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The Adventure of the Time-Travelling Valet

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The first thing he noticed as he opened his eyes was how utterly free of pain his body felt. After years and years of illnesses and physical agues plaguing him to the point where he sometimes thought the only thing keeping him alive was willpower and the tantalizing knowledge of an unfulfilled task, it was downright intoxicating to feel nothing of the sort. Instead, he breathed as easily as he had done as a young man.

But the point had not been to become young again. That was Saint-Germain's goal, not his. If all he'd managed to do was to rejuvenate his body, it would have been for nothing. Fredersdorf forced himself to look around, half dreading, half hoping.

He wasn't in the laboratory anymore, for starters. No smells of mercury or sulfur, and no walls; instead, he appeared to be in a tent, the kind the army used for officers if there were no quarters to be had at farms or manors. When he looked down on his own body, he saw that he was wearing uniform, which he hadn't done for seventeen years. Not since the funeral.

His heart was hammering. He just might have managed to succeed, but it still could be a cruel jest: what if he'd indeed travelled through time, only to arrive after the day he'd dedicated his life to preventing, not before? Throwing caution to the wind, he got up from the field bed he'd been lying on as quickly as possible, and stepped outside the tent.

Warm spring air engulfed him, but that didn't prove anything yet. What was far more reassuring was this; the tent he'd just stepped out of was firmly placed in the middle of an army camp, and there was a palpable sense of exuberance in the soldiers busying themselves around him. This wasn't an army which had just lost its leader, let alone anything else. This was a camp with victory behind and ahead.

He couldn't ask about the date without sounding suspicious. So he addressed the next soldier who looked even slightly idle and said: "Do you know who I am, fellow?"

The young man looked somewhere between irritated and nervous. "The King's valet, chamberlain and treasurer," he said. "Sir, if I did something wrong, I didn' t mean to."

He'd been a young, nervous soldier himself once, ordered to play the flute for the imprisoned Crown Prince. But he couldn't afford sympathy right now. Instead, he played on the man's nervousness.

"Well, I'm sure those reports about you drinking too much are just slander, then. Let's find out, shall we? Recite me the date. Year, month, day, hour. And then the place, with exact distances to the next town."

"June 7th, year of our lord 1741, five miles to Breslau, Sir!" the poor youngster shouted, drops of sweat now on his forehead. Then he hiccuped, promptly blushing furiously in embarrassment.

It was then that it truly became real to Fredersdorf. For all that he'd spent the last decade, ever since meeting Saint-Germain, in the study of alchemy to achieve just this, there had been a part of him, a sceptical voice sounding achingly like Friedrich's, which told him it just wasn't possible, that this was superstition, not science, and he'd at best manage to produce a drug providing him with hallucinations, not a means to travel back in time. But no conjured up illusion would have added this detail.

He'd done it. Returned to a point when the worst event of his life had not happened yet: when Friedrich, King in Prussia for just a year and a few days at this very moment was still alive.

Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf had to use the discipline of a lifetime not to burst into hysterical laughter.

Fritz was alive. And this time, Fredersdorf would manage to keep him that way.

It had been a day in late August when it happened. Breslau had fallen to them, which meant that Friedrich held most of Silesia now, with only Neisse holding out and remaining unconquerable. His great gamble of using the chaos and uncertainty around the succession of Austria's first female monarch to invade her richest province and take it for his own had paid off. France, not missing the chance to plunder its old enemy Austria, had enthusiastically joined and offered Friedrich a treaty for a fifteen years long alliance in May. Spain, Saxony and Bavaria, each with their own claims on Austrian territory, were following suit. Everyone thought it was only a matter of time before the young Archduchess of Austria, Maria Theresia, would concede. Friedrich, feeling generous, said he was willing to argue with his allies that she could keep the Austrian heartland and Tyrol, if only because he didn't care for his neighbour Saxony to get any more territory, and the Bavarian Duke would become the next Emperor already. They'd talked about how the riches of Silesia would soon fill Prussian coffers and how no King in living memory had managed to enlarge his realm in the first year of his reign.

And then Fredersdorf had returned from an errand to find Friedrich dead in the farmhouse turned royal quarters, with the body of an equally dead subaltern officer next to him. Life had stopped making sense at that point.

As far as they could ascertain, the officer in question had first shot Friedrich, then himself. He was a man from the Baltic sea called Georgii who'd joined the Prussian army only in the previous winter. According to his comrades, he'd been an easy-going fellow. Handsome, too. He'd claimed to have served in the Russian army before, but when Fredersdorf had investigated this claim , the Russians had denied this. They'd still been allies, then; the Czarina, Anna Leopoldovna, had been married to one of Friedrich's Braunschweig brothers-in-law. As maddened with grief and desperate for an explanation as Fredersdorf had been, he couldn't see why the Russians would lie about this, let alone why they should have sent an assassin.

The Austrians, on the other hand, would have had a very good reason, though at the time nobody could see the young Archduchess, who'd given birth only four months previously, organizing the murder of her most dangerous enemy in between labors, and the cabinet she'd inherited from her father consisted of old ministers of state who lacked both the ruthlessness and the imagination to do anything of the sort. In the end, it had been decided that Georgii had been a murderous madman acting alone, and life in Prussia had continued under the rule of Friedrich's younger brother August Wilhelm. August Wilhelm had been willing to keep Fredersdorf in his service - in fact, he'd insisted on it, showing Fredersdorf the letter in which Friedrich had named Fredersdorf as one of the six people he'd loved best and entrusted to his brother and successor in the event of his death - , but while Fredersdorf had tried at first, he'd found himself unable to accept any of this.

Ten years. He'd had ten years with Friedrich, from the moment the young crown prince's eyes first met his to the day he'd found him dead on the floor. Ten years in which the prince had made plans upon plans for the time of his reign, had started to hope and live again after the terrible time of his imprisonment. Ten years, too, of feeling the continued threat posed by Friedrich's father, who for all the public reconciliation with his son could have changed his mind at any point. Ten years of dancing to the old King's tune, of marrying the woman he'd chosen, of submitting to his every whim. And only a year of freedom, a year to spread his wings and fly.

