It was not, Grey supposed, more ridiculous than Doctor Rigby’s pug—and at least this dog was not wearing a suit. It was impossible to regard the creature without smiling, though.

It was a hound of some sort, black and disproportionately long-bodied, with legs so stumpy that they appeared to have been amputated. With large, liquid eyes and a sturdy long tail in constant motion, it resembled nothing so much as an exceedingly amiable sausage.

“Where did you get him?” Grey asked, leaning down and offering his knuckles to the dog, who sniffed him with interest, the tail wagging faster.

“He is of my own breeding—the best I have obtained so far.” Von Namtzen spoke with obvious pride, and Grey forbore to pass any remark regarding what the rest of the Graf’s attempts must look like.

“He is…amazing robust, is he not?”

Von Namtzen beamed at his appreciation, irritability forgotten, and scooped the dog up awkwardly in his one arm, displaying the dog’s expanse of hairless belly and a tremendous chest, deep-keeled and muscular.

“He is bred to dig, you see.” Von Namtzen took one of the stubby front paws, broad and thick-nailed, and waggled it in illustration.

“I do see. To dig what? Worms?”

Von Namtzen and Gustav regarded each other fondly, ignoring this. Then the dog began to squirm, and von Namtzen set him gently on the floor.

“He is marvelous,” the Graf said. “Completely fearless and extremely fierce in battle. But very gentle, as you see.”

“Battle?” Grey bent to peer more closely at the dog, which promptly turned to him and, still wagging, gave a sudden massive heave which ended with the stumpy paws perched on his knees, the long muzzle sniffing interestedly at his face. He laughed and stroked the dog, only now noticing the healed scars that ran over the massive shoulders.

“What on earth has he been fighting? Cocks?”

“Dachse,” von Namtzen said, with immense satisfaction. “Badgers. He is bred most particularly to hunt badgers.”

Gustav had tired of perching on his hind legs; he collapsed onto the floor and rolled onto his back, presenting a vast pink belly to be scratched, still wagging his tail. Grey obliged, raising a brow; the hound seemed so amiable as to appear almost feeble-minded.

“Badgers, you say. Has he ever killed one?”

“More than a dozen. I will show you the skins tomorrow.”

“Really?” Grey was impressed. He had met a few badgers, and knew of nothing—including human beings—willing to engage with one; the badger’s reputation for ferocity was extremely well founded.

“Really.” Von Namtzen poured a fresh glass, paused for no more than an instant to sniff the vapor of the brandy, then tossed it back in a manner unfitting the quality of the drink. He swallowed, coughed, and was obliged to set down the glass in order to thump himself on the chest. “He is bred to go to ground,” he wheezed, eyes watering as he nodded at the dog. “He will go straight into a badger sett, and do battle with them there, in their own house.”

“Must be the devil of a shock to the badgers.”

That made Stephan laugh. For an instant, the tension left his face, and for the first time since his arrival, Grey caught a real glimpse of the friend he had known.

Heartened by this, he topped up Stephan’s glass. He thought of suggesting a hand of cards after supper—he had found that cards usually soothed a troubled mind, provided one did not play for money—but on second thought, forbore. Stephan could doubtless manage to play well enough, but the actions involved were bound to emphasize his disability. As it was, Grey tried to avoid staring at the empty sleeve that fluttered limply whenever von Namtzen moved. The shoulder and the curve of the upper arm were still intact, he noted; the amputation seemed to have been done somewhere above the elbow.

Watching Stephan relax by degrees over their casual supper of eggs, Wurst, and toasted Brötchen, Grey found himself reluctant to bring up the true subject of his visit. Whether it were the loss of the arm, something to do with the Princess Louisa—for he noticed that von Namtzen barely mentioned her, though he spoke of his children with evident fondness—or something else, it was plain that Wilhelm had reason to be worried for his master.

Still, whatever was troubling Stephan, his own matter would have to be dealt with—and time was short. Was it better, Grey wondered, lighting a pipe for Stephan and handing it across, to wait ’til the morrow? Or would it be easier for both of them if he were to speak now, when the warmth of friendship renewed and the intimacy of oncoming night might cushion the harsh edges of the matter? That, and a fair amount of alcohol; they had shared a bottle of hock with supper, and the decanter now held a bare half inch.

He decided to wait just a bit longer, unsure whether this decision was the counsel of prudence or of cowardice. He poured the last of the excellent brandy, taking care to fill his own glass no more than halfway. Kept the conversation light, going from dogs and hunting to minor news from his cousin Olivia’s last letter, and amusing stories from the field. He felt the rawness of his own emotions begin to numb, his thoughts of Percy recede to a tolerable distance, and decided that it had been prudence after all.

