EDITOR'S NOTE: This story takes place between Episodes 08, "Back to Work", and 09, "A New Normal". Sort of. You'll see when you get there.
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It was a dark and stormy night.
Of course that is a cliché so banal as to verge on self-parody, but in this instance, it is also completely true. The night was dark, and it was stormy, and the darkness and storminess were significant to the events that followed. A dark and stormy night was no time for a man and his dog to be trying to navigate the narrow, twisting, eccentrically crowned backroads of rural Alsace by the mail-slot blackout headlights of a military vehicle.
At the wheel of the U.S. Army Jeep so employed, the man—known to his driver's license as Benjamin Hutchins and to everyone who actually knew him as Gryphon—squinted into the rain-sheeted darkness and cursed himself for a fool.
"We should've been home before dark," he grumbled to his copilot. "If I had a brain we'd be kicking back in the living room with a hot chocolate listening to our new records right now. But nooo, someone had to hang around the bookstore until closing time."
In the passenger seat, Wolfgang Amadeus Beagle made no reply to these remarks, although if Gryphon had spared a moment to glance at him, the sidelong look he was getting would have confirmed that the Lenshound was fully on board with his self-indictment—not that he really needed to look, since, as the only two Lensmen on this plane of existence, they shared something of a psychic link.
Agreed, that nonverbal link now seemed to reply. This is entirely your fault.
"And where the hell did this storm come from?" Gryphon went on, pausing to swerve around a tree branch that sprawled suddenly into the road. "This is Alsace, not friggin' Bermuda. They're not supposed to have god damn hurricanes here."
Again, Wolfgang didn't reply, other than to hunker down a little deeper into his rain poncho and silently wish they had borrowed a vehicle with a proper roof, rather than the Jeep's pathetic tent, for this little expedition.
"Ahh, screw this!" Gryphon concluded as another branch narrowly missed them. Hunching over the wheel, he peered into the murk ahead, looking for a place to turn around. "We're going back to Colmar to wait this ou—shit!"
Ahead, a figure suddenly appeared out of the darkness, lurching onto the road and into the feeble tunnel of light cast by the Jeep's shrouded headlamps. Reacting instinctively, Gryphon slammed the clutch and brake pedals to the floor. On the wet tarmac, with the Jeep's primitive brakes, this had little effect other than to add the shriek of outraged rubber to the roar of the rain on the sodden canvas roof.
The figure in the road froze as the headlights fell upon it. At that moment, a web of lightning crazed the sky, throwing the whole scene before Gryphon into sharp-shadowed, near-monochromatic relief. For just an instant, it all lay before him like a freeze-frame shot. She was a girl, no more than twelve or thirteen years old, in a dress and cap that were old-fashioned, but not out of place out here in the Alsatian countryside. Her face was in deep shadow, but her eyes blazed crimson out of the darkness that hid the rest of her features, wide with a strange mixture of surprise and an almost palpable fury.
Most of the details eluded him at the time, to be discovered only upon later review. His conscious mind had more immediately important things to worry about, such as what he was going to do to keep from running her over. Braking wasn't working worth a damn, and he was using up the available road fast.
Gritting his teeth, he took his foot off the brake pedal, wrenched at the wheel with one hand, and yanked the Jeep's handbrake with the other. At the same time, he feathered the clutch and started putting on some power, trying to convert the hydroplane skid into a sideways slide that would, he hoped, flick the Jeep's tail around the girl without hitting her. This would have been tricky in any car, but pulling it off without rolling the Jeep—a vehicle never renowned for its stability—was going to call for all the skill he could bring to bear.
The Jeep's nose began to swing. Just as the headlights slid off the girl and left her in darkness, he saw her raise a hand, as if in hopes of fending off the two and a half tons of metal coming toward her. For a half-second, it seemed like the maneuver was working—
—something hit the driver's-side rear of the Jeep with an impact like a rocket from a bazooka, smashing that quarter of the vehicle to pieces. The wheel and bits of the suspension hurtled off into the night, never to be seen again. The rest of the Jeep spun the other way, hurled clean off the road by the impact. By some miracle it stayed upright, bouncing out of control across the ditch, and crashed through a stand of small trees before fetching up against one large enough to halt its progress for good.
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
Book 1: Thicker Than Water
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Wakefulness came a lot more slowly than unconsciousness had, and after the way his evening had turned out, Gryphon was happy to let it take as much time as it wanted. As soon as his brain was online enough to notice these things, he'd concluded he was far too comfortable to trouble himself with being fully awake. Not that his bed at St-Ulrich was not comfortable, but it couldn't hold a candle to the one he was in right now.
Hang on. What?
With a reluctance bordering on outright acknowledgement that the idea was a bad one, he opened his eyes, sat up, and had a look around.
He was in a very large, very old-fashioned bedroom, easily twice the size of his room at St-Ulrich and decorated in a far less utilitarian style. Apart from the fireplace crackling away on the far wall and a few strategically placed candles, the only light in the room was that of the full moon, streaming in through the tall window next to the bed; evidently the storm had passed while he was out. The (very comfortable) bed turned out, on closer inspection, to be a huge fourposter of some light-colored wood, complete with a canopy of rich, soft, heavy fabric fringed in golden tassels. It, and the froth of silken covers Gryphon found himself under—indeed, practically everything in the room—all seemed to be white, all rendered a gleaming silver by the moonlight.
"Wolfgang. Are you OK?" he asked. The hound, curled up beside him, glanced up and gave him a single tail wag. To Gryphon's relief, the Lens link suggested that only Wolfgang's faith in his master's driving skills had been harmed in the crash.
Gryphon petted him, earning another wag, and mused quietly, "Hound dog, I don't think we're in Kansas any more."
Wolfgang didn't seem concerned; if anything, it appeared he thought getting out of bed was an even worse idea than Gryphon's unconscious mind had. He stayed where he was as his master climbed down, finding a thick, soft rug under his bare feet. Someone had undressed him down to his skivvies and, upon further investigation, hung his clothes to dry on a couple of late Louis XV chairs arranged with their backs to the fireplace. His shoes were there too, standing by the fire tools, and looked like they had been carefully brushed clean of the mud that must have been caked on them. Even his .45 pistol was right where it ought to be.
"Whoever lives here is hospitable, anyway," he remarked to Wolfgang, and got dressed—though, after a moment's consideration, he left the gunbelt where it was, hanging on one of the chairs.
Once decent, he went to the door, half-expecting to find it locked for some reason. It wasn't, nor did it creak stereotypically as he opened it; in fact, it swung smoothly and silently, its hinges evidently well-oiled. Beyond it, dimly lit by candles flickering in wall sconces, he found a corridor as long, wide, and high-ceilinged as the room's proportions had suggested it would be.
"Hello?" he said, looking first one way, then the other. There was no sign of anyone, but he thought he detected a brighter glow down at the end of the hallway to his left, as of the glow from a better-lit room spilling out. After a few moment's contemplation, he noticed a faint scent of roasted meat, which seemed to be coming from the same direction.
Gryphon consulted his internal diagnostics and determined that he was, in fact, quite hungry.
"Well," he mused aloud, "I guess we might as well check it out. C'mon, hound dog."
Wolfgang got down from the bed with a beleaguered sigh and trotted across the room to join him, and the two of them set off.
In the flickering shadows of the widely spaced candles, Gryphon got only fleeting impressions: dark wood paneling, threadbare carpet over slightly uneven flagstones, worn tapestries. In contrast with the old-but-well-kept feel of the bedroom he'd awakened in, this corridor felt as if it belonged to a building that was run-down, if not outright abandoned.
The corridor emptied into what appeared to be the upper-level balcony of an aristocratic country house's entrance hall, with two staircases on his right leading down to the ground floor and the outside doors, and the mate to the corridor he'd just emerged from. This space was likewise formerly-grand and dilapidated, with most of the windows boarded over and the stairway railings sagging, although the chandelier was intact and lighted. Gryphon made his way warily down the nearer of the two staircases, finding to his relief that the stairs themselves still seemed reasonably stable.
Under the stairs and balcony, there were corridors leading off to left and right, and three doors set into the rear wall, opposite the entrance. The ones to left and right were closed, but in the center, a tall double door stood open, letting both candlelight and the sound of music spill out into the entrance hall.
More curious than ever, he entered the double doorway, and found himself in a country-house great room, the sort that doubled as formal dining room or ballroom depending on the occasion. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, like the nave of a cathedral, and the far wall was more glass than masonry, surmounted by a giant rose window that framed the full moon so theatrically, he assumed its placement had to have been designed with that in mind.
The great room was much better-lit than anywhere else in the house he'd seen so far, though even here, all the illumination save the moonlight came from fire: candles in wall sconces, as out in the hall, plus a fireplace easily four times the size of the one in the bedroom, numerous candelabra, and a pair of great crystal chandeliers. In that light, he could see that the room was divided into two areas. On the left, it was entirely dominated by a dining table that could have seated twenty people, while the right-hand half, where the fireplace was, seemed to have been set up as an informal sort of living room. Here there was comfortable-looking antique furniture and a scattering of tables, most haphazardly piled with books, one supporting a wind-up phonograph and a stack of records.
«I see you're finally awake,» came a Gallic-speaking female voice from the far end of the table. «Come closer. Let me get a look at you in better light.»
Shrugging inwardly, Gryphon crossed toward the head of the table, where he found a thronelike chair with no place setting before it, but one at each of the normal chairs to its left and right. Sitting—or rather lounging, with an insouciance that bordered on arrogance—in the head chair was the most remarkable-looking person he'd set eyes on in some time.
The first thing Gryphon noticed about her was that she was tiny. Judging against the height of the chair, which was a little taller than he was, he guessed she couldn't have stood taller than about four-foot-ten. She wore a pink two-piece skirt set that wouldn't have looked out of place on a moppet in a Victorian storybook, all ruffles and petticoats and red ribbon trim with bows, and inside it her build was very fine, almost birdlike. Despite this, she gave no impression of being sickly or underfed; indeed, the brightness of her eyes and the ruddiness of her cheeks, made even more apparent by the whiteness of her skin, gave her an air of robust good health.
Her pale face was heart-shaped, with large eyes and rounded cheeks, but sharply pointed nose and chin. Her ears were also pointed, jutting out through the short fall of tousled silver waves that escaped from under a ribbon-tied mob cap (the second one of those he'd seen tonight, what were the odds?) adorned with a jaunty red cockade. All of those details impressed themselves on his mind in due time—but they all had to take a back seat to the eyes, which were the second thing after her stature that he noticed, and which arrested him completely for a moment.
They were red—deep blood-red, not the pink of albinism—and they had vertical pupils. Intelligence danced in them, and confidence, and amusement as well. She might look and dress like a character who had just stepped out of a Gallian storybook about a girl's life in the Second Empire, but her eyes were not the eyes of a child. This was a grown woman... albeit a very small one.
«Well. You're reasonably presentable when you're awake,» she said, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth. Then, rising from her chair, she gave him a courtly bow, more in the fashion of a man than a woman of the era she looked like she was from.
Which was when he noticed her wings. Set low on her back, black and smooth, they resembled those of a large bat, and as she got to her feet they fluffed out to a span roughly equaling her height. They looked much too small to support her in actual flight, even as petite as she was, but just the fact that she had them was striking enough.
«Allow me to introduce myself,» she said. «I am Countess Remilia Scarlet, mistress of Maison Diable Écarlate...» She paused fractionally, the smirk touching her face again, as she straightened and added, «... at your service.» Then, becoming serious, she went on, «Welcome to my home. Enter freely and of your own will! Enter freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring.»
The last part had a rehearsed flavor to it, as if it were something she were accustomed to saying by long custom, and no longer gave much thought to what the words actually meant. He certainly hadn't entered the building of his own will, after all. Still, it was a polite and well-bred enough little speech, and Gryphon found himself bowing in return (albeit in more of a Japanese style) and doing his best to reply in kind,
«Thank you, Countess Scarlet. My name is Benjamin Hutchins, and this is Wolfgang. We're grateful for your help and your hospitality.»
Remilia wrinkled her nose, the expression just short of a wince, although her crimson eyes remained merry. "Your accent is horrific, Monsieur," she said, and he noticed she spoke English with a faint Britannian intonation. "Let's speak your language." Then, gesturing to the place setting to her left, she said, "You've had a hard night. Perhaps you would care to dine?"
Thanking her again, sat down, arranged his napkin, and was mildly surprised when the Countess served him herself, from covered platters and a soup tureen, on fine bone china. The meal was a simple one—slices of roast beef, small roast potatoes, and consommé—but it was perfectly executed, hearty, and generally exactly what he needed just then, particularly teamed up with the red wine she decanted to go with it. Gryphon wasn't really much of a wine guy, but this one, he decided, made the whole surreal occasion hang together.
He was also amused, and pleased, to note that she prepared a dish for Wolfgang as well, serving him roast beef drizzled with the consommé on one of the same bone-china plates. Then, the duties of a hostess completed, she retired to her throne, slouching with one knee drawn up and her fingers laced upon it, and watched him eat with an expression that combined continued amusement and a sort of languid fascination.
At length, she remarked in a voice that had just a faint edge on it, "You seem oddly unconcerned for a man in your position, Mr. Hutchins."
Gryphon raised an eyebrow at her, finished the mouthful of beef he was working on, then inquired casually, "How so?"
"Come now," Remilia chided him. "You're obviously no rural simpleton. From your clothes, your accent, and what was left of your vehicle, I'd guess you're a Liberion. Here as part of their army against the Neuroi, most likely. You people pride yourselves on your canniness, do you not?" She smiled fully for the first time, deliberately showing him her very white teeth and prominent canines. "I saw you notice my wings, even though you were so polite as to pretend you hadn't. You must have an inkling what I am."
"Some possibilities have crossed my mind," Gryphon conceded, but he kept eating as though none of them particularly bothered him. "The name of your house is kind of a tip-off, too. Scarlet Devil Mansion? Very evocative."
"I didn't name it," Remilia informed him, pouring herself some of the wine. "The farmers hereabouts did, in the 1500s. Occasionally, on the night of the full moon, they would see me about my business, my clothes stained from the night's work." She sipped from her glass, deliberately letting a bead of the red liquid drop from one corner of her mouth and run down to her chin, then darted out her pointed tongue to swipe it up before it could fall onto her blouse. "My table manners weren't so refined in those days," she added with a dangerous little smile. "At any rate, thus I became la Diable Écarlate—the Scarlet Devil—to our neighbors, and the name of the house logically followed."
Gryphon looked around the room. "So you've lived here for a while."
"All my life. I was born here. In the very room you woke up in, as a matter of fact," he added with a faintly impish air, as if hoping the revelation would shock him.
"Hm." He addressed himself to a potato, then said offhandedly, "Your bed is very comfortable, and you have lovely taste in bedclothes."
Her color heightened slightly. "Thank you," she said, momentarily disarmed by the sudden compliment. Then, recovering her faintly sinister demeanor with a visible effort, she returned to her previous topic and said, "Perhaps I should retract my assumption that you're not a simpleton. Most men would show at least some concern at the idea of dining with a vampire."
Gryphon shrugged. "Vampires are people too," he said. "Hell, some of my best friends are vampires. One of them even claims—in jest, unfortunately!—to be my love slave."
Remilia blinked at him, the sinister cast entirely wiped from her face by bemusement. She put it back again, with greater effort this time, and said with forced-sounding scorn, "This is not a joking matter, Mr. Hutchins."
"Call me Gryphon," he replied. "All my friends do. Anyway." He gestured to Wolfgang, who had finished his dinner and was now sitting at the foot of Remilia's chair, gazing calmly up at her. "Wolfgang seems to like you, and he's never steered me wrong yet. He's a much better judge of character than I am."
Remilia looked down at the dog, who thumped his tail on the floor at her glance, then up at his master with a look of incredulity on her face. "You think you can take me lightly on the basis of your dog's reaction?" she demanded, her wings spreading involuntarily as she leaned forward in her chair. "You fool! Dogs are nothing but the poor relations of wolves, weak creatures, easily dominated by—"
"Hrf," Wolfgang interrupted, pawing at her knee.
"What?" she asked, breaking off from berating Gryphon to address the dog instead.
"Hrf," he repeated, pawing again.
"Oh, sorry," said Remilia. She got up from the chair; with a look of satisfaction, Wolfgang hopped into it, then turned around twice, curled up, and went happily to sleep in her place.
Remilia watched this operation with a faint smile, then shook her head, turned back to Gryphon, and said haughtily, "Where was I? Oh yes—easily dominated by one whose will is stronger."
"So I see," Gryphon said dryly, and then, "This soup is fantastic, by the way. My compliments to the chef."
"Thank you," Remilia replied automatically. "I haven't cooked for anyone but myself in years, so I wasn't sure..."
She trailed off, a scarlet (as it were) blush rising in her face, as he looked placidly back at her. For a few seconds, they stared at each other, the vampire struggling to force outrage onto her face, the human striving to keep amusement off of his.
They cracked simultaneously, both of them uttering an involuntary snort, and then they dissolved together into helpless, table-banging laughter.
Once Gryphon was finished eating, they adjourned with the wine to the area by the fireplace. Remilia wound the phonograph and put on another record, this one a piano piece Gryphon vaguely recognized, then curled up with her wineglass beside Wolfgang on an Ottomane sofa, opposite the armchair Gryphon had chosen for himself.
Gryphon held up his own glass to catch the firelight, then asked, "Am I drinking bloodwine? If so, it's well-blended. I can't taste the blood at all."
Remilia shook her head. "No, this is just Château Mouton-d'Armailhacq." She gave him the sinister smile again, although now it was edged with slightly self-mocking mirth, and said, "You're in luck today. As vampires go, I've quite a modest appetite. I experience true bloodlust only once a month, and I just happen to have sated this month's but a short while before you came along."
"How did you find me?" he wondered.
"You were hard to miss," she replied, a trifle evasively. "You made all the noise in the world when you crashed your machine."
He frowned, piecing the memory together, and the image of the person he'd nearly run down flashed in his mind. "There was a young woman—a girl, really—she stepped suddenly into the road. I nearly hit her. I did hit something, but whatever it was, it can't have been her. Did you see any sign of her when you found me?"
"There were only you and Wolfgang when I arrived," she said, idly petting the contented hound with her free hand.
"I wonder what happened to her," Gryphon mused.
"I'm sure she found her way home," Remilia replied. "Probably a dairymaid from one of the nearby farms. These Alsatian farm girls aren't well-lettered, but they're cunning and tough."
"Hmm," he said, sounding unconvinced.
For the next couple of hours, while the moon slowly worked its way down the giant window, they listened to records and made surreally ordinary conversation. Most of it had to do with his impressions of Alsace (generally quite favorable); the current state of the war (looking up, but still with a long way to go); and literature, a topic which was readily accessible from the piles of books at hand. Gryphon confessed that he was, in particular, still at quite an early stage of his appreciation of the Gallic canon, having learned the language fairly late in life.
After making some earnest, not to say eager, recommendations of titles he might try, Remilia yawned decorously (but not too decorously to put her fangs on full display), then took a large, nickel-cased watch from a pocket of her skirt, consulted it, and put it away. "It's nearly dawn," she said. "Time for good vampires to be in bed. You must be tired yourself after such a long night."
"I am a bit," Gryphon admitted.
"Well, then." She rose and picked up the nearest candelabrum. "Shall we?" she said, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Gryphon regarded her blandly as he got to his own feet. "There are a few ways I could interpret that."
"None of the other beds in this house has been fit to sleep in for many years," she told him. "Anyway, there's plenty of room in mine..." She gave him a challenging smirk. "Unless you're shy. I wasn't under the impression that was a common trait of Liberion men."
The look he gave her in return was slightly sardonic, but then he shrugged wryly and said, "OK, sure. Why not."
"Besides," Remilia added cheerfully as he roused Wolfgang and they followed her out of the dining room, "if you try anything, I'll kill you."
"Good to know," Gryphon said equably. "For the record, wasn't considering it anyway."
In the Countess's bedchamber, they piled some of the surplus pillows (of which there were many) down the centerline of the bed, after which they each still had an area roughly equivalent to the double bed Gryphon had back at Château Saint-Ulrich. Following that operation, they put out the candles, banked the fireplace, and drew heavy drapes on the windows, working in peaceable silence all the while, then took turns preparing for bed behind an antique dressing screen.
"Well, good morning, my strange Liberion," said Remilia, snuggling down with Wolfgang in the side of the bed away from the window. "Sleep well, and tonight we'll discuss your fate."
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that," Gryphon observed mildly, but she was already asleep—and snoring, he noticed, adorably in sync with the Lenshound.
"Traitor," he mumbled to the dog, then curled up with his back to them and went to sleep himself.
He woke disoriented from a jumble of fractured dreams, many of them involving that lightning-strobe glimpse of the girl he'd nearly killed. Stupid, that. How old was he, that he didn't know better than to drive at that speed in the rain, on a road as bad as that, in a car with such questionable handling? He wasn't likely to have managed to kill himself with such a moronic stunt, but a random stranger and his faithful hound had both had narrow escapes.
Gryphon wasn't sure he agreed with Countess Scarlet's dismissive suggestion as to who the girl had been and where she'd gone to. It had seemed too pat when she offered it, as though she didn't really believe it either—or as though she knew better, but wished to change the subject.
He got carefully out of bed, padded to one of the windows, and peeked around the blackout curtain, careful not to let any daylight fall on the bed, if there were still any to be had outside. There was, but not very much. The shadows of the trees in the mansion's grounds were long, the sky just starting to darken; he judged it perhaps a half-hour to sunset.
Unsure quite what to do with himself, he went and dressed in the dark, reflecting as he did so that this particular set of fatigues was going to need to spend some quality time with the castle laundry when he got back to Saint-Ulrich. When he came out from behind the dressing screen, he saw two dully glowing crimson eyes watching him from the bed.
"Good evening, stranger," said Remilia.
"Countess," he replied.
"Are you always this formal with women you've spent the day in bed with?" she wondered with a tilt of her head.
Without waiting for an answer, Remilia hopped out of bed, trotted across the room in her nightdress, and turned over the banked coals in the fireplace, then added some fresh wood and stoked the fire expertly back to life. That job done, she returned the poker to its stand, collected the candlestick from the mantelpiece, lit the candle from the fireplace, and went around the room lighting the others with it.
"I trust you slept well?" she inquired as she worked. "I certainly did. Best day's rest I've had in ages. Maybe I should get a dog of my own." Pausing at one of the sconces on the far wall, she shot him a wink back over her shoulder and added, "Or a Liberion."
"I'm told we can be handy to have around," Gryphon said dryly. "Although not all Gallians agree."
"Surpayé, obsédé par le sexe, et par ici," she quipped merrily, all but skipping behind the dressing screen. Then, leaning her head back around to grin at him, she added, "Although I've only seen evidence of one of those things so far."
"Well, I am indisputably over here," Gryphon conceded, deadpan, "but I actually don't get paid at all."
"I suppose that only leaves item deux to be determined, then," came her voice in reply, slightly muffled by rustling fabric.
"Your ladyship," he said, feeling unaccountably awkward, "Wolfgang and I appreciate your hospitality very much, but we have to—"
"Ah!" she interrupted, raising one open hand above the top of the screen. "None of that until after breakfast."
"... As you wish."
"Breakfast" turned out to be wheatcakes and strawberry jam, eaten in the same place at the giant table in the dining room, while Wolfgang got some of the cold roast beef from the night before. Gryphon was interested to note that Remilia ate along with him at this meal—not all vampires of his acquaintance could or would do that—although he tried not to think too hard about the fact that her jam came out of a different jar than his, and seemed to be a somewhat darker shade of red. He wondered where the milk and butter came from. Surely she didn't keep a cow? For that matter, when did she clear away the supper dishes? They'd gone straight from the table to the "living room" area to bed.
Once they'd eaten, he tried again: "I'm very grateful for your hospitality, Countess, but Wolfgang and I have to get back to our unit. Our wingmates will be worried sick. We've been gone more than a day—they're probably already scouring the countryside for us."
Remilia sat looking down at her empty plate for a moment; when she raised her head and met his eyes, all the playfulness had gone from her expression.
"I'm afraid it's not that simple."
Gryphon frowned inwardly. His zanshin had never detected the slightest threat from this woman, and it detected none now. There were certain dark arts that could conceal hostile intentions even from the finely honed danger sense of a samurai augmented by the Force, though, and if anyone could plausibly know one, it would be a centuries-old vampire of obvious high caste. Had he been unwittingly playing along this whole time with a creature making some sort of game out of his own murder?
She saw the thought process play out on his face and bowed her head again, saying nothing.
"Are you about to ruin the mood by telling me I'm your prisoner now?" he asked.
Remilia shook her head. "Not exactly. It's not that you're my prisoner... it's more like, for the next 28 days, we're both prisoners."
Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "Explain."
Remilia hesitated, then faced him again and said, "It's a long and shabby story, and I don't care to relive it for you. The point is, this house..." She hesitated. "I'm not sure how to explain it. The house and grounds are... slightly out of step with time. It's only possible to come and go on the night of the full moon. Until the next one comes, there's no escape."
He gazed expressionlessly back at her for a long few seconds. Then, without a word—just an upraised index finger—he rose, turned, and left the room with Wolfgang trotting at his heels. She heard the front door creak and bang.
Half an hour later, it creaked and banged again, and Gryphon walked back into the great room, his face as blank as it had been when he left, Wolfgang still trailing behind. Silently, he resumed his seat at the table, while the hound curled up nonchalantly at the foot of Remilia's chair.
"I walked straight away from the front of the house," he said, his tone casual.
Remilia nodded. "I figured as much."
"After I'd gone about half a mile, I crested a ridge and found myself walking toward the back of the house," he went on.
She nodded again. "I know."
"You knew this would happen."
"I could've left last night, before the moon went down."
"But you kept me here, knowing that once it set, I'd be trapped."
"And now you claim you're not keeping me prisoner? Because I have to be honest, this is starting to seem very being-kept-prisoner-y to me. I've been kept prisoner before, and it felt an awful lot like this."
Remilia gave him a stricken look. "No, it's just—we were having such a nice time, I couldn't bring myself—I haven't had company in so—"
Abruptly, she pulled herself up short, like a frustrated rider jerking the reins of a recalcitrant horse, and forced a sneer onto her face whether it wanted to be there or not. Straightening up, she swung her legs out over one arm of her throne-chair and reclined against the other arm, arms folded across her chest, then said,
"Bah! What does it matter? I am a vampire! The priorities of mortals are of no consequence to me. Resign yourself to your fate, human. You'll stay here until I decide you no longer amuse me." Elevating her chin, she eyed him coldly and added with as much dark menace as she could summon, "Pray that night does not come soon."
Gryphon looked straight back at her, never taking his eyes off hers. Vampire and human stared at each other for nearly a minute in total silence, her expression imperious, his almost unreadably impassive.
Then, a crimson blush rising from her collar to her hairline, Remilia looked away and closed her eyes, her posture wilting from an insolent slouch to something more like an unsuccessful attempt to collapse in on herself and disappear into a singularity.
"... are you mad?" she asked in a small voice, opening one eye to glance at him and then quickly away again.
"I am a bit," Gryphon admitted. Rising, he paced a short distance away, then turned back and added, "I mean, not so much for myself. A month of downtime isn't necessarily a bad thing, I haven't had a break in... well, a while. But a bunch of people I care about are going to be very upset. I don't like that, and I don't appreciate that you didn't even ask."
His piece said, he walked over to the "living room", sat down in the armchair he'd occupied the night before, and picked up the nearest book pretty much at random.
Remilia left him alone for the next few hours. It was around midnight when she crept into the circle of light cast by the fireplace and said quietly, "Lunch is ready."
Without comment, Gryphon marked his place, put down the book, and returned to the table, which he found laid with a cheese board, bread, and slices of cold beef.
"I don't eat much," Remilia explained, "so I usually have very light lunches. I hope this is OK."
Gryphon nodded. "This is fine. Thanks."
She poured some tea for both of them, adding a spoonful of her "jam" from breakfast to her own, and sat sipping it while he ate in silence.
Finally, she could stand it no longer. "I'm sorry, all right?" she said suddenly. "It wasn't a calculated thing. I really intended to send you away after dinner, but... I just..." She bowed her head and addressed the next remark in a whisper to the tablecloth. "... couldn't."
He regarded her thoughtfully for a few seconds, and when he spoke again, his voice was gentle:
"What?" Remilia asked.
"It's OK," he said. When she raised her head, wide-eyed with surprise and hope, he qualified, "I mean, it's going to be a pain in the ass, and some folks are going to be very mad at me. But it's not the end of the world."
Then, while she fumbled for something to say, he went on, "How long have you been alone?"
"I— I—" Her vampire-lord dignity kicked in again at that too-trenchant question. Straightening, she folded her arms, raised her chin, and snapped, "Solitude is no hardship to a vampire! We are the kings and queens of the night, lone hunters in the dark. We thirst for mortals' blood, not their company."
Gryphon's face made it plain he wasn't buying. "Remilia."
She held her scowl for only a second or so this time, then relented with sagging shoulders and drooping wings. "Since 1794."
He blinked. He'd been expecting her to say it had been a while, but he had never imagined the answer would be a century and a half.
"How have you survived all this time?" he wondered.
"This is a very old house," she said. "There are bottles and casks in my cellar that are older than your country... and not all of them contain wine."
"Do I want to know where it came from?" he wondered aloud.
"Donated, believe it or not," she replied. "Things were different in my father's day. We lived openly among the people of this region then. Quite a few of them were happy to help us, and Papa was an expert at storing and preserving supplies. He called it 'siege preparation', said he'd learned it during the Shadow-Beast Wars in the 1100s. It was his hobby. Or obsession, as I'm sure Maman would have put it." With a nostalgic little smile, she added, "When I was a little girl, he used to boast that he'd built a store that could see us through an ice age."
"I guess that explains how you made it through the Neuroi occupation."
Remilia nodded. "Sustained by my father's foresight... and the generosity of neighbors now gone for many seasons." Her aristocratic smile flashed again as she raised her teacup, her wings spreading as grandly as they could, and added, "Here's to them."
"I'll drink to that," Gryphon said, raising his own. Then, after fitting deed to word, he wondered, "Now that the Neuroi are gone, why do you stay?" he wondered. "Couldn't you leave, any full moon?"
Remilia answered the question with questions of her own: "And go where? How far would I get before the sun rose? Besides, this is my home. Everything I have left in the world is here."
"Well, I can't help you with the second part, but as for the first, I'm sure you could make it as far as Ribeauvillé," Gryphon said. "That's where I'm based. Do you know Château Saint-Ulrich?"
"Of course. It belonged to a cousin of mine, once, but he's long dead now. It's been in ruins for centuries."
Gryphon shook his head. "The Allied Forces rebuilt it last year. I live there. It's the headquarters of the wing of air witches I fly with. And we're a... pretty eclectic outfit," he said with a wry, fond little smile. "I'm sure if you turned up there, I could convince the lady in charge to take you in."
Remilia folded her arms again. "I won't be a refugee. Grant me at least that much pride."
Gryphon raised his hands in surrender. "OK. Peace. I won't bug you about it. I just... I can't stay here forever."
A shadow crossed her features, casting her expression down. "I know." Closing her eyes, she went on softly, "You're only human, after all."
Probably not the time to say, "Actually, have I got news for you," Gryphon reflected internally.
"I meant it a little shorter-term than that," he noted instead. "I've got a war to get back to. There are people counting on me. But I'm starting to feel a bit fond of you, you know," he added, making her blink and go wide-eyed again, "and I'd like to help you if I can."
"I... I appreciate that," Remilia said, as if conceding a point. "I do. And I swear to you, when the next full moon comes, I won't stop you from leaving. I..." She hesitated, as if psyching herself up for something, then said in a slight rush, "I think I can even arrange things so that your comrades never know you were gone."
Gryphon tilted his head curiously. "How?"
"With this," she said, taking the large watch he'd seen the night before from her pocket. Holding it out, she showed him its face. It looked like a perfectly normal, perhaps slightly oversized open-faced vest-pocket watch, the kind that used to be called a railroadman's chronometer, with a smaller inset dial counting the seconds.
