I wrote this story, about trains, and unusual local customs and about the different ways the laws of an empire might be understood in its remotest quarters, a long time ago but I never put it on this site.
It came to mind again as I played Trails of Cold Steel, which seems to be very much like this in its strange little towns, its Austro-Hungarian-German-Russian aesthetic, its quirky military postings and so on. Trails has made me return to this fantastical counterpart to Austria to write more, and so I decided to put this story up.
There was no staff car waiting for the steam-train as it pulled into its gabled nest at the end of the branch line. In a cloud of steam that cascaded over the platform and left a trail of half-melted slush, it stopped, sounded its whistle, and the driver stepped down to a waiting cup of tea that a small boy had poured from a flask. Its carriages were mostly empty, only a few locals stepping down onto the platform with canes to support them, or holding on to the door by its window or handle.
In the first-class carriage at the back, positioned such that it was most sheltered from the trail of smoke from the chimney, the sole passenger who had enjoyed the benefits of an expensive ticket – a glass of cheap schnapps if needed when the winter bit through the windows, comfortable plush seats upholstered with overstuffed chintz, and most of all utter peace and quiet save for the sound of the engine itself – dismounted. They were clearly unused to the mountain ice, their initial foot sinking deeply, too-heavily, into the packed snow before being followed by a more confident companion. From the baggage-compartment, via its smaller door behind the one the passenger left from, a station-porter took two overnight bags and loaded them on a small trolley.
“Captain, we will have these taken to the town hotel.”
“Thank you. Can you direct me to the reserve-army barracks?” The porter gave a blank look. “The reserves?”
“Ah, I think you mean the militia. Follow the main road to where it leaves the town and it is just past the line of pines.” It was met by an equally blank look. “From the station-house go left to Jaegerstrasse and from there you will easily see the main road. You will enter it I would say opposite Harum’s fishing-shop.”
“Yes, when it is not snowing we fish in the castle-grounds. There is an old volcanic lake that the castle’s lord had populated with fish and then when he lost interest he bequeathed it to the town.”
“I… see.” Realisation was dawning. “So once I am at the fishing-shop…”
“Turn to the right and keep walking.”
“Thank you, sir.” The captain stood paralysed, unsure if the man expected a tip, and then fished inside deep pockets for some coins. “Take this for your trouble.”
“Thank you, Captain.” The porter ambled off, confident in the snow, towards where a cab waited to take the bags to the hotel. “The staff at the hotel will tell you the cost for your bags being stored.”
Thus Captain Marja Senka was left standing on the platform of Annazell Station, the cold becoming once again a gnawing at her cheeks as the schnapps she had perhaps ill-advisedly taken on the train wore off. Taking from beneath one arm a marching-stick she dug it into the snow and set off out of the wrought-iron gate the porter had left open. Houses, with angled roofs trailing icicles, lined Gleisstrasse and she could see footprints and sledge-marks leading towards a corner. Jaegerstrasse was visible as a neatly-written sign hanging from a lamp-post, and she began walking. Her soldier’s instinct told her she was being watched, and without making it too obvious she peered in the direction of the spy. A child was watching from an upstairs window, and suddenly they threw it open.
“Are you here to see the militia, Madam Soldier?”
“Yes, I am.” She stopped a moment. “Is your father a soldier too?”
“My mother helps out at the barracks sometimes, taking copy for the commander. That’s when she’s not working the telegraph at the post-house.” Marja started. In her home base at Zasoka the commandant’s aide was a full-time position. It had been held by Ysac, a harried-looking man notable for failing his basic marksmanship exam so many times he had been given a typist’s job to keep him away from rifles.
“She must be very busy.”
“Not at all, we send telegrams once a week and the commander sends her report once a month and so she is able to be assistant post-mistress much of the time.” Village life up in the mountains seemed much more fluid than down on the Adlerzee. “Have a good day!”
“I shall, child.” Jaegerstrasse was much of the same, quaint houses curving in on themselves with tiny, perfectly-kept gardens. A man was clearing snow from the pavement, and she twitched with a wish to help. Even after her promotion she had not compromised in her duty to the base; maintenance of the military’s equipment and premises was, surely, as important as skill at command? He looked up at her and saluted, which was quite a surprise. “Are you with the militia, sir?”
“No, sadly not. Well, see, I was, but that was in the last war, and I injured myself in a stupid accident with a motorcycle, so they wouldn’t take me back.”
“I could tell you were once a military man. You’re methodical.” He smiled at her and stepped to one side so she could pass on the cleared path. “Have you thought of asking for a role in the militia where your injury will not affect your duty?”
“I did, once. But now I have a family, you see. I am happy to help them if needed but for the moment I am content.”
“That is quite understandable.” She saluted him, unsure exactly why but respectful of his well-meaning humility. “Is this the right route to the main road?”
