Sora no Ato: Chapter 17
Many Partings: Trip to Rome
Two days later, Aisha returned to Seize. This time she was in full uniform and not on leave; she came officially, to be Rio's escort to her new home in the Roman Empire. Rio had requested she and Noël escort her on this trip to the Empire. It was appropriate that a Roman and a Helvetian be her escorts, and good that she could call both friends as well.
Rio was at first hesitant to ask this of Noël, as she didn't want to expose her to hatred from Romans who might recognize her as the Helvetian Witch. She talked this over with Noël and they asked Franz Leopold and Aisha their opinions of this likelihood. Both thought the possibility was small, and both also promised to protect Noël should anything bad arise. Rio left the final decision to Noël. ``Should I ask for you and Aisha to be my escorts to the Roman Empire?''
Noël considered carefully, then answered that she would like that. The opportunity to do something for Rio and to be with Aisha outweighed her fear of persecution. And with the promise of protection from the Emperor, and even more from her beloved Aisha, she realized there was only one way to answer.
Filicia sent Noël alone to pick Aisha up at the station when her train was scheduled to arrive. It was a quiet way to give the two of them the gift of some private time together again. Aisha was warmly welcomed by everyone of the town as well as Timekeeping Fortress. Thanks to her grandmother and her participation in the last battle of the war, she was regarded as an honorary member of the Fire Maidens, and accepted into the townspeople's hearts as well as those of Filicia's platoon. The time she spent in Seize last summer had solidified this position, enough that she had been included in the commemorative sculpture.
The entire 1121st platoon held a farewell dinner for Rio. Everyone contributed what they could: cooking, cleaning, decorating. At the end of the meal, the time came for a word from Rio. She knew it, and did not want to fail their expectations, regardless of how little she liked making speeches.
``I'm going to miss you all terribly,'' Rio began. ``When I was back in the capital, before the peace treaty was signed, ...my father let me stay in my sister Iliya's rooms. They had been kept just the way Iliya left them, and... Well anyway, I looked through some of her books and found one page she had marked in a well-loved book of poetry. I assume from its wear that it was well loved. It seems that this page spoke to her. For me, it puts into words an important lesson I've learned here at Seize, one that you all taught me. I made a copy so I could share it with you.'' She took a paper out of her pocket and read.
``In the world there is not one thing that is useless,
not one thing that should disappear,
even the beautiful, even the foul,
even the bitter, even the happy,
even that joy, even that pain,
all of them form the music that is called the world.
And of course, you as well. Not one single note can be omitted.''
``Thank you all for teaching me this music,'' Rio concluded, ``for teaching me to listen for it.''
The others listened, enraptured and thoughtful.
``That's beautiful,'' Kanata said, finally breaking the silence. ``Those words make me think of the Sound of the Sky ...that your sister taught us.''
``Yes,'' Filicia agreed, ``not one thing is useless. But it is very hard to see the good in some things.''
Kureha picked up on Rio's words. ``But how did we teach you? We...'' She paused, searching for words. ``I know you taught me ...a lot. But how could we teach you? ...I mean, I can see Filicia, but me ...or Kanata?''
Rio smiled back in kind thanks. ``You did. You all did. Some teaching might just have been helping me grow up, but you also all taught me much of life. And I appreciate your teaching.''
Kureha looked back, her expression still unconvinced.
``Let's see.'' Rio collected her thoughts for a moment, then answered. ``Here are a few examples. Kureha, you have taught me that we can make our own family, even after our birth one has been taken away. You showed that the family we make can be just as dear as the one we were born to, maybe even more so.'' Kureha blushed at this, and Rio glanced at Filicia, for whom this also had special meaning.
``Kanata,'' Rio continued, ``You taught me that life is meant to be enjoyed, even when it does not seem that way at first. You taught me that we can find joy in the world, that even in an out-of-the-way backwater town amazing things can happen.''
Kanata mumbled something unintelligible in thanks.
``Noël.'' Rio shifted her gaze to the quiet mechanic. ``You taught me that we can all heal, no matter how grievous the wounds, even those to our spirit. But we that we often need friends to help us do so. I hope you have found happiness as well as healing.''
Noël glanced at Aisha and quietly replied, ``I'm happy.''
``And Aisha, not only have you helped Noël, you taught me it is not only possible to forgive, it is important. Even forgiving someone who has hurt us deeply.'' She looked down and quietly added, ``like my father.''
``Your Highness.'' Only a formal response could convey Aisha's gratitude.
