching their task with all the concentration, focus, and earnest diligence that so stereotypically characterized the Karlslander in the mind of the world at large, the police lining the Kaiserplatz outside the Imperial Hall would have had to admit, if pressed, that they were all a bit bored.
That lasted right up until the moment when the Luftwaffe-marked Kübelwagen came skidding around the corner at the end of the block, its tires howling and horn beeping frantically, and then crashed through the wooden barricades and roared right up to the foot of the Kaisersaal steps. This was so sudden, so unexpected, and so outright bizarre that none of the policemen and -women reacted to it other than to stand there staring in slack-jawed astonishment, apart from those who had to jump out of the way.
When the car came smartly to a halt with a last chirp of tires on pavement, more young women than it was strictly rated to transport alighted from within and upon it. Variously clad in a range of different armed services' dress uniforms - witches all, from the looks of them - they gathered alongside the car and composed themselves hastily. Their wild ride had left them in slightly disheveled condition, but they took a few seconds to help each other arrange their clothes and decorations and tidy up each other's hair as best they could.
As the witches turned and started heading up the steps toward the Imperial Hall's main doors, the nearest Reichspolizei officer at last rediscovered his voice and cried to them,
"Mein Luftkissenfahrzeug ist von den Aalen voll!" the buxom redhead in the Liberion Army Air Force class-As declared urgently, while a couple of her colleagues helped another of their number, whose leg was braced and bandaged from hip to ankle, out of the car and up the steps. Then, clapping him on the shoulder in a friendly sort of way, the redhead added in English, "Make sure nobody jacks my ride while we're in there, willya? I don't wanna have to walk back to the airport. Sorry about the lousy parking job, but we're in a hurry."
"Vas im - what in the name of all that's holy do you think you're doing?!" the policeman demanded.
"It's all right, Wachtmeister," said a voice from behind him. The officer turned and looked up to see Major Nikolina von Below, the Kaiser's Luftwaffe adjutant, standing at the top of the steps, her hands on her hips, looking somewhere between exasperated and amused.
"They've been invited," von Below went on. "Carry on."
"Very well, Major," said the policeman, saluting stiffly, and then he turned back to the important business of guarding the square - and, evidently, the Kübelwagen. Just another glamorous day in His Majesty's Imperial Police Service...
"Thank you, Major," said Ursula Hartmann, settling her own peaked Luftwaffe cap on her head as she reached the top of the steps.
"Honestly, if it's not one of you Hartmanns filling my life with complications it's another," von Below grumbled, though there was a finely-graded hint of affection in it. "Come on, you're bloody late as usual."
"I think you'll find this time it isn't entirely my fault," replied Ursula mildly.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
To the minds of more than a few of the capital's transplanted inhabitants, Brandenburg's Großkaisersaal, the Great Imperial Hall, was somewhat ironically named. Hastily erected in the early stages of the city's seemingly-overnight transformation from sleepy colonial port to capital-in-exile, it lacked (the old-timers routinely lamented) both the opulence and the grandeur of its vast and ancient namesake back in Berlin. Some derided it as little more than a barn.
In truth, it was a respectable edifice, particularly considering the haste of its construction, and there were those - particularly among the younger generations - who considered its lack of the rococo ornamentation that had characterized the Berlin version to be a virtue rather than a fault. It had the clean, spare grace that characterized many of the larger buildings in Brandenburg, and although a more-or-less-accidental consequence of the circumstances surrounding their construction, this had come to be seen by some as the hallmark of a truly new Karlsland: efficient, precise, orderly, balancing solidity and permanence with an openness and honest simplicity that stood in sharp contrast to the overdecorated, underlit self-consciousness of the Old Country's architectural idiom.
Of the members of the First Allied Special Air Fleet who entered the Imperial Hall in great haste that Sunday morning, only two - Ursula Hartmann and Heidemarie Schnaufer - had the cultural background to appreciate fully this distinction; and since they both came from western Karlsland, not old Prussia where the latter style had its deepest roots, they only really understood it intellectually, not on the instinctive level that a Prussian like Ursula's sister-in-law, Königsberg-born Gertrud Barkhorn, would have.
To the rest, it was simply a very large, elegantly simple gathering space, its towering walls and vaulted ceiling seeming to be made more of glass than anything else so as to capitalize on the bright South Liberion sunshine. The main room was enormous, far bigger than the hangar back at Château Saint-Ulrich, and longer than it was wide, tapering slightly so as to draw the eye naturally toward the raised platform at the far end. From there, His Majesty the Emperor of Karlsland issued proclamations, addressed his subjects on holidays and other occasions of national moment (a few thousand of them in person and millions more by radio), and otherwise conducted the most public of the business of his office.
Today was a similar sort of occasion in some ways, but markedly different in others. Today, the Kaiser's ceremonial throne was absent from the dais; the hall was bedecked with what seemed like acres of black, white, and red bunting; one of the back corners of the room was occupied by what appeared to be the Imperial Karlsland Army Band; and much of the crowd of people present, arranged in neat rows facing the platform, was made up of people who were not actually Friedrich IV's subjects.
