The word hung in the air for a long while before his ears plucked it down to be heard.
"Prussia. . . Prussia."
It was a. . .a name. He was certain of that much. His name? Yes, he thought so. It had a rosemary-scented familiarity to it.
"Gilbert, wake up."
He shied away from that voice, burying himself deeper into his velvet blanket of darkness. He didn't want to wake up. That sharp voice came from a harsh place that promised pain, more pain than he was already in, with a sound of silver tingles that raced along his skin like crawling ants.
"Blast it, man, wake up!"
Silver morphed into an iron-blood taste and peeled back his eyelids to cut across his brain, leaving dull lines of pain flashing across his head. A whimper tore its way out of his throat, hot trickles of more pain scattering from it like horses in a race, thundering hooves forming a pounding in his skull. Suddenly he was aware that he was laying on something hard and cold. The hard and cold didn't taste or sound like anything, and for some reason that terrified him.
Terror tasted like ice.
A wavering sign, then, "Pah!" A single word filled with loathing. Flung down like a dead animal. "You're useless to me."
He flinched and suddenly his body flew apart and rearranged itself in an awry, skewed fashion, like a child taking apart a toy only to shove it back together in a guilt-ridden haste. It felt as if his arms were twisted behind his head at impossible angles and his knee was growing out of his chest and his guts had been drawn out of his mouth and wrapped around his limbs and face, binding him and silencing him. Every moment sent his glass bones snapping and popping back into place with agonizing white slowness. His head hurt, with one single place above his temple burning as if someone had left a burning coal there so it could bore right through his head and into his brains.
"Look at yourself, lying there like a rag," the voice came back, fluttering across his ears with butterfly quickness and bringing the scent of sharp, burning oil with it. "You are such a hypocrite. A liar." The razor-edged words caressed his veins, gently parting them and making him bleed inside. " 'My King, I will protect you,' you say, but when that time actually comes you lie there, useless."
That one word struck him like a hammer blow and sent his scrambled nerves back into their proper places. His arms were in front of him and his legs were slightly curled underneath him. Something thick and heavy was blocking his mouth, but it was not his guts. Blood, thick and dry, glued his lips shut like a doll's. A pained, red-salt-tasting moan slithered out of his throat with a thousand snake coils brushing against his throat and teeth.
"Hush! They'll hear you!" The voice hissed. There must have been snake trapped in his throat as well. A different tone colored the voice salmon pink, and then it faded to a silver-blue-sage-scent. "I should have known you would be a liability. I don't even know why I bother with you."
No, stop it, please stop. It hurt, those cold and invidious words. They weren't true. He wasn't a liability. He could be useful.
"You disgust me."
Disgust tasted like rue. Anise burned his nostrils and sticky spiderwebs plucked at his spine like a lute. Those three wormed into his ears and crawled down his throat, wrapping around his heart like branding irons of pain. They hurt, oh how they hurt.
Hate burned his tongue like pepper. Yet it felt cold, little snowflakes of malice freezing those cuts in his veins and chilling him from the inside out. He shivered and rattling like a carriage that had been poorly assembled.
"Pretending that you're still asleep. You aren't even trying." A pause, the silence punctuated by little bat squeaks coming from the pain in his head and hands. "You call yourself a soldier. You're a disgrace to that name."
His eyes burned and something hot trickled out of them. Blood? It felt like feathers. He needed to get up, to make those words untrue. And he could, he knew he could. Those flickering words with their violet-tastes still chilled him, except for his hands and head. He had to prove them wrong. He had to. . .
. . .wake up.
He parted his lids with a wet, sliding sound. Fluid sluiced from his eyeballs and let the cold air kiss them. For a moment all he saw was gray, hazy and foggy over his vision. It didn't feel like fog though. The light brought violin screeches of agony upon his ears and the high, wavering notes made spots of yellow and red flash across the gray in an odd staccato snapping beat. He blinked and grayness receded slightly. The fog was lifting, bringing more objects into view that coalesced into a room. The yellow lights were actually candles and they were throwing a feeble light on the floor. His hand twitched and his fingers scraped across something that sent signals of cold and hard and wood to his brain. Belatedly, he realized that his wrists were tied. Not with guts, but rope. Wait, not rope, it was too soft. It was. . .cloth? Handkerchiefs? He stared at the binds without really seeing them, the bright colors ringing in his eyes.
