Two more chapters to go for this volume. Enjoy.
Chapter 3: Major Stork’s Battle
There was a ‘station’ on the island.
The island was overgrown with grass and trees not yet a decade old. It narrowed as it stretched further north, and the sharp northern tip was less than a kilometer wide. On either side of the tip was a long bridge, at the center of which was a facility made of concrete.
It was very similar to a station—it was a building where travel between East and West was regulated. The rails split into three tracks on the island, and on either side of two of them were platforms. The platforms were about eight hundred meters long.
On the western and eastern edges of the facility, on the south side of the platform, were two similar two-story buildings. They were residences of the soldiers and officials from either side. The third set of rails led to the side of the building and ended at a short platform were freight could be unloaded.
A concrete path led down from each building to the river. About twenty meters downhill was a large wharf. Small unarmed communication ships were moored at several of the piers.
The facility was surrounded by wooden fences, from the rear of the buildings to the corners of the platforms, making it impossible to go outside. The island was still off-limits because there were many undetonated explosives left.
A man stood on the wharf on the Sou Be-Il side.
He was wearing a brown Royal Army uniform. He had a kit belt around his waist and a holstered gun, and wore a hat and a trench coat. At his feet was a rather small leather suitcase.
He was in his mid-forties and was of average height and build. His face was rather long and narrow. He had short brown hair and round, scholar-like glasses that complemented the air around him. His eyes were blue.
The man stood at the edge of the wharf with his gloved hands firmly closed over the railings. He gazed at the vast horizon on the Lutoni River.
It could start to rain at any moment. He watched the water under the cloudy sky, looking just about ready to burst into tears.
“What’s he doing, I wonder?”
A young soldier wondered in Bezelese from the platform, quite close to the wharf. He was the kind of man no one would ask for help from in a bar fight—gentle to put nicely, and frail to be blunt.
He was wearing a Sou Be-Il uniform as well, but his was a formal outfit with fine embroidery. His leather shoes were polished to a shine, and there was a leather belt around his waist. He was not carrying any firearms or blades. He also wore a dress hat on his head.
For some time his eyes had been locked on the back of the man in the trench coat, who was looking out at the river without so much as twitching.
“Should I call him over?” The young solder asked his companion. The companion was a fellow soldier in an identical uniform. He was in his late thirties and was a sergeant. His stout stature and short hair cast the impression of a seasoned soldier.
“Who?” The sergeant asked. The young soldier pointed at the wharf.
“The major, sir. The one who came from the capital as the VIP’s contact. Why doesn’t he go to the residence where it’s warm and have some tea? There’s still a long time left until the train comes in. I’ll call him. Ma- mmph!”
The sergeant quickly slammed his hand over the young soldier’s mouth.
“Quiet! Don’t bother him.”
“What? What do you mean, sir? What is the major doing, standing all the way over there?”
The young soldier was clueless. The sergeant replied, quietly but firmly.
“Are you an imbecile? Ten years ago, this place was the front line of the Green Island Conflict. He’s obviously thinking about the subordinates and comrades who lost their lives here.”
“Oh. Right… I’m sorry.”
“I’ll call him once it’s time.”
Waiting for the designated time on the platform, the young soldier sighed loudly. His breath scattered in the wind.
The sergeant next to him asked, a little gently this time, what was wrong.
“Well, sir… I guess I still have a lot to learn about tact.”
“Don’t let that bother you now. You’re here because you have a job to do. Not many soldiers are fluent in Roxchean, MOS Private First Class René.”
The soldier called René nodded in understanding. On the side of his hat was a white feather that the sergeant did not have. According to the tour guidebook, the white feather identified a soldier who could speak Roxchean.
“What is it?”
“Have I ever told you how I could speak Roxchean?”
“No. But if you’d like to tell me, I’m all ears. We’ve got plenty of time to kill.”
“All right, sir. You see, my father was from Roxche.”
“Oh?” The sergeant glanced at René’s profiled face. “A POW, then? From the Great War?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“There’s not many other ways to cross the Lutoni.”
“My father was even younger than I am now when he was conscripted thirty-six years ago. But he was almost immediately taken prisoner and spent the entire war in a POW camp.”
“So he learned Bezelese and stayed behind. I’d heard that quite a few people chose that option.”
“Yes. He was the youngest son of a poor farming family, so he didn’t have much waiting for him back in Roxche. So he said that he chose to live here instead.”
“Then what did he do?”
“At first, he taught Roxchean for the military. Afterwards, he started a small engine repair workshop with a superior he met while teaching. Then he married the superior’s younger sister, and they had me and my older sister and brother. You couldn’t call his life spectacular, but I think he was happy. Until he passed away four years ago, he never once said that he had any regrets about leaving Roxche.”
“That’s certainly a relief to hear.”
“Yes. But Father taught Roxchean to me and my siblings. He said that, whether there was another war in the future or not, it would be of help to us. When I first joined the military, I didn’t say anything about it because a superior advised me that it would be best to keep the skill a secret from the other soldiers.”
