Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Sakuya Izayoi woke to find herself alone. This wasn't all that unusual. Her daily rhythm was usually a little off from her lover Hong Meiling's. Where Sakuya was almost fully nocturnal in order to suit the needs of the household's vampire mistress, Meiling was still at least partially a creature of the day. Much like Gryphon, she tended to rise a few hours before sunset, and the two of them would customarily use that time to get some work done around the house, off in an area where any noise they might make wouldn't disturb those denizens still sleeping.
Opening her eyes, Sakuya looked at The World, which was hanging by its fob chain on her bedside stand with its face toward the bed. A little past five in the afternoon, still considerably before she usually woke, this time of year. She considered turning over and going back to sleep, but for whatever reason she wasn't feeling particularly sleepy, so after a few moments' quiet reflection, she got out of bed and padded barefoot to the window.
The day outside was grey and drizzly. From her bedroom at the end of the south wing, she could see most of the west lawn, or rather the mostly-graveled area that had been the west lawn, from the edge of the woods to one side of the new gazebo. She was mildly surprised to see Meiling out there, practicing her martial arts in the rain, but only mildly. Meiling trained daily, regardless of conditions. Sakuya had seen her at it on desert worlds, in jail cells, and during blinding snowstorms, indifferent to physical discomfort.
A faint smile touched her lips at the sight. She always enjoyed watching Meiling move. An untutored observer, seeing the tall redhead at rest, might assume that her powerfully built body would be clumsy, or at least tend toward lumbering—but in motion, she was in fact one of the most graceful people Sakuya had ever seen. Well-balanced, perfectly coordinated, as supple as a gymnast, she could move that big, brawny frame around with a smoothness that looked almost effortless. Moreover, this extended to everything she did. Even if she were, say, carrying sacks of cement, or building a piece of patio furniture, Meiling did it in a way that brought to mind a dancer at her trade.
After a few moments, though, Sakuya noticed something that brought a faint crease to her brow. At first she'd taken what Meiling was doing for her usual tai chi exercises, but they weren't. They had little of the flowing, circular grace of that art. Instead, her moves were sharp, percussive, mostly linear except for some sweeping arcs in the footwork. Whatever technique that was, it belonged to an altogether more violent path than tàijí quán. She was still uncannily graceful... but also aggressively so.
Sakuya felt faintly troubled by the sight, but couldn't identify any rational reason why. She knew Meiling had studied more than one martial art. For whatever reason, she'd decided to change up her workout today and practice one of the more forceful ones. There was nothing to be read into that, was there?
Unsure, she gathered her bath things and went to prepare herself for the night. Might as well get a jump on some of the work, since she was up anyway.
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
Later that evening, Gryphon also had occasion to notice that Meiling seemed bothered by something, but he made the discovery under rather more direct circumstances.
They were in the basement below the Fusōnese bath, still battling with the old furnace that was needed to heat the main pool. This was a foe that they had both come to respect and loathe in equal parts over the nights since they'd discovered the bath. An enormous, complicated, and badly dilapidated thing, it had thwarted their attempts to get it working with a zeal that was almost starting to feel actively perverse.
Just at the moment, Meiling was at the back of the room, trying to remove the cover from one of the mechanisms that (they thought) were for controlling the firebox ventilation from upstairs. This was presumably intended to make the furnace at least partly controllable from the bath chamber itself, without having to have someone stationed down here in the inferno all the time; but it wasn't working, and it had failed in such a way that try as they might, Gryphon and Meiling couldn't keep a fire going for more than five or ten minutes.
The cover seemed to be stuck. From over on the other side of the room, where he was crouched adjusting one of the coal supply chutes, Gryphon could hear Meiling grumbling as she tried to dismantle the mechanism. He didn't make anything of it at first; their shared habit of talking (sometimes persuasively, sometimes aggressively) to things they were working on was a point of camaraderie between them.
She didn't generally utter an incoherent scream and just summarily tear the whole business off the wall, though, so he found that startling when it happened. Rising, he turned and saw her standing by the wall, shoulders hunched, breathing hard, while the device she'd been wrestling with lay scattered in various mechanical bits on the floor in front of her.
"Well," he said mildly, "that was one way to do that." Tilting his head, he asked, "Are you all right?"
"No," Meiling replied after a momentary struggle to collect herself.
"D'you want to talk about it?" Gryphon asked.
Meiling straightened up, dragging her hands down her face. "How about 'no, but I think I have to'?"
Gryphon nodded. "That works too."
They sat side-by-side, backs against the wall, amid the fragments of the vent mechanism. At first, Gryphon was listening, but Meiling wasn't talking, until finally she said,
"I shouldn't have done the math."
"Hm?" said Gryphon.
"Well... you know how even though we're in this... time bubble or whatever... time is still going by, right? Like the moon goes through its normal phases and all that."
Gryphon nodded. "Mm-hmm."
"So in some sense, it's still a particular date in here. We just can't get to everyplace else where it's that date. I was thinking about that when I woke up today. You ever do that thing where you wake up, and you just kind of lie there thinking about random stuff for a while? That's what I was doing. And it occurred to me that the last full moon was June 14, so today must be the sixteenth. And then I wondered what day that would be back where I come from, so I laid there and figured it out." She sighed. "And immediately wished I hadn't."
"Because it's an anniversary," Meiling told him. "It's the anniversary of the day I lost my home."
