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When Flandre emerged from the bedroom in the early afternoon, she found Remilia in an armchair by the fireplace in the sitting room, in which a small fire burned despite the summer sunshine. On a small table next to the chair, there were two stacks of documents, one larger than the other. Flandre recognized the yellow form of a telegram on top of the larger pile, and she could see that there were others further down in both; the rest, including the one Remilia held in her hand, seemed to be ordinary white writing paper.
Hearing the door, Remilia looked up and smiled. "Good afternoon, Flan."
"Afternoon," Flandre replied. "What's all this?"
"Evidently one of the city's more enterprising reporters was able to determine where we're staying," said Remilia. "Messages have been arriving at the desk downstairs for us since the morning editions hit the street. Most from well-wishers," she went on, holding up the letter she was holding and then putting it down on the smaller pile. Then she picked up the telegram from the top of the larger one, perused it, narrowed her eyes slightly, and dropped it into the fire, adding dryly, "Some not."
"Oh." Flandre sat down at the end of the nearest couch. "I guess we're famous, then."
"For the moment," said Remilia with a casual gesture. "I'm sure the novelty will wear off soon enough. Of more immediate moment," she went on, "Sakuya and Meiling have gone to the Interior Ministry to collect our documents."
As she spoke, there came the rattle of a key in the lock on the corridor door. "Ah, this must be them now," she said, and a moment later the two entered. They were dressed differently from the way Flandre usually saw them, in ordinary clothes that wouldn't stand out in the capital, but to judge from the slightly harried look on Meiling's face, they hadn't been an effective disguise, if that had been the idea.
"OK," said Meiling. "So.. there's no mob in the Place de la Concorde, but over on Place Beauvau, things are just a little bit nuts."
"Fortunately, I had my bodyguard along to help me get through the crowds," said Sakuya breezily, giving Meiling a wink.
"'Tweren't nothin'," Meiling replied with a slightly sheepish grin.
With a very correct little bow, Sakuya presented Remilia with a large manila envelope. "With the compliments of President Auriol and Interior Minister Depreux, m'lady."
"Thank you, Sakuya," said Remilia with equal formality, accepting the envelope. Untying the waxed cord, she opened the envelope and drew out the sheaf of documents within, sorting briskly through them with nimble fingers. "Ah, our cartes d'identité came out as well as I'd hoped. Here you are, Flandre; carte, passport, even a proper birth certificate."
While Flandre admired her new proofs of identity, Remilia distributed Sakuya's and Meiling's to their owners as well, then said with a mischievous smile, "And for you two, I've a little something extra." With that, she handed Sakuya another document.
"What's this, m'lady?" Sakuya wondered. Taking the item, she saw that it was a letter, on the official stationery of the Office of the President of the Republic, addressed to the mairie of the city of Colmar, Alsace. With a puzzled expression, she began to read it.
Meiling was surprised, and a little amused, but mostly puzzled in her turn to see Sakuya's eyes go wide, a blush rising in her cheeks, as she read the letter. Then, lowering the paper to look past it at Remilia, the maid gasped,
"M-m'lady, I don't... how?"
Remilia shrugged with affected casualness. "I asked nicely."
"Someone want to clue me in?" Meiling wondered. Silently, still gazing in amazement at her mistress, Sakuya handed her the letter.
To Jacques Edouard Richard, Mayor of Colmar
M. le Maire:
This letter certifies that Citizens Sakuya Izayoi (2800399990001 29) and Hong Meiling (2730699990001 32), both residing at Maison Écarlate, Haut-Colmar, have the permission of the President and the Minister of the Interior to be married in advance of the effective date of the forthcoming Act to Amend the Marriage Laws of the Gallian Republic (1946). Kindly extend to them every applicable courtesy of your office.
Président de la République Galliaise
Ministre de l'Intérieur
"Well, all right!" Meiling declared, grinning, and she swept her stunned lover up in a hug from behind as Remilia smiled a little smugly and Flandre giggled. Then, her smile becoming more serious, she looked at Remilia over Sakuya's shoulder and said, "Thank you, Countess, for thinking of us."
Remilia smiled warmly. "You're welcome, Meiling. I'm glad I had the opportunity to help."
Flying Yak Studios
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Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
© 2021 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Sakuya recovered her composure quickly, as she always did on the rare occasions when she lost it in the first place. Presently, she changed back into her uniform (claiming, as always, that she felt uneasy out of it when on duty) and got to work on what would be a slightly late lunch for herself and Meiling, and an early-rising breakfast for the Scarlet sisters. Meiling, meanwhile, went to pack up the things she and Flandre would need for their upcoming expedition, now that all the paperwork was in hand.
"That was a very kind thing you did," Flandre observed to her sister once they were alone in the sitting room.
Remilia glanced up from looking through another telegram, giving her an arched eyebrow. "I'd rather you didn't say that as though it came as such a surprise to you," she remarked.
"I didn't mean for it to sound that way," said Flandre, her cheeks reddening.
Remilia chuckled. "I'm teasing you, little sister. But really, it's not that big a deal. I had the attention of the people in government best-positioned to make the thing happen, and I used it in the way I thought would best serve my family's needs."
Flandre smiled. "How very cunning of you."
"Well, I am the queen of the night," said Remilia mildly, tossing a note on the fire.
"I have a surprise of my own for you, O queen of the night. Remember the night before we left for Paris, when you said we needed a bigger automobile than the one Ben has?"
"Did I say that?" Remilia wondered.
"You implied it."
"Anyway, I might have found one." Flandre explained (omitting a few trifling details) that she had met a certain individual on her before-bed walk the night before, and that he was in dire financial straits—and that his only remaining possession of any value just happened to be a large automobile.
"I told him to bring it here at five so you could take a look at it," she finished.
"I know very little about such things," Remilia pointed out.
"But you know what you like," Flandre countered with a smile.
"True," the elder sister conceded. "All the same, we'd best get Sakuya and Meiling involved. Which reminds me, when are you and Meiling planning to leave?"
"After dinner. We're going to start in Helvetia—catch the night train to Zürich and then work our way back to Gallia, then meet you and Sakuya in Ribeauvillé on the 14th."
