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Taking the Waters

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The quiet in the galleria was disturbed from time to time with a weak cough or a low moan, but for the most part, all the convalescents sat in silence facing the glass-panelled wall, looking longingly at the lavish gardens on the other side of the glass. It was the fashion, or at least it was this week, for invalids to remain indoors. To venture forth into the fresh air was to court death, or so John had been told by a half dozen of self-appointed experts on matters of health. Bath teemed with experts on matters of health, and for this reason, and because John's recuperation had been slowed by an acute inflammation of the lungs and London was miserable with late and sticky heat, Olivia had bundled her entire family out of the city and away to Somerset. Between bouts of coughing and the sharp pain of the shrapnel still embedded in his chest, John could find no breath with which to argue the decision.

His cousin and his mother were in the Pump Room at this moment, taking the water and mingling with all manner of bright people who flocked to Bath, but John was deemed too frail for even this excitement, and so remained at the hotel with the other convalescents. Now, he gingerly leaned a little forward in his chair, deflecting the approach of an attendant with a curt shake of his head. The tassel-hatted attendant inclined his head politely but managed to convey smug disapproval as he glided silently towards an elderly man who reached out with a trembling hand. While his attention was diverted, John took the chance to mutter out of the corner of his mouth. "How went the mission, Hopson?"

Beside him, lying awkwardly in a bath-chair, John's young accomplice grinned. The expression was gruesome on his pale, hollow-eyed face. The boy reached beneath the numerous rugs piled across his wasted legs, and with a furtive rustle, extracted a copy of the Bath Chronicle; much crumpled, but dated only two days ago. John waited for the next opportune moment – a coughing spasm from one of the consumptives at the back of the room – and whisked the paper from the young boy's hands, palming into it instead a twist of barley sugar of generous size. The two of them settled back in their chairs, each pleased with their contraband, until a shadow loomed above them – the great winged head-dress of Reverend Mother, most dreaded of all the staff. John eyed her with a grim expression, and closed his hand over the newspaper: she would have it over his dead body.

The outcome of this dire altercation would never be known, for a crisp footstep on the marble floor of the galleria drew the attention of everyone who was able to turn their head: Stephan, Landgrave von Erdberg strode with disrespectful vigour across the galleria towards John's chair. Reverend Mother swivelled like a cannon to face down this impudent intruder, and John watched her quail as Stephan grew larger and larger in their view until he towered above her, dwarfing even her preposterous hat.

"I am come for Lord John Grey," he announced, with a crisp bow that was too ornamental to have originated anywhere other than the continent, even if the elaborate brocade and mulberry coat had not identified him as a foreigner. His manner and accent, and the mystery of the folded sleeve neatly pinned up where his left arm ought to be made Stephan a spectacle so vivid that he seemed to leach the colour from the garden outside. From inside the remarkably-coloured coat, Stephan produced papers with a snap, waving them under Reverend Mother's nose briefly: John craned his neck but caught no glimpse of the words. "It is a matter of utter importance, and I will not be denied."

***

Reverend Mother was impressed. John was swiftly bundled out of the hotel, and though the walk to the stables was more exercise than he had taken in some days, he found the familiar bustle and atmosphere of the stables more invigorating than any of the dozens of tonics he had consumed in the past months. His limbs felt cottony and his mind stupid, but he knew enough not to disagree when Stephan legged him up onto a horse, despite the frantic exhortations from the nursing staff that John must not ride.

"Here," Stephan hefted a sturdy wicker basket up and balanced it half on the pommel and half on the broad neck of the obliging chestnut John was mounted upon, "You must hold him, I have enough to carry."

John peered beneath the lid, and a warm and eager tongue frantically slathered his fingers. "Hello, Gustav." He closed the lid and held the basket firmly: it rocked from side to side as Gustav turned circles of joy at this unexpected arrival of an old friend. As they turned out of the yard at a gentle pace, John quite understood the sentiment.

They rode in silence for a while. John was content to let his sedate mount follow in Stephan's wake; Stephan's nervous, goggle-eyed blood mare proved more successful at cleaving the crowds, which wandered with annoying lack of care in front of moving objects.

When they had been riding for an hour, and low hills obscured the city from view, John finally ventured a question as to their destination.

