"It's not the final night. You should just get on the airship, too, and go to Esmeralda. After all this work, isn't it odd you don't at least get a badge? Don't worry, I can make everyone understand."
After consuming a simple dinner of dried bread and emergency rations, Fana forced herself to sound bright.
The summer stars already hung over their heads as their rubber boat drifted on the waves. Charles forced a smile, and shook his head.
"It's not that simple. The Eighth Special Mission Fleet has to be the one that saved the Lady, to save the imperial prince Carlos' face, too. Not a refugee mercenary."
"I don't understand. Why fixate on saving face?"
"It's the government's job to make simple things look complex."
After a moment of glancing here and there, looking unsatisfied, Fana sounded determined and continued.
"Then, leaving that aside, wouldn't they at least allow you to step on the airship with me, and watch over the festivities?"
"What would happen to the Santa Cruz?"
"We can get someone else to pilot it home. Yes, that would work. They'll listen to me if I ask. Right? Let's go to Esmeralda together. I'll take you around the city when I'm free.” Fana clung to her dreams.
It would be wonderful if she could. Charles felt a bit lonely having to leave Fana like this, too.
However, mercenaries can't see any dreams.
Charles inhabited the rock bottom of society, while Fana dwelt at the very top. It was fortune's mischief that they were able to coincidentally spend time together, but they were like the earth and the star. When the time came, they had to return to their own worlds.
But Fana wouldn't listen, no matter how much he said that. She wanted to bring Charles to the imperial capital Esmeralda at any cost, to drag him along in the parade. And no matter what he said, she wouldn't budge from that.
So Charles decided. Even if he had to lie, one that might hurt Fana, he'd have to mollify her about parting by tomorrow.
"Let's set this straight, I'm just a mercenary. I can no longer help the Lady, and if I do as the Lady wishes, I won't be able to get my payment. That would leave me in quite a bind."
Fana opened her eyes wide, and then blinked, at Charles' words. Feeling stabs in his heart, he continued.
"Money is what motivates mercenaries. I accepted this operation for the money. That's the type of person I am."
"You're lying. Why are you lying like that now?"
"I'm not. I accepted this job under the condition that we would part here. And if we don't, I won't receive my reward. It's a proper, equitable reward that would let me enjoy life three times over. Are you telling me not to accept that?"
"If I have that much money, I wouldn't have to go kill people in planes. And I'll be able to build a house in some distant island, and live out my life in happiness. Is that bad?"
"It's not bad… but, then, are you alright with never seeing me again?"
Charles' heart throbbed at the question. And he knew exactly why.
But…he couldn't put himself at the front, here.
Charles berated himself.
Even now, the del Moral Aerial Knights were fighting. Six months after the war broke out, and they numbered less than half. If he were to just wander over to the imperial capital with Fana, he wouldn't be able to face his comrades that were fighting for their lives, nor those who'd already died. And this operation, to begin with, was possible because of their sacrifice.
Stuck between two contradictions, Charles couldn't answer the question. He wanted to lie and say he was fine with it, but the words got stuck in his throat.
That gave Fana all she wanted.
"See? We've just become friends, it's not right that we part tomorrow. It's alright, as long as I request it, you'll be rewarded, and you'll also be able to take part in the parade. After you get your reward, you should quit the Knights and live in Esmeralda. Then we could meet at times, right?"
"Lady, there's no end to it if you keep talking about dreams."
"What? You're so pessimistic. You just did what no one could do, so you can be more haughty about it. When the people come to pick me up, you can look down on them. They've done nothing, and all they're doing is sideswiping your glory," Fana said, as she puffed her cheeks. For some reason, her personality dramatically changed over the trip, or rather, she returned to the Fana of old. Staring with irritation at Charles' wishy-washy attitude, she continued firing severe words at him.
Not seeing any grounds being given by either party, Charles decided to put up a white flag. Night was passing, and he felt there was no point in arguing about tomorrow further.
"Fine, sure, whatever, I surrender. The Lady may do as she pleases with me."
"What is with that careless attitude? You're making me sound like a selfish, stubborn girl."
"I only see a selfish, stubborn girl in front of me."
