Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Amid the trackless wastes of the eternal desert, half-buried in the ever-shifting sands, there stood the Great Library.
Though known far and wide as the repository of all the knowledge in the world, it was seldom visited, for few knew the way, and fewer still could hope to complete the arduous journey. Only a bare handful of those dared to risk encountering the Librarian, a powerful and easily angered spirit...
... or the person who had long resided in the reading room of the east wing: the legendary Witch of the Library, of whom, it was whispered, even the Librarian was afraid.
Any outsider bold enough to brave the wastes and breach the sanctum would likely not have been particularly impressed at the sight of that person. Ensconced in an armchair at the end of a long reading table, she had the aspect of a young woman, possibly still in her teens, of unexceptional stature, her small frame swathed in a voluminous robe of pale violet. Her long, straight hair was violet too, of somewhat darker cast.
Something about her gave the impression that she had occupied that chair for years, perhaps decades. The table before her and the space all around her were piled high with books, scrolls, even stone tablets, in great number and with no obvious organization. Right now, she had a trio of large, leather-bound volumes propped open before her, as if on lecterns... but there was no lectern there, the books instead hovering in thin air.
The witch's solemnly composed face, though quite youthful, was drawn—almost gaunt—and pale. Only her eyes, large and black behind wire-rimmed spectacles, had any spark to them, as they flicked restlessly over page after page at an unnatural rate. The books' pages turned by themselves, untouched by her long, thin hands, their rustling the only sound in the room.
Presently, a door off to one side opened and another woman entered the chamber. This one was taller, more robust, crisply uniformed in dark business attire and a white shirt. The heels of her shoes clacked on the stone floor as she crossed the room. She halted a pace or two from the table and stood silently, waiting to be recognized. As the silence stretched, she began to fidget, the little batlike wings protruding through her long red hair at the sides of her head shifting nervously.
"What is it, Koakuma?" the woman in violet inquired without looking away from her book. Her voice was low and slightly hoarse, as from disuse. It took on a note of annoyance as she continued, "I thought I told you I wasn't to be disturbed."
"I know, Mistress, but... you need to see this at once."
The violet-clad girl kept reading for several more pages in each book (which took only a few seconds), then grudgingly marked her places, dismissed the books to one of the piles with a negligent wave of her hand, and turned to the redhead.
"Show me," she said curtly. Without a word, Koakuma took a folded newspaper from under her arm and handed it over.
Arching an eyebrow, the witch unfolded it and oriented herself. It was an issue of Le Matin, the Paris morning newspaper, dated June 28, 1946. Her brow knitting, the witch was on the verge of asking her familiar what could possibly be in a Gallian morning newspaper that was important enough to interrupt her research—
—when her eye fell upon the two portraits reproduced just below the bellowing top headline: RETOUR DES VAMPIRES!
She gazed in disbelief at the pictures for some time before finally reading the article that began underneath them. This took all of a few seconds, after which she put the paper down and just sat staring at it for nearly a full minute.
"My gods," she murmured at length. "They're alive." She turned to Koakuma. "How?"
"I know no more than you do, Mistress," Koakuma replied, shrugging. "Shall I conjure the other Paris papers? They may have more information."
The witch shook her head. "No. Not necessary." Then, with a sudden burst of energy, she rose from her chair. Once fully upright, she tottered slightly, but caught herself on the table and said before her familiar could interject, "Make preparations for a portal. Now."
Koakuma blinked in shock. "Mistress?"
"You heard me," the witch snapped, and then, without another word, she swept out of the room, her steps becoming surer as she went, and headed for the Great Rotunda.
There, as she expected, she found the Librarian at his podium, directing the efforts of the knowledge-seeking spirits who flitted here and there throughout the world, perpetually stocking the library with all that had been discovered or created since last they passed by. At her approach, he looked startled, then seemed to catch himself.
"Lady Patchouli, She Who Knows One Million Things," he said, inclining his head. "To what do I owe the rare pleasure of a personal encounter?"
Skipping over any niceties or preamble, Patchouli replied, "I'm leaving."
The Librarian gave a long-suffering sigh. "When should I expect your return?" he inquired, his tone of voice somewhere between respectful and resigned.
"You shouldn't," Patchouli replied flatly. "I doubt I'll ever be back."
At this, the Librarian's great, lamplike eyes blinked in surprise. "... I beg your pardon?"
"I'm going home."
"I was under the impression you had taken the Library as your home," said the Librarian with faint asperity.
"'Home' as in the place I came from," Patchouli explained. "The world where I was born." Folding her arms, she smirked slightly and chided him, "You should be pleased, Wan Shi Tong. Your fondest wish is coming true. I'm giving you back your library at last."
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
© 2021 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Marisa Kirisame woke laterally, sliding gently sideways out of a dream of being in bed into a reality that matched it virtually note for note.
Smiling sleepily, she rolled over, reaching a hand across in search of the other presence her dream-memory expected, but found the other side of the bed empty. That brought her the rest of the way to the surface, and her golden eyes blinked open, looking past her outstretched hand to the unoccupied half of the bed.
With a look of dawning puzzlement, Marisa sat up, stretched, yawned, and looked around the room, trying to figure out where she was. Bedroom, obviously. Quite large, very fancy, in that frothy, overdone style she associated mentally with Gallia in the days of the monarchy. Certainly nowhere she'd ever slept before.
"What th'..." she mumbled, mystified. The last thing she remembered...
Marisa's eyes went wide as it clicked together in her head. "This is... oh man. Oh man. Did I check in? Tell me I didn't check in." Palming her face, she groaned, "I'm gonna be washin' dishes for the rest of my natural life."
"Are you talking to yourself?" a faintly amused voice asked.
"Aah!" Marisa cried, jumping in surprise. Turning, she saw an unfamiliar figure standing in a doorway, regarding her with a faint, enigmatic smile: a young woman, maybe three or four years older than she was, with slightly shaggy grey hair in twin braids, dressed in a black-and-white uniform with an apron and a distinctive ruffled headband.
Recovering her aplomb quickly, Marisa shook her head and replied, "No, I'm a witch. Witches don't talk to ourselves. If it looks like we are, we're talking to our familiars. Right, Mr. Murgatroyd?" she added, directing the question to her yellow tabby cat, who was curled up next to her.
Mr. Murgatroyd's only response was a languid stretch and a prolonged yawn.
"I guess he doesn't find your conversation stimulating," said the woman standing in the doorway.
"Rude," Marisa grumbled.
"You're the one who went to sleep on the floor of a complete stranger's sitting room."
Marisa added two and two and said, "You must be Gryph's fiancée's maid."
A mischievously arched grey eyebrow. "Oh, what gave me away?"
"You're wearing a maid outfit," replied Marisa, deadpan.
"There is that," the maid conceded. Then, with an elegant gesture combining bow and curtsey, she added, "Sakuya Izayoi. I am the keeper of my lady Countess Remilia Scarlet's house. And you, I gather, are one Marisa Kirisame, a witch of the future count's acquaintance."