"I am taking you to the waters." Stephan waved an airy hand at the hills ahead.

John looked back over his shoulder, towards the city full of thermae and pumps, then forward again with a hiss as pain twinged deep in his chest. "You do understand that the waters are back in the city?"

"For the visitor, yes. I have spoken to the barkeep, the ostler and two chamber-maids: they all take the waters outside the city. I know this, the locals keep the best of everything for themselves. I cannot blame them."

John nodded as they rode on. "I assume, then, since you are not in uniform, that there is no official business, either."

Stephan gave an easy laugh and produced the papers, leaning from his horse and passing them to John with a flourish that made his mare snort and dance. John scanned the page of German script: it was a letter thanking the Landgrave for his gracious permission to hunt upon certain lands on his estate. He looked back at Stephan in some confusion.

Stephan's grin was ferocious. "I have given her the bamboozle!"

***

Once they'd left the road, the countryside looked indistinguishable to John, but Stephan nodded each time they passed a landmark of significance, navigating the gentle rise and fall of the landscape according to a mental map he had assembled from the directions given by several people. They stopped beside a brook to water the horses and allow Gustav to stretch his legs. John concentrated on keeping his back straight – he would not sag in the saddle like a sack of flour, though the muscles of his thighs and back were beginning to tug uncomfortably; it had been some months since he'd last ridden. Stephan watched him a moment from the ground, then passed him a flask. John took a sip, and would have coughed and choked as the brandy burned the back of his throat, but Stephan was watching him silently, so he schooled his expression and swallowed manfully. His eyes streamed, though, and he felt the liquor rushing to his head much faster than it ought to.

"What has happened to you, John?" Stephan held the flask so that John could screw the cap on tightly, then slipped it into his pocket. "When I saw you last, you were becoming well. I have never known you to listen to the advice of those who wish to mollycoddle – look what they have done! You are as weak as a new lamb."

John followed the path of a leaf as it spun and bobbed over eddies. He watched it until it had vanished out of sight, if only to avoid Stephan's gaze. "It has not been a gentle year. I think, perhaps, that my luck has run out." The words sounded hopelessly indulgent the moment they were out of his mouth, and he flushed. The last thing he wanted was to appear a simpering layabed in front of his friend. Perhaps that was what he had finally become?

Unconcerned, Stephan reached out to snag the reins and tow his mare in from where she was picking her way daintily into the brook. "There's no such thing as luck for a soldier, my friend. We must play the hand we are dealt, and play it to win." He lead his horse out of the water and across to where John sat his own mount. "Here, keep her still while I mount – she is canny, and has already learned that I cannot hold both the reins and the stirrup."

Shamed again by Stephan's frank acceptance of his own injuries, John slipped his hand under the cheek strap to hold the horse's head while Stephan mounted with a neat hop that belied his size, then took a moment to arrange the reins so that he could steer one handed.

"Come, this leads to the source, or so I'm told." Stephan nudged the mare with his calves, and she leapt into motion again. Joyfully free of confinement, Gustav slithered in and out of the mud by the edge of the stream, stopping now and then to lap at the water that swelled in the hollowed hoof-prints.

***

The source of the spring water was disappointingly small – a crack in the rocks, from which burbled a thin stream of muddy brown water. Stephan gave a snort of disgust. "I could piss stronger." Nonetheless, he dismounted and John did the same, leading both the horses up the slight incline.

A tin cup had been lashed to an iron peg driven into the rock face, and Stephan took it, and held it beneath the trickle of water. He leaned against the rock while the cup filled, and looked at John appraisingly while he waited. "What have they been feeding you? You are as bony as a boy."

John resisted the urge to rub his arm where an ache was beginning to set in. "Possets, mostly."

Stephan frowned at the unfamiliar word. "What is in possets?"

"I honestly have no idea," John stepped across the narrow waterway to stand beside Stephan. "But it looks and smells like something my godson brings up in copious amounts after he has fed." He leaned his back against the rock – it had been warmed by the sun for hours, and seeped through his clothes. He had been sweating as he rode, and now his shirt was clammy against his skin.

Stephan gave another rude snort. "Ridiculous. You need meat. Blood and wine, that's what will give you back your strength."

