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A Pardonable Weakness

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On arriving in Küstrin in June of 1731, Gilbert immediately went to the council chambers. The council was currently in session, so he let himself into the chamber as quietly as possible after explaining circumstances to the guards outside.

The council members were currently debating the most efficient method of draining some swampland for farming purposes.

Frederick sat at the end of the room by a separate table, furiously scribbling down notes on a piece of paper. He wore a plain brown frock coat and his hands were stained with ink.

The prince looked up ever so briefly when he heard the door and Gilbert thought he caught a flash of glad recognition in his eyes. But then he immediately snatched another sheet of paper from the quire of pages to his left, dipped his pen, and continued writing.

Gilbert found he was quite glad to finally see a more quiet emotion on the lad's face.

 


 

When he had last seen them in the fortress jail of Küstrin, those eyes had been filled with terror, like a doe cornered by hounds. But no doe had eyes in that unsettling shade of sky blue.

As they had closed in a dead faint on witnessing the final hour of his beloved companion Katte, Gilbert had been there to catch him. He had been there to put his arm around his shoulders as the lad sat staring blankly out the window at the site of his friends' execution. The preacher came in at intervals, but Frederick was delirious and spoke only of Katte between his tears, flinging himself against Gilbert's breast and sobbing after he read the testament of his friend.

Night came, and the lad lay on his cot but still would not sleep. Gilbert saw that clearly from his silent vigil in the chair across from his bed. He had been ordered not to let him out of his sight for twenty four hours following Katte's death. Frederick William wanted a full report on his son's condition.

He wanted to know if he had succeeded in breaking him.

Gilbert grimaced involuntarily as he sat there, his back against the cold stone wall. For he knew intimately that such tactics would not work on the prince. His old Masters had also once tried to bend him to their will, but they had only succeeded in changing the public face he displayed to them, in making him bury that-of-which-they-disapproved so deeply that none could see it.

Deep in the darkness of the chapel walls.

He shivered. One shouldn't dwell on such things. Better by far to take action, do what one should rather than what one must.

Prussia stood up and walked over to the lad. He said nothing, merely grasped him by his shoulders and raised him up into a sitting position. The prince's eyes were utterly blank and his hair was dishevelled.

Still holding him, Gilbert sat down at the head of the bed. Then slowly, he laid Frederick to rest with his head across his lap. Stroking his face and hair absentmindedly, he began to sing.

Salve, Regina

Not a lullaby, which he had never heard as a child,

Mater misericordiæ

but the hymn he had intoned with his fellow brothers before retiring each day,

vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.

in a fortress whose stones burnt hot and cold

Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ,

under the unrelenting skies of the Holy Land.

Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes

Now, no other voices remained to complement his in harmony.

in hac lacrimarum valle.

But the roof of the cell was high,

Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos, misericordes oculos ad nos converte.

and those ancient words

Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,

echoed beautifully

nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.

on the stones of the fortress.

O clemens,

He did not know if the Virgin could hear him.

O pia,

He did not know if she ever had.

O dulcis

But if he could not be saved, he prayed that at least, the suffering lad across his knees should know peace someday.

Virgo Maria.

He looked down and saw the frail prince had closed his eyes in sleep. Gilbert gazed down at him, and wondered if he had ever looked so small and weak. The delicacy of Frederick's eyelashes and slightly parted lips made him feel as though he carried an angel in his lap.

Gilbert remained seated as he let himself doze off. Best not to move him now, else he might wake the prince.

When dawn broke on the fortress of Küstrin, the lad stirred in his lap. He awoke immediately, saw Frederick was rubbing his face. He looked straight up at Gilbert and his eyes caught fire in the first light of the sun.

In that moment, Gilbert felt as though his side had been pierced by a flaming arrow. My God, he's beautiful.

The prince reached up to touch his face. Gilbert took the lad's hand in his and kissed it. Carefully, Frederick sat up and kissed him back on his cheek. "Thank you," he whispered.

"I am to report back on your condition to the King your father, so this much is only natural."

Frederick played with a stray lock of his hair and smiled absently. "You have done far more than my father would have allowed, I think. For that, you have my heartfelt thanks."

"Oh, come now. I only did as I felt was right."

"And for this, you are far better than my father ever was."

"...Thank you."

They both stood. The hour advanced. Soon, Müller the pastor would return to ensure the salvation of the prince's eternal soul.

Frederick stared up at Gilbert with infinite loneliness in his eyes and then hugged him fiercely.

"My pale light in the darkness," he muttered into the taller man's vest.

He was still versifying after all he'd just been through. Gilbert felt tempted to laugh. The lad was incorrigible. He drew the prince's thin body close and held him as long as he could, held Frederick the way no one had ever held him when he emerged from his own torment.

And then, he'd left, feeling rather than seeing the regret in the lad's eyes.

 


 

When the council session ended, Frederick stood up and gathered his papers into a leather envelope. Then he waved at Gilbert to come forward, and introduced him to the two youngest council members, who had remained behind as the others filed out.

"Allow me to present to you Gilbert Beilschmidt, the Incarnation of this industrious kingdom. Gilbert, these are Wilhelm von Rohwedell and Karl Dubislav von Natzmer, two junior council members that do double duty as my companions in this town."

After the somewhat overawed gentlemen had exchanged greetings with Gilbert, Frederick continued: "It has been quite some time since I last saw Gilbert, and I wish to speak with him alone. He will also be staying at my house for a while." he looked to the Incarnation for confirmation on saying this, which Prussia quickly gave with a nod of his head. "I shall therefore spend some time showing him the town and my house, and you are to come an hour later for supper. I shall inform the cook."

