A Soldier's Tale

I am a soldier. I am trained to recognize the enemy, to anticipate his moves, to keep one step ahead of him.

Or so they tell me.

I was looking at three days' leave after a gruelling month of training, three days in a beautiful country I'd hardly seen yet. Most of my cohorts planned to spend the time just off base, holed up in a local resort full of every sort of vice a soldier might want to stock up on before shipping out for a six-month stint in the center of a barren hell. Me, though, I'm a more philosophical sort of fellow, so I aimed to take a train a few hours out into the surrounding countryside, get me some peace and quiet and a little time to think. I've been in a warzone before, I know it's the peace and the quiet you miss most. 'Course, if I happened to run across a bit of drinking and girls to break up the monotony of thinking -- well, let's just say that a good soldier keeps alert to the possibilities.

I packed up most of my belongings, minus the weapons, for the trip. Not that I thought I needed so much stuff for such a short trip, but the more I packed up now, the less I'd have left to worry about when I got back. I wanted to squeeze as much not-doin'-shit time out of my three free days as possible. Plus, I didn't entirely trust my fellow soldiers not to rifle through my things in convivial drunken stupidity while I was away.

I won't deny that I hoped the sight of a buff man in uniform effortlessly toting around a heavy duffel might attract a bit of female attention, too, if I decided I wanted it.

It didn't take me too long at all to come to that particular decision.

Duffel slung over shoulder, I was making my way through the train in search of a promising car -- not too full, but not too empty, either -- when I saw her.

Every man, whether he'll admit it or not, has a type. For me, that type is the Girl Next Door -- the kind that gets freckles and sunstreaked hair in the summer, wears fluffy sweaters and throws snowballs in winter, smiles like she means it all the way to her big blue eyes, knows how to tease without taking it too far, eats hot dogs and goes to baseball games and screams with abandon when her team is ahead, isn't afraid to get a little dirty but will surprise you with how well she cleans up when the situation calls for it.

This girl was none of those things, and yet I couldn't take my eyes off her.

She looked... high-maintenance, maybe, or maybe just completely out of my league. Aloof. Thick, honey-colored hair that looked like it ought to be tousled but wasn't. Crisp tailored clothes -- prim blouse, tweedy-looking blazer, velvety brown skirt -- like I always imagined girls who went to much snootier schools than I could ever afford must wear. The pointy-toed boots alone probably cost more than I make in a month. On her legs, though, they seemed worth every penny. Despite my best efforts, I imagined myself peeling them off, slowly.

She'd chosen a seat on the low bench just beside the door, in the small forward compartment separated from the main seating area by a low wall and a curtained window. The benches aren't as comfortable as the seats, but as a result they almost guarantee privacy and, because they're set along the wall rather than facing forward, they give a great view of everyone's comings and goings. It was, I mused, exactly the seat my sergeant would've chosen. This girl didn't seem so concerned about the surveillance aspect of her location, though: she was deeply engrossed in a book. I glanced at the title, but it didn't look like any language I recognized. She must be a student, I guessed, at the ultra-elite university a few stops back. Probably majoring in international business or something.

I knew I should keep walking, move on into the main seating compartment. Obviously, she'd chosen this seat because she wanted the privacy. But I couldn't quite make myself. I'd slowed my pace so much that by now I was sure she knew I must be checking her out, though she gave no outward sign of it.

Just then, the train lurched into motion, and I staggered, swearing as my duffel slid off my shoulder and swung straight for the poor girl's head. I needn't've worried, though: like lightning, her free hand jumped out and braced it, though her eyes never left her book. Tennis player, I guessed, or one of those other sports that rich people play on perfect green lawns in crisp white clothes that they never get dirty.

Of course, if they all had reflexes this good, why was it just us poor sods that got recruited to be soldiers?

"Er, thanks," I muttered; and, in a moment of inspiration, plopped down on the other bench, across from her. It would make sense that I might want to take a moment to get my balance before continuing on, and if she didn't seem bothered by it then maybe I would just stay....

I perched there on the bench with my duffel, trying not to look too awkward, trying even harder not to gawk. I think she must've been taking pity on me when after a moment she asked, "You wouldn't perchance have a cigarette on you? I'm dying for a smoke." She spoke in perfect expensive-boarding-school diction, crisp as her clothing. I couldn't place the accent, though; and her features, when she lifted her eyes from the book to look at me, didn't really help, either: her too-dark eyes and upturned nose seemed to belong on an entirely different continent from the dark blond hair and long, narrow chin.

"I, uh... sorry, no," I replied. Internally, I vowed to take up the habit at the earliest opportunity.