Many were, in fact, his nominal peers. The Doge of Venezia was here; so, too, Her Grace the Duchess of Romagna. King George VI of Britannia and the President of Gallia, M. Auriol, resembled a pair of lawyers in their sober dark suits, such that it would have been hard for an untrained observer to decide which of them was the hereditary monarch and which the elected official. As a sort of counterpoint to them, both Marshal Mannerheim of Suomus, that nation's elected president, and His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Fusō (who required no other name) wore splendid military uniforms. Of the heads of the major Allied Powers, only Tsaritsa Olga of Orussia and President Truman of Liberion were not present; the former had sent her younger brother, Grand Duke Alexei, as her envoy, while the latter was represented by his Secretary of State.
Into this august gathering, the witches from Ribeauvillé came like a cold wind through a suddenly-opened door, stilling the quiet murmur of conversation at the front of the room as they marched (apart from the one with the braced leg, who came surprisingly close to it for someone in her condition) to the front and took the places held for them there. They did so without ostentation, but though none of them appeared to hold any rank higher than major, they gave no sign of false modesty either. They carried themselves with confidence, giving no doubt that they knew they belonged there.
Before anyone had much chance to comment on their unusual appearance, the band struck up Preußens Gloria, the opening of which had served as Kaiser Friedrich IV's personal fanfare since his coronation in 1933. A moment later, the monarch himself made his entrance by the door he customarily used on state occasions, followed by a solemn-faced witch in the uniform of a Luftwaffe chaplain... but his appearance on this occasion caused a more-than-slight ripple of surprise and consternation among many of those who had gathered in the Hall.
He was not dressed in the elaborate-verging-on-gaudy uniform of the Großmarschall der Reichswehr - the Grand Marshal of the Imperial Armed Forces - which he normally adopted for such major occasions of state. Entirely absent were the gold braid, the vast salad of decorations and orders, the mirror-shined spike-topped helmet, and all the other grand but slightly preposterous paraphernalia expected of a Prussian monarch.
Instead - in a curious echo of the simple elegance of his new Hall - the Kaiser was dressed in a much plainer, virtually unadorned uniform of a type that many in the room did not immediately recognize. Only a few of the old-timers - and those with a bent for Karlsland's military history - recognized the grey-caped green serge blouse and black trousers he wore as the dress uniform of the old Luftstreitkräfte, the Imperial Air Service, long since disbanded and replaced by the Luftwaffe. More startlingly still, though he did wear a smaller, less ostentatious array of decorations on his breast, the Kaiser's blouse bore only a senior noncommissioned officer's marks of office.
On top of those surprises came still another, one that those gathered - already off-balance - took a moment longer to process: His Majesty's vast and luxuriant moustache, so reminiscent of those worn by his late father and his father before him, had mostly gone, trimmed down to an economical, neatly pointed adornment in what was still known in fashionable circles as the cavalry style. It had the effect of making him - already a fairly young man for his office and the tenure he had so far had in it - seem younger still.
At the front of the gallery, the witches of the First JSAF glanced at each other, excitement twinkling in their eyes. They recognized the uniform, for they all knew someone who wore a very similar one virtually every day, and the fact that the Kaiser was wearing it provided, if not an answer, then at least a very strong hint about the question that had been foremost in all their minds throughout their hell-for-leather run into the city from Kaiser Wilhelm II Airport.
Standing ramrod-straight in his place on the audience platform, Friedrich let them take him in for a few moments, then held up a hand for quiet as the Army Band fell silent.
"I suppose," he said, his powerful voice carrying unamplified to every corner of the Hall, "some of you may be a bit taken aback by my appearance. I must assure you there is a very good reason for it. This is the uniform I wore when, as Feldwebel Friedrich Prinz von Preußen, I served in the First Neuroi War. These are the decorations I earned in that war. It is the only uniform - they are the only decorations - I have earned the right to wear by my own efforts and initiative, as opposed to the happenstance of my birth."
The Kaiser paused for a moment to let that sink in, then went on, "I wear them today in place of the usual panoply you were all no doubt expecting because today is not an occasion of state. What I do today, I do not as the leader of a nation... but as a man. And if you find that startling," he went on with just the faintest hint of what might've been a mischievous smile, "I believe our Liberion allies have a saying for that..." And here, with a microsecond smile at Shirley Yeager, he switched to English and declared,
"You ain't seen nothin' yet."
With perfect timing, the band sprang back into action, commencing the Goldmark Brautlied. At that musical signal, one of the Imperial Hall's side doors opened and a single figure entered, walking with precisely measured tread. Another, louder wave of surprise swept the room as those gathered registered her appearance - even more starkly unexpected than the Kaiser's, partly because of her garb and partly just because she was, unlike him, not the person most of them had expected to see.
Hannelore Augusta Ulrike Freifrau von Hammer, Rittmeister of the Luftstreitkräfte, was not dressed in her service's uniform, but neither had she chosen to wear the traditional white gown of a civilian bride. Faced with these two alternatives, equally open to misinterpretation and neither truly representative of her feelings toward the occasion, she had taken a bold third direction - one that split the difference between the two and made an unmistakable statement at the same time.
