This story is a follow-up to A Train to Meravia, detailing the conclusion of its characters’ journey. It is perhaps a smugger, more snarky piece of writing than I would usually write but it seems thematically appropriate to have self-confidence and arrogance pierced by experience in a story about unwilling visitors to a remote place. It is still strongly inspired by Trails of Cold Steel‘s bizarre yet in the end genius practical examinations, but put through a slightly different lens.
By all accounts the train should have reached its destination as evening tinged the plains pink. For all the impending discomforts, the thought of being able to watch a deep rose sunset framed by spires of rock and casting into silhouette the spiky, tenuous trees from the secure walls of a fortress built – according to the briefing papers – atop a steep ridge which commanded views across the border was somewhat appealing to those in the group of a discerning taste. It was not as if it was supposed to be stopping anywhere else.
It was now a cold blue night, the cloudless sky a deep navy with the moon a fixed silver disc to bring order and direction to the horizon. Novis Eger was in view, still at the top of its ridge while the travellers – cold, hungry, humiliated – were at its base.
“An evening meal is being served for you.” Eking this concession out of the guards at the checkpoint on the edge of Novis Eger’s lower gate had been a difficult achievement, made all the harder (Elizabeth had realised, with some shame) by the intractability that usually worked wonders on credulous grunts. They had arrived, so the watch-captain had said, after the kitchens had closed for the night. Supplies in this distant part of the frontier were comparatively tight, and the thought of cooking a meal for new arrivals of minimal status apparently contravened orders from above. At this, after all they had been through that day, both Cyan and Elizabeth had exploded in upper-class rage, the simmering, sarcastic venom boiling over into a misguided effort to pull rank. All the watch-captain had done was telephoned through to Novis Eger, quite ignoring Elizabeth, confirmed that these guests were not worth breaking protocol for and had the four escorted – still mid-tirade – to a small dormitory to cool off. The realisation it was to be shared by the four – two men, two women – had done little to calm tensions.
Attempts to leave the corridor in which they were confined were met with the information that until their credentials were checked by the Commander of Novis Eger, they were not to go anywhere. So they had waited, and embarrassment had set in. The realisation that had they simply presented papers, spoken with this mysterious Commander Jackson and explained the situation, and remained calm they would have been most likely either furnished with coffee or a truck up to the fortress itself. Instead, they had walked in like they owned the place, showed no respect to their new comrades and been met with the inevitable response.
As a result, the thought of returning to the mess hall, through the small complex at the foot of the ridge, was somewhat unwelcome. They had a reputation now. Of course, Marie-Claude and Marin did not care. Nothing could convince them to care about anything, and so they were walking together and already talking – doubtless about their comrades – to the guard escorting them. Cyan and Elizabeth simply walked, head down, trying to avoid all eye contact and look professional. Inside the mess, the watch-captain had already taken a seat at their table.
“News of a disturbance was not taken kindly by Commander Jackson. He hoped that whoever it was that caused it was not, in fact, the delegation from the Academy he is to receive. Regrettably, I had to inform him it was. He is on his way down. Begin preparing your explanations.”
“If I may ask, where is the Commander from? His name is not Prenzeran, and it is not from any of the neighbouring nations.” Marin looked up from his meal, the sort of thick, greasy soup that lined the stomachs of the employed classes in cities across Prenzer.
“He is from the Highlands of Auban. Why does this matter?”
“Know your-” Elizabeth was too self-conscious to let Cyan dig his grave any deeper and kicked him hard under the table. “I simply think we all wish to know a little about our new commanding officer, don’t we?”
Racking her brains for information about Auban, Elizabeth ate with an ear out for the arrival of a vehicle outside. She ended up so focused on this she missed everyone else standing and saluting for the man who walked straight in and past the table, ending up hurriedly following in poor order.
Jackson was a hunched-up man with whiskers and a severe stare emerging from beneath a slouch-cap worn low, whose figure was further masked by an all-encompassing greatcoat draped over his broad shoulders. He gave the impression of being a man who took pains to hide his size and strength, but who rather than trying to appear unassuming made a point of appearing on the edge of exploding into action. His Prenzeran was unaccented but gruff, the consonants scraping out of his mouth and the words gliding together.
“Account for your appearance and then we can discuss your conduct.” Under the brim of his cap it was impossible to see who he was looking at, but the words were undeniably directed at Elizabeth. “I am guessing the one who could barely be bothered to salute is the one who thought she owned the place.”
“My apologies, sir. I am tired-”
“I understand making a nuisance of yourself is hard work. It is a passable excuse. Someone who is not you, explain what happened.”
“Our train was halted at the branch-line for a town-”
“Which town?” Cyan hesitated, clearly completely ignorant of the details. “It is useless reporting a disturbance in the rail network, the very thing which keeps this place from being cut off from supply, without knowing precisely where.”
Elizabeth saw a chance to redeem herself. “It was the junction for the supply trains to Armir. We were met by members of the garrison there who informed us the line was blocked and the train would have to be held-”
“So if I telephoned Commander Muller at Armir Aerodrome you could let me know which of his men I should be speaking to about this?”
“They were wearing Prenzeran Border Guard uniforms-” Marin tried to speak.
“Any fool can dress in dark blue trousers, you idiot. As a matter of fact Muller telephoned me earlier to let me know the supply train was going to be delayed so that part of your story checks out. So, after the men who claimed to be from Armir told you the line was closed, what did you do then?”
“They offered us horses and a map to Novis Eger. They claimed it was not a long ride if one followed the train line.”
“So you left a military train in the hands of people wearing military uniforms whose identity you never bothered to check, and took their horses and map rather than remaining with the train on the assumption that the Imperial Army would, most likely, have a vehicle you could commandeer on an aerodrome? Congratulations. At several points here you could have quite easily handed a train full of- no, let’s do this properly. What was on board the supply train you handed over to the nice men who asked for it in the middle of bandit country which I know you should know.”
“Don’t know, do you?”
“That is correct.” Cyan was visibly chastened.
“For reference it contained-” Jackson thought for a moment, then continued. “Among numerous other things, twenty pallets of tinned foods, two crates of fresh fruit which thanks to an impolitely timed line failure Muller will be eating rather than I, the mail for the good men of this fortress, and fifteen pallets of wound-dressings, painkilling powders, antiemetic tablets and water-purification tincture. And four idiots who would have happily let it fall into enemy hands, not knowing if it contained crates of prophylactics or artillery-shells.”
“And, once you somehow complete a three-hour ride in what must have been six, you walk straight into a border-post with some meaningless scraps of paper from your dear schoolmasters by way of credentials, demand the cook be roused from sleep to furnish you with food and then start screaming about how you have rights. Did your instructors inform you that this is a practical examination?”
There were no words as the realisation set in.
“You are probably going to ask how I managed to walk into this mess hall without you hearing my staff car arrive. The answer is I rode a fucking horse. It is something you would be well-advised to learn how to do very quickly if you are incapable, as it seems, of following a railway line.” Jackson stared at Elizabeth and Cyan. “I hope you whiny little princesses are taking good notes here because this is how you pull rank on someone and this is how you destroy an uppity little grunt who thinks they own the place because their family is slightly better bred than yours. I am Commander Alexander Jackson, formerly of the King’s Auban Dragoons, now of the Imperial Border Army, possessed of more years expertise at staring at border checkpoints in the least pleasant holiday destinations known to man than you have been alive, and I am going to offer some professional advice and say you need to unfuck yourselves incredibly quickly if the Empire is ever going to make the mistake of letting you lead men in war.”