"My, how rude. I listened to your excuses. I just won't accept them," Fana said, as she looked at Charles with an "duh" expression. For an instant, Charles imagined the imperial prince Carlo being whipped by Fana, but he decided to wave that image away.
"Alright. Then Charles will also step on the ship, and go to Esmeralda, okay?"
"Yes, sure, alright. I'll go with you wherever."
"Um, and I also have one more request."
Charles was already being vigilant, but Fana said something completely unexpected.
"Tell me more about your mother's story."
"The story your mother told me, as she sat by my bed. She ended up being fired because of me, so I never got to hear the rest of it. Charles must have heard the same story, right?"
Fana was talking about the Amatsukami history. Of course, like Fana, Charles had also been told the story as he went to sleep, and he remembered most of it.
"Where did you leave off?"
"Where the hero Nobuyasu was killed by Katsuhide's betrayal. The formerly Nobuyasu's vassal-in-charge-of-sandals was leading an expedition army to get revenge, and that's where the story ended."
"That's the most fun part!"
"Exactly. I wanted to know the rest, and I looked for books, but, you know, our library had absolutely nothing on the Amatsukami, so I could never find it," Fana said mournfully, and then she looked at Charles with hopeful eyes.
Charles smiled. He would happily answer this sort of request. And he thought it was a good thing that the empress-to-be was interested in the Amatsukami history.
"I can't tell it as well as my mother, but I'll try to imitate her as best I can."
Fana's face lit up in a bright expression, like a spring flower.
"Thank you, Charles. I'll go to sleep as I listen to the story, like I did when I was a child."
"Yes, please do. I'll keep telling it until the Lady sleeps."
Fana rested her back against the boat, pulled the blanket to her shoulders, and looked at Charles with sparkling eyes.
After a lawyer-like harumph, Charles quietly, and somewhat awkwardly, recalled the story his mother told him, and told it to Fana.
Under the starry night in deep silence, there was time for just the two of them.
A very satisfying, filling feeling swirled around Fana's body like a spring brook. Something that had been stashed away inside her consciousness, that had been compacted, was softly let loose, melted, and was washed away. And in its place was an innocent, pure, and clear thing.
She wished she could stay like this forever. With Charles, falling asleep whilst being rocked by waves, and then when morning came they'd turn over the silver wing, and rise, flying, into the far sky. How wonderful it would be.
Letting her mind wander to the far, ancient times of the story Charles told, Fana embraced her happy dreams. It wasn't time to part yet, because tomorrow, when the airship came to pick them up, she'd step on it with Charles, and go to the parade in the imperial capital Esmeralda. Telling herself that, she sank into the depths of her consciousness.
Hearing soft, regular breathing emerge from Fana's mouth, Charles ended the story.
Fana's joyful face was lit by the lantern light as she rested her back against the side of the boat.
Her blanket was on the verge of sliding off, so he brought it back up to her shoulder. And then he, being careful not to wake her up, lay her down on her side. She giggled a bit, probably feeling tickled, and then quickly curled up on her left side, and continued sleeping.
It was a delicate back. And soon, on that delicate back, would be the weight of the Holy Levahm Empire. And she would soon be stepping into the royal court, with that delicate back, into the hive of evil spirits, all of which were filled with greed to their core.
He turned off the lantern, and only the light from the stars remained on the ocean surface. Charles stepped off the boat and onto the wing of the Santa Cruz.
He felt fondness. She'd listened to his clumsy wording of the story with all of her attention, holding her breath at every turn. And that sight left him with a pang of nostalgia. Maybe his duty was to grab Fana, just like that, and fly the Santa Cruz in a direction that was neither Levahm nor Amatsukami.
How many times had he pondered this before? But the answer was already decided upon, and there was no second-guessing it. He felt pathetic.
Tomorrow, Fana was confident he would step onto the airship with her, but that was probably quite impossible. This operation was pointless if the Eighth Special Mission Fleet didn't complete it. Charles accepted this mission fully aware that his glory would be sideswiped. The tremendous reward certainly included payment for his silence. Tomorrow morning, they would part ways. All he could do now was to smile happily, so that Fana would be able to live with energy the rest of her life.
He kept persuading himself with these thoughts as he sank into the seat of the cockpit, and looked at the sky.