Flandre shrugged. "On foot, hitchhiking, by boat—who knows? We're just going to make it up as we go along."
Remilia suppressed a shiver. "Be very careful if you go by boat. You know our kind doesn't handle rivers very well."
If you only knew, big sister, Flandre thought, but all she said out loud was, "I will, don't worry. Anyway, Meiling won't let anything happen."
Eben Wentworth hadn't even drawn his Duesenberg fully to a halt in front of the Crillon before the hotel's doorman appeared at the driver's window, not to open the door for him, but to inform him curtly,
"M. Wentworth. I believe you were told you're no longer welcome in this establishment."
Rather than flare up with defensive hauteur, as he would've done the day before, Wentworth's only reaction to that was a self-deprecating chuckle, and the wry smile that accompanied it surprised the doorman. He'd never seen such a... human expression on the young Liberion's face before.
If you only knew, my friend, thought Wentworth, but aloud, he replied, "Don't fret, Jean-Paul. I haven't been drinking today, and I'm here on business. Countess Scarlet is expecting me."
Jean-Paul raised an eyebrow. "What business could the likes of you possibly have with the Countess?" he inquired, his tone somewhere between skeptical and bewildered.
"You're looking at it," Wentworth replied, patting the Duesenberg's steering wheel. "Kindly let her know I'm here, would you? That way I don't have to set foot in your beautiful lobby and lower the tone."
Considering the young man's rumpled and careworn—although, compared to the last time Jean-Paul had seen him, properly shaved and surprisingly sober—appearance, the doorman found himself mentally conceding that the suggestion was a good one.
"Wait here," he said, then thought better of it and pointed. "No—over there."
A short while later, a party of four emerged from the hotel and followed the doorman's directing hand toward the car, which Wentworth had moved, as instructed, to a spot on the former palace's cobbled forecourt, out of the way of the main entrance. Standing next to it, Wentworth rubbed a last speck of dust from the Duesenberg's fender and composed himself as best he could.
He had never seen Countess Remilia Scarlet in person before, and from the portrait reproduced in the newspapers, he had unconsciously expected her to be taller, but she carried herself with such confidence that her small stature made little difference. Next to her, Flandre kept her expression studiously neutral, but she couldn't quite suppress a twinkle of mirth in her eyes. Behind them came a pair of young women who must have been the servants Flandre had said were more than servants—the grey-haired girl he'd upbraided about the elevator, and a strapping, broad-shouldered redhead he was profoundly glad hadn't been the member of the household to catch him at it. The former was carrying a leather briefcase, which looked slightly out of place with her maid's uniform.
"Good day, sir," said the Countess, regarding him thoughtfully from the shade of her parasol. "M. Wentworth, I presume."
Wentworth hesitated—this close, he was even more taken aback by the sheer presence of her—then steeled himself, bowed, and introduced himself properly. "That I am. Ebenezer H. Wentworth, at your service."
"Charmed, I'm sure," Remilia replied. "I am, as I suspect you know, Countess Remilia Scarlet of Haut-Colmar. May I introduce my housecarl, Master Hong Meiling... and I believe you've already met Flandre and Sakuya," she added with a flicker of mischief.
"Er... yes." Addressing Sakuya, Wentworth went on, "I'm terribly sorry about the other day, Miss. I'd just had a bit of bad news... and more than a bit of whiskey, in consequence... but I had no business taking it out on you. I hope you will forgive me."
Sakuya inclined her head elegantly. "Apology accepted, Mr. Wentworth."
"Thank you," said Wentworth, relief plain on his face.
"Good. So! To business," said Remilia. "Flandre's told me something of your situation. I gather you're in urgent need of funds."
Wentworth winced slightly—he wasn't accustomed to discussing such matters so baldly—but nodded. "'Urgent' is something of an understatment," he confessed.
"And you wish to raise them by selling this automobile." Remilia regarded the car with tilted head, then went on, "I must say, it looks impressive. Tell me about it, if you don't mind. I've lived apart from the mortal world for a long time, so these machines are unfamiliar to me."
"Er, well... this is a Duesenberg Model J, or SJ, as enthusiasts call the version with the supercharged engine. It was built in 1932 by the Duesenberg brothers, with coachwork by LeBaron. I bought it from its original owner eight years ago, and brought it with me when I came over from New York last year. As far as I know, it's the only Duesy in Gallia," he added with a trace of pride.
As he spoke, Remilia walked slowly around him, considering the car from a better angle. It was a much larger and more imposing machine than Benjamin's little blue box, with a very long nose, external fenders, and no roof; she presumed the folded bundle of canvas at the back was some sort of collapsible canopy, like her father's favorite carriage had sported back in her girlhood. The bodywork was two-colored, black at the rear and a deep blood red in front, the dividing line partway down the front doors rendered with an artistic curve.
"As you can see, it's a dual-cowl phaeton," Wentworth went on, gesturing to the bulkhead dividing the front seat from the rear, which had its own windshield. "LeBaron specialized in them. This style was called the 'Sweep Panel' phaeton. Believe it or not, the chassis is the shorter of the two sizes Duesenberg offered on the Model J."
"Hmm," Remilia mused, stepping up onto the running board to take a closer look at the interior. It was upholstered in deep red leather, a near match for the scarlet paintwork, and looked very comfortable indeed.
"You mind if I have a look at the engine?" Meiling asked. "Seeing as I'm the one who's going to end up looking after it if her ladyship buys it," she added with a cheery wink.
"Of course," said Wentworth, producing a key from his pocket.
The hood opened at the sides, as was the fashion in the 1930s, and only one side could be open at once. With Meiling standing attentively nearby, Wentworth opened up the driver's side, displaying the intake side of the car's massive power plant.
"Here it is—Duesenberg's famous eight-cylinder engine," he said. "Two overhead cams, four valves per cylinder. Four hundred and twenty cubic inches and about 320 horsepower with the supercharger." He smiled slightly. "As far as I know, the SJ remains the fastest car ever produced in Liberion. They say the only thing that can pass one of these cars on the highway is another of its own kind."
