In a few moments, they reached the edge of the clearing in which the lodge stood, and emerged with a shared sense of relief into a soft haze of lavender, a pool of light still cupped between the forest’s hands.
They paused for an instant, taking their bearings. Von Namtzen turned toward the lodge, but Grey stopped him with a hand upon his arm.
“Show me, Stephan,” he said suddenly, surprising them both.
Von Namtzen’s face went blank.
“Deinen Arm,” Grey said, as though this were quite logical.
Stephan looked at him for a moment with no expression whatever, then away. Grey was already berating himself for clumsiness, but then Stephan’s one hand reached for the pin that held the loose sleeve to the breast of his coat.
He shed the coat without difficulty, still not looking at Grey, but then paused, his hand on the white linen of his neckcloth.
“Hilf mir,” he said softly.
Grey stepped close, and reached behind von Namtzen’s head with both his own hands, fumbling a little with the fastening. Stephan’s skin was very warm, the neckcloth damp. It came loose suddenly and he dropped it on the ground.
“I would not make a good valet,” he said, trying to make a joke of it as he bent to pick the cloth up. From the corner of his eye, he saw Stephan’s throat, long and powerful, a reddish mark across it from the cloth. Saw him swallow, and knew quite suddenly what to do.
He took Stephan’s shirt off gently, with no further fumblings. He was ready for the sight of the arm, not shocked, though the thought of the solid forearm, the kind, broad hand now gone, made him sad. The stump was clean, cut just above the elbow; the scars well-knitted, though still an angry red.
Stephan’s muscles tensed instantly when Grey touched him, and Grey whistled softly through his teeth, as though Stephan were a nervous horse, making the German snort a little, the sound not quite a laugh. Grey ran a soothing hand down the slope of von Namtzen’s shoulder, his thumb tracing the groove between the muscles of the upper arm.
Von Namtzen had the most beautiful skin, he thought. No more than a sprinkling of dark gold hairs across his breast. Poreless and smooth, with a dusk that drew both eye and hand.
You are like porcelain, he thought, but didn’t say it. And damned near as breakable, aren’t you?
He lifted the unresisting arm, and lightly kissed the end of the stump.
“Schon gut,” he said.
Saw Stephan’s belly muscles spring out tight against the skin. The evening air was mild, but he could smell von Namtzen’s sudden sweat, salt and musk, and his own body tightened, too, from scalp to knees. But this was not the time or place—nor the man. To allow Stephan to acknowledge his own desire now would destroy him—and to be the agent of such destruction would shatter Grey himself; he had no illusions regarding his own fragility.
There was one thing, perhaps, that he might give Stephan; it might not help—it hadn’t helped Percy—but it was what he had.
“I love you, brother,” he said, straightening and looking Stephan in the eyes. “So you will stop trying to kill yourself, ja?”
He picked up the shirt and rolled it up in his hands, so that it went neatly over von Namtzen’s head. Helped Stephan to slide his arms into the sleeves, and bent for the coat.
“I think…you would be a very good valet.” Von Namtzen blurted it, then blushed so deeply that it was visible, even in the fading light. “Entschuldigung! I—I do not mean to insult you.”
“I think it a great compliment,” Grey assured him gravely. “I am hungry—shall we go home to dinner now?”
The Honorable Thing
Grey found himself steadier in mind upon his return from von Namtzen’s lodge, and met all inquiries and expressions of sympathy with a remote, impeccable courtesy that kept the questioners—as well as his own feelings—at a safe remove. This technique, however, was ineffective with Hal.
It was several days after his return before he saw his brother, Hal having been with Duke Ferdinand. Hal came unannounced to his tent in the evening after supper, sitting down without invitation across the table from Grey, who was writing orders.
“Have you got any brandy?” Hal asked without preamble.
Grey reached beneath the table without comment and lifted the jug of very good brandy von Namtzen had sent with him—half empty now, but still plenty left.
