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Program start_

Tuesday, July 9, 1946
Château Saint-Ulrich
Ribeauvillé, Gallia

One of the things the witches of Saint-Ulrich always looked forward to was the occasional page over the Tannoy, "Available personnel to the firing range." Everybody on the base knew what that meant: 404 Squadron's weapons development team had something new to demonstrate.

Thus, when the call came early Tuesday afternoon, everyone who wasn't out on patrol, asleep, or on watch in the control tower or comms room hurried out to the range behind the castle to see what the mad scientists had to show them. They found Gryphon and Barkhorn the Younger, in their usual lab coats and goggles, smilingly awaiting their audience. Chris was wearing that backpack magic engine they often used to power their pre-operational demonstration equipment, and also a new piece of gear she hadn't worn for previous tests: a clear, hinged face shield, such as one would wear while grinding or sanding metal.

As usual on occasions like this, they had set up a table near the presentation area, on which the new weapon to be demonstrated was hidden for dramatic effect under a dropcloth. Nearby, instead of the usual array of benches laid out for gunnery practice, stood a curious contraption no one had ever seen before: an oblong metal object with oddly sloped sides, about the size of an automobile, painted black and standing on a sturdy but crude-looking metal framework welded together out of pipes and angle iron.

"Welcome!" said Gryphon cheerfully as the last of the stragglers took their places in the viewing gallery. "Good afternoon and welcome to Experimental Weapon Theater. First, some exciting news about an earlier project. The lightning rifle prototype has been updated to Model Zero Mark 1A3, and is now officially available for field test. If—"

"Dibs!" cried Shirley Yeager before anyone else could interject, causing a laugh to ripple through the gallery.

"—I was about to say, if you're interested, talk to Ursula about training and the sign-out procedures. Remember, it's still an experimental weapon."

Shirley grinned. "I always wanted to be a test pilot."

Witolda Urbanowicz nodded encouragingly. "Is good job! Always much demand."

"Just don't think too hard about why that might be," said Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak with a slightly dark smile.

"Moving on swiftly," said Gryphon. "Let me set up today's test for you." He placed a hand on the curious metal object and went on, "This is just some class 3 armor plating welded up into an arbitrary shape. It's intended to simulate the armor of a typical Large-Type Neuroi, as close as we can get with mundane materials. They use similar mockups at the big arsenals to test new witch guns and experimental ammunition."

"Today we'll be getting a little more... personal with it," said Chris with a slightly mischievous grin.

"In the course of our recent research, we in 404 Squadron have noticed a gap in the range of standard witch armaments which we thought we could fill," Gryphon continued. "There are witch guns for just about every purpose now, and more in the pipeline every day, but not many witches are equipped for close-quarters combat. There are a few whose magical talents specifically lend themselves to that kind of thing—Colonel Sakamoto, for example," he added with a nod to the 501st's commander. "But for most witches, ranged combat is the only option. So I thought I'd try to change that, and this is what I came up with. Christiane, if you would be so kind."

Nodding, Chris took hold of the dropcloth and whipped it away to reveal, not a new type of gun, but rather what appeared to be a large power tool. It had a top-mounted handle like some heavy machine guns and an enclosed pistol grip with a wide trigger, but instead of a chamber and barrel assembly, there was what looked like the engine nacelle of a Striker Unit, out of which jutted a flat-sided, round-ended metal bar about three feet long.

Chris released her magic and brought the old backpack engine to full power, cabled it to a port at the back of this contraption's grip housing, then flipped down her face shield, took hold of the contraption with both hands and hefted it before her. Behind the shield, her grin grew even wider as she flipped a thumb switch on the side of the grip, eliciting a hackles-raising whine like a jet Striker powering up. Miyafuji radiation shone out of the seams in the central housing, and a seething current of contained magic energy began to race around the channel in the edge of the bar with an electric snarl.

"Oh hell yeah," cried someone at the back—Gryphon thought it was Marisa Kirisame, but it was hard to tell over the noise of the device.

Her face aglow with delight, Chris walked out into the middle of the presentation area, turned to face the Neuroi mock-up, and stood considering it for a moment—then suddenly sprang, the machine's snarl rising to a roar as she brought the blade to bear. It left a visible trail behind it as it swept up, then back down in an arc, striking the mock-up square on the point of its sloped upper surface.

With a noise like an expensive mishap in a machine shop, it cleaved through the armor plating like an axe through taut aluminum foil, cutting the mock-up clean in two. As the two halves fell away from each other, their cut edges glowing orange-hot, Chris landed gracefully between them, down on one knee, her weapon raised in a clean follow-through. She held that pose for a moment, then straightened up. Shutting down the device, she uncabled it and put it back on the table, then went to Gryphon's side, beaming, as their audience applauded and whistled their approval.

Gryphon gave her a grinning high-five, then half-hugged her with his free arm while gesturing gleefully to the wrecked mock-up with the other hand.

"We call it the æther saw," he declared.

Glenn Miller and his Orchestra
"In the Mood"
RCA Bluebird B-10416-A (1939)

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

© 2022 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Episode 25:
"The Wedding Bell Blues"

"Huge success!" Chris declared as she stowed her test engine pack back in its locker in FUEL STORAGE.

"Absolutely," Gryphon agreed, placing the æther saw prototype on his workbench. "Next step is to rig it for wireless PTO and see if we can get it to work with a Striker. Should be pretty straightforward..."

"I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it for myself," declared a voice from the doorway, and they turned to see Francie Whittle standing there, her unlit pipe jutting from the corner of her smiling mouth. "You madman, you actually went and did it. What the devil is driving that thing?"

"Magic!" Gryphon replied cheerfully. In response to her sardonic look, he beckoned her over and removed the side plate from the saw's engine housing. "It's a miniature turboætherjet. Ursula built it, basically just to see how small she could make one. I was fooling around with it the other day, trying to think of practical uses for it—kind of as a challenge, because she said herself it was pointless."

"So you decided to power a magic chainsaw with it." Whittle folded her arms, shaking her head fondly, and repeated, "You madman."

"I've been called worse," said Gryphon with a nonchalant shrug.

"I'm sure," replied Whittle dryly. Chris giggled, then excused herself, heading out to get started on her afternoon training program. Whittle watched her go, then turned back to Gryphon and said,

"Tell me, would you be holding a Zauberschule session today, by any chance?"

Gryphon nodded. "Colonel Knoke and her staff are coming down from Lichtenberg at 1500 to discuss coverage while we're all on furlough for the wedding this weekend," he said. "While they're at it, it's a good chance for Saint-Ex and Liz to catch a session."

Whittle blinked. "Her Royal Highness will be there? Ah."

"Why, were you thinking of stopping by? If so, don't let that stop you. There's no rank in the dojo." Gryphon gave her a curious tilt of his head. "Anyway, I thought you weren't interested."

"I wasn't," Whittle admitted, "but Bishop's been hounding me to try it ever since she got hers back. 'You seriously don't wanna try this thing out for yourself?' 'C'mon, Francie, you can't fool me. The Meteor is calling yooooou~.' I must confess, she's worn me down." With a wry little smile, she added, "I always did prefer to be hands-on in testing."

"Well, you're more than welcome to come to today's session. I meant what I said about rank, everybody's equal before the Force." He grinned. "Elizabeth is the first to insist on that. You'll see."

Whittle considered it, then nodded. "All right, let's give it a go."

"Excellent. If you've got the time for a little homework, come with me."

Intrigued, she followed him to the dojo, where he opened the file cabinet in the corner and got out one of his scratch copies of the Zauberschulbuch for her.

"You won't have time to read all of it before we meet," he explained as he handed it to her, "but you should be able to get through the introduction, at least. That'll get you up to speed with the terminology before we get started."

