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It was a short walk from the Hôtel de Crillon, on the Place de la Concorde, to the ceremonial front gate of the Palais de l'Élysée, on the corner of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the Avenue de Marigny. The four members of the Scarlet Devil Mansion household who were presently in Paris had actually passed by it earlier in their stay, on their way to the Interior Ministry, which was just across the way on Place Beauvau. Both Flandre Scarlet and Hong Meiling had remarked to their walking companions upon it at the time. The eight-columned monumental façade of the palace wall, with its grand iron gate topped with gilded spikes, fronted directly onto the street with no intervening lawn or gardens, making for an eye-catching sight even in this old and ornate part of Paris. The two uniformed Garde Républicaine gendarmes who stood flanking the entrance also stood out a bit.
Now these two gendarmes were faintly bemused to find themselves confronted by a quartet of people whose appearance was equally striking in its own right: two petite young women with wings, one silver-haired, the other blonde, both wearing elaborately layered and ruffled dresses that evoked a byegone century, accompanied by a grey-haired girl in an immaculate maid's uniform and a startlingly tall redhead in gracefully foreign gold-trimmed green silk.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," the tiny silver-haired woman said. "I am Countess Remilia Scarlet, and this is my household—all except my fiancé, who is away doing his part in the war." She smiled, her red eyes twinkling merrily. "Monsieur Auriol is expecting us."
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
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Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
© 2021 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
As she stood and let her maid dress her for the day's important business, Remilia Scarlet mused on one of life's funny little ironies. Had she chosen a less extravagant place than the Hôtel de Crillon for her family's Paris stay, she would probably not be quite so helpless in this matter was she was. A cheaper hotel would probably have had mirrors backed in tin, or aluminum... but an establishment of the Crillon's caliber insisted upon only the finest silvered looking glasses, which were no use at all to a vampire seeking to dress herself for a special occasion.
Still, if she had to place herself completely into another's hands for so important a matter, she could do no better than Sakuya Izayoi. She had, after all, been seeing to Remilia's clothes since childhood, and both her taste and her skill in such matters were beyond reproach. Sakuya had made the garments she was now arranging on her mistress with her own hands, and no one knew better than she how they should best be presented.
"There," said Sakuya presently, making one final adjustment to Remilia's hat. "Perfect. Now, m'lady, if you'll wait in the sitting room a few moments, I'll see to Lady Flandre."
"Excellent. Thank you, Sakuya," said Remilia, rather more formally than she usually addressed her maid these days. She couldn't help it; something in the occasion just seemed to call for it.
As Sakuya turned to help the younger of the Scarlet sisters, the elder did as she'd been asked and went out to the sitting room, where she found Hong Meiling already dressed in her best and ready to go. Her garments weren't terribly different from what she was usually to be found wearing, the simple and practical garb of an ordinary honest worker from her far-off homeland, but of richer materials and more meticulous workmanship than her everyday clothes: deep green silk edged in real gold thread.
"Good afternoon, Master Hong," said Remilia with an only-slightly-ironic little bow. "You're looking well-turned-out today."
"Sakuya insisted on making me a new outfit for the occasion," said Meiling, a touch sheepishly. "I guess I understand why. It's not every day you get to meet a head of state."
Presently Sakuya and Flandre joined them, likewise all kitted out for the occasion: Sakuya in her waistcoat and her best skirt, apron and headpiece just so, and Flandre in the mate to Remilia's new dress, its colors reversed to suit her style. They all admired each other for a few moments, then left the hotel together, pausing only to drop off the key at the front desk.
When the doors of the Salon Doré opened and Interior Minister Édouard Depreux showed in his three o'clock appointment, the President of Gallia, whose traditional office it was, was surprised twice. Once because there were four people in the party, not, as he had been expecting, two; and twice because none of them was anything at all like he had been expecting.
If he had been asked beforehand, the Honorable Vincent Auriol would have claimed not to have formed any expectation as to what Countess Remilia Scarlet and her younger sister would look like, but of course he had, without being aware of it. The unconscious image of the Countess he had formed, based on no more concrete clues than her penmanship, her extremely formal written Gallic, and her lineage, was of a tall, thin woman with long black hair and eyes to match, white skin, and strongly Slavic features, as befit one whose father came from ancient Carpathian stock. In his head, she looked about thirty, and wore a fur coat in spite of the summer's heat. Ermine, perhaps, or Baltlandic mink. Her manner was cool, formal, and distant—perhaps even a bit languid, after the manner of the old aristocracy.
Instead, the figure in the lead, now being introduced to him by the Minister of the Interior, was a diminutive, silver-haired, bat-winged woman with a twinkle in her bright red eyes and a warm, friendly smile on her slightly pointy face. She wore no fur. Instead, she was clad in an ornate old-fashioned dress of black silk with deep crimson accents and gold trim, structured to accentuate her tiny waist before widening in elaborately layered skirts and ruffled petticoats, and on her head was a black mob cap with an immense crimson bow adorning the right side like a cockade.
