Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
If anyone had chanced to look at the great dome of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the colossal church standing at the top of Montmartre (the hill, not the neighborhood), they might have seen something unexpected: two small figures, perched on the parapet of the cupola at the very top. But then again, possibly not; they were quite small, and the night was dark, the moon having set some time ago.
There wasn't anyone around to look up there, anyway. At almost three in the morning, even Montmartre (the neighborhood, not the hill) had slowed down markedly, and those few people who were still out and about at this hour weren't hanging around the church.
After gazing in silence at the streetlit web of Paris for a few minutes, Remilia Scarlet said,
"You're awfully quiet tonight."
Beside her, her sister Flandre flinched slightly, as if mildly startled to be addressed, then said unconvincingly, "Am I?"
"I thought you'd have more to say about our new friend, at least."
"Isn't it a little early to call him a friend?"
"Our new acquaintance, then," Remilia conceded. "Give me a little credit, Flan. I'm your sister. I can tell when something's weighing on your mind. Are you having second thoughts about having young Boissard do our portraits?"
Flandre shook her head. "No. I think we can trust him. He'll do a good job. It's... not about him at all."
"Ah, so there is something."
"There is, but..." Flandre hesitated, then went on, "I'm afraid you'll get mad if I try to talk to you about it."
Remilia took her sister's hand. "Why would I get mad? If something's bothering you, tell me about it."
Flandre didn't reply for a few seconds. Then, with a sigh, she said, "OK. I've been thinking about the letter you sent to the President. And what you told me about your talk with the woman from the Seventh Bureau. About... that night."
Remilia said nothing, just squeezed Flandre's hand slightly, to show that she was listening.
"I was... only vaguely aware that anything was going on," Flandre said slowly. "I could hear a ruckus from upstairs, but... it didn't really register. I only pieced together what must have happened later. And... ever since I've been able to think clearly about it... there's a question I keep coming back to."
"What do you want to know?" Remilia asked.
Flandre turned to her, their faintly glowing crimson eyes meeting in the dark, and asked bluntly, "Why didn't you let me out?"
Remilia blinked in surprise and didn't answer at once, and Flandre pressed on, "When you knew the battle was going against you, why didn't you let me out?" Taking her hand from her sister's, she made a vague but expansive gesture. "You knew how strong I was, even then." Baring her teeth, her eyes flashing with anger, she snarled, "I would have annihilated those witches. Wiped them out. All of them."
Remilia gazed at her in disbelief for a few moments, struck speechless, before finally finding her voice.
"What do you think I am?" she asked. "Even in that moment, to use my baby sister as, as a weapon?" Agitated, she bolted to her feet, unhindered by the fact that there was nowhere to stand. "Can you even imagine what that would have done to you?" Folding her arms, she shook her head emphatically. "No. Never. You were a sick child, not a chained ogre."
Rising in turn to face off with her, Flandre insisted, "I could have made a difference."
Remilia shook her head again. "The price would have been too high."
Flandre's fists clenched. "Even for Maman and Papa's lives?" she demanded.
"Yes," said Remilia flatly, her eyes steady on her sister's. "If they were here, they would say so themselves."
For a moment, Flandre looked like she might lash out. Then, getting hold of herself with a visible effort, she said, "You really believe that."
"I do. I always have."
Flandre stared hard into her elder sister's eyes for a few seconds, searching for the slightest hint of equivocation, and found none. The discovery, or lack thereof, took the fight out of her; she sighed, shoulders slumping. "Then I guess I have no choice but to believe it too. But even so..." She paused, tears filling her eyes, and hung her head, whispering, "How I wish I could have helped."
Remilia drifted forward and hugged her, the two of them hovering together a few feet away from the cupola. "So do I, little sister," she said softly. "So do I. But you couldn't. Not without making us both into monsters."
They stayed there for a long while, hanging embraced in midair, weeping quietly over what might have been. The elder pulled herself together first, drying her own tears before gently pushing the younger to arms' length and drying hers in turn.
"I thought I told you," she said (a bit unconvincingly, given the clear evidence that she'd been crying herself), "you need never cry again."
"Everyone has to cry sometimes," Flandre countered.
Remilia chuckled, spreading her hands in defeat. "You're right, of course," she said, and then, smiling, "That will teach me to try to be gallant."
Flandre giggled in spite of herself, wiping away a last couple of tears. "I know what you meant, though. Thanks."
"You're welcome, Flan. Kidding aside, anything that's bothering you like that, bring it to me. Or if not me, Benjamin, or Sakuya, or Meiling. Whomever you choose, it's always best to talk these things out."
Flandre nodded. "I will."
Remilia glanced off to the east, where the horizon was just starting to lighten. Patting her sister's shoulder, she said, "Dawn's approaching. Best for us to get to bed."
"Yeah," Flandre agreed, and they flew off toward the 8th arrondissement, a couple of shadows flitting across the last of the night.
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
Remilia woke to find Flandre gone, which surprised her slightly. It was the first time that had happened since they came to Paris. Ordinarily, Remilia rose first, and while she always awakened Flandre, the lighter sleeper, by doing so, Flan's custom was to loiter in bed at least until her elder sister had finished her toilette and was dressing.
Today, though, she was gone, and the bathroom empty, only a lingering humidity and scent of soap attesting to the fact that it had been used recently. Puzzled, Remilia belted on a robe over her nightdown and went out into the sitting room.
Meiling was sitting on one of the sofas, reading a large, colorful book. At Remilia's entrance, she closed it on her finger and said, "Good afternoon, Lady Remilia."
"Good afternoon, Meiling," replied the vampire, and then, "Have you seen Flan?"
"She went out," Meiling said, nodding toward the exit. Remilia glanced that way and saw that only one parasol stood in the umbrella stand by the door, and Flan's sun hat was gone from the hooks in the hallway.
"Did she say where she was going?" Remilia wondered, but Meiling shook her head.
"Just for a walk. She did say she'd be back for lunch."
"Hm." Remilia considered this, then shrugged. "Well, that's fine, I suppose. Where's Sakuya?"
"Shopping for lunch and dinner. I know, the hotel has people for that, but you know Sakuya," Meiling said with a fond smile. "She can't leave that kind of thing to just anybody."
