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The nights after the new moon unspooled in a cheerful golden blur at Scarlet Devil Mansion.
In the afternoons, before the others rose, Gryphon and Meiling worked on the ongoing repairs to the house. Between her strength, her can-do attitude, and her surprisingly wide range of construction skills, they accomplished considerably more than he had been able to do working all on his own, even putting in just a few hours a day. Where it had taken him a month to put the library back in order, working alone at an admittedly leisurely pace, the two of them had the roof repaired, the conservatory cleaned out and reglazed (as much as they had glass for), and a respectable start on repairs to the abandoned ground-floor rooms in the south wing in just a couple of weeks.
These rooms included both a dining room and what Gryphon's twentieth-century American sensibilities regarded as a living room, but which in the house's native architectural idiom was probably more properly called a parlor or drawing room. Over the course of Remilia's long, lonely internal exile, she had consolidated both of those functions into the great room, which was really supposed to be more of a ballroom, but dedicated rooms for both did exist.
Even after those rooms were cleaned out and restored to proper working order, though, they didn't get used much, because all the mansion's residents seemed to prefer the way they'd been doing it all along. There was something homey and comforting about the lived-in jumble of soft furniture and tables clustered around the great room's fireplace, and as for the dining arrangements...
"Do you think we should start eating in the dining room, now that it's fit for purpose again?" Remilia wondered at lunch the evening they pronounced the work on that room completed. "I started eating in here, and moved in all the parlor furniture too, for that matter, because it was easier than trying to keep up all those rooms by myself... but I admit it is a little strange when there isn't an actual dinner party on. Which there never is."
"I don't mind either way, m'lady," Sakuya replied, "but if we do start using the dining room, I'd ask that our construction team please reopen that bricked-up arch into the kitchen from there, so it's easier to get food to the table."
"I like it in here!" Flandre declared.
"Whatever you say, lads, I'm just happy to be here," said Gryphon in a questionable Liverpool accent, but secretly, he agreed with Flandre.
"Well, I mean, I'm just the hired help, but for what it's worth, I don't think we should," Meiling said. "I'm with Flan-Flan, I like the atmosphere we have in here. It..." She paused, reddening a little, then went on, "It feels like home. Y'know? The feng shui is right."
"If being 'the hired help' makes you uncomfortable, Meiling, I can stop paying you," Remilia said with a dry little smile. "I only do it because I think your contributions deserve some recompense." Her smile becoming warmer, she added, "I hope you don't think I view you as a mere employee."
"Eheheh, sorry," said Meiling, hand behind her head. "Like I told you before, I'm fine with getting paid or not, that's up to you. I'm just happy to help out. Got to earn my keep somehow! I know, I know, I don't really," she said before anyone could protest. "But I feel like I do. It's just the way I am. I've had to work hard all my life, so it's just... built in now, I guess."
"I see," said Remilia, sipping her breakfast tea. "Well, I won't pretend to understand your work ethic, but I don't need to understand it to appreciate it. And I agree with you about the dining arrangements. Improper use of the room or no, I've become comfortable with it, and I wouldn't want to risk the... what was the phrase you used?"
"Feng shui," Meiling replied. "It's a... kind of a philosophical thing where I come from. It literally means 'wind/water', and I don't really understand the more esoteric parts of it myself, but basically it has to do with how places are arranged, and how everything in them harmonizes with qi. Which is... uh... sort of the vital energy of the universe." She nodded toward Gryphon. "What he calls the Force, more or less. Like I said, I'm no expert, but I studied it some when I was younger—when I was learning tàijí quán."
Aware that she was rambling a little, she paused, looking for a way to wrap up the lecture, but before she had a chance, Flandre put in brightly,
"So basically, places feel right or they don't based on the feng shui. Right? And this room has good feng shui, which is why we all like it here."
Meiling pointed at her, grinning. "Right! Exactly. And it's kind of a feedback system, so probably part of the reason it's so good is because we like it. Everything runs in a circle, y'see," she concluded, to a bright-eyed, fascinated nod from Flandre.
"That's very enlightening. Now, please eat your Haselnussomelett before it gets cold, Master Hong," said Sakuya with an indulgent smile.
"Yes, ma'am," said Meiling sheepishly, attending to that task.
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After breakfast, while Sakuya turned to and sorted out the breakfast dishes (still trying to get her head around the fact that Remilia insisted on helping her with them, and with preparations for lunch) and Flandre and Wolfgang reported to the music room for harpsichord practice, Gryphon and Meiling collected their tools and moseyed down the ground-floor corridor to the next door beyond the parlor.
"I've been intrigued by this door since I first started working on repairs around this place last month," he explained to Meiling as they stood surveying it. "Mostly because I can't get it open. It's jammed tight and I didn't have the kind of tool I would need to force it."
Meiling grinned and cracked her knuckles. "And now you do."