Remilia Scarlet entered the great room to find her sister Flandre curled up with Wolfgang on her usual corner settee, reading one of the modern detective novels Gryphon had brought with him. Noticing her sister entering, Flandre marked her place, set the book aside, and looked up with a smile.
"Evening, Sis," she said. "What's up?" Making an exaggerated frown, she went on in a comically low-pitched voice, "You look serious."
"Good evening, Flandre. I have... a task for you."
Flandre raised an eyebrow. "A task?" She gave her elder sister a slight smirk. "Do I have chores now?"
Remilia shook her head with a little smile. "Not quite. Here." Flandre noticed then that her sister was also carrying a book, rather larger and older than the Simenon paperback, which she now took from under her arm and proffered.
"What's this?" Flandre asked, taking the book with her free hand.
"This is your education," Remilia told her. "It's a book you haven't read."
"I read all the books we have," Flandre corrected her, then added wryly, "I just don't remember most of them."
"You haven't read this one," said Remilia. "It wasn't in Maman's library; it's Papa's, and it's been on my bedside stand for the last 150 years. It's the Mysterium Lamiarum."
"Mystery of the Vampires. The medieval authority on our kind. Lamiae was what the Romans called vampires," Remilia explained. "They thought we were all female for some bizarre reason. Anyway, that's not important. What's important is that every vampire should read this, to understand where we came from, why we are the way we are, and what we can and can't do—and you haven't read it."
Flandre frowned thoughtfully. "I don't think I can read Latin."
"Only the title is in Latin. The rest is a Middle Gallic translation Papa made for the Académie Gaulois in 1667. You shouldn't have any trouble with it." Pulling over a chair, Remilia seated herself so their eyes would be on a level and went on,
"The other night, when we had our little spat—"
"You mean when you told me I couldn't go out and see the world, and then immediately went out and saw the world?" Flandre interrupted, but with a mischievous smile rather than the scorn implied by her words.
"Yes, well, you're not wrong," Remilia conceded, her return smile slightly self-mocking but serene. "But in fairness to me, I wasn't just impulsively chasing after my particular gentleman. I was also investigating the present conditions. Seeing whether I was right about the state of the world. And, upon reflection... I don't think I was. Benjamin spoke the truth when he said that the times have changed as much for me as they have for you.
"His wingmates are charming girls, and they almost instantly accepted me for who and what I am," she went on. "I was too caught up in the moment to recognize how extraordinary that was when it happened, but now that I've had a chance to think about it, I'm... well, rather amazed.
"So I've decided that when Benjamin goes back to Saint-Ulrich on the next full moon, you may make the same expedition, if you wish to, and the conditions permit it. You may fly up to Ribeauvillé to meet him at the other end of his timeskip, be introduced to his comrades, and get a sense of what the outside world is like."
Flandre's crimson eyes went wide. "Are you serious?"
"Of course I'm serious."
"Can he take me to the cinema in town?"
"He can do whatever the two of you like, within reason," Remilia said, reflecting inwardly as she did that Flandre would probably have enjoyed the frightful machine Gryphon called "The Belv" more than she had herself.
Flandre clapped her hands in delight. "Then that's what I want to do! I want to do everything you guys did that night. Well, except apply for a marriage license. I mean, obviously," she added, blushing.
You're so transparent, little sister, thought Remilia fondly, but what she said out loud was, "However."
Flandre's face fell. "Oh boy. I should've known there'd be a catch."
"It's not as bad as you're obviously expecting. Don't assume your sister is some kind of ogre," said Remilia indignantly. "Now, listen. You're growing fast—faster than I would ever have imagined possible—but you're not an adult yet. Even leaving aside your psychological development, your education has been too badly fractured for you to know enough to be safe in the outside world. So, if you want to take me up on this offer, you'll have to work hard to correct that situation before the night arrives—and that starts with reading the Mysterium. You never had a chance to learn properly what being a vampire means, and you must before I can let myself let you go roaming around the mortal world." She reached and covered Flandre's hand with her own. "Is that fair?"
Flandre nodded. "It's fair."
"Come and let me know when you've finished the Mysterium," Remilia told her. "I'll answer any questions you may have, and then we'll discuss the next step. You have a lot to learn, and I don't have any experience teaching, but..." She squeezed Flandre's hand gently. "In this respect, we're each all the other has. So we'll have to be patient with each other. All right?"
"All right," Flandre agreed.
"Well. In that case, I'll leave you to it," said Remilia, rising and dusting down her skirts.
Flandre smiled. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, Flandre. Thank you."
"For helping your sister see what a coward she'd become," Remilia said with a grin, "and what she was missing in consequence."
"I don't know how long I walked," Meiling said. "Hours. Days. It was all kind of a blur. But eventually, I came to a... not even a village, really. More like an outpost. Just a few houses and some farm fields. But... it was unlike anything I'd ever seen. The buildings were made of metal. And there were... machines working the fields. It was like I'd walked forward a hundred years in time. Or more. And no one there had ever heard of the Earth Kingdom, or the Fire Nation, or... or anything from the world I knew."
"That must have been a shock," said Gryphon sympathetically.
"You're not kidding. I mean, I know now that I wandered through a Veil Nexus into Zipang, but at the time, I thought maybe I'd just gone crazy. Or died and the Spirit World was nothing like I was expecting. But... you know, the days keep coming, so, you adapt. Right? I was in a world I didn't understand, but people were still people, and I still had skills they needed. So... I made a home there, doing whatever I could do." She chuckled. "Carrying heavy things, at first, just like back on the docks, but then someone found out I could build a stone wall, and someone else needed their shoes repaired, and before I knew it I was basically the town handygirl."