It was getting on for midsummer, and the sky stayed light far into the night. Through an increasing sense of muzziness, Grey heard the carriage clock strike ten. Wilhelm had come in a little while before to light the candles and refill the decanter, but he could still see von Namtzen’s face by the fading light from the window.

The broad planes of it were calm now, though harsh lines that hadn’t been there the year before cut deep from nose to mouth. The mouth itself had gone from its normal sweet firmness to a line whose grimness relaxed only when Grey succeeded in making him laugh. Grey had a sudden impulse to reach across, cup Stephan’s beard-bristled cheek in his hand, and try to smooth those lines away with a thumb. He resisted the impulse, and let Stephan fill his glass again. Soon. He would have to speak soon—while he could still talk.

“The moon is nearly dark,” Stephan remarked, nodding toward the window, where the faint sickle of the waning moon shone in a lavender sky above the wood. “The badgers come more often from their setts at the dark of the moon. We will take Gustav out tomorrow night, perhaps. You will stay some days, ja?”

Grey shook his head, preparing himself.

“Only a day or two, alas. I have actually come on an unpleasant errand, I fear.”

Stephan’s gray eyes were slightly unfocused by this time, but he lifted his head from a contemplation of his own newly filled glass and turned a face of curiosity and owlish sympathy on Grey.

“Oh, ja? Was denn?”

“Ober-Lieutenant Weber,” Grey said, hoping that he sounded casual. “Michael Weber.” The name felt strange, repellent on his tongue, and he fought back the unwelcome recollections that struck him when he heard or spoke Weber’s name: the vision of Weber’s muscular, pumping, pale backside, the rumpled fawn breeches on the floor—and the usual hot surge of anger that accompanied that vision. “I wished to speak with him—if you have no objection.”

Von Namtzen frowned. Shook his head, swallowing, and grimaced as though the liquor hurt his throat.

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It was not, Grey supposed, more ridiculous than Doctor Rigby’s pug—and at least this dog was not wearing a suit. It was impossible to regard the creature without smiling, though.

It was a hound of some sort, black and disproportionately long-bodied, with legs so stumpy that they appeared to have been amputated. With large, liquid eyes and a sturdy long tail in constant motion, it resembled nothing so much as an exceedingly amiable sausage.

“Where did you get him?” Grey asked, leaning down and offering his knuckles to the dog, who sniffed him with interest, the tail wagging faster.

“He is of my own breeding—the best I have obtained so far.” Von Namtzen spoke with obvious pride, and Grey forbore to pass any remark regarding what the rest of the Graf’s attempts must look like.

“He is…amazing robust, is he not?”

Von Namtzen beamed at his appreciation, irritability forgotten, and scooped the dog up awkwardly in his one arm, displaying the dog’s expanse of hairless belly and a tremendous chest, deep-keeled and muscular.

“He is bred to dig, you see.” Von Namtzen took one of the stubby front paws, broad and thick-nailed, and waggled it in illustration.

“I do see. To dig what? Worms?”

Von Namtzen and Gustav regarded each other fondly, ignoring this. Then the dog began to squirm, and von Namtzen set him gently on the floor.

“He is marvelous,” the Graf said. “Completely fearless and extremely fierce in battle. But very gentle, as you see.”

“Battle?” Grey bent to peer more closely at the dog, which promptly turned to him and, still wagging, gave a sudden massive heave which ended with the stumpy paws perched on his knees, the long muzzle sniffing interestedly at his face. He laughed and stroked the dog, only now noticing the healed scars that ran over the massive shoulders.

“What on earth has he been fighting? Cocks?”

“Dachse,” von Namtzen said, with immense satisfaction. “Badgers. He is bred most particularly to hunt badgers.”

Gustav had tired of perching on his hind legs; he collapsed onto the floor and rolled onto his back, presenting a vast pink belly to be scratched, still wagging his tail. Grey obliged, raising a brow; the hound seemed so amiable as to appear almost feeble-minded.

“Badgers, you say. Has he ever killed one?”

“More than a dozen. I will show you the skins tomorrow.”

“Really?” Grey was impressed. He had met a few badgers, and knew of nothing—including human beings—willing to engage with one; the badger’s reputation for ferocity was extremely well founded.

“Really.” Von Namtzen poured a fresh glass, paused for no more than an instant to sniff the vapor of the brandy, then tossed it back in a manner unfitting the quality of the drink. He swallowed, coughed, and was obliged to set down the glass in order to thump himself on the chest. “He is bred to go to ground,” he wheezed, eyes watering as he nodded at the dog. “He will go straight into a badger sett, and do battle with them there, in their own house.”

“Must be the devil of a shock to the badgers.”

