When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?
FRIEDRICH WILHELM LUDOLF GERHARD AUGUSTIN von Steuben was fifteen years old when he first laid eyes on his majesty, Frederick the Great. Standing with locked limbs, plumb and perfectly-spaced in the center of his battalion’s rank and file, he broke his soldierly posture only with eyes darting to the strong, lithe figure on horseback. The King, reviewing the Regiment von Lestwitz in the Breslau garrison of Prussia.
Soldiering was in Friedrich’s blood. His father’s career took the family to Russia to assist Tsarina Anna against the Turks, then through Saxony and into Habsburg Bohemia. Friedrich heard every story of serving under King Friedrich Wilhelm for whom he was named, every praise for the new King, his son, Frederick.
His father loved Frederick for solidifying their land claim. Friedrich loved him for the salacious stories about his Chancellor- lifted from the ranks as a private to stand beside the King in his court simply because the King loved him. Loved him more than polite society would say. But, impolite soldiers- they loved to talk.
The idea captivated Friedrich’s youth. Guided him to this.
To make a name for himself in the infantry. As King Frederick led his regiment in drill that day- the bright, crisp press of his coat and cloaks, the shine of his sword and belting ring of his voice, he knew he was given.
His family was of the Junker class. Titled in a way, but by no means nobility. What money they had flowed from his grandmother’s family, and despite the awards his father had earned in the Silesian War, there was nothing special about the name Steuben.
Besides, every Prussian officer must first serve his time in the enlisted ranks before he qualified for a commission, and life for an enlisted infantryman was brimming with daily indignities, lashings for minor offenses, constant exercising and repetition of simple tasks, brute labor to dig fortifications, then the treatment from their sergeants...but in moments like that first day- when all the regiment stood together and shouted at once in response to one man’s orders, Friedrich found clarity. To be one of the men who sat on horseback and saluted their King directly- Friedrich would endure anything.
Rising in the ranks had been easy. Friedrich had always been bookish and high-minded. As he commissioned into the officer corps and led his battalion of light infantry through drills and battles, he mingled well with the men of prestigious education that outstripped him in wealth and rank, making it easy to rise through hard work and patience.
He led his Freibataillone gloriously, fought and bled in Frederick’s main army before being selected to serve as a Brigade Offizier in the army of Prince Henry. His attention was occupied with a series of violent battles against the Austro-Russian alliance, resulting in the destruction of the main Prussian army and the capture of King Frederick himself.
The aftermath of that campaign placed more responsibility on Frederick’s brothers- including Prince Henry. Which meant more assignments for their commands. It was among the books at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, researching a good story for a letter to the Quartiermeister department that Friedrich found himself in the blinding exposure of the Prussian royalty: “Who is your favorite?”
Prince Henry was generally distant with his subordinates, so the young Captain raised his nose from his books, confused.
“I always worry about men who sympathize with Alonso…”
Friedrich recognized the voice that the Prince used, and never dreamed it would be directed towards him. The familiarity. He’d admired Henry from afar, seen that smile when the Prince was in the company of his closest advisors, saw this approach for the chance that it was. He smiled glibly to match, “You mean Don Quixote, my lord.”
The Prince pulled up a chair and sat across from him, leaning close over the table. “You know that I don’t. But, I suppose you are a Sancho? That you would support an ideologue...”
Friedrich smiled and mirrored the Prince’s posture to draw in closer. “Just a man that you should worry about.”
That earned a grin, etched and gold.
It was all a dream from there.
Prince Henry was a fast friend and an earnest lover. Similar in age and in inclination, Henry appreciated the effects of the infantry on Friedrich’s body- muscle and sinew and scars that he stroked with fingers and lips. He appreciated Friedrich’s eclectic learning, endlessly fascinated by the perspective Friedrich could offer in any discussion. Between nights spent in guarded chambers between sheets with his Prince, Friedrich cultivated his taste in books and plays as well as his understanding of military tactics. He attended the court among the Prince’s retinue, learned all of Henry’s opinions about the distinguished Lords and his fellow Junkers, learned his opinions about his brothers and their late father.
He learned not to ask about Frederick.
His Prince’s Quixote.
