Kirche felt very pleased with herself as she walked to the dragon stables. Despite the horrid mess Tristain was in, she'd managed to save a princess, get out of classes, and have some fun on the side. Things were going great for her.
Tabitha was already there tending to Sylphid, and Kirche gave her friend a wave. Tabitha returned the gesture slowly, which told Kirche her friend wanted to chat about something. Well that was fine. She'd just give her familiar a little pampering first.
To her surprise Flame was moping. "Aw, what is it dear?" She offered the salamander a lamb haunch. "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten you."
Flame perked up immediately and gurgled happily before digging in. Kirche patted her familiar's head as it tore the meat off the bone. "Remember you were the one who caught that Fouquette woman." Flame licked the last scraps off and butted his head against her leg in appreciation.
She led her familiar out to join Tabitha next to Sylphid. Flame glared at the dragon, but curled up nearby anyway. "What's wrong Flame?" Kirche asked.
"Jealous," Tabitha said with a shrug. "Can't transform."
"Oh." That would be a little disappointing. Both Utsuho and Sylphid could shift to humanoid forms. Kirche patted her familiar again. "Now now. I like that you're a salamander all the time. It makes it so much easier to work together!" Flame perked up and crooned before settling next to Slyphid.
Kirche plopped down next to her familiar, then relaxed as Tabitha settled next to her. She kept her voice low as she asked, "By the way Tabitha, how is it you knew about Utsuho?" She didn't want to sound accusing, but it had been annoying her for a while.
"Saw them flying," Tabitha replied. "Utusho saw through Sylphid, so we promised to keep it secret."
"Aha! That explains it!" Kirche grinned. "I thought you might be trying to get ahead of me for a moment." She'd thought no such thing, but maybe she'd be able to get a rise out of her quiet friend.
Tabitha flipped a page. "How was Lady Violetta?"
Kirche blinked. "Wait- how did you...?"
"Good ears," Tabitha said.
Oh dear. Well that was mildly embarrassing. She didn't want to keep her friend up at night. "Sorry, I'll add some soundproofing magic," Kirche said. "And it was quite an experience. We were both aiming for the same knight, but I think we lucked out when he ran off."
"Louise won't like a harem that isn't centered around her," Tabitha said dryly.
"That's an understatement." Kirche snickered. "But it's not like I have any long term plans with the Lady. It was just nice talking to someone who understands how to enjoy life to its fullest. And now that I've been noticing pretty girls more, it was fun to spend time with one."
There was a rustling of pages. Then after a moment Tabitha asked, "Do you think I'm a pretty girl?"
Kirche blinked at that. She looked down to see her friend blushing. Tabitha was pretty cute... Well then. "Tabitha dear, if you ask me that again I'll actually start trying to seduce you."
The blue haired girl blushed a little more, but nodded. "Understood."
Further conversation was cut short by the tromp of soldiers. How annoying. This part of the stables was supposed to be free. She stood to see four guards taking up positions outside while Louise and Princess Henrietta walked in. Kirche dusted herself off and bowed. She couldn't make herself properly presentable, but surely the princess knew that when she chose to visit them in the stable. "Your majesty."
Tabitha stood and bowed as well. The princess gave them both a nod. "I apologize to you both for not being a dutiful hostess. With recent events there's been a lot I've needed to handle personally."
"I've heard." Kirche had sent her appraisal of the situation back to her parents as well. An appraisal that pretty much only put Louise in a good light, though she'd spared the princess further humiliation by glossing over bits. Tabitha had certainly done the same.
Henrietta sighed. "I'm afraid Germania is hesitant to involve itself in the war between Tristain and Albion. In addition my marriage has been delayed indefinitely." She looked right at Kirche. "However you are the only one who can pilot the Dragon's Raiment, according to Louise."
Louise grimaced. "I bet Siesta could teach someone else but-"
"She has no need to." Kirche kneeled before Henrietta. "While I cannot speak for my country, as a Chevallier I pledge myself to your cause for this conflict. Cromwell and Wales are my enemies as well as yours."