"You're well-informed," said Marisa, sounding slightly impressed.
"It's my job," Sakuya replied calmly.
Sakuya looked up from the book she was still not really reading at the sound of a key in the door, and was up, dressed, and waiting in the hallway by the time Gryphon managed to work the unfamiliar lock and let himself in.
"Good evening, Chief," she said, smiling, as he entered—then paused, surprised, as she saw that he wasn't alone.
He was half-leading, half-supporting a girl in her mid-teens, with long, disorderly blonde hair, dressed in black and white. She supposed the broad-brimmed conical hat must belong to this person, even if it was currently cocked at a precarious-looking angle on Gryphon's head. And why was he carrying a broom over his shoulder?
"Evening, Sakuya," he replied, his voice low. "This is—shoot," he interrupted himself as the blonde girl wobbled and then slid slowly, almost gracefully off his arm and into a heap on the floor.
"I feel like there's a story here," said Sakuya with a slight smile.
"Isn't there always?" Gryphon replied rhetorically, handing her the hat and broom. "This is Marisa Kirisame," he went on as he knelt and scooped the mostly-boneless girl up—reminding Sakuya of nothing so much as a parent gathering up a child who has fallen asleep before the end of a party. "She's a witch from Liberion," he went on quietly, following Sakuya into the sitting room. "I'll tell you the rest later. The important part right now is, she volunteered to give me a lift over here, but it's already been a long day." He deposited her gently on one of the sofas, brushing her tousled blonde hair away from her face with an avuncular smile, and added wryly, "Conked out in the elevator, about a half-second after insisting that she was perfectly fine."
With an indulgent, understanding chuckle, Sakuya hung the witch's hat on one of the pegs in the hall, and then, for lack of a better idea, stood the broom next to the umbrella stand. That job done, she returned to Gryphon's side and said, with a nod toward one of the closed doors,
"Remilia is in the master bedroom, and I suspect she would very much appreciate your company. I'll look after your guest." Taking his leather flying jacket, she draped it professionally over her arm and added, "Leave everything to me."
"I'll do that. Thanks."
"Not at all."
Gryphon went to the indicated bedroom door, then paused with his hand on the knob and looked back. "Sakuya?"
"When do you sleep?"
Sakuya didn't miss her cue. "Never on the firm's time, sir."
Gryphon chuckled. "G'night, Sakuya."
"Good night, Chief."
"Anyway," Marisa went on, either missing or ignoring the maid's continued private smile, "I didn't 'go to sleep' on your floor, I crashed out from magic drain." With a rueful hand behind her head, she went on, "I guess I overestimated how much gas I had left when I volunteered to fly Gryph over here. I don't really remember anything after we hit the lobby..."
Her voice trailed off, a preoccupied looking coming onto her face, as it dawned on her that something about her present situation was odd. Looking down at herself, she blinked, uttered a dismayed squeak, and then grabbed the covers bunched up at her waist and yanked them to her chin.
"Wh-wh-why am I naked?!" she demanded, her face crimson.
"The clothes you arrived in were somewhat the worse for your adventures yesterday," Sakuya replied, entirely unruffled. "They're with the hotel's laundry at the moment and should be returned presently." She opened the door to the adjoining bathroom, took one of the hotel's complimentary robes from its hook, and then placed it neatly across Marisa's lap. "In the meantime, breakfast is ready, if you would care to put this on and join us."
Marisa put up a hand, still holding the covers bunched at her throat with the other. "Hang on, hang on. You mean to tell me you stripped me and sent my clothes to the laundry?"
"I doubt you'd have wished to remain in them," Sakuya observed, her face perfectly straight. "The Crillon's laundry still uses clothes mangles."
In spite of herself, Marisa snickered, her discomfiture already dissolving in the face of the maid's deadpan delivery. "Awright, fair enough," she said, then climbed out of bed and into the robe in more or less the same gesture.
There was a pair of slippers that matched the robe by the side of the bed. As she stepped into them and tied the robe's belt, Marisa noticed what had been the contents of her pockets, neatly arranged on the bedside table: some Britannian and Gallian money, the key to her magic workshop back home, a couple of unused protection charms, and the mini-Hakkero, looking deceptively innocuous with its inner fire out. There was also a slip of paper with a number sloppily handwritten on it. She picked it up and considered it quizzically, having no memory of where it came from or what it meant, then shrugged and put it back.
"What'd you do with the rest of my stuff?" she wondered. "My hat and broom."
"They're in the hall, where they belong, along with your boots," Sakuya told her.
"Good enough. You comin', Mr. Murgatroyd?" she asked her familiar.
The cat yawned again, turned around, and lay back down. Clear message: Nah, you got this.
Marisa shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said, then added to Sakuya, "You said 'us'. Who else is here?"
"M'lady and her fiancé, of course," replied Sakuya. "Meiling and the young mistress are away at the moment."
"You reckon her ladyship won't mind me showing up for breakfast in a rented bathrobe?" Marisa wondered.
"We're not a particularly formal household," said Sakuya dryly, "particularly on Saturdays in Paris."
"So why are you all dressed up?" asked Marisa as she followed the maid out of the room.
"Force of habit," Sakuya replied offhandedly. "Besides, even under the circumstances, I am on duty right now."
"I see." Marisa frowned thoughtfully. "You called Gryph 'the future count' before."
Sakuya glanced back over her shoulder with a questioning expression. "Yes?"
"Ain't he already a count, though?"
"Ah, that's true, it had slipped my mind," Sakuya conceded. "He doesn't use his Karlslandic title often, and never at home. I was referring to the fact that he'll become the next Count Scarlet when he marries m'lady, of course."
If Marisa had a reply to that, it was forestalled as they reached their destination: the suite's dining room, which was as palatial as the rest. To Marisa, it looked more like the kind of place a diplomat, like her father had once been, would hold an embassy dinner than part of a hotel suite. She supposed that was what a year's worth of her OSS pay per night bought you in the Gallian capital. No wonder the Allied brass liked to stay here when they visited SHAEF.
The table could easily have seated ten, but as Sakuya showed Marisa into the room, only two of the chairs were occupied. Gryphon was sitting in the one to the left of the head of the table, incongruously dressed in a fluffy bathrobe that matched Marisa's own, and to his right sat a small silver-haired woman in pink—Countess Remilia Scarlet, just as she'd appeared in the newspaper article Gryphon had shown to his colleagues at Crone Rock a couple of days before.
"Ah, here she is now," said the Countess as Sakuya and Marisa entered. "Miss Kirisame, I presume." Rising to her feet, she bowed in a courtly sort of way and went on, "Though this is not my home, welcome. Enter freely and of your own will; go safely; and leave some of the happiness you bring." Seeing the young witch's look of perplexity, she smiled and added, "A traditional welcome from my father's country. I sometimes forget how peculiar it must sound to the modern ear." She gestured to the table and its ranks of empty chairs. "Please, take a seat. You must be hungry."
