Huge sprays of water reflected the light of the southern sun.
Fana pushed through the clear water with her arms, kicking forward with her long legs. When she touched a round riverside stone with one hand, she popped her head out of the water.
"This feels great," She said happily, and then started cutting backwards through the water.
Fana was wearing her audacious white bikini. Her long limbs moved smoothly through the water, forming ripples that radiated from her back and hips.
"Charles, you should swim, too." Treading water near the center of the river, Fana shouted to Charles, lying down on the riverside.
I'll pa.s.s, he seemed to want to say, as he waved his hand while still lying down like a stone-cooked char. With a shy smile, she relaxed her arms and legs, drifted face-up, and looked at the sky.
Today was probably a G.o.d-given day of blessing. After gratefully giving thanks to the heavens beyond, Fana let her bare skin feel the comfortable summer sun.
That morning - even some time after Fana had awakened - Charles continued to sleep, snoring. At his side was a half-empty bottle of brandy. She could smell the alcohol on him.
Fana didn't wake him up. He was probably tired from the stress of flying for so many days, and he was still hurt. Thinking it would be better to let him sleep, she changed into her swimming suit to swim until he woke up.
By the time the sun had climbed to the middle of the sky, Charles woke up with a brutal hangover. Narrowing his yellowed eyes and hiding his face from the strong sun, he held a hand against the temple that wasn't hurt.
"I'm sorry, My Lady. This is my fault. Because I messed up my body, we have to postpone our flight."
Heavy doses of alcohol particularly affect the eyes. Normally Charles could see planes from over one thousand meters away, but he couldn't in his current state.
Fana beamed and accepted his apology, and she danced back to the river and started swimming again. She was absolutely ecstatic that she could stay in this paradise with Charles for one more day.
They stuck fish through some bamboo spikes, put them around a fire, and ate lunch.
Charles still felt ill, but the pure meat of river fish settled easily in his stomach, and the more he ate the less his head hurt.
Fana remained in her swimsuit as she ate. Usually she would never show her skin to a man, but the intense heat that covered the island burned away those thoughts.
The brilliance and silhouette of Fana's body, sitting on the river beach, leaped into Charles' eyes. But it didn't fill him with vulgar thoughts. Instead it just made him feel more lively.
"Charles should swim, too." After eating, Fana lay down on the round stone, her wet back to the sun, and glanced at Charles, who'd sat down next to her.
Charles bit his lip and shook his head.
"I'm going to hold onto my energy. I need to fly at full strength tomorrow. Even though we've overcome the most difficult part so far, I don't want to let up and make everything go to waste."
Fana sighed at Charles' stiff answer, folded her arms under her cheek, and closed her eyes. "Boring."
"Boring is fine. Once we break through the blockade tomorrow, my efforts will finally be rewarded."
"Speaking of which, Charles, about breaking the blockade tomorrow…" Fana kept her eyes closed, and spoke without turning to face Charles. "Teach me how to shoot that gun."
Charles looked dubiously at Fana's vibrant back. Droplets glistened on the seductive arch from her hip to her b.u.t.tocks.
"Do you mean the machine gun?"
"Is that its name? I tried to shoot it two days ago when we were being chased, but it didn't fire."
"That's... because the safety was on."
"If I take that off, it'll shoot?"
"Yes, it would, but..."
Charles' voice trailed off. He welcomed the idea of an active backseat gun, but he also didn't want the empress-to-be to be firing it.The backseat machine gun was there for the purpose of shooting down planes pursuing from behind. Single-seat fighters with wing-mounted guns would prefer to aim at the Santa Cruz from behind. Having a gun pointed at them would prevent them from taking such textbook measures.
In the two weeks leading up to their departure, the flight chief who'd trained Fana explained he didn't train her in firing a gun because he feared she'd shoot out the Santa Cruz' own wings. That made sense, except that placing stoppers would alleviate that fear. Obviously that limited the rotation of the gun, but he knew it was already difficult aiming sideways. Actually, even attempting to do so was like a waste of ammunition.
All active pilots knew that the machine gun was most useful in combat when locked into place with stoppers. That's why avoiding use of the backseat gun for fear of shooting out the wings wasn't very persuasive.
Most likely the House del Moral simply didn't want to stain Fana's hands with blood. Of course, Charles knew there were two sides to that. The other, less obvious side, was that House del Moral didn't believe the Santa Cruz, much less Fana, would ever be subject to danger.
He closed his eyes, thinking.
Enemy recon planes were hovering over the Sierra Cadis archipelago. Even today, two scout planes had flown over their island. Most likely, once he took off, the enemy would be alerted, and Shinden would give chase.
