Had he been in command, he would have had the men on the move—marching from point A to point B on daily drill, if necessary, but moving. Soldiers took to sloth like pigs to mud, and while such idleness was good for trade, from the points of view of local tavern keepers and prostitutes, it bred vice, disease, disorderliness, and violence among the troops.
But Grey was not in command, and the English troops sat, sunning themselves as the days slowly lengthened toward Midsummer Day. Dicing, drinking, whoring—and gossiping.
With no company save Tom and his own thoughts, which trudged in a weary circle from rage through fear to guilt and back again, Grey was left no social outlet save the occasional game of chess with Symington, who was an indifferent player at best.
Finally, unable to stand the growing sense of being mired hip-deep in something noxious, Grey in desperation asked Symington for leave. Stephan von Namtzen, the Graf von Erdberg, was a personal friend; Grey had been seconded to the Graf’s regiment the year before, as English liaison officer. Von Namtzen’s regiment was with Brunswick’s troops, but the Graf himself had not yet come to the field; presumably he was still recovering at his hunting lodge, a place called Waldesruh. Only a day’s ride from the present English position.
Grey wasn’t sure whether his request for leave had more to do with his need to escape from the morass of silent accusation and speculation that surrounded him, the need of distraction from his own thoughts, or from a basely jealous urge to discover more about Percy’s partner in crime and his fate. But Stephan von Namtzen was a good friend, and above all at the moment, Grey felt the need of a friend.
Symington granted his request without hesitation, and with Tom loyally in tow, he set off for Waldesruh.
Waldesruh was a hunting lodge—which by Hanoverian standards, probably meant that it employed fewer than a hundred servants. The place was surrounded by mile upon mile of brooding forest, and despite the continued weight on his mind and heart, Grey felt a sense of relief as he and Tom emerged at last from the woodland shadows into the sunlight of Waldesruh’s exquisitely manicured grounds.
“Oi,” said Tom approvingly. The lodge, three-storied and built of the pale brown native stone with brick touches in red and green, spread itself before them, elegant and colorful as a pheasant. “Does himself well, the captain, for a Hun. Do you suppose the princess is here, too?” he asked hopefully.
“Possibly,” Grey said. “You must refer to him as the Graf von Erdberg, here at his home, Tom. ‘Captain’ is his military title, for the field. Should you speak to him directly, say, ‘Herr Graf.’ And for God’s sake—”
“Aye, aye, don’t call them Huns where they can hear.” Tom did not quite roll his eyes, but assumed a martyred air. “What’s a Graf, then, did you say?”
“A landgrave. ‘Count’ would be the English equivalent of the title.”
He nudged his horse and they started slowly up the winding drive toward the house.
Grey hoped the Princess Louisa—now the Gräfin von Erdberg—wasn’t to home, despite Tom’s obvious eagerness to renew his acquaintance with the princess’s body servant, Ilse. He didn’t know what the nature of von Namtzen’s marriage might be, but it would be much easier to talk with Stephan von Namtzen without the prolonged social pourparlers that the princess’s presence would necessarily entail.
Still, if she were a devoted wife, she might well feel it incumbent upon her to hover over her wounded husband, tenderly nursing him back to health. Grey tried to envision the Princess Louisa von Lowenstein engaging in this sort of behavior, failed, and dismissed it from mind. God, if she were here, he hoped that at least she hadn’t brought her unspeakable mother-in-law.
A small, grubby face popped out of the foliage just ahead of them, blinked in surprise, then popped back in. Shouts and excited rustlings announced their arrival, and a groom was already hurrying round the house to take charge of Tom and the horses by the time they reached the flagged steps.
Wilhelm, Stephan’s butler, greeted Grey at the door, his long face lighting with pleasure. A number of dogs surged out with him, barking and wagging with delight as they smelt this new and interesting object.
“Lord John! Willkommen, willkommen! You will eat?”
“I will,” Grey assured him, smiling and patting the nearest furry head. “I am famished. Perhaps I should make my presence known to your master first, though? Or your mistress, should she be at home,” he added, for the sake of politeness, for the presence of the dogs assured him that the princess was not here.
