Dressed in the finest blue gala coat, dripping with silver thread, his tricorne likewise adorned, the newly crowned Frederick II stared down from the palace balcony in Berlin, and his people stared right back.
Whores, lawyers, clergymen, travelling theatre players, butchers, bakers, professors and fishwives alike all contemplated what they managed to see of the new king, standing on the dry sand of the square in front of the palace that had previously been used as a drilling ground for soldiers by the king's late father.
The crowd was rife with speculation, among which was the question of whether the new king would bother re-converting the sterile ground on which they stood back into a public garden. Arguments about the possible intentions of the new ruler ran high, often directed by the imperious voices of the fishwives, who had come over in full force from the fish market only a few blocks away.
Frederick frowned down at the good burghers of Berlin as he watched them debate and chomp on refreshments provided by ambulant vendors.
"I don't like them."
"That's because they all have uncivil tongues in their heads and deign to talk back when you shout at them. In other words, it's because they act like you used to with your father." Gilbert knew precisely that anyone else saying this to the king was liable to go to prison indefinitely, but there was no such thing as an indefinite amount of time for an Incarnation, and he'd long since stopped caring about what others thought of him.
"Right you are," said the king, turning toward him. "It is fortunate that I have such a kind fellow as yourself by my side as I begin my rule." He cocked an eyebrow and Gilbert burst out laughing. Frederick's occasional overawareness of his own failings never ceased to amuse.
The general atmosphere of jollity between the two men continued into the state dinner at the palace and in the coach on the way back to Charlottenburg. By the time they had supped and were ready to retire to bed, Gilbert felt as though his stomach was filled with tiny bubbles of hilarity, rising to the surface and bursting as words, clever words, fine words, words he had not suspected he had the grace to express in the first place.
At the supper table, Frederick had, to the disappointment of Fredersdorf and several other hopefuls, quickly chosen Gilbert as his bedside attendant that night. "For," as he said, "it is only right and proper that a Nation and their sovereign should spend the first night of their official association together." This announcement was greeted by roars of approval and clinking glasses from the more raucous fellows in attendance.
Later, when they made their way towards the inner chambers of the palace, the king remarked:
"I wish to sleep in my grandmother's bed tonight. Perhaps I shall thus absorb some of the wisdom of that great lady."
"You will also absorb something of my relationship with her," said Gilbert nonchalantly. "She said I was of great help in alleviating her hysteria."
Frederick's face coloured with surprise, then he burst out laughing. "I should have guessed as much from an enlightened woman such as her. Tell me, does it bother you to know I am her grandson?"
"...Not in the slightest. Each human with which I have taken my pleasure, I treat as an individual on their own merits."
"As I thought. For gods like you, we mortals are but toys."
No god am I, shouted a voice in his mind. I have renounced all heresies!
But yes you are, though fallible still, as you share your people's fate, said another voice whose words fell like dew on moss.
Gilbert clutched at his head abruptly.
Frederick stopped walking. "Is something wrong?"
"No, just a brief spell of pain. I should be fine."
The king's brow furrowed and he saw worry flit across his eyes, worry mixed with- but the expression was gone, and he could see no more.
After dismissing all the servants who wanted to help him undress and firmly informing the guards outside the bedchamber that he was retired for the night, Frederick turned to Gilbert and smiled. Prussia grinned back, and immediately said, "Right, where do you keep the cold cream?"
"Oh, don't be barbaric, Gilbert. Tonight, we must make good use of Algarotti's little coronation gift to me." He walked over to the cabinet next to the bed and pulled out a large pot. "Ah, here we are. The finest pomade of olive oil and beeswax, neither too thin nor thick in consistency." He sighed. "Use it in good health, he said."
"The poor fellow is still afflicted from his previous indiscretions, then?" Rumours travelled quickly at court, and Gilbert had gotten very good at distinguishing the false ones from those more likely to be true.
"Alas, he is."
"And as a result, you have to take my uncultured self to your bed instead of a polished Italian who knows all the good tricks."
Frederick turned and looked irritatedly at Gilbert. "I wish you would cease to underestimate yourself so grossly. You aren't an Italian, but that doesn't mean you can't practice the Italian Vice with equal skill."