Hal nodded thanks, lifted the jug in both hands and drank, then set it down, and shuddered slightly. He leaned his elbows on the table and put his face in his hands, rubbing slowly at the scalp beneath his wig. Finally, he looked up, his eyes bloodshot with travel and lined with a weariness that went far beyond mere bodily fatigue.
“Have you seen Wainwright since you came back?”
Grey shook his head, wordless. He knew where Percy was; a small country gaol in a nearby village. He had made the minimal inquiries necessary to assure that Percy was decently fed, and beyond that, had tried not to think of him. With a marked lack of success, but still, he tried.
“I suppose the news has spread,” he said. His own voice was hoarse with disuse; he hadn’t spoken to anyone in hours, and he cleared his throat. “Does the duke know?”
Hal grimaced, and took another drink. “Everyone knows, though the matter hasn’t been brought up officially as yet.”
“I suppose there will be a court-martial.”
“The general feeling among the high command is that it would be much better if there wasn’t.”
He stared at Hal.
“What the devil do you mean by that?”
Hal rubbed a hand over his face.
“If he were a common soldier, it wouldn’t matter,” he said, voice muffled. Then he took his hand away, shaking his head. “Court-martial him and hang or imprison him and be done with it. But he’s not. He’s a bloody member of the family. It can’t be done discreetly.”
Grey was beginning to have an unpleasant feeling under his breastbone.
“And what do they think can be done…discreetly? Try him and discharge him for some other reason?”
“No.” Hal’s voice was colorless. “That might be done if no one really knew what had happened. But the circumstances…” He gulped brandy, coughed, and kept coughing, going red in the face.
“‘Unfortunate,’” he said hoarsely. “That’s what Brunswick kept saying, in that precise sort of way he has. ‘Most unfortunate.’”
Ferdinand was more precariously placed than King Friedrich. Friedrich was absolute master of his own army; Ferdinand commanded a number of loosely allied contingents, and was answerable to a number of princes for the troops they had supplied him.
“Some of these princes are strict Lutherans, and inclined to a rather…rigid…view of such matters. Ferdinand feels that he can’t risk alienating them; not for our sake,” he added, rather bitterly.
Grey stared down at the tabletop, rubbing the fingers of one hand lightly back and forth across the grain.
“What does he mean to do?” he asked. “Execute Wainwright outright, without trial?”
“He’d love to,” Hal said, leaning back and sighing. “Save that that would cause still more stir and scandal. And, of course,” he added, reaching for the brandy again, “I informed him that I’d be obliged to pull our own troops out and make an official complaint to the king—or kings; ours and Friedrich—should he try to treat a British soldier in that fashion.”
The knot under Grey’s heart seemed to ease a little. The departure of Hal’s regiment wouldn’t destroy Ferdinand’s army, but it would be a blow—and the resultant uproar might well cause fragmentation among his other allies.
“What do they—or you—propose to do, then?” he asked. “Keep him locked up in hopes that he’ll catch gaol fever and die, thus relieving you of awkwardness?” He’d spoken ironically, but Hal gave him an odd look, and coughed again.
Without speaking, he picked up the haversack he’d dropped by the table, and withdrew a pistol. It was an old one, of German manufacture.
“I want you to go and see him,” he said.
“What?” Grey said, disbelieving.
“Do you know what happened to…Wainwright’s…” Hal searched for a word. “…accomplice?”
“Yes, I do. Von Namtzen told me. Are you seriously suggesting that I call upon Percy Wainwright and murder him in the gaol?”
“No. I’m suggesting that you call upon him, give him this, and…urge him to—to do the honorable thing. It would be best for everyone,” Hal added softly, looking down at the tabletop. “Including him.”
Grey stood up violently, almost overturning the table, and went out of the tent. He felt that he might fly into pieces if he didn’t move.
He walked blindly through the camp, down the main alley of tents. He was vaguely conscious of men looking at him—a few waved or called to him, but he didn’t answer, and they fell back, looking after him with puzzled faces.