Gryphon laughed. "I once knew another young woman who fell into that kind of role in a small farming community," he said. "She went on to great things. Seems like you have, too."
Meiling nodded. "I really have. I was there for... three years? I think? Something like that, before the strangers showed up one day. The madman with a box," she added with a sentimental smile, "and his maid." She shook her head, her smile taking on a touch of retrospective wonder. "I'd never seen a woman like her in all my life. I didn't know what to do with myself. All I could think of was how damn big my feet are," she said, lifting one of them as if in illustration. "Isn't that stupid? Of all the things to fixate on. 'Oh spirits, she's going to notice my disgustingly huge feet and that'll be the end of it.'"
"I used to not know what to do with my hands," Gryphon commiserated. "In high school, especially. I'd just suddenly be ultra-conscious of these things at the ends of my arms," he said, holding them out in front of him.
"Right?" Meiling agreed, mirroring the gesture. "With all these dumb... wriggly bits," she added, moving her fingers, and they both broke up laughing.
"Ahhhh," said Meiling at the end of the laugh. "I needed that." They sat there, shoulder to shoulder against the wall, for a while in a friendly silence.
"Feel better?" Gryphon asked.
"Much. Thanks a lot. Sorry for dumping all that on you."
"Not a problem at all. I'm here to help."
"I usually don't dwell on the past," Meiling said. "I mean, it's the past, right? Even though I'm a time traveler, I can normally leave it where it lies. But today, I dunno. It just..."
Gryphon nodded. "Got up on top of you. It happens to us all."
"Yeah... that's true. Even Sakuya. She's the best at walling stuff like that off of anyone I've ever seen, but even so... every now and then I catch her just staring, and I know what she's thinking about. She's thinking about the tenth of Floréal."
"I see the very same look in Remi's eyes occasionally," Gryphon agreed. "When she's looking into a flame... sometimes the flame looks back at her, and it's that night."
"What do you do?"
"What can I do? Same thing I bet you do for Sakuya. Hold her, tell her that I love her, wait for the moment to pass, and muddle on."
"You're a good guy, Gryph. I don't go for guys, but if I did, I could go for you."
"Thank you. Although I have to point out that would complicate many things," Gryphon observed dryly.
Meiling guffawed. "It sure would." She got to her feet, grabbed his hand, and hauled him upright. "So. What are we gonna do about this frickin' thing?"
Gryphon picked up one of the bits, turned it over in his hands, and then dropped it. "I say 'scrap it and build something better'. It may take a little longer to get working, but at least we'll be sure how the hell it's supposed to work."
Meiling nodded. "I was thinking the same thing."
"Right now," he said, glancing at his watch, "it must be just about time for lunch."
"I heard that." They headed for the stairs. "Hey, Gryph?"
"Sakuya knows everything I told you already... obviously," Meiling said, "and I don't mind if it comes out that I needed a little cheering up, but... don't tell her I lost my temper, willya? She hates it when I break stuff. I don't want her to worry."
"What happens in the furnace room stays in the furnace room," Gryphon replied gravely.
Except for lunch and a couple of quick breaks to take Wolfgang for a roam around the west lawn, Flandre didn't budge from her reading spot for the next several hours, so absorbed was she in the Mysterium Lamiarum. Set down here, in her father's clear hand and lucid prose, were the answers to questions she hadn't even consciously realized she had about what had happened to her, all those years ago, and what it would mean for her future.
She had given her consent to be turned, of course—if she hadn't, she would have died—but because of the spontaneous, surreptitious way it had been done, there'd been no time for her to consider the matter in any great depth, much less do any research. She'd had to decide on the spot: Will I let Remilia do this, or shall I perish? In the moment, it hadn't been a difficult choice.
The true vampire is not some undead thing; rather, we are living people, members of a branch of humanity that split off from the main trunk of the race in antiquity. Mortal humans are our close cousins, and though we rely upon them for sustenance, to view them as prey is not the ethical course. Rather, we should seek mutually beneficial relationships with them. With our strength, we can be great assets to their communities, and in return, they may provide for us as, for instance, the farmer provides for the craftsman who cannot grow his own crops.
She wondered whether that paragraph existed in the original text, or was a commentary Papa had added. It certainly summarized his philosophy toward humans in her own experience. She hadn't been a vampire in the time she had properly known him, but she'd overheard him giving just such lectures to Remilia as a little girl, instructing her in the ethics of vampire citizenship.
Although our origins and powers are supernatural, nevertheless we must always bear in mind that we are people, not monsters. We must guard ourselves against arrogance and self-pity alike. Ours is neither a blessing nor a curse; it is simply the way we are.
Flandre revolved that last sentence in her mind while she worked her way through the more practical sections of the book. Mechanics and etiquette of feeding. Effects of contaminants in taken blood, their potential dangers and benefits. Regeneration, its limits. Fecundity of vampires, male (quite low; going pink in the face, Flandre reflected that her parents must have been very fortunate, or very diligent, or both, to have had two children within a mere five years) and female (effectively zero—wait, really?—reasons for). Sunlight, why deleterious. Flowing water and threshold invitations. The myth of religious aversion (had not their parents been married in the great Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk of Bruges, as religious a building as ever there was?), its origins and extent.