Though the pendulum clock ticking away on the wall gave the time as a little past two in the afternoon, the table was set for breakfast, and the scents of wheatcakes and bacon reminded Marisa that she'd had nothing to eat since dinner the previous night—and that was before she'd overextended herself and fainted from magic drain.
"Starvin', actually," she admitted. She sat down on the other side of Gryphon, then seemed to think better of it and asked, "Uh, is this OK?"
Remilia's crimson eyes twinkled with mirth. "Ordinarily, you'd have a fight on your hands for that seat, but as its customary owner, my little sister Flandre, is off traveling at the moment, you're safe enough."
"Oh yeah?" Marisa chuckled and elbowed Gryphon. "You dog."
"Harrumph," Gryphon replied, pointedly ignoring her in favor of taking a sip of tea.
"He had little say in the matter, I assure you," said Remilia. Then, while Sakuya arranged helpings of breakfast in front of Marisa, the vampire became a bit more serious and went on, "Benjamin tells me you were instrumental in his flight to my side last night. You have my gratitude... even if a certain maid did overstep her authority somewhat in summoning him to my rescue," she added wryly.
"Very sorry, m'lady," Sakuya replied with a perfectly correct absence of sincerity as she took her own seat, opposite Gryphon on Remilia's right.
Marisa was occupied tucking into her breakfast and couldn't comment with words, but the amused glance she gave the players in that miniature drama told them both that she, like Sakuya, knew Remilia's remark for what it was: an expression of gratitude to her maid for so perfectly divining her needs, playfully disguised for dignity's sake.
Instead, what she said when next she was able was, "Not a problem! I'm always happy to help out a pal. 'Sides, it was either that or let him swipe a car from the Reichsmarine."
Remilia arched an eyebrow. "In that case, I suppose I'm doubly in your debt. I've seen the way he operates those machines when he thinks the occasion is urgent."
"I'm not even going to dignify that with an interjection," Gryphon grumbled, drawing giggles from both Marisa and Sakuya and a grinning wink from his lady.
"By the way," said Marisa, nudging him with her elbow again, "I see I'm not the only one whose clothes got sent to the laundry."
"Indeed not," Gryphon replied.
"I assume you get that kind of treatment all the time."
"More or less."
Marisa sighed and addressed herself to her wheatcakes again. "Must be nice."
Remilia laced her fingers and rested her chin on them, giving the witch a mischievous smile. "If you'd like to be considered for membership in the household, leave your CV with Sakuya and we'll see if we can find a place for you. I'm sure she wouldn't mind having an assistant maid or two to help her look after us."
"Tempting, but I already have a job," Marisa replied, her return smile carrying a touch of a smirk.
After breakfast, Marisa decided to take advantage of the opportunity while it presented itself and have the most luxurious bath the facilities at hand could offer. When, at some length, she returned to the sitting room, she found Gryphon on one of the couches, reading a book, while Remilia had resumed her seat by the fireplace and was working her way through the stack of correspondence. Curious, she sat down at one end of the other couch, and was about to ask what the Countess was doing when Remilia spoke.
"You know," she said, frowning at a telegram, "when I decided to reveal my existence and Flan's to the world, I expected a certain level of... resistance. That the revelation would bring forth certain types of people who wouldn't be happy about it. Those who refuse to believe in vampires and call us frauds. Those who do believe in vampires and call us monsters. I was ready for those." She looked up from the paper, meeting Gryphon's eyes, and went on, "I was not expecting so many asking to join us, as if being a vampire were some sort of club membership."
Gryphon nodded. "Mm. I'm... less surprised. Especially in these times, I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who wish they had..." He paused, considering his wording.
"Power," Marisa put in.
"Mm," Gryphon agreed, then added, "For various different purposes."
"Yes, of course you're right," said Remilia. "It's something I should have anticipated, but I didn't. Some of them are simply intrigued, others just selfishly power-hungry, but a few... a few burn to find a way into the war, and they read about us and think they've found one." She shook her head sadly and consigned the telegram to the fire. "I feel genuine sympathy for those... but they do not truly know what they're asking for." She sighed. "No matter. Even if they did, I would never consider giving it to them."
She was looking Gryphon in the eye while she said the last sentence. Though he said nothing as he gazed steadily back at her, only nodded, Marisa had the distinct impression that there was a silent communication happening—one on a level, and with a context, she wasn't equipped to interpret. She found it moving and slightly awkward at the same time; as though she were witnessing something private, that wasn't any of her business.
It only lasted a moment before Remilia shook herself out of it, taking the next item from the stack. "Ah, this is more like it," she said, smiling. "'She who stands with us against the enemies of all the world is a true daughter of Gallia. Vive l'Alsace! Wishing you good hunting, with neighborly greetings from the Lorraine Combat Witches' League.'"
"Very nice," Gryphon agreed. "Have you come up with a plan yet for how you're going get stuck in, by the way?"
"I've had a conversation with the Minister for War and the Chief of Staff of the Air Forces about how we might approach it," Remilia said. "Since we can't use the mansion as a base of operations for obvious reasons, our best bet is probably to join one of the Joint Fighter Wings operating nearby, but neither of the two nearest ones is commanded by a Gallian, so the General Staff can't simply order them to take us on.
"So I thought," the vampire went on with an impish smile, "I would go to the headquarters of the First Joint Special Air Fleet and offer my services personally to the commanding general there."
"That's so crazy it just might work," said Gryphon with a nod.
Before he or Remilia could go on, the suite's doorbell rang, startling everyone in the sitting room (none of whom had realized until this moment that the suite had a doorbell). Sakuya emerged from the kitchen and went to answer it.
"I hope that isn't someone from the press who managed to get past M. Berjeau and his staff," Remilia grumbled, but then she heard the sound of her maid welcoming the caller, and a moment later Sakuya appeared in the archway from the hall to announce,
"Callers for Captain Hutchins, m'lady."
Remilia arched an eyebrow at her fiancé, then said, "By all means, show them in."
The callers proved to be a pair of young women, but neither was a witch Remilia had previously met. One looked to be a Fusōnese girl about the same age as the one who had brought Gryphon to her, wearing a peculiar red and white uniform, while the other was a tallish, slim blonde a year or two older, smartly turned out in slightly archaic civilian dress, and—a bit curiously—accompanied by a pair of hovering, evidently animate dolls.
"Pardon us," said the Fusōnese girl.
"Not at all, come in, make yourselves comfortable," Remilia responded, gesturing generally to the furniture. "You must be Miss Kirisame's colleagues. Benjamin told me over breakfast how the three of you have been enlivening his little seaside vacation lately."
"We are indeed," said the blonde, offering an elegant curtsey. "Squadron Leader Alice Murgatroyd, RAF, retired." She sat down in one of the vacant armchairs, crossing her legs at the knee, and added, "These are my companions, Shanghai and Hōrai," as the two dolls took up stations on the arms of the chair.
"My name is Reimu Hakurei," said the red-and-white-clad girl with a deep, straight-armed bow. "I have the honor to be Inspector-General of His Fusōnese Majesty's Witches."
