The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Twenty-Eight

When Elise arrived back at the great hall after her escapade into General Raul’s room, she saw that the ball seemed to be going on just as it had before she’d left. Most everyone had stopped dancing and were now sitting at one of the many long tables that had been set up in the hall, eating all sorts of delicacies and chatting with each other. Nobody noticed as she slipped out from a wooden door in one of the alcoves that held a marble statue, except for Eza. She was staring at the alcove, waiting for her to remerge from the servant’s passage from her seat across the room between Silas and Olrick. She grabbed another servant and sent him over to her.

“Commander Mitriovna says you have something of interest to her,” the servant said. He seemed confused. “She asks that you get some ale for her so you can discuss it.”

Elise nodded. “I’ll be right over.” She walked over to the drink table, got a tankard of ale, and walked over to where Eza, Olrick and Silas were sitting.

“You requested ale, miss?” she asked as she slipped the letter from her sleeve and into her hand. Gods, she hoped this worked; she couldn’t afford to have the wrong person see this.

Eza nodded and took the ale and the letter. The exchange was fast enough, she doubted the gods themselves would’ve seen it.

“We can discuss what happened tonight in the morning,” she said quietly. “For now, try to relax; you did a good job.” With that, Elise walked away to perform her other duties

Elise sighed as she walked to the other side of the grand hall, trying to relax like Eza told her to. It was over, and nobody had noticed. It was time for her to calm down, maybe even enjoy the ball as much as she could.

“Miss Elise?” She looked to the side to see General Polain approaching her. Unlike most of the guests, he didn’t seem very drunk. In fact, the only sign that he’d taken a single sip of alcohol was the slight smell of wine that clung to him.

She bowed her head and curtsied. “General Polain, sir. What do you require?”

“Would you be so kind as to take a bottle of wine to General Raul?” he asked. “I’m afraid that he wasn’t feeling too social tonight, and I don’t wish for him to go without simply because of that.”

“Of course, General Polain,” Elise said. “Shall I take one of the bottle’s we’re serving, tonight, or is there a more expensive vintage that you wish for him?”

“One from the kitchen is fine,” General Polain said. “Please, take a goblet up with you, as well; I don’t believe he took one up with him.”

“Yes, sir.” Elise curtsied again and headed for one of the tables set up, where much of the castle’s wine was.

“Can you spare one of these bottles and a goblet?” she asked the servant who was overseeing them. “General Polain wishes for a bottle to be sent up to General Raul.” The servant began surveying the bottles, then picked up a bottle of Vercourian red wine and a goblet handed it to her.

“Thank you.” She turned around-

And ran right into one of the Gisken soldiers.

She found herself dropping the goblet in a combination of shock and horror. For a brief second, she thought that he knew about what she’d done, and that he was there to arrest her; however, that was before she saw the empty wine goblet in his hand.

Elise froze in surprise. The Gisken that stood in front of her was tall and lanky, with blonde hair tied back in a tail, dull blue eyes, and pale skin. He had a long, black coat on with a blue band around the forearm, a sign that Olrick told her signified that he was a captain.

“Oh, gods forgive me,” he stuttered as his cheeks began to burn red in embarrassment. “I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Elise said as the servant handed her a broom and a pan. She put the wine down and began to sweep up the pieces of glass from the floor. “Are you?”

“I’m alright,” he said. The Gisken knelt down beside her. “Let me help you with that.”

“It’s alright,” Elise said. “I don’t want to trouble you-“

“It’s fine, really,” he said as he took the dustpan. “It’s my fault that the goblet fell in the first place; I should help clean it up.” Elise looked up at his face. He was sincere about his offer, something that she hadn’t realized a Gisken was capable of until then.

“Thank you,” she finally said as she stood up with the broom. She began to sweep the glass shards into the dustpan as he held it.

“Where were you heading when I bumped into you?” The Gisken asked as Elise swept.

“I was going to General Raul, actually,” she said. “General Polain noticed that he wasn’t feeling very social, and thought that a little wine might brighten his spirits.” She finished sweeping up the glass.

“You don’t seem very sure about it,” he said as he stood up, the dustpan in hand.

“I’m not,” Elise said as she handed the servant the broom and the Gisken handed him the dustpan. She picked up the wine bottle and took another goblet. “Being around him is just a little unnerving.”

“Believe me, I get it,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I can come with you, if you want; it’s always a lot better when you have someone with you when you face him.”

