When his eyes opened, heavy, dense clouds were gathered beyond the windshield.
Sliding the windshield back, Charles poked his head out of the c.o.c.kpit.
Cloud density seven or eight. The eastern sun hadn't risen above the horizon yet. He could barely hear the waves washing the floats, and the salty wind caressed his face.
The second morning.
He extended his arms into the air and stretched backward.
Then, stepping onto the plane from the c.o.c.kpit, he slid his arms through the flight suit hanging from the propeller.
It hadn't fully dried yet and was uncomfortable. If he were alone he'd prefer to fly in his pants, but because of Fana he couldn't.
Fana's flight suit was also only half-dried. But she only had this and the swimsuit. Walking to the tail with her flight suit in hand, he jumped onto the boat.
Fana slept curled up like a child.
With an innocent look, hands clasped together, and barely-audible breath coming through her barely-open lips. Her blanket was only up to her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, and her neck and shoulders were exposed.
Charles' sight went automatically to her b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Hidden by her swimsuit, sure, but that didn't hide their form, and Charles learned she was hiding a lot of herself under her clothing. Or to be more precise, he'd never before met someone who hid so much of her form with clothing, and probably never would again.
On an endless ocean, alone with a girl of absolute beauty.
Charles clung desperately to reason. He held up his feeling of servitude that had been fostered since he was young, suppressed the animal nature inside him, and twisting his neck against its will, peeled his eyes away. Like ripping apart a tree with bare hands, he finally managed to look away from Fana, and, maintaining his calm, called to her.
"Good morning, Lady."
Fana's eyes slowly opened. Charles' back was to her.
Fana slowly pushed herself up, and realized her blanket wasn't covering up to her neck. Hurriedly she pulled it up, and ended up looking like she was wearing one big robe.
"It's still only half-dry, but if possible..."
Charles turned half of his face to Fana, and held out the flight suit. Fana also stuck her arm out of the blankets, took it, and held it to her.
"Yes, I can wear it."
"Okay, then. If you could please change now, I'd like to leave before the sun rises. I'll be in the c.o.c.kpit."
Awkwardly, Charles picked up the cooking stove and jumped onto a wing.
Fana only stuck her head through the flight suit, and with it covering her, took off her swimsuit. She didn't like the feeling of wet clothing touching her skin directly, but she had to tolerate it.
After confirming that Fana had gotten into the back seat, Charles jumped back out of the c.o.c.kpit, walked to the tail, let the air out of the rubber boat, and tucked it back into the plane. With that done, he ran back to the front seat.
"Alright, here goes the second day. As before, please keep watch at the back."
With that short exchange, Charles started the engine. The propeller began spinning, the floats made some small waves, and the tail, which had been slightly underwater, rose into the twilight with a splash.
By the time the sun rose over the horizon, the Santa Cruz had already punctured the clouds and climbed diagonally into the air.
That day the clouds were plentiful, perfect for covert operations.
Like a skipping stone, Charles jumped from cloud to cloud, calmly heading north west.
Before they'd said a word to each other, the sun had already climbed past the Santa Cruz, and began falling to the west. Charles' sight became covered by light, making his watch difficult. He put on his flight goggles to shade his eyes from the light.
Fana, in the back seat, was devoting all of her attention to keeping watch.
Until they pa.s.sed the Great Fall, they would simply be heading toward more and more enemies, the head pilot had mentioned before he'd taken off. To get past the central ocean, they had to find the enemy before they were found. Over the course of the two weeks of training, Fana had heard that over and over again. Without getting bored of the monotony of the sky, Fana kept concentrating.
And then — she saw something.
Voice pipe in hand, she told Charles.
"Upper-right corner, I see a light between the clouds."
Charles turned his neck toward the designated area. "Right" and "left" used in the plane were based on the nose. He saw a stretch of clouds at 5,500 meters alt.i.tude, but he couldn't see anything.
"I don't see anything."