Gilbert followed him out after the two councilmen had left, retrieving his horse from the stables and leading it rather than riding it. Frederick went to and from the council chambers on foot, and he wanted to speak with him, not ride above him.

They walked in silence through the streets of Küstrin until they reached the riverbank. Having brought Gilbert through a city gate and onto a bridge leading to the mainland, Frederick stopped roughly halfway and looked down into the murky waters. Gilbert ensured his mount was out of the way of traffic as much as possible and joined him, still holding the reins since there were no posts to tie a horse on a bridge.

For a while, they contemplated the landscape in silence. Only a few merchants with their mule carts and fishwives carrying empty baskets away from market passed by as they stood there. None thought to remark on the presence of what, ostensibly, was merely an officer recently assigned to the garrison and his friend, a plainly dressed official of the town.

"I must thank you again for being so kind to me in the hour of my distress at the fortress." the prince spoke French, as he always did with friends.

"Oh come now, that was nothing." the disused language sprang to Gilbert's tongue with greater ease than he had thought possible. Was it his implicit understanding with this child, who was as pale and beaten as he once had been, which gave ease to his speech?

"No, it was more than that. I am no friend of hymns ordinarily, but those words you sung to me procured me great comfort." The prince only very rarely used the informal tense when referring to someone, so Gilbert knew his words were genuine.

Gilbert had to look away. "I have known many who did not receive solace in the hour of their crisis. I did not want you to be one of them."

Frederick smiled, and Gilbert was reminded of how exquisite that expression was on the prince's face. Then the lad's expression darkened abruptly. "As usual, I suppose my father sends you to report on my condition."

"Correct." He glanced over at the prince. "I see nothing bad to report thus far. And I suspect there will not be any incident worth noting during my stay."

The lad turned away from him briefly. Gilbert had tried to be as reassuring as he could, but it was clear that the prince's court-bred paranoia had only sharpened due to recent events. He would need further assurances before he believed Gilbert this time.

"Do you remember when you taught me to play the flute?"

 


 

Frederick had been sixteen. Once again, he had escaped from his father's stag hunt to play his instrument while sitting under a tree. Gilbert had been sent to go find him by the king. And when he had, the lad had looked up defiantly. "I remember you were always so nice to me as a child. Why must you become my tormentor now?"

"Your father rules over me."

"And? What of it? Have you not your own desires? Are you not both man and nation?" He stepped forward and gently offered him his flute. "Here. Try to play a note."

Gilbert goggled at him incredulously.

Frederick reached out and touched Prussia's hands. "Your fingers are long and fine, so delicate when they do not hold a weapon. A ruler who understands only war is detestable. Surely, an Incarnation whose mind is formed on the same lines can be said to be equally inept."

"That's laughable."

Gilbert had learned to sing long ago, had harmonies and notation pounded into his head by rote until he understood them on a fundamental level he could not even express in words. But a Knight of God was not meant to sound instruments, so he had never learned to play one.

"Not at all. Only once you have mastered both the arts of peace and war can you truly laugh at those who do not understand." Frederick thrust the flute at Gilbert's face. The Incarnation was a head taller than him, but his face showed no fear, only anger. "You despise the tools of peace so much, then? Is this object poison to your touch?"

He was no longer a knight, though. So what was there to fear? Gilbert snatched the instrument from him and stared at it. What, indeed? The wrath of the prince's father, perhaps. But surely even he could not control everything said and done in his kingdom. Gilbert closed his eyes and felt organ players, ladies learning harpsichord, lute and guitar strummers both male and female, chamber orchestras with blow-instruments and stroke-instruments. Why did the German words for woodwinds and string instruments always have to sound so lewd? But anyways, regardless of whether the orchestra director was hanky panky-ing his first violin backstairs or not (in one case, he certainly seemed to be), there were countless musicians even in a sterile kingdom like his. He decided to give this flute a try.

Frederick cocked his head. "Well? Go on."

The first noise he managed to produce from it was a piercing shriek that must have scattered all the birds in the immediate vicinity. Frederick doubled over with hilarity but quickly recovered and gave Gilbert some pointed advice on how to position his lips on the mouthpiece. Once Prussia managed to summon a relatively even tone, he moved on to showing him the fingerings. He was so intent in teaching Gilbert that the passage of time would have been forgotten had the Incarnation not noted that the shadow of the tree behind him had changed position.

"We have to go," he said handing back the flute to Frederick. "I'll say you led me a merry chase." He paused. "I'm sorry if you are punished as a result of this."

Frederick grimaced. "I have endured worse. No matter. We have made good progress for today. I shall have to find an excuse to visit you again and continue these lessons." He swung onto his horse. "Who knows? Perhaps we shall shoot a fine buck on the way back and pacify my father by bringing it to table."

Unfortunately, no buck was spotted, but they did espy a doe, which Gilbert took down, knowing the prince's hatred of the hunt. But when addressing Frederick William, he attributed the kill to Frederick, and said that the lad had wandered off in search of his own prey. The story passed muster, and Frederick was not punished, to the relief of both.

Thereafter, whenever Frederick's father was absent but contrived to surveil his activities by leaving Gilbert behind, the latter would instead be frantically engaged in learning to play what he sometimes referred to as a most irascible instrument. He'd first taken the flute from Frederick's hands in a fit of pique, but found that the instrument intrigued him, and Frederick's lessons were not punctuated by blows, as had been the case when he'd learned to sing in the castle choir as a child.

