Monday, August 27, 2007

Twenty Nine

Diana was reluctant to return to camp. Will would wonder where she had been and Coyote would look at her in the odd way he had taken to lately. The others would want to discuss the morning's assassination. They would expect her to be pleased at her success, as if death, no matter how justified, was cause for celebration.

She took her time riding through town. There was still a bit of light, and with a major conference beginning in the morning, it was in everyone's interest that the town be safe. Diana wandered past stores turned into squatter camps, gas stations that had become markets, and homes that were now hostels and shops. Hand-lettered signs advertised fresh eggs, garden vegetables, used books, batteries, and alteration services. A woman called out to her, offering a room for the night. Children chased her, shrieking for nickels.

Night fell and the streets slowly emptied. Without realizing she had done it, Diana found herself arriving at the safe house where Alexander and other Unitas high command were staying. She jerked on the reins and studied the old hacienda. She was just making up her mind to return to camp, when one of the guards approached, making his rounds. He recognized her and nodded. "Go ahead. La Bella Diana doesn't need to check in."

Worried that it might look strange if she left, Diana thanked him and found the hitching post in the dark. She walked toward the door, wondering what she should claim her errand to be. But as she neared the tiled portico, she remembered the movement she had seen in the courtyard earlier that day and she knew what forbidden thought had brought her here.

She looked around to see if she was being watched, then led her horse away and tethered it in a copse of stunted trees at the edge of the property. She returned to the hacienda, making careful note of the courtyard walls and counting off the windows. They were shuttered against spies and enemies, but Diana found the only one it could be and tapped on the shutter. "Robert!" She tapped again.

There was a sound of a bolt being slid back, and the shutters opened slightly, spilling light into the darkness. "What are you doing here? Go away, before someone sees you."

"Let me in." When he tried to close the shutters, she stopped him. "I'll make a scene!"

"You're already making one."

"Then let me in."

Robert stepped back, glaring as she hoisted herself onto the windowsill and dropped into the room. "Do you have some strange aversion to doors, that you can't enter a room in the normal way?"

Diana would have laughed if the expression on his face had been in any way welcoming. "I figured you'd send me away if I did that. I need to talk to you."

"If this is anything like what you said at the church, I'd rather you leave."

Diana straightened her shoulders. "I know you hate me, but this is business."

"I don't hate you," Robert said, walking across the room.

"Then why—"

"Will you please state your business so we can get on with it?"

"Fine. I want a new assignment." When Robert frowned, she went on. "I want something less bloody, less dangerous." She sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm tired of killing people."

Robert's features softened in sympathy, but his voice remained cool. "This isn't a matter to come to me with. You need to take it up with your unit commander. If you get no satisfaction from him, talk to Alexander."

"But they'll just put me on camp support for a few weeks and tell me to get over it. There must be other types of jobs; ones that are about helping people instead of hurting them."

"Unitas does some public relations work," Robert offered. "We sponsor a couple of refugee hospitals, and we hand out supplies in the towns and camps, but those sorts of things would be a waste of your talents."

"I'm willing to try it."

"What does your husband think?"

Diana looked away and swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "He knows I'll have to quit in July, and I probably won't be up for military duties again until next spring. But I could start helping with supply distribution in fall or winter. When spring comes, I'll just tell Will that I like it better."

"Why do you have to quit your duties in July?"

His confusion was genuine and Diana stared at him in shock. "You don't know? But I though that was why. . .”

Robert grew still. "Know what?"

She ducked her head, embarrassed to say the words. His continued silence wasn't helping. "If you didn't know, or at least suspect, why didn't you write to me when I was at the safe house? Or come visit? Did you think I was contaminated?" She looked up at him, angry now. "I was so confused, and Will was the only one who offered to help. I was scared to get rid of it, after what happened to Macy, and I couldn’t think what to do." Her eyes were hot and she swiped at her nose.

Robert sank into a chair.

"You were ashamed of me."

"No. I was ashamed of myself. I didn’t warn you there was danger in the area. It’s why you hated me, and with good reason.”

“I didn’t hate you. I hated everyone, especially myself. When you sent me to the safe house, I thought for sure you’d write. But when I heard nothing from you or anyone else. . ."

Robert shook his head. "I’ve been an idiot. It's just as well you're another man's wife."

"I'm not—"

"Are you saying it's just a marriage of convenience?"

She turned away from the hopeful look in his eyes. "It's a little more than that for him."

"I see." Robert rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor. At last he made a feeble attempt at picking up the thread of their earlier discussion. "So will you want to work at a distribution point, or directly with the people? I can make arrangements for you, either way."

"Does this mean you don't want me?"

"Let's not do this to ourselves. We had our chance, but that moment has passed. You're the wife of one of our best soldiers, a young man we’re grooming for command."

"So? He tricked me into marrying him. I wasn’t in my right mind. But I am now, and I love you. If you still want me, I'll leave him."

"Yes, and he'll shoot me for stealing his wife, and none of us will be any better off."

"Who says we have to stay here? You told me once there's Unitas groups all over, trying to piece the United States back together. We'll join some other group."

"If you’re done with fighting, what would we do?"

"We'll go to Kentucky. I'll train horses and give riding lessons. You'll do whatever smart people do."

Robert smiled indulgently. "It's not as simple as you make it sound."

"So you make the plan."

"What plan? For us to run away together? That's impossible. I'll do almost anything for you, but not that."

"Why not? Are you still a coward?" Diana got up and stood as close as she dared. "You're smart. If you love me, you can think of a way we can be together." She put her arms around his neck and leaned toward him.

Robert tried to push her away, but without conviction. "We can't do things just because we want to."

"Sure we can. What other way is there?" She kissed him long and slow and this time he pulled her close. But then just as suddenly, he drew away.

"What's the matter? Do you find me disgusting because. . ."

"No, you silly thing." He cupped her cheek. "I just don't like to torture myself. Haven’t you figured that out yet?" He went to his desk and reached for a pen. Diana watched as he sketched a map and made a few notes. "I'll be going home for Christmas this year unless something unexpected comes up." He folded the paper and handed it to her. "If in December you still feel the way you do now, this is where you can find me."

Diana took the paper and frowned. "This is only a map to the town. How will I find your house?"

"The town is guarded. Tell any sentry who you are and you’ll be given directions." He unlocked a desk drawer. "This is for your journey." He handed her two gold coins. "One is for supplies, the other to hire a guard. Tell your guard he'll get another gold piece from me when you arrive safely."

Diana put the map and coins in her pocket. "So what will we—"

"I don't know, but by Christmas, I'll have a plan." He took her hand. "This is a serious matter, Diana. You're asking me to take big risks and give up everything I’ve worked for. If there's even the smallest doubt in your mind about it being forever this time, don't come. I'll understand."

1 comment:

Alice Audrey said...

This could be a major turning point.