"It's an arcane artifact," she explained, and then, at the press of a stud a few degrees offset from the stem, the face of the watch transformed, its components rearranging in an intricate mechanical dance. In a second or so, it had changed to a much more complicated, multi-layered, slightly mindbending configuration that looked deeper than the actual physical size of the watch.
To his immense surprise, Gryphon recognized it at once.
"That... that's a Mark I vortex manipulator," he said. "Where did you get it?"
"It belonged to my last lady's-maid," Remilia said, returning the watch to its ordinary form and putting it away. "I never knew how she came by it. She was... amazing. One of the most capable humans I've ever known. She mainly used this watch to help her make the household run more smoothly, but she was also my self-appointed bodyguard, and she had the skill to make that title mean something. With this, she could stop time for everyone but herself, or be in several places at once, or sometimes even undo things that had happened, although that didn't always work. She called it 'The World'." Her face clouding, she continued, "She left it behind when she... departed my service."
She paused for a moment, collecting herself, then went on in a more upbeat tone, "I mostly kept it as a memento of happier nights, but I've figured out a little of how it works. When the next full moon comes, I think The World can make it so that when you leave the house, you go back to yesternight. Your friends will never know anything happened. Although you'll have to explain for yourself what became of your machine," she added with a spark of her old playfulness.
Then, sobering again, she asked, "So... will you forgive me?"
Gryphon seemed to be lost in thought, his reaction deferred just long enough that his silence was beginning to make her feel uneasy. Then he smiled.
"Be a helluva long month if I didn't, wouldn't it?" he remarked.
With a cry of delight, Remilia sprang impulsively from her chair to embrace him, her arms around his neck.
She's really warm, he remarked inwardly as he returned the hug, and he wasn't only thinking of her body temperature.
Within a night or so, life at Maison Diable Écarlate had settled into a new pattern. The lengthening spring days meant that Remilia was getting more sleep than Gryphon really needed, so he took to rising in mid-afternoon, while she still had a few hours to go, and fixing things around the mansion. On the second night, during a general tour of the house, she showed him a room that had once been a caretaker's workshop, a century and more ago. It still had a few tools, unfamiliar and primitive, but tools nonetheless, which he could use to make better tools, and then start tackling some of the very, very great deal of deferred maintenance that had built up around the Scarlet Devil Mansion over the decades.
Remilia protested that he didn't need to do this work, it wasn't as if she had trapped him at the mansion in order to extract labor from him. He countered that he had the hours to fill, and besides, it gave him a pleasant sense of accomplishment to try and remedy the worst of the old house's ills.
"I'm making some real progress here!" he reported on the third night, when she emerged from her bedchamber to find him replacing the broken windows in the front hall. Wiping sweat from his forehead with a sleeve, he added with a grin, "Give me another... oh, 40 or 50 years, and I'll have this place just the way I want it."
"Don't tempt me," Remilia replied, and though she kept her voice and smile light, there was a flicker of pain in her eyes that reminded Gryphon to avoid making remarks like that in the future.
"Of course," he said, steering the conversation away from that sore point, "it'd be easier if I had access to the basement."
Remilia shook her head. "No," she said flatly. "Absolutely not. The basement is strictly off-limits."
"I know, you told me," Gryphon replied. "Hey, your house, your rules. I'm just saying, if I could get down there, I could think about wiring the joint up for electricity. Maybe even running water!"
"I'm a vampire," Remilia said sourly. "We don't do running water."
"Well, yeah, but that's like... you can't cross open streams and stuff, right? Does it count if it's in a pipe on the other side of a wall? Maybe we should test that!" he added brightly. "Run a couple of little experiments."
She folded her arms and looked away, scowling. "I am not a lab animal and this conversation is over." Then, opening one eye but not turning her head, she glanced at him with a little smile, letting him know her dudgeon was not entirely real.
"Fine, fine, jeez," Gryphon conceded, throwing up his hands in mock exasperation. "No sense of adventure..."
Once the sun set and the lady of the house rose, it was time to knock off carpentry work, trim and light a couple hundred candles, and have a bath. What with the house lacking any plumbing, this was a bit of a production, since it involved carrying water from the well in the courtyard or the kitchen pump and heating it over a fire before adding it to the tub. Within a couple of nights, they'd gotten so fed up with having to go through all that rigmarole twice each evening that, without any real discussion, they'd taken to attending to the matter together.
And so to breakfast, followed by another night to fill with companionable activities. A stroll around the grounds with Wolfgang in the waning moonlight; reading and listening to records in the living room; playing games. She taught him backgammon, which for 430 or so years had been an impenetrable mystery, "that other game you can play with a checkers set if you turn the board over," to him; he returned the favor by way of Salusian hold 'em poker, which was a slightly odd experience played with the minor arcana of a Tarot deck (the only deck of cards in the house).
And almost always, except during the quiet reading and music times, there was conversation. He told her stories from the war, of his comrades in the 501st and the unorthodox but fulfilling way of life he'd found among them; she spun tales of the glory days of the ancien régime, and of wars against monsters of old fought by companies of witches, vampires, and other mysterious creatures working side-by-side. To hear her tell it, Europe in the late Middle Ages (before her own birth, but a time well-remembered and recounted by her parents in her girlhood), the Renaissance, and the Early Modern period had been a supernatural wonderland. It all sounded a far cry from the modern, industrialized world, in which magic and its users were carefully (and often literally) regimented, and creatures like her kind were so rare as to be considered mythical by almost everyone.
Dinner was the culinary highlight of the day, when Remilia pulled out all the stops and showed off the range of things a person could learn to cook over four centuries in Gallia, the gastronomic hub of the Western world, despite having had servants to handle her every need for the first half of her long life to date. He didn't know where she got the supplies and he didn't ask, and a few dishes showed obvious signs of field-expedient substitutions, but it was all excellent, and he soon got used to his tablemate's habit of discreetly adding a bit of bottled or otherwise preserved blood to her portions of things.
"Oh, that reminds me," he said at dinner the second night, over coq au vin and baguette, as she poured herself a glass of Rousseau with a little something extra.
"I know you said you're not particularly bitey, but on the off chance you find yourself a bit... peckish one of these nights, you ought to know that my blood has a track record of doing weird things to vampires."
Remilia raised an eyebrow. "Oh? How so?"
"Well, I've been bitten in anger twice so far in my life," he said.
"By a vampire who was straight-up trying to kill me, I mean."
"Ah. That's right, you said you had friends who were vampires."
"Right, and what I'm trying to get at here is, there's a reason I don't, uh, 'share' with them, besides the obvious. Two vampires have tried to draw from this well. One of them lost about four years of apparent age and most of her memories, and the other... uh... exploded."
This time, Remilia raised both eyebrows. "Exploded."
"Yeah. Like... boom," said Gryphon, with the appropriate gesture. "Little pieces everywhere. Helluva mess."
"That's a bit overdramatic, isn't it?"
"Well, Demetri always was one for the grand entrance. I like to believe I gave him his grandest exit." He shook his head and took a sip of his tea. "May he rest in peace, and good riddance to him."
"You sound almost like a vampire hunter," she said, her tone becoming slightly cold.
Gryphon shook his head. "Hardly. The fact that he was a vampire was absolutely irrelevant to the fact that he was one of the worst people who ever lived. I told you before, some of my best friends are vampires. Including the first one I just mentioned. Our little... tangle... was an accident. We're cool now."
Remilia eyed him for a moment longer, then smiled and raised her glass to him. "You have had an interesting life, Mr. Hutchins."
Gryphon met her smile and raised his teacup in return. "You haven't even heard the half of it yet, Countess Scarlet."
The after-dinner hours tended toward quieter pursuits. That was when they got in most of their reading and/or record listening, or went up onto the roof to look at the stars. The cupola at the top of the clock tower had a small telescope set up in it, but she never volunteered to take him up there, and some instinct kept him from asking about it. Unusually fast friends they might well have become in so short a time, but his hostess still had many secrets, and he chose to respect them.
Thus unto (or nigh-unto) dawn, and then to bed. On the fourth day, the pillow wall was abandoned, on the grounds that Remilia was just demolishing it and invading the neighboring district in her sleep anyway, and operations thenceforth proceeded more or less as they usually did at Saint-Ulrich. Privately, Gryphon ranked her sleeping style somewhere between the Hartmann twins (both curl-up-and-snugglers) and Trude Barkhorn (a grab-and-entwiner, albeit a decorous one), depending on her whim, with sparse flashes of Mio Sakamoto (a sprawl-and-snorer). It was all quite pleasant and manageable; the only new wrinkle took the form of occasional wing complications.
(And it beat crashing in a coffin, which he had attempted to do on one previous occasion, albeit not as anyone's guest.)
The nights flowed by in this comfortable rhythm, and almost before Gryphon knew it, they arrived at the night of the new moon—the exact halfway point of his enforced stay as Remilia's guest.
She was in a subdued frame of mind that night, right from the start. She slept late, not rising until well after dark. Gryphon was in the house's cavernous library, repairing bookcases (most of which had fallen down over the years) and reshelving books, when she appeared.
"Ah, here she is at last," he said cheerfully, stepping back from the shelf he'd just finished refilling. "What do you think? As my grandfather would say, looks like somebody else did it."
"Mm," Remilia replied, a little abstractly. She inspected the refurbished bookcase for form's sake, but he could see her heart wasn't in it as she nodded and said, "Yes, good work."
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No, why would anything be wrong?" she replied, a little too quickly. Then, turning to leave, she added, "It's your turn to draw the bath."
"It's always my turn to draw the bath," Gryphon teasingly complained as he followed her out.
Ordinarily, she'd have come back with a retort along the lines of, "Well, of course. I'm the mistress of the house, it's not my job to fetch water. That goes against the natural order of things." Tonight... nothing but a noncommittal grunt.
Their course to to the bath chamber took them past the barred and bolted door to the left of the great room, one of only two in the house he was forbidden to open. It led to the basement, which, for reasons Remilia had not explained, was prohibited territory.
Technically, she had forbidden him to even touch this one, which he dutifully had not done—but he had looked at it while passing by, and, particularly since he was doing work on the house and that kind of thing was on his mind, he'd noticed a few things. For one, it was the heaviest door in the house, and the only one fitted with metal reinforcing straps. For another, the bar and multiple bolts that kept it secured were on this side, so they couldn't be meant to keep intruders from getting into the basement from up here.
And for a third, it had quite recently been broken down—from the other side. The repair work had evidently been done in haste, or by an unskilled hand, or both. No real effort had been made to restore the door's appearance. Whoever fixed it was only concerned about getting it back in place and reinforcing it even further. He wasn't sure, but he suspected the hardware for the bar had been installed after the repairs.
Now, as they passed, he noticed Remilia give that door a lingering look. She almost paused before it, and he had the impression she probably would have, if he hadn't been there. The flash of her profile he got before she tore her eyes away from the door and continued on down the corridor carried the most ambivalent look he'd seen on her face yet—and the hardest to read.
He left it until they'd finished scrubbing up and were having a good steamy soak at opposite sides of the big wooden tub, then asked,
"So... what's in the basement?"
Remilia was physically startled by the question, briefly submerging her rubber duck, then looked on the verge of shouting at him before she reined herself in.
"Don't ask me about that," she said sharply. Then, her face falling, she repeated in a softer, more plaintive voice, "Please don't ask me about that..."
"Why not?" Gryphon inquired gently.
Remilia kept her eyes lowered, as if considering her reflection in the surface of the water, then raised them to his and said, "Because I can't lie to you... but I also can't tell you. Better that you don't know. You mustn't know." Crossing her arms over her slim chest, she sank down until the water covered her shoulders and added almost inaudibly, "You would hate me if you knew."
"Unless you're keeping human cattle down there to feed your insatiable bloodlust—which I think we've already established is pretty unlikely—I can't see that happening," Gryphon replied frankly.
She shook her head vigorously, scattering droplets of water from the wetted tips of her hair. "It's not that," she said. "Never that." Then, becoming subdued again, she went on, "In some ways, it's worse. I'll only say this: It's my greatest shame, and there's nothing you can do. Just... please, please just forget about this. Put it out of your mind and let's... let's just go on as we have been. Can't we?"
Gryphon gave her the thoughtful look she'd been both anticipating and dreading, and seemed on the verge of pressing the point, but then he thought better of it and nodded solemnly.
"OK," he said. "I won't ask again. But... if you ever decide you can tell me... I promise I'll hear you out. Remember that."
"I... thank you."
She sat and soaked for a while, her expression deeply pensive; then, with an impulsive suddenness that was more like her usual self, she rose, sloshed out of the tub, shook water from her wings, and swathed herself in a towel almost as wide than she was tall, remarking as she breezed out of the room, "I'd better get started on breakfast! Don't soak too long, you'll turn into a prune and miss my world-famous pain perdu."
Gryphon stayed where he was for a minute longer, head tipped back on the rim of the tub, contemplating the rococo plasterwork of the ceiling.
"The vibe is weird tonight," he mused to himself. Then, sighing, he extracted himself from the tub and set about looking for a towel Remilia hadn't gotten wet in the course of her flamboyant exit.
Although she served Gryphon a sumptuous breakfast, Remilia ate nothing herself, only sipped a cup of blood-tinted tea and made desultory conversation while he worked his way through some of the finest French (or, well, he supposed Gallian) toast it had ever been his privilege to put into his face. Once the meal was finished, sensing that she wanted some time alone with her thoughts, he returned to the library and kept working on the bookcases.
He only saw her once between then and midnight, when she stopped by at around ten-thirty to silently drop off a bundled lunch of sausages, bread, and beer. At midnight, he decided he'd had enough of carpentry for the day and returned to the great room, figuring he'd hole up in a corner out of the way and read.
Remilia was there, standing by the towering window, gazing out at the moonless sky. He let her be and went to get the book he'd lately been struggling to expand his understanding of Gallic with (Zola's La Bête humaine). Just as he found it, she spoke:
"I haven't been very good company tonight. I apologize."
"No need," Gryphon told her. "We all have our low days."
"It's partly because it's the new moon," Remilia said. "Vampires of my line are very attuned to the phases of the moon. Almost like werewolves. My father used to joke that there must have been some crossbreeding somewhere in our past," she said with a faint little smile. "We're at our strongest under the full moon, and on the night of the new moon, we're little stronger than humans. My mood and my energy level always bottom out on this night. Sometimes I sleep right through it."
Gryphon stepped up alongside her at the window. "Do you want to go back to bed? There's no real reason not to. It's not like either of us has any pressing appointments," he added wryly.
Remilia shook her head. "No... I want to tell you something, if you'll hear it."
"I'll hear anything you have to say."
She led him to the Ottomane, sat him down at one end, and took her place sitting sideways at the other, drawing her legs up under her Indian-fashion and arranging her wings over the encircling arm. Wolfgang, sensing that something was up, jumped up between them and climbed into her lap, which drew a smile even through the melancholy look she wore.
"When I told you why you couldn't leave, I refused to explain the cause. What happened to leave my house with this... curse." She looked up from the dog, whom she had seemed to be addressing at first, and met his eyes. "I've changed my mind. I want you to know. It has as much to do with why I am... the way I am... tonight as the moon does."
Gryphon nodded, but kept silent, letting her set her own pace.
"You're familiar with the Gallian Revolution? Gallia's great rebirth of freedom?" At his nod, Remilia went on, "Well, then you may be aware that it was... not without its casualties. My people were among those casualties.
"Under the ancien régime, we vampires were like minor nobility in our own right. We had rights, privileges, but also responsibilities. Most of us tried to be good neighbors to the humans we lived among. For centuries we stood alongside the witches of Gallia to protect our fatherland from things far worse than we ever were. But after the monarchy fell, suddenly we were just... monsters. Predators. Symbols of everything that was wrong with the old system, worse than the human aristocrats the revolutionaries so hated." She shook her head, eyes closed, and added bitterly, "The humans behind the Revolution didn't hesitate to wipe out thousands of their own in the name of their high ideals—what were a few dozen sangsues to that?"
He had no answer for that rhetorical question, but she hadn't been expecting one. After a moment's pause, she went on, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité—but not for vampires. Just about the only thing all the warring factions of the Revolution agreed on was that we had to go. More than that—the citoyens had to be convinced we had never existed. Which would have been difficult if there had been any of us left.
"One night in 1794, a gang of witches from Paris came here under the orders of the Comité de salut public. After forging contracts with powerful entities to help them, then struck on the night of the new moon, because they knew our strength would be at a low ebb... but they overestimated how low.
"The battle lasted all night. By the time it was all over, they'd paid a heavy price, but they'd almost accomplished their mission. My parents... most of the household staff, our trusted retainers... dead. Not all of them were even vampires. My own mother wasn't! She was a witch like them, but the hunters didn't care. 'Tuez-les tous; les dieux connaîtront les leurs.'" She paused, seeming on the verge of tears, then got hold of herself and went on, "The only ones left on our side were me and a handful of others. But we were secure. The witches who were still alive couldn't get in." She paused again, drawing a shivery breath, and murmured, "With her dying breath, Maman saw to that."
Seeing the pain and sorrow on her face, Gryphon wanted to reach across the couch and draw her to him, but he forced himself not to interrupt. It was obviously costing her dearly to tell him this story, and if her interrupted, he might inadvertently waste what she'd paid to get this far. Instead he held his peace, kept still, and let her continue.
This she did, after a brief pause to collect herself again. "Soon... the sun would rise, the new-moon night would be over, and they would have to withdraw or violate their contracts—which would have unleashed something far worse than us," she added with a bitter little smile. "So... well, I'm not sure what happened. I think they tried to banish us to some lower plane... but it went wrong. Their ritual ended up... pushing the estate's time out of joint instead. But they thought they'd done what they set out to do—from their perspective, the house and grounds disappeared—so they gathered their dead and left.
"It took us a while to realize what had happened, but eventually we discovered that the house touched the real world for one night a month, exactly opposite each new moon. Luckily, the witches never found out and came back to finish their 'work'. By the time we figured it out, the Committee had fallen, anyway, and the Revolution's priorities had moved on. Most of them went to the guillotine in their turn." Balling her fists, she whispered, "I hope those witches went with them. Murdering scum, it's better than they deserved."
Then, recovering herself from the exertion of retelling the painful tale, she sighed deeply and said, "So, that's what happened. Over the years, all the servants who survived left—either taking advantage of a full moon to go with their shields, or eventually..." She drew a long breath. "... going on them."
Remilia sat very still for a moment, her face drawn with emotion, then forced it into an offhanded expression and said, "And then nothing much happened for a century or so, and that's about where you came in." She was going for flippancy, but the pain was still too close to the surface, and the attempt failed utterly.
Over the last two weeks, Gryphon had gotten to know, and appreciate, various aspects of this fascinating little woman's complex personality. There was the confident-bordering-on-arrogant side, conscious of her power and the presence it gave her, determined to be taken seriously as one of the last remaining heirs to her fallen people's mastery of the night. There was the endearingly childlike side, who got flustered when things didn't go according to plan, and resorted to impulsive bluster to try to restore equilibrium. There was the playful, friendly side, which he'd seen more and more of as she'd gotten to know him in turn and her need to constantly assert herself had faded. And there was the kind, gentle, generous side, the part of her that truly was as noble as she thought she should be. The vampire who had never killed except in self-defense, drank only blood that had been willingly given, and opened her home to a stranger in need simply because she couldn't bear to leave him to his fate.
And now, on this moonless night beset by painful memories, he'd been able to look through the gaps between all these facets and see, buried within, her warm, lonely, terribly vulnerable heart.
"That must have been horrible," he said quietly. "I'm so sorry."
"You don't have anything to be sorry for. You didn't do it."
"I'm still sorry. I'm sorry any time people suffer for no reason. Any time a family is destroyed. Remilia... I've lived a long time. Longer than you think, looking at me. And one of the first things I realized when I struck out on my own was how important family is. To have yours wiped out like that, right in front of you... I can't think of many things that are worse than that."
She sat there for a long moment, petting Wolfgang's head and gazing silently at his master through eyes that seemed larger, and deeper, and redder than they normally were.
Then, out of nowhere, she said, "Can you dance?"
"A little," Gryphon replied.
"Excuse me, Wolfgang," said Remilia, carefully moving the dog so she could rise.
She went to the phonograph, wound it, then rummaged in the stack of records until she found one of the new ones—the ones Gryphon had been carrying back from Colmar, which had miraculously survived the Jeep crash, tucked away in a barracks bag. She put this on, then came back across, stood before the sofa, and held out both of her hands to the still-seated man.
"Then let's dance," she said with a wan little smile, and he took her hands, got to his feet, and did as he was asked.
As the buttery smooth voice of Bill Kenny spilled from the phonograph's horn, they glided about the open area in front of the fireplace, first this way, then that way, enjoying the closeness, the company, and the absence of other dancers to worry about running into.
When I'm not playing solitaire
I take a book down from the shelf
And what with programs on the air
I keep pretty much to myself
Missed the Saturday dance
Heard they crowded the floor
Couldn't bear it without you
Don't get around much anymore
Thought I'd visit the club
Got as far as the door
They'd have asked me about you
Don't get around much anymore
They must have looked an odd pair, Gryphon reflected briefly. Even though he wasn't a particularly tall man, Remilia was much too short to put her head on his shoulder with her feet on the floor; she solved this problem by dancing with her feet off the floor, instead hovering with her shoes somewhere around his shins so that their upper bodies would line up properly. This confirmed something he had suspected when he first saw her—namely, that if she could fly, her wings didn't really have much to do with it—but he was too preoccupied to give the phenomenon more than a cursory thought.
Oh darlin' I guess
My mind's more at ease
Why stir up memories?
Been invited on dates
Might've gone but what for?
Awfully different without you
Don't get around much anymore
For the slightly-upbeat piano bridge, they separated but for their hands and did a bit of dipping and diving, then closed up again for the third verse, which was a simple repetition of the second. This close, he could feel her body heat, her breathing, and, if he concentrated a little, her heartbeat—all traits which marked her out as far more than any mere animated corpse.
The record finished, and they stood in the middle of the room for a while, letting the stylus scratch on the label until the spring ran down, unwilling to give each other up for the moment.
Then, with a sigh, Remilia unwound her arms from around him, hopped back, and set her feet on the floor.
"Thank you. I feel much better now." She gave him something much more like her usual challenging grin than she'd managed to muster all day. "Feel up to losing a couple games of backgammon?"
Gryphon gave her his courtliest bow. "My lady, nothing would give me greater pleasure."
Remilia tilted her head quizzically. "Nothing? Seriously? We'll have to work on that."
Then, grinning again, she whirled and trotted off to get the backgammon set out of the cabinet.
The next afternoon, Gryphon was back at work in the library, humming the first movement of "Spring" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons to himself as he repaired another of the bookcases. This one presented him with a bit of a challenge, and also a minor mystery. Unlike the ones nearer the door, which had either fallen over or collapsed in on themselves through sheer entropy, as dry rot and wood fatigue made them unable to carry the weight of their books, this one had clearly been broken on purpose. Someone had wrenched it from its place and hurled it down with sufficient force to break its back, dismount its shelves, and scatter its contents—and it wasn't the only one in here in that condition, either.
He supposed a vampire, sufficiently motivated, would have the strength to do that, but why? Had some member of Remilia's family been so enraged as to demolish their own library? If so, when? Why? And why hadn't Remilia ever put it right? It seemed like she'd just closed the door on the destruction and left it to molder, and judging by the age of the broken wood, it had happened a long time ago.
He didn't feel he could ask her about it just now, not after the night before. She'd torn some old wounds telling him what she'd told him, and though she'd reclaimed her good humor by the end of the evening, it was far too soon to expect a full recovery.
In the end, it didn't really matter, anyway. What mattered right now was that this bookcase was broken, and he happened to be here with the tools, the skills, and the time to do something about it. It was enough.
The work reminded him of his grandfather, the fruits of whose carpentry skills had furnished half a dozen homes in his family during his long-ago boyhood. In spite of the insanely nomadic life he'd led, he still had a few of the old man's pieces, and treasured them highly. He didn't think his work here was quite up to the same standard—he was, after all, just a dilettante carpenter, and not a very well-equipped one just at the moment, either—but he figured it would suffice. At any rate, it was better than what it was replacing.
He noticed a presence approaching and looked up from planing a shelf, preparing to greet his hostess and inquire as to the quality of her sleep—
—and saw that the person standing nearby was not Remilia.
The new arrival was not silver-haired but blonde, with longer, straighter hair, and her face was a little softer, less pointed. Her eyes were the same, though, wide and blood-red, and the way she was dressed...
Lightning webs the sky, throwing the hunched figure in the road into monochromatic relief. A girl, young and slender, in a dark jumper dress and an old-fashioned cap, her posture strange, tortured, her eyes blazing red with rage. The Jeep skids—she raises a hand—first chaos and then darkness engulf him.
"It's you!" he breathed, his face blank with shock. She wasn't bent into a feral half-crouch now, nor was her face plunged into shadow and twisted with fury—she was just standing there, gazing at him with a look of puzzled incomprehension—but this was undoubtedly the girl whose lightning-flash image was burned into his memory. The girl he'd nearly run down. But what was she doing here?
And why did she so strongly resemble Remilia?
"Qui êtes vous?" she asked. Her voice was quiet, sweet, a little hesitant. She sounded more childish than she looked, her enunciation slightly mechanical, as though she weren't entirely certain those were the words she wanted.
"Ah... je suis un invité," he replied. "Je m'appelle—"
She burst out giggling, her nose wrinkling much as Remilia's had when he'd spoken Gallic to her on the first night.
"Oh wow, what a horrible accent," she chortled, and she had the same faint touch of the Home Counties in her English speech, too. "You must be from Britannia." She looked around the room, as if seeing it for the first time. "Why are you in the library? No one comes in here. Are you a magician? Wait, you can't be, you're a man."
"Why do you ask?" Gryphon wondered.
"Because my sister told me this place is only for magicians. And we haven't had one for ever such a long time."
"Are you..." he started to ask.
"Anyway, I'm bored," she interrupted him. "Do you want to play with me? Oh, I should tell you who I am first. My name's—"
"Flandre!" cried a voice from the doorway, and they both turned to see Remilia standing there with Wolfgang at her side. As was her custom between rising and bathtime, she was still wearing her nightdress and bareheaded, her hair mussed from bed, and she looked absolutely aghast.
Flandre's demeanor changed as if someone had turned a knob; at the sight of Remilia, all the slightly off-kilter cheerfulness she'd shown to the stranger vanished, replaced with a scowl of cold disdain.
"Sister," she said icily, folding her arms.
"Flandre, que fais-tu ici?!" Remilia demanded.
"You're being rude," said Flandre sharply. "Shouldn't we speak English in front of your guest? He clearly doesn't speak much Gallic."
Even under the circumstances, Gryphon felt slightly comically miffed. He understood Gallic just fine, even if his pronunciation wasn't the best. He shoved the thought aside, sensing that far more important matters were afoot.
Remilia looked flummoxed for a second, then shook her head and snapped, "Fine. What are you doing here?" She glanced behind her, even though from this angle she couldn't see the basement door she'd had to walk past to get here, then turned back to Flandre and went on, "And how did you get here?"
"I climbed up the south chimney," Flandre said, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.
"For heaven's sake, why?"
"Because I could. To have a look around. Or maybe I was going to pay you a visit in your bed and settle things." The blonde's crimson eyes narrowed, her jaw setting at a cruel angle. "You'll never know."
"Flandre, please—" said Remilia, her face stricken, but Flandre ignored her plea and said,
"Now if you don't mind, I was just asking this gentleman to play with me. You're not invited, so kindly buzz off, mostiquette."
Remilia's face changed from pale with horror to flushed with rage. "You—" she began, but Flandre had already dismissed her from mind and turned back to Gryphon. When she did, it was like that knob had been twisted the other way, and she was all smiles as she addressed him: "How about it, monsieur? Shall we play a game?"
Sure, how about Global Thermonuclear War? he didn't reply out loud. Something in this girl's eyes, to say nothing of the whipsaw changeability of her mood, was ringing all the alarm bells in the back of his head.
"Flandre," said Remilia, and there was a glacial seriousness in her voice he'd never heard there before. It seemed to surprise Flandre just as much. She turned back around to see her sister standing there, fists clenched, wings fully outspread, her eyes blazing like Flandre's had when Gryphon had seen her the night of the storm.
«Hearken to thine elder sister's words, Flandre,» Remilia snarled in an antiquated Gallic dialect. «Thou mayn't have this man. He is not for thee! I claim my rights as eldest, and as mistress of this house.» Pointing stiff-armed in the general direction of the basement door, she commanded, «Take thyself back to thy chambers at once!»
Flandre balled her own fists, and for the first time, Gryphon noticed she had wings as well... of a sort. Before she'd outstretched them to match her sister's (which he guessed was some sort of instinctive vampire challenge display), he'd missed them entirely, because they weren't fully formed. The long bones were there, clad in the same smooth jet-black skin that covered Remilia's, but the fingers and membranes were missing, so what was there resembled nothing so much as a pair of small tree branches growing from the small of her back.
The two stared each other down for several long, tense seconds. Then Flandre laughed, tossing her disheveled blonde hair, and said, "You're so easy to wind up, sister. Fine, I'll let you have your fun and go back to my dungeon. For now." She turned her head and regarded Gryphon thoughtfully over her shoulder for a second (the friendly smile switched back on while she was doing it, and off again the instant she looked away), then continued to her sister, "But you'd better hurry up and mark him, or one of these nights I may decide you're not serious enough about your claim."
Remilia made no reply, other than to go pale again. Flandre gave another laugh, this one edged with cruelty, then turned back to Gryphon one last time, her cheerful face switching back on as she did so.
"Well, I guess I have to go back to my room. Sorry we didn't get a chance to play. You look like fun. Maybe later! Bye!"
And with that, she skipped out of the room, breezing past her sister as though she weren't there, and disappeared down the hall leading into the wing of the house that was entirely abandoned. Wolfgang watched her go, a worried look on his face, and uttered just the faintest hint of a disconsolate whine.
Presently, one of the doors at the far end creaked, then banged shut, and it was as if the sound unstrung Remilia like a bow. The tension drained out of her, and she crumpled to her knees, burying her face in her hands. Gryphon hurried to her side; Wolfgang had already crowded in on the other, drawn by a hound's unerring sense for persons in pain.
"Remilia? Are you—" Gryphon began, placing a hand on her shoulder, but she slapped it away with a convulsive gesture.
"Don't touch me!" she barked.
"OK," he said, hands raised in surrender. Instead, he placed himself seiza facing her and just sat, silent, waiting, while she sobbed into her hands.
At length, she seemed to cry herself out; lowering her tear-streaked hands, she saw him sitting there, a respectful distance away, and asked in a less aggressive, more puzzled tone,
"What are you doing?"
"You said not to touch you. So I'm not."
Despite herself, his deadpan delivery wrung a chuckle out of her.
"At least you're obedient," she said with a wry flash of her aristocratic face. She turned away, wiping her face with the sleeve of her nightdress, and petted Wolfgang.
"I never imagined that would happen," she said, as if addressing the dog. "She's never done it that way before."
Then, drawing a deep, shuddery breath, she turned back to Gryphon and said slowly, "Well... now you know. That's what's in the basement. It's where my sister Flandre lives. How long was she here before I arrived? Are you all right? Did she hurt you?"
Gryphon shook his head, mystified. "No... she didn't seem like she wanted to. She asked me if I was a magician, and if I wanted to play with her."
Remilia's hand suddenly darted out and seized his in a grip that was almost painful. "Did you tell her yes?"
"No. She interrupted to introduce herself before I could say anything. In fact she never waited for me to answer any question she asked."
Remilia closed her eyes, relief washing over her. "Thank the ancients." She covered her face with her hands again. "Oh, what a mess," she moaned. "What a mess."
Rising, Gryphon bent down and scooped her up like the child she sometimes resembled. She seemed to consider objecting for a moment, but didn't, as he remarked, "You'll catch a cold sitting on that damp stone floor," and set off toward the bath chamber.
"I'm a vampire, you cretin," she said, but there was no weight behind the insult. "I don't get sick."
