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Flandre Scarlet woke all at once, her eyes popping open, and just lay there for a few moments, staring into darkness, completely disoriented. She'd been having a dream, she was certain of that, but it had evanesced the instant she'd awakened. She had no recollection now of what it had been about... only that she was indefinably glad not to be dreaming it any more.
Sighing, she focused on the here and now and saw that Remilia was still asleep. The jumble of pillows at the head of the bed had shifted in the day, tilting the elder sister slightly onto her left side. She lay with her arm outstretched across the empty expanse that had contained her fiancé, while her right wing had moved in her sleep so that it now lay draped over Flandre's hip.
Flandre chuckled softly and moved to hug Remilia from behind, mindful of her other wing, which lay parallel to her body. The elder Scarlet muttered something in her sleep and unconsciously raised a hand to touch Flandre's arm where it crossed her chest. Though Flandre had no particular desire to go back to sleep, she found herself content to lie there as long as Remilia remained that way.
It turned out to be about ten minutes before Remilia stirred, mumbling again, and then slowly turned onto her back, nestling her wings carefully into the gaps between the pillows, as they had been at the start of the day.
"Evening, Flan," she said with a still-sleepy smile, kissing her little sister on the forehead.
"Evening, Sis," Flandre replied. "How did you sleep?"
"Very well, thank you. You were right about the middle, it wasn't the problem I thought it would be. Perhaps we should try it with you next time."
"I dunno if it would work so well for me," Flandre admitted, a touch glumly. She ran her fingertips along the edge of Remilia's nearer wing, making her twitch and suppress a giggle, then said, "My wings aren't nice and soft like yours."
"I'm sure we could work something out. And you'll be amazed how... secure you feel."
"Well... we'll have to try it. If nothing else, if I'm in the middle I can stop big bro from sneaking off in the middle of the afternoon." She raised her head to give her sister a slight smirk. "You always let him get away."
Remilia laughed. "I've been admonished."
They lapsed into silence for a few minutes, neither quite ready to get up and face the night. When one of them spoke again, it was Remilia, matter-of-fact as could be:
"Benjamin tells me you asked him to kiss you yesternight."
"He told you?!" Flandre replied, startled. "I mean... I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's not like I asked him not to, and he must tell you everything."
"I don't know about everything, but everything he thinks is important."
"Did he also tell you he didn't do it?"
"I'm sorry, Sis. I know it was out of line, but... well, no." Flandre shook her head. "'But' nothing, there's no excuse. I knew it was wrong and I asked for it anyway. I just... I don't know. I love him," she said helplessly.
Remilia surprised her sister again by taking her hand and squeezing it gently. "Be at peace, little sister," she said. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"Of course I did," Flandre rebutted. "I asked my big sister's fiancé to kiss me. Even I know that's messed up."
Remilia sat up, folding her legs, and turned partly to face Flandre; after a moment, Flandre assumed a similar posture. Now that they could see each other's faces, the whole thing felt that much more awkward to the younger sister, although she noticed with faint puzzlement that Remilia's expression was serene, even slightly amused.
"You've read too many romantic novels, Flan," said Remilia indulgently. "I'm well aware they were Maman's not-so-secret vice; the library must be riddled with them. But consider: Do you really believe the romantic rules of the eighteenth century apply to the likes of you and me?"
Flandre blinked at her, baffled. "... Don't they?"
Remilia snorted. "Of course they don't. We're not some simpering pair of pitiful hothouse flowers from the dark days of the ancien régime." She took her sister's hand again, then brandished their linked hands in defiance, declaring, "We are vampires! The last survivors of the House of Scarlet! We shall choose whom and how we love, not let a gaggle of hack writers long in their graves constrain us. And if it happens that we've chosen the same path, well..." She brought their hands to her lips and kissed Flandre's knuckles. "So be it." With a dry chuckle, she concluded, "As Benjamin says, 'We'll figure it out.'"
"Are you... you're not messing with me right now, are you, Sis?" asked Flandre.
"Would I joke about such a thing? Have I ever not shared anything with you, Flan, if you but asked?"
Flandre blushed to a near-match with her crimson nightdress. "No, but... this is... special."
Remilia pulled her younger sister into a hug, then carefully lay the two of them back down, each arranging her wings behind her. "So are you, Flandre. You always have been to me, and I dare presume I can speak for Benjamin and say that you are to him as well. Have the three of us not walked the edge of life itself together?"
Flandre sniffled. "That's true."
"Don't cry, little sister," said Remilia, holding her tighter. "You've done all the crying you ever need do in your life. Come, let's get a little more sleep, and then we'll go have a bath and wash all these gloomy thoughts away, shall we? Then we can have a good breakfast and start the night over."
Flandre smiled. "Sounds good."
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
Because she'd gone straight from her sister's room to the bath, Flandre had to put her nightshirt back on and return to her own room to dress for the night. As she did, her mind wandered. In spite of Remilia's talk of the bath washing the gloomy thoughts away, Flandre still felt preoccupied, partly with futilely chasing the dream she'd had, partly with a lingering worry that Remilia hadn't really meant what she said about... the other matter.
Not that she suspected her sister of lying to her; but she couldn't shake the sneaking feeling that Remilia's calm acceptance of the prospect wasn't as wholehearted as it had seemed. She knew her elder sister still felt guilty about all the years Flandre had spent locked up in the basement, and indeed still blamed herself for the events that had made it necessary in the first place. Could she be swallowing her reservations about sharing her mieux aimé out of a sense that she owed her little sister that much, however it might trouble her? Flandre couldn't help but worry about this, mainly because she felt a similar sense of obligation herself, even though the person to whom she felt obligated had told her repeatedly that she owed him nothing.
On the other hand, she hadn't asked Gryphon to kiss her because she felt she owed him; she'd asked him to kiss her because she wanted him to kiss her. So maybe even if Remilia did feel like she owed Flandre something, that feeling wasn't shaping her reaction to...