It wasn't that Fredersdorf disliked Friedrich's younger brothers, but addressing August Wilhelm with "Sire" and "Your Majesty" stuck in his throat every time, and the next youngest brother, Heinrich, was his own torment by increasingly resembling Friedrich the older he got. Eventually, Fredersdorf had given up and left royal service altogether . He'd intended to live on the estate Friedrich had given him within a month of his accession to the throne, Zernikow, but this, too, did not last long. An interest in alchemy had seemed a good distraction at first. Then he'd met the alchemist calling himself the Count of Saint-Germain. Fredersdorf didn't know whether Saint-Germain truly was a noble, and he didn't care. What counted was that the man was more than a charlatan. Some of the things he created actually worked. And when he'd spoken of how time was not an almighty foe to the true adept, how it could be circumvented, his words had sparked an idea in Fredersdorf which he could not forget, and eventually ended up devoting everything to.

"Consider," Saint-Germain had told him after they finally managed to distill the potion that altered Saint-Germain's original invention, aiming to prolong life, to one which would send a man's soul back in time to his younger body, "that you might not succeed in what you hope from this. After all, your younger self's soul should still be there. Maybe it will absorb your older self, and you will forget why you returned, and all will happen as it did before. Maybe this isn't even the first time we are doing this."

"I don't care," Fredersdorf had retorted. "This is the first time for me. And I will succeed. I must."

Still, Saint-Germain had a point. He did not feel another consciousness struggling inside him, but anything was possible. Better to act as fast as possible, as long as he still could. Evidently, killing Georgii would be the safest route. There was only one problem with this: Fredersdorf did not believe Georgii had been a lone madman. He'd come out of nowhere, managed to get an assignment near the King, had managed to get him alone and then murdered him. It reeked of organization. And if Georgii had simply been someone else's tool, then killing him would only save Friedrich temporarily, the next assassin might succeed, and Fredersdorf would be back where he started. No, he had to question a living Georgii and find out the truth. But first things first. Removing Georgii from the King's company would keep Friedrich if not safe then safer than he now was, and whoever was behind Georgii would not yet send a replacement as they'd hope he would worm himself back into favour. So no arrest, no, nothing to make anyone suspicious. Just a reposting. But he couldn't just order it himself, despite having control over the King's immediate staff and household, or Georgii might persuade Friedrich behind Fredersdorf's back to reverse these orders. No, Friedrich would have to do it.

Friedrich was just returning from a quick patrol ride when Fredersdorf found him, entering the command tent, joking with his companions. The sight struck Fredersdorf to the heart.

Seventeen years. It had been seventeen years since he'd last seen Fritz, and here the young King was, untouched by the time which had altered everyone else. Young and blazingly alive. Objectively speaking, Friedrich wasn't a handsome man. His face was homely rather than good looking, he'd gained weight in the later part of the previous decade which a few months of campaigning hadn't yet reduced. But if he looked at you with his intense, dark blue eyes, you forgot everything else. Unlike Fredersdorf, who was taller than avarage, Friedrich was medium height at best and might one day, as an old man, even be small. He had to be. He had to have the chance to grow old, Fredersdorf vowed again.

"Sire, may we talk alone?"

Friedrich was surprised, but granted him the privilege. It was all Fredersdorf could do not to hug him the moment everyone else was out of sight. During the life time of Friedrich's father, they had had to be so careful, given not just what had happened to Lieutenant Katte but also to most other people whom Friedrich loved and who weren't protected by nationality or blood. When Fredersdorf had visited Berlin for the first time in the Crown Prince's service, some of the palace servants had seen it fit to tell him about Doris Ritter, a cantor's daughter , who for the privilege of having played music with the Prince a few times had been whipped in public and locked up in the work house as a whore. Fredersdorf had understood the warning, and the times had been rare and few when he'd stepped out of the role of servant. Certainly not when there were any soldiers anywhere nearby. Not until now.

"What is it, Fredersdorf?" Friedrich asked, and Fredersdorf, still fighting the overwhelming urge to touch him, blurted out: "You need to transfer the subaltern Georgii elsewhere, Fritz."

He knew he'd made a mistake as soon as he'd said it. The moment his father the Soldier King had drawn his last breath, Friedrich had made certain no one would ever order him to do anything again, and more than that: that everyone knew he, Friedrich, was the one giving the orders. A lifetime and seventeen years ago, Fredersdorf had understood this. Had been careful to phrase his ideas as unobtrusive suggestions, better yet, as Friedrich's ideas, if he truly wanted to achieve something. Never used the King's name unless they were not just alone, but in circumstances inviting the intimacy. But he'd been a happier, younger man then, not a half mad alchemist almost in reach of his obsession.

Until this moment, Friedrich had smiled at him, but now the King's face transformed. "I don't need to do anything", he said cooly, and after a pointed pause added, "Fredersdorf."

Inwardly, Fredersdorf cursed. He hadn't made such a mistake since the earliest days, when he'd been twenty two and Friedrich nineteen years old. To make it now, with so much at stake! But that was just it. He knew what was at stake, and that made him less careful than he should have been. Not to mention that he was seventeen years out of practice when dealing with Friedrich's moods.

"Of course not, Sire. I apologize. Honestly, it's a bit embarrassing, but I must confess I miss the times when I was your only valet, and subaltern officers in your personal service as bodyguards weren't necessary. It is a weakness, I know, but since the war is as good as over, I thought that perhaps..."

Unfortunately, Friedrich was not only highly intelligent but experienced himself in trying to talk a suspicious monarch around, and that experience had not faded in the less than twelve months he'd been free of it.

"Are you trying to manage me, Fredersdorf?" he asked, starting to sound annoyed now. Then he sighed. "Look, I'm aware things have changed since my ascension. But I kept my promises, didn't I? You're at my side, and you've been richly rewarded for your years of loyal service. However, one thing I certainly did not promise was not to favor anyone else, and I find it not a little presumptuous of you to behave now as if I did. Georgii is a good man. He comes with the highest recommendations, and he's given me no cause to complain so far."

He will kill you in less than three months, Fredersdorf thought. But even if he said it out lout, there was no way Friedrich would believe him. He'd bungled this, and now he had to fix it.

"I'm sure he hasn't, Sire, but there have been some worrying rumors that the Austrians might have managed to place a spy in our midst, and as Georgii 's promotion to your bodyguard has been sudden, I thought..."

"First you claim to feel jealous, and now he's an Austrian spy?" Friedrich interrupted him in disbelief. "Enough of this! What kind of fool do you take me for? As I said, he's come recommended. My dear Suhm has wished me to adopt him into my services, and such a wish from a man whose loyalty to me knew no bounds is sacred. Unless you mean to imply Suhm was working for the Austrians as well before he died?"