"Nice." Meiling bent down to take a closer look. For the engine of a 14-year-old car that was driven regularly, it was immaculate in its apple-green heat-resistant paint, bronze carburetors and silver pipes gleaming. "Looks very clean," she remarked, glancing up at the owner.
"This car is the only thing I've ever been truly passionate about," Wentworth said, not taking offense. "Even when I had a man to drive it for me, I looked after it myself."
"Any modifications?" Meiling wondered. "Supercharger looks stock..."
Wentworth shook his head. "Not to the motor. I had the gearbox rebuilt with synchronized gears and an overdrive in '42. A woman in New Jersey did it for me—a Karlslander, name of Sabine Völlmer. She was as much artist as mechanic. Well, I say 'was', I'm sure she's still alive—she's younger than me, in fact, a real child prodigy. You sound like you're familiar with the SJ," he added, sounding faintly surprised.
"I saw one in a museum once," said Meiling, and, brushing aside his puzzled look, she said, "Sakuya, what do you think? You'll probably be the one driving it most of the time."
Sakuya ran a fingertip down the top of the forward-pointing hood ornament, then smiled. "I think I can live with that."
"Flandre, you've been quiet," said Remilia, who was still standing on the driver's running board.
Flandre stepped up onto the passenger side and grinned at her sister across the open cabin. "I think it's fantastic," she said.
"Splendid." Hopping down, Remilia turned to face the car's owner and said, "How much would you say this machine is worth?"
"I—well, it's hard to say," Wentworth said. "I paid ten thousand dollars for it, secondhand, but I have to admit their value fell quite a lot shortly thereafter. My special talent, you see," he said wryly, with a little glance at Flandre, who giggled. "Despite their quality, Duesies aren't sought-after these days," he went on resignedly. "The cognoscenti find them antiquated. Today it would be worth... probably a tenth of that. Perhaps a bit more with Fräulein Völlmer's modifications. But that's if I were selling it in New York. Over here..." He shrugged. "I've no idea, really. No one in Gallia seems to want one at all." He chuckled darkly. "The man who ran the garage where I parked it offered me all of 500 francs, which is 40-odd Liberion dollars nowadays. I'm desperate," he said candidly, "but not that desperate."
"Well," said Remilia, "I don't wish to take advantage of your situation—and as everyone in my household seems to like the machine very much, I'd hate to disappoint them," she added with a mischievous little smile. Then, adopting a breezily businesslike air, she said, "I'll give you a million for it."
Wentworth blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"A million," Remilia repeated. "One million francs galliaises. In cash, of course."
The young man sputtered, his face going red, but not from outrage, as he estimated the exchange in his head. Unless he was very much mistaken, that was somewhere in the neighborhood of $9,000—less than he'd paid for it, but not catastrophically so, and a great deal more than he could reasonably have expected here and now.
After grappling with this intelligence for a few moments, he found his voice and said, "Countess, your offer is beyond generous."
"Then you accept?"
"I—yes. Yes, of course! Thank you!"
Remilia smiled. "Excellent. D'accord." She offered her hand to be shaken, then said, "Sakuya?"
"Of course, m'lady," said Sakuya, and she handed Wentworth the briefcase.
Without even a pen to his name, Wentworth had to borrow one from Sakuya to write up the bill of sale. Having done so, he presented it to Remilia with all the ceremony he could muster under the circumstances.
"There you are, Countess." With a trace of regret in his voice, he went on, "This car has served me well. I hope it gives you many years of happiness."
"I'm sure it will, M. Wentworth," said Remilia, accepting the document and tucking it away.
Wentworth hesitated, unsure how to proceed, and then said in a rush, "I... I'm not sure what else to say, except to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I treated the first member of your household I met abominably, and both you and your sister have been astonishingly kind to me. I'm... not accustomed to being grateful or humble, but..." He paused, nearly breaking down, then pulled himself together and said with a bow, "I am profoundly so today. Thank you. All of you."
"You're very welcome, monsieur," said the Countess with a smile. "I understand you intend to return home to Liberion?"
"Without delay," Wentworth confirmed, the soft lines of his face firming up with a look of determination Flandre guessed it hadn't worn in some time--if ever. "There's nothing left in Paris to detain me. I'll make my way to Le Havre at once and book myself onto the first ship to New York that'll have me."
"In that case, can we take you to the train station?" Flandre asked.
With Sakuya at the wheel, Wentworth beside her to offer all the intelligence he could call to mind about the car's idiosyncrasies and preferences, and Meiling marveling that the back seat had room to spare with herself in between the two sisters, they drove north, to the other end of the 8th arrondissement. Along the way, they stopped at a few shops so that Wentworth could buy necessities for the voyage to come—some clothes, essential toiletries, and a valise to carry them in. And so to the Gare Saint-Lazare, where the next train to Le Havre turned out to be leaving late enough that there was time for a leisurely lunch in the station's restaurant.
They emerged just as the first call for the Le Havre train came over the station's public address system. Watching the young man heft his bag and briefcase, Meiling chuckled and quipped, not unkindly,
"I bet you're not used to traveling this light."
"No indeed," Wentworth agreed, and then, with a thoughtful look, he added, "But you know, it's rather... liberating." He faced the four of them and bowed as best he could with his hands full of luggage. "I suppose this is goodbye, at least for the present."
"Good luck back in Liberion," said Flandre. "Let us know how it turns out. The mail is slow in our part of the world, but it'll reach us eventually," she added with a wry little grin.
Wentworth promised he would, thanked them all once again, and then, turning, he squared his shoulders and headed toward the platform without looking back.
"You think he'll make it?" Meiling wondered as they watched him disappear into the crowd.
"He'll make it," Flandre said positively.
Remilia glanced at her, smiling. "You seem to have taken a shine to that young man. Benjamin will be crushed."
Flandre blushed to match her surname, but she didn't sputter or get defensive. Instead, after a moment's reflection, she said thoughtfully, "It's not like that, but... I guess when you save someone's life, it makes you take an interest."
Remilia gave her sister an intrigued look. "'Save someone's life'?" she wondered.
"It's a long story," replied Flandre. "I'll tell you about it sometime."