He covered himself in a blanket, and let his soul drift toward the countless stars as he waited for sleep. There was no wind, and the warm, summer night surrounded him, making for a difficult sleep.
The sleeves of the sky became colored, without a sound.
Countless clouds overlapped each other and became stained the color of roses. They were formed in varieties of shapes, and the silhouettes of crossing clouds slowly became golden.
Eventually, the sky was set ablaze like a wildfire from the horizon, and that crimson traveled across the sky like a caught fire.
In no time, the bright red morning sun showed its face over the horizon. The underbellies of the eastern clouds were struck by sunlight from below and reflected golden tints. The dawdling clouds were dark gray and brass-colored, with red and blue intermingled, displaying an otherworldly mix of colors difficult to describe with words.
Charles' eyes slowly opened, and he understood it was morning from the colors coming from the other side of the windshield.
Pushing off his blankets, he yawned as he stretched his back. The muscles along his body screamed, because he'd slept in such a tight space.
He poked his head out past the windshield, thinking he should wake Fana, but he realized that wouldn't be necessary.
"Good morning, Lady."
He called out, and Fana, sitting on the edge of the Santa Cruz' wing, looked up at Charles as she swung her legs back and forth.
"Good morning, Charles. Look, it's a splendid morning."
The blazing red in the sky tinted Fana's pure, white skin pink. Light reflecting off her hair melted into the ocean mist.
He noticed the rubber boat Fana was supposed to be sleeping in was no longer tied to the tail.
"I packed it away," She said, as if that was obvious. Like she wanted to say, I can do at least that much. She'd probably learned how, by watching Charles.
Charles stepped out of the cockpit, stood on a wind, and looked at the direction Fana was gazing in. The sun, coming from the east, had risen completely over the horizon, and was slicing over the clouds, emitting countless sunrays into the sky.
"It really is."
Fana straightened her back, placed both hands on the wing, kicked both of her legs out, and smiled at Charles.
"I wish we could bring the Santa Cruz with us to Esmeralda. It worked so hard for us over the trip. I feel like it's another friend."
"That's a normal feeling among pilots. Planes are battle friends you entrust your life to. It means the Lady has become a pilot, too."
"My, really? A pilot?"
"You were able to draw an enemy plane that close, and then shoot it down, so you're a first-rate pilot. I'm surprised you were able to stay silent until you got such a good chance."
"Charles, you're not just being kind, are you? Because I'm feeling really happy."
"It may sound over-the-top, but it was really incredible. I, as well as the enemy, was completely tricked. If it weren't for that, we wouldn't be here."
Fana happily smiled.
"I'm glad I was able to be of use."
Fana carefully caressed the wing under her. The plane was riddled with holes, and after being hit by so many explosions, places here and there were burnt and blackened.
It was a beautiful, glittering body on the day of departure, reflecting the sunlight perfectly, but now it was covered completely in scars, dirt, and its paint was coming off. And Fana was filled with a natural feeling of love for this wounded Santa Cruz.
Fana could understand why pilots call the planes they ride on their beloved. Because she could feel an attachment to the dirtied plane in front of her.
"When the war ends and it becomes peaceful again, I want to fly. Me, Charles, and the Santa Cruz, the three of us."
"Yes, that would be nice."
The end of his sentence was punctuated by a large explosive sound.
Charles turned around, toward the western sky that was becoming blue.
Basking in the light of the sun rising in the east, at the very edge of the western horizon was the silhouette of the pink full moon. And as if sent forth by that full moon was a jet-black airship glistening as it wavered.
That shadow was headed toward them. Vroom, vroom, the lifting device groaned like the sound of waves, even from its far distance.
Fana realized it, too, and, still seated on the wing, turned her upper body around toward the western sky. And then her eyes were filled with despair. She quickly turned back to the east, and kicked her legs back and forth, as if she never saw anything.
Charles narrowed his eyes. Roughly 10,000 meters away, at about 500 meters altitude, he tried to discern its class by its silhouette.
Surprisingly, it was an aerial battleship that had come to pick her up. It was roughly 300 meters long, probably 40 meters wide. Levahm's biggest battleship, with a displacement of over 60,000 tons.