"I know, but it's what you say in a situation like this," Gryphon replied, pulling another grudging little laugh out of her.
The whole affair seemed to have exhausted Remilia. She sat quiescent, her face almost blank, while he prepared the bath, undressed her, soaped her down, washed her hair, rinsed her off, and then dumped her in the tub, all of which he did with the same brisk, clinical efficiency he showed on the nights when it was his turn to do the laundry. He repeated the same procedure for himself, climbed in on the opposite side when he was finished, and they soaked in silence until the water started to get cool.
"You would make a decent maid," she remarked abstractly as, still expressionless and passive, she submitted herself to be dried off and dressed. Then, with a half-hearted smirk, she added, "Except for that."
"Just never you mind about that, young lady," Gryphon replied imperturbably, affixing her shoes.
Not until after breakfast did either of them speak again, beyond the mundane requests and acknowledgements of well-mannered people sharing a meal. Then, at last, Gryphon sat down in his armchair across from the Ottomane, where Remilia had taken up her usual station with Wolfgang by her side; leaned forward with elbows on knees; and said gently,
"I think... you had better tell me about it."
Remilia gazed silently at him for a few seconds, either gathering her thoughts or her strength—possibly both.
Then, closing her eyes, she murmured as if to herself,
"So be it."
Her mind evidently made up, Remilia opened her eyes, fixed them on his, and spoke.
"I should start at the beginning, I suppose. My father, Count Victor Scarlet, was a vampire nobleman from the area that eventually became Magyarovia—the eastern part of the Ostmark-Magyar Empire. The House of Skarlátvörös has deep roots in that country. Maman was a powerful witch from one of the foremost witching families of Bruges. She was nearly 600 years younger than Papa, but what did that matter? They were in love," she added with a wryly sentimental little smile.
Smiling in return, Gryphon said, "I understand."
"At any rate, you must have realized that Flandre is my sister. She's five years younger than me, our parents' second and final child. I was named after my mother. They never told me why they named Flandre as they did, but... she was born nine months after they spent a holiday visiting Maman's family in Bruges, so... you figure it out."
Gryphon couldn't help but chuckle. "Nice."
"I'm telling you all this so you understand our background," Remilia said. "I don't know what kind of ideas you might already have about vampire families, but... we were happy. Papa was a fearsome vampire lord, a great warrior and hunter of monsters... but at home, he was one of the most easygoing men I've ever known. He never even spoke sharply to us, let alone anything harsher. Maman loved him, loved this house, loved..." She paused, making an effort not to choke up, then went on, "... being our mother. And Flan and I were as close as sisters can be, despite being five years apart. Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
Gryphon shook his head. "No, I'm an only child. I have five children of my own, though, including a pair of twins. I've seen the kind of bond you're talking about."
Remilia looked surprised. "I would never have thought—did you leave them behind to go to war?"
"Not as such. They're all grown. Off on their own now."
"You aren't old enough to have grown children," she objected.
"I told you I was older than you think," Gryphon said. "Please. Go on."
"... Right. I suppose... I can't stall forever. But it is important that you understand what our lives were like."
He nodded. "Take as long as you need."
"One more thing. This is important. There are no half-vampires; the children of vampire-human couples are always either one or the other. The firstborn is almost always a vampire. After that, about one in five is human. As the eldest, I've always been a vampire—but Flan... Flan was born human.
"That never mattered to us when we were kids. Our parents were worried it might, at first. Obviously, being a vampire, I was a lot stronger than she was... but it never made any difference." Smiling that sentimental little smile again, Remilia went on, "I fell in love with her the day she arrived. I would never, never have hurt her. Even as a little girl, I'd have killed anyone who tried. You need to understand that, too."
Gryphon nodded again. "I get it."
Remilia paused to collect her thoughts once more, then pressed on. "She was more outgoing than I was. Sweet-natured and kind. The kind of person your people would describe as sunny, without the frightening connotations that word has for my kind. Everyone, everyone loved Flan. She made the darkest new-moon night worth waking up for. And so... that was our life. Our nights were always happy ones... until Flandre's thirteenth summer. Then... something went wrong."
Remilia entered Flandre's bedroom silently, her feet not quite touching the floor, and slipped to her bedside. The room was dark, only a sliver of moonlight from the window falling across the bed, but that made no difference to Remilia; she could see her sister as clearly in total darkness as in broad daylight. (Theoretically. She'd never actually tried looking at her in broad daylight.)
Flandre was sleeping, but poorly, as she had for many days and nights now. Face stippled with sweat, she tossed and turned, now throwing off her covers, now unconsciously clawing them back over herself, as hot spells and chills washed over her. And she was so pale—not the very fair but radiantly healthy skin she'd inherited from their Flemish mother, but a sickly ash white, with the dark rings around her eyes so pronounced, it was if she had been beaten up.
Witnessing her sister's misery, Remilia felt her heart break, as it did every time she came into this room lately. Beside Flandre's uneasily sleeping form, the bedside table was littered with bottles and jars of their mother's finest alchemical remedies. These preparations were famous throughout Alsace and beyond for their effectiveness, their ability to cure practically anything that could ail a human body... and they had all proven utterly powerless against whatever was ravaging Flan.
Her eyes filling with tears, Remilia turned and fled before she could burst out bawling and ruin what little rest Flandre was managing to get.
She hurried to her mother's library-cum-laboratory as fast as her legs would carry her (having been admonished time and again, as a younger girl, not to fly in the house), dodging startled servants and ducking the attempts of a few to check her progress and ask whither she was bound in such a rush. She respected the family's domestic staff—had been raised better than to treat them as mere menials or chattel—but she didn't have time for their concern right now.
The only reason she didn't crash theatrically into the library with a dramatic banging-open of doors was because they were already open. Remilia was drawing breath to call out for her mother when she noticed the two figures standing by that lady's long, apparatus-and-books-littered work table and pulled up short. They were her mother and father, and with their backs to the door, they seemed to be deep in consultation—so deep they hadn't noticed her entering.
Instinctively, she ducked behind one of the bookcases rather than approach, then listened, all but holding her breath.
"... be something else we can do, Remi," Count Scarlet was saying, in his mellow voice that still, after all these centuries in Alsace, hadn't completely shed its Carpathian accent.
Remilia, even at the sometimes-fiercely independent age of seventeen, still associated that voice and that accent with warmth and security, but the reply that came from her mother made that sensation impossible to hang onto.
"If there is, neither I nor any of the authorities I can consult know it," said Remilia the Elder ("Remi" to her husband, and absolutely no one else), in a voice heavy with fatigue and despair.
"But what about—" the Count began, but his wife cut him off, her voice rising to a hoarse shout.
"I tell you there is nothing, Victor!" Pacing agitatedly around the table, she picked up bottles and retorts and shook them at him as she named off their contents. "I've tried tincture of belladonna and garou's urine! Corpse dust and fire salt in laudanum! Styx water, salamander's tears, and willow-bark!" As she named each item, she flung it down, so that her rage was punctuated by the sound of smashing glass.
Every time it happened, Remilia the Younger winced, cringing, in her hiding place. Her mother treasured that equipment. From the time her daughters were old enough to walk, she had drilled into them that alchemical apparatus was to be respected and diligently cared for. To see and hear her so wantonly destroying it made the young vampire want to tremble with dread—and what the crimson-faced Flemish witch did next almost made her elder daughter faint with shock.
"It's all! useless!" Remi screamed, and with a single furious gesture, she swept the table clean, sending everything upon it crashing to the floor, then put her face in her hands and began to cry.
Victor's reaction to the carnage was as calm as his wife was not. He rounded the table and gathered her into his arms, petting her kerchiefed blonde head and speaking her name as soothingly as he could.
"It's no use, Victor," Remi said, her voice now so hushed that her eavesdropping daughter had to strain to hear her, even with a vampire's hearing. "Every night she sinks lower, and I cannot understand why. Nothing I try has any effect. It is as if her very blood is failing. Soon it will be unable to sustain her at all, and there is nothing... nothing I can do." Looking up at her much taller husband with red-rimmed eyes, she whispered, "Our sweet Flandre is dying."
"How long... does she have?" Victor wondered quietly.
"I cannot say," Remi murmured. "Every hour that passes takes more of her strength. She cannot have much left." Shaking her head, she pressed herself into her husband's embrace. "I doubt she can last more than one or two more nights."
Remilia the Younger stood rooted to her hiding spot, frozen with horror. She had always known, intellectually, that she was likely to live far longer than her human sister. That was the way of things. Maman's potions could theoretically keep a human young for far longer than their normally allotted lifespan, but not forever. Not a vampire's forever. Sooner or later, both Maman and Flan would leave them. Remilia and her father had discussed this before, he with the melancholy fatalism of one who has buried generations of mortal friends already, and she with the lack of real understanding inherent in any teenager.
But she understood it now. Now that understanding was burning poison within her, as her mother's words cut like razors across her heart.
Our sweet Flandre is dying. It is as if her very blood is failing.
Remilia blinked, her crimson eyes going wide, as a thought struck her like a bolt of lightning.
Whirling, she darted out of the library. This time she really did fly, good manners be damned, hurtling down the corridor and into Flandre's room. Once there, she carefully closed the door and shot the bolt. What happened next had to happen in absolute privacy. Not that there was much chance of their being disturbed, anyway; the servants had all been strictly admonished to stay clear of this room unless summoned. Only the closest family members could enter uninvited during this crisis. But better safe.
Creeping to her sister's bedside, Remilia bent down and gently shook her, saying softly, "Flan? Flan, wake up."
Flandre stirred, mumbling, then opened her eyes. In better light they would be blue, like their mother's, the blue of cornflowers.
"Sis? Is that you?"
"Of course it's me," Remilia replied, her voice hushed, gentle. "Listen, quickly, we don't have much time. I think I know something that can make you better."
"Maman's potions aren't working," said Flandre. "I tell her they are, so that she won't cry, but I think she knows I'm lying."
"I know," said Remilia, fighting back tears. "This is something different. Something Maman... can't do. Do you understand?"
"I..." Flandre looked puzzled for a moment; then her eyes widened in realization. "Oh. It's... it's that bad?"
Remilia nodded miserably. "It is."
Flandre didn't seem surprised. She said only, "Oh," then closed her eyes.
Remilia waited for a few seconds, then murmured, "... Flan? Are you asleep?"
Flandre shook her head, eyes still closed. "No. I'm thinking. I never imagined..."
"I know. I didn't either. But I think it's the only way."
At last, Flandre opened her eyes, seeking out her sister's in the gloom. "If we don't... I'm going to die?"
Another miserable nod. "That's what Maman thinks. I heard her talking with Papa about it."
"I thought so," said Flandre, seeming almost relieved to have the uncertainty removed. "She wouldn't tell me, but... I feel it. Like there's a fire in me that's going out. But I'm... I'm scared, Remilia."
Remilia seized Flandre's nearer hand in both of hers, bowing her head over it, and whispered, "I know. I know. I am too."
Flandre placed her other hand over Remilia's, patting them reassuringly, feeling her sister's hot tears dripping onto her knuckles.
"All right," she said softly.
Remilia raised her head, the tracks of her tears glittering on her cheeks in the moonlight. "Flan?"
"All right," Flandre repeated. Reaching up to the collar of her nightshirt, she pulled it aside, baring her slim throat.
Remilia stared at it, so pale and smooth, for a few long seconds, her nerve almost failing her.
"I'm not very good at this," she admitted, "so it's probably going to hurt."
"I know. I don't mind." Flandre extracted her other hand from Remilia's, reached up, and brushed some of her sister's tousled silver hair away from her face. "As long as it's you... it's fine." She smiled. "After this, we'll be sisters even more, won't we?"
Remilia gave a weak chuckle. "Heheh, that's true." Then she paused one last time, steeling herself. "I... OK." Swallowing hard, Remilia bent toward her sister, feeling her fangs stretching instinctively in her jaws, heat rising in her chest, as her body got an idea of what she was about to do. "Here... here I come."
"Remilia?" Flandre suddenly asked.
"What?" Remilia replied, her teeth inches from Flandre's neck.
"Whatever happens... thank you. I love you."
"I..." Remilia's voice caught in her throat. "I love you too, Flandre," she whispered. "You're my precious little sister and I'll always love you, no matter what."
And with that, she struck.
Flandre gave only one soft cry, a sound almost more of surprise than pain. Then she shifted, back arching, her hands coming up to grasp at the back of her sister's blouse. Remilia took her shoulders and held them firmly, to keep her from twisting and making the wound worse than it needed to be.
Remilia realized at once that her mother was right. Something was wrong with Flandre's blood. It was... sour was the only word she could think of to describe it. Sour, and thin, and just generally off. As a meal, it would have been supremely unsatisfying, bordering on repellent. But this wasn't about nutrition. It wasn't about Remilia's needs at all. This was just about getting it out. Making way for something else.
Remilia's hand fumbling in the dark; the sound of breaking glass, one of the medicine bottles smashed to make a tool.
"Here, little sister. Drink. Don't be afraid. It'll all be over soon."
The silence had hung heavy in the great room for many minutes by the time Remilia had recovered enough to speak again.
"There's a very strong taboo in vampire culture against turning members of your own family," she said, her tone quiet and matter-of-fact now. "I knew that. It was one of the first things Papa taught me about what it is to be a vampire. But I was seventeen. I knew better than generations of my forebears. If I thought about it at all, and I can't swear that I did, I probably assumed it was just..." She made a helpless gesture. "Superstition. Dusty old customs, like throwing salt over your shoulder.
"It doesn't really matter if I thought that, or just didn't think at all. I didn't feel I had any choice, anyway. So I did it. Drank away Flan's spoiled blood and gave her my own to take its place."
She looked Gryphon in the face for the first time in a while, searching his features to see whether he were revolted by what he'd been told. He didn't seem to be; he looked back at her with the same solemn, compassionate look he'd had throughout her sorry tale. Seeing it, she wiped her eyes for the hundredth time, took a shuddering breath, and continued,
"In all the stupid novels about us—including the ones written by our own kind!—it's always so peaceful. Usually they both just go to sleep when it's done and wake up the next night, refreshed and ready to get started on the rest of their lives. But in real life... it hurts. The change hurts the one who's turning, because her body is remaking itself from the inside out; and the one who did the turning is in pain too, because you've just given up a part of your essence, suddenly, violently, and your whole being is in shock." She hugged herself, shivering at the memory. "It was horrible.
"And then Flan... went berserk. When the change took hold, she threw me off her, so hard I ended up on the other side of the room. And she started screaming, like a bane sídhe, or one of those bog spirits they have up in Suomus. She jumped out of bed and just started... destroying things."
Remilia shook her head. "I was stunned. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. And just to make it worse, even a person as small as Flan... that's too much blood for me. It wasn't good blood, either. Between that, the shock of the turning, her reaction, and the enormity of what I'd just done, I couldn't keep it down.
"Naturally, that was when Papa broke down the door. 'Remilia! What have you done?!' I couldn't answer him. I was too busy being sick all over the floor, and besides, what would I have said? 'Look! I turned Flan! Now she doesn't have to die! Only why is she attacking you?'"
"What eventually stopped her?" Gryphon asked.
"Maman and Papa," Remilia said. "They were... very strong. It wasn't easy, even for them, but eventually they were able to knock her out. By then they'd all but destroyed half of that wing of the house. She was so powerful, even then. It was terrifying.
"I found out later that a lot of humans go mad when they're first turned. Usually it passes quickly, in the first night. But Flan..." She stared at her hands, lying slack in her lap, for a few moments, then raised her eyes to Gryphon's. "Flan never got better. When she awoke, the berserker rage had gone, but her mind was... broken. It's like she's two people now, and..." She sniffled again. "Neither one of them is my Flan. One of them is a child, pleasant, but strange. She showed you that side of her tonight. The other... well, you saw the way she treated me. The Other is sharper, older, but so full of hate she can barely function."
"She seemed to be functioning just fine, for some values of functioning," Gryphon opined.
"She was unusually verbal tonight," Remilia agreed. "Her head comes closest to clearing around the time of the new moon. And she had you to focus on. But... she can't be trusted. Cannot even trust herself. It's not that she's self-destructive so much as that she destroys everything, including herself.
"That's why it put the fear of the gods into me when she asked you to play," she elaborated. "Flan's toys don't last long. Her childlike side doesn't know her own strength, and the Other... doesn't care. You know the old phrase, 'a danger to herself and others'? Flandre is a danger to herself and everyone."
"Which is why she's confined to the basement."
Remilia nodded. "Papa's decree, originally. Even in the state she's in, she recognized his word as law. I don't know why she continues to obey now that he's gone, really. As you saw tonight, she doesn't always. Sometimes she comes up. Either the Child gets bored and forgets she's not supposed to, or the Other takes hold and decides she'll do it just to taunt me."
"She's been outside, you know," Gryphon said. "She's the person I almost ran over in the storm the night we met. I'd bet any amount of money on it."
"I know. That was the Other. I was chasing her when it happened. She caused that storm. She thought the rain would stop me, and it did slow me down enough that I couldn't catch her. That, and making sure she hadn't killed you. Fortunately, she seems to have decided that shaking me off was victory enough. When I got back to the house with you, she'd already returned." She chuckled darkly. "She even put the door back. To mock me with its uselessness, I imagine."
They said nothing for a few moments. Then, sighing, Remilia moved Wolfgang to the unoccupied part of the couch and stood up. "Anyway, that's it. That's the story. My little sister is a monster—one which I created. She's my responsibility, doubly so now that our parents are dead. I'll watch over her for the rest of my life. It's all I can do."
"So that's what you meant when you said everything you have left in the world is here," Gryphon said thoughtfully. "You weren't talking about the things. You meant Flandre."
Remilia nodded. "Hate me or not, she's all that's left of my family... and I'm all that's left of hers. I promised I'd always love her, no matter what."
When he didn't reply, she assumed the worst. Tears springing to her eyes again, she said, "I told you if you knew you would hate me, too. But I beg of you, at least understand this. I did it to save her. I was desperate to save her." Her expression became fierce as she raised a fist and declared, "I saw her fate and I defied it."
The flash of anger passed, and her mood subsided back into wretchedness as it burned out. Hanging her head, she went on, "And the gods punished us both. I wish..." Another shuddering sigh. "I wish I'd had the strength to let her go. Because I didn't, she's wandered lost in the half-light of her own mind, in constant pain, for more than 400 years. I did that!" she cried despairingly. "I made that. And in her lucid moments, she knows it. And I couldn't say what's worse. That my baby sister, the only kin I have left or ever will have, hates me with all of her fractured soul... or that she's absolutely right.
"So now you know. My crime. My penance. My shame. All of it."
Gryphon still didn't speak, his face closed down in thought. Remilia's shoulders and wings sagged in resignation. "You can keep using my bedchamber while you're stuck here," she said, disconsolate. "I'll sleep in the corridor. Or the scullery, there are no windows in thereUWAAA~!"
The last part emerged in an up-rising squeak as, still without a word, Gryphon got to his feet and swept her up in a bear hug—picked her clean up off the floor and held her tight, one hand on the back of her head where it rested on his shoulder, the other forearm crossing her back just below her wings.
Startled out of her gloom, Remilia struggled, her feet kicking and wings flapping futilely. "Unhand me at once, you... you libertine!"
"Stupid," Gryphon murmured into her hair, not relinquishing her in the slightest. "You thought I'd hate you for that? What do you think I am?"
She kept kicking for a moment, then relented. She'd never really been serious about getting free anyway; if she had been, there was no way he could have hung onto her. She'd only objected out of sheer reflex, and now that it had passed, she let the relief sweep over her and relaxed into his embrace.
After lunch, in a calmer (if melancholy) mood, they returned to the library, where Remilia took up a perch high atop one of the tall bookcases and watched him repair another.
"I'm sorry you got dragged into this," she said after a while.
Gryphon paused in selecting lumber for one of the replacement shelves he needed to make, looked up at her, and smiled. "I'm not."
"Why? You must have better things to be doing than wallow in my family's misery."
He shook his head. "Nope. Not if there's a chance I can do some good."
"I don't believe in chance," said Remilia.
"Well, you should," Gryphon said. "I leave Colmar thirty seconds sooner or thirty seconds later, and none of this happens. Sometimes chance is everything. Besides—if I hadn't gotten mixed up in this, I'd never have met you." As he bent to get started sanding the new shelf, he shook his head and added, "And that just wouldn't do."
Remilia blushed faintly, pleased by the remark, but then grew glum again and said, "We'll see whether you still feel that way when Flan turns on you."
"You two have lived like this since 1794?" he asked. "Do you ever see each other except when she comes up to... whatever she's doing?"
"No. Not any more. I tried, for years I tried to reach her. I would go down to her room and beg her to forgive me. She either doesn't understand what I'm talking about, or throws it in my face. Eventually..." She sighed. "It shames me to admit it, but eventually I gave up and just started leaving supplies for her at the bottom of the stairs. Even an immortal can only beat her head against a stone wall for so long. She won't forgive me. Maybe she can't."
"And yet she still minds you. I saw that earlier."
"But I told you before, I don't know why. Even at her worst, she would obey Papa. She respected him. But even when our parents were gone and we were alone in the world, she kept abiding by their rules... most of the time." Remilia sighed. "And I've never understood why. I'm by no means a weakling..." The declaration lacked the boastful air her assessments of her own prowess usually carried, and the reason for that became clear as she went on, "... but Flandre is much more powerful than I. If she ever tires of the game and decides to finish it—and me—she can. But she doesn't."
Gryphon flipped the shelf in progress over and set to work on the other side. "Maybe, deep down, she still loves you."
"If so, it's on a level I can't reach," Remilia said sadly.
"Hmm. She seemed to like me all right," he mused. "Maybe I should try talking with her."
"Are you out of your mind?" Remilia demanded. She jumped down from her perch (and never mind that these bookcases were easily a dozen feet tall) and confronted him. "What are you thinking you'll do? Just walk into her lair and strike up a conversation?"
He shrugged. "Could do. I've gotten away with dumber ideas. And probably talked to crazier people. Maybe she'd benefit from an outside perspective. Somebody who... wasn't there."
Remilia shook her head. "She'll kill you."
"Maybe. Although it might be harder for her to do than you think. Also... did you notice? Wolfgang didn't so much as growl at her. Remember what I told you when we met? He's a good judge of character."
Remilia rolled her eyes. "I assumed that was what you Liberions think of as witty banter."
"No, it's completely true. He has a sense for people. He can read their... their characters, sometimes better than they can themselves. And he didn't take against Flandre, even when she was talking to you. OK, I can see you think I'm crazy," he added to the look in her eyes, "but I'm totally serious."
She folded her arms obstinately. "That's ludicrous. I could stop you."
Gryphon nodded. "Probably."
She hesitated. "But if you think there's really a chance..."
"I do. I can't promise anything, but I think it's worth trying. Besides..." He reached and gently laid his hand on her shoulder. "I can't bear the thought of going back to my life and leaving the two of you to... this. Not if there's something I can try."
Without thinking about it, Remilia reached up and loosely took hold of his wrist, but didn't move his hand away. "You mean that," she said softly. "You'd risk a horrible death just for that."
He shrugged. "It's what I do. I try to help."
"Who are you?" she asked, her voice quieter still.
Gryphon smiled, thinking of something he'd been told Zoner once said. "A throw of the dice that's gone your way."
"I told you," Remilia said. "I don't believe in chance."
"And I told you," Gryphon replied, patting her cheek, "that you should."
Descending into a dark basement carrying a bullseye lantern made Gryphon feel like a Victorian adventurer, or at least how he assumed Victorian adventurers would feel. The fact that he was going down there in search of a confrontation with a literal vampire just added verisimilitude.
Of course, there was the small matter that he was woefully underequipped for such a confrontation. He carried no wooden stakes, no garlic, no holy water, not even a lousy cross made from a couple of popsicle sticks and a rubber band. (Actually, what holy symbol would you even use in this dimension? he wondered. And holy water by whose standards?) All he had was the lantern and a beagle.
"You might want to go back," he said quietly to Wolfgang.
The wordless impression he got back from the Lens link was basically: Nah.
Shrugging inwardly, Gryphon followed the instructions Remilia had given him. Down the hall, past the empty casks (he noticed in the lanternlight that one of them was branded "1347"; he wondered whether it was a date), hang a left, and it's the first door on the right. There were sconces down here, but they didn't have candles in them, presumably because the only person who ever came down here could see in total darkness.
Should have gotten those optic implants Zoner kept trying to sell me after all, he said ruefully to himself, then found himself facing the door in question.
It was an ordinary interior door, just like the ones upstairs, but for some metal reinforcing and a sign painted in a childish hand:
CELA SIGNIFIE QUE VOUS
After a moment's hesitation, Gryphon knocked on the door. He hadn't really thought this part through. What if she didn't answer? He wasn't going to go inside uninvited. Not only was that rude, it might be suicidal. After the tense parting he'd just had from Remilia, he was going to feel pretty stupid if he just had to turn around and go straight back upstairs.
He was just about to try again when a quiet, slightly tremulous voice came from behind the door: "Qu'est-ce?"
"It's me," he said, and then realized he'd never had a chance to tell her his name. "Uh, your sister's guest."
"Did she send you?" came the sharper, more mature voice of the Other.
"No," Gryphon replied, then added honestly, "In fact, she tried to talk me out of coming."
That seemed to amuse her; there came the sound of giggling, and then the metallic scraping of what sounded like several bolts being drawn. The door opened a few inches, and Flandre's red eyes glittered in the low light of the lantern.
"You have to carry a light," she observed, her voice soft and a little spacey. She shook her head sadly. "Humans are so pathetic. What's up? Did you change your mind about playing with me?"
"Not as such. I'd just like to talk."
"Talking isn't playing. Talking is no good." She started to shut the door, then noticed Wolfgang standing at his master's side and opened it again. "Is... is that a dog?" she asked, a note of wonder coming into her voice.
"Uh, yes, yes he is. This is Wolfgang."
"Oh, he's so cute!" Flandre cried, crouching with knees together to get a better look, her hands clasped under her chin. Then, looking up at Gryphon, she said in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, "He gets to live!"
"Well, that's... good," said Gryphon, a trifle uncomfortably.
"You, I haven't made up my mind about yet," the Other added, eyes narrowing. "Do you have a name, or shall I just call you her majesty's thrall?"
"My name is Ben, but most people call me Gryphon."
She looked puzzled. "'Gryphon'? Gryphons are extinct. Unless you're the last one." She smiled nastily. "In which case they soon may be."
"I'm not your enemy, Flandre."
She straightened up, the cheerful-but-weird light replacing the Other's nasty glare in her eyes, and said, "Prove it! Play with me!"
"Maybe. What kind of game?"
"Goody!" she declared, then grabbed his free hand and dragged him into the room.
She wasn't gripping very hard, or exerting undue force to move him, but he got the distinct sense that if he resisted, she would have no trouble at all forcing the issue. Or just tearing him limb from limb.
Well, in for a penny...
"Feel free to light some of these candles if you want," she said, gesturing around. "It'll be hard for us to play if you can't see."
He found a candlestick that still had a candle in it on a small table, lit it from the lantern, and then went around the room, finding more candles and lighting them from the first. Before long, the room was decently illuminated, and he could shutter the lantern and get a look at where he actually was.
It was a bedroom, much like her sister's upstairs but for the lack of windows, and the fact that where Remilia liked all of her bed things in white, Flandre apparently preferred red. The place was a bit of a mess, which he had been more or less expecting, but he noticed at once that it was only cluttered, not filthy. She evidently had enough on the ball to look after herself in a basic sort of way: her bedclothes, and the clothing she was wearing, were reasonably clean and she'd obviously kept up her personal hygiene. The only smell in the room was a slightly musty, not unpleasant scent of... undergroundness. They were obviously in the basement of an old house, but apart from that, nothing.
He could also see that most of the clutter was in the form of various toys, of the sort a child of two or three centuries before might have had, and that they were all—as Remilia had warned him—broken. Bent tin soldiers; dolls with their heads and arms pulled off; disemboweled stuffed animals; the splintered remains of wooden items whose original configurations he could only guess at.
There were also a lot of books, all scattered haphazardly around, as if she'd just dropped them wherever she happened to be when she either finished or lost interest in them. None of them seemed to be damaged, though, apart from whatever bends and folds they might have suffered from being discarded. Others were piled on what looked like it was supposed to be a dressing table, and on the bedside stands.
"Well, Monsieur Gryphon?" Flandre asked, seating herself on her bed and bouncing a couple of times. "What do you think of my room? It's charming, don't you think?" In what was apparently an off-axis attempt at coquettish seduction, she put a fingertip to her smiling lower lip and added, "You're the first gentleman I've ever had in here, you know. You should feel honored."
Does she even know what this behavior pattern actually means? Gryphon wondered. He guessed probably not. More likely she'd picked it up in one of those books.
"It's lovely," he said, and he wasn't even really lying. If it weren't in a locked and bolted basement, and if he didn't suspect this was the first time it had been lit up in decades, it would have been quite a pleasant space.
"Thank you! Now then. What shall we play?" She gave the finger-to-lip smile again and said, "I know! How about the kissing game?"
Oh, Lord, they do grow up so fast, Gryphon thought to himself. "Sorry, I don't think that's a good idea. I'm much too old for you."
That seemed to tickle her enormously. She threw herself back on the bed and laughed uproariously, arms and legs flailing, completely unconcerned about what anyone might or might not see.
"Oh, monsieur," she said at length, wiping the tears of mirth from her eyes. "You truly are a fool. Too old for me, forsooth! Oh, I do enjoy you."
Suddenly, Flandre bolted upright, then rolled off the bed to the floor, sprang to her feet like a jack-in-the-box, and stalked toward him on tiptoes. She was a little taller than her sister—she must have been on the verge of growing into quite a tall girl when her adolescence was abruptly cut short by her turning—but that was still short enough that she had to be on tiptoes in order to look him in his face, which, before he could react, she was holding between her hands.
Her touch was gentle, her slim hands warm and soft, but again he could sense the power behind them. His zanshin was screaming at him to for Christ's sake make up his mind to fight or flee or something other than standing there like a dickhead with a death wish, but he pushed it down. No sudden moves, now. Smooth. Everything smooth...
And then, to his infinite surprise, she paraphrased Shakespeare.
"Here's a skull now," she said, caressing his head with both hands like a bowler would polish a bowling ball, or a blind person get a sense of someone's face. "This same skull, sir, was Gryphon's skull, the queen's jester."
Just as abruptly, she released him and stepped back, declaiming, "Alas! Poor Gryphon! I knew him, Remilia: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy..." As she spoke she walked around him, and then abruptly sprang into the piggyback position, her arms around his neck, slender legs locked around his waist.
"He hath borne me on his back a thousand times!" she declared, then broke from the script and added, "Now giddyup!"
Tonight has taken a very strange turn, Gryphon mused inwardly, and giddied up.
In the great room, Remilia pulled The World from her pocket and consulted it for the thousandth time, only to find to her dismay that only 32 seconds had passed.
She wasn't hearing any sounds of mayhem from downstairs, which she might have expected if things had taken a really serious turn, but then again, the floors were thick, and was breaking a human body really that noisy? She'd never done it, but she suspected not. They were pretty soft, after all, even those as fit as she knew her guest's to be...
Blink! Where did that come from? Not that it wasn't true, but...
Blast! Only another twenty seconds? Had she stopped time by mistake? No...
A moment later, she heard the boom of the basement door closing, followed by the rattle of bolts and the thud of the bar being replaced. Her heart leaped at the sound; surely Flandre, coming up to boast of whatever horrors she had wrought, wouldn't have bothered to close the door after her.
Her hope was vindicated when Gryphon and Wolfgang entered, replaced a moment later by fresh dismay as she saw the bruised and battered state of the former. Wolfgang was fine, thank heavens, but his master looked like he'd gone a couple of rounds with a heavyweight boxer, and come off the worse. He walked with a distinct limp, and showed evident signs of fatigue on top of that. Without a word he wobbled to the table, picked up last night's bottle of d'Armailhacq, and then lurched to his armchair, flopped into it, and drank the remaining quarter-bottle in one go, dregs and all.
Following which, with every evidence of sincerity, he said in a satisfied sort of voice, "Well! I think that went all right!"