Remilia snapped her fingers. "Aha! That's where I've seen your uniform before. You're a priestess, aren't you?"
Reimu blinked in surprise. "Uh, sort of. I'm a miko—a shrine maiden. The keeper of the Hakurei Shrine." Seating herself at the other end of the couch Marisa was on, she tilted her head curiously. "I'm surprised, Countess. I didn't expect anyone in this part of the world to know that."
"My late father was a great admirer of your country," said Remilia. "He visited once, in the late 1780s, and brought back a number of books—which, to my shame, I've never learned to read, but he showed me through them a time or two, and I remember an illustration of a young woman dressed in a similar fashion. He told me such women were something like the pythia of ancient Achaea—a combination of religious official, seeress, and fighting witch."
Reimu smiled. "That's close enough, I guess. Although nowadays a miko's religious authority doesn't extend very far beyond her own front yard, and it may be different at the larger shrines, but nobody comes to the Hakurei Shrine for auguries any more."
"Or much of anything else," Marisa put in.
Reimu gave her a sardonic look. "Thanks for that."
"I'm just sayin'," Marisa said.
Glancing from her to Gryphon and back, Reimu added dryly, "You look awfully comfortable."
"Are you jealous?" Marisa asked. "There's another one of these robes in the bathroom, I bet Sakuya would get it for you if you asked."
"I'm fine, thanks."
"Suit yourself. It's super comfortable. I'm tempted to steal it when I leave."
"That would be impolite," said Alice. "Countess Scarlet would surely be charged for it, which would be a shabby way for you to repay her hospitality."
"Thanks, Mom. I was only kiddin'," said Marisa, rolling her eyes. "... It is a really nice robe, though."
"If you're really that attached to it, Miss Kirisame, do keep it," said Remilia with a faintly grand gesture. "Consider it a token of my thanks for services rendered." The mischievous twinkle coming back into her smile again, she added, "I'm sure M. Berjeau won't begrudge us a robe or two."
"I may just take you up on that," Marisa replied with a grin.
A different bell sounded, this one from the kitchen. Again, no one knew what to make of it other than Sakuya, who went to answer it. She returned a few moments later, laden with a pair of parcels neatly wrapped in white paper.
"Your laundry, Chief, Miss Kirisame," she said with nods for both. "Please wait a moment whilst I lay it out for you."
With that, Sakuya disappeared into one of the bedrooms; an improbably short time later, she emerged from the other, no longer carrying either parcel.
Marisa glanced at Alice, a querying eyebrow raised, but the Britannian witch replied only with a slight shrug and an almost imperceptible "search me" look. She hadn't noticed any use of magic either. Both of them looked at their hostess, but she only gave them a faintly smug smile and said,
"Thank you, Sakuya."
"Of course, m'lady."
Gryphon adjourned to the master bedroom to get dressed. While he was standing at the dressing table buttoning his shirt, Remilia slipped up beside him (invisible, he noticed with a faint smile, in the mirror).
"I fear our time together is about to be cut short, my love," she said with a slight, resigned smile.
"I get that impression too," Gryphon replied. "Reimu and Alice aren't likely to have come this far just to check that we made it. A phone call would've done for that."
"Mm," Remilia agreed, leaning against him with a slightly glum expression. The look lasted only for a moment before it changed to a sly smile, and as she hooked an arm around him and gave him a little squeeze, she went on,
"A Liberion hedge witch, a shrine maiden from Fusō, and a faeblood puppeteer. What an assortment, particularly in this era. You do gather them about you, don't you, mieux aimé?"
"Not intentionally, but it does seem to happen that way sometimes," Gryphon replied.
"Oh, I never intended to suggest that I thought you were doing it on purpose." She frowned thoughtfully. "It would be rather sinister if you were. Still, they seem like charming girls."
"They have their moments," Gryphon allowed, smiling. "Reimu and I didn't really get off on the right foot, but... we worked it out." He finished knotting his tie, then turned around and gathered Remilia up in a hug. "I was hoping we'd at least have the rest of today."
"It is what it is," the vampire replied philosophically. "Let's go back and be sociable for however much longer we have, shall we?"
"All right, let's," he agreed.
Marisa returned to the sitting room just moments after they did, and Sakuya arrived with fresh tea mere seconds after that. Once everyone was seated with hot beverages at hand, Alice said apologetically,
"As pleasant as this is, Countess, I'm afraid General Hakurei and I aren't here purely on a social call."
"Yes, I suspected as much," said Remilia. "Ah, well. To business, then."
"Mogami and the lieutenants returned to Crone Rock with the, er... equipment this morning," the Britannian reported to Gryphon. "Admiral Sugita wishes to debrief the entire project team on yesterday's deployment as soon as you can get back to Folkestone."
Gryphon sighed. "Of course he does. Didn't want anything to do with us while we were working on the dang thing, but now that it works, suddenly he's hands-on."
"Sorry to be the ones to drag him away so soon," Reimu said, then added, "I thought better us than a party of Tokkeitai shore patrolmen, which would probably be the admiral's second option."
"You're probably right," said Remilia with a wry chuckle, and a faint edge came into her smile as she went on, "There might have been... misunderstandings." Then, rising, she added with a magnanimous flip of her hand, "At any rate, you've nothing to be sorry for. I've known all along that there would be times when his war duties would take precedence."
"All the same, it's annoying," said Gryphon, a touch glumly. With a wry little smile and a moment's eye contact with Reimu, he added, "I was hoping I'd have time to get in a little more cavorting."
While Reimu blushed and looked away, Alice coolly and decorously concealed a laugh, and Marisa did not. Remilia regarded the four of them with mild puzzlement, but none of the three young women responded. Reimu, her face still bright red, wouldn't meet her gaze, while Marisa was still chortling and Alice ostentatiously busied herself with her teacup. Only Gryphon responded directly, catching her eye and giving her a mischievous little wink, as if to say he'd explain later.
"So... how do they expect us to do this?" Marisa wondered when she'd recovered herself. "I assume Hattori and Nishimura took the Seiran back with them, and an emergency flight from Le Havre is one thing, but..." She shrugged, giving Gryphon a rueful grin. "I'm gonna guess you don't really want to ride a broom all the way back to Britannia."
"It wasn't that bad," he replied, "but no, not especially."
"I can probably pry some help out of the RAF assets at Le Bourget by taking the War Ministry's name in vain," Alice said, but before she could go on, the bell in the kitchen rang again.
Rising, Sakuya went to answer it, and returned a few moments later carrying a large, heavy-looking grey duffel bag marked with the insignia of the Karlsland Luftwaffe.
"Your delivery has arrived, Chief," she said. The bag made a faint, muffled metallic clunk as she placed it on the coffee table in front of Gryphon.
He grinned. "Excellent. Right on time."
The others all gathered curiously around. "Whatcha got there?" Marisa wondered—and a moment later she had her answer, as he unfastened the bag and drew it down from a compact metal cylinder about the size of a canister vacuum cleaner, affixed to a pack frame and what appeared to be a modified parachute harness. As it emerged, Remilia's sensitive nose caught the faintest whiff of alcohol.