Under the potato-bug shaped body were lifting devices shaped like sandals. From the front, it had a silhouette similar to a hanging bell. And on other side of the hanging bell was a number of crescent-shaped fortifications. He could barely make out the shadows of the cannons fixed in them. A bridge similar to the neck of a hawk was placed on the upper part of the ship, and a giant radio transmission device was spinning on top of the bridge.
It was justifiably likened to a fortress in the sky. It was probably the same type of battleship sent off in the Eighth Special Mission Fleet. They would call it the sole survivor of the Special Mission Fleet and carry Fana back to the imperial capital Esmeralda.
"Quite a welcome," He said to Fana's back, but she didn't turn.
She murmured, confirming that she heard him. "Charles is stepping on that, too, right?"
He wanted to answer, but the words got stuck in his throat, again. He didn't know how to answer. So he answered with silence.
"Right?" Fana asked, again. Charles didn't respond.
Fana tucked her legs under her and stood up on the wing, then walked toward Charles with a stern look.
Being called out thus, Charles quietly answered.
"I probably cannot ride on that ship. They'll reject it."
"Don't worry, I'll ask them," Fana said, confident. It was the same thing as yesterday. Charles opted against saying anything to rile her up anymore. They would know the outcome soon enough. What he feared was a sad parting that would scar Fana's soul.
The aerial battleship's shadow grew larger and larger. The groaning of the lifting device also grew in force. The world trembled, like it was portending misfortune.
The two of them silently watched the ship come closer. The vague silhouette gradually clarified, and the cannons and their bases could be seen in the fortifications on every surface.
About 3,000 meters away, the aerial battleship began a light descent from 500 meters altitude. The short and stout nose angled upward, and like the landing of a plane, it dragged its tail into the ocean, settled into an angle of elevation and, as it continued progressing forward, slowly returned its nose parallel with the ocean surface.
The sound of impact of the heavy clump of steel displacing 60,000 tonnes was like the ominous rumbling of distant thunder. Mist sprayed on either side like the parting of the ocean, rising higher than the height of the ship itself, and it boomed as mist obscured the battleship for an instant.
The generals on the bridge had already found the Santa Cruz. Slowly, they turned, and at around 1,000 meters distance it came to a stop, its port-side facing them.
The big wave created by the ship reached them. The Santa Cruz wobbled, and Charles held Fana's hand.
They locked eyes. And their intertwined fingers held fast to each other.
For a moment, Fana looked like she would cry, but she quickly erased that with a smile.
"Congratulations, Charles. You were able to do something no one else could do."
"We, were able to do it. If the Lady hadn't saved the Santa Cruz, I would be fish-feed right now."
"Stop deferring so much, you should puff your chest out and be proud. Even if no one else knows, I'll always remember what Charles did."
They saw a small boat lowered by crane from the port-side of the battleship. The moment the boat hit water, its motor began running, and it sailed toward them, leaving white foam in its wake.
It was so fast it felt boorish, and after looking at the small boat going in a straight line toward them, Fana looked up at Charles.
Under the sunrise light, the two embraced, circling their arms around each other.
Fana placed an ear to Charles' thin chest. She could feel Charles' heartbeat from across the flight suit stained with the odor of metal hydride gas.
It was beating to the same tune as Fana's. No matter what class they were, his heartbeat was the same as Fana's, the rhythm of a person.
Softly embracing Fana, Charles spoke the thankful words he'd always wanted to say.
"When I was a kid, I was really happy the Lady treated me as a person. Up to that point, I'd never been treated as a person."
"… … … …"
"After that, there were times I felt like it'd be easier to go bad, but I'd always remember the Lady, and it supported me. Because someone of such grand stature had bothered with someone like me, so I resolved to live a life I could be proud of, as payment."
"Stop, it sounds like you’re saying words of parting."
Fana gripped Charles.
"Charles is getting on that ship with me. And we'll go to Esmeralda together. And you'll quit being a pilot during the war, and become a cook. You should start a store, with the reward."
Charles forced himself to respond to Fana's request. His honest feelings welled up from his heart, and moved his mouth.
"I may do that when the war ends. But for as long as the war continues, I shall continue to be a pilot. I can't just run away, leaving my comrades. Even now, they're fighting with enemies they don't hate, and dying. Dying alone in the sky, with no one to mourn for them."