"That's it, lie there. Let a little knock on the head stop you."
Now that he thought about it, there was a dark stain underneath his head. Of course, with the pain coming from his skull he shouldn't have been surprised, but for some reason he had not made the connection until now. The puddle was frighteningly dark, and the red-black-hot-sticky blood stretched nearly to his elbows, making him nauseous with its metallic rust-stabbing smell. More of it slowly dripped from his head, tickling down his forehead with swamp green touches to pitter-patter to the floor like soft rain. His hair was sticky, as if tree resin had been smeared across it.
"Never mind that both of our lives are at stake."
That roused him, bringing him out of that odd floating state of mind. He noticed that the voice was now tinged with a limey sort of sadness that made him see indigo. That voice shouldn't be sad, a part of him knew. He hurt when the voice was sad, quite literally. He tried to get up, but he moved too quickly and all at once and his body shrieked with pain, an awful bruise of a noise that rumbling through his bones and was so loud and encompassing that it made him wonder if the timbers of the room were screaming back at him. Colors exploded in front of him, first red then white then fortissimo black and then the hazy fog was back. This time the pain tasted like nutmeg, which surprised him more than anything because it kept changing flavor as if each new height of pain peeled back another layer of a cottony object that clogged his mouth and ears and left him in this confusing world where his senses were mixed up and sights and sounds were indistinguishable from each other and had their own scents and flavors.
It took the grayness quite a while to vanish. Again it was the voice that drove it away, driving into his skull and spine with the monotonous conviction of a blacksmith's hammer. "Brainless. . .stupid. . .worthless. . .unreliable. . .weak. . ." A bitterness made the words taste strangely of mustard.
He remembered how to work his mouth. He parted his bloody lips, imagining them ripping apart like the fabric of a ragged scarecrow. He swallowed once, forcing the copper-blood-spit down his throat. Maybe the snake would drown in it. "Now. . . " he whispered, putting all of his thoughts into making a simple sentence. "No needfor insults." He croaked them out, his old hag's nails of a voice scraping out of his throat to add a counterpoint to the orange melody.
At once the voice was silenced. "I'm sorry Gilbert," it said later in pine-scented regret. "They're the only thing that you've responded to."
He wondered what that meant. Slowly, he exhaled, trying to clear his foggy head. Or at least clearing it as much as he possibly could, which was admittedly not that much. His strength slowly came back to him, dancing along his fingers and toes and sitting on his scorched heart, as if it could banish the wounds that the words had torn open. He needed to free himself, somehow. But. . .he knew that he could easily do it, but he forgot how. It felt like his mind was trying to break down the door to the problem when it could have simply opened it and walked in.
Handkerchiefs, that was the key. Ropes were harder to untie, but he could not untie the handkerchiefs when he was already tied up. Something else. . .something. . .teeth. As if only now remembering that they existed, his hot-metal-marble teeth started to vibrate like a plucked string. He ignored it and brought his hands to his mouth, forcing his strained muscles to pull them closer, his joints creaking like old door hinges. He dragged his hands closer to his face with all of the deliberateness of a cat stalking a mouse, but when they were a few inches from his grasp something caught on a gap in the floorboards and PAIN!! RedgreenyellowwailtenorsmokePAIN curdled the bones in his hands and arms and split his skull into pieces that scatted across the floor like beads thrown away by a careless child. A buzzing stared up in the distance, and with the way the pitch varied and brought different shades of color he knew that the voice had started up again.
". . .a coward, giving up like this. Not even putting up a fight." The voice was trembling now, wavering like a leaving tossed into a flowing stream.