Oh, this is getting me nowhere, Flandre grumbled to herself. Worse than that, it was starting to feel something like the bad old days, the way her damaged mind had occasionally just latched onto something stupid and chased it around in circles indefinitely. She wasn't going back there. Never again.
Shaking her head, she buttoned her vest and smoothed it, then frowned and smoothed it again, regarding herself in the tin-backed glass of her dressing mirror. Normally, the matching vests and skirts she preferred met up so perfectly that, at a casual glance, it looked like she was wearing a one-piece jumper dress, but tonight there was a definite gap there. Tug and straighten as she might, at least an inch of white blouse showed between the two—and the blouse itself would only stay tucked in so long as she didn't raise her hands above shoulder height. Was she wearing the skirt too low? No, if anything it seemed to be riding a little high, the ruffled hemline a good inch or so above her knees.
Flandre swung her arms, noting as she did that the vest and blouse seemed a bit snug around the shoulders. Her imagination? Maybe, but...
Stepping into her shoes—they, at least, seemed to fit normally—she went out into the corridor. Sakuya happened to be passing by, carrying a broom and dustpan, and Flandre called out to her.
"Oh, Sakuya—do you have a second? Can you please help me with something?"
Sakuya paused, smiling. "Certainly, young mistress. What do you need?"
"I'm not sure," Flandre admitted. "For the last few nights I've been noticing something a little off, and I think I just put my finger on what it is." Tugging illustratively at the hem of her vest, she went on, "It's... like none of my clothes fit right." She fidgeted a little. "Everything feels a little too tight, or a little too short, or both. Did you do anything differently when you last washed my things?"
"No, nothing out of the ordinary." Sakuya gave her a judicious look, then took her hand and said, "Come with me..."
She led Flandre back up the hall to her own bedroom, where, setting aside the broom, she went to her sewing table and got her measuring tape. This she plied with a tailor's diligence and a thoughtful frown, quietly directing Flandre to turn this way or that, raise her arms, and otherwise accommodate the measuring process.
Then, her work completed, she returned to her sewing table, consulted a notebook that lay next to the pincushion, then turned a smile to Flandre and said,
"Congratulations, young mistress. You've grown."
Flandre stared at her. "But... that's impossible. I'm a vampire, I can't grow. I'll always be the age I was when Sis turned me."
"That's what I thought, too," said Sakuya, nodding. "That's what's supposed to happen, or rather not happen." Indicating the notebook on her sewing table, she went on, "But according to my notes from the last time I made clothing for you, you're nearly three centimeters taller than you were in 1867, and your other measurements are all slightly increased as well."
"So that's why my clothes feel weird," said Flandre with a slightly-shell-shocked giggle. She shook her head. "Poor Sis, I was already taller than she is, and now this. It's going to give her a complex."
"I don't think you need to worry about that," Sakuya assured her. "Your sister is quite comfortable in her own skin."
Flandre chuckled. "That's true. She's never lacked for confidence." Then, looking mystified again, she went on, "I wonder how this happened? Another side effect of... that night?"
"I've no idea," said Sakuya, "but nevertheless, it has happened, and that means I've some work today," she continued with a little smile. "If you'd care to undress, young mistress, I'll get started by altering the clothes you're wearing tonight." Producing The World from her watch pocket, she added with a slight twinkle, "Won't take but a moment."
Sakuya expected Flandre to announce their discovery at breakfast, but when she didn't, the maid kept silent about it as well. If the young mistress didn't wish to make a point of it, after all, that was her business. Instead, the two took their seats at the table with apologies for being the last to arrive, accepting stacks of waffles from a cheerfully attentive Gryphon (who had appointed himself breakfast chef, in spite—or possibly because—of the fact that it was still technically his birthday for another few hours). Sakuya found this pleasantly nostalgic; she'd had his waffles before, far from here, in a future he himself hadn't yet reached, and they were every bit as good now as they were going to be in the twenty-fifth century.
Across the table, in the heretofore-vacant spot to Flandre's left, their accidental houseguest looked up from her plate and met Sakuya's eye, and for just a moment they shared a silent communication that surprised the maid slightly. She was in the same situation with Flight Lieutenant Lena Oxton of the RAF that Gryphon was in with her: they were all time travelers and all out of sequence with each other, such that she knew Gryphon from a point in his timeline which he himself hadn't reached yet, and Lena appeared to know Sakuya from sometime she hadn't yet experienced.
And, if the knowing little grin and wink the dark-haired young witch had just given her was any indication, she also knew these waffles of old.
Sakuya smiled in return, but what she said out loud had nothing to do with any of that; instead, she asked after the state of Lena's broken ankle, which had kept her from sitting at this table the evening before.
"Doing fine, thanks," Lena assured her. "Between Lady Remilia's special tea and Meiling's doctoring, I 'ardly even feel it."
"You ought to put it up as much as you can, though," Meiling cautioned her. "We want to minimize any swelling—need to keep the new splint and wrap on it as much as possible until it sets. Otherwise I'll have to scrounge up some plaster and put it in a cast, and then you won't be able to use the bath," she added with a grin.
"Well, that would never do," Lena agreed. "What's a full-dress Fusō bath doing in an 'ouse like this, anyway, if you don't mind my asking?"
"My late father was a great admirer of that country," Remilia explained. "He built that bath after seeing them in their native habitat, so to speak."
"Ah, a man of culture," said Lena.
"Just so," Remilia agreed.
Flandre waited a moment to see if that conversational thread would continue. When it didn't, she seized the moment and declared, "These waffles are amazing."
"Thank you," said Gryphon. "When I was a kid, I used to skip breakfast..."
"Well, that's a mistake," Meiling interrupted. "Most important meal of the day!"
"Except for all the others," Sakuya teased her gently.
"Well, yeah. Sorry, Gryph, go on."