"I saw it past the cloud with the ragged bottom."
Fana was referring not to the stratus cloud near them, but one far behind them, about 7,000 meters alt.i.tude, a cirrostratus cloud that looked like its bottom had been punctured with a needle several times. It was at least 1,500 meters horizontally from them.
After a moment, Charles' facial muscles twitched.
As Fana had said, for just an instant, there was a light that flashed beyond the cloud. The enemy propeller had probably reflected the sun. For her to have caught sight of something that far away with her naked eyes was amazing.
"It's an enemy plane. That's incredible."
"Are we being chased?"
"Let's pray we're not."
Charles flew into a cloud that would obstruct them from the enemy. Fana stared at the line, over 1,000 meters away.
"It's not coming, it's going away."
Hearing Fana, Charles looked behind again.
Between the clouds, Charles' trained eyes re-located the earlier light. He could see the light wasn't going in the Santa Cruz' direction. The enemy hadn't found them. Charles exhaled in relief. He picked up the voice pipe.
"That's one thing gone. It means the Lady's eyesight beat theirs. That was splendid work."
Charles spoke no lie. If Fana could do that, then breaking the 12,000 kilometer blockade might not be a pipe dream.
"It was just one plane, so it was probably a patrol plane. If we were found, it would have sent a radio to its mothership, and we would have had to take on an immeasurable number of fighter planes. That was close."
"Was that good?"
"Yes. Of course."
Fana also exhaled with relief at Charles's words.
"But this isn't the end of it. Please keep watching."
Gathering her focus again, Fana hung the voice pipe on the wall again.
She began staring at the sky again. Come to think of it, she hadn't retreated behind the gla.s.s wall even once today. She'd been staring at the reality in front of her with all her might.
It felt strange.
Before they'd left, she couldn't make herself care about what would happen to her. Yet here she was, staring at reality in the face, and feeling alive again. Perhaps it was because she was treading the line between life and death. No, it might be more than that.
She had fun talking to Charles over the voice pipe.
His voice coming through the metal speakers was sometimes nervous, sometimes extraordinarily polite, sometimes relieved, sometimes angry. He was throwing words directly at Fana, without hiding anything. That felt refreshing.
I want to hear his voice more.
Fana realized she'd begun thinking that way. They were so close that if she were to turn around, she could see each individual strand of his hair, but they were too distant for conversation. If Fana were to pick up the voice pipe and suddenly begin talking, Charles would probably be stupefied.
But if she were to find another light, she could call Charles.
Because of that, Fana kept her eyes peeled, watching the sky.
Afterwards, Fana found two more dots of light, and told Charles. Each time, Charles would use the clouds to avoid them, while speaking to Fana through the voice pipe.
She knew they were in a life-or-death situation.
But Fana was having fun. She felt like she could feel his heartbeat through the seat. There were some sharp turns, climbs, descents, and even some things that caused her to want to vomit as he steered through clouds, but she never felt like she wanted to run. She had felt that way so often, surrounded by House del Moral tutors.
The ocean was being swallowed by darkness again.
The sun, settling under the horizon, coloured the clouds' underbellies bra.s.s, and the direction Charles was heading in was turned into a complex mix of indigo blue, white and gold.
With the miniature sky as the background, the Santa Cruz turned to an elegant angle of elevation, and landed on its floats on the golden ocean.
Having left behind white trails, Charles made sure the plane had come to a stop, took off his flight goggles, opened the windshield, and stood on the wing.
"Thank you for your hard work, My Lady. We are still safe."
Charles happily opened the rear windshield and gave Fana a hand to help her onto the wing.
"You saved me so much today. To be honest, when we took off, I thought I would have to keep watch over the rear, but that was a complete error on my part. Most pilots haven't half your skill at keeping watch."
"You're praising me too much."
"No, not at all. Because of you, we were able to avoid at least two aerial fights. At this rate, we might be able to smoothly go through the central ocean."
