Yellow sunlight poured onto the dark-gray floor, shining through the bulletproof gla.s.s windows that covered every side of the aerial battleship.
El Bastel. That was the name of the aerial battleship, hastily dispatched to escort Fana to the imperial capital. Of course, that wasn't its real name, but because of the imperial family's needs the ship took the name of the fallen Eight Special Mission Fleet's battleship. It would arrive at the imperial capital as if it were the real El Bastel.
Ridiculous. El Bastel's Captain Marcus Guerrero clasped his hands behind his back, gazed at the blue sky beyond the gla.s.s, and sighed deeply.
Deep wrinkles covered his forehead. His eyes, set deep in his face, were a light-absorbing brown, and hair that protruded from his beautifully ornamented officer's cap showed tints of white. He was the sight typical of a veteran general who'd spent countless moons on the battlefield.Captain Marcus turned his deep-colored eyes to the future empress, Fana del Moral.
"I want to take that pilot with me! He's the very reason I'm safe!"
Her crazy, disgraceful behavior had settled down, but now her tearful eyes were filled with fury, and forcing her tired, cracking voice, she continued to make demands of Marcus.
Once again, without showing it on his face, he silently sighed.
Currently, in the command room that was also the highest-level room on the bridge, was Marcus and Fana, the whiskered officer, and two younger officers guarding the exit so that Fana wouldn't escape from the room. He'd left ship command to the vice-captain, and he was trying to settle Fana down so the ship's morale wouldn't sink. Making a sad face, he tried to come up with excuses to the imperial prince's fiancee.
"I was ordered by the imperial prince to bring back only the Lady. I don't have the power to do anything else."
"That's terrible, absolutely horrible! Is this what the proud Levahm imperial family does? Treating the pilot that risked his life to accomplish his mission like a dog?! Tossing him food and leaving him in the middle of nowhere … is this what people normally do?!"
"My Lady, please, calm down."
Marcus shot a painful look at the whiskered officer behind Fana. It was he that forcibly brought Fana, and that had enraged her even further.Silently scolded, the whiskered officer cleared his throat, and spoke. "The Lady is far too fond of that pilot."
Fana's eyes glared at the whiskered officer. But he hardly twitched as he continued, haughtily. "That man, when he saw the gold, drooled as he leaped for it. And he climbed back into the c.o.c.kpit without even a glance at the Lady."
"Liar, he's not like that."
"If I may, mercenaries only work for money. Or flip that around: they'll do anything if you give them money. I don't know what sort of dream you're looking at when you see him, but he's just a vulgar thing that jumped onto the mission for money. Maybe he was acting like a knight whilst he was with you, but he'll revert to a mercenary the moment he sees money. I should have let you see his expression when he saw the gold. It was like someone looking at something worth a hundred years of love," The whiskered man declared with a sharp nod of emphasis.
Fana remembered Charles' words on the rubber boat the night before, as she tried to respond.
"Money is what motivates mercenaries. I accepted this operation for the money. That's the type of person I am."
Momentarily, Fana wavered. That can't be, she thought, and she tried to shake away the words. But then she remembered more words from Charles that confirmed the whiskered officer's words.
"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."
Fana's eyes became filled with tears again. Even though she'd cried and screamed and struggled so much on the little boat, she still hadn't run out of tears.
"Liar, liar! Charles isn't like that!" Though even as she said this, her words no longer had the same strength as before.
Marcus looked at Fana with painful eyes, shot an angry look at the whiskered officer to shut him up, and silently looked at the sky again.
The Santa Cruz had already flown away. Marcus felt pity for the pilot. He had flown and successfully broken through the central ocean blockade alone, yet he would never receive any accolades. He had been called upon only to wipe the rears of the catastrophic failure of the Eighth Special Mission Fleet. Marcus felt embarra.s.sed of imperial prince Carlo, who was simply trying to take the glory of rescuing Fana.
That was when he saw something strange through the window.
As if pa.s.sing by the battleship El Bastel, a fighter-like thing closed in from the cloud. He narrowed his eyes, thinking it was an enemy, but it was wagging its wings. And Marcus immediately recognized the plane as the Santa Cruz.
Fana's voice echoed around the command room. The Santa Cruz lazily spread its wings, and with a soft rumbling of its propeller, flew around the aerial battleship. The light rattling of its flight beat against the bridge window.
The whiskered officer muttered, irritated, "What is he up to? A mere mercenary making himself equal to an imperial vessel?"
Fana ignored the words and pressed herself against the window, waving her hand to Charles. She choked out words.
"Charles, I'm sorry, Charles."
They'd been forced apart like that because she'd shallowly thought they could go to Esmeralda together. She understood that Charles had returned for a proper farewell.
But she couldn't see Charles' face from here, and he probably couldn't see her. It looked like he was flying around the battleship, looking for her. They were too far apart.