``Filicia.'' Rio looked at her and smiled. ``I could go on all night about what you've done. You have taught me by word and deed, of caring and command, and more: that true command is not ordering people around, it is about knowing and caring for those under you, helping them grow and be the best they can be. You surely have helped me that way, though I don't think I do as well as I should.'' She stopped, having come to the end of her courage and her list of teachers and friends at the table here, but not of what they had taught and done for her.
``Rio...'' Filicia adjusted her glasses on her nose, maybe to dry a tear, maybe just to push them back up her nose. She understood much of what Rio left unsaid. ``Thank you, Rio. I can see that you have been doing more in your room than just packing. You've been doing some very careful thinking, too. To list what we've done for you like this ...is hard to put into words.'' She glanced at the others at the table. ``I'm sure I speak for all of us saying we also will miss you terribly. I hope you will be happy, and I hope the Rightful Roman Empire realizes just how precious a gift we are giving them in you.''
``Yes, very dear,'' said Noël, now holding Aisha's hand as they sat next to each other at the table.
Kanata and Kureha nodded, still assimilating Rio's thanks and compliments.
``I hope she will be,'' said Aisha, ``and I think the Roman people will come to realize this, and to ...care for her as she is cared for here.'' She looked directly at Rio. ``I know I am thankful for the ...precious gift you are to the Empire. If I can help...'' She trailed off, not quite knowing how to express her support.
``Thank you, Aisha. I... hope you're right. I ...have no idea what to ask for as help, but your offer means a lot.''
After all of this had been said, and the last remnants of dessert eaten—all agreed that the fancy cake Filicia and Kureha had made was especially tasty—Filicia got up and poured a small glass of calvados for each of them. Returning to her place she remained standing and took up her glass. The rest of the company took their glasses and Filicia began, ``We joined in this dinner to celebrate our times together with Rio, to bid her farewell, and to wish her the best in her future. Thank you all for making this very special.'' She lifted her glass in toast. ``To Rio, best of friends and comrades, may you have a safe journey and may your new life be filled with peace and joy and love.''
``To Rio,'' the all chorused, draining their glasses.
``Thank you,'' said Rio as her eyes filled with tears. She was too moved say more.
ooo OOO ooo
The next day, it was Rio's time to leave. Kanata asked her and Aisha to the top of the fortress tower. They arrived at the top with their instruments. ``Rio-sempai,'' Kanata explained, ``you played with me up here right before you left last time. It'd be fun if we could all play together this time, too. ...Please.''
Aisha looked hopefully to Rio for an answer too.
``Well,'' Rio finally said, spending a moment remembering that moment with Kanata. ``That would be nice. Shall we play the tune that seems to tie us all together?''
``Yes! The Sound of the Sky. And Aisha knows it too.'' Kanata thought this a wonderful idea.
``My grandmother taught it to me,'' Aisha explained. ``It does seem appropriate.''
``Yes,'' Rio agreed. ``And I think that Iliya—who taught it to both Kanata and I—would feel it fitting for us to play it together, in peace and in friendship.''
Kanata and Aisha agreed wholeheartedly.
``And, sempai, could you please play Princess Iliya's trumpet?'' She held out her trumpet to Rio. ``Please.''
Aisha added her request, giving a small bow to Rio. ``Princess, if you would please lead us.''
Rio took a breath to protest, but saw Kanata's imploring eyes looking up at her, asking the same. So she abandoned her protest, smiled back at the two, and took the trumpet. ``All right, but just this once.''
Kanata's sunburst of a smile erased any doubts had whether this was the right thing to do. Kanata and Aisha both took up their old bugles and looked to Rio. She lifted Kanata's trumpet, gesturing for them all to begin.
Their flock of brass notes took wing over the town, echoing from the cliffs and combining in harmonies which spoke hope that their peoples could work together in peace, and so bring joy and beauty from their combination as did the notes.
Filicia and the others looked up from the courtyard, enjoying this impromptu concert.
Throughout Seize, the townspeople looked up, hearing the music and savoring its beauty. Those of them who knew told those who did not who was playing and how this was the same tune that had stopped the war last year.
When they finished Rio smiled back at them. ``Thank you. That was wonderful,'' she said, carefully handing Kanata back her trumpet.
``Yes. Yes!'' Said Kanata. She looked up at Rio. ``Remember. No matter how far we are parted, sounds resonate and reach out to the hearts of others.''
``Yes they do,'' Rio agreed, remembering Kanata's words as the same ones they spoke the last time she had to leave Seize, and that they were ones that both she and Kanata had learned from her sister Iliya. ``I still don't want to say goodbye. I'll always remember Seize, and your friendship.'' She included Aisha in this last, and was rewarded by a quiet, sincere smile.
