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

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Chapter Thirty-Four

“I don’t trust him,” Olrick said simply.

Elise, Olrick, and Eza were in a small, private dining room off of the great hall as Elise mopped the floor in preparation for the private dinner between General Polain, General Raul, and Marion. The three of them were now off touring the city, leaving the staff and many of Raul’s men to their own devices. Finn was off preparing for their evening together, while she cleaned the dining room to perfection, with the volunteered help of Olrick and Eza. Silas was at the intelligence headquarters, rounding up some volunteers to gather intelligence in the places they thought the Giskens had taken over in the north and the east.

“Why not?” Elise asked as she dipped her mop into a bucket of soapy water and continued to clean the dining hall. “Finn’s a good man. He’s the one Gisken who seems to have a soul.”

“He’s still a Gisken soldier,” Olrick said.

“A Gisken officer,” Eza corrected. “Meaning that he probably believes in the cause more than he lets on; Raul doesn’t promote men based on merit.” Elise looked over at Eza, exasperated.

“You, too?” she asked. Eza held her hands up in mock surrender, but didn’t say anything.

“Listen, Elise,” Olrick said. “We know that you really like this guy, and he seems pretty smitten with you, too; we just don’t want to see you get hurt, is all.” Eza nodded in agreement.

“Finn isn’t going to hurt me,” Elise said. Her own confidence surprised herself.

“And you’re probably right,” Olrick said. “I’m just worried about why he’s choosing now, of all times, to do this. I think Raul might be having him spy on us the same way you’re spying on us; he may just be looking for an in to get information.”

Elise could feel a pit beginning to form in her stomach. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, that made sense. What if that was all Finn wanted, and he didn’t really like her? What if the feelings that had been developing for him during the past few weeks were built on a lie? She’d been dwelling on the fact that he’d been involved in the Kurzhian invasion in an effort to try and accept it, but the possibility that he was doing this so he could get some information… well, that was a tough thing to swallow.

“It’ll probably be just fine,” Eza said. “Just be careful. Avoid any questions that have to do with the war, your involvement with any of us, or anything else that could clue him into what you – or anyone else around here – is doing, alright?

That had been a few hours, ago. Later on that day, after discovering that all the staff who were serving General Raul had the night off (he would be having dinner with Polain and Marion, so the kitchen staff would be responsible for him), Elise found herself looking into the small, dirty mirror on her vanity, preparing for her evening with Finn. She was wearing one of the dresses she’d bought on her first day in Semata: a green one, with a gold sash around her hip. Her long, blonde hair flowed down her back as it usually did, but she’d clipped a few chunks of her hair back with a small, simple barrette she’d bought a few days before, when she’d had a few hours of leave to buy things with the money she’d earned that week. No, she wasn’t looking fancy, but she doubted that Finn would care; each time she’d seen him in the past few weeks, it had been in a plain, servant’s shift. This would be an improvement to that.

When she met Finn in the beautiful, colorful gardens of Castle Matisse, she saw that he wasn’t very dressed up, either. He was wearing a long, black jacket that went to his knees, a white shirt that was tucked into dark trousers, and leather riding boots. The only thing that seemed truly different was the fact that his jacket was missing its armband, something that she didn’t even see General Raul without. Without it, he looked like any other man.

He stood up from the stone bench he’d been sitting on and shoved his hands into his pockets. “You look great.”

Elise found herself blushing. “You, too.” When she got to Finn, the two of them sat down on the stone bench, among colorful flowers and a water fountain. She could see that Finn had a basket with him, covered with a white table linen.

“What are we going to do, tonight?” Elise asked. In all honesty, she didn’t know what men did while they were trying to court a woman; Milo had never tried to court any of the girls in Thaos, and Bram was the only man who’d ever tried to court her.

“Well, I was thinking of a quiet dinner,” he sad as he set the basket between them. When he pulled off the table linen, she saw that the basket was filled with food items: white rolls, two bundles with a filled bowl in each of them, some fruits, two plates; it all looked like it came from the castle’s kitchens.

He began to rub the back of his neck. “I’m sorry if this isn’t how all this is supposed to work; one of my friends told me that this is how a real man calls on a woman, but I’m starting to think that he was pulling on my leg.”

“It’s alright,” Elise said. “I don’t know how this is supposed to work, either.” Finn seemed to relax as he handed her one of the bundles. When she opened it, she saw a freshly cooked shepherd’s pie in it

“Where did you get all this?” she asked. White bread was a luxury only the more fortunate could afford, as well as fresh fruit. She certainly hoped that he hadn’t spent all of his money trying to impress her. “Please tell me that you didn’t spend all your money on this.”

“I got it from the kitchens,” he said. “The staff there are quite nice; I have to do some pot scrubbing, after this, though.” Elise took a bite of her shepherd’s pie to discover that it was fit for a noble; she’d never had food so rich, before.

“Is it alright?” Finn asked. Elise nodded.