"Oh my," said Alice, her eyebrows rising. "Is that...?"
Reimu, her embarrassment fading fast as no one pursued the matter further, blinked. "Wow."
Rising, Marisa leaned in for a closer look, her hand on his shoulder. "Cooooool."
"This must be the famous rocket pack," Remilia declared.
"Technically it's a jet," Gryphon replied automatically, "but yes." He opened a cap on top of the jetpack's rectangular housing and peered inside, then closed it. "Fully fueled and ready to go. As expected from Mako," he added with a note of satisfaction. "I must remember to commend his efficiency to his commanding officer when I see her."
"When did you have time to arrange this?" Reimu wondered.
"I sent a telegram from the lobby last night, while I was getting the key to the suite," Gryphon replied.
"I missed that," said Marisa, frowning.
"You were busy chatting up the elevator girl," replied Gryphon dryly.
"Wha—seriously?" said Reimu as Marisa's face went red.
"Oh, not on her own behalf," Gryphon hastened to assure her. Then, with a sly smile, he added, "Seemed to think she'd be just perfect for a friend of hers across the Channel."
"Wait, what?" said Alice as Marisa's face went even redder.
"I don't remember any of this," Marisa protested, and then her blush deepened still further as she muttered, "Oh. That's what that number is."
"What number?" asked Alice, a touch frostily, but Marisa waved the question away, averting her eyes in mortification.
"Anyway," said Reimu, wresting the conversation back onto a previous track with a visible exertion of will. "You're going to fly back to Folkestone with that?"
Gryphon nodded. "That's the plan. Actually, I hoped I'd have time to go for a little flight with my lady first, but the best-laid plans and all that," he added with an apologetic smile for Remilia.
"Alas," said Remilia. "But don't fret, mieux aimé. We'll have plenty of opportunities."
"Well," said Gryphon with another resigned sigh, "I guess we'd best not keep the admiral waiting." He rose, zipping up his A-2 jacket. Without being asked, and appearing as familiar with the process as if she did it every day, Sakuya helped him on with the jetpack, holding it in position while he shrugged into the straps and then helping him double-check that everything was secure.
They went out onto the balcony, which overlooked not the Place de la Concorde, but rather the rue Boissy d'Anglais, around the side of the hotel. Gryphon wetted a fingertip and tested the wind, then got a soft-sided flying helmet out of one of his jacket's front pockets and buckled it on.
"Well," he said, turning to Remilia, "I guess this is au revoir for the moment. I'll keep you posted on where I'm going to be over the next few days—hopefully I'll be able to get back to Ribeauvillé soon, though I expect I'll have to split my time between there and Crone Rock at least until Mogami is fully operational."
Remilia sprang into his arms, her feet off the floor, and hugged him forehead-to-forehead, smiling. "Of course," she said. "You and Sakuya can always make contact, can't you? I have to confess I'm a bit jealous."
"We'll have to do something about that one day," Gryphon replied.
"Indeed. In the meantime..." She gave him a kiss. "Thank you. Be safe, and I'll see you when I see you. Je t'aime."
"Je t'aime beaucoup," he said, then set her back on her feet and turned to his impromptu entourage. "Right. Everybody ready? Stand clear!"
"This I gotta see," said Marisa, grinning, as she settled her flying goggles over her eyes.
Gryphon gave one last grin to Remilia and Sakuya over his shoulder, then faced outward, raised his chin, and thumbed the Salamander's igniters. The turbine caught instantly, jetting blue flame, and he was off, leaving behind a blast of hot wind and the scent of burned ethanol.
"OK, that was even cooler than I hoped it would be," Marisa declared. She slung the Luftwaffe duffel bag, with Mr. Murgatroyd imperturbably aboard, on her back, then offered Remilia and Sakuya a jaunty salute. "Great meetin' you two. Hopefully we'll be seein' each other again real soon." Whirling, she sprang onto her broom and streaked off after Gryphon, calling back over her shoulder, "Last one to the Channel buys the beer tonight!"
"Ah—!" said Reimu, sounding faintly alarmed. Red-cheeked, she bowed hurriedly to Remilia and said, "Sorry to rush off, Countess, but she means that," then mounted the railing and pursued the witch, flying off with no visible means of propulsion.
Alice sighed. "Please forgive them," she said. "They're still children. Thank you for your hospitality, Countess Scarlet."
Remilia gave her most magnanimous smiling bow. "Not at all, Squadron Leader Murgatroyd. They're a charming pair, and it's been lovely to make your acquaintance as well. I trust we'll all have ample time to get to know one another better in due course. Have a safe trip back to Folkestone."
"Thank you. Good day, Countess, Miss Izayoi." With a curtsey, adorably mirrored aerially by Shanghai and Hōrai, Alice turned and flew after the others at a somewhat less hectic pace. Evidently she wasn't concerned about being on the hook for the evening's libations—or she had something up her sleeve, which, watching them all vanish in the distance above the cityscape, Remilia couldn't quite rule out.
"What a fascinating group," she mused.
"Quite, m'lady," Sakuya agreed.
Remilia stayed where she was for a moment, gazing off over the Paris skyline. Then, clapping her hands together, she went briskly on, "Well! Shall we make ready to go ourselves? You get started packing, and I'll settle accounts with M. Berjeau. I noticed that Miss Kirisame took advantage of Benjamin's abandoned duffel bag to avail herself of the spare bathrobe after all..."
"So tell me somethin'," Marisa called to Gryphon, pulling up close alongside so she could speak to him over the whistle of his jetpack at cruise. "Is that as much fun as it looks?"
"More," Gryphon replied.
"Wicked. You gotta hook me up sometime."
"Coals to Newcastle," Alice remarked as she joined the formation.
"Yeah, but don't it look like a hoot?" Marisa countered.
"I don't think I'd be comfortable with that much... combustion happening so close to my back," Reimu observed.
"You get used to it," said Gryphon. "Of course, it helps to wear less flammable clothes," he added, nodding toward Marisa's voluminous skirts.
"Hah," said the blonde witch with a grin. "Maybe we all oughta do like the witches hereabouts and just skivvy it up."
Reimu's face colored to match her clothes. "Maybe not."
"Aw, you'd look cute in one'a those mini-hakamas the army witches in Fusō wear nowadays, Reimu," Marisa persisted, sliding over to give the shrine maiden an elbow.
"Stop it," Reimu grumbled, swatting at her.
"What about you, Alice?" asked Marisa. "You must've done the pants thing when you were on active duty with the RAF, di'ncha?"
"I did not," Alice replied primly. "I never used a Striker, so I didn't have to."
"Not gonna lie, kinda disappointing. Although I guess at least that way I don't have to be sorry I missed it."
"Reimu, kindly control your girlfriend, she's letting her internal fantasy life run away with her again."
"Would both of you please knock it off?!"