She nodded. "Makes sense. I've nothing very pressing on this afternoon; I'll get started at once. Thanks."

"No worries! Glad to have you."

Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was in her office, diligently applying herself to the mildly Sisyphean goal of getting far enough ahead on the routine work of running the First Joint Special Air Fleet that she wouldn't be completely consumed by guilt when she took a few days' leave at the end of the week. After all, it wouldn't do to spend the whole time fretting about things she was leaving unfinished while she was away on...

... her honeymoon.

She paused, as she always did when that thought flickered back across her mind. Though her love affair with Mio Sakamoto had been an acknowledged thing for months, and their wedding date set for weeks, there was still a faint feeling of unreality about the idea when Minna caught herself reflecting on it in odd moments.

"I know, right?" said Mio's voice, and Minna looked up to see her leaning in the open doorway, arms folded, giving her a slightly roguish smile.

Now she levered herself away from the doorjamb and entered the office fully, adding, "Sometimes I feel like I need to call Fleet Headquarters to confirm it's really happening."

"How did you know?" Minna wondered.

"Elementary, my dear general," Mio declared, perching herself on the corner of Minna's desk. "You were writing in the upper right, where the date goes," she said, tapping the document Minna was working on, "and then you stopped and glanced at the picture of me on your desk," she continued, nodding toward the framed photo propped by the inkstand. The Fusōnese witch grinned. "What could be more natural than to conclude that you paused to think about what we're going to be doing this Friday?"

"Why, Holmes, it seems the very essence of simplicity once you've explained yourself," said Minna in an exaggeratedly blustery Britannian accent.

"I know, Watson. That's why I rarely explain myself," Mio replied. Then, back in her normal voice, she went on, "Anyway, I just came down from the control tower. Letzi and her crew are about 10 minutes out. Hannelore is warming up the briefing room."

"Ah, excellent," said Minna. She finished the document, blotted it, then returned her quill to its stand and rose to go.

All the witches and the various guests who had lately collected at the château gathered for dinner that evening, after the visitors from Lichtenberg had gone home and the afternoon patrols returned. Between the 501st JFW, 404 Squadron and its permanent guest engineers, 1 JSAF's commanding general and her adjutant, the visiting dignitaries, Gryphon's fiancée and her maid, and their recently-arrived guests, the long table in the castle's main dining room, once so comically oversupplied with chairs, was now nearly packed to capacity.

Nobody seemed to mind, though. If anything, the conviviality level had increased along with the base's permanent population, with the witches and their guests cheerfully bumping elbows and passing dishes, swapping gossip and the latest rumors, telling jokes, and generally enjoying each other's company.

Francie Whittle, seeming in unusually high spirits this evening, had just finished telling the full assembly her story about being thrown off the RAF's stunt flying team in the 1930s (which Hans von Ohain found just as hilarious the second time) when the swing doors from the kitchen parted for this evening's kitchen brigade. True to her word, Countess Remilia Scarlet had taken the duties of feeding the fleet upon herself and her maid, and—slightly to the surprise of some of the witches, who didn't know her very well yet—her own part amounted to substantially more than nobly supervising while Sakuya did all the work.

Tonight they had collaborated on a reprise of one of Remilia's favorites, the traditional Alsatian stew called baekeoffe, along with greens from the Ribeauvillé farmer's market and fresh-baked bread. Once they had distributed all this, Remilia formally dismissed Sakuya for the evening (a tongue-in-cheek ritual the witches had come to look upon with fond amusement), after which they took their own places by Gryphon and joined in the festivities.

"This is amazing," Erica Hartmann declared. "Man, and I thought we were eating pretty well before you two came along. Uh, no offense, Lynne..." she added, a trifle belatedly, with an awkward grin.

"None taken, I assure you," Lynette Bishop replied, smiling. "I flatter myself that I'm a reasonably competent amateur, but I recognize the work of a professional when I taste it." Raising her glass in salute, she added in her most proper public-school tones, "Your very good health, Miss Izayoi."

"Thank you, Warrant Officer Bishop," Sakuya replied, equally properly. Then, with a more natural smile, she went on, "And for the record, I still think your blueberry pie is better than mine."

Lynne giggled, turning back to her usual self again. "I suppose that comes of growing up with such a surplus," she said.

Her elder sister Wilma laughed. "Sometimes I'm surprised we all didn't turn into blueberries," she said.

"I'm glad you like it, Captain Hartmann," said Remilia. "It's on the short list to be one of the offerings on Friday, as well."

"I feel a little guilty about pushing all that work off on you when you've only just arrived," said Yoshika. "Are you sure you don't want us to help at all?"

"Not a bit, Doctor," replied the countess grandly. "Think of it as our way of thanking you all for your hospitality—and for your gallant service to our country," she added. "You all deserve to be free to devote all your energies to celebrating your comrades' happiness. Eh, Sakuya?"

"Quite right, m'lady," Sakuya agreed, nodding. "Just relax and leave everything to us. Besides, we won't be doing it all by ourselves. Meiling and Lady Flandre will be with us within the next day or two."

"Although I'm uncertain just how much help Flan is liable to be," Remilia put in with a mischievous grin. "Left to her own devices, she's just as likely to eat all the petits fours herself."

"My talents mostly run toward keeping a tidy library," Koakuma admitted, "but I'm willing to pitch in however you like, if Mistress doesn't object."

Patchouli glanced at her familiar with a slightly sly little smile, then said dryly, "I can probably survive without you for a few hours at a time, but don't wander too far."

"Just for the record, you don't have to do any of that," Mio said; then, taking Minna's hand, she added with an uncharacteristically bashful smile, "But we sure do appreciate it."

"We do indeed," Minna agreed.

After dinner, Gryphon retired to his quarters, the better to write up his notes on the afternoon's Zauberschule session while it was fresh in his mind. Once she'd finished helping Sakuya clear away the dinner dishes and secure the kitchen, Remilia joined him there, curling up on his bed to read one of his books while he worked.

She didn't ask him what he was writing, but presently he remarked without turning from his work,

"I think Group Two is coming along very well."

Remilia looked up. "Oh?"

"Mm. Nobody's broken through yet, like Trude and Wilma have, but everybody's making good progress, and at least two of them are on the verge." Glancing back over his shoulder at her with a little smile, he added, "I have an informal betting pool with myself as to who gets there first, Saint-Ex or Princess Elizabeth. I could see it going either way."

"Indeed." Remilia chuckled and resumed reading. "At this stage in her life, one expects Comtesse de Saint-Exupéry would appreciate it more."

"Probably," Gryphon agreed, returning to work. "Although Liz is pretty motivated too. She's in basically the same position Trude was—she hasn't lost a step yet, but she knows it's only a matter of time. Either way, I expect both of them to cross the threshold pretty soon."

They lapsed into one of their companionable silences then, as they so often had in the days when it had just been the two of them in the Scarlet Devil Mansion's homily cluttered great room. Perhaps half an hour went by with no sounds other than the click-clack of Gryphon's typewriter and the turning of pages in Remilia's book.

Then there came a knock at the door and a voice: "Hey, Gryph, have you seen—oh, she's here."

"Hm?" Remilia looked up. "Are you looking for me, Captain Yeager?"

"Uh, yeah," Shirley acknowledged, leaning inside. "Have you got a minute? There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about. Do you mind, Gryph?"

"Not at all. Do you need me to step out?"

Shirley shook her head. "No, no, nothing like that. I just didn't want to bother you if you're working."

"No worries, be my guest."

Remilia marked her place, set the book aside, and sat up straighter on the bed, folding her legs under her and arranging her skirts. "By all means, Captain. What's on your mind?"