When Charles finished speaking, a rough, crude voice angrily shouted.
"Get away from her!"
The little boat had arrived next to the Santa Cruz. One was a well-built, relatively prime?of-life officer with two whiskers, and the other seven were young high-ranked officers.
The prime-of-life officer had shouted. Fury was in the back of his eyes, and his lips were trembling with anger as he shouted.
"What are you doing? Learn your place and get away, get away from her you fool."
His anger was directed at Charles. He immediately released her, and opened his palms and placed them next to his head, like he was showing he had no weapons.
The seven officers ran up to the Santa Cruz. And like they were tearing a victim away from a kidnapper, surrounded Fana, and dragged her to the little boat.
"Hey, wait, wait!"
Fana's voice was close to a scream. But the officers ignored Fana's resistance, and as if carrying her, took her from the wing to the boat.
"Stop, listen to me!"
Fana was desperately struggling whilst being held down. But no one would listen to her.
Charles glared at the officer with whiskers.
"Pretty rough handling of the empress."
The whiskered officer ignored that, and shoulders still trembling, shouted.
"I didn't see anything. What you and the empress were doing, while we were coming. Nothing."
After yelling his furious words, he put his hand to his chin, and scratched his beard, irritated.
One of the young officers was carrying a bag with the payment over his shoulder, and he stepped onto the Santa Cruz. When the whiskered officer coughed, the bag was thrown to Charles' feet, making a heavy thud. It was like feeding a dog.
Charles was used to this sort of class treatment. It hurt him inside, but he couldn't show it.
"You're not going to confirm it?"
The whiskered officer called to Charles, who wasn't moving to open the bag. Charles responded by shrugging his shoulders.
"Strange fellow. Here, I'll check it for you."
The whiskered officer hunkered over, as if being humiliated, and opened the bag. Inside was literally pure gold. The reward for this operation was five kilograms of Martilia gold. Even his white beard was reflected in gold.
Hem, he cleared his throat, and then the prime-of-life officer stuck his thick hands into the bag, and scooped a bit, as if to show it off to Charles.
"With this much money, there's no need for you to keep working as a mercenary. You could make a love haven filled with beautiful women and live your life in ecstasy. Damn, you've made off well."
The prime-of-life officer's hand was filled with golden sand. Each bit of sand was the size of a cacao bean, and if you were to crush one in your hand, it would make a clean sound as it broke, dropping beautiful golden powder into the area.
The whisker looked up disgustingly at Charles as he put the gold he'd scooped up into his pocket. Then, standing up, he patted Charles' shoulder.
"I'll stay silent about what I just saw. Thank me. If I were to tell him the truth, you'd be executed tomorrow."
That was the trade with the pocket full of gold. Charles was speechless, and simply shook his head.
He'd just finished a mission that would change the battlefield, and was given neither merit nor thanks. He was simply thrown a silencing fee, and blackmailed over a trivial thing.
This was the truth of the Empire's class structure that he'd lived with all his life. Bestado weren't treated as humans in this kingdom. He knew that, but he still felt torn by it.
The whiskered man left Charles on the Santa Cruz and stepped onto the little boat. Fana screamed, still being held down by the young officers.
"No! Charles, Charles is coming, too!"
The man was stupefied by Fana. The empress-to-be was worrying this much over a refugee mercenary, and he couldn't comprehend why.
With an irritated order, the little boat's motor began groaning. The tail of the boat left behind white foam, and the calm ocean surface was split apart.
Fana's scream was covered by the motor's rumbling. Her expression contorted, Fana was trying to get back to the Santa Cruz. But the officers lined the back of the boat, stopping her, and covered her view of Charles.
Charles couldn't move. He thought he should say something, but he was a mercenary, and she was the empress of the future. They were too far apart. They weren't supposed to talk to each other, ever.
Maybe his sense of social class had been numbed because they'd been together for so long. When the whisker and his officers cut in between them, the knowledge that he was a bestado once again stabbed through him. The binding of his consciousness to being a refugee slowly awakened his weak feelings, and nailed him to the spot.
That was the last scream he heard.
The tail of the ship, for an instant, vanished into the water, and rough waves came forth from it.
