Grey tried, and managed a slit. Percy’s face swam in a haze of tears, dark and intent.
“Not so bad,” he murmured. “Here, relax.” Percy’s fingers spread the lids of his injured eye, and squeezed the liquid from the cloth into it. Grey stiffened a little in reflex, but found that it didn’t hurt much, and did relax a little.
“All I meant is that you are a great deal more honest about it than most.”
“I doubt it is any virtue.” A thought came to him, belatedly. “Are you wondering whether you are sufficiently a beast, yourself? That you acquitted yourself well, I mean? You did. I should have said so.”
“Yes. You don’t remember?”
“No,” Grey said, honestly. “I was rather busy.”
Percy chuckled, low in his throat, and dipped the cloth again.
“I am sufficiently honest as to acknowledge my own inexperience, at least. You were right, about having no idea what you’ll do in battle. Had you not shouted at me to shoot that fellow, I should simply have stood there gaping, until you got up and did it yourself.”
Grey opened his mouth to remonstrate, but Percy bent and kissed him quickly on the lips, his breath warm on Grey’s water-chilled cheek.
“I don’t seek reassurance, my dear, no need.” He stood upright and the cloth came over Grey’s eyes again, with its soothing flood. “I did not disgrace myself utterly, and perhaps will do better later. I meant only to say that I understand now what you told me. And that at the end of it”—the cloth drew away, and Grey blinked—“the only thing important is that we are still both alive.
“That,” he added, his tone offhand as he turned to dip the cloth again, “and that I am proud of you.”
Alarmed and stirred by the kiss, deeply embarrassed at the praise—and not a little shocked that Percy did not instinctively perceive the essential truth of the matter—Grey began to say the obvious: it was his duty. But Tom Byrd came in with the supper then, and in the end, he contented himself with no more than a feeble “Thank you.”
In early May, the Duc de Richelieu returned to France, replaced by the Comte de Clermont. The Comte de Clermont, reluctant to engage his troops in spite of their numerical superiority, continued to play at tag through the Rhine Valley. Brunswick, who understood these tactics well enough, continued patiently to answer them, flanking Clermont’s sides, blocking an advance here, prodding there—little by little driving Clermont’s army back toward the French border.
By late May, it was clear that the French had nowhere left to skip away to; within weeks, perhaps days, they must either turn and fight, or retreat into France with Brunswick baying at their heels. Clearly Clermont would fight.
That being so, Duke Ferdinand wisely chose to take time now to ready his troops and burnish his cannon, wishing to meet the attack, when it came, in a state of maximum readiness.
To this end, Grey spent much of his time in riding to and fro, inspecting companies, taking the reports of company commanders, arguing with quartermasters, giving orders for resupply, refitment where needed, the obtaining of more wagon mules (these in great demand, and thus both scarce and expensive), and the ten thousand other details that fell to a major’s daily lot.
The only good thing about this process, Grey reflected, heading back toward the small village where he was presently quartered, was that he had no more than the ninety seconds between the time his head hit the pillow and his falling asleep, in which to experience sexual frustration. The ninety seconds were required in which to administer such palliative action as was possible; otherwise, he would be asleep in three.
He uncorked his canteen and drank deeply; it was a warm day in late spring, and the water seemed to taste not only of the tin and beechwood canteen, but of rising sap, half sweet and pungent. The Drachenfels loomed before him—the “Dragon’s Rock,” that stony peak on the shore of the Rhine, where Siegfried was said to have slain his dragon—romantically wreathed in river haze, its foot a-welter in greening vineyards.
The spring weather was affecting everyone; men walked dreamily into walls on sentry duty, put down their muskets and forgot them in the fields, took French leave and were found lazing under hedgerows or haystacks, often curled about a woman.
Grey might have thought it unfair that he was unable to do likewise—but he remembered his first campaign, when he and Hector had stolen away to find solitude and sweetness in nests of spring grass under skies that spun with stars, the heat of their young bodies more than compensating for the chill of the evenings. Rank had its privileges, but it undeniably had its drawbacks, as well. At least he did have the pleasure of Percy’s company most evenings, if not the freedom to employ it fully.