"Monsieur le Président," said the Countess with a slight but courtly bow. "Such a delight to meet you in person at last."
Auriol took only a moment to master his surprise. Then, rising, he bowed as gallantly as he could and said, "Countess Scarlet. Welcome to the Élysée Palace. It's an honor to have you here."
"The honor is mine, M. le Président," insisted Remilia. "May I present to you my household? My younger sister, Flandre."
Despite being introduced as the younger, the blonde girl standing to the Countess's right looked the elder of the two at first glance—taller, with the proportions of a slim adolescent. She wore a dress that was the inverse of her sister's in coloration, mostly red with accents of black, and the black bow on her red cap was on the left. Most remarkable of all were her wings, not batlike at all but adorned with rows of brightly-colored crystals, which gave a faint musical jingling as she made a gesture half-bow, half-curtsey, and said,
"Nice to meet you, M. le Président."
Now that they were introduced, Remilia and Flandre stepped to either side to make room for the two who had entered behind them. As the first of them, a grey-haired young woman in waistcoat, tie, and waist-aproned skirt, elegantly repeated the same gesture, Remilia went on,
"The keeper of my house, Miss Sakuya Izayoi."
"A pleasure," said Sakuya.
That left the very tall redhead, whose clothing was at once the least ornate and yet the most exotic of all: a snug-fitting jacket and frilly white blouse over a skirt that reached to her ankles, but was slit up the left side clear to her waist, in deep green silk with gold piping.
"And my housecarl, Master Hong Meiling."
"Nǐ hǎo, Mr. President." This one's gesture of respect had nothing of the curtsey about it; rather, she enclosed her right fist in her left hand before her chest and bowed, angling her body without lowering her eyes.
"Please, take a seat, all of you," said Auriol, and like Depreux before him, he waited until his guests were all seated before resuming his own chair.
Remilia took a moment to consider him while he was seating himself and arranging the papers on his desk. The figure she saw there, seated behind the elegant writing table that served as the official desk of the President of Gallia, was not a prepossessing one. Vincent Auriol was a man in his early sixties, wearing a dark grey suit. He had thinning grey hair combed over what she was reasonably sure would otherwise be a bald crown, large ears, a neatly trimmed mustache, and lugubrious eyes—one of them a bit lazy—behind thick black-rimmed spectacles. Apart from the custom-tailed costliness of his suit, he looked more like an aging schoolteacher, or perhaps a small-town doctor or lawyer, than the leader of one of the cornerstones of the Grand Alliance against the Neuroi.
When he spoke, at first his slightly reedy voice did nothing to dispel the illusion, but his words, once the listener focused on them, made it plain that he was more than he appeared.
"When the Allied Forces drove the Neuroi from Gallia, and the Provisional Government-in-Exile returned to Paris and established the Fourth Republic, no one could agree at first upon who should be the new Republic's first president," he said. "The militarists wanted General de Gaulle, of course, but he declined to seek office so long as the war goes on. On the other hand, there was a considerable faction that wished to establish a government based on the principles of Marx—to sweep aside the old order of things entirely, rather than try to re-establish a semblance of what life was like before the Neuroi, and embark instead on an experiment in full-on Communism."
Remilia gave him a mildly puzzled look. "I'm afraid I'm not very well-versed in any political movement to take place much after 1790, M. le Président," she said.
Auriol shook his head, smiling slightly. "No, and I don't expect you to be. What I'm getting at is this. I was elected largely on the basis of my advocacy for a third force in Gallian politics, in between those two positions—a bridge, if you will, between left and right. Gallia was fractured, fragmented, by the Occupation and the Evacuation, and I see it as my role to bring as many of those fragments back together as I can.
"As such," he went on, tapping a document on his blotter that Remilia belatedly recognized as her original letter to him, "you may imagine that your message, seeking reconciliation between the country and your people, struck something of a chord for me. Once Mme. de Moret's research confirmed your account, I had no doubt of the course I must take.
"The Terror was a blot on the history of Gallia, one with which some of us are still struggling, almost 16 decades later," Auriol continued. "Until now we have been able to tell ourselves that at least these terrible things happened long ago—that they have fallen out of living memory. But now we must accept that this is plainly not true. And as you quite rightly pointed out in your letter, Countess, these things were done in the name of Gallia, so in the name of Gallia they must be repudiated."
Auriol paused, looking from one expectant face to the next, then returned his focus to the Countess and said, "My government's official apology will be published in the evening newspapers, and formally proclaimed before the Senate and the National Assembly tomorrow. But in the meantime, Countess Remilia, Lady Flandre, please allow me to offer my own personal apology, if I may. To lose one's parents is always cause for sorrow, but to have them taken in such a fashion must have been truly horrific."
Rising to his feet, he bowed to them and said, "For all that, I am deeply sorry."