"Yes. Hrm. As I was saying. I used to skip breakfast, except when I visited my grandparents. My grandmother used to make me waffles every day. It didn't matter how late I got out of bed. Could've been time for normal people to eat lunch! I still got waffles. Eventually I got her to teach me how she made them, and here we are."
"Maybe we should have a breakfast contest sometime," said Flan. "Your waffles, Sakuya's crêpes, and Sis's pain perdu."
"I think we'd all win," said Meiling, and everybody laughed.
"So listen, Gryph," said Lena. "I was on my way up to 501st country because I 'eard someone was looking for a witch with time skills. Was that you, by any chance?"
Gryphon nodded. "It was. Or it will be, depending on how you look at it."
With as few brushstrokes as possible, he explained the nature of the time anomaly she'd accidentally flown into the night before, and the lengths he had to go to in order to live a sort of double life without disrupting his contribution to the war effort.
"We didn't really set out to do it this way, but that's how it's developed," he concluded. "But obviously we can't keep it up forever."
"No, you're right about that," Lena agreed. "Sooner or later something's got to give. So you're looking for a way to get the mansion back into normal time."
"Well... it ain't really my field," Lena mused, then added with a grin, "but I 'appen to 'ave some free time just at present. I 'ear tell there's a library?"
"Yes, indeed," said Remilia. "My mother was one of the foremost witches of her time in these parts, and she built an extensive library. I'm afraid it's a bit of a mess at the moment, but you're free to look through it as much as you like. Flandre, you know the collection best, do you think you could help?"
"Sure, I'd be glad to," Flandre agreed. "I only sort of remember a lot of the stuff, but I should at least be able to recognize the books when we find them."
So, once breakfast was concluded, that was what they did. Meiling and Flandre moved one of the spare couches from the living room into the library, along with a table, and set up a sort of study nook for Lena in one corner, where she could rest her injured leg and do her research in comfort and quiet.
While Flandre was hunting through the jumbled collection for the first few volumes that might be of use to their guest, Remilia acted on an impulse that had formed the previous night, when she'd shown the painting of Sakuya as a child to Meiling and the others. Collecting a candlestick from the living room, she went down to the basement.
Once there, she had to pause for a moment and get her bearings. It had been a long time since she last came down here, after all. Upstairs, she had no clear recollection of where the thing she was looking for would be, but once in the basement, seeing the familiar hallways and doors, it all came back to her. With increasingly sure steps, she followed a path she'd last trod many decades before.
She had to pass by the door to Flandre's old room to reach her destination, which gave her a moment's pause, but only a moment's. The sign that had adorned it for so long, with its terse message of warning, was gone. Remilia vaguely wondered what had happened to it. Flan hadn't moved it to her new room upstairs; she'd made a new one with a much friendlier tone.
As she drew even with the door, it suddenly opened, startling her. She stepped back, instinctively assuming a defensive stance, then dropped it immediately as Gryphon emerged, looking mildly surprised to see her.
"Oh, hi," he said. "Fancy meeting you here."
"What were you doing in there?" Remilia wondered.
"Measuring," Gryphon replied, holding up a carpenter's rule. "I'm considering turning it into the generator room. It's pretty centrally located, about the right size, good sturdy walls... fairly safe bet Flan doesn't care what we do with it, although I'll ask her before we start tearing anything out."
"Ah. That makes sense."
"And you? Were you looking for me or Meiling? I think she's in the storeroom checking whether we have enough leftover pipe to run a feed line to the attic."
Remilia shook her head. "No, I'm after something else entirely—although since you're here, you can help me carry it upstairs."
When the household reconvened for lunch, Meiling was the first to notice that the blank space above the fireplace in the great room had been filled.
"Oh hey," she said, diverting from her course toward the table to go and have a look. "Where'd this come from?"
"Benjamin and I brought it up from the cellar," Remilia told her.
"Oh wow," said Flandre. Tears came to her eyes as she gazed up at the painting. Sniffling, she went on, "I didn't know we had this..."
"It was made in 1750," Remilia said, taking her sister's hand, while Gryphon stepped up behind them and put an arm around each. "For Maman and Papa's 250th wedding anniversary."
Sakuya smiled a nostalgic smile. "I'm pleased to see it's still intact."
"I take it these are your parents?" Lena inquired.
Remilia nodded. "They are indeed. Count Victor Scarlet," she said, nodding solemnly to one of the two figures in the massive portrait, "and Countess Remilia Scarlet the Elder, requiescat in pace."
As portrayed, Count Victor was a tall, thin man with a high forehead and a calm, mildly ironic smile. Though he was dressed in a fashion typical of Gallian gentlemen of the mid-eighteenth century, he had eschewed the fashion for wigs that had been de rigueur with such men in that era, instead wearing his slightly wavy silver hair gathered in a loose ponytail, his pointed ears jutting through at the sides. He had a relaxed, easygoing stance, almost insouciant, which was slightly at odds with the dagger hilt just peeking out of his jacket and the substantial-looking gold-knobbed walking stick he held in his right hand.
Standing next to him, her right hand tucked into the crook of his left elbow, Countess Remilia the Elder was a head shorter and a trifle stouter, although her figure, insofar as could be told in the voluminous lady's wear of the day, was far from stereotypically matronly. She looked no older than thirty or thirty-five, just starting to develop crow's feet at the corners of her cornflower blue eyes, and her blonde hairline below the white kerchief she wore on her head showed no grey. Unlike her husband, she stood foursquare, no-nonsense, her expression just short of grim.
Getting their first sight of the elder Scarlets, Gryphon, Meiling, and Lena could all see immediately that they could be no one other than the two sisters' parents. Remilia had her father's hair, and also his wings; there was more of his angular face in hers than her sister's, which was closer to their mother's, and Flandre's hair was like hers, golden and straight. Gryphon was interested to notice that, although both sisters' eyes inevitably had the same vampiric features as their father's—the red color and vertical pupils—their shape was more like Remilia the Elder's, and was one of the strongest ways in which they resembled each other.