"I know it well," Remilia agreed with a very similar smile.
With that taken care of, she went and prepared herself for the evening. The foursome had no special plans tonight, no places to go or things to see, apart from Flandre having decided to go for a walk. For her part, Remilia meant to have a leisurely Sunday night in, relaxing and preparing herself to meet with the Minister of the Interior on the morrow.
Washed and dressed, Remilia went to the kitchen and brewed a pot of tea, poured two cups, laced hers with a dollop of B-negative preserves, and then took both out to the sitting room, where Meiling marked her place, put down the book she'd been reading, and accepted her tea with thanks.
"What are you reading?" Remilia wondered, sitting down across from her. Upon closer inspection, the book was one of a dozen or so that were stacked up on the coffee table. Although large in format, each volume was relatively thin.
"Some comics I found yesterday," Meiling said. "The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter for «Le Petit Vingtième»."
Remilia tilted her head curiously. "Comics? What do you mean?"
Meiling looked mildly surprised. "You don't—of course you don't," she interrupted herself. Grinning, she shuffled through the pile, extracted one of the volumes, and handed it across the table. "See for yourself! They're fun."
Remilia picked up the book and considered the cover, which bore a colored line drawing of a young man dressed for cold weather, accompanied by a small white dog, with the silhouette of a building topped with onion domes that gave a distinct sense of eastern Europe in the background.
"Tintin in the Land of the Tsars," she read. "Hm..."
Flandre had no set agenda when she left for her walk; just a desire to get out and look around. She found Paris endlessly fascinating, not simply because she'd never been in a city before, but because of its restless, reconstructive energy. Parts of it had recovered completely from the trauma of the Neuroi occupation—the neighborhood around the Place de la Concorde, for instance, and all the government buildings nearby—while others were still in shambles. She'd seen neighborhoods in the 3rd arrondissement that were still struggling to their feet, and whole blocks of Montmartre had yet to be rebuilt. The view from the top of Sacré-Cœur at night was a patchwork, the famous lights of the city broken up here and there by the dark voids of those same still-abandoned areas.
Right now she was wandering the streets of a district her pocket map identified as Le Marais, in the 4th arrondissement, south of the area where they'd had dinner on Meiling's birthday. It was an old part of the city, with narrow streets that clearly predated the automobile, and although some of the buildings were quite grand, the whole place had a down-at-heel air of neglect. For reasons she couldn't identify, Flandre found herself quite liking it.
She roamed the streets and even narrower alleys at random, looking at the façades of buildings and the windows of little shops selling mysterious things, losing track of time and her exact location. The area wasn't particularly busy, but the streets weren't deserted, either. Flandre caught her share of curious looks, wandering around with a parasol despite the cloudy skies, even before the onlookers noticed her wings, but no one seemed particularly bothered; just surprised.
Somewhere in the vicinity of the Place des Vosges, she turned a corner and saw it: a tiny storefront, wedged in between a butcher's shop and the stairway leading up to the second-floor apartments, with a faded, peeling sign above the door reading "T. CONSTANTIN et FILS—JOUETS et JEUX". In its single display window, though there was a number of dusty shelves, sat a lone item.
It was this that had caught Flandre's attention, for it was the only colorful object in the scene. Walking up to the window, she saw that it was a stuffed animal, specifically an elephant, dressed in a man's green business suit and wearing a little golden crown on its head. She bent down to take a closer look, but the glare on the glass made details impossible to see. Half-expecting to find it locked, she tried the door, and found herself entering the shop.
Inside, it was dim and dusty, like the empty shelves in the display window, and didn't seem to have much more in stock: just a few baby dolls, a forlorn battalion of lead soldiers dressed in painted uniforms Flandre didn't know sufficiently recent history to recognize as dating from the time of Napoleon, and a scattering of boxed games. The only person in the place was a little old man in a green cardigan, standing behind the counter. He looked like he might have been there since the dawn of time, patiently awaiting customers.
"Good afternoon," said the old man pleasantly. His voice had a paper-like quality about it, like sheets of foolscap rustling together—the voice of a man who had lived a long life and devoted a fair bit of it to unfiltered Gitanes, but had few regrets.
"Hello," Flandre replied, glancing around uncertainly.
"Can I help you with something?" asked the proprietor.
"Uh... yes. I saw the elephant in your window."
"Ah yes, Babar," said the old man with a nod.
"Babar? Is that his name?" Flandre wondered.
The old man gave her a curious look. "You don't know Babar? I would have thought, at your age... well, never mind," he said, shaking his head. Smiling, he emerged from behind the counter, revealing himself to be wearing baggy corduroy trousers and a pair of old house slippers. The corduroy went wiff-wiff, wiff-wiff as he made his way slowly to the window, reached over the half-height backdrop, and retrieved the elephant, then returned and handed it to Flandre.
Up close, she could see that it was hand-crafted; though made skillfully and with care, it had certain irregularities about it that a machine-made modern toy wouldn't have had. Its eyes didn't quite match, for instance, she supposed because toy parts were a low priority for suppliers in war-torn, rebuilding Gallia. Its fashionable green suit was likewise a bit rumpled and worn, as if it had been made from pieces of garments that had seen use in the real world before being remade into a stuffed animal's clothing, and its golden crown's lustre was rather dull.
Now that she thought about it, she remembered seeing similar elephants in Les Grands Magasins du Louvre, the big department store where her sister had bought Meiling's birthday present. Those had suits of bright green velvet, shiny gold crowns, and tusks that were exactly the same length, lined up on a shelf with the uniformity of mass production.
Holding this handmade example in her arms, Flandre knew one thing: the fancier specimens in the big store weren't anything like this soft and snuggly. She'd picked one up, briefly, and as a lifelong connoisseur of stuffed toys, she hadn't been particularly impressed. But this... this was the real thing.
The old man watched her reaction with a smile. "It appears you like him," he said.
"I do," Flandre replied. "Very much. How..." She hesitated; it seemed somehow crass to just come right out and ask, but how else was one supposed to do something like this? There wasn't a price tag anywhere. "How much does he cost?"
The old man shook his head. "He's not for sale."