Sighing, he corked the canteen and looked about for Richard Brett, the ensign accompanying him. Brett was the youngest of the ensigns, only fifteen, and normally bright and industrious, but suffering particularly from the effects of springtime—on account of his youth, Grey supposed.
At the moment, Brett was nowhere in sight, though his horse grazed contentedly along the lush green verge of the road, reins hanging. Nudging his own mount in that direction, Grey discovered an open gate in the wall of a farmhouse, and inside it, Mr. Brett, elbows leaned upon the coping of a well and his gaze fixed worshipfully upon the young woman who was hauling a bucket out of it, smiling at him.
The fact that Brett spoke no German and the young woman plainly had no English obviously posed no bar to an exchange of sentiments; the body had its own language.
Resigned but generous, Grey dismounted, letting his own horse graze as well. “Ten minutes, Mr. Brett,” he called, and walking a little way off the road, found a grassy spot and lay down with his hat over his eyes.
The ground was warm beneath him, the sun warm above, and he felt bone and muscle melt, the tight-coiled springs of his mind relax like an unwound watch. He made a vain attempt to keep hold of the dozen things he should be paying attention to, but then gave up. It was spring.
It was still spring come evening, and Grey came back to the village thinking of doorknobs. One, in particular. Tom had secured him a small room at the top of the local Gasthof; small, but with a door that locked, a most unusual facility in such parts.
Or rather, the door had a lock. The key for it had not yet been found, but Grey was assured it existed, and would doubtless resurface momentarily.
Meanwhile, the doorknob—made of white china and slick as an egg—as though to compensate for the loss of the key, was inclined either to spin loosely round on its stem, or to jam fast, both conditions preventing the door from being opened from the outside. More than once, Tom had been obliged to go through the window of the adjoining garret, and worm across the front of the house in order to slide into the window of Grey’s room and open the door from the inside.
There was an entertainment scheduled for tonight, a concert of sorts, with local dances performed, in the next village over. Most of the men and all of the officers in the area would be there, making the most of the mild weather and their temporary freedom. Given the obliging nature of his doorknob, Grey thought that perhaps he and Percy might make the most of the occasion, as well. A brief appearance at the festivities, and in the darkness, everyone well-laced with flowing wine, no one would notice if they left—separately for the sake of discretion—and slipped back to the inn.
The sun had begun to sink, washing the old walled Gasthof and its orchard in a haze of peach and apricot as he rode into the paved courtyard at the trot, his horse eager for home and hay.
Grey was feeling no less eager, and was not particularly pleased to be stopped in the courtyard by a Captain Custis, from the 9th, who hailed him as he dismounted.
“Custis.” He nodded to the ostler and gave over his horse, turning to see what the captain wanted. “Were you wanting me?”
“Not so you’d notice,” Custis said cheerfully. “Colonel Jeffreys says you promised to lend him your copy of Virgil, so I said I’d fetch it for him, as I was bound this way on an errand. As I was waiting for you, though, I found myself in conversation with Herr Hauptmann here”—he nodded at a small, dapper Prussian captain of infantry, who bowed and clicked his heels—“and fancy my surprise to hear that there’s a Maifest on in the next village tonight!”
“Fancy that,” Grey said, unable to repress a smile. He glanced at the brilliant horizon, where peach was deepening into coral and lavender. “And of course it will be too late for you to ride back to camp tonight after you get the book, so you’ll have to stay on. Pity, that.”
“Yes, isn’t it. You’re going?”
“Oh, yes. Bit later, though; I’ve orders to write first.”
“Hauptmann and I will save you a wineskin. But I mustn’t forget the colonel’s book.”
“Right, I’ll get it.”
Custis and Hauptmann followed him up the narrow stair, discussing with some animation the virtues of a local vineyard, located at the foot of the Drachenfels.
“Federweisser, they call the new, uncasked wine. ‘Feather-white,’ and it is, too—white, very light—but by God! Three glasses, and you’re under the table.”
“You’re under the table, perhaps,” Grey said, laughing. “Speak for yourself.”
