This story is a follow-up in setting terms to The Meravian Officer, and is really me accepting that the original piece was unknowingly a kind of hybrid of my take on Valkyria Chronicles and Trails of Cold Steel. It doubles down, in effect, on the industralised central European aesthetic that makes those games so aesthetically interesting while trying to add a more “period” feel to the high-school tropes of Cold Steel‘s military academy.
A group of military cadets are being sent to the border of the Austria-esque Prenzer and the Turkey-inspired Meravia, and none of them want to be there…
The platform for direct trains out to the Meravian frontier was stuck on the end of the station like an illegitimate branch of a noble family, or (to those of a more medical mindset) an appendix. One had to leave the vaulted glass halls of the passenger terminal, walk out through a small metal door with a sliding window on it like a prison’s cell, head through a yard full of crates and spools of wire and enter the other part of the station, where business took place. There, one waited on a spit of concrete with no shelter and a broad ramp along its edge to allow the easier moving of those crates onto waiting trains.
If one preferred comfort and an actual passenger train service, the journey took three times as long and involved a complex series of changes onto ever-less-well-maintained branch lines. In time the main line would be extended out to the frontier forts, when the towns and cities that littered the highlands grew into something more than what they were, but for now it was only the grey, odd-gauge military railway that struck out without diversion or delay. It was simply not profitable, the railwaymen ventured, to build a main line out into the rocky expanse. For a start, the Meravians used a different railway gauge (the same as that used by the military line) and so without one corporation or the other giving quarter one could not run a direct line across the border. Secondly, there did not seem to be any great demand for it. The frontier looked over a sparsely populated swathe of Meravia with very little of interest to it, and if one wished to visit the more interesting parts of the country one took a ferry from Zasoka or one of the other port-towns on the Adlerzee to the capital. And so, for now, if one wished to reach the fortress of Novis Eger, one had to wait out with pallets of ammunition and bedrolls.
Four figures in uniforms that they did not fill particularly well were sitting on their brown-leather suitcases and steamer-trunks, waiting for a train. None of them seemed to particularly want to be there, and within the cluster there were clear lines of not-talking-to-each-other. A tall woman with black hair seemed to have no time for a younger woman with a tumble of light-brown ringlets spilling from beneath her cap. The one sitting reading with his back to the others clearly either didn’t like any of them or didn’t want to get involved in the disagreements. The fourth was pacing awkwardly with a facial expression that suggested some icebreaking comment was being held back like a poorly-timed sneeze.
“How long are we going to have to endure this for?” The tall woman had asked the question several times already as if she hoped the answer would change at some point. “It cannot really be five hours, can it?”
“The frontier will not move any closer unless the Meravians invade, in which case I would presume we would all be wishing this journey be a lot longer.”
“At least we would not be alone, and would be spared your wit.”
Silence again. The gate from the goods-yard to the platform opened with a crash of shaking wires, and a young man in a railway-company uniform wielding a trolley blundered onto the concrete expanse.
“We apologise for the delay in preparing an engine for you. Please, accept these refreshments by means of compensation.”
They had travelled all morning by train and been subjected to the finest Prenzer Imperial Railways second-class catering during the journey. Another cartload of the weak coffee, stale sandwiches and uninspiring cakes was hardly appealing to most of the assembled travellers, but nevertheless the brown-haired girl took a handful and began eating with every sign of enjoyment.
“We are given superior meals at the Academy, cooked by a most talented staff. You are allegedly someone of quality, who has enjoyed a life of comfort and prosperity. And yet you can eat… that?” Disgust dripped from the tall woman’s words.
“Food is food, isn’t it? It’s well past lunchtime. Besides, we don’t know what we’re going to get at Novis Eger, do we? Might be worse.”
“I was rather trying not to think about the prospect.”
The northeasten border of Prenzer was a place that existed mostly in the realm of maps and theories for these youths. It was important if you were a military officer, because there had been a war against Meravia decades ago and a series of border disputes since, but very few people went there willingly. As a result the garrisons there had a certain reputation; the more romantic called it rugged self-reliance, a manly determination against the elements. The less romantic said it was a dumping-ground for those who would make the empire look bad if they were put in fancier uniforms and left in the drinking-houses of the capital.
It was for that reason that the news that this particular group of cadets of the Imperial Academy of Zuln were to spend three months there for their front-line posting had been received exceptionally badly. To the tune of angry telephone-calls from the houses of Alsard and Viognier, and confrontations in the corridors of the Ministry of Defence. None of this had changed the minds of those delivering the message. These four were to go to Novis Eger, and in three months’ time another four would be sent there.
The tall woman finally relented and picked up a sandwich, which she ate with as disapproving a look as possible. It was followed by a longing glance at the coffee-pot, followed by the decision not to partake.
