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Remilia Scarlet took a step back, folded her arms, and regarded the scene with satisfaction.
"There," she said. "That's an honest evening's work, if I do say so myself." Turning a smile to her companion, she went on, "Don't you think?"
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied, then hopped up onto the nearby armchair and settled in for a nap.
Chuckling, Remilia gave the hound an affectionate pat, then went and stood next to the other chair in the room for a moment, deep in thought.
Around her, her father's study looked as if Count Victor had just stepped out for a moment. With all the candles trimmed and lit, a fire going in the fireplace, and every surface cleaned and polished, the room bore no traces of its century and a half of abandonment. Remilia, by herself except for Wolfgang's pleasant but not particularly practical company, had spent the whole of the foremidnight getting it into this state.
Of course, she knew the others would have helped her with it if she'd asked, or even taken care of it for her, but this was a more personal task than, say, cleaning out the old dining room, or repairing the windows in the conservatory. This was something she felt she had to do for herself, and now she was well-pleased with her handiwork.
From out in the hall, she heard the creak of the door leading to the entrance hall being moved slightly, and then the hesitant voice of her younger sister Flandre:
"Sis? Are you... are you in here?"
Remilia went to the door and leaned into the corridor. "I'm right here, Flan."
Flandre blinked in mild surprise at the sight of her elder sister standing in that doorway. "What are you doing in Papa's study?" she wondered.
"Come and see," Remilia said, beckoning her into the room.
"Oh wow!" Flandre said, looking around in amazement. "You did all this yourself?"
Remilia rounded on her, fists on hips. "And what exactly is that supposed to mean?" she inquired. "You know perfectly well I can clean a room, we did Sakuya's and Meiling's together."
"Well, I mean... I knew you knew how, I just..."
Remilia laughed and petted her sister's head, sublimely indifferent to the fact that Flandre was actually the taller of the two. "I'm just kidding you, baby sister." Gesturing around at the room, she said, "I came in here last night for the first time in ages, to get a few of Papa's journals to read, and it's been bothering me ever since. This is a beautiful room, and we all used to love it so much. It deserves to be used. So I decided this would be the first part of the north wing we reclaim. I'm the mistress of the house, after all! This is where things should be run from, not my little den in the great room."
So saying, she went behind the desk. Flandre came up alongside, and the two stood quietly gazing for a few moments at the chair behind it. Their father's favorite chair, where he had sat to conduct his extensive correspondence with his far-flung network of scientific, philosophical, and esoteric contacts; managed the affairs of the mansion (those that were not handled by his more hard-headed, business-minded lady wife, anyway); and generally conducted the affairs of the head of a great household. Both of the sisters had sat on his knee in this chair for countless hours as little girls, or played on the carpet before this desk, or whiled away evenings curled up in the chair where Wolfgang now dozed, reading or just enjoying being here.
Remilia turned a sentimental smile that silently shared all of those reminiscences with her younger sister, and Flandre's smile in return showed that she understood.
Then, slowly and a bit ceremoniously, Remilia seated herself in her father's chair for the first time.
"How is it?" Flandre asked.
"Very comfortable," Remilia replied, settling back and arranging her wings. She sighed. "You know, Flan... all this time, I've never really felt like the mistress of this house. I've just been... living in it, for lack of anywhere else to go. I could never keep up with the needs of a place this big by myself anyway, and I have to confess I never really tried once all the staff had gone. What I've spent the last century and a half doing was more like camping in the ruins of our old life."
She reached her hand across the desk, beckoning, and Flandre took it in her own.
"But now," Remilia went on, "with you back with me, and Sakuya, and Meiling and Benjamin joining us... it feels like a home again. And I..." She smiled, squeezing her sister's hand. "I could never replace Papa... but I finally feel ready to succeed him."
Flandre smiled. "I think he'd like that."
They chatted for a little while about times past, and then Flandre collected the Lenshound and took her leave. "It'll be time for lunch soon," she said. "Big bro's cooking tonight. Something called 'pizza'? I've never heard of it, but Meiling seems excited," she added with a grin.
Remilia smiled. "Ask Sakuya to ring for me when it's ready, would you, please?"
"Sure. Don't work too hard," said Flandre with a wink, and then she and Wolfgang departed.
Remilia sat at her father's desk—her desk, now!—for a moment longer, smiling to herself, and then opened one of the drawers and got out the writing supplies. The ink in the inkwell was still wet, would always be, would never run out; she smiled again, remembering her mother's quiet, understated, but very real pride in its invention.
After sitting for a moment, Remilia dipped her father's favorite pen in the perpetual ink and began to write in a neat, rounded, very slightly spidery hand.
Comtesse Remilia Scarlet
Hon. Vincent Auriol
Palais de l'Élysée
55, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré
Colmar, le 11 juin 1946
Monsieur le Président,
Permettez-moi de me présenter...
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
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Gryphon rose early, by the standards of the house, on the day of the next full moon. He didn't have too terribly many preparations to make, but the day's plan was one that had to be carried through carefully, with little margin for error, so he took his time, checked everything twice, and made certain.
The clothing he had been wearing when he arrived had virtually worn out, since it was the only thing he had to wear, and repeatedly wash, for the whole first month of his stay. Fortunately, the "supply drop" he had arranged for himself in May had contained replacements, one of which was now worn-in enough that it could stand in for his original outfit with none the wiser. Physically, he was taking nothing back except the things he'd been on his way home from Colmar with in the first place (a barracks bag loaded with records and books). His notes to himself about things he had to do next were secure in his omni-tool's personal memo-pad application, safe from prying eyes.
"Gut. Alles in Ordnung," he murmured, uncertain why he was saying it in Karlslandic.
Preparations made and checked, he went back to bed, because why not?
There was a certain frisson in the air at breakfast. Partly that could be put down to the influence of the full moon, which had a tendency to energize the house's vampire residents and raise the overall tone, but in addition, everyone there knew it was time for Gryphon to a attempt a potentially risky maneuver to realign his personal timestream.
"I wish we could get out of this stupid time bubble thing for good," Flandre grumbled. "I want to get out there and see the world!"
"I'm going to look into it a bit while I'm out," Gryphon told her. "There aren't many time-manipulating witches—it's a pretty specialized skill—but a few of my wingmates have connections. I ought to be able to track one down and get a few discreet questions asked."
"Besides, the world is pretty dangerous right now," Meiling put in. "Y'know, what with the war and all."
"I'm not afraid of the Neuroi," Flandre declared, folding her arms. "I know what they're made of. Literally."
Remilia chuckled. "You sound like you want to join the witches, Flan."
"Well, why not?" Flandre replied. "It's our world too. We could be helping."
"Flan," said Remilia, becoming serious. "The last time this family had any contact with the outside world... I don't have to draw you a diagram. Times have changed since you were a little girl. The world isn't like you remember. People don't accept creatures like us any more; they haven't for a long time. If we showed ourselves, they would only turn on us. They'd see us as no better than the Neuroi." She shook her head. "We're better off apart from them."
"How do you know?" Flandre shot back. "The only person from outside you know is big bro, and he's not like that."
"He's a different matter," Remilia snapped. "You know that, don't be deliberately obtuse."
"Sitting right here..." Gryphon mumbled from his seat in between them.
"So... what? You want to just cower in this old house forever? Just the five of us?" Flandre demanded. Bolting to her feet, she went on, "I can't believe this! I'm better, I'm me again, and you still just want to keep me locked up!"
