He hadn't recognised her at first. Pink did nothing for her complexion and a waistline that high was a difficult look for any woman to pull off. Beneath that bell-shaped skirt and modest bustle he couldn't begin to guess at the shape of her figure. All he could go by was her face, now pale and dewy without the dramatic eyeshadow she had worn the last time their paths had crossed. Her hair was still long, but blonde this time and piled up in elegant curls at the back of her head. A brief look was all he had before the swelling of the crowd had carried her away.
The ballroom was bustling and bright, filled with laughter and music. All that would change, of course, though not for a few hours yet. His objective for the evening would have to wait until then, and in the meantime there was little for him to do beyond enjoying the party and ensuring that there was no question of his belonging there. Avoiding that woman from the opposition would be an added bonus if he could manage it.
He had made the acquaintance of a kindly old Lord and his wife who had put it upon themselves to introduce him to a few of their friends and see that a young gentleman such as himself was not left out of the fun. The conversation was pleasant and not too taxing. Rumours of the advancing army were already sweeping around the room, but the Lord's wife was keen to talk about anything other than the war and did so with little interruption, catching them up on all the latest fashions and gossip from her correspondences with friends back home.
The band reached the end of their piece, and the room was filled with polite applause. The crowd began to stir once more as the dancers, flushed and giggling, left the dance floor to find their next partner or to rejoin one of the many huddled conversations happening at the edges of the hall. He could see that most people in his current circle were searching for a way to excuse themselves from her Ladyship’s inane chatter.
"Oh!" she squawked with delight, Mrs Lloyd is here. Have you been introduced? Come now! You really must meet her. You must know her husband, of course.”
And suddenly the crowd parted and there she was, standing alongside the woman returning her Ladyship’s wave. Their eyes met as she glided towards him in that terrible marshmallow dress of hers. He stifled a groan.
"A pleasure," he said, forcing a smile and giving a small bow as her Ladyship introduced him by the name and rank he had borrowed for the evening.
"Have you been introduced to Miss Wetherby?" asked Mrs Lloyd.
"I don't believe I have," he said. Which was true. That was not the name she had been using last time.
"She came over to visit her dear cousin. Quite tragic."
"He passed before I could see him," his fellow imposter explained, "Mrs Lloyd and everyone else here have been quite good to me. I hadn't the heart to travel straight home."
"Well," he said, "I do hope you are feeling up to leaving here soon. Your family will be missing you."
"I think I shall be," she nodded, "Though not just yet. The parties here are far more interesting than at home."
"Quite," laughed Mrs Lloyd, "He was an artilleryman like yourself, you know. Perhaps you knew him?"
"I do not think that Miss Wetherby will want to talk of that tonight," he interrupted as politely as he could.
He glanced around. The situation had the potential to turn slightly tricky, especially with the supposed Miss Wetherby there, who might decide to turn on him at any moment. He had made sure that the Lord's wife took him under her wing for the evening precisely so that he could avoid talking military matters and mingling with commissioned officers. Commissioned officers such as Mrs Lloyd's husband, who was surely here somewhere and would return to his wife's side shortly. Mrs Lloyd may not have recognised the name he was introduced by, but it was likely that her husband would notice the alarming disparity between his face and the face of the man that had been drugged and left sleeping soundly in a quiet, dark spot where no one need disturb him earlier this evening. He needed to excuse himself quickly and preferably remove the opposition agent before she had a chance to throw a spanner in the works.
The band began to play again. It was a waltz. Young men and women flooded back into the centre of the room like the tide coming in.
A solution presented itself.
"Miss Wetherby," he said, putting on his best smile, "Would you care to dance?"
"I say," laughed the Lord's wife, "How scandalous! Still. You’re only young once, I suppose.”
The so-called Miss Wetherby looked down at the hand that was offered to her, then up into his eyes. She glanced towards the spot in which the Duke was sat, though they both knew it would be some time before he made his move and the night's work could begin.
"It would be my pleasure," she said, taking him by the arm.
The lights blurred as we whirled our way around the room. The people standing by were bright smudges of red and blue and white in the corner of my eye, but he was in perfect focus. He was as handsome as ever. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to successfully carry off white breeches, but he had always had plenty of that.
I looked up into his face, searching for a sign of recognition, some hint as to which version of him I was dancing with. His eyes barely met mine. His posture was stiff, his head turned slightly to survey the room. Who was this man? Who was I to him?
He bent his head and whispered into my ear.
"Don't step on my toes."
I shuddered, despite myself. He wasn't talking about the dance. The tone was far too curt for that, though he had never really been a man of words. I hoped I was mistaken, but knew deep down that I was not.
"That depends on your lead, Captain,” I told him, smiling coyly to see his reaction.
The look he gave me in return was icy cold. Gone was the pleasant fake smile that he used in polite company. I longed to see that rare and precious thing, that true smile that I had come to know, the one that lit up his eyes and revealed the dimples in his cheeks, but I knew there was little chance of that.
This was a man who knew who I was. I was the opposition. His enemy. I was the thorn in his side that chased him across time, foiling the grand plans of the Revisionists. I was someone who would stand by and watch a man die, gladly stopping anyone who would see that it be otherwise. I was the woman who would take a bullet for the murderer who was never caught or protect the baby who would grow up to be an enemy of the state. I was the woman who stole books before they could be burnt, who collected testimony from those that had not been given a voice in their own time. I was the woman who would stop them from creating the history they wanted or culling the facts they didn't like.
Yes, this man knew who I was, but he did not yet know me.
I felt his arm gripping my body and remembered a time when he had held me under very different circumstances. It was a night not unlike that which was about to unfold on the battlefield outside. On a night like that- one of death and violence- it was all too easy to become a victim of history, regardless of whether you had the gift of hindsight or not. Alone in a time you did not belong in and with little to no hope of returning home, you held on to the only other person who could understand, enemy or not. Amongst the carnage and before I could even think, I had saved his life. In return he had huddled with me in the dark and the cold and the mud, sharing his heat with me till sunrise. That was the first time we held each other, though not the last. In the end, he would save my life as many times as I had saved his. He would keep a tally, as well. He was that kind of man.
This was not the man I had fallen in love with. This was not the man who had come to know me, who I had met for countless secret meetings in shady Parisian cafes or in ancient temples. He was not yet the man who would come around to my point of view and defect to our side at great personal risk. This man had not yet shared a joke with me, or brushed the hair from my face, or held my hand as we walked in the rain.
This was not the man who died in my arms, shot down as a traitor.
And then, like all things, the dance came to an end. He released me from his vice-like grip, knowing that neither of us could afford to make a scene out in the open. He bowed and I curtsied in return.
”So what now?” he asked.
I blinked back tears. I could not tell him what was to come. Nothing I could say would make him fall for me that night. History, as we Preservationists say, must happen in its own time. He would have to wait, and I would have to hope that somewhere out there was a version of him that loved me who I had yet to meet.
”Yes,” I said to the stranger I knew so well, ”What now?”