Frederick, indeed, proved a very good teacher, though still prone at times to youthful tantrums when Gilbert was slow to understand some technical point. The lessons became their shared secret, a brief interval of peace in a terrible world.

And when Frederick finally invited him to perform a duet accompanied by his sister Wilhemine on the lute, he acquitted himself to the prince's utter satisfaction.

 


 

"Yes, I remember," said Frederick, eyes lost in thought.

"Would you like to get lost in a glade with me again?"

The prince grinned. "No need. The dignitaries of this town fill their boredom with concerts, at which I am a regular instrumentalist. You are welcome to join me if you like. Have you your flute with you?"

He did indeed, packed at the very bottom of his horse's left saddlebag. He grinned back and nodded at Frederick. "How the hell has this news not reached the ears of your lord father?" Frederick was technically still forbidden to play music at all.

"After recent events, it seems that the good folk of this town would now rather protect me than see me suffer. How admirable they are! Can you feel the virtue in their souls when you close your eyes?"

"That's a very self-centred definition of virtue."

"Oh shut up. The people here are simple, but kind. I am grateful for their shelter, but their small world begins to bore me." He grabbed Gilbert's hand and kissed it. "Oh, I am so happy to have you here! Now my evenings will be much less boring."

"I really don't think I'm that good at witty conversation."

"Nonsense. You know Latin, which I was never permitted to learn. You can see the subtle nuance of antiquity's wisdom that I fail to perceive. How could such a one as you ever be boring?" A pale pink flush spread over Frederick's face.

Such praise for his hyperborean Latin was unexpected, especially from the prince, already a highly developed intellectual at the precocious age of nineteen. A sudden warmth spread over Gilbert's cheekbones, and he realized to his confusion that he was also blushing.

Then a giant wagon train filled with supplies for the fortress garrison rumbled onto the bridge, and both abruptly realized they were quite liable to be flattened if they didn't move out of its way.

Gilbert reacted first, immediately swinging onto his horse. Leaving his feet out of the stirrups, he shouted: "Get on behind me!"

The prince ran over and jumped up behind him using the stirrups, nearly losing one of his heeled shoes in the process. Then Gilbert snapped the reins and they were off, Prussia letting his horse run full-tilt for the gate and Frederick laughing and clutching his belly from behind. He did not stop his horse until reaching a side street that branched off in the opposite direction to the fortress, letting the wagons rumble by as he reigned the chestnut in, dismounted, and offered his hand to Frederick.

Springing down with practised ease, the lad hugged him tightly, still laughing all the while. "Oh, how I have missed you, Gilbert! Life here in Küstrin has been so infinitely dull. When I write to thank my father for sending you to see to my well-being, the thanks I send will be genuine."

Gilbert hugged him back and tousled his hair. "Your father dislikes when you take too much pleasure in anyone's company, so please don't be overenthusiastic when you write that letter."

"Of course not. For those letters, I have perfected a tone of perfect mediocrity and servility to pacify his spirit in every respect."

Frederick pulled away and held Gilbert's arms in his hands. "Come. Let me show you my residence, such as it is."

They walked side by side the rest of the way to Frederick's house, the prince chatting all the way. As he recounted yet another amusing incident that had occurred on one of his musical nights in the townhouse of a privileged man, Gilbert could not help but interrupt: "It seems you no longer despise my people."

"No, I don't. I have felt nothing but amity and sympathy from them since arriving here, and I have seen how the lower classes toil from the reports made to the council. It has made me very desirous to better their lot."

"Thank you."

"Whatever for?"

"A compliment to them is a compliment to me, you know."

"...Oh." Frederick reddened again and abruptly returned to his story of a councilman's wife who had broken wind on sitting down at the harpsichord, accident which the prince endeavoured to conceal as a mistake made by him while warming up on the flute.

On arriving at the front door of the townhouse, a sober but richly dressed person burst out of it all a-flutter. "Your Highness, wherever have you been? It is now much past the hour you generally arrive for supper, and neither von Rohwedell nor von Natzmer have yet come by to inform me of your whereabouts!"

Frederick threw a look at Gilbert, which seemed to say: You see what I have to put up with?

Then he turned to the flustered man, and spoke: "My dear von Wolden, allow me to present Gilbert Beilschmidt, our nation's Incarnation, sent here by my father to enquire about my well-being. I told the young gentlemen I would be showing him something of the town, and that we would consequently dine an hour later. Please inform the cook that he and his staff may take somewhat more leisure than usual in preparing the supper, and to stretch the meat serving for another guest. If I am not mistaken, only a half-hour since my usual arrival time has passed." He pulled out his watch from his waistcoat and verified that this was true. Satisfied, he put it back and finished: "I would not wish the meat to grow cold merely because it was prepared too early."

The flustered palace martial rushed back inside to inform the kitchen staff post-haste. Taking advantage of his brief absence, Frederick turned to face Gilbert again. "My Hofmarschall is obliged to report on all my comings and goings to my lord father, so you can see that your presence here on the King's behalf is actually quite superfluous. But far from being onerous, I daresay your presence will triple the gaiety of my staid little life here." He giggled. "I don't think that's what my father had in mind."

"No, but I'll be happy to serve you in that respect. Ah, here comes von Wolden again."