This was getting worse and worse. The late Ulrich von Suhm, formerly the Saxon envoy to Berlin and then to the Russian court at St. Petersburg, had been Friedrich's friend since the prince had been sixteen. He'd escaped the late King's wrath solely because he'd been another King's envoy. A highly literate, charming man, Suhm had provided Friedrich with books, money and unlimited adoration until his death in the November of last year, on his way from St. Petersburg to Prussia where Friedrich had summoned him impatiently to his side. In his last will, Suhm had entrusted the guardianship of his three children and the unmarried sister who'd been raising them since the death of Suhm's wife to Friedrich. It was, however, news to Fredersdorf that Suhm should have entrusted Georgii to Friedrich as well. Nothing in Georgii's possession, everything of which had been turned upside down after his death, had given any hint of this, or Fredersdorf would have remembered.

Unless he'd already started to forget his past, as Saint-Germain had speculated he might. The panic which engulfed Fredersdorf couldn't be held back any longer.

"Of course not, but Sire, please, please, you must listen to me. Georgii does not deserve his place at your side!"

"The time for anyone to use the word must when talking to me is over. I think you and I might need a time apart, Fredersdorf", Friedrich said. "From now on, you're not to enter my tent unless I've explicitly requested you to. There were any number of people, my late father included, who thought I'd be the plaything of my favourites once I came to throne, but I really thought you knew better," Friedrich said harshly, turned away and left him behind.

It was a new experience, this: being able to curse the person he'd longed and mourned for such a long time for his sheer pigheadedness, then cursing himself for having handled this like a fool . He'd never have behaved this way as a man of thirty. Wasn't age supposed to make one wiser?

Then again, he had not served anyone for years. He'd single mindedly pursued his own aims.

"I understand grief," Saint-Germain had once told him. "Believe it or not. But have you ever considered you might be better off not serving your prince? Take it from someone who had centuries to observe them: princes are fickle and selfish, even the best of them. You've given yours ten years of your life. Wasn't that enough? To be sure, he raised you higher than most commoners go, but who knows whether he wouldn't have become tired of your service and company now that he was King and could have anyone he wanted. This is how it goes, sooner or later. Put not your trust in princes."

Fredersdorf hadn't replied. Not least because as close as he'd become to Saint-Germain in terms of their alchemical work, there were things he did not share. When he'd entered Prince Friedrich's service, he had of course been aware that this was the future King, and all that could imply for Fredersdorf's own future. On the other hand, he'd also been acutely aware what happened to other people who'd become close to the Crown Prince. Between the beheaded Lieutenant Katte, the whipped and imprisoned Doris Ritter, the hanged in effigy Lieutenant Keith and the banished from Prussia teacher Duhan, the prospect for disaster was at least as great as that for promotion and wealth. It would have been far safer to stay with the army, especially given that the late King may have loved his soldiers, but had not been keen on actual wars.

Still, when the Prince had offered, Fredersdorf had not hesitated. In retrospect, he'd made his decision when he'd seen a young man in a shabby prisoner's coat, looking at once more miserable and more furious than anyone else Fredersdorf had ever known, and then had seen that same young man transform into joy at the sound of Fredersdorf playing the flute.

Now, he made that choice all over again. It was unthinkable to be foiled by his own clumsiness and Friedrich's temper. There was still time till August; if it came to the worst, he could always kill Georgii himself. It might be difficult, given that Georgii was a trained soldier, and Fredersdorf, for all that he had his younger body back, had not done military service for many years as far as his mind was concerned, but it would be manageable as a last resort. Until then, however, Fredersdorf would use his brains, and better than he had done until now.

First of all: he would not have to act alone. True, he didn't have obvious allies. He had got along well enough with Secretary Eichel, but Eichel's primary loyalty had been to the head of the Prussian state, first the late King, now Friedrich, and he would never act behind the King's back. And certainly neither Eichel nor anyone else would buy a story about time travel. Some might believe there'd been rumors about an agent in Friedrich's bodyguard, but these were also the ones on whose discretion Fredersdorf would not be able to rely. After some consideration, he decided to approach one of Friedrich's pages, young Münchow. Both he and Friedrich had known Münchow as a child of four, the youngest son of the Kammerpräsident of Küstrin who'd provided quarters for the imprisoned prince, and some discreet help in the form of books and better food. Two years ago, the youngster had joined Friedrich's household as a page and had done well. More to the point, he was receptive to some harmless flattery in the form of memories of the time when he, who like all toddlers, male or female, had been wearing skirts, had been used to smuggle forbidden French poetry to the prince, trusted Fredersdorf, and as it turned out was a bit resentful of "new" people who'd only come into the King's service after his ascension to the throne. In a world where Friedrich had died, he'd claimed to have always distrusted Georgii somewhat. Time to find out whether this had only been hindsight or not.

"Georgii is a nice guy," young Münchow said, munching on the cherries Fredersdorf had provided him with, "always laughing and telling jokes, but... you know, I've had it with the jokes about the French pox. He told us pages the spots on our faces are signs for that, and that you could get it from kissing, and if I didn't have older brothers, I wouldn't have known better. It really wasn't funny. And fine, I know we have to clean up the shit from the King's whippets if they don't get out of the tent in time. But just the other day, Georgii gave me the King's chamberpot as well, and really, that's his job to empty if it's his turn!"

After that, it was a piece of cake to charge him with the very important secret mission to keep an eye on Georgii, supposedly to protect the exploitation of pages. But Fredersdorf knew he needed more than an adolescent boy would be able to spot.

Then again, maybe it depended on the boy in question. Suhm's oldest son was seventeen, and if Fredersdorf recalled correctly at this point like most young men eager to join the army to cover themselves with glory at Friedrich of Prussia's side. Given Friedrich was grieving for Suhm and acutely aware that a young Saxon had not received the same military education as a young Prussian, which lessened his life expectancy on the battlefield, he'd said no, and Fredersdorf hadn't encountered the young man until later, when he'd been one of August Wilhelm's companions. Right now, he was in Berlin with Suhm's sister Hedwig. Since Friedrich's trust in Georgii was based on Suhm's recommendation, it might be useful to get a second opinion from another Suhm.

Lastly, Fredersdorf himself would talk to Georgii and see what he could find out with the direct approach. Not with accusations, of course. He'd play the repentant valet seeing a way back into royal favour, trying to charm the new favourite.

Since the Austrian forces were currently pinned down in sieges and there were no armies on the move that anyone knew of, there wasn't much to do in the Prussian camp beyond patrols, drills and gambling. When he spotted the other man he hadn't seen alive for seventeen years in a game of cards with some fellow subaltern soldiers, Fredersdorf joined them, polishing up his most social manner. They probably had heard by now he'd been banished from the King's tent, but since he hadn't been relieved of his offices, they were still polite and agreed to his company.