She was intrigued to note that the author laid this particular popular misconception about all vampires at the doorstep of House Dracul, in members of which it was actually true. That had the hallmark of her father as well. Count Victor Scarlet had actively hated very few people in his long life, but "the Wallachian and his ratling brood," as she'd once memorably heard him call the Dracul family, were at the top of that short list.
She'd never met a Dracul herself—one would hardly have been welcome in the house in her girlhood—but when she got to the section on the various floral aversions that afflicted the different bloodlines and saw that theirs was to garlic, Flandre felt a tiny pang of sympathy for them all the same. She'd take being uncontrollably revolted by licorice over being unable to enjoy half of Gallic cuisine any day.
When at length she closed the volume and looked at the mantelpiece clock, she saw that it was just past 2:30 AM. Domestic noises and nice smells were drifting in from the kitchen, indicating that someone—probably Sakuya—was at work on supper. Flandre sniffed, but couldn't identify what was cooking beyond the fact that whatever it was, it smelled really good. Then again, she'd never known Sakuya to cook anything that wasn't. Except vichyssoise, and was that really even cooked? Cold onion soup, blech. Who thought that was a good idea?
Leaving Wolfgang to his snooze on their settee, she rose and went in search of Remilia, who turned out to be in the first place Flandre looked: her study. Sitting at her desk, chin propped in hand, she was poring over one of their father's journals with a deep and pensive frown on her face, which rather offset the slightly comical effect her tiny stature tended to have on the scene.
"Sis? What's the matter?" she wondered as she entered and saw the look on Remilia's face.
Remilia looked up and smiled at Flandre's entrance in spite of her obvious preoccupation. "Hello, Flan. It's... I'm reading one of Papa's old journals, and... I'm not sure. I started reading these journals to learn more about him, but now I'm not sure I want to know."
With a quizzical frown of her own, Flandre sat down in the armchair facing the desk and asked, "What does that mean?"
"Well... you know that he was a monster hunter before we were born, right?"
"And after, too. I remember him going on that expedition to Baltland when I was little."
"True, he did still keep his hand in the game. But I mean long ago. In the 1200s, shortly after he came to Alsace in the first place. According to this," she tapped the journal volume before her, "he was the leader of a full-time monster hunting party for much of that century. They roamed all over western Europe, protecting cities and towns from the things that lived in the wilds in those days."
"Why would that make you upset? It doesn't sound too different from what big bro and his witch friends do nowadays. Just... in the woods instead of the sky."
"Benjamin and his comrades are not mercenaries," Remilia pointed out with some asperity. "Father and his... associates... charged tithes for their services."
Flandre shrugged. "I'm sure witches get paid."
"By the government, not the people they're directly protecting. It's... different." Remilia sighed. "I don't know. Maybe you're right and I'm reading something into it that isn't there, but... I never pictured our father in a line of work as... sordid as this account makes it all sound."
"Well, if it bothers you, don't read it," Flandre suggested pragmatically. Holding up the Mysterium, she went on, "Speaking of reading, I've finished this."
Remilia raised an eyebrow. "So soon? You're a fast reader."
"Lots of practice," Flandre said, deliberately keeping her tone light. "It's interesting." She smiled, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "I think Papa editorialized a lot in his translation."
Remilia chuckled. "Yes, I got that impression as well. Still, the base information is sound. Do you have questions?"
"Not really." Flandre grinned. "A lot of it's pretty common-sense stuff, you know. 'Stay out of direct sunlight, remember silver hurts, and don't randomly attack people, it's rude' isn't exactly high arcana."
"I suppose not," Remilia conceded. "I hope you found a few nuggets of more useful wisdom in its pages, though."
Flandre nodded, her expression sobering. "I did. Sorry. I can't help teasing you sometimes when you get so serious."
"So noted," said Remilia dryly. "I suppose I'll have to resign myself to more teasing, then, because the next thing I want to show you is serious as well."
So saying, she got out a small brass key and unlocked one of the desk's lower drawers, rummaged in it for a moment, and placed a small box on the blotter in front of her.
"What's this?" Flandre wondered, rising to have a closer look. That didn't tell her much, since the box was of buff-colored pasteboard and completely unadorned.
"Your next lesson," Remilia told her. Re-locking the desk drawer, she picked up the box and tucked it away in a pocket. "We'll get started on it tomorrow, if the rain lets up."
"Can you give me a hint?"
"Better you go into it without preconceptions."
"Aww. Now who's teasing?"
Sakuya had just taken the special items she'd made out of the oven and set them aside on the counter to cool when the sisters wandered in.
"It smells amazing in here," Flandre declared. "What's for dinner?"
"We'll be having pot-au-feu this evening," Sakuya replied, smiling.
"Oh, good choice on a rainy night," Remilia said. Then, noticing the sheet pan Sakuya had just put on the counter, she approached and peered at what lay on it. "What's this? Some kind of... crisps?"
"It's a delicacy from Meiling's homeland," Sakuya explained. "They're called—"
Before she could get the name out, Remilia had darted out a hand, snagged one of the small orange-brown wafers from the pan, and popped it into her mouth with a crunch.
"—flaming fire flakes," Sakuya finished.
Remilia chewed judiciously, swallowed, and stood there for a moment in thought. Her face went slowly red, but her expression remained neutrally thoughtful, as if nothing odd were happening.
"Hmm," she said nonchalantly. "Interesting flavor. A trifle unsophisticated, perhaps, but... interesting."