From there, the Scarlet Devil party made their way straight across the north end of the city, from the 8th arrondissement to the 10th. Of course, Meiling and Flandre could have caught the Métro from the Gare Saint-Lazare to the Gare de l'Est, but Remilia—perhaps wanting to delay the parting for as long as she could—wouldn't hear of it.
Now bereft of Wentworth's guidance, Sakuya nevertheless handled the Duesenberg with serene, elegant authority. From the back seat, Meiling watched her at it with a private little smile. There was something immensely satisfying in the way she operated the machine, as though she'd been piloting a 1930s Liberion land yacht through Parisian traffic every day for years.
Flandre had moved up to the front passenger seat, the better to experience the novelty of this, the continuation of her first ever ride in an automobile. Glancing at Remilia, Meiling guessed that the similar little smile on her face had more to do with her sister's delight than Sakuya's handling of the car, but then again, who was to say it wasn't both? She knew the countess appreciated Sakuya's aesthetic qualities too.
Once they reached the eastern station, Remilia tried to play it cool, but her act fooled no one. Flandre, Meiling, and Sakuya could all tell that she was suppressing a natural impulse to fret only with the greatest exercise of will. She wanted to ask repeatedly about the state of their supplies, whether they had enough money, what their contingency plans were for inclement weather, and a dozen other things besides; but she held it all in with an outward sangfroid that impressed and touched Flandre, who recognized in it a deliberate effort to treat her younger sister as her own woman, prepared to face the world.
While Sakuya and Meiling procured tickets, the Scarlet sisters waited on the platform alongside the train. Flandre and Meiling were traveling relatively light, with no bags to check in: just Flandre's suitcase and the hefty duffel bag into which Sakuya had carefully packed their supplies, which Meiling could easily carry despite its considerable size. As they waited, Flandre searched her mind for a way to let her elder sister know that she'd noticed her consideration, to express her gratitude for it, without seeming to be crowing about it.
Remilia saved her the trouble by turning to her and remarking, "You know, Flan... for the longest time, I was convinced that nothing would ever change. That nothing could ever change. That our lives were as lost in time as our home, and every night would be the same. And now... here we are."
She gestured around at the great, echoing hall of the gare, the train waiting to take Flandre and Meiling off on their adventure, the mid-twentieth century in all its bewildering glory. "It hardly seems possible that it's only been a few weeks since that night. The night of the storm, when everything changed." She paused, considering, then went on, "Just after you met Benjamin for the first time, he and I were talking. I had explained to him who you were, what had happened to you. I said he must have better things to do than get mixed up in my family's misery... and he said no, not if there was a chance he could help you.
"I told him I don't believe in chance," said Remilia, a nostalgic smile crossing her face, "and he said I ought to, because sometimes it's everything. He used as an example the timing of his trip that night—that if he had left Colmar a minute sooner or later than he had, he'd never have encountered you. He firmly believes that it was mere luck that brought him across your path at that critical moment..." She took Flandre's hand then, squeezing it, and concluded, "... but I think it was fate."
Flandre smiled. "I remember once when I was little, Maman told me that you had the power to change people's fates. That you inherited it from Papa."
Remilia chuckled, but it wasn't really a sound of mirth. "If that's true, it takes its time working," she said. She closed her eyes, a tear slipping down her cheek, and said quietly, "I prayed that something would change yours for four hundred years before it finally happened."
"Hey. But it did happen," Flandre insisted, letting go of her sister's hand to wipe the tear away with her thumb.
Remilia shook her head, looking annoyed with herself. "I'm sorry. I'm maundering, and I've no idea why. This should be a happy day." She brightened with an effort, giving Flandre a smile that was only slightly wan.
"You want me to stay?" Flandre asked at once.
"After you've looked forward so to this trip?" Remilia said. "No, no. I promised I'd let you go if you met my conditions, and you did."
"We could hold off a day or two, if you'd—" Flandre began, but Remilia shook her head firmly.
"No," she repeated. "Honestly, Flan, I'm fine. It's just the gravity of recent events telling on me a bit. You've earned your adventure and you shall have it." She drew herself up, elevating her chin, and declared, "My honor as your elder sister is at stake," then winked, the tip of her tongue showing in the corner of her mouth, to show that she was just putting on airs for effect.
Flandre laughed, but her voice and her eyes were serious as she said, "Well, if you're sure."
"Of course. Don't worry about me, Flan," said Remilia. "Sakuya and I will be off to Ribeauvillé ourselves before too much longer."
If Flandre had a reply in mind, she didn't get to it, because just then Sakuya and Meiling arrived, the former holding a colorful pasteboard folder with the railroad's insignia on it, the latter just completing a sentence as she came within earshot:
"—just saying, why wait? You'll be going to the town hall anyway, and we don't both need to be there to get the process started."
"You have a point," Sakuya agreed, nodding. "Very well, I'll see to it."
"I bet I know what that's about~!" Flandre sang, grinning at them. "Are we going to have a double ceremony?"
"You should probably be asking her ladyship that question," Meiling said, grinning. "She might not want to share center stage with the help on her big day."
Remilia nearly remonstrated with her about calling herself the help, but caught on just in time that Meiling had done it deliberately to tease her. Instead she laughed and said,
"I would have to take it up with Benjamin, of course, but I doubt he would object. As for me..." She smiled at Sakuya, whose mild blush deepened slightly in response, and said, "I'd be honored."
"As would I, m'lady," Sakuya replied, "but on the whole, I think I would prefer a somewhat... lower-key affair than all that for my own wedding. Besides—someone has to make certain the occasion runs smoothly, and I can hardly see to that if I'm involved in it myself."
"That's true," Meiling admitted ruefully.
"Aww," said Flandre, pouting. "And here I was, all ready to figure out a system for keeping track of four rings."
The PA system bonged and crackled out a last call for the night train to Zürich, forestalling any further examination of the point. Meiling cheerfully swept Sakuya up in her arms and kissed her goodbye, then took the ticket folder from her, bowed to Remilia, shouldered the duffel bag, and climbed aboard the train. As the brakes hissed and the locomotive began puffing, Flandre gave both her sister and Sakuya a parting hug of her own before springing after her, and the two of them leaned out of the stairs and waved while the train pulled out of the station.