“Yes. You will not miss it.”
This walk was proving interesting, but every visit to a new town was. Marja was unsure if Annazell was typical of towns in this region, having reached it by an exhausting series of train-rides first from Zasoka to Radesza, and then from Radesza overnight to Virin, which had been impossible to sleep on owing to the window not closing properly and the carriage being draughty and cold. From Virin she had taken a train to Eugenberg where she had transferred to the branch line up to Annazell, making a total, she had worked out, of a day and a half spent on fast trains with little chance to sleep and terrible railway food to eat.
Eating. She was hungry in a way only time spent listlessly eating bad food made you. Perhaps the town proper would help. Jaegerstrasse curved round a little more and she could see shops, and indeed pedestrians walking along what had to be the main road. A sign written in copperplate said Harum: Ausrustung Fur die Fischerie, and she knew she had arrived. Annazell’s main shopping-street was surprisingly busy; festive decorations hung from street-lamps and shop signs, warm orange lights glowed invitingly through tiny-paned windows, and there were people everywhere all dressed in furs and hats and coats. The sight of a soldier in dress uniform apparently passed unnoticed at first, and Marja began reading the signs presented to her. Next to the fishing-shop was a milliners, full of hideous-looking lace bonnets and hunting-hats in grotesque tweed, and down from there past a small yard somewhere in which a chicken lurked was an ironmongers’. She gravitated towards it, drawn by the promise of warmth, and opened the door to feel a blast of heat, dry compared to the damp fog the train had kicked up. In the back of the shop, in the forge itself, she could hear the sounds of industry, and an oil-smeared girl stood at the counter.
“What do you need, Madam?” she smiled as she spoke with practiced customer service, revealing dainty white teeth. “Everything’s free for the militia.”
“Just some directions, miss. Is there a good restaurant around here? I arrived on the train only about-” she checked her watch, Swabian-made fine brass with a mother-of-pearl face and set to the noon gun at Zasoka- “fifteen minutes ago? I know nothing about the town.”
“What brings you to Annazell?”
“I am here to see how the militia fare, and if they require anything. A standard military inspection. As I asked, is there a good place to eat here?”
“Apologies, I quite ran away with myself. I would try the Hotel Post, they will probably be serving luncheon about now.”
“I think that is where my baggage is being taken. Thank you.” Marja left, and as she did felt the smith’s daughter cast a strange look on her. Like she wasn’t trusted. Perhaps these people in the mountains hadn’t seen a Meravian before. That was both likely and unlikely. People moved within the empire easily, but at the same time what would drive anyone to a small mountain-village like this one? She knew in some parts of the empire, people from the Adlerzee’s coast were not afforded the same respect as those from the forested middle territories, but had been fortunate never to experience such treatment.
She had barely taken a few more steps down the road when the smith’s daughter rushed out, leaving the door open and flakes of snow sizzling against the blasts of warm air from the forge.
“I’m sorry, miss- madam-”
“I’m sorry Miss Marja sir but I hope you didn’t take what I said wrong.”
“Not at all. Why would you think that?”
“It’s just I’m not sure if you’re one of those- um- how do you call them?”
“Planetoi?” Marja knew what the girl was worried about. The Planetoi were a religious group mostly absent from the empire and not really understood or liked. Ysac followed their teachings and Marja still had no idea what he actually observed. “No, dear. I’m not.”
“That’s good, only Guillaume at the hotel, he doesn’t like them too much because he said they’re trying to influence the king or something.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
“He’s old, he is. I don’t believe him but some of the old soldiers do.”
“Old soldiers?” Marja found herself drawn back into the ironmongers’, and somehow a bottle of schnapps had appeared and the smith himself was there. “You must be this girl’s father?”
“Yes.” He wiped his hands on a rag under the counter and took a glass. “I thought I heard a coastal accent.” She didn’t like his tone.
“Is that a problem, sir?”
“Not at all. What made you think it might be?” Now he was definitely unnerving her.
“I have met people who…” She tried to think of a polite way to phrase it. “Have quarrel with Meravians.”
“Ah, you have no cause to fear. Have a drink with me.”
“Not right now, sir. I mean no offence but I have not eaten today and I… do not drink well on an empty stomach. But I thank you for the offer.”
“Eat with us!” He smiled for the first time and Marja felt somewhat reassured. “We got off to a bad start, didn’t we?”
“I suppose we did.” She removed her cap and dusted the half-melted snow from it. “I am new in town, new indeed to this country.”
“You have lived on the coast all your life?” He led her up a flight of stairs to a heavily-ornamented living-room, lined with miniature paintings of subjects from dogs to the Emperor himself. Every inch of shelf was covered in ornaments; Marja spotted replicas of some of the statues in the Santa Rosa Palace. The carpet was heavy, red-and-gold fleurs-de-lys, and the wallpaper the deep baize-green of a billiard-table. On the small window-ledge a red poinsettia sat peering out at the falling snow, which seemed to have picked up in the minutes Marja had spent indoors.