With that, she went casually to the icebox, opened it, and started looking around inside. The rummaging became markedly less casual after a few moments, ramping up to what sounded like a frantic search, and then Remilia's voice, no longer nonchalant but rather panicky, came from within: "Sakuyaaaaa there is no milk in here~!"
Barely suppressing laughter, Sakuya took out The World, then presented the mistress of the house with a bottle of milk instantly retrieved from the siege cellar. Its contents disappeared almost as quickly as the bottle itself had arrived.
Meiling appeared in the doorway then, and as she entered the kitchen, she got the distinct impression that she had missed a moment, though there was no hard evidence of it now; just the reddened and slightly-out-of-sorts look on Remilia's face as she stood there with an empty milk bottle in hand, and the way both Sakuya and Flandre were striving valiantly not to laugh.
"Uh... what'd I miss?" Meiling wondered. Then, noticing the pan, she brightened with delight. "Are those flaming fire flakes?! Aw, Sakuya." She swept the maid up in a bear hug and bussed her noisily on the mouth, then put her down and said apologetically to Remilia, "Uh, sorry for the PDA, but best if I do that before I eat these things."
"I quite understand," Remilia replied.
For her part, Meiling's only reaction to eating not one but a whole handful of the things was to make a noise of pure joy, eyes closed in bliss, then declare, "Just like Mom used to make. Sakuya, you are the absolute best."
"All right, I have to," Flandre said, and before anyone could prevent it, she'd stolen one of the flakes for herself.
Unlike her sister, Flandre did not downplay her reaction; it was spelled out as clearly on her face as if it had been written down. Anticipation; surprise in spite of having been expecting something; mounting alarm; and then, just before the point where a declaration of emergency would have been necessary, a sudden break and a visible dopamine rush.
"... Wow," she said at length, wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of one hand. "How can you eat those by the handful like that without an instantly regenerating tongue?"
"I grew up with 'em," Meiling said.
Flandre took that on board with a thoughtful nod. "That'd do it," she said, and then, slightly to everyone's surprise, took another one. This time tears squeezed out of her tightly closed eyes, but the wavering line of her mouth was more smile than grimace, and the long sigh at the end contained a distinct note of pleasure. "Nnnnnnngh—! ... yaaahhhh."
Meiling glanced at Sakuya. "I feel like I'm witnessing an awakening that I shouldn't be witnessing."
"I concur," said Remilia. "Flandre, I fear for you."
Before Flandre could reply, Gryphon entered. "Oh, here's everyone," he said. "What's going on? Oh hey! Are those flaming fire flakes? May I?"
Sakuya blinked at him, then made a silent be-my-guest-you-madman sort of gesture, and he took one of the flakes. His face, too, went red, but he didn't squirm or exclaim, and after giving the experience time to play out, he smiled.
"Perfect. But was that ever in any doubt?" he added with a wink.
"You—how?" Remilia wondered. "What can possibly have prepared you for... that?"
"Three hundred years of Chili Fridays with Zoner and Kei," Gryphon replied. "Is that pot-au-feu I smell?"
"All right, out, out of my kitchen, the lot of you," Sakuya said with a tolerant smile and a two-handed shooing gesture.
"Is that any way to talk to your mistress?" Remilia inquired archly.
"All right, out, out of my kitchen, the lot of you, m'lady," Sakuya said.
After supper, the rain prevented Meiling and Flandre from taking their customary tai chi exercises outdoors, so they did them in the entrance hall instead. Sakuya went upstairs and changed out of her uniform, a thing that still felt vaguely surreal to do before the very end of the night. When she returned to the ground floor, she heard the sound of the piano coming from the music room and entered to find that Gryphon and Remilia had repaired there, instead of to their usual reading spots in the great hall's living room area.
Gryphon was at the piano, playing what Sakuya momentarily recognized as the accompaniment line of Vittorio Monti's "Csárdás", while Remilia stood nearby, tucking her violin under her chin.
Watching them play the piece together, Sakuya couldn't help but smile. She hadn't known the Chief had any training as a classical pianist; when she had known him before, he'd played bass guitar in a rock band. But there he was, ably supporting Remilia as she shook the dust of seven decades from her bow, figuratively and literally. And as for the mistress of the house herself, the bliss on her face as she played, eyes closed, body swaying, spoke for itself.
Sakuya wasn't surprised to find herself joined in the doorway by the time the song was a minute old. No one with a particle of musical appreciation in them could have ignored the sound and stayed out in the entry hall doing tai chi with this going on. She glanced to her left and saw that Meiling and Flandre had come up alongside her with near-identical looks of delighted amazement on their faces, which made her own smile widen even further.
At the second minute, when the fast part started, Meiling did surprise Sakuya slightly by sweeping her up and commencing to dance, whirling her about the area just outside the open doors in an improvised step that was part jig, part minuet, and part something like one of the folk dances of her homeland. She had no particular plan, relying instead on Sakuya's natural adaptability—and the fact that they'd done things like this before—to keep up with her. By the time the song, and the dance, were finished, Flandre couldn't decide who she was applauding.
Remilia missed most of that, since she played the song almost entirely with her eyes closed, but when she finished and opened them, she saw the couple standing embraced in the doorway in a position that could only have been the end of a dance. Grinning, her eyes twinkling, she made eye contact with Sakuya, and then, without saying a word, she flipped her violin into position to be strummed rather than bowed and started playing a jaunty, repeating pizzicato line.