"Exactly," said Gryphon with a smiling little bow.
"Welp... let's see what we've got," Meiling said. She tapped the door in a few places, listening to the sound with a thoughtful frown, then nodded. "The house has settled a little, it's jammed at the top." She shook her head. "This door must not have been opened in a really long time."
"Should we try and jack it up?"
Meiling shook her head. "Nah. The whole doorway's going to need to be rebuilt anyway. Which means," she said with another grin, "brute force it is!"
So saying, she turned the knob, set her shoulder to the door, and put her back into it. The upper jamb gave way with a crack of splintering wood, and the door popped open, nearly catapulting Meiling into the room beyond before she could catch herself on the doorway.
For a few moments, they couldn't see anything in the room beyond; not until Gryphon brought in the bullseye lantern and flashed it around did they get a sense for what they'd just entered. It was a large room with very echoey acoustics, the reason for which became obvious in the lanternlight: the room was completely tiled, floor to ceiling, in white and red marble. The area nearest the door was level apart from some raised benches, also of marble, and then it dropped off into a sort of tiled pit that ran the rest of the way to the far wall.
"It's a bath!" Meiling cried, delighted. "And a way fancier one than the one upstairs, to boot."
"The aesthetic is kind of Roman, but the actual layout is more like they do them in Fusō," Gryphon mused, walking around the upper area and shining his lantern into the corners.
"I was just about to say it's almost Japanese," Meiling agreed. "That's basically the same thing as Fusō in this world, right?"
Gryphon nodded. "Pretty much, yeah. We've got a bath like this at Saint-Ulrich, courtesy of the witches from Fusō in the wing. A little more modern, it's got showers and such, but basically the same idea. I wonder why this one was abandoned? I guess it was probably too much of a hassle to maintain it..."
"Well, I say we've got to get it working again."
"Agreed. Let's get some better light in here and see what we're up against."
"Oh, the Fusō bath," said Remilia when they described their discovery at lunch. "I'd almost forgotten about that. Papa built it after his trip there in 1790. Do you remember, Sakuya? The one he brought you home from."
"Of course I do, m'lady," Sakuya replied with a grave nod. The somber look that settled on her face reminded Remilia powerfully of the expression she had always worn when they'd first met—closed down, self-contained, betraying nothing.
"I gave up using it sometime in the 1820s, I think," Remilia went on, steering away from a topic Sakuya was obviously not comfortable discussing in company, even company this intimate. "The staff had dwindled by then to the point where it just wasn't feasible to keep it working. Those few who were left switched to using what had been my private bath upstairs."
"Gryph and I think we can get it working again," Meiling reported. "We just need to make sure the furnace is safe, and scrounge up some new pipes from someplace so we can pump the water in from the well instead of carrying a million buckets from the kitchen. The pump's still there, by the pool, and I checked—the well's already set up for it, but the old outdoor pipes have all rusted away."
"Oh, iron pipes? There are plenty of those in the basement," Flandre chipped in. "After lunch I'll show you. I always wondered what those were for!"
"At the risk of being a wet blanket," Sakuya said, "do we really need a bath the size of the dining room? There are only five of us, after all."
"Well, yeah, but if we had the big bath working we could all go in at the same time, instead of taking shifts upstairs," Meiling pointed out.
"'All'?" Sakuya wondered, casting a significant glance at Gryphon.
"I'll recuse myself if anyone objects," he said equably, "but I should point out that I have free access to the one at Saint-Ulrich and I've never once gone on a rampage."
Flandre giggled, blushing almost to match her red vest. "Sounds like fun to me," she said.
Remilia gave her sister a mildly curious look, then returned her attention to the topic at hand. "It would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to object," she said with a little wink, then added a bit grandly, "but I leave it to the consensus of the household."
"Well, then, I guess I'm outvoted," said Sakuya with a smile.
"No, no, that's not how it works," Gryphon insisted. "I said if anyone objects. It's not a majority decision."
"It's fine," Sakuya said, then added, "My main concern was for the young mistress, but if she doesn't mind..."
"I'm four hundred and thirty-eight," Flandre said, not for the first time, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice.
"Mm, and growing by the day, it seems," Sakuya conceded, giving her a gracious nod. "My apologies, Lady Flandre. It seems your sister isn't the only one still coming to terms with the changes in you of late."
"Well, that makes three of us," Flandre said with a wry grin, her annoyance already forgotten.
"Awright, well, I guess that's settled, then," said Meiling. "When we're done here, we'll go downstairs with Flan-Flan and see about those pipes. I assume the furnace for the pool is down there somewhere too, we need to check that out."
The north wing of the house, where the Count and Countess had maintained their private chambers, was the most dilapidated, having been completely abandoned shortly after the débâcle of 10 Floréal. In the aftermath of the disaster, Remilia had simply closed the upstairs and downstairs corridor doors off the entrance hall, locked them, and thrown the keys into a kitchen drawer. It was less painful to simply seal off the whole affair than face picking through the remains of her parents' lives.
