Poul stared down from the third story window of Government House upon the ornamental gardens which had been so recently restored to reflect the former glory of St. Petersburg. His mind was far away, wallowing indulgently in memories of time spent in this city many years ago.
The sound of a throat being cleared caused him to return to the present day and spin around to face the young man, who had obviously been standing there for some considerable time, his face flushed red with embarrassment.
"Captain," the youth began, "the Commandant has asked me to bring this to you, Sir." He held a sheaf of papers in his hand.
"Fine, what are they?"
"Prisoner of war lists, Sir. The names of those due to be released by the Coalition."
Poul wondered why Strazinsky would have thought it necessary to relay this information to him. What business was it of his?
He studied the corporal a moment longer. The young man appeared desperate to relinquish himself of the papers and Poul decided to go easy on him, "on my desk, please."
He turned back to the window and the overcast sky. The corporal's salute from the doorway was perceptible to him, but it was only when he was sure that the young man had departed that he walked over to the broad mahogany desk and took up the papers from the tray.
Names, thousands of names. Separatist soldiers, missing and presumed dead, most of them for many years. But, unknowingly, the Coalition had had many of them interned in the Siberian Gulag. And now, now that they were on the back foot and knowing that such an act would curry much favour during the final treaties, they had decided to release their prisoners.
There was a paper clip at the top of one of the pages and Poul instinctively turned to it. It was a further continuation of the list, but his eyes were drawn to a name halfway down that was highlighted in red. The effect of that name upon him was twofold. Physically, his gut clenched, his heart skipped a beat and his legs turned to gelatine. Mentally, his brain accepted the information but refused to process it, the end result being an almost blackout. He reached out for, and just managed to fall into, his leather chair, his features ashen, his eyes glazed.
It was in this condition that Strazinsky found him when he swung by an hour or so later. And he was not in the least surprised.
Appelgard had been as close a friend as he had had for a very long time. The fact that he was seated alongside Poul in the rear of the Sedan was testament to that friendship.
It had been a month since he had received the shocking news. A month during which he had been unable to assimilate it, unwilling to risk opening up a wound which had already taken so long to even begin the healing process. He had spoken not a word to Sofia, knowing that he would be unable to bear her disappointment if it proved untrue, certain that he would only just be able to bear it himself.
"This is it," Appelgard stated as they drove through the gates of the processing centre, to be faced with the typically stark grey monolithic structure itself.
Poul stared straight ahead, "just get me in there Johann.