"All right?!" Remilia demanded, coming to her feet. "You're a mess! Wait here."
"I have no intention of moving from this spot before dinner is on the table, I assure you," he said dryly, but she was already running into the kitchen to wet a towel from the pump and bring it back to him.
"What did she do to you?" she asked as she dabbed at his face.
"Nothing much, really. First we played horsie, and I'm pretty sure she only broke three of my ribs. Then leapfrog, and she didn't mean to kick me in the head, so that's fine. Arm wrestling was a bad idea, but fortunately it was so easy for her that she lost interest before she could actually dislocate my elbow. Thumb wrestling was an even worse idea," he added, "but thumbs heal fast. My real mistake was agreeing to rock-paper-scissors." He pointed to the livid bruise in the center of his forehead. "Where I come from we don't do the flick-on-the-head part. Good thing I rolled with that!"
Remilia paused in her attempts at ministering to his wounds, stepped back, and stared at him.
"You... you played actual games with her?"
"Well, if you can call leapfrog a 'game'. I mean I suppose it kind of has rules."
"I'm being serious! You actually played with Flandre? And you're... alive?"
"I'm too tired to be dead," Gryphon greed. "That girl has some energy! I guess I would too if I were cooped up in a basement all the time. Anyway, I didn't agree to all the games she proposed. Run Rabbit Run needed too much room, hide and seek would have been pointless, and the 'kissing game', whatever that might entail, was right out. I'm not trying to explain that one to a judge."
Remilia looked deeply perplexed. "... The 'kissing game'?"
"I said I don't know." Before she could interrogate him further, he went on, "Anyway I'm going to need a few things for tomorrow. Do you have any sewing stuff? You must, you still have clothes after 150 years in this vortex or whatever it is."
"Yes, of course," she said, and then, "What do you need that for?"
"Well, Flan has some stuffed toys and dolls that could use a little love. I figured tomorrow I'd see if I can fix them."
"You're going back? After she put you through this?"
"Sure. Weren't you listening? She had a good time. I think she's decided she likes me. And she loves Wolfgang! The first thing she said when she saw him was, 'He's so cute! He gets to live.' Which is nice."
Remilia gave him a level stare. "It disturbs me how sanguine you are about this."
"As it were?" Gryphon said with a wink, and she blushed as she realized the pun she'd just made. Then he went on, "Seriously, though. It was hard work and I'm a bit beat up, but I really do think it went well. She didn't refuse to see me, or throw me out. After the first couple of minutes, I never saw the Other at all. And..." He paused, not sure how to phrase the next part, and then decided to just go right up the middle. "I wish you could have seen it. She had so much fun. When her mood is right, she has a smile that could light up the moon."
"I know. I remember it from... before." Remilia bowed her head, tears slipping down her cheeks. "My baby sister's beautiful smile. I can't tell you how much I envy you that you've seen it tonight."
He got up, a bit stiffly, and hugged her. "Well, if I keep working at it, maybe you'll see it again."
She put her arms around him in turn, pressing the side of her face to his chest, and her voice was slightly blurred by the position as she pointed out,
"You only have two weeks, though."
"I have as long as it takes," Gryphon corrected her gently.
Remilia looked up at him. "What?"
Smiling, Gryphon flicked her mischievously on the forehead (much, much more gently than her sister had flicked his). "The World is a time manipulator," he reminded her. "It doesn't care if I want to go back one month, or two, or 500 years. It'll get me back to April '46 from whenever." He squeezed her tighter and repeated, "I have as long as it takes."
The rhythm of life at Scarlet Devil Mansion had shifted once more. Afternoons and evenings were the same as before: Gryphon would rise a few hours before sunset and do some work on the house, then join Remilia for bathtime and breakfast when she eventually emerged. The period between breakfast and lunch was also spent as before. Following lunch, however, Gryphon and Wolfgang would descend into the basement to spend some time with Flandre, after which Gryphon would spend the remaining time until dinner in his chair, recovering. After dinner, the late nights, as before, were for the quiet pursuits.
Remilia found herself marveling at his powers of recuperation. Every night he returned from the basement in a dilapidated condition, and each following evening, when she left her bedchamber to seek him out, she found him fully recovered, as if nothing had happened. It paled in comparison to the nearly instant regeneration she herself was capable of, but even so, for a human it was downright remarkable.
What was more, even when he was beaten up and exhausted, he never lost his good humor. It appeared to her that, in spite of the fact that she did violence to him every single time their paths crossed, he was becoming genuinely attached to Flandre—even looked forward to their time together. Remilia wondered briefly whether he might just be some sort of masochist, deriving some perverse pleasure from the injuries he was suffering at her sister's hands, but she discarded the notion after considering it for a little while. He definitely didn't enjoy the actual state of being injured. He was merely taking satisfaction in the reason for it—regarding it as a price fairly paid for the work he was doing.
She couldn't entirely suppress an occasional pang of jealousy as he spoke of the fun her sister was having, and of how (though he never boasted of it outright) she was warming to him. Flandre was her sister, after all, her precious baby sister, and she would give anything, absolutely anything in the world, for the affection—however rough and painful—she had clearly begun to invest in this man.
The worst part was that Remilia had plenty of time to think about all these things: in fact, all the time when the fun was actually happening, she herself had little to do but sit around the rooms above, stewing in her thoughts. She didn't even have Wolfgang to keep her company, because his presence downstairs was an integral part of whatever strange, improvised therapy was occurring.
This is ridiculous, Remilia, she told herself one night, after she realized she'd just read the same page of Voltaire three times without absorbing any of it. You've been alone for 150 years. Surely you're not going to succumb to loneliness after all that just because you have a houseguest who happens to spend part of the day doing something other than fawning on you.
It was an unfair thought, and she knew it when she had it, because if there was one thing Gryphon had never done, it was fawn on her. She'd tried to get him to, on that first night, but he'd never shown the slightest inclination to be cowed by her vampiric presence. Normally she would have found that annoying, not to say infuriating, but he was so... so natural about it that she just couldn't find it in herself to be bothered. She'd quickly come to enjoy the way, when she got ahead of herself and started preening a bit, he would just stare calmly back at her until she came down off her high horse. He would always let her have those moments without complaint, but he remained unmoved by them. It was a strange thing to find endearing, but there it was.
Remilia sighed. None of this was going to get her anywhere. She could hardly grudge Flandre the only pleasure she'd experienced in centuries, nor her friend—yes! She was prepared to call him that, and the consequences be damned!—the time and energy he was submitting to provide it. If it helped Flan, it was worth it. End of story.
But however optimistic his reports when he emerged, she couldn't yet let herself believe that it would end well. Not when her hopes had been dashed so many times before.
As if summoned by that thought, man and dog came into the great room. Wolfgang gamboled over and sprang onto the couch, claiming his usual spot by Remilia's side, as if he knew somehow that she'd missed him. For his part, Gryphon was as battered as he always was at the end of these sessions, but he seemed to have more energy than usual. If anything, there was a bit of a bounce in his limp, and he looked extremely pleased with himself.
"Remilia!" he said, advancing unevenly toward the couch where she sat. Before she could rise to greet him, he had leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, rendering her momentarily mute with bemusement—bemusement which was not much lessened by what he said next:
"Have you got an accordion?"
It took her several seconds to corral her thoughts adequately to answer, and when she did, it was only to repeat part of the question herself: "An accordion?"
"Yeah. You know, the musical instrument." He mimed operating one with his hands.
"I know what an accordion is!" Remilia snapped, now completely out of sorts. "What do you want one for?"
"Flan hasn't heard music in a long time. And you know she wouldn't handle records carefully enough, so... I thought I'd play something for her tomorrow."
"Oh. That makes sense. But why an accordion?"
"Well, I don't want to carry a piano down there," he said wryly.
Remilia gave an involuntary snort of laughter. "Touché," she said. Then, after a moment's pondering, she rose, picked up the nearest candlestick, and said, "All right. Come with me."
She led him to the third door off the entrance hall, the one on the opposite side of the door to the great room from the basement stairs. Although not on the forbidden list, this door was locked, and Gryphon hadn't yet had occasion to ask her what was inside, busy as he was repairing the library. Producing a key from somewhere, Remilia unlocked it now. It swung open with a reluctant groan, and they entered the dark room beyond.
"Wait here a moment," Remilia told him, and then, shielding the candle's flame with her hand so it wouldn't blow out, she took to the air, flitting around the room and lighting other candles as she came to them.
Gryphon watched her at it with a little smile. He saw her do something like it every evening, when the time came to light up the chandeliers in the front hall and the great room, and something about the way she flew pleased him. Her wings didn't flap—he wasn't sure whether they really played any part in her power to fly at all—but she maneuvered with batlike agility, all the same, and it was fun to watch her at it. He wondered how she would do against a Neuroi, which led him to picture her one-handing a pair of MG 42s like Trude Barkhorn. Truly an image to savor.
By the time he'd finished with that thought, she was done lighting up the room, and he forgot all about that in favor of being amazed.
"This is the music room," she explained, a trifle unnecessarily, as she returned to his side. "Papa was a great music lover." She frowned sadly. "This room hasn't seen much use since our parents passed, and none at all once the last of the staff had gone. I don't much care for playing to just myself, and Flan... well. You know."
Gryphon put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a reassuring squeeze as he took in the view before him. The room was the same depth as the great room, and had the same high ceiling; though only about half as wide, it was still big enough to house a decent-size bowling alley. There was a grand piano under a dust sheet; over in one corner stood a bass violin and a cello, with a shelf nearby that he guessed, from the sizes of the cases thereupon, contained the rest of the string quartet. He also spied a glockenspiel and what looked like it was probably a harpsichord.
All of that was by the way, though, compared to what lurked at the far end of the room. Where the great room had its floor-to-ceiling windows, the music room had instead a wooden dais on which stood the console of a colossal pipe organ, the ranks of which stretched all the way to the ceiling, parting only to make way for another rose window like the one surmounting the vertical panes in the great room.
"Wow," said Gryphon. "Does the organ still work?"
"I don't know, I haven't tried to use it in decades. It should, unless the aeolians have left. ... What's funny?"
"Nothing, it's just... a vampire count with a pipe organ in his house, it's..."
Remilia nodded, smiling a sad but also sentimental smile. "Trust me, Papa was well aware of the humor value in it. That's half of why he had it built, I'm sure. At any rate..." she added, opening one of the many cabinets built into the room's side walls. "Ah, yes." She removed a large black case from within the cabinet and turned to him, holding it up. "Here's your accordion! Hopefully. This belonged to my maid, the same one who owned The World. She brought it home from a shopping trip to Paris one full-moon night in..." She paused to recollect. "... around 1830, I think. It hasn't been played in at least 70 years, so it may need some work."
After dinner, while Remilia watched and Wolfgang dozed, Gryphon spent the rest of the night tinkering with the accordion on the coffee table in the living room. It was in remarkably good condition given how long it must have spent sitting idle in that cupboard. He was able to get it working again in relatively short order, with only a couple of field-expedient repairs, and even got it tuned reasonably well.
"Now let's see if I still remember how to work one of these things," he mused, and, after a moment's consideration, began to play.
"Yeah!" he declared with satisfaction when he'd finished. "I think that works. I might even know more than one song."
He considered the accordion. It lacked any maker's mark or brand name that he could see, but its construction seemed very modern to his eyes, not like something a person could buy in Paris or anywhere else in 1830. But then, he was hardly a subject matter expert in the history of free reed aerophones. For all he knew, the modern accordion had been around basically unchanged since the Renaissance. Stranger things had happened. Regardless, it was extremely well-made, which presumably went some way toward explaining why it had been so easily repaired after such a long time idle.
"Your maid had an eye for quality," he observed.
"Everything she did was like that," Remilia said. "It was her signature. She could look elegant scrubbing a floor, or put a silver dagger through a boggart's eye at fifty paces. Make the Elder Sign with one hand while pouring a flawless cup of tea with the other. She was... perfect." She sipped her wine and sighed. "I miss her. Of course, I miss everyone I've lost, but... I especially miss Sakuya."
"She meant a lot to you."
"Didn't I just say?" Remilia asked rhetorically, with a sentimental smile and a faraway look. "She was perfect. And she stayed with me longer than anyone else... nearly 80 years. She said she was human, but she never aged, and she would never explain. In fact, for someone I was so close to for so long, I know almost nothing about her. I didn't even realize her name was from the Fusō language until the 1860s, and she was obviously not Fusōnese, but... none of that made any difference. She was my Sakuya, my perfect and elegant maid, and at the time, that was all that mattered to me.
"But then one night she just... disappeared," Remilia said, spreading her hands. "I woke up and she wasn't there. All of her things were in her room..." She took The World out of her pocket and regarded it. "Even this... but she was nowhere to be found." She put the watch away and went on, "My first instinct was to blame Flan, but... no. I have to believe even she would never have harmed Sakuya."
Remilia leaned back on the Ottomane, her hands behind her head, and looked up at the ceiling with a wistful expression. "So... to this day, I don't know what became of her, and it tasks me. She was such a bundle of mysteries, I keep hoping she'll come back one day, as mysteriously as she disappeared." Then, casting him a little grin, she added wryly, "Of course, I'll dock her pay for the 27,215 straight days of work she's missed, unless she has a good excuse."
"Of course," said Gryphon dryly, recognizing an attempt at blunting a painful memory with sarcasm when he saw one.
She's lost everyone she's ever cared about, one way or another, he thought. It's no wonder she's so fiercely protective of what little she has left.
Then, yawning, he cased the accordion and rose to his feet, groaning comically as his lower back cracked. "I have to concede one point," he said, pressing a hand to the area with a wry grin. "Flan may indeed kill me yet. Just not the way you were expecting."
"How about a bath before bed, then?" Remilia proposed. "Perhaps that will help."
"Your sister crippled me and now you want me to haul water?" Gryphon protested mock-plaintively.
"No, no. Go and make ready." Lifting her chin aristocratically, she went on in a lofty tone, "I pride myself on the good care I take of those in my service, sir. Tonight the mistress of Scarlet Devil Mansion shall prepare the bath herself!" She held the haughty pose for a moment longer, then gave him a grinning wink and asked, "How was that?"
"Full marks, very regal," he replied.
"I've still got it when I want it," Remilia said smugly. "Let's go."
Twenty minutes later, reclining comfortably against his shoulder, she observed, "It feels decadent doing this in the morning. Don't you think?"
When she received no answer after a few seconds, she turned her head and saw that he had gone to sleep where he sat, head tipped back against the rim of the tub.
"Fool," said Remilia fondly, her cheeks coloring above a little smile. "Falling asleep in the bath. Weren't you just lecturing me the other night about catching a cold?"
He woke the next afternoon with no memory of having gone to bed. A quick review of the last few feet of his mental tape showed that the last thing he had a record of was getting into the tub. This led him to the conclusion that his hostess must have fished him back out like a prize tuna and then yarded him to bed rather than wake him up. The mental image of tiny Remilia lugging him down the hall, flung over her shoulder like a sack of oats, was so amusing that he almost laughed out loud; but since she was still asleep, that would have been rude, so he restrained himself.
She was curled up on her side facing away from him, one hand outflung across the seven acres of unused bed beyond, her jaw slack and lips slightly parted so that the tips of her upper fangs were just barely showing. Gryphon considered rezzing up his omni-tool and getting a photo for posterity, but decided to content himself with only the memory. If she woke while he was at it, he'd have two different lots of explaining to do.
Instead, he slipped carefully out from under her wing and out of bed, dressed quietly, and sauntered forth to commit further carpentry.
At the end of lunch, they lingered over the last cup of tea, talking about nothing much, for a while before Gryphon briskly thumped the table with both hands, stood up, and said,
"Welp. I guess it's time to do the thing. Wish me luck."
"I wish you luck every time you go down there," Remilia said sincerely.
He smiled. "Thanks." He bent over her chair, where she was still seated, and kissed her on the cheek, then headed for the door, swinging through the living room to pick up the accordion. At the door, he paused again, turned back, and said with a grin,
"If I'm not back in two hours, call the cops. C'mon, hound dog. Let's go find out if that 'savage breast' thing is really true."
Remilia remained in her seat, her fingertips brushing the place where he'd kissed her. That was the second time he'd done that, and like the first, it had seemed entirely unpremeditated. He'd just done it, without conscious thought, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. An affectionate little peck on the cheek for a noble-born vampire who had to be four centuries his senior.
What a strange, strange man.
Sighing, she downed the rest of her tea and got up to clear away the lunch dishes. One thing she hadn't mentioned earlier was that taking on the domestic responsibilities herself had given her a new appreciation for just what a lot of work looking after her must have been—which made her miss Sakuya, and appreciate her memory, all the more.
When she emerged from the kitchen, the moon caught her eye in the great windows. It presently hung in one of the verticals, just below the rose window. Waxing gibbous, a day past the first quarter. Five more nights until the next full moon. Remilia could already feel the heightening of sensation, and of emotion, that that occasion brought with it. The blood of all the vampires of House Skarlátvörös quickened with the brightening of the moon and slowed with its darkening. This was how it had always been.
She wondered whether Flandre felt it in the same way. Their parents had always had the theory that she'd gone mad because her transformation was in some way incomplete—witness her malformed, useless wings—but Remilia had noticed that her younger sister always seemed to be at her least coherent in the three or four days surrounding each full moon. She wouldn't expect Flan to be much different tonight, since the crescendo was only beginning, but she wondered what it would mean for Gryphon's efforts over the next few nights.
Reaching an internal decision, she left the great hall and went down to the library, around the impromptu woodworking shop where Gryphon was still working on restoring the bookcases, and into the depths of the room. This area was still in chaos, not yet reached by her houseguest's cleanup efforts, so she had to climb over and around a couple of wrecked bookcases and an overturned table to reach her destination: a heavy, iron-banded door, right at the back.
It was the second door she'd told Gryphon not to touch, and now, she fished another key from her pocket and opened it. The room beyond was dark and close, smelling of dust, and age, and stray whiffs of scents both floral and chemical. More out of habit than necessity, Remilia found the box of lucifer matches she knew was sitting on a shelf near the door and lit up the candelabrum standing next to it. The candles' glow filled the room, dispelling some of the shadows.
This was her mother's sanctum, a room which she and Flandre had been forbidden to enter unattended when they were children. A small, low-ceilinged room with stout stone walls, it had been added to the library when Remilia Teerlinc married Count Victor Scarlet, three years before the birth of their eldest daughter. Over the first year or so of their marriage, a succession of trips back to her childhood home in Bruges had filled it with the paraphernalia of her trade as an arcanist and alchemist.
She had done most of the actual work on the long table out in the much larger expanse of the library itself, but here, in what she had one jokingly called her "unholy of unholies", was where she had stored the supplies and equipment when not in use. That was why it was locked, and why the children had been excluded. Everything in here was potentially dangerous. Shelves and cabinets full of bottles, jars, and brass-bound wooden boxes lined the walls. Behind the great slab of iron-legged granite in the middle of the room, which had served Remilia the Elder as a combination desk and work table, stood a heavy lectern supporting a massive book of alchemical formulae, still open to the last page its owner had consulted before her death in 1794.
Remilia the Younger had never dabbled in alchemy, but for the first few decades after its proprietress's death, she had used her mother's bastion for a different purpose. It had served as a secure and private place in which to keep the spying-glass.
Now she seated herself at her mother's desk and, taking a handkerchief from her pocket, wiped decades' worth of dust from the glass sphere, noticing as she did that its brass stand had tarnished over the years of neglect. When had she last had the heart to use it? It had to be at least 40 years. Had it been before the turn of the century? She couldn't recall. Shaking the thought out of her head, she brushed her fingertips over the crystal and brought the device to life.
It worked at once, glowing, the mists within it parting to show a view of her sister's bedroom, as though she were looking through a hole in the ceiling and into the candlelit chamber beyond.
Early on, Remilia the Elder had hoped that this device would give her some insight into her daughter's tragic condition. If she could observe Flandre's behavior without that observation being known, perhaps she could come to understand what was wrong with her and think of some way to remedy it.
That had proven a vain hope, for Flandre's behavior when alone made no more sense than her behavior when in company, and her mother had quickly abandoned the experiment. Only after her death had Remilia the Younger discovered the glass and figured out what it was for. She, too, had gained no useful insight from its use, but for the first few decades of her strange exile in time, she had used it from time to time, if for no other reason than to try to maintain some semblance of the bond she'd once shared with her beloved sister... even at a forlorn, pathetic, one-sided remove. Ultimately, it had proven too pointless and painful to continue.
Remilia had thought of using it the first time Gryphon ventured into the basement, but she hadn't been able to bring herself to do it. It felt like cheating. As if by spying on his effort to connect with Flandre, even out of her very real concern for his safety, she were mistrusting him somehow.
Today, though, curiosity had overwhelmed her, and so she looked—and listened, since the glass also carried sounds from the room far below. And what she heard, once the connection was made, was probably the first music to be made in that room apart from Flandre's occasional tuneless humming to herself.
She didn't recognize the song, or even the style, but it was a very cheerful tune, and the specifics really didn't matter. What she did recognize, instantly and with a clarity that was physically painful, was the look on Flandre's face as she sat on her bed with Wolfgang beside her, her legs folded up and tucked to one side, and listened. That smile, bright-eyed and wide, showing all those even white teeth. The eyes were red now, of course, and some of the teeth came to much more distinct points, but the essence of it was exactly the same.
Remilia had last seen that smile in the spring of 1520. Before Flandre took ill, before... everything. More than four centuries had gone by since she had seen any smile on Flan's face that wasn't cruel, spiteful, sarcastic... but there it was, that look of pure joy. The same look she had once been able to evince by showing off some aspect of her vampiric prowess. Flying, especially.
Curse the man, she thought insincerely as the image blurred before her. He's reduced me to tears again.
In the glass, Gryphon finished the song with a long, jaunty wheeze from the accordion, then graciously acknowledged his audience, bowing and thanking as if that audience consisted of more than just one small mad vampire in a basement room. To be fair, Flandre was applauding like a crowd fit for a concert hall, her face radiant with delight.
"That was amazing!" she cried, and Remilia was jolted out of her crying jag by the sound of Flandre's voice.
She sounded... like herself, her voice carrying neither the Child's spacey weirdness nor the Other's acid spite. That was the voice of her sister as she used to be, the voice Remilia had last heard weakly telling her that she was loved, in the instant before she committed her most terrible crime. The realization bore down on her so hard she couldn't even cry, could barely breathe, as she watched her little sister compliment Gryphon's playing.
And then the spell was broken; the fog drifted back across Flandre's eyes again, and it was the voice of the Child that went on, "Do you know any more?"
"A few," Gryphon replied, and if he'd seen the same thing Remilia had, he gave no sign. He had no memory of Flandre as she was, of course, so it was entirely likely he'd missed it. Remilia couldn't see his face from this angle, anyway, since he was facing Flan.
"See what you think of this one," he said, and then commenced a new tune.
This one started out slower than the last, but almost immediately ramped up into a bouncy, energetic number that, Remilia fancied, had something of a nautical flavor to it. She remembered music like it from childhood trips to her mother's seaport hometown, played by the sailors at the docksides on much more primitive instruments.
I wonder if he's a sailor, she mused inwardly.
When it came right down to it, she realized, she knew only a little more about Gryphon than she had about Sakuya. She shared both her bath and her bed with this man (albeit not in that way), broke bread with him (at least metaphorically) three times a night, and had now entrusted him with the latest in a long, failure-strewn chain of attempts to reach Flandre... and if pressed, she could barely claim to know him. He was an airman, she knew that much, flying with a wing of combat witches posted a few miles to the north, but what had he done before the war? How had he managed to have five grown children when he could be no older than twenty-five or thirty? Did he have a wife to go with those children? Was that, rather than chivalry, disinterest, or her threat of mayhem on the first morning, the reason why he'd never even seemed to consider laying a hand on her in that sense?
Remilia got so caught up in this train of thought that she missed most of the nautical song; when she came back to herself, having reached no conclusions, he was playing a Parisian bal-musette number with strange lyrics about calling for medical help.
He wrapped that one up and seemed to be searching his memory for another when Flandre took the matter out of his hands. Springing down from her bed (and jostling Wolfgang awake in the process), she declared cheerfully,
"OK! Enough music! It's time for horsie!"
"All right, hang on a second, let me put the accordion away—Flandre!" Gryphon protested as she hung on precisely zero seconds, glomping onto his back like a limpet mine.
The sight of her sister besetting the poor man in that fashion, and the good-naturedness with which he was taking it, touched and amused Remilia at the same time as her heart threatened to break over her own uninvolvement, adding still more dimensions to the complex stew of emotions bubbling within her.
Gryphon somehow managed to get out of the accordion straps without dislodging Flan (which Remilia reckoned he could no more have done than free himself from a steel cage) and put the instrument down. Then he straightened up, adjusted her neligible weight slightly, and commenced to run laps of the room (and occasionally crash into the walls, depending on the whim of the steerswoman), to the accompaniment of hysterical laughter from the wheelhouse.
Somehow, watching this made Remilia feel more like a voyeur than observing the accordion recital had. She was just about to turn off the glass and leave when Gryphon feigned a stumble, pirouetted crazily a couple of times (to further shrieks of delight from his payload), then flopped face-down across Flandre's bed. (At this point, Wolfgang gave up trying to get back to sleep and jumped down from the bed with a disgusted grumble.)
"Auuugh, forgive me, mistress," Gryphon declared theatrically. "My strength is spent. Spare me, I am but a humble horsie."
Remilia was half-expecting the Other to make a crack about the glue factory, but instead, she blinked in astonishment as Flan, converting her piggyback grip into an awkward lying-down hug, snuggled against his back and said,
"Humble horsie, I love you."
Remilia stared at the glass in disbelief. Had she really just heard that? Had Flan really just said that? Because if she had, it was almost certainly the first time she had spoken those three words to anyone since 1520. And back came the tears once more.
"Well?" Flandre asked.
"Well what?" came the reply.
"You're supposed to say you love me too. It's in all the books. You do, don't you?"
"Sure I do." He got unsteadily to his feet with Flandre still in place, exaggerating the wobbles for her amusement, and sat down facing the right way around, so that she could dismount, sit down beside him, and invite Wolfgang back up.
"You mean it?"
"Have I said anything I didn't mean yet?"
"Well, there you go."
Flandre burst out in giggles. "No, no, no, you have to say it," she pressed, punching him playfully in the upper arm.
Remilia would never know how he managed not to cry out, nor even wince; she could hear his humerus crack from here. She didn't even give it much thought at the moment, all her attention fixed on awaiting his reply.
Gryphon smiled a gentle smile, looking for all the world like someone hadn't just broken one of his arms, and beeped her nose with his other hand. "Fine, then. Just so it's official: I love you too, kiddo."
Am I ever going to stop crying? Remilia wondered abstractly.
A moment later, she did, as something happened that sent a chill through her whole body and shut off the waterworks like a closed valve:
"And what about my sister?"
The Other. Eyes gone suddenly from wide to sly (and slightly asymmetrical), teeth bared in an expression that was half smirk and half paralytic rictus. Leaning in so that her shoulder touched his, leering up into his face.
"What about your sister?" Gryphon replied, his tone as placid as if he hadn't noticed the sudden, menacing transformation that had taken place right next to him. "She loves you too. In fact, she loves you more than anyone else."
Even in the grip of her shock and dread, Remilia had to admire the clever way he'd phrased that. There was no way of inferring from his wording whether he meant that she loved Flan more than she loved anyone else, or she loved Flan more than anyone else did. Both were probably true, anyway, but it was still a smart way of handling Flandre's mercurial temper.
The Other snorted. "As if I cared."
"I think you do," said Gryphon mildly.
Flandre's eyes narrowed further, until they were just blood-red slits. "You didn't answer my question, anyway. I wasn't asking you if she loves me."
"You think you can dodge the question?"
"I'm not sure you're ready for the answer."
"I need to know."
"What if I said yes?"
"That would depend on whether you meant it."
"I always mean what I say. You should know that by now, Flan."
Flandre took that on board, breaking the machinegun back-and-forth rhythm they had briefly fallen into, then said slowly,
"If you said that and you meant it... I would probably let you live."
"Because you want your sister to be happy?"
"Pff. No. Because I think it would be funny."
"I should go. I think we're done for today."
"Why would you think I'm going to let you leave without giving me an answer?"
"Because if you kill me, you'll never know."
The Other looked him in the eye for a long moment, and he had no idea what was looking back at him when he met that gaze.
Then she chuckled. "Touché. Your round, friend."
And with that, and a blink, her other self was back. "Are you sure you have to go?"
"I do, it's getting late. You should get some more sleep, we played hard today." Gryphon got to his feet. "I'll be back tomorrow at our usual time, OK?"
"OK!" Flandre said brightly, and then added with a smiling head-tilt, "Then can we play the kissing game?"
"No kissing game!" Gryphon insisted, and Flandre fell back on her bed and laughed, kicking her feet in the air. Apparently his refusal to play that particular game had become a running joke.
Remilia passed her hand over the glass, cutting off the link, and just sat for a few moments, trying mostly in vain to get her head around all she'd seen and heard.
Man and dog emerged from the catacombs a few minutes later, the former battered and limping as usual, the latter looking up at him with an air of concern.
"I'm fine, it doesn't even hurt any more," Gryphon assured Wolfgang as he secured the basement door, and then they proceeded together to the great room.
A trifle unexpectedly, they found it empty. The hound took this opportunity to hop up onto the Ottomane and take the spot Remilia was usually in, so as to relax after his trying nap downstairs. Gryphon hobbled aimlessly about for a few moments, mildly surprised to find himself at a loss simply because the lady of the house wasn't where he'd expected to find her. Then, recognizing that what he was doing was silly—he wasn't going to find her hiding behind the sideboard—he was heading to his usual chair...
... when the whole mansion began to reverberate to the voice of the music room's organ, raised for the first time in however long.
Gryphon recognized the piece at once, though he'd never heard it arranged for solo organ before, and there could be little doubt about who was playing it. He hurried to the music room as fast as his aching legs (one of which, he was pretty sure, had some strained ligaments) would carry him, arriving in time for the second crescendo. Sure enough, Remilia was seated at the console. She was, he saw, a very expressive player—her head and shoulders moving in time, hands flying over the manuals, feet working the pedals furiously.
She was so small, the colossal instrument dwarfed her entirely. Even just the console seemed too big for her, the pedalboard too wide, the stack of five manuals too tall, the farthest of the stops in the banks to left and right surely out of reach—but reach them all she did, mastering the giant instrument with swift, deft precision—but also with a certain furious animation, as though her performance were fueled as much by anger as musical passion.
That's weird, mused Gryphon, but the notion was blown away by the music, and he abandoned conscious thought and just let it wash over him, watching Remilia's back and listening to the torrent of sound she was wresting from this enormous collection of wood, ivory, and lead.
As she swung into the fastest, trickiest part of the piece, she sat up straighter, raising her head, her wings rising up and spreading out to their full width. Standing twenty feet behind her in the eye of the sonic hurricane, Gryphon fancied he could feel the full power of her supernatural presence for the first time, the energy radiating from her, rippling the fabric of space. If he closed his eyes and let the Force take over, he could still see her there, like a thermographic image.
She brought the overture to its thunderous conclusion, the pressure of her presence never slackening, and to Gryphon's senses the last great chord made the room ring as much with her as the organ's voice.
And yet, the instant it was over, and she took her fingers from the keys, Remilia slumped, her wings wilting, her radiating presence withdrawing like an outgoing tide. Gryphon held his peace, in case she were preparing to play something else, but she seemed to be finished. It was as if those four and a half furious minutes of exertion had wrung out of her all of whatever it was that had driven her to begin.
So, he did what any music lover would do after being treated to a performance like that, and began to applaud. Remilia's shoulders jerked; lifting her feet, she spun around on the organ bench, a mixture of surprise and embarrassment on her face.
"That was magnificent," he said.
Remilia was already blushing, so it was hard to tell whether the compliment raised any more of one, but she did stammer slightly as she said, "Th-thank you." Then, shaking her head as if annoyed, she drew herself up and fixed him with a haughty glare.