"So, when do you think the Habsburg bitch is gonna cave and ask our Fritz for mercy so he keeps the Frenchies from destroying her entirely?" asked one of them.

"I wouldn't know," Fredersdorf said as humbly as possible and kept himself with an effort from staring at Georgii. Georgii was a handsome man, with blond, curly hair and fine features. Leaving Suhm's memory aside, it was clear what else the King was seeing in him.

"Soon, I hope," another subaltern said with a hiccup. "The battle of Mollwitz was great, kicking Austrian butt all over the April snow, but those sieges are boring. And the Silesian women, eh. Though I wouldn't mind getting a farm here. It's good land. Hey, do we get farms when the war is over?"

" There's good land to be had at the Oder, too, once the drainage project is complete," Fredersdorf said neutrally, referring to one of the projects he himself had started, and as he'd hoped, Georgii wasn't the type to remain quiet.

"Eh, she's going to give in any moment now," Georgii said, referring to the earlier question about Maria Theresia. "What else is there left for her? It's not like her man is any good on the field, or he'd faced us by now instead of hiding behind her skirts back in Vienna. No spine, that one, and that means she doesn't have it, either. In Russia, everyone was scared as hell of the last Czarina, because of that son of a bitch, her lover Biron. The new one is just married to a wet blanket, like the Habsburg girl, so she doesn't have any authority."

"That would be the King's brother-in-law we're talking about?" Fredersdorf enquired mildly, referring to the Regent Anna Leopoldovna's husband. It was also a test. Georgii shrugged and smiled disarmingly, evidently not discomforted.

" No one can help his in-laws, and it's not like the King cares about the Queen, right? Say, I haven't met her yet. Is she really as drippy as all that? The King makes a face every time he has to write to her."

This was the kind of indiscretion which in Fredersdorf's opinion would have disqualified Georgii for the Royal Household even if he wasn't an assassin in the making.

"Her Majesty has always been kind," Fredersdorf replied, which was true as far as it went; she'd only lived properly with Friedrich at Rheinsberg for three years, during which she'd been happy and believing herself in love with her husband, while Friedrich had been civil to her. Fredersdorf himself had always treated Elisabeth Christine with respect, but in the last year of Friedrich's life, after his accession, it had been Fredersdorf's task to politely deny any of the Queen's requests to join the King and live with him again as they had done, and she'd been puzzled and hurt then.

"Who wants kindness in a woman? I want mine with fire in her ass," the soldier who'd first asked about Maria Theresia said, and all laughed.

"Seriously though, she must be boring as hell," Georgii confided cheerfully.

"Thankfully, his Majesty has your conversation now to entertain him," Fredersdorf observed in his blandest manner. "I hope you don't mind all the French."

Georgii made a lazy wave with his hand. "He speaks German with me," he replied and winked. Fredersdorf wanted to kill him then for a new reason.

Now Fredersdorf had never been the only person with whom Friedrich, who loved the French language with a passion far beyond that of your average German noble, spoke the language he otherwise despised since his late father had tried to make it his only means of communication. German was the standard language for the army, for starters, and Friedrich used it towards servants and those of the officers who weren't fluent enough in French as well. But when he had the choice, it was always French. Not being forced to learn it regardless, having Friedrich use German towards him when they were alone as well as in public had come to mean something to Fredersdorf.

"It's true then that German is the language of the Russian Court, not French?" he asked, forcing himself to keep up the friendly tone. "I know you're a Balt, but your name doesn't sound as if you're a Baltic-German, so I assume you've learned it there."

For the first time, Georgii's aura of cheer was joined by a quick frown which disappeared again as he replied. "I knew lots of Baltic-Germans as a child. And I never said I was at court."

Time for a less elevated tone in order to signal he was getting desperate. Fredersdorf produced a grin. "Hey, I thought you had banged the Czarina yourself, the way you talked before," he said, waited till everyone had stopped guffawing, including Georgii, then added: "And I'm jealous as hell, what with you knowing all these courtly types. Never got my head around French. No wonder the King likes you."

"That he does," Georgii agreed and waved the bottle another of the subalterns had just handed to him. "But he likes me because I give it to him straight. I'm no goddam courtier."

Then how did you meet Suhm? Fredersdorf thought, but decided not to ask it out loud in case it would alert Georgii to the true purpose of this conversation. It was, of course, an important question. It had been the late Ulrich von Suhm's job as envoy to socialize with courtiers and royalty first and foremost. Considering he already must have been in a bad state of health when in Russia, he probably saw a great deal of doctors as well. But soldiers who weren't noble officers?

Instead of voicing his thoughts, he made a distressed face. "That's good to know, because courtiers fleece you for every bit they can take, and I, well, I've got a thing I want to ask you for...."

He let his voice drop off. Georgii frowned again, and then he laughed. "Aha! So that's what you're up to. Should have known there was a tiff when the King told me you wouldn't be around for a while. Well, don't worry, I don't have it in for you. I'm not going to tell him he should give you the sack, if that's what you're on about."

"You've got a good heart", Fredersdorf returned, and decided that Georgii also must have had some actorly training, since surely no one this stupid could be a foreign spy.

And if he's not? He suddenly wondered. If he truly is just a handsome yet stupid hussar who caught first Suhm's eye and then Friedrich's, and will go into a murderous frenzy in August for entirely personal reasons, what then?

No. It just couldn't be this simple. Fredersdorf had met Suhm, repeatedly. The dead envoy had been a tiny, fragile man, always a bit at a loss on how to talk with people like the late King or any of the late King's trusted courtiers who didn't care for literature or music, regarding hunting and drinking as far worthier manly pastimes. He just couldn't imagine Suhm striking up an acquaintance with a man like Georgii without a very good reason. And it was interesting that Georgii had gone out of his way to avoid claiming he was familiar with the Russian court instead of boasting he knew everyone there from the Czarina to the lowest chambermaid and stable hand.

Maybe he was a Russian agent after all. Not one reporting to the Regent Anna's people, but to her successor. In the last month of this very year, Anna would lose her throne to Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth. Who years later, when August Wilhelm, following the advice of his brother Heinrich, had started a war of his own, ended up allying herself with Maria Theresia, who as it turned in the world without Friedrich had still not given up Silesia by the time Fredersdorf had finished his elixir, seventeen years later. In fact, she'd turned out to be such a fighter that she'd have been Fredersdorf's first suspect if not for the fact that he still had trouble imagining a woman in the last month of pregnancy who'd never learned anything about governing before her ascession because her father had kept her away from it masterminding a long distance assassination. No, Elizabeth, currently engaged in starting to organize a coup, was the more likely plotter.