That made Stephan laugh. For an instant, the tension left his face, and for the first time since his arrival, Grey caught a real glimpse of the friend he had known.

Heartened by this, he topped up Stephan’s glass. He thought of suggesting a hand of cards after supper—he had found that cards usually soothed a troubled mind, provided one did not play for money—but on second thought, forbore. Stephan could doubtless manage to play well enough, but the actions involved were bound to emphasize his disability. As it was, Grey tried to avoid staring at the empty sleeve that fluttered limply whenever von Namtzen moved. The shoulder and the curve of the upper arm were still intact, he noted; the amputation seemed to have been done somewhere above the elbow.

Watching Stephan relax by degrees over their casual supper of eggs, Wurst, and toasted Brötchen, Grey found himself reluctant to bring up the true subject of his visit. Whether it were the loss of the arm, something to do with the Princess Louisa—for he noticed that von Namtzen barely mentioned her, though he spoke of his children with evident fondness—or something else, it was plain that Wilhelm had reason to be worried for his master.

Still, whatever was troubling Stephan, his own matter would have to be dealt with—and time was short. Was it better, Grey wondered, lighting a pipe for Stephan and handing it across, to wait ’til the morrow? Or would it be easier for both of them if he were to speak now, when the warmth of friendship renewed and the intimacy of oncoming night might cushion the harsh edges of the matter? That, and a fair amount of alcohol; they had shared a bottle of hock with supper, and the decanter now held a bare half inch.

He decided to wait just a bit longer, unsure whether this decision was the counsel of prudence or of cowardice. He poured the last of the excellent brandy, taking care to fill his own glass no more than halfway. Kept the conversation light, going from dogs and hunting to minor news from his cousin Olivia’s last letter, and amusing stories from the field. He felt the rawness of his own emotions begin to numb, his thoughts of Percy recede to a tolerable distance, and decided that it had been prudence after all.

It was getting on for midsummer, and the sky stayed light far into the night. Through an increasing sense of muzziness, Grey heard the carriage clock strike ten. Wilhelm had come in a little while before to light the candles and refill the decanter, but he could still see von Namtzen’s face by the fading light from the window.

The broad planes of it were calm now, though harsh lines that hadn’t been there the year before cut deep from nose to mouth. The mouth itself had gone from its normal sweet firmness to a line whose grimness relaxed only when Grey succeeded in making him laugh. Grey had a sudden impulse to reach across, cup Stephan’s beard-bristled cheek in his hand, and try to smooth those lines away with a thumb. He resisted the impulse, and let Stephan fill his glass again. Soon. He would have to speak soon—while he could still talk.

“The moon is nearly dark,” Stephan remarked, nodding toward the window, where the faint sickle of the waning moon shone in a lavender sky above the wood. “The badgers come more often from their setts at the dark of the moon. We will take Gustav out tomorrow night, perhaps. You will stay some days, ja?”

Grey shook his head, preparing himself.

“Only a day or two, alas. I have actually come on an unpleasant errand, I fear.”

Stephan’s gray eyes were slightly unfocused by this time, but he lifted his head from a contemplation of his own newly filled glass and turned a face of curiosity and owlish sympathy on Grey.

“Oh, ja? Was denn?”

“Ober-Lieutenant Weber,” Grey said, hoping that he sounded casual. “Michael Weber.” The name felt strange, repellent on his tongue, and he fought back the unwelcome recollections that struck him when he heard or spoke Weber’s name: the vision of Weber’s muscular, pumping, pale backside, the rumpled fawn breeches on the floor—and the usual hot surge of anger that accompanied that vision. “I wished to speak with him—if you have no objection.”

Von Namtzen frowned. Shook his head, swallowing, and grimaced as though the liquor hurt his throat.

“You do object?” Grey raised a brow.

Stephan shook his head again and set down his glass, wiping the back of his hand across his lips.

“He’s dead.” The words came out hoarsely, and he shook his head again and cleared his throat explosively, repeating more clearly, “er ist tot.”

Grey had heard him the first time.

“What happened?” he asked. His heart had seized up at von Namtzen’s words, and started again with a painful lurch.

Von Namtzen reached for the decanter, though his glass was still nearly full.

“I shot him,” he said, very quietly.

“You—” Grey choked off his exclamation, and took a deep breath. “How?” he asked, as evenly as he could. “I mean—you executed him? Personally?”

“No.” It was not overwarm in the room, but a dew of sweat had formed along Stephan’s jaw; Grey saw the sheen of it as he turned his head away, groping for the decanter.

“You must understand. He would have been executed—hanged, had he been court-martialed. The family would have been disgraced, utterly, and there are other sons in the army—they would be ruined. I…have known the family for a long time. His father is my friend. Michael…” He rubbed his hand fiercely over his lips. “I knew this boy, knew him from the day of his birth.”