Sakuya regarded her mistress with tilted head for a moment, then smiled and, without speaking either, went to collect the cello that stood over by the shelf where Remilia's violin had been sitting. It took her several repetitions of the introduction to get situated, but Remilia was perfectly willing to just keep iterating it until she was ready, and at the appropriate moment, she joined in.
I didn't know she could play the cello, Meiling thought, as she leaned with arms folded on the doorjamb and listened with a broad grin of her own.
After getting the feel of the piece, Gryphon started dropping in an improvised bass contrapunto from the piano, not wanting to disrupt the moment by crossing the room to use the bass violin instead. Flandre caught Meiling's eye and opened her hands in invitation, and Meiling, still grinning, went and swept her up in a dance as well. Flandre wasn't as good at following along as Sakuya, but she was so much smaller than Meiling that she didn't really need to be; her feet were nowhere near the floor anyway.
The five passed the rest of the night in this way, having a little impromptu recital. Gryphon got out the accordion again, repeating some of the tunes he'd played for Flandre in her basement room before the fateful full moon night that had freed her from it; she appreciated them even more now that her mind was clear, and immediately asked to be taught the use of the instrument in due course. In her turn, she showed off the harpsichord skills she'd been diligently dusting off in the early evenings, and Gryphon danced with Remilia to the Couperin piece, a sentimental smile never far from his face. Then Remilia and Sakuya played a few more string duets, with occasional piano contributions from Gryphon.
"Meiling, anything you'd like to try out?" Remilia inquired at one point. "Feel free, this room is for the whole family," she added with a warm smile.
Meiling put a sheepish hand behind her head and said, "I'd love to, but the only instruments I can play are the erhu and the tsungi horn—and I'm not very good at tsungi horn."
"Mieux aimé, make a note: next time you go out, procure an erhu."
"Erhu. Check," said Gryphon, nodding.
"Where are you gonna get an erhu in Gallia?" Meiling wondered.
"Dunno! I'll have a whole month to find one, though," he pointed out, grinning.
Meiling laughed. "True."
"Worst comes to worst, Paris must have a Cathaytown," said Gryphon. "I'll ask Perrine, she knows where to find anything in Paris."
Remilia reached for her skirt pocket, then checked herself with a rueful smile. It was the pocket where, for the last seven decades, she'd been accustomed to carry The World.
"Also, see if you can find me a decent pocket watch, will you?" she asked.
"Pocket watch. Check." Gryphon looked at his GI wristwatch. "It's 4:42, by the way."
"Mm, time we wrapped this up, then," said Remilia. "Dawn comes early this time of year." Then, glancing at the organ, she smiled and said, "But first..."
Flying up to the dais, she seated herself at the console, spent a few moments adjusting stops, and then touched the keys.
The first thing Gryphon noticed was that she played this piece much less angrily than he'd seen her play the Mozart a few weeks before. The second was that her performance was no less expressive for that. She still swayed on the bench, head back, wings flourishing, as she drew joyful sounds from the king of instruments. Her movements, though, were gentler, rounder, than when she'd used the same instrument to confront her wrath over her sister's predicament and her own powerlessness to solve it; and though her presence still shone in the Force, tonight it was white to Gryphon's perception, not black shot through with crimson.
The experience made him unreasonably happy.
Remilia concluded the piece with a thunderous chord, then turned a beaming smile to her applauding family.
"We really must do this more often," she said.
Meiling stretched out full-length on her side of the bed with a satisfied sigh, hands behind her head, and—as she had every morning lately—reveled in the grand luxury of having access to a bed that was actually long enough to do that on. Not that the accommodations aboard the TARDIS had been bad? But there evidently weren't terribly many Time Lords who stood six-foot-five.
Sitting at her dressing table to unbraid her hair for the day, Sakuya chuckled. "Between you and Wolfgang, I don't know who enjoys a good excuse to lie down more."
"Are you calling me lazy, Miss Izayoi?" asked Meiling playfully.
"No, just enthusiastic about relaxation," Sakuya replied. Rising, she yawned discreetly, put out the last candle on her dressing table, and climbed into bed, arranging the covers over herself and her lover.
"Long night?" Meiling wondered, noting the yawn.
"A bit. I woke up earlier than normal for no really good reason, so I've been a tiny bit behind all night." Sakuya snuggled against her side, one arm slipping across Meiling's middle, and she settled in with a smile as Meiling put an arm around her shoulders. "It's been a good one, though."
"Yeah, it worked out all right," Meiling agreed. "I didn't realize you and her ladyship were such a musical duo."
"It was a thing we used to do in the old days," Sakuya said. "We never discussed it, because we never discussed any aspect of our relationship out loud, but playing music together was one of the ways we could... commune. Be closest together, without committing what either one of us would have called an indiscretion. It was as near as we could get to interacting as equals, in the framework of our lives at the time."
"You really love her, don't'cha?"
Sakuya raised her head to see Meiling looking at her. "Are you jealous?" she wondered, sounding faintly surprised.
Meiling shook her head, grinning. "Nah, not at all. I think it's nice! She's a really sweet lady, even if she doesn't always like to admit it." She chuckled self-deprecatingly. "Look at the lengths she goes to in order to make a mutt like me feel welcome."
"Stop that," Sakuya ordered, squeezing her hard. "You know I hate it when you cut yourself down like that. Remilia isn't kind to you out of pity or noblesse oblige, nor even for my sake. She's welcomed you into her family because she sees the same things in you that I do... even if you refuse to recognize them in yourself."
