Author: Tori Duncan
a 1863. The war was now in its second year. The death count grew daily. It seemed that every time she went into town, she saw a newly returned soldier, ragged and weary, missing an arm or a leg. Yet here she was, with all the rest of polite high-society, attending another party. Both of her brothers were off fighting as well, while she was left behind to play politics with her father. Parties and politics. That’s what her days seemed to be consumed with. Currently, she was at some masquerade ball that Jeb Stuart had thrown. The masquerade theme was fittingly ironic. The hall filled with people in masks, pretending to be different people, all the while pretending that everything was fine, that the country wasn’t falling apart while they danced and gossiped the night away. And she was no different. The mask she was wearing, black and velvet to match her gown, was also hiding another, more permanent mask. Hers was a perfectly crafted mask, though, and as she floated through the room, from person to person, it stayed perfectly in place, and no one was the wiser. Even her own father had no idea.
She ended up where he was, in a large group of masked people, unsurprisingly talking about the war. She wasn’t interested in their inane conversation, so she simply smiled and nodded along with everyone. Yet as she turned to leave, she noticed that one from the group was staring at her. He walked up to her, his mask covering the top half of his face, not at all hiding his long beard.
“Miss Judith Ellis, would you be so kind to oblige me with a dance?” he asked, extending his hand to her.
“General Hood, always a pleasure,” she said, voice saccharine. He didn’t seem bothered by it and took her hand, leading her easily into a slow waltz.
“I’ll have to tell your brother I ran into you, he’s in my division you know.”
“I do, General, he talks of you often.”
“Does he now?”
“Oh, yes. He writes me often and tells me much of his life in the army,” she said. “It seems to be a comfort to him, to tell me about what he experiences in battle.”
“He writes to you of the battles? I fear that’s much too horrible for someone as genteel as you to hear of.”
“Have no fear, General. I’m quite the confidant.”
“I’m quite sure you are. I’m happy your brother has one such as you to keep him company through these long days.” He twirled her around, surprising her with his gentleness, and she felt a sudden surge of hatred for him. “Now if I’ve heard correctly, you have another brother who joined the army. Where exactly is he?”
“We don’t know, General. There’s been no word from him since near the start of the war.” She forced her voice to sound as mournful as possible and he fell for it, nodding sympathetically.
“Lots of men dying,” he said softly. “But it’s for the cause. Though it is sure hard to stomach at times.”
Over his shoulder she saw her father, who was watching the two of them dance. His satisfied, knowing expression made her stomach twist. General Hood was notoriously unmarried.
“I’m afraid I have to mingle some more. I do hope I’ll see you later on,” Hood said. He looked genuinely disappointed as he pulled away from her.
“Of course, General. I’ll look for you,” she said.
“Until then, Judith.” He kissed her hand and lingered a bit longer than was proper. She stared after him as he went straight over to her father, who clapped Hood happily on the back. She turned away, unable to bear the thought of them scheming behind her back. The room was so full of people laughing and dancing. The war didn’t affect any of them, most of them had no relatives who’d even enlisted, rich enough to buy their way out of the draft. They didn’t care who died, as long as their side won and they profited. At least Hood knew the cost; she’d seen the haunted look in his eyes.
She made her way through the ballroom, brushing off questions of concern with the excuse that she’d just had too much dancing and needed some air. The outside air helped very little. Her dress stuck horribly to her, and she could already feel herself starting to sweat. It was still preferable to being inside the ballroom, however, and the sight of the moon, so large and full and bright, comforted her. It made her think of Nicholas, that wherever he was, they were at least under the same sky. She pulled her mask off and put a hand to her chest, feeling the letter tucked into her bodice. It was the most recent one she had from Nicholas, dated a week prior. She could vividly picture the moment Nicholas had announced he was planning to enlist.
They had been in the sitting room together while Mary, their former nanny and now housekeeper, was going about the room dusting. Nicholas was reading as she worked at her embroidery, but something had been off about him. His leg was bouncing, and he kept licking his lips, which she knew to be a nervous habit of his.
“Everything alright, honey?” Mary had asked him, playing as if she was going to dust him off too, but Nicholas had fixed her with a stare, expression deadly serious.
“Mary, you know what the war means, don’t you? For your people. If we lose…” he trailed off as the smile melted off her face. He licked his lips, unable to meet her eyes. “I’m going to join. I leave tomorrow.”
He didn’t elaborate. Judith looked at Mary, who was now dusting a vase she’d finished with fifteen minutes before. There were tears in her eyes.
“Why tomorrow?” Judith asked.
“Father’s still gone. And I want to get to Washington by Friday,” he’d said, and left it at that, ignoring the dull thud of Mary’s duster hitting the ground.
A hand on her shoulder brought her back to the present. She hastily wiped at her face before she turned, unsurprised to see that it was John Bell Hood again.
“Why are you out here all alone?” he asked.
“Just thinking of Nicholas. I needed some air.”
“Nicholas, is this the brother you haven’t heard from?”
“Yes. I miss him,” she said quietly.
“I know it’s just words,” he said, grabbing her arm softly, reassuringly. “But he wanted to fight for what he believed in.”
Hood didn’t know just how right he was. Except Nicholas was unlike them, unlike Hood, and father, and everyone at this damned party. He was untouched by their hatred and prejudice, which is why he’d left their comfortably lavish life on their massive, Virginian plantation and gone north to enlist in the Union army. He did want to fight for what he believed in, was willing to kill and die for it, and that was the destruction of their beloved Confederacy and everything it stood for. She pulled her mask back in place and smiled at Hood, as cheerful and charming as she could fake, and looked back to the moon, imagining Nicholas laying on his cot outside some Pennsylvanian town he’d said was called Gettysburg, staring up at it too.