The visitors all stood as well. For a moment, Flandre and Remilia stood looking at each other; then Flandre nodded, very slightly, and Remilia said as formally as she knew how,
"Thank you, M. le Président. For myself, and in my capacity as head of what remains of House Scarlet... I accept your apology."
There followed a small, semiformal reception, attended by a few selected members of the Council of Ministers (the uppermost echelon of the Gallian government's executive branch) and the General Staff of the Armed Forces. If the truth were known, all the guests of honor found the affair rather puzzling and more than a little tedious, but all played along as gamely as possible, and none let on that they would very much have preferred to leave the realm of officialdom as soon as possible and get on with celebrating the occasion in a more familial setting.
Remilia, in particular, turned on all the charm she'd most recently dusted off for her visit to Château Saint-Ulrich, working the room as she had once worked her father's dinner parties for the Alsatian aristocracy and other notables of the region. Flandre did likewise, with less polish but equal appeal, and, to the surprise of no one who knew her, Sakuya was poise itself. Meiling spent the whole time feeling as out-of-place as a Labrador retriever at a fancy cat show, but such was her self-possession and centered air that the impression she left on all of them was one of calm and pleasant reliability rather than awkwardness.
At one point Remilia, who had been watching for just such an opportunity the whole time, found herself alone with Auriol, still in the room but at a discreet remove from the other guests. They chatted for a few moments about inconsequential matters, and then, with a smile, she touched his arm and said,
"I said in my initial letter that I ask for no compensation beyond the restoration of my citizenship and my sister's. Upon reflection, I should like to amend that slightly, if I may be so bold."
Auriol raised an eyebrow behind his heavy spectacles. "In what way?" he inquired.
"Nothing material, I assure you," Remilia said. "Merely to include another item that will cost nothing but a bit of extra paperwork." Nodding toward the far corner, where Sakuya and Meiling were talking with Prime Minister Ramadier and a woman in the uniform of a general of the Free Gallian Air Force, she went on, "My maid and my housecarl, you see, are in love and wish to marry—but as they are both women, they'll no doubt require some form of special dispensation." She let him take that on board, then said with a smile, "This is my price, M. le Président, and I trust you will not think it too high."
Auriol took off his spectacles and cleaned them meticulously, put them back on, and returned the smile.
"Technically, that is M. Depreux's department, not mine," he said with wry good humor, "but it can be arranged." At her look of faint surprise—she had been expecting him to demur and require a bit of cajoling on the point—he went on with a slightly mischievous look, "Your timing is impeccable, Countess. When you see the news, a day or two hence, of what our friend Kaiser Friedrich of Karlsland has just done in his country, you'll understand."
"I see," said Remilia, giving no outward sign that she really didn't. "Well, I'm pleased we are in agreement. Now, while we have the opportunity, let us find the Minister of War and discuss what my household can do for the war effort."
The sun was low and the shadows long by the time they finally got out of the Élysée, a bit tired, but in buoyant spirits. On the way back to the Crillon, they passed a newsstand and saw that the evening papers were already out. The front page of Le Monde was prominently on display, with its blaring headline proclaming RAPPROCHEMENT AVEC LES DERNIÈRES VAMPIRES and its slightly blurry black-and-white reproductions of Julien Boissard's paintings of the Scarlet sisters. Flandre was amused and gratified to see the stand's proprietor give her sister a startled double take as they walked by.
In the lobby, Manager Berjeau was on duty at the desk, and upon spotting the Scarlet Devil party passing the lobby, he left his post and walked briskly toward them.
"Uh-oh," Meiling muttered behind a hand to Sakuya. "Are we about to get thrown out?"
But as the manager drew nearer, he beamed, spreading his hands in welcome, and said, "Countess, welcome back. I've just seen the news. Please accept my congratulations."
"Why, thank you, M. Berjeau," said Remilia graciously. "I haven't had a chance to read the report myself; we've only just returned from conferring with M. Auriol and some of his ministers." With a wry little smile, she added, "I do hope our friends in the fifth estate haven't been too uncomplimentary."
"I'll have the evening papers sent up so you can gauge that for yourself, Countess. I would say they are more bemused than anything, at least for the moment. If I were a betting man, I would wager their editors are still trying to find out when anyone last publicly acknowledged the existence of vampires."
"I must say, you don't seem particularly surprised," Flandre observed.
"Mademoiselle," said Berjeau with a slight twinkle, "this is one of the great hotels of Europe—of the world! We have seen far stranger things in our time."
After a light lunch and a nap, the four of them changed into less formal clothes and went out into the city to see what the night had to offer. Thursday was not Paris's liveliest evening, as a rule, but the capital never truly slept, and there was plenty of entertainment to be found, if one were in the right frame of mind.
Without really considering the matter, they found themselves returning to Montmartre, Boissard's neighborhood, where the nightclubs and cabarets were doing a brisk trade. They never crossed paths with the painter and his friends, but Flandre came away from several of the establishments they visited with the impression that they'd only missed them by coincidences of timing. They were exactly the sort of places she imagined a group of young artists would frequent.