"Sit down, Flandre," said Remilia. "I'm not keeping you locked up, I'm trying to protect you." Her own voice rose in exasperation. "The outside world isn't a safe place. I promised I would always keep you safe—c'est fini!"
"Oh, save it," said Flandre scornfully. "I'll be in the library. I assume that's not too dangerous for me?" Without waiting for an answer, she swept out of the room, her footsteps echoing off down the hall.
Remilia sat looking after her with a hard-to-read expression for a moment, then composed herself into studied neutrality, dabbed her lips with her napkin, and said a little too calmly,
"Well. It appears Flandre's adolescence proceeds apace."
Meiling glanced awkwardly at Sakuya, who made the tiniest look of rueful agreement in return, and neither said anything.
"She may have a point," Gryphon said. His tone was mild, the placid air he always adopted when dealing with Remilia in a dudgeon, and it had the effect now of making her give him a questioning look rather than dismissing his remark out of hand.
"You said times have changed since she was little, and you're right, but they're not what they were when you last knew the world either," he went on. "The wars of this century have brought people together in ways no one could have imagined in the eighteenth. And the role witches have played in this one has the world more mindful of magic than it's been for generations. I can't speak for all of humanity, obviously, but... I know you'd be welcomed by the people I serve with."
Remilia gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment, then slowly nodded.
"You may be right," she conceded. "I've been hiding here a long time... maybe I've gotten too comfortable in isolation, and just having a family around me again felt like world enough. But it's obviously not going to be enough for Flan." She shook her head and took a sip of bloodwine. "But it frightens me," she admitted. "What would I do if I let her go out into that world and she got hurt? What if you're wrong, and the people of this time are just as fearful and violent as the ones who took our parents from us? I couldn't live with myself. I swore to protect her."
"Even if it makes her hate you?" Meiling suddenly asked. Remilia glanced sharply at her, looking for a moment as if she were on the verge of lashing out, but then the words sank in and she relaxed slightly, a self-mocking smile touching her lips.
"You have surrounded my conundrum, Master Hong," she said, raising her glass to the redhead in salute. Then, with a sigh, she let herself relax fully, slumping back in her chair and closing her eyes. "I'll let her be for the moment and apologize when she's cooled down. It seems I still haven't broken myself of my habit of treating her like a child. I still don't like the idea of leaving our sanctuary here, but..."
"Back home we have a saying," Meiling said. "'The dragon can't stay in his egg forever.'"
Remilia opened one eye and fixed it, twinkling, on her. "Meiling," she said, "I've refrained from saying this to your face, but under the circumstances, you leave me no choice."
"Uh... huh?" said Meiling, looking worried.
Remilia opened her other eye, mouth quirking in a wry smile. "Sakuya has chosen very well indeed."
Meiling blushed to match her hair, managing to mumble something along the lines of "uh gosh thanks" into her plate before falling entirely silent. Sakuya, who was none too unblushed herself at that moment, discreetly patted her leg under the table and gave her employer a gracious nod.
"Thank you, m'lady." Then, donning her usual brisk efficiency like a cloak, she went on, "Now then, Chief, we had best be getting ready for you to leave. Something's just occurred to me that I must take care of before you go."
"Your hair. It's grown two months' worth since you've been here. Your wingmates will surely notice." Rising, she headed toward the kitchen. "Please wait there while I get my tools and I'll cut it for you."
Gryphon chuckled. "She's perfect," he told Remilia.
"Indeed," said Remilia.
"Sure is," Meiling agreed.
They gathered outside the front doors to see him off—Flandre included, though she hung back a little, keeping a slight distance from her sister.
"Hey, c'mere," Gryphon said, gathering her up in a hug as he came out of the door and drawing her off a bit to one side. "Don't be too rough on Remi, will you? She's just worried about you."
"I know. I'm sorry. I'll talk to her before you get back," Flandre mumbled into his shoulder. "I just get so frustrated. Sometimes she still treats me like a little kid—or worse, like I'm still... not me."
"Well, it's a big adjustment. They're both big adjustments. She'll get there. We can help her get there, but we have to be cool about it." He chuckled. "We both know pushing her doesn't help."
Flandre returned the laugh, just a little wanly. "That's true. OK. I'll... I'll see you when you get back." She glanced around, as if about to do something she shouldn't do, then darted her head up and very quickly kissed him. "Good luck."
Gryphon kissed her back—on the forehead—and said, "Thanks. See you in a little while." Then he waited while she parted from Wolfgang.
He was reasonably sure both Remilia and Sakuya had noticed their farewell, but neither remarked on it as he received a backslapping hug from Meiling and then went to join them.
"Ready to go?" Remilia asked.
"As I'll ever be."
Sakuya removed The World from her apron pocket, detached the fob chain from its loop on her dress, and offered it to him. "Do you remember how to use one of these?"
"It's been a while, but as I recall they're reasonably intuitive. I thought you were going to drop me off, though."
Sakuya shook her head. "Given what we're attempting here, I think it's best if you keep it with you against... contingencies."
"Well... thanks," he said accepting the device. "I'll take good care of it," he promised.
"I'm sure you will," she said with a smile. "I'll see you soon. You too, Wolfgang."
Remilia walked with him to the edge of the woods, where the grown-up gravel drive petered out entirely into the barely discernible track that led down to the road.
"I should be back in a couple hours," he told her. "I just hope we don't get a sortie that night. Tonight. You know what I mean."
"I'll be here," Remilia replied, "awaiting your return." She dashed at an errant tear and chuckled wryly at herself. "Look at me, will you? Sending my particular gentleman off to war with a tearful smile. How bourgeois."
Gryphon said nothing, only opened his arms, and she levitated to match his greater height so that she could properly hug and kiss the stuffing out of him.
"Be careful," she told him, forehead to forehead. "Let your honor be unstained."
"I'll do my best," he replied.
"I know you will." Then, turning him loose, she crouched to fuss over Wolfgang before backing up a pace and smiling upon them both. "You'd better go before I change my mind and keep you forever."
"You'll have your chance at that," said Gryphon with a wry grin. Then, crouching, he placed his hand on Wolfgang's back. "Ready, hound dog?"
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied. In his other hand, Gryphon switched The World into manipulator mode, adjusted it, double-checked his settings, and pressed the stem...
... and man and dog were gone, with just the faintest whiff of air rushing in to replace them, as if they had never been there.
Remilia stood looking at the spot where they had been for a few moments, then turned and walked slowly back toward the house. Meiling and Sakuya had gone inside, but Flandre was waiting for her by the door.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you," Flandre said as she approached.
Remilia seemed to ignore her remark, continuing silently toward her, and then, without a word, caught her sister up in a tight embrace.
"I'm sorry too," she said. "I don't want to fight, Flan."
"No. Me neither. I just..."
"I know, little sister. I know. We'll figure it out. Just... be patient with me." Leaning back to catch her sister's eye, Remilia gave her a self-deprecating little smile. "I'm old now, and set in my ways."
Flandre rolled her eyes. "You're only four hundred 'n forty-three."
Remilia laughed and, hooking an arm around Flandre's shoulders, took her inside.
A short while later, Remilia sat at her desk, re-reading the letter she'd written a few nights ago. Was it the best it could be? She hadn't written a formal letter in so long, after all, she had no idea what was really acceptable form any more. She had no doubt its reader would find it painfully archaic in places... but that effect might work to her advantage, given the message she wanted to convey.