“Yes, I have.” She had availed herself of the hatstand and removed her coat to reveal the serge tunic underneath. Thus she stood, unsure of what to do.
“Lilla, set the table for our guest-”
“Marja, please. Call me Marja.”
“Very well. Is there anything you will not eat?” He sounded choked with embarrassment. “I know-”
“No, I do not eschew meat. But I appreciate your concern.” She felt herself blushing at his own awkwardness. “May I help you?” It felt most out of place but she could barely take the embarrassment of sitting at an unset table as her host worked around her.
“If you like. Lilla, show Marja here where the cutlery is. I will bring food.” The work staved off the awkward silence a little longer. As she took flowery-handled knives and forks, and small octagonal plates, the smith brought first bread and creamy butter, and then a plate of cold cuts, and cheese on a wooden board. “This should suffice for now.”
She took a slice of bread and chewed thoughtfully, wondering where to steer the conversation. “Lilla? You mentioned the older soldiers having little time for Planetoi?” Was that the correct subject for the table?
“Oh, they grumble a lot. They sit and drink strong beer in the hunters’ lodge, and threaten to get their rifles out and shoot a boar, and complain about the empire.”
“Are you talking about Heinrich and the old men?” The smith smiled. “I was making a new padlock for Heinrich’s gun-case the other day. You have nothing to worry about, Marja. Lilla’s right, they complain a lot about outsiders, but they wouldn’t do anything to a soldier of the crown.”
“Are they in the militia?”
“No, they wouldn’t pass muster. Most of them fought in the Meravian war. The first one.” He, too, froze, unsure if he had said the right thing.
“That, I think, is a bit of the past that reflects badly on everyone.” Marja smiled with an expression making it clear that was the end of it. “I can’t blame them for complaining. But let us be a little more cheerful…” The sound of music from the street brought her conversation to a halt. It was the Doppelkrone Marsch, a piece she had heard too many times on the gramophone back at Zasoka whenever dignitaries from the empire visited. “Music?”
“Ah, that would be the militia practicing for the Advent Parade. It’s quite the event, you’ll stay for it?”
“When is it?”
“Tomorrow evening.” The smith smiled. “It’s followed by the unveiling of the Christmas tree in the church-square.”
Marja realised she hadn’t been given concrete orders on how long to stay in Annazell. “I might.” Abandoning her plate, she peered through the window as the music loudened, and saw a flatbed truck driving down the main street with a brass band in it, many of whom seemed to resemble their instruments in shape. The Doppelkrone faded into the Bergjaeger and she heard behind the truck the sound of marching and then rhythmic singing. Letting it pass, she sat back down and helped herself to more cured ham. “They are very good.”
“It’s all the drilling that Commandant Herschel has them do.”
“I am looking forward to meeting him.”
“Oh, she’s quite wonderful.” Lilla smiled. “She’s a dancing-instructor and a violin-tuner in her spare time.”
Again Marja was left confused at how a garrison-commandant could have the spare time to pursue two jobs. Annazell’s militia seemed a strange one. “How many men does Miss Herschel command?”
“Three dozen or so on what you’d call active duty but pretty much everyone old enough has a hunting-rifle in their house. Then there’s the three Laufpanzers and their crew.” That sounded more reasonable. A small platoon with Laufpanzer support was fairly standard for remote garrisons and there was probably a flak gun to go on that truck when it wasn’t repurposed for a parade. “I’m actually doing a bit of work for the mechanics now, they needed a new turret-mechanism and worm-gear. For the fine stuff they get the watchmaker but the bigger jobs I help with.”
Outside, the brass band came to a halt with a clattering of instruments and a discordant wobbling sound.
“This is a lovely town.” Small talk came hard for a soldier out of her element. “Once I have discharged my duties and delivered my report to Commandant Herschel I would like to walk around it.”
“Be sure to visit the church. It is quite wonderful.”
When the meal had finished, and Marja had finally been able to refuse the smith’s hospitality (at no point ever learning his name), she stepped back out into the snow and relished the way it bit at her mounting headache. The garrison was at the end of the road, and so she walked in its general direction trying to not look too unsteady. At some point the parade had made its way back, so much was obvious from the knots of truck-tracks in the middle of the road, and when she finally looked at her watch again it was apparent she had been in the ironmongers’ for almost two hours. The afternoon was well underway, which had thrown her schedule quite out of alignment.