Just as quickly as it came, the little boat boorishly cut through the ocean at a high speed.
Charles couldn't move.
Fana, on the small boat, became smaller and smaller, leaving behind a white trail. All he could do was stand on the wing and watch. Deep down, he was screaming, like Fana. But Charles couldn't move.
All of a sudden, wind had returned.
The white waves were showing silver sparkles.
Charles had been left behind, alone on the Santa Cruz' wing.
He looked up. Blue was beginning to win against sunrise. Light was already covering the canopy of the sky, and pure, white clouds were drifting over Charles' head.
When he looked ahead again, he saw the aerial battleship, some 1,000 meters ahead, lower a wire hook to bring the little boat with Fana up.
The bag, its mouth still opened, lay at his feet. He kneeled down and put his hand into the bag, scooping with his hand like the whisker. The golden beans looked even prettier with the aquamarine backdrop.
He re-wound the bag shut, carried it over his shoulder, and stepped into the cockpit. Sitting down in the cockpit, he tossed the payment into the back seat, and looked at the dashboard.
He would have to go to the La Pista airbase some 110 kilometers away on Cyon island. Then, he'd join with the Levahm airforce, receive a single-seat fighter plane, and join combat. The airbase was being attacked on a daily basis, and he heard they were constantly under the threat of ambush. He felt like he'd never return to San Martilia alive. Or rather, he didn't even know if there was a point in returning. After all, the only thing that awaited him was a battle against despair.
Like the whiskers had said, with this much money, he could live elegantly, not bothering to return to the fight. But he wasn't the type to be able to do that. Other pilots were fighting for their lives, so he would, too. To Charles, that was the obvious thing to do.
He turned to the back seat. Fana was no longer there.
Behind his determination to return to battle was an empty feeling inside of him.
Fana would probably be crying, by now. In the end, all they did was have a sad parting. He felt guilty over not being able to do anything when it mattered, and that heavy pain filled his lungs.
But what could he have done? It was decided that they would part, today, and he had no right to say anything to the high-ranking officials. On the surface, it was always be treated any which way, and get trampled over. For Charles, born into the refugee class, that was the only way to live.
The Santa Cruz' propeller began turning. The aquamarine plane began blowing mist, and slowly moved forward.
At the edge of his sight, the aerial battleship was blowing mist everywhere. The lifting device' rumbling was swirling the waves, and a whirlpool was born in the battleship's surrounding, with dense mist forming around it.
After the Santa Cruz' floats had kicked off of the ocean surface, the aerial battleship also belatedly began its ascent. Amidst the milky-white mist, waves spread out from the battleship. It was like a storm under the battleship.
And the two ships, one big, one large, that ascended into the sky, pointed their noses in opposite directions. Charles to the La Pista airbase, toward the awaiting enemy; the battleship to the imperial capital Esmeralda, where the celebration parade was undergoing its final preparations. The battleship hovered at about 1,000 meters’ altitude, turning its long body clockwise with a groan.
The Santa Cruz ascended, turning its tail to the battleship, without wagging its wings.
At about 3,000 meters’ altitude, Charles looked behind him.
The battleship, far in the distance, simply looked like the size of a seagull. Awaiting clouds tried to hide it.
I can't see Fana anymore.
Those words popped into his mind when he wasn't expecting it.
Fana's probably crying.
The words kept coming, ignoring his will.
No, maybe these were the words of the Santa Cruz. He could feel something coming through the control stick he was gripping with both hands.
I have to say farewell to her.
The words soaked into the deepest parts of Charles' consciousness. He didn't know whose words they were. Maybe they were his, maybe they were the Santa Cruz', or maybe they were voices from a part of himself he never knew existed. He didn't know whose voice it was, but the words reverberated around the bottom of his soul.
Let's go back.
As the voice echoed, he felt strength rise from the bottom of his gut. Like clear and pure torrents washing away tiny millet grains floating on the surface of a river, all of Charles' shallow facades were overwhelmed by that strength, crumbling away like a castle built of sand.
Charles found his voice overlapping with that voice. The control stick was naturally tilted to the side. The Santa Cruz' propellers responded to the rudder's movement, and let out a high-pitched wail. To Charles, it sounded like the Santa Cruz was rejoicing.
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