The basis of the clothing she wore now was white, but there the similarity to a customary bride's gown ended. Instead of lace and frillery, von Hammer wore a simple, short-skirted, half-sleeved white tunic, which served as the foundation for a sort of armored dress, gathered at her slim waist by a broad belt and falling to mid-thigh. Over her shoulder, on a baldric-like strap, she carried the great steel hammer from which her family derived its name. Her armor's steel scales glinted in the sunlight from the Hall's great windows, and the plates on her gauntlets and boots clinked gently with each step, as she crossed the room and mounted the steps to join the Kaiser and his court chaplain on the platform.
She didn't look at the witches at the front of the gallery as she passed them en route to the platform, but they knew von Hammer had noticed them, all the same. Instead, she kept her eyes front, her head held high - dominating, silencing, the room with the sheer force of her presence. On virtually anyone else, at virtually any other time, the armor of an eighteenth-century Prussian court witch-of-war would have looked bizarrely affected, like a stage costume from some period drama or First Reich opera.
On Hannelore von Hammer, whose ancestor Augusta had worn the very same armor as one of King Friedrich I in Prussia's fearsome Königswalküren, and in it earned the right to call herself the first Baroness von Hammer, it looked exactly right. What else was the last of the King's Valkyries going to get married wearing?
Two hours later, following what she would always recall as a beautiful and remarkably simple ceremony, Francesca Lucchini was remarking to herself that the world was not, after all, such a terrible place.
Her body was still battered and sore, her braced and bandaged leg stiff and mostly useless, but her physical discomfort didn't bother her very much. Yoshika's repeated infusions of healing magic on the flight over had gone a long way toward mending most of her worst injuries, and dulled the pain of the rest. What was uppermost in her mind was the lingering uncertainty of her magical future, investigation of which was the official reason for this whole trip... and under the present circumstances, she couldn't be too preoccupied about that.
By happenstance, when the visiting witches were hastily given seats at the long main dining table, Lucchini had wound up at the end of their formation, with Shirley on her right. The person sitting on her left looked to be two or three years younger than Lucchini herself, a pretty, slightly solemn-faced blonde in an elaborately formal frock. While they ate, Lucchini noticed this individual stealing glances at her, eyeing her with a combination of intrigue, wonder, and wariness.
The key moment came when they both tried to spear the last potato on the nearest serving platter with their forks at the same time. Back at Château Saint-Ulrich, this would have been the signal for a spot of fork fencing. These always had the potential to escalate into full-on duels, with Shakespearean flourishes and acts of derring-do, sometimes involving tapestries - particularly if one of the combatants was Erica Hartmann.
In this setting, the result was a bit lower-key, but it was at least a good opportunity to make eye contact with the blonde girl and give her a friendly smile.
"After you," said Lucchini, withdrawing her fork.
"No, please, you were there first," the girl replied in a soft, timid voice, her cheeks going pink as she glanced away.
"Tell you what, let's split it," Lucchini suggested. "OK?"
"... OK," the blonde replied, and they divided the potato between them.
"Are you one of the witches from Aunt Hannelore's unit?"
"Yup," Lucchini replied, and then, placing a hand grandly to her chest, she went on, "Tenente Francesca Lucchini, Sovrana Aeronautica Romagniana." Then, dropping the ostentatious pose, she said, "So you're Hellhammer's niece? I didn't know she had any."
"Well... not really," the girl said. "We're actually cousins, but I've always called her Aunt Hannelore. My grandfather and her father were brothers. My name's Sophia. Sophia Tessmer."
"Nice to meet you, Sophia," said Lucchini. "Do you live here in Brandenburg, or are you just in for the wedding?"
"We live in Zehlendorf - that's a district in the southern part of the city," Sophia explained.
"Great! What's there to do in this town when there isn't a royal wedding going on?"
"Oh, there's lots to do in Brandenburg!" Sophia said eagerly, and the two of them were off to the races, chattering happily for the rest of dinner about all the various activities the Neukarlsland capital had to offer. On Lucchini's right, Shirley smiled to herself and made polite conversation with the people around her, leaving her wingman to get on with making a new friend. Just seeing Lucchini smiling and happy again went a long way toward lifting her own spirits, even if the Romagnan's wounds weren't healed yet, and she found herself able to relax and enjoy the occasion after all.
After dinner came more music, this time provided by the Kaiser's court chamber orchestra, and dancing. It was at this point, as the afternoon went on, various beverages were consumed, and people's self-consciousness eroded from fatigue, that the simmering outrage of certain attendees began to outweigh their shock, and the real trouble began.
Yoshika Miyafuji had no inkling of how it started; she was halfway across the ballroom at the time, taking advantage of a brief gap in both their dance cards to chat with the bride about how glad she was that she and the others had made it into town in time.
"I'm very pleased as well," said Hannelore. "I wouldn't have felt right about proceeding without the dear comrades who made the occasion possible on hand. Most likely I would have had to prevail upon Fritzchen to delay matters somewhat." With a wry smile, she added, "Which would have been unpopular, but far from the least popular thing he's done today, I should think."