"Oh," said Flandre, crestfallen. She made to return the toy to the shopkeeper, but he didn't move to accept it. Instead, he continued,
"But he does need a home." A faraway look came into the old man's eyes as he went on, "He's been sitting in that window for ever such a long time. Since before the Neuroi came. He watched them take the city, then watched them go again. He's seen a lot from his throne behind that glass, has good King Babar. Perhaps it's time for him to go and seek his fortune in the world outside it."
Flandre was silent; indeed, she found herself almost holding her breath, caught up in the tapestry of reminiscence the old man's voice was weaving.
Seeming to recall himself, the shopkeeper shook his head and smiled. "Sorry. An old man's mind wanders, you know." He stood regarding her for a moment, his friendly eyes bright and keen. "Will you promise me you'll take good care of him?"
"Of course," Flandre replied at once. "The very best I can. And he won't be lonely," she added, almost involuntarily.
The old man's smile widened. "I thought so," he said.
Sakuya returned to the Hôtel de Crillon satisfied with the day's shopping, but tired enough from carrying everything she'd bought that she retrospectively regretted declining Meiling's offer to come with her. It was, after all, her job to carry the heavy things. Then again, Sakuya hadn't actually intended to buy an entire ham, but the price had just been too good to pass up.
Loaded down with a weighty string bag in each hand, she crossed the lobby, already thinking about what she would do with the provisions she'd acquired. Although small, their suite's kitchen was very well-equipped—far more modern than the facility she had to work with at home, of course, but also thoughtfully designed and efficient—and she'd been having fun exploring the various wonders she could perform with its mysterious newfangled conveniences. The experience had given her a new sense of anticipation for the electrical update Meiling and Gryphon were planning for the mansion.
She was just about to step aboard the elevator, still half-lost in thoughts of baked goods and ham presentations, when a peremptory voice barked,
"Hoi! You there! Maid!"
At first, Sakuya didn't register that the voice was addressing her. Not until it came nearer and repeated its challenge did it occur to her that she hadn't taken the time to change into street clothes before she went out a-marketing today, and so there was every chance that the maid being so sharply addressed was in fact herself.
Pausing, she turned and saw a well-dressed man somewhere in his mid-twenties striding toward her, his face pink with outrage.
"What do you mean by using the lift?" he wanted to know (speaking Gallic with a slightly appalling Liberion accent), and then with heavy sarcasm, "Did the bellmen neglect to show you the servants' stairs? This convenience is for guests of this establishment, not the likes of you."
Sakuya arched one grey eyebrow, setting down her shopping carefully so that the bags wouldn't fall over.
"I beg your pardon, monsieur," she said calmly, and then, before he could reply, she went on in exactly the same unruffled tone of voice, "I fear you have mistaken me for someone who gives a damn what you think."
This casual impertinence so startled the man that he couldn't think of a response for a few seconds. While he stood there, his jaw working in silent fury as his face went steadily redder, Sakuya slipped her right hand into her apron pocket and closed it around The World, while her left reached discreetly for an argument somewhat more pointed.
"Wh—wha—now see here!" the man finally burst out. Thrusting a finger in her face, he demanded, "Who is your master?! By heaven, he'll hear about—"
Sakuya had had just about all she wanted of this, but just before she would have pressed the stem of The World and commenced making the red-faced gentleman's afternoon more interesting, a quiet but penetrating voice asked from behind him,
"Is something wrong?"
The man wheeled, clearing Sakuya's sightline as he did so, and she saw that Flandre had entered the lobby and come up behind him. She stood there now, furled parasol hooked over one forearm, with a brightly colored stuffed animal tucked under that arm and her head cocked inquisitively.
"Mind your own business, little girl," said the man, more than a bit pompously. "I'm busy; I have to remind this foul-mouthed slattern of her place."
Flandre's face went still, almost devoid of expression. Reaching up with her free hand, she slowly and deliberately unhooked her dark glasses from her ears, then removed them, fixing her unamused scarlet eyes on his.
"You'll do no such thing," she said softly, tucking the glasses away.
The man blinked at her, the flush draining out of his face. "I, I'll do no such thing!" he insisted, jowls quivering, as if outraged by the very suggestion that he might.
"Get out of here," Flandre went on, never raising her voice, her flat gaze boring into his soul.
"I'm getting out of here," said the man positively, as though it had been his idea, and without another word to Sakuya, he stormed out of the hotel in a huff.
Flandre watched him go, then turned back to Sakuya and burst out giggling.
"That was fun!" she declared. "Are you OK, Sakuya?"
"I'm fine, young mistress," Sakuya replied, abandoning her preparations for action and picking up the shopping instead. With a slight smile, she said, "Thank you for coming to my rescue."
Flandre snorted cheerfully. "Your rescue, nothing," she said. "I was saving that gentleman a stabbing."
"I wasn't going to stab him," Sakuya objected. "M'lady would never forgive me for causing such a scene. We'd probably have been thrown out of the hotel."
"Then why were you reaching for a knife?" Flandre wanted to know, her eyes now twinkling with merriment.
"I might have been about to cut his braces," Sakuya admitted, and Flandre laughed gaily as the lift arrived and they stepped aboard.
They found Meiling and Remilia in the living room, each engrossed in a volume of Tintin.
"Have you been sitting there reading comic books the whole time I've been gone?" Sakuya wondered.
"Uh-huh," Meiling replied. "And so's her ladyship, since she got up."
"Mm," Remilia said absently from somewhere within Cigars of the Pharaoh.
"Well, as long as it keeps them out of trouble," said Flandre philosophically.
"You have a point, young mistress," Sakuya agreed, and the two shared a conspiratorial little smile before the maid took her supplies into the kitchen.
Since Remilia and Flandre had an important appointment the next day, they made an early night of it by vampire standards. The anniversary clock on the mantelpiece read just past two in the morning when Remilia emerged from the bathroom, dressed for retiring, to find Flandre lying on her back on the bed, holding her new stuffed animal at arms' length above her and regarding it thoughtfully.
"Don't lie there in your clothes," Remilia scolded her, but there was no weight behind it, as though she were saying it just for form's sake. "Go brush your teeth and get changed for bed."
"Okaaaay," Flandre replied, but without actually showing any sign of complying. Rather than badger her further, Remilia sat down on the edge of the bed and just watched her contemplate the toy for a few moments.
