When the doors of the Salon Doré opened and Interior Minister Édouard Depreux showed in his three o'clock appointment, the President of Gallia, whose traditional office it was, was surprised twice. Once because there were four people in the party, not, as he had been expecting, two; and twice because none of them was anything at all like he had been expecting.
If he had been asked beforehand, the Honorable Vincent Auriol would have claimed not to have formed any expectation as to what Countess Remilia Scarlet and her younger sister would look like, but of course he had, without being aware of it. The unconscious image of the Countess he had formed, based on no more concrete clues than her penmanship, her extremely formal written Gallic, and her lineage, was of a tall, thin woman with long black hair and eyes to match, white skin, and strongly Slavic features, as befit one whose father came from ancient Carpathian stock. In his head, she looked about thirty, and wore a fur coat in spite of the summer's heat. Ermine, perhaps, or Baltlandic mink. Her manner was cool, formal, and distant—perhaps even a bit languid, after the manner of the old aristocracy.
Instead, the figure in the lead, now being introduced to him by the Minister of the Interior, was a diminutive, silver-haired, bat-winged woman with a twinkle in her bright red eyes and a warm, friendly smile on her slightly pointy face. She wore no fur. Instead, she was clad in an ornate old-fashioned dress of black silk with deep crimson accents and gold trim, structured to accentuate her tiny waist before widening in elaborately layered skirts and ruffled petticoats, and on her head was a black mob cap with an immense crimson bow adorning the right side like a cockade.
"Monsieur le Président," said the Countess with a slight but courtly bow. "Such a delight to meet you in person at last."
Auriol took only a moment to master his surprise. Then, rising, he bowed as gallantly as he could and said, "Countess Scarlet. Welcome to the Élysée Palace. It's an honor to have you here."
"The honor is mine, M. le Président," insisted Remilia. "May I present to you my household? My younger sister, Flandre."
Despite being introduced as the younger, the blonde girl standing to the Countess's right looked the elder of the two at first glance—taller, with the proportions of a slim adolescent. She wore a dress that was the inverse of her sister's in coloration, mostly red with accents of black, and the black bow on her red cap was on the left. Most remarkable of all were her wings, not batlike at all but adorned with rows of brightly-colored crystals, which gave a faint musical jingling as she made a gesture half-bow, half-curtsey, and said,
"Nice to meet you, M. le Président."
Now that they were introduced, Remilia and Flandre stepped to either side to make room for the two who had entered behind them. As the first of them, a grey-haired young woman in waistcoat, tie, and waist-aproned skirt, elegantly repeated the same gesture, Remilia went on,
"The keeper of my house, Miss Sakuya Izayoi."
"A pleasure," said Sakuya.
That left the very tall redhead, whose clothing was at once the least ornate and yet the most exotic of all: a snug-fitting jacket and frilly white blouse over a skirt that reached to her ankles, but was slit up the left side clear to her waist, in deep green silk with gold piping.
"And my housecarl, Master Hong Meiling."
"Nǐ hǎo, Mr. President." This one's gesture of respect had nothing of the curtsey about it; rather, she enclosed her right fist in her left hand before her chest and bowed, angling her body without lowering her eyes.
"Please, take a seat, all of you," said Auriol, and like Depreux before him, he waited until his guests were all seated before resuming his own chair.
Remilia took a moment to consider him while he was seating himself and arranging the papers on his desk. The figure she saw there, seated behind the elegant writing table that served as the official desk of the President of Gallia, was not a prepossessing one. Vincent Auriol was a man in his early sixties, wearing a dark grey suit. He had thinning grey hair combed over what she was reasonably sure would otherwise be a bald crown, large ears, a neatly trimmed mustache, and lugubrious eyes—one of them a bit lazy—behind thick black-rimmed spectacles. Apart from the custom-tailed costliness of his suit, he looked more like an aging schoolteacher, or perhaps a small-town doctor or lawyer, than the leader of one of the cornerstones of the Grand Alliance against the Neuroi.
When he spoke, at first his slightly reedy voice did nothing to dispel the illusion, but his words, once the listener focused on them, made it plain that he was more than he appeared.
"When the Allied Forces drove the Neuroi from Gallia, and the Provisional Government-in-Exile returned to Paris and established the Fourth Republic, no one could agree at first upon who should be the new Republic's first president," he said. "The militarists wanted General de Gaulle, of course, but he declined to seek office so long as the war goes on. On the other hand, there was a considerable faction that wished to establish a government based on the principles of Marx—to sweep aside the old order of things entirely, rather than try to re-establish a semblance of what life was like before the Neuroi, and embark instead on an experiment in full-on Communism."
