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

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Chapter Thirty-Three

Elise made her way to General Raul’s room, a basket full of folded linens on her hip and his freshly washed chamber pot in her free hand. Thank the gods, the second she got back to her duties, the opportunity to put the letter back in his room came: they’d finished washing the general’s linens and his chamber pot, and they needed her to put them back in his bedroom, where they belonged. The letter was in her sleeve, tied to her arm with a small piece of twine and close enough to her hand that she could pull it out without having to dig up into her sleeve with her other hand. Hopefully, she’d be able to discretely pull it out and put it back on his desk without General Raul even knowing that it had been stolen in the first place.

Once she reached the right floor for General Raul’s room, she saw Finn down the hallway from her, walking toward her. It seemed he’d just gotten off of a shift of guarding the general’s room

Elise found a small smile forming on her lips. Gods, did he make this normally terrifying part of her job almost enjoyable.

“Let me help you with that,” he said, jogging down the hall to meet her. He took the chamber pot from her hand, letting her carry the linens with both hands. “How have you been? I haven’t seen you for most of the week.”

“I’ve been busy, but good,” Elise said. “I’ve been wrapping up my medical core training; I’ll be a private by next week.”

“That’s great,” Finn said. “Does that mean that you’ll be deployed to the front, soon?”

“I’m not sure,” Elise said. “I think they’ll probably just send me to the medical core building.”

Finn frowned. “Where is that?”

“Across the street.” He seemed relieved to hear that as they reached General Raul’s room, where a man with a white armband stood by the door.

“State your business,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. Elise held up the linens, while Finn showed him the chamber pot.

“I have General Raul’s linens and his chamber pot,” she said. He nodded and opened the door, letting the two of them inside the room.

Just as Elise walked though the door, she found herself stopped dead in her tracks. Sitting at the desk, reading through reports, was General Raul.

General Raul turned around in his seat to look at her, making the wooden chair he was sitting on creak beneath him. “I see that you’re back with my linens and my chamber pot. I was really starting to miss those this afternoon.”

Elise bowed her head. “S-sorry sir; we washed them as fast as we could.” She set to work putting the linens back on General Raul’s bed as he turned around, flicking his hand in the air.

“No need to apologize; you Caithians are much more efficient at the laundry than my servants in Gishk,” he said as he went back to his reading. He took a sip of wine. “Perhaps when this is all over, I’ll hire a few of you to work in Gishk.”

He chuckled with that last remark, but he was the only one laughing. The prospect of going to Gishk – even if it wasn’t in chains – was terrifying. If it ever came to that, Elise told herself, she would do everything she could to keep it from happening to her.

The longer Elise spent making General Raul’s bed, watching him as he read his reports out of the corner of her eye, the more she found herself panicking. What if he discovered that the letter was missing as she stood there? What if, if that happened, he connected her to it? What if the letter slipped out of her sleeve and General Raul saw it? She did everything she could to keep herself from panicking, but the longer she spent making his bed, the harder she found it was to do so.

As she was finishing with his bed, General Raul began to look around his desk. He muttered something under his breath.

Was ist los, mein Herr?” Finn asked. General Raul said the same thing, this time, loud enough for the rest of the room to hear it.

“What is it?” Elise asked as Finn, too, began to look around.

“It seems that one of General Raul’s letters has gone missing,” he said.

Elise could feel a pit beginning to form in her stomach. It was too late: he knew that the letter was missing.

She fought off every instinct she had to run as she began “searching” for the letter, too. She frantically began thinking of a solution to this, before General Raul connected her – or anyone else – to the missing letter. She could pretend like she’d found it on the floor by his bed, but what if he or Finn looked over at her at just the wrong moment to see her pulling it out from her sleeve? Perhaps she could come back later, while he was gone with Polain, and put the letter back; maybe he would think that he just hadn’t been looking hard enough if she did that. No, he wasn’t dumb enough to fall for that.

While General Raul and Finn’s backs were to her, she pulled the letter out from under her sleeve and stood back on her feet, acting as though she’d just discovered the letter.

“Is this it?” she asked as she held it up. General Raul took it from her and quickly skimmed through its contents.

“Yes, this is it, thank you,” he said, walking back to his desk. “However, what it was doing over by the bed, I’m not so sure.” He sat down at his desk and began reading through the report.

“I apologize for keeping you here longer than the castle staff probably wants you to be,” General Raul said. “You’re excused, miss.” Elise quickly bowed and left the room, trying to keep herself from running down the hallway as fast as she could.