Remilia and Sakuya waved back and watched them go, remaining on the platform until the train had disappeared.
There they go. Two of God's own prototypes, thought Sakuya, but she didn't say it out loud; then she would have had to explain to Remilia that she was misquoting a book which wouldn't be written for another 24 years.
They drove back to the Crillon through the balmy early evening in silence. During a pause in traffic, Sakuya glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that Remilia was lounging at the far right of the rear compartment, her arm resting on the gunwale, gazing at nothing in particular with an inward-turned expression. She didn't say a word the whole way back to the hotel, and Sakuya didn't disturb her.
Jean-Paul was still on duty when they got back to the Crillon, and Remilia roused herself from her reverie enough to thank him cordially when he opened her door for her. As he did, Sakuya noticed that he knew enough about Duesenbergs to open the rear cowl first without being shown. She supposed it was part of the training at such an establishment, even as rare as these cars were in Europe, and she felt a sense of professional approval at the breadth of his competence.
The doorman didn't know anything about that train of thought, of course, and so it was with mild puzzlement that he received her enigmatic smile as she stepped down from the driver's station and handed him the car's key.
A beautiful girl, that one... but strange, he mused as he drove the Duesenberg off to the hotel's garage. I suppose it comes of working for a vampire. Although the Countess herself seems a pleasant enough woman. Then again, I've no way of knowing what she's like in private. He shrugged inwardly. Well, it's none of my concern.
Back in the lobby, Remilia went to the desk to collect the key to their suite and tell the night manager about the car, but when she arrived, she was mildly surprised to find M. Berjeau still on duty. He seemed almost to be waiting for her, an impression confirmed a moment later, when he said,
"Ah, Countess Scarlet, welcome back. You have a visitor waiting for you, if you choose to see her."
Remilia raised an eyebrow. "A visitor?"
Berjeau nodded. "A lady came in not long after your party left, looking for you. In light of the attention you and your family have received from the press in the wake of the Government's announcement, I took the liberty of investigating her reasons for wanting to see you. She gave her name as Madame Serreau, but wouldn't give me many details—she insists it's a private matter. However, I'm reasonably confident that she's not a member of the press. We get those from time to time, trying to talk their way in to pester our higher-profile guests, and I flatter myself I've developed fairly good instincts for dealing with them."
"Where is she? Upstairs?"
"Oh, good heavens, no. We would never admit such an unknown to a guest's quarters in the guest's absence. I asked her to wait in the café—which she has done, without complaint, this entire time. It's closed now, but Marcel will be happy to fetch you refreshments if you wish to speak with the lady there—assuming you wish to speak with her at all."
Remilia frowned thoughtfully. "Hm. Sakuya, what do you think?"
"I should like to know more before I offer an opinion, m'lady," said Sakuya. "Beyond not suspecting her of being a reporter, what do you make of this visitor, M. Berjeau?"
"She is a very elderly lady, I should say over eighty," Berjeau replied. "A woman of some means, but not at the level we usually see here. From her way of speaking, I think she may come from your part of the world originally, Countess, but she's clearly lived in Paris for many years. She is educated, well-mannered, quite old-fashioned... honestly, she reminds me of my grandmother. A lady of a certain type, let us say."
"You seem to be something of a detective, monsieur," said Remilia with a trace of mischief.
"In my line of work, one has to be," Berjeau replied, unruffled.
"Quite so. Very well, I'm intrigued. Let's go and see this mysterious visitor."
The lady waiting for them at a corner table in the empty café was just as Berjeau had described her: a lady of advanced years, white-haired and slightly shrunken with age, well-dressed in a style dating to before the war. She held herself very upright, even seated, and when she saw Remilia and Sakuya approaching, she rose at once to meet them.
"Madame Serreau," said Remilia pleasantly as she approached. "I'm sorry you've had to wait for such a long time. I've only just returned to the hotel." Taking the lady's hesitantly offered hand, she bowed over it and went on, "I am Countess Remilia Scarlet of Haut-Colmar, and this is Sakuya. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"The pleasure is mine, your ladyship," Mme. Serreau replied, with the automatic ease of one trained in such courtesy long ago. "My name is Génévieve Serreau."
"Please, take a seat," said Remilia, releasing her hand. Sakuya, slipping easily into the rhythms of the formalities called for by such an occasion, held Remilia's chair for her, then stationed herself at her right elbow once both she and Mme. Serreau were settled.
"Now then," said Remilia, interlacing her fingers and resting her chin upon them, a bright-eyed look of interest on her face. "M. Berjeau tells me you wish to speak with me." The old lady glanced uncertainly at Sakuya, and Remilia went on without missing a beat, "Sakuya has been with me for many, many years; I conceal nothing from her."
Mme. Serreau hesitated, a flicker of skepticism crossing her eyes, then composed herself with an air of solemnity.
"Very well," she said. "Of course, I've read M. Auriol's statement in the newspapers today, with its account of what befell your family during the Revolution. It reminded me of something... something I haven't thought about in decades. It's possible that it is a thing better left buried... but I feel a duty to pass it along. But I'm getting ahead of myself." She sighed, shaking her head. "I'm sorry. My thoughts are scattered. Perhaps I'd best get straight to the point."
With that, the elderly lady fell silent, closing her eyes—gathering her scattered thoughts, Remilia supposed. A few seconds later, they opened again, and she began,
"I was born in 1862 to a family of merchants, drapers, in Mulhouse. Mülhausen, as many of the old people in town still called it in those days. When I was a little girl, my great-grandmother came to live with us. She was a very old woman—she lived to be a hundred and twelve." Meeting Remilia's eyes, she went on, "Her name was Adeline Gallet."
Remilia looked quizzically back at her; when no elaboration was forthcoming, she said, "I'm afraid I don't recognize that name."
Mme. Serreau looked faintly surprised, and perhaps just a little disappointed. "Ah. No. I suppose you wouldn't, after all."
"I'm sorry, Mme. Serreau, but I don't know what you're driving at," said Remilia.
The old lady shook her head, as much at herself, and regrouped. "You'll understand in a moment, Countess," she said. "Let me get to it in my own way."
Remilia nodded. "Of course. Please go on."