"Kirche." Louise rocked back, surprise and admiration warring on her face. It was a good look. Even more fun than her frustrated face.
Henrietta on the other hand just gave a stunning smile. "I thank you Ser Zerbst. I offer you the full honors of one of my personal guards, until the conflict ends or your King calls you to service."
Kirche rose as she considered the princess' words. That meant she was being given an official, if temporary, position complete with pay and duties. A generous and diplomatic move.
Louise was more informal. "Thanks Kirche. I guess I owe you."
All eyes turned to Tabitha, who was downcast. Kirche wasn't sure if Henrietta could see it, but she bet Louise did. The Gallian woman shook her head sadly. "Can't. It would break oath."
Kirche patted her friend on the shoulder. She'd hoped Tabitha could join, but the blue haired woman was not just a Chevallier. Tabitha was deeply connected to Gallia, in ways even Kirche wasn't allowed to know.
Henrietta seemed understanding as well. "Of course. You've already done a great deal for our nation. If you change your mind, or if you are given leave, just say the word and we will happily offer you the same as Ser Zerbst."
"The Zero fighter only fits two anyway," Louise said. "You're already helping just by being our friend at school. It'll help keep people from assassinating us." Kirche's eyes grew wide. She hadn't considered that.
"Deal," Tabitha said with a satisfied nod.
Kirche frowned and looked at Louise. "When'd you get so worldly little Louise?"
"When Count Wardes came within a hair's breadth of leaving my entrails on the walls of Newcastle," Louise said, tracing the line across her body.
Henrietta flinched. "I will have my own agents as well. Along with the teachers. But another set of eyes will make me feel that much more comfortable." Especially given her agents had failed miserably Kirche mentally added.
The princess composed herself. "I thank you both again. There is but one more thing I would like to ask before I let you return to the academy."
Louie followed Henrietta into the large meeting room. The assembled men all rose and bowed as the princess took her seat. Louise and Kirche took the chairs to her left.
Most of the country's generals were here, along with the more powerful nobles. Her father was one and she spared him a glance and a nod. He was pulling at his mustache already. Mother had warned her that father would be nervous.
The other men at the table were either glaring at them in disdain or disbelief, the exception being the Cardinal. Not a good start, but Satori had warned her to expect it. Utsuho nuzzled her cheek and she gave the bird a pat.
"Honored lords," Henrietta said, "I would like to call this war council to order. What is our situation?"
High Court Justice Richeliu spoke first. "Forgive me your majesty, but I wonder why a Germanian is here. Last I heard they had refused to send us aid."
Henrietta waved her hand. "Ser Zerbst has offered our nation her services during this war. You shall grant her all the respect due to her station."
General Pontiers snorted. "We don't usually give chevaliers access to war councils your majesty."
Heniretta's glare made him flinch. "Given she and Ser Valliere are the entirety of our air fleet, I am willing to grant an exception." Louise forced herself not to smirk at the man's discomfort.
Field Marshal Focht coughed and leaned forwards. "On that note, your majesty...?"
The old Marshal folded his hands. "The loss of our fleet is complete. However, we should be able to repair eight of the ships within the year. In addition we have two more ships of the line in construction that we can speed up. Still, the earliest we can get anything in the air outside of press ganged merchant ships is four months from now."
Not that it would matter, Louise thought. Two battleships backed by a handful of merchants wasn't going to stop the Albion fleet.
"How much would it cost to expedite that?" Henrietta asked.
"It can't be done," Marshal Focht replied. "If we threw half the treasury at it we could get more ships in the air by the end of summer, but nothing will get us a working fleet before then."
"It's up to us then," she thought at Utsuho.
Utsuho clacked her beak. "Yeah. But we can win for sure."
Henrietta nodded. "Get me exact costs within the week." She looked around the table. "So all we can do is stall for that time. Where will Albion strike?"
General Marcielle pointed towards a large city. "It's rather obvious that they'll be attacking Calais. While they may have free reign over the sky, they won't be able to conduct a large scale campaign without a port facility. Calais is the only place they can do that without threatening our neighbors and forcing them to act. Germania might be waiting to see how the war progresses, but they won't ignore an army on their border."