If Fana were to shoot, even if she didn't hit anything, the enemy Shinden wouldn't be able to comfortably follow his tail, and wouldn't be able to maintain their formation like they had two days ago. And that day, he had the help of a stratoc.u.mulus cloud; there was no guarantee of there being another. There was nothing to lose by being over-prepared.
He opened his eyes, decision made.
The 7.7mm rear machine gun blazed, along with a scream.
Some tens of bullets were fired from the grounded Santa Cruz into the thicket, startling some tropical birds into the sky.
After glancing at the gun, which was emitting a bluish-purple smoke, Fana turned around to look at Charles, seated in the front seat, half-way to tears. She was wearing her flight-suit.
Charles was resting his stomach against the seat, and judged her aim.
"Not bad. You were able to fire."
"Yes, it was good. This time, try aiming a bit higher."
All he could do was give tiny pointers, so he decided to just keep praising her. After all, their stock of ammo was limited, so they wouldn't get much practice. The most important thing was to raise her confidence.
Fana carefully lowered the handle she was gripping with both hands. The gun stand was already fixed with a stopper so that instead of revolving it was now fixed. There was no need to worry about her shooting out their own wings.
The rear seat was folded up and placed at the back of the front seat, and she was aiming the gun while slightly crouched, with her right foot forward. This was a difficult position for most male pilots because of the confined s.p.a.ce, but with Fana's smaller body she was actually relatively comfortable.
After closing her lips and glaring at the sight, Fana pulled the trigger. The gun roared violently, and, leaving behind a small vibrating sound, spit cartridges into the air.
Again with Fana's scream, bullets ran into the blue, summer sky. This time, birds took off from outside the palm tree thicket took to the air.
"No problems, that's enough."
Fana again turned around, almost in tears, making Charles laugh.
"Yes. You don't really get better at aiming through practice. The only way to get better at shooting people down in aerial combat is to keep trying it, in actual combat. I just need the Lady to shoot and make a blanket of bullets."
"So I just need to shoot."
"Yes. I'll tell you when to shoot, through the voice pipe, so you just have to hold onto the handle until then. As long as the enemy planes can't just walk up to us, it's fine."
Fana nodded in understanding, but then she asked, still unsatisfied.
"If I want to shoot them down, what should I do?"
"You need them to come as close as possible. Until their plane is sticking out from the sight."
Charles pointed at it. Fana closed one eye and looked through the sight with the other. She couldn't imagine a plane sticking out of it, but she could understand that meant an extremely close distance.
"Of course, if a plane were to get that close, I'll already be going through evasive maneuvers, so I don't antic.i.p.ate the Lady needing to shoot."
"Yes. Also, it's simple to say 'wait for them to get close,' but it's actually very difficult to do. Particularly in your first battle, you tend to freak out and start shooting even at enemies that are incredibly distant. Incidentally, I was like that, too."
"Concluding like that is a bit vexing. May I shoot one more time?"
"We're limited on ammunition, so this will have to be the last time."
Fana looked into the sight, imagined a Shinden close enough to stick out of it, and gripped the handle. The gun blazed, but she held back a third scream.
When they were done practicing, they had nothing else left to do, so they returned to the beach, and began preparing for the night.
Some fat, healthy-looking chickens roamed about in the palm tree thicket past the beach. Breaking up bits of bread made them to wander closer, without any fear. With a deft, practiced movement, Charles picked one up, and laughed happily at Fana.
"We've got quite a banquet tonight, my Lady."
As he said, by the time the horizon was burnt red by the sun, and the sky filled with a complex pattern of crimson and bra.s.s, a furnace rounded with stones was burning, and the chicken, cleanly skinned, was roasted.
"You can definitely become a cook. You should have quit being a pilot in wartime and become a cook." Bringing juicy meat to her mouth, a look of surprise covered her face, and a prayer of thanks to the sky, Fana turned and said that to him, with complete sincerity.
"I'll think about it if this operation succeeds," He absent-mindedly answered, with no intention behind the words. Biting at the well roasted meat, he tasted the juiciness on his tongue, and instinctively closed his eyes.
Swallowing meat that was dense enough to make his jaw ache, he whispered, more serious than before. "Maybe I'll actually think about it."
"Wonderful. Honestly, I'm not just being polite, I've never eaten such delicious cooking before."
Fana showered him with undiluted praise while holding the fox-colored meat in one hand. On top of only being able to eat fish since their departure, she was starved because she played all afternoon, so she, like Charles, turned meat into bones in a heartbeat.
"Ahh, I'm so full, I feel so wonderful."
She said, fully satisfied, and then stretched her legs out in front of her, drank water from her flask, and then placed her arms behind her, and leaned back on them, to look at the starry sky. The lukewarm wind lightly lifted her hair.
"It's a good island. Birds and fish are abundant, and the temperature and view are perfect."