Best for everyone.
Best for everyone. Including him.
“Including him,” he whispered to himself. He reached the end of the alley, turned on his heel, and walked back. This time no one hailed him; only watched with fascination, as they might watch a gallows procession. He reached his own tent, pulled back the flap, and went in. Hal was still sitting at the table, the pistol and the jug of brandy in front of him.
He felt words like bits of gravel stuck in his throat, and chewed them fiercely, feeling them grit between his teeth.
You’re the goddamed head of the family! You’re his colonel, his commander. And you’re his bloody brother, too—as much as I am.
He might have spit out any one of these things—or all of them. But he saw Hal’s face. The bone-deep weariness in it, the strain of fighting—yet again—scandal and rumor. The everlasting, inescapable struggle to hold things together.
He said nothing. Only picked up the gun and went to put it in his own haversack.
You protect everyone, John, Percy’s voice said, with sympathy. I don’t suppose you can help it.
On his way back to the table, he opened the small campaign chest that contained his utensils, and took the two pewter cups from their slots.
“Let us at least be civilized,” he said calmly, and set them on the table.
Percy was sitting on the wooden bench that served him as seat, bed, and table. He looked up when the door opened, but didn’t move. His eyes fixed upon Grey’s face, wary.
The small whitewashed room was clean enough, but the smell of it struck Grey like a blow. There was no window, and the air was close and damp, rank with the smell of unwashed flesh and sour linen. It had plainly been a storeroom; chains of braided onions and black loops of blood sausage still hung from the rafters, their smell battling the bitter stink of an iron night-soil bucket that stood in the corner, unlidded, unemptied. A protest at this small indignity rose to his lips, but he pressed them tight together and swallowed it, nodding to the guard. Given his errand, what did such things matter?
There were narrow slits beneath the eaves of the room, but the room itself lay in a shadow fractured by the moving leaves of the tree that overhung the building. Grey moved through the dim, shattered light, feeling that he moved underwater, every thought and motion slowed.
The door closed behind him. Footsteps went away and they were alone, in no danger of being overheard. There were noises in the distance: the shuffling of boots and the shout of distant orders in the square, the sounds of boisterous companionship from the tavern next door.
“Are you treated decently?” The words were dry, emotionless. He knew only too well what the attitude of guards toward a prisoner accused of sodomy was likely to be.
Percy glanced away, mouth twisting a little.
Grey set down the stool the guard had given him, and sat upon it. He’d envisioned this moment hundreds of times since Hal had given him the gun; sleepless, sweating, ill—to no avail. He could not find a single word with which to begin.
“I’m glad to see you, John,” Percy said, quietly.
Percy’s eyes widened a little, but he made a game attempt to smile. They’d let him shave, Grey saw; his cheeks were smooth.
“I should always be glad to see you, no matter your errand. And from the look of you, I doubt it is pleasant.” He hesitated. “Have you—will they try me here, do you know? Or send me back to England?”
“That—I don’t know. I’ve—”
He gave up any thought of speaking. Instead, he took the gun from his pocket, handling it gingerly, as though it were a venomous serpent, and laid it on the bench. It was loaded and primed, requiring only to be cocked.
Percy sat for a moment staring at it, expressionless.
“They made you bring it?” he asked. “The duke? Melton?”
Grey gave one brief nod, his throat too tight to speak. Percy’s eyes searched his face, quick and dark.
“At least it wasn’t your own notion,” he said. “That’s…a comfort.”
Then Percy rose abruptly and turned, putting out both hands as though to grasp the sill of a window that wasn’t there. Hands flat against the whitewashed brick, he lowered his head so that his forehead rested against the wall, his face invisible.
“I must say something to you,” he said, and his voice came low but clear, controlled. “I have been waiting in hope of your coming, so that I might say it. You will think I tell you by way of excuse for actions for which there can be no excuse, but I can’t help that. Only listen to me, I beg you.”