Shirley entered the room, looked around for someplace to sit, and settled for the corner of Gryphon's desk. To Remilia's mild amusement, Wolfgang sloped casually in after her, evidently having followed her up from the living room. The Lenshound, in turn, opted to hop up onto the bed and take up his usual spot by the footboard.

"Thanks," said Shirley. "Won't take long. I just wanted to apologize for the other night."

Remilia arched an eyebrow curiously. "Whatever do you mean?" she wondered.

"Well... when Heide radioed that the Neuroi were onto us, I kinda took over the mission. I didn't even think about it, I was just reacting to the situation, but... well, once we crossed into Karlsland it was your op, not mine. Mio put you in command. So what I did was outta line."

Remilia smiled. "I hadn't even thought about it, to be honest," she said. "I went with the flow of the situation, just as you did. Besides, once we recovered Ombra and got ourselves back to our equipment, my part was essentially finished. In aerial combat as part of a group, you have far more experience than I; it's only natural that your comrades would look to you."

"I'm glad you see it that way, Countess," said Shirley. "I just wanted to make it clear that it wasn't some kind of..." The Liberion ace shrugged, searching for words. "... challenge or anything. It was just... instinct."

"I appreciate your candor, Captain, but you needn't worry about it further. As Shakespeare teaches us, all's well that ends well."

Shirley laughed, as much from relief as amusement. "I barely passed English in middle school, but I'll take your word for it." Then, rising, she went on, "Anyway, that's all. I'll get outta your hair. Thanks for hearin' me out."

"Of course. And for future reference, Captain Yeager? If you do manage somehow to displease me, you won't be in any doubt about it," said Remilia with a grin. "I'm not the type to seethe in silence—eh, mon vieux?"

"It's true," said Gryphon sagely.

"Heheh, I'll keep that in mind. And by the way—now that we've seen action together, you can call me Shirley."

"Well, then, you must call me Remilia."

"I'll do that. Good night, you two."

"Night, Shirley," said Gryphon, and she headed out, swinging the door to but not shut after her.

"Charming girl," Remilia said as she reopened her book. "Mind you, they're all charming girls." Glancing up at her fiancé with a mischievous glint in her eye, she added, "I understand now what you see in this place."

"Harrumph," Gryphon replied, getting back to work.

In another hour or so, he finished the Zauberschule notes and proceeded to start on a draft technical document for the æther saw (which, like most of his inventions, he'd built first and was now documenting second). The evening passed in this quiet, absorbed way, until the midnight bell drew both their attention.

"Hm," Remilia mused, marking her place again. "Ordinarily that would be the call to lunch, not bed, but I suppose in this place I should leave you to your rest," she said, rising. "Besides, no doubt your evening appointment will be calling in presently," she added with a sly smile, leaning down to kiss his cheek.

"Not sure if I have one tonight," Gryphon told her, "but I did have kind of an early morning today, so I probably should think about turning in soon." He got up from his chair so he could hug her properly, then added wryly, "I'm going to need my strength for when Flan gets in."

"Indeed, I expect she'll want to monopolize you for a while," Remilia agreed, "and as you're quite fragile, you should rest while you can." Rising up slightly in his arms, she gave him a kiss, then gently extricated herself, gave Wolfgang a scruffle goodnight, and headed for the door. "Goodnight, my love."

"Gute Nacht, meine Geliebte, und süße Träume," he replied, returning to his seat.

Remilia paused in the doorway, as if reconsidering her decision to leave; then, glancing over the signup sheet on the door, she laughed.

"Well well," she said. "You do have a booking tonight."

"Nichts verraten!" Gryphon declared, holding up an imperious finger.

"Oui, oui, comme tu veux," said Remilia airily, departing. His last sight of her was her hand, trailing out of the doorway behind her in a languid wave. "Bonne nuit, cheval de ma soeur..."

Chuckling to himself, Gryphon stacked the completed sheets of his report and assessed what remained to be done. He figured he probably had ten pages to go, which he could just as well do after breakfast. He made a mental note to hit Supply for some more typing paper after dropping the complete report by the mail room.

He'd just finished changing to one of his nightshirts, idly wondering who was planning to come by this evening and how late she was going to leave it when the answer to both questions came to his door with a tentative knock.

"Come in," he said, and his visitor pushed the door open just wide enough to slip inside.

"Pardon the intrusion," said Koakuma, her voice low in deference to the hour.

"That's all right, door's always open and all that," Gryphon assured her.

"Uh... thank you," she said hesitantly—almost timidly. Looking somewhere between sheepish and awkward, she came a little farther into the room and stood in the middle of the rug, glancing around. "Is... is this really OK? A few of the witches told me about it, but I wasn't sure they weren't just making fun of me."

Gryphon sat down at his desk, swiveling the chair to face her, and gave her his most reassuring smile. "It's really OK," he said. Gesturing to the bed, he went on, "Have a seat. Is something on your mind? You seem troubled."

Koakuma considered for a moment, then crossed and sat down on a corner of the bed, facing the chair. Wolfgang roused himself enough to slide over so that he was lying alongside her, his back against her hip, and grumbled happily as she absent-mindedly started stroking his side.

After a minute or so of silence in which she visibly gathered her thoughts, she suddenly looked up to meet his eyes and said, "This is probably going to sound strange at first, but... I need help, and when Eila told me what you do for the witches here, it sounded too good to be true, because it's exactly what I need."

Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

"I..." Koakuma paused again, her brows knitting. "How should I put this... you are aware that I'm not human, right?"

"I was there when you told Amélie that you're a demon," he pointed out, and then, with a significant glance at the little bat wings on her head and the nervously fidgeting spade-pointed tail that lay behind her, he added dryly, "And there are certain signs to suggest that you weren't kidding."

Koakuma blushed slightly. "I suppose not. Well... my problem has to do with the kind of demon I am. When Mistress Patchouli summoned me, she didn't care what caste I came from. Any demon sufficiently weak for her to dominate long enough to make a contract offer would do. If accepted, the contract would override whatever traits her new servant already possessed; if declined, she could banish the reject without a fight and try again. Do you follow?"

Gryphon nodded. "I think so. I'm not a dæmonologist, as such, but I've come across a few bits and pieces here and there."

"All right. Good. Well... when my mistress summoned me and offered me her contract, it sounded like an amazingly good deal to me. Demons as minor as I was, too minor even to have their own Names yet, have a hard life in Makai, and she was offering me travel, adventure, learning... a life far more fulfilling than anything I could have expected if I'd stayed where I was born. I jumped at the chance. And I haven't had cause to regret it!" she went on earnestly, her eyes almost begging him to believe it.

"I worried briefly that I might have let myself be tricked in my eagerness, traded one kind of hopeless bondage for another, but Mistress Patchouli has been very good to me," she went on. "She treats me with care and affection, teaches me anything I want to know, never harms or even threatens to harm me. I love serving her. I truly believe I still would even without the contract. But..." She hesitated, a fretful look coming onto her face. "This is hard for me to say," she admitted after a few moments' silence. "I feel like I'm speaking ill of my mistress, even though I mean no harm by it."

Gryphon smiled. "It's all right," he said. "I can tell you respect her very much. And anything you tell me won't leave this room unless you say so."

She gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you. Where was I?"

"Your problem," he prompted.

"Ah. Of course, yes. The reason I'm here," she said wryly, knocking self-mockingly on the side of her head. Then, becoming serious once more, she went on, "Well, as I said, it has to do with the kind of devil I was before I became Mistress Patchouli's familiar. I was—at heart, I still am—a bed warden."

Gryphon raised the other eyebrow. "A... bed warden. Seriously, is that a real thing?" he asked, sounding just a touch skeptical.