A pained look crossed Wilhelm’s features at mention of his employers.
“The Princess Louisa is at Schloss Lowenstein. The Graf…yes, I will send word to the Graf at once. Of course,” he said, but with a sort of hesitancy that caused Grey to glance sharply at him.
“What is wrong?” he asked directly. “Is it that the Graf is still unwell? Is he unfit to receive company?”
“Oh, he is…well enough,” the butler replied, though in such uncertain tones that Grey felt some alarm. He noticed also that Wilhelm didn’t answer his second question, instead merely gesturing to Grey to follow him.
Had he harbored any doubts regarding the princess’s residency, they would have disappeared the moment he stepped across the threshold. The lodge was immaculately clean, but still held the pleasantly frowsty air of a bachelor establishment, smelling of dogs, tobacco, and brandywine.
A pair of mud-caked boots was visible through a parlor door, flung askew on the hearth—a good sign, he thought; Stephan must be somewhat recovered, if he were riding—and a small heap of stones, scraps of paper, pencil stubs, detached buttons, grubby bread crusts, coins, and other detritus recognizable as the contents of a man’s pockets was turned out on a silver salver which elsewhere might be intended for visiting cards.
Speaking of which…
“Has the Graf entertained many visitors since his unfortunate accident?” he inquired.
Wilhelm cast a rather hunted glance back over one shoulder and shook his head, but didn’t elaborate.
Not such a good sign; Stephan was normally a most sociable gentleman.
The butler paused at the foot of the staircase, as though trying to make up his mind about something.
“You are tired from your journey, mein Herr? I could show you to your room,” Wilhelm offered, making no move to do so.
“Not at all,” Grey replied promptly, taking up the obvious cue. “Perhaps you would have the kindness to take me to the Graf? I would like to give him my respects at once.”
“Oh, yes, sir!” Palpable relief spread over Wilhelm’s countenance, causing Grey to wonder afresh what the devil von Namtzen had been doing.
He had not long to wonder. Wilhelm shut the dogs in the kitchen, then escorted him, almost at the trot, through the lodge and out a door at the rear, whereupon they plunged into the forest and made their way along a pleasant, shady trail. In the distance ahead, Grey could hear shouts—he recognized Stephan von Namtzen’s voice, raised in displeasure—and a remarkable thunder of hooves and…wheels?
“Was ist—” he began, but Wilhelm shook his head decidedly, and beckoned him on.
Grey rounded the next curve of the path on Wilhelm’s heels and found himself on the edge of an enormous clearing, floored with sand. And rushing directly toward him, screaming like an eagle and wild-eyed as his horses, was what appeared to be one of the ancient German gods of war, driving a chariot drawn by four galloping dark horses, scarlet-mouthed and foaming.
Grey flung himself to the side, taking the butler to the ground with him, and the chariot slewed past with barely an inch to spare, a flurry of monstrous hooves spraying them with sand and droplets of saliva.
The quadriga—yes, by God, it was; the four horses ran abreast, threatening at every moment to overturn the chariot that bounced like a pebble in their wake—galloped on, held in perilous check by the one-armed maniac who stood upright behind them, a terrified groom with a whip beside him, clinging with one hand to the chariot and with the other to the Graf von Namtzen.
Grey rose slowly to his feet, staring and wiping sand from his face. They weren’t going to make the turn.
“Slow down!” he bellowed, but it was much too late, even had they heard him over the thunder of the equipage. The chariot’s left wheel rose, touched sand, skipped free again, and to a chorus of shouts and screams, left the ground altogether as the horses scrambled, getting in each other’s way as they slewed uncontrolled and leaning into the turn.
The chariot fell sideways, spilling out its contents in a jumble of flailing limbs, and the horses, reins trailing, galloped on a few more steps before stumbling to a shuddering halt, fragments of the shattered chariot strewn behind them.
“Jesus,” Grey said again, finding no better remark. The two figures were struggling in the sand. The one-armed man lost his balance and fell; the groom tried to grasp his other arm, to help, and was cursed at for his trouble.
At Grey’s side, Wilhelm crossed himself.
“We are so glad you have come, mein Herr,” he said, voice trembling. “We didn’t know what to do.”
