Illya: 'We'll break the chain when we get to Italy.'
Napoleon: 'There's no rush. It's really not holding anything together.'
His jaw is purpling and his lips are swelling from some beating he's taken but she's too busy fussing over her cowardly traitor of a husband to notice. Yet during the entire voyage he's solicitous toward her, reassuring her and even helping her tend Valder's wounds. As the sun climbs higher and exhaustion overtakes her, he allows her to fall asleep with her head resting on his shoulder, and his fingers curl around the hand that's chained to his.
He doesn't notice me, too deep in his reverie of quiet regrets. But I know he feels everything I do for him—that it enters his blood like a healing serum, later to yield its effects. He is the most observant and perceptive man I have ever met. No subtlety of human motivation escapes him. Except where love is concerned. Then he is as blind as any fool.
Emil is no fool but he is not much of a sailor. To take his mind off the voyage, we talk in low murmurs, beneath the slapping of the waves on the bows and the creaking of the mast. He jerks his head towards the three in front.
'A hollow victory for your friend, hmm?'
'He acted for justice, not for himself.'
Emil shakes his head. 'He acted for love. Look at him.'
I look. His eyes are closed but he does not sleep, not while he is supporting her tired body with his, giving her shelter from the wind that rakes our open craft.
Emil sighs. 'He is a good man. He risks his life for her. And yet she chose that... that...'—he fails to find an adequate word and instead spits over the side of the boat. He looks sadly at me. 'It's a pity—she has a good heart. Ah, but who can understand the mind of a woman, eh my friend?'
Who indeed? That woman, anyway. But, to my surprise, the contempt I feel for her slowly evaporates, leaving only pity. To be bound a prisoner in love to an unworthy scoundrel is a terrible fate. She may not yet even know that he is a collaborator in the pillaging of his country. I contemplate the pain of helplessly loving such a man, and I am conscious of an incredible sensation of relief. I like to believe that my emotions are directed by reason, by intellect, by ideals. But perhaps I am simply lucky. So very lucky.
We join the fishing fleet and sail for the Italian coast, arriving a little after midday. From the bay, we signal with mirrors to a lookout in the hills and when we land, Emil's gypsy cousins are waiting to smuggle him to a safe house until arrangements can be made to contact the proper authorities. We take our brief but heartfelt leave of Emil, promising to try and meet again in happier times and share another bottle of Slivovitz together.
We have to pay an old fellow with a donkey and cart to transport Valder to the village doctor. While he is being seen to, I visit a boat builder's and borrow an axe. One minute in the yard behind the doctor's house is all it takes. For an instant, he seems to hesitate, then yields. I lay their wrists either side of a wooden fence post and they turn their heads away. I strike, and it's over.
She rubs at her wrist still encased in it's metal bracelet, and looks at him, as if seeing him properly for the first time since Rome. He looks at her with a soft, regretful smile. I hate leaving them together.
'I'll just see how the doctor is progressing.'
An hour later, Valder is patched and stable but the doctor recommends he is rested before travelling, and so we leave them to head for the nearest railway station and Rome. I don't get to witness his farewell to Clara. But she emerges to say goodbye to me.
'Thank you, Illya. I'll be forever grateful for what you and Napoleon have done, for Stefan and me. And Emil.'
I shake her hand. There doesn't appear to be anything for me to say. Thank you for using your hold on him to make him do your will? Thank you for engaging in a deception against us and nearly getting us killed? Thank you for breaking his heart?
Thank you for leaving him.
It feels disloyal to think it—I don't want him to suffer pain. But I feel it, savagely in my heart. Thank you, Clara, for being a fool.
On the train, I sit facing him, watching guardedly. The lines of tiredness are etched in his face.
'You should try to get some sleep,' I tell him.
He nods, absently, gazing out of the window at the parched countryside. 'When we reach Rome.'
We are silent for some minutes but eventually the desire to ask him overtakes me.
'Why did you do it?'
He looks at me, questioningly.
'I mean, Valder. Why did you order me to rescue him?'
He seems puzzled I should need to ask. 'She loves him.'
'Yes, but surely it would be better for her to be rid of a scoundrel like that?'
He smiles. 'But then she'd be unhappy.'
'But if what she wants is against her best interests...'
'I'm not her judge or keeper, Illya, I'm her....well, her friend, I guess.'
I consider this for a moment. But my sense of justice is offended.
'That man deserved to remain in prison.'
'Yes, but he's lucky,' he sighs. 'Love can tear down a prison.'
'Her love for him or yours for her?'
'Does it matter?'
His gaze falls on his cuffed wrist. He gently twists the metal band back and forth.
'We'll find a locksmith in Rome,' I tell him.
'It's strange,' he muses, softly. 'I never thought something so long past could be so hard to break free of.'
I don't like the note of regret in his voice and answer sharply. 'Some chains are better broken.'
He looks at me and smiles. 'Don't be too hard on Clara, Illya. She's not like you—she's a creature of passion. Her heart rules her head, that's all. And once she gives her heart...' he tails off, wistfully.
'She took it back, though, didn't she?'
I can't believe I've said it aloud. An awful silence follows. His eyes show hurt.
'I'm sorry, Napoleon.' I try quickly to amend things. 'It's just...I just can't understand why she would leave someone like you for someone like him.'
He softens a little. 'Oh... I see...'
I can feel sudden heat firing my face.
'I mean, you have your faults, let's face it—but he is a profiteering traitor.'
He snorts a laugh, but I still feel very vulnerable as he scans my face. But he seems to decide my outburst is simple loyalty.