Not only did the entire 1121st come to see Rio off at the station, a large group of townspeople did as well. The size of the crowd on the platform showed how much Seize had taken her into their hearts and claimed her as their own.
It was on a banner here that she first was given the name, ``Rio of the Peace.''
ooo OOO ooo
Filicia stood on the platform, watching the train disappear into the distance, just as Noël had watched Aisha's train depart after her summer visit.
``Filicia,'' Kanata ventured, ``It's hard watching a train carry away the one we love, isn't it?''
Filicia silently nodded her agreement; she didn't trust her voice.
Kanata and Kureha both moved to hug her in comfort. ``We love her too ...and also miss her. But you've known her much longer, so it must be that much harder for you. We're here for you.''
``Thank you,'' said Filicia, resting her arms on their shoulders. ``We need to be strong and look at how good the peace she brought us is. Even though we're giving up Rio and her company, it's for a good cause. We should think of all the children who, thanks to her, won't have to face the horrors of war.'' Filicia told this to Kureha and Kanata, but they could tell that she was trying just as hard to convince herself of it.
They held Filicia until the train disappeared around a distant bend and Filicia finally took her eyes back from the horizon. ``Thank you,'' She gathered them both in her arms, rested her head on theirs and for the first time either could recall, Filicia let herself cry.
The three stood there holding each other, alone on the platform, for the rest of the well-wishers had already departed for home. Filicia finally released her hold on Kanata and Kureha and straightened back up. ``Thank you.'' She kept her hands on their shoulders. ``Thank you girls. I didn't ...I didn't realize parting would affect me this way.''
``It's all right, Filicia,'' said Kanata. ``We love Rio too.'' She took her hand. ``I can make dinner tonight,'' she offered, wanting to do something to help, and though she didn't consciously think of it, to give herself something to keep busy as well.
Kureha nodded. ``Unless you want us all to work on it together?''
``That would be a bit ...crowded in the kitchen ...and I really should finish writing up a couple dispatches.'' Filicia gave them a small grin. ``You know how the army loves reports and paperwork, and all personnel changes must be properly documented.''
They all shared a laugh, glad to find humor in something this day, even if it was only army bureaucracy.
``Why don't we head back?'' Filicia finally suggested, looking around at the now-empty platform and square in front of the station. ``It looks like everyone else already has.''
``Yeah,'' Kureha agreed.
When they got to the cars, Kanata suggested that they all go home together in one of them. ``We can leave the other one parked here and come back and pick it up later, like tomorrow.''
Kureha looked up at Filicia and suggested, ``I can drive us home if you'd like.''
``All right,'' said Filicia, not objecting to the company on the drive nor to the opportunity to sit back as a passenger. And this suggestion, or actually the caring behind it, brought the first hint of a smile back to her face.
That evening the three sat around the dinner table and talked about good times in the past. The table seemed empty with only half as many people around it as the night before. Kanata had still been distracted enough when they arrived back here that she made the usual quantity for dinner. Thankfully the leftovers would keep, so food wouldn't go to waste.
``I miss Rio ...and Noël ...and Aisha,'' said Kureha. ``We knew that Rio had to leave again, but I'm still going to miss her.'' She paused, thinking for a moment, then tried to cheer herself up. ``I'm glad that Rio has Noël and Aisha to go with her on this trip so she won't be so lonely. It's good to travel with friends.''
``Yes,'' Filicia agreed, also trying to grasp hold of this cheer. ``It really is good to have friends to keep you company on a long journey like this one.''
``I'm sure she'll do well,'' Kanata concluded, ever looking on the bright side of things.
After dinner, they shared their traditional bath together. Kureha made no objection to the non-regulation togetherness this time: she found that she also needed the close sharing it provided. She didn't even protest when Filicia offered to wash her back. Kanata and Filicia enjoyed it as always, especially Kanata helping with her hair.
As they soaked in the hot bath after washing themselves, the three continued talking about their shared past. Kanata brought up their bath together just before Rio's return when Filicia and Noël had shared their memories of Rio.
In spite of enjoying sharing this bath, an air of melancholy still hovered around Filicia. Kureha noticed this and as they were drying off asked, ``Filicia, um... you seem a bit lonely tonight, so ...um.'' She looked over to Kanata for confirmation. ``Would you want us to sleep with you tonight?'' She turned beet red. ``I mean, just for tonight, and to make you feel better. I don't mean we should normally...'' She trailed off, not knowing how to continue or what else to say.