"Where did you get the elephant?" she wondered.
"A nice old man gave him to me," Flandre replied, and she recounted the curious encounter she'd had in the run-down, dusty old toy shop in the Marais.
"Hm," said Remilia. "How... singular." Tilting her head, she went on, "I think I remember seeing toys of that same basic design at the Magasins du Louvre."
"Mm-hmm. He's a popular children's book character, apparently," Flandre said. "Sakuya told me."
"If you wanted one, you should've said so. I would have bought it for you while we were there."
Flandre shook her head. "I didn't, at the time. The ones at that store weren't... I don't know how to explain it. They didn't speak to me." She turned her head, catching the slightly puzzled, slightly concerned look crossing her sister's face, and rolled her eyes in mild exasperation. "I don't mean it literally. Honestly, sometimes I think you don't really believe I'm not crazy. Anyway, I was never that kind of crazy. I didn't hear voices. Well, except for my own. Look, all I'm saying is, this one is special."
Remilia still looked none the wiser. "Because it's not as well-made?"
"No!" said Flandre, irked. She sat up cross-legged and turned to face her sister, gathering both of her stuffed friends into her arms, and went on, "Because he wasn't made by machines and people turning out hundreds of them an hour, out of materials that never were anything before."
Warming to her topic, Flandre handed her Teddy bear to Remilia and said, "You watched Ben make that for me, didn't you?"
Remilia, who had taken the bear more or less automatically and was now regarding it with a slightly baffled air, looked up and met her sister's gaze with the same expression. "Yes...?" she said, drawing the syllable quizzically out.
"You watched him make Theodore there out of scraps and spare parts, with love and care, for no better reason than because he wanted to make me happy. To bring a little light into the black void that was my world. I'm not talking about my room, I'm talking about in here," she said vehemently, tapping the side of her forehead with the first two fingers of her right hand. "Well, Babar is the same. Old Monsieur Constantin didn't make him specifically for me, no, or at least he didn't know it at the time; but he did it knowing that someone, somewhere, sometime, would recognize the love he put into his creation, and see the value in it."
Remilia blinked at her, taking a few moments to process the speech. Presently she looked down at the bear, remembering as she did Gryphon's quiet concentration as he labored over it in the quiet of the late evening, on the nights when his play sessions with Flandre had left him with working hands. In her mind's eye, she could see his bruised and battered face, eyes bright despite the lingering pain he must have been in, meticulously unpicking one of her mother's old coats and reassembling its pieces into this.
She looked up and saw that Flandre had unshed tears in her eyes, and she could feel the same in her own. Before she could think of anything to say, her sister went on.
"You get it now. Don't you?" Flandre asked quietly. "You understand why I'm drawn to them. Because we're the same. We've all been pieced together out of fragments and leftovers, patiently, lovingly. And maybe we're not quite perfect. Maybe we're a little worn and wonky, maybe we have some bits that don't really match." Perhaps unconsciously, she fluttered her wings slightly as she spoke, making the strange crystals on them give a faint jingling sound. "But just the fact that we were made means we matter. Means we can be loved. You see?"
Slowly, carefully, almost reverently, Remilia set the bear aside. Then, with a muffled sob, she embraced her sister with a sudden lunge, all but knocking her back into the heaped pillows at the head of the bed, the stuffed elephant squashed between them.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice breaking. "I'm sorry, Flan. I couldn't help you. I didn't know what to do. Nothing I tried worked. Eventually, I... I gave up," she admitted miserably. "I'm so sorry."
"It's OK," Flandre replied, as soothingly as she could, some corner of her mind remarking on what an odd role reversal this was. "It's OK, Sis. I forgive you. I don't... I don't think there was anything you could have done. Not with the Other in control. She was... beyond your reach. And you didn't give up on me, not really."
"Why would you say that?" Remilia wondered. "I locked you away for centuries. I stopped even trying to reach you."
"But you never stopped hoping I would come out of it," Flandre replied. "Did you? You could have left. Any full moon, you could have just... walked away. Started a new life somewhere else, left me to rot in my dungeon forever. Or break free some night, go on a rampage, and eventually be killed, either by humans or some other monster. I'd have been someone else's problem, and then I'd have been dead. There must have been nights when you looked at the moon and thought about it. But you never did it. You stayed, all alone, and looked after me as best you could. As best as I'd let you," she added grimly.
"It was my penance for what I did to you in the first place," Remilia whispered.
"No," said Flandre. "You told yourself it was, because that made it make sense to you. But really it was hope. Hope that something unforeseen would come along and change both of our fates." She held her sister a little tighter. "And something did."
"No thanks to me," Remilia murmured bitterly.
"All thanks to you," Flandre insisted. "What would have happened if you had just ignored that man the Other tried to kill that night? Or if you hadn't taken a liking to him and decided on a whim to keep him around for a while? But you didn't, and you did, and he changed everything. 'Give me a long enough lever and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I will move the world.' He brought the lever, but you were the fulcrum. If you're not there, and if you don't still have hope, none of that happens."
"I..." Remilia fell silent, and after a short while, Flandre wondered whether she'd gone to sleep; but presently she stirred, then pulled herself free and sat back, wiping her eyes and visibly pulling herself together.
"Thank you, Flan," she said, her face tear-streaked but smiling brightly. "I... never would have thought of it that way." She chuckled at herself, shaking her head. "You're outdoing me massively in the wisdom department tonight. It shames me as an elder sister," she added with a wry grin.
Sitting up in turn, Flandre smiled and said, "You just happened to ask about something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, that's all."
A faint chime sounded from the mantelpiece; turning, both sisters saw that the clock had just struck half-past two.
"Guess I better stop stalling and get ready for bed," Flandre said, uncoiling her legs and rising.
"I guess you'd better," Remilia agreed.
She was still awake, sitting there contemplating the bear, when Flandre emerged from the bathroom, scrubbed up and dressed in her nightgown.
"Teeth brushed: check," she said with mild, friendly sarcasm.
"Good girl," Remilia replied. "Time for lights out," and so saying, she switched off the bedside lamp (not that it really made any difference to either of them).