Koakuma blushed to match her hair and said, "Yes, and it's not what you're thinking. I'm not a... one of those," she went on, unable to even bring herself to say it. "My function was to ward off rival entities with darker intents by my presence. In return, I received a small share of my host's magical power, which they would regain by morning anyway."

"Ah," said Gryphon, nodding. "I begin to see the problem."

Koakuma nodded vigorously. "My lady never sleeps! Literally never! Oh, my needs are provided by our contract now, so I'm in no danger of starving, but... it's part of my fundamental nature, and I'd almost forgotten what it was like. Until the night we came here, when Countess Remilia prevailed upon Mistress to go to bed. It was the first time she had ever slept in my presence... and oh, it was bliss," she said, closing her eyes. "But..." She opened them again, renewing eye contact with him, and said sadly, "She hasn't done it again."

"Hm. And you can't persuade her?"

"No. I suggested that it might be a good habit to take up, at least every once in a while, and she flatly refused. A waste of time, she said. She hadn't gone through what she went through to master the Abandonments just to squander a third of each day on something that was no longer necessary. I daren't push her harder.

"I have some latitude with instructions," Koakuma went on, "but if my mistress makes it an order, I have no choice. I must obey. Those are the terms of our contract. She doesn't like to give me orders, because she is kind, and she knows it hurts my feelings, but... she is stubborn, oh so stubborn, and if I make too much of a nuisance of myself over this, she will simply order me to leave her be. She comes to meals because she knows if she does not, Countess Remilia will cajole her without mercy, but... your lady cannot watch her all the time."

The redheaded devil sighed, looking helplessly at her hands. "So she slept the first night, because she was exhausted and ill and caught off-step by all that had happened, but since then she refuses, and I..." She sighed again, deeper this time. "Better not to have tasted such satisfaction at all than to have had it once and never again. But she does permit me time to rest for my own sake," she went hopefully on, "and everyone here says..."

Gryphon considered for a moment, then gave a wry chuckle. "The price of fame," he quipped, rising. "All right, why not? Let's give it a go."

"Oh!" she said, sounding surprised, as if she'd been expecting him to refuse. "Thank you!"

"No worries. Oi, oi, no shoes on the bed!" he interrupted himself as, eager to get started, she threw back the covers and made as if to get into bed just as she was. "Were you born in a barn? Are there barns in Hell?"

"Sorry," said Koakuma contritely, rising. "I got ahead of myself."

"Come to think of it, have you got something more appropriate to wear?" Gryphon wondered as she made to take off her shoes.

Koakuma blinked, reddening again, as she looked down at her vest and tie. "Oh. I hadn't thought of that."

Gryphon chuckled. "Well, Remi and Sakuya will still be awake. Why don't you go and ask Sakuya if you can borrow one of her nightdresses? Remi will probably be smug at you, but don't mind that," he added with a wink. "She doesn't mean any harm by it, it's just her way."

A few minutes later, in the dark and quiet, Koakuma abruptly declared in a low voice, "Of course there are."

"Huh?" Gryphon replied.

"Of course there are barns in Hell," said Koakuma, and then, with audible mischief in her voice, "Else where would they keep the nightmares?"

"Oof," said Gryphon. "Now I know you're not one of those. They know better than to pun at a man on the first date."

Koakuma giggled. "Good night."

"Good night."

Wednesday, July 10

Gertrud Barkhorn wasn't particularly surprised to see Countess Scarlet's odd friend sitting in the corner of the base library when, on her way to the wing office after breakfast that morning, she passed by the door. Except for the midday and evening mealtimes, when she had to bestir herself to the table lest she face the vampire's pique, Patchouli seemed always to be in there. It was the only room in the castle she had any apparent interest in.

Over the week or so the peculiar witch had been staying at Saint-Ulrich, Trude had unconsciously developed the habit of noticing her there whenever she passed the room. Always in the same corner chair, always bundled up in a lap blanket no matter the warmth of the day, she seemed to be reading something different every time Trude passed by, and her taste in reading material was arrestingly catholic. Trude had seen her reading everything from the field manual for the Liberion M2HB heavy machine gun to four-year-old back issues of Modern Witch to Shirley Yeager's stash of Liberion comic books.

What Trude was mildly surprised to see was that Patchouli's servant was absent. The girl was always somewhere near her mistress, solicitous of her comfort, fetching whatever she required, fussing over the slightest sign of ill health, but this morning she was nowhere to be seen. The purple-robed witch was alone in the room, buried nose-first in a battered copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Trude paused in the doorway without really meaning to; then, feeling it would be rude to stop and then just move on, as if gawking at a zoo exhibit, she cleared her throat and asked, "Is everything all right?"

Patchouli seemed surprised to be addressed; looking up from the book, she tilted her head and replied, "Hm?"

"It's rare to find you by yourself," Trude explained. "I wondered if you needed anything."

"Ah, I see." With a slight smile, Patchouli shook her head and said, "No, thank you, Major. There's no cause for alarm. Koakuma seems to be making a slow start this morning, that's all—ah, and here she is now," she added, the smile widening fractionally, as her servant—smartly dressed, as usual, but seeming slightly harried and out of sorts—arrived in the hall outside.

"Apologies, Mistress," the redhead panted, and then, "Excuse me, Major," as she edged past Trude into the doorway.

"Ah, 'Tschuldigung," Trude mumbled automatically, moving out of the way. Then, not sure quite what to say now that the situation had apparently resolved itself, she settled for a brisk, "Very well, carry on," and took herself off to the mailroom.

"Calm yourself, Koakuma, you'll let all that rest you were so keen to get go to waste," Patchouli remarked, then added mildly, "Contrary to what you may think, I can survive for a few hours without your attentions."

"All the same, Mistress, I didn't meant to sleep so late," said Koakuma, bending to adjust Patchouli's lap blanket.

"I'd ask you how it went, but..." Patchouli leaned close to her familiar and sniffed, causing the mildly startled devil to flinch and glance at her in surprise, then went on with a sly little smile, "You smell of a stranger's prana."

Koakuma blanched, her eyes wide. "Is it that noticeable?"

"I didn't say it was unpleasant," Patchouli pointed out. "Only obvious. Mind you, if you had chosen to lie with some common wizard, that would be a different story, but this one... his essence has an interesting scent." She sniffed again with a judicious expression. "Yes... satisfactory."

The pallor that had come to Koakuma's face was replaced with a luminous blush. "I wish you wouldn't phrase it like that, Mistress," she said, her hands fluttering awkwardly.

Patchouli laughed. "That's why I do it," she said.

Still crouched by the side of Patchouli's chair, Koakuma laid her head in the witch's lap, mumbling into the blanket, "You're so cruel, Mistress."

"Yes, yes. I'm a tyrant and a bully," Patchouli agreed, petting her flustered familiar. "I'm sure Wan Shi Tong would agree with you." Returning her attention to the book, she went on offhandedly, "Do you think you can forgive me sufficiently to go and fix me a cup of tea?"

Koakuma stood, straightened her tie, and smiled. "Right away, Mistress."

One thing any witch whose business routinely took her to 1 JSAF Headquarters at Château Saint-Ulrich learned early on was that the lay of the land around Mont Saint-Ulrich made for a wicked crosswind around the eastern approach to the castle. An incautious flyer could find herself caught by a gust and blown perilously close to that side of the building if she took a shortcut straight to the apron, rather than observing the official approach pattern and coming in from the far end of Runway 31.

As one of the witches who routinely flew the 50 miles down from the 511th Joint Fighter Wing's base at Château Lichtenberg for Zauberschule, Squadron Leader Elizabeth Windsor of the Britannian Royal Air Force was well aware of this slight problem of navigation. Her usual habit on a pleasant day, such as this one, was to bypass it by flying direct to Ribeauvillé, then roughly following the road up from town. This put her on an almost perfect heading to pick up the end of 31, and so straight on in to the hangar.