Remilia found the cabarets, in particular, a bit bemusing. They reminded her once again that, for all that she'd lived a long time by human standards, hers had been a singularly sheltered existence for most of it. Apart from their brief visit to the district in search of Boissard a few nights ago, when she'd been somewhat distracted by the mission at hand, she'd never encountered anything like all this, the light and noise and bustle.
It wasn't unpleasant, for the most part. She already knew, thanks to the records Benjamin had unintentionally brought with him when he almost literally crashed into her life back in the springtime, that she enjoyed modern music, so the bands and solo acts the foursome encountered as they roamed from club to club pleased her more often than not... but she wasn't sure what to make of the women taking their clothes off.
They inevitably drew some attention each time they, as a group of four women (two of them quite young-looking), entered an establishment that, upon closer inspection, was geared mainly toward the entertainment of men or couples—and that was before whatever percentage of the proprietors had seen the newspapers recognized them. No one ever made them feel unwelcome, but some were clearly as bemused by their presence as Remilia was by the acts on offer. In a way, that was comforting, even amusing. She liked the idea that her presence caught them as off-balance as some of their shows caught her. There seemed to be a sort of just symmetry to that.
After hopping from place to place for a couple of hours, staying for a musical number here or the duration of a polite drink there, they eventually found themselves seated at a corner table in a place that was half cabaret, half Romagnan restaurant, sipping champagne, eating garlic bread, and listening to a five-man jazz combo led by a clarinetist. For the first time in the evening, none of them felt any particular urge to move on right away. The place had a homey air to in they'd found neither in the glitzier clubs nor the seedier bars they'd stopped into so far. It felt less like a machine for separating tourists from their money and more like a place to relax and enjoy the show.
They all noticed it, but Flandre was the first to say it aloud, remarking, "I like this band. Maybe we should stick around for the rest of their set."
Sakuya nodded. "I was just having a similar thought."
"I'm game," said Meiling. Looking over the menu handwritten on a card in the middle of the table, she added, "Might give the linguine a try."
"Master Hong, would you say this room has welcoming feng shui?" asked Remilia with a mischievous smile.
"I believe I would," Meiling agreed.
After another number or two, the band was joined by a singer: a dark-haired woman in a black dress, so petite she was barely taller than the lanky clarinetist's elbow.
"Wow, Sis," Flandre remarked. "She's almost as small as you."
Remilia gave her younger-but-taller sister a sardonic look. "Kai sú, téknon?" she replied dryly.
Sakuya, for her part, paid the byplay between the sisters little mind. Rather, she was observing the reactions of the other patrons, and noticing that, for the most part, they seemed to know who the singer was, but hadn't been expecting to see her. There had been no singer mentioned by name on the chalkboard outside the club—only the name of the band—and the people around them seemed surprised by her appearance.
She glanced at Meiling and saw that she'd noticed the same thing. Meiling had only time for a moment's eye contact and a slight shrug for Sakuya before the singer began her first number. She had a surprisingly powerful voice for such a tiny woman, but what really arrested Remilia's attention was the content of the piece—a song from the point of view of a woman very much in love, with a suggestion that the condition was relatively recent—perhaps even unexpected.
Des yeux qui font baisser les miens
A gaze that makes me lower my own
Un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche
A laugh that is lost on his lips
Voilà le portrait sans retouches
That is the unretouched portrait
De l'homme auquel j'appartiens...
Of the man to whom I belong...
Quand il me prend dans ses bras
When he takes me in his arms
Il me parle tout bas
He speaks to me softly
Je vois la vie en rose
I see life through rose-colored glasses
Remilia glanced at Flandre and saw that she was listening closely, her eyes widening with surprise as the lyrics sank in. She wasn't so focused that she didn't notice she'd been looked at, though, and she met her sister's eyes with a little grin and a faint blush as the singer continued:
Il me dit des mots d'amour
He speaks words of love to me
Des mots de tous les jours
They are everyday words
Et ça me fait quelque chose
And they do something to me
Il est entré dans mon cœur
He has entered into my heart
Une part de bonheur
A bit of happiness
Dont je connais la cause
Of which I know the cause
Her voice, which had sounded something like confidential at the beginning, became almost operatic at this point, declaring the everlasting nature of this love in strong, simple terms.
C'est lui pour moi, moi pour lui dans la vie
It's only him for me, and me for him for life
Il me l'a dit, l'a juré pour la vie
He told me, he swore to me for life
Et dès que je l'aperçois
As soon as I notice him
Alors je sens en moi
I sense within me
Mon cœur qui bat
My heart beating
Winding down from her declarative peak, the singer swept her gaze around the room, her dark eyes twinkling. If she took particular notice of the unusual party in the back corner, she gave no outward sign of it, and her voice was low and near-conspiratorial again when she took up the thread:
Des nuits d'amour à plus finir
Endless nights of love
Un grand bonheur qui prend sa place
Bring great happiness
Des ennuis, des chagrins s'effacent
The pains, the troubles fade away
Heureux, heureux à en mourir...