"Of course it was," she said. "You were expecting anything less? How pathetic."
Gryphon tilted his head. This didn't feel like her usual vampire-lord bluster. It had a stiffer spine... and a sharper edge.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
Remilia rose from the organ bench and sprang lightly from the dais, gliding casually past him and alighting near the door.
"It's nothing," she said coldly, and continued out of the room on foot without breaking pace.
"Ohhh no," Gryphon replied, about-facing and limping after her. "That is the tone of voice that says it is definitely something."
Even allowing for her shorter legs, her dudgeon-fueled pace was such that he had to hobble-trot to catch up and pass her in the entrance hall. She didn't stop, or even slow down, leaving him no choice but to try to maintain the same speed backward to keep both ahead of and facing her as they entered the great room.
"Remilia, stop," he said, putting out his hands and letting her run into them with her shoulders.
She could easily have bulled past or over him, of course, even with their disparity of stature, but the fact of him actually touching her seemed to persuade her—if only to stop walking. She stood, arms folded, and glared at him.
"What's gotten into you?" Gryphon asked. "Please tell me what's wrong."
Remilia kept staring him down for a moment longer, but in a second or two, the obvious dismay on his face penetrated her shell of anger—and once cracked, it splintered and fell away, leaving her feeling vaguely stupid for taking out on him something she couldn't even explain to herself. She searched for a way of articulating it, or even a thread to pick in hopes that the rest of the tangled skein would unravel, and finally she settled on,
"Do you really love Flandre, or were you just humoring her?"
Gryphon blinked in surprise, but to his credit, did not do the obvious thing and ask how she knew that. Obviously she did; how was not presently relevant.
So instead, he replied simply, "Yeah, I do. Is that surprising? So do you, in spite of everything."
"I love her because she's my sister, and in memory of the person she once was. You... no one has ever gotten close enough to what she's become and survived. How did you do that?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. It just sort of happens sometimes. I mean, I wouldn't read too much into what she said to me—she's a child, and she's mentally ill. She might just say that because I'm good at horsie and I don't yell at her when she hurts me. But yes. In the sense that I care about her, I'm happy to spend time with her, I want what's best for her, and I'm willing to suffer to bring that about if I have to... I do love Flandre."
"You met her less than a week ago," Remilia objected.
He shrugged, gesturing vaguely to his shopworn condition, and remarked wryly, "As a mentor of mine once said, it's not the years, it's the mileage."
Remilia gazed at him in silent thought for a few seconds, her eyes steady and solemn.
"And what about the other question she asked you? The one you dodged?"
Gryphon smiled. "Everything I just said about Flan is true of you as well, Remilia."
She put her fists on her hips and scowled. "That was just as much of a dodge," she declared, all but stamping a foot. "I'm not crazy and I'm not a child."
"True. You are definitely not either of those things. Although I am perfectly willing to play horsie with you if you want. I don't discriminate."
It was the wrong moment for levity. At once her fury flared up again. "Stop it!" she snapped. "Stop making a joke out of everything!" Remilia drew herself up, her wings outspread, and turned the full force of her presence on him. "I am Countess Remilia of the House of Scarlet! Mistress of Maison Diable Écarlate! I can trace my father's line back to the first voivode of Cisbelvia and my mother's to the founders of Bruges. I will not be mocked!"
Gryphon's eyebrows went up. Normally, when she took this line, his tactic was just to give her the blandest look he could manage until she realized how pompous she was being and stopped, but this... this was genuine anger. She truly believed he wasn't taking her seriously. This wasn't going to be defused by gently turning her attention inward.
"Whoa, easy," he said, spreading his hands in surrender. "I can't tell what you expect from me here. I'm sorry, I wasn't mocking you. Everything I said was true."
Remilia glared at him for a moment longer, then relented, but her manner remained brusque and imperious as she gestured to the armchair and said, "Sit. Your wounds need tending. Since you are now evidently the only person on Earth my sister loves," she added archly, "it's my duty to look after you."
Gryphon gave her a baffled look. "Remilia, are you jealous?" he asked, sounding incredulous.
"Sit!" she commanded, pointing, and he sat.
Over on the Ottomane, Wolfgang raised his head to watch her go, then turned to look at Gryphon with an expression that seemed to ask, What'd you do? He shrugged helplessly in reply, and the hound, with a sigh, went back to sleep.
Without another word, she disappeared into the kitchen, whence he then heard the pump working and coal being added to the stove. Presently she returned with a tray bearing the teakettle and a stack of towels, one of which she wetted with hot water from the kettle.
This close, seeing the state of him, some of her lingering anger seemed to melt. "Tch, she really did some work on you this time," she muttered, bending to dab at the bruises and cuts on his face.
"Most of that came from the wall, not Flan," Gryphon pointed out. "Ouch."
"Sorry," she apologized reflexively as he winced.
The scab came away from a crack at the corner of his mouth, and a rivulet of fresh blood trickled out. At the sight, she stopped working. It took him a moment to notice and realize why.
"Remilia..." he said, a note of caution in his voice, but she seemed to be ignoring him. "Don't do it," he warned her. "It's dangerous, I told you before—"
Without replying, Remilia leaned forward and licked away the trickle of blood. This had two interesting effects.
The first was that the wound healed instantly, ceasing to bleed or sting.
The second was that Remilia dropped the towel, seized his shoulders in both hands, and froze, leaning over him with her head bowed, so close he could feel hot puffs of breath from her nose on his collarbone. They stayed that way for several seconds, frozen between one action and another...
... and then she straightened, still with her hands on his shoulders, and looked him in the eye. Hers were brighter than he'd seen them in a while, not since before the new moon, pupils dilated to the point where it was hard to tell that they were normally vertical slits. A crimson blush shone on her face, and a light sweat broke on her forehead, reminding him of a person who has just eaten a mouthful of MegaZone's chili. Her expression was similar, too, the look of someone who cannot decide whether she is in pain, or ecstasy, or both.
"You were right," she said, a trifle breathlessly. "That's dangerous."
"I warned—" he began, but she interrupted him, her ambiguous expression changing to an unambiguous grin.
"There's a danger I could get addicted to it," Remilia went on, and then turned around and sat down, curling up in his lap and hooking an arm around his neck.
"OK... ?" said Gryphon, baffled now. "I might have to reconsider the part where I agreed you're not crazy."
"Shut up and hold me, you fool," she ordered him, putting her head down on his chest and settling in. "I've got a lot on my mind right now."
Recognizing a royal command when he received one, Gryphon silently did as he was told. They stayed there, all but unmoving, for the better part of an hour. He was starting to wonder if she had in fact fallen asleep when she stirred and said out of nowhere,
"I promised myself. No more humans. No more humans with their tiny attention spans and their short little shooting-star lives. Either way they always leave you. They can't help it. Learn to embrace the silence, because it always comes back in the end anyway." Tears ran down her cheeks as she went quietly on, "It would be stupid for me to get attached to you. As stupid as it would be for you to get attached to the likes of me."
Before he could reply, she suddenly looked him in the face, and despite the tears and the sadness of her words, her eyes were bright again. "But you know what?"
Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "What?"
Remilia grinned. "L'amour c'est être stupide ensemble."
Then, the grin transmuting into her confident smirk, she raised her free hand and snapped her fingers. Over on its table, the phonograph started up, playing a jaunty jazz piano intro.
"How did you do that?" Gryphon wondered admiringly.
"Ancient vampire magic," Remilia said, and then, "Want to play the kissing game?"
"I keep telling you, I don't know what the kissing game even is."
She leaned closer, her eyes half-hooding. "Then let's make one up."
Gryphon lay on his back in the grass and gazed dreamily up at the sky. You could see so many stars out here in the Alsatian countryside, far from the lights of the towns. The velvety blue-black sky was full of them, splashed straight across his field of view. They looked so close, like he could almost reach out and just pluck them out of the firmament. So near they had visible depth, three-dimensional orbs of red-white light, dancing, swarming, as though they were actually coming closer. How absolutely surreal! How beautiful!
His eyes snapped back into focus, a look of concentrated dismay replacing the spacey fascination on his face. Galvanized, he sprang to his feet and sprinted out of the area.
An instant later, waves of energy spheres tore into the ground where he'd just been lying and exploded. The concussion blew him off his feet again. He rolled with it, tumbling across the grass, then fetched painfully up against one of the low stone walls that enclosed the west lawn.
As he lay crumpled against the wall, trying to catch his breath, a figure descended into his field of view from above: a girl, coltish of build, in a jumper dress and puffy-sleeved blouse now ragged at the edges, her hair in wild disarray. She hovered perhaps a dozen paces away, her bare feet a good five yards off the ground, and favored him with a malevolent grin. The light of the full moon cast her in monochrome, all shades of silver and pewter grey, apart from two details: her eyes, blazing with scarlet madness out of a background of glassy black, and the matching glint of the crystalline "feathers" studding her outspread wings.
"You're not finished yet, are you?" asked Flandre Scarlet rhetorically, uncast plasma bolts glowing in the palms of both her upraised hands. "We've barely started. Come on!" Turning her hands outward, she poured out another fusillade of blasts, forcing Gryphon to scramble upright and leap away as the wall was pulverized.
"That's it!" Flandre cried, delighted. "Show me that human survival instinct! Show me your strength! Show me that you're worthy of House Scarlet!" With a high, cackling laugh, she pursued him relentlessly, carpeting the west lawn with explosions and wrecking everything within.
Eventually, inevitably, she nailed him. Under a full moon, with any semblance of rationality she might once have possessed stripped away, and infused with alien energies to boot, her firepower was simply too great for him to endure. One blast in a wave of them tagged his shoulder, spinning him around. He tried to marshal his resources, but they were so few by this point that it would probably have made little difference even if he had succeeded. He caught another one in the chest, another just below, and then a whole cluster of them, shredding his shirt and charring the flesh beneath. Trailing a comet tail of smoke, he hurtled back into the great room, taking out one of the few remaining intact panes of glass along the way, then slammed down on the stone floor and slid to a limp, smoldering halt an arm's length from the fireplace.
Touching down outside, Flandre stepped over her sister's body and into the great room. Heedless of the shards of glass bloodying her bare feet, she walked slowly to his side and stood frowning down at him.
"Oh. I guess you weren't worthy," she said disappointedly.
Turning away, she walked back across the glass and stood by where the wall had been, gazing up at the moon.
"It's a beautiful moon tonight, isn't it, sister?" she asked Remilia wistfully. "I wish you could see it." Then, after a brief pause, she added matter-of-factly, "I'm hungry."
Humming tunelessly to herself, Flandre wandered back into the house, trailing bloody footprints across the dining room carpet, then disappeared into the kitchen.
In the great room, Gryphon stirred, pushed himself up on one hand, then collapsed once more, his consciousness guttering.
Everything was going so well, too, he thought, and then blacked out.
Gryphon woke with an odd feeling of... not foreboding, exactly, but a strange sense of anticipation. It was as though there were an unaccustomed energy about, even in the stillness of Remilia's bedchamber. It was like the sensation of being awakened by a sound that is over before full wakefulness arrives, so that the erstwhile sleeper can't be completely certain it was real.
He lay still for a few moments and listened, but heard nothing other than Wolfgang snoring, somewhere down at the foot of the bed, and Remilia's quiet breathing to his right. One of her arms was draped loosely upon him, her tiny hand resting slack atop the covers on his chest, just barely visible to his human eyes in the blackout-curtained darkness. He smiled, wondering idly how she kept her fingernails so perfect. He supposed he'd never know. If he asked, she'd just smirk and say it was ancient vampire magic.
What needed to be done today? The work in the library was nearly finished. Only one more bookcase needed repair, and it was mostly intact; all of the ruined ones had been either salvaged or replaced by this point. He supposed once that was done, he ought to move on to doing something about the conservatory. Or the banisters in the entrance hall. The one on the south stairs was in decent shape, but the north one was a definite health and safety hazard to anyone who couldn't fly.
Which in this house, admittedly, was a list consisting of exactly one person, and he didn't technically live here.
Oh, right, he thought. It's the full moon tonight...
When the moon rose in a few hours, it would be full, and the curious curse afflicting Scarlet Devil Mansion would be lifted until it set. For that brief window of time, the house and its grounds would exist in normal time. Which meant that today really was truly and properly May 16, 1946.
He wondered how it was that the sky still followed its normal rhythms the rest of the time. He and Remilia had watched the moon go through its regular phases through the windows of the great hall all month, after all, and the sun rose and set every day as usual. The length of time between moon phases was entirely as it should be, as well. Yet, except while the full moon was in the sky, the house did not exist in the ordinary world, and anyone attempting to leave by the front door would quickly find himself in the back yard.
Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown, Gryphon remarked wryly to himself. He knew a fair bit about magic and a fair bit about the workings of spacetime, but what had happened here was quite beyond his expertise in both fields.
Instead, he reflected on the significance of the date. If all had/would gone/go according to plan, he was inhabiting a time paradox right now, or would be once the moon rose—because he should also be a few miles to the north, at Château Saint-Ulrich, today. Fortunately, the other him would surely have the nous not to come down here, since he would already have lived the day this him was living right now, and...
Ugh. Time travel. It all got so confusing so fast. Which was why he tried as much as possible to avoid doing it, but in this instance...
Remilia stirred, her hand on his chest flexing, then patting the covers. He reached and took it in his own, turning slightly to face her, and a moment later she raised herself up on her other elbow and grinned sleepily at him.
"Good evening, stranger," she remarked. "It's rare to find you still here when I wake." She settled back down again, cuddling in against his shoulder, and said contentedly, "I like it. We should arrange it more often."
"You're awake early," he told her. "The sun's still up."
"Must be the full moon. I'm starting to feel it already, and it hasn't even risen yet." She chuckled. "I hope you're ready for a full-moon night in a house of vampires."
"There are only two of you," Gryphon observed, "and as you're both reasonably fond of me, I expect I'll survive."
Remilia's voice was less playful as she replied, "Flan nearly killed you yesternight."
"You say that so blandly." Remilia yawned and snuggled even closer, her voice going blurry as she went on, "Only one other human I've ever known was as blasé about her mortality as you are, and she didn't age..."
"Uh, yeah, about that... there's something you probably ought to know. ... Remilia?"
Her only reply was a soft snore. Impending full moon or no, she'd gone back to sleep.
Y'know what, that there bookcase can wait, Gryphon decided, and settled in to get a few more winks himself.
It was just after sunset when a Liberion Army 2½-ton truck appeared, plodding along Route D1B between Ribeauvillé and Colmar. In the passenger seat, a man in the uniform of a Karlsland Luftwaffe aviation mechanic sat puzzling over a hand-drawn map.
"I'm going to need you to tell me what to do here pretty soon," the driver—a younger man in Imperial Fusō Naval Air Service enlisted fatigues—said. "Isn't there supposed to be a turnoff?"
"Ja, ja, there is, I'm just trying to work out where the hell it is," grumbled Oberfeldwebel Heinz Mertens, rotating the map in his hands.
Aircraft Technician Seaman First Class Mako Iwamatsu sighed. "Well, figure it out quickly, will you, Bimmel? We're nearly to Bennwihr, and it's supposed to be before there."
"This diagram is not drawn very precisely," Mertens remarked dryly. He peered more closely at the paper. "Ach, was bedeutet das?" Holding up the map, he pointed and said, "Does that say 'dairy' to you?"
"I'm sort of driving?" noted Iwamatsu with audibly exercised patience.
"Aha! There it is!" Mertens declared, pointing. "Just before the dairy, that's what it says."
Iwamatsu raised his eyebrows. "That's a road? We wouldn't even call that a road back in Akase."
Mertens shrugged. "Road, trail, cowpath, whatever—it's the only right turning between here and Bennwihr, it has to be it."
As he negotiated the turn, the deuce-and-a-half thumping and jolting as it left the pavement, Iwamatsu said, "Isn't this where Captain Hutchins wrecked his Jeep last month?"
"Now that you mention it, I think you're right," agreed Mertens.
"You know, when I joined the Navy, I pictured myself on a ship somewhere in the South Seas," said Iwamatsu. "And here I am, driving a Liberion truck into some creepy woods in the middle of nowhere in Gallia." He grinned. "It's a glamorous life."
Dressing after the evening bath, Gryphon inadvertently pulled one of the buttons off his increasingly threadbare shirt and sighed.
"This uniform's seen better days," he remarked, then chuckled. "I didn't pack for an extended stay at Scarlet Devil Suites. Maybe I should risk a run to Colmar before Le Magasin closes. I probably won't run into myself, what would I be doing in town on a Thursday?"
"That seems risky," Remilia said, knotting her crimson ascot before the tin mirror of her vanity. "But if you go, I'll give you a list of a few things to pick up. Fresh provisions are always good."
"You see, I can be useful," he kidded her. "Here, you're off-center. This mirror needs a polish, I'll put that on my to-do list."
She glanced up and back over her shoulder, smiling, as he stood behind her and adjusted her neckcloth. "You're very useful. More useful than you need to be, really." Affecting aristocratic languor, she went on, "I shall find it so ever tiresome doing everything myself again when you go back to your life."
She said it lightly, as a joke, but Gryphon knew her well enough by now to recognize that his departure—no longer imminent, as he had no intention of decamping on this particular full moon like they'd both originally planned, but inevitable sooner or later—was weighing on her mind a bit.
"In what way," he inquired, pausing to kiss her on the cheek, "is what I'm doing right now not my life?"
Her face colored with a mix of pleasure and embarrassment. "You know what I mean."
"I'm sure I'm getting along just fine without me," Gryphon assured her, making her giggle. Then he leaned a little farther down and kissed the side of her neck, which made her jump.
"Ah! Not there, you beast," she said, her blush flaming.
Gryphon chuckled. "A vampire who's weak to having her neck kissed? There's a joke in there somewhere."
"Yes, yes, very funny," said Remilia with a roll of her eyes. "Don't make me regret permitting you a few liberties."
"I wouldn't dream of it, my lady—hm?" Gryphon straightened, looking toward the front of the house, as the sound of a vehicle's horn came from outside.
Remilia rose, looking baffled. "Who on Earth...?"
Gryphon went to the window, nudged aside the blackout curtain, and then laughed. To her curious look, he said, "It looks like I have a delivery. Be right back."
"There's nobody here, Mako," Mertens opined. "We must have lost our way somewhere back there. Look at this place, it's obvious no one has lived here since before the war. Probably long before."
"I'm amazed it's still here at all," Iwamatsu mused. "Why didn't the Neuroi level it?"
"Maybe they don't like spooky houses in the woods any more than I do," said Mertens. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Iwamatsu was about to agree, put the truck in gear, and start turning around when a light appeared in the crumbling mansion's front hall. A moment later, one of the great double front doors opened and a man emerged carrying a three-armed candelabrum—a man both members of the truck's crew were startled to recognize.
"Captain Hutchins!" Mertens declared, leaning out of his window. "What in the world are you doing here?"
Captain, is it? Hmm, Gryphon thought to himself, but what he said out loud, with a smile, was,
"Bimmel! Mako! You're right on time. Thanks for coming all this way. What did you bring me?"
"Everything you asked for, of course, but what—" Mertens began.
"Great. Thank you," Gryphon interrupted him smoothly. "C'mon, I'll give you a hand unloading so you can get back before anyone misses you."
The truck was fairly fully loaded, but working diligently, the three men were able to get everything out of it and stacked neatly in the front hall within only a few minutes. When the job was done, Gryphon chivvied them outside without being too overbearing about it. As he guided them back to the truck, a hand on each man's shoulder, he leaned them together confidentially and said,
"Thanks for your help, fellas. Now listen, this establishment is AMS on a strictly NTK basis, so MTW when you RTB, you follow? If anyone finds out what we're doing here, we'll be SOL PDQ. A-OK?"
"Uh... aye aye, Major," said Iwamatsu. He was clearly baffled by the entire affair, but as a disciplined sailor of Fusō, he firmly believed that his was not to question what the hell the officers were up to.
"Roger that, sir," Mertens agreed. With a conspiratorial wink and a finger alongside his nose, he added, "They won't get anything out of us!"
"Good man," Gryphon said approvingly, then slapped both their shoulders and let them go. "Thanks again."
Neither Mertens nor Iwamatsu spoke until they had rejoined Route D1B and were headed back north to Ribeauvillé.
"That was a bit merkwürdig," said Mertens matter-of-factly.
"Mm. It must be nice being an officer," Iwamatsu reflected. "You don't have to explain yourself to the ranks, and you can dress however you want. Did you see the state of his uniform?"
"No inspections at grueslige Waldvilla-Watche, I suppose," said Mertens philosophically, lighting up a cigarette.
"What is all this stuff?" Remilia wondered, regarding the stack of materials Gryphon and the two aircraftmen had just unloaded from the truck.
"Looks like I sent me a care package," said Gryphon. "Lessee, I've got some tools... a bunch of construction materials and supplies... nails! I've got nails! Halle-freakin'-lujah, I can stop scavenging them from the demo scrap. Some fresh clothes, again, a heartfelt thank you to my future self. And... the rest of this looks like rations from Romagna and Fusō." He turned a grin to her. "Maybe I ought to do some of the cooking the next few days."
Remilia smiled. "Maybe, but not today. Today I have something special planned."
"Can you give me a hint?"
"No." She made a shooing gesture, her smile shading toward a smirk. "Go and do something with yourself, and no peeking into the kitchen, it's a surprise."
Some time later, he was finishing up the last of the bookcases when the ticking of toenails on the stone floor heralded the arrival of Wolfgang.
"And where have you been all evening, hm?" Gryphon asked as the Lenshound trotted in from the entrance hall.
Wolfgang replied by stopping in the doorway and uttering a short bay.
"What's that, boy?" said Gryphon. "Timmy fell down the well again?"
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied, failing to appreciate the joke.
"Ah. Lunch. I see." Downing tools, Gryphon brushed sawdust from himself and came around his improvised workbench to meet the hound.
"How is it," he inquired as Wolfgang led him across to the great room, "that if it's for me, you can't be bothered, but you'll run errands for her?"
Wolfgang did not deem the question worthy of comment. Gryphon hadn't expected him to. He was preparing to make a sarcastic reference to a claim Remilia had made when they met, to the effect that dogs were weak and easily dominated creatures, when he rounded the doorway and was momentarily rendered mute.
In his absence, Remilia had adjusted the lighting in the great room, normally the best-lit room in the house, so that it resembled the way he'd seen it on his first night there. Only about half the usual number of candles were lit, the fireplace was banked low, and center stage had been handed over to the full moon, now climbing its way up the floor-to-ceiling windows on the west wall.
In front of that window, the dining table was laid with its usual three places: Remilia's, at the head; the one to her left, which Gryphon had come to think of as his; and the one to her right, which was always set, though there was never anyone to sit at it. Arrayed between was a range of covered serving platters and the soup tureen, along with two bottles: one of Château Latour, and one—the larger of the two, standing nearer to Remilia's place—unlabeled.
Remilia herself stood before her thronelike chair at the head of the table, dressed differently than Gryphon had yet seen her. Ordinarily, she favored simple skirt-and-blouse sets in a vaguely Victorian style, with bows and ribbon trim, and sometimes a red silk ascot. Pink seemed to be her favored color for these dresses, though sometimes she wore white. A fastidious dresser, she wore fresh clothes every day, but they were so alike it was difficult to tell.
Since he'd last seen her, however, she had changed into an arrestingly different set of clothes. In general outline, they were broadly similar, with a wide petticoated skirt and short, puffy sleeves, but this outfit was much more elaborate, with intricate embroidery in black, red, and silver; a black, lace-ruffle-fronted underblouse with long sleeves ending in bridal gauntlets and a high red-and-white collar; and a bold crimson sash about her waist. Even her hat, though still the ever-present mob cap, was fancier, with a larger-than-usual red cockade and a couple of white flowers tucked into the ribbon.
The full effect was to make her seem older than she normally looked. A bit taller, too; he suspected that if he could see her feet from here, he'd see shoes with a bit of a heel to them, rather than her customary flats.
As they had been when he'd first encountered her, her aristocratic manners were in full effect. Spreading her hands before her, she declared grandly,
"Bienvenue! Entrez librement et de votre propre gré! Entrez librement, allez en toute sécurité et laissez quelque chose du bonheur que vous apportez."
It was the same speech she'd given him on the first night—"enter freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring"—but he decided he liked the sound of it better in Gallic.
Acutely conscious of the fact that he was wearing his ratty old nearly-worn-out Liberion fatigues and still had sawdust on him, Gryphon bowed in as courtly a fashion as he could manage and replied, "Merci, Mademoiselle la Comtesse. Je suis heureux d’être ici."
Remilia smiled, her crimson eyes twinkling. "Your pronunciation is improving," she said, "but I think I like you better speaking English, anyway. You sound more like yourself." She gestured to his usual place. "Please, be seated! Let us begin."
Lunch was the most elaborate meal she had yet presented him with, a panoply of Gallian, Flemish, and west Karlsland dishes befitting their location in an ancient, much-contested borderland, all prepared (as far as his admittedly not-very-sophisticated palate could tell) perfectly: nothing too heavy, not the kind of meal that would lead to post-prandial torpor, but varied, delicious, and in every way satisfactory.
He told her so, when it was all finished and they were lingering over their after-dinner drinks, and Remilia received the compliment with a mild blush that didn't go with her outfit, but did make her look more like he was accustomed to seeing her.
"You don't usually go all in on lunch," Gryphon observed, sipping his wine.
He'd noticed that, over the course of the meal, Remilia had put away a substantial share of the contents of the unmarked bottle standing by her own place. If it was blood, and he was reasonably sure it was, it represented a far greater quantity than he was used to seeing her take. Normally she was satisfied with just a spoonful or two added to things here and there at each meal, and perhaps a small glass in the wee hours, but she must have downed at least half of... how much did one of those big wine bottles hold? A liter and a half? Something like that.
"It's true, I'm normally a light eater at midnight. Not on this night, though. Under a full moon, I can't wait for dinnertime." She half-smiled, half-smirked. "If I tried, I might lose my patience halfway between and do something... unladylike."
Gryphon nodded, as if this were a normal conversation, and said, "I see."
"Besides," said Remilia, "I originally planned this as your going-away dinner. Your last meal under my roof," she said with a melancholy smile. The smile brightened as she went on, "Then your plans changed, and it became an occasion to celebrate." She refilled her glass and held it up. "So here's to another month."
Smiling, Gryphon poured himself a little more Latour and touched his glass to hers. "I'll drink to that."
They were both just about to drink when a thin, brittle voice said from the door out into the entrance hall,
With matching little starts that would probably have amused them in a different context, Gryphon and Remilia looked to the doorway.
Flandre was standing there, leaning against the doorjamb—not in a casual or jaunty way, but as if she needed it to hold her up. Her face was pale, eyes dark-rimmed; her hat was missing, and her hair even more disheveled than usual.
A moment later, Gryphon saw why her hair was that way, as she ran both hands fitfully through it, half combing it with her fingers but half just pulling at it, leaving it even worse than before. Her eyes, too, were wild, and didn't seem to quite match in size, as she fixed them on Gryphon with a look of heart-wrenching dismay.
"You're leaving?" she asked, her voice breaking into a squeak halfway through.
Remilia was halfway out of her seat, mouth opening to correct her sister's misconception, but Gryphon beat her to it, rising and taking a step toward Flandre with his hands raised placatingly.
"No, of course I'm not leaving," he said, as soothingly as he could.
Anger flashed, contorting her face. "Liar!" she snapped. "I heard it!"
The worst thing about this, from Gryphon's perspective, was that this was not the Other confronting him now. The Other wouldn't give a damn if he disappeared, never to be seen again. This was the Child—the aspect of Flandre's fractured personality he had spent the last two weeks building a bond with—who had now misunderstood something only half-overheard and thought he had betrayed her. That was far, far worse.
With an alarmed sense that the situation was already out of control, he tried his best to calm her. "No, Flan, you didn't hear the whole thing. We were talking about how I'm not going to leave. I planned to, but that was before I met you, and now I'm staying. I would never run out on you."
Flandre advanced slowly until she was within arm's reach of him, staring hard into his eyes, her feelings all but waging open war across the battlefield of her face.
Then, in a voice that was somewhere in between the Child's and the Other's, she said, "Prove it. Play a game with me."
"What kind of game do you want to play, Flan?" he asked gently.
"Benjamin, beware—" Remilia tried to say, but Flandre turned and raged at her,
"You keep out of this! You miserable sangsue! This is between me and your... whatever he is to you! Is he your thrall? Your toy? Your servant? Is he Sakuya's replacement? Have you even tasted him?"
Remilia's face, which had gone as white as her clothes at her sister's sudden appearance, now flushed with rage.
«Enough!» she barked. «Flandre, you overstep yourself! Return to your chambers and perhaps I will overlook this—»
"Save your breath," Flandre spat. "This has gone too far for me to back down now." She grinned crookedly, her fangs glinting, and said with an off-kilter laugh, "I've a feeling we're going to settle this tonight."
Then, flashing out a hand, she seized Gryphon by the front of his shirt and lifted him clean off the floor, with no more difficulty than he had picking up a glass of wine.
"And as for you," she said sweetly into his face, "we're going to play a new game. I call it Try Not to Die!"
And with that, she hurled him bodily through the great window, sending him flying in a cloud of glass shards and broken masonry out onto the broad, moonlit expanse of the west lawn.
Remilia had swept forward to confront her sister, but seeing Gryphon so handled shocked her into immobility for a critical quarter-second—all the time Flandre needed to seize her as she had him.
"Wait your turn," the blonde hissed, then flung her sister in the opposite direction, into the entrance hall—by way not of the door, but rather the wall next to the door.
Outside, Gryphon skidded to a halt on the lawn, plowing up a furrow in the grass with his face, but retained his wits and was on his feet before he'd quite stopped rolling. Immediately kicking into combat mode, he looked around for something, anything, he could use as a weapon. He wasn't fool enough to think he would survive long going up against anyone as powerful as Flandre empty-handed.
Unfortunately, the west lawn was a lawn, and lawns are not places with an abundance of readily improvised weapons.
"The rules of this game are simple," Flandre declared, stepping out onto the lawn through the hole he'd made. "It's all in the name, really. You try not to die. And I try to make you!"
And with that, she started hurling bolts of energy at him.
This was a form of magic Gryphon was unfamiliar with. In his experience, only a few of today's witches could use magic directly as an offensive weapon. It was a technique rarely taught nowadays, because the use of magically supercharged weapons was far more efficient. A witch employing the method Flandre was using would exhaust herself very quickly indeed—too fast to be really effective in combat.
Flandre, standing in the light of the full moon, evidently had cause for no such concern. She wasn't just throwing a few spellbolts at him, she was deluging him with them, flinging them by the fistful in waves. For the first few seconds, the only thing that kept him alive was the fact that the pattern spread with range, creating gaps big enough for him to throw his body into and avoid getting hit.
That wasn't going to work forever.
After thirty or forty seconds of frantic survival that felt like hours, he had his first break, and even if it wasn't much of one, he seized it gladly. A wave of Flandre's barrages demolished a tree, one of the few that were dotted around the lawn, and one of the fragments was a piece of a branch that would just about serve as a clumsy bokutō. It was green wood, which was far from ideal, but it was at least large, and heavy, and vaguely the right shape and size. It was something, which was more than he'd had a moment before.
Gryphon scooped it up on the run, flipping it into his hands, and immediately felt his form become more centered. With even the semblance of a sword in his hands, everything just... made more sense. His ki harmonized better with the Force, or something. He wasn't in the mood to analyze it right now. Instead he filed it away for later consideration, assuming there was a "later".
What it meant in the short term was that he now had an inner position from which to mount a defense. Planting his feet, he set himself, focused his inner energy, and counterattacked.
To do that, he had to sprint toward Flandre through the storm of energy pulses, trusting in the Force and zanshin to show him the path. Twice he batted aside spellbolts that were too close to his course; the second time, he was close enough to see the surprise on her face as it happened. Swinging in on her from the left, he shaped his strike in hopes of disrupting her pattern and possibly—just possibly—breaking her fugue so that he could make another attempt at getting through to her.