"They look like quite a couple," Lena remarked.
"That they were," Remilia agreed, then chuckled reminiscently. "Maman is putting on her business face in this. She believed that portraits were too expensive for frivolity. No doubt she tried to convince the painter to leave out Papa's knife and paint him with a proper wig, but he always insisted that things be depicted as they truly were in any painting he was paying for."
"She does look pretty fierce," Meiling observed. "Uh, in a good way. No offense."
"She was always very kind to Sis and me," Flandre said, a touch defensively. "I know she doesn't look it here, but she really enjoyed motherhood. If anything," she added with a nostalgic half-giggle, half-sob, "she had to put on that face to stop herself from mothering everybody else."
"I took this painting down after they died," Remilia said, sounding like she was not so much explaining it to anyone there, but reviewing the events in her own mind. "It was just... too painful to look at. But lately, with the household coming back to life and a family of my own forming around me..."
She raised her free hand and flicked an errant tear from her cheek, but with a smile on her face. "I feel the time has come to restore them to their place of honor." With that, she turned the smile to the others and went on, "We're a strange family by their standards, but... I think they would approve. If nothing else, they'd be able to tell how happy we are."
No one replied with words, just gathering a little closer together, all with sentimental smiles. Then, shaking herself, Remilia said with theatrical briskness and a wink,
"Goodness. How very mawkish I can be sometimes. Maman would certainly not approve of that. Shall we to lunch?"
Meiling sat on the edge of the bed and watched as Sakuya, who always took a little longer about these things, prepared for the day. Faintly, through the curtained windows, her sensitive ears picked up the sounds of pre-dawn birdsong, like a musical cue that it was time to wrap up operations in this house of vampires.
She was still feeling warmly sentimental; had felt that way all night after Remilia had shown off the painting of her parents. She was pretty sure everyone had. The after-dinner gathering in the living room had felt particularly cozy tonight, everyone quietly enjoying each other's company, gathered around the fireplace. Even now that it was summer, the great room stayed cool enough that it was worth having a fire going. Meiling wondered idly whether that was some kind of enchantment laid on the place, or just a quirk of the house's heavy stone and timber construction.
Either way, the fire had added just the right crowning touch to a calm, mellow evening, and the cumulative effect had Meiling, never the least sentimental dragon, feeling even warmer and gentler than usual.
Already changed for bed, she watched with a languid smile as Sakuya, her hair down and combed out, did the same, exchanging her off-duty clothes for a light summer nightdress of plain white silk. Sakuya had several of these, all of which she'd made herself. This one seemed to be made on a pattern suited to the house's vampire mistress, for though it had short sleeves and a full bodice with collar, it left the wearer's back uncovered to the waist, like a lot of Remilia's clothing did in order to make way for her wings.
Impulsively, Meiling rose, crossed the space between the bed and Sakuya's dressing table, and embraced her from behind, kissing her just behind an ear.
"Oh! Hello," said Sakuya, mildly surprised.
"Hello," Meiling replied, and then, apropos of nothing, "You're so beautiful."
Sakuya chuckled. She had half-expected Meiling to be in this kind of mood this morning, having picked up on the vibe of the evening herself. Truth be known, she was in that kind of mood herself, so it suited her just fine.
"Why, thank you," she said.
"This is my favorite nightdress," Meiling went on softly. "You know why?"
"Because it's the easiest to take off me?" Sakuya guessed mischievously.
"No, although that's good too," Meiling said. Ducking her head, she unexpectedly kissed Sakuya between her shoulder blades, making her jump slightly and utter a quiet squeak. "It's because it shows your back. You always wear a high dress or a shirt and vest normally, so I can't see it." She straightened up, pulling her in tighter, and murmured, "Which is a shame. Your skin is so perfect."
Smiling, Sakuya settled into her taller lover's strong embrace and leaned her head back against Meiling's shoulder. "By an odd coincidence, you've Remilia's mother to thank for that."
"Oh? How so?" Meiling wondered.
Sakuya entered the library with some trepidation. In her nearly three months as a servant of the Scarlet family, she'd never been summoned here before, nor ever summoned anywhere by Countess Remilia. That august lady had never seemed to take much notice of her, beyond a perfunctory welcome and injunction to do her job well when Count Victor had first brought her home from his voyage halfway around the world.
Which suited Sakuya fine, if she were honest, because she found the countess significantly more daunting than her husband or their elder daughter. She had never feared Count Victor, and she'd found Lady Remilia the Younger intimidating only for the first night or two, which was all the time she'd needed to realize that the young vampire was a kind, gentle, considerate mistress who would be a pleasure to serve. (Even her tendency toward egotistical bluster became charming once Sakuya realized it was meant half in jest and never with malice.)
The countess, on the other hand, remained a remote and forbidding figure. The other servants spoke of her in low voices, if at all—apart from Madame Giraud, her personal lady's-maid, who did not deign to speak socially with the rest of the staff—and acknowledged her as the source of the house's fair-but-strict discipline. Never do anything that might displease Countess Remilia, the received wisdom of the below-stairs went, or being dismissed without a reference will be the best outcome you can hope for. Make her genuinely angry, and she might recycle you into reagents for her alchemical experiments... or feed you to her mad daughter who's locked up in the basement.
Sakuya was too level-headed to believe that either of those things was literally true. She had yet to encounter Lady Flandre, but Lady Remilia spoke of her often, and Sakuya knew that the whole point of her confinement was to prevent her from harming anyone. Count Victor would hardly countenance such measures, in any event. All the same, the countess's formidable reputation preceded her, and so Sakuya had been shocked and mildly frightened to receive a peremptory summons to her innermost sanctum.
Pausing before the heavy-timbered door of the countess's private study, uninvited entry to which was strictly forbidden to absolutely everyone save Count Victor himself, Sakuya steeled herself inwardly, then knocked. Her first attempt was so timid, and the door so heavily built, that it made no sound even on her own side, so she screwed up her courage and tried again.