Happy, so happy I could die...
The rest of the song was a repeat of the first chorus, restating the reasons for and effects of her love of the unspecified man in question. As the number wrapped up and the applause began, Meiling snagged a passing waiter and asked him,
"Who's the lady, garçon? Folks here seem to know her."
The waiter looked perplexed. "You don't know La Môme Piaf? Where have you been?"
"It's a long story," Meiling replied, causing Sakuya to stifle a snort of laughter. "I guess you've been too busy to see a newspaper tonight..."
"Far too busy," the young man agreed. "In any case, that is Miss Édith Piaf, the famous chanteuse. She's only recently returned from Neukarlsland, where she lived while the Neuroi held Gallia." Spotting a signal from another patron, he added hurriedly, "Please excuse me," and rushed off about his business.
"I thought as much," said Sakuya with a satisfied smile.
"Time-traveling showoff over here," said Meiling with a good-natured eyeroll. "Next you'll tell me you wrote the song."
"No, nothing of the kind," Sakuya replied. "We've never met—although we do have a mutual acquaintance or two," she added with a mischievous little wink.
Flandre considered the nickname the waiter had mentioned, then gave Remilia a wry grin. "'The Little Sparrow', hm? Maybe you should take up singing too, Sis." Remilia was about to demur when Flandre added brightly, "We could call you La Môme Chiroptère."
Meiling, who had just been about to take a sip from her champagne flute, abandoned the operation just in time to avoid an incident, then shot Flandre a half-hearted glower which, to judge from the beaming smile she got back in return, had been the whole plan.
"Perhaps not," said Remilia dryly.
They stayed at that club for the balance of the evening, through the rest of Piaf's set and on to closing time. Occasionally, Sakuya and Meiling would get up and take to the dance floor for a number or two. Flandre tried to interest her sister in a turn about the floor as well, but Remilia seemed happy to remain where she was, taking in the atmosphere of the place with a contented little smile. When, in the wee hours of the morning, the club closed down, the foursome emerged to find that it was one of the last to do so.
"Huh," said Meiling, looking around at the darkened, quiet streets. "I guess even Montmartre rolls up its sidewalks eventually... at least on Thursday." Stretching an arm above her head, she yawned and went on with a grin, "Suits me fine. I never was one for a lot of late-night hellraising."
At the door to the Crillon, Flandre paused, looking thoughtfully up at the still-dark sky for a moment, then said, "I think I'll go for a little walk before I turn in." With a little smile, she added, "Not quite ready for this night to be over..."
"Well, don't stay out too early," Remilia admonished her. "You don't have your parasol with you, after all."
"I'll be fine, Sis. I'm just going to wander around a little, burn off some nervous energy. Be back before you know it."
True to her word, Flandre set out with no particular destination in mind. Instead she strolled aimlessly, letting her mind wander. She still hadn't completely taken on board the full significance of the day's events. What did being Citoyenne Flandre really mean? She'd seen her sister talking to President Auriol, Prime Minister Ramadier, and a third man at the reception, off in the corner; a brief but evidently intense little conference. Inquiries had revealed that the third man was War Minister Coste-Floret.
Flandre knew Remilia intended to offer her services to the war effort as part of her rapprochement with the Fourth Republic, but not what form that service would take, nor whether she would be involved herself. They hadn't had a chance to discuss the matter between themselves yet. She certainly wanted to enter the war, had wanted to before Remilia was even willing to consider rejoining the world, but it wasn't clear to her how one would go about it. Were the witches Ben flew with volunteers? She supposed the Gallian one must be, since she'd been with the 501st during a time when there was no Gallia, officially.
Before she realized it, her musings had carried her across the vast expanse of the Place de la Concorde to the bank of the Seine. She only noticed that the street she was meandering along had become a bridge when she crossed above the water's edge, a strange sensation that instantly recentered her attention. It didn't hurt, because she was on a bridge, but even with the buffer of masonry and pavement between herself and the flowing river, she was definitely aware that she'd left her vampiric physiology's comfort zone.
She paused a few yards along and leaned her elbows on the railing, looking down at the dark water. What a peculiar business being a vampire was sometimes! Her father's book had contained only speculation as to why attempting to cross flowing water hurt—hurt to the point where few vampires could force themselves to continue. Of course, the old folklore had a lot of rambling in it about water symbolizing "purity" and vampirism being a "corruption", but Count Victor had had no time for that kind of moralistic waffle, and neither had either of his daughters.
Rather, Victor's theory had been that it was a sort of metamagical accident, to do with the vampiric body's resistance to change. Water in motion was an elemental embodiment of change, and so, ran the count's logic, anathema to the changelessness that was fundamental to vampires' physical makeup. That didn't really explain why bathing wasn't a problem, but that, Flandre recalled from her long-ago studies under her mother, was magic for you. Internal consistency was not one of its strong points.