“I see. That’s why you were reassigned here from the Teruma Base.”
“Yes, sir. …Oh, wait. It’s the Teruto Base, sir.”
“Hm? The records I received said ‘Teruma’. I’m quite sure of it.”
“Someone must have gotten lazy typing it out, sir. It’s the Teruto Base.”
The sergeant was astonished at the typist’s carelessness.
“Then I’ll have it corrected later. It looks like that skill of yours was no help until you were lucky enough to be reassigned here. But that’s all right. Now is the time we need your help the most.”
René fell into thought for a moment, then replied, still doubtful.
The man on the wharf gazing at the Lutoni slowly turned at the sound of footsteps. He greeted the sergeant, who came to a stop and saluted.
“Major. The train is scheduled to arrive soon.”
“I see. So it’s already time… thank you.”
The man was polite, like a tutor hired to work for a wealthy family. The name ‘Stork’ was embroidered onto the name tag on his chest. He turned to face the river again. The sergeant stood next to him.
“The Lutoni River…”
“It’s certainly massive.”
After the short conversation, only the wind punctuated the silence. The still-chilly breeze caressed the river and the island as it passed.
Soon, Major Stork spoke up with his eyes still on the river.
“Sergeant. Have you ever come to this island?”
The sergeant immediately understood what the major meant.
“No, sir. Eleven years ago, I was in Sfrestus training new recruits.”
“I see… this is my second time setting foot on this island. I lost many things here. For the first time I was nearly killed, and for the first time I killed another. I never again got to meet the excellent comrades who faced death alongside me.”
“It must be difficult, sir. I understand.”
Major Stork smiled, his eyes on the river.
“Yet this island is now the center of a bridge connecting East and West. How strange. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would return to this place, for a purpose like this. Or maybe I’m still dreaming?”
“Who knows?” The sergeant replied honestly. Major Stork gave him a gentle smile.
“A dream might not be too bad. Because, at the very least, it’s certainly not a nightmare.”
Then, he took up his suitcase and fixed his hat.
“Now, off to work. Whether it’s a state of peace or emergency, we’ve all got to earn our pay.”
The sergeant nodded and began to lead the way to the platform.
On their way up the hill, Major Stork noticed something. He stopped and looked up. Soon, the dull roar of an engine began to sound overhead.
“That must be it.” The sergeant said, pointing at the sky. An aeroplane was flying over the bridge on the western side. The amphibious plane, which had an engine atop its wings, flew straight for the island with the bridge in its sights. Soon, it banked to the left with a flash of its underside as it ascended toward the Lutoni River.
“That must be from the Air Force.” Said Major Stork.
“Yes. He’s already received a permit for the flight. Some Air Force personnel is going to be joining the trip here. On vacation, at that.”
“My goodness… he must be a very influential man if he’s allowed to fly in the buffer zone for such personal reasons.” Major Stork said, astonished.
“The passenger list I received only said, ‘1 Adult, Male - Herman’.”
“It must be, sir. Some general must have pulled some strings to get himself a ticket. Maybe he’s going to have a talk with some Cross-River millionaires to talk about starting up a business together after he’s retired. Probably an old man with a chestplate of medals.”
As they watched, the craft made a landing on the river and began moving toward the wharf.
“It looks like I’ll have no choice but to pay him my respects.” Major Stork joked.
The other soldiers, including René, rushed over to the wharf.
The plane slowly approached the wharf. The soldiers quickly moored it to the pier.
A door on the side of the plane opened, and a man emerged. Major Stork and the sergeant watched curiously.
The man was still quite young, probably in his mid-twenties. He had rather long brown hair and a full beard. His expression was hidden behind his sunglasses. He was not wearing a uniform, but rather a pair of khaki pants and a brown cotton jacket, as though he were going hunting somewhere. His only luggage was a large duffel bag used by infantrymen. He looked rather like a wanderer who hitchhiked and stowed away on freight trains.
The sergeant was taken aback by the betrayal of expectations.
“This is a surprise.”
The sergeant looked at the major, who mumbled in an amused tone. Stork continued.
“Well, well. He’s disguised himself. Although I can see why he did so.”
“Do you know him, Major?”
“Yes. In fact, so do you. That man is the Hero of the Mural.”
“What? You mean—”
“Yes. Major Carr Benedict of the Royal Air Force. There’s no mistaking it.”
The sergeant gaped in disbelief and carefully scrutinized the bearded man.
Carr Benedict. He was a fighter pilot from the Sou Be-Il Air Force who stumbled upon the Mural of the Beacon and transparently announced the discovery to East and West at the same time. His actions earned him the nickname of ‘Hero’, and he was given a special triple promotion to the rank of major. He was currently twenty-five years old and single.
He was speaking with one of the soldiers around him—MOS Private First Class René Falkrott.
“Incredible… so it was Major Carr. Now that you mention it, I do see a sort of resemblance… but if someone told me that it wasn’t him, I might be convinced, too… I’m surprised you recognized him, Major.”