“It is somewhat strong,” Hauptmann said. “But you must drink the Federweisser with the Zwiebelkuchen that they make there also. That way, you do not suffer—”
Grey grasped the china knob, which turned properly for once, and pushed the door open. And stood paralyzed for an instant, before jerking it shut.
Not quite fast enough, though. Not fast enough to have prevented Custis and Hauptmann from seeing, over his shoulder. Not nearly fast enough to obliterate the image that reached his own eyes and burned directly through them into his brain: the sight of Percy, naked and facedown on the bed, being split like a buttered bun by a blond German officer, also naked, his pale buttocks clenched with effort.
Someone had given a cry of shock; he couldn’t tell whether it was Custis, Hauptmann, or himself. Perhaps it was Percy. Not the other man; he had been too intent on his business, eyes shut and face contorted in the ecstasy of approaching climax.
Weber. The name floated through Grey’s mind like an echo and vanished, leaving it completely blank.
Everything thereafter seemed to happen with remarkable slowness. His thoughts were like clockwork, clicking from one to the next with dispassionate quick logic, while everyone—himself included—seemed to move with a cumbersome sluggishness, turning slowly toward each other and away, the changing expressions of shock, bewilderment, horror flowing like cold treacle over faces that all looked suddenly alike.
You are the senior officer present, said the small, cold voice in his head, taking note of the confusion. You must act.
Things abruptly resumed their normal speed; voices and footsteps were coming from everywhere, attracted by the cry, the slam of the door. Puzzled faces, murmured questions, excited whispers, English and German. He stepped forward and rapped on the door, once, sharply, and the voices behind him hushed abruptly. On the other side of the door there was a deafening silence.
“Get dressed, please,” he said very calmly through the wooden panel. “Present yourselves in the courtyard in five minutes.” He stepped back, looked at the gathering crowd, and picked one of his ensigns’ faces out of the swimming throng.
“Fetch two guards, Mr. Brett. To the courtyard, at the double.”
He became dimly aware of a hand on his arm, and blinking once, turned to Custis.
“I’ll do it,” Custis said, low-voiced. “You needn’t. You mustn’t, Grey. Not your own brother.”
The horrified sympathy in Custis’s eyes was like the prick of a needle, rousing him from numbness.
“No,” he said, his own voice sounding strange. “No, I have to—”
“You mustn’t,” Custis repeated, urgent. He pushed Grey, half-turning him. “Go. For God’s sake, go. It will make things worse if you stay.”
He swallowed, and became aware of all the faces lining the stairway, staring. Of just how much worse the gossip would be, that extra touch of scandal, the frisson of horror, the schadenfreude, as word spread that he had been obliged to arrest his own brother for the crime of sodomy.
“Yes,” he said. He swallowed again, whispered, “Thank you,” and walked away, going down the stairs, counting the wooden treads as they flickered past beneath the toes of his boots, one, two, three, four…
Went on counting his steps, ringing sudden on the bricks of the courtyard, one, two, three, four…muffled as he passed the gate, walking on strewn hay and wet earth, saw Brett and the guards coming toward him, raised a hand in acknowledgment but did not stop, one, two, three, four…
Walked straight down the main street of the village, heedless of mud, of horse dung, of screaming children and barking dogs, eyes fixed on the crag of the Drachenfels, rising in the distance. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…
Drinking with Dachshunds
Both men were turned over to the commanding officers of their respective regiments. Hal was at headquarters with Duke Ferdinand; in his absence, Percy was given over to the custody of Ewart Symington; Lieutenant Weber, the Hanoverian, was sent to the Graf von Namtzen’s representative.
Symington, with more tact than Grey would have given him credit for, didn’t mention Percy to him, and had evidently given orders that no one else should, either. The fact that no one spoke to him of Percy didn’t mean that no one spoke of Percy, of course. The army was idle, awaiting a new round of orders from Brunswick. Idleness bred gossip, and Grey found the sudden cessation of conversations, the looks—ranging from sympathy to disgust—and the averted eyes of both men and officers so disquieting that he took to spending the days alone in his tent—he would not return to the inn—though it was by turns stifling or drafty.