"Pity," she said with a small, tight-lipped smile, and returned her gaze to her book. Even on the uncomfortable bench, her posture was perfect.

"Where you headed?" I asked quickly, not wanting to let a good opening get away.

"Just to the next stop."

She didn't sound annoyed by the interruption, so I decided to push my luck. "Hey, me too," I lied, knowing as I said it that it was about to turn into the truth. "Business or pleasure?"

"Family." She lifted her eyes again and gave me an ironic smile. It meant something, I just wasn't sure what.

Keep the conversation going, I told myself. You'll be able to piece out the puzzle afterward. "Oh, did you grow up around here?"

"No," she said, and paused so long that at first I thought she might leave it at that and go back to her book. But after a moment she added, "It's... just a convenient meeting place. I'm headed home for the summer, and my father is in the area, so we're meeting up and taking the scenic route. Just for fun."

"Ah," I said. "What, er, what does your father do?"

The ironic smile returned. "He's heir to several thrones he'll never inherit." She seemed to be watching me closely for my reaction, as if I were a bug under glass she was poking with a blade of grass.

I knew she was probably shitting me, and yet I couldn't read any of the usual signs in her expression. If she was lying, she was damned good at it. "Why not?" I asked. I could hardly help myself.

She closed the book and set it on her lap, as though the conversation had finally become interesting enough to hold her attention for a while. She fixed me with a level, matter-of-fact gaze. "Well, my father may be descended on both sides from royalty, but my mother is a purple-haired bisexual political radical. Would you give us a throne?"

I felt myself squirming a little under her gaze. Really, she had to be shitting me, but her face betrayed nothing. Was this some kind of test? A game? Maybe she was a drama major, and this was some kind of between-term exercise. Whichever, I was fascinated. "I, uh, I suppose not," I agreed.

At this point I figured she'd told me enough that it would be rude not to at least give her my name. Plus, I was hoping that if she gave me hers, I could check out her story later. Assuming she gave the right name, of course. So, "Hi, I'm Leonard," I said, and leaned forward across the aisle to offer my hand.

She took it and shook it gracefully, but with a surprisingly firm grip. "Lorelei," she replied.

"Lora-lye," I repeated, wrapping my tongue around the unfamiliar name. "What, er, what sort of a name is that?"

"Fanciful," she replied with another tight-lipped smile. "Apparently I'm meant to sing sailors to their deaths on the rocks or something. You can call me Lora."

For an instant, I wished I'd signed up with the navy instead of the army.

"Nice to meet you, Lora," I said. Fishing for another clue, I asked, "Your book -- if you don't mind my asking, what language is it?"

"German," she replied, though with the noise of the train I could've sworn for a moment there that she said "Merman".

The door to the next car swung open and the conductor stepped through. "Tickets, please," he said in a bored voice. I unzipped the pocket on the side of my duffel and reached for my ticket.

It wasn't there. Shit. I'd spent the better part of my most recent paycheck on it, and knew I didn't have enough left for the "ticketless passenger" fine. If I'd lost it....

"Hold on a minute," I muttered, "I've got it here somewhere...." I patted my pockets and poked through my duffel, but I couldn't find it anywhere. Lora had gone back to her book, her own ticket punched and sitting on the bench beside her.

I was just beginning to panic when she said casually, "Oh, I'm sorry, Leonard, darling, is this your ticket? I must've picked it up accidentally...." She withdrew the crumpled paper from the back of her book and handed it to the conductor, who punched it and handed it to me. It was my ticket, all right, complete with the list of stops jotted down on the back in my own handwriting. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.

As the conductor moved into the main passenger compartment, I felt Lora's eyes on me. I looked up -- and with a chill and a thrill, I understood: she was in control. If I'd done anything to threaten her -- heck, even to offend or annoy her -- she would've had me kicked off the train. She must've grabbed the ticket when I....

I wondered what she would've done if the train hadn't lurched at such an opportune moment. I wondered what she would've done if I'd decided to move on into the passenger compartment.

Remembering those fast, fast reflexes, I wondered what she'd do if I tried anything. I imagined her standing over me, one pointy-toed boot at my throat.

She held my gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment, and then her features relaxed into a genuine smile, the first I'd seen from her. "Forgive me," she said, "but a girl can't be too careful, you know. When we get off, I'll buy you a coffee to make up for it."

"I dunno, I think you better make it a beer."

The ironic edge returned to her smile. "Well, if that's what you're after, there are several scruffy girls-with-guitars in the next car back who I'm sure would be happy to oblige...." She dropped her gaze back to her book.