Fana looked along the port-side of the El Bastel and caught sight of a crescent-shaped fortification. The base for a cannon was sticking outside, and she'd be able to look out into the sky from there.
Fana turned to Marcus. Pointing at the fortification, she furrowed her brow as she said, "Please, I want to go there. Let me out."
The whiskered man, not Marcus, responded. "How are you planning to disgrace yourself, now? The Lady is the fiancée of the imperial prince. We cannot allow you to roam about and act improperly."
"I just want to say a proper farewell. How is saying farewell to a man who saved my life countless times improper?"
"You are not permitted. There are 2,000 crew members here. We cannot have you do anything that could lead to misconceptions."
Fana, shoulders were trembling from irritation, walked straight to the entrance and glared at the two officers blocking her way by the heavy, steel door.
The two of them clasped their hands behind their backs, unmoving, like statues. The whiskered man continued to throw words at her back.
"The Lady has not yet officially wed into the imperial house. You may give them orders once you've become the empress. You must understand your place."
The words were like needles at Fana's face. She felt like she was about to explode with anger.
Fana slowly turned to the whiskered man.
And from the bottom of her gut, the feeling of an incredible power was rising.
Fana didn't understand it, either; something primal welled forth, bringing about strength from every inch of her body.
This was something that had been lying dormant inside Fana for a long time. Something that was Fana, and yet not Fana, yet unquestionably something that belonged to her - and it was slowly seeping into her thoughts, her mind, and her body, through every pore.
When it had finished gathering inside Fana, like a torrent, one phrase echoed through the command room, from the bottom of her soul.
In that instant, lightning pierced through the whiskered man. Electricity coated in words paralyzed his whole body.
The silver-white eyes, harboring deep color that sucked away your soul, stared straight at him.
"'Learn your place'? Who do you think you're talking to?" Without mercy, Fana's words, as if ripping through the heavens, continued to stab through the whiskered officer.
Her words were no different than before. But because of her presence, the strength of emotions behind them great. And her feelings, suppressed inside her for so long, hammered against the whiskered man, making him tremble.
He could no longer speak. He was clearly being spoken down to by a girl a third his age. Her eyes weren't filled with fury, but if at all possible, pity. Emotions like that of someone looking down on a trembling rodent, three steps away.
The two silver-white eyes, still overflowing with strength, then turned to stab at the two officers guarding the door. That moment, both of them were also shot with pressured lightning, and they stood up erect, then looked away from Fana, cowed.
The moist cherry-blossom lips opened, and like thunder, Fana's order came down on them.
She said the same words, but the power behind them was on a different level. It was the voice of someone otherworldly, with the power to force people into submission. Coupled with that was Fana's beauty, like that of absolute light, no, even more absolute. It was twice, four times, no, thousands of times brighter, like the light of heaven.
Unbelievable beauty made people feel inferior. It made them feel like they lived in vain, like they wanted to just bask in the light. The two officers shot pleading glances to Marcus.
Marcus nodded, slowly and deeply.
"Let her through."
Fana turned around. Her eyes were not joyful, but looked like they expected more from Marcus.
"Escort Lady Fana where she pleases. Don't be rude."
Thus ordered, the two officers felt relief wash through them. Saluting, fingertips to temples, they snapped their heels together and opened the steel door for Fana.
Was Fana watching?
Charles could only hope, as he flew around the El Bastel over and over again, eyeing the 60,000 ma.s.s of steel that flew on the other side of his windshield.
The steel fortress ripped through the air with tremendous noises, dissipating clouds beneath it with its lifting devices, treating them as nothing significant at its alt.i.tude of 3,000 meters.
Its thick steel hull was silver gray, and the arched body included four 40cm main cannons, four 23cm secondary cannons, and sixteen anti-air batteries on each side. There were no stationed gunners because it was not in combat, but if every gun was managed, an island would be eliminated from the map within a night.
If he got too close to the aerial battleship, there was the danger of being ripped apart by the air stream set forth by the lifting devices. That was why Charles was flying at a radius of 500 meters with the El Bastel at the center of his circle.
If Fana were there, she would probably be at the bridge, shaped like a beaver tail near the back of the potato-bug-like body. The command room was at the top floor, surrounded by gla.s.s - it was likely she was watching from there.
He wanted to wave his hand. As long as they could part happily, that was enough. Not to leave behind a sad memory, but one they could look back on, and smile at. He wanted that sort of conclusion. That was all that he was thinking of.
Then…in one of the crescent-shaped fortifications on the right side, he saw a little girl step out, wearing a white flight-suit he'd become accustomed to seeing.
No other fortification was manned. Alone, she stood by the side of an 88mm anti-air battery, looking at the Santa Cruz.