Louise grimaced. That was what she'd said to Momiji, but the wolf woman had brought up two counterpoints. "How long would it take to build up the needed port facilities? Assuming they cannibalized a village for wood."
The shocked looks on most of the general's faces really didn't inspire confidence. If Momiji had figured it out in a minute, why hadn't they?
Justice Richelieu scoffed. "Build a port? What nonsense! The time they waste setting that up would doom whatever troops were holding their beachhead."
"It's not impossible," Louise's father said. "But I admit it's an unlikely strategy." Louise pouted at her father's dismissal.
"They'll be raiding," Kirche said. Louise nodded. That had been the other strategy Momiji had thought up.
"Indeed." Her father frowned. "Raiders can strike anywhere across our nation. And if we lack strength locally they can force a battle on their terms."
General Pontiers folded his hands. "It seems like we might have to sacrifice a few villages if they take that route. We can't risk our army in a vain attempt to fight Albion wherever they appear."
"We will not abandon our people," Henreitta said.
Marshal Focht grunted in approval. "If we did then Ser Valliere's prediction would come true. We can't surrender a beach head."
"I agree in principle," Cardinal Mazarin said. "But how can we handle it in practice? Our army can only be in so many places at once."
Louise stood. "We need to position our armies to be able to rapidly react to an attack. Calais must be reinforced of course. If it's captured we lose everything. However we can leave that to the infantry, while our cavalry and dragoons gather to rapidly deploy across the nation."
Justice Richeliu snorted. "Your majesty, you can't be seriously considering this nonsense! How will we defend a city without cavalry? And splitting up our forces elsewhere is certain disaster!"
"Defending Calais without cavalry wouldn't be too difficult," Pontiers said. "But splitting our forces does seem dangerous. The Albion advantage in airships means they can bring a full artillery compliment to any battle. Any force of ours will be outgunned."
Princess Henrietta folded her hands. "That will be handled by Louise and Kirche. They will engage the air units to eliminate the Albion navy presence. With luck it should give our troops an advantage in morale as well."
Louise's father tugged on his mustache. "Can you do it, Louise?"
Annoyance rose up at the question, but a brush of Utsuho's wing forced it down. He was just worried about her. "Yes. And the Albion commanders know it too, otherwise they wouldn't have demanded I stay away from their fleet."
That got a few chuckles from some of the other generals. Marshal Focht however was unmoved. "If they know you're a danger, they'll have plans for your attack. I hope you have another trick or three ready."
"We do," Kirche said. "And we'll be thinking up more while we prepare."
The Marshal nodded. "Then I wish you luck. I believe the plan is the best we can arrange under the circumstances. Your Majesty, if I might suggest troop deployments?"
"Please do," Henrietta said.
The next hour was a lot of wrangling around troop dispositions and supply routes. Louise paid careful attention, but there was really nothing she could add. She didn't know any alternatives to the suggestions offered, and she had no clue how effective various units were.
Kirche was even more bored, occasionally pretending to nod off in order to lean against Louise. Fortunately Utsuho poked the redhead 'awake' before anyone got ideas.
Finally the last matter was settled and Henrietta stood. "Thank you my lords. We will reconvene in a week. Louise, Kirche, if you would accompany me?"
Louise happily stood and gave her father a nod before following Henrietta out. Kirche stretched and trailed along.
The princess led them to a smaller conference room before sighing and collapsing into a chair. "Your thoughts?"
Kirche snorted. "I'm glad we aren't under their command. Your Marshal is the only one with sense." She looked over at Louise. "Well among your military at least."
"I hate to agree, but she's right," Louise replied. "And I'm really afraid there might be spies among the high command."
Henrietta sighed. "I'll have my agents look into it." She folded her hands. "I'm still worried about this plan Louise. Especially if there are spies. They have to know you've acquired the Dragon's Raiment. Like the Marshal said, they'll be ready for you."
Louise looked over at Kirche. "We've come up with a plan for that."