Still extremely flustered, the palace martial took the reins of Gilbert's horse himself and tried to lead him off to the stable. The horse resisted mightily, and Gilbert had to explain: "He's rather fussy. I'll take him if you show me where to go." Von Wolden blanched and handed the reins back. Frederick followed them to the stables, trying desperately to stifle his laughter as he went. He sprung about impatiently as Gilbert undid his saddlebags, impatient to show Gilbert his own horse. "Not the best one I've ever had, but quite reliable, it must be said."

He turned to the Hofmarschall and continued: "I think I am quite capable of touring Gilbert through the house without your aid, von Wolden. I am certain you have other business to still attend to, so would you mind leaving us for the time being? We shall all meet at supper regardless."

Von Wolden looked at Gilbert, at the prince, and back to Gilbert. Frederick cocked an eyebrow. "Your response, von Wolden."

"A-As you wish, your Highness." the martial took himself off and vanished around the house corner faster than Gilbert had thought possible from him.

"As you see, people here are manageable when kept on a tight rein," said Frederick in a manner that uncannily resembled his father. Heaven forbid Gilbert should mention that, though. Besides, the father's admonishments were generally punctuated by blows, which was not the case here.

Inside, the prince showed him the parlour and the dining room. Once they reached the back rooms, Frederick strolled lazily through the chaos in the kitchen until he reached the head cook, of which there was only one in this small establishment. Gilbert followed will ye nil ye through the clouds of steam, aware of the strange looks all the assistants and boys were giving him. To the prince, they paid no heed except to get out of his way, indicating to Prussia that he often visited the kitchens.

Frederick gestured to Gilbert and introduced him to the head cook. "You'll be spending a little more on the supplies from now on thanks to this fellow. My apologies!" he said to him.

This did not seem to be a problem for the good-natured chef. The prince waved goodbye to him as they made their way back out.

As they trod the stair to the upper floors, Frederick explained: "I do the account books for the house and check our funds with him every night. We run a tight little ship here, and I hope that will help to prove to my father that I am more than a wastrel."

"I'm making you spend more money, how irritating for your lord father." Gilbert smirked.

"Oh for your sake, he will allow much. Which means-" Frederick could not resist a grin. "-I am going to have to figure out how to distribute these new funds."

"...Are you double-booking, you scoundrel?"

"Not yet," said the prince affably. Having arrived on the first floor, he indicated to Gilbert the location of his guest room on the right of the staircase. "And to the left, is my bedroom," he continued merrily.

"To lodge on the same floor as you is an honour I do not deserve, Your Highness."

"Nonsense, utter nonsense. You, more than many others, deserve to stand on level ground with me."

"Even if I far overreach your height that way?"

"I was major and then colonel to my father's regiment of giants until I was brought here, so I think I am quite used to people taller than I am by now." The prince was still avoiding any direct mention of his attempted escape from his father, which had led to his imprisonment at Küstrin and Katte's death. It was June now, almost six months later. But Gilbert knew such wounds were not quick to heal, no matter how brave a face Frederick put on.

Opening the door to the right hand room, Frederick stepped inside. The chamber was plain, but well-furnished with an oaken bed, washstand, closet, chamberpot, and writing desk. As Gilbert inspected the room, the prince flopped down on the end of the bed. "This is a real feather mattress. Hope it won't be excessively luxurious for a soldier like you."

"Over time, I've learned to sleep on pretty much anything."

Frederick bounced on the bed once and rushed to the door like an exuberant child. "Come, let me show you my room next!"

It was evident that those responsible for equipping the house had had done their best to provide regal furnishings for the master's bedroom.

Unfortunately, the bed itself, while in French style, had clearly been carved by provincials.

Frederick noted Gilbert's gaze. "Ah yes. The bed is new, it was gifted to me quite recently by the local cabinet makers' guild. I know its style is not perfect, but it is a good solid bed, not given to creaking excessively when one lies down on it." He removed his shoes and demonstrated by flopping down on the counterpane. "Your bed was made by the same folk, and is equally noiseless on the whole."

Gilbert squinted at the roundel on the headboard. It appeared to depict two very lightly draped men of ancient Greek appearance, deep in some sort of debate. The carving, though having none of the mastry of the best French or Italian work, was vigorous. Gilbert had to wonder if the artisan had made some field labourers pose for the musculature of the figures.

"And what is this panel supposed to show?"

From his prone position, Frederick looked up at Gilbert. "The scene from antiquity it depicts is not a common one. It seems one of the cabinet makers is a rather learned man." He scrabbled up on his knees and re-examined the figures for himself. "It is supposed to be Orestes and Pylades debating which of them should die for the crime of stealing a statue of Diana." He stroked the carved musculature of the slightly older figure with a finger absentmindedly. "I was never even given time to debate with Katte..."

"Don't worry. I'm sure the carver and his friends just wanted you to know they thought neither of you was more in the wrong than the other, just like those two men."

The prince brightened. "Why, I hadn't thought of that! How silly of me. I shall sleep more easily under this sigil now."

Gilbert thought back to the many unpleasant hours when Latin was beaten into him by his teachers. But he had reaped the rewards of those lessons when he discovered the Roman treatises on love, which also mentioned these two legendary heroes, in the forbidden stacks of the Patriarch's library in Venice.

How fortunate were those who would suffer the ministrations of the prince's delicate hands under the protection of that legendary scene!

"Are you all right? Your face is quite red." Frederick had stood up on his knees and was quizzically examining him, his face only a hairsbreadth away from Gilbert's.

Prussia drew away in alarm. "Yes, I'm fine. I was just thinking how fortunate you were to have such a sigil, and an attentive valet de chambre besides."

