Gilbert had never been the cleanest of nations. Being forced to stare down Berwald without once laying hand on arms by an indecisive ruler during the Thirty Years War had given him even less time for ablutions.
When the heir apparent to the throne and present Elector Friedrich Wilhelm had returned from his stay in Holland by his father's command, his dour mien at being called back from the civilized delights of the United Provinces had lifted briefly on sighting Gilbert. He'd clapped him on the shoulder, then murmured in his ear. "I'm going to do a better job as your ruler than my father has, you can count on that." And surprisingly to Gilbert, he had kept his promise when the old Elector had finally kicked the bucket. Six years hence, he was standing in the crowd at The Hague as his ruler led a princess from Holland to the altar, in an effort to marry into her nation's prosperity by importing Dutch expertise as part of her dowry.
Most of the court was already bewitched by the young bride, with her dark curls and naturally pale complexion. At least one noble with literary pretensions had already compared her to a moon goddess. The common folk, meanwhile generally figured her as one of those story-tale princesses and queens who were white as snow, with hair black as a raven's wing.
The Elector nudged his bride when they were about to pass Gilbert, and she contemplated him briefly. At first, her expression was kindly, but then she took a closer look and her nose wrinkled in horror. Gilbert saw the civilized disdain in her expression before the couple passed him by, and mentally prepared himself for the punishments he felt sure his new Electress was to impose on his barbaric self. For moon goddesses of old were often cruel, and the princesses and queens told of in tales could conceal hidden malice under their perfect exterior.
Consequently, he thought he knew what to expect when Luise Henriette first summoned him to her presence on her arrival in Berlin one year later. But in hindsight, he really had no idea.
The waiting-woman ushered him not into her private chambers, but into the scullery, which was not a place he would have expected her to be at all. Yet there she was, sitting as majestically on a plain wooden chair as she would on a highly upholstered throne. Her ladies in waiting and maids stood impassively arrayed about her, wrapped in cloaks. Gilbert wondered if they were all fraid of catching cold from the stone floor.
With the light streaming in from the windows, the Electress pointed to a large copper wash-basin filled with water in front of her.
"Um, Durchlauchtigste? What is this all about?"
"It is about your state of slovenliness being unacceptable to my sight, let alone that of my lord husband and the rest of the world."
"Wait. You're actually expecting me to strip and get in there in front of you and all these other women?"
"You truly think that this sight would be so novel for us?" The ladies surrounding her giggled. Gilbert realized that the sound was also coming from behind him and turned sharply, finding his exit blocked by some hefty washer maids.
"Now get in the tub. That is a direct order."
"I don't take orders from women."
"Oh, but you will. -Restrain him," she ordered her suite.
They responded by flinging off their cloaks and running straight at him.
Gilbert had seen many things in his life, but he still wasn't quite prepared for a horde of women wearing nothing but their shifts hell-bent on cleanliness or death.
Their lack of proper clothing also gave him pause, which in this case, was fatal.
He lashed out at the neck of the nearest washerwoman. His hand never reached its goal. Another woman yanked him away by his left arm, then grabbed and twisted. "Get his legs," she shouted.
Gilbert went down like a sack of grain, and lost his chance to throw her off as the first washerwoman immediately sat down on his stomach.
It suddenly occurred to him that their lack of clothing was entirely strategic: first to distract him, and then to avoid sullying their good dresses and habits de cour.
He heard the Kurfürstin say: "I give permission to cut his clothes off if necessary, those rags are not worth sparing anyway."
Then they were pulling his trousers off. He kicked and scrabbled wildly, but had his arms immediately restrained by two women, who leaned in and introduced themselves as Gisel and Ursel.
"Oh, you'll be a pretty one once we're done with you, alright," said Gisel.
"We'd love to kiss you now, actually, but honestly- you stink," continued Ursel.
Meanwhile, the women had resorted to having two women restrain his feet while another took off the trousers.
"The Kurfürstin said we'd all have fun eventually, but I'd say it's already fun now," remarked Ursel.
"I'll say. A good tussle never did anyone harm," continued Gisel.
"I've thought of some good moves for tonight."
"Oh please, not in front of this child."
"I am several hundred years older than any of you!" shouted Gilbert desperately.