It had been a week since the love potion debacle had spilled into something bigger. Louise had worried on their way back to the academy that it would be difficult to return to the daily ebb and flow of classes.
She was immediately blindsided by the approach of final exams. Final exams she was completely unprepared for. She'd been desperately trying to put together some spells to show her control over the elements.
And now she was looking at the smoldering remains of the stone she had tried to transmute to brass. "I'm going to fail my classes," she remarked.
"Well you transmuted it into a different state," Utsuho thought, preening her feathers. "That should give you partial credit?"
"Ah yes partial credit." Louise grimaced. "I'll fail with slightly more points,"
Siesta bit her lip, obviously holding back some comment. Louise turned to her friend. "Spill it."
"Well, I was just thinking..." Siesta looked away but Louise could feel the grin. "At least it won't be a zero."
"Ha ha." Louise rolled her eyes. "I get to fail with a different number. It's still embarrassing." She looked at the smoldering mess. "At least I'll pass the fire exam." She'd managed a small burst that looked enough like a fireball.
"You only need to pass one element right?" Siesta asked. "With that you should be able to keep attending."
Louise sighed. "True. But I don't want to just scrape by. Just because these spells are harder for a void mage doesn't mean they're impossible. I'm going to figure them out somehow!"
"That's the spirit," Utsuho puffed out her feathers. "As expected from my master."
Siesta nodded. "I suppose that's true. You always do your best Louise. I should learn from your example."
"Eh?" Louise blushed a bit. "Well you'd probably be better off learning from Marisa's example or something like that. After all she knows your magic best."
"It's hard to match up with her talent." Siesta shook her head. "It's not just that she seems crazy sometimes. She's got so much power."
Utsuho shifted her feet. "Marisa is also a hard worker. She just pretends not to be because she wants to look cool. That power came later."
"Huh, really?" Louise looked up at Siesta. "Utsuho's saying Marisa used to be weak too. Though I have a hard time picturing it."
"That is hard to believe," Siesta said. "She always seems in control of the situation, even if things are exploding. And she's so eager to battle."
Utsuho clacked her beak. "Of course. If you want to become a fighter you have to fight. It's the only reason why she can beat me in danmaku."
Louise was just about to ask how anyone could beat Utsuho, when there was a furious pounding on the door. She turned, just as Kirche flung it open. The red haired woman looked grim. "Albion has attacked the village of Tarbes."
Siesta let out a strangled gasp. A second later it hit Louise. Tarbes was her home village. Oh Brimir, was Albion targeting her friends?
Utsuho took wing. "We have to go help!"
That's right. Louise wasn't powerless. She turned to Siesta. "We need your help for takeoff."
Siesta blinked then steadied herself. "Of- of course. Let's go."
As they hurried through the halls Louise took Siesta's hand and gave it a squeeze. "We'll make sure your family is safe." Louise wasn't sure how she'd do it, but she'd find a way.
Siesta managed a smile. "Thank you."
"They should be okay," Kirche said. "The messenger claimed the count of Tarbes had been killed, which meant they likely attacked the manor first. And we'll stop them from going any further."
Louise nodded. The villagers would evacuate as soon as the manor had been bombarded. No one was foolish enough to stick around when an army captured a village. Mercenaries were well known for their atrocities.
They barreled out of the dorms and across the courtyard to the barn where the Zero was being stored. To her surprise Professor Colbert was already there, pouring his gasoline mixture into the tank. "I thought you'd be here soon," he said. "The machine is in as good a shape as we can get it."
"Thanks professor," Louise said. She gave Siesta's hand a final squeeze before they split up. Siesta moved to begin the flight checks, while she followed Kirche to where her flying clothes were stored. She put on the heavy jacket and cap, checking to make sure all the straps were secure.
"I wish I could help more," Utsuho thought at her. "I can't keep up with the plane in human form though. And there's not enough room for three humans inside."
"It's fine." Louise gave her familiar a pat. "You're going to be helping a lot anyway."