John looked dubious. "I'm almost sideways from one sip of brandy, my friend. I think blood and wine is a little ambitious."

The cup was full, and Stephan held it out for him. The rope, green with algae, was short, and John had to lean forward to bring his mouth to the metal edge of the cup. Without a free hand to steady his friend, Stephan crooked his leg up against the rock so that John could lean against the strong thigh and crane his head out to take the first swallow from the tin cup. The water tasted as though it had filtered through a barrel of rusted nails, and there was a bright red sediment caked all around the rim. As he drank mouthful after mouthful, John heard the swish of linen as Stephan's left shoulder moved, and he wondered what instinctive command had been sent to the missing limb. He felt the afternoon sun warm on the back of his head, and wished for a moment that it was Stephan's hand moving through his hair. He stood up abruptly; that unexpected and vivid thought had stirred him to hardness, and pressed as he was against Stephan's thigh, it would be painfully obvious in a moment. Stephan stood away from the rock face too, and leaned a hip against John's body, so that he could bend and drink from the same cup. Two more swallows, and it was drained. Stephan let it clatter against the rocks, and John jumped.

"I suppose we had better eat, then." Stephan's voice was hoarse, and John told himself that it was the murky water that made it so.

***

Stephan's saddle bag was full of food that John had been expressly forbidden to eat, soldier's fare, most of it: a good wedge of cheese, fatty bacon, and fresh baked bread, as well as a bottle of wine wrapped in straw. They let the horses graze, and sat on a fallen log to eat, the bottle wedged between Stephan's knees when it wasn't being passed from one man to the other. Gustav sidled up to John's boots and looked pleadingly at the slab of cheese pressed into the soft bread.

"Do not give him one piece." Stephan poked the dog affectionately with one toe. "Cheese gives him wind; we will be thrown out of the carriage in disgrace. He was terribly spoiled on the crossing – all the young girls would feed him at table. I must break him of the habit." Immediately contradicting his own words, he bit his bread in two, and flung one piece as far as he could. Gustav was gone in a trice, ferreting the tidbit out with narrowed eyes and intense focus.

"There will be an inquiry, into the matter of the cannon. It has given me some reason for concern." Surrounded by the practical trappings of his profession and perhaps loosened a little by the wine, John felt able to talk of it. "I cannot allow myself to doubt that my actions were correct – and how could they not be? But I cannot let it rest – so much happened in that time, I turn it all over and over at night, until I cannot sleep. I worry that I have made some error of judgement, and I don't know how I can be trusted again."

"Ah, and this is why you comply with physicians, and nursemaids and everyone who claims to know how a body is repaired?" Stephan brushed crumbs from his hand against his leg then took a long pull from the bottle. He handed the bottle to John, who did the same. "You think you are doing the right thing, in obeying their demands but you have handed responsibility to them, my friend. If you have made an error, and who does not, at some time, make an error? Then at least you must own your responsibility to it." He tilted his head and John could see him reviewing his own words. "Have I explained it correctly? It is difficult, with matters of the spirit, to get the words just right." He slapped his thigh with a cracking sound. "Solid things, like flesh and bone, much easier to understand."

John shook his head and took another long swallow of rich red wine. "I don't think that either are easy to comprehend, in whatever language you choose." He stood up, and brushed down his coat. "But, yes, I understand. I must be the master of my own fate again." It felt good to say it aloud – a kind of vow between the two of them. He cocked his head at the sky; the sun was beginning to angle downwards. "I think we had best strike out for the city soon – I may be stuffed with blood and wine, but I think I'm not quite ready for a night under the stars."

If Stephan's words, sharp and true, had come from any other person they would have left John suffused with shame. Instead, John felt relief, as though he had lost his path until Stephan had pointed him in the right direction. The inquiry still loomed, but for now, John felt a little more certain of himself. For today, at least, he could trust his instincts and put faith in the decisions he made. He chirruped to the chestnut gelding, and the obliging beast threw up his head and wandered towards him. Further down the shallow river bank, Stephan gave a roar of horror followed by a blistering mouthful of German obscenities as his finicky mare lay down happily in the muddy stream and rolled. John laughed softly to himself, and walked down the incline to assist his friend. Gustav galloped beside him with an undulating gait – clearly delighted that there were new games afoot.