She could tell Charles was flushed, even amidst the red sky. He looked truly happy. Fana felt embarra.s.sed.
The second day's travels had finished, and Charles was in high spirits. He had wondered what would happen when he heard about the imperial prince's letter, but the enemy patrols weren't that great. The day had gone so well that he wondered if the enemy had pilots capable of following Charles, and observers capable of beating Fana.
"Let's have our evening meal. You may not like rations, so let's try fishing. Hold on."
With that, Charles buried his head into the plan's body, and took out two fishing rods. Fana looked at him suspiciously.
"Yes. If we can catch some, we can have a good dinner. If we can't, we'll just have to make do with rations."
"Like a fisherman."
"Would you like to try your hand?"
With a carefree smile, Charles held out a fishing rod to Fana.
Fana accepted the simple fishing rod. It was simply a hook protruding from a metal bait.
Both of them sat down on the rubber boat and dropped their lines.
The sunset slowly disappeared from the western sky, and the summer night descended on the ocean. The infinite night sky, the endless bottom of the ocean, and the bottomless silence greeted them. Using the plate-covered cooking stove as a light, they quietly held their fishing rods.
Even Fana understood that the waters.p.a.ce they were on was controlled by the Amatsukami air fleet. Yet, she found it strange she was there, fishing in enemy waters.
And she didn't feel any fear, but a mysterious sense of peace.
When the sky had become filled with stars, Charles disappointingly said, after they'd both sat on the boat for some time.
"Are you hungry?"
"No, I'm fine. I don't have much of an appet.i.te."
All day, Fana had only nibbled a bit on bread. Ever since they'd left Rio de Este, her stomach had been constantly jostled by the plane and boat, so it wasn't accepting food.
"How about you, Mr. Pilot?"
"Sorry, I'm actually starving."
"Oh my. Well I guess we should keep trying to fish. If Mr. Pilot were to starve to death here, I'd be lonely by myself."
As she joked, Fana shook her fishing rod left and right. Then—
"Oh. It just, kind of, twitched."
"Oh dear, it's, it's moving."
"M..My Lady, you caught one, carefully, carefully."
"I'm-I'm scared, it's, it's really being pulled."
As she said, the fishing rod was being pulled heavily. Fana was using all of her strength to hang onto the fishing rod, but the catch was stronger. Fana's body kept sliding forward, and as much as the boat may have been built for military use, that didn't mean it had flawless footing.
He wanted to help, but Charles didn't know how, but when she called for help, he threw everything to the wind.
"Please excuse me, my Lady."
Apologizing, he quickly went behind Fana, and put his arms around her to grip the fishing rod. It looked like he was embracing her. He continued apologizing.
"Umm, this isn't meant to be vulgar. I just think this is the only way to keep the boat's balance."
"N-no, it-it's fine."
"Lady, this is definitely a big catch. Pull on three, okay?"
Fana gripped the fishing rod tighter with a determined look. The boat kept shaking, and the footing was becoming dangerous. And Charles's voice, right to her ear was ticklish. She could feel his chest on her back. And the arms wrapped around her from behind. Naturally, she blushed.
"My Lady, here we go."
"One, two, three!"
Unaware that Fana was thinking of other things, Charles suddenly pulled. Snapping out of it, Fana, though late, also pulled.
With a big splash, a large fish -at least five kilograms in size -flew out, danced into the air while waving its fins and, somehow, free-fell diagonally right into Fana's face.
POW, Fana heard in the distance.
Fana lost her balance, and Charles, still supporting her, tried to solidify his footing for her, but the boat ended up bending sideways, and both of them ended up in an irreversible angle toward the ocean.
"Err," Was all Charles managed, before he fell head-first into the ocean, still holding Fana.
As with the night before, there was a big splash next to the Santa Cruz.
Blowing bubbles from his nose, once again, Charles embraced Fana underwater, and held onto the edge of the rubber boat.
"Again, I apologize..."