The downstairs door was no longer locked, or indeed lockable, having been forced open by Flandre when she came upstairs via the old north chimney a short way into Gryphon's stay in the house. It was this door that Remilia now found herself hesitantly pushing open and venturing past. She was still not interested in going upstairs, where the bedrooms and her parents' private sitting room had been; but there was something on this level that, for the first time in decades, she felt a restless impulse to explore.
The first door on the left was her goal, a threshold she'd crossed thousands of times in her first three centuries and never again since. She hesitated before touching the doorknob, then steeled herself, turned it, and entered.
The room beyond was silent and dusty, but not particularly disordered. The chaos of that dark night hadn't touched it. Everything was still right where it belonged—the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the great oak desk, the brass orrery. Underneath the musty note of neglect, it even still smelled the same, of leather and wood and the faintest trace of pipe tobacco. Count Victor Scarlet's study seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for its master to return.
At once, Remilia saw that she was not the first person to visit this room since its abandonment. The footprints in the dust, themselves partially silted in with fresh deposits, suggested that someone had been here long after the wing's closure, but also long before the present night—sixty, seventy years ago, perhaps. No points for guessing who that would have been. She wondered what strange impulse had brought Flandre here, wandering alone in the haze of her damaged mind. She evidently hadn't been in a destructive mood; nothing seemed to be damaged, or even disturbed, apart from the dust. Perhaps she'd just been looking for her father. Remilia had never quite known, in those days, whether her sister even really understood that their parents were gone forever.
She paused, steadying herself, and pushed away thoughts of Flandre's torment. That was over now, by the most merciful stroke of fate Remilia had ever witnessed, and there was nothing to be gained from dwelling on it. Instead, she pressed on with her own mission. To the left of her father's desk, one section of the bookcase was finished with a glass cabinet front, sequestering the volumes on those two shelves from the other books in the room.
These were Count Victor's private journals: a chronicle of one vampire nobleman's nearly ten centuries walking the world, compiled diligently over the course of his long and very active life. Remilia knew the broad strokes of his life before her birth, but he had always withheld the details, telling her that when she was older, she should read these books and learn them for herself. During his remaining lifetime, she'd never felt the time was right, and for a long time after his death, she'd been too numb to be curious.
Now, producing a small key from her pocket, she unlocked the glass case and ran her fingertip down the ranked spines of the journals. She didn't intend to try to read them all in order, start-to-finish, right now. Rather, there were a few specific times she wanted to know more about. Finding the volumes for those decades was the work of only a few moments. Then, just out of habit, she locked the cabinet back up, gathered up the books she'd selected, and left the north wing behind her.
After depositing the stack of journals on the table by her usual reading spot (on the Ottomane in the great hall), Remilia found herself drifting into the kitchen with no particular aim in mind. The main room was empty, but she could hear clinking and sloshing from the scullery. Crossing the kitchen, she looked in and saw Sakuya standing at the sink, her back to the archway, at work on the lunch dishes.
Struck by a sudden, completely random impulse, Remilia silently approached, levitating slightly to make up for the difference in their heights, and then glomped her maid from behind. Sakuya jumped at the unexpected embrace, but only slightly, and then carried on with her work as if nothing unusual had just happened, apart from asking in a mild tone of voice,
"... What are you doing, m'lady?"
"Nothing," Remilia replied casually. "Being impulsive and selfish. Carry on."
"Ah. Very well, then," said Sakuya, and she did as instructed.
After a contented minute or two, Remilia abruptly asked, "Sakuya, in all the decades we've known each other, have I ever once told you I love you?"
"To the best of my recollection, no," Sakuya replied. Then, with a private little smile, she added, "But you've come close enough on a handful of occasions that I was able to deduce it."
"Hah," said Remilia. "That's so you. And so me. I'm sorry for that, because I have for a long time. When you first came to us, you were such an odd, withdrawn child, I wondered whether I would ever even be able to understand you. But I came to appreciate you, then to like you..."
She paused, cuddling tighter against Sakuya's back, and then went on in a quieter voice, "And on that terrible night when my parents died and our world fell in on itself, and you were my rock despite your own grief and fear... then. Then I knew.
"But I was raised not to abuse my position in the household, and I felt that burden doubly now that I was suddenly its mistress. That come what may, I mustn't... impose... on the people who worked for me. People I was ultimately responsible for. So I didn't know what to do, what to say. Nothing I could think of would have been appropriate. I tried to show it in other ways, without breaking the code, as it were. But I'm not good at subtlety."
Sakuya chuckled. "You might be better at it than you think. But why the sudden change of heart now?"