They climbed under the covers and lay there for a little while in silence. Then, her voice low and pensive, Flandre asked,
"Sis? Are you awake?"
"What is it?" Remilia responded.
"What we just talked about got me thinking. I need to ask you something. We've talked about it before, but I have to make absolutely sure."
"Is this about Benjamin again?" asked Remilia.
"Yeah. Only—just hear me out, OK?"
"Of course. I wasn't about to interrupt. Whatever I have to say or do so that you're comfortable..."
"Just... just tell me it's not because you feel like you owe me," Flandre said with sudden intensity. "That it's not some kind of continuation of what you called your penance just now. Because if that's what it is, I don't want it. We can still forget the whole thing."
Remilia didn't reply for a moment. Then, sighing, she sat up and turned to face her sister, who sat up in turn. For a few silent moments, they sat looking at each other, Remilia's gaze calm, Flandre's anxious, searching her sister's face for any sign of pain.
"Let me tell you a story, little sister," said Remilia, taking both of Flandre's hands in hers. "Maybe then you'll understand why I feel the way I do—and why I find it troubling that you doubt me."
Flandre nodded. "OK."
With that, Remilia composed herself into a slightly ironic storytelling mien, complete with the standard opening line: "Once upon a time, long ago in Cisbelvia, there were two brothers—princes, as a matter of fact; Gregor, the elder, and Vazul, the younger. They were unusually close together in age for their family, and maybe because of that, they were as close as brothers can be. Rarely was one ever seen without the other. There was talk of the two even ruling together one day.
"Until, one summer, they both fell in love with the same woman, a nobleman's daughter named Tania. The old traditions wouldn't stand for that. Trying to treat each other as fairly as they could, the brothers asked Tania to decide, but she said she loved them both equally and her heart would be broken if she were forced to choose. Under the ancient code, then, one of the brothers would have to concede, and by custom it should have been the younger.
"Seeing that following the code would only leave all three of them miserable, Vazul pleaded with his brother to defy that fate, but Gregor, blinded by jealousy and pride, flew into a rage at the mere suggestion that his brother wouldn't meekly submit to custom, however painful and arbitrary it was."
When Remilia stopped speaking momentarily to collect her thoughts, Flandre squeezed her hands and asked quietly, "So what happened?"
"They fought," Remilia said matter-of-factly. "Nearly killed each other. In the end, Vazul lost, not because he was weaker than his brother, but because to win he would have had to kill Gregor, and he couldn't bear to do it. For that, he was exiled. He never saw his homeland, or his brother, or his first love again. Gregor and Tania were duly married, and in time they had a son, but the legends say they were never really happy.
"For his part, Vazul moved far away, to a land where no one knew his family—where most had never even heard of his country. He built himself a new home and began a new life. To mark all this, when he earned himself a new title from the local royalty, he even took a new name."
Her eyes steady on her younger sister's, Remilia paused for just a moment, then said with a very slight smile, "And so Prince Vazul Skarlátvörös became Count Victor Scarlet."
Flandre stared at her, wide-eyed, unable to find anything to say. Remilia paused for another moment, as if reflecting, then went on, "Centuries later, when Cisbelvia fell to the Magyar, the ruling family were all killed. Gregor, Tania, their son, everyone. Everyone but Victor, of course, because he wasn't there." Remilia sighed. "I won't try to lie to make the story sadder—you already know Victor found his own happiness eventually—but even so, he blamed himself for those deaths all the rest of his life."
Pulling her sister into a fierce embrace, Remilia said, "There's an old saying, Flan, that history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." She shook her head and held Flandre tighter. "Not this time. I'm not Uncle Gregor and you're not Papa. Their fate is not ours. I won't allow it." Pushing herself back to make eye contact again, Remilia smiled and said "Now do you see?"
Flandre returned the smile, then pulled her back into a hug. "Yes. I do."
"Good," Remilia said, and she tucked them both back in as they lay back down. "I trust this puts the matter to rest?"
"I think it does, yeah. Thank you for telling me that. I'm... I'm glad you feel that way."
"As am I, Flan. As am I. Good morning, little sister. Sleep well," she punctuated the point with a kiss, "and know that you are loved."
Gallian Interior Minister Édouard Depreux looked up from his work at the sound of a knock on his door. "Enter."
The door opened and Alouette de Moret stepped in. "Countess Scarlet and her sister are here, Minister."
"Ah, excellent. Please show them in, Mme. de Moret." Depreux set his pen aside and folded his hands on his desk blotter as de Moret swung his office door wide and showed in the visitors.
Madame de Moret had described her interview with Remilia in great detail, so her archaic mode of dress didn't surprise him as it might have a man going into the encounter cold, but he was still struck by how distinctive her style was, with her voluminous skirts and antique hat. Only her snugly tailored black jacket, with its two rows of gold buttons, had an air of modernity about it, and that was muted somewhat by the old-fashioned red silk ascot she wore over it. This was secured at her slim throat by a golden brooch sporting a large crimson gem that bore a slightly unnerving resemblance to a third eye.
Next to her, her younger sister Flandre looked a bit more contemporary, but also slightly funereal, in her black skirt-and-vest set over a white blouse and petticoat. Her hat was more modern, too, a broad-brimmed sun hat, though it sported a cockade that matched the one on her elder sister's old-fashioned mob cap. All in all, a striking pair, and that was before you noticed their wings.
Depreux was not accustomed to dealing with supernatural matters directly, though they fell under the purview of his ministry, but neither was he a total stranger to them. He had fought alongside witches in the First Neuroi War and come to appreciate their gifts, if not particularly to understand them, but the wider world of the paranormal was not his milieu.
Still, if he were unnerved to have two self-professed vampires, possibly the last surviving ones in Gallia, in his office, he gave no sign of it. Rising in a gentlemanly way, he bowed and welcomed them, bidding them take the two chairs arranged facing his desk, and only sat back down himself once they were seated.
"Thank you for coming to see me today. I apologize for asking you to come here before sunset, but at this time of year..." He gave a very Gallic shrug.
"Not at all, Minister, we quite understand," said Remilia with a pleasant smile. "Luckily, our family line is relatively strong against the sun."