Kirche finished adjusting her own jacket. "The Dragon Knights are going to be there to stop us. You'll need to take them out first." Utsuho ruffled her wings but seemed mollified.
"All checks passed," Siesta called out. Louise and Kirche started towards the plane.
Professor Colbert met them by the ladder. "I know you have to do this," he said quietly. "But do be careful. I don't want to see my students getting hurt."
"We'll do our best professor," Kirche said.
"Yeah. We'll save Tarbes and be back as soon as possible," Louise replied giving Siesta a nod. Her friend smiled weakly.
Kirche climbed up to the cockpit then reached down to pull Louise up. "Let's see what this Zero fighter can really do."
"Yeah." Louise took the back seat and strapped herself in. It was going to be a day for the history books.
Louise peered ahead into the dark skies as they roared through the cold air. They'd passed the capital a few minutes ago, but there was no sign of Tarbes. "This is the worst time to be flying," she muttered. With the sun set there were no landmarks to help. And a light spell couldn't reach the ground from the height they were at.
"We might have to go down a bit!" she yelled over the noise.
"Let's give it a few more minutes!" Kirche called back. "According to the timepiece we should still be half an hour away!"
Utsuho rubbed her beak against Louise's hand. "Stay calm. You're doing everything you can."
They were right. Louise took a few deep breaths and forced herself to wait.
Then she saw a glow on the horizon. What was that? She blinked in case it was some mirage, but no, something bright was ahead.
"We found it," Kirche yelled, turning to line up with the glow.
Louise hissed in rage. Of course. The town was burning, and probably the fields as well. That was something the Albion trash would do. She pulled out her wand. They'd pay for that.
As they got closer the situation became clearer. Tarbes was burning, and looming over the flames were three battleships, including one massive dreadnaught. Several troop carriers hung around the big ships acting as pickets and gun batteries. And below an army waited in defensive lines. Looked like mercenary irregulars, but they had enough pike to hold a line.
Across the field a detachment of the Tristain army was forming up. Her countrymen had the advantage in cavalry, but were outnumbered and lacked any artillery pieces. If those battleships weren't destroyed there was nothing they could do except watch the town get pillaged.
Louise clenched her jaw and turned to the airships. They were her responsibility. She scanned the sky, searching for the first obstacle.
Utsuho found them first. "10 o clock, flying in four wing formations. Varying heights."
Sure enough her familiar was right on the money. The Albion dragon knights, flying high to catch any sneaky mages trying to attack the ships from above. Their formations were long lines, ignoring the standard V formation. Probably trying to avoid getting blown up by one of Utsuho's blasts.
Good. That played to their strengths. Louise tapped Kirche on the shoulder and pointed. "There!"
Kirche held up a clenched fist showing she understood. "Attacking!"
The Zero fighter's nose turned down and Louise's stomach started to float as they began their dive. Fortunately Kirche evened out a little, lining up with one of the lines of knights. There was a moment of anticipation as Kirche made slight adjustments.
Then the roar of the guns made the howling wind seem quiet. Tiny flares sailed through the sky, and where they touched dragons fell. "Momiji was right," she muttered as Kirche's pass cut down the knights. She'd wondered how such small guns could take out a dragon. But their power was greater than any rifle in her world.
Utsuho seemed unconcerned with those details. The raven clung to her shoulder and released a blazing line of fire on one of the other dragonflights. Most of the riders collapsed, some just caught fire and flailed about to extinguish themselves. The uncontrolled drakes roared and fled.
In less than a minute they'd destroyed half of the Albion army's finest knights.
Flickers of light tore through the sky as the other two units sought revenge. Fireballs and lightning bolts tried to hit the Zero fighter, but at this range it was nearly impossible. Only fire spells could reach this far, and the knights had never fought anything that could go this fast.
Louise forced herself to turn back towards the battleships. The picket boats were moving closer to the dreadnaught, trying to create a miniature fort in the sky. She leaned forwards and yelled to Kirche. "It's working! Lose the knights and I can break their armada!"
Kirche pumped her fist again in understanding, then started another dive towards the troops below. The knights pursing followed in a ragged mob. Utsuho let loose a few fire blasts, but she only hit one. They were prepared now.
