If he could ignore the thunderstorm raging just outside, all seemed deceptively quiet.
The young man signed his letter with a hasty flourish, folding the paper and stuffing it into his pocket. He hoped his companions back among the rebel army would find it, that it wouldn't get lost in the chaos. He stood up from the little table, carefully replacing his quill pen and ink bottle in its pocket inside his coat. Then he stood in the foyer of the grand mansion, pushing down his anxiety, his eyes searching the inky blackness outside of the window. He wished in vain that he could catch one last glimpse of the armies that were waiting, watching, and wondering if he, just an ordinary soldier, could complete the task they'd given him. He felt for the knife he'd loosely tied around his left wrist, a fluttering flame of reassurance coming with the touch of the cold blade.
I can do this…
He felt himself pacing, and he whispered a quiet chagrin, took a deep breath. He'd decided that, no matter what, he wouldn't let anyone see his fear; if that lieutenant came back to escort him to the general's headquarters and saw him pacing and sweating, surely the man would suspect something was up.
"Sir, please come with me."
He hadn't expected the officer's return so soon. He flinched away from the window and faced the man, walking forward and noticing the acute cloud of perfume that accompanied him into
the room and the odor of talc powder from his overly-dressed wig.
The lieutenant's disdain was still there, his calculating eyes sweeping once more over the young man's threadbare coat still dripping rainwater, his mud-encrusted shoes tracking filth over the polished wood floor despite his earlier attempts at cleaning off his feet.
He knew that the man's use of "sir" was nothing more than a mere formality; if it was acceptable, the arrogant fop would refer to him as "one of those treacherous rebel dogs", and probably would still behind the young man's back.
And if he does? Does it matter? That's just what I am. Perhaps I'm worse; at least the rebels have a cause to be committed to. But me? I'm not doing anything more than trying to save my own pathetic life…
Releasing a heavy sigh, he nodded to the lieutenant, followed him out of the parlor into the long hallway and nearly walked into another man who had run down the adjoining staircase.
"My God! You're alive!"
The young man looked up, astonished; he knew that voice even before he saw the newcomer, who abandoned all decorum and grabbed him in an embrace.
"Lieutenant Stone, you're looking well," the young man responded warmly, stepping back with his hands on Stone's shoulders.
"Ah, but my friend, I am a captain now! You missed my promotion, else you would surely have been made a captain along with me." Stone shook his head, his radiant smile wilting a little.
The young man let his hands drop, gritting his teeth, felt a muscle twitch in his jaw. Stone hadn't released him, his grip on his shoulders tightening.
"What has happened to you?" he murmured, his eyes tracking up and down the length of the young man's frame. "How is it that you are standing here tonight? We all thought you were dead…"
\A wave of emotion swept through him, settling in his throat and making it hard to choke out the words, the rehearsed lines, the lies.
May God forgive me…
"I…I convinced them I was on…their side, that I would spy for them." He felt a small smile at the corner of his mouth and added, "They would have hung me anyway, if not for the man who accompanied me tonight. He saved my life. Where…ah…where is he? He wished to speak with the general as well."
"Oh, the rebel deserter?" Stone lifted an eyebrow. "He's waiting in the upstairs parlor; he'll get to talk with our commander after you do."
The young man glanced up, realized that the other officer was still standing impatiently by the stairway, his hands clasped behind his back.
His breath caught, eliciting a choked-sounding gasp from him. Backing up a step, he eyed Stone's now-wet clothes regretfully. "I apologize," he murmured. Before his friend could give him a reassuring smile or say anything else, he cut him off. "Well, Captain Stone, I think I must go now." He returned the cool look the lieutenant was giving him, before adding, "It was…good to see you…."
He went to walk away, but stopped when he felt a squeeze on his arm. "The general…he took the news of your capture very hard. Perhaps you should break it to him gently that you are not dead. He might believe himself to be seeing a ghost…"
"Thank you, my dear friend…I'll remember that…" He turned away, blinking hard, and followed the lieutenant.
They climbed the stairway, and he wished they wouldn't creak so loudly; the sounds grated on his frayed nerves, heightening his tension all the more. He touched the knife again.
I can do this…
Then they reached the second floor, the lieutenant stepping back abruptly to knock on the closed door.
"Yes, yes, come in," a rather impatient voice sounded from inside the room.
The lieutenant opened the door with a crisp flourish, and the young man glanced at him, received no emotion from those eyes, fixed once more. His annoyance for the ceremony and the stiff politeness of it all was affecting him, and he had to stand in the doorway a moment, curling and uncurling his hands into fists. No matter; it was a merciful relief from his growing fear.
His senses seemed enhanced, every muscle in his body thrumming with adrenaline as he started across the room that suddenly seemed miles wide. He kept his focus on the window, noticing the rain pattering down it in sheets, hearing the drops on the roof for the first time.
The general jumped up from his desk, struggling to suppress the relief the young man could see on his face.
"It's true…you're alive…" the older man's voice caught, and he flicked his hand up, a curt dismissal to the lieutenant still posted at the doorway.
The young man's heart jumped.
The dismissal…just as we planned…
His head spun, the whole room seeming to lurch beneath his feet.
No, no! I'm not going to faint now!
He put his hands behind his back, touched the knife once more. There was a lump in his throat and his eyes burned with tears he was fighting.
He looked into the older man's weary face, into his eyes, thought, no, no, no! I can't!
But he must. For his honor. For his country.
"General," he whispered.
Do it…just… as…we… planned…
He stepped forward to embrace him, and the general sighed, allowing the moment of pure and unashamed weakness.
His arms around the man, he slipped the knife out of his coat sleeve with his right hand, felt the tears finally come, and squeezed his eyes shut.