Gilbert had to smile at that. "I did accrue quite a bit of book-learning on matters of love in the restricted stacks of the Doge's library in Venice when I was living there. But the practicalities, I acquired...in less civilized settings."
"Oh please. Just because you were not resting on silken pillows when you gave and took pleasure does not mean your skill in doing so was any less. Surely, the mossy ground of your native forests was as soft as any Venetian bower."
Fragments of memory surged in Prussia at those words.
The moss of the sacred grove, so velvety as he smiled down at the beautiful body of his leader, his chosen--- a few steps, and he was upon Frederick, seizing him by the collar, taking those precious lips in his, swiftly now, he must let the heat of his passion be quenched before it consumed him-
Frederick stared at the changed face of his beloved Nation. He had seen that look in his eyes before. It was the look of a man accustomed to quick, violent passion, taken in alcoves and fields. How many times had Gilbert been dispatched to report on his condition to his late father? How many times at Küstrin, at Ruppin, at Rheinsberg had they succumbed to lasciviousness, had stilled the burning need inside each other's thighs, muffled each others' cries as they feared someone would find where they lay in the linen stores, the fodder barn, the fields?
But no more. His father's hatred of his nature no longer hung over him. He cupped Gilbert's face with both hands, and pleaded: "Please. Gently. Please. You are my Land. I love you."
Gilbert stopped. Those words had cast a spell over him.
"Then let me enter you, so that you may know me fully," he replied.
"What language was it you just spoke?" he said incredulously.
Prussia blinked once, twice, and the realization came. Oh shit. He knew he could not lie to Frederick. The man was too attuned to lying, too accustomed to deceiving others himself. So he spoke the truth, but plainly, hoping it would suffice.
"That...was a saying of the pagan Prussia I once absorbed. It resurfaced at your declaration."
"But what did you say?" insisted the king, stepping forward. He frowned at Gilbert's hesitancy. "Do you still fear the Inquisition might hear your ungodly words? They have no power here."
Gilbert let all his breath out of his nose in a rapid-fire sigh. The king had grown in his knowledge of his country since his enforced stay in Küstrin. He should have known it would come to this when Frederick had boasted to him of his new knowledge at Rheinsberg. He'd said that he had called upon all learned professors of the region to help him with his studies by translating the old chronicles from Latin. Those poor professors. Frederick was an impatient man at the best of times.
"You must promise not to hate me if I tell you this."
"Oh, my unfortunate Nation." Frederick led him to the bed, touched his cheek as they sat down. "I had never thought to ask what persecutions, what torments those idiotic papists subjected you to when young. The chronicles speak of such matters only vaguely."
Gently, he took Gilbert's hands. "If you do not wish to tell me the meaning of that utterance, I will not force you. But I found its harsh tones bore a strange poetry, and I would dearly love to know their meaning."
Gilbert hesitated. He stared at the strange man who was now his ruler. The man who didn't give a shit about what any clergyman said. The man who had already written an erotic poem in his honour.
"All right, I'll tell you." He leaned forward and whispered the meaning of those ancient words in Frederick's ear.
The king flushed with delight on hearing them. Wordlessly, he leaned in and kissed Gilbert softly. Prussia felt himself turn pink as well.
"How direct, and yet how beautiful," said Frederick, caressing his cheekbones. "Truly, the works of Antiquity are incomparable."
Gilbert felt his flush spread down his body as the king licked his earlobe. No wild passion this. Only quiet, delicate voluptuousness. Had he ever been loved this gently? He thought not. Terrifying hardness and agony had ever been his lot, in love and in hate.
Frederick tucked stray pale strands of Gilbert's hair behind his ears. Gilbert wore them tied back in the regulation queue, but since his white hair was no wig, strands of it tended to escape in the wind, in battle, and when struck with passion.
In an age where no gentleman would be caught dead outside of the bedchamber without a wig, the raw nudity of his unwigged self, of those tantalizing wisps, had always catapulted Frederick into a state of uncontrollable desire whenever Gilbert had visited Rheinsberg on an inspection tour. For he could never forget how these hairs had floated like a halo around Gilbert's head when they first knew joy together, pressed thick against each other on the grainy ridges of that wooden kitchen bench in Küstrin.