Frederick made a displeased expression. "Oh, him. The man is attentive, but also boring and unassuming, just like everyone else my father hand-picked to be my attendants in this house."

He caught Gilbert's hands again and looked earnestly up at him. "That is why I am so happy to have you here, Gilbert. You are the only light in the obscurantist darkness of this dreadfully dreary town."

"Am I really so amusing?"

"Ha! You think yourself uninteresting, but how could anyone who has lived as long as you be boring?"

"...You flatter me overmuch, Highness."

"Not in the slightest. But we are alone, so you must call me Frederick, as I call you Gilbert without adding Monsieur before it." He looked earnestly up at him.

"We are best of friends, are we not?"

Gilbert looked at him and thought of the emotion he had glimpsed ever so briefly in those strange eyes when they opened at dawn's first light in the fortress cell. "Friends," Frederick said. But the friendship embodied by the two Greeks carved on that roundel carried more than one nuance in the expression of its sentiment. To which was he referring? He thought of the young, pathetic body he had held in his arms. Surely this was not the time to be internally debating about subtleties of feeling. The prince was desperate for someone, anyone, with whom he could converse freely and without fear. And companionship was something he was only too glad to give to such an uninhibited fellow as Frederick.

"Yes, we are. Now we should go to dinner, before your Hofmarschall has an apoplectic fit."

 


 

The following days and weeks passed quite pleasantly, all in all.

In the morning, Gilbert would break his fast together with Frederick, accompany him to the council chambers, and return home. Before supper, he would generally engage in a spirited gallop to the riverbank with Frederick, accompanied by von Rohwedell and von Natzmer.

Once arrived, Frederick would summarily dismount and engage each of them in conversation in turn, generally on questions concerning land management and politics. Then it was back to the house for supper and bed.

With their inevitable proximity on a same floor came a growing intimacy between Frederick and Gilbert. The old soldier was generally the first to wake. Since Frederick generally liked to indulge in lying abed past appointed hours, the impatient Incarnation had quickly acquired a habit of slamming open Frederick's door and pulling off the covers of his bed.

The third time he had done so, he'd had the lamentably predictable misfortune of catching the prince in a state of nighttime arousal.

Gilbert had gone red and immediately turned around, then wondered why he'd even blushed in the first place. Such nocturnal activity did not even indicate that lascivious dreams had taken place. It was merely a natural occurrence, and indeed, it was the absence of such activity in the nighttime that should be seen as a sign of bodily degeneration.

"Apologies," he'd said without turning around. "Next time, I shall make sure to only pull down the covers halfway."

"Fear not, I forgive you, Gilbert," came the answer. "If I were to trust anyone to tear off my covers with the utmost discretion, it would be you."

Frederick's intrusions into Gilbert's room, meanwhile, were much more sporadic, though they were generally also brought on by impatience. And on occasion, they too were replete with small glimpses of the indiscreet.

One morning, Gilbert did not awake Frederick in his usual brusque manner. So Frederick immediately decided to return the favour and merrily slammed open the door to his bedroom, only to be confronted with the unexpected sight of Gilbert turning angrily to face him with his undershirt still unbuttoned. He strode forward and leaned into the prince's face, pronouncing: "I, am, hungover. Some of the councillors took me out for drinks last night. Now go and tell one of the kitchen staff to make me some peppermint tea. I'll be right down."

Frederick found it exceedingly difficult to concentrate on remembering his words, since the lower angle of his eyes afforded him a direct view of the pure white hairs on Gilbert's chest. He backed away, cheeks bright red, and fled out the door.

Another time, he'd had another glimpse, more fleeting still, of other hairs that grew further, much further down Gilbert's torso, as the man in question yelled and threw a hand towel at him. "I'm on the chamber pot!" he'd shouted, and Frederick had skittered to close the door. The usual unyielding self-control he'd made his own had taken much longer to summon than was his usual wont as he'd leaned against the door to Gilbert's bedchamber and breathed heavily.

But these were only brief incidences that served to punctuate the general monotony of their existences. Personally, Gilbert did not mind such monotony at all, having generally lived a routine, monastic life for the first three centuries of his existence. But he could see how it chafed at Frederick's soul. So he did his best to ensure that they visited local dignitaries to play at evening concerts in their parlours as often as possible. It was the least he could do, since there was no way he could directly procure books for the bored prince without attracting attention.

When in attendance at these concerts, the prince generally insisted on staying a while after the music-making ended. This was so he could copy down the flute bars from any sheet-music they had and practice for future occasions. He detested imperfections in his performances, and would often break his nightly bedtime curfew of nine o'clock at night to invite Gilbert over to help him practice.

One such night, despite working himself to the point of exhaustion, it was clear that Frederick's heart was not in the matter. Gilbert didn't press the issue per se. Instead, he simply refused to continue playing after a few hours.

Frederick put down his flute and looked over at Prussia. "You are perceptive as always, my Nation. Very well. We will talk."

Gilbert had sat down in a wooden chair he'd brought over from his room. Frederick dragged over his own desk chair, and seated himself facing him. He opened his mouth, clearly seeking to ask permission for what he was about to say. Gilbert stopped him with a wave of his hand. "You are always at liberty to say what you wish in my presence, Frederick."

The prince looked down at his hands, swallowed, looked up. Quite suddenly, his eyes filled with tears.

"Hey. Hey, what's wrong?"

But there was to be no immediate answer forthcoming, for only strangled sobs emerged when Frederick opened his mouth, which he tried desperately to stifle with his fist.