"I'm pleased to hear it. Now then. I'll get straight to the point. I've been exchanging wireless messages with President Auriol for the last several days, whenever the radio operators aboard the ship bringing him home from Neukarlsland can get through. He's read Principal Undersecretary de Moret's report and sees no reason to dispute her findings."
The minister folded his hands again and went on, "He's expected to reach Gallia on Wednesday, and to be back in Paris the following day." Depreux looked Remilia in the eye. "In the meantime, he has authorized me to tell you now that, when he arrives, you will have your official apology, Countess."
The sisters glanced at each other, the younger reaching to take the elder's hand, and then both faced the minister again. Before either could comment, Depreux went on,
"Also in the meantime, he's asked me to begin the processes needed to restore your household's legal status, so that everything will be ready when he issues his statement. Ordinarily, this would take weeks, if not months, but..." A thin smile. "This is something of a special case." Picking up his pen, Depreux took a fresh sheet of paper from an upper drawer of his desk, positioned it just so, and said,
"If you don't mind, I'll take down the information needed for your vital documents."
"Don't you have people for that?" Flandre wondered before she could stop herself.
Remilia glanced at her, but said nothing; she'd rather been wondering that herself.
The minister's thin smile came again, and stayed a bit longer this time. "Not when I've been asked to handle the matter personally by the President of the Republic himself, Mademoiselle Scarlet," he said with more than a trace of dry humor.
Flandre chuckled. "Fair enough."
Following their interview with the Minister, the Scarlet sisters spent the rest of the afternoon visiting various departments of his ministry, preceded by Depreux's notes, to be quizzed by various clerks, sign documents, and generally participate in the processes that had to be completed in order to make everything run smoothly.
The only hitch they ran into was when the time came for them to be photographed for their new identity documents. Sakuya and Meiling, summoned by telephone from the hotel for the occasion, sat for their photos without difficulty, but taking pictures of the Scarlets themselves proved to be impossible with the equipment the Interior Ministry had available. Like virtually all photographic equipment in use at that time, it relied on salts of silver to function, so the photographer managed only to take perfectly framed pictures of an apparently empty chair.
"I suspected as much," said Remilia when the harried photographer emerged from the darkroom to report his lack of success. "But don't fret! Within the next few nights—days, rather—I should have an alternative for you."
By sighting on Saint-Paul Métro and then following her instincts, Flandre found her way back to the toy store without much difficulty. It looked the same as it had the first time, run-down and dusty. She was mildly surprised to find the display window still empty, with nothing having been put out to replace Babar.
The door opened for her with a jingle of bell, and the same old man was standing behind the counter, just as he had been before. At the sound of the bell he looked over and smiled, recognizing her at once.
"Hello again," he said. "What brings you back? I hope you haven't had a problem with Babar."
"Oh, no, not at all," Flandre replied. "I love him. And so does my sister," she added with a little smile. "When I left our room, I would have had to wake her up to get him back."
The old shopkeeper beamed at that. "I'm so pleased," he said. "What can I help you with today? I'm afraid I haven't much else in stock that's likely to interest you..."
"Actually..." Flandre hesitated, then said, "I came to ask if you would teach me."
"To make stuffed toys myself," she explained. "I..." She trailed off, realizing belatedly that she couldn't possibly drop the whole bizarre and awful story of her life on this poor man, then settled on, "When I was younger, I was really only good at breaking things. I never learned to make anything. And... there's someone I want to make something for, now."
The old man took off his spectacles and cleaned them with a garish red handkerchief, then put them back on and smiled again. "I'd be delighted. What's your name, young lady?"
"I'm... I'm Flandre. Flandre Scarlet."
"Well, it is a great pleasure to meet you, Mademoiselle Flandre," said the shopkeeper, bowing. "My name is Gustave Constantin."
Before she could stop herself, Flandre said, "The sign says T. Constantin."
"And Son," said Constantin with an impish twinkle. "My father's name was Théobald."
"Then this shop has been here a while," Flandre observed thoughtfully.
"Since 1844," he confirmed, nodding with a trace of pride. "Though it didn't become 'et Fils' for another ten years. Now then," he said, shuffling out from behind the counter, "if you'll step over to my workbench, Mademoiselle, we'll get started."
It was surprisingly fiddly, intricate, delicate work, on a different level from the making and mending of simple clothing (the only sort of seamstressing Flandre had ever attempted to this point, and that a very long time ago), and it took a lot of planning. Indeed, the first thing she learned was that the process began long before the maker ever picked up shears and began to cut fabric. Even the most improvised design was still a design, and one had to know what one was attempting before starting.
It became obvious before long that this would be a difficult way to make a living. Everything took longer than she assumed it would, required more materials. In a professional capacity, it would make for long hours and little money, at least if one were to charge prices anyone would be willing to pay. Flandre didn't mind that. She had no intention of ever making anything for sale, anyway. She could tell from the outset what the true reward of this kind of work would be.
Monsieur Constantin was patient and kind, treating every mistake, and she made many, as an opportunity to show her a new technique for straightening up and carrying on. The phrase he used for these methods, always uttered with a smile and a chuckle, was cacher les cadavres: "hiding the bodies." But as much as the techniques and tricks of design, material selection, cutting, needlework, articulation, and the hundred other fine points of stuffed animal creation, she came to realize as the day went on that he was concerned with teaching the patience and kindness themselves—that he felt they were integral to the craft—and she agreed completely.
She had no idea how long they were at it. Time seemed to lose meaning, to become strangely elastic, as they worked away, first at basic exercises, then the first project she'd chosen for herself. Flandre lost track, anyway, so engrossed was she in the task almost from the first. She learned this art, this craft, the way popular stereotypes said vampires drank, deeply and with fixed intent, deriving as much pleasure as nourishment from what she imbibed.
And then, almost before she knew it and yet after what felt like a long time, it was finished. Her first creation sat on the workbench before them, translucent red-button eyes glinting in the light of the articulated lamp, smiling a conspiratorial little smile.
"Well!" said Constantin, patting her shoulder. "There we are. Congratulations, Mlle. Flandre. You have been an excellent student."
"Only..." Flandre's voice caught in her throat, for reasons she wasn't entirely certain of herself. Dusty in here. She coughed slightly and tried again. "Only because I've had such a fine teacher, M. Constantin. Thank you."