Slowly, carefully, the king began to disrobe him. Gilbert closed his eyes so he could better feel his fingers on his skin. Frederick ran his palms down his bare chest and he shivered happily.
Once he reached Gilbert's trousers Frederick stuck his hand inside them and played with him lazily. "How impossibly radiant you are, my beloved."
Gilbert answered by inserting his leg between Frederick's and grinding hard. Frederick cried out loud and they fell, entangled, onto the bed.
Layer after layer, Gilbert stripped the king of his clothes like an onion, until he lay revealed inside the shells like Venus. Then he stood, wriggled out of his own underclothes, and smiled down at him. Frederick answered that smile with his own, remarking: "I daresay this is the most glorious view I've had in ages."
He surged up, swept all clothes from the bed and edged his way closer to where Gilbert had sat down, letting his fingers glide between his legs. "My pale god. Let me worship at your altar."
Gilbert parted his thighs like a courtesan in her hour, and let Frederick's mouth take his breath away.
Stroking the king's hair, he reflected on how much had changed since the last time he had held his head in his lap. No longer did they languish in a cold cell, nor relish incomplete pleasures inside cedar closets. They'd gone all the way from hell, to purgatory, and now to heaven.
He lay back and focused on the rhythm of Frederick's tongue, steady, like the waves on the Baltic. This beautiful creature, his ruler, was summoning the tides, invigorating his congealed limbs. He closed his eyes and felt the multitude of streams that fed his ancient marshes flow through him. The ferns were growing, reaching upward in quiet, vegetative urgency, towards a sky perfumed by the rich scent of growth, decay, and renewal. And silently, underneath it all, the subterranean torrents flowed through tight caverns seeking issue, emerging in majesty to give their blessing to the thirsty traveller, just as he now poured himself into Frederick's mouth.
His breath released like the mist on the waters congealing just as dawn pierced them with its golden shafts. Suffused with the glory of those clouds, he gazed down at Frederick in perfect contentment.
The king sat up and embraced him, and Gilbert reciprocated. In the past, they would long since have moved on to other delights, but tonight, they would take their time and savour every moment.
Frederick happily buried his face in the fuzz on Prussia's chest. "Oh Gilbert, Gilbert, love gives your skin such a deliciously rosy bloom. Truly, you are the most treasured flower of my garden. Oh, had I but an antique poet's tongue to sing of the nuance of your petals, of the sweet pale nectar you disgorge," he said playfully.
"Those are...actually quite good lines."
The king broke out of the embrace abruptly.
"Shit, you're right. I need to go write that down-"
He jumped off the bed and rooted through his clothing, triumphantly producing a small notebook of pages hand-cut and sewn together, and a stick of graphite wrapped in string. Gilbert looked down at his verse-mad king as he scribbled frantically on several pages. It seemed another lascivious poem in his honour was in the offing. He was intensely curious about its contents, but knew better than to pressure his ruler to finish it- all he'd gotten for his trouble in the past was a stinging slap that left the impression of the Frederick's various rings on his face. "You do not rush my Muse!" he had shouted. And that piece had turned out to be very fine indeed, so fine that the then-prince had declaimed it with fervour while deep inside him one night at Rheinsberg. So Gilbert was perfectly willing to wait.
When the king had finished writing, he grabbed the pot of ointment from Algarotti and scrambled back onto the bed. Gilbert smiled indulgently and opened his arms. Frederick rushed into them and began by kissing his collarbone. Then his hand stopped abruptly while ruffling Prussia's chest hair.
He parted the follicles carefully, and stared at the lenticular cicatrix that lay right in the middle of Gilbert's breast.
"But what is this? A scar? How feminine in aspect, how tender!" Carefully, he put his lips upon it.
Gilbert whimpered, for the scar remained quite sensitive. Even after all these years, it was pale red and obscenely alive with nerve endings.
He had never let anyone touch that strange wound, not to his recollection. For it lay at the heart of his shame. And yet Frederick's lips on him were so delicate that pleasure burned away his guilt and he could only pant his need for more.
"It is as though you were Hermaphroditus," whispered Frederick as he wet his finger and caressed him softly. "So virile, and yet secretly so soft."
"You mock me," said Gilbert between gasps.
"Nay, not I. For I love all of you, entirely." Frederick put his other hand between Gilbert's thighs and quietly worked to heighten his arousal.