"It's like I told you when I approved of your relationship with Meiling. Whose position I am in no way trying to challenge, by the way! You're not just a servant. You haven't been for a long time, but I'm only now able to acknowledge it out loud. When all the others had gone and we were alone here, you were the center of my world. When you disappeared, I was adrift for years."
"I'm sorry about that, m'lady. It was beyond my control."
"I know. You don't need to apologize. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty... just explaining myself. Probably badly. But I need to. My life is changing in so many ways it's almost frightening, if exhilarating... and I want to be sure everyone in it knows exactly where they stand. And you, Sakuya, still stand very close to the center."
"I'm very happy to hear that, m'lady."
"Can't you please call me by my name?" Remilia wondered, sounding a bit pained. "At least when you say things like that?"
"I can try," Sakuya conceded. "But you must understand... Remilia... that I am still your servant. Not because you insist on it, because I do. I pledged my life to your father's service, and he assigned it to you. I'll never break that promise so long as I am physically able to keep it. And," she added with another audible smile, "you aren't the only one who struggles with the nuances of a relationship that is both personal and professional, so it may be difficult for me to adapt quickly."
"You always adapt quickly... but I am a patient woman, except when I'm not," Remilia added wryly. "Please don't hesitate to let me know whenever I might cross a line. I don't want you to be uncomfortable, just the opposite. I want our lives here, all of them, to run as smoothly as they can. And to me, now, that means leaving as little as possible unsaid... but not applying pressure, either. I'm not asking anything of you. Just telling you how I feel."
Sakuya hesitated for a moment, choosing words carefully, and then said, "It is both a pleasure and an honor to be loved, m'lady, regardless of the complications it may cause. And an honor... and a pleasure... to reciprocate. You make keeping my vow to your father and his memory a gift rather than a burden. You always have."
Remilia blinked in surprise. "Sakuya?"
"Despite your uncertainty about me when I first arrived, you welcomed me into your world from the first, and always treated me with the respect and kindness I had been starved for all my days before I met Count Victor," Sakuya went on. "He saved my life, and serving you made it worth the saving. I think it fair to say that I've loved you even longer than you have me. But, as you said, there were proprieties to consider... so I could only ever bring myself to say it to you when you weren't there to hear it."
"Heh," chuckled Remilia. "What a pair we are. I suppose if you hadn't had your adventure, we'd still have been rattling around this old house together, never acknowledging that anything could ever change, this whole time. How dreary that would have been. And you would never have met the love of your life, either. No, it wouldn't have done, it wouldn't have done at all."
"I'm gratified you feel that way. I confess I've sometimes felt a bit guilty about how well my misfortune seems to have turned out."
"Oh, never feel guilty about good luck," Remilia told her, squeezing again. A moment later, she was surprised to feel Sakuya's shoulders shake in her embrace, and presently she realized that her maid had begun, quietly and elegantly, to weep into the dishwater.
"Good grief, of all we've just said, why did that make you cry?" she wondered.
"I'm sorry, m'lady... Remilia," Sakuya sniffled. "It's... you just exactly quoted something your father said to me, on the carriage ride up from Colmar, when he first brought me to this house. Mere minutes before you and I met. 'Never feel guilty about good luck, Sakuya. It's the fates' way of paying us back when they realize they have slighted us.' ... Oh, dear, and now I've made you cry."
Remilia ducked her head and wiped her eyes on the shoulder of Sakuya's dress. "You do his accent so perfectly. It was like hearing him again."
"I'm so sorry, I didn't even think."
"Don't be, it was wonderful."
They stayed that way for a few silent minutes, just enjoying the closeness. Remilia marveled inwardly about how much easier it all had been to say in this odd position, where they were so much closer together than usual, but could only get bare sidelong glimpses of each other's faces.
Presently, and with a note of reluctance in her voice, Sakuya observed quietly, "The dishwater has gone cold, m'lady."
Remilia chuckled inwardly. And Sakuya will always be Sakuya, she thought to herself, then disengaged and stepped down to the floor.
"Of course. Sorry for interrupting your work. And after I went and told Meiling to make sure she didn't do that too much," she added a trifle ruefully. "Do as I say, not as I do, isn't that what the Liberions say? I'll heat you up some more water."
Remilia went out to the kitchen to pump a fresh kettleful and put it on the stove to heat, then returned as far as the scullery archway and said, "By the way... Sakuya?"
Sakuya turned to face her for the first time, wiping her hands on a tea towel. "Yes?"
"Speaking of Papa... I have his journals. He showed them to me years ago, but I never dared to read them. I think... I think I'm ready to do that now, but I wanted to make sure you're all right with that."
"Why would you need my permission to read your father's journals?" Sakuya wondered, tilting her head.
"Well... I'm sure he wrote about you. How he met you, where you came from... things you've never told me. I thought it was only right to ask before I go learning them from another source."