Gilbert stood up loudly and violently, not even caring if anyone heard him in the rooms above. He packed the prince into his arms and held him tightly.

Eventually, the lad's tormented cries quieted. Still burying his face in Gilbert's vest, he mumbled:

"Ever since Katte died, I am not certain that I will truly ever know love again."

Gilbert let him go and searched in his pockets for a clean handkerchief. He gestured that Frederick should use it, and waited to answer him until after he'd wiped his face and blown his nose thoroughly. Then he said:

"Don't be stupid. Plenty of people love you."

"How can you be certain of that?"

"Oh, so it's empirical proof the philosopher wants. You want me to show you? You want me to demonstrate that people still love you?"

A strange, rapidly suppressed expression came into Frederick's eyes, the same attitude he'd worn on awakening that morning in the fortress cell. But it was quickly replaced with incredulity.

"...Is such a thing possible for you?"

"Yes. But to lay bare the souls of those I encompass to a mere mortal is a feat not undertaken lightly."

"What does it involve?"

"Trust, a certain degree of closeness between man and Incarnate, and...physical contact. We are already sufficiently close. So remains only the problem of trust, and whether you consent to my touch."

Frederick took both of Gilbert's hands in his. "I trust you above and beyond almost anyone. Touch me, so that I may no longer fear the darkness of a night spent alone."

The expression in Gilbert's eyes was ineffable. "Then close your eyes, so that my sorcery can take its full effect."

Frederick did so.

Gilbert took one deep shuddering breath, and when he exhaled it, nothing remained in him of the polite courtier who gave way to oncoming traffic.

It was with pure, violent, terrifyingly honed instinct that he bestowed the kiss of knowledge. Frederick's lips were so young, so tender, so eager to please. Gilbert wet them with his tongue and slipped beyond them, penetrating his mouth. Tentatively, carefully, the prince also let his tongue slip past Gilbert's teeth. He shook as Prussia unveiled the secrets of his being to his beloved.

Tens of thousands of myriad fires that glowed in the darkness, ringing the central flame of his soul like a cloud of stars. And so, so many of them afire with love for a neglected boy. Men and women of the court who truly loved and cared about him, good husbands and wives of the people who worried about him (that poor child), boys who secretly had crushes on him. His beloved sister Wilhemine, who thought of him day and night. His tutor Duhan, who sent up prayers for him in his exile. His aged nurse Mme de Roucoules, who kept a sharp ear on court gossip for any news of him. Old general Dessauer, who figured that with some polish, he might someday be as great a master of war as his old commander Prince Eugène. Might be just as great of a sodomite too, but who was he to give judgement on such matters? As long as they were upright and honourable, men should be left for the judgement of the good Lord alone.

Gilbert's lips were sticky when they gently retreated from Frederick's. He inhaled again, shuddered, and asked: "Do you see now?"

Eyes still closed, Frederick could barely summon a nod.

"There are always people out there who care for you."

"Yes. Thank you, Gilbert. Yet what-"

But when Frederick opened his eyes, he saw that Gilbert had already left the room, leaving him with equal measures solace and confusion roiling in his soul.

 


 

That night, after retiring, Gilbert lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to dissect his feelings for the man who slept next door. As a child who was starved and beaten all too often himself, he had nothing but sympathy for the prince. He just wanted him to be happy, social conventions be damned. Philosophers in these days spoke of natural laws, to which the laws of humans often stood in opposition. The one sleeping next door to him surely knew enough of what those people said to ignore the strictures of the tonsured and find his own contentment.

And surely, that contentment did not involve him. The very idea of an Incarnation lying with their leader or rather leader-to-be was absolutely ridiculous. Gilbert closed his eyes and waited for sleep to come. He had delighted in the company of many humans to date, but to sleep with the one who gave you orders was unthinkable.

Oh is it really now?

His eyes started open. But the strange voice inside his mind spoke no more than this. After a while, he decided to attribute what had happened to a momentary lapse of reason brought on by fatigue, and closed his eyelids once more.

He fell into a doze, and visions came to him in his half-sleep. He saw a man, crowned with flowers, moss and lichen, who slipped off his cloak. Underneath, he was naked, painted with the colours of the earth.

Bowing low, he made a gesture of obeisance with one hand. Gilbert took that hand and kissed it. The man pronounced: "Let the Land enter into me, let it know that I am good." And Gilbert kissed him on the lips, and took him into the sacred grove, and entered him with infinite care, poured out his people's joy into his new chief.

Another time, it was a woman who stood crowned before him, who kissed him ardently, who let the Land enter her in the grove, who rode him, urged him to give up the flood of the land's rejoicing.

The painted faces of these leaders of men blurred in his mind, replaced by the fresh memory of a youth. A thin face, eyes of unfathomable blue that now held the warmth of a rare unclouded sky in summer.

Gilbert's eyes snapped open. That hadn't been a dream. Those had been memories. The youth's pale face still swam before his eyes, and he batted it away in irritation. Then full awareness of his body returned, and with it, the awareness of bodily functions.

"Shit."

He tore off his covers, his nightclothes, and inspected himself. A few last dribbles oozed out of him, and he was forced to deal with an unpleasant realization: the moment of catharsis had come for him in his sleep at precisely the instant when he'd remembered the face of the lad- no, man, sleeping next door.

His body was behaving like he was still an adolescent in first flush back in the strongholds of the Order. And the object of his desire was-

"Shit. Shit, shit SHIT."