She was just about to head back toward the hotel when she caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. Turning, she saw a man in a dark suit, midway along the span, mount the railing, stand there for a moment—and then, before Flandre had fully realized what was going on, let himself fall into the river.
With an involuntary cry of surprise and dismay, Flandre rushed to the point where he'd gone in, leaning out. The man was easy to spot; despite the fact that he'd clearly thrown himself into the river deliberately, he was now thrashing about in evident panic, his splashing plainly visible to her night-adapted eyes. The current was already carrying him downstream, away from the bridge.
Even though she'd just been woolgathering about vampires and streams a moment before, Flandre gave the matter no thought at all now. She did exactly what she would've done before her turning, as a young girl taught to swim at an early age by her Brugeois mother. She sprang onto the rail and dove straight in after him.
The shock as she hit the water was like nothing she'd experienced before, at least nothing she could remember clearly. It was as though the river were filled with needles, or shards of glass. Even having a third or so of her body stripped away by the death of the Neuroi that had consumed it hadn't hurt this much. She surfaced, gasping, and nearly lost control of herself, but for the sight of the flailing, struggling man, a few yards away and being swept off downriver.
Teeth gritted, Flandre struck out for the drowning man, forcing her shock-stiffened limbs to obey her will. She reached him in a dozen fury-fueled strokes, hooking an arm around his body below his arms. He kept struggling, threatening to drag them both down, but Flandre tightened her grip to the point where the pain got his attention and growled in his ear,
"Be still, damn you, or I'll break your neck and let the river keep you."
Perhaps startled by the threat as much as the rescue, he went limp and let her do as she would.
To reach him, she'd mostly been swimming with the current rather than athwart it. Now she had to get them both to one of the banks, and that meant cutting straight across. Exactly what all the legends said no vampire could do. As she made the turn, the pain doubled, the river water tearing at her like boiling acid. Flandre uttered a bestial snarl that would have alarmed both her sister and Gryphon if they could've heard it, then doubled her efforts to match, towing the waterlogged man to shore.
All but blinded by the pain and the water in her eyes, Flandre blundered into one of the small boat docks that lined the quai along this stretch of the river. With one last convulsive effort, she threw the man up onto the dock, then dragged herself up after him and lay sprawled, shivering and panting for breath, upon the wet timber.
Her senses slowly returned, the thunder of her heartbeat in her ears ebbing so that she could hear other things. Groaning, she rolled over and sat up, dragging her hands down her face. Taking them away, she was vaguely surprised not to find her palms covered in blood. Evidently all that wetness she could feel on her face was just river water after all.
Turning her head, she saw the man she'd rescued sitting a few feet away, his own face buried in his hands. He seemed to be weeping, though she had no way of knowing whether it was with relief that he'd been saved or despair that his suicide attempt had been thwarted. Now that it was over, Flandre felt a bit awkward. What did one do after saving the life of someone who might not have wanted it? What was the social protocol for a situation like that?
She didn't know, so she just sat there, wet and feeling slightly foolish, for several minutes. At length, the man seemed to pull himself together. With a long, shuddering breath, he scrubbed at his face with both hands, then let them drop and turned to her.
"I... I suppose I ought to thank you," he said, his voice hushed, and Flandre was startled to realize that she knew him, at least in passing. He was bedraggled and filthy, his hair plastered down with whatever unspeakable muck the river was made of in this part of the city, but the lines of his face and the Liberion accent in his voice were unmistakable. He was the man who had accosted Sakuya when she'd used the guests' lift at the Crillon the other day.
It took him a little longer to recognize her, partly because she was surely just as woebegone as he was at the moment, partly because he only had her in the light of a dim lamppost several yards away, up on the quai; but after a few seconds, his eyes went wide and he gasped,
Flandre nodded. "It's me. And it's you. Now that we've established that, we should get out of here. Someone might have heard our little adventure and gone for a policeman. I don't know about you, but I don't feel like explaining what just happened."
The young man nodded. "No. No indeed." His voice shook, and Flandre noticed he was starting to shiver, either with delayed shock or simply because, even though it was summer, the breeze was cool this late at night, and they were both soaked to the skin.
Rising, she said, "You'd better get dried off before you catch something. Do you have somewhere you can go and warm up?"
The man remained where he was for a few seconds, slumped with elbows on knees, gazing glumly at the dock. Then, raising dark-rimmed eyes to hers, he said bleakly,
"Mademoiselle, if I had anywhere to go, do you think I would just have tried to drown myself?"
Flandre considered that for a moment, then shrugged. "Fair point. All right." She offered him a hand. "Come with me."
He looked at the hand for a moment, as if unsure what it was; then, his own slightly shaky, he took it and let her pull him to his feet. Her strength startled him, as it had in the river. Only then did his preoccupation clear enough for him to notice her wings.
"You... you're one of those people from the evening papers, aren't you?" he asked. "The, the vampires."