"I knew my great-grandmother as a seamstress. Long retired by the time I came along, of course, as I was born on her hundredth birthday... but we had something of a special bond, because of that curious coincidence. Until I turned twelve, I thought that was all she'd ever been. But on that birthday—my twelfth, her hundred and twelfth—she told me that when she was my age, she had been a witch."
Remilia raised an eyebrow—still unsure where this was going, but intrigued. Something was tickling at the back of her head, a subliminal sense of foreboding, but it wasn't registering on her conscious mind yet.
"Not only a witch," Mme. Serreau went on, "but a prodigy, in her time. When the Revolution broke out in Gallia, she was a member of a prominent coven, the Vormundschaftkreis Mülhausen—the Guardian Circle of Mulhouse. Although she was very young—just ten, when things turned violent in Gallia—she was one of the circle's strongest members."
Oh, thought Remilia, the pattern falling together in her mind all at once. Oh no. I don't think I like where this is leading.
"Two years into the troubles," Mme. Serreau went on, "the Guardian Circle was given a contract by the revolutionary government in Paris to undertake a dangerous task in Alsace, which Mulhouse wasn't part of at the time. Great-Grandmère Adeline was one of the witches the coven's leadership dispatched across the border to Colmar, on the night of the new moon..."
Remilia gazed into the old lady's eyes, her face glacially still, and said with quiet intensity, "To massacre my family."
To her credit, Mme. Serreau didn't quail before the Countess's bald-faced declaration, nor the cold fury in her scarlet eyes. She looked straight back and replied simply, "Yes."
The vampire stared hard at her for a moment, then snapped, "Why tell me this? Why seek me out, on the very night of my liberation from that atrocity, and claim kinship with one of its perpetrators?" Leaning forward slightly, not raising her voice but freighting it with as much quiet wrath as it could carry, she went on, "To throw it in my face? Your great-grandmother helped to slaughter my parents, half of our household, and one of the family's oldest friends—condemned me and my sister to decades of solitude and sorrow—then lived to a fine old age surrounded by her own happy family. Is that it?"
Remilia folded her arms and sat back, disgust blotting out the rage on her face. "Well, congratulations. You must all be very proud. Such a fine legacy." She rose. "If you'll excuse me, Madame, I see no reason to prolong this interview further. Count yourself fortunate that I am a more civilized person than the Jacobins believed my kind to be; or perhaps I'm simply in a merciful frame of mind tonight. Either way, I shall allow you to leave this place with your life, which is more courtesy than your ancestor showed to mine."
In her fury, Remilia didn't notice that the old lady's reaction to her remarks was stricken not with fear, but dismay. Sakuya did, and was about to interject, when Mme. Serreau rose in her turn, raising her hands as if in supplication, and said hastily,
"No! No! Mademoiselle la Comtesse, you've misunderstood. That isn't my purpose at all—far, far from it! Please, I beg of you, let me finish before you judge me."
Remilia hesitated, on the verge of storming out of the room anyway, but a glance at Sakuya stayed her. She'd never known her maid to tolerate any sort of insult to her mistress, so the fact that she was still in her place, her face solemn and thoughtful, provided a silent cue that, at least in Sakuya's opinion, Remilia had missed something. Slowly, almost grudgingly, she returned to her seat.
"Very well," she said. "Speak. Tell me why you felt I should know all this."
Mme. Serreau resumed her place as well, took a moment to settle herself down, and then said, "Our family was not proud of Great-Grandmère Adeline's involvement in your family's tragedy. We wouldn't have been even if we had known about it—but we did not. When she and the few others who survived made their way back to Mulhouse that day, she was so sickened by the realization of what they had done that she abandoned witchcraft completely."
Remilia blinked at her, the anger draining from her face to be replaced by bewilderment. "She... what?"
The old lady nodded. "She cut her ties to the Circle, dismissed her familiar, and never cast another spell in her life. She never told anyone she'd once been a witch, until she confessed it to me on our shared birthday, a century later. Neither of the husbands she went on to outlive, none of her children or grandchildren, no one, until me, ever knew about it."
Composing herself, Mme. Serreau bowed her head gravely and went on, "That is why I came to you tonight, Countess. When I read the newspaper account of the Government's apology to your and your family, Great-Grandmère's confession came flooding back into my mind. She carried that secret, that shame, for a hundred years before confiding it to her favorite great-grandchild, just a few days before her own death. I, in turn, have carried it myself, these seven decades more, without ever telling a soul.
"But when I read M. Auriol's statement today, I decided that I must seek you out and tell it to you. You must understand, Countess... my great-grandmother was just a child when she was caught up in the events of that night. Too young to understand what she was being asked to do, and too young to refuse—and though she faced no official repercussions for it, she held herself a murderess ever after."
She paused, taking a deep breath, then went on, "I recognize the irony in this, that I've caused you further pain in the process... but I thought you should know that at least one of the people responsible for your family's tragedy deplored the part she played in it for all the rest of her very long life."
Her piece said, Mme. Serreau got to her feet again. "That's all. If I was wrong... please forgive my presumption."
Remilia sat in silence for a few moments, her expression turned inward; then she roused herself with a start, returning from some inner council, and shook her head, rising in turn.
"No, Mme. Serreau," she said slowly. "Rather... it is I who owe you an apology. I reacted... unthinkingly. Jumped to conclusions. I should have heard you out before speaking. I..." She hesitated, searching for words, then settled on, "I'll need some time to process what I've learned, but... thank you. For telling me."
"You're welcome, Countess. I felt it was my duty. I shan't trouble you any longer." With a formal nod, Mme. Serreau gathered her dignity and concluded, "Good evening, Countess, Mademoiselle. I'll see myself out."
Remilia shook her head again, more firmly this time, as she rallied from her abstracted fugue. "Not at all," she said. "Sakuya, please see that Mme. Serreau gets a car to her home. The hour is far too late for a lady to be walking alone."
"I'll see to it at once, m'lady," Sakuya replied, bowing, and she conducted Mme. Serreau cordially out of the café.