"You're very welcome. Now then, you had best be getting along, hadn't you? We don't want your sister to worry about you."
Flandre glanced at the shop window and was startled to see that it was fully dark outside. At this time of year, that didn't happen until gone ten o'clock in Paris. She'd missed lunch, and if she walked back to the Crillon, wouldn't be back in much time to spare for dinner... although now that the sun was down, she could save some time and fly.
"I... how can I re—" she began, but Constantin smilingly shook his head, urging her gently toward the front of the shop.
"No, no," he said. "It's been my pleasure."
"But I have to pay you something—the materials, all of your time, you've given me so much..."
"It's very good of you, but not necessary," the old toymaker insisted. "I'm happy just knowing that my craft is in such good hands. In fact, I have one more thing for you." Pausing at the door, he pressed a cool metal object into her hands: the shears they'd used to cut out the parts for her project, a magnificently heavy antique set that must have belonged to his father before him.
"All I ask," said Constantin with his kindly smile, holding both of her hands around the shears and looking her in the face, "is that you think of me when you use these, and remember what I've taught you."
Flandre was absolutely at a loss for words for several seconds, before she seized the old man in a careful hug and finally managed to whisper, "I... I will. Thank you."
"Ah, here she is at last," said Remilia cheerfully as her sister entered the sitting room. "I was beginning to wonder whether I'd have to send out a search party! Have you had a good evening?"
"It was... amazing," Flandre said. "I went back to M. Constantin's shop. Where Babar came from." She sat down on the couch next to Remilia and went on, "He taught me to make stuffed toys."
Remilia raised an eyebrow. "In one evening?"
"I know, I can't understand it either," Flandre said. "But, well... look. I made this. Start to finish."
So saying, she placed the item she belatedly realized had been her "graduation project" on the coffee table.
Before Remilia could comment, Meiling and Sakuya came in from the kitchen, intending to announce that dinner was ready. They, in turn, were forestalled in this aim by noticing that Flandre had returned.
"Hey, kiddo," said Meiling. "Where'd you get off to? Her ladyship was about ready to call the gendarmes."
"She was not," Sakuya objected, giving her lover a gentle karate chop to the back of the head. "What do you have there?" the maid went on, stepping closer, and they all regarded the object on the table for a moment.
"Now that is cute," Meiling declared. "Where'd you ever find something like that?"
"I made it," Flandre said.
The product of her afternoon was not, strictly speaking, a stuffed animal, but rather a cloth doll: a depiction of her elder sister, complete with a detailed miniature reproduction of one of her usual pink outfits, mob cap, wings and all. Doll-Remilia had eyes made from translucent red coat buttons and a permanent little stitched-on smile, punctuated with tiny triangular upper fangs made from chips of some pearlescent material, that gave her a faint air of smugness.
"You made it? That's amazing, Flan-Flan!" Meiling hunkered down next to the table to inspect the doll more closely. "Look at her little wings!" She brushed one with a fingertip. "Are they leather?"
Flandre nodded. "They have wires inside to hold their shape."
"My, my," said Sakuya. "I had no idea you were such a dab hand with a needle and thread."
"I wasn't, until tonight," said Flandre. "Well, Sis? You're awfully quiet. What do you think?"
Remilia sat gazing at the cloth effigy of herself with a hard-to-read expression for a few moments longer, a complex stew of emotions bubbling around inside her. It hadn't been that long ago when Flan could only destroy stuffed toys, and now here she was, creating them.
Finally she said quietly, "Flan."
"Of all the things you could have chosen for your first creation... you made me."
Flandre nodded. "I thought I'd give her to Ben the next time I see him, so he won't be lonely when he has to go back to the front line by himself. Although I suppose the witches probably take care of that, now that I think about it," she added with a sly grin.
Remilia gave an involuntary snort of laughter, then turned and pulled her slightly surprised little sister into a hug.
"It's an honor," she said. "It's such an honor."
Remilia sat in the hotel café, idly stirring a cup of tea and re-re-reading the telegram from Minister Depreux that had come earlier in the afternoon. The battleship Jean Bart was in Le Havre; President Auriol had arrived back in Gallia, and would be in his office on the morrow. Would Countess and Mademoiselle Scarlet find it convenient to present themselves in the Salon Doré at the Élysée Palace at two o'clock in the afternoon?
She had replied at once that they would, although privately she considered that a beastly hour to expect anyone to do anything, and then repaired to the café to await another appointment. Flandre had wandered off again, and Sakuya and Meiling were off to round up another batch of supplies and get them on the way to the house after a cable from Gryphon enumerating a few ideas he'd had while working on whatever the secret project was that had him in Britannia.
When this business with the government is finished, perhaps I should drop in and see him in Folkestone, Remilia mused, setting aside her teaspoon and taking a sip of red tea. Must pick up a tide chart for the Pas de Calais.
Movement at the café entrance caught her eye, and she looked up to see Julien Boissard entering, a large paper-wrapped parcel under his arm. She raised a hand to catch his eye and beckon him to her table, then poured him a cup of tea as he made his way over, placed the parcel on the table, and sat down.
"Thank you," he said, accepting the cup with a grateful smile, and drank off half of it straight away. "Ahhh, blessèd caffeine."
This close, the young artist looked haggard, with dark circles around his eyes and spatters of paint in his uncombed hair, though he'd evidently washed his face and changed clothes before coming. Remilia suspect he still would have found himself discreetly asked to leave had he not come at once to the table of a guest who was, by this point, well-known to the hotel's staff.
"There you are, Countess," Boissard declared when he'd put paid to the rest of his cup of tea. "Your portraits, by the end of the day today, as promised."
"Thank you very much, M. Boissard," said Remilia cordially, pouring him another cup unasked. "Would you care for something to eat? You seem a trifle undernourished."
"I'd be delighted," said Boissard with a weary but genuine smile. "I can even more or less afford it at the moment, even at this place's prices. I've just sold a difficult but lucrative commission, you see," he added wryly.
"No, no," said Remilia, waving the remark aside. "I'll pay. Consider it a bonus for early completion." Her smile was a touch mischievous as she noted, "The day won't be over for several more hours yet."