Gilbert blasphemed vehemently as he cleaned himself with the towel on the washstand. While he worked, he tried to distract himself from reality by reflecting on the content of the rest of his reverie. Who were those painted phantoms who made love to him? He felt sure that all he had seen in his dream-like state were memories conjured up in his mind, but when had ever done things like that?

Then, as he was sneaking out to wash his nightgown and the towel in the kitchen, it came to him. That those were technically not his memories, but those of Old Prussia, whom he had absorbed into himself.

That which lay buried inside him had spoken to him directly, for the first time in many ages. The enormity of its act was overwhelming. Engaged in the mundane pursuit of scrubbing his garment clean with caustic soap, his mind wandered elsewhere at will.

"What are you doing?"

Frederick's voice behind him snapped Gilbert back to reality. He turned from where he knelt at the wash bucket, washboard in one hand, nightgown in the other. Too late, he remembered he was naked and could not exactly put the wet nightshirt back on.

For five interminable seconds, Frederick's nightgowned silhouette stared at Prussia.

Gilbert's pose as he knelt at the washtub was so insouciant and somehow girlish that it took his breath away. A fair laundress this one!

The moonlight that poured in from the rough glass in the kitchen window consecrated his fair skin. Diana's rays had found her pale Endymion this night.

Yet prints of Endymion he had seen depicted him of far smaller and more boyish aspect, when what lay before him was a man in full. Surely no ancient writ had spoken of the scars woven across that powerful back. As a rule, the heroes of antiquity were perfect, unmarked. But perhaps some rough epic of the German peoples or the Slavs would describe with unvarnished words the strange beauty of those lacerations.

He put a finger to his lips and remembered the earthy taste of Gilbert's mouth when they had kissed. As his tongue drunk deep of him he had felt neither the curséd sand of his own realm nor the rich loam of Saxony, but the dense, musky tea of a peat bog. Wild, uncontrollable, and with an irrepressible vitality that could swallow men whole.

As he stared at the pale shell-like pink of Gilbert's lips, and marvelled at their seeming innocence, he wondered: how many men have you taken into you, Gilbert? How many flattered themselves in thinking they could dominate you thus, realizing too late that you are an eater of men, an ancient forest god who has had the blood of thousands of soldiers sacrificed to you?

Frederick hardly dared glance further down, at that instrument of fear and reverence. He had laughed on first learning that Greeks and Romans employed the phallus as a talisman against evil. But now, he gazed upon the body of a god-like being and felt fear and desire set his loins afire in riotous confusion. He felt madness swell over him like a baccante in the presence of Dionysus. He thought that he would willingly slay anyone who tried to take this man, this Nation, away from him.

Since when had he felt this way? Since Gilbert had let him caress the souls of his people through his burning lips?

No, further back yet, when Gilbert had held him so tenderly in his confinement, when he had awoken to the sight of that austere face, seen the strange fire in those blue eyes as they contemplated him, irises luminous like the aging sky in an Old Master's painting.

The flood of emotions coursing through him threatened to overwhelm Frederick. The prince opened his mouth, straining to keep his voice even.

"I had meant to ask you this for a long time, but never found a chance to do so."

Gilbert looked away and vigorously continued scrubbing the nightshirt.

"When you...showed me the many loves of my people, I saw the fires of their souls. But what was that great central pyre I glimpsed between the shadowy flames? The love in it burned so brightly I ached to embrace it."

Prussia briefly stopped scrubbing. Shit. While he'd been concentrating on conveying the will of his people, Frederick had skipped past them to contemplate his own soul.

"Whose soul is that? Tell me! I must know! Surely if I meet the owner of that spirit, my love will reach greater heights untold!"

Gilbert grabbed a pail of fresh water, rinsed the shirt and left it over a chair, then picked up the washtub and threw away the water outside.

Still naked, he returned and walked straight at the prince until only an inch of space separated them. He leaned in and the expression on his face was unfathomable as he said: "Do you really want to know the truth?"

Frederick's eyes were steady. "I do."

Gilbert sighed. "That, was none other than my own soul's fire."

Delight and desire fused on the prince's face and he closed the gap between them with a kiss.

His mouth on Gilbert's was desperate in its urgency. Prussia reciprocated only with care at first, but soon found he had to redouble his efforts to keep up with the other man.

Then Frederick broke off with a gasp and buried his head in the fine hairs on Gilbert's chest.

"I knew it since I saw you that morning in my cell," he muttered. "Why did you keep yourself from me so long?"

The taller Incarnation put his arms around him. "I thought such behaviour improper."

"Oh bother propriety! I love my strange forsaken country more than I can say. How happy I am that I can finally manifest that love in the physical realm."

He stepped back and contemplated Gilbert in full once more.

"My pale god, my willow switch that castigates."

The words came slowly to him, thick with passion.

"I give myself to you entirely, if you will agree to have me."

"Let us feel joy together."

Joy.

Gilbert felt Francis' lazy smile behind that French word, for it referred to the joy he delighted in most.

He smiled, nodded, let his tongue penetrate that sweet poet's mouth as he laid hands on Frederick under his nightshirt. Frederick's own hands reciprocated with ardour between Gilbert's thighs.

What would Francis think now, of this strange fierceness to which he abandoned himself?

Knowing him, he'd probably applaud and cheer them on.

When they paused to draw breath, Frederick looked up at him and smiled. "Shall we to bed?"

"Given the current state of your father's close surveillance, I don't know if that would be a good idea-" his voice tailed off in a squeak as Frederick reached down and caressed him again.