“It’s a special talent of mine.” Major Stork replied, to the confusion of the sergeant.
“But I understand why he would put on a disguise and use a pseudonym. If he decided to board the train as himself, they might as well rename the train ‘Hero Express’.” The sergeant said, only half-joking. Major Stork sounded a little amused as well.
“To think I would be boarding the same train as the Hero of the Mural… It’s truly an honor. Forget changing the name—they might as well build a special train for him alone. After all, it was his decision that ended the endless conflict. Think of the tens of thousands of soldiers who are no longer destined to lose their lives on this very river.”
“I can’t even imagine, Major. And I’m sure we’d be part of those thousands. I never imagined things would turn out this way.”
“Neither have I. But it’s not a bad thing at all. This, too, is a part of history. Although the conclusion ended up being quite unexpected, I certainly can’t complain.”
“I agree. All we can do is try our best in the time and place we’re given.”
“Yes. And I must do what I can.”
As they watched, Benedict gave René a friendly slap on the shoulder.
Immediately upon stepping off the plane, Benedict spotted a familiar face among the soldiers who rushed over, and quickly spoke to him.
René was confused. Benedict half-dragged him to the middle of the wharf and lowered his sunglasses ever-so-slightly.
“It’s me. Second Lieutenant Carr. Remember Teruto?”
“Look at you! MOS Private First Class. I really owe you a lot from back then. And… “
As René stood with his mouth agape, Benedict gave him a hearty slap on the shoulder.
“Thanks for keeping your promise.”
René finally mustered up a smile.
“I guess I made myself useful after all.”
“N-nothing, sir. Just talking to myself. Welcome to Green Island! This way, please.”
Leading ‘Mr. Herman’ to the platform, René introduced him to the sergeant and Major Stork. René and the sergeant remained behind as ‘Mr. Herman’ and the major began walking down the length of the platform.
Not long after they began walking, Major Stork said suddenly,
“It’s an honor to be traveling alongside you, Major Carr.”
Benedict looked up, surprised. He gave a wry grin.
“I can’t believe you saw me through so quickly. Excuse my manners. Major Carr Benedict of the Royal Air Force.”
Benedict stopped and saluted. Major Stork quickly replied,
“There’s no need for formalities, now. We’re not here on duty.”
“Some Roxchean friends I met during a joint training session are going to be on the train.”
“Ah, that sounds wonderful.”
“I’d wanted to invite the two of them to Sou Be-Il once it was possible to travel across the border. So I sent them tickets. I’m a little ashamed that I flew in here for my own convenience, but if I didn’t meet them today, I’d have to wait until tomorrow evening to see them.”
“You have that right, Major Carr. After all, you are the Hero of the Mural. I’m a little jealous, myself.”
“I also thought that it would be great to be a hero. At least, until I became one.”
“Does it become tiresome?”
“Very much. Being in the spotlight means you stick out like a sore thumb. So many things become impossible once your face is known to every man, woman, and child.”
“I see… I don’t believe I’m much suited to such attention. I take back what I just said.”
“Where are you headed, Major Stork?” Benedict asked. But he quickly stopped himself. “Forget I asked, Major. If you’re on duty—”
“Hm… I suppose I should tell you ahead of time. If you’ll agree to keep quiet about it, of course.” Major Stork said slowly, and continued. “There is a passenger on the VIP car who may go on to play an important role in cross-border trade in the future. Many corporations are waiting for him in Sfrestus, planning to worm themselves into his good graces. A certain corporation that sells cannons to the Army is one among them, and they requested that the Royal Army dispatch personnel to the train under the pretense of security and communication. Someone to get them ahead of the competition and butter up the VIP, so to speak.”
Benedict said nothing. Major Stork looked at him, smiling.
“Astounding, isn’t it? I also froze when I first received the orders. After all, I’m usually in charge of compiling war history records in the military’s archives. My orders this time are to wag my tail like a dog and flatter the VIP as we cross the continent. I’ve been given a budget to purchase expensive liquor at the stations and even hire high-class call girls. Of course, it’s all paid for by the people’s tax money.”
“…I can’t say I envy your job, Major. But I hope things work out.”
“I’ll make sure to keep my mouth shut.”
“Please. It would be an embarrassment to the Royal Army if anyone knew.”
At the center of the platform were people waiting for the transcontinental express train.
Security from both East and West, and suit-clad officials in charge of entry procedures. And repair technicians and engineers.
A little ways off to the west, a large diesel locomotive stood on the southern tracks. In Sou Be-Il territory, the Sou Be-Il railroad took over the management of the train. That was why everyone had arrived on the island early in the morning and remained on standby.
Though the Roxchean locomotive was large in its own right, this one was no slouch. The locomotive was over thirty meters long, and divided into two cars. In some cases, extra locomotives were attached to a train to provide more power—but this one in particular had a built-in connection, and could not be uncoupled.