Now, as she guided her Hawker Tempest Striker low above the treetops, her eye caught a flash of sunlight on chrome down below. Glancing down, she saw a small vehicle on the castle road, heading upward: a motorcycle with a sidecar. Not an uncommon sight in these parts, what with all the Allied Forces dispatch riders, but this one didn't belong to any armed force Elizabeth could think of. It wasn't painted in any of the usual drab military colors, but rather bright red where it wasn't plated in shiny chrome. Likewise, the figures riding it didn't look like military personnel, even from this distance. Only one of them was wearing green, and it was too bright a shade to be a uniform.

Intrigued, Elizabeth swooped down and paced the motorcycle on its near side, keeping an eye out to make sure she didn't drift into the woods. The person in the sidecar, a girl with long red hair streaming behind her in the wind, looked over in mild surprise, then grinned and sketched a jaunty salute. The petite blonde driver's goggles glinted in the sun as she glanced at the Striker and nodded, but her hands were too busy operating the machine to make any gesture of recognition beyond that.

The 501st always seem to have the most interesting guests, Elizabeth thought with an inward smile. Returning the sidecar passenger's salute, she pulled up and accelerated away so as to reach the castle ahead of them.

Remilia was in FUEL STORAGE, sitting on a crate and idly watching Gryphon and Ursula Hartmann work on a piece of equipment that was not yet complete enough for her to guess what it would be. She found she enjoyed watching him work, even though she didn't understand enough of modern technology to have any idea what he was doing most of the time. He had the same sort of calm sureness about him when doing mechanical work that she liked about watching him commit acts of carpentry, and she found it restful to watch.

There was something pleasing, too, about the quiet rapport he had with his colleague, the way they could work industriously together on some complicated mechanism like this without a lot of needless talk. It was unlike the quasi-master-and-student energy of his interactions with Hattori and the shrine maiden, Hakurei, in that he and Hartmann Minor were peers, but similar in the obvious bonds of mutual respect and affection underlying it.

Remilia supposed some of the witches, particularly the younger ones, must still think it slightly strange that far from regarding those bonds with a jealous fiancée's suspicion, she found them pleasing to contemplate. To her, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to appreciate having one's good taste confirmed by acclamation. That, and after so long alone, she simply liked to see people getting along and enjoying each other's company.

At the sound of an approaching Striker, she hopped down from the crate, picked up her parasol, and went out into the hangar. Now that it was afternoon, the sun was no longer shining directly in through the southeast-facing doors as it did in the morning, so she left the parasol furled and stood in the shade just inside. Presently, the witch appeared in the distance; she flew in along the runway, but didn't touch down, instead pulling up to a hover on the apron just outside the door.

"How do you do, Countess Scarlet," said Elizabeth pleasantly. "Is Count von Katädien within?"

"Good afternoon, Squadron Leader Windsor," Remilia replied, performing a composite bow-curtsey in the Izayoi manner. Then, angling her head toward FUEL STORAGE, she added with a smile, "In his toy workshop, but I couldn't tell you what wonder of the age he and Frau Claus are working on today."

Elizabeth laughed. "It was ever thus," she said, then taxied her Striker to one of the extra stages, shut it down, and disembarked. "At any rate, I needn't interrupt them for long. Colonel Knoke has requested a copy of the lightning rifle technical document. For some reason she distrusts the SHAEF internal mail system in such matters." Then, her ear catching the sound of an engine, she looked outside and smiled. "Aha, so they are coming here."

"Who?" Remilia wondered.

"An interesting pair I spotted on the road on my way up here. From their singular appearance, I judged they mustn't be headed anywhere but this castle—and it seems I was right, for here they are now."

As if on cue, the red-and-chrome motorcycle appeared, pulling out onto the apron from the access road. Remilia watched it approach with a curious look, which changed to a broad smile as she recognized the riders.

"Flandre!" she cried, delighted, and stepped out onto the apron before remembering her parasol. Wincing and stifling a curse at the sting of direct sunlight, she hastily deployed it, by which time her younger sister had pulled her unexpected vehicle to a stop nearby.

"What ho, elder sister," said Flandre cheerfully, springing off the saddle to seize Remilia in a hug.

"What's this?" Remilia wondered.

"It's a motorcycle," Flandre replied.

Remilia rolled her eyes. "I can see that."

"Then why did you ask?" Flan wondered, all wide-eyed innocence.

Remilia sighed. "Where did you get it?"

"Helvetia," said Flandre, and then, rather than needle her sister further, she went on, "It's kind of a long story."

"Good afternoon, m'lady," said Hong Meiling cheerfully as she unfolded her tall frame from the sidecar and stretched. "Hoo! Kind of a snug fit for the likes of me." Bowing, she went on in a more formal tone, "As you see, I have brought Lady Flandre unharmed through her adventure, as promised."

"I do so see," Remilia replied, returning the bow with the gravity it deserved. "You have my gratitude, Master Hong." Then, looking more closely, she said, "Are you all right? You seem somewhat... battered."

"Ahh, nah, this is nothin'," Meiling said easily, though upon closer inspection she did seem a bit the worse for wear—scuffed and mildly bruised, as though she'd been in a fight or a moderate car accident a few days ago and hadn't quite fully healed. "Some of Sakuya's home cooking and a good night's sleep in a real bed'll put me right."

"Well... if you say so," Remilia conceded. "You know your body best. What happened?"

Before she could get an answer, Gryphon emerged from the hangar, still drying his hands on a clean shop towel, and Flandre foreclosed further discussion for the moment by flying to his arms.

They brought the motorcycle into the hangar and parked it next to the Belv, following which Gryphon went back to work, Elizabeth got on with her errand, Meiling gathered up all the baggage, and she and the Scarlets adjourned to the barracks wing. Sakuya met them there and had her own brief but heartfelt reunion with Meiling before they turned to the business of rearranging their quarters.

In the bedroom she'd been inhabiting for the last few days, Remilia stood off to one side and watched while Flandre put her rucksack on the bed and started unpacking it. Apart from her mode of dress—a suit of Helvetian-style outdoor clothes in sturdy dark-red gabardine and stout hobnailed walking boots—Flan looked physically the same as she had when they last saw each other, at the Gare de l'Est in Paris a couple of weeks ago.

Even so short a time in the outside world, though, had made a visible difference in her bearing. She seemed somehow more worldly, more grown-up, than she had when she left Paris. Or was that just Remilia's own imagination, fired by the expansion she'd felt in her own worldview since emerging from the cocoon of her house after all these decades? How much more exhilarating must that experience be for Flan, who had spent far longer than that sealed away in her basement tomb?

And then Flan pulled her Teddy bear out of the rucksack and dispelled the impression at once, declaring, "There you are, Mr. President! We'll just put you over here next to good King Babar, shall we?" Turning a grin to her sister, she asked, "Has His Majesty looked after you well in our absence?"

Remilia chuckled. "He has indeed," she replied. Then, on impulse, she crossed the rug and embraced Flandre again. "Welcome back, little sister," she said quietly. "You'll have to tell me all about your adventures... I've a sense that they were eventful."

"I will. I promise," Flandre replied. "Just... not today. Today I just want to get settled and rest. OK?"

"OK," Remilia agreed.

Across the hall, Sakuya finished tending Meiling's various injuries, then inquired as she put away her first-aid supplies,

"Would you care to tell me how all that happened?"

"I would, but not right now," Meiling replied, stretching out full-length on the bed with her hands behind her head. "Right now I just want to take a nap."