A fraction too late, he realized she was on to him. She pivoted, evading him—even fueled by the Force, he was slower than she was—and seized the branch in one hand. He hung on, focusing all his will, as he would on a proper sword...
... but it was not a proper sword, and with a pop of refluxed energy he could feel in his bones, the wood broke, leaving her holding one half and him the other. Gryphon reeled backward, his arms tingling, and fell to one knee.
Laughing, Flandre unleased another burst of eldritch blasts, eviently intending to mow him down where he knelt. Time seemed to stretch as his perceptions went into overdrive, mind racing, searching for a path to Not Dead—and in an instant's flash of insight, he saw one. When in Rome...
Raising the broken stub of his faux sword, he summoned his energies and shaped them in a configuration he'd learned from watching Mio Sakamoto, during that long-ago summer when he'd trained her in the ways of Katsujinkenryū and taught her to use it as a replacement for her lost magic. A witch's rune-shield, the wheeling magic circle his aerial comrades used to protect themselves from Neuroi plasma weapons, sprang into being before him and turned aside Flandre's latest assault.
It was an imperfect defense, though. Gryphon didn't use the shield spell very often, since it didn't interact very neatly with any of his other techniques, and so his focus on it was imperfect. Hampered further by the backlash from the loss of his weapon, he was able to maintain it for only a moment: long enough to save his life, but in doing so it was overwhelmed and destroyed. The blast flattened him, laying him out full-length on the ground, surrounded by jagged shards of his ersatz weapon.
Flandre tossed aside the half-branch she'd been left holding and walked over to her fallen opponent. By the time he'd partly regained consciousness, but not command of his body, she had knelt beside him and was leaning over his body, looking down into his face.
"I win," she said softly. A little smile tugged at her lips, as if involuntarily. "And now we're going to play a different kind of kissing game."
She opened her mouth, her fangs extending to twice their usual length, and he had just enough time to think abstractly, Oh. So that's what it means, before—
"Flandre!" Remilia's voice thundered.
Dusty and battered, her finery torn, Remilia stood just outside the broken wall of the great room, her feet planted wide apart and wings fully spread, her normally pleasant face filled with wrath. In one hand, she held a long, ornate spear that seemed to be made not of wood or metal, but a concentrated flux of blood-red energy, crackling and fizzling gently in the still night air.
"Leave him be!" Remilia commanded. "If you're bent on making this a final confrontation, then let it be between us and us alone. Do not drag outsiders into our family's sorry business."
Scowling, Flandre abandoned the operation and turned, still crouching over Gryphon, to face her sister.
"You're the one who brought him into our home," she pointed out. "You should have left him where he lay."
"He might have died," Remilia replied.
"So what? He's nothing. A human. This world is full of them."
As she spoke, Flandre slowly picked up the largest of the shards of wood, the remains of Gryphon's improvised weapon, and as she rose to her feet, she held it behind her back in one hand.
"You don't believe that," Remilia said, a pleading note slipping into her voice. "Flandre, this one is special. You know that as well as I. He understands us. He accepts us. Even you. Even me."
Flandre took a step toward Remilia, then another. "Do you really think so?"
"I know it. And so do you. Don't you?"
"I..." Flandre shook her head, hand pressed to her brow. "I don't know. I can't... I don't know what I'm doing."
What does she want with that stick? Gryphon wondered, his mind still working as if wading through treacle.
"I know, little sister." All the wrath was gone from Remilia's voice now, replaced by sorrow and concern. "Stop this, Flandre. Can't you stop? It's not too late. You haven't done any permanent harm. We can forget all about this."
And why is she hiding it?
"Really?" Flandre asked. She'd almost reached Remilia now, pausing just out of stabbing range in case she decided to use that spear after all.
"Can you... can you forgive me?" she asked.
"Of course," Remilia replied. "We'll both forgive you. We love you, Flandre."
Then, dismissing the weapon, she held her arms open. "Come here."
Adrenaline poured into Gryphon's bloodstream, snapping him the rest of the way back to consciousness. Bolting upright, he cried, "Flan, no, don't—!"
Just as Flandre, instead of accepting her sister's forgiving embrace, drew back her hand and plunged the shard of wood into Remilia's chest.
It went in smoothly, swiftly, with a sound like someone hitting a watermelon with an axe. Flandre's strength was such that she needed only one clean strike to drive the wooden stake straight through her sister's body, transfixing her heart. No mallet required.
Remilia opened her mouth to speak, but only blood emerged, pouring down the front of her body. She fell to her knees, her hands grabbing nervelessly at Flandre's shoulders and then losing all strength, sliding limply down and off.
With a mocking smile, Flandre put a hand on Remilia's shoulder, then gave her a push sideways. She toppled onto her side and lay still, blood pooling around her.
"Looks like nobody is winning Try Not to Die today," Flandre observed with a demented giggle. She noticed movement out of the corner of her eye; turning, she saw Gryphon struggling to his feet.
"If you had any sense at all," she said, with the same involuntary-looking smile as before, "you'd run. I might even let you go."
Gryphon shook his head, his expression grim and red-rimmed eyes intent. "That's not going to happen."
"Oh, you're not going to do something stupid like try to avenge my sister, are you?" Flandre asked, sounding disappointed. "You don't even really like her, she just used her power to make you think you did."
He didn't dignify that remark with a rebuttal; just stood there, staring her down, like a coldly hostile version of the calm look he'd used to defuse Remilia so many times.
Flandre was drawing breath to offer some further comment when a shadow suddenly fell across them both, too sharply and abruptly to be a cloud crossing the moon. Slowly, they both turned and looked up.
There was a great black shape in the sky, like a bird, or a bat, but too geometrically regular and far too large to be either. Completely black, its surface entirely featureless except for a fringe of glowing red crystalline spikes that studded its trailing edge, it hovered above them, blocking out the moon.
Naturally, some part of Gryphon thought grimly. They're attracted to magic, and Flan's been throwing it around by the hundredweight.
The Neuroi hovered silently a moment longer, as if trying to figure out the meaning of the tableau it had just run across, and then opened fire.
Feeling that diving for nonexistent cover was becoming something of a lifepath, Gryphon barely avoided being ashed by the first beam, and knew that his night had just gone from terrible to terminal. Flan he might, might, be able to talk down, even in her present condition. A Large-type Neuroi? Not so much. And with no weapon, no jetpack, and no backup for miles, there was precisely nothing he was going to be able to do about it.
For her part, Flandre had no idea what the thing in the sky was, but she also didn't care. It was interrupting.
Screaming with rage, she charged. The Neuroi turned its attention to her, lacing the air around her with fire. She avoided some, counterblasted others with her own magic, and (to Gryphon's vague amazement) tanked a couple of blasts outright, shrugging off wounds that would have put an ordinary person into fatal shock and regenerating from them before missing more than one stride.
When she was near enough, she coiled herself and leaped, the force of her takeoff cratering the ground beneath her. Despite their uselesness, her unfinished wings spread by instinct as she hurtled upward, body arched, then threw herself forward like an old-fashioned high jumper clearing the bar. More plasma fire criscrossed the air, but she slipped through its web and landed on the Neuroi's upper hull, her fingers digging into its slick crystalline surface.
In his time with the 501st, Gryphon had seen witches make direct physical attacks against Neuroi before—it was how Mio operated about half the time, ignoring her cannon in favor of slashing aerial strikes with her swords, and Trude Barkhorn had been known to punch one occasionally. He'd never seen anyone just plunge her fingers into the crystal matrix and start ripping off chunks, though, and that was what Flandre did, shredding the carapace faster than the Neuroi could self-repair.
And once she'd made a big enough hole, she disappeared inside.
The Neuroi hovered there for a few seconds longer, as if confused by what had just occurred. Then, with the typical bell-like sound, it burst into glowing white fragments and dissipated.
Instead of falling from the sky amid said fragments, Flandre remained aloft, standing in the air where the Neuroi had been. Her clothes were in rags, her shoes gone entirely. Little flecks of glowing red matter tumbled from the corners of her lips as she contentedly wiped her mouth with the back of one hand, and with a thrill of horror, Gryphon realized that she hadn't smashed the Neuroi's core...
... she'd eaten it.
In the renewed moonlight, she looked down at him, her head tilted at a strange angle. As he watched, the shining whites of her eyes went black, a sleek crystalline black, like the hull of a Neuroi, with their crimson irises blazing out against it.
Down the length of her wings, the erstwhile Neuroi's red crystal spikes sprouted like strange art-deco feathers: seven to each side, glowing brightly.
As last things to see go, Gryphon thought to himself, I have to admit that's not too shabby.
A moment later, laughing hysterically, Flandre filled the sky with red Neuroi plasma balls, then sent them all after him.
The next time Gryphon regained consciousness, Flandre was gone—still in the kitchen, or off destroying Mulhouse, or who knew? He had no idea how long he'd been out, or how long he'd stay back. His body was wrecked, to an extent that would take several days to regenerate, if he lived that long.
Slowly, painfully, he raised his head and looked outside. Remilia still lay where she'd fallen, on her side, the shard of wood transfixing her body... but her body was still there. It hadn't crumbled away to dust. Which meant there might be a chance. He wasn't sure. He didn't really know how vampires worked in this world, how they were alike to and different from those of his home reality—and there was a fair bit of variation among individuals back home, in any case.
But it was a chance, and right now it was the only one he could see.
Crawling to her hurt like hell and took forever. What was more, his only path led straight across the field of broken glass, which added just the right je ne sais quoi to the experience. All the while he half-expected Flandre to appear and finish him off, but at least that much luck was with him.
When, at least, he reached Remilia, he paused, falling into himself, and gathered all the remaining energy in his crushed, burned, battered body. He would only have one chance at this.
There is a fire inside you that is greater than distance or time.
Teeth gritted, blackness hovering at the edges of his vision, he took hold of the improvised stake, made certain of his grip, and wrenched it free.
He had just enough time to feel a surge of triumph before the blackness welled up and he fell down into it.
Remilia drew a harsh, ragged breath and sat up, her hand instinctively rising to clutch at the spot where the wound had been. It was already gone, closed before her lungs started working again, but the memory of it, she knew, would linger for some time.
Shaking her head, she fought to orient herself. She was still where she'd fallen, outside the wrecked great room of her house. Parts of the west lawn were on fire, and the rest was a cratered ruin.
Gryphon lay on his back beside her, his body a war-torn landscape, the bloody stake still clutched in his hand.
"Gods," she whispered. She wanted to touch him, try to comfort him, but there was nowhere that wasn't burned or bloodied. Was he even alive? Yes, he seemed to be breathing... barely... but who knew for how long?
Rising on unsteady legs, Remilia looked around, but could see no sign of Flandre. She staggered through the remains of the great room wall, her head spinning, and caught herself before she could sprawl headlong next to the dining table.
There. The bottle. She seized it and drank its remaining contents greedily, all sense of decorum abandoned. Too fast, and too much, like when she was a little girl, so that the excess ran down her chin and neck and soiled her clothing. In this case, her clothing was already ruined, so what did it matter?
As she drank, Remilia thought of Marthe for the first time in decades, maybe centuries. Beautiful, kind-natured, sweet-blooded Marthe, her first love, her first... not a victim, for she had been a willing participant. Conquest? Not really that, either, it had been her idea from the start. Those furtive, giggling rendez-vous by moonlight at the back gate of her home in the village. Remilia, Remilia, won't you? I would be so honored... Fifteen years old, the both of them, and neither with a clue in the world what they were doing. Only Remilia's tiny stomach had saved poor naïve Marthe's life, she was sure, and it surely hadn't saved her frock. Then flying home with her clothes soaked, attracting the superstitious attention of farmhands staggering home from the alehouse... the Scarlet Devil forevermore, all thanks to her clumsy teenage drinking.
The bottle was empty and the screaming thirst in her belly was gone... replaced by rage. Her first instinct was to tear the house apart, stone by stone if necessary, until she found Flandre, and then end her... but reason prevailed. First she had to do something about Benjamin.
Or rather... her mother did.
It took her only a minute or two to find what she was looking for. After all this time, she knew where everything her mother had left behind was to be found, including this one precious little glass phial. If only she would not be too late.
She returned to the great room at speed, and found Flandre out on the lawn, standing over Gryphon and regarding him curiously.
"Do you see this?" the blonde asked conversationally, nudging Gryphon's still-clenched fist with her toes. She turned and gave Remilia her crooked, uneven-eyed smile. "He used the last of his strength to save you instead of himself," she said, a thread of wonder in her voice.
Remilia lifted her chin. "Why does that surprise you?" she asked. "He loves me."
Flandre looked down at the fallen man for a moment, then back at her sister.
"He's an idiot," she said matter-of-factly.
"Get away from him, Flandre. I won't allow you to harm him any further."
"You still think you can stop me? Can't you see? I was stronger than you before, and now..." She spread her wings, the crystal spikes tinkling, and her black-red eyes sparkled from within.
"Oh, Flandre," said Remilia sadly. "What have you done?"
"I don't know!" Flandre replied. "But it feels amazing. Watch this!" She looked down at Gryphon again, then leveled an open hand toward him, a bubble of crimson energy forming on her palm.
Flandre blinked. "Huh?" She turned to look an accusation at her sister, to find that Remilia wasn't where she had been, either. Now deeply puzzled, the blonde turned around—and there they were, halfway across the lawn, by the stump of the tree she'd blown up earlier. Gryphon was still stretched out on the ground. Remilia knelt beside him, grinning a defiant little grin. One of her hands was spread protectively over the fallen man's chest. In the other, she held a small, shiny object.
"You didn't run far enough!" Flandre screamed, spreading her wings again.
A glint of silver; the sound of something small but heavy flicking through the air; an impact. Flandre's body jerked. With a cry that was as much anger as pain, she twisted, reaching behind her, and pulled a throwing dagger from her back.
From behind her, a voice spoke, and the sound of it sent a surge of unidentifiably tangled emotion racing up Remilia's spine:
"That's quite enough of that, young mistress."
Still holding the knife, Flandre turned toward the sound. Standing in the jagged hole where the great window had been was the figure of a woman. Tall by comparison with the sisters, well-made, twentyish but grey-haired, she had a bandolier of daggers slung across her chest—an equipment choice somewhat at odds with her clothing, since she wore the frilled and aproned uniform of a Victorian lady's-maid.
Remilia stared past her sister at this apparation, her throat gone suddenly dry and burning, and so tight that only the barest whisper could emerge:
The maid smiled. "Sorry to have kept you waiting, m'lady."
"Haha! One down!"
"Good shooting, Shirley. Go and reinforce Yoshika and Lynne, they're under a lot of pressure over there."
As Shirley Yeager zoomed off to follow her instructions, Mio Sakamoto flipped the polarity of her goggles and scanned the area with her witch sight. It didn't work as well in the dark as a dedicated Night Witch's radar, but it beat the portable searchlights the others were having to work by. All-hands night sorties really were a pain in the ass.
Still, when the aerial warning network calls in not one, not two, not three, but four Large-type Neuroi crossing the Rhine at two-thirty in the morning, that's not the kind of thing a responsible commander could leave to the standing Night Witch patrols. Sanya and Heidemarie had each demonstrated ably that they could handle a single Large-type on their own, and teamed up they would have had a decent chance at handling two, but for four, it was best to get everybody out of bed.
Mio touched her commbud, switching to the squadron command frequency. "Jingū to Duchess, any sign of the one that got past?"
"Negative! Negative!" the voice of Perrine Clostermann, soaked in static and the background noise of combat, came back. "Riquewihr and Anould report no contacts, their sectors. Fréland had it briefly, but they say it disappeared."
"Damn. Alert JG 11 and Deuxième Escadre to look sharp, it could be heading their way."
"Roger," Perrine acknowledged, then pointed out, "It might also have gone to ground, like the ones in the Ardennes."
"That's a risk," Mio agreed. "If it doesn't turn up, we'll have to search that sector in the morning."
Just then, Gertrud Barkhorn's voice broke in with a heterodyne squeal: "Weiß-5 to Jingū, new contacts crossing the Rhine—looks like two more of them, coming in from Mahlberg!"
"Oh, this just keeps getting better. Copy that, Weiß-5, help is on the way. Gryph—you heard?"
When no answer was forthcoming, Mio turned on her props to see Gryphon hovering nearby, his night-vision optics trained not on the battle zone to the east, but off toward the western horizon.
"Gryph? Gryph! Hey!"
Gryphon gave a mild start and turned. "Sorry. Yeah! I'm on it." So saying, he opened up his jetpack's throttle and darted away, cutting in reheat as soon as he was at a safe distance.
"Not like you to space out on me like that," Mio's voice remarked in his ear.
"Sorry," he repeated. "Past my bedtime."
"Ha ha, I heard that. Jingū to Chariot, how's your flank holding up?"
The west lawn was in ruins, the great room not much better off. Gryphon lay sprawled at her feet, his body crushed and burned, barely alive. Her sister was in the grip of a manic psychosis the likes of which she had never seen before, and appeared to have somehow hybridized herself with an alien war machine. She herself was battered and sore, her best clothes ruined, the healed wound from a staking still twinging, at least psychologically.
All in all, this full moon night was not turning out anything like Remilia Scarlet had been hoping it would.
And yet, for all that, a development had just occurred which gave her grounds for, if not hope, at least a deferment of total despair: for standing in the jagged hole where the great room's floor-to-ceiling windows used to be was a figure out of her past, one whom she had long since resigned herself that she would never see again.
At last, she found her voice. "Sakuya!"
With a slight smile, her long-lost maid nodded toward Gryphon. "Please attend to your business, m'lady," she said.
Despite the fact that she'd just arrived, she gave the impression that she knew what was going on—but then, Remilia recalled, Sakuya always gave the impression that she knew what was going on. It was one of her many skills.
Now she employed another one. She made a quick little gesture, too swift for the eye to follow, and suddenly her hands were full of blades, jutting out between all the fingers of her clenched fists like the claws of some strange beast.
"I shall occupy Lady Flandre," Sakuya went on, and then, springing into motion, she fitted deed to word.
In her heart, Remilia knew that Sakuya stood no chance against her sister. She was an incredibly capable combatant, Remilia knew that from long experience, but she was up against something here that was beyond the power of any human to confront. What had become of the man lying at her feet demonstrated that amply. It fell to her, therefore, not to waste the time she was being bought, and to hope that the price paid for it wouldn't be too dear. She didn't think she could live with it if Sakuya were to drop back into her life as mysteriously as she had left it, only to be killed immediately thereafter.
Kneeling, she lifted Gryphon's head, thumbed the top off the tiny glass phial she'd retrieved from her mother's sanctum, and then tipped its contents—a glowing, slightly oily-looking liquid, shimmering with colors—into his mouth.
As it passed his lips, a wave of rainbow light swept down his body, erasing his injuries as it went. He sat bolt upright, coughing violently, then fell back to the ground and blinked up at Remilia, deeply confused.
"What was that?" he inquired.
"Maman's strongest battle tonic," Remilia replied.
Gryphon smacked his lips. "Tastes like coconut. And metal."
"She told me once it was the distilled essence of a rainbow infused into troll blood, though I don't know if that's literally true," Remilia said. "Maman liked to tease me for not knowing much about alchemy. Can you stand?"
"I—oh wow, yeah, OK, that's really kicking in now," Gryphon observed, eyes going wide. "I think my heart rate just passed 200."
"It'll settle down in a minute," Remilia said, helping him up. "It restores your magical strength as well as healing your wounds, that's what you're feeling. How can you use magic, by the way? Men can't do that."
"I'd say 'I'm no ordinary man,' but it would be bragging," he replied, shaking his head like a punch-drunk boxer. "Oh wow. Oh wow."
"Benjamin. Try to concentrate. Do you remember my maid I told you about?"
He blinked, trying to focus on her face. "Sure, yeah. What was her name? Sakura?"
"Sakuya," Remilia corrected him.
"Right. Sakuya," Gryphon said abstractly. "Sorry. It's so rude forgetting people's names. I've always been bad at names, and it makes me feel like a jerk."
Remilia grabbed his face between her hands and looked him intently in the eyes. "Benjamin," she repeated. Then, gently rotating his head so that he was looking the right way, she went on, "That's her now, and if you don't get your act together and help me help her, Flan is going to kill her."
"Wow, look at her go. Battlemaid, huh? Sure! Why not? I love a good battlemaid, me." He considered the scene for a moment longer, his expression profoundly thoughtful. "She's really pretty."
Remilia closed her eyes, took a deep breath through her nose, and muttered, "Forgive me. This is for your own good."
And then she smacked him across the face, being as careful as she could not to slap it clean off.
"Hap-py birthday!" he declared, feeling at his jaw to make sure it was still attached. "Whoo. OK! Good to go. Thanks." He adjusted his neck slightly and remarked, "You should need a license to pour that stuff into people."
Remilia ignored his attempt at humor and told him, "Go and find yourself something to fight with."
He nodded. "I'm on it."
As he dashed past the pitched combat taking place on the lawn, Gryphon considered his options. Remilia was right, his initial reaction to the potion she'd given him had settled down—his heart was no longer jackhammering above 200 beats per minute, and although his nerves felt jangly and fizzy, the energy boost was real as well. He didn't have a reserve of magical strength, exactly—not in the way the local witches did—but it felt almost as if the concoction had set one up somewhere within him. Like a battery, one that was taking a charge from his connection to the Force. He filed the notion away for later study. The important thing was that he felt strong, stronger than he usually did—far stronger than he had any right to, given what he'd been through already tonight.
Unfortunately, he was still not armed, nor could he fly, which would tend to complicate matters.
He entered the great room at a run, hurdling the jumbled rubble that had been the wall, and looked around. Unfortunately, Count Victor Scarlet had not been the sort of great-house owner who stuck swords and axes and the like all over the walls, and Gryphon wasn't going to make much headway wielding the works of the Dutch Masters. Really, when you got right down to it, there was only one thing in the room that would make a decent field-expedient weapon. Swallowing his pride as a swordsman, he collected it, and was about to return to the fray when he noticed something else.
Wolfgang was sitting in what was normally Gryphon's chair, his attention firmly fixed on the goings-on outside. He didn't look particularly concerned for his own safety, but the look on his face was one of worry nonetheless.
"Stay out of the line of fire, buddy," Gryphon told the Lenshound, giving his ears a quick rub. "Things are getting messy."
Wolfgang whined, nudging at his hand, and Gryphon hunkered down to get at eye level. "Worried about Flan? Me too. She's... she's really not well tonight. But don't worry too much. We'll figure something out. OK, I gotta go. Stay back and be good."
When she rejoined the battle, the first thing Remilia noticed was that Flandre had gone entirely nonverbal. Earlier in the evening, she'd been mouthy bordering on chatty, even if everything she said was unhinged, but now, as she blasted away at her sister and Sakuya, dodging, deflecting, or absorbing their counterattacks, she was just grunting, screaming, snarling. Her face was fixed in a rigid glare, eyes wide, bared teeth gritted, lip curled. Her black-and-red eyes were uneven, unfocused, and staring.
Remilia closed with her, maneuvering through the storm of plasma bolts and diverting Flandre's attention to give Sakuya some breathing space. Seizing her sister's shoulders, she leaned close, hoping to startle her into some kind of meaningful remark, however demented.
Instead, she got a good close-up look at Flandre's face and realized that something was very wrong. Wrong besides the obvious. Whatever that black crystal that had replaced the whites of her eyes was, it was... growing. It had spread to encompass the skin around her eyes as well, like some bizarre domino mask made of black glass, and now crazily angled, jaggedly bent lines of it were extending out across the rest of her face. Her eyes were fixed and staring because she could no longer move them—the spreading black crystal had frozen them in place.
"Flandre! What's happening to you?" Remilia cried, shaking her sister by the shoulders. Knowing it was futile, she nevertheless couldn't stop herself from commanding her, "Stop this at once!"
Flandre's only response was a guttural, frothy snarl, uttered without parting her teeth—the kind of sound a person would make who couldn't part her teeth.
There was nothing wrong with her arm, though, as she proved a moment later by backhanding her distracted elder sister away from her, then resuming fire.
Remilia crashed back to the ground more because she was too shocked to remember to fly than because of Flandre's blow, arriving just in time to land in a heap at Gryphon's feet as he emerged from the house.
"Benjamin," she said urgently, scrambling back to her feet. "Something is happening—"
Sakuya tried to capitalize on Flandre's momentary distraction and come at her from a different angle, launching another flurry of knives as she went, but Flandre reacted with a speed uncanny even for a vampire of her obvious power—almost before what she was reacting to had even happened. With machinelike precision, she evaded the attack, seized the maid before she could withdraw, and hurled her in a high ballistic arc, as if trying to throw her clean out of the west grounds into the woods.
"No!" Remilia cried, preparing herself for an all-out aerial sprint. Sakuya had many talents, but flying was not one of them.
Before she had a chance, another figure appeared on the roof of the house, briefly skylined against the stars, and then flung itself after Sakuya with a prodigious tile-shattering leap. Whoever it was intercepted her halfway to the ground, then spun to touch down feet-first, smashing a crater in the turf a few yards short of the boundary wall.
"Do you have any idea what's going on?" Remilia asked Gryphon, not taking her eyes off the scene.
"Nope. Nice entrance, though."
"Mm." She shook herself out of her reverie and looked at him. "What in the world do you have there?"
"It's a field-expedient melee weapon," Gryphon replied.
"It looks like the fireplace poker."
"It's a field. expedient. melee weapon," he repeated flatly; then, seeing Flandre turn her attention back to them, he said, "Watch out!" and stepped around Remilia.
The first few bolts, he knocked off-course with the
poker field expedient melee weapon, employing his heightened energy level and a Katsujinkenryū archery counter. Flandre's volume of fire was too high to keep that up for long, though, so he switched tactics, bought himself a second with one more deflection, and then called up his Fusō-style witch shield again.
It lasted longer than before, but still blew out, albeit without knocking him on his ass this time, and it did the job of stopping the rest of that particular barrage of plasma bolts.
"Ouch," he said, shaking his stinging hand. "Her blasts are getting stronger. That's not fair."
"Look carefully," Remilia told him. "She's... changing. Whatever's happened to her is spreading."
Gryphon looked and saw that she was right. Almost all of Flandre's face was plated in Neuroi hull cladding now, her features erased by smooth planes of black crystal, and lines of it were starting to spread down her arms.
A few seconds earlier, at the other end of the lawn, Sakuya Izayoi gathered her bearings and accustomed herself to the idea that she was not dead. Fortunately, she was a quick-witted and adaptable woman, so this was the work of only a second or so, after which she was able to dust herself off and see who had rescued her.
When she did so, she was so surprised that even her legendary composure slipped. "Meiling?! What are you doing here?"
"Isn't that kinda obvious?" Meiling replied with a cockeyed grin, setting her back on her feet. "Saving your ass, as usual."
"'As usual' indeed," said Sakuya with an impatient eyeroll. "I mean why did you come here? You must get back to the Doctor at once. If you're still on these grounds when the sun rises, you'll be trapped here."
Meiling straightened up from her shock-absorbing crouch, revealing herself to be significantly the taller of the two, and cricked her back. "Doctor's already gone," she said nonchalantly. "He figured out after you left why we couldn't hit the year you wanted. Said this place is a fixed point and he can't interfere with it."
"Are you mad? You've stranded yourself in 1946 on purpose?" Sakuya shook her head. "I don't have time for this right now. If you want to make yourself useful, come and help me deal with this situation."
And with that, she took off running, straight back toward the danger.
"Gee, Meiling, thanks a lot, I really like not being a greasy smear on the ground," Meiling muttered, trotting after her. "Oh, no worries, Sakuya. I'd do the same for any crazy time maid I can't live without."
After one further volley that her sister and Gryphon either dodged or deflected, Flandre abruptly ceased fire. Ascending until she was higher than the roof level of the house, she just... hovered there, above the lawn, looking down at them.
"What's she doing?" Remilia wondered. "Why has she stopped attacking?"
"They do this sometimes," Gryphon replied. "We're not sure, because no one has ever examined a live one, but we think whatever powers their weapons works like a capacitor."
"A what?" Remilia asked, and he reminded himself that, for all her intellect and sophistication, he was still speaking to someone who had lived her whole life in a house without electricity or running water.
"An electronic component that stores energy," he explained. "When they've used up whatever's stored in... whatever they have... they have to wait while it recharges from their main power source. Like I say, it's only a theory, but the empirical evidence supports it." He shook his head. "This is bad. She didn't just take on some Neuroi traits, she's actually transforming into a Neuroi. I didn't think that was possible, but here we are."
"What can we do?"
"I don't know."
Sakuya and Meiling hurried up, the latter slightly out of breath from having to sprint to catch up. "M'lady, are you hurt?" Sakuya asked.
"Not at this particular moment, but the night isn't over yet," said Remilia wryly, indicating the sorry state of her clothes. "I don't have time to say everything I want to say right now, Sakuya, but... welcome back."
Sakuya smiled. "A pleasure to be back, m'lady." A nod for Gryphon. "Good to see you again, Chief Hutchins."
Gryphon gave her a puzzled look. "Do we know... ?" he started to mumble, more to himself than her, but Remilia overspoke him, inquiring of Sakuya,
"Who's your friend?"
A faint blush cracked Sakuya's composure, which secretly tickled Remilia to see. She'd always enjoyed proving to herself that her perfect and elegant maid was really human after all.
"Hiya," said the taller woman for herself. "Hong Meiling. I'm sort of... with Sakuya."
"We've been traveling together for some time," Sakuya interrupted coolly, "in the company of a mutual friend."
Gryphon had no idea what was going on, but he felt an instinctive sympathy for the "babe, why you got to do me that way" look that settled on Meiling's face at Sakuya's clipped correction. He found himself automatically liking her, anyway. She was a big, rangy, rugged sort of girl, well over six feet tall and built like a feminine Mack truck, if there were such a thing. In more ways than that, she reminded him a little of his old pal Kanna Kirishima—different aesthetic, with long chestnut hair and a beret, dressed all in green and white in a vaguely Chinese style, but she had the same kind of open, honest face and uncomplicated manner.
"Nice to meet you," said Remilia with a faintly regal nod. "I am Countess Remilia Scarlet, and this is what's left of Maison Diable Écarlate. I'd give you a proper welcome, but my household is somewhat disordered at the moment. If you'll excuse me?"
So saying, she opened her wings and took to the air, rising up to hover facing her sister across the space of a few yards.
"You, uh... want to give me the short version?" Meiling asked whoever cared to answer.
"The blonde girl is Lady Flandre, m'lady's younger sister," Sakuya told her. "She's... unwell, mentally. I gather we've arrived in the middle of one of her rampages... although from the state of things, I suspect it may be the worst one on record."
"It's actually worse than that," said Gryphon, and he gave them the five-cent rundown on the Neuroi threat and what Flandre had done before they arrived.
"Flandre... can you hear me?" Remilia asked, her voice hushed. "If you can, I need you to fight what's happening to you. You're a vampire of the House of Scarlet and my sister. You can defeat this corruption. You can't be consumed by some... alien machine." She folded her arms. "After all this time, that cannot be your fate. I will not allow it."
Slowly, with a sound like glass being crushed, Flandre tilted her head, her eyes focusing on her sister like camera lenses.
"Are you trying to speak?" Remilia wondered, drifting closer. Flandre's face was blank, just an expressionless crystal mask, but Remilia was certain she could hear muffled sounds coming from within.
"Fight it, Flandre!" Remilia urged her. "For the first time in my life, I'm telling you to fight! Put that fury that burns within you to good use for once. Fight!"
More muffled grunts and glassy creaking sounds were her answer—until, with a rippling crack that sounded almost like a volley of gunfire, the crystal mask cracked across its lower half. Part of the plating fell away, disintegrating, and uncovered Flandre's teeth, bared in a feral snarl...
... At which point the muffled grunts were revealed as laughter, which now spilled out unchecked. It was Flandre's voice, with the sharp, crazed inflection that always came out at the height of her madness... but it was something else as well, a metallic timbre, with an undercurrent of echoes reflecting from glass. As Remilia backed away in shock and horror, Flandre's warped laughter rose higher and higher until it was a full-on hysterical cackle.
And then she opened fire again.