It was painted a reddish-brown. The locomotive was shaped like a small box stacked atop a railroad wagon. On the box-like compartment was a large diesel engine and a generator. It was an electric-style generator that powered a motor by creating electricity from the engine. On either side were passageways lined by railings.
The engineers were wearing black Sou Be-Il railroad uniforms. They had all been selected from the Royal Army’s railroad unit.
Finishing up the official procedures with the officials, Benedict and Stork stood side-by-side on the southern edge of the platform, with the wooden fence behind them. Many people shot Benedict suspicious looks because of his messy attire, but ultimately no one caught on to his true identity. Of course, Major Stork made sure to consistently refer to him as ‘Mr. Herman’.
As Benedict looked down at his new watch and mentioned that it was nearly time, they saw a thick stream of smoke in the distance.
“I’d heard rumors that they were often delayed. I’m pleasantly surprised.” Said Major Stork. Benedict turned to his brethren from Sou Be-Il—the diesel locomotive and the engineers.
“Better not lose to ‘em.”
Major Stork chuckled.
The transcontinental express slowly entered the station platform on the southern rails. Soon, the second dining car came to a stop before Benedict and Major Stork. The car doors opened and the passengers disembarked for some rest.
Soon after stopping, the steam locomotive was uncoupled and moved to the second set of tracks. The diesel locomotive slowly approached and was connected to the passenger cars.
Conductor Welch stepped outside with a binder in hand, and began to speak with the officials from both sides. Benedict and Stork also joined in, introducing themselves and getting their tickets re-checked.
After the boarding procedures, Major Stork and Benedict were left alone.
“I believe I’ll be in the VIP cabin the whole journey. I doubt I’ll even have time to enjoy a drink with you, so let me say goodbye here. Have a good trip. And you have my word that no one will hear of your identity, Mr. Herman.”
“Thank you, Major.”
With that, Benedict pulled up his bag and began to head toward the other passengers. Major Stork also turned to the VIP car. But suddenly, over Benedict’s shoulder, he caught a glimpse of three passengers standing next to a car four cars ahead. A young woman with black hair, a boy in a school uniform, and a blond girl in a dress.
Major Stork quickly grabbed Benedict by the shoulder. Though surprised, Benedict answered the major’s solemn glare.
“Is something the matter, Major Stork?”
Stork sighed softly, as though trying to calm himself.
“Apologies, but I’d like to ask something. Those three young people on the platform…”
“The… the black-haired woman there. She is royalty from Iks, am I correct?”
Benedict’s eyes widened in surprise, but he quickly gave a wry smile. And making sure that no one was within earshot, he replied quietly.
“Well… yes. She is Francesca, the future Queen of Iks.”
“I knew it…”
“I thought that was a convincing disguise, but you saw through it again. I’m honestly impressed.”
“I’m quite fond of reading the papers, you see. I remember clearly reading of your actions in Iks last year. So she was the Roxchean friend you were talking about. What of security detail?” Major Stork asked, sounding quite serious.
“She’s traveling incognito. Please don’t say a word about her.”
“…Not a single bodyguard?”
“Well… I’ll be there. I’m sure it’ll be all right as long as no one finds out, seeing as we’re going to be on a train.”
Major Stork sighed.
“Astounding… That’s quite brave of her. So I suppose the boy and the girl next to her aren’t servants. Are they just fellow passengers she met on the trip, do you suppose?”
“N-no. Those two are good friends of mine as well. Both Roxchean. I met them by coincidence during a joint training session. They are both fluent in Bezelese.”
“Then they already know your identity.”
“Yes. I asked them to keep it a secret as well.”
“I see… I understand. I apologize for holding you up. Have an excellent trip.”
Benedict walked away. The older passengers on the platform cringed at the sight of him. The three young people noticed him—their eyes turned to dinner plates, but they quickly broke out smiling and greeted him cheerfully.
Major Stork stood alone on the platform, watching all the while. Eventually, the four were led into car 10 by a cabin crew.
Major Stork quietly mumbled to himself.
“‘The Goddess of Fortune is a cruel and fickle mistress’, eh?”
“Er, Mr. Stork?”
Welch, the conductor, spoke to Stork from behind as the latter glared a hole through the platform. The conductor’s Bezelese was not fluid, but exceedingly polite.
Surprised by his name being called, Major Stork exclaimed quietly.
“We’ve just received permission from the passenger, sir. Allow me to lead you to the VIP car. This way, please.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you.”
They began to head for the VIP car on the western side of the platform. Major Stork, whose face had stiffened the moment he saw Fiona, practically lunged at a Sou Be-Il soldier who was standing on the platform.
“You there!” He called to the startled soldier. “Is there a telephone capable of long-distance calls here?”
“P-pardon? Oh, er, no, sir. It can only call the nearest base. Although we do have radio.”
“I see… Thank you.”
The conductor seemed worried when Stork caught up with him.
“Is there a problem, sir?”
Major Stork laughed and shook his head.
“No, not at all. I should be doing my work now.”
Opening the door to the VIP room, they entered.
The passengers on the platform stepped inside again, and the doors closed shut.