"As you like," said Sakuya equably. She bent over the bed to arrange pillows, continuing, "In that case, I'll leave you to it—"

"You'll do no such thing," Meiling objected, looping out an arm to pull her down onto the bed. "I need to recharge my maid energy," she quipped, cuddling her startled fiancée with a gleeful grin.

Sakuya considered stopping time and extricating herself—she had work to do, after all; both Meiling's and the young mistress's laundry needed attending to, and then it would be time to get started on dinner. Upon reflection, though, she decided that there would be no harm in indulging Meiling's whim and having a nap of her own.

Besides, she thought with a little smile as she snuggled down, I need to recharge my housecarl energy.

In the end, Gryphon wound up taking the lead on dinner that night. When Sakuya arrived in the kitchen at five minutes to six, already programming The World to isolate the room as she rushed in, she found him there, putting the finishing touches on a profusion of fried chicken and various trimmings. Shirley was acting as his sous-chef, with garde-manger Hattori and pâtissière Kirisame rounding out the brigade.

"Stand by on the gravy, Shizuka, I think we're just about ready to serve," Shirley was saying as Sakuya arrived.

"Aye aye, ma'am," Shizuka replied, making ready the gravy boat.

"Éclairs are on deck," Marisa reported cheerfully, stashing the completed desserts in the big refrigerator to await the end of the main meal.

"Splendid work, everyone—ah, Miss Izayoi, come to lend us a hand with the serving?" said Gryphon with a grin as he noticed Sakuya entering.

"A thousand apologies, Chief, I was detained," said Sakuya, bowing.

"I saw that," Gryphon said, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Leaning closer, he added in a confidential murmur, "I couldn't bear to disturb such an adorable scene."

"Thank you," she replied, her cheeks pink.

"Not a problem. We've had a blast putting this feed together anyway, haven't we, team?"

"You betcha," Shirley agreed. "Ain't every day I get to make my famous garlic mashed potatoes."

Dinner was a great success, with Flandre and Meiling formally presented to the castle's company and heartily welcomed by all. The dining room was even closer to capacity now, and the company more boisterous than ever, as they ate, drank, and got acquainted.

Inevitably, over coffee and Marisa's éclairs at the meal's end, the conversation turned to the impending celebration. Normal operations were scheduled to cease at 1800 hours on the morrow, so that everyone could be rested and ready to party on Friday.

"Speaking of which," said Reimu, "if you can spare someone to show me to the wedding shrine in the morning. I need to get started with my preparations. It'll take me a while to set everything up, get a feel for the feng shui, and make any adjustments that might be required."

"Hattori, will you see to that, please?" asked Mio.

"Of course," Shizuka agreed. "It's only a short walk from the back gate. We can leave anytime you like in the morning, General."

"You know," Remilia observed impishly as she dressed for bed, "I'm surprised you're here tonight, and not down the hall."

Flandre, who was already changed and now sat at the dressing table brushing her hair, laughed. "I thought about it," she admitted, "but tonight was already booked." With a wry smile, she added, "I'm a weirdo, but I don't cut in line."

"Very admirable," said Remilia, climbing into bed.

Flandre finished up her operations, then switched off the lights and got in beside her, settling in with a contented sigh. "I like it here. Everyone's nice. And the castle is in such good shape!" Yawning, she added in a sleep-blurred mumble, "Much better than mine."

Remilia, herself at least halfway to sleep, blinked awake again as what her sister had just said penetrated her consciousness.

"Since when did you have a castle?" she asked. No reply came. "... Flan?"

Flandre's only answer was a light snore.

Well, I'm sure I'll find out sooner or later, thought Remilia philosophically, and she went to sleep as well.

Thursday, July 11

The path from Château Saint-Ulrich to the wedding shrine was only a few hundred feet long, but it wound through the woods sufficiently that the castle was out of sight for most of it. Finally, after a short and pleasant hike, the small party that had set out after breakfast rounded one final bend and found themselves in a small clearing at the foot of a flight of stone stairs, at the top of which stood a wooden torii, its crimson and black paint fresh and gleaming in the morning sunshine.

"Huh. Bet you don't see those too often in Gallia," Marisa remarked, looking up at the symbolic gate with hands on hips.

"As far as I know, it's the only one," Shizuka confirmed.

The young aviator led Marisa and Reimu up the stairs. From the top they could see, framed in the torii, a larger, more formal space than the clearing at the bottom: a courtyard, neatly paved in flat stones and sporting traditional Fusō-style stone lanterns at interval around the perimeter, leading to a modest wooden building in a style as arrestingly foreign to the Vosges as the gate.

"Well, here it is," said Shizuka. "Miyafuji and I didn't have any proper blueprints to work from, and we're not professional carpenters, but I think we did a reasonably good job on it, all the same."

Reimu unslung the duffel bag she was carrying and put it down at her feet. "Better than reasonably good," she said.

"I'll say," Marisa agreed. "It looks just like the genuine article!"

Turning around, she saw that they were at the top of the slightly taller hill that stood to the northeast of Mont Saint-Ulrich. The stairway led north, so standing at the top facing away from the shrine, she had a fine view back over the Strenbach valley, with the red roofs and square tower of Saint-Ulrich just below on the right, the ruins of its companion the Girsberg on the left, and Ribeauvillé just peeking out of the foliage at the bottom.

"Come to think of it, this countryside looks a lot like back home," she went on. "If it wasn't for the Western-style buildings, it'd be an almost perfect match." She turned back to face the shrine and grinned. "Lookin' this way, it's like you got your own little slice of Fusō right here. Hang on, though. There's one more thing it needs to make the picture complete."

While Shizuka looked on in faint puzzlement, the blonde witch took Reimu by the wrist and pulled her over to the shrine, then arranged the bemused miko like a mannequin, sitting her down on the porch with her feet hanging off the edge and settling her skirt and wide sleeves just so. Then she trotted back to Shizuka and turned back, making a camera frame with her fingers.

"There!" she declared, peering through the frame with one eye at Reimu sitting on the porch. "Now it looks perfect."

Reimu rolled her eyes. "At least get me some dango if you're going to pose me like a doll."

Rising, she dusted at her skirt and opened the shrine's sliding doors, revealing an inner room that looked as much like the one back home as the outside did, except that it lacked the little touches indicating that someone lived there. It still smelled new, like cut wood, fresh varnish, and clean tatami.

"Yes indeed," she said with satisfaction. "This will do nicely." Turning back to Shizuka, she went on, "Impressive work, Lieutenant. I'm starting to believe there's some truth in all those stories of Navy ingenuity after all," she added with a cheerful wink.

Shizuka chuckled. "Thank you, General," she said dryly, and then, in a more normal tone, "Do you need my help with anything? I'm free until 1300, then I have the afternoon comms watch."

Reimu shook her head. "Thanks, but I think we'll manage. I have my own way I like to go about these things. You can head back."

"Roger that, ma'am." Shizuka squared up and saluted. "Hattori, returning to base." She waited for Reimu, looking slightly amused, to return her salute, then about-faced and headed off down the stairs.

"Right then," said Reimu.

Retrieving her duffel bag, she opened it up and set it on the porch, then rummaged in it until she found a length of ribbon, which she used to tie the loose ends of her sleeves up out of the way, and another with which she tied her long black hair into a utilitarian ponytail. With those preparations done, she picked up the bag, stepped up onto the porch, took off her shoes, and then, almost as an afterthought, turned back and called to Marisa,

"Put that broom to good use for once and sweep up the courtyard, will you?"

"It ain't that kind of broom," Marisa protested, but Reimu had already gone inside and started arranging things.