"Ah, I'm sorry," said Meiling, stroking her hair. "It's just force of habit. You know how I get sometimes. I... I had kind of a rough start to the night tonight, I have to admit. It was the anniversary of... the thing." At Sakuya's questioning glance, she elaborated, "Me and General Hao."
"Ah," said Sakuya, her face going still, and she held her lover a little tighter. "So that's why you seemed so angry at your exercises this afternoon."
"You saw that?"
"I told you I woke up early. I went to the window and there you were."
"Aw, jeez. I'm sorry," Meiling repeated. "I tried to keep a lid on it. Didn't want to worry you." She made her self-deprecating chuckle again. "Should have known I would never be able to hide anything from you."
"You seemed all right by lunchtime, so I convinced myself I had imagined it," Sakuya admitted.
"I talked it out," Meiling said. "When we were working in the basement, Gryph noticed I was... on edge... and asked me if I wanted to talk about it. And... y'know, I didn't but I had to?" Sakuya nodded. "So I laid it on him. Told him the whole story."
"What did he say?"
"Not much. He just heard me out and didn't judge me. That was all I needed anyway. I think maybe he knew that."
Now it was Sakuya's turn to chuckle. "That's one of his specialties. I've seen him do it many a time. People will tell him almost anything, when the conditions are right, and he always seems like he's just... letting it happen. Like it could be anyone in his place... but it couldn't. Not really."
Meiling nodded. "Yup. That's exactly how it went down. Kind of amazing, really. He's a good guy."
"Yes he is."
"Where do you know him from?"
"In his future, he's the head of a... sort of interstellar special protective agency, and I was... will be... one of his operatives." Extracting her arm from under the covers, she moved the lace cuff she wore around her wrist and showed Meiling her Lens. "Lensman Sakuya Izayoi, Special Assignment 11," she said, her voice businesslike, as if addressing someone at a crime scene. "What's the situation?"
Meiling laughed. "Nice. So I guess I haven't convinced you to marry me by that point."
"It's his future, not mine," Sakuya pointed out, replacing the cuff and returning her arm to its place. "It all happened to me before I met you."
"Oh, right. ... So does that mean I might have a shot after all?"
"Where did this come from all of a sudden?"
"I dunno. I guess just because it's in the air, what with Gryph and her ladyship and all. Watching them together in the music room tonight got me thinking."
"Well," said Sakuya judiciously, "if you intended that as an actual proposal, I have to say I think it was the most passive-aggressive one I've ever heard."
"Sorry. I was just thinking out loud. Another one of my bad habits."
"Mm." A pause. "Well, if we do get married some day, I hope it won't upset you too badly if I don't take your name. Not that there's anything wrong with it! But the one I already have means too much for me to ever give it up... not even for you."
"Fine by me," Meiling said at once. "We don't do that kind of thing with names where I come from anyway."
"Ah. So you were just making a joke."
There was nearly a minute of silence, broken only by the normal faint noises of the old house and the quiet, syncopated sounds of two people breathing.
"I haven't got much, and what I have got mostly isn't great, but I can make you three promises. One: I'll always look this good. Two: I'll carry all the heavy things. And three: I'll always let you have the last baozi in the bag. So what do you say? You and me forever?"
Further silence while Sakuya considered her answer, and then, with a soft chuckle, she said, "Only a fool would turn down an offer as good as that. Yes, Meiling, I'll marry you."
Meiling grinned at the shadowed ceiling and pumped her free fist in the dark. "Yessss."
"Once we're in a time and place where it's legal," Sakuya added.
"Oh. Right." Meiling considered this. "In the meantime, can we shack up?"
"We already have, you adorable fool," Sakuya pointed out. "Go to sleep."
Meiling giggled and ducked her head to kiss the top of Sakuya's. "G'morning, Sakuya. I love you."
"I love you too, Meiling. Good morning."
Midnight in the capital of the displaced Karlsreich, and the Honorable Vincent Auriol, President of the Fourth Gallian Republic, was working late. Thought it was a chilly late-fall night in Neukarlsland, he had a window of his suite at the Hotel Excelsior partly open for some fresh air as he sat at his desk, working his way through some of the voluminous correspondence necessary to the operation of the country. From outside, the sounds of street celebrations still drifted in despite the hour.
Auriol knew his aides found it slightly preposterous that, having come on this voyage of courtesy to a fellow Allied head of state, he would bring his work with him and continue plugging away at it late into the night of the actual royal wedding day itself. For his part, he felt that the fledgling Fourth Republic, still less than two years old, remained too fragile to be left unattended for long. In a few hours, the government bureaux in Paris would be opening for another week's business. He intended to have a full sheaf of cables awaiting his staff in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré and Prime Minister Ramadier when they arrived in their offices.
He finished a letter to the Ministry of Defense involving the provision for a squadron of witches to reinforce the Freiburg salient, until such time as Karlsland could reclaim the newly freed territory for itself. The issues of sovereignty were unclear in this case, but the need to defend nearby Mulhouse was not, and with the 501st and 511th Joint Fighter Wings slated for exercises and probing sorties into Württemberg through July, the homegrown new force would be just the thing for plugging the potential eastern gap.
Setting the paper aside to his left, Auriol rang for an aide to come take it to be encoded and telegraphed to Paris, then turned his attention to the next item in the stack of papers to his right... and sat for a moment regarding that item with fascination so intense, he didn't even notice the telegrapist come and go.