Yoshika laughed, but there was concern in her eyes as she asked, "Will it be all right?"
Hannelore's response was to shrug in an almost Gallic way, and the uncomplicated pleasure in her smile made Yoshika chuckle inwardly at herself for having thought the elder witch was so frightening when they first met.
"It will have to be," she replied simply.
Before she could go on, if she intended to, her attention and Yoshika's - and that of more or less everyone in the room - was grabbed by a sudden eruption of violence and, a bit incongruously, a thunderous cry of "Tennōheika banzai!"
Off to one side of the room, for reasons Yoshika could only guess at, Francesca Lucchini abruptly hurled herself, bandages, braced leg, and all, into a furious frontal assault on a boy a year or two older than she was. For his part, the boy, an incongruously monocled specimen in a uniform unfamiliar to Yoshika, seemed completely taken aback by the sudden ferocity of her attack; before it even occurred to him to defend himself, Lucchini had landed three solid blows.
She fought with closed fists, which Yoshika, even as she cried out in alarm and rushed toward the disturbance, found mildly surprising. She'd never seen Lucchini in a personal (as opposed to military) fight before, but given the Romagnan's generally carefree disposition and catlike mannerisms, Yoshika wouldn't have expected her to be a straightforward stand-and-punch brawler, even in the unlikely event that she got into a fight in the first place.
In this instance, at least, she was, and the uniformed boy she was fighting was completely overmatched by her fury. By the time Yoshika and Shirley got into the action, they were pulling her off a crumpled, semiconscious, thoroughly defeated youth.
"Whoa, whoa, OK, killer, I think he's had enough!" Shirley cried, doing her best to wrangle her spitting-mad wingmate gently.
"Werner!" cried a matronly lady in an elaborate ballgown, her tone somewhere between horrified and furious.
Some considerable disturbance and confusion later, Lucchini sat in an armchair in some sort of large study or library, while Yoshika examined her for fresh injuries and Shirley stood guard outside the door to prevent unauthorized persons from barging into the room.
Slightly to Lucchini's surprise, Yoshika didn't ask her why she had done what she did, or remonstrate with her about it; instead, she concentrated entirely on the Romagnan's medical condition. Not until she had satisfied herself that Lucchini hadn't set back the healing of her battle wounds or done herself any new harm did she say anything that wasn't directly related to that matter, and when she did, it wasn't to say any of the things Lucchini might have been expecting.
"Why did you say 'tennōheika banzai'?" Yoshika wondered. "That's a Fusō battle cry. It means 'may His Majesty the Emperor live for ten thousand years.'"
Before Lucchini could answer, the door opened and Perrine Clostermann came in. All of the witches of the Saint-Ulrich contingent were dressed in their best, but Yoshika thought Perrine looked especially splendid - the people responsible for the uniform standards of the Gallian Air Force simply had a better eye for that sort of thing, she supposed, and Perrine's blue and black dress uniform had a dash and sparkle about it that the others' finery couldn't quite match.
"How is she?" Perrine asked Yoshika, not looking at Lucchini for the moment.
"She'll be fine," Yoshika replied. "She's lucky - she managed not to strain any of her wounds badly enough to set her recovery back."
"I see," said Perrine, nodding. With the calm, deliberate air of someone who is not in any hurry, she went and got another chair, placed it so that it faced Lucchini's from a few feet away, sat down, and regarded her for a long, silent moment, her golden eyes very hard to read. While Yoshika perched herself on the arm of the Romagnan's chair, Lucchini looked straight back at Perrine, not fidgeting or sweating.
Then, removing her glasses, Perrine said, "Lucchini... I know you know how important today is. How much it means to Hannelore. How much it means to all of Karlsland, for that matter. So I know that you wouldn't have decided to assault one of the other guests without a very good reason." Giving her a frank, curious look, she went on simply, "Can you tell me what happened?"
Lucchini looked faintly surprised - she had expected her Gallian superior to be coldly, disapprovingly furious, and had been prepared to go on the defensive accordingly. Then, after a moment to shift her mental gears, she replied matter-of-factly,
"That boy, whoever he is, is a pig. He was saying terrible things, disgusting things, about Hannelore."
Perrine sighed and said gently, "Francesca... Rittmeister von Hammer is a grown woman. She would surely not be concerned about some boy's opinions about her - particularly a boy who wasn't even man enough to say them to her. I can understand if, when he said them to you, you felt the honor of the 501st was at stake, but an explosion of violence during the wedding dance was not the best way -"
"He wasn't talking to me," Lucchini interrupted, her voice still surprisingly contained by her usual standards. Coupled with the unusual appearance she presented with her long, thick black hair let down from its usual girlish twin tails, it created an effect of stark, faintly startling maturity - as though the girl Perrine was confronted with here wasn't her old comrade Francesca Lucchini at all, but rather some unforeseen elder sister.
"He was talking to my friend Sophie - Sophie Tessmer," Lucchini explained. Elevating her chin with the day's first really Romagnan flash of fire in her aqua eyes, she went on in her native language, «Right in front of me, he told her that Hannelore should have made herself the Kaiser's whore rather than marry him. 'I admit she has the face of a brood mare, but at her age I doubt she has the loins to match it,' he said, 'so for the nation's good she should have stepped aside. If she's that bent on bedding the fool, there is always what our Gallian friends call the concubinage.'»