He smiles gently. 'Well, it wasn't quite like that, remember? We drifted apart long ago—were pulled apart, you might say, by my work. That's a choice I made. I can't blame her for that.'
'Do you regret it?' I realise I'm holding my breath for the answer.
He pauses. 'I regret losing her. But no, I don't regret making the choice. I didn't feel—still don't feel—as though I really had a choice.'
I relax, grateful. I try hard to let it go but some devil propels me on.
'She wasn't worthy of you, Napoleon.'
He raises his eyebrows at me. 'What makes you say that?'
She couldn't see what she had when she had you.
'Because after seven years you risked your life for her endeavour and even saved the life of your rival just to make her happy. I do not know any man who would do as much for someone he loved.'
He grins. 'Don't make it sound so noble. If I'd known I'd be facing a firing squad, I might have stopped to think about it.'
'You know you would not.'
He laughs a little. 'OK, have it your way.'
'You need someone who can understand and honour the code you live by, no matter what the sacrifice.'
He sighs. 'That's asking a lot of anyone. I no longer expect to find that. At least, not until I retire from the field.'
'You're a young man, Napoleon. Do you really think you can wait that long?'
He grins, rakishly. 'It's not as though I'm ever lonely.'
But he is. I saw it for the first time when he looked at her in Rome.
He at last closes his eyes, leans his head back. But I cannot stop now.
'Hasn't there been anyone, since? As serious, I mean.'
He waits so long to answer, I think he isn't going to, or has fallen asleep.
'There've been one or two, almost... but... no, not quite as serious.'
After a moment, he opens his eyes. 'What about you?'
I look out of the window. 'What about me?'
I breathe carefully. 'Not for a long time.'
He scrutinizes me curiously.
'And do you need to find someone worthy in order to love them?'
I reflect for a moment. 'Yes... I think so. I... I need to believe someone is good. At least, I would not want to love where there was unworthiness.'
He sounds incredulous. 'But what if none of us is really worthy of love?'
I shrug. 'You are worthy—for example, I mean. You have passion for ideals and loyalty...'
He breaks into a laugh. 'Well, those are useful at a job interview. I don't know if they help in finding love, though.'
I flush, embarrassed. 'I... I just meant that someone with those qualities... well... deserves to have them requited, that's all.'
He grins and shakes his head, amused. 'I'd never have figured you for a romantic optimist, Illya. Let's just say I've found a home for those things where they don't need to be requited.'
I look in his eyes and understand, or think I do. 'U.N.C.L.E?'
He nods, smiling. 'U.N.C.L.E.'
I'm on safer ground. 'U.N.C.L.E will accept your tribute, my friend, along with your life. What do you get out of it, finally?'
He thinks for a moment. 'The satisfaction of a life well lived.'
'Is that enough?'
'No. Is it enough for you?'
'Will we most likely end up dead because of it?'
'Then what are we both doing in U.N.C.L.E?'
I smile back at him, comprehending. 'Because we love it.'
Dark eyes twinkle at me. 'You see? Love has nothing whatever to do with reason.'
He leans his head back again, closing his eyes. I pretend to stare out of the window but really I'm looking at his reflection in it, noting the bruises, watching until his breathing relaxes into a steady rhythm.
He's wrong, of course. Reason led me to U.N.C.L.E, and reason draws me to him. My reasons. The same reasons. A common love of ideals, justice, tolerance and fellowship. But he is also correct. In U.N.C.L.E and in him, I found more to satisfy the heart than the mind.
Reasons are like the links in a chain, solid and reassuring, but they are not really what binds. The heart takes over, fashioning its own intangible chains, which are far stronger. They do not fail when reason fails. Sometimes they last forever.
I have been in love precisely twice before. Both times I discovered my love was founded on a false assumption of character. Is that why I so seldom give my trust? Am I, impossibly, seeking perfection? No, not perfection, surely. But a certain steadfastness of character, yes—a certain nobility of heart.
I believe I may have finally found them. In a flawed and arrogant being, it's true—I feel my mouth twitch in remembrance of many things. But I have never encountered such generosity of spirit as in this man. The more I know of him, the safer I feel in placing my trust in him... in loving him.
I have long since accepted that this is an impossible love. He is, after all, a man who loves women. I have just been given a vivid demonstration of how much he loved and still loves this particular woman. And of course, such devotion only makes me love him more. Reason falters before such impossibility, but the heart does not. I, too, really have no choice.
And if he were now to surrender this worthiness in my eyes by some despicable act? Would I still be bound to him, against the revolt of reason? The chains are fast now, strengthened by the involuntary allegiance of body and blood—I doubt they could be broken without lethal violence. And so the continual demonstrations of his character are like a balm to me. Yes, I am lucky. He is good. A good man. At least, if my love is forever unrequited, I know it can never be unfounded.
'Thank you, Illya.'
I flinch, appalled, as though he has somehow read my thoughts. We've been getting so comfortable with one another lately that it sometimes does not seem out of the question.
'For what?' I ask, guardedly.
He opens his eyes. 'This was personal, not duty. You went far out on a limb there to help me out, and I'm grateful.'
'Oh. Well, I... really wasn't doing anything else.'
He grins. 'Whenever I'm facing a firing squad, there's no one I'd rather see riding to the rescue.'
'No one else would be foolish enough to get mired in your schemes, Napoleon.'
'Mmm. Yes, it was rather nonsensical of you, wasn't it?' he closes his eyes again, muttering softly. 'Not... reasonable at all.'
I shake my head at him as the train speeds onward.
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