Love and War"Good evening, Miss Henshawe," Nathaniel bowed low over my hand.
"Mr Evens," I murmured and executed a perfect curtsy.
He took my arm in his and together we strolled along the edge of the dance hall. All about us was laughter and merriment, wine flowing freely and skirts swishing scandalously high as young girls danced with their partners and older men and women watched from the sidelines.
Nathaniel and I did not fit here, our expressions were too grim and neither of us laughed. I managed a smile, but he did not return it. We walked the length of the hall and stopped in a dark corner, the only person nearby was a woman with sherry-red cheeks and an empty glass in her hand. She snored loudly, as if assuring us we were at perfect liberty to talk.
Nathaniel turned to me. "You don't have to give it to me, Clara. Indeed, perhaps you had better take more time to think it over."
"Nonsense, I said I'd help you." I licked my lips and tried to clear the worried frown from my brow. I wondered what we looked like to the dancing throng at our heels. I wondered if they even noticed us. I opened my fan and fluttered it below my chin, the breeze cool on my face, as I did so I took the microchip from my purse. I hoped I looked like a flirtatious young lady full of simpering, air-headed thoughts. I held out my hand.
"Clara, please think this through," Nathaniel pleaded, but I reached forward and took his hand, the microchip going from my hand into his.
Nathaniel closed his eyes. "Oh, Clara." He opened his eyes and smiled sadly at me. "I was sure you would not find it."
"My father would not suspect me. It was unutterably simple."
"You poor fool." Nathaniel drew me close in his arms and kissed my forehead. I felt my heart speed up at his touch. "You have saved my life this night. I do not deserve it."
"If he should ever find out..." I looked up into his dear face. "Nate, he'll punish me severely, but you he'll have executed."
"He will not discover us." Nathaniel drew me closer, although said nothing more to make my worry subside.
"When will you deliver it?" I asked.
"After the dance is over." He turned to survey the hall. "This music grates at my ears, it will be a relief to leave."
"Why do we not take a turn about the gardens?" I suggested. "It is cooler outside and quieter too."
Nathaniel smiled at me, although there was no warmth in it. I shivered. "Certainly, Miss Henshawe. A turn about the gardens would be most pleasant."
I flicked my fan closed and again put my arm through his. He led me back through the dance hall and through the wide open doors at its entrance. The gardens outside were scattered with LED lights, threaded through the trees and lining the garden paths. I breathed deeply and felt better almost at once now we were no longer in the stuffy dance hall. The artificial horizon of the garden seemed to stretch into the distance, although if I squinted I could make out the slight distortion of pixels where the garden dome ended.
Nathaniel led me along the garden path and I brushed my hand against the camellia bushes as we passed.
"I can't thank you enough," Nathaniel's words were raw. He looked at me with eyes so filled with emotion I felt as if I was only seeing him properly for the first time. "You've saved my life. I am sorry..."
He looked away as if overcome and I pressed his arm tenderly, my heart beating faster. We had spoken of love, Nate and I, but quickly, fleetingly. It was still so new, so wondrous. I would have died for him. And, indeed, I had betrayed my father to save him. The guilt I felt at my betrayal was nothing compared to the joy and relief I felt that his life was now safe.
We continued walking in silence. Finally Nathaniel stopped. He held my hands and turned to me, "Miss Henshawe - Carla - I... I there is something I must confess."
"Yes?" I waited for him to speak words of undying love, to propose marriage, to proclaim his adoration of me.
He dropped my hands and stepped back. "It was not the microchip that would ensure my safety, it was you."
"What do you mean?" I felt cold.
"They want you." His voice was miserable. "To spy on your father."
"Spy on my father?" I echoed. "But the microchip... that was to buy your safety."
"No." Nathaniel shook his head. "That was to buy your allegiance. They have security footage of you taking the chip. I've seen it. They'll turn it over to your father should you betray them."
I drew myself straighter. "Then let them. My father may punish me, yes, but I am not afraid."
"Your father will punish you, but he will execute me." Nathaniel's voice was dull. "You said so yourself. They will have had an agent in the dance hall. And that agent would have recorded you giving me the microchip, no matter how subtle we were, they will have evidence that it passed between us."
"That is why you tried to dissuade me," I gasped. "Oh, Nathaniel, what have you got us into?"
"I'm sorry, my love." He brushed his hair from his face. "But there is a war on and your father is a General. Whether you like it or not, you are a pawn in this game and so am I."
"Can we not run? Make an escape?" I looked about the garden in desperation. I was not familiar with the layout of this particular airship, but there would be escape pods somewhere.
Nathaniel shook his head. "Where to? We are valuable assets to them now. We either spy for them or run and get terminated the minute a camera picks up our signal or our thumbprints are recorded at a hotel. Don't you see, Clara, there is nowhere to run too."
"But spy for them?" I could hardly speak the word. "My father, the war... if we are ever discovered..."
"But we will have each other, my darling. Is that not enough for you?"
I looked up into his face and it was like seeing a strangers. No, I realised, it was not.