Remilia gave him a mildly puzzled look. "I'm afraid I'm not very well-versed in any political movement to take place much after 1790, M. le Président," she said.
Auriol shook his head, smiling slightly. "No, and I don't expect you to be. What I'm getting at is this. I was elected largely on the basis of my advocacy for a third force in Gallian politics, in between those two positions—a bridge, if you will, between left and right. Gallia was fractured, fragmented, by the Occupation and the Evacuation, and I see it as my role to bring as many of those fragments back together as I can.
"As such," he went on, tapping a document on his blotter that Remilia belatedly recognized as her original letter to him, "you may imagine that your message, seeking reconciliation between the country and your people, struck something of a chord for me. Once Mme. de Moret's research confirmed your account, I had no doubt of the course I must take.
"The Terror was a blot on the history of Gallia, one with which some of us are still struggling, almost 16 decades later," Auriol continued. "Until now we have been able to tell ourselves that at least these terrible things happened long ago—that they have fallen out of living memory. But now we must accept that this is plainly not true. And as you quite rightly pointed out in your letter, Countess, these things were done in the name of Gallia, so in the name of Gallia they must be repudiated."
Auriol paused, looking from one expectant face to the next, then returned his focus to the Countess and said, "My government's official apology will be published in the evening newspapers, and formally proclaimed before the Senate and the National Assembly tomorrow. But in the meantime, Countess Remilia, Lady Flandre, please allow me to offer my own personal apology, if I may. To lose one's parents is always cause for sorrow, but to have them taken in such a fashion must have been truly horrific."
Rising to his feet, he bowed to them and said, "For all that, I am truly sorry."
The visitors all stood as well. For a moment, Flandre and Remilia stood looking at each other; then Flandre nodded, very slightly, and Remilia said as formally as she knew how,
"Thank you, M. le Président. For myself, and in my capacity as head of what remains of House Scarlet... I accept your apology."
There followed a small, semiformal reception, attended by a few selected members of the Council of Ministers (the uppermost echelon of the Gallian government's executive branch) and the General Staff of the Armed Forces. If the truth were known, all the guests of honor found the affair rather puzzling and more than a little tedious, but all played along as gamely as possible, and none let on that they would very much have preferred to leave the realm of officialdom as soon as possible and get on with celebrating the occasion in a more familial setting.
Remilia, in particular, turned on all the charm she'd most recently dusted off for her visit to Château Saint-Ulrich, working the room as she had once worked her father's dinner parties for the Alsatian aristocracy and other notables of the region. Flandre did likewise, with less polish but equal appeal, and, to the surprise of no one who knew her, Sakuya was poise itself. Meiling spent the whole time feeling as out-of-place as a Labrador retriever at a fancy cat show, but such was her self-possession and centered air that the impression she left on all of them was one of calm and pleasant reliability rather than awkwardness.
At one point Remilia, who had been watching for just such an opportunity the whole time, found herself alone with Auriol, still in the room but at a discreet remove from the other guests. They chatted for a few moments about inconsequential matters, and then, with a smile, she touched his arm and said,
"I said in my initial letter that I ask for no compensation beyond the restoration of my citizenship and my sister's. Upon reflection, I should like to amend that slightly, if I may be so bold."
Auriol raised an eyebrow behind his heavy spectacles. "In what way?" he inquired.
"Nothing material, I assure you," Remilia said. "Merely to include another item that will cost nothing but a bit of extra paperwork." Nodding toward the far corner, where Sakuya and Meiling were talking with Prime Minister Ramadier and a woman in the uniform of a general of the Free Gallian Air Force, she went on, "My maid and my housecarl, you see, are in love and wish to marry—but as they are both women, they'll no doubt require some form of special dispensation." She let him take that on board, then said with a smile, "This is my price, M. le Président, and I trust you will not think it too high."
Auriol took off his spectacles and cleaned them meticulously, put them back on, and returned the smile.
"Technically, that is M. Depreux's department, not mine," he said with wry good humor, "but it can be arranged." At her look of faint surprise—she had been expecting him to demur and require a bit of cajoling on the point—he went on with a slightly mischievous look, "Your timing is impeccable, Countess. When you see the news, a day or two hence, of what our friend Kaiser Friedrich of Karlsland has just done in his country, you'll understand."
"I see," said Remilia, giving no outward sign that she really didn't. "Well, I'm pleased we are in agreement. Now, while we have the opportunity, let us find the Minister of War and discuss what my household can do for the war effort."