Above that, did she really want to send it? Set in motion the process it was meant to begin? It wasn't something she could take back. Once started, it would proceed to an ending, whatever that ending was. Fate would unfold as it would.
Nodding to herself, she folded the letter and sealed it with scarlet wax and ribbon, impressing upon it her family's crest—the rose and tulip intertwined—from her father's signet ring, before turning it over, addressing it, and blotting dry the ink.
Sakuya looked up from arranging her mise en place for lunch at the sound of footsteps and saw Remilia entering the kitchen. She'd changed her clothes since seeing Gryphon off, replacing the everyday skirt set she'd been wearing for one of what she used to call her "town outfits"—broadly similar, but fancier, with a button-bedecked jacket and more elaborate decorative ribbon trim.
"Sakuya," she said, "I shall be going out for a while this evening. Would you be so good as to pack me a lunch, please?"
Sakuya blinked. "Out, m'lady?"
Remilia nodded. "Yes. The weather is fine tonight; I should like to fly up to Ribeauvillé and see these witches of Benjamin's for myself."
"I see." Sakuya took this on board with total composure; if it crossed her mind to point out that Remilia herself had been completely against resuming contact with the outside world not an hour before, it never showed on her face. "In that case, please give me a minute to assemble some provisions for your journey." With a slight smile, she added, "I'm afraid I can't cheat at present."
Gryphon sat under the terrace awning of a brasserie in Colmar with Wolfgang and his barracks bag at his feet, nursing a cold Meteor and a sore head. The former was helping with the latter, as was the fact that the freak storm which had swept through the region had abated. The rain was still drumming on the awning above his head, but it was only ordinary mortal rain now, not the tempest that had helped sweep him off the road up in the hills north of town.
He made a mental note to write a nice thank-you letter to the proprietor of this establishment, who was staying open past his usual closing time so that Gryphon could await a ride home on his terrace with a steady supply of his beer. The man had even loaned him half a dozen towels to deal with the worst of his soddenness, incurred by staggering back down from the crash site in the rain. Really damned decent of him. And people said Gallians didn't cotton to foreigners.
The beeping of a horn heralded the arrival of his ride, as Shirley Yeager pulled up at the wheel of the Opel Blitz truck she'd swiped from the Luftwaffe during what she insisted on calling Operation Rocket Heist.
Rolling down her window, she leaned out and said, "I see you're alive, that's good! You want a hand with your bag?"
"Nah, I got it, thanks," Gryphon replied. "Let me pay my tab and we'll get out of here." Rising stiffly, he finished his beer, then went inside and pressed a larger sum of money on the publican than was strictly necessary, overriding the man's protestations by pretending to understand less Gallic than he did. Satisifed with his good deed, he went back out and put bag, dog, and self in the truck.
"I saw what was left of your jeep on the way down," Shirley remarked as she guided the Blitz back out of town. "The heck did you hit? It looks like a mine went off under it."
"Hell if I know," Gryphon replied. "I was trying to swerve around something in the road and the damn thing just let go on me. Next thing I know I'm lying up against a tree." He ruffled Wolfgang's head. "Lucky you were strapped in, huh, buddy?"
"Hrf," Wolfgang agreed.
"You look freezing," Shirley said. "Hold tight, we'll get you back to base. A nice bath, some dry clothes, get some hot soup into you. Lynne and Yoshika were already firing up the kitchen when I left."
"That sounds great. Hey, Shirley?"
"It's good to see you again."
Shirley gave him an odd look. "Are you feeling OK? You just saw me, like... six hours ago."
"Well," Gryphon replied with a faint smile, "it was a long six hours."
The bath, clothes, and soup, plus some medical attention for the bump on his head, worked curative miracles, and soon all agreed that Gryphon was none the worse for his adventure. Being drawn back into the fold that way eased the transition, as well, since he really was being welcomed back from an adventure... just a slightly longer and much stranger one than his colleagues knew.
So it was with a feeling of only mild surreality that he climbed into his bed in Room 5 East, which he had last slept in both the night before and two months ago, and began to drop off to sleep.
He wasn't quite all the way there when he heard the door (which, by his usual custom, he had left slightly ajar) open, then quietly close all the way. A moment later a slight weight pressed down on the mattress beside him.
"Gryph? Trude's sitting up reading, bleah," came the hushed voice of Erica Hartmann. "Do you mind if I crash here tonight?"
"Not at all, help yourself," he mumbled.
"Thanks," said Erica, and he heard the sound of her shoes being kicked off. A moment later she burrowed under the covers, cuddling up to his side. He settled an arm around her shoulders and resumed his trip to the abyss.
"You smell nice," Erica mumbled. "Roses and... candle smoke? Where've you been?"
But they were both asleep before he could think of an answer. His closing thought for the day was,
Shoot. We didn't think of that.
After a day or so of mild disorientation, Gryphon found it no particular hardship to slip back into the rhythm of life among the witches. It helped that there was plenty to do, which gave the days structure and kept him from dwelling too much on the peculiar sensation of living life in parallel rather than series. Between sorties, working with Ursula on weapons design, the Belv project, keeping an eye on developments in the Neuroi situation, and Zauberschule, he had no trouble keeping himself busy.
Along the way, he managed to drop a few feelers here and there into various personal matters, hopefully without causing too many ripples. Lining up the truckload of stuff for the May "supply drop" proved to be relatively easy, although finding a way of arranging it so he wasn't just stealing war matériel took a little bit of doing. Ultimately, though, he felt he'd arrived at a solution that satisfied honor while still meeting needs.
And so it went, right up to the penultimate day before he would find himself back at the June full moon—just in time for the great confrontation over Freiburg. Here again, his luck held. Had that battle taken place the next day—the actual day of the full-moon night—he would have been hard-pressed to slip away, even for the short (relative, objective) time required, and probably too tired to do it, anyway. One day later, though, and he had both the rest and the liberty to make his plan work—providing there were no further unforeseen complications, of course.
After dinner, operations at Château Saint-Ulrich proceeded with an odd mix of lassitude and furtive excitement. Lassitude because it was the day after the already-legendary Battle of Freiburg, and the entire 501st Joint Fighter Wing was on administrative cooldown, still recuperating from the epic struggle of the day before. Furtive excitement because a contingent of the 501st's personnel were gearing up for a daring secret operation that would take them far afield without, strictly speaking, proper authorization for everything they planned to do out there.
Gryphon wasn't part of the preparations for Operation Hammer, so, like the other witches who hadn't been tapped for the operation, he contributed largely by staying out of the mission team's way. He was in his bedroom, sitting propped up in bed and reading Simenon in the original, when there came a knock, followed by someone pushing the door open and putting in her head.
"Ah, here you are," said Hannelore von Hammer.
"Evening, Hannelore," said Gryphon, marking his place and rising. "Didn't expect to see you before you and the gang headed out."
"An item came for you in today's dispatches that I thought I should make certain to pass along before I leave," von Hammer explained. "I know you've been waiting some time for it." With that, she took a manila envelope from under her arm and presented it to him.
Arching an eyebrow curiously, Gryphon undid the button-and-string closure on the envelope and slid the documents out of it. There were two, one a sheet of regular typing paper with a brief cover note, the other an official document on heavy stock, complete with an embossed seal.