The locomotive’s whistle sounded loudly over the old battlefield.
* * *
“What is that beard?! And your hair! I didn’t recognize you for a second!” Fiona gasped in cabin 1 of car 10.
“As reunion greetings are done, why don’t we slowly enjoy the views? Look, the Lutoni River. She—er, it is beautiful.”
Looking up at Fiona, who stood by the window, Benedict spoke in Roxchean as he let himself sink into the sofa. His pronunciation had improved a little from the previous year. He had taken off his jacket, and was wearing a light green shirt underneath. His sunglasses were hanging from his breast pocket. The train slowly left the facility and began crossing the western bridge, which in appearance was no different from the eastern one.
“That’s not surprising. It looks pretty bad.”
“I didn’t recognize you, either. That was a shock.”
Allison and Wil, sitting on the sofa, took Fiona’s side.
After their reunion on the platform, the four of them practically fled into the cabin.
“Me and you have both disguised perfectly. Thanks to that, I think everyone will stay in peace.” Benedict said nonchalantly.
“I don’t believe this. I’ll go get my things from car 12. I left my change of clothes there.”
“Oh, let me help you.” Benedict said, standing.
“It’s all right. I can ask the cabin crew to carry my luggage.” Fiona quickly replied, leaving the room with Allison, who had the key to the cabin.
Benedict mumbled, “darn” in Bezelese. Wil spoke up in Bezelese as well.
“Excellent timing. There was something I wanted to talk to you about when Allison wasn’t around.”
“What is it? I brought my razor, if that’s what you were wondering. Though I’d prefer to let it grow out a bit longer.”
Wil shook his head.
“No, it’s about something more important.”
Still in the sofa, Benedict sat up. Wil, having finished speaking, was sitting in the chair by the window. Fiona and Allison had not yet returned.
Benedict looked thrilled.
“So she’s waiting for you at the capital? I’m glad you managed to get in touch with her.”
“Yes. It was a big relief.”
“Thanks for telling me. But you might not want to say anything to Allison until we get to Sfrestus. It’d be nice to surprise her.”
“That’s what I plan to do. Although I’m not very good at hiding things…”
“Don’t worry. It’s not like you’re doing something bad. Just enjoy the trip until then. This strategy meeting is finished.” Benedict said, clapping his hands.
“All right.” Wil nodded with a smile. At that moment, Fiona and Allison opened the door and entered.
Major Stork and the conductor were standing at the front door of the galley. Stork had taken off his coat and was wearing a plain uniform. Because the train shook, his left hand was constantly on the handrail.
Sturdy leather covers were wrapped over the couplings, and metal plates were underfoot. But it was still incredibly noisy when the train was moving.
Ahead of the coupling was the VIP car. Separate from the hallway that went through the passenger car, there was a door into the cabin crew’s room and the entrance to the VIP cabin. That was the only entrance to the cabin, and the only way further inside was to pass the bodyguard lounge.
“These are the passengers on board today. There are no changes until we return to Green Island.”
The conductor, who never had to hold on to the handrail, handed a piece of paper to Major Stork. It was a passenger list written in both Roxchean and Bezelese, and contained the names and occupations of the passengers.
Major Stork took the list with his right hand and read through it.
Cabin 1 of car 9 was assigned to the president of the Roxche Capital District water company, Mr. Becker, and his wife. Cabin 2 was assigned to the president of a large clothing company, Mrs. Epstein, and her husband.
Cabin 1 of car 10 was assigned to a ‘Mr. Herman’ and Fiona. There were no occupations listed. Major Stork gave a wry grin. Cabin 2 was assigned to the Minister of Transportation of a certain country in Roxche, Mr. Green, and his wife.
Cabin 1 of car 11 was assigned to the president of a bank in Niasham City, Mr. Nathan, and his wife. Cabin 2 was assigned to the president of a textile company, Mr. Hinkley, and his wife.
Finally, cabin 1 of car 12 was assigned to Allison Whittington and Wilhelm Schultz. There were no occupations listed. Cabin 2 was assigned to the chairman of Orres Studios, Mr. Orres, and his wife.
Other than the four young people and the Epstein couple, who were in their forties, the passengers were all elderly—ranging in age from their fifties to their seventies.
Completing his check, Major Stork looked up at the conductor.
“I’ll be spending most of my time in the VIP cabin. I doubt anything will happen, but… please inform me if something does.”
At that moment, the cacophonous rattling suddenly came to a stop.
They had passed the bridge.
The world outside gave way to a vibrant green earth.
“Honestly, we still have about thirty kilometers before we reach her… but let me say it early. Welcome to Sou Be-Il. I am honored to greet you three to this country. I hope you enjoy the trip.” Said Benedict.
* * *
The train was passing through the hills.
Grass was beginning to grow, covering the rolling layers of slopes. There were barns scattered among the hills, and cows left to roam and graze.