Nein, he thought redly, too incoherent to form words just yet. He could still see, barely, it was all he needed to guide his wrist to his lips. He parted them again and sank his teeth into the cloth like a dog tearing into fresh, steamy red meat. It felt as if he was trying to bite through wood, which sent an entirely different sort of buzzing into his ears. Then he tugged, he neck cringing in pain, but the bindings didn't loosen. That didn't even deter him; he just pulled harder. His head swirled and the handkerchief tasted of blood and sweat and sweet butter. But he would not let go, he could not. He had to get free, why he did not know, but the voice said that he did, and he trusted that voice with his life.
His determination was so single-minded that for a while he forgot his pain and intermingling senses. He was going to get out, and anything else was unacceptable. It felt as if he had been pulling on those rags for years, but in one elated moment he felt a knot slip free. Yes! Buoyed by his victory, he immediately went for the other one. This took a shorter amount of time and when the next knot was untied he managed to get his hands free. A wide grin split his face and the bell-like ringing from his lower lip signaled more pain.
The voice was behind him, so naturally he had to roll over in order to see it. The mere thought sent chills through him. A nameless dread sunk its teeth into his gut, but deep inside of him was a part that was untouched, unaffected by all that was going on around him, and it calmly informed him that it was the only way. He knew that it was right and began to plan on how to do it. From the way he passed out earlier, there was something terribly wrong with his left hand, and he wasn't quite sure but he thought his leg was broken. Drumbeats pounded out of it, which had started after he had first passed out and had not gone away since. He took two deep breaths and then in one harsh motion used his good hand to push himself onto his back. His shoulders hit the floor with a sickeningly wet thud and he immediately felt a thick warmth soak through the back of his clothes. His head felt a lot like it was still rolling, even though his body had gone completely still. There was more light on this side, which was mixed blessing since he could see better but that brought the strong smell of moss and damp things to his nose. He saw something move out of the corner of his eye and he turned his head to see Fritz.
His leader was sitting against the wall and for a moment he wondered why, then he saw that Fritz's hand were also tied, and they hung above his head as if he were being chained up in a castle like they used to do in the old days. He was still wearing his uniform, but it was filthy and bloodstained. He had lost his hat and his wig and a few strands of his hair had come out of its braid. Most of the powder had come out of his hair, revealing its true mahogany color. But to his utter astonishment he was the glitter of tears on his king's cheeks, all of them singing with a diamond bright brilliance. That was profoundly wrong, Fritz was a person who should never cry, and the wetness of his collar showed that he had been crying for quite a while.
Fritz was looking at him with a torn and helpless expression. "Gilbert?" he asked when he realized that Gilbert was staring at him.
He blinked, trying to remember how to speak. He had managed it a minute or ten ago, but his rolling head was snatching away his thoughts and memories. A strange curiosity stole over him and he lifted his injured hand so he could see it in the light. At first his mind refused to comprehend what it saw. No, that was not a hand. It was too jagged and twisted. He heard Fritz gasp something and noticed that there were mountains on the back his hand. Against the blood on his skin they were a shocking white, splitting through his skin and jabbing out at all sorts of angles like the spines of some sea creature. White, they were such a vibrato white, white as bone. . . he slowly lowered his hand, feeling sick to his stomach. It that was what his hand looked like then he hated to see what the rest of him looked like.
"Prussia," Fritz said, grabbing his attention. "Listen carefully to me. I need you to come here." He gently thumped his boot against the floor to indicate what "here" meant.
The thump made the corners of his vision flicker azure. Terror-ice pooled across his tongue as the meaning of Frederick's words came to him. Come here? As in moving?
Noticing his expression, Fritz went on. "Please Gilbert, I know it will be hard. But it's the only way we're going to get out of here. If we don't free ourselves, then our captors might use us for ransom, or kill us." He leaned forward, his eyes hardening in intensity. "They will kill us, Gilbert. They'll kill me."