Gustav, sensing distress in his master, got up and padded over to sit by von Namtzen’s foot, leaning heavily against his leg in an attempt to give comfort. Grey wished momentarily that he could act in such a straightforwardly sympathetic manner, but the best he could do at the moment was to keep silence.

Von Namtzen met his eyes directly for the first time, the depths of his wretchedness apparent in the bloodshot whites and swollen rims.

“I could not let such a thing happen to him—to his family.” He took a deep breath, his hand clutching his glass as though for support. “And so I took him from the gaol where he was, saying that I would bring him to his village. On the way, we met with a company of French foragers—I knew where they were; my scouts had told me. There was a skirmish; I had given Michael back his pistol and sword—I ordered him to take his men and fall upon the enemy.”

Stephan fell silent, all too clearly reliving the event.

“He knew, do you think?” Grey asked, quietly. “What you intended?”

Stephan nodded, slowly.

“He knew he was to die. I saw the thought kindle in his mind as we rode. He seized it then, let it burn in him. I saw, when it took him. You know it—that moment when a man throws everything away and there is nothing left but der Kriegswahn?” It was not a term with an exact English equivalent; “the madness of battle,” perhaps. Not waiting for Grey’s nod, he went on.

“The men knew, too. They had treated him with contempt, but at this order, they came together at once behind him, the picture of loyalty. Michael was a good soldier always—very brave. But this…He lifted his sword and charged toward the French, standing in his stirrups, screaming, all his men pouring after him. I have not before seen such ferocity, such courage, and I have seen much of such things. Er war…ein Prachtkerl,” he ended, so softly that Grey barely made out the final word.

Glorious, it meant; radiantly beautiful. And in the sense of intimacy that comes with mutual drunkenness, Grey felt he saw the man for an instant as Stephan had, glorious in his rush toward destruction, his warrior’s end—and beneath this, Stephan’s more personal sense of his beauty as a man; mortal, fleeting.

That gave him a deep pang, the sharp point of his own jealousy blunted by this final picture of the lovely boy, this Weber whose fallen-angel’s face he had seen so briefly, embracing Stephan’s gift of a noble death.

Von Namtzen let go of his brandy glass and leaned down clumsily to pat the dog, who moaned in his throat and licked his master’s hand.

“But he was not killed,” he said bleakly, his great blond head still bent over the dog. “Not even wounded.”

He raised his head then, but would not look at Grey; his eyes fixed on the bowl of chrysanthemums, gone the color of dried blood in the shadows of the night-darkening room.

“He led his men well, killed three French with his own hand, and routed them completely. He stood quite alone for an instant then at the edge of a wood, all his men gone on in pursuit. And then…he turned to look at me.”

With a look of such terror, such despair, that von Namtzen had found himself fumbling for his own pistol, spurring his horse toward Michael, almost by reflex, so strong was the need to answer that wordless cry.

“I passed a few feet before him, and shot him in the heart. No one saw. I got down and picked him up in my arms; his clothes were damp, his flesh was still hot from the battle.”

Stephan closed his eyes. He released a sigh that came from his bones, and seemed to deflate, his broad frame collapsing.

“And so I put him across his saddle and took him home to his mother,” he said flatly. “A dead hero, to be mourned and celebrated. Not a disgraced sodomite, whose name could never be spoken by his family.”

There was silence then, broken only by the sounds of a startled woodcock calling in the forest. Then an owl hooted, somewhere near, and its silent shadow passed the window, part of the gathering night.

Grey wished to speak, but anger and brandy and grief—for Weber, for Percy, for von Namtzen, and not least for himself—seized in his throat, bitter as the smell of the Chinese flowers.

“Er war ein Prachtkerl,” Stephan muttered suddenly again, low-voiced and choked. Pushing back his chair, he lurched to his feet and blundered from the room, his loose sleeve a-flutter, almost stumbling over the dog in his haste.

Gustav snorted in surprise and hopped to his feet, tail waving slowly as he hesitated, not sure whether to follow.

“Here,” said Grey, seeing the dog’s puzzlement. His voice came thick, and he cleared his throat, repeating, “Hier, Gustav,” and held out a bit of cold wurst. “You should like it. You look very much like a sausage yourself, you know,” he said, and immediately felt sorry for the insult.

“Entschuldigung,” he murmured in apology, but Gustav had taken no offense, and accepted the tidbit with grace, tail gently wagging to and fro, to and fro.

Grey watched this oscillation for a moment, then closed his eyes, feeling dizzy. He should call Wilhelm. He should go to bed. He should…The thought drifted away unformed. He crossed his arms on the table before him and laid his head upon them.


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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