“Are you alright?” Finn asked once they were out of earshot of General Raul’s room.

Elise nodded. “H-he’s just a little unnerving, is all; I thought that I’d be used to him by now, but I guess not.” Finn nodded in understanding.

“Believe me, I get it,” he said, looking back at General Raul’s room as he rubbed his forearm. “I’ve been in the army for this entire war, and I still get the chills when I’m around him.”

She looked over at him, confused. If that was true, that would mean that he would have been there during the Kurzhian campaign, when the Giskens destroyed everything – and everyone – in their paths; the stories she’d heard about it had given her nightmares for weeks. Finn couldn’t have been involved in that, could he?

“You were in Kurzh?” Elise asked. He nodded.

“Yeah,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He seemed embarrassed about it. “I had the misfortune of reaching enlistment age when General Raul invaded them.”

“So, you wanted to help him invade?” she asked as her stomach twisted itself into knots. For the past few weeks, she’d grown to like Finn; he was the one Gisken she’d met that seemed like a real human being, one who just had the misfortune of being born in the wrong country. Hearing that he’d enlisted to invade countries and hurt people was just… it wasn’t something that she wanted to hear.

He shook his head. “Every able-bodied boy in Gishk has to enlist in the army at fourteen and serve for at least two years, even in a time of peace. In a time of war, we have to serve from the start of the war to the end, or risk having us and the rest of our family executed.”

The bitterness that had filled Elise vanished after he said that. That would mean that he’d been forced to participate in the most horrific military campaign ever launched when he was just fourteen. That was much too young to become a man.

“So, after all this, you’ll get to go home?” Elise asked. He nodded as a slight smile came to his face.

“For the first time in ten years,” he said fondly. They reached the stairwell, where they would normally split up to perform their separate duties: her to her cleaning, him to his soldiering. Instead, they found themselves pausing at the top of the stairs in an awkward silence.

“So, do you have some time off, soon?” Finn asked, rubbing the back of his neck. His cheeks were starting to turn a deep shade of red, the way they did when he was embarrassed about something.

“I don’t know,” Elise said. “I can ask General Polain, though; why?”

“Well, I-I’m really starting to like you,” Finn said, looking away. “I kind of want to see you for more than a few minutes at a time.”

“So, you want to call on me?” Elise asked. Finn’s cheeks grew even redder.

He looked to the side. “W-well, yeah.”

Elise could feel her own cheeks beginning to burn red. She’d never had anyone try and properly court her, before; the only person who’d ever wanted to marry her was Bram, and, well, his way of showing it was by stalking her and grabbing her bum every time she walked past him.

Down the hall, someone began laughing and whistling. When they looked down there, they saw a few Giskens by General Raul’s room, making kissing faces and saying things in Gisken that made poor Finn even more embarrassed than he already was. He stuttered something in Gisken to them, but they just laughed even harder.

“What’re they saying?” Elise asked as Finn took her by the hand and began to lead her away from them.

“Believe me when I say that you don’t want to know,” he said. Once they were at the foot of the stairs and away from the eyes of any Gisken soldiers, they stopped and turned toward each other. “I’m sorry about them. Sometimes, they act like they haven’t seen a woman in years.”

“It’s alright,” Elise said. “They aren’t any different from the men from Papa’s tavern.”

Papa. It had been nearly a month since he’d been killed, and the wound it left was still fresh.

“So, if you were to have some spare time, would it be alright for me to call on you?” Finn asked. He looked nervous: he kept rubbing the back of his neck and he couldn’t seem to look her in the eye.

“Of course, it would be,” Elise said. Finn perked up when he heard that; it seemed that he didn’t think she’d say yes.

“R-really?” he asked as his entire body relaxed. Elise nodded.

“I’ll ask General Polain if I can have some time off,” she said. “Since there isn’t another ball or something like that, I don’t think that’ll be too hard. Where should I meet you if I can?”

“Would the garden work?” Finn asked.

Elise nodded with a smile. “The garden would be great. I guess I’ll see you there.” She began to walk away, then turned back around. “Do I need to pick up another dress?”

“N-No,” Finn said. “I don’t have any money for something nice like that.” Elise smiled a little wider and began to walk away again.

She could hardly believe it; she’d never been called on, before. Since she was a little girl, she wondered what it would be like, who it would be with, what they’d do together. Never had she thought that it would be with a Gisken soldier, or that she’d be so excited about it.

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