The rails ran straight to the west, as though they were lines drawn with a ruler. On either side of the two tracks were secure barbed-wire fences to keep cows away. The transcontinental continued between the hills, emerging and disappearing between the verdant slopes like a single white line.
At the very end of the white line, on the balcony at the back of the glass-covered car, stood two people.
“Beautiful… We’re pretty far north, but in Sou Be-Il, the area’s used for pasture. I assumed it would be a forest, like in Niasham. I never would have guessed.”
Wil sounded honestly enthusiastic. Allison did not. They were both wearing coats and gloves. Allison had her hair tucked in her coat to keep it from getting in the way.
“This is incredible. We’re actually in Sou Be-Il. We’re heading west.”
Wil’s eyes gleamed with anticipation as he held on to the railings. He lost himself in the scenery passing around him, with the rails at the center of his sights.
Allison leaned against a support on the side, watching Wil with a pout.
“It’s really beautiful.”
“Isn’t it incredible?”
A little earlier. Immediately after entering Sou Be-Il.
“Well, I’m sure Benedict must be tired too. Let’s go back to our cabin, Wil.” Allison said suddenly in Benedict and Fiona’s cabin. “C’mon.”
She pulled Wil to his feet as the latter curiously examined the Sou Be-Il currency Benedict had taken out.
“We’re off. We’ll see you two at dinner.”
The moment they stepped into the hallway, Allison shut the door behind them.
“Wil, let’s give Benedict and Fiona some room. They haven’t seen each other in so long.”
“Ah… you’re right. It didn’t occur to me.”
“Well, now you know.”
They returned to their cabin in car 12. Allison took a seat on the sofa.
“Well, now that Benedict’s joined us safely, we’ll be able to rest a little easier. Why don’t you take a load off too, Wil?”
Wil, who had been staring out the window for some time, replied.
“I’m going to the observation car.”
“What?” Allison was shocked. Wil was already holding his coat, hat, and gloves.
“I want to enjoy the view from the balcony. We’re in Sou Be-Il, after all.”
Allison finally recovered from her daze and managed to speak.
“But… it’ll be windy and cold.”
“That’s why I’m taking my coat. I’ll bundle up. I even have my gloves.”
“Er… you can watch the scenery any time, Wil.”
“True. But I’d really like to see it now. I’m really excited for this.”
“Well, you can watch from here? We have a big window.”
“I’d like to see from the observation car. And unlike the cabin, the balcony’s completely open.”
“Er… well… right! What if you fell? It’s dangerous out there. Just think about how painful it’d be to fall off a moving train.”
“You’re right. I’ll be careful.”
Wil made sure to be as considerate as possible as he warmly said,
“You can wait in the cabin if you’d like, Allison.”
The pastures gave way to a vast wetland.
The rails drew a gentle curve along the grass on the edge of the swamp.
“Look, it’s a marsh. There’s waterfowl, too. I’ve seen that bird in Raputoa.”
“I barely see any houses around here. I suppose that must be because this is a military-use line? After all, Sou Be-Il also positions its railroads away from population centers so the routes won’t be found.”
“Or maybe people in Sou Be-Il during their industrial revolution also opposed having railroads too close because of all the smoke. I think Grandma might have said something to that effect. But eventually, towns started popping up around stations, and everyone who opposed the railroads regretted it deeply.”
“Oh, here you are. I’ve been looking for you. Should we head to the dining cars now?”
In the end, Allison and Wil spent their time on the empty balcony of the empty observation car until the sun had set and the world had grown nearly pitch-black, at which point Fiona came to get them for dinner.
Wil, Allison, Benedict, and Fiona passed through the hallways, crossed the couplings, and headed for the dining cars.
Three tables that seated four were in the car. The tables were lined up along the length of the car, and each table was as large as those in restaurants. In car 7, eight people had put two tables together and were enjoying dinner together. Wil and the others passed right by them.
The four of them were still dressed as they were at lunchtime. On some luxury trains in Roxche, passengers were required to dress in formalwear to enjoy dinner. But as the tour to Sfrestus took multiple days, passengers were free to dress as they wished, with the exception of several occasions. But setting aside Wil, who wore his school uniform with a tie, Benedict in his comfortable shirt clashed so much with the train that some people on car 7 gave him dirty looks. But no one realized that Benedict was the man who had made the front page in the newspapers.
“They couldn’t possibly imagine that I’d be here, dressed like this.”
In car 6, four passengers were seated at a table. The middle-aged woman who ordered Wil to get her a newspaper at the platform earlier and her husband. Across from them was a couple in their sixties. They were all in formalwear, and having finished dinner, were eating dessert.
Wil and the others took the table nearest to the front, with the men facing one another and the women facing one another. The men sat at the aisle seats and the women sat at the window seats. The server who pulled out the chairs for them soon brought them menus.
Wil’s brow furrowed at the increased variety of meals offered at dinnertime.
“We have much time. Please decide slowly.” Benedict said to Fiona.
“Yes…” She replied. She scrutinized the menu from behind her non-prescription glasses. In the end, Wil and Fiona were lost until the end as to what they should have for dinner.