They went straight to HMS Barbican, which wasn't much of a stretch, since the naval base was just on the other side of Folkestone Harbor from Crone Rock. Once there, they were shown at once into Admiral Sugita's office, their unusual appearance drawing a few stares from uninitiated personnel along the way, and were mildly surprised to find Shizuka, Nishimura, and Mogami already there, waiting for them.
"Ah, Rittmeister von Katädien, there you are," said Sugita, rising. "Glad to see my message reached you. I've just been speaking to Lieutenants Hattori and Nishimura and Seaman Satō about yesterday's, er... sea trial."
"Admiral," said Gryphon, returning Sugita's nod. "I trust they told you it succeeded beyond our most ambitious expectations, in spite of the conditions."
"They did. Please, take a seat." Gryphon did so, placing the He 162—which he'd removed, with the gracious assistance of Shanghai and Hōrai, upon landing, and was now carrying like an unwieldy metal suitcase—on the floor next to his chair.
"So that's the famous rocket pack, is it?" said Sugita as he resumed his own seat behind his desk. "Remarkable what they're doing with aeronautical technology these days."
Gryphon decided not to bother telling him it was actually a jet, replying instead, "Doctor Hartmann is one of this era's finest engineers."
"As, it appears, are you," Sugita replied. "If even half of what these three have told me about yesterday's action is true, and I have no reason to doubt them, you've done amazing things in the short time you've been at work over on Crone Rock."
"I just did what you asked me to do," said Gryphon equably. "Mogami's the one who's been doing the hard part."
"Mm." Sugita hesitated, an awkwardness coming onto his face, then squared himself and went on, "And you did it remarkably well. On behalf of His Majesty's Navy, I thank you for your efforts."
Gryphon eyed him skeptically. "This is starting to sound an awful lot like a dismissal," he observed.
"I'm afraid your intuition serves you well, Rittmeister. Now that the Mogami platform is in serviceable condition and well on its way to full operational status, my superiors have concluded that there's no need to detain you and Lt. Hattori any longer. Nishimura and his team can take it from here."
Gryphon glanced at Nishimura, who looked utterly mortified—clearly, the young engineering officer hadn't been briefed about this part of what was to come—then turned his attention back to Sugita and asked mildly,
Sugita had the grace to let his discomfort show as he replied, "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
"I see. Well, I can't say I'm surprised," said Gryphon. He looked and sounded completely relaxed, as if his sudden dismissal from the project didn't bother him at all, as he went on, "I told you before I used to be a sailor. I know how things work in the Navy. Nobody at Headquarters wants anything to do with innovation until they're convinced it's going to work, and then it was always their idea. Desu ka?" He rose, picking up his jetpack. "I trust I'll at least have some time to collect my personal effects from Crone Rock before I go?"
"Of... of course," said Sugita, his discomfort, if anything, ratcheted higher by the strange Liberion's failure to react indignantly. "You'll have the rest of the weekend to tie up loose ends and make your travel arrangements. Your special projects clearance will expire at 0900 on Monday. I've taken the liberty of having your outfit's Zuiun ferried over to Crone Rock already, so that you can leave directly from there."
"How very efficient of you. Well, in that case, Admiral, I'd best be about it. Please let your superiors know that it was my pleasure, and if Lt. Nishimura and his... team... wish to consult with me about anything in the future, I'm glad to help as far as security permits. He'll know where to find me." Laying it on just a little bit thick, he squared himself up with a click of bootheels, as if he really were a Karlslandic aristocrat, and gave Sugita a very correct Fusō-style bow. "Good day, Admiral."
"That sonofabitch!" Marisa roared, slamming her empty pint glass—far from her first—down on the table. "'I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss that,'" she went on in an unkind parody of Sugita's formal tones. "I got half a mind to head over there and short-sheet that guy's bunk."
"I suspect the Tokkeitai would take a dim view of that," Alice remarked.
"Bring 'em on!" snarled Marisa. "How many guys they got?" Tilting her head at Gryphon's impassive gaze, she demanded, "Why are you so friggin' calm about this?!"
Gryphon shrugged. "What would getting mad accomplish? I'm not going to pick a fight with the entire Imperial Fusōnese Navy."
"Why not? It's always worked for me," Reimu pointed out.
"Last week you were ready to overthrow the Gallian government if they didn't make up with your fiancée," Shizuka pointed out.
"That's different. Look, I appreciate you all taking my side here, but really, it's fine. I'm sure Admiral Sugita and his superiors have never really been comfortable taking help from the likes of me, and the fact that you three showed up isn't likely to have made them feel any better about it," he pointed out, nodding to Reimu and her entourage. "So, we let them have their way. If I stuck around, they'd just be looking over our shoulders all the time. This way, they'll feel like they've 'secured the situation' and that'll be that—they'll butt out and let Toshi and his people work. It'll be better all around."
Nishimura shook his head. "Thank you for the vote of confidence, but we both know I'm not ready to take charge." He gazed glumly into his current shot of Suntory, then slugged it back and set down the glass. From a couple of places down the table, Marisa immediately leaned in with the bottle to fill it up again while the young engineer raised stricken eyes to Gryphon's and went on, "I think they're setting the project up to fail."
"Maybe," Gryphon agreed. "But here's the thing... we won't let 'em."
"'We'?" Mogami wondered.
Gryphon nodded, then gave the two young sailors a sly smile. "I said I'd 'consult' with you anytime. The brass might not be comfortable with that... but what they don't know won't hurt 'em. Besides," he went on, "I think you're being too hard on yourself. Ever since you arrived, you've been up to your elbows in this project right along with the rest of us."
With a muted "pop" of displaced air, Mogami's bosun fairy appeared on her shoulder, mildly startling those seated nearest to her.
"Relax, kid," she said, puffing her cigar. "Now that me an' my crew are on board, you got plenty of backup the brass don't even know about." She pointed the coal of the cigar at him and added with a smirk, "Just keep in mind that I may be a fairy, but I ain't your godmother. I work, I get paid."
Nishimura gazed in astonishment at the hardhatted miniature sailor for a moment, then turned to Gryphon with an expression that silently asked, Are you seeing this?
Gryphon's only reaction was to convert his sly smile into a grin. "See?" he said, as if completely unsurprised by the fairy's appearance. "This is it, Toshi." He reached across the table and slapped the engineer's shoulder. "This is where you fly."
Nishimura blinked at him, then slammed another shot, banging the glass down decisively. "Sure!" he declared. "OK, why not? Nothing else about this crazy war makes any sense anyway!"
"That's the spirit," said Marisa, pouring him another drink.
"What do fairies even get paid in, though?" Shizuka wondered.
"Whaddaya got?" the bosun replied. "Ya can start with some'a that Suntory."
The smallest glass in the place was like a five-gallon bucket at the fairy's scale, but that didn't seem to bother her. Before long, she and the other(?) IFN personnel at the table were singing songs of the sea while the others, who didn't know the words, looked on with affectionate bemusement.
"So I guess you're headin' back to Ribeauvillé on Monday, then?" Marisa asked Gryphon.