"You are most kind, Countess," said Boissard with heavy mock dignity, then relaxed, scrubbing his hands down his face. "I don't mind telling you I'm exhausted. I shall never accept a job with such a tight deadline again! Still, I'm proud of the result. Would you care to inspect my work before you go and buy me dinner?"
Remilia shook her head. "Not necessary," she said, not adding out loud, And a bit déclassée in the middle of a restaurant. "I trust in your standards."
The waiter arrived then; if he found anything objectionable in the scruffy appearance of Countess Scarlet's guest, the fact that he was Countess Scarlet's guest forestalled any comment. Once Boissard placed his order and the waiter had gone away again, the painter said,
"Do you mind if I ask why you needed them in such a short time?"
"Do you remember what my sister and I are in Paris to do?" she asked in reply.
Boissard nodded. "Reclaiming your citizenship, you said."
"Quite so. We meet with President Auriol tomorrow to finalize the matter. But we can't be photographed, you see, so the Ministry of the Interior is at a loss as to what to do about our cartes d'identité..."
The artist blinked in surprise. "Ah, of course!" he said. "Well. I may be the first painter in Paris to have his work used as an official form of identification. That's quite a distinction."
Remilia returned to the suite after sending a well-fed young artist home to his bed, unwrapped the paintings, and propped them on one of the couches to look them over. She found them entirely satisfactory: well-captured head-and-shoulders likenesses of herself and Flandre, neither idealized nor caricatured.
She was still looking them over when she heard the sound of the door opening, then closing, and Flandre's voice called from the hallway, "I'm back."
Remilia's brow creased. Her sister's voice sounded odd. Flat, a bit dispirited—as if she'd had a piece of bad news. Rising, she went to meet her at the archway into the sitting room.
"What's the matter?" Remilia asked, but Flandre didn't answer her at first, instead stepping around her and entering their bedroom. Concerned, Remilia followed. Flandre kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the bed, gathering up her stuffed elephant, and lay there cuddling it in silence for a little while. Remilia sat down on the edge of the bed, within arm's reach, and waited.
Presently Flandre said, "I went back to M. Constantin's shop again, but it was locked and there was no one inside. I asked in the butcher's shop next door if anyone had seen him..." She looked up, making eye contact with her sister, and went on in a small voice, "... and they said that he had died."
Frowning, Remilia took Flandre's nearer hand, squeezing it, and said gently, "I'm so sorry to hear that."
"I just saw him yesterday," Flandre said.
Remilia nodded. "I know. But... that's the way of things with humans sometimes, I'm afraid. Didn't you tell me he was quite an elderly man?"
Flandre shook her head. "No. I mean yes, he was, but you don't understand. They told me he died three years ago. In Britannia. During the occupation."
Remilia's eyes widened. "Oh," she said, a look of dawning amazement on her face.
"How... how can that be?" Flandre wondered.
Now it was Remilia's turn not to answer at once. She took off her own shoes and crawled up onto the bed, hugging her sister with the elephant in between them, before responding:
"There are wonders in this world, Flan. Fewer now than there were when we were little, and fewer still than when Papa was a young man, but there are still a few to be found, and I think... you found one. Or two. An elephant who needed a home... and a spirit who couldn't leave without passing on the craft he loved to a worthy heir. I don't know how he could know you would be there, but..."
Flandre pondered this for a moment, then murmured thoughtfully, "Greater than distance or time..."
"Something Ben said one night, when we were practicing spell cards and talking about magic and stuff. 'There is a fire inside each of us that cannot die. This is the Force: greater than distance or time.'"
They both fell silent for a while, just holding each other and contemplating the cosmic. When Flandre spoke again, it seemed at first like an entire non sequitur.
"Sis? Can I ask you something?"
"Of course, Flan."
"That weapon you used to kill the Neuroi in me... that wasn't a spell card, was it?"
After a moment's surprised silence, Remilia answered, "No. No, it wasn't. It was Gungnir. The divine lance of Odin All-Father, long-dead king of the old gods of the North." She hugged her sister a little tighter. "Papa's last gift to me."
"Where did Papa get the weapon of a dead god?" Flandre wondered.
"I don't know," Remilia confessed. "I expect it's recorded in one of his journals, but if so, I haven't found the right one yet."
"So Odin's spear isn't literally a spear?"
"Not now, at least. It may have been, once, but now it's more of a... what would you call it? Something like a spiritual essence, I suppose. When Papa gave it to me, it was something more like a spell card—except it needed to be cast only once, and now it's bound to me. A permanent part of my being, to be called on whenever needed."
"It is... although I was too busy to appreciate it fully at the time," Remilia said sadly.
They stayed there for a while in silence, each lost in her own thoughts, until a quiet knock at the door roused both from their reveries. A moment later, Sakuya put her head in and said quietly,
"M'lady? Young mistress? Are you sleeping?"
"No, just resting," Remilia replied, getting out of bed. "What do you need, Sakuya?"
"I just came to tell you that Meiling and I are back. Lunch will be ready in about an hour."
"OK, thanks. Sakuya?"
"Will you please find out where the nearest cinema is? After lunch, I think we should all go and have some fun. Tomorrow stands to be a busy time."
Sakuya smiled. "I'll see to it, m'lady," she said, and then closed the door.
"You know," said Remilia conversationally, sitting back down on the edge of the bed to pet Flandre's blonde head, "for people whose lives are going as well as ours, we seem to be spending an awful lot of time moping about lately."
Flandre laughed. "That's true, isn't it?" She sat up, stretched, and then climbed down off the bed. "We should have gotten a suite with a piano."
"I'm not sure there is such a thing," said Remilia dryly. Then, more serious, she put a hand on Flandre's shoulder and told her, "It's all right to be sad, Flan, but we should do all we can to be happy, too."
"I'm OK now," Flandre said. "I mean, I'm still sad that M. Constantin is gone, and a little stunned that he apparently was before I ever met him, but... what an amazing gift it was that I was somehow able to meet him anyway."
"An amazing gift indeed," Remilia agreed with a solemn smile. Then, brightening, she said, "Come. In the absence of a piano, let's see if we can find something good on the radio while we wait for 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
M. Constantin's scenes from an outline by
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020