HE LOVED HENRY. Truly. It was never a matter of the influence that the man held. Friedrich loved the Prince for his mind, his refinement, his lips and his cock, the way he smirked lasciviously across crowded halls and shamelessly flaunted his feelings at court. No matter what the world thought of their inclinations, within those walls they were safe, protected by titles.
Yet, no matter how bold the Prince was about his interest in men, he was markedly reserved in battle. A direct counterpoint to his brother, the King. It was a point of regular contention, and Friedrich knew that. Knew not to speak about it. But, he had served at Rossbach. He could never forget his father’s admiration of King Frederick and all he’d done for their family’s name. He could never remove that image from his mind- of that man atop his horse on the drill field where he stood as a boy. But, he was a man now. Prince Henry’s man.
Then the King was released without parole.
Fredrich knew what he was doing as he stepped into the abandoned Austrian planning tent the King had occupied with his own maps, spread out and marked to trace out their next steps. At his side, Henry was in the midst of a heartfelt protest in their planning, “I promise you, Wunsch has posted guns along the Spitzberge. Any force that crosses the Kuhgrund will be cut down in their ascent. Brother- we can defend Frankfurt from here, but if we move to chase this victory any further-”
“The dispatch is sent, your Majesty,” Friedrich said.
Henry stopped, turned and stared at him.
Friedrich returned his gaze, brows pinched and apologetic.
With word of their victory on its way to Berlin- “We will not retreat from an army on its heels,” Frederick said. His wide, intelligent eyes narrowing in on his brother as their Brigade Offizier stood by in their crossfire.
Henry’s jaw clenched, but he knew the King. Frederick was aware of the risks. Did not care. Henry was well-familiar with his brother’s nature, his tendency to ignore reason when glory was within reach. But, his lover...
The Prince made a point of knocking Friedrich’s shoulder roughly as he took his leave.
Their assessment of the land was inadequate. The enemy had constructed additional obstacles. Saltykov had reinforced the salient with reserves from the west. A failed cavalry charge by von Seydlitz contributed to the chaos. The artillery opened up upon them, and it was all blood and smoke and screams. Platen took command and attempted another charge in full-view of the artillery and against a fortified position. The King himself led two attacks of Infantry, and Friedrich’s chest nearly burst with the opportunity to follow with his own men. He beat back several charges of cavalry. Stood by Frederick’s side with cannonading overhead. A ball smashed into the King’s chest and Friedrich cried out. But the man pressed on. Two horses died, carrying the King’s attacks and another was shot in the neck as he attempted to mount. The King lifted a regimental flag and cried for his men to follow until the Chugueski Cossacks surrounded him.
It took a squadron of hussars, cutting their way perilously through the Cossacks to drag him from the field among the fallen remnants of his own body-guards.
Dry thunder cracked overhead, a low rumbling as if the sky itself growled on behalf of the furious King.
FRIEDRICH REACHED HIS BRIGADE in Reitwein, conveyed by cart and delirious with blood loss.
When consciousness returned, Henry was there, standing by his bedside and rubbing his thumb over the seal of a letter. He surely had dozens of places to be, and Friedrich knew at once that it was not a mark of tender concern that brought his lover to his bedside. When he spoke, the Prince’s voice was ashen, “I came to bring you that.” He looked down at the letter in his hand, and before Friedrich could ask, Henry set it on the cot by his hand. “Your bags have been sent to my brother’s camp. You will join them as soon as you can walk.”
“To the Royal Suite,” Henry said. In any other context, this would be an honor, but Friedrich saw the pinch in his friend’s brow, the frustration. This was a banishment, not a promotion. “You will assist Frederick and his staff with intelligence and strategic planning.”
“A desk job-”
“No job for my brother has a desk.” Henry refused to hear the protest, and again-
“My lord, I-”
“Berlin has fallen,” he said- their Berlin, a quiet library and boisterous parties, the court and those gilded chambers. Henry turned sharp, intelligent eyes down on Friedrich’s face.
They were wide and blue just like his brother’s, and Friedrich felt a pang of regret for making the comparison. It was Henry’s eyes he had known first. Truly known. And, they looked at him now like a stranger.