"This must be what heaven is like. Everything I can see is beautiful."
"Indeed. It makes me forget about war."
"I don't want to go to the imperial prince. I wish I could stay on this island forever," She said, and then she swallowed what she was about to say next.
She'd said her true feelings, without intending to.
She glanced at Charles. He was silent, and poking at the stone furnace with a branch. He obviously heard what she'd said, but he'd decided to ignore it.
Something in her mind snapped.
How dishonest, she thought. Normally he'd listen to her every whim, facing her directly, but when it came to something like this, he didn't look at her. Along with a feeling of irritation, came determination.
If she were to say the same thing, how would Charles respond?
If she were to say her want, then maybe he would accept. And then they'd just throw every to the wind, and be with each other forever-
Her heart tightened up at the thought.
She said his name. The n.o.ble face turned to her. He was acting calm, but he clearly looked more strained than usual.
And his response sounded more awkward.
She searched for words.
She wanted to express something to him.
Something that felt suppressed in her heart, something heartrending, something suffocating, something primal that welled up no matter how hard she tried to keep it down. A storm raged in her; a pure, but violent storm.
And she knew the words for that storm.
I want to be with Charles forever.
The imperial prince Carlo, House del Moral, the future as an empress, she didn't want to have anything to do with any of those, as long as she could keep flying, with her back to Charles, on the Santa Cruz-
She couldn't resist her feelings. She opened her mouth, intending to throw them at Charles, as words.
But Charles betrayed that determination, pre-emptively shutting her thoughts down.
"Was it not enough? Would you like another one? I feel like I could eat some more, so I could go catch another one, if you'd like."
Fana, jaw agape, stared at Charles' hardened face, and realized she'd been parried.
The next moment, something inside Fana was ripped apart. And from that hole rose another feeling that formulated in her throat, and came out as words.
"Eat by yourself. Eat as much as you'd like. I don't need any."
"No, I'm fine, too. I just thought, maybe the Lady would like to eat more."
"We split a whole chicken between us! Of course I'm stuffed. Do I look like someone that just eats and eats and eats?"
"Ummm, no my Lady, I apologize for my poor guess. Please forgive me."
"What do you mean, forgive? I'm not angry. I don't care what you do. Your job is to bring me to the imperial prince, and yet you killed a day by drinking all night. There's nothing to say to such a person, you know?"
"Yes, umm, all I can do is apologize about that, because there really is nothing more I can say."
Fana's voice was becoming teary. Every now and then, she sniffled as she kept berating Charles.
"What a strange person. How stupid. The imperial prince is so much better than you. He's handsome, his father is the king, and... he's handsome."
"Yes, umm, of course. Or rather, I think it's a bit, uh, insane, to even try to compare us."
"Yes, err, my Lady, please calm down."
"I am calm. You're the one that's insane. Because, I'm quite normal."
"Yes, um, well of course."
Fana, on the verge of tears despite being irritated, started grabbing random chicken bones from around her and threw them at Charles. And then she grabbed the bottle of brandy next to her, took off the cap, and gulped.
Charles couldn't act fast enough to stop her. It was a magnificent trumpet-drinking, like that which was seen in the slums of Rio de Este, in the Amadora region. She gulped down the amber liquid, making quite a sound with every gulp, and then slammed the bottle down on the sand with one hand.
The future empress of Levahm burped. He'd heard Fana's father, the late Duke Diego was quite a heavy drinker, and it seemed Fana had inherited that lineage.
Her two eyes, burning with anger, stabbed through the cowering Charles.
"What. Am I not supposed to drink? You drank until you were all wobbly, too."
"Yes, but, umm."
"You, drink, too, stupid."
"No, I shouldn't-"
"If you won't, I will."
Like she was simply drinking soda, she once again began gulping down brandy. She looked like a random outcast.
"Please, stop. If you keep drinking it'll be a detriment to tomorrow's flight."
"Shut up, stupid. What do I care. I'm not going to listen to cowards."
"What did I do that was cowardly?"
"Everything. Two days ago you called me Fana, and said social cla.s.s doesn't matter, and then overnight you started acting apathetic. 'Lady! Lady!' Seriously, what? I bet deep down, you're still calling me Fana, anyways!"
"I thought so! How exasperating! Then just call me that. I'm giving you permission, so call me that, go on!"
Upon hearing his answer, Fana lifted her head, and resumed trumpet-drinking.
"Give me the bottle, now, it's getting dangerous."
"I'll give it to you if you call me Fana."
She glared at Charles with wet, unfocused eyes. Charles understood that what stood in front of him was just a bad drunk.
"Without saying the impossible."
"If you want it, come get it."
She wobbled as she stood up, then began humming and skipping around the fire, as if making fun of Charles.