But he couldn't be sure, and he had to be, or else Friedrich would die again.

"Hey, let's find out whether Russians really can outdrink anyone, lads," he suggested, and hoped he still remembered this younger body would be able to take it.

Fredersdorf still nursed a powerful headache when requesting the leave to return with the next courier to Berlin. This brought him a summons to the Royal tent. Georgii was present, but judging by the face he made, his head for drinking wasn't any harder than Fredersdorf's.

"How am I to understand this request?" Friedrich asked with dangerous quiet.

"Only literally, Sire," Fredersdorf replied. "By your leave, I will return to Silesia as quickly as possible. However, there are things in Berlin requiring my attention immediately."

"Such as?"

Headache or not, this time he was prepared. "The various writers and musicians your Majesty has kindly invited to court before starting the Silesian campaign are getting impatient. Several have threatened to leave. I thought if I were to provide them with tasks in anticipation for your Majesty's imminent return, we could avoid their departure and the additional expense of summoning them back and financing their respective journeys."

"Hm," Friedrich said. "You know, that is... actually a good idea. Algarotti keeps sending me complaints about his idleness. And there are no other reasons?"

Fredersdorf shook his head, and the King snapped his fingers. "Georgii, Lötzen, you can go," he told his bodyguards. Once they had left, he repeated, in a softer voice: "There really is no other reason why you want to leave?"

Recalling Friedrich's nightmares through ten years, the fact Suhm's death had only been a few months ago, and the way the King was afraid of everyone he loved leaving him without being able to admit as much, Fredersdorf avoided a direct lie by addressing what he thought was the more important point: "Sire, I swear to you I will return as soon as I can. I am not playing truant because you have reprimanded me for overstepping, I swear. I would stay if this wasn't important. I think you know me well enough to be sure I am not given to tantrums."

Friedrich stepped towards him and looked at him with a searching gaze. "I know you," he agreed slowly, "which is why your behaviour yesterday has so surprised me, and there is something in your eyes..."

Fredersdorf swallowed. The King had always been a sharp observer; he'd had to be, given how much depended on judging his father' s moods. And right now, he was afraid the older man he was in this younger body would break down and sob, because he had missed Friedrich, every aspect of him, even the moods and the stubbornness.

"They're currently full of burst veins, I'm sure," he replied flippantly, pulling himself together. Friedrich's life was at stake. He couldn't afford any more mistakes. "I shouldn't have drunk as much as I did last night."

"You and Georgii both, it seems," the King said, stepping back. "Very well. Though I hope getting him drunk wasn't another attempt to make me transfer him. Because that would be as insulting as my believing you'd go and leave me in the middle of a war to sulk."

What the drinking actually had resulted in had been Georgii at least providing Fredersdorf with a part of the Suhm story; he claimed that he'd come to Suhm's attention in St. Petersburg due to having saved the late Saxon envoy from robbers in the street. Suhm, Georgii had said, had then taken him into his service and Georgii had gone with him to Warsaw when Suhm, already ill, had started his journey back after Friedrich had ascended the throne. In Warsaw, he'd been at Suhm's side till the man who had not been able to travel any further had died, and had carried the letters for the King and Suhm's sister back. So far, so good, though Fredersdorf couldn't still recall learning any of this when he'd investigated Georgii the last time around. What Fredersdorf remembered was this: Georgii had joined the army some time during winter, and had come to Friedrich's attention in spring, during the battle of Mollwitz, when Field Marshal Schwerin had sent the King away from Friedrich's first battlefield because things had looked dire for Prussia for a while. Georgii had been part of his escort. Schwerin had then proceeded to win the battle without Friedrich, and when the King, learning this by messenger, had angrily returned, he'd almost been ambushed by retreating Austrians. Georgii and the rest of the escort had helped the King escape once more, had thus gained Friedrich's attention and had then been promoted to his bodyguard soon thereafter. No one had mentioned any connection with Suhm.

Then again: the story of Georgii personally aiding the King was so much more flattering for Georgii that Fredersdorf couldn't at first see any reason why the Balt should come up with the Suhm tale unless it was, in fact, the truth.

Or, he thought, as he made his way to the courier, or Georgii had learned enough about Friedrich by now to know that the King deeply hated and resented the fact he'd been persuaded to leave his very first battle, that he would rather talk about anything else and blot out this knowledge in the minds of all who have it.

The journey back to Berlin afforded Fredersdorf time to think. Unfortunately, this also meant he had time to realise there were indeed now things he couldn't remember anymore about his original life beyond any mention of Georgii knowing Suhm. When the courier he was travelling with asked how Fredersdorf's family was doing, there was a moment when he could not recall how many of his six siblings were still alive at this point, or indeed the face of his oldest sister, who had died first. It took him an embarrassingly long time to know she had not died yet, not in this world. She still had three more years to live.

Then there was the fact he was suddenly unable to recall just where exactly he had met Saint-Germain. This had been one of the most important encounters of his life, second only to meeting Friedrich, and yet the exact circumstances eluded him. And when, planning to actually look up the disgruntled artists and other luminaries who had not counted on the King they'd come to Prussia for being absent all the time making war, Fredersdorf tried to recollect just how much money each of them had been offered, he couldn't.

He used to know. He had organized not just the hiring and firing of servants in Friedrich's immediate household but the commissioning of musicians, the travel expenses for luminaries like Maupertuis whom the King had wanted to head the Prussian Academy of Sciences. And now all these details seemed to be gone.

It did not have to mean his younger self was taking over again, not necessarily. Maybe it was just the opposite; memories of a man in his late forties, bordering on fifty, were not as reliable as those of a man of thirty. But it heightened his urgency. If he woke up and had forgotten the very reason for his return, it would happen again, and the fear of this made it hard to sleep at all.

To distract himself from it, he tried to figure out whether he had been jealous as a younger man, or whether he had rewritten this part of his life with Friedrich with lines blurred by grief and longing into something more perfect. Of course, he had always been keenly aware of their difference in station. A noble and his servants were not friends; the very idea was alien. A prince might be friends with other nobles, though they, too, could not be his equals. And everyone, but everyone, including his own family, were subjects to a King, subjects who wanted or feared something from him.