“It’s the best food I’ve ever had,” she said. He relaxed even more as he, too, began to eat. “They’re only making you do the dishes to pay for this?”

Finn began to rub the back of his neck. “Well, that, and I have to pay a few silvers.”

Elise’s eyes grew wide with shock. A few silvers? He made it sound like that wasn’t a big deal.

“Don’t worry; I can pay for it,” Finn promised when he saw the look on her face. “It’s just a week of officer’s pay in the army.” Elise still didn’t like how much he’d spent on the dinner, but she didn’t mention it, again; instead, she marveled at how much money he was willing to spend on her to make her happy.

“So, you’ve really never been call on, before?” Finn asked. Elise shook her head.

“Not properly,” she said, looking down at her shepherd’s pie. “The closest thing I’ve had to a suitor was Bram.” Finn nearly choked on his roll when he heard that.

“Bram?” He coughed. “I didn’t know he was capable of that; the closest I’ve ever see him come to it more resembled sadism.”

Elise began to gently rub her forearm. “Believe me, what he felt for me wasn’t love, either.”

Finn began to get really red in the face. “Gods, Elise, I’m sorry; I never should have mentioned that.”

“It’s alright,” she said, looking back up at Finn. He really looked sorry; the look on his face reminded her of a dog who’d been kicked on the street. “That’s in the past, now.”

At least, that’s what Elise hoped. She hadn’t seen or heard from the psychopathic turncoat since she and Olrick had escaped Thaos nearly a month ago. As far as she knew, he’d been killed in battle, or had been transferred to Kurzh in order to put down the growing resistance Eza and Silas spoke about with hushed voices; then again, he might also be down the road from the stone walls of Semata, bringing the pain and devastation of war to the heart of the country he’d betrayed.

She tried to get the thought of Bram out of her head. For years, he’d made her life a living nightmare; she wasn’t going to let him ruin her chance to be truly happy.

“You know, we’ve known each other or a month now, and I hardly know a thing about you,” Elise said as she took a green apple from the basket. When she bit into it with a crunch, she found her mouth being filed with a sweet, tart juice.

Finn looked at her, confused. “What do you want to know? I haven’t exactly had that exciting of a life.”

“So, the life of a soldier isn’t that exciting?” Elise asked. Finn looked back down at his own shepherd’s pie.

“Not really,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my time as a soldier running numbers in Kurzh; this is only my second time helping with an invasion.

“You’re really good at math, then?” She asked. Back when her mother was alive and teaching her how to heal, she’d tried to teach Elise how to use math to decide how much cocca leaf and other herbs to give to patients to help with pain; however, since her mother hadn’t been all that good at math, either, she couldn’t really do it. It seemed that Gishk had enough resources that they could train their men in a skill that only high nobles had the privilege of learning in Caitha.

“They had me do it because I volunteered to do it,” Finn said. “I didn’t want to be involved in any more death or pain, and I knew I wouldn’t have to if I was shut up in an office all day.”

Elise found herself relaxing a little. Ever since he told her that he’d been involved with the invasion of Kurzh, she’d been worried that the kind, caring man she’d grown to like over the past few weeks was some sort of monster; it was comforting to know that he’d tried to avoid being part of the pain and suffering the Giskens had caused there as much as he could.

“Did any of your family fight in Kurzh?” Finn asked. Elise shook her head.

“My brother was five when the war started, and Papa was too old for the army,” she said. “I guess my mother could have gone as a nurse, but she was the only doctor in the village.”

“Your mother?” he asked. “I never saw her in Thaos; were she and your father separated?” Elise frowned.

“Separated?” she asked. Finn seemed to shrink back a little, then began to rub the back of his neck as he looked down at his food.

“Sorry,” he said. “I forgot that that’s a Gisken thing.” He looked back up at her. “A separation is when two married people grow apart enough that they move away from each other and act like they were never married in the first place. I had a few friends whose parents had left each other.”

“No, that’s not what happened,” Elise said. Before she could respond, she could hear someone laughing. When she looked to the side, she saw that there were some Gisken soldiers, watching them as they had their dinner.

Finn’s face turned bright red as he stuttered something in Gisken. One of them responded and made Finn’s face turn pale, again.

“What is it?” Elise asked, growing nervous. For a brief second, she began to wonder if this sudden request had anything to do with her, but she quickly dismissed the thought. Finn was a captain in the army; it probably had something do with troop movements or some other boring business that went right over her head.

“It seems that General Raul wants to see me,” he said, confused. He stood up, leaving his shepherd’s pie on the stone bench. “I’m sorry that we have to cut this short; we’ll have to continue with this, later.” Elise nodded as she, too, stood up.

“That’s alright,” she said. “I understand.”

“Will you at least let me walk you back?” Finn asked. She nodded, and after they’d packed up the basket, he took her by the hand and walked her back to the castle, ending one of the best nights of her life. She was so happy… she never wanted it to end, and in her love struck mind, she didn’t think it could.

She never thought that it would end the way it did.

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