“Are you sure?” Elise said. “I don’t want to trouble you any more than I have to.”

“It’s just fine,” the Gisken said. “I’m not that big into parties, anyway.”

Elise could hear kissing sounds coming from the side of her. When she looked over in the direction of the noises, she saw two drunken Giskens, their arms over each other’s shoulders. Their cheeks were red as cherries and they looked like they were barely able to stand on their own.

Elise and the Gisken’s cheeks began to burn red in embarrassment. He stuttered something quickly in Gisken, but all they did was laugh and reply in something that sounded vaguely like the same language. Whatever they said managed to make him even more embarrassed than he already was.

“What did he say?” Elise asked as the Gisken began to pull her away from them. They were walking – no, staggering - away from them, laughing.

“You don’t want to know.” They left the main hall, finding themselves in a deserted hallway. For a few minutes, neither of them spoke to each other as they walked through the narrow corridors to the west wing.

“I never caught your name back there,” the Gisken said, breaking the painfully awkward silence.

“I’m Elise,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Finn.” There was quiet for a few more seconds as they walked to General Raul’s room. Finn spent a lot of it looking around at the statues, the paintings and the frescoes that lined every inch of space of Castle Matisse’s halls.

Elise looked up at the ceiling as they walked into a small gallery, one of many that could be used to host small parties. Above their heads was a massive, intricate fresco of the heavens, with the sun god Jeriah sitting on his throne in the bright, sunny half, while the moon goddess Delia sat among the moon and the stars on the other half.

“Are those your gods?” Finn asked as he looked up, too. He had an amazed look on his face; he must not have seen anything like it, before. She nodded.

“The sun god and the moon goddess, yes,” Elise said. He continued to stare up at the painting as they walked through the gallery.

“Do your churches have pictures like this, too?” he asked, his neck still craned up at the ceiling.

“The church back home had a picture of the village’s patron god,” she said. The two of them walked up the stairs on the other side of the gallery and came into a long hallway with paintings of religious scenes lining the walls. “Why? Don’t you have paintings of your gods in Gishk?” To her surprise, Finn began to shake his head.

“I never did growing up,” he said, looking back at her and shoving his hands into his coat pockets. “Paintings are too expensive for everyone to have them.”

After a few more minutes of walking, Elise and Finn reached General Raul’s room. A soldier was standing outside of it, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Unlike many of the soldiers who’d come with Raul, he was wearing a white armband on his left arm. She was pretty sure that she’d heard someone say that the white armband showed that the man was a private in the army.

The private stood at attention when he saw Finn. The two spoke to each other in Gisken for a few seconds, then the private opened the door and ushered them inside.

When they entered the room, Elise saw that General Raul had certainly made himself comfortable. The sheets on the bed were balled up and wrinkled, as if he’d already slept in it, and a few trunks filled with his things were scattered around the room. The general, himself, was sitting at his desk, reading through one of the many reports that covered it.

It was strange. For a few seconds, he almost seemed like a normal person, sitting at the desk; stressed, but normal.

Was?” General Raul asked. He turned around to look at her. He looked tired, as if he hadn’t gotten much sleep in the past week or so.

Elise bowed her head and curtsied. “General Polain asked me to bring this to you, sir.” General Raul stood up and walked over to her.

She bit her lip to keep herself from shaking; what if he recognized her from Thaos, or somehow knew what she’d done? She knew it was next to impossible, those paranoid thoughts kept creeping to the front of her mind, no matter how hard she tried to keep them back.

“A Vercourian vintage?” he asked as he picked up the bottle and read the label. He took the goblet and began walking back to the desk. “Be sure to tell your general that he has good tastes.” General Raul pulled the cork out of the wine bottle with a loud pop and poured some of the blood red wine into his goblet.

“I apologize if this is a strange question, maidservant, but is there any way to get into this room other than through the door?” he asked. He took a delicate sip of wine. “Castle Lügenburg has quite a few hidden passageways, I’ve learned, and I’m curious to know if this castle is the same way.”

A chill ran down Elise’s spine. General Raul knew about the servant’s passage; did he know about the letter, too?

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said quickly. “I-I don’t know about any secret passages; I’ve only been here for a few days.” General Raul nodded, taking another sip of wine from his goblet.

“You’re excused,” he said. “Captain Finn, I would like to speak with you, for a moment.” Elise curtsied, again, and left the room, leaving Finn alone with General Raul.

She couldn’t seem to get away from there fast enough.

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