There was no mistake about it. Her hair shifting in the high-alt.i.tude wind, Fana raised a hand, and in tandem with Charles' wagging wings, slowly waved her hand, once, twice, three times. He could make out what she was shouting by looking at her lips. He couldn't hear her, but he understood that it was a farewell.
Charles slid back his windshield and answered by waving.
She'd probably done something reckless and managed to get permission from the officials standing behind her. He had no way of knowing what she did, but the sight of her standing there alone made him proud.
"Dance with me, Charles."
From the back of his mind came Fana's request, that night on the ocean. He couldn't answer her, then. But here, 3,000 meters in the air, the stage was set for him and the Santa Cruz.
For Fana, who was entering the savage world of the imperial court, this was the least he could do. Hitting the throttle, he raised his nose to the sky. The Santa Cruz flew straight up, past the aerial battleship.
Bands of mist, cold, thin, and transparent, flew past Fana as she stood by the anti-air cannon.
If she were to reach out, she could touch the sky. Far below her, beyond the guardrail that only reached up to her waist, was a thick, aquamarine ocean, so calm that she couldn't make out any white waves.
Even though she was standing there, unprotected by anything at such a high alt.i.tude, she didn't feel any fear. There was nothing that could enter Fana's mind, now. What was filling her heart to its brim was the dancing of the Santa Cruz in the summer sky, dominating its theatrical stage.
Silver wings cruised along the blue canopy of the sky.
Taking advantage of the power output of the propeller and gravity, it quickly paced left and right, like it was stepping through the sky, and it charged forward, and it drew a circle in the sky using its tail as a pivot, and as it did a roll it stopped, quickly and precisely, like the hands of a clock, and now it was doing somersaults while rolling sideways. When it was almost done somersaulting, it suddenly turned on its back, then plummeted toward the ocean. Fana was about to cry out when the Santa Cruz, far below the aerial battleship, stabilized itself like nothing had happened, and began dancing left and right like a puppy chasing a b.u.t.terfly, and began drawing circles in the summer sky, a symphony of movement.
Fana gulped as she stared, mesmerized by the dance of Charles and the Santa Cruz. If Fana had been seated in the back, she would have lost consciousness out of dizziness. It was that elegant, that beautiful a flight, so free and controlled. Even birds in the sky couldn't dance like this.
Were planes supposed to be able to draw such complex patterns in the sky? Was the Santa Cruz really supposed to be able to dance, so softly, so violently, so beautifully? She forgot time as she let her heart flow with the gentle curves and straight lines he shaped for her.
She realized that crew members had piled into the fortifications on the side of the battleship, watching Charles' aerial show, applauding and cheering. They had all been stressed out by the war, but the sudden gift from the sky filled them with joy.
Cheers and whistles were echoed every time a big stunt was performed. Smiles lined the side of the ship. Eventually, the battleship stopped moving altogether, and began observing Charles' dancing. It was probably the captain's orders. Fana thanked him from the bottom of her heart, and with the crew members, began cheering, applauding, and waving.
For one moment, when the Santa Cruz flew by Fana at her level, she was able to see his expression. He was laughing, too. And then, with a mischievous thought, he lowered himself, gained speed, and ascended.
The Santa Cruz flew high., higher and higher, until it was a black spot over Fana's head.
And then a golden light began to dance from the plane.
Fana stared up, narrowed her eyes, and stared at the golden-colored beans falling from the sky.
That … couldn't be …
It couldn't be. But Charles would do it.
Golden-colored beans tossed from the windshield fell over her head. Catching one in her palms, she realized her guess was right.
She looked up and saw Charles making tight turns over the ship, sticking one hand out of the windshield, tossing the contents of the bag into the sky. The hollow beans were crushed into powder by the air, and fell down around the battleship like a golden morning fog.
The crew members that had been watching on the fortifications realized that golden sand was falling. That moment, cheers erupted, and everyone began poking their hands out, to catch the golden dust. Everyone's cheers and happy expressions were raised to the sky, all of them stretching out both hands, to try and catch the dancing powder.
Fana continued watching the Santa Cruz, dancing overhead, and the trails of gold left behind by the silver-gray ship. Kicked around by the propeller and its air-stream, the golden beans were crushed, smashed against each other, tossed and dispersed by the wind. And with time, the aerial battleship was covered in gold.
"Idiot," she whispered again.
But this time she sounded resigned. Charles had no interest in the values of the surface, because he lived above it. To him, gold was simply an ornament for the sky.
The gold-colored mist had come to surround Fana. The dense, summer sky acted as a backdrop as golden mist rained down, and with every gust of wind, the mist would float, like a veil being lifted, and sunlight reflecting between the beans glittered. And then those motes of light struggled to descend again, caught between the guidance of gravity and the side-cutting wind, toyed with by the airstreams shot forth by the lifting devices. Like streams of water coursing through the air, like thousands of fireflies, they crashed into each other, danced, mingled, and created a scene she would never be able to see again.