The door swung open as if blown by a stiff breeze, letting out scents of candles and unidentifiable herbs, and from within the countess's voice said crisply,
Keeping her back straight and her face neutral, Sakuya crossed the threshold and entered the small stone room. Countess Remilia was within, seated at her desk-cum-worktable, and to Sakuya's mild surprise, she wasn't alone.
She had known, of course, that Lucrezia Sapere, the countess's friend and colleague from Venezia, was visiting with her granddaughter. The junior Sapere spent a fair bit of her time on such visits in Remilia the Younger's company, since they were much closer in (apparent) age, so Sakuya was reasonably well acquainted with her. In fact, she'd just left them together in the parlor, drinking tea and reading old Romagnan poetry, where she'd been attending them when the summons from the countess had come.
Sakuya hadn't expected that Signora Sapere had anything to do with the summons, though, so she was a bit taken aback to see the elderly Venezian lady here, standing by one of the cabinets. She must, the maid reckoned, have been about the same height as Remilia the Elder in her youth, but age had stooped and wizened her, and with her white hair and prominent nose, she was now practically a stereotype of the agèd witch, apart from the absence of the traditional air of malevolence. Signora Sapere instead projected a sense of near-infinite calm, the presence of a person who had seen more than most people would ever forget and could no longer be surprised.
Pulling her attention away from the countess's guest (who seemed, in turn, to be paying the tiny maid no mind at all), Sakuya firmly suppressed an urge to look around at all the shelves and cabinets of alchemical preparations and paraphernalia that surrounded her—she wasn't here to sightsee, after all—and approached the countess instead.
"You called for me, your ladyship?" she said, her small voice made smaller still by the flat acoustics of the little room.
"I did," the countess said, her tone of voice as clipped and cool as it had been on all the handful of prior occasions when she'd addressed her daughter's maid directly. "Come closer."
Puzzled, Sakuya crossed the room to stand before the countess's desk. Countess Remilia rose from her chair and came around to the front side, then stood with arms folded, looking down at the tiny grey-haired girl with a frown that might have been displeased, but could just as easily have been pensive.
What she said next surprised Sakuya so much, she failed to react for a moment:
"Turn around and strip."
After a second's stunned silence, Sakuya replied, "B-beg pardon, your ladyship?"
"I didn't think it was a complicated instruction," said the countess tartly. "Take off your clothes and face away from me. Now, if you please. You're not the only business I have to attend to tonight."
Sakuya was completely baffled, but an order was an order. Feeling more than a touch of renewed fear, she did as she was told, removing her dress and apron. Unsure what to do with them, she folded them neatly according to her training and placed them in a stack on the countess's desk.
"Your underclothes, too," said the countess. "Quickly, now."
Utterly at a loss, Sakuya took off her chemise and drawers as well, leaving her standing there in just stockings and shoes. She wasn't particularly bothered about being naked—the room was very private, after all, it wasn't as if she were standing in the middle of the main street in Colmar—but she felt very vulnerable and confused.
She resisted an urge to turn and look as she heard the sound of something being picked up, then a metallic noise that presently registered as the lid of a jar being unscrewed, behind her.
"Tch," said Countess Remilia, who now sounded no farther than a foot or two behind Sakuya. When she went on, she was speaking Italian, the common language of the peninsula where both Venezia and Romagna were located: «Look at this, Lucrezia. Have you ever seen such a sight on a child so young? Abominable.»
«Alas, I have,» Signora Sapere replied, her voice drawing nearer as she spoke. «Not for a long while, I admit, but times were much harsher when I was your age, Remilia.»
Sakuya wisely kept silent, guessing that neither woman knew she could understand them, and all but held her breath, waiting to see what would happen. A moment later, she felt someone's cool hand—she couldn't tell whose—touch her back, and jumped slightly in surprise.
"Be still," the countess commanded her, and she felt the fingertips of the hand gently trace the crosshatch of scars on her back—souvenirs of repeated whippings.
«Who is responsible for this?» Signora Sapere asked.
«Her last owner,» Countess Remilia replied, and Sakuya was startled by the depth of loathing in her normally clipped and impassive voice as she went on, «A brute of a Dutchman, a sailor. Victor bought her from him on his voyage home from Fusō,» then added with a grim chuckle, «I say 'bought'. More accurate to say he forced the swine to sell her. Soft-hearted fool! I would have saved the money...»
Sakuya felt tears springing to her eyes. Even though she had already known the countess cared nothing for her, it hurt to hear her salvation dismissed so casually.
So the next words Remilia the Elder uttered shocked her wide-eyed: «... and simply killed him.»
«Just so,» Signora Sapere agreed.
The next thing the countess said was addressed to Sakuya again: "Hold still. This will be cold, and it may sting a little at first."
Before Sakuya could recover from her shock about the previous remark, or ask for clarification on this new one if she intended to, she felt something chill and gooey on her skin, which confused her completely until she realized that Countess Remilia must be applying some kind of unguent or lotion. Firmly but gently, she spread it across the entire scarred expanse of the little maid's back.
«My, my,» said Signora Sapere. «That's quite an aggressive formulation, isn't it? I can already see it working.»
«It's made on a base of troll fat rather than the usual,» the countess replied, working the salve in with her fingertips.
«How extravagant!» declared the elderly Venezian, a note of slightly mocking mirth in her voice.
«Shut up,» Countess Remilia grumbled, and Signora Sapere laughed. «It's a test batch,» the countess went on, and then she said to Sakuya,
"Well? Does it hurt, child? Speak up, this is important for my research."
"N-no," Sakuya stammered, and then, "It tingles. Feels... feels nice," she admitted, as if she feared that intelligence would disappoint the countess somehow. Though she suspected she knew, based on the sensation and the conversation between the two witches, she asked, "What... what's it doing?"