The train arrived at some point past when they had given up looking at watches. Without a station-clock in sight the exact time did not matter, there was going to be a train and it would leave now. There was no assistance with their bags, which were left between dusty crates in the freight-wagon, although a train-guard was eventually found to show them to their seats, such as they were. The military train had a fair number of cars, mostly cargo but with a transport coach at the head which resembled a passenger-coach armoured with ungainly slabs of metal and blast shutters over the windows to give it a dim, close atmosphere illuminated by stained, wire-guarded electric light. Each compartment had the usual seats, albeit with much less headroom as there were bunks ready to be folded down in case the journey was a long one.
There seemed to be none of the amenities even a third-class carriage would have. The absolute basics of endurable travel were present, but in a form that was singularly unappealing. Uncomfortable seats, a cold and draughty lavatory and a pervasive smell of diesel fuel, long-departed passengers with minimal time for hygiene and stale tobacco owing to the inability to open the windows more than a few inches. Resigned to this fate, they sat down and felt the train begin to move. The realisation set in that should war ever come, should they ever need to travel in this fashion again, they would be sharing this compartment with at least another four soldiers, and sharing the carriage with another thirty-two. Nothing about that seemed welcome.
Without windows there was not the usual means of measuring progress by following the landscape’s shift. Without stations at which they would stop and exchange passengers, it became impossible to gain any sense of place or distance. Time passed, evidently (from discreetly checked expensive wristwatches) hours. Those too proud to have eaten railway food felt it acutely. The brown-haired woman slept, snoring loudly enough to make the others consider finding another compartment.
And then it hit them that they were leaving, well, what to them was civilisation. The air became dryer, the weather palpably hotter and one could simply tell that whatever was outside the carriage was less pleasant. There was the sense that within a few hours the heat would suddenly go and there would be an even less desirable coldness. The Arol Highlands. Allegedly beautiful. Variously good riding country, climbing country or a worthless rocky wasteland depending on who was talking.
In some ways, Elizabeth Viognier wished she could see more of it than a harsh sandy strip between the grimy window and the shutter. It was something of a betrayal of her carefully-presented disdain, but nobody had to know. Perhaps there would be a better window by the carriage-door? Standing carefully (for she was tall to a fault, according to beleaguered dance-partners), she made polite excuses and stepped into the corridor.
She had barely made it outside when the train stopped. Not a sudden, man-on-the-line scream of airbrakes, but a clattering, very final halt. She had stared at her watch enough to know they still had over two hours to go before they reached the fort. There was a compartment-door to her left, and she slid it open and hid inside, peering through the window-slit to see what was happening. They seemed to be at some kind of checkpoint, taking on fuel. Movement outside the compartment turned out to be Cyan, the closest person to a friend she considered herself to have in this group, and after she had told him what was happening they fetched the others before approaching the carriage-door. It opened, apparently either unlocked from the outside or never properly locked in the first place, and Elizabeth stepped down.
“What are you doing?” The checkpoint was staffed by Railway Police officers with a bored Imperial Border Patrol officer in attendance. “There’s nothing here for you.”
“Taking some fresh air, calm down. Is there anything to eat?”
“Only what you brought.” Elizabeth noticed that two of the Police were unloading pallets from the cargo cars. “You stop here for fuel, and drop off supplies. Ten minutes, that’s all you’ve got.”
That was enough time to get some distance from the line. Marie-Claude, the other woman in the party, headed towards the guardpost proper. Cyan was trying to talk to the Border Patrol officer to practice his Meravian. Nobody had seen Marin since they stepped off the carriage, he had claimed he was happy to sleep in the carriage a little.
Elizabeth had very much wanted not to like the north-east of Prenzer. She had, she was unashamed to say, fought tooth and nail to try and get out of going. The thought of three months in a fortress full of what she could only imagine to be the worst rogues of the army seemed intolerable. The thought of five hours in a troop train seemed intolerable.
But she was alone in the Arol Highlands now, and as she crested a small embankment found herself looking out over a landscape alien and beautiful. The thick forests of the southwest had given way to rougher land with clumps of spiky trees and strange rock formations, and one could look out seemingly forever and not see any buildings or roads. There was a beautiful band of colour formed where the blue sky met the pale tan land flecked with green clumps of vegetation, and if one looked in one direction there was the rise of a mountain on the far horizon, possibly one of the strange foothills of the sizeable Trans-Arolian Range. Away from people, and trains, and the thought of grim fortresses of grime and rough stone, maybe this corner of the Empire would be something pleasant?
It was a feeling she found very difficult to keep hidden behind outrage and disgust when they returned to the train, Marie-Claude complaining about how vile the facilities at the guardpost had been, Cyan complaining about the rudeness of the Border Patrol.
Of course, anywhere looks pretty when it is new.
It probably won’t be so nice after three months.
The moment’s contemplation was ruined before long. The train’s incessant rattling and uncleanness that soaked into one’s uniform, the hunger of a missed meal, Marie-Claude’s snoring, Marin’s hopeless attempts at wit and flirtation (once he awoke), and the heaviness of nervousness in her stomach at the passing comment from a Railway Policeman about how apparently the Arol Highlands were “bandit country” and they should probably keep a sidearm handy all distracted her from that image of a bleak yet tranquil landscape.
It is definitely going to be the worst three months of my life.