Gryphon looked them over, smiling, then put them back in the envelope and said, "I won't ask how you managed this. You know I only asked as a shot in the dark."
Von Hammer smiled slightly. "When you've worked within the bureaucracy of Karlsland's military for as long as I have, the civilian machinery of a place like Liberion is no match."
"Well, thank you," Gryphon said, placing the envelope on his desk. "This will be a big help."
"All part of the service," said von Hammer. "Speaking of which, my other reason for stopping by. We're just making final preparations to go, but I couldn't go without thanking you." Advancing into the room, she surprised him slightly by embracing him, then went on, "We are making this attempt because of your wise counsel. Whether I succeed or fail, I owe you for making me see the value of trying."
"All I did was give you a little nudge," Gryphon said, "but I'm glad I could help."
Hannelore let him go and straightened her uniform. "You are an annoyingly gracious man sometimes. Just accept my gratitude," she said, a slight twinkle putting the lie to her flinty Karlslandic glare.
"You're welcome," he said dryly.
"That's better." Spying the pocket watch lying on his desk, she asked, "May I trouble you for the time?"
Gryphon picked up The World and consulted it. "2030 hours... mark," he said.
"Ach, I thought so. I should get moving. We're to be at Orly by midnight, and there's still much to do."
"Mm. I ought to be getting a move on myself. I'm expected in Colmar this evening."
"Ah?" A slight smile stealing onto her face, von Hammer asked, "Forgive me for prying, but would this be a rendezvous with the lady you mentioned yesterday?"
"It would indeed," Gryphon replied with a smile. "I only get a chance to see her once a month, and tonight's the night."
Over on his bed, Erica suddenly sat up like a zombie levered out of a coffin in a movie, making von Hammer, who hadn't realized she was there, jump slightly.
"You have a lady?" she asked Gryphon, puzzled. "I mean, who doesn't live here? When did that happen?"
"... A while back?" Gryphon replied, a little awkwardly.
"Is it serious?"
"Well, we're engaged, I suppose you could call that serious..."
Erica's eyes went wide. "You're engaged?!" she squeaked. "Why haven't you brought her here? We need to meet her! You can't get married without the approval of the whole wing! Those are the rules I just made up!"
To the further surprise of everyone present, Trude Barkhorn suddenly appeared, abandoning the stealth approach she'd been making on her wife's napping position to pop up from the far side of the bed and demand of Gryphon, in the voice of a Karlslander whose conception of someone's schedule has just been bent beyond its elastic limit,
"When did you have time?"
Gryphon glanced at the device in his hand and briefly considered replying, "I have all the time in The World," but just in the nick of it, he realized what a flagrant temptation of fate that would be, and he aborted the operation in favor of a helpless shrug.
"All right, wait, never mind that," said Trude with a new-subject handwave. "You have a fiancée who lives in the area, but you can only go and see her..." She glanced out the window. "... on the night of the full moon?"
"Mm-hmm," Gryphon replied. "It's a pain."
Erica giggled. "The full moon, really? Is she a werewolf?"
"No, she's a vampire," Gryphon replied before he could stop himself.
All three Karlslanders stared at him and replied in monotone unison, "... What."
"I said—" Gryphon began, but his voice trailed off as he noticed that Trude was staring not at him, but still at the window, a look of blank disbelief spreading across her face. Turning, he looked—
Remilia, rather more fancily dressed than usual, was standing in midair outside the window, arms folded insouciantly, her body language announcing without ambiguity, Behold! I have arrived!
Blinking away his surprise, Gryphon went and opened the window. "Uh, hello."
"Bon soir, mon amour!" Remilia declared. "I decided to come and surprise you."
"Uh, well... mission accomplished," Gryphon said. Stepping back, he gestured and said, "Won't you come in?"
"Why thank you, sir," she replied, crossing the window threshold and stepping lightly down to the floor. "So this is your home away from mine, is it? Very nice! Not as institutional as I was expecting. And these are some of your comrades, I presume?"
"As a matter of fact." Feeling himself swinging from bafflement into a mode that was more of a match to her playfully formal one, Gryphon indicated them one by one. "Rittmeister Hannelore Freifrau von Hammer, our Air Fleet adjutant; Major Gertrud Barkhorn and Captain Erica Hartmann, two of the 501st's witches. Ladies, may I introduce my fiancée, Countess Remilia Scarlet."
"I'm delighted to meet you all," said Remilia graciously. "Benjamin has told me so much about you and his adventures with you, I feel as though I practically know you already."
It seemed to dawn on Erica for the first time that she was sitting in her shirtsleeves on Gryphon's bed, the bunching of the covers around her waist a clear indication that she had until recently been lying in it. Normally this wouldn't faze her at all—a perfectly ordinary state of affairs—but the presence of the man's fiancée, whose existence she hadn't even guessed at until a few moments before, made her suddenly and acutely aware of what it must look like to an uninformed observer. Her face going slowly red, she said haltingly,
"Um... this isn't... what it looks like? I'm actually married." She tilted her head toward Trude. "To her."
"Hi," said Trude with a slightly confounded wave.
Remilia regarded the tableau for a moment with a calm, unreadable look, then crossed the room to examine the outside of the door, which was currently turned inward where Hannelore had left it open.
"Hartmann—!" Trude whispered through her teeth as she realized the new arrival was perusing the signup sheet Erica had stuck on the outside of the door just the day before. "Why didn't you take that down?!"
"I didn't know I would need to!" Erica replied in a similar stage hiss. "I'm not psychic! You want Eila for that!"
"Hmm," said Remilia, considering the partly-filled-in list, including the box for that same evening. Then, turning a cool smile to Erica, she went on, "Well, at least you're not a line jumper, Captain Hartmann."
Erica could only look flummoxed at that; Remilia held the smile on her for a moment longer, then couldn't take it any more, threw back her head, and laughed, fang points glinting.
"Relax, ladies," she said in a much more natural tone. "I know all about the arrangements here. You may rest assured, they meet with my complete approval."
Erica blinked. "Uh... so... wait. You don't mind that there's practically always at least one of us sleeping with him?"
"Hartmann—!" Trude groaned again, facepalming.
"OK ja it sounds totally wrong when I say it out loud like that," Erica agreed.
"No, I don't mind at all," Remilia said, then added with a wry grin. "Trust me, Captain, I'm well aware of Benjamin's value as a restorative sleep aid. I'm not so heartless as to hoard such a valuable commodity all to myself, particularly in a time of war. You could even argue that it's my patriotic duty to support our fighting forces with every resource I possess."
"It sounds even more like a totally wrong thing when you say it out loud like that," said Erica with a wince.
"There you go again, talking like I'm your possession," Gryphon pointed out mildly.
"Which you absolutely are not, mon vieux—except, of course, when you are," the vampire added with a wicked grin, and with that the last of the ice was broken.
When she'd finished laughing, von Hammer composed herself again and said, "I hate to dash away when things are just getting interesting, but I have a most pressing appointment I must keep. It has been fascinating to meet you, Countess Scarlet. I hope you will visit us again."
"D'you know, Rittmeister von Hammer, I believe I shall. I've enjoyed meeting you as well." She offered a hand, which the Prussian gravely accepted and bowed over, as a baroness should over the hand of a countess. "May your errand meet with the most glittering success."
"Thank you, Countess. Ladies. Gentleman," von Hammer went on, offering short Prussian bows to the others in the room.