"That's the plan," Gryphon confirmed. "What about you three? Think you have enough information to file your reports?" he asked, a trifle impishly.
Reimu shrugged. "I already did," she said nonchalantly. "Anyway, that wasn't my only assignment in Europe. On paper, it's not why I'm here at all." Sipping her sake, she added with a serene little smile, "His Majesty requested that I perform Colonel Sakamoto's wedding next month."
Alice raised an eyebrow. "Ah yes, you mentioned that in Toulon, didn't you? In the moment, it rather slipped past me. Is the Emperor aware that General Wilcke of the Luftwaffe is not a man?"
"Mm-hmm," Reimu replied. "Evidently he had a long talk with Kaiser Friedrich while he was in Brandenburg. By now, I'm sure he'll have announced something similar to Karlsland's new Witch Law before the Diet in Kyōto."
(Meanwhile, as the humans discussed the next step, Mogami's bosun fairy noticed Alice's two dolls regarding her with curious expressions.
"Hey there, sweet thing," she said to the nearer of the two. Leaning closer, she asked with a suggestive waggle of eyebrows, "You ever make it with a sailor before?"
Her curious look changing to a scowl, Hōrai Doll produced a tiny broadsword from somewhere and held the fairy off at swordpoint.
"OK, OK, don't get mad," said the bosun, raising her hands in surrender and backing away. "Just askin'."
Hōrai eyed her narrowly for a few more moments, then stowed her sword and turned pointedly away, arms folded.
"Serves you right," Mogami told the fairy. "Behave yourself.")
"Isn't that quite radical by Fusō standards?" asked Alice, having entirely missed the miniature drama unfolding on the other side of her.
"Not really," said Reimu. "If anything, it's a return to an older tradition. Witches in Fusō had a lot more personal latitude under the Tokugawa." She shrugged again. "That ended with the turn to the west and the Meiji Restoration, of course." With a sardonic smile for Marisa, she added, "One of the many things we can thank our Liberion... friend... Commodore Perry for."
"Hey, don't gimme that look, it ain't like I was there," Marisa replied. "Besides, if you wanna take the long view, if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here. Pops never would'a been sent to Washington if Fusō was still closed to foreigners."
"There is that," Reimu conceded, then swerved away from the subject and said to Gryphon, "So, it looks like I'll be following you back to Saint-Ulrich."
"What about you, Alice?" asked Marisa. "You headin' back to London?"
Alice shook her head. "Not right away," she said. "I should like to observe the Method in the wild, as it were. See some of the witches who are putting it into actual practice. I'm sure the Ministry would also appreciate an update on what Group Captain Whittle is up to, since she seem to have abandoned Lutterworth for good at this point," she added with an arch little smile.
Marisa chuckled. "Man. Between us, her, that professor from Karlsland, and Countess Scarlet and her crew, the place is gonna be jumpin'. Think they're ready for all that?"
"You haven't met Minna," said Gryphon with a tolerant smile, "or you'd know she's ready for anything." Then, consulting his watch, he raised his voice to cut through the noise at the other end of the snug and declared, "Awright, you mugs, pack it in. I want you all racked out in plenty of time to sleep it off this time, we don't want another morning like the first one. We're going to have a lot to do tomorrow."
The usual routine was in full swing at the Colmar mairie that Monday morning: a slow but steady flow of citizens, stopping in to pay taxes, consult public records, and generally conduct all the little bits of business that living in a bureaucratic society entails. All was quiet, orderly, ordinary. In his office just off the lobby, Deputy Mayor Théo Trautmann was listening with one ear to the calm susurrus of the city's business running smoothly, floating in through his open door, while he completed a few last items of his own work before lunch.
Presently there came a knock at his doorjamb. Turning, he saw one of the city clerks standing in the doorway, looking a bit rattled about something.
"What's the trouble, Émile?" Trautmann wondered, then added half-jokingly, "You look as though you've seen a ghost."
"There... there's a lady at the desk," said the clerk haltingly. "She insists on speaking with you."
Trautmann's eyebrows rose. Why would something like that dismay a veteran like Émile? The man had been working at that desk since long before the young deputy mayor was even born. He'd seen everything.
"Very well, send her in, if you please," he said. A moment later, he knew exactly what had taken Émile so thoroughly aback, as two uniformed women entered his office.
Women in uniform weren't a terribly unusual sight in wartime Colmar, of course. Besides the various units of fighting witches posted in the area, who often came to town for supplies or recreation, there were plenty of military support personnel, as well as their less martial cousins from the police, postal service, and other civil agencies to be seen around the city these days. It had gotten to the point where most people didn't really notice them any more.
These two were arrestingly different. For one thing, their uniforms were unfamiliar. Not the blue and black of the Gallian Air Force, nor Liberion green or khaki, nor Karlsland grey; not the black and yellow of La Poste, nor the dark blue of the National Railway. These women wore long, severely cut coats of black over white collared shirts, bold red neckties, short pleated skirts (scarcely longer than the tails of their coats), and tall black boots. One, the taller of the two, had a white skirt and a matching headband, reminiscent of a maidservant's, affixed to her grey hair, while the other's skirt was red, and she sported an old-fashioned black mob cap with a crimson cockade.
Blinking at the unexpected sight, it took Trautmann a moment to realize that he recognized the shorter of the two women. A petite, silver-haired, red-eyed woman with bat wings, she stood in the lead of their little formation, surveying the deputy mayor's office with a satisfied little smile, as if she had just purchased the building and found that it pleased her. She was the same woman who, in archaic civilian garb, had burst upon him one evening while he was working late, just after the battle at Freiburg.
At that time, she'd baldly declared that she was a four-century-old vampire countess who lived in the hills above the city, and that she intended to marry the man who accompanied her, a young Liberion airman who had let her do most of the talking with a faintly apologetic smile. Trautmann had been unable to oblige her, since she hadn't had any vital documents, and had suggested that she apply to Paris—which, he knew from the newspapers, she had done. And now here she was, her old-fashioned clothes exchanged for this peculiar uniform, which only enhanced the bold and confident bearing that made up for her tiny size.
"Aha, there you are!" Countess Remilia Scarlet declared. "Young man, I owe you an apology. I was in such a dudgeon the night we met, I neglected to get your name. I do apologize, that was terribly rude of me."
"Er—a pleasure to see you again, Countess Scarlet," said Trautmann, bowing a little awkwardly. "I suppose that makes us even, as it would have been gentlemanly of me to introduce myself. My name is Trautmann. Théo Trautmann. I'm the deputy mayor."
"Ah, excellent. A pleasure to meet you properly at last, M. Trautmann." With a courtly gesture, Remilia went on, "May I introduce my housekeeper, Sakuya Izayoi."
"Charmed," said Sakuya, curtseying.
Trautmann repeated his slightly awkward bow. "Welcome," he said, for lack of anything more trenchant to say.
"We've come, M. Trautmann," said Remilia, "to provide you with the rest of the documentation you require for the business you and I discussed a few weeks ago. Sakuya?"