Sakuya smiled. "I have nothing to hide from you, m'—Remilia. I only kept the details to myself before for... all the reasons we just discussed. Please. Feel free to read them, and if you have questions for me afterward, just ask. I'm..." She paused, reddening a bit, and then went on with a slightly shy smile, "I'm glad we can speak this way now."
Remilia smiled in return. "So am I." The kettle began to rumble and steam, not yet boiling, but showing that the water in it was hot enough to work with; she went to collect it, then carried it into the scullery and handed it over.
"Your hot water, Miss Izayoi," she said with exaggerated formality.
"Thank you, Lady Remilia," Sakuya replied with equal poise, accepting it. "Will there be anything else for the moment, m'lady?"
Remilia shook her head. "No, thank you. Carry on."
Sakuya bowed. "As you wish."
They regarded each other calmly for a moment, then shared a mildly self-mocking smile before the maid returned to her duties, and the lady of the house trotted off to occupy herself elsewhere.
Not too much later, Flandre put her head into the little workshop Gryphon had made out of the old caretaker's storeroom, wondering—not for the first time—why he'd put up a sign next to the door that said KRAFTSTOFFLAGER. Growing up in the disputed borderland that Alsace had been even back in the 1510s, she'd learned western Karlslandic along with northern Gallic and Flemish Dutch as a little girl, and whatever this room was used for, it clearly was not storing any fuel.
Gryphon was in there, fooling around on his workbench with some unidentifiable piece of equipment she guessed was part of the bath furnace. When he noticed her, he put it down and smiled.
"C'mon in," he said.
"Am I interrupting? I can come back."
"Nothing that can't wait. I'm just trying to unfreeze this damper thing we took off the furnace. Hasn't been used in 120 years or more, so it's a bit rusty. What's up?"
"Well... I was talking to Sis earlier, and she told me you made her engagement ring yourself."
Gryphon nodded. "That's right."
"Where did you get the gold?"
"It used to be a spoon, believe it or not. There's a whole drawer full of them in the china closet."
Flandre looked puzzled for a moment; then her face fell as an old, blurry memory clicked into place. "... Oh. Those spoons."
"Hey, don't worry about it," Gryphon told her. "It was a long time ago. Water under the bridge."
Flandre held her frown for a moment longer, then shook her head and asked him, "Is there any left from the one you used?"
"Sure, plenty." Gryphon opened a drawer in his workbench, rummaged in it, and withdrew a flattened strip of gold, a bright edge showing where a smaller strip had been cut from one side. "Your sister doesn't have very big hands," he added with a grin.
Flandre giggled. "That's true. Do you think you could..." Blushing, she trailed off, then shook her head again and said, "No, never mind."
Gryphon gave her a mock-grumpy look. "Now don't be getting all passive-aggressive on me."
"Sorry," said Flandre. "OK. This is weird, though. But... do you think you could make one for me? Not that I'm asking you to marry me instead of her or anything!" she added hastily, wide-eyed, her blush deepening. "I'd never do that! But... I don't know... so I match with Sis, or... as a token of... something?" She sighed, looking away. "I don't even know what I'm saying. Forget it. My mind works now?" she said, downcast. "But sometimes I still confuse myself."
Gryphon crossed the floor and gave her a comforting hug, patting her back above the low-set roots of her wings. "That's not your mind misfiring, kiddo, it's just part of growing up."
Flandre chuckled wanly, returning his embrace.
"But sure," he went on. "If a ring of your own will make you happy, then I'm happy to make you one." Disengaging, he returned to the drawer and rummaged in it some more. "I think I've even got the other jewels left, you can pick your own color."
"Red," Flandre said immediately. "Like Sis's. I want it to be just like hers." She hesitated awkwardly again. "Is this too weird?"
Gryphon gave her a wry smile. "Sweetheart, if you haven't figured out by now that I have a high threshold for weird, you haven't been paying attention."
That got a laugh, a proper laugh, and brightened her outlook considerably. "OK, fair point." She still looked a little awkward, but her smile was wide and bright as she said, "Um... thanks."
"Anything for that smile," said Gryphon.
"Stop it..." Flandre said, blushing again and tapping her forefingers together.
"Also anything for that fidget-and-blush," Gryphon doubled down.
"Stop iiiiiit," Flandre insisted, squirming slightly with an adolescent mixture of embarrassment and delight.
He measured the finger she wanted it for—left ring, naturally—and then she excused herself with further (still slightly awkward) thanks and headed off to do whatever else she had planned for the aftermidnight.
Is she getting taller? he wondered as he watched her swing the door to behind her. Is that possible? I wouldn't have thought so. Still, she's definitely maturing fast mentally. Casting his mind back to his own daughters' development, he mused, She's gone from a mental age of about eight when I met her, to maybe 10 or 11 when I first saw her after the battle, and just now it felt like she was closing in on 13, maybe even 14. It's only been a week. That's a lot faster than I would have expected her to come on, even firing on all cylinders. Must remember to speak to Remi about this. I'm afraid she may have more adjusting to do sooner than she realizes...