It took much of the day for everything to be configured to Reimu's satisfaction. Working methodically, she performed a ritual purification of the structure and the grounds, even though they were brand new; assessed the lay of the local qi flows and made a few judicious adjustments; set up and reconsecrated the portable mini-shrine to Fusō's martial gods she'd brought with her; made certain that the proper fixtures were in place for the tea and sake servings that were part of the standard service; and finally decorated the shrine with all the appropriate touches to ensure the happy couple's health and prosperity.

While she was about all that, Marisa made sure the courtyard was ready to receive the wedding's guests, double-checked the wards on the torii (purely ceremonial though they might be), cleaned and fueled the stone lanterns, and gave everything a thorough dusting. Most of that would need a last touch-up the next day, before the guests and the wedding party arrived, but she figured doing the bulk of it now would make for lighter, quicker work in the morning.

Apart from a short break at midday to eat the boxed lunches Yoshika had prepared for them that morning, the pair of them worked straight through, and it was not long before dinnertime when they finally came to the end of their work.

"Phew!" Marisa declared, stretching her arms above her head, then flopped down so she was lying on her back, lower legs hanging off the porch, head and shoulders inside the shrine. Looking up and back so she was observing Reimu upside-down, she said, "I dunno about you, but I'm ready for some dinner. You about done?"

"Nearly," Reimu replied. She took the last item from her bag, unrolled it, and regarded it for a moment, then hung it on the wall above the mini-shrine. "There," she said. "That makes it official."

Marisa tilted her head, trying to read the hand-painted characters upside down. "What is it?"

Reimu adjusted the position of the hanging scroll slightly, then let her hair and sleeves down, padded across the porch in her stocking feet, and sat down next to Marisa before replying.

"The Emperor's edict," she said, then recited it without turning around to look: "'By the grace of the heavens Emperor of Fusō, seated on the throne occupied by the same dynasty since time immemorial: Whereas we owe a great debt to the witches who daily face death in armed service to our empire; and whereas this debt has existed since the very dawn of our dynasty; and whereas we have recognized that, contrariwise, a marked shortfall exists between what they are owed and what they are given; now, therefore, it is our will that any woman who serves or has served our throne under arms shall enjoy, all her life long, each and every privilege heretofore reserved for our fighting men. In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hand and caused the Emperor's Great Seal to be affixed aboard His Majesty's battleship Kongō at sea, this twentieth day of the sixth month of the twentieth year of Shōwa, corresponding to the 2,606th year from the accession to the throne of Empress Jingū.'"

Marisa chuckled, both at the fact that Reimu had memorized the edict, and at the edict itself. "Cleverly worded," she said. "I like how it starts out talkin' about witches, but then the important part is 'any woman under arms'. Fritz did that too, with that nice little bit about witches 'past, present and potential'. D'ya suppose they talked about it before the Emperor left Brandenburg?"

"No doubt," Reimu agreed.

They sat in silence for a while, enjoying the soft summer breezes that rustled the leaves on the trees at the edge of the courtyard, the unexpected resemblance of this place to their home, and the associations it brought along with it. Reimu's mind wandered, brushing against various topics without really settling on any of them. The only thing the occasion was missing was tea. Maybe she'd go make some. Think of it as a trial run for that part of the ceremony...

"Hey Reimu?" said Marisa.


"We're women serving the imperial throne under arms, ain't we?"

Reimu gave a gentle start, retrieved from her drifting reverie by puzzlement. "What?"

"Well, technically I'm in the Liberion forces," Marisa admitted (still flat on her back, her golden gaze directed absently at the ceiling), "but I've got both passports, and you're... you. Seems to me we both oughta qualify."

"I guess?" said Reimu, at a loss. Then, turning to look down at her face, she added wryly, "Why, are you thinking of applying for a veteran's land grant?"

"No," Marisa replied, and her eyes suddenly refocused on Reimu's as she went on, "I'm thinking of askin' you to marry me."

"Oh," said Reimu, and then, "Wait, what?!"

"Well, why not?" Marisa asked, suddenly sitting up. "The Emperor just made it legal. That's why we're here, right? So you can marry Sakamoto and General Wilcke." She angled a thumb at the edict hanging on the wall behind them. "That sets His Majesty's seal on it. Literally. So why shouldn't we do the same?"

"Are you—that isn't funny," said Reimu. Rising to her feet, she retrieved her shoes and put them on. "Let's go, we're going to be late for dinner."

Marisa scrambled upright as well, looking somewhere between baffled and miffed. "It ain't supposed to be funny!" she insisted. "What's your problem?"

"My problem is, that kind of joke is beyond bad taste, and to take the Emperor's name in vain in the process is tacky even for you."

"Th' hell's that supposed to mean?! I told you, it ain't a joke!"

"Of course it is. It has to be."

"Why would you even think that? Haven't we been together for years? Ain't we always gonna be together anyway? Why not make it official? Are..." Marisa hesitated, her voice catching in her throat as tears came to her eyes, then plowed on, "Are you sayin' I got it wrong all this time?"

"No, of course not," said Reimu at once. "But..."

"'But'? But what?"

Reimu gave the blonde witch a pleading look. "Don't make me do this, Marisa."

"Do what? Th' hell's the matter with you all of a sudden?" Squaring up to Reimu, fists on hips, she fixed her with a direct glare and demanded, "Give it to me straight, Reimu. You know I hate this kind of screwin' around. If I haven't been wrong about you and me all this time, why are you so freaked out?"

Reimu gazed back at her, helpless dismay ruling her face. "You really don't get it."

"I guess not!"

"Marisa, you know who I am. What I am."

"Yeah? You're the Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches. So you outrank me. So what? We ain't even in the same army."

Reimu shook her head violently, her sidelocks flying. "It's not about that. I don't care about rank, you know that. But I'm a shrine maiden. Not just any shrine maiden—I'm the Hakurei. I don't think you've ever truly understood what that means."

Marisa folded her arms, scowling. "Enlighten me."

"The Hakurei Shrine is more than just an old army shrine no one ever visits. It's the balance point of the Empire's martial fortune. The fulcrum of Fusō's fate. As its guardian, I have to be impartial. Do you understand? I can't show favor to anything... or anyone."

"Don't you dare," Marisa snapped, her face flushing with anger. "Don't you dare quote Marshal Yakumo at me. I get it now. I see what's goin' on here. That vicious old hag! She just wants you for herself."

"You shouldn't talk about a member of the Imperial Household that way," said Reimu, a touch of warning creeping into her voice alongside the despair.

Marisa snorted. "She ain't all that. And even if she was, what of it? She's seven thousand miles away, she's a lying, manipulative bitch and she's playin' you. Well, I ain't havin' it. What did she tell you? That if you ever fell in love, Fusō would lose the war? Oh, but of course that wouldn't apply to her, 'cause she's the Emperor's ninth cousin or whatever. What a fuckin' load."

"I don't have to listen to this," Reimu said, sounding as if it had only just occurred to her.

Turning away, she lifted her feet from the ground, gliding into the air with her usual effortless grace in spite of her obvious agitation, and left the outraged blonde standing on the shrine porch.

"Sure, yeah!" Marisa called after her. "Go ahead! Just float away from the problem, like you always do! Coward!"

As she passed the nearest of the stone lanterns, Reimu noticed Marisa's broom leaning against it, where she'd left it when she finished sweeping the courtyard. On impulse, she snatched it up as she passed, then put on some speed and soared away, carrying it off with her.

"Oh, that's real mature!" Marisa shouted, her voice already distant.