“If you want to die at his side, you may go. I hope he gives you the chance.”
“YOU WERE RIGHT about this-” I push my hands into the folds of Alex’s coat, feel the firm curve of his waist, and I want him, “I won’t wait just to spite them.”
“John, slow down- what’s happened?”
“Fairclough. Tried to hang himself.”
He pulls back sharply.
I keel into him, my face in his neck. “He was like Enslin- I think Colonel Malcolm suspected. I’m sure he feared exposure.” After Enslin’s shame I can understand.
But, it’s a hateful thing. The fear. And, I don’t care to talk about them right now. I tilt and kiss Alex again, warm and solid like nothing in camp has been for months, but he pulls back and I breathe, “I want you,” against his lips, noses brushing and fingers frantic, “And you were right-”
“You don’t want this?”
He gasps at a brush of my fingers under his arm and tosses off my hands, huffing, “No! Now, stop...John, this has nothing to do with us.”
“It has everything to do with us-”
He’s pulled back to look at me and I can’t look back, I feel too frenzied to see him properly.
“John, we are not like them. Perhaps you feel affected by what they’ve done, but I think we need to discuss-”
The crunching of leaves startles us apart. I tug my hands out of Alex’s coat and right my clothes just in time for two soldiers to come stomping through the trees. They’re walking towards us with a purpose and they’ve found us faster than we can gather ourselves. I look past Alex and the Marquis de Fleury has apparently returned from the expedition in Canada in the advanced party, and brought with him L’Enfant from camp. They crane their necks to see into the divot we had stumbled into. Peter calls out, “Colonel Hamilton?”
Alex lifts himself from the bark of the tree he’d backed up against and turns around to see them, tugging his own clothes straight. “Captain,” he says, voice incredibly steady. “My apologies, I haven’t reviewed your draft for the abutment, but I’m sure the- oh, Marquis. You’re back early, we weren’t expecting you until this evening.”
Fleury gives a nod and smiles, “Yes, I just checked in at the Baron’s headquarters. I was told I could find Laurens here-”
“Was the lieutenant there?” I say, stepping over a log towards them. “Fairclough, I sent him to-”
“John. Don’t.” Alex grabs my arm and tugs me back so I see his sidelong look, then he releases me. “Don’t get too close to this,” he whispers.
I realize his point. I nod.
Alex trudges up the divot and puts a hand behind L’Enfant’s arm, turning him back towards the bridge site, “Now, Captain, show me where the foundation will lie.”
They disappear back to the construction site and I glance at the Marquis, turning to step with him back towards the Baron’s headquarters. There’s no point in watching Alex go. We share a room and I’ll see him in the morning at the exhibition either way. For now, “What did the Baron need?”
Fleury doesn’t answer, only reaches into his coat and draws out a packet, a letter.
“I am here for you, not the Baron. I had the honor of speaking with your father,” he says, and the words raise a knot into my throat. I reach for the packet.
“I recommended your proposal as I promised, and I...believe… ” He drifts and frowns and I look at him, brows pinched. “I believe you should not rely on his support in this matter.”
I frown because I’ve known that- at least strongly suspected it. Still, drawing a deep breath, I open the letter. Once again, there’s no mention of my ideas, only my father’s worries concerning the recall of Silas Deane from France, his interest in the Baron’s progress with the army and our preparations for General Lee’s exchange.
Fleury begins in staggered English, “He said to me he- ah... he will defer to the judgement of ‘men in the profession’.”
I blink and look up from the packet. Fleury is leveling me with an expectant look, dark brown eyes narrowed and brows raised, so I ask, “Ca?”
“I mean to say- if we are asking Congress to listen to our trusted officers regarding the needs of this army, perhaps you should entrust certain officers to speak to those needs…”
I stare at him.
“You need General Washington’s support.”
I know this. But, it’s not a proposal that I should impose on the Commander in Chief when he has far greater worries plaguing him at all hours. I’ve never mentioned my plot to him, even when I’ve had his ear because I do not take that privilege for granted.