Being somewhat distracted, Prussia didn't notice the one brief interruption in these ministrations, at least not until Frederick's fingers came down on him again, filled with rich ointment.
The king hummed to himself as he kneaded, wordlessly orchestrating a joyous improvisation of his own making with his hands and his mouth. He massaged a daub of the salve into Gilbert's scar, and it burned with pleasure.
Desperately eager, rendered speechless by ecstasy, Prussia pleaded with his eyes as Frederick's hands worked on him ceaselessly.
Cupping Gilbert's face in his hands, the king contemplated the results of his handiwork. "How wondrous you are in the heat of passion, my beloved. You crave the joy it will soon bring you, but please. Let me have this moment to contemplate you before I give you your release. Ah, how often have I felt your beauty inside me? How often wished I could see as well as feel it?"
Dear God, he loved this man so much, he needed to be inside him NOW-
"I know, I know. Take your time, will you?" The king turned his back to him and started arranging cushions for support.
When he was ready, it was smoothly and delicately that Gilbert gilded into him.
Until now he had always collided with Frederick like a storm with a ship on the North Sea, but now he proceeded with more care, in accordance with his wishes. His rhythm was gentle but steady, like the blacksmith's bellows bringing up the fire to white heat. How often had he sweated over those bellows as a youth? He'd been so easily bored in those days, and the masters had thought to keep him out of trouble by apprenticing him to the castle blacksmith. He'd learned well, but still easily managed to get up to all sorts of mischief with the other apprentice. And then...
Gilbert tightened his hands around Frederick's waist briefly, pulled himself deeper inside him, making the king gasp. This was not the time to be thinking dark thoughts. The hour was for slippery, sticky pleasure. For high gasps and soft grunts. For hard ecstasy between soft buttocks.
The end came almost simultaneously for both of them. Gilbert howled like an unchained beast. The surge of his release was immense. And the scar burned, gave him a vision that overlaid itself onto the man prostrated before him, wet with pleasure. He saw himself betwixt another man who lay enraptured, draped over a flattened mossy rock, buttocks smeared with swirls of ochre.
And in the flood, the warmth of Gilbert's joy, Frederick felt his people's happiness unfold just as he had once before.
The old widow who had ordered a substitute for her husband at the woodworker's had invited her friend over to come test it for herself: "You might be surprised what you learn once you've given it a try. No, hold it like this-"
The two young men at Halle University were studying for their finals as they spent the night together. With each stroke, the one on top would ask in Latin the definition of some obscure legal term, and his partner on the bottom had to answer correctly, or else risk the cessation of his pleasure. They both took turns questioning and answering until dawn, as they found this method of studying very effective.
And the steadfast maidservant lay against her mistress, the lips between their thighs happily entwined, soft and wet and pliable.
Dazzled with the moment, both of them lay silently as they were for quite a while. When Gilbert finally eased out of him, Frederick had turned round and smiled radiantly, kissed him tenderly. They each took turns at the chamber pot and washed themselves, occasionally flicking drops from the washbasin at each other., laughing as they went. While Gilbert finished up, Frederick fetched some extra bedclothes and did his best to spread them, though he did end up needing Gilbert's help.
When slumber finally took them, they slept intertwined, safe and warmed by each others' skin.
And the scar burned.
In his dreams, Gilbert opened his eyes. He was suspended in blackness. And the scar on his breast glowed yellow, and its glow was a spear that pierced him through as he hovered prone, an arc of light that extended all the way from the void to nowhere-in-particular.
Out of the dark emerged the spirits of all the painted tribal chiefs he had loved. They hovered round him, stroking him softly.
Speak the truth, they whispered, speak the truth and know we love you still, our Land, our only.
Let the cold light of That One's eyes burn away the imagined sin you carry on your breast.
And he heard their voices and he knew they were true. For That One had kissed the secret opening where his soul lay joined to another, stroked it tenderly. He of all people deserved to know.
Pay no attention to their lies, said another voice in the distance.
"Shut up," he said emphatically to the emptiness.
Behave yourself. Be good, be pious...
"Shut up! The Masters are dead!"
They could no longer dictate his fate, for they had died centuries ago.