``Kureha,'' Filicia smiled tenderly back at her. ``Thank you ...yes.'' She swallowed to clear the emotion from her throat. ``You'll make a wonderful, caring nurse.'' Her smile filled her face. ``I really appreciate this, and yes, I understand this is special ...just this once.''
``Me too?'' asked Kanata, more hopeful and much less hesitant than Kureha.
``Of course. Thank you.''
That night they all snuggled together in Filicia's bed, each finding in the closeness their own solace from their recent loss, and each also enjoying it for their own personal reasons..
Rio's departure this time hit all three harder than her last one. Somehow this one seemed more permanent; Rio going to a foreign country to marry didn't leave much hope for her return. When Rio left last year, only Filicia knew the engagement clause of the peace treaty might apply to her, and they all hoped that Rio might return after her ``special task to save Helvetia,'' or if she had to stay in the capital, that they could still visit her regularly. The war was also beginning to heat up last time Rio left—after all that was why she had to leave—and the preparations and activities for that gave them something to occupy their minds, especially Filicia. This time Noël had left along with Rio, so their platoon suffered an even bigger reduction in size. Yes, Noël was going to return after having safely seen Rio to her destination in the Roman Empire, but all three knew that without Aisha, Noël's heart could not peacefully rest in Seize. Would Noël eventually leave to follow Aisha, or could Aisha come here? They could not say, but either way their small company would never be the same again. They all found comfort in those who remained here in Seize. They had each other, and this would not change.
ooo OOO ooo
As the train pulled away from the Seize station, Rio leaned out the open window, waving farewell to the crowd of well-wishers gathered to see her off. As it picked up speed, she pulled her head back inside and closed the window. The weather was not near warm enough to need its cooling breeze. She sat down facing Noël and Aisha. ``Thanks for being my escort,'' she told them. ``You make it feel like I'm bringing a bit of Seize with me. It's good to have friends together on this journey.''
``You're welcome, Rio.'' Noël gave Aisha the briefest glance to confirm she spoke for both of them. ``We're happy to do it, and glad that we are able to.''
Aisha nodded in agreement.
The train wound its way through the mountains and valleys of the Helvetian countryside. Aisha commented on its beauty as they crossed one of the numerous rivers. ``I'm so glad we have a chance to see this again. I think I fell in love with this scenery on my first trip back from Seize. I didn't want to leave it behind.'' She left unsaid that the scenery was much less important to her than what else she had left behind in Seize.
``It is lovely, isn't it.''
Conversation about Aisha's trip back led to reminiscences about her visit this past summer and also her first time in Seize a year a go.
But that was not the first time that Aisha met Noël. It also happened that Aisha was a victim of the bio-weapons from the plant Noël restored as a child. Colonel Hopkins had taken Noël to see some still-living victims in a broken building near Bienenland, and Aisha was suffering in there. ``I remember seeing her then, but then I also remembered the pain on her face when she saw us victims in that broken room. I later learned how much that actually hurt her, how she wishes she had never restored that plant, how much Colonel Hopkins' betrayal hurt.''
``And you helped heal those hurts, Aisha,'' Rio pointed out.
``You helped too, Miss Rio,'' Aisha countered. ``But I think we can all agree that seeing Noël healed is wonderful.''
``Thank you,'' Noël whispered in answer, ``both of you.'' And she thought to herself of the other friends who had helped her heal: Filicia, Kureha, Kanata, Karl, Mishio and the rest of the Seize townsfolk.
Rio smiled at this, and at Noël and Aisha's clasped hands resting on the seat between them.
At Onze, they changed trains to an express heading northwest. Seize was too small a town to be served by anything but the one local train. Rio had refused the offer of a special train sent for her. ``I can take ordinary trains like a normal lieutenant,'' she had stated. ``There's no need to go to that extra expense for me, and there are many better things to spend that money on.'' So, she and her escorts took passage on an ordinary train headed for the Roman border. In the past year of peace, commerce across the border had begun once more, and the border stations were seeing real use now.
``Is this the same route you took when you left Seize last time?'' asked Aisha. They had begun speaking in Roman at Rio's suggestion. Rio figured she needed all the practice she could get to prepare her for life there, and this was a last chance to accustom her ear to the language before arriving in Rome.
``Only to Onze,'' she replied. ``I took a train from there to the capital ...Helvetian capital, I mean.''
Noël nodded in agreement. ``Of course.''
``So this is different now than that time,'' Aisha continued, prompting her to tell more.