"Then start acting like it already. You're behaving like my five-year old brother."
"Trews are down!" shouted another brawny washerwoman named Lotte, as if she was describing the fall of an enemy outpost. "We're pulling his coat and shirt off!"
Having gotten as far as his arms, they flipped the clothing over his head, both Gisel and Ursel let go of him, and with one last almighty pull that nearly wrenched his arms from his sockets, the deed was done, and only the under-drawers remained.
Luise Henriette stepped forward. Gilbert lay legs sprawled apart on the slick stone floor and glared at her, but she pointedly ignored his gaze in favour of examining his pose.
"Why, if he weren't so dirty, the attitude he now strikes would be very similar to the famed statue of the Dying Gladiator," she remarked.
"The what, Durchlauchtigste?" interjected one of her ladies in waiting.
"A celebrated statue of antiquity, depicting a defeated warrior, quite possibly barbarian due to his mustache. Remind me to show you the engraving I own of it later, would you?"
With a smile, Luise Henriette continued by addressing Gilbert directly. "Your barbaric self is not unlike the warriors of those days, at times."
At this, Gilbert's face went even whiter than usual. "Are you calling me un-Christian?"
"Do you deny this aspect is part of your nature, then? If the antique writings are anything to go by, there was virtue as well as vice in your past. Repudiate it entirely, and you deprive yourself of ancient wisdom."
Gilbert felt as though the ground had given way under him and he had fallen into a mossy abyss. Where had she found that much time to bully a scholar into translating the Latin chronicles for her? There was no doubt at all in his mind that she had seen his past shame in the records, that she knew of the pagan other that lay buried in his soul.
Within only a year's time, she had managed to turn the tables on him entirely. She held the strategic advantage now. If he didn't want his reputation at court to be destroyed entirely, he had no choice but to submit to her.
He felt a hand on his head and realized it belonged to the Electress. She knelt down and looked him in the eyes.
"Would you remain forever in the pit, cursing your past and casting dim eyes on the present?"
Why wasn't she going for the throat? He was entirely at her mercy and she knew it.
"We must begin the work of uplifting, of bettering our nation. and what better place to begin than with you, who contains multitudes."
She wiped his cheek with a fresh cloth and kissed it.
"This poor nation of mine has survived so many times against the odds. Now, it is time for it to embrace the virtues of peace, for only then can it truly shine."
He stared at the Kurfürstin incredulously. She didn't want to destroy him? Why was there no hint of malice in her posture?
"Will you aid me in this great task? I cannot do without you." She sat patiently on the bare floor with dust-motes dancing round her head, waiting for his answer.
She didn't want to banish him? She wanted his help? She was asking for his help? No one had really asked him for his opinion before. No one had bothered considering that he even had one in the first place. He had only ever obeyed unthinkingly.
He saw her lips move again.
Gilbert had heard knights of the Order extol the boundless mercy of the Virgin many a time, had himself praised her misericordia infinitely. Yet frequent were the hours where he found it difficult to believe such a sentiment existed. But as as dust motes in the air caught fire in the afternoon light, filling the Electress's hair with stars, he saw that mercy incarnate before him.
He wanted terribly, desperately to live up to her expectations. To be the nation she saw him as, rather than the one he was.
Slowly, his body bent itself reflexively into position, eyes to the ground, one knee raised, the other lowered. He raised his head. The old accustomed words, "I hear and obey," fell into his mouth. But he swallowed them, and said instead:
"Unworthy as I am, I shall strive to meet your ambitions."
She smiled then, a genuine smile, not the false one she gave in passing to courtiers who sought audience with her.
Two words, falling on the ear, resounding like the the bell of awakening. Gilbert knelt, trembling, on the threshold of revelation.
Then she blinked and the moment was over. Turning to the waiting-women who stood silently all about, Luise Henriette proclaimed loudly: "I neglected to mention one important fact about this statue of the dying warrior. Namely, like most such statues, he wasn't wearing any clothes."
The expectant women descended on him like the howling furies in the old works Luise Henriette seemed to like so much. They piled on top of him like heavyweight wrestlers, kicking and punching each other as much as they did him in the quest for the prize. Gilbert fought desperately to crawl out from under the scrum. He was almost clear when a meaty hand fell onto the waistband of his under-drawers, and he knew he was doomed. The hand pulled, the warrior fell defeated, and the twenty-strong regiment of women simultaneously turned around and watched as his modesty went blowing in the wind.