"Hals und Beinbruch, Hannelore," said Gryphon; the Barkhorns echoed the sentiment, and then she was gone.
"Uh... we should... get going too," said Trude awkwardly, dragging Erica off the bed. Once they were both upright, she offered a bow of her own, nudging Erica to follow her lead, then said, "A pleasure, Countess, good evening."
"She's got little wings!" Erica declared cheerfully as they left the room. "So cute!"
Alone in the room, Gryphon and Remilia stood looking at each other in bemused silence for a moment, then came together in an embrace.
"So that was the Erica and Trude Show," Gryphon observed when he could speak again. "You got one of our better opening acts in those two."
"Mm, so I see. What a charming couple they are. Would you care to show me around the rest of the circus?"
"Sure, let me get my shoes." Having collected those articles, he sat down on his bed to put them on, remarking as he did so, "I didn't expect you to come up here."
"I know," Remilia said, wandering over to poke idly around the items scattered on his desk. "That's why I did it."
"Well, I'm glad you're here," Gryphon said.
"And I'm glad I came. We are in accord," said Remilia dryly. Then, spotting an item of interest, she said, "Hello, what's this?" and picked it up.
Gryphon raised his head to look, and saw that she was holding the investiture certificate Kaiser Friedrich IV of Karlsland had issued him—a document that, by one stroke of the imperial pen, had transformed him from an unauthorized nobody covertly assisting the 501st to a commissioned captain of cavalry in Karlsland's Imperial Air Service, a Reichsgraf of the Karlsreich, and a Knight Third Class of the Imperial Order of the Red Eagle.
"My my!" Remilia said as she read it over. "An officer and a gentleman, are we? And so soon after your return." Putting the certificate back on his desk, she turned and gave him a wry grin. "I guess I won't be marrying below my station after all!"
Gryphon chuckled and finished tying his shoe. "Indeed. I'm even a count!"
"Excellent news. Now our marriage needn't be morganatic," she said with a wink. Then, glancing at the paper again, she asked, "What's the Imperial Air Service, though? I was under the impression that Karlsland's air force was called the Luftwaffe."
"It is," said Gryphon. "The Luftstreitkräfte is the old Karlsland air force. It was dissolved after the First Neuroi War and replaced by the Luftwaffe. The Kaiser brought it back for Hannelore. She's kind of a special operative of his."
"I see. And now so are you."
"Apparently. The duties are largely ceremonial."
Remilia chuckled. "Do you have a proper uniform? I see you're still wearing the same old Liberion rags around the house."
"As a matter of fact, I do," Gryphon said. "I've worn it exactly once, the day it arrived. It's for dress occasions, which we don't have too often around here."
"Well, here's what I think we should do," said Remilia. "You put on your uniform. Spruce yourself up as much as ever you can. Then you'll show me around the castle and introduce me to the rest of your comrades, such as are available. And after that... what would you say to an evening on the town in Colmar? Inasmuch as there is any such thing," she qualified with another wry smile.
"I would say that sounds like a helluva plan."
Fully decked out in the grey, green, and black of the old Imperial Air Service, peaked cap, Order of the Red Eagle, and all; carrying a small suitcase; and with a mildly incongruous set of Fusō-style swords strapped to his back, Gryphon would have caught the puzzled attention of his wingmates if he had been going around the castle alone. Being accompanied by a small, cheerful, archaically-dressed woman who sported a jauntily decorative pair of bat wings on her back did nothing to diminish this effect.
They hit the hangar first, in hopes of catching the Operation Hammer team before they left. In this, Gryphon had a spot of luck; when they arrived, the team's C-47 was still on the apron. Hannelore was already aboard, preflighting the aircraft, but the other witches chosen for the mission, along with Lynne, Mio, and Minna, were gathered around the rear door, where Yoshika was supervising the loading of Lucchini's stretcher.
The operation came to a halt as the witches noticed Gryphon and Remilia approaching, and their chatter died away in puzzlement.
"Hey, guys," said Gryphon, a little sheepishly. "I don't want to hold you up, but I've had a surprise visitor I thought I should introduce real quick if I could catch you." He named off the witches in turn, then presented Remilia as formally as he could under the circumstances.
"You're kidding me," said Shirley.
"It does seem somewhat improbable," Ursula Hartmann agreed, adjusting her glasses.
"More than somewhat," Heidemarie Schnaufer said.
"How rude," Lynne chided them, frowning.
"Don't be mean, you guys!" Yoshika protested.
Perrine gave a dark chuckle that put her wingmates instantly in mind of haughtier times; elevated her chin aristocratically; and said calmly, "Please disregard the rank jealousy of the peanut gallery, Mademoiselle la Comtesse. They can't help themselves. They're from less civilized countries, after all."
There was a moment's startled silence, and then everyone laughed.
"Wow, Perrine," Lucchini chortled. "That was just like the old days."
"One likes to keep all one's skills sharp," said Perrine airily.
"I guess that was pretty rude of me," Shirley allowed. "Sorry about that. It's just that... you know... he kinda never mentioned that he was seeing somebody off base."
"Oh, you mustn't blame him for that," Remilia said. "We thought it best to keep the matter private until such time as we were certain of our course, you see."
"You sly old dog," Mio Sakamoto said with a grin. "I can see keeping it on the downlow from this pack of gossips, but holding out on your own best witch?"
"You'd have tried to help move things along," Gryphon told her blandly. "It would have been a disaster."
Mio laughed, hands on hips. "Yeah, you're probably right. Well, congratulations! I hope you'll come and see us again, future Mrs. Gryph, when we're a little less..." She gestured vaguely at the operation in progress.
"Oh, I shall, Colonel, have no fear," said Remilia. "I apologize for dropping by unannounced, but I rarely leave my home these days, and tonight I was feeling... impulsive."
Minna considered raising the point that this was a supposedly-secure operations base for a combat fighter wing, and not the sort of place somebody's fiancée could customarily just "drop by" in impulse, but decided against it. Her magical sensitivity to patterns of force and power, even operating at its subliminal out-of-combat level, was whispering to her that the tiny woman standing here laughing and bantering with her witches was a formidable presence, one who could be a powerful ally or an implacable enemy, and Minna would much prefer the former. Besides, if Gryphon vouched for her—and he obviously did, if he intended to marry her—well, she'd granted people access on a far weaker basis than that in her time. Certainly the Countess was far more charming than many a "guest" Minna had had to suffer on her patch unwillingly.
So instead of pressing the point, she made a slightly arch comment about arranging a pass for the Countess's convenience on her next visit, which Remilia acknowledged with a faint OK-you-got-me smile, and the conversation flowed away from the potential trouble spot as smoothly as Perrine had cut down her wingmates' rudeness earlier.
After a bit more pleasant conversation, Remilia said, "Well, ladies, we mustn't keep you from your work. I wished Rittmeister von Hammer every success when I met her a short while ago, and I extend the same wishes to all of you now." Spreading her skirts, she bow-curtsied in the style Gryphon had seen Sakuya do so often, adding with a broad smile, "Bonne chance, mes amis!"
Gryphon said his goodbyes as well, and he and Remilia walked arm-in-arm away from the C-47 and toward the doors leading back to the interior of the castle. Behind them, one of the witches excused herself from the rest and hurried after them.