When she returned, having seen the elderly lady safely installed in a taxi and the driver paid in advance (with a healthy tip for seeing her safely to her door), Sakuya was not surprised to find that Remilia had left the café in her absence. No one was left but the barman, doing the last of the tidying up at his station. At her appearance in the doorway, he looked up and said,
"Her ladyship said to tell you she's gone for a walk, and you'll not be needed any more tonight, Mademoiselle."
Sakuya thanked him absently and, not knowing quite what else to do with herself, collected the key to the suite from the desk, then went upstairs and let herself in. She knew when Remilia said she was going for "a walk" at this time of night, what she really meant was that she was flying, so there was no point in going outside and looking for her in the streets around the Place de la Concorde, even as empty and quiet as they were at this hour.
She changed for bed, but rather than turn in, she fixed herself some herbal tea and curled up on the sofa with a book to wait. The book was the travelogue of Alsace and Helvetia that Flandre had bought earlier, which she'd decided not to take with her on the similar trip she and Meiling were going on because she'd more or less memorized it. Though she sat reading it for the better part of an hour, Sakuya couldn't have answered a single question about what it contained if quizzed about it later.
Presently there came a click and rattle at the Gallian doors looking out onto the sitting room's balcony, and Remilia appeared, her clothes wind-rumpled and cheeks ruddy. She looked slightly surprised to find Sakuya awake.
"I thought I asked Marcel to tell you that you could turn in for the night," she said, her voice hushed for no reason.
"He did," said Sakuya, closing the book on her finger. Then, with a faint smile, she went on, "I chose not to."
Remilia chuckled slightly and closed the doors behind her, then sat down at the other end of the couch. "Is that tea?"
"Chamomile," Sakuya replied. "Would you like some? I'm afraid this batch has gone cold, but I can make some more."
"I'll get it myself," Remilia said. "You're off-duty."
"As you like."
Remilia went to the kitchen and made a red version of the herbal brew, then carried cup and saucer back to the sitting room and sipped at it in thoughtful silence while Sakuya resumed reading.
At length, the vampire spoke again, but what she said was entirely not what Sakuya had been half-expecting her to bring up:
"Sakuya... do you ever feel foolish about allowing yourself to be in love?"
Sakuya blinked and closed the book again, turning to regard her mistress with a puzzled expression. "Pardon?"
"What I mean is... it's a tremendous complication of one's life. Not the sort of thing to be undertaken lightly." Tilting her head, Remilia went on, "Do you ever feel as though you didn't give it due consideration before proceeding?"
Sakuya considered the question with a pensive frown, then said, "I think... I fear your question is meaningless, m'lady. You said 'allowing yourself', as if it were a conscious choice, something to be permitted or denied, but... that's not how love works. It happens, and then you become aware of it. By the time you know, it's far too late to do anything about it." She shrugged. "Personally, I think that's where the magic of it lies. Why? Are you having second thoughts?"
Remilia shook her head. "Not at all," she said, perhaps a trifle too quickly. "I was just reflecting how strange it is that I, of all people, after decades alone, should suddenly find myself in such a situation." She chuckled, a little darkly. "It's almost as if fate, as well as justice, has a sense of humor."
Sakuya could think of nothing to say to that, and her mistress didn't seem to be expecting a reply, anyway. Instead, the vampire lapsed back into silence, drinking the rest of her tea without another word, her crimson eyes fixed on some unknowable middle distance.
Then, putting cup and saucer on the coffee table with a clack, Remilia sprang to her feet, threw up her hands, and declared, "Ehh, I'm all at sixes and sevens tonight. Enough of this! I'm going to bed."
"Should I wake you at any particular time?" Sakuya wondered, but Remilia, already bound for her bedroom door, shook her head.
"Why bother?" the vampire asked rhetorically. "There's nowhere I need to be. Who knows? I might just sleep all weekend."
"All right. Rest well, Remilia."
"Nnh. Good morning," and then the door banged and Sakuya was alone.
She didn't resume reading; instead, she got up and went to look out of the window at the dark night, as if seeking in the pattern of the stars some explanation for Remilia's black mood. To be sure, her conversation with Mme. Serreau had been a shock to her system, but could even that be responsible all by itself? No, Sakuya thought not. She'd been out of sorts, off her stride, all evening—even before Meiling and Flandre had departed. Since right around sundown, when by rights her mood should have picked up a little...
"... Ah," she said aloud. Pulling The World from her nightdress pocket, she consulted it, then nodded.
The new moon, she thought with a sort of grim satisfaction. In the excitement, we all forgot.
Sakuya stood gazing at the watch's dial for a moment, then returned it to its pocket, pushed back the lace cuff she wore around her wrist, and contemplated instead the silvery-blue glow of her Lens.
Meiling and Flandre emerged from the cavernous Zürich Hauptbahnhof, the city's sprawling central railway station, to find the plaza in front of it lit up and still reasonably busy in spite of the lateness of the hour. Flandre stood for a moment on the sidewalk in front of the station and just took it all in. The Bahnhofplatz had a very different feel compared with the Place de la Concorde. In spite of the large statue standing in front of the station, there was little of the monumental about the plaza itself. The pavement was criscrossed with the tracks of streetcars, and the air above was webbed with the wires that powered them. As Flandre stood looking around, one trundled past, the pantograph above it sparking as it rolled along the wires, leaving in the vehicle's wake a telltale whiff of ozone.
"Wow. Look at this place, willya," Meiling remarked. "I guess Zürchers don't call it a night as early as folks in the 8th arrondissement."
"I guess not," Flandre agreed. "So! What do you think? Where do we start?"
"It's your trip," Meiling said equably.
"I'm hungry. Let's see if there's a café around here that's still open, and I'll tell you what I have in mind."
They found one on the other side of the Bahnhofplatz, across from a grand-looking hotel with illuminated letters on the roof spelling out HOTEL HELVETICA. If the crisply uniformed waiter thought it was odd for a couple of curiously-dressed young women, one of whom was carrying an improbably large military-style duffel bag, to be wandering around Zürich in the wee hours of the morning, he gave no sign of it; he took their orders in Karlslandic that was as crisp as his uniform, brought them tea to start with, and disappeared back inside without batting an eye.
