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Bread and Water and Cake

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The prisoner was smaller than Anton had expected. He was of no more than middle height, slim and almost delicate-looking, and there was a blindfold over his eyes and two tall and burly guards holding his arms, and two other men at the doors. But Hauptmann von Stalhein was watching him enter the castle with one hand resting on the butt of his revolver and his gaze never moving from the man, as if at any second he was likely to break into some incredible feat of daring. He did not speak, as if not wishing to alert the prisoner to his presence, and the guards marched him past von Stalhein and up the stairs. Anton fell in behind them and they climbed up the many stairs to the cell von Stalhein had insisted upon.

When Anton and the escort returned, von Stalhein was still waiting at the foot of the stairs.

"No trouble?"

"None, sir. He won't escape from there," Anton said.

"Not unless he can fly," von Stalhein said, and gave a mirthless laugh as at some private joke. "See to his supper."

Anton saluted and went about his task. Trust von Stalhein to insist on holding this new prisoner at the very top of the castle, so that everyone had to march up and down the hundred or more steps dozens of times a day. Wanting to be finished, he did not linger in the kitchens but hurried back with the tray. He had only climbed the first flight of stairs when von Stalhein strode up to him. Anton automatically checked his stride and stood still. Von Stalhein stared down at the tray.

"What is that?" he said quietly.

Anton looked down at it. Half a loaf of black bread, yesterday's but still perfectly edible, a tin jug of water and a mug, a little battered but serviceable. Standard fare for a prisoner. Von Stalhein gave it a look that might have set it on fire, and in a snakelike movement that made Anton freeze, he knocked the bread and the mug off the tray to the floor. The mug skittered off into a dark corner with a series of tinny clangs that echoed around the passage. Anton didn't breathe.

"You were taking him that? And you were going alone? I had thought you a sensible man, and one who attended to my orders! Did I not tell you this was an officer-prisoner? Did I not tell you he was very dangerous? You will return at once to the kitchen, you will ask them for a suitable meal for an English officer, and you will have two armed guards with you to deliver it. Is that clearly understood?"

Anton clicked his heels. "Yes, sir."

"Clear up this mess," von Stalhein snapped. Anton obeyed, careful not to spill the water as he did so. Von Stalhein was still watching him and a vital question occurred to Anton. He stood up and waited.

"Is there a problem?" von Stalhein demanded.

"Sir, may I enquire--is this the same for both prisoners?"

From the look on von Stalhein's face, he had entirely forgotten that they had two prisoners. "Both prisoners," he said slowly, as if taking time to think. "Yes. Naturally for both prisoners. Dismissed."

Back in the kitchen, Anton stood glumly by while one of the cooks prepared a tray, two of his fellow guards waiting impatiently beyond him. "And milk for the tea," he said. "I was a waiter at a hotel in London once," he added to his friends. "The English all take their tea like this."

"You think the boss will care?"

"You didn't see him. He practically blew a fuse when I was taking the other up. I'm not risking him looking at me like that again, I'll be out on my ear."

The tray looked, and smelled, significantly more appetising now. Anton checked it over. Steam was rising from the spout of the teapot, the china was clean and matching, there was a teaspoon, a very small and blunt butter knife and a cake fork. Bread, butter, jam, all neatly laid out. And two thick slices of the apfelkuchen that had been filling the kitchens with its spicy scent all afternoon. Anton had had plans for the remnants of that cake, left over from the officers' tea earlier, plans which had involved his best girl in the village and a picnic at the edge of the vineyard. Now he would have to hope he could scrounge something else once he got off duty. Anton covered the food neatly with a square of clean white linen, nodded to the two guards and the little procession headed off up the interminable stairs to the tower again.

When his evening meal arrived, Algy raised both eyebrows. "Transferred to the Ritz, have I?" he demanded of the guard who delivered the nicely-presented tray, but once the guard were gone, he settled down to the cake with relish. Perhaps, he thought hopefully as he compared the fine white bread with butter and raspberry jam to the chewy black bread he'd eaten this morning, this improvement in his rations meant von Stalhein was gone.