"Excuse me, Countess," said Heidemarie, a touch hesitantly, as she caught up with them. "I'm Major Heidemarie Schnaufer, one of the Night Witches here. This is terribly forward of me, but may I ask you a... personal question? In confidence?"
Remilia gave her a serene smile and replied with perfect unconcern, "Yes, Major Schnaufer. I am a vampire."
Heidemarie, her query short-circuited, blinked. "Ah."
Remilia considered her with a thoughtful air for a moment, stepping a bit closer, then said, "And you've been accused of being one too, in your day, haven't you? I can see it in you."
Heidemarie's pale cheeks colored slightly. "By that do you mean..."
But Remilia shook her head. "No. No, you're not one of us, you're a witch all right—but your magic lineage cuts close by." At the Night Witch's look of confusion, she went on, "There were wondrous things in this world in the time of your great-great-great-grandmothers, Major. Not all the boundaries were as sharply defined as I'm told they tend to be nowadays." Her smile, so ready tonight, flashed on again. "I'm pleased to see that some echoes of that finer, wilder world linger still."
"I see," said Heidemarie solemnly. Then, with a shy smile of her own, she bowed slightly and said, "Thank you, Countess."
"My absolute pleasure, Major," replied Remilia warmly.
"You're really working the charm tonight," Gryphon observed fondly as they re-entered the main castle.
"Would you rather I was abrasive?" Remilia asked impishly.
"Not at all. Besides, it's fun watching you do your thing." He patted her hand where it lay in the crook of his elbow. "Let's see... who haven't we seen?"
The rest of the wing, and Wolfgang, turned out to be relaxing in the living room, apart from Sanya, who was out on night patrol—the only Night Witch covering the sector tonight, since Heidemarie had been detached for Operation Hammer and her temporary replacement had not yet arrived.
"Th' heck?" Wilma Bishop wondered as she saw Gryphon enter. "Why are you dressed like Hellhammer?"
"Except for the pants," Chris Barkhorn noted.
"Mm, true that. Oh well, life is disappointment," Wilma said philosophically, making Chris giggle.
"This is my good suit!" Gryphon said. Then, grinning, he added, "I'm showing off for my lady. We're going to hit the town tonight! Everybody..."
This group of witches, Remilia noticed with amusement, trended more toward astonishment than disbelief. She wondered why they all found it so hard to digest the idea that Benjamin could be engaged. They clearly all found him as charming as she did. Was it simply that they couldn't fathom the notion of him committing himself exclusively to one woman? And yet it wasn't like that at all, except in certain very particular senses that didn't come into play in his relationships with any of them anyway. Human relations were such a mess sometimes.
Regardless, she liked them as much as she'd liked all the others he'd introduced her to so far. They were all such a cosmopolitan lot: girls from Fusō, like Miyafuji and this youngster here, Hattori (who, she noticed with interest, seemed to have a particular rapport with him, almost but not quite like master and student); a Suomi, unmistakable with her ash-blonde hair and slightly insular manner; Englishwomen, Karlsländer, the little Romagnan with her body broken but mending and her spirit undimmed... good girls, the lot of them, girls worth getting to know; and once they got over their initial shock, they all seemed just as eager to get to know her.
Benjamin was right, she thought to herself as she worked the room, the experience bringing back pleasant memories of playing the hostess at dinner parties in the good old days. Maman had certainly never had the patience for that. As soon as Remilia the Younger was decently old enough to take over, that sort of business had been left to her and her father, whilst Remilia the Elder retired to her library and tried to ignore the noise from the great hall.
"May I ask you a question, Countess?" asked Francie Whittle at an opportune lull in the conversation.
"Of course, Group Captain Whittle," Remilia replied. "What would you like to know?"
Pointing with the stem of her pipe, Whittle asked, "Do those wings work?"
"They certainly do," said Remilia. "And they're very convenient," she added with a wink, demonstrating their ability to put her at proper kissing level with her fiancé.
"So I see," said Whittle dryly. "How extraordinary. I've known a few witches in my time whose familiars were bats, but they never manifested like that."
"Oh, I'm not a witch, Group Captain. I have a soupçon of magical ability, but only as a trait of my particular bloodline. I'm a vampire, you see."
Whittle arched an eyebrow. "There's no such thing as vampires."
Remilia grinned, showing her fully extended fangs, but somehow not in an aggressive way. "How certain are you of that?"
"... How extraordinary," Whittle repeated.
"Zowie," said Wilma.
"Um," was all Eila could come up with. Shizuka didn't even get that far.
"Is that the kind of thing you should just go around telling people?" Chris wondered.
"Where do you hail from, originally, Fahnenjunker Barkhorn?" Remilia asked in reply.
"Königsberg," said Chris. "Why?"
"Are you proud of that heritage?"
"Of course," Chris replied. "Königsbergers are the backbone of Karlsland." She grinned. "Or so my big sister's always telling me."
Remilia returned the smile. "You should listen to your elder sister; it's a younger sister's duty. At any rate, I'm proud of my heritage as well. My father was a soldier, a scholar, a tireless protector of these lands... and a vampire. My mother, one of the greatest witches ever to emerge from the Academie van Brugge. I'm proud to be their daughter, and I don't intend to hide it. Why should I? I'm not some kind of savage beast." Winking, she concluded, "Vampires are people too."
Gryphon suppressed a chuckle—that was a phrase he'd said to her, on the occasion of their first meeting, to explain why he wasn't bothered by the idea of dining with one—and it seemed to serve the same purpose in reverse here. They chatted for a few more minutes, and then, as time was pressing, had to move on.
"Sanya's going to be so mad she missed this," Eila said ruefully.
"Have no fear, we'll see each other again," Remilia assured her, and with her the rest, with a smile. "Your commanding general has already extended me an open invitation—and of course you'll all be invited to the wedding, once we know where and when it will be."
"We're building a chapel here," Shizuka blurted out, startling even herself slightly. "Well, it's a Fusō-style temple, but it'll be properly dedicated and everything." Having come this far, she decided to press on and complete the thought: "We built it for General Wilcke and Colonel Sakamoto's wedding next month, but I'm sure you could use it if you wanted."
"That's very kind of you," said Remilia, nodding graciously. "I'll certainly keep it in mind. Benjamin and I haven't really discussed the particulars yet."
"Well, ladies, I fear I must take this gentleman away from you for a while if we're to see anything of the nightlife this evening. Don't worry, I shan't keep him forever..." She smiled a little wickedly. "This time."
Wilma laughed. "Don't wait too long!" she called cheerfully after them as they exited with Wolfgang trotting after. "We ain't all innocent flowers around here."
"Thank you, Sgt. Bishop, that will be all," Gryphon's voice drifted back down the corridor, making everyone laugh once more.
The C-47 had gone when they returned to the hangar. The sprawling room was still lit up, but deserted, the doors standing open on the balmy night. Whistling cheerfully, Gryphon led the way over to the corner where the Belv was parked.
As they approached, Remilia stopped and just... looked at it for a moment, then asked, "What is this?"
"It's my car!" Gryphon replied. "Did you think I was going to walk to Colmar? Some of us can't fly without special equipment we really shouldn't use for personal errands," he added mischievously.
"This is an automobile?"
"Oh!" He slapped his forehead. "You've never seen one before."
"Only in pictures," Remilia said. "And they didn't look like... this."
"Well, you're in for a treat, then. This one's special. Hop in, let's go!"
"Benjamin, mon amour, tu essaies de me faire peur à mort?!” Remilia demanded.
