Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
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?"
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
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, Remilia 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."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
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