Perrine blinked - both at the detailed nature of Lucchini's recall and the nature of the details themselves. Her fury mounting, Lucchini lurched to her feet, balancing on her braced leg with the aid of a hand on Yoshika's shoulder, and declared, «Foul as he was, I would only have laughed if he had been talking to me. What do I care what some toy-soldier piscialetto of a Karlslander has to say? No, he said those things - awful, disgusting, hateful things - to a ten-year-old girl, about her cousin, her idol.» Clenching a fist and baring her teeth, fanglike even in the absence of her familiar, she concluded, «I can't forgive anyone who sets out to make a little girl cry.»
Then, her piece said, she flung herself back into the chair and added with a so-be-it flick of her hand, "I'm not sorry I taught him some manners. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. So do what you must, Commendatrice. My conscience is clean."
Perrine, her expression still one of astonishment, made a moment's eye contact with Yoshika, who gave her the same look back again. They had both heard Lucchini in transports of fury before, particularly in battle, but on those occasions it had always been a childish sort of pique. This was such a mature and considered wrath, with the possible consequences obviously thought through and calmly accepted, that both the elder witches were left quite unsure of what to say. Perrine wasn't even sure there was anything to say.
Before she had a chance to consider it in great depth, the door opened again and a small blonde figure in blue darted in.
"Fränze!" cried Sophia, running to Lucchini's chair. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Sophie," said Lucchini, doing her best to return the tearful girl's embrace without getting up. "Well... I might be in trouble," she added with a glance over Sophia's shoulder at Perrine and a wry little smile. "But I'm OK."
Sophia turned as far as she could toward the blue-coated Gallian without letting go and said, "Don't you dare punish Fränze! She was only trying to help me!"
Perrine made another moment's eye contact with Yoshika, and this time the two old comrades shared an instant's private little smile. Then, rising, the Gallian straightened her uniform and gave the young Karlslander her courtliest military bow.
"You needn't worry on that account, Fräulein Tessmer," she said. "I am an officer of the Free Gallian Air Forces. It is against my personal code to punish acts of gallantry."
There was a knock at the door then, and a moment later it opened to admit another visitor. Somewhat to everyone's surprise, this was none other than the bride herself, bearing a covered tray.
"How is our little hellcat?" asked Hannelore with a dry little smile. "None the worse for her heroics, I hope."
"She'll be all right," Yoshika assured her.
Still smiling, Hannelore put the tray she carried down on the endtable by Lucchini's chair, then removed the cover to reveal several plated slices of cake.
"Fritzchen sends his compliments," she said. "He can't offer them in person at the moment, as he's busy wrangling certain other of the guests, but perhaps this small offering will make up for it." Pulling over a third chair, she seated herself and added fondly, "Life is never boring with you around, is it, Baracca?"
"Will this cause a serious problem, er..." Yoshika trailed off as it suddenly dawned on her that she no longer knew precisely how to address the senior witch. Reddening, she went a bit awkwardly on, "... Your Majesty?"
Hannelore chuckled. "Today of all days, Miyafuji, I think you can call me by my name," she said. "And henceforth, it's still Rittmeister von Hammer when we're at work. I'm Fritzchen's wife now, but I very specifically did not agree to be his queen." With a mildly sardonic glance at the closed door, she added, "Some of our guests today can't decide whether they're relieved by that detail or even more scandalized. It's all so..." (and here she adopted a look of exaggerated distaste) "... modern."
"You can do that?" asked Sophia, looking surprised.
Von Hammer gave her a little smirk. "I can do whatever I like," she replied, lifting her chin in mock hauteur. "My husband is the Kaiser."
They all giggled at that, then took plates of cake and dug in. After a few moments, Hannelore went on, "So, no, it won't cause a serious problem - or I suppose, more accurately, we already have serious problems, so what's one more?" she added wryly. "Fritzchen's choice has put more than one cat among the pigeons. That one of my colleagues chose my wedding dance as the occasion to bludgeon some manners into that little swine Werner von Kleist is neither here nor there, comparatively. It's only given them something to remember." Turning her attention to her young cousin, she asked, "Are you all right, Sophia?"
"I'm fine, Aunt Hannelore," the girl replied, nodding. "I'm just glad Fränze isn't hurt. Or in trouble."
"Not much chance of that," said the elder witch. "She hasn't done anything anyone who's ever had the misfortune of speaking with the boy hasn't dreamt of doing. Your dance partner this afternoon," she went on to Lucchini, "if you didn't know, is the younger brother of the woman Fritzchen was supposed to marry today. I won't ask you what he said about me. I've a feeling I'm happier not knowing. At any rate, his people were already going to be a problem, so, as I said, it's neither here nor there." Then, her dry smile twinkling on again, she said, "Although you may wish to lie low until they leave."