He was smiling, but a little wistfully, as he returned to work on the furnace damper, planning out the construction of Flandre's ring in the back of his head as he did so.
Brings a whole new meaning to "they grow up so fast," he thought.
One of the unwritten rules of Scarlet Devil Mansion's newest configuration was that, barring extraordinary circumstances that had yet to arise, no work was to be performed after supper. The unofficial maintenance and repair crew were expected to down their tools for the night at the call to the final meal and not resume them thereafter, and Sakuya was to consider herself largely off-duty once the dinner dishes were sorted out.
Instead, the customary pattern that emerged was for Sakuya, Remilia, Wolfgang, and Gryphon to repair to the "living room" for the usual quiet late-night pursuits of reading, listening to records, napping (mostly, but not exclusively, Wolfgang), enjoying a bit more wine or tea, and perhaps doing a bit of light sewing or knitting. Meanwhile, Meiling and Flandre developed the habit of going out into the west grounds, by the gazebo, and practicing tai chi together—the exercise and focus techniques, for the moment, not combat maneuvers, although Gryphon suspected the latter would come along in due course.
On the evening of the first quarter, watching them at it through the windows, Gryphon suddenly said aloud, "Hm. That's an idea."
"What is?" Remilia wondered, looking up from her perusal of one of her father's journals.
"I should make myself a bokutō and get back into training," Gryphon said. "We've got plenty of scrap wood from all the construction, I don't know why I never thought of it before."
"That sounds like a Fusōnese word, but I don't recognize it," said Remilia.
Gryphon nodded. "It's a wooden sword. For kenjutsu practice. Remember I told you I was trained in kenjutsu during my exile? I lost my swords a while back, and hadn't gotten around to replacing them before I came to this era. I've got a bokutō back at Saint-Ulrich, but that's not doing me much good here." He chuckled ruefully. "And trying to use a raw tree branch didn't do either of us any good."
"No," Remilia agreed, unconsciously touching the spot on her chest where she'd been staked with a fragment of that tree branch.
"Not that I'm expecting Flan to go off the rails again," Gryphon noted, "but it's really not good to be so unprepared for contingencies. I'm getting soft in my old age," he joked with a little grin. "When I eventually go back to April, they're going to be like, 'How the hell did you get so fat in one afternoon?'"
Remilia snorted. "You aren't getting fat, mon vieux. Trust me, I pay very close attention to your condition." She smirked. "And so will everyone else, if you and Meiling do manage to get the Fusōnese bath working."
Sakuya, in the midst of a sip of wine, suppressed a snicker—without complete success, causing her employer to give her an arch little smile. "Looking forward to that, are we, Miss Izayoi?"
"I've seen it before," Sakuya quipped, then said, "Oh dear, that was indiscreet. Ah, well. Now you know, Chief. At some point in your future, I've seen you with no clothes on."
"At some point in my future, who hasn't?" Gryphon replied philosophically, making both women laugh. "I don't suppose you'd care to tell me whether the situation was reciprocal."
"Are you flirting with my maid right in front of me, you libertine beast?" Remilia demanded with faux outrage.
"A bit," Gryphon conceded mildly.
"No, no I would not," Sakuya replied primly to Gryphon. "I've already said too much. The Doctor would scold me if he were here, and he'd be right to do it. I know better than that! I just got drawn into the cozy atmosphere." She gave Remilia a mock-reproachful glance. "I warned you the discipline of the household would suffer if you let me get familiar, m'lady."
Remilia laughed and settled back in the Ottomane. "Ah, well, I suppose I shall have to get used to this. Suddenly my house is filled with predatory females, and they're all going to want a piece of the only man in the game."
"Eh, I'm pretty sure Meiling's not interested. We're just buds," Gryphon said, and then, with a sly grin, "She's got everything she wants already."
Sakuya, going very red, did not reply with words; only looked down at her knitting with an insuppressible goofy smile while Remilia laughed again, higher and heartier this time.
"I'd almost forgotten what it was like for things to be lively around here," she said when she'd finished.
"Nice, isn't it?" Gryphon said.
"Getting back to something I said before we got sidetracked by bath musings," he went on, "I've been thinking that I'd better double back next week."
Remilia raised her eyebrows. "So soon?"
"Well, the thing is... every month I let go by is another I'm going to have to repeat up the road before I can come back here. However long I stay at a stretch, then I have to go back to the beginning and sort of... walk back. It doesn't make much difference from your perspective, since to you I'll only be gone a few minutes, but... well, if I stayed straight through unti July's full moon, three months or more is a long time for me to go without seeing you after that," he concluded with a smile.
"Yes, I can see where that would be difficult," said Remilia, straight-faced but with a little bit of an ironic glint in her eyes.