``Yes, that time I did not know what lay ahead for me. My father only said I needed to come to the capital to save Helvetia. `There was something that only I could do,' he said.'' She took a breath to buy time to find the right words. ``I didn't learn the treaty clause until I talked with him in person in the capital. But I guessed that might be it. I had heard the rumors about Iliya needing to marry the Rightful Roman Emperor, but my father was slow to say that.'' She stared out the window for a bit. ``At least this time I have a better idea of where I am going and what I will be doing, though I still don't really know what life will be like after the wedding.'' She smiled at the two. ``And this time, I have friends along on the trip.''
``Yes,'' Noël said. ``Friends are good.''
``They are,'' Aisha agreed. ``Even when you are going home, this trip is less lonely when you don't have to make it by yourself.''
Noël reached over and took Aisha's hand, reassuring Aisha as well as herself that neither need worry about loneliness.
Conversation continued on about Rio's previous trip as well as Aisha's. It also came around to the Helvetian Capital, just as Rio's journey had. Aisha had never been there, so Noël and Rio described it to her. Noël had not been there for many years, and had not actually lived there since she attended the Academy. While Rio had been there most recently last year, she had never actually lived in the capital, only nearby. Nonetheless Aisha was happy to hear what they both had to say about it.
As they approached the Roman border, Aisha asked, ``Miss Rio, have you ever been to Rome or the palace?''
``No, I have not. The first negotiations were at Villa des Friedens nearer our border, and after my ...border tour, we headed north near the Frankish border, again missing the capital. Fr... Emperor Franz Leopold has told me some about it in his letters, but there is only so much you can learn that way. Could you tell me more?''
``Of course, Miss Rio, though I've never been inside the palace. I've only seen it from the outside.''
``Please,'' added Noël, looking up at her partner. ``I know little about it. I want to know more of your home.''
This earned her a smile from Aisha.
Conversation of the Roman Capital happily occupied them to the border and beyond.
They crossed the border with no fuss and little fanfare. Then again, it would have been exceedingly surprising if Rio's papers were not found in order. One of the guards manning the checkpoint did recognize Rio from when she declared the peace to his unit last year. He thanked her for that, and was going to jump her ahead of everyone else, but she insisted on being treated like an ordinary citizen. ``I don't want to cause these folks or you yourself delay and inconvenience just to save a little time on my feet.'' She grinned at the guard. ``The army did a good job of teaching me to stand and wait.'' Noël and Aisha nodded in agreement with her, stopping his urge to insist.
The guard happily told this story to his friends that evening in the barracks: how the Emperor's fiancée came through his checkpoint, how she was friendly and generous and understood ordinary soldiers like them. This was a story he would tell again and again.
The train continued north toward the capital. Rio and Noël watched the countryside go past out the window. The fields grew closer together and the villages larger, older and more settled the farther they went. Noël and Rio both commented on this. ``I guess it makes sense that people tend to want to live closer to the capital.''
``Yes, but the farms have especially grown up here this past year,'' said Aisha. ``I think people are counting on the peace actually lasting so they don't need to worry so much about war destroying their fields.''
``I share their hope,'' said Rio. ``Though I also think that the growing desert in the north is pushing people this way. I saw some of that desert on my trip to the Empire.''
``Yes,'' Aisha agreed. ``Losing fields and cities to the Gallian desert has been hard. My dad's parents lost their farm that way. There was nothing they could do to stop the sand and bring back the water.''
``So this land here is all the more precious,'' Rio observed.
``And should not be wasted as a battlefield,'' Noël interjected.
Aisha took her hand, smiled at her and then Rio. ``And thankfully, now it won't be.''
``Yes, peace has more benefits than just saving soldiers lives,'' Rio said. ``Not to belittle saving their lives, but...''
``Peace is good,'' Noël agreed, her voice both softer and more decisive than usual.
``If only we could get everyone to agree to that,'' Aisha lamented.
``Actually,'' said Rio, ``I think there are only a few people who don't think peace is good. The problem is that too many value other things more than peace: territory, pride, money...''
``True, I wish they valued peace more,'' Aisha agreed.
Rio smiled back. ``Then we will just have to teach them,'' she concluded.
And so our little fellowship in Seize comes to an end, though the bonds of friendship among them will last the rest of their lives. I think I shall leave our friends like this, wishing them happiness and success in their futures.
I hope you have enjoyed this story. It seems less popular than others, but I'm still interested in hearing what you think of it. Please drop me a review. I still have some ideas for further adventures with Rio, Filicia and friends, but they aren't coming together as a connected story right now.