Blood had soaked through the front of my dress, turning green silk to black. The shawl covered part of the stain, but I kept to the shadows and the narrow streets, avoiding anybody who might remember seeing me. I could faintly hear the music, echoing between the stone facades of the trading quarter, but nothing to suggest the alarm had been raised.
The last time I had worn the ball gown was on the eve of the war when I danced with Gabriel York and, with his assistance, murdered Admiral Morton. Since then it had spent five years stuffed in a travel case and dragged from one posting to another, but the chance to wear it again never arose. Despite that, it looked pristine as I waited in the market square, watching a small group of musicians set out their instruments. The sun was setting over the castle hill and lanterns were being lit by the owners of the bars and restaurants that had re-opened, now that the war was almost over.
He strode across the market square, radiating authority and purpose. His greatcoat displayed medals that weren’t there when we last met, and each one of a row of silver stars along the left sleeve signified an enemy ship destroyed. As I moved to cross his path, I hoped he would remember me. My hair was longer, and a different colour. He had shaved his head and grown a goatee beard. It made him look dangerous; it suited him.
“My lady.” If he was surprised he didn’t show it. Once again he bowed and kissed my hand. “You look different, but as beautiful as I remember. I have thought of you so often.”
This surprised me. We had been together for only one night and so many terrible things had happened since then.
“I would have expected a warrior to think of nothing but war. You have been most successful.”
He didn’t reply, but led me to a table outside one of the bars. We sat and he gestured an order to the waiter.
“Success? Yes, we have almost won. But the cost has been so high. I have lost many ships and thousands of men. And the war has taken a toll here too. Before the war, we prized art, music, poetry. We were civilised. Now, all that matters is protecting the state. And we have done many terrible things to achieve it. I have done terrible things. Everything is different now. Everybody is different, and something important has been lost.”
He fell silent as the waiter brought glasses and a dusty bottle. He showed the label to York, who nodded his approval. As the waiter poured the first glass, a clarinet began to play, an argument against York’s words drifting across the square.
“In times like these, everything needs someone to keep fighting for. I don’t know why, but all these years I thought of you. Wondered where you were. If you were still alive.”
“Me? But you have family. Your brother?”
“We were never close when we were young and, once we grew up, our paths were decided for us, just like the children of all the old aristocratic families. The first son goes into public service, the second into the military. I hear it said that he will be the next Prime Minister. I’m pleased for him, but we’re almost strangers.” He took a sip of the wine and looked me in the eye. “Five years and every day it’s you I’ve thought about.”
I understood. I didn’t want to, but I felt the same. We had only been together a few hours but, in that time, we had shared an experience that bonded us intimately and inextricably.
The band was playing melancholy tunes and few couples were dancing. York was right; before the war the square would have been packed, the crowd swirling to fast and exciting melodies. York put his glass on the table and stood. He laid his greatcoat over the chair and held out his hand towards me.
“My lady, will you dance with me?”
“Admiral, I’d be honoured.”
We held each other like shipwrecked survivors cling to wreckage, like we were the only two people left. I lay my head on his shoulder and his jacket absorb my tears. I hardly heard the music; just let myself follow where he led. As one piece finish, he muttered “Enough of this.” and called an instruction to the musicians. They conferred briefly and then struck an opening note. Naval officers, all drawn from the elite families, were schooled in etiquette and the full range of social skills. His tango was impeccable; aggressive and arrogant, but not aloof. Every time we faced each other, his eyes locked on mine. I saw no fear, no regrets, and even the question I feared most wasn’t asked. But he already knew why I was here, and I could see he understood, even if I did not.
The music came to a close and I took his hand and led him into a narrow alleyway, pushing his back against the wall. As I pressed my lips to his it would have been so easy to succumb to the passion I felt rising. To abandon everything I was and beg him to take me with him. Then there was a knife in my hand and I thrust it upwards with all my strength.
Training had taken over and I ran, putting as much distance between myself and the market square as possible. Twice I stopped and almost went back, but there was nothing I could do for him now and no help that I could bring to save him. York was dead; my knife had pierced his heart and his blood marked me for the crime.
I would have given everything to spend the night with York, but it was not to be. I did not choose my profession; indeed, I was never given a choice although I had never been ashamed to embrace it. I had done many terrible things to protect the state, but surely none worse than this. Morton had to die to make way for a far superior man and there was honour in that; but I killed York and never knew why it was necessary.
I had to press on, not through fear of imprisonment, but because I served the state and it would have need of me again before the war was over. By daybreak I would be back in the capital and deep within the corridors and chambers of the Department of War. I would inform Minister York of the death of his brother, and he would give me my next set of orders.