Remilia, caught completely off-guard, took the first salvo right in the face, spiraling down in a plume of smoke to crash on the lawn, to accompanying cries of dismay from everyone gathered below. She was on her feet again at once, beating out a small fire in what remained of her coat, and her face had completely regenerated by the time they reached her—but then they all had to run for it again, because Flandre was coming for them.
"Couldn't have had the boys bring me my jetpack, oh noooo," Gryphon grumbled as he dive-rolled out of the line of fire yet again. "Can't go messing up the causality vectors, now, can we? Fucking time travel."
"I heard that," Meiling agreed.
Sakuya blinked. "Causality—m'lady, do you have The World?"
"Always," Remilia replied, fishing the watch from an inside pocket. "But I'm glad to return it to its rightful owner," she added, and underhanded the device to Sakuya, who caught it as stylishly as Gryphon thought he had ever seen anyone catch a thrown object. It wasn't a showy kind of stylishness—she made it look unintentional, even effortless—yet it was flawless.
She really is perfect, he thought admiringly as Sakuya pressed the stud that converted the watch to vortex manipulator mode, then made several quick, deft adjustments before turning, watch in one hand, fistful of knives in the other, to face the oncoming storm.
"The World!" she declared, then pressed the manipulator's execute control. From outside the device's influence, time didn't stop so much as ripple...
... and suddenly, the sky around Flandre was full of knives, flying toward her from every angle, as if they had spontaneously manifested in a collapsing spherical formation. They did her no lasting harm—both her vampiric flesh and the Neuroi crystal encroaching over it regenerated almost at once—but the surprise and the physical impact of that many blades at once disrupted her charge, forcing her to break off and come around again.
As she did, Gryphon spotted something—a flash of crimson from one of the fractures in the Neuroi plating that was now spreading over Flandre's torso—and with a sinking feeling, he knew what they would have to do.
"I have an idea," he said as they all regrouped in the meager cover of a crater left by a previous volley. "It's hella risky, but I think it's the only chance we've got. First, we need to keep her busy until she's drawn down her weapon power again."
"Gotcha," said Meiling. "You need a bullet sponge, I'm your girl."
"Don't get yourself killed," Sakuya cautioned her.
"Oh, now you care," said Meiling wryly, drawing another blush (and, in turn, a muted giggle from Remilia, even under the circumstances).
With that, she vaulted out of the crater and ran into the open, waving her arms as if to say, Hey, dummy, I'm over here!
"Sakuya," Gryphon went on. "Once she's tapped out and stops to recharge, I need you to do what you just did—only, if you can, narrow the point of impact. I'll show you where to aim."
Sakuya nodded. "Understood."
"Remilia... you're going to have the hardest job of all."
Remilia nodded. "I know." Her face went cold and still. "I have to be the one to kill her."
"Only part of her," Gryphon said, gripping her shoulder. "If we destroy the core, the Neuroi that's taking her over will die. Once it's gone, her own body should be able to regenerate."
"What if you're wrong?"
"Then that's on me, and I'll face the consequences. We don't fully understand the Neuroi, and I only know what I've learned from you about this world's vampires, but... this is the only shot I can see for any of us that leaves any chance at all for her."
Remilia gazed silently at him for what seemed like a minute, but could only have been a second or two.
"Who are you?" she asked quietly.
"I'll tell you everything when this is over—if you still want to hear it. I promise."
Remilia lapsed into silence again. She said nothing while they hunkered down in their crater and watched Meiling lead Flandre a merry chase.
Gryphon had at first taken Meiling for something akin to a Hoffmanite, a person with the inbuilt brawn necessary to survive a high-gravity environment, but looking at the feats of superhuman strength and agility she was performing out there, he now wondered whether someplace like Krypton weren't a more plausible explanation of her origins. She didn't have that kind of power, no, but she could easily be a third- or fourth-generation descendant of a single Kryptonian ancestor. What was more, she was obviously well-trained in some particularly acrobatic martial art—something that had a flavor of kung fu, but more of the sort found in wuxia cinema than real life.
Her observers thought she was going to get away with it, in fact, until the very end, when Flandre finally managed to get the range and then fire for effect—and Meiling, out of room, went down in a hail of plasma bolts, disappearing behind the curtain of smoke and dust they raised as they pummeled the ground all around her.
Sakuya did not cry out, although Gryphon had the sense she very much wanted to. Instead, her fist closed so convulsively on the fresh cluster of knives she had ready that she drew blood from between her fingers.
The mission was accomplished, though. Flandre ceased firing, the Neuroi glow in her eyes and wing crystals diminished, and then withdrew to her high-altitude watch position to recharge.
"This is it," Gryphon said to Sakuya. "Don't waste it. Give us one minute—mark. Go. Go!"
With a grimly purposeful expression and no verbal acknowledgement, Sakuya rose, thumbed The World's activator, and vanished.
"Do you know what to aim for?" Gryphon asked Remilia.
"Yes," she replied, her voice as purposeful as her maid's face had been. "I've killed Neuroi before."
Of course, Gryphon thought. During the occupation.
Out loud, he said only. "Good."
"You know," Remilia said conversationally, her eyes fixed on Flandre, "I never came right out and said 'I love you'. For the record, I do... but if this goes wrong, I'll almost certainly kill you."
Gryphon nodded. "I understand." He clapped her on the shoulder. "It's time. Good luck."
Remilia rose, brushed futilely at her clothes, then flew up to face the thing that had been her sister again.
Flandre was almost completely covered by the black crystal skin now, only her hair and teeth showing. At least she'd stopped laughing; she was silent as she turned to face Remilia.
"Flandre," said Remilia quietly. "I promised I would always love you, no matter what. And I will. Forever. But if you don't stop this right now... that won't prevent me from putting you down."
Flandre's mechanized eyes stared back at her, as if unseeing. Then her still-exposed mouth smirked, uttering a hollow, juddering, metallic sound that might have been a Neuroi laugh. The plasma emitter ports in her palms began to glow.
The time-ripple again, the knives again, but this time they didn't envelop her from all sides. They all came from the front, a conical surge of flashing blades that tore into the crystalline armor covering her chest. Flakes and shards of black scattered into the night, glittering in the reddening light of the near-setting moon—and beneath, the crimson gleam of a tiny Neuroi core.
The Flandre-Neuroi seemed to sense its vulnerability, and the method it chose for addressing the problem was counterattack. Its wing crystals brightening, it surged toward Remilia, opening fire as it came.
Remilia seemed almost to ignore the plasma fire, evading it with short, precise maneuvers that took her only inches from her starting point. All her attention, the full focus of her being, was on that glowing red point. She could already see the plating starting to close, the edges of the hole "growing" back toward each other.
"Papa, Maman, guide my hand," she whispered, and then, in a thunderous voice that could be heard clearly on the ground below, "Divine Lance!"
Scarlet lightning split the sky, coalescing into the shape of the weapon she'd been holding before, when Flandre had tricked her into lowering her guard: a spear, easily twice as long as Remilia was tall, and made of pure, concentrated, blood-red energy. Meeting the Flandre-Neuroi's charge with her own, Remilia drove the weapon home with all of her strength, screaming as she did so its Name:
"Spear the Gungnir!"
Like its namesake, the enchanted lance of Odin All-Father, Remilia's Gungnir struck its target true, shattering the Flandre-Neuroi's core. The two flying figures flashed past each other, Remilia leaving a wake of crackling crimson energy, the Flandre-Neuroi trailing a plume of glowing red dust that was all that remained of its core.
With the typical chiming sound of a Neuroi's destruction, the black crystal coating Flandre's body went white and sheeted away, peeling off in her slipstream like dried mud and dissipating into the night. Completely limp, she plummeted along a ballistic arc—
—and fell neatly into the arms of an extremely bedraggled but very much not dead Hong Meiling, who completed her second extreme rescue leap of the night without incident.
Gryphon and Sakuya converged at the run on Meiling, who gently laid Flandre out on one of the few remaining patches of intact grass. Moments later, Remilia swooped down and alighted along with them, then fell to her knees next to her sister, moaning her name.
The younger vampire looked as badly wrecked as Gryphon had earlier in the evening—more so, since, though burned and smashed, he hadn't had a black-edged hole in his chest.
"Oh spirits," Meiling murmured, taking off her hat and holding it to her chest.
Yet, in spite of her condition, Flandre's eyelids flickered, then opened. The eyes beneath were as they should have been, red on white, and although full of pain and exhaustion, that was proof that their owner was still alive.
"Sis?" Flandre asked, her voice almost inaudible.
"Yes, Flan. I'm here."
"I'm... cold," Flandre whispered, reaching out a hand. "Where's Wolfgang?"
"He's—" Remilia began, but as if summoned by his name, the hound bounded out of the darkness, then pushed his head under her outstretched hand. "He's right here."
"Good boy," said Flandre, rubbing Wolfgang's head. "I really messed up this time, didn't I?"
"It's fine. It's fine," Remilia insisted, struggling not to let her voice break. "We can fix the house. Again."
Flandre chuckled. "At least it'll be the last time."
"Don't say that."
"I'm not healing... am I?"
"You need fresh blood, that's all." Remilia turned to the others, any reticence she might have had about imposing on them wiped away by the urgency of the situation. "Can any of you..."
"Uh... I'm game, but I'm not actually human, so I dunno how that would work out," Meiling said awkwardly, a hand behind her head.
Sakuya drew one of her blades. "Of course I'll—" she began, but Gryphon gently took it from her.
"She's never fed directly from a person," he said. "She won't know when to stop, she'd probably kill you. If anybody's going to take that risk, it should be me."
Recalling his warning to her about the unpredictable nature of his blood, Remilia nearly objected; but then she remembered the effect a small taste of it had had on her, a few nights before. It hadn't done her any harm. On the contrary, it had lifted her spirits, left her feeling energized. Dared she gamble that she and her sister were enough alike that the effects would be positive for her as well?
Drawing a deep breath, she nodded and said almost inaudibly, "Do it."
Kneeling beside Flandre, Gryphon looked at the knife he'd taken from Sakuya as if he didn't know what it was, then stuck it absently in his hip pocket before scooping the tiny blonde up and cradling her gently in his arms.
"Flan? Honey? Can you hear me?" he asked softly.
Flandre smiled weakly, and a little dreamily. "Hi. I guess you won Try Not to Die after all..."
"I guess so. Do you want to make it best two out of three? We can... we can play the kissing game if you want."
Her eyes flickered open again, looking at him in amazement. "You actually want to play the kissing game?"
"I would love to," he said.
The dreamy smile again. "OK. Hold still..."
Gryphon braced himself, knowing from experience that this part wasn't going to be much fun—and then, to his near-infinite surprise, Flandre hooked her arms around his neck, leaned up, and kissed him. Inexpertly, the kind of kiss that comes from someone who learned about it in books—but it was definitely a proper kiss, all the same, not a euphemism for something else. Startled, the onlookers glanced uncomfortably away, apart from Remilia, who was too astonished to even react.
"How was that? Do I win?" Flandre asked weakly.
"It... was nice," Gryphon said awkwardly. "But... Flan... wouldn't you like to try the other kind? From earlier?"
"Nah. I wasn't really gonna, I was just messing with Sis," Flandre murmured, her eyes slipping shut once more. "I'm tired. Can I go to bed now?"
This is ridiculous, Gryphon thought. I'm out here trying and failing to convince a vampire to bite me... He glanced at the eastern horizon, which was just starting to go pink. And the sun's coming up soon. Wonderful.
He racked his brain for a second or two, then made one of those snap decisions that, when they worked, made people think he knew what he was doing. With a quick, angry, before-I-realize-what-a-stupid-idea-this-is motion, he plucked the dagger he'd taken from Sakuya out of his pocket and slashed the side of his neck with it, then gently lifted Flandre up, pressed her slack mouth to the wound, and trusted in the power of instinct.
She caught on quickly enough.
It was... not as terrible as the last time it had happened, he assumed largely because she was too weak at first to be really violent about it. Or maybe she was just naturally gentler than Saya. He didn't really care to repeat either experiment to increase his data set.
Dimly, before he lost consciousness, Gryphon heard Hong Meiling's voice as if from the far end of a corridor, and if he'd been able, it would have made him laugh:
"Oh man. That ain't right."
He woke to warm dimness, soft silk, and the scent of roses.
None of which was calculated to make him want to get up, ordinarily, but to his mild surprise, Gryphon found that he'd had enough of sleeping for the moment. Shrugging inwardly, he sat up and had a look around.
As he might have expected, he was in Remilia's bedroom. The room wasn't completely dark, since there was a fire going in the fireplace, and the light of the waning gibbous moon was streaming in through the window next to the bed. He seemed to be alone, which was slightly surprising and also slightly disappointing.
Yawning, he climbed out of bed and hunted for something to wear. This didn't take long, since one of the new sets of fatigues Bimmel and Mako had brought for him was neatly laid out on the dressing table, as though in anticipation of his wanting it. His shoes were there as well, freshly cleaned and polished, and his U.S. Army-issue wristwatch, which told him the time was currently 2:32 and was—amazingly, considering the night it had recently had—running.
They really build these things to last, he mused to himself, strapping on the watch.
Outside, he found the corridor brightly lit, with every single sconce encandled. The walls were polished, the floor swept; even the threadbare carpets looked as good as ever they could. The front hall, too, had been scrubbed and polished, and the stacks of supplies moved elsewhere. He wondered where they'd ended up, but supposed he'd find out in due course.
On his way across the front hall to the great room, Gryphon noticed something different about the basement door and stopped to take a closer look. All of the extra security hardware—the bolts, the bar, the metal straps—were gone, and the door itself looked new. He frowned. There were a couple of things that could mean, and at least one of them was very bad. It was with a mild sense of worry that he moved on and entered the great room.
Like the corridor and entry, the room was as brightly lit as it could be without gas or electricity, with fresh candles in all the places where candles could go and a fire crackling merrily on the hearth. To his surprise, the west wall was back where it belonged, complete with all its windows—and one new addition: the central windows at floor level had been replaced by a French door, providing direct access from the room to the west lawn.
I suppose they must call them Gallian doors here, he thought abstractly.
The only person in evidence was Remilia. Dressed as she almost always was, she was standing by the open Gallian door, looking out into the grounds.
Her sharp vampire ears must have caught the sound of his shoes on the floor, for before he could speak, she turned and saw him standing in the doorway. For a moment she looked slightly surprised. Then, her face breaking into a broad smile, she flew to his arms in a way that was not metaphorical.
"You're finally awake," she said, holding him tight. "I was beginning to think I would have to give you another dose of Maman's medicine."
"Nah, I just needed some rest," he said nonchalantly. (Might as well downplay the fact that the "rest" was really a regenerative coma triggered by near-total exsanguination. Why be dramatic?) "How long was I out?"
"You fixed all this in two nights?"
"Sakuya and Meiling did most of the work," Remilia allowed, leading him gently deeper into the room without ever really letting go of him. "I had no idea Sakuya had masonry skills. Perhaps she didn't. I get the impression that she wandered far longer than she's been missing, if you know what I mean."
Gryphon nodded. "Time travel. It's a bitch sometimes." He looked around, still feeling the anxiety that had touched him when he saw the basement door, and said a bit awkwardly, "Uh... how's... how'd we do?"
Remilia's smile got even broader, if such a thing were possible, and with shining eyes she tugged him toward the Gallian door. "Come and see."
He went, and, after a moment to accustom his eyes to the low light, he saw. The west lawn, scene of so much violence and destruction in the recent past, had been... well, not repaired, most of the grass was still missing, and presumably would be until either fresh turf or seed could be procured. The craters had been filled in and the whole area graded, however, and someone had erected a gazebo and dotted some torches around here and there, making the area nearest the house into a sort of patio or picnic area.
Out there, Meiling and Flandre were chasing each other in a great circle around the gazebo, laughing uproariously and making dramatic declarations that whoever lost the race would be eaten. Wolfgang, evidently afflicted with a rare case of the zoomies, was keeping pace with Flandre, racing along beside her and uttering the occasional bay of joy.
Gryphon felt his eyes fill with tears at the sight of Flandre, alive and hearty, enjoying herself so freely in the open air.
"She looks good," he said, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve.
"She's better than good," Remilia replied, drawing him close to her again. "She's... she's herself again. She's whole." She sniffled and squeezed him even tighter. "After all these years, my sweet Flandre's come back to me."
"Oh," said Gryphon, and it wasn't a noncommittal "oh"; it was the "oh" of a man who is too overcome by emotion to say more than one syllable. He let his arm do the talking instead, looping it around Remilia's shoulders and hugging her back, and the two of them stood there and blubbered like children for a little while at the sight of Flandre and her new playmate having such a fine time.
When the moment had passed, Remilia mopped first her tears, and then his, with a folded handkerchief. She seemed on the verge of speaking, but just then, Flandre happened to glance toward the house and notice them standing there.
"Big brother!" she cried, breaking orbit and making straight for him.
Remilia chuckled and disengaged, standing clear, and he braced himself for impact—but when it came, it was surprisingly mild, no worse than being tackle hugged by any early-teenager would be.
"Big brother, you're awake!" said Flandre, hugging him tight, but not endangering any bones, while Wolfgang gamboled happily at their feet. "I was so worried!"
"I was worried about you, too, Flan," Gryphon replied, hugging her back. "But it looks like we both got away with it, huh, kiddo?" he added with a slightly teary-eyed grin.
"Oh right—look! Look!" she said, letting him go and backing up a little. "Check out my wings! Aren't they pretty?"
She turned her back to show them off to best advantage, stretching them out to their full extension. The fourteen crystal "feathers" she'd manifested when she'd devoured the Neuroi core were still there, but they were no longer that signature angry red. The ones closest to her spine were still red, but a more vibrant, less sinister shade; and from there they glittered in all the colors of the rainbow, in order, from a rich sunset orange right through until the ones at her wingtips shone a beautiful bright violet.
"They're amazing," Gryphon agreed. "Prettiest wings I've ever seen." Laughing happily, Flandre turned back around and resumed hugging him.
"Well hey, look who decided to rejoin the living," Meiling declared, sauntering up at a more leisurely pace than her playmate. "Are you a vampire now too?"
"That's not how it works!" Flandre objected before either Gryphon or Remilia could say anything, making them both laugh.
"Oh! Sorry!" Meiling replied, raising her hands in cheerful surrender. "I skipped class the day they covered that, I guess."
Sakuya emerged from the kitchen, saw the little tableau by the door, and smiled. "Excuse me, everyone, but supper is ready. Good evening, Chief, you look well."
"Thank you, I feel great," Gryphon replied, and then, with a grin, "and hungry!"
In the back of his mind, he felt the same mild puzzlement he'd felt the first time she called him Chief. He would swear he'd never met her before; he might be bad with names sometimes, but he hardly ever forgot a face, and he certainly wouldn't have forgotten one like hers.
"Please take a seat, then, and I'll get started serving," said Sakuya, and with an impeccable little bow-curtsey, she withdrew back into the kitchen.
Remilia and Gryphon went to their usual spots, of course. Not surprisingly, Flandre claimed the seat to Gryphon's left. Meiling sat opposite her, leaving the place to Remilia's right—the one that had been set and unused throughout Gryphon's time in the house—still unoccupied. A moment later, Sakuya emerged from the kitchen, carrying a heavily laden tray with her customary perfect aplomb, and began deploying the lunch items therefrom, starting with beverages.
"The '89 Heidsieck, as requested, m'lady," she said, placing a bottle of champagne where both Remilia and Gryphon could reach it. "And for the young mistress, a nice A-positive. Meiling, I'm afraid we haven't any huangjiu in the house at the moment, so you'll have to make do with Chardonnay."
"That'll work," said Meiling agreeably. "I'm easy when it comes to alcohol."
"As it were," said Sakuya coolly, making Meiling blush, Remilia laugh, and Flandre look puzzled. "As to the main course," Sakuya went on as if nothing had happened, "as this is a special occasion, I've prepared a traditional Alsatian baekeoffe tonight."
"Oh, I haven't had baekeoffe for ages," said Remilia happily. "Perfect as always, Sakuya."
"Thank you, m'lady," said Sakuya, placing the heavy earthenware dish before her. "If you would care to do the honors?" she added, proffering one of her ubiquitous daggers, and with a grin, Remilia ceremoniously slit open the dish's bread seal.
"For what we are about to receive, let us all be truly thankful," declared Flandre solemnly, and then, feeling everyone's surprised eyes upon her, she blushed. "What? Isn't that what you're supposed to say?"
"It is," Remilia agreed with a sentimental smile. "I just haven't heard anyone say it at the table in a long time." She lifted her fork, then noticed that once she'd finished serving, Sakuya had withdrawn to take up a station by the kitchen door, tray clasped vertically before her.
Giving her a puzzled what-are-you-doing? look, Remilia gestured to the place to her right and said, "Sit down, Sakuya."
"Servants do not sit at table with the family, m'lady," Sakuya pointed out primly.
Remilia rose from her throne-chair and turned to face her maid, fists on hips. "Sakuya. I haven't kept that place setting there for the last 76 years so you could not use it when you finally came home. Now sit!" she ordered, pointing imperiously at the empty chair.
Sakuya gave a put-upon sigh. "Very well, m'lady, if you insist—but I fear for the consequences to the discipline of the house." Then, her façade cracking, she smiled and gave her employer an impish wink before taking her seat, dishing herself up some stew, and being poured a measure of the champagne.
And just like that, where there had been one taking lonely meals at this long table for decades, and two sharing a little pool of companionship for the last month, there was now, as Sakuya had implied, something like a family. An ad-hoc one, to be sure, but in Gryphon's experience, the ad-hoc ones were sometimes the best.
As he had the thought, Flandre asked him, "Big brother, would you please pass the butter?"
"Mais bien sûr oui, ma chouchoutte," he replied, making her giggle with his poor Gallic.
"I think it's sweet that you call him 'big brother'," Meiling said with a grin.
"Well, of course I do," Flandre replied unconcernedly, buttering a hunk of bread. "We share a blood tie now. Besides, he's going to marry my big sister, isn't he?"
There was a brief silence, diners pausing with loaded forks or lifted glasses halfway to the hangar. Flandre carried on as if unaware she'd said anything arresting, slipping a bit of stewed beef to Wolfgang under the table while everyone was distracted.
Sakuya and Meiling both stared, not at Flandre, but at Gryphon and Remilia, who were looking at each other with matching looks of startled bemusement.
Gryphon tilted his head inquisitively. "Am I?"
Remilia looked blankly back at him for a moment, then smiled her most aristocratic smile.
"One isn't entirely against the idea," she allowed grandly.
Sakuya took her watch from her pocket, clicked the stem, and suddenly there was cake.
After dinner, Sakuya disappeared into the kitchen and Flandre, with a finely telegraphed wink for her seatmate, manufactured a reason to take Meiling off and show her the library. Meiling knew what was up, of course, but played along, and both parties were therefore satisified that they had put one over on the other, which Gryphon knew from experience was a critical ingredient in good intergenerational relations.
Left alone with the last of the champagne, Gryphon and Remilia sipped in silence for a few minutes.
"It appears," Remilia observed at length, "that my little sister has outmaneuvered us both."
Gryphon quaffed the last swallow in his glass. "So it seems."
"I must know many things before my conditional agreement becomes unconditional," she warned him.
"Absolutely proper," he agreed.
"And that assumes that you're amenable to the idea, of course. One wouldn't like to let Flan presume to speak for you."
"In this instance, her presumption is perfectly acceptable," said Gryphon, as formally as possible. They regarded each other coolly and properly for a few moments, then broke up laughing and adjourned to the living room.
"So. Where do you want me to start?" Gryphon asked, taking his usual seat.
"Not here," Remilia told him. "That's a conversation for a more intimate setting." She grinned slyly. "Perhaps we should have another decadent morning bath before bed." She wound the phonograph and put on a record, then held out her hand. "For right now... let's dance."
And so they did. Unusually for an Ink Spots record, the one she'd chosen was a fairly up-tempo number, not really suitable for slow dancing, and he wondered where she'd learned to Lindy.
Sakuya stood unnoticed in the doorway from the kitchen and watched the two of them hop and twirl around the living room, grinning at each other like a pair of fools all the while. The sight brought a little smile to her lips. How long had it been since she saw the mistress so happy and carefree? Even before her inadvertent disappearance from the mansion, it had been years. Probably decades.
She glanced at her watch and, humming the song's melody line to herself, went off to prepare the bath. It would be perfectly ready at exactly the moment they required it, of course. She had a reputation to live up to, after all.
As she puttered around the kitchen, tidying up the last of the aftermath from dinner, Sakuya Izayoi reflected that this had always been her favorite part of the day. In all her long service here at Maison Écarlate, this time in the early morning, when the family and the night staff had gone to bed, but the day staff wasn't up yet, had been a time just for her. Secure in the knowledge that she was unlikely to be disturbed, she could slow down a little, take her time, and put the finishing touches on the night's work that were so important to set the next night up for smooth running.
Now, with the dishes done, the cooking utensils cleaned and put away, and the provisions for breakfast lined up and ready to go, Sakuya was engaged in the supremely meditative task of organizing the pantry, which was still swamped with seven decades' worth of the mistress of the house managing it any whichway that struck her fancy. Countess Remilia had many qualities that endeared her to her longest-serving lady's-maid, but her organizational skills had never been among them.
She was standing with a jar of chickpeas in hand, wondering what on Earth had possessed Remilia to put it with the B-positive blood preserves, when she heard quiet footsteps and turned to see Hong Meiling standing in the pantry doorway.
"Hey, uh... have you got a minute?" Meiling asked, a trifle awkwardly.
Ignoring the question, Sakuya asked in return, "Does Lady Flandre need anything before bed?"
Meiling shook her head. "She's already asleep. Two stories and out like a light."
"Ah, good. Well, then—" Sakuya began, a dismissive tone in her voice, but Meiling interrupted her:
"I need to talk to you."
"I'm very busy right now," Sakuya lied, brushing past the taller woman and into the kitchen.
"Alphabetizing beans? C'mon," Meiling replied, following her. "Sakuya, please."
Sakuya paused in the middle of the kitchen, then sighed, put the errant jar down on the worktable, turned around, and leaned back against the table, folding her arms.
"All right," she said. "Talk."
"What did I do?" Meiling asked without preamble. "You've been so cold to me ever since we got here. You pretty much outright denied that we're together, and based on how you've been acting since, I guess it's safe to assume that we're not any more. So... what did I do? I can try to make it up to you if I know what it was."
"Well, for one thing, you followed me here without asking."
"I thought you'd be happy!" Meiling protested. "You said you would miss me, and after I got done having a cry about it I thought, Well, who says she has to? So I ran like hell to catch up to you—and can I just point out that you're lucky I did!"
"M'lady would have caught me if you hadn't," Sakuya replied, although her expression suggested that even she wasn't entirely sure of that. "And anyway," she went on before Meiling could call her on it, "haven't you been claiming all along that you were the Doctor's bodyguard? And then you just abandon him to chase after your girlfriend?"
"Pff, he doesn't need a bodyguard," Meiling said dismissively. "That was just an inside joke with him and me. Don't pretend you're that dense. Besides, he's got Hattori now, and even if he didn't... I'd pick you over him any day."
When Sakuya didn't reply, Meiling took another step toward her, a pleading look coming onto her face. "Come on, give me something to work with. I can't read your face at all when you go all stony like that. You're killing me here." Tilting her head, she asked, "Are you ashamed of me? Is that what it is? Am I not refined enough for this place? I know I'm just a country dragon from the back of beyond, but I know which fork to use..." She hesitated, welling up slightly, and then went boldly on, "... and I love you like crazy, which should make up for the rest."
In the face of Meiling's misery, Sakuya's cold façade cracked. She reached out, but didn't quite dare to touch her, and said hastily,
"No, no! It's not that at all. Honestly. It isn't. It's just..." She paused, organizing her thoughts, and then went on, "It's just that m'lady comes from a very, very old and distinguished family. For her servant to be carrying on an affair under her roof, and with another woman, no less—"
"Technically I'm not a woman," Meiling put in.
"—shut up—it's just... it's not done in this sort of household. It wouldn't be proper. I'm sorry. I tried to explain it to you before I left the TARDIS, but I suppose I was too roundabout. I should have just told you point-blank to forget about me and get on with your life."
Meiling puzzled over that for a second, then said slowly, "O... K, so... you started out with 'no, no,' but the rest of that sounded an awful lot like 'yes, actually, I am ashamed.'" Again Sakuya seemed to be at a loss to reply. Meiling shook her head, sighing. "OK," she said. "I see how it is. Well, don't worry. I'm not gonna make a scene. I'll just... stay out of your way for the rest of the month, and next full moon, I'll hit the trail."
Sakuya took that on board almost expressionlessly, then closed her eyes and said with perfect composure, "I think that would be best."
Meiling nodded. "OK. Thanks."
So long, perfect composure. Starting away from the table, Sakuya asked with pained astonishment, "What in the world are you thanking me for?"
Meiling shrugged. "Everything before this," she said simply. "It's been amazing. That's not gonna change just because there's no place in your life for me now." She took a deep breath, let it slowly out, and nodded firmly, as if to herself. "Right. I'll get out of your way now. G'night, Sakuya. Or morning. Whatever."
She made to walk past the maid and leave the kitchen, but Sakuya abruptly shot out an arm and barred her path. "Wait."
Meiling stopped and gave her a questioning look. Sakuya hesitated a moment, as if arguing with herself internally. Then, with a look of determination, she said, "This is for everything," placed her hands on either side of Meiling's face (she had to stand on tiptoes to do it), pulled it down to her own, and kissed her fiercely.
The kiss went on for some time, as Sakuya tried to put all that her naturally reserved character wouldn't permit her to say aloud, all the joy she'd taken in this relationship and all the sorrow that it had to end, into it. Meiling's arms tightened around her back, the taller woman's body pressing hers against the table, and she knew that if it went on much longer Meiling would hoist her up to sit there so that their faces would be on more of a level, and if she let things get that far they would almost certainly wind up making love right here in the—
The sound of clinking glass behind her startled her almost out of her skin. Heart pounding, she pulled her lips away from Meiling's and turned (as best she could, still being backed against the table).
To her horror, there stood Remilia, in nightdress and slippers, rummaging in the icebox.
"M-m-m-m'lady!" Sakuya blurted, red-faced and hopelessly flustered. Meiling backed up a couple of steps to give her room to turn around, silently wondering whether she were about to be thrown out of the mansion and forced to rough it out in the grounds for the rest of the month.
Remilia closed the icebox and gave her a questioning look. "Mm?"
"W-what are you doing here?" asked Sakuya.
"Just grabbing a nightcap," Remilia replied, holding up the half-liter bottle of milk she'd retrieved.
Sakuya's normal air of composure defied retrieval. In a voice most unlike the one she usually used with her employer, she sputtered, "Why didn't you ring for me, m'lady? I, I, I'd have brought it to you—"
Remilia shrugged. "Force of habit. I've gotten used to doing for myself while you've been away." She took a long drink of milk, then added conversationally, "Tell you the truth, I kind of like it. You'll have to get used to that now that you're back."
"Are you feeling all right, Sakuya?" asked Remilia. "You're acting really weird. Anyway, don't mind me." She finished off the milk with a second long pull, worked the pump while she rinsed the bottle, put it in the sink, and turned to go. "G'morning."
Seeing that Sakuya wasn't going to regain her powers of speech anytime soon, Meiling felt honor-bound to speak up. "Countess Scarlet, please forgive Sakuya, it's my fault. I was just saying goodbye. I'll... I'll be leaving as soon as I'm able."
Remilia paused by the end of the table and tilted her head curiously. "Why? You're welcome to stay as long as you like, I told you that." She chuckled wryly. "It's not like we're short of space around here. Besides, my sister's already grown very fond of you. She'd be heartbroken if you just up and left."
"I... well..." Meiling looked at the floor, blushing hard. "I think it would be too painful for me and Sakuya if I were to stay on here, since we can't be... together any more."
Remilia looked even more puzzled. "Who says you can't be? You're adults, aren't you?"
Regaining at least partial use of her voice, Sakuya stammered, "M-m'lady, I would never... under your r-roof..."