She knew, too, that there was something he was leaving unsaid: Every day he spent back on the front line was a day in which something might happen that made certain they never saw each other again. It was like that for everyone who had a loved one serving in the war, of course, and Remilia expected no special privileges from fate in that regard; but all the same, it was an outcome she could not contemplate directly, only with sidelong mental glances.
"Of course," Gryphon went on, "this is all moot unless the offer you made me back when I first came here is still on the table, and since the situation has changed, it may not be."
"What offer?" Sakuya asked. "I was wondering how you expected to accomplish that..."
Remilia explained to her how she had ended up more or less trapping Gryphon in the house on the night he'd first come there, and how the next night, in her remorse over her underhanded bid for companionship, she'd promised him the use of The World, then in her possession, to reset his timeline when he was finally able to leave.
"Of course... at the time, I had no inkling that I would ever see you again," she finished. "But now you're here, and The World is back in your hands where it belongs, so... now it's up to you what happens next."
Sakuya sat with a thoughtful frown on her face for a few moments, then said to Gryphon, "You're talking about looping your personal timeline. Possibly more than once. I'm sure you know how potentially dangerous that is."
Gryphon nodded. "I sure do. It'll be tricky—although in this case, the same conditions that make it necessary also make it safer. For almost all of the overlapping time, I'm not quite in the same reference frame, so the potential for crossing my own path is really very limited."
"Mm... that's true," Sakuya agreed. "It's still not without its risks, especially at the junction points, but... I assume your plan is to jump back to April 16, timing it so you arrive at your crash site after m'lady collected you?"
Gryphon nodded. "Right. Then Wolfgang and I will have to walk back down to Colmar and phone Saint-Ulrich for someone to come get us. The worst part of that is going to be having to whack myself in the head with something so I look like I really did just wreck a Jeep," he added ruefully. "Then I go back and do those two months again, making sure to send myself the stuff I sent myself back in May, and then come back here in 'real time' on June 14—say, an hour or so after I left, for a safety margin. If I keep my wits about me, I should be able to pull it off. And while I'm outside, I can round up a few things that'll help, do a bit of research... stuff that needs doing, that I can't do from inside the bubble here."
Sakuya thought it over, then nodded. "All right. It's still a bit risky, but it seems like a sound plan. And you hardly need a lecture from me on the risks of time travel."
"It's always good to have a backstop when you're messing around with these things," said Gryphon.
"True. Very well, then. When the moment arrives, Chief, The World and I are at your service."
"Not at all. Part of my job is to make certain that the lives of everyone in the household run as smoothly as possible—eh, m'lady?" she asked Remilia with a slight smile.
"Quite right, Miss Izayoi," Remilia agreed.
The next night, Gryphon was on the way from his workshop to the basement, passing the music room, when the sounds filtering from under the door brought him up short. For a moment he stood still in the hallway, listening hard. Then, carefully and quietly, he opened the door and slipped inside.
Flandre was sitting at the harpsichord, which was facing the door, but she didn't see him entering. Head back, eyes closed, she was fully in the zone, with no room in her consciousness for anything other than the melody her long, slim fingers were coaxing from the keys. It was that melody, in particular, that had so instantly captured Gryphon's attention. It wasn't because it was out of place—far from it, a Gallic Baroque piece like the one she was playing fit perfectly with the milieu—but because it had such strong associations for events in his past that hearing it anywhere always transported his mind back in time.
He stood in the doorway, letting the nostalgia wash over him, until she'd finished, then quietly applauded, which made her start slightly as she realized she wasn't alone.
"Oh!" she said, blushing. "Big bro. I didn't know you were there." Noticing his odd expression, she tilted her head, a look of concern coming onto her face. "What's the matter? Are you OK?"
"I'm fine," he said. "I just happened to be going by and heard you playing. I love that piece, it brings back pleasant memories for me. Stuff that happened to me a long time ago." He smiled. "You play it very well."
"Thanks," said Flandre, coloring slightly again. "I just picked it out of the pile when I started trying to remember my lessons, but I really like it. Something about the rhythm of it. How... kind of relentless it is. It reminds me of..." She trailed off, then shook her head. "Something, but I don't know what. Another dead end somewhere in the back of my head. What does it remind you of? If you don't mind telling me."
Gryphon sat down on the bench that went with the grand piano and said, "It's a complicated story, but basically, I danced to that song with a special lady on a special occasion, many years ago, and every time I hear it I think of that day. It was a good day. We'd just managed to save a lot of lives and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves."
"Was that your wife?" Flandre wondered. "Sis told me a little of what you told her about your life. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. No, that wasn't Kei. That was a friend of mine called Tali. She and I... we're very close too, but it's a different kind of thing. I don't really know how else to explain it."
Flandre nodded. "Maybe something kind of like you and me?" she asked tentatively.