"Don't be a fool." this time it was he who pinned the Incarnation to the wall. "All those who abide here are my creatures now. They will speak of Us as it pleases Us to have them speak."

He desperately clutched Gilbert's thigh with one hand as he continued to stroke him with the other. "Please, Gilbert. Trust me. I will not fail you." He looked down. "How beautiful you are. I fear I must have you here and now else I shall shatter into a thousand pieces. There. The bench. Sit." He gestured imperiously.

At first, Gilbert had no idea what was this impetuous lad was going to do. But then Frederick straddled his thighs and he knew, knew to let his prince settle himself between his legs, glide between them, softly at first, then harder. He clenched his thighs and Frederick hissed as the water of his passion filled the canal of Gilbert's legs.

"My turn." Gilbert laid him sideways on the bench, splayed Frederick's legs, and straddled his waist. As he started to grind, he smiled down at his future ruler's astonished face. "You have prodigious thighs, you know. Don't ever let anyone make fun of them." Frederick's only reply was to grasp his buttocks with his hands and pull him in even closer. Both were already wet from Frederick's first venture, slippery and tactile against one another. There was no resistance in their contact, no restraint, only stickiness, only heat, only pleasure at each others' touch, only the desire to feel each other against each other, over and over again.

As he embraced him Gilbert let his mind fall into a void. Deeper, yes, deeper yet, into the multitude of souls that warmed him, that sustained him, that supported him. Gliding above a million tiny fires, he sought out those who burned bright with ardour.

Here, an elderly widow who was discreetly trying out the new implement she had received from a wood-workers' shop. "Finely carved," they assured her, "and highly lacquered with only the finest materials. Guaranteed not to give you splinters, or your money back." All in all, it was certainly giving her her money's worth more than her late husband (God rest his soul) ever had.

There, two youths attending the university at Halle who took turns bending each other over a table at night, reciting ancient Greek poetry all the while. Shh, lest they catch you, Gil whispered to them in passing.

And in yet another place, a strapping maidservant whose labia were large and strong enough to sustain the passions of her mistress.

A thousand other kisses and passionate moments taken à la dérobée, in stolen moments found in barns and attics, in carriages and in the field. Love in all its infinite variety. Gilbert inhaled their sparks and let them descend between his thighs, offered them to Frederick with his body.

Fragments of memory from the Other he had absorbed rose once more in Prussia's mind, scraps of half-remembered sensations, of soft moss under him and a hard tree behind him as he fucked the new tribal leader into oblivion and back, his relentless rubbing sanctifying the chief in all his limbs, cleansing them with the fire invisible.

When pleasure fountained into joy once more, Frederick collapsed onto the bench. "Oh, what a glorious, magnificent, vit is yours!"

"I'm glad you like it." Gilbert carefully lifted him up and sat him on his lap.

"And I pray its faculties remain undiminished." The prince sunk his lips into Gilbert's impossibly white neck and did not let go until he left a brand of his love behind.

Gilbert smiled and hugged him close. "Thank goodness I can wear a cravat to conceal that."

They sat together on the bench a while longer, bathing in the aftermath of their love. Then Gilbert shivered, and remarked: "Well, time to clean up. Come on, you're helping." The prince looked petulant.

"Oh come now, half of this is your doing. And your nightshirt will have to be washed as well." Seeing Frederick's continued resistance, he delivered an ultimatum: "Help me now, otherwise you're not getting any more of that."

The shorter man sprung into action at these words, running for the rain barrels with a large pail in hand. Gilbert meanwhile fetched more washcloths, soap, and scouring sand. After the prince had delivered several pail loads of water into the washbasin, Gilbert pointed to him. "You clean yourself first. And give me that dirty nightshirt of yours. Oh don't give me that. I think you're lovely and taking your clothes off won't change that."

Frederick turned bright red and grabbed the soap. When he was done, Gilbert threw a towel at him and entered the tub himself. "Don't just stand there. Start scouring the bench, it needs to be pristine. No, not like that-"

Finishing his bath as quickly as he could, Gilbert ran to help the spoilt noble with the task. It was obvious that, unlike him, the prince had never been forced to scrub the castle floors and benches as punishment for various misdemeanours. Under his expert direction, their makeshift latrine patrol managed to make good time in cleaning up the kitchen. Lastly, Gilbert fetched more water and washed the prince's nightshirt.

"Hang it over your headboard, they'll think you had a youthful night accident when they come to wake you."

"What about you?"

"I'm not a noble, and in case you didn't know this, the average farmer still sleeps in the nude. They'll think nothing much of it." Gilbert went to empty the washbasin one last time. When he returned, Frederick was waiting for him, and drew him into one last embrace there on the doorstep.

They lingered awhile like this in the pale moonlight, given up to the simple delight of knowing each other, of feeling each other, skin on skin.

This time it was Frederick who drew away first. "Thank you, again, always, for being my dearest friend."

Gilbert grinned. "Isn't it your duty as future ruler to know your country intimately in all fashions?"

Frederick muffled his giggles in Gilbert's chest. "But you were under no duty to love me, and you did so all the same."

"How could I not? You are more than the sum of your parts in a way that few men are."

The prince leaned up to kiss him one last time. "I love you, Gilbert."

"I love you too. Now off to bed for both of us, and to sleep, because I refuse to wash your sheets in addition to everything I just did."

Frederick chortled, and hand in hand, they walked naked through the house holding their nightgowns, avoiding all creaky floorboards and making it successfully to their goals.