"Of course, m'lady," Sakuya said, and, removing a folder from the leather briefcase she carried, she presented it to the deputy mayor.
"My identity documents, as well as those of Miss Izayoi and my housecarl, Hong Meiling," Remilia explained, "along with a letter from Paris explaining the situation."
Trautmann perused the letter, his eyebrows climbing his forehead again as he took in its message; then, after shuffling through the rest of the documents in the folder, he looked at the two women and said, "This does appear to be everything I need. I'll get the process started at once."
"Splendid," said Remilia. "Then we shall leave you to it. When should we return for the next stage?"
"The banns will be posted this afternoon," Trautmann told her. "I'll see to that myself. They must be displayed for ten days, so assuming there are no impediments, you can proceed anytime from next Thursday on." With a slight smile, he added, "Of course, you will need to bring your spouses with you."
Sakuya chuckled. "I'll make a note of that," she assured him dryly.
Remilia beamed. "Excellent. Should you need anything of us in the meantime, you can find us at the Allied Forces base at Château Saint-Ulrich in Ribeauvillé. We're joining the war effort, and I expect we shall be stationed there for the foreseeable future."
"Very well," said Trautmann with a nod. "Until I see you again, then, good luck and good hunting."
"Thank you, M. le Député Maire," said Remilia, and the two took their leave.
A moment later, their place in his doorway was taken by Émile, who still looked a little shocked. "What did they want?" he asked.
"Just ordinary business," said Trautmann nonchalantly. "Be a friend and fetch me a couple of blank banns, will you? I promised I'd have them up today."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
No one particularly noticed the automobile that nosed its way into Colmar's Place de Mairie late that Wednesday afternoon. Cars were not such a rare sight in Alsace now as they had been a year before. By now, the great Renault and Citroën works in Paris were back in operation, and their products, as well as imports from Britannia and Liberion, were flowing into Gallia's northern départments in ever-increasing numbers.
This one met the expectations raised by those circumstances: a black Traction Avant, nearly new, its license plates' terminal -75 disclosing its Parisian provenance. Anyone who took note of it at all probably assumed it was a government vehicle, possibly from the Ministry of the Interior, calling on the mairie on some inscrutable errand of official business. The person who emerged from the driver's door when it stopped, a tall, neatly-dressed young woman with long red hair, reinforced the notion with her air of brisk efficiency, not to mention the bat's wings at her temples that marked her as a witch.
Entering the mairie, Koakuma paused to consider her options. She supposed she could just go to the clerk's counter, wait her turn in the queue, and inquire directly whether the clerk had any knowledge of her quarry's whereabouts, but that seemed unsporting somehow. Moreover, it would attract attention, and invite awkward questions about who she was and why she wanted to know.
As she looked around the lobby, her eye fell upon a large, glass-fronted case mounted on the wall off to one side of the entrance. This had various documents posted within it: notices, she guessed, for the perusal of the public. On a whim, she crossed to take a closer look at this. She wasn't expecting it to contain anything that was of use—for all she knew, its contents announced the operating hours of the town government's several departments, or the dates of the upcoming civic arts festival, or the like.
Instead, upon closer inspection, she found that the first piece of paper she looked at bore the very name she was looking for.
"That didn't take long," Patchouli remarked from the back seat of the Citroën, where she sat bundled up in blankets as if on a sleigh ride in winter, as Koakuma returned to her station in the front.
"I had a bit of luck, Mistress," Koakuma said cheerfully. After starting the car and pulling away, she tilted the rear-view mirror so she and Patchouli could see each other's eyes and remarked with a self-satisfied smile, "She's getting married."
"I beg your pardon?" said Patchouli, arching an eyebrow.
"They still post banns of marriage in Gallia," Koakuma explained, turning her attention back to her driving. "They're in a case in the lobby. The first one I looked at had her name on it. Remilia Scarlet, of Maison Écarlate, Haut-Colmar. She's marrying a man named Hutchins."
Patchouli frowned thoughtfully. "Not an Alsatian name," she mumbled, half to herself. "Britannian, probably. Perhaps Liberion. Where on Earth would she even have met such a man?"
"The bann gave his occupation as aviateur militaire, and his address as a château in Ribeauvillé," Koakuma said. "He must be with the Allied Forces."
"Hm. Well, no matter." Settling back amid her blankets, Patchouli went on with a satisfied little smile, "I'll be able to ask her soon enough. Good work, Koakuma."
Koakuma beamed in response to the praise, but said nothing further as she piloted the Citroën out of the city and into the hills to the north.
"... Or not," Patchouli mused, standing next to the car and regarding the empty clearing in the woods where the mansion should have been.
"I don't understand," said Koakuma. "I'm sure the bann said Maison Écarlate. Are you sure this is where it should be, Mistress? You've been away a long time."
"Not so long I would forget where my best friend's home was," Patchouli snapped, her dark eyes flashing with annoyance. Then, returning her gaze to the place where the house wasn't, she went on, "Although, that said, it isn't supposed to be here. All the tales say the house was destroyed that night. Burned down, or exploded by magic, or banished to the Abyss... the details vary, but the ending is always the same."
Koakuma looked confused. "Then why..." she began, but Patchouli waved her to silence and took a few steps forward, her eyes narrowed in concentration.
Presently the violet-clad witch raised a hand, her fingers extended as if she expected to touch some vertical surface... and then, apparently, she did, although her familiar could see nothing there. Patchouli's fingertips stopped in mid-air, prismatic light rippling out from them as though she'd dipped them in the surface of a pool of oil that was somehow standing upright. A deep, reverberant noise thrummed out, raising the small hairs on the back of Koakuma's neck and making her demonic blood fizz within her.
For just an instant, the ghostly outline of a large, sprawling house shimmered in the space beyond the invisible surface; then the phenomenon dissipated and Patchouli reeled back from it, stumbling and nearly falling before her familiar could spring to her aid.
"Mistress!" cried Koakuma, steadying her.
"Get me to the car," Patchouli wheezed, gasping for breath, her face flecked with sweat. Koakuma did as she was told, bundling her mistress into the back seat and hastily pouring her a cup of foul-smelling tonic from a Thermos flask.
"Mistress... what was that?" Koakuma asked, once she was certain the worst of the crisis was past.
"A barrier. A slippage of time," Patchouli replied. Still short of breath and audibly wheezing, she had regained some color, but her expression was one of mingled shock and dismay. "Beyond my power as I presently am, it seems," she admitted ruefully. "But now I know. The house is here. It's just..." She took another sip of tonic, swallowed with a grimace, and went on, "... not in the same now as we are. Not quite."
"Then how... ?" Koakuma began, but Patchouli anticipated her question and shook her head.
"I don't know. Not yet. I need more information. I need..." She paused, looking thoughtful, and drank off the rest of the tonic, now so engrossed in the problem that she didn't react to its flavor. Meeting her familiar's eyes, she said firmly, "This man she's marrying. Take me to him. He'll know where she is."
E P U (colour) 2021