Gryphon was in his bedroom, sitting at his desk with the Gallian doors onto the balcony open for the afternoon breezes while he wrote up some notes on the lightning rifle for its upcoming trials before the Allied Ordnance Board. Apart from the one-off Mogami system he and Shizuka had developed for the Imperial Fusōnese Navy, it was the first time one of his experimental weapons had made it as far as an official adoption trial, and the very first to be considered for series production, so he wanted to make certain that everything was documented as thoroughly as possible.

A flicker of motion caught his eye; he looked up to see Marisa's yellow cat, whom he had last seen loitering around the living room, entering from the hallway. He'd been asleep that morning after breakfast, and Marisa had let him lie rather than wake him and take him up to the shrine with her.

"Hello, Mr. Murgatroyd," said Gryphon with mild surprise. "What brings you by?"

The cat didn't reply, naturally enough. He looked preoccupied, as if on some kind of mission, as he crossed the room, went out the Gallian door, and jumped up onto the balcony table. Intrigued, and slightly concerned lest he try to get anywhere from out there—it was a long drop from the balcony to the ground far below the castle's hilltop perch—Gryphon put his notes aside and went out to join him.

"What's up?" he asked, sitting down at the table. The cat ignored him, gazing intently upward, his head cocked as if hearing something out of the range of Gryphon's ears—and a moment later, Mr. Murgatroyd began to glow, emitting the distinctive shimmery sound of released magic.

Reimu didn't really have a plan when she flew away from the shrine, other than to escape the awkward and painful situation that had unexpectedly engulfed her there. She wasn't bound for anywhere in particular, not heading back to the castle or off to some other spot—she was just fleeing, fully as cowardly as Marisa's parting shout had accused her of being.

Why had she brought that up, of all things, out of the blue like that? What catastrophic flaw in Marisa's makeup was it that made her so incapable of leaving well enough alone? She'd always been like that, from the very first day they'd known each other. Always disrupting Reimu's tranquility with her restless need to do, to confront. Upsetting her equilibrium. Troubling her peace of mind.

Her eye caught movement below her, something rising on an intercept course. For a moment she thought one of the witches at the nearby castle, which she'd flown past in her agitation, had launched and was coming up to meet her...

... and then, to her shock, she realized who it was.

Marisa streaked up from the woods, leaving a shockwave in her wake, and reached Reimu's altitude a dozen yards or so ahead of her. Then, pivoting, she stood in midair, her booted feet spread wide and planted on nothing, right palm outstretched, face like a thundercloud.

"Hold it!" she barked. "You're goin' nowhere, Shrine Maiden of Hakurei. You and me, we're gonna have this out." She made a sideways chopping gesture, furious eyes boring into Reimu's, and went on flatly, "Right here, right now."

Reimu pulled up short and hovered, her eyes wide. A thousand things rushed through her head, but the only thing that came out of her mouth was a hoarse whisper:

"... you can fly?"

"I don't recall ever sayin' I needed the broom," Marisa replied. "Although, that said, I'll take it back now, if you don't mind."

She snapped her fingers; the broom tugged itself free from Reimu's shock-slackened grasp and flew to its owner, taking up a position under her feet as if she'd been standing on it all along.

Regaining her composure only with effort, Reimu felt herself slip into the chilly, distant persona she often took on when confronting the more intelligent breeds of rogue yōkai. It was a reaction much like she'd had when first confronting Gryphon, when he'd turned out not to be at all what she was expecting. As on that occasion, she didn't particularly want to take this attitude right now, but she was at such a loss that instinct took over, and she inquired coolly,

"Was that all you wanted?"

Marisa blinked, then scowled, her pique only intensified.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded. "You were glad enough when I came back from Shanghai. We've been happy together ever since. In all'a that time, however things have evolved between us, you've never shown the slightest hint o' worry. All's I did was ask you to make it official, now that that's possible, and all of a sudden it's a problem? All of a sudden you turn on me? And I'm the bad guy?"

"I told you what the problem is—" Reimu began.

"And I told you it's bullshit!" Marisa shot back, her voice just short of a scream. "Come on, Reimu! Think!" she pleaded, tapping her own forehead with both index fingers. "You seriously believe that if the miko of some little podunk shrine in the middle of Nagano admits she's in love, then... what? The Empire falls?! That's insane!"

"Think of all the insane things we've seen over the last few years," Reimu told her. "Why is this that much harder to believe?"

"'Cause it's fuckin' 1946, that's why," Marisa snapped. "As a matter of fact, you know what? Even if it was true, it wouldn't change how I feel. If the Empire's that fragile, then to hell with the Empire."

"Marisa!" cried Reimu, drawing back in shock.

"You heard me! To hell with it! If it's on such thin metaphysical ice that it can only survive by makin' you some kinda... some kinda karmic slave, then I say let it die!"

Reimu stared at the blonde witch as if she'd suddenly grown a second head. "Why would you say something like that?" she asked.

"Because I goddamn love you, you idiot!" Marisa replied. "And whatever nonsense a certain imperial hag has put into your head, I know you love me!" Still standing four-square on her broom, she folded her arms. "So what's it gonna be, Reimu? Am I wrong? Tell me I'm wrong." Gliding nearer, she glared into the shrine maiden's eyes, her own full of defiance. "Look me in the eye and tell me, straight up, that I'm wrong, and I'll give up. Because I know you won't lie, if you say it to my face, I'll leave. Right this very minute. You'll never have to see me again. Tell. Me. I'm. Wrong."

Reimu stared back from the bottom of a pool of black despair.

"I can't," she said, her voice almost inaudible.

"Then say it," Marisa said, relentless, implacable. "If I'm not wrong, say it. Admit it. To me. To yourself. And let the chips fall where they may."

"I can't!" Reimu cried.

Marisa gazed hard at her for a moment later, then backed up a few yards, her broom's bristles rustling.

When she spoke, her voice was quieter, almost matter-of-fact. "Then I'd say we got a problem, wouldn't you?"

"Only because you won't let it go!" Reimu declared, gathering herself up and trying to go back on the offensive. "Why did you have to do this? What was wrong with the way things were?"

"Nothin'—until I found out it could be more," said Marisa.

"But it can't!" Reimu protested. "It was never even supposed to be what it is, but as long as we didn't look directly at it, I could convince myself it was OK. I tried to tell you. The first day I tried to tell you! But you wouldn't go away. You kept coming back, and coming back, and coming back."

Marisa nodded. "Yep. That's what I do. I come back. And I'll always come back. You hear me? As long as you can't say I'm wrong... then I'll keep coming back."

Reimu shook her head, tears flying. "It's hopeless! Even if you're not wrong, it's hopeless! Give up!"

"Not gonna happen. If you want me gone, I told you what you have to do. And we've already established that you can't do it."

Reimu had no reply. For nearly a full minute, the two stood there, high in the air above Ribeauvillé, staring each other down in silence.

Then, her gohei slipping out of her sleeve and into her hand, Reimu said quietly, "You know what has to happen now."

Marisa held her right arm away from her side with her palm toward Reimu, then moved her hand in a conjurer's trick, summoning the mini-Hakkero. Its inner fire ignited with a snap and a keening whine that rose as its glow brightened.

"Yep," she said.

Tokyo Active NEETs
"Maiden's Capriccio ~ Dream Battle"
Touhou Bakuon Jazz 6 (2014)


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

Episode 25:
"The Wedding Bell Blues"

written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

The EPU Usual Suspects

Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Tōhō Project
created by Team Shanghai Alice

Bacon Comics chief
Derek Bacon

This Eyrie Production is dedicated to the memory of Her Majesty
Elizabeth II
Dei Gratia Britanniarum Regnorumque Suorum Ceterorum Regina,
Consortionis Populorum Princeps, Fidei Defensor

April 21, 1926 – September 8, 2022

who would probably have been bemused by her appearance herein

E P U (colour) 2022