Then Kirche pulled up sharply. Louise grimaced as the weight of the world pressed down on her. It loosened up quickly, but they'd already gained a lot of air. The Zero fighter wasn't the best plane when it came to climbing, but in a world of dragons, it was the best thing around. The knights desperately tried to regain altitude as Kirche flew up over the cannon arcs of the enemy air fleet.
As the Zero fighter leveled out, Louise raised her wand. "Ready!" She began to mentally go over the words for the founder's Explosion spell. She needed more power.
The plane shuddered violently as something tore through the wing. She looked up to see another drake diving down towards her, a familiar face on its back. "Wardes," she whispered.
Several more air bullets flashed towards them. Utsuho flung her wings out and crowed, causing a shield of flame to burst above them. A good move, but they were still in trouble.
"Hold on!" Kirche yelled. Louise was slammed back into her seat as Kirche dived again. Her eyes opened wide as she saw they were flying in between the pickety ships. What was Kirche thinking? They'd be totally vulnerable to canister fire!
Explosions assaulted her from both sides as cannons blazed. She swore she could hear the shrapnel tearing through the air. Louise hunkered down and prayed that they'd get through.
As Kirche leveled off, Louise checked and found she hadn't been hit by anything. "What was that?" she screamed.
"Now's your chance!" Kirche replied. Louise looked back. Wardes was still high in the air above. Of course. He couldn't follow without being hit by the canister fire. That was clever. Now to take advantage of that.
Louise raised her wand and began the spell. Power flowed into her, and the runes on Utsuho's chest started to glow. It was thrilling. Her previous spells were nothing compared to this! The magic swirled within her and she could feel the target. The very center of that giant airship. With a single word she called the void into being.
Henrietta's unicorn mount shifted uneasily. It was picking up on the nervousness of the knights around her. They'd formed up for a charge, but against cannon and pike it was sure to fail. Henrietta knew that as well, but she had to do it. She would not let her country be burned piece by piece.
She had to trust that Louise would save the day.
"The men are ready your Majesty," Cardinal Mazarin said. "What is your plan?" He obviously was hoping she had something brilliant up her sleeve.
"They will break formation soon." Henrietta replied. "We will wait until then." She kept her voice even. Made it seem like she was in control. It would help steady the troops.
The captains didn't look convinced, but they stayed in formation. That would do for now.
The distant sound of guns drew her attention. Had the battle started? No. It was in the air. A dark shape firing at the shadowed Dragon Knights of Albion. Then a bright lance of fire swathed through the air cutting a whole wing of knights down. As confused whispers started in the ranks Henrietta called out, "Stand ready!"
Now they seemed to believe she knew what she was doing. The knights readied their lances and wands, the footmen prepared muskets. But even then they couldn't help but glance at the sky.
Henrietta couldn't blame them. After all she was staring as well. Be safe Louise.
Her heart nearly stopped as the plane suddenly spun between the enemy fleet. Shots rang out, but too slowly. The move had surprised everyone, and the gunners couldn't react fast enough. The plane righted itself again-
And then the dreadnaught exploded.
It wasn't a simple ball of flame. The blast expanded almost slowly, the roar and heat slapping her in the face as the flames finally began ascending to heaven. The two other battleships were already flaming wreckage, and the nearest picket ships were covered in burning wreckage. Their naval force was in shambles.
"What was that?!" one of the younger captains managed to sputter. "A bird of fire?"
"The Phoenix!" Cardinal Mazarin called out triumphantly. He was probably trying to make a legend for her. Something they could use to rally the people.
Henrietta paused, then shook her head. She already had a legend on her side. "No. The Yatagarasu! The bird that leads the sun through the void! Now! Armies of Tristain, charge!"
Her people surged forwards towards the enemy line. The mercenaries were already in disarray, stunned by the loss of their fleet. Most of them weren't even looking across the field. The first fireballs were hitting the front lines before the Albion forces started to reform their line.
The infantry broke before Henrietta's charge even reached them