"No, I'm the one that messed up first."
Sitting on either side of the cooking stove, the two of them, for the second night in a row, covered their bare skin with a blanket to dry off.
Under the yellow crescent moon, Charles and Fana's flight suits hung on the Santa Cruz' propeller.
Trying to cheer her up, Charles smiled.
"But see, we were able to catch a fish. This big! And it's the Lady's catch."
"Yes... although I caught it with my face."
Seeing Charles' awkward laugh, Fana laughed at him.
And the two of them huddled up with their blankets. Their hearts were beating faster than the night before. Charles raised his head again, sounding cheerful when he spoke.
"Alright, lets cut it up. Have you eaten sashimi?"
"Osashimi... Amatsukami cooking? I have not."
"It's the best way to eat fresh fish. Leave it to me."
Still covered in a blanket, Charles pulled out a kitchen knife and a wooden board from the plane. Fana started thinking the plane's enclosure was a magic box.
"I'm used to long-distance flights, so I know what to bring," Charles proudly stated as he cut up the fish. In a flash, the big fish turned into three big slices, which was further cut down into tiny slivers and lined on a paper plate.
"And eaten with shouyu."
Fana, without any hesitation, used the fork handed to her and brought a slice, thinly covered in shouyu, to her mouth. After politely chewing, her silver-white eyes opened wide.
Charles smiled, picking up a sliver with chopsticks.
"Ah, yes it is."
Looking proud, Charles started munching away.
"Keep eating, Lady, without feeding yourself, you won't be able to live."
Fana didn't have much of an appet.i.te before, but pressed on by Charles, found her fork automatically moving. The skipjack tuna was meaty, juicy, and addicting.
While eating, Charles explained the rest of their trip.
"Tomorrow we'll pa.s.s through the Great Fall. It's the enemy's most closely guarded airs.p.a.ce. It'll be the most difficult part of the journey, so we'll have to be at our best."
"After the Great Fall, I'll land near the Sierre Cadis archipelago to tune the plane. When you fly three days without maintenance, the metal hydride battery starts running a risk of breaking down.
"We'll spend our third night at the archipelago, and the fourth day will be spent flying to Cyon island. La Pista air base is stationed on Cyon island, and they're in daily aerial combat with the Awashima-based Amatsukami air force. But we're not joining the fray.
"If we get that far, our journey is mostly done. Should the enemy raids be too severe, we'll ignore the La Pista air base and go straight to Cyon Island. There, I'll call the Levahm mainland, after which an airship will be sent to pick you up. They should arrive on the fifth day."
"What is Mr. Pilot going to do after the fifth day?"
"Ah, we'll be parting on Cyon island. Once my Lady has been transferred to the airship, I'll head to the La Pista airbase to join the combat."
Charles, untroubled, kept eating the delicious sashimi.
"For the people of the mainland, I'm better off not existing. Once the journey is over, the Lady will not return having been saved by a mercenary, but will miraculously return, rescued by the Eighth Special Mission Fleet."
"I heard the Eighth Special Mission Fleet was annihilated..."
"You can always make stuff up. The airship that'll pick up Lady will be called the lone surviving ship of the Fleet, and the plan is to welcome you back into the imperial capital Esmeralda with flying colors. The imperial family loves showmanship, after all."
"But... that's hiding the truth."
"The imperial court is worried about the stagnating morale of the populace of late, so that's a trivial cost for getting a ma.s.sive pro-war boost."
"And Mr. Pilot is fine with that?"
"Because I'm a mercenary. In turn, I'll given quite a sum to remain silent. So I've got no complaints."
"Is that how it is."
"That's how it is."
Charles hardly twitched as he kept eating. But Fana wasn't satisfied.
"I think that's wrong. Mr. Pilot is the one that worked hard, but people that did nothing get all the glory."
"But that's only if everything goes well. We should just focus on making sure we make it. If there's no glory to be had, there's nothing to be angry about."