Luise Henriette, watching from an appropriate distance, raised an eyebrow over the fan that concealed her face. Johanna, her waiting-woman from Holland, clapped her hands and squeaked: "How admirable!"
"He'll be more admirable by far once he's clean," said the Electress pointing imperiously at the tub. The ladies sprang in to motion and Gilbert was immediately hauled over and dunked. Soap and wash cloths were produced seemingly from nowhere, and then, the scrubbing began.
Gilbert had expected a fray. Stripped of both clothes and pride by a bunch of clever women, he still wasn't going down without a fight. Slippery soap made it somewhat easier to avoid their grasp, but for every hand he brushed off, there were three to take its place.
Through the din of the scrub brushes, he vaguely heard the Kurfürstin say: "I cannot simply stand by and watch them struggle. Assist me with this garments..." But Luise started soaping his hair and he didn't catch the rest of her words.
And then suddenly, all the scrubbing, all the rubbing, and the scraping stopped. From his crouched position, Gilbert couldn't see what was going on. He attempted to sit down but his buttocks slipped and he narrowly missed hitting his head on the edge of the tub. After much grunting and shuffling, he finally managed to position himself comfortably without upending the tub in the process. When the half cleaned Nation-incarnate finally managed to look up, he saw the Electress standing above him wearing only her shift.
"Oh don't just stand there Maulaffen feilhalten," she said to his incredulous face. "I used to help wash my elder brother when he was little. The current Stadtholder of the United Provinces was just as recalcitrant to be washed in those days as you are now."
Gilbert shut his mouth, then opened it again to speak, but Luise immediately interjected. "You are as childish now as he was then, and as destined for greatness as he was too. Now shut up and let yourself be washed." She turned briefly to Lotte. "I want your most experienced washerwoman to take the duty of washing his...delicate bits. Too much giggling and not enough scrubbing is not what we want here, but we don't want anything falling off in the process either."
"That'd be meself, Durchlauchtigste."
"Very good. Now someone hand me a wash cloth. The hour grows late, and I want to finish this." She methodically assigned women to restrain his hands and feet while others washed. "Let's see if they've forgotten to scrub under the neck, like my brother always did."
Gilbert lashed out with his teeth once she got close, but she dodged him easily. Twisting her wash cloth into a rattail, she delivered a stinging slap to his upper lip. "At this point you're just being stubborn for the sake of stubbornness."
The Electress of Brandenburg then proceeded to wrench his head back and scrub violently at his neck, delivering a stinging batch of violent Dutch swears over his "misbegotten head" when he tried to twist away from her. Gilbert nearly got whiplash when she pulled his skull in the other direction so she could reach the back of his head, raining countless injuries on him from her mouth all the while.
Then again, focussing on the discomfort she procured his upper body was still preferable to thinking about what Lotte was doing to his nethers. In fact, at the rate she was scrubbing, Gilbert doubted there'd be anything left down there when she was done with him.
Faster than he thought possible, the symphony of scrubbers reached its climax and finale. Hands hauled him upright and dumped countless buckets of clean water over his head, then rubbed him dry with such vigour that his skin was flushed pink. The women retreated, and he was left standing in the tub, naked as the day he was born.
Not bothering even to throw on a cloak, the Electress reached for her fan. Snapping it open and fanning herself moda Española, she contemplated Gilbert while his skin slowly turned from pink to pale red as he became aware of her attention.
"Livia Drusilla, the most excellent wife of Emperor Augustus, once said that to a chaste woman, other men are but statues," she said walking forward.
"Dear ladies, I dare say this is one statue worth contemplating. Why, his very colour is equal to those works of antique times!"
"Well, he's purty pink right now, Durchlauchtigste," came a voice from the crowd.
"Of course he is, we've given him quite a bit of exercise," responded the Electress, casually describing Gilbert as though he were a prize stallion.
"But wait until the cold airs of this place strike him, and you will see his skin turn to finest alabaster."
Giggling, the Kurfürstin's waiting-women and servants accompanied her on a leisured circumnavigation of the tub to contemplate this unusual work of art.