"Maybe something kind of like," he allowed. "Which reminds me—I finished your ring. I was going to find you after lunch to give it to you, but since we're here..." He took a small wooden box from his pocket and offered it to her. "Try it on?"
Flandre took the box with mumbled thanks and opened it, removing the ring. As she had requested, it looked just like her sister's, a slim, simple gold band inset with a single, tiny scarlet gem (a ruby, or possibly a garnet; she couldn't tell). Hesitantly at first, she slipped it onto her finger.
"It's perfect," she said, gazing at it thoughtfully.
"I'm glad," Gryphon said. He watched her face, wondering just what was going on behind it. She didn't look as happy as he might have expected, if the ring was indeed perfect. Something seemed to be troubling her.
After another moment's contemplation, she looked up and met his eyes. "Can you come with me for a minute? There's something I want to show you."
"Sure," he agreed. "I was just going downstairs to help Meiling with the bath furnace, but I'm sure she can hold her own for a while longer."
"Thanks. It shouldn't take long." Flandre rose, closed the harpsichord, and then left the music room.
They passed through the great room, where Wolfgang glanced up with vague interest from a nap in progress in Gryphon's favorite armchair, and out into the grounds. Once out there, she led him around to the south side of the house, a part of the grounds he and Remilia had never visited on their earlier evening walks. Gryphon had never noticed, but now, as Flandre guided him down a path into a wooded area, he realized that Remilia must have avoided this area on purpose.
A moment later, he saw why. They emerged from the trees into a glade, in the center of which stood a small stone building surrounded by a low iron fence. Simple of architecture but stately in its proportions, with only a few narrow windows set high in its white marble walls, it was unmistakably a mausoleum, and above the lintel of its chained and padlocked doors was carved a single word in tall capitals:
Without a word, Flandre took an iron key from her pocket and unlocked the ponderous, old-fashioned padlock that secured the mausoleum's double door, then beckoned him inside.
The interior was very dark, lit only by a narrow shaft of moonlight slanting in through one of the high windows, but once his eyes had adjusted, Gryphon could generally make out its contents. It was a single room, mostly empty, but for a pair of granite sarcophagi laid out side by side. On the ends facing the doors, one bore a carved bas-relief of a fully bloomed rose, the other a tulip. There wasn't enough light for him to read the inscriptions below the floral carvings, but what else could they be but the names and dates of Count Victor and Countess Remilia (the Elder) Scarlet?
While Gryphon hung back at what felt like a respectful distance, Flandre stood before the tombs of her parents for several minutes in complete silence. When she did finally speak, it was to utter what at first seemed like a complete non sequitur:
"The food changed."
Gryphon blinked, opened his mouth, closed it again. What did you even say to that?
"That was how I knew, at the time," Flandre continued. "I heard noise, and shouting, and breaking things. And then the food changed. The scent of Maman was missing from the edge of the tray where she had held it. The white rose Papa would always place by my dinner was gone. The food changed. And I remember how I felt.
"I felt indifferent. And then I felt irritated. Who was to see to my needs now? The staff? Honestly, it was just inconsiderate of them. I was too lost in my madness to even notice they were gone for months. And when I finally did... there was a candlewick's worth of regret, but the storm in my mind blew it out. And I forgot. The thing that I used to be, it took over, and only now it's gone can I..."
Gryphon moved closer, but the tiny girl held out an arm to stop him. It shook. "I have to see them now. And, and I have to be here now, to... I don't know what I'm going to do. Be quiet here, I think. Be still. But be with them. That's why I brought you here, mon grand frère. They should know who's in their family now. And who came back."
Flandre sat down before the dark grey stone of the twin tombs. They weren't that big, but they still loomed over her. Gryphon saw her put down a little crystal vase in between them, a white rose inside.
Then, and only then, did she look back at him over her shoulder, her crimson eyes glowing faintly in the dark, and pat the floor beside her.
"Stay with me, big brother?"
Gryphon placed himself seiza where she'd indicated. "Always," he said.
Flandre took his hand, lacing her fingers with his, and bowed her head over the crystal vase.
The vault wasn't silent. Old buildings never are. They don't know how to be. Still, the quiet that they shared went on for a long time as they sat beneath the little window above the tombs, weak moonlight falling through. There were clouds overhead, and the moonlight flickered and dimmed.
But it never quite faded.
In the basement, Meiling finished fitting the repaired dampers to the furnace, sat back, and wiped the sweat from her forehead with an arm.
"Phew! That's finally done." Clambering to her feet, she started gathering up the tools and stashing them back in the box. "I wonder where the heck Gryph got off to? I thought he was going to help me with this." She shrugged. "Ah, well. No big deal. Maybe after lunch we can start getting these pipes laid!"
And, humming cheerfully to herself, she headed back upstairs to see what Sakuya was cooking.
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
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020