Remilia smiled indulgently, then hopped up onto the counter facing the two, swinging her slippered feet like a child, and said,
"Listen, Sakuya. The reason for the old rule about senior servants not getting involved with people was to set an example for the rest of the staff. I mean, we were trying to run a household, not a matchmaking society, right? Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but there is no rest of the staff now. You're it. And you're not really a servant. You hadn't been for decades before you left."
"I'm... what?" Sakuya replied, looking utterly lost.
"You're my friend, Sakuya," said Remilia gently. "My very precious friend. You were the only friend I had for... what? Sixty years? And even now you're one of maybe three that I have in the whole world. I mean, you do work for me and you do get paid," she qualified, "but even so. This isn't a grand household like Maman and Papa ran. It's just..." She shrugged a very Gallic shrug, both with her shoulders and her wings, which even under the circumstances Meiling found oddly amusing. "... my family."
Warming to the topic, Remilia hopped down and paced that side of the kitchen, making dramatic gestures. "After all these years alone, I suddenly have a family again. Am I going to turn up my nose at that because my maid has a lover? Am I stupid? Am I cruel? Am I a tyrant? Non, non, encore une fois non, mille fois non!" Drawing herself to her full height, wings outspread, as imperial a figure as a tiny woman in nightdress and mob cap can be, she declared, "I am Remilia Scarlet, Countess of the House of Scarlet! In this house my word is law! And my word is..."
Dropping her regal stance, Remilia smiled warmly and said in a more normal voice, "You kids have fun, now." She turned to go, then turned back. "But keep the noise down, will you, and whatever you do, try not to wake Flan?" With a chuckle, she added, "There are things I don't want to have to explain to her just yet."
Sakuya was speechless again, but Meiling, despite feeling that the occasion had become deeply surreal, managed to say, "Uh... roger that, ma'am. We'll... we'll be discreet."
"Good. Discreet is good. And if you could keep it from interfering with Sakuya's work too much, that'd be great too." Remilia shrugged again, less extravagantly this time. "I probably didn't need to point that part out, but just to have it on record."
"D'accord. Well, I've got things to do, and..." Remilia grinned slyly, making both of them blush deep red again. "... so do you." Once again she turned to go.
Taking a step after her, Sakuya suddenly found her voice and blurted, "M'lady!"
"Yes?" Remilia inquired, pausing in the doorway and looking back.
"I... thank you."
Remilia gave her the warm smile again. "You're welcome, Sakuya. I'm glad you found somebody to share the road with while you were out wandering the world." The smile becoming a wry grin, she added, "I had to sit around here waiting for mine to come to me. Oh, that reminds me. The bath was terrific. If you could please arrange another one for, say, half an hour after sundown? That would be super."
"I..." Sakuya searched for words, and then, as if someone had flipped a switch, her perfectly elegant composure returned. Squaring herself up, she gave her trademark bow-curtsey and replied, "It shall be done, m'lady."
"Lovely. Thanks. Carry on," said Remilia with a wink, and then she was gone.
In her wake, Sakuya and Meiling stood looking blankly at each other for nearly a minute. When at last someone broke the silence, they both did, each speaking the other's name. That brought them up short, as it occurred to them both that neither had any idea what she would have said next; and then, at last, they laughed and fell into each other's arms.
"I guess you're stuck with me," said Meiling, giving her a gentler kiss.
"I guess I am," Sakuya agreed, returning it.
Humming cheerfully to herself, Remilia climbed the south stairs without touching them. Her body as buoyant as her mood, she didn't actually put her feet back on the floor until just outside her bedchamber door.
Inside, she checked that the fire was banked and the windows properly draped against the oncoming day, then took off her cap, arranged pillows, and climbed into bed, still smiling to herself.
"What are you amused about?" Gryphon wondered.
Remilia told him about the scene she'd walked into in the kitchen, and what had transpired once the two lovers had noticed her.
"So I left them to get on with it," she concluded, a playfully wicked edge coming into her smile.
"That was very kind of you," said Gryphon.
"Well, what else was I going to do?" she asked rhetorically. "There's happiness in this house for the first time in decades. Am I going to throw that away for the sake of some dusty old propriety? Pah! Besides, I'd be a hypocrite if I did. My first love was a village girl from Bennwihr."
He arched an eyebrow, intrigued. "Really?"
"Mm. Her name was Marthe. She's actually the reason the farmhands around here started calling me 'the Scarlet Devil'. When she and I were both fifteen, I used to visit her every few days, and she would always beg me to drink from her. 'Mais je serais très honoré.' Eventually, I took her up on it. But, you know... when you're that age, you're not very good at certain things."
"Ah. You had a drinking problem."
Remilia chuckled. "You could say that. I think more of it ended up on our clothes than anywhere else. Eventually, her mother caught on to what we were doing and put a stop to it."
"What do you mean, how? She told Marthe not to see me any more, and me not to come around, and we were sad, but we minded her. Were you expecting garlic and mistletoe?"
"Does that work?"
"No, it's an old wives' tale, but that's not the point. I'm not a savage, I don't go where I'm not wanted." Remilia sighed wistfully. "Ah, Marthe. To be honest, I think she was tiring of my clumsiness by then anyway. But she was beautiful, and she tasted like springtime." She spent a few more moments in reverie, then returned to the present and said, "Anyway, we're not here to talk about my past. Time enough for that later. Shall we get started on yours now, or would you rather get some sleep and begin this evening?"
"I'm game to start now... I'm just not sure where," Gryphon admitted.
"One customarily starts a story at the beginning," Remilia said archly, taking his nearer hand and slipping her fingers between his.
"Hm. OK. First, some background. I'm not from this world."
Remilia gave him an intrigued look, though it didn't really work, since they were sitting side by side. "... You're from outer space?"
Gryphon shook his head. "No, I'm from Maine, I only work in outer space. We'll get to that part. What I mean is... without getting into the big math behind it, there's an infinite number of universes, all sort of... lying on top of each other, separated from each other in a fifth dimension outside the four we know."
"Four? Don't you mean three?"
"Time is number four."
"Ah! Interesting. I hadn't thought of that."
"Anyway, these different universes... each one is unique, but a lot of them are very similar. In the one I come from, the nations of Earth are all basically the same as the ones you know, but most of the names are different, and history took a different course. There's no magic in the world I grew up in, for instance, and creatures like... well, like you are just... myths. Folklore and literature."
"Sounds boring," Remilia opined.
"It was a bit," Gryphon agreed, chuckling. "Anyway, in that world, the country you call the United States of Liberion is called the United States of America, and the Liberion state of Dawnland is the American state of Maine. I was born there, in the year 1973."
"So you're from another world and the future," said Remilia. "How convoluted."
"Oh, I haven't even started."
"I can't wait for this now."
"Then stop interrupting."
"How rude you are, sir."
"Says the one who keeps interrupting."
"Touché. Go on."
"Thank you. Now I've lost my place."
"Maine. Nineteen seventy-three."
"Ah yes, thank you. For the first 18 years, there's nothing much to report. My life was totally ordinary until I went away to college in Worcester."
"The one in Britannia? Sorry."
"No, in America. Massachusetts, which in your world is... Algonquia? Anyway. I was 300 miles from home, on my own for the first time. Making new friends, having good times, not doing very well at the actual school part. In other words, still perfectly ordinary... until one afternoon after class, I opened the wrong door, and everything changed."
The thing about Gryphon's life story from that point onward, he decided, was that if he described it out loud, it was so absurd in spots that even he began to doubt whether most of it was true. The HoloDECstation, the Wedge War, the escape into space... had any of that really happened? It must have, he was who he was now, and none of that would have been possible without Starship Wedge and the flight to Zeta Cygni, the mad Prussian with his visions of a space defense force, the man from the 413,000th millennium and his retrovirus... but all the same, at several centuries' remove, it all seemed vaguely... preposterous.
Remilia certainly seemed to think so. "They made you immortal with a disease?" she asked, incredulous.
"Not really a disease, as such. I mean, it was a virus, but its job was just to use a trick some viruses do to get the important part where it needed to be." He searched his mind for a way of conveying this point to someone who lived in an era when genetics wasn't really a thing yet, then snapped his fingers and said, "In a way, it's not too unlike when one of you turns a human. You're introducing an outside factor that triggers a wholesale body change. For you, it's your blood and the magic properties it has. In my world we'd call that your paragenetics."
Remilia frowned. "I thought that was a geological thing."
"Oh. Sorry, you were saying."
"Right, yeah. For vampires, the paragenetic trigger is blood. For us, it was the virus. It remade those of us who were treated with it into... well, what I am now. Still essentially human, but..." Gryphon chuckled. "A lot harder to kill."
"And you did this... why?"
"We did it to Zoner because if we hadn't, he'd have died, and we weren't prepared to accept that."
"That sounds familiar," said Remilia, her tone a little subdued.
"I know," Gryphon said, squeezing her hand. "In our case it didn't go wrong, but... it could have. We were taking risks we didn't fully understand, just like you—but for the best of reasons, just like you."
"What about the rest of you, though? You weren't dying. At least, no faster than any human does," Remilia qualified.
"Well..." Gryphon shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. What do you want, we were 18, 19, 20 years old. We were still half-convinced we'd live forever anyway. You were born a vampire, so you might not understand this part. When you're born human, you don't grasp right away that you won't live forever. 'When we are young, wandering the face of the Earth, wondering what our dreams might be worth, learning that we're only immortal for a limited time.'"
"Is that from a poem?"
"Mm. A song, really, but its author was one of the great poets of rock 'n roll."
"Rock 'n what?"
Gryphon chuckled again. "A style of popular music. It won't be along for another 10 years or so, although you can hear the roots of it today in bands like the Ink Spots. That's by the way, though. The important thing is, one day we did this thing, and suddenly we had the wherwithal to live our dream—Lord F had already handed us that—and the leeway to get away with it. Mostly. Some of us didn't make it, but... I came here from the year 2411, and a lot of us from the original gang are still kicking."
"Twenty-four eleven! So that would make you..." Remilia paused to calculate in her head. "Four hundred thirty-eight." She laughed. "That's the same age as Flan! Which means you're still younger than I am, but... not by as much as I thought. Or," she added with an upraised finger, "you're out of your mind."
"After all I've been through, sometimes I wonder why I'm not," Gryphon replied honestly. "I guess the thing that keeps my body going does the same for my mind."
He told her what he'd spent those 420 years since his immortalization doing—the centuries of battle with the original Wedge Defense Force, the shattering blow of Operation Götterdämmerung, the near-century of wandering hunted in the wilderness, his vindication, the Corporate War.
As it unfolded, Remilia stopped interjecting and just lay there, taking it all in, with only occasional "mm-hmm"s and "OK"s to indicate that she was still listening. By this stage, she had passed the point of trying to decide as she heard it whether any of this could be true. She'd realized there was too much of it to judge as it came in. Now she was simply taking it all on board for later digestion.
He had just described the final resolution of the Corporate War, his final showdown with Largo and its aftermath, when she spoke up for the first time in a while.
"Wait. Your first lover spent 90 years trying to kill you for something you didn't even do, then ignored you for eight more, and the first chance you got, you took her back?"
"It was a little more complicated than that," Gryphon replied, "but... basically yes."
Remilia snorted. "No wonder you were so good with Flan. You like suffering."
"That was mean and frankly uncalled-for."
"Sorry. I'm sure there were plenty of extenuating circumstances," she said, her tone making it clear that she was sure of no such thing. "What became of her, then?"
Gryphon sighed. "Well... now we've gotten to the hard part. Right after the war, we finally, after almost four centuries of on-and-occasionally-really-off romance, got married. Started a family. That's where the kids I told you about earlier came from. Our eldest, Kaitlyn, is 22, teaching music at the school she graduated from. The others are scattered here and there, doing what calls to them. They're all amazing."
Her hand had gone still in his, ceasing the little movements and small caresses it had been doing this whole time, and her voice was millpond flat as she said slowly,
"So... you're... married already."
"Yes. Maybe. Before you draw any conclusions, let me finish. OK?"
Remilia considered in silence for a few moments, then nodded. "OK. Go on. I'm listening."
"Not long after we finally got married, when Kaitlyn was still just a baby, Kei and I got caught up in... something extraordinary, even by our standards. A friend of ours who happened to be a Norse goddess called on us to help her avert the end of the universe."
"Ragnarök," Remilia murmured.
"The old gods are dead in this world," said Remilia. "Some say they died off because people stopped believing in them, others that they were killed by the kind of monsters my parents used to fight. But either way, they're gone now. All that's left is a few relics, like my Gungnir. I sometimes wonder whether Ragnarök happened, and we in the mortal world just... didn't notice." She shook her head. "Sorry, that's not really relevant, but... Papa taught me those legends when I was just a little girl. It's the only reason I know what you're talking about." She turned her head to look at him. "What happened?"
"We won," Gryphon said simply. "It was tough. The hairiest situation I've ever been in. Imagine a hundred thousand nights like the one we had on the last full moon, all happening at once on the same frozen field, and you have a feel for it. But we won. Surtr's armies were defeated. He withdrew. The universe kept turning. But... it was another of those points where everything changed.
"Especially for Kei. Something about the experience seemed to... settle her. She'd already slowed down a little from her wildest days, I mean, we were married and had Kate by that point, but... after the Ragnarök, it was like we both grew the rest of the way up, all at once. We'd stayed teenagers for centuries, because we could. We even went through the Exile that way. Heavily armed masses of impetuous drama looking for somewhere to break out. But then we witnessed the gods at war... and when we got home from Asgard, we finally got into our twenties."
Remilia made a thoughtful humming sound, and he noticed that her hand had come back to life in his; now it squeezed gently as she said, "The same happened for me the night my parents died. I stayed their little girl for almost the first three centuries of my life, happy with the routine, content to play the same part day after day, decade after decade.
"And then, all at once, I was mistress of the house. I still had Sakuya and a few other members of the staff, but... suddenly everything depended on me. I was the only one who knew how Papa's siege store worked. The only one who could even come close to controlling Flan. I had to grow up, right then, take responsibility, or more people would die." She drew a shivery breath and sighed. "It concentrates the mind."
"That it does," Gryphon agreed. "After that, we took our life together in a new direction. We were involved in setting up a new organization, smaller and more streamlined than what the WDF had become, to meet the new threats we could see coming after the Ragnarök, and raising our family. We were closer than ever, but part of that new closeness was recognizing a need to give each other some room, if that makes any sense. We had our life together, but we also each had a separate life of our own, and our own separate things to do.
"And one day, five years ago by my personal timeline, Kei went off to do one of those things, and... never came back."
Remilia blinked, her hand tightening on his, and said in a quiet voice, "... She died?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I want to believe the answer is no, but... she went on a mission to a remote planet out beyond the Rim, a place the agency she worked for in the old days wanted checked out after some strange reports came back from the area. She went along as a favor to her old boss, and because we wanted someone from our new agency there, and..." He paused, then sighed. "Probably just because she was having a slow day and it sounded interesting."
When he didn't go on for a few seconds, Remilia prompted him softly, "What happened?"
"We don't really know," Gryphon answered. "The ship landed, we know that much, and then... it was destroyed. We never got a distress call, no communications of any kind. Kei and I are both part of a corps of special operatives we call Lensmen. 'The galaxy's best and brightest, standing up in line against the darkness.' We're called Lensmen because we each have one of these." He manifested his Lens, which he'd kept hidden the whole time he'd been in this century, and showed it to her.
"Ohh," Remilia said softly, reaching up to touch its glowing face with a fingertip. "This is a god-relic. I'd know that signature anywhere."
Gryphon nodded. "Well, not so much a relic, they're newly made, but they are crafted by one of the gods. They're made for us by our friend I mentioned earlier. She's the Norse goddess of the future."
"Skuld of the Norns?"
"That's the one." He smiled a little nostalgically. "Also the mother of my firstborn son, as it happens." To her raised eyebrows, he explained, "Things got a little... weird... the night before the end of the world."
"I suppose I can see that," Remilia allowed. "But what did your wife think?"
"She's the one who sent me to Skuld's tent that night, to... uh... comfort her," Gryphon said. "I think she knew what would happen. See, Kei was... is... mildly psychic. She sees the future sometimes. Little flashes, she usually can't tell what they even mean. That night, with the edges of time itself starting to fray... I think she got a better look than usual at my fate."
"Your fate, hm?" Remilia murmured, almost inaudibly. Then she went on aloud, "Well, go on. You were saying something about these Lens things."
"Right," Gryphon said, picking up the thread. "One of the main things they do is allow us to stay in contact. Any Lens on the network can make a mental connection to any other Lens, and their owners can communicate telepathically, across any distance, instantly.
"Only... Kei never tried to reach me. Whatever happened to her... happened so fast she never got the chance. And there's been no sign of her on the network since."
He lay his head back against the pillows behind him, staring at the underside of the canopy over the bed, his eyes seeing something altogether different. "Dozens of us have tried, singly and in concert, to reach her, but... nothing. She's just... gone. But she's never turned up in Valhalla either. Which means she's either alive, but somehow silenced, or..." He paused, considering his phrasing. "Or she's dead, and whatever killed her is more powerful than the natural order of death." Turning his head, he met Remilia's faintly glowing eyes in the dark and finished, "We just... don't know."
Remilia looked back at him for long seconds, searching his face for she knew not what. Apart from being in black and white, his face was as plain to her in the blackout-curtained darkness as it would have been with all the candles burning, and the look in his eyes was one of almost bottomless sadness, mixed with a trace of fear—that she wouldn't believe him—and hope that she would.
When she said nothing, Gryphon went on, "So... that's my story. Naturally I left out a lot of the details. But that's all the important parts. All the things that... that make me the person you know. I don't claim to be perfect by any stretch. Far from it. But... I do the best I can."
"Would you go back, if you could?" asked Remilia. "To your own timeline? To the 25th century?"
"I probably could already, with a little work, but..." He shook his head. "I'm not ready to leave. I'm involved here now. If nothing else, I have to see the war through. I owe it to my comrades and friends in the 501st."
"Which means you can't stay here forever, either," said Remilia sadly.
"No, but one bridge at a time. Besides, getting back and forth between here and Ribeauvillé is a lot simpler, even with the house's odd habits," he said with a little smile. Then, becoming serious again, he went on, "If we both really want to... we can make it work." He raised their linked hands and kissed the back of hers. "And I know I want to."
She hitched herself up on an elbow to look more directly into his face for a few seconds... and then abruptly flopped down on her back, staring blankly at the canopy, as he had done before.
"Ah, it's no good," she said, hopelessness in her voice. "I'm not so cold or selfish as to wish that your wife never finds her way back to you, and... well, sending you on an errand of mercy on the night before the world's ending is one thing, but remarrying in her absence is quite another."
"I thought you might feel that way," Gryphon said quietly. "And it's a noble sentiment. It does you credit." He squeezed her hand.
Remilia chuckled bleakly. "Thanks."
"But... before you make your decision, there's one more thing you ought to hear. Not from me. I've said my piece. From her."
Remilia frowned at the underside of the canopy, then sat up and faced him again. "What?"
"Just before her ship landed on that planet and... whatever happened happened... she recorded a message for me," Gryphon explained, his face grave. "She timed it so I wouldn't see it until the next day. Remember I told you she's psychic? Well... I think it's best that you hear the rest in her own words."
Gently disengaging his hand from hers, he held it out palm-up before her, and a moment later his omni-tool's holographic interface rezzed up, casting an orange glow across the white silk bedspread.
"What... is that?" Remilia asked, tentatively reaching toward the glowing light-construct. The field fizzed visually when she touched it, but she felt nothing.
"It's a gadget from my own time," he explained. "It's called an omni-tool. Twenty-fifth-century technology. It can do a lot of things, including send and receive messages." He worked the fingers of his right hand within the holographic ring of the omni-tool's palm interface, calling up the record storage function with the ease of long practice, and cued up the well-worn datatrack in question. "Are you ready?"
Remilia gazed in wonder at the device for a few more seconds, then collected herself and nodded. "Show me."
Without further comment, Gryphon triggered the recording. A moment later, a three-dimensional monochrome image of a person's head and shoulders, scaled down to about a third of lifesize, appeared in the emission cone above his palm. The image was that of an attractive young woman, about the same apparent age as he was, with her hair cut short and swept back, her bangs tied out of her eyes with a cloth band.
"Hey, babe, it's me," said Kei. Her voice was mellow, pleasant, with just a hint of a rasp in it, and she sounded... not tired, exactly, but the kind of melancholy that often comes with tiredness.
"We just dropped out of hyperspace," Kei went on. "Morden says we're just a few minutes out of ZHD. Figured I'd take the time to drop you a note." She paused, her expression pensive, then said, "I've got a bad feeling about this job. Maybe it's nothing. If it is, you'll never know about this message, because I'm setting it to unlock in 24 hours and I'll cancel it if everything goes right.
"But if it isn't... if this thing goes sideways... there's a couple of things I want you to know."
She paused, looking off to one side, lost in a few seconds' thought, then faced whatever was making the recording and said, "First, I love you and the kids. Never forget that, and never let them forget it. I didn't come to this place because I wanted to risk never seeing you all again. I came because it's my job.
"Second, if I don't come back from here... you are absolutely not allowed to try and go it alone. I know what that does to you. I won't have that on my conscience again."
Gryphon made a sound that Remilia was certain was a muffled sob; she glanced at him, concerned, but he shook his head and nodded toward the playback, his face a mask of self-control.
"I know," Kei went on, "that we've had rules about this stuff since Asgard. And you've always followed them. You're an honorable man. It's one of the things I've always loved about you. Even when I was trying to kill you, it was because I thought you'd lost that honor, not because I stopped believing in it. But... I may not always be around to check in with. So I have to trust in your judgment. Trust that you wouldn't get involved with anyone I wouldn't be OK with in the first place."
Her image leaned forward slightly, and she looked straight into the camera, as if trying to make eye contact with the viewer across whatever distance and time were involved. Even though she knew it was a recorded playback of a years-old message, Remilia found the effect slightly intimidating.
"If that happens—if I don't come back from this deal—you do what you have to do to be happy. Period. The end. If it's with someone I already know, great. If not, if you get serious with somebody new, and you tell 'em about me, and it's a problem, then tell 'em I said so. Hell, show 'em this message." Kei cracked a wry grin and waved at the camera. "Hiya! You've hit the jackpot here, tiger. Don't be a dope."
Somewhere in the background, there was a mechanical noise Remilia couldn't identify. Sobering, Kei sat back from the camera and said, "I dunno if the mic picked it up, but that was the landing gear going down. We'll be landing in a minute. I'd say wish me luck, but if you even see this, that means I didn't have any, so..." She shrugged. "Ben... one more thing. If this really is it for me? I wouldn't have missed us for the galaxy." She grinned again, and it seemed genuine, though the melancholy never left her eyes. "I love you, you big dumb bastard. Be happy. Or else! Morgan out."
Then she leaned forward, her hand reaching for something underneath the camera, and her image fuzzed and was gone. A moment later, the whole omni-tool interface winked out as Gryphon put it back to sleep...
... and he slumped back against his pile of pillows, his body shaking with near-silent sobs.
Without a word, Remilia crawled onto him, curling up against his chest, like she had in the armchair on the night when she'd tasted his blood, and pulled his arms around her. They stayed that way for a long time, until the tears ran out, before she finally spoke.
"It must have been hell to watch that again. I'm sorry."
"I watched it a hundred times the day I got it," Gryphon replied, his voice hushed and hoarse. "I was still on the scene when it came, kicking through the dust and finding nothing. An old friend of ours had come to help me look, and we were getting nowhere, when, ding! 'You've got mail!' I locked myself in my quarters and just... watched it again and again. Like salting a wound. I couldn't stop myself. And then I archived it and never played it again, until now."
Remilia was silent for a few moments, then said, "I take back what I implied before. It would be an honor to meet her someday."
"I think she'd like that," he said, just short of a whisper.
Another silence, at the end of which Remilia said, as if apropos of nothing, "It must be nearly midday by now."
Gryphon could have powered on his omni-tool again and checked, but he couldn't be bothered. Instead he nodded and agreed, "Must be."
"So... let's go to sleep."
"Sleep sounds good."
"Should I move?"
"Nah. You're not heavy."
"All right." A pause. "Benjamin?"
"Love you." Remilia leaned up and kissed him gently. "Good day."
Despite his wrung-out emotional state, Gryphon had to suppress an inappropriate giggle at that. He knew she meant it, with a vampire's inverted sense of the daily order, as the equivalent of "goodnight," but he couldn't escape the automatic mental image of her shouting angrily, "Good day, sir! I said good day!"
"Love you too. Sleep well," he replied, but, with that off-switch suddenness she had such a knack for, she was already asleep.
Gryphon smiled faintly, pulled her just a little bit closer, and finally drifted off himself.
He woke to someone gently shaking his shoulder and softly speaking his name.
"Benjamin. Wake up. Sakuya's drawn the evening bath."
"I don't have to take a bath today, there's no school," Gryphon mumbled, rolling away from the shaking hand.
The shaking resumed. Grumbling, he shooed away the hand. There was a momentary pause, and then a slight weight shifting the mattress behind him, and the same voice, now murmuring directly into his ear:
"If you loaf about in bed all night, you'll miss Sakuya's crêpes for breakfast."
Gryphon peeled an eye reluctantly open and trained it blurrily on Remilia's smiling face.
"Did you say crêpes?" he repeated.
"She's famous for them," Remilia insisted.
He frowned as if considering this, then stealthily shifted his weight, slipped an arm around her, and rolled away, dragging her with a charming little squeak back into bed.
"How can she be famous for anything," he inquired playfully of her reddened face, "when she's been missing since 1870?"
"Poetic license," Remilia replied, trying and failing to look haughty. "Philistine."
"You're adorable when you try to be snooty," said Gryphon.
She turned her face ostentatiously away, closing her eyes. "Tch. Liberion barbarian. I don't see why I—" Then, turning back with a grin, she said, "Ha! That rhymes." She gave his shoulder a shove, flopping him over onto his back. "Now get up!"
Gryphon sighed as if unfairly harassed. "Oh, very well."
Bath time was as it always was. They spoke of nothing of consequence, but the silences weren't awkward. It was as if they had reached a kind of silent consensus that, although there would be a moment for serious discussion, it had not arrived, and there would be no purpose in trying to force it.
Gryphon was still a bit tired, despite the relative shortness of his previous night—so much so that he nearly dozed off in the tub again, which was prevented only when Remilia suddenly observed,
"I just realized... I never saw Wolfgang again after dinner yesternight. Where could he have gone?"
"He's with Flandre," Gryphon replied.
"How do you know?"
Raising his arm out of the water, he toggled his Lens to visibility again. "Remember I told you Lensmen can communicate telepathically?"
Remilia tilted her head incredulously. "Your dog is a Lensman?"
"He is indeed. At first I thought it was Skuld's idea of a joke, but..." Gryphon shook his head. "He really is one of our best and brightest." He chuckled. "He just happens to be a dog. Anyway, as it happens, he and I are the only Lensmen in this reality, so it's pretty easy to keep tabs on..." His voice trailed off suddenly. "That's strange." Then, a slow smile spreading onto his face, he said, "Oh. Oh. Hahaaaa. I get it now."
"Get what?" Remilia asked. "I don't understand."
"There are three Lenses on the network now. I hadn't checked recently."
"Mm-hmm. Mine, Wolfgang's... and Sakuya's."
"Sakuya is—how? You said you'd never met her. Although she does seem to know you..." she reminded herself pensively.
"Exactly. We're both time travelers. We must be out of sync. She knows me from a time I haven't gotten to yet. Someday I'll meet the her from before, who won't know me, but I'll know her from now."
"Tell me about it. Or actually, don't tell me about it." At her questioning look, he explained, "She probably knows things about my future that I shouldn't know. Not that I expect that will be a problem. She strikes me as the very soul of discretion... occasional makeout sessions in the kitchen notwithstanding."
Remilia giggled. "That was... special. And wonderful. She's always been a passionate woman, my Sakuya. She's also always been terrible at showing it. This morning I got a glimpse of that side of her, and I got to see her completely lose her composure, which is incredibly rare. They're memories I'll treasure." She slid over next to him, burrowing in under his arm, and remarked, "I've made a lot of memories to treasure over the last few weeks. More than I made in the century and a half before them. Whatever happens, I'll always be grateful for that."
Gryphon smiled. "I'm glad."
Dried off and dressed, on their way down to breakfast, Remilia suddenly stopped him at the top of the stairs and said,
"I know this is unfair, but... I can't give you an answer right away."
"Not unfair at all," Gryphon replied. "It's a lot to take on board. I wouldn't want a snap judgment anyway. Take as much time as you need."
"Thank you. In the meantime... can we go on as we have been?"
"Good. Let's do that, then. And... once I've had a chance to think over everything I've just learned, we can visit the matter again." She took both his hands, looking him square in the face. "This isn't a rejection. Understand? I'm not saying 'no'. I'm just saying 'not now'."
"I get it." He squeezed her hands gently. "Like I said, take as much time as you need. I'll be here."
Remilia gave him a grateful smile, then reached up and pulled him down for a kiss.
"Let's get going, then," she said, with something more like her usual grin. "I haven't had Sakuya's crêpes in 76 years!" And with that, she hopped up and slid down the banister, as, Gryphon had no doubt, she had as a child.
Good thing I fixed that one already, he remarked to himself, and then followed her down at a more normal pace.
"Good evening, everyone," Remilia declared as she entered the great room. "Sakuya, Meiling, you're looking... surprisingly well-rested," she added with an arch little grin.
"Thank you, m'lady," replied Sakuya, her bearing and voice perfectly correct, but her cheeks going pink all the same, while Meiling blushed almost to a match for her chestnut hair and looked down at her place setting, mumbling something inaudible. Remilia laughed and went to her seat, pausing to muss the top of her little sister's head along the way.
"Huh? Did I miss something?" said Flandre, straightening her rumpled cap.
"When you're older, young mistress," said Sakuya, shooting her employer a You're not helping! sort of look.
"I'm four hundred 'n thirty-eight," Flandre pouted. Then, brightening, she called to Gryphon as he entered in Remilia's wake, "Evening, big bro!"
"Hey, here comes trouble," Meiling chimed in, her embarrassment already dissipating.
"Bon soir, ma chouchoutte," he replied to Flandre, taking his turn to rearrange her hat.
"Jeeeez," Flandre grumbled, fixing it again.
"Hi, Wolfgang, remember me? The human you used to hang out with before you met Flan?" said Gryphon, crouching behind Flandre's chair to scruffle the Lensbeagle in his self-appointed station underneath it.
"Don't worry, big bro, he still loves you. He told me so," Flandre assured him. Rising, he gave her a skeptical look and booped her nose, drawing a giggle, then took his seat.
Go on as we have been? Gryphon thought as Sakuya dished him up a couple of crêpes, rolled up around what looked to be chocolate crème and topped with whipped cream. Looking around at the cheerful breakfast in progress, hearing but not really listening to the chatter and banter, he caught Remilia's eye and gave her a smiling wink that was immediately returned.
Yeah, he thought with some satisfaction, that'll do, and then started working on his first crêpe.
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
special series collection
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
Book 1: Thicker Than Water
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philp Jeremy Moyer
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020
I never cared much for moonlit skies
I never winked back at fireflies
But now that the stars are in your eyes
I'm beginning to see the light
I never went in for afterglow
Or candlelight on the mistletoe
But now when you turn the lamp down low
I'm beginning to see the light
Used to ramble through the park
Shadow boxing in the dark
Then you came and caused a spark
That's a four-alarm fire now
I never made love by lanternshine
I never saw rainbows in my wine
But now that your lips are burning mine
I'm beginning to see the light
I never cared much for moonlit skies
I never winked back at fireflies
But now that the stars are in your eyes
I'm beginning to see the light
I never went in for afterglow
Or candlelight on the mistletoe
But now when you turn the lamp down low
I'm beginning to see the light
Used to ramble through the park
Shadow boxing in the dark
Then you came and caused a spark
That's a four-alarm fire now
I never made love by lanternshine
I never saw rainbows in my wine
But now that your lips are burning mine
I'm beginning to see the light, boy
Beginning to see the light, boy
Beginning to see the light
Now that your lips they are burning on mine
I'm beginning to see the light!