Rather than answer directly, the countess said brusquely, "If anyone ever saw these scars, they would assume you came by them here. That won't do. I won't have my house bruited about as a place where servants are mistreated."
"Oh," said Sakuya, and then, in an even smaller voice than usual, "... Thank you."
"Didn't I just say I wasn't doing it for your sake?" said the countess brusquely, and Signora Sapere laughed again. Countess Remilia finished working the ointment into Sakuya's back, then stepped away and replaced the lid on the jar. "There. You may go. Don't put your dress back on, just your underthings. Go straight to bed and let it work. I'll tell Remilia I've excused you from your duties for the rest of tonight."
"Y... yes, your ladyship," said Sakuya meekly.
She wanted to cry, wanted to thank the countess again, probably more than once; but somehow, she maintained her self-possession and did neither. Instead, once she'd put her chemise and drawers back on, she turned to face the two witches and made the best obeisance a girl could manage in just her underwear, then gathered up the rest of her clothes and withdrew.
Just before the heavy sanctum door closed behind her, she heard Signora Sapere say cheerfully, «You're so dishonest with your feelings, Remicciatola...»
"So you see," said Sakuya in a subdued voice, "if not for the carefully disguised kindness of m'lady's mother, that back you enjoy so much would be... well, not so pleasing."
Meiling turned her around, looking her in the eye, and said seriously, "Sakuya, I would love you regardless. With scars, without scars, whatever. You're well aware that I'm no perfect specimen myself." Hugging her firmly, she rubbed the smaller woman's back comfortingly and went on, "I do love your beautiful skin, but it's not what I love about you. Never, ever forget that."
"I... I won't," Sakuya replied, returning the embrace. "Thank you, Meiling."
"You're welcome. Now then!" Meiling went briskly on, and without further ado she swept Sakuya up in her arms like the child she no longer was.
"What are you doing?" Sakuya inquired.
"Taking my princess to bed, of course," Meiling replied. "And then I'll drive the bad memories away with the power of my positive qi, that you may sleep the sleep of the just."
Sakuya rolled her eyes, laughing. "If I ever run out of syrup for breakfast," she remarked, "I'll just bore a hole in you and let out the sap."
"Hush, woman, I'm being gallant here." So saying, Meiling placed her gently in bed, then climbed in after her and pulled the covers over them both. "I hear you like that kind of thing."
"You're not wrong," Sakuya replied, kissing her.
Some little while later, Meiling lay propped up on one elbow, watching Sakuya sleep with a fond little smile. Here was a face of the Scarlet Mansion's perfect and elegant maid no one else saw, tousled and still a bit flushed, but so utterly calm and relaxed that it was as though she had never had a single care in all her life. All barriers down, absolutely peaceful and secure. The knowledge that she could provide moments like this to someone with such a history made Meiling's heart feel like it was swelling.
She settled down and began to drift off to sleep herself, and as she did so, she gave silent thanks to the departed spirit of that formidable woman, Remilia Scarlet the Elder, for showing the future love of her life such kindness... however carefully disguised.
For the next several nights, while Lena carried on with her research in the library, Flandre spent the first two or three hours of each evening there with her, hunting amid the almost entirely unsorted stacks for books that might be relevant to her search and delivering them to her for study. She also spent part of that time chatting with the household's young guest, who was the first active-duty combat witch she had the chance to meet, about her trade, the war, recent history, and related matters, though she was careful not to monopolize too much of Lena's time.
During the same period, Gryphon and Meiling spent part of their time devising further repairs and improvements to the house. To their frustration, they found themselves too short of the materials they needed to get very far with their two primary projects, the greenhouse and the electrical room. After erecting the frame of the former, they ran out of glass before even finishing the roof, and the latter required so much specialized stuff they didn't have that they couldn't even make a start on it without a supply run—which could, of course, be arranged no sooner than the next full moon in mid-July.
Instead, they started by rebuilding the gazebo, then used spare timbers and scrap lumber from the damaged parts of the house and fallen outbuildings, of which there was plenty, to construct a bizarre sort of playground arrangement in the dead ground between the north wing and the old stables. This sprawling, multi-leveled structure, which Gryphon nicknamed "the jungle gym" for reasons that remained obscure to the mistress of the house, was designed to give a man who couldn't fly a fighting chance in a magical sparring match with a young vampire who could. Thereafter he, Flandre, and sometimes Meiling and Sakuya moved their combat training over there, away from all the fragile windows in the west end of the great room, and to judge from their looks of slightly tired glee whenever they came back in from such a session, had a blast doing it.
Once the jungle gym was finished, the Plant Services team concentrated on doing as much of the planning and prep work as possible ahead of beginning actual work on the new electrical and plumbing systems: figuring out where the pipes and wire runs would have to go, and determining the best ways to install the new equipment so that it was as safe and as unobtrusive as it could be. They weren't interested in doing a clumsy retrofit like Gryphon had seen in a number of old houses plumbed and wired long after the fact; the mansion had to look and feel like it always had, or neither would be satisfied (and nor, they knew, would Remilia).
For her part, Sakuya—as ever—often seemed to be everywhere at once, making certain everyone was properly fed and hydrated, making and mending clothes, keeping the house clean and running smoothly, and looking after their guest. Meiling and Flandre took some of that duty on themselves, running supplies to the library from time to time, so that Sakuya wouldn't have to keep making the trek there from the kitchen over and over.
While all that was going on, Remilia was mostly to be found in her study, where she seemed to be engaged in some sort of study project of her own. Whenever a member of the household looked in at the door, they saw her at her desk, surrounded by small piles of her father's books, and either reading intently in one or another, or writing in a large hardbacked journal.
Meanwhile, when not in the library, Flandre mostly divided her time between the music room, relaxing and honing her piano skills, and the new training area, practicing with spell cards and what little regular magic she knew. Sometimes, when he was free and the whimsy took him, Gryphon joined her for one or both of these activities.