I realized I wanted to keep talking to her far more than I wanted a beer. "I guess I'll just hafta make do with coffee, then," I said, and smiled.

We chatted amiably about nothing in particular for the rest of the ride. She did verify that she was a student, though she didn't say where, and talked a little bit about her family, which sounded huge and tight-knit despite many of them not getting along very well. I got the feeling she was intentionally omitting a lot of personal details. I told her a little bit about the operation I was being deployed to in a few days, the "peacekeeping force" for which I'd nevertheless had to undergo a hell of a lot of heavy weapons training. I probably didn't omit nearly as many details as I should have.

It occurred to me as I was talking that this girl would probably make a fantastic spy. I made a mental note to tell my sergeant about her just as soon as I figured out who the hell she was. Well, and which country she was a citizen of.

It did not occur to me until much, much later that she might already be a spy.

We debarked at the next stop, a small, quaint city with thick defensive walls dating back almost a millennium and a pretty, airy central square dominated by a large marble statue of some dead white guy on a horse. Lora rattled off a quick overview of local history and highlights -- clearly she'd spent some time here -- and led me straight to a quiet café with outdoor seating and a good view of the square. The coffee was rich and smooth, so unlike the instant motor oil they served on the base as to seem a different drink entirely. I savored my cup and the company.

Too soon, Lora looked across the square with narrowed eyes and declared, "Ride's here." She rose slowly, stretched, and left a generous tip on the table. I realized with a start that she had no other baggage than her purse, despite heading for an extended stay with family.

"C'mon," she said, "I'll introduce you to my father." There was a challenge in her smile, as if to add "...if you're brave enough." I shouldered my duffel and followed her into the square.

We were still a dozen or more meters away when I ID'd her father, staring at us -- his precious daughter and the strange guy with her -- with a hawklike intensity. He shared Lora's blond hair and long chin, but not her taste in clothing. He wore jeans and a nondescript t-shirt under a leather jacket. I probably wouldn't have given him a second glance if I weren't about to be introduced to him. I certainly wouldn't've pegged him as royalty, even of one of the tiny principalities that dotted this region.

"Hullo, Daddy," Lora purred when we got close enough to greet him, and then wrapped her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder like a little girl. For all that she'd sounded cool towards her family when she talked about them on the train, she obviously adored her father. Even more obviously, the feeling was mutual: he kissed her hair and held her protectively, and for that moment nothing else in the whole square seemed to exist.

When he released her, she took a step back and said, "Daddy, this is Leonard. He was good enough to keep me company on the train. Leonard, this is my father, Martin."

He eyed me warily but shook my hand. His grip was even firmer than his daughter's: not quite crushing, but strong and sure.

He was not a big guy, but I had no doubt he could drop me in a heartbeat.

"Pleasure to meet you, sir," I said, as humbly and politely as I could. He nodded once, abruptly. He didn't look that much older than me; but then, I'm sure a lot of rich people don't.

I felt Lora's dark eyes watching me. "Have a pleasant holiday, Leonard," she said, "and do try not to die. Perhaps we'll run into each other again someday."

She smiled, and I knew I'd never see her again.

I watched as she took her father's arm and he led her across the square. Her whole demeanor changed in his presence: the layer of sophistication seemed to slide off, and she became giddy and girlish. Suddenly she seemed less "college coed" than "sweet sixteen".

My god, I realized with a sudden chill, she was only sixteen. Maybe younger. How had I not seen it before?

Staring after them, I could still catch their conversation on the breeze.

"C'we get ice cream?"

"Not yet, I wanna get outta here. Maybe we'll stop along the way."

"What're we riding?"

"You'll see." Smug. Pleased.

The crowds seemed to part before them as if by magic, Lora let out a happy squeak -- and then I saw it.

Now, I consider myself a cycle guy. I've owned half a dozen in my lifetime, some of which I refurbished myself, and I've test-driven just about everything I could get my hands on. But I'd never even been in the same room as the likes of the beauty this guy had ridden in on. If he was driving a bike like that, he was every bit as well-off and well-connected as Lora implied. And if he could handle a beast with that much power well enough to drive his beloved daughter around on it -- without helmets, no less -- then he must have the skills of a world-class racing champion.

I just stared, slack-jawed, as they saddled up and roared out of the square, the noise of their passage fading more quickly than humanly possible. I kept staring long after they were gone, asking myself over and over again what the hell I had just witnessed.

I am a soldier. I am trained to recognize the enemy, to anticipate his moves, to keep one step ahead of him.

All I can say is, if we ever end up in a war with this family -- whoever the hell they are -- we are so fucked.

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Last modified: 2 October 2005