"Here's what I think," Flandre said, unfolding an elaborate map of Helvetia and Alsace on the table. "We ought to keep to more or less the same hours we kept in Paris, so we're up and around at least partly in the day time. That way there'll be more happening and more people around to talk to. We should stay off the trains as much as we can. And we probably shouldn't get too close to the border with Karlsland." She smiled a little mischievously. "I'll never hear the end of it of we end up tangling with the Neuroi and Sis finds out."
Meiling laughed. "Neither will I," she agreed.
"So how far do you figure we can get in a day, if we're mostly on foot? We might be able to hitch rides sometimes, but we'll probably be walking most of the time, especially at night."
"Well, we're both pretty strong, but this is mighty hilly country," Meiling mused, considering the contour lines on the map. "And we're not in a hurry, anyway. I reckon we shouldn't count on more than 10 miles or so a day on days where we're just trying to get someplace, less if we're looking around and talking to people."
"Hmm." Flandre considered, tracing a road with her fingertip, then using thumb and forefinger against the scale in the corner of the map to estimate distance. "So we can probably figure on getting to Baden tomorrow..."
Meiling looked closer. "Yeah, that seems reasonable. Then we'll probably want to swing south through this... what is that, a nature preserve?"
"It says 'Jurapark Aargau', so I guess so? That sounds nice."
"Yeah. We'll swing through there and stay clear of the border... I assume we're eventually trying to get to Basel?"
Flandre nodded. "I thought we'd cross back into Gallia there, head west for a bit—maybe as far as Altkirch—then turn north and make for Ribeauvillé via Mulhouse and Colmar."
"Sounds like you've got it all laid out," said Meiling approvingly.
"I've been looking at this map a lot since I bought it," Flandre admitted. "Of course, we can always change our minds if something more interesting comes along," she added.
"Sure." Meiling rubbed her hands together, grinning. "Ah, this is exciting! Been a long time since I just hit the road like this."
"I thought you and Sakuya were travelers together before she came home," said Flandre, tilting her head.
"We were, but that was different. We were with the Doctor then. Where we were going, we didn't use roads. This..." Meiling tapped the map with her fingertip. "This is more like what I used to do when I was younger. I wandered my homeland for most of my life before I met Sakuya. Just going where the wind blew me. And this looks like nice country." She sat back, her grin turning to a satisfied smile. "I think we're gonna have a grand time, Flan-Flan."
"Me too," Flandre agreed, gathering up the map. Then, glancing across the street at the Hotel Helvetica, she said, "Let's stay over there tonight, to start us off. We'll be spending enough time outside once we're out in the wild," she added with a wink.
"Sounds good to me!" said Meiling, and a moment later, their dinner arrived.
Remilia wasn't really asleep, but she wasn't really awake either. Since turning in, she'd been lying there, curled up on her side, drifting in and out of a sort of weary fugue and acutely aware of the emptiness of the bed behind her. She regretted her brusqueness with Sakuya. It wasn't her fault she felt so wretched tonight, her mental equilibrium disturbed by finding herself alone in the wake of the wrenching conversation she'd had with the old lady from Mulhouse.
It occurred to her, belatedly, that Sakuya must be lonely tonight too. When was the last time she'd gone to sleep without Meiling nearby? She had no clear idea of how long they'd been traveling together before the night of the Neuroi brought Sakuya back to her world, but she gathered it had been quite some time.
Remilia considered going to the other bedroom and alleviating both of their loneliness. It wouldn't be the first time, by far. In the old days, Sakuya often slept near her mistress. Early in her tenure at Maison Écarlate, before she'd felt comfortable enough to spend the days alone in her room in the servants' quarters, she slept on a truckle bed at the foot of Remilia's grand fourposter in a fashion not all that unusual for ladies'-maids of the era; and for a long time after the 10th of Floréal, though neither ever spoke of it, her place was by Remilia's side.
She considered it, but her nerve failed her. Though nothing had ever passed between them in those days—despite everything, they were still master and servant, after all—the situation was still too different now. It didn't feel right. As Meiling might say, the feng shui was wrong. Or was she overthinking it? Given what a ferment her head was in tonight, that was certainly possible.
Equal parts frustrated and exhausted, she must have dozed off at least a bit, because she never heard the door open or close. The next thing she knew, she felt a slight shaking of the bed as someone climbed in behind her. Remilia tensed in half-awake surprise for a moment, but only a moment, for it took her only that long to sense that the presence behind her was no threat—far, far from it.
"Benjamin," she murmured, profound relief in her voice, as his arms slipped around her and drew her close, mindful not to catch her right wing underneath either of them.
"Hi," Gryphon's voice replied softly.
She noticed he was slightly cool to the touch, and he smelled of fresh late-night air and just a hint of something floral. If she didn't know better, she'd have thought he had just been out flying. Disregarding the thought as unimportant, Remilia turned around in his arms, carefully tucking her wings as she did and then stretching them out behind her. Putting her own arms around his neck in turn, she found his lips with hers and kissed him fiercely, as if to reassure herself that he was really there.
"I'm glad to see you too," he quipped when she finally let him go, then added, "So to speak."
Remilia made a sound that was half chuckle and half suppressed sob, then pulled herself together and whispered, "But why are you here? How?"
"Sakuya Lensed me when you turned in," Gryphon explained. "Said that Meiling and Flan were off on their trip and you were feeling blue. Then I remembered that it's the new moon... figured I ought to make my way over."
The new moon, Remilia thought. Of course. What an idiot I am.
Outwardly, what she said was, "Well... I am very glad you're here." She hugged him tightly to her for a few moments in silence, then couldn't stop herself from musing aloud, "Although it's humiliating, being so... dependent. Here I am, Remilia Scarlet, the Scarlet Devil, queen of the night... thrown into a hopeless mope by the brief absence of her particular gentleman. I faced decades of solitude, and now..." She sighed, shaking her head. "How the mighty have fallen," she said wryly.
"Back then, you had no alternative," Gryphon pointed out. "Now you do. There's no shame in that."
"I haven't the energy for a philosophical debate tonight, my love," said Remilia wearily. "Just hold me, if you please."
Gryphon kissed her again, on the forehead this time. "You may rely upon it, meine Geliebte," he murmured, but she was already asleep.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
episode title by
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2021