She had wondered, upon boarding the Belv, what the railing-like bar attached to the panel in front of the passenger seat was for. Now, as she clung to it for dear life to avoid being thrown against the door while the madman she had foolhardily agreed to marry hurled the tiny car around a bend on the Ribeauvillé-Colmar road, she understood.
"Sorry," Gryphon said, backing off just a little. "It's really perfectly safe."
"The outcome of your reckless driving is what led to our meeting, if you'll recall," Remilia pointed out.
"On a point of order, that happened because someone caused a hurricane and then blew up my jeep! Not my fault. But you're right. For your first ever automobile ride, I should probably take it easier. Here. Is this better?"
"Significantly. Thank you." She shook her head and smoothed her clothes, reassembling her dignity. "I never imagined you would be such a daredevil."
"I told you about the jetpack, right?"
"Yes, but that's for a specific purpose. What you were just doing was... hooliganism."
"Sorry," he repeated, genuinely contrite. "I got too excited. Please forgive me. I am but a humble horsie."
"That line's for Flandre," said Remilia, then relented with a smile, sitting back in her seat. "But I'll forgive you anyway. Just try to keep this contraption properly upright, will you? It's been a long time since I even rode in a carriage, let alone anything faster."
"You can fly faster than this car could possibly go."
"When I'm flying, I'm in no danger of hitting trees."
"Fair point, well made. We're here anyway!"
Remilia leaned forward to get a better look at the streets of Colmar through the Belv's windshield. "Mm. It hasn't changed as much as I might have thought. I'm surprised at the number of people about, though, even on a Friday."
"We drove the Neuroi out of Freiburg yesterday," Gryphon said. "Folks around here are still celebrating."
"Of course. ... Where are we going?"
"Well, it's an outside chance, but... aha! Look." He pointed to the large building at the end of the square they'd just swung into. "Lights on in the mairie. Somebody's working late."
"What do we want with the town office?" Remilia wondered.
"You do still want to get married, yes? Here in the twentieth century, that happens here."
"What—right now? Just the two of us? Flandre would never forgive either one of us."
"Well, no, not that part, but there's paperwork to do beforehand." He tapped the breast pocket of his uniform jacket, making the papers within crinkle audibly. "I have to drop off my birth certificate. I'm not sure what we're going to do about yours, I mean, they didn't do those in 1502, did they?"
Remilia frowned thoughtfully. "I was born in the bed I still sleep in," she said. "The only record of my birth I can think of would be in my father's journal for that year, which I assume these modern authorities of yours wouldn't accept. How annoying. Can't we just go to the church where my parents were married and have the canon do it?"
"Not if you want it to be legal. I mean, we can have a church service—I hope we do! Signing some papers in the town hall isn't much of an occasion. But we have to do this part or we're not really married." He shrugged. "C'est le vingtième siècle."
"Wait. You're not even from this world. Or this decade! Where did you get a birth certificate?"
Grinning, Gryphon withdrew the envelope Hannelore had given him from his jacket and handed her the heavier of the two papers in it, switching on the dome light as he did so (it only occurred to him later that she didn't need it).
"'Commonwealth of Dawnland Certificate of Live Birth'," Remilia read. "'Baby boy, born the twentieth June, nineteen twenty-three, to...'" She looked up and gave him a wry smile. "You look a little older than twenty-two, mon vieux."
"It's the mileage," he said with a shrug. "Anyway, I wanted to keep it as close to true as I could. Fifty years' difference... not that big a deal when you get to be our age. It's a lie," he said piously, "but a virtuous one."
"Hm. Well, you're probably right that it's necessary in your case. As for me..."
"You heard me correctly, young man. The twelfth August, 1502, at my family's home outside the city."
The young clerk gazed wearily at her through pince-nez that could have stood a wiping. "Madame," he began.
"Mademoiselle," Remilia corrected him, then added with a grin, "That's rather the point of the exercise."
The clerk sighed. "Mademoiselle. I understand that the streets are filled with revelry at the moment, but if this is your idea of a joke..."
"Monsieur, do you see these wings? They're not humorous."
No, but they are adorable, Gryphon didn't say out loud.
"... I cannot dispute your point," the clerk admitted, then sighed again and said, "But I really don't know what I can do. Exceptional cases are not in my purview. I'm only here to finish up some things that didn't get done during the normal day because of the party this afternoon."
Remilia thought the matter over for a moment, then smiled. "Listen, mon ami. Thousands of people must have lost their documents when the Neuroi controlled the country. How are they handled? Surely you're not telling me that no one who was displaced by the occupation and then returned to find nothing remained is allowed to marry."
"Well, no, there are exceptions. Waivers. But they have to come from Paris! I can't do them here. I'm sorry."
Remilia drew a deep breath, then let it out. "Ah, well," she said, flipping a hand. "I'll try my luck with the capital, then." She patted his forearm in a friendly way. "Don't let it get you down, monsieur. You can't help it if they gave you poor tools to work with."
"Thank you for your understanding, mademoiselle. I can at least take the gentleman's paperwork and start your application. We'll hold it here until such time as your own documentation is ready."
"Excellent. Thank you."
"Thank you for not raking the poor guy over the coals too much," Gryphon observed as they left the mairie.
Remilia shrugged. "I'm in far too good a mood tonight to let a little thing like the intransigence of the Gallic bureaucracy turn me savage. If anything, it gives me hope! It proves that the so-called Fourth Republic is not so different from the ancien régime after all," she added with a wink. Then, pulling at his arm a little, she diverted their course toward the mailbox that stood on the corner, where she paused to remove an elaborately sealed letter from the small sling bag she'd been carrying all night and post it off.
"What was that?" Gryphon wondered as he collected Wolfgang from the car, and they all headed away from the Place de la Mairie and into the center of town.
"Me, trying my luck with the capital," Remilia replied airily. "Now then. We have..." She paused. "That's your cue, man carrying the watch."
"Oh. Sorry." Gryphon fished The World out of the watch pocket of his uniform. "It's 10:23."
"Excellent. We have five hours, or thereabouts, before we really must get back. What shall we do? Are you hungry?"
"I could eat. I don't think anywhere in town serves what you're going to want on a full moon night, though," he said.
"Never fear, mon cheval," she said, tapping the sling bag again. "Sakuya has provided. And I find B-negative always goes well with bouillabaisse on a night like this."
"I thought you said the horsie line was for Flan."
"I was just testing you, mon amour."
They dined in casual but elegant style at the same sidewalk brasserie where Gryphon had awaited Shirley back in April. The proprietor, recognizing the odd foreigner who had tipped him so lavishly for a little help that stormy evening, couldn't do enough for them, and miracle of miracles, even this far from Marseille, there was bouillabaisse. While they ate, and Wolfgang dozed happily at Remilia's feet under the table, Gryphon told her about the Battle of Freiburg in all the thrilling detail she wanted.
Afterward, they went walking around the town center, with Remilia reminiscing about what the place had been like in her girlhood. Colmar had been one of the free imperial cities of the Sacred Romagnan Empire, that strange medieval confederation of proto-Karlslandic states that was neither sacred, nor Romagnan, nor an empire. Though a small place in those day, it had been an important market town, something of a crossroads of the region, albeit mainly as a sort of adjunct or overflow from the larger nearby center of Mülhausen—modern-day Mulhouse.