...and perhaps we will not have to put you in that place again.
"I said, SHUT UP!"
Suddenly, the blackness was no more and he was staring at the ornate embroidery on the canopy above the bed. Moments later, this view was interrupted by Frederick's face, staring concernedly down at him.
"This time, I could understand some of what you were saying," he began.
Gilbert ran his hands over his face. "You must think me some kind of crackpot mystic with the amount of tongues I've been speaking in tonight," he said, trying to lead the subject away from the meaning of the words he'd evidently been shouting aloud as well as in the dream.
"It was not I whom you sought to silence, was it?" continued Frederick quietly.
Gilbert froze. His mouth opened, then closed again.
"Shh. It's over. I love you." Softly, the king began playing with tendrils of his hair.
For a while, Gilbert closed his eyes and let Frederick's delicate hands soothe him.
When he opened them again, the king said: "You spoke in the dialect of Our good common folk, albeit with an intonation that was foreign to me."
"It was...nothing, merely my attempt to drive off a spectre of my past."
Frederick's hands paused. "The attempt seemed not very successful to me."
Gilbert rubbed his face again. "Oh, shut up, what do you know-"
He stopped, his hands still splayed like bars in a jail over his cheeks.
He loves you.
"Yes, I know, but-" he said desperately to the darkness beyond the bed.
Your beloved is as injured as you are. He will cradle your pain as gently as he now holds you.
Gilbert looked down. Frederick was hugging him. His eyes were tightly shut, and once again Gilbert found himself surprised by the delicacy of his lashes.
He will always be with you, just as we are.
With our love.
The voices were fading.
Our Wounded God.
Soundlessly, Gilbert began to weep.
The voices were gone.
Frederick looked up at him.
He reached out, touched the rivulets of his tears. Gilbert abruptly noted that he too, was crying.
"What did they do to you?"
Gilbert stared back at him with haunted eyes.
"What did those vile zealots do to you in the name of faith? I know it was their deeds that tormented you in your sleep just now."
Prussia looked away. No matter what those long-dead pagan chiefs told him, he couldn't inflict that story on anyone, let alone a man he loved this much.
Thoroughly piqued, Frederick turned his head back to face him.
"Tell me! I must know what darkness lies at the heart of this country. I have long since guessed its outline, but you must reveal its form to me, so I can move to obliterate it, as much as I can!"
"This is a personal darkness, not one of the nation."
"It matters not! The darkness in one can infect the many!"
The king seized Gilbert's wrists.
"My hands will remain in yours, so long as you have will to speak," said Frederick seriously. "But speak you must, lest your mood infect me. I saw that happen too often between myself and Wilhemine. So we made each tell the other things, just as we are doing now. Now say, and have done with it!"
Prussia looked down at Frederick's fingers, clenched tightly round his own.
Why was it that this mortal trusted him so much? His kind were fickle folk at best, unstable amalgams of their folk and their too-long lives, filled with darkness that grew like the shadow under an oak in the noonday sun.
"You do not find me too uncouth?"
"Of course not!"
"There is-" he began to tremble. "There is a pagan part to me, which I think you have seen, though I have not told you of it."
"For you, I will gladly be pagan."
"You don't hate that part of me?"
"And why should I? The average orthodox man who has no pagan part is dreary to excess." Oh, how he had thrilled to hear that animal cry from Gilbert's lips when he spasmed with joy inside him earlier, red-hot, his passion uncontrollable. How many times had he longed to hear it in full when it was stifled perforce with handkerchiefs at Rheinsberg?
Gilbert shook like a leaf in the wind. All these years later, he'd finally found someone, a human, who happily accepted all of him. The joy that had radiated from Frederick's face after Gilbert had savagely offered up his all was undeniable.
"What's wrong?" said Frederick, gripping his hands tighter.
"It's finally over, then." Had he really whispered that just now?
"Well. There are always those who would condemn us," said Frederick sadly cupping Gilbert's face. "For the world is filled with ignorant fools."
"And you have taught me not to care for them," said Gilbert, and kissed him softly.
Frederick savoured the taste of his lips, but gently pushed him away after.
"Now for the telling. I will comfort the pain it may cause you as best I can after."
Gilbert clutched his hands tightly in Frederick's, took a deep breath, and began.