And yet, he and Friedrich had been more than master and servant to each other, and it had been mutual. If he was sure of nothing else, Fredersdorf was sure of this. He hadn't needed the letter Friedrich had written to Prince August Wilhelm, see those words phrased in the French Fredersdorf did not speak, to know that Friedrich had loved him. It hadn't been important that there had been others, high-minded noblemen like Suhm whom Friedrich could talk to about philosophy and books, or good looking fools like Lieutenant von Gröben, beyond the fact Gröben had managed to pass on a dose of the clap, that was.

Or had it? Maybe he had minded after all, back then, and had forgotten it in the horror of Friedrich's death. He certainly didn't care whether or not Georgii had sex with the King right now; it was trivial next to the awareness that he hadn't figured out yet how to prevent not just Georgii from killing Fritz, but any other agents Georgii's masters - or mistress - might send.

Berlin looked different. The great building projects had already been started, but nothing had been finished. Of course not. It had only been a few months. The city was still mostly that of the late Soldier King, who'd looked for practicality and austerity, not beauty. However, he had cared about well-paved streets, and so it was easy to find and visit Suhm's sister Hedwig and his children, who had moved from Saxony to Berlin in anticipation of Suhm's return from St. Petersburg and his becoming a part of Friedrich's court. As he'd entrusted their fate to Friedrich in his last will, Fredersdorf had made the financial arrangements that ensured them of a permanent residence, schooling for the sons and a dowry once the one daughter got old enough to marry, as well as a pension for Suhm's sister. Hedwig von Suhm remembered him immediately. But then, it had only been a few months for her since she'd met him last. After some polite greetings, she asked, greatly concerned:

"The King has not changed his mind about Ernst joining the army, has he?"

Fredersdorf shook his head, and she relaxed a bit, while young Ernst looked very disappointed indeed. Fredersdorf had joined the army because he'd been the town piper's seventh child with no inheritance to expect, and a physical height which would mean he'd be drafted more likely than not anyway, not because of a burning desire to fight for King and Country, even less so when the King had been Friedrich's father. Even all these years later, the eagerness of young noblemen to get themselves killed felt a bit alien to him. But he could use it now.

"There is, however, something you can do for His Majesty, Herr von Suhm," he said to Ernst, "and you, too, Madame. In fact, you are the only people who can."

As he truly wanted to know the truth, he had forbidden himself to phrase the question in a way that would make them predisposed to tell him something negative about Georgii. It would be of no use to go back with lies or half lies, and would only do much damage.

"But what can that be?" Hedwig von Suhm asked in bewilderment. "We are, of course, at his Majesty's disposal."

Very carefully, Fredersdorf said: "Your late brother was His Majesty's dear friend since the days of his youth. He feels keenly about this, as you know. So he was grieved to learn that he might have neglected to honour his friend's memory when it came to some people your late noble brother left behind."

"Not at all!" Hedwig protested. "He's been most generous to us."

"You're kind to say so, Madame, but then, His Majesty has always known how much the late envoy valued you, and his children, naturally. However, we have now discovered there are others, valiant friends to your noble brother but with a low station in life, whom he might be able to help..."

He let his voice trail off. If Georgii had saved Suhm from a street robbery and had subsequently been part of his household, these two must know him, and Ernst, more likely than not, was bound to hero-worship him, Georgii being just the kind of dashing soldier bound to impress a boy keen on joining the army.

They both stared at him with an expression of honest confusion, and Hedwig said she could not think of such a person. Fredersdorf forbade himself to show any reaction.

"Isn't it true that a young Balt played a heroic role in your brother's last year of life?" he enquired, still not naming a name, for if she thought he was after a confirmation, she might simply say yes because of that. "Starting with saving him from a dangerous situation?"

"I shouldn't think so," Ernst disagreed. "Papa said the most exciting things which happened to him in St. Petersburg were the two fires. One started in his own house, but he wasn't there at the time, and it was discovered quickly, so he only lost some furniture. The other happened in the neighbourhood and stopped two houses from the embassy. That's why we didn't join him in St. Petersburg, Aunt Hedwig said all those fires didn't sound safe. Anyway, I had asked him to tell me all about any adventures, and he didn't write about more than those."

"Besides," his aunt joined, "what little he remarked on Balts did not sound good. The late Czarina's... close confidant had been of that origin, if I remember correctly, and in the letters my dear brother wrote to me from Warsaw, once he was outside of Russian territory, he mentioned that the court had been so flooded with Baltic Germans as a result that the Russian nobility was inclined to hate anyone who as much as spoke the language, so he'd been careful to take only Russian servants and speak French with all and sundry whom he encountered."

"Maybe I heard wrongly," Fredersdorf said, heart bounding, "but I have been told it was a young Balt who brought the sad news of your noble brother's demise."

This time, Hedwig von Suhm acted indignantly. "Definitely not! It was my cousin who brought us this sad news, who'd acted at my late brother's secretary."

"But the man you then sent to forward the news to the King's Majesty was a military man, surely," Fredersdorf prompted. He himself had not been present when Friedrich had learned of Suhm's death in Rheinsberg; the preparations for the invasion of Silesia had already been at their peak, with the entire country mobilizing, and Fredersdorf had been busy with organizing the transition from peacetime to wartime households in Berlin. Hedwig blushed.

"I didn't," she confessed. "I was too distraught. My cousin did. You can ask him; he still lodges with me, for to tell you the truth, he hopes for employment in the King's service once the war is over."

One hour later, Fredersdorf faced the man, whose heavy figure made it at once apparent why he himself had not thought of joining the war effort.

"Ah, yes. To tell you the truth, I sent the footman I'd picked up in Warsaw. He'd talked my ears off about joining the army, he was young and strong and I thought, why not, that might be his chance if he makes a favourable impression. That's right, he was a Balt. No, we didn't employ him before Warsaw. When it became clear my poor cousin was in too bad shape to travel any further and we'd have to stay in Warsaw instead of proceeding to Berlin, I had to hire some additional staff anyway."

"I did what you asked," young Münchow told Fredersdorf upon his return. Neisse still had not fallen, but there had been a skirmish with the Austrians near Rothschloss where Lieutenant Colonel Zieten had managed to defeat 1400 of them with 600 Prussians. Friedrich was pleased, though irritated that he again had not been present himself. "But Georgii didn't do anything other than walk around with a swelled breast as if he'd won the war for us, the oaf, when I know he wasn't even able to shoot anyone because I'd pinched his gunpowder and replaced it with ash, like you said. No secret meetings with anyone. I don't think he could be sneaky if he tried. And the King thinks I like that awful coffee with mustard he drinks because I always say I want to taste it for him, so he has a second cup ready each time."