Apart from certain members of the house of Falkenhagen, all of Brandenburg celebrated that night. The average Karlslander seemed not to mind the unprecedented, irregular nature of the monarch's matrimonial decisions; if anything, the impression Shirley got was that most of them were quite pleased that their ruler had chosen to marry for love instead of political expedience. The whole city seemed suffused with an air of romance.
After the main festivities at the Kaisersaal, several of the witches retired to quarters speedily arranged for them at the grand Hotel Adlon. Lucchini had already had a busy day and was slated for another one on the morrow, when she and Yoshika were to consult with a specialist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Perrine, too, chose to make an early night of it. Ursula went off to the Imperial Aviation Ministry, citing obscure bureaucratic necessities. That left Shirley and Heidemarie, the former too intrigued by the lure of foreign travel to be tired and the latter a night person anyway, to roam around the city center taking in the festivities.
Shirley was a little surprised, a couple of hours into the evening, by how much fun she was having with her wingmate. It wasn't that she had anything against Heidemarie, quite the contrary, but they didn't actually cross paths very often, and so the fact of the matter was that the Karlslander Night Witch was the member of the 501st whom Shirley knew least. The impression she did have of Heidemarie was mainly of quiet reserve - like Sanya, but more out of shyness than Orussian self-containment.
The Night Witch didn't exactly get loud or boisterous on this occasion either, but she did navigate the currents of Brandenburg's city-wide block party with an aplomb and a dry cheerfulness that Shirley hadn't been expecting. She was a good wingman, and once they ran across two of the XB-36's officers at one of the city's many, many beer gardens, the evening became even more memorable.
Which was how, toward the tail end of the evening, Shirley Yeager found herself in the back corner of one such beer garden, working on the latest in a series of very large crockery mugs of beer, and watching with more than casual amusement as Heidemarie Schnaufer and William J. Blazkowicz attempted to sing a duet of a song one of them did not know, accompanied by a half-in-the-bag Bavarian oompah band.
"The worst part of this," she remarked to Jack Ridley, "is that nobody back home is ever going to believe me if I tell them I saw it happen."
"Yep," Ridley agreed, then clonked his own mug against hers and took another drink.
Shirley finished off her beer, put the stein down on the table, then leaned her metal-framed chair back against the low stone wall behind her and put her feet up beside it, hands behind her head. Thus arranged, she watched the musical number for a bit, then asked out of the blue,
"Hey, Ridley. You married?"
Ridley glanced at her, then grinned. "I surely am. Met me a Fort Worth gal not long after I got assigned to Consolidated. Nell 'n me been married, oh, goin' on three years now."
Shirley nodded, absorbing the thought, then asked, "Is it any good? Being married."
If Ridley thought this was a weird line of questioning, he showed no sign of it. Instead he replied, "I reckon it's about the best thing in the world, if you do it right."
"What do you mean by doing it right?" Shirley wondered.
"Well..." Ridley took a thoughtful pull at his beer, then said, "Way I see it, the trick is to live well, have a lot of laughs, and be a team." At her continued look of puzzlement, he explained, "What I mean by that is, you gotta have each other's back - without gettin' in each other's way." He shrugged. "It ain't too different from flyin' in combat."
"... Huh," said Shirley. "Yeah."
She said nothing more about it, only signaled the barmaid for another round; but she remained mildly preoccupied for the hour or so remaining before she and Heidemarie finally called it a night and dragged themselves back to the Adlon.
The village of Blankenfelde, at only eight and a half miles from the city center, was administratively a part of Brandenburg, being the outermost part of its northern borough, Sudpankow - and yet, with its woods and fields and farms, it had the air of a place very far removed from the busy urgency of the capital. The Evacuation and Resettlement Census of 1943, conducted after Operation Bifröst was declared complete, ascribed it the lowest population density of all the city's localities - fewer than 100 persons per square kilometer.
On the outskirts of the village - and so on the outskirts of the outskirts of Brandenburg - stood a large, slightly rambling stone farmhouse. Back in the days when the nearby seaport had still been a sleepy colonial outpost called Schönenwind, this had been one of Blankenfelde's many dairy farms. Now, and to the distinct bemusement of some of the village's residents, the big stone house had a different purpose - namely, to be the personal retreat of the Emperor of Karlsland.
For a few weeks every summer and at scattered times in the rest of the year, Kaiser Friedrich IV's neighbors in Blankenfelde sometimes had occasion to see their monarch as few other Karlslanders ever saw him: living the uncomplicated life of a country gentleman, pottering about in his garden, boating on the nearby Weißensee. He attended the annual auction of dairy cattle in mufti, his only nod to his official status being to solemnize the occasion with the royal assent for it to begin. Sometimes he could even be found at the post office, standing in line like anybody else.
Of course, it wasn't quite as remote a retreat as it seemed, being only eight miles from the apparatus of state; but it pleased the Kaiser to pretend, at least, that he had escaped the rigors of rule for a while, and it pleased his subjects to play along.
Hannelore von Hammer had been to the house, which the Kaiser had dubbed Sorgenfrei, only a few times before; since the Evacuation she had been almost constantly in Europe, helping to prosecute the war. Sitting at the kitchen table with her morning coffee, she remarked to herself that it was just like Fritzchen to have a place like this; she well remembered his grumbling, back in the old country, about how Berlin was so built-up nowadays that a person had to go halfway to Danzig to find any peace and quiet.