It was a letter, but not a piece of official correspondence; rather, a missive in the old style, a sheet of heavy, creamy paper folded into its own envelope and sealed with wax and ribbon. Auriol tiled his Anglepoise lamp to get a better look at it. The scarlet wax seal had the impression of a crest stamped in it, as from an old-fashioned signet ring: two flowers intertwined, a rose and a tulip. On the other side, the letter was addressed to him in a firm, rounded, quite old-fashioned hand, and though it bore no stamp, it was postmarked from the central post office in Colmar... two days ago?!
"C'est impossible," Auriol mumbled.
Two days ago he had been aboard the battleship Jean Bart, most of the way across the Atlantic from Gallia. No letter mailed from Colmar, or anywhere else in Europe, on that day could conceivably be sitting on his desk in a hotel suite in Brandenburg tonight. By rights, it should probably not even have reached his office in Paris yet. And yet here it was, the date in the postmark clearly legible. Was this some subordinate's idea of a joke? Who would go to the trouble of falsifying an obviously impossible postmark?
His hands trembling slightly, Auriol broke the seal, unfolded the letter, and read it. It was hard going at first, because it was written in an antiquated style of Gallic that he hadn't seen since his schoolboy days, but eventually, he was able to work it out, and what it said left him astonished.
Countess Remilia Scarlet
Hon. Vincent Auriol
Palais de l'Élysée
55, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré
Colmar, June 11, 1946
Monsieur le Président,
Kindly permit me to introduce myself: My name is Remilia Scarlet. I am the elder daughter of the late Count Victor and Countess Remilia (the Elder) Scarlet, formerly of Haut-Colmar. I write to you tonight concerning a matter that you may, with some justification, regard as ancient history, but which to me remains an open wound requiring treatment.
On the night of 10–11 Floréal, Anno II of the Gallian revolutionary calendar—that is, April 29–30, 1794—a gang of fanatical witches under the orders of the Committee for Public Safety assaulted my family's home near Colmar and brutally slaughtered most of my family. My father and mother, along with much of our trusted and treasured household staff and an honored guest of our house, were all slain by these witches without provocation, quarter, or remorse. By the time that red night's dawn drove the witches from the field, only I, my younger sister Flandre, and a bare handful of our staff remained alive.
This action was part of a concerted public policy of extermination directed toward certain individuals who had enjoyed a privileged status under the ancien régime. My father, Count Victor Scarlet, was a Commander of the Royal and Military Order of Saint-Louis, a nobleman of three countries, a steadfast defender of all the peoples of Alsace, and a vampire, and for all of those things—but particularly the last—he was murdered by the Revolution. My sister and I were similarly marked for death as vampires. As for my mother, Countess Remilia the Elder, she was no sangsue at all but a prominent witch in her own right, so we must assume that in the eyes of the Committee for Public Safety, she, like the rest of the victims, was condemned by association.
For the century and a half since that night, my sister and I have lived in reclusion, not to say self-imposed internal exile, rather than confront the changed world that destroyed our family; but recent events have led me to reconsider that course of action. With the Neuroi threat still looming over most of Europe, I feel stirring within me the urge to answer the call as my father would have answered it before me. Count Victor Scarlet never backed away from a monster that threatened his home or his people, be that monster a shadow beast from the Schwarzwald or a murderous mob unleashed by a power-hungry madman. Can I do otherwise and still call myself his daughter?
However, before I take the rash and risky step of revealing myself to the modern world and placing myself, as my father would have done, at the disposal of my country in this continuing crisis, honor requires that I demand one thing of you and your Government, Monsieur le Président: an apology. I require that the Fourth Gallian Republic publicly acknowledge that my family and friends were murdered by the said Republic's predecessor, the revolutionary dictatorship of the Committee for Public Safety, and express official regret that this thing was done in the name of Gallia.
I recognize, Monsieur, that no direct responsibility can be apportioned to yourself or your Government for events which took place so long in the past, nor do I mean to suggest any. I seek no compensation other than the restoration of my legal rights, and those of the surviving members of my household, as citizens of Gallia. However, one cannot enter into a relationship of trust with a régime that will not acknowledge the crimes of its predecessors. I therefore require such an acknowledgement from the present Republic as an exercise of good faith.
That I may maintain my privacy pending your response, I have designated as my agent in this matter my betrothed, Rittmeister Benjamin Hutchins Reichsgraf von Katädien of the Karlsland Imperial Air Service, who is presently stationed at Château Saint-Ulrich, Ribeauvillé, serving with 404 Squadron of the First Joint Special Air Fleet. You may direct any correspondence regarding this matter to him and be as certain that it will reach me as if you had handed it to me in person.
I trust, Monsieur le Président, that this message has not come as too great a shock to your sensibilities, and that you have resources at your disposal which can corroborate my assertions. I assure you I consider this anything but a joking matter.
With all best wishes for your continued health and the security and prosperity of the Republic, I remain
Remilia Scarlet the Younger
Countess Scarlet of Cisbelvia and Haut-Colmar
Auriol read the letter six times, then put it down on his desk and picked up the telephone.
"Get me Septième Bureau," he told the operator. "Urgently. Yes, I know what time it is in Paris! I don't care who you have to get out of bed."
Hanging up, the President of Gallia turned the letter over in his hands and refolded it, reassembling the broken seal. A rose and tulip...
He was still looking at it ten minutes later, when the telephone rang.
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 The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020