"That's true, but..."
Charles felt amused by Fana's att.i.tude. The memory of young Fana stirred in his mind again. A long time ago, Fana also had a fierce sense of justice. The Fana sitting in front of him was like a grown version of that Fana.
"You're still not satisfied?"
"Even if no one else knows about me, if Lady remembers me, that's enough for me," Charles said, carelessly.
But Fana, looking serious, said, "Okay. Then I'll remember pilot Charles, forever."
"I don't deserve such an honor."
"I'm not joking."
Growing a bit irritated at Charles because he wasn't taking her seriously, Fana continued eating.
It was a clear night.
Thousands of glittering stars were in the sky. They were so closely packed together that it felt like if she were to reach up, she could scoop out a handful, like the glimmering water of a stream.
Finished eating, Charles fixed the blanket over himself, rested his back against the edge of the boat, and stared up.
"Amazing stars," He whispered.
Fana also untangled her feet under the blanket, and looked up at the same view. "Truly."
It was a night sky more beautiful than anything Fana had seen before.
"But it's better for flying if there're clouds," Charles added with a yawn.
Charles was much more tired than he thought. He'd spent two days flying six thousand kilometers, and had slept in the cramped c.o.c.kpit at night, so it wasn't surprising.
Just taking one deep breath and closing his eyes for a moment was enough to make Charles fall into a calm sleep.
"Mr. Pilot...?" Fana called. But there was no reply.
She was stupefied by how quickly Charles had fallen asleep.
But Fana quickly started giggling. She knew Charles was tired. She thought she'd give him the boat tonight, and she'd sleep in the c.o.c.kpit. He was sitting in the c.o.c.kpit all day, so he should at least sleep with his legs free. She wanted to say that last night, but she didn't have the courage to, so she swallowed her words.
She dumped the remainder of the fish into the ocean, washed the dishes and cooking utensils with ocean water, then placed everything back into the body of the plane.
When she was done cleaning and had returned to the boat, Charles was in a deep sleep.
The sleeper's soft breath melted into the silence of the ocean.
Sitting back down, she hugged her knees under the blanket, and placed her chin on her knees.
"Mr. Piiiiiilooooooot." She tried calling to him, mischievously.
He no longer had that tense aura around him; Charles was now sleeping like a puppy exhausted after play.
"Chaaaaaaarleeeeeees." She tried calling his name.
Still no reaction. Fana smiled and tilted her head, resting her cheek against her knee, gazing at his sleeping face.
"Have we... met, before?" She asked the question that had been bothering her since the journey had begun. She felt like she'd seen the straight, but somewhat mournful look of Charles in the past.
"Why do you fly?"
"Do you like war?"
Only his breath answered her. But, if he were awake, this person would probably say "no". He didn't seem like the type of person who would lead the charge in killing people.
"I hate it, too. I really, really hate it."
Conversing by herself, she made sure Charles was still fast asleep before sitting down next to him. Leaning against the edge of the boat, she looked up.
The sky, the ocean, the stars, everything had frozen in place. The cold wind blew indifferently.
Soundless time pa.s.sed. The black, limitless ocean drew forth a primal fear from deep inside Fana. The clear starry heaven, too, was so big that it was intimidating.
Fana looked at Charles' profile, at her side.
He wasn't feeling any fear. He was just peacefully sleeping, oblivious. She puffed her cheeks, then blew out. Something warm was settling inside of her. Something deep inside her was pleased, sitting next to Charles.
Gradually, Fana's eyelids also grew heavy. The rocking of the boat was so steady, so comfortable, that it invited sleep. Fana, too, was tired from the adventure.
She sank into a deep sleep.
Thousands of stars watched over the sleeping pilot and empress-to-be, both of whom looked as if they would sleep on each other's shoulders.The ocean rocked their cradle ever so slightly.
Pushed by the waves until the low horizon became purplish-blue, the two of them snuggled against each other, like Java birds.
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