He came into the kitchen then, dressed in his country-squire clothes; poured himself a cup of coffee; and sat down opposite her at the table, where he remarked without preamble,
"I had the strangest dream last night."
"Oh?" asked Hannelore, crooking an eyebrow.
"Yes," Fritz confirmed, nodding. He sipped his coffee, then went on, "I dreamt that you had so completely taken leave of your senses that you actually went and married me."
Hannelore chuckled. "That does seem a bit out of character," she agreed dryly.
"I know! Really quite improbable," said Fritz. Then, tilting his head inquisitively, he went on, "You seem a bit preoccupied, presumably not with my ham-fisted attempt at comedy. I do hope you're not thinking better of your rash decision."
"Not at all," she replied at once, looking him in the eye. "Please, Fritzchen. Don't even joke about that."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I simply can't quite believe my good fortune, that's all. If not that, what is bothering you? Because we may only have been man and wife for three-quarters of a day, but we've known each other for so long that I'd like to think I can tell when something is by now."
"Not bothering," Hannelore corrected. "Not exactly. But you're right, I do have something on my mind. Or rather... something I must show you."
Fritz squelched his first impulse, which was to make an off-color remark to the effect that he was reasonably sure he'd seen it all at this point. Hannelore was not the sort of woman to be bothered by that sort of humor, at least coming from her husband and in private, but he had enough nous to sense that the occasion was wrong for it. She genuinely did have something serious on her mind, he could see it in her eyes, and making salacious quips wasn't a helpful response.
So instead, he said simply, "Oh?"
"Mm. But before I do, I need you to promise me that, whatever happens, you'll stay calm and let me explain. You must hear me out before you act."
Fritz gave her a surprised look, then said, "I'll always hear you out, Hannelore. Come what may. I'm not my father."
"No... no you aren't," Hannelore agreed with a solemn nod. "All right, then. You must have realized by now that there's no way I could have reached Brandenburg so many hours ahead of my colleagues by any normal means." She put her coffee cup down on the table, then rose to her feet and went on, "Come with me to the barn and I'll show you how I did it."
The old farm's barn no longer housed cattle; instead, nowadays it contained the various machinery used to maintain the grounds. When the Kaiser was in residence, it was also home to his personal automobile, an enormous Horch cabriolet he had been presented as a coronation gift.
At the moment, however, the Horch was still standing in the drive next to the house, its crew not having taken the time to put it away upon arriving the previous evening. They walked past it and entered the barn, its musty interior dimly lit by what sunlight could penetrate the relatively few windows. Hannelore left Fritz standing by the door, gesturing for him to keep quiet, and then walked around a pile of wooden boxes in the far corner of the room.
"Are you still here?" she asked quietly. "I'm sorry for making you wait alone for so long. There's someone I'd like you to meet."
Who the deuce can she be talking to? the Kaiser wondered... and a moment later, he had his answer, as his bride returned with another figure trailing silently a pace or so behind her.
At first, Fritz simply couldn't parse what he was looking at. For a moment, he took the figure with Hannelore to be another witch, incongruously wearing her Striker Unit indoors; but there was no sound of engines or propellers, only a low hum, like a radio set tuned to a station that was not transmitting. He blinked, then blinked again, as the details began to register on him - the glossy black surfaces, the dull crimson glow of the hexagonal pattern on the winglets...
"Trajanus," the Kaiser murmured. Turning his eyes to Hannelore, he asked, "You captured it?"
Hannelore shook her head. "She came to us of her own accord," she said. "It started weeks ago, but the trigger was Lucchini..."
Where all of Brandenburg had been celebrating the night before, this morning all of Brandenburg seemed to be nursing a slightly fragile head. The city wasn't shut down - businesses were open, streetcars and the U-bahn running, and so on, as normal - but everything seemed to be a little quieter, and moving a little more slowly, than usual.
The difference was hard to tell in the cool marble halls of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Magical Medicine, where an unruffled calm was evidently the order of the day. Certainly there seemed to be nothing amiss with the orderly who greeted Yoshika and Lucchini in the lobby. He was fresh and pressed, his English (the only language all three of them had in common) flawless, as he conducted the two witches to the consulting rooms of the specialist they had come to see.
The outer office was less like a typical doctor's waiting room than the living room of a comfortable urban home. Yoshika made a mental note to do something similar with her own surgery, should she find herself in private practice after the war. It was welcoming and calming, two things she had always thought were important in medicine.
They were met in that room by a pleasant middle-aged lady dressed in a lab coat, her steel-grey hair drawn back in a bun. She, like the room, was both welcoming and calming.
"Good morning, ladies," she said, greeting them with a smile. "I am Dr. Adelsberger. You must be Dr. Miyafuji and Lt. Lucchini. Welcome to the Institute." Placing a hand on the back of a red velvet settee, she went on, "Please, Lieutenant, take a seat here, there's no need to keep you standing around on that leg. I just need to take a few moments to go over the case notes I've received with my colleague, and then I'll be back to examine you, all right?"