Kill had a sort of pleasing baked pastry taste to it, but his neck and ribs flamed as the tone scratched down them harshly. He could not allow that to happen, every fiber in his broken body cried out against it. He sighed in resignation thought about how he was going to move. After a moment he gripped the slippery floor with his good hand and slid his leg up until it was bent perfectly, then he used both to push himself across the floor. It hurt, but of course it hurt, everything he did hurt. He had braced himself for it and even managed to push himself again before his spinning vision forced him stop. He allowed himself only a moment of rest and then started again. People were going to kill Fritz, and he had to stop him. His anger gave him a strength he had no idea that he had and soon his crawling pace had picked up and he was scooting across the floor inches at a time. All of a sudden the back of his head hit a boot and a hot pepper scream pulled darkness over his eyes. It was a wonderful darkness, warm and inviting and smelling of rose petals. For a while he was completely devoid of any pain and just felt a soothing coolness reaching into him, washing away the growling of pain and leaving him floating and more content than he had ever felt in his life. He was far too gone to be able to tell how long he floated in that darkness, but he was certain that it was a long time. Nonetheless his consciousness slowly returned.
". . .a bumbling idiot, not even able to crawl like a baby without injuring himself. Clumsy fool. He just sits there, like an inbred sop without a shred of loyalty. Giving up again, leaving me to die."
The litany of abuse tore him apart bit by bit, pitiless and unmerciful. Fritz wasn't even talking to him anymore, but merely describing him as if he wasn't even there. Despite the sting of basil and vinegar in his mouth and nose, he still rallied against those words, wondering how in the world he still had the strength to do so. "Never," he forced out, opening his eyes. "Never leave you to die." Even though he was broken in more ways than one, he knew down to the depths of his soul that it was true.
"Gilbert? Oh god, I thought. . . nevermind what I thought." The disdain was gone, replaced by a warm cinnamon relief. "We don't have much time. Can you get up?"
He could not, not on his own anyway. But he had reached Fritz, and Fritz could help him. Indeed it was Fritz who did most of the work, wriggling his legs under him and helping him up. Of course with his good arm he tried to help, but he was so disoriented that the only direction he really knew was up. He let Fritz guide him into a sitting position and then push and prod him until he fell back against his leader's chest. Fritz's head rested on his shoulder and his torso was pressed against his back. It was a position they had assumed many time before, but there was nothing intimate about it now.
He was so tired from the work that he head was starting to spin. "Gilbert. . .Gilbert. . ." he felt Fritz whispering into his ear urgently.
He wanted to tell his king that his voice tasted like sage and hearing it brought wonderful lattice designs of silver into his mind's eye. His scent hand a low hum to it that thrummed across his entire body as if a rain-swelled stream had been injected into his veins. But Gilbert knew that he wouldn't understand, he could not hear or taste the colors that he could smell. "Wait," he gritted through his teeth before the horrid torrent of insults could start again. "Trying. . . to think." His head was still whirling and all of his thoughts threatened to pull him under.
"Let me do that," Fritz answered immediately. "Now, do you remember the knife you once showed me? The one that you said was hidden in your boot?"
Remembering hurt, but snatches of images came to him. "I think so," he murmured. Then he remembered that the heel on one of his boots was fake, and taking it off revealed a hidden compartment where the aforementioned knife was carefully hidden. He had been ridiculously proud of himself for making it.
"Good. If you can get it then I can cut these ropes."
"I don't remember how to take the heel off." And that was true, he could not recall it even if his life depended on it. And, ironically, it did.
"You showed me how to do it. Just do as I say, trust me."
Yes, that was so much easier, to let go of his thoughts and simply do things. To obey a higher command unquestoningly like his army had been drilled to do. He let Fritz talk to him and did whatever he was asked. He let Fritz tell him which boot to grab (by the merest stroke of luck it was not the one belonging to his broken leg) and how to twist his hand and leg exactly so. The fake heel came off with a minty click that made his gums itch. The knife was not overly big, but he knew that it was very sharp, since he kept all of his weapons that way. He managed to wrap his fingers around the handle and drag it out of his boot and waited for Fritz's next instructions, trying not to pass out as he did. How long had he been awake now? He had no idea, but it had been far too long. During all of his periods of consciousness he had been exerting himself, each ordeal harder and more painful than the last, and his body was at its limit. It was odd, because by now he should have healed himself, but instead his condition had, if anything, deteriorated. It made no sense, but whatever the case he should have been resting and not impeding his recovery.