Most of the other ladies taking part in this impromptu art appreciation class also had some choice comments to make about what they were seeing. It took Gilbert all of his strength to not shut his eyes against the whispers coming from the crowd.
"Oh dear- I didn't expect he'd be so pink there."
"Some are, others not. Why I have heard tell of the dark Ethiopians-"
This was followed by incoherent mutterings and giggling.
Another older lady passed by with a younger one in tow.
"Don't tell me you have never- yes I know you have yet to marry, but do you mean to say you have never even seen a stallion in heat?"
The girl next to her went from deep pink to bright red instantly.
"Ignorance of these matters is no reason for embarrassment, child! Now, I have in my possession certain volumes-"
Gilbert made an effort to cover himself. but received a light tap on the arm from Luise Henriette's fan in remonstrance for the gesture. "Works of art are not meant to be ambulant, Bertje dear," she tutted to muffled laughter from the ladies behind her.
The unfamiliar diminutive briefly made him forget shame entirely. "B-Bertje??"
"Yes, Bertje. Because you're adorable, really." the Electress hid her mouth behind her fan.
Gilbert turned bright red. He couldn't recall anyone saying he was adorable before. The number of times he'd been referred to as vile, as loathsome, as evil, surely equalled the number of men he'd slain. At best, he'd been called annoying, disobedient, wilful, by Grandmasters, Landmasters, and Electors alike.
But adorable? Gilbert looked down at himself for a moment. He saw the scars that criss crossed his body like lines of longitude and latitude upon a globe, mapping out geographies of past pain. Soon, war would come again and trace the outline of new continents of suffering upon his flesh.
Had he ever been adorable? He did remember being happy sometimes, with a full belly and a warm place to sleep. But no one had been there to call him adorable then.
He looked further down at that part of him which Erzsé had once laughingly called his Greek Fire Hose, and smiled at the memory.
But no, not even those closest to him had ever thought to call him adorable.
One lady in waiting who had come over from Holland with her mistress whispered behind her fan to Luise Henriette.
"Your Serene Highness, he smiled a bit just now! Is he thinking of us?"
"Calm yourself, Johanna," said the Electress following his line of sight over the top of her own fan. "He has no designs on you. Instead, I dare say he is conjuring up fond memories of a lady of his acquaintance."
"Oh, my." The waiting-woman sighed. "Too bad, really. I've begun to take a liking to him."
"Joopje, you have read altogether too many chivalrous romances. Methinks your brain hath begun to addle like that of Don Quixote if you make yourself such illusions about the knights of old. I prescribe a good course of history books from the library to remedy that. Come to my study tonight and I shall lend you a volume to start with."
'Joopje' frowned. "Do you secretly think him a vile man then, mistress?"
"No. I think he is a good one, deep down inside. He just hasn't realized it yet."
After several rounds and having circled back to where she started in front of him, the Electress shut her fan with satisfaction. "There. you may now dry and dress yourself in the fresh clothes on the chair to your right."
A chorus of disappointed groans arose from the women as he put on his clothes, but Gilbert forced himself to concentrate on what Luise was saying to them instead.
"There, my dears. Did I not say that this onerous task would prove most entertaining in the end?"
"It sure was!" shouted Lotte from the crowd, general cheers and even some smatters of applause corroborating the statement.
When he next turned around, he saw Luise's maids were in the final stages of putting her own clothes back on after changing her shift. He stared at her, wondering how the foul-mouthed washerwoman and the Electress could be one and the same. His gaze caught her attention.
"Any objections, soldier?" she smiled.
"No, I was just curious as to where you learned such vocabulary."
"Oh." the Electress managed to keep a straight face for all of five seconds, but then her gaze wandered to Gilbert's eyes and she realized he was being serious. The Kurfürstin tried to contain her mirth behind her fan, but his benighted expression of surprise only increased her hilarity. "Quick! My laces! Loosen them again!" she shouted red-faced at her concerned maids. As they rushed to comply, Luise Henriette, princess of the house of Nassau, flopped down on a plain wooden chair like a barmaid and laughed until she was tickled pink.
When she could finally draw breath again, she grinned at Gilbert. It was a very unseemly gesture for an Electress, but Luise cared not a whit.