"That's right." With a mocking little demi-curtsey, rendered comical by her matted hair and drenched clothing, she said, "Flandre Scarlet, younger sister of Countess Remilia Scarlet of Haut-Colmar. Pleased to meet you." Then, turning, she set off for the Place de la Concorde, inquiring over her shoulder, "And you are?"
"I—my name is Wentworth," he said, hurrying to catch up with her. Some trace of breeding flickered within him, drawn out in spite of the surreality of the occasion, and he added, "Ebenezer H. Wentworth, at your service."
"Lucky for you I'm not in the market for service," Flandre replied archly.
There was a certain irony, Eben Wentworth reflected, in the fact that, mere days after accosting a woman he took to be a servant for presuming to use the guests' elevator in the Hôtel Crillon, he found himself entering the hotel through the trade entrance and creeping up the back stairs to the servants' quarters under the eaves of the building. This was a completely unfamiliar milieu for him, a place he'd never seen nor ever thought he would have any desire to see.
Flandre had gone in the front, indifferent to the puzzled stares her wet and bedraggled condition attracted from the lobby staff. Wentworth waited in the dimly lit garret hallway for a short while, wondering whether she'd sent him up here as some kind of prank, before she appeared at the head of the stairs, having hastily changed her clothes and rinsed and dried her hair. Without speaking, she found her way to one of the numbered doors, unlocked it, and gestured him inside.
The room beyond was minuscule by the Crillon's standards, just big enough for a couple of narrow iron bedsteads and a shared dresser, but it wasn't shabby, as some part of Wentworth had unconsciously been expecting. Though spartan, everything in it was of good quality, and the room itself was as scrupulously clean as anything in the guest-facing part of the famed hotel.
"This is the servants' room that goes with our suite," Flandre explained, keeping her voice low in deference to the hour. "Except Sakuya and Meiling aren't servants, not to Sis and me; they're part of our family. So they stay with us and we're not using this room. Nobody will bother you here." She put down the bundle of fabric she was carrying on one of the beds: a bathrobe from the set allocated to her family's suite and a couple of towels. "We don't have any men in our party, so I couldn't borrow you any clothes," she said, "but you can put on this robe and hang yours up to dry, anyway."
"Thank you," said Wentworth. He sat down on the other bed, face in hands, for a moment, and then dropped his hands into his lap and went on in a small, shaky voice, "Really more than damned decent of you. I... I shan't impose on you long."
"Don't sit there like that, you'll get the mattress wet," Flandre chided him, remarking inwardly how much she sounded like her sister just then. She bundled up the robe and towels and thrust them into his hands, continuing, "The bathroom is at the end of the hall. Go and get out of those wet clothes. I didn't fish you out of that river so you could catch pneumonia and die anyway," she added wryly.
Wentworth glanced at her, then chuckled in spite of himself. "Yes, ma'am," he said, and, after an awkward pause in the doorway during which he could find no more words, he went to do as he was told.
He was mildly surprised to find her still there when he returned, swathed in the robe and with his hair wet again from a rinse in the sink. She was sitting on the bed where she'd put the towels down in an odd sort of meditative position, her legs folded under her in a way that looked like it would have been very uncomfortable in anyone not so lightly built. At the sound of his return, she opened her eyes and asked,
"Much," he admitted. He hung his clothes, which he'd washed as best he could in the sink, over the radiator to dry, then sat down on the other bed (and avoiding the damp spot he'd left before).
There followed a few seconds of silence, following which, apropos of nothing, he said, "I suppose I owe your maid an apology."
"Technically she's my sister's maid," Flandre pointed out, "but I'm sure she'd appreciate that. So... you want to tell me what that was all about? You don't have to, but... if you want to talk about it, I'll listen."
Tilting his head in puzzlement, Wentworth asked, "Why?"
Flandre gazed thoughtfully at him for a few moments, her vertical pupils slightly unnerving him, then said, "Because I've had the kind of night that makes you think about jumping off a bridge. More than you can count. It wasn't that long ago that I was finally able to leave that place behind." She shrugged eloquently. "Maybe it's time I paid it forward."
Wentworth thought that over, then nodded. "I see. Well... there's not much to tell, really. Mine is a sordid enough little story. I'm the only son of J. Otis Wentworth, the Liberion industrialist. You might have heard of Wentworth Industries?"
Flandre shook her head. "I only recently arrived from the 16th century," she said cryptically.
"Ah. Well, it hardly matters. The point is, my father is—was—a very successful and wealthy man, and I've spent the last 28 years wasting his money as fast as he could be persuaded to give it to me. I managed to graduate from Yale without learning a single thing, I've never worked a day in my life, and I have no noteworthy talents other than an uncanny knack for backing the wrong horse. And," he added with a flash of black humor, "as your sister's maid discovered the other day, when I've just had a dose of bad news and several doses of someone else's single malt, I've a real way with the ladies."