This was certainly quite a sight, one that couldn't be shown to the imperial prince Carlo. If a newspaper reporter were here, they'd be doing backflips as they flashed their camera. Charles pushed a hand against the side of his head as he grinded his teeth. He cursed Captain Domingo for giving him such a strong bottle of alcohol. Because if it, the wheels were beginning to spin off.
"Stupid, stupid, Charles is stupid."
She showered him with taunts and barbs, and in between she kept drinking more brandy. At this rate, she'd end up drinking as much as he did last night.
Charles stood up, and, as if having to deal with a carnivorous beast, slowly inched toward Fana.
She, on the other hand, stared at him in a creepy, weirdly beautiful way. Holding the bottle behind her, she egged him on with a mischievous smile, and slowly inched backwards, keeping her distance with Charles. To her back was the ocean.
"Stop messing around."
"I never mess around. I'm always serious."
The waves curled around her feet as she continued backing up.
"You'll drown if you enter the ocean while drunk."
But, not listening, she looked up at the night sky. The sharp moonlight covered Fana's silhouette with bronze.
"The moon is beautiful. Hey, lets dance, Charles."
"Unfortunately I don't know how."
"If you dance with me, I'll give you back the brandy."
"Please keep your willfulness in check."
"Charles is the only one who'll listen to me. Please, let me stay selfish. When I go to Esmeralda, I have to go back a life of being kept under watch. I haven't even done anything wrong, but I have to become a prisoner again."
"Everyone around me just keeps watch over everything. When I eat, when I take a walk in the garden, when I read. Every night, every night, tutors grade my day on a scale of ten. And I have to fix everything they don't like.
"Wouldn't you rather be a prisoner? At least they have people being punished with them, don't they? I don't have any friends that'll live under constant scrutiny, like me. I'm just being watched, alone, forever. Even though I didn't do anything wrong.
"That's why I made a wall, and lived on the other side of it. That way, as long as I do what I'm told, I'm fine. I don't have to care. And I was supposed to live there forever. But…but because of Charles, look at me, look at what you made me do, and still… and still-"
"Please, dance, Charles."
The mischievous smile of just a moment ago vanished, replaced by a teary, child-like, pouting Fana.
Gauging their distance, Charles leaped through the waves, and closed in on Fana at once. He tried to grab the bottle held behind her, but she evaded the hand by squirming, which led to her losing her balance and falling into the waves.
The bottle fell from Fana's hand, and the amber liquid poured out onto the wet sand.
The waves returned, washing over Fana and Charles.
Fana was lying on her back, staring straight up at Charles. Beyond his shoulder were countless stars.
Charles held himself up from the sand with his left arm, and his right hand was holding her left wrist. The blue waves reflecting the moonlight played with her hair.
They were frozen in place.
Without saying anything, they stared in each others' eyes.
They both knew their eyes held the same feelings. Deep down in them, they called for each other.
They could barely smell the scent of salt. The waves crawled back, sliding silently across the sand, and another set of waves crashed toward them.
"I'm going to stand." Suppressing the heart beat echoing through him, Charles coldly stated, after a moment.
Fana silently watched, her back still submerged.
He forcibly grabbed her hand and pulled her up. Lukewarm wind blew from the coast, caressing her soaked hair.
Still standing at the beach, Fana began crying. Scrunching her face, that which was compared to losing one's way in the absolute light, she sobbed, shoulders rising and falling violently.
"Charles won't dance."
"I said, I can't dance. I'm not the son of a distinguished family."
"What a horrible person. I'm begging you so much, but you won't dance."
Fana's reasoning wasn't working, and she wasn't listening to him anymore. Her eyes were soaked, and she rained blows on him with her clenched fists. She was really bad with alcohol.
Whilst being pelted, he grabbed her hand and dragged her to the dunes. He sat her down by the furnace, and had her warm up.
Fana kept crying. And he silently sat by her side.
The night of paradise pa.s.sed thus. Until Fana grew tired from crying and went to sleep, Charles watched over the fire.
She slept, curled up like a baby on her right side. Poking through the stones with a branch, Charles felt restless.
If he let down his guard, a fierce pain would stab through him. And from the other side of the pain, whispered a demon.
Run with Fana. She desires it, too. Run away, together, to the end of the world.
But he screwed his eyes shut and shook the seductive thoughts from his brain.
"As long as we get through tomorrow, everything will end," He told himself. After 3,000 kilometers of flight, the road ended at Cyon island, tomorrow. After that, they just needed to contact La Pista airbase on Cyon island, and wait for an airship from the continent to arrive. Then he'd part with Fana.
And in order to say farewell in the morning, they'd have to break through the blockade.
"I'll bring her to the imperial prince."
Once more, he repeated the vow to himself, the same vow he'd repeated so many times on this trip.
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