"Your sacrifice will be rewarded," Fredersdorf replied, and handed him the oranges fresh from the King's gardens along with some money. Oranges were rare, exotic fruit which used to be imported only from Spain and Italy, but the King had ordered the growing of orange trees in Prussian gardens, and here were the first fruits.

The page gave him Georgii's complete schedule. It wasn't easy to find an hour and a place where Georgii would, in fact, be alone. When not with the King, the man still loved drinking with other soldiers, and since he was supposedly the new favourite, he never lacked for people seeking out his company. But even Georgii had to piss and shit.

"Don't move," Fredersdorf said. He still thought Georgii would be able to beat him in a fair fight. But a man with his trousers and jacket down was a man with a natural disadvantage.

Once they were past the obvious "You're mad!" and "is this because the King has kicked you out of the tent?" as well as "look, I'm just better in the sack!", Georgii's bluster was starting to turn to actual worry.

"Listen," he said while the flies were starting to get bold again. The King's current quarters were a farmhouse, not a tent, and Fredersdorf had caught Georgii at the latrine. "The King's going to be very angry with you if I tell him about this. He won't just kick you out of bed this time. Soldiers fighting each other in war time, that's going to get your nose cut off!"

Fredersdorf shrugged. "I'm not a soldier anymore. More to the point, neither are you."

"What ? Of course I am!"

"Joining His Majesty's service under false pretenses nullifies your engagement in the Prussian army, according to army regulations," Fredersdorf said, which wasn't true, but he was willing to bet Georgii didn't know that. "Among other things, it makes you open to a charge of spying."

"But I'm not a spy! I'd never..."

"...pretend to a friendship with the late Ulrich von Suhm when you were simply a stablehand hired by his secretary in Warsaw?" Fredersdorf suggested mildly. "Notice the King's grief for Suhm and prey on that feeling to get yourself not just an army posting but one near to the King?"

Until this point, he still hadn't been sure as to Georgii's motivation. He also hoped the butcher's knife he held was enough to keep Georgii from any attempt to lunge at him. It wasn't a soldier's or a gentleman's weapon, but it was efficient. But any thought of Georgii as a great actor who'd been pretending on Russian or Austrian orders vanished when the Balt folded without even trying to deny it. Instead, Georgii swallowed, and then said thickly: "That's not how I meant it. Please don't tell him. I, I just wanted a position - I thought there was no harm in a little bit of exaggeration."

"The Prussian army is always looking for men," Frederdorf said coldly. "You could have enlisted at any time, if you wanted to serve."

"Sure, as canon fodder," Georgii said. By now, he was sweating. He licked his lips. "I wanted a good position. If you serve with the King, you're not in constant danger like those chumps in the lower ranks. That's what I thought, anyway. Look, we're not so different. He was in the doldrums when you showed up, too, wasn't he? That's what they say. That you'd never have got anywhere near him if he hadn't been locked up and sad about the guy they executed. So be fair. We both used our chance. It's not like I harmed him! I'm here, aren't I, serving, and I even put up with the godawful poetry and him getting up at two hours past midnight in the goddam morning! I mean, who cares about whether or not I spent some time with a dead Saxon!"

"The King does," Fredersdorf said. Georgii made an attempt to wrestle him for the knife then, but it was clumsy, and it landed Georgii in the shit of a dozen soldiers where he promptly burst into tears.

No, this wasn't a cold-blooded spy. But not a madman, either. It started to come together for Fredersdorf now, for he had spoken the truth. Friedrich would care. If the King found out the truth, by accident, he'd have been outraged. And an angry Friedrich could be vicious. He'd been trained all his life in the art of cruelty, verbal and otherwise, and now he was the one with all the power. It was all too likely that if he'd stumbled across Georgii's lie, he'd have unleashed a torrent of abuse on the Balt. Who might have panicked and struck without thinking, only realising later he'd now condemned himself to a terrible death, for the punishment for regicide was worse than for any other murder.

Was that how it had happened?

"Don't tell him," Georgii sobbed, "please don't tell him."

Or maybe it hadn't. But there was only one way to be sure. Fredersdorf grew very cold. During his time with the army as a young man, before he'd met the Crown Prince of Prussia, he'd never done more than drilled. There had not been a war, and so he had not killed anyone. He'd seen his share of dead people since then, of course, but not by his own hands.

This was why he'd returned. And he'd sworn to do what it took.

"It is out of my hands," Fredersdorf said tonelessly. "Though not yet out of yours."

"How do you mean?" Georgii asked, confused.

"I mean that your old employer, Suhm's secretary, is on his way here," Fredersdorf lied. "He will of course tell His Majesty the truth. Now if you believe His Majesty will be understanding and merciful, you could try to tell him first, though it won't surprise you that I can't permit you to do so without witnesses."

Amidst the dirt and the flies, Georgii's face crumpled into even more panicked distress. So he did know Friedrich well enough by now to guess the King would, in fact, not be understanding and merciful in his reaction to such news.

"Maybe if you tell him not to talk to the King - we could bribe him and..."

"Why would I do that?" Fredersdorf asked in disbelief.

"Because you're like me, just like me!" Georgii cried. "We have to stick together, don't you see!"

"We're not. For starters, I have a mind that works. You have put lie upon lie upon lie, and now, rather than face the music, you want to lie even more. So you bribe the secretary. And Suhm's sister, I suppose. And Suhm's son. And anyone else who can reveal you as a fraud. With what money? Don't forget, I know what the King is paying you."

"But I..."

"You have two choices. You could run and try to start a new life elsewhere. That would make you a deserter, of course, and you know the punishment for deserters in the Prussian army if you're caught. You won't be executed like a nobleman, with a sword. No, you will be hanged, drawn and quartered. Or you could ensure that as far as everyone else is concerned, you died as an honourable man. The King might even grieve for you, too. He'll definitely give you a decent funeral."

"But..." Georgii fell silent.

"Accidents with shooting weapons happen all the time," Frederdorf said, which was true, though they usually happened in battle; soldiers who tried to reload an already loaded gun, for example. Besides, as a battle went on, the gun barrel accumulated with powder remnants from the previous rounds, which made them more difficult to manage and more prone to misfire. Guns exploding in their soldier's hands were unfortunately not an uncommon occurence. "Don't take yours, though. It doesn't have the right kind of gunpowder."

He left, then. During every step that brought him further from Georgii, Fredersdorf was aware of two things. Georgii might still come after him, especially if Fredersdorf had been wrong in his latest conclusion and right in his original suspicion, unlikely as that now was. Or Georgii might also have the smarts to wait Fredersdorf out, see whether the Suhm cousin truly showed up, accuse Fredersdorf of scheming against him and bribing Suhm's family. There were any number of possibilities, if Fredersdorf was wrong.