He waited for a reaction, but none was forthcoming; Flandre just sat there, giving him that same steady, thoughtful, slightly unsettling look. Sighing, Wentworth collected himself and said, "When you and the young lady with the grey hair encountered me, I'd just come from a lunch meeting with my stepmother's lawyer's man in Europe, who had just come over from London to inform me that Father had died two days previous, and that before he went, Estelle convinced him to cut me out of his will. Suddenly I had nothing but what little cash was in my pocket, and no prospect of any more coming in. So I was a bit... our Britannian friends' phrase for it is 'tired and emotional,' I believe," he said with another darkly wry flicker. "This doesn't excuse my boorish behavior toward your sister's maid, of course, but it may go some way toward explaining it."
He spread his hands, a bit helplessly. "And there we are. My manservant was the first to go. You've seen how I get on with servants, so it should've come as no surprise that he disappeared as soon as he learned of my sudden destitution. My so-called 'friends' melted away as well, in due course. Lost my rooms, of course, and everything in them seized for back rent. All I'm left with now are those clothes," (he nodded vaguely toward the radiator), "and an automobile that I can no longer afford to own, and probably won't be able to sell in this wartime economy. Tonight... I reached the end of my rope."
"You seemed pretty reluctant to drown once you were actually in the river," Flandre pointed out.
"Yes. I must confess I rather reconsidered the matter once it was too late," said Wentworth with another self-mocking little smile. "I suppose the cold sobered me up, and when no longer drunk, it didn't seem like such a good way to go any longer." Sobering, he met her eyes and said, "Thank you. I... I don't know what I'm going to do with myself, but I can promise you that whatever it is, it won't involve the Seine."
"Don't read too much into it," Flandre said with a shrug. "I just saw you jump and... reacted."
"Nonetheless, I owe you my life... of however little value that is."
Flandre didn't reply to that. Instead, after a moment's pause, she asked, "Why don't you fight?"
"Go back to Liberion and contest your father's will, I mean," she said.
"I wouldn't know where to begin," said Wentworth hopelessly.
"They must have courts in your country."
"I couldn't even buy myself a sandwich at the moment, much less a steamer ticket back to New York."
"You could work your passage," Flandre suggested.
"Me, a sailor?" Wentworth scoffed. "I've no nautical skills at all. I'd be a positive liability to any captain fool enough to take that bargain."
"Hmm." Flandre frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "What kind of automobile is it?"
"The auto you mentioned, the one you can't afford to keep. What kind is it?"
Wentworth looked mystified. "It... it's a Duesenberg, an SJ."
Flandre wasn't sure why she'd asked, since the names of cars meant nothing to her. "Is it a large automobile?" she asked.
"It's... substantial, I'd say," said Wentworth. "It's a dual-cowl phaeton by LeBaron."
That was all so much more gibberish to Flandre; shaking her head, she pressed on, "How many people can it hold?"
"Oh, five or six, I should think. It's quite comfortable." With a trace of slightly pathetic pride, he added, "It's the only intelligent purchase I've ever made. They don't make them like that any more."
"Hmm. All right. Here's what we're going to do," said Flandre briskly. "You get some sleep, you look terrible. In the morning, or I suppose early afternoon at this point, go get yourself something to eat." She fished in her pocket and spread some money on the coverlet beside her. "Then make yourself as presentable as you can, go get this 'Duesenberg' of yours from wherever you keep it, and bring it here at five o'clock. Tell the desk Countess Scarlet is expecting you."
Wentworth's look of puzzlement deepened. "Why?"
"I can hardly convince my sister to buy the thing sight unseen, can I?"
"Why would a vampire countess buy a car?"
"Because she's interested in them, but the one my future brother-in-law has frightens her," said Flandre with a mischievous little grin. "She says it's too small, anyway. She wants something big enough for the whole family."
"I... I don't know what to say," Wentworth admitted.
"For now, don't say anything," said Flandre. Rising, she brushed down her skirts and said, "Go to sleep. I'll see you back here—when?"
"Five o'clock," Wentworth replied automatically.
"Good. See, you can learn. And now," she went on with slightly sarcastic formality, "I must to bed, myself. Good morning to you, M. Wentworth."
Wentworth was too stunned to make any reply beyond an abstract sound as she left the room. He listened as the stairway door opened and closed, and then just sat there for a few minutes, gazing around at the bare little room, before shutting off the light and stretching himself out on the narrow but decently comfortable bed.
"What just happened?" he wondered aloud, and then the exhaustion of the night caught up with him and he plummeted into sleep.
As Flandre slipped into bed, Remilia stirred, only partially waking, and mumbled, "Welcome back. Did you have a nice walk?"
"It was... interesting," Flandre replied. "I'll tell you about it in the afternoon."
"Mm," said Remilia, already most of the way back to sleep. "G'morning, Flan..."
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
"La Vie en Rose" by
Édith Piaf, Louiguy, and Marguerite Monnot
English translation based on
this one here
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2021