The four of them each chose a different meal. Allison ordered anchovy pasta. Wil ordered lasagna with meat sauce. Benedict ordered venison steak with vegetables. Fiona ordered cheese risotto. For hors d'oeuvres they ordered two prawn cocktails, two plates of raw oysters—recommended by the server as fresh from Karen East Station—and two plates of vegetable salad. As for beverages, everyone ordered tea—with the exception of Wil, who ordered lemon squash because he was not very good with hot drinks.
As they waited for their food, the four people on the opposite side of the car finished and stood. The suit-clad man in his sixties approached the table at the front.
With his face flushed bright red from alcohol, the man greeted the four and walked right up to the table.
“If you’ll excuse us elders. I’m sure it must be a great experience for young people to experience such luxury.”
His words were polite, but his tone was not. Benedict replied curtly.
“Yes. Of course.”
As the old man got angry, a woman spoke up from behind. It was the female president who had ordered Wil around earlier.
“Mr. Becker. Let’s not pester the young people. Why don’t we ‘elders’ go for some drinks?”
The drunk seemed to want to say something, but he turned around. He left the dining car alongside the middle-aged couple and his worried wife.
“Damned old man.” Allison grumbled in a decidedly non-ladylike tone.
“I think people like him are everywhere.” Benedict said. “Do not worry about them. To be honest, you three people need a special exclusive car for yourselves.”
With the dining car to themselves, the four of them took a very long time in finishing their mountain of food. Fiona, who ended up eating fruit and ice cream for dessert, asked Allison to tell her if she figured out a way to safely jog through the halls of the train.
Leaving the dining car, they followed Wil’s advice and passed through the lounge car, where elders with time on their hands were drinking and dancing.
In front of cabin 1 of of car 10, Benedict said meaningfully,
“Rest comfortably, now. Fortune be with you.”
Allison and Wil went to their cabin in car 12. Left there was a piece of paper that they were to hang outside the door with their orders for breakfast, some chocolate(presumably a midnight snack), and a bottle of water. The heating was on at a slightly high temperature.
The train shook quietly as it ran through the darkness. There were no lights from villages anywhere.
Closing the curtains on the window by the beds, she grabbed the curtains that divided the room.
“I’m going to change. No peeking, okay?”
With that, she shut the curtains. There was a faint sound of shuffling sleeves from across. Naturally, Wil did exactly as he was told. He turned on a small lamp and wrote in his journal.
Allison pouted a little as she opened the curtains. Instead of pajamas, she was wearing Air Force-issue khaki work pants, and a white round-necked sweatshirt she wore for training. Tiny letters—the initials of the Roxcheanuk Confederation Air Force—were embroidered on the left sleeve.
“How long are you going to stay in your uniform, Wil?”
At Allison’s urging, Wil took off his uniform and changed into the checkered winter pajamas he wore at the dorms. He put his uniform shoes into the shoe cabinet and put on the slippers prepared for him in the cabin.
Wil opened the curtain and returned to the sofa. He sank down next to Allison.
“Today was a long day… a long, fun day.” He mumbled.
Outside the window was pitch black. There was only Allison and Wil, reflected in the glass by lamplight.
“Aren’t you going to showrrrrk.”
Allison bit her tongue.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Whew. Anyway, aren’t you going to shower?”
“Right.” Wil said, getting to his feet. He looked into the shower room that was further inside the bathroom and asked Allison how to use it. She told him that the shower head could be removed, and that he had to adjust the temperature beforehand. Because the train had to preserve water, pressing the water button would give him a short supply at a time.
“That is all! Take your time.”
Wil took a towel from the cabin, which was embroidered with a crest, thanked Allison, and stepped inside the shower.
Allison sat on the sofa. Sometimes she stood suddenly and sat back down again. Sometimes she poked at her reflection in the window as she sat and stood. And she checked to make sure that the cabin was locked.
“That was refreshing. I hadn’t showered in over a day.”
When Wil came outside in his pajamas, shaking water out of his hair, Allison was shooting a frightening glare at her own reflection.
“Oh, er… r-really? Well… I, er… I showered this morning, but would you mind if I showered again?”
“Go ahead.” Wil replied. Allison rushed between the sofa and her suitcase several times before going into the shower.
Allison left the shower, her long hair done up.
Wil was in his bed, covered snug in the blanket made specially for the train, with his eyes comfortably closed.
“It can’t be!”
Allison flung her towel aside and hurried to the bed, kneeling beside Wil.
Wil replied with his eyes still shut.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night… I’m tired…”
For some time, Allison’s lips trembled silently.
“Say, Wil? Er… I…”
“I’m going to sleep first…”
“Wait! By yourself? N-no, that’s not what I meant!”
She grabbed him by the left shoulder.
Wil’s sleepy eyes opened halfway. Allison spoke.
“I-I have something important and complicated and important to tell you…”
This time, she said ‘important’ twice. Wil’s answer was immediate.
“Then tell me tomorrow… I can’t listen to something important when I’m tired.”