If he was right, he'd just done his best to talk a foolish young braggart who had only wanted a good life cushioned by another man's grief into suicide, and the sole reason why he hadn't just cut his throat had not been to give Georgii the chance to run away, risky as that was, but because there was no way to disguise such a murder as anything else. And Fredersdorf, as he had only now discovered, was not content with wanting to save Friedrich's life. He still wanted that life to be shared with him, as those earlier ten years had been. If his death had been the sole way to save the King, he would not have hesitated, but maybe Georgii had a point after all: they did have things in common. Fredersdorf wanted Friedrich alive and he wanted to be with him, he wanted them both to have a future, instead of spending the next two decades obsessed with the study of alchemy so he could change the past, with the only relationship he was still capable of being that of apprentice to...


He couldn't remember anymore. Couldn't remember the name of the man he'd spent the better part of seventeen years with. Had it been seventeen years? Fifteen? How long?

Fredersdorf broke out in a cold sweat, threw the knife away and started to run. When he entered the farmhouse which had been repurposed as Friedrich's quarters, he didn't waste any time. Thankfully, wherever the King was for longer than five minutes, there were writing utensils and paper. Plenty of paper. Fredersdorf grabbed the first one he could find. The ink bottle was nowhere in sight, and he didn't want to search until he had forgotten even more, so he used the quill sharpener and cut into his own skin, enough to draw blood. By now, he could sense not just names but images of his past fading at an alarming rate. Two subaltern officers, neither of them Georgii, entered the room, staring at him in disbelief, while he wrote in his own blood what he thought he'd always understand no matter the names.

1.) They might send assassins. Never let him be alone with just one person.
2.) Study alchemy. If all else fails, there lies your key to saving him.
3.) There is always hope.

One of the subalterns approached him hesitantly. Fredersdorf was aware he must look like a madman. They probably didn't know how to handle him anyway; he still was head of the Royal household, treasurer, chamberlain, and only relieved of his valet duties, the least of his offices, for now, and whatever rumors were circulating about his standing with the King, no one could be sure about the true reason.

What was the true reason?

"Sir," the man said cautiously, "I'm sorry, Sir, but there has been.... the Hussar Georgii came into our quarters right now, grabbed my weapon, asked whether it was loaded and shot himself. Right in front of everyone. I'm sorry - I know we shouldn't have loaded weapons lying around, but we should also always be prepared, and there might still be Austrians near... I'm sorry."

Fredersdorf blinked. There was something he should feel now. Hadn't he just talked to Georgii? He had. He had found out that Georgii was an impostor, he remembered now. During his recent trip to Berlin. Something in Georgii's manner must have made him uneasy, and Hedwig von Suhm as well and her nephew had confirmed that Georgii had not known the late envoy, despite claiming otherwise. All very suspicious.

He became aware he'd been holding his breath. Slowly, he exhaled.

"That is regrettable," he told the young man who stood in front of him and was evidently trying to hold it together. Watching a comrade kill himself was different from firing at the enemy in battle. "Were both of you present?" The other subaltern nodded. "It may warrant further investigation into his motives, so report to your superior officer immediately. I shall tell the King. But I don't think you should blame yourselves, loaded gun or not. If someone truly wants to kill himself, there is no stopping them."

The two younger men still looked shaken, but just the tiniest bit less anxious. They nodded and disappeared.

A life, Fredersdorf thought. You took a life. Not with your own hands, but you took it.

He had been so certain, though. This memory was clear: talking to Georgii and knowing, without even the shadow of a doubt, that if this man did not either disappear or die, he would not just be a danger to the King. He would kill him.

Fredersdorf stared at the bloody quill in his hands, then at the words he'd written on, as it turned out, one of Friedrich's orders for more books.

What had got into him? Maybe he was the one who was a danger to the King, if he behaved in this way. Maybe he was the one who should absent himself. Again, and for good, or at least until he wasn't driven to writing messages in his own blood and driving lying hussars into suicide anymore.

Folding the paper into squares, he put it into a pocket of the coat he was wearing. Then he went to the room which had been reconverted into a study and bedroom for Friedrich, and knocked. The King, as it turned out, was not there, but it was immediately noticeable who lived there. The disorder was breathtaking. Fredersdorf sighed. After Friedrich had become King, Fredersdorf had been given so many tasks and offices that "valet" had become a nominal title, but since it had been the first of the positions Friedrich had ever granted him, he was sentimental about it and kept it. Now he could see there was clearly the need for someone, anyone, performing actual valet duties. Besides, cleaning up might provide him with some renewed focus and clarity and allow him to order those thoughts which had become jumbled of late, and figure out whether or not he'd been justified to tell a young man to kill himself.

Once the room looked liveable again, Fredersdorf pondered where to put Friedrich's flute. He'd reserved this for last. It needed to be somewhere easily accessible, but not to the point where the King, or anyone else, could sit on it by accident or knock it over.

He felt the familiar, exquisitely carved wood, and wondered why he couldn't remember when they had last played together. Surely it wasn't that long ago? This whole Georgii business had only started in early June. And Friedrich practised every day, even in war time. Music was a passion for him without which he couldn't live. As for Fredersdorf, he had learned how to play oboe and pipes on his father's knees because his father had been the town piper; it was a way to hope for some income. He had taught himself the transverse flute because ever since he had heard it properly played for the first time, he had found it to be the most beautiful and exquisite of sounds. It was the one language he could not do without.

Impulsively, he put Friedrich's flute to his lips. There was a sonata which his fingers remembered playing, his lungs remembered breathing, despite his mind refusing to tell him the title or the composer. He only knew he had played it at a funeral, and not since then. But he knew every note, and it seemed fitting, now.

He lost himself to the sounds for a while, and when he became aware of his surroundings again, he saw that Friedrich had at last returned, must have been listening for a while now, for he wasn't standing in the entrance to the room, he was leaning against the wall. The King had tears in his eyes.

"You're back," he said, and his voice lifted just the slightest bit at the end of the sentence, transforming it from a statement to a question. Simultaneously, he held out his hand, as if reaching for both Fredersdorf and the flute. Fredersdorf knew then that things would work out. Whether or not the war was over or would continue for a while longer, whether Georgii had simply been a liar over his head or someone's agent, justifying the beginning of that bloody note, whether he had blood on his hands or had saved his King or both: they were together, and things would work out.

"Yes," he said, and turned towards Friedrich. "I'm back at last."