This scene was Charles' farewell gift.
As a mere prop, he'd thrown his payment into the sky to make this moment eternal. Fana realized that.
The entire sky looked like it was painted blue, and as the Santa Cruz began flying away, its clean silhouette glistened with trails of golden light.
"Charles," She breathed.
Fana climbed onto the anti-air gun to her side, because she thought it'd take her closer to the sky. And then she arched her back, and breathed in deeply.
The particles of light that had been a trail for the plane became more and more scattered. And she knew that when it dissipated completely, it would be time to part.
She felt tears welling, but she forced them away. Instead, she smiled. Because she felt that was the only way to repay him. Along with a big smile, she stretched out her arms, like wings, and then embraced the golden sky Charles had left behind.
It was an irreplaceable moment. She would treasure this forever.
And she would never forget. No matter how tough things got, how sad she might feel from now on, she'd always return to this golden sky. Because she knew this place and this moment flew far beyond the providence and reasoning of the ground.
So she smiled. She waved her hands. And toward the pilot she'd fallen in love with, toward the scarred Santa Cruz, she sent her parting regrets with every inch of her body.
Throwing the empty bag out of the windshield, Charles, now feeling lighter, straightened the ship, and looked down at the battleship.
The crew members that were watching from the fortification were trying to scoop out the golden sand from the sky. After a moments' worry for their safety, he began looking for the one Fana was on.
Amidst the golden dust, he could see her, standing on an anti-air artillery, smiling.
With the golden particles behind her, she looked straight into the sky, and, smiling, stretched her arms out, like a sunflower.
Her lips were thanking him countless times.
Good bye! Good bye!
Those words, which had no way of reaching him, for some reason sounded themselves clearly to him.
Tilting the plane to the side, and reaching out with his right hand, he waved twice, thrice. And then, he smiled at Fana.
Then, he turned to the steeple of clouds beyond his windshield.
Countless pure, white clouds were chained together beyond the bright, azure sky, bouncing and reflecting the bright sunlight.
Cyon island was beyond that steeple.
When he was a child wandering the Amadora region, he'd looked to the sky as he lay down on his side, awaiting death, having given up on finding a meaning to his life. And then, he thought it would be wonderful if he could live in the beautiful sky. This moment, just as he'd wished back then, he was able to fly freely in the sky. As if someone had listened to his prayers, and guided him.
Let's go, then. To where I belong.
He hit the throttle. The Santa Cruz sped up. The high-pitched groan of the propeller sounded victorious as it shook the air.
Standing on the five-meter-long cannon, Fana waved without stopping. She wasn't standing on anything steady, but she wasn't afraid. When the Santa Cruz looped over Fana, it began flying toward Cyon island.
The golden particles still floating through the air covered the Santa Cruz as it left. And that golden color eventually dissipated in the wind. And as if everything was just a dream, the blanket of light melted into the color of the sky.
Her voice scratchy, she shouted the same thing, over and over again, to the sky.
"Thank you, Charles. Thank you."
She heard the propeller groan. To Fana, it sounded like the Santa Cruz' parting words.
"Good bye, Charles. Good bye, Santa Cruz."
Her choked words vanished into the sky. The flowing wind swept everything away in that moment, and the blue sky dominated the world again, as if nothing had been there at all.
Lowering her hand, she stared at the plane vanishing into the distance.
That which sparked silver-gray in the sunlight lost color as it grew further, became a tiny black dot, and vanished into the clouds. She could make out the wings stretched left and right wagging as it left, but eventually she couldn't even see that.
Still standing on the cannon, Fana stared at the airs.p.a.ce left behind by Charles. Countless clouds began overlapping, covering and hiding the azure of the sky.
That which she'd been holding back began trickling down her face, then was blown away by the wind, toward the back of the ship.
The translucent droplets didn't stop. She wiped them away with the sleeves of her flight suit over and over again, but they were constantly replaced.
Wind blew through her heart. It still hurt, but she forced herself to smile, feeling like the clear wind was cheering her up.
She didn't know if she was able to keep smiling. The next time she met Charles, she hoped she'd be able to smile more maturely.
A pure white c.u.mulonimbus cloud stood like a wall in front of the El Bastel.
And the clouds continued growing into the sky. Higher and higher, they became giant columns of clouds in the summer. An endless expanse of azure cleared to the edge of the world, as if giving blessing to Fana's future.
The iciness that had accompanied her when she'd departed melted away as she stared at the path she was to take. Now there was only one, crisp woman who confidently strode forth, chin up and chest out, proudly, as she accepted what she was born with.
And the traces of the woman who would be called Empress Fana Levahm, named by Imperial Amatsukami as the "Mother of the Western Sea, could be seen in her white profile.
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