With a soft sigh, Wil fell right asleep.
Allison was frozen for some time. She finally staggered toward the sofa. She turned out the lamp beside the beds and closed the curtain dividing the beds from the living area.
With a sigh she sat on the sofa and pulled out a hairpin. Her long hair cascaded down over her face. Allison glared at the room through her obscured vision.
“Wonder if I can break something in here?”
A little before midnight.
Major Stork quietly opened the door and stepped into the observation car, where nearly every light had been extinguished. He was in his uniform, but without a jacket and with his necktie stuffed into his breast pocket. In his hand was a flashlight that was turned off.
He glanced at the small bar to the left of the entrance. The bartender had already turned in for the night.
As he inspected the observation car, Major Stork was taken by surprise. A girl with long blond hair was sitting on a sofa in the middle of the darkened car.
“That gave me a fright…” He whispered in Bezelese. Allison looked up, displeased.
“Who’re you? You’re not Roxchean.” She asked in Bezelese. Major Stork first asked if he could turn on the lights, waited for permission, then hit the switch next to the bar. The lightbulbs by the ceiling began to glow a faint orange. The car was filled with a gentle glow.
“I’m in charge of security for the VIP car. Stork from the Sou Be-Il armed forces. I’m a major from the Royal Army. I was just inspecting this car—I apologize if I bothered you.”
Allison turned away at Stork’s excuse and replied,
“I see. It’s okay, take a seat.”
Major Stork first walked over to the balcony and pointed his flashlight outside. He returned after checking that there was no one there. Allison’s face, glaring out the window, was reflected on the glass.
“All clear.” Major Stork said mechanically, and leaned against the bar. He turned to Allison, his tone softer than before.
“I saw that you had a companion with you. Why all alone here in this car?”
Allison gazed at her reflection in the window and answered curtly.
“Because it’s time for good boys to go to bed.”
Major Stork chuckled.
“Are the two of you siblings? You certainly don’t look it.”
“What are you talking about? Are you joking with me?”
“Well, I thought it might be rude to ask directly.”
“He’s my childhood friend. The only family an orphan like me has. And the person I wish would become my family. Does that tell you enough?”
“I see… I understand. But seeing as you’re alone, I suppose you haven’t told him yet.”
“Yet. What, are you trying to hit on me, mister?”
Allison looked a little upset. Major Stork replied lightheartedly,
“It’s good to be young.”
“Hmph. You sound like an old man.” Allison said, looking straight ahead.
“As you can see, I’ve gone through many things in life. But you’re still young. There’s nothing to be so anxious of. You’ll have many more chances in the future.”
Allison laughed. Her grin was cast against the glass window.
“That would be nice. But I’d prefer that he doesn’t find out how I feel from my will.”
“Your will?” Major Stork repeated, his brow furrowing. Allison nodded.
“Yes. My will.”
Surprised, Major Stork’s eyes slowly widened. For several seconds he was silent, and all the while Allison kept her eyes on the window.
“Does this mean… that you have a job that requires you to write a will…?”
“Guess you can’t fool a fellow professional. You’re quick to catch on. I’m a pilot in the Confederation Air Force. Though I’m still just a staff sergeant.” Allison said mockingly, looking up at Major Stork’s bewildered face. She raised her right hand and lightly saluted him.
“A pilot… in the Confederation Air Force…”
“What, never seen a child soldier before? They have those in Sou Be-Il, don’t they?”
“Oh, yes…” Major Stork replied, “I also know…”
“Hm? What?” Allison asked, her gaze on his face.
“…How cruel a will can be. I’ve written one myself before, just before I went into the battlefield. It was… terrible. I was disgusted. What use is there in my feelings reaching others only after my own death?”
“Looks like we have something in common, mister.”
“Thank you. Ah, my name is Stork Fren. I’ll be on board until we arrive at Sfrestus. It’s a pleasure to meet you. And you are…?”
“Allison Whittington. Staff sergeant.”
With a half-hearted bow, Allison stood with her hair fluttering behind her. And she walked past Major Stork.
“Well, let’s pray for each other’s success or whatever.”
“Yes. I pray for success. For both your wish and my mission.”
With a light wave, Allison passed him by and left the observation car.
When Allison left his sight, Major Stork extinguished the lights in the car and headed for the balcony. He opened the door and stepped outside, and a cold breeze shook his short hair.
When he looked up, the stars were lighting the gaps between the clouds.
Major Stork tightly gripped the railings.
“Whittington’s daughter… of all people…”
His murmur flowed from the back of the car along with the puffs of his breath.
Cabin 1 of car 12. A boy was in one of the two beds. He lay face-up with his mouth slightly agape, his breathing consistent as he slept.
The bed next to his was empty. And between his bed and the other crouched a girl with blond hair. Her chin rested on his bed as she glared at his carefree profile.
The sound of three wheels passing over the grooves of the rails was accompanied by shaking, in a perfect triple-time rhythm. Soon, the girl slowly closed her eyes.