Yoshika helped Lucchini get herself arranged, propping her braced leg on a pillow, while Dr. Adelsberger put another one behind the Romagnan's back; then, assuring her that they wouldn't be long, the two doctors went into the inner office to consult.
With a wistful sigh, Lucchini settled back against the pillow and closed her eyes. The Karlsland doctor seemed like a nice lady, but Lucchini was tired and sore and a long way from home...
She was dozing lightly when the sound of a door opening, then closing, brought her back to the surface. The sound came from in front of her, not behind, which meant it was someone coming in from the hall. Lucchini opened her eyes, intending to tell whoever it was that they had the wrong room -
- and blinked in surprise to see her old friend the Duchess of Romagna standing just inside the door, dressed in a simple, unostentatious sundress and a familiar white hat, smiling at her.
"Maria!" Lucchini blurted, sitting more upright. She made to get up, but Maria waved her back and trotted to the side of the settee, kneeling on the floor alongside it.
"No, no, don't get up," the Duchess told her urgently. Then, taking Lucchini's hand in both of hers, she went on, "I can't stay long; I've given Luca and Rocco the slip, but - well, you know how persistent they are," she added with a wink, and both girls giggled.
"I was going to try to talk to you at the wedding dinner, but before I got the chance, you had your little... tête-à-tête with Herr von Kleist," Maria said. "I hope you haven't gotten yourself into too much trouble."
"It was in a good cause," Lucchini replied. "How are you? It's been ages." With a little smirk, she added, "I see you still like your 50-lire Gallian words."
"I'm well, if busy," Maria replied. With a slight pout, she added, "Why don't you ever come to visit me? You must get back to Rome on leave sometime, don't you?"
"I haven't taken any time off since the Ardennes," said Lucchini with a shake of her head. "Too much to do. But when the war's over, I promise I'll come straight back and see you." She grinned. "Just make sure you tell your people to let me in, will you?"
"They all know you're welcome any time," Maria said. Glancing at the wall clock, she continued with a sigh, "I should probably go. They'll be turning the Excelsior upside-down looking for me by now. We're supposed to take ship for Rome this afternoon." Looking Lucchini in the eye, she said earnestly, "Remember your promise and come see me as soon as you can. You don't have to wait until the war is over if you get the chance before then."
"I will," Lucchini told her. "It was good to see you again, Maria. Even if it was only for a few minutes." She gave a wry smile and added, "Say hello to your bodyguards for me. I'm sure they'll remember me..."
"They were thinking about sending a condolence card to young von Kleist," said Maria with an impish smile, "but I managed to persuade them that sarcasm wasn't seemly in men of their position." She sighed again. "Oh, I hate to go, but I'm afraid I must before there's an international incident." With that, she leaned and kissed her countrywoman's cheek, murmuring, "Look after yourself, Francesca. I know there's risk in your duties, but... take care. After so long at war, even la Gattina Nera can only have so many lives left."
"I... yes," Lucchini said, her face unusually serious. "I will." Then, recovering her cheerful air, she returned the kiss on Maria's other cheek, Gallian style, and said with a wink of one green eye, "Ciao, Maria. We'll go for gelato sometime soon."
After pressing her hand one more time, the Duchess of Romagna climbed back to her feet, dusted at her dress, and went to the door. Upon opening it, she paused, gave one smiling look back, and then went out and closed it behind her.
Lucchini sat looking at the closed door for a few moments, then gave another wistful sigh and lay back, closing her eyes again.
Only so many lives left, she thought. What I couldn't tell you, Maria, is that the war may already be over for me.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
When Perrine arrived at the airport, the atmosphere was considerably less tense than it had been the day before. The Luftwaffe security personnel assigned to look after the XB-36 greeted her cordially, without any of the flustered suspicion that the bomber's unscheduled arrival had caused; evidently someone (she suspected she knew who) had spoken to their commanding officer and smoothed matters over somewhat.
All the same, the terse message that had been waiting for her when she rose had the 501st's executive officer feeling edgy. She wasn't sure what it signified, but something in its extremely economical wording made her wary, and the sight of B.J. Blazkowicz's face as she entered the flightline lounge did nothing to put her mind at ease.
Blazkowicz had clearly made more of an evening of it than Perrine had, the night before; his eyes were a trifle bloodshot, and he hadn't taken a great deal of care over his morning shave. He seemed better-off than Jack Ridley, though; the latter officer was slumped in the end of the lounge's threadbare sofa, his head bowed worshipfully over a mug of strong Luftwaffe coffee, whereas Blazkowicz appeared at least fully conscious.
"Captain Blazkowicz," said Perrine, keeping her voice low in deference to Ridley's obviously battle-worn condition. "I came as soon as I got your message. Has something happened?"
Blazkowicz nodded grimly. "You could say that, Major," he replied, handing her a yellow telex form. "I got a phone call an hour ago. This came immediately after it. I think you'll agree we've got a problem."
Perrine took the form, scanned it, and frowned. "Ah," she said. "I see."
E P U (colour) 2015