"This was a borderland then, as it is now," she noted. "Only in those days, as well as being at the crux of the Gallian, Belgican, and Karlslandic peoples' territories, it was also on the boundary between the mortal world and... something wilder. The Schwarzwald is the last relic of those places now, but back then... it was as though this whole area were halfway into the land of dreams. It was an exciting time."
Remilia looked around at the bustling streets, with their mid-century mix of gas and electric lighting, the glow of the shops, and the chattering groups of happy people, and smiled. "Although there's something to be said for the energy of this era as well, I suppose. It's different. I'm still getting used to it..." She hugged his arm. "But I think I like it."
"I'm glad." Spotting a particular business up ahead, he said, "Want to try another new experience?"
"Mm?" Remilia asked, looking up at his face.
Gryphon pointed. "There's a cinema." He grinned. "I've always wanted to be a soldier on leave, taking my best girl to the pictures in the old-fashioned style."
"In that case, how can I refuse?"
The film they saw was a comedy, and although Gryphon didn't quite understand all of it, he came away well-pleased at how well his Gallic was coming on, all the same. It had been a peculiar film to his sensibilities—as near as he could tell, it involved a man faux-kidnapping a haughty young heiress to teach her humility, then having to rescue her from actual kidnappers who then kidnapped her from him, which seemed like a weird premise for a comedy to him—but it was funny once he'd adjusted his expectations, and Remilia had appeared to find it hilarious (when she wasn't too busy being fascinated by the technology being used to display it to her in the first place).
Afterward, there was time for another leisurely walk about Colmar. By now the crowds were thinning, all but the most dedicated revelers calling it a night, but people still stopped Gryphon routinely and congratulated him. Not that they knew he had personally been involved in the liberation of Freiburg, of course, but people were so pleased at the outcome that they were thanking everybody they saw in any kind of uniform, even strange foreign ones they didn't recognize.
The hour grew late at last, and they had time for a quick dinner at one of the last holdouts on the row of cafés near the mairie before reclaiming the Belv from its space and heading back up into the hills. (Remilia noticed as they left the Place de la Mairie that the office light had gone out sometime while they were gone, and smilingly hoped that harried young clerk was getting a good night's rest.)
They left the Belv parked near the end of the track leading up to the house. In absolute terms, it wouldn't be there long, since Gryphon's plan was to come back out on the next full moon and repeat the looping process—and so, thanks to the good offices of The World, his one-month-older self would appear shortly after this point and drive the car back to Ribeauvillé, appearing to his wingmates as if he'd just returned from his date.
"I don't know how many months I can pull this off before I end up confusing myself completely," he admitted as they walked up the hill, "but one bridge at a time..."
"Perhaps you were right, on the night we met, when you said I should just... leave," Remilia said wistfully. "There are other places in the Gallian countryside where we could live. Now that Flandre is herself again..." She gestured to the dark bulk of the mansion, its windows glowing with the dull orange of candlelight. "It's just a house."
"You say that, but I can hear you don't really believe it," Gryphon said, squeezing her hand. "It's your home. And in a way, you're only now taking it back from the ghosts of its past. It'd be a shame to abandon it now. Let's give it a little while. See if we can figure something out."
"Well, we have another month before we even could do anything now, since we've frittered away the whole night having such a lovely time," said Remilia wryly.
"That's the spirit." Gryphon yawned. "Man. I am all in. I don't mind switching back and forth between the day and night shifts so much? But that first day is rough. Worth it, though. Totally worth it."
"I'm glad you think so."
Their welcome home was low-key, given the lateness of the hour, but Sakuya was as fresh as always, still crisply uniformed, when she met them in the entrance hall—despite the fact that under the new régime, she would normally have gone off-duty after supper.
"Welcome home, m'lady, Chief," she said, taking Remilia's bag and Gryphon's suitcase. "Hello again, Wolfgang. I trust you had a pleasant outing, m'lady?"
"It was," Remilia replied, "marvelous in every respect. I'll tell you, and Meiling, and Flan all about it at breakfast. Right now, get to bed. You're not supposed to be working at this hour any more."
"My working hours are always subject to the requirements of the occasion, m'lady," Sakuya objected primly, then added in a more normal voice, "But now that you're home, I'll take you up on that. I've already had to pack Meiling off to bed. She was waiting for you outside—I think she was planning to do some kind of doorman thing for your amusement—but I went out to check on her an hour ago and found that she'd fallen asleep standing up."
"That's an impressive trick," Gryphon noted.
"A bit pointless, though," Remilia said. "The last thing we need in this place is a door guard."
"As for Lady Flandre," Sakuya said quietly as the three of them crossed the entry hall together, "she wanted to wait up for you too, but..." With a smile, she gestured into the great room. Remilia and Gryphon looked in and saw Flandre, dressed for bed, curled up fast asleep on the Ottomane where Remilia usually sat.
"Oh," said Remilia, a sentimental smile spreading on her face. Glancing at Gryphon, she asked, "Would you like to do the honors, or shall I?"
"Sister's prerogative," Gryphon replied.
"Oh, go on," she said. "Carry the princess, you oaf."
"Why did you leave it up to me if it wasn't up to me?" he asked rhetorically, then went and gently scooped up the tiny blonde in his arms.
Flandre didn't wake, but shifted slightly and smiled, as he carried her upstairs. Remilia left them at the door to Flandre's room, kissing her sleeping sister good day and then heading across the hall to start getting ready for bed, while Gryphon tucked Flandre into her own bed.
When he returned to the hallway, he found Sakuya putting out the sconce candles for the day. Taking The World from his pocket, he unhitched the chain from its loop on his uniform and said,
"Here, safe and sound. Many thanks for the loan."
"You're very welcome, Chief." Sakuya accepted the device, fastened the chain to her dress, and held The World in her palm for a moment, regarding it. Then, looking from its face to his, she said, "You realize, of course, that m'lady intended for you to have this?"
"When she first showed it to you, promising that it could return you to your comrades without their knowing you were ever gone. She intended to give it to you, and she never expected to see it or you again."
Gryphon blinked. "Are you sure?"
"Positive. I know her. She wouldn't have felt comfortable leaving Lady Flandre alone in the house for any length of time... and such was her remorse over her underhanded trick to secure your companionship, she was willing to part with this. The last relic she had of me, whom she also expected never to see again." Though she had tears in her eyes at the thought, Sakuya smiled. "Remilia's heart is vast, Chief. So much bigger than her body looks like it could contain. I think it's important you understand that."
Gryphon returned the smile, placing a hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently.
"I do," he said. "Believe me, I do."
"Well," she said after a few seconds of silent mutual understanding. "I'll let you get to bed. Time I turned in myself, for that matter. Good morning, Chief."
"Good morning, Sakuya," he replied, and they went their separate ways.
"Everything all right?" Remilia wondered sleepily as he clambered into bed beside her, careful not to disturb Wolfgang in his spot at their feet.
"Alles in Ordnung," Gryphon confirmed.
Remilia rolled in against his side and mimed a shiver. "I love it when you speak Karlslandic," she said.
"Ich werde das notieren," he replied.
"I had a wonderful night tonight."
"So did I."
"I enjoyed meeting your comrades very much."
"Pretty sure that was mutual too."
"But this..." She snuggled closer still. "This is the best part." Leaning up, she kissed him gently. "Welcome home."
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
with a boost from
some sparkling badinage on the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020