"Oh, you are an amusing one. To answer-" she swallowed a giggle. "To answer your question: as a princess, one is privy to many things of which one must not speak in polite company. And you, my good fellow, are anything but polite company, so I felt no such compunction in your presence."
Gilbert could only bow in assent, because he knew she was right.
When her women finished re-re-lacing her corset, Luise stepped forward.
"I trust you noted some of my ladies' interest in you. Strive for cleanliness from now on, and you may yet hold their interest. For nothing is more uninteresting than a slovenly man. I shall hire a tutor to educate you in the graces you lack, and I expect you to listen to his words obediently. Is that clear?"
He sighed internally. More etiquette, no doubt. "Yes, Durchlauchtigste."
Luise Henriette paused to contemplate him for a moment. She opened her fan, but closed it again and held it against her chin instead of fanning herself. Having seemingly come to a decision, she continued. "Other matters, I will educate you in specially. I want my Nation to be fully aware of what it was and is so that it can be something more in future."
Then she let her servants put on her cloak, and went to change into an evening habit.
Gilbert was left behind in the lengthening afternoon shadows feeling something he hadn't consciously felt in a long time: fear. Fear that this woman, with her pale face, dark locks, and bright eyes, like a princess out of an alehouse-tale, this woman with a sailor's foul mouth, had seen through to his secret heart more than any one person he had known previously.
The present age was a tumultuous one, but he had not expected the tempest in his heart to equal it in fury.
When the fatal hour of his next evening audience with her approached, he felt as though the storm in his breast were fit to burst out and lay waste to all the castle.
He found her seated comfortably in front of a reading lectern, which was perched on a be-carpeted table. At the moment, she held a magnifier and was earnestly squinting at some passage in her book. She laid it down as he came into her field of vision, and gestured to a chair placed next to a side table.
Gilbert glanced around. "You've brought some bits of home with you then."
"Indeed I have. And I intend to continue doing so. Let me ask you: do you remember the taste of oranges?"
He did indeed. The orchards of the holy land were filled with them, and stopping to rest in their shade on campaign had always been a rare treat. Venice too, had abounded in rare and costly produce.
"Aye, Durchlauchtigste. I can still taste their bitterness on my tongue."
"Then you have yet to taste the sweet orange of the Far East. Here. I had some shipped over since I was homesick." she offered him a small round fruit on a plate.
When Gilbert took the plate from her its smooth texture nearly made him drop it in shock. "Is this real porcelain, from China?"
"No, it is from the yet more distant isles of Japan," she remarked turning her chair to face him directly. "Please, do try the fruit, you shall find it just as remarkable as its receptacle."
As Gilbert put the dish down carefully on the table and extracted a knife from his clothing, she motioned to a servant to bring a hand-washing basin. "You'll get sticky otherwise."
Cutting a fruit over the dish while desperately trying not to knock the ornamental table and its precious cargo over proved extremely difficult for Gilbert. In the end, Luise leaned over and touched his wrists. "Allow me." She handled his rather unwieldy man's knife with skill, peeled the rest of the skin off the fruit, and separated the first few sections. Then the Electress sat back down in her chair and contemplated Gilbert with barely the contained excitement of a child giving someone a present.
He thought it best not to disappoint her and reached for the plate. The first slice he managed to separate from the fruit exploded in his mouth with incredible sweetness. Gilbert's eyes widened from the shock, and he saw that she was smiling at his surprise.
"Slowly now," she said as he reached hastily for the next slice. "This country has no means of growing oranges yet, so this is still a rare treat. But I plan to create a new kitchen garden and hothouse for the palace, so it may not be too long before you taste oranges again."
When he'd finished eating most of the orange, the Kurfürstin gestured to the open volume on the lectern. "Now in this book, Tacitus praises the Germanic warriors as barbarian, but virtuous in spirit. I dare say that virtue also lies in the pagan part of your essence."
Gilbert swallowed pulp and stared at her. He tried to speak, but fear had sucked away the wind in his throat and all that emerged was a piping squeak. He could feel himself begin to sweat. Again, he tried to say something.
"How much do you know about me?"
"All there was in the chronicles. The rest, I have guessed based on available evidence."
Prussia opened his mouth, but once again, the words would not come.
"Please, finish your orange first. -Slowly," she added when he began stuffing the rest of the fruit in his mouth.