Fritz suddenly nudged him on the head, bringing him back from his musings. "Are you still there?" he asked. What an odd choice words.
He gave a tiny nod, and even that tired him. He was so tired, but he would not sleep. Not until Fritz was safe.
"Prussia, are you listening to me?" Fritz said, his breath tickling his ear.
He was too tired to nod again, so he murmured something indistinct. Of course he was listening, Fritz never called him by his country name unless he had to say something important.
"Good. I'm sorry that I have to ask this of you, but I need you to lift that knife into my hand." Fritz sounded uneasy, a darkish orange look.
His heart thudded painfully against his ribcage. Oh no. . . he thought, his body starting to tremble. How in the hell was he supposed to do that? He was having a hard enough time keeping his eyes open, let alone lifting his entire arm up above his head....But he had to. He certainly couldn't cut Fritz's bonds. He took a slow breath and tried to gather his strength, and then he dragged his arm into his lap. It was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. His shoulder hurt and his arms felt as if they were weighted down with lead. Fritz started whispering his name again, but he could barely hear it. His pounding heart sent the roar of waves crashing into the shore of his mind, waves of gray and blue that swirled in edges of his vision like a dream, tasting of sweet apples and smelling of coffee. He fought of that tempting world trying to pull him into darkness and lifted his hand upwards. It was slow goinghis muscles refused to workand he often had to catch his finger on a button or a fold in his clothes so he could give his arm a rest. By the time his hand had reached his shoulder he was panting as if he had been running and his vision was starting to flicker.
The waves were growing louder and Fritz's words, whether insults or encouragement, simply faded into the background and became a wind being blown by the sea. At first he could not find Fritz's arm and he had to stretch, but once he found a sleeve that was not his own he grabbed it stubbornly. He had to find Fritz's hand by following the arm, since he couldn't see it, and he pulled his arm ever higher, gripping the knife so hard that he could feel it wailing hotly as it cut into his palm. Please gods don't let him drop it because he would never manage this again.
His strength, which had amazingly gotten him this far, was starting to fail him. He was trembling so hard that only his constant grip on Frederick's clothes kept his arm from falling. Not now. . . you can't stop now. . . a voice whispered to him, whether his own or Fritz's he could not tell. Whatever it was it spurred him on. He twisted his body and pushed himself higher using his legs. Suddenly his vision fragmented and the pain made his eyes come loose and rocket around the insides of his skull like two crazed marbles. Even though he could not see he could still feel, and he continued to reach up, up, up. His broken leg crackled as if lightning had just shot through it and past the pain he could feel the knife slipping out of his grip. He tried to hold it tighter, but it vanished from his hand. He cried out in frustration and denial, refusing to believe that he could have failed now after all that he had done. He wanted to grab it but he was falling.
A final spasm of ginger pain wracked his senses and then he knew no more.
"How long has it been?"
"Three weeks, two days, and probably nine or something hours."
". . . Your Majesty, shouldn't you think of. . . putting him in a home or something?"
"Oh? Do elaborate, if you would please."
"Your Majesty, forgive his boldness. He's young and "
"That's enough, Marshal Keith. While your defense of your troops is admirable, his boldness made him speak out first."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I ask that you do forgive my boldness, but I think it simply must be said. If General Beilschmidt has lain there for three weeks and has yet to awaken, then why do we still linger here? It is more than likely that he will never wake up, so why are we letting him become a burden?"
"He saved my life."
"No, Your Majesty, you saved your life when you cut your bonds and climbed out of that window, God knows how you managed it in your condition and with the window being on the second floor of the house."
"And I would not have managed it at all if he had not given me his knife! I had been in that house for two days and would have remained there even longer if he had not found out where I was."
"It is a most commendable action, surely, but he would not be laying there at all if went to General Schwerin's search party the moment he found you. Yet he got captured and was half-killed because he lingered."