She rather regretted not asking exactly how far it was to the garrison. Had she known it was such a distance she would have called for a cab from the station and avoided her little adventure. The report would have been delivered and she would have enjoyed a modest luncheon in the hotel, as better befitted a soldier on duty. Instead, she finally arrived, somewhat out of breath and reeling from the thin air and effects of the alcohol, to see a cluster of signs at the gate of a standard layout installation. Keep Out: Military Business had been turned upside down and underneath sat Cycle Repairs: Open, Auto-Parts & Fuel: Open (Fuel 85pf/gal) and Trombonist needed, enquire G. Herschel. Then on the other side of the gate G. Herschel, Deportment & Ballroom Dancing, String-Instruments, Operatic Singing, Watercolour-painting. Instruments Tuned and Repaired.
Marja wanted very much to be outraged. The gate was open, its barrier up, and no sentry sat in the guard-post. A three-inch flak gun sat in pieces under a tin roof, its components tagged with baggage-labels. The hangar doors were all shut, and the truck she had seen earlier was parked in ungainly fashion across the parade-ground. Adjusting her cap, and taking her stick again from under her arm, she strode towards the mess-hall and general HQ.
“Ahem.” In Zasoka the mere presence of an officer was enough to get someone’s attention. In Annazell, the Commandant’s office had its door ajar and there was the sound of sawing violin notes, well out of time, from within.
After a few painful bars Marja recognised it as the Romance Waltz.
“Ahem.” She tried again, a little louder, and the violinist tailed off into a shrill dying-cat squeal.
“Did I ask you to stop, Victoria? From the top if you will, and-”
Marja opened the door and saw a woman in a dress uniform that clearly had not been altered since the days of the previous emperor, wearing half-moon glasses and jabbing at a yellowing book of sheet-music with the pommel of a ceremonial rapier. She had severe silvery-blonde hair tied in a tight bun and fixed Marja with an acid look. The other occupant of the room, a bored and wan-looking girl with straggly hair and wearing a vilely salmon-pink dress with too many bows, looked quite grateful for the intervention.
“Commandant Herschel? I am Captain Marja Senka of the Imperial Army, West-Adlerzee Division, here as part of the annual review of Imperial military holdings. May I spare a moment of your time?”
“You are excused, Victoria. Practice that waltz and I will hear it next week. Apologies, Captain Senka.”
“I wrote ahead to announce my visit.”
“I am sure you did. I am Gertrude Herschel, as you have probably worked out. Is everything here to your satisfaction?”
“No, it is not.” Marja set off in fine style as Commandant Balycon would have. “Why are you entertaining civilians in the general headquarters?”
Herschel looked stunned, as if Marja had asked a perfectly absurd question. “Why should I not? If you look at my report-book you will see everything is in order. I pay all due taxes on the fees I charge for my services.”
“This is not a question of taxes, Commandant. It is a question of military duty.”
“Come now, Captain Senka. This is Annazell. You are the first inspection we have had for-” here, Herschel picked up one of the ledgers- “Four years.”
“What happened to the others?”
“They never arrived. I wired the regional commander at Eugenberg and he said there was no need.” She presented the telegrams, and Marja saw with a sinking heart they were indeed in order, with the authorisations of the fat little man spilling out from under his plumed helmet who had met her at Eugenberg station. “And so we have proceeded to fulfil our duties as best we can – to protect the town. I have carried out due levies of personnel each year, ensured recruits can pass physical training, we maintain the Laufpanzer squadron-”
“And the abnormally high requests for parts-”
“Mechanic Coburg offers them to the people of the town to repair their automobiles and bicycles.” Marja’s face paled at the thought of how Balycon would take that news. “However, we charge a fee for such a service. Here are four years’ worth of takings.” Herschel moved a portrait of the Emperor to one side and opened a safe behind it to reveal neatly stacked banknotes. “And on the shelf below, remuneration for the fuel we distributed among the people of the town. Everything is in order, I had the town solicitor check my accounts.”
“Captain Senka, what is a soldier’s duty?”
“To serve the Emperor.”
“Indeed, it is to serve the Empire. And since Annazell fights no wars, we of its army do our duty in what way we can – and that is to help its people. You will find all my men and women quite capable of combat should it be needed.”
“Have you…” Marja’s headache was returning.
“Schnapps? Coffee? Perhaps a little cake? I would be remiss as a host not to offer you anything.”
“Coffee, please.” She sat down. “Would you sign this?”
Herschel looked the documents over and signed them with an absurd flourish. “Will this be all, Captain Senka? Is our business attended to?”
“Yes.” Marja was dutiful, for sure, but practical above all. The headquarters was warm, and the snow was still falling.
She wanted a good night’s sleep, and at least another good meal, before returning to Zasoka.
“May I send a telegram?”
“Yes, dictate it to me and I will have it sent with the next post, at six tonight.” Herschel took a pen and a piece of military headed paper.
“To Balycon, stop. Weather at Annazell too inclement to return immediately, stop. Waiting out snowstorm, stop.”