Closing his eyes, Gilbert let the taste of the fruit transport him to orchards far away. But the rustling of their leaves sounded like mocking voices in his ears.
With only a few words, she had stripped his soul as bare as his body had been only a few days ago. What torments would he have to suffer for his sins this time?
Please don't put me in the darkness again-
He heard the Electress move her chair closer to him, and felt her hand on his wrist. It wore no rings aside from a simple wedding band, as was her custom.
"My poor Prussia. Your soul is a broken water pot, shattered into equal parts Pagan, Catholic, and now Protestant. How can you support the clamour of thousands in your breast if the vessel to hold them is broken? There must be reconciliation or else you will die. The recent history of my former homeland proves it."
Gilbert opened his eyes and saw she was looking straight into them. As a child, he would have recoiled in terror. But he had left childhood behind, long ago and faraway between the musty walls of a castle.
Pretending not to see the small start he had made just now, Luise continued. "You are aware, I am sure, that pagan philosophers and writers had anticipated the coming of Christ in their writings."
Of course he was. Such things were well known to the monks that copied the ancient texts, and although he was never a copyist, he had read many such works in monastic libraries in his time. But those volumes were copies of the ancient writings of Greece and Rome. The Old Prussian kingdom had no writings that could even compare to such works, and consequently, no virtue worth speaking of. Or so he had thought.
She saw him frown. "I know what you are thinking. You are wondering: 'what could a worthless dirty nation such as mine once was contribute in comparison to the glory that was Greece and Rome?' But there are many things of which those folk were ignorant."
"Because they knew not Christ?"
She chortled. "No, that's a given. I mean that they knew their own lands, those golden countries around the Mediterranean, as well as they could be known then. But their knowledge of the hyperborean lands was slight, and they did not understand them as one like you."
"You're talking about geographical knowledge?" It was true that Tacitus had almost no idea whatsoever about the lands on the Baltic sea.
"Not just. I speak of the knowledge of the seasons, when to plant, when to harvest, of how much honeycomb a bee-keeper may take from his hives and yet leave his swarms with sufficient to feed on through the cold winter, of herbs that prevent sickness. Knowledge that can only be learned by doing."
Gilbert stared. He had never thought of such things as "knowledge of the ancients." But if what she said was true, then he did, in fact, have enough wisdom to stand toe with Antiquity. But could it stand in harmony with his other fractured components?
"So. This broken pot of yours, how do you intend to mend it?"
"Artfully, and with care. By letting each part come freely into the light and breathe, then join hands with its fellows once again."
"You think the resulting form would even hold water, at this point?" He had to admit her metaphor was rather apt.
"If we proceed delicately and with care, the pot may yet be more beautiful than it was before."
"How can you be so certain of that?"
In lieu of a response, Luise Henriette rose, walked over to a side table, and picked up a small china vessel. She laid it on the side table in front of Gilbert. A bright flash of metal from the vase caught his eye. Intrigued, he looked closer, and saw that the vessel had been shattered once, and reconstituted with veins of molten gold. Awestruck, he stared at the shifting sea of veins that linked the pieces together.
"That," continued the Electress, "is a vase that was shattered by a careless porter whilst he was carrying it to the Dutch trading centre in Japan. The merchant was most apologetic, and offered to have it repaired. No Dutchman in the trading post expected the resulting object to be twice as beauteous as the original. Do you see now, how a mended object may be rendered even more exquisite?"
"...I do not deserve to be repaired in such a fashion."
"Oh yes, you do."
She ruffled his hair and looked at him, a sad sweet smile crossing her face.
"Don't you remember when that minister's wig caught fire at the ball after the marriage? He would have run around like an idiot and set fire to the whole palace if you hadn't grabbed it and stamped it out! And you always give my husband and I fruitful council. Why just the other day, you reminded him that a bridge essential to the passage of goods in the region was still washed out several years after the storm that felled it!"
"Those acts are trifles, compared to my sins."
"How dare you deny the goodness in your heart, when I saw you salve the wounds of the poor cook's boy myself the other day?"
"You're not going to burn me at the stake for curing someone's wound?" How could he stop his voice from breaking into shards like this? He carried burn salves and wound balms on him in his pocket at all times, in case of injury. But he would never dare speak of these medicines to others, for fear they would accuse him of witchery.