One night the two of them came in from combat practice for lunch looking unusually pleased with themselves. Neither said anything about why until the meal was concluded, when Flandre suddenly said,
"Hey, before we all go back to what we were doing, does anyone want to see something cool?"
With a lead-in like that, she had no trouble enticing the whole crew (including Lena, who was by now getting around quite well on the crutches Gryphon had made for her) out to the training area. Once there, she stepped a few paces out into the open area they used as a firing range, then turned and said with a grin,
"OK, Sakuya—I want you to throw a knife at me."
Sakuya blinked. "... Young mistress?" she said, as if uncertain she'd heard correctly.
"Throw a knife at me," Flandre repeated.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"C'mon, throw one," Flandre cajoled. "Even if I mess up, it won't hurt me much."
"There is that," Sakuya conceded, then glanced at Remilia. "M'lady?"
"Go ahead," said Remilia with an indulgent smile. "It's as she says, you'll do her no great harm even if you hit her..."
Her misgivings still plain, Sakuya produced one of her daggers and took up a stance. "All right," she said. "Are you ready?"
"Lemme have it!" Flandre said, her grin becoming a little bit fierce, and her wing crystals illuminated as she readied her magic—but, her onlookers noticed, did not prepare a spell card.
"As you wish," said Sakuya, and, with a movement almost to quick to follow, she delivered. The throw was on target, the silvered dagger flickering across the torchlit space and heading straight for Flandre.
Still grinning, the young vampire took a half-step back and raised her right hand, open palm facing away from her. An instant before the knife would have flown past her hand and struck her in the chest, a wheeling blue-white magic circle appeared in the air before her—the distinctive rune disc of a modern-day fighting witch's all-purpose shield spell, identical to the one Gryphon sometimes used. With a sharp metallic sound, the knife struck the circle as it would have a solid barrier, rebounded, and stuck hilt-up in the grass a few paces in front of Flandre.
"Ha!" Flandre cried, jumping with glee. "I did it!" Then, running to Gryphon, she caught him up in a hug that nearly knocked him down. "Thanks, big bro!"
"Good job, Flan!" he said, steadying himself and returning the embrace while the others applauded. "I knew you'd get it down."
"Nice!" Lena complimented her, then asked with an inquisitive tilt of her head, "Why's it Fusō-style?"
"That's the only one I know," Gryphon explained. "I learned it from Mio—Major Sakamoto, as she was at the time."
"Aha," said Lena, grinning. "I might've known, it's not like you've been to witch school back in the States."
"Never actually been there," he said, "although I hope to sometime. I'll be interested to see how much of it's like I remember."
"Very impressive, Flan," said Remilia with a fond smile. "Now you know a bit of magic I don't!"
"I can show you if you want," Flandre offered, still hanging onto Gryphon.
He laughed. "And so the student becomes the teacher."
"I'll take you up on that, little sister, but not just now," Remilia said. "Keep practicing, build your strength. Before the next full moon, we'll have to figure out a way to test your full capabilities—I want to see just how strong you are before I turn you loose on an unsuspecting world," she added, baring one side's fangs in a slightly smug half-grin.
"I'll be ready!" Flandre declared.
"I have no doubt of it," Remilia agreed.
A while after lunch on the night before the new moon, Remilia put her head into KRAFTSTOFFLAGER and was pleased to find Gryphon there, tinkering with part of the Britannian witch's strange flying-machine contraption.
"Ah, here you are," she said, then added wryly, "It's rare to catch you alone these nights. For a while I thought I might have to wait until bedtime to talk with you privately."
"I can always make time for you, Remi," he told her, setting the device aside. "You just have to let me know. What's up?"
"I've been thinking about... various matters... for the last little while," said Remilia. "To do with us joining our houses and our fortunes together. I feel I've been a bit unfair to you."
Gryphon looked puzzled. "How so? I haven't noticed anything."
"There are things you should know before you make so bold as to marry a vampire," she told him, her expression serious. "Many of them you know already, but your knowledge of my kind is incomplete. You said so yourself, on a night not so long ago, but I was too busy to take it properly into account. So, to remedy this, I've prepared a bit of light reading for you."
So saying, she placed the large journal she was carrying on the workbench and slid it toward him. "This is the Mysterium Lamiarum. Flandre may have mentioned it to you at some point. It's the most authoritative text on this world's vampires: our ecology, strengths and weaknesses, peculiarities cultural and physical. Knowledge we guarded jealously for generations—and vampire generations can be long indeed—from those who would do us harm. Information every vampire must know... and though you are not becoming one of us, I feel you have a right to know it, all of it, before we proceed."
Gryphon made a noncommittal noise, picked up the book, and opened it to a random page, then looked up at her in mild surprise. "It's in English."
"I translated it myself," Remilia said. "Your Gallic has come along very well, but my father's Middle Gallic version would probably have been slow going for you, and I didn't know whether you'd be able to make head or tail of the medieval Latin original. Besides, I wanted to preserve Papa's commentary. So, over the last few nights, I've written this combined edition for you."
"So that's what you've been shut up in your study doing," said Gryphon. He looked at the book, then back at her face. "I appreciate you trusting me with this knowledge," he said seriously, "but you sound as if you're half-convinced I'll back out of our engagement once I've read it."
"You might," she said, contriving to keep her face and voice steady. "It's a possibility I must face."
He shook his head. "I can't see it happening."
"Please," said Remilia. "Read the book and then decide. Remember, on the night you proposed to me, when we agreed there should be no ambiguity? This will remove the last of my doubts..." She hesitated. "... Or confirm them. Either way, we both have to know."
Gryphon put the book aside, crossed the space between them, and hugged her.
"I'll read it," he said, "if only to put those doubts to rest."