"He did not linger. He did not call get help for the same reason that I did not at first, he was captured before he had the chance to. You cannot fault him for that, use your brain man!"
Voices. Voices that didn't taste or smell of anything, thank gods. The sounds did not bring colors into his stubbornly dark vision and he wasn't feeling anything at the moment. He could hear a lot of people talking, one of them being Frederick. He would recognize that sharp voice anywhere. He tried to focus on what they were saying, and he realized that it was about him.
"We're getting off topic here. What he have to decide now is what to do with him."
"Oh Zieten, not you too!"
"I am neutral on this topic, Schwerin. I am just saying that aruging about what General Beilschmidt should have done is not going to change what happened."
"Unfortunately, he has a point."
"He's not going anywere."
"Your Majesty, be reas"
"No! I am not about to ship him away to be holed up in god-knows-where for the rest of his life as if he were some sort of embarassment."
"My King, please listen to me. I've seen this before. I had a grandfather who was a good, hardworking man, but one day he took a tumble and hit his head. He woke a up a few days later but he was never the same man. Had this glassy, blank look in his eyes like a doll's. He did nothing but sit and look out the window all day and didn't speak a word to anyone. He couldn't even put on his boots and refused to eat anything that wasn't served with blackberry jam. My mother tried to take care of him, but he wasted away and died after a few months."
"Be that as it may, Lieutenant, my answer remains the same. It doesn't matter what happens to Gilbert. If he wakes up and wants to look out the window all day, then I shall make sure there is a comfortable chair placed there. If he can't put on his shoes then I will do it for him. If he wants to eat nothing but jamblackberry or otherwisethen I shall keep the cellars stocked with it! He can be a doddering idiot for the rest of his days but he stays here!!"
It was a thunderclap of a voice that left a stunned silence in its wake. He felt his breath catch in his throat as he heard Fritz standing up for him. That voice that had hurled diatribes at him like stones had now become his protector and defender. Again people were deeming him useless, but it was not Fritz. His senses were coming back to him; he was lying in a bed, that smell of clean sheets and wood was in the air, and Fritz was somewhere nearby.
"Your Majesty, I"
"By God, look! Majesty, his hand just moved, I swear it"
"Yes, I see it! Well, what are you all standing around for? Find Doctor Zahner at once!"
There was a great clattering of footsteps and then everything was silent. A single person came to stand by his bedside and a warm hand closed around his own. "Gilbert?" Fritz asked, his voice barely above a whisper. "Can you hear me? Please, you don't have to say anything, just squeeze my hand oryes, like that!" There was a laugh of wild relief, as if a man being led to the gallows had found out that he had been pardoned at the last minute.
His eyes were too heavy to lift, so he simply squeezed that hand again. That one motion seemed to unleash something within his king and before he had time to register it he was being swept into a tight embrace and Fritz was whispering words that he thought he would never hear. "Brave. . . stout. . . true. . . enduring. . . amazing. . ."
A tiny part of him wondered what those words would have tasted like. They felt like balm, soothing those raw places that Fritz had torn open. He was not a failure, he was not useless. He had saved Fritz's life and that was all that mattered. He squeezed his hand again, silencing Fritz, and managed to crack open his eyes. Pressed against a shoulder, the only thing he saw was the dark blue of a uniform, and even that was too bright for him. "I want jam," he croaked, his voice hoarse from disuse. Unable to stop himself, he curled his lips into a smile.
For a moment he felt Fritz freeze in horror. Laughter then rumbled in Fritz's chest as he realized that Prussia had actually been listening to the conversation from earlier. "Alright, liebling, I'll get you some jam." A hand gently stroked the back of his neck, idly playing with strands of his hair.
"Not blackberry," he said, muffling a cough. "I hate that shit."
"Not blackberry," Fritz agreed, hugging him tighter. "I love you, you know."
He wanted to laugh, but that required too much energy. "I love you too," he murmured and closed his eyes, letting himself drift off to Fritz's voice and the two warm arms that were supporting him.