But, “He listens to the council of his generals…” Fleury says. “Perhaps if you had the support of those…”
“MEN IN THE PROFESSION?” Alex says, voice pitched in indignation. He’s been dressed for bed since I came to the room, and he’s spent the entire time I’ve been undressing, polishing his boots and chatting about his work with Boudinot on the prisoner exchange preparations. He’s finally asked me about my own day, which has only brought about the subject of Fleury’s words. “John, you are a man in the profession.”
“I’m also his son,” I say.
Alex stares. “I don’t see your point.”
“That he would be showing his own bias if he took only my own expertise into account.”
Alex frowns deep and leans back to sit on his heels. Whatever his opinion of my military knowledge, he is essentially an orphan. He doesn’t know about managing a father’s opinions, especially not one of influence. He cannot understand the need to protect him from his own affection.
“I think Fleury made an astute suggestion,” I say, unbuttoning my breeches. “Washington’s opinions are dependent on the thoughts of his generals...”
“So convince his generals?”
“I was thinking we could begin with Greene.”
Alex looks up at the wall, hums in the back of his throat, then returns to polishing.
I TRY TOUCHING HIM as we settle in to sleep, but he doesn’t respond to my stroking up and down his chest. It was the folly of Socrates to drive away interlocutors by being cruel to their ignorance, but Alex knows that I want him- understands the meaning of my touch. He cannot play Alcibiades, frustrated that he cannot know my mind, when I’ve already told him- I’m no Socrates. The beast in my chest growls in frustration. But, a little kindness goes a long way in debate, a little patience is only fair to a new lover.
Eventually, his hand slides to the base of my throat, thumb brushing over the pulse there as if only to know what this simple action does to me. I swallow under his hand, heart pounding. I can imagine his fingers closing tight, stealing away the breath that I’d offer him freely- already had. The thought doesn’t frighten me so much as it strangely excites.
“This is how I picture you drowning…” he breathes.
I stretch my neck back, letting my eyes fall closed. “There are worse ways to go.”
His hand slides down to my elbow, wraps his fingers around the back of my hand and pulls it to his chest, then he leaves it there. Some time passes in stillness, my thoughts too slow and thick to muddle through, before I open my eyes and turn to look at him. He’s fallen asleep.
I let him.
He wakes me in the morning, nudging my side, moves like he always does when he wakes, steady and alert when he has no right to be, tugging on my heavy limbs until I rise to join him. We dress in the dark and creep downstairs and outside.
It’s been a week since we managed to rouse ourselves in time to spar, but the burn in my muscles is a relief.
“Fleury is to be reassigned as an aide to Steuben,” he says, wiping the dirt from his blade as we gather up the layers of clothes we had discarded for our exercise and redress.
“He is,” I confirm, though I don’t think it was a question.
“And you said Steuben would expect the rank of Major General- if all goes well today…” Alex says. Another statement without the expectation of an answer, and I wonder what he’s getting at. He gives no hint of it. Just hums and sheathes his sword.
THE CROWD OF SPECTATORS arrive at the Parade Field in droves. Huntington and Maxwell’s Brigades, which are situated directly over the land, have turned out nearly their entire officer corps and an accompanying contingent of interested Sergeants. Every Major General has at the least an aide in attendance, and as the crowd gathers, Steuben’s staff’s role becomes organizing the curious onlookers and preserving the place we’ve reserved for General Washington and his distinguished guests.
The Baron knows that, beyond proving the martial skill of his model company, this is the moment he must prove his own loyalties to the Commander in Chief.
I didn’t provide him a script, but I anticipate the words he has chosen will be profound. It’s the culmination of our efforts to sway opinion in his favor, to convince the powerful eyes watching over camp that this work is vital. Caty had assured me that the wives had been spreading letters to their friends, detailing the Baron’s efforts with their army. And, besides the Committee from Congress, I recognize several notable writers in attendance- William Gordan and David Ramsay...
“Meade will accompany them.”
I turn. Alex has stepped to my side and said this as if in reassurance. I raise a brow.
“This story should be handled with a certain amount of care, but they will expect it to be explained to them by a military man. Meade’s the best of us where influence should be least-perceived.”
It’s a wise foresight on his part and I appreciate it, but my eyes travel to the delegates from Congress- men we had spent such an effort on swaying. Whose thoughts will translate most directly to policy. Joseph Reed is already talking