Gryphon didn't get through the Mysterium quite as fast as Flandre had, but by giving the project his full attention, he'd finished it by ten o'clock or so the next evening—the night of the new moon. Putting the book aside, he wondered what she'd been so afraid of. The information contained within was interesting, and could be potentially useful to the spouse of one of the people described within—for example, he now knew how to address the problem if she chanced to be poisoned with licorice extract—but there was nothing particularly shocking, no terrible revelations of ineffable, inhuman terror. Quite the contrary, in fact. Both the information and the commentary within reinforced his already strong view of the vampires of this world, based on an admittedly tiny sample size, as folks like anybody else. "Awake and alive, loved and loving, fighting to protect and survive," as Talar Kem had described sapients capable of touching the Force in one of his writings.
Rising from his workshop chair, Gryphon left the Mysterium on his workbench and went in search of Remilia. He found her in the great room, sitting in her usual spot on the Ottomane, reading one of his Maigret novels.
"Not your usual sort of book," he remarked, sitting down beside her.
Remilia looked slightly startled at his sudden appearance, or possibly that he'd seated himself so near her instead of in his usual place, but she recovered quickly, marking her place and setting the book aside.
"You and Flan both seem to enjoy them so much, I thought I would give one a try," she said. "You're right that detective stories aren't my usual line, but this fellow Simenon is quite a stylist. If I were just slightly more of a snob," she added ironically, "I would say his talent is wasted on this sort of book."
"He also writes more serious novels," Gryphon said. "He's quite prolific. I suspect the Maigret books are just how he pays his bills. I'll get you some of his other works the next time I'm out, if you like—or you can look for them when you're in Paris, come to think of it. You'll probably have better luck finding them there."
"Hmm, that might be a good idea. In the meantime, the ones you have will suffice." She paused, looking slightly nervous, then said, "Have you finished the Mysterium?"
Gryphon nodded. "I have."
"What do you think?"
"I think you don't have anything to be afraid of," he said gently.
Remilia reddened slightly and tried to look haughty, but mostly failed. "I wasn't afraid," she objected. "Merely... concerned."
"You thought I'd find something in there that would somehow make me decide I didn't love you after all," Gryphon said. "I can't help but find that slightly insulting. But mostly it's just funny."
"Funny?" Remilia demanded. "What's funny about it?"
"Do you have any idea how much I appreciate a partner who goes ahead and hands me her instruction manual?" he asked wryly, and Remilia couldn't help but laugh in spite of herself.
"I suppose when you put it that way," she said, and then, sobering again, she went on, "Do you have questions about anything you've learned?"
Gryphon shook his head. "No, not really. In fact, if anything," he went on casually, "I'd say it's an incomplete record."
Remilia gave him an inquisitive look. "Oh? In what sense?"
"Well, it doesn't mention all of your weak points," he said, leaning closer and enfolding her in his arms. "For example, it doesn't say anything about this spot right here between your wings," he went on, brushing the spot in question gently with his fingertips.
Remilia jumped. "Uu~!" she squeaked, and then, fixing him with a blushing half-scowl, said unconvincingly, "If you were any other man you would lose that hand for such a liberty, sir."
Ignoring her objection, Gryphon leaned nearer still, drawing her half onto his lap, and murmured, "And there isn't a word about this place here where your neck meets your shoulder," before commencing to kiss and nibble the area he'd just named.
"Aah!" cried Remilia, half-heartedly failing to fend him off as her whole body first stiffened, then relaxed—all but melted—into his arms. "Ah, you beast—that's—that's un... unfair..." she moaned. "Not... n-not in the l-living room..."
Unnoticed by either party on the couch, Meiling entered, then stopped in the doorway, wide-eyed and blushing. After staring for a moment, she shook herself from her surprised reverie, performed a crisp military-style about-face, and withdrew. As she went, she swept Flandre, who had been following her, along with her back toward the library.
"What's going on?" Flandre wondered, putting up only a token resistance. "Why is your face all red?"
"Uh, your sister and Gryph are... busy," said Meiling. "Let's leave them alone."
"Ohhh," said Flandre with a sly grin. "Are they playing the kissing game? I wanna see," she said, trying to look around Meiling's shoulder.
"Nope, nope, not gonna happen," said Meiling, chivvying her along. "Sakuya would kill us both."
Sakuya entered the great room herself a few minutes later, bound from the kitchen to the basement on a supply run, but when she did so, she found Gryphon and Remilia sitting at opposite ends of the Ottomane, he sketching cheerfully on what had become the Plant Services communal notepad, she slightly red-faced and ruffled-henlike, but clearly happy.
"Lunch will be ready in an hour, m'lady, Chief," she said.
"Thank you, Sakuya," said Remilia with dignity, straightening her ascot.
"What are we having?" Gryphon inquired.
"Contrefilet et frites," Sakuya replied, "with a peppercorn pan sauce."
"Ooh, lovely. Looking forward to that."
"I thought you might," Sakuya said pleasantly, then excused herself to continue on her errand.
When she'd gone, Gryphon glanced at Remilia and said, "I trust your concerns have been allayed, my lady."
"Completely, thank you," Remilia confirmed, smoothing the last of the wrinkles in her clothes, and then added, "And I should warn you that, once we're married, you won't be able to play that kind of trick without consequences."
Gryphon smiled and returned to his work. "Ausgezeichnet. Ich werde mich darauf freuen, meine Geliebte."
"Keep that up and I may attack you anyway," she said, showing her fangs in a predatory grin.
"Tempting, but we only have an hour before lunch," he quipped.
Remilia grinned at him a moment longer, then relented and turned away, picking up the book she'd been reading. He'd surprised her, and made her worry momentarily about the embarrassment of being caught, but it appeared they'd gotten away with it, and besides, she was inwardly quite pleased. Not only had he, as she told him, put to rest her remaining fears regarding his potential reaction to the Mysterium, she also didn't dislike being reminded occasionally that he customarily kept his hands to himself because he was a complete gentleman, not because he knew no other way. It augured well for their wedding day, when at last that happy occasion arrived.
With a private, slightly blushing smile, she settled in to read until Sakuya announced lunch.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020