She stared angrily at him. "Mark my words now, Gilbert Beilschmidt. No one and nothing deserves to burn."
"I'm glad you said that. There's been way too much burning happening as of late."
"I agree completely."
A brief, complicit silence passed between them. Then the Electress abruptly remembered something. "By the way, I personally dismissed that cook for what he did to the boy."
Gilbert saw the indignation in her eyes and could easily picture her descending into the smoky kitchen herself, gesturing imperiously to the one responsible, the sheer volume of her voice making the normally boisterous kitchen staff freeze in astonishment.
But that man was a common abuser, not an irredeemable man like him.
"Are you really not going to burn me?"
The Kurfürstin looked at him sharply. "Never. Botanical knowledge is a rare and precious thing. By the way, how did you come by knowledge of those salves you used on the cook's boy? I have been down to the kitchen myself to inspect his wounds, and they are healing exceptionally well."
"I don't know. I don't know-" He began to shake. "Their recipes were just there, one day, in my head."
"Oh." said Luise quietly. "So that is how you came to antique knowledge. Not by study, but suddenly, as though by divine inspiration."
"It wasn't divine-"
Please make it stop-
He could still hear their taunts clear as had they been said the same day, witch boy, they called him, womanish conjurer-
"Perhaps not divine, yes. But still, this homespun muse whispered good words and true into your ear. The kitchen boy's wounds are closing much faster than they would have otherwise. You see? Even that pagan part of you has become your own, and you have used its skills in the service of that most Christian virtue, charity."
Before Gilbert's eyes, her figure suddenly dissolved into bright patches of colours, as if she had become one of the luxurious still-life paintings her birth-nation was known for.
"Christ will ensure your salvation even if you think yourself irredeemable. He has forgiven you, so you must forgive yourself, and allow yourself to be good."
Forgive yourself. Forgiveness had never lain in his hands, only in those of the Church and his masters. And she had just swept away all the authority they once held over his soul, like a fresh-faced, cheerful maidservant cleaning house. He realized there was something on his face. He felt it and his fingers came back wet.
"You're touching your face with sticky fingers, you naughty boy." Her voice was right by him. "Give me your hands."
He held them out and felt a damp cloth firmly scrub them clean, making sure to wipe between the fingers. She dipped the cloth again, wrung it out, and cleaned his face.
"You really are quite beautiful," he heard her say. "Please, try to honour what God has given you and don't wear those dirty rags any more."
"Is that why you put me on show like that?" he croaked.
"Cleanliness makes a man attractive, whether he be clothed or unclothed," said Luise Henriette putting the wash cloth away. "That was what I intended to demonstrate."
Gilbert felt very tired all of a sudden. He stood up, reeled and tried to catch himself on the edge of the table but ended up grabbing the Kurfürstin's skirt by accident, and they both went down in a heap.
His hands scrabbled, trying to find purchase on the floor. "I'm so sorry-"
Her slim hand came down on his head. "No need. No need. Stay where you are. You may cry as long as you want, Bertje. Crying is not a sin by any means, no matter what you may think."
Gilbert's face gradually softened as he buried his face in her skirts. He was cold, so cold, just like he was whenever the fray had ended and the fire singing his veins had snuffed out, leaving only exhaustion.
"Thank you- Thank you- I'm sorry- So tired-"
"Of course you are," said Luise. "To confront one's own inner demons is by far the most exhausting task one can ever undertake. You've fought well today, you know."
Somehow, those words held more weight, more warmth to them than the praise of the Grandmasters ever had. Gilbert clung to her waist and sobbed wildly. He wanted more of it. He wanted to be safe, to not be beaten, to be free of the voices of those who mocked him for his nature.
Electress Luise Henriette of Brandenburg, Duchess in Prussia, sat on the floor and stroked the fledgeling nation's hair until tears finally gave way to sleep.
Then putting up her arm to signal her servant, the Kurfürstin ordered: "Find someone who can carry him, quietly, mind you, back to his quarters."
She looked back down at Gilbert as the waiting-woman rushed off. "Sleep well," she whispered, ruffling his forehead. "There will be time enough for you to grow and learn again tomorrow."