And you think I do? Grey thought later, in silent reply. The groom had been bundled off with a broken arm, a doctor sent for, and the horses—fortunately uninjured—seen to and stabled. The erstwhile charioteer had cavalierly dismissed a large swelling over one eye and a wrenched knee and greeted Grey with the utmost warmth, embracing him and kissing him upon both cheeks before limping off toward the house, calling for food and drink, his one arm draped about Grey’s shoulders.
They sat now sprawled in chairs before the fire, awaiting dinner, surrounded by a prostrate pack of heavily breathing dogs, their patience sustained by a plate of savories and a decanter of excellent brandy. A spurious sense of peace prevailed, but Grey was not fooled.
“Have you quite lost your mind, Stephan?” he inquired politely.
Von Namtzen appeared to consider the question, inhaling the aroma of his brandy.
“No,” he said mildly, exhaling. “Why do you ask?”
“For one thing, your servants are terrified. You might have killed that groom, you know. To say nothing of breaking your own neck.”
Von Namtzen regarded Grey over his glass, mouth lifting a little.
“You, of course, have never fallen from a horse. And how is my dear friend Karolus?”
Grey made a sound of reluctant amusement.
“Bursting with health. And how is the Princess Louisa? Oh—I am sorry,” he said, seeing von Namtzen’s face change. “Be so kind as to forget I asked.”
Stephan made a dismissive gesture, and reached for the decanter.
“She is also bursting,” he said wryly. “With child.”
“My dear fellow!” Grey was sincerely pleased, and would have wrung Stephan’s hand in congratulation, had there been one to spare. As it was, he contented himself with raising his glass in salute. “To your good fortune, and the continued health of your family!”
Von Namtzen raised his own glass, looking mildly embarrassed, but pleased.
“She is the size of a tun of rum,” he said modestly.
“Excellent,” Grey said, hoping this was a suitable response, and refilled both their glasses.
That explained the absence of the princess and the children, then; Louisa would presumably want to remain with the ancient Dowager Princess von Lowenstein, her first husband’s mother—though God knew why.
There was a bowl of flowers on the table. Chinese chrysanthemums, the color of rust, glowing in the setting sun. An odd thing to find in a hunting lodge, but von Namtzen loved flowers—or had used to. He pushed the bowl carelessly aside now, and a little water slopped on the table. Von Namtzen ignored it, reaching for a decanter on the tray. His left shoulder jerked, the missing hand reaching instinctively for his glass, and a spasm of irritation touched his face.
Grey leaned forward hastily and seized the glass, holding it for von Namtzen to pour. The smell of brandy rose sweet and stinging in his nose, a counterpoint to the clean, bitter scent of the flowers. He handed the glass to von Namtzen, and with a murmured “Salut,” took a generous swallow of his own.
He eyed the level of brandy in the decanter, thinking that as things looked, they were likely to need it before the evening was out. Von Namtzen outwardly was still a large, bluntly handsome man; the injury had not diminished him, though his face was thinner and more lined. But Grey was aware that something had changed; von Namtzen’s usual sense of imperturbable calm, his fastidiousness and formality had gone, leaving a rumpled stranger whose inner agitation showed clearly, a man cordial and snappish by turns.
“Don’t fuss,” von Namtzen said curtly to his butler, who had come in and was endeavoring to brush dirt from his clothes. “Go away, and take the dogs.”
Wilhelm gave Grey a long-suffering look that said, You see?, then clicked his tongue, urging the dogs away to the kitchen again. One remained behind, though, sprawled indolently on the hearthrug. Wilhelm tried to make it follow him, as well, but von Namtzen waved him away.
“Gustav can stay.”
Wilhelm rolled his eyes, and muttering something uncomplimentary in which the name “Gustav” featured, went out with the other dogs wagging at his heels.
Hearing his name, the dog lifted his head and yawned, exhibiting a delicately muscular, long pink tongue. The hound—Grey thought it was a hound, from the ears and muzzle—rolled to its feet and trotted over to von Namtzen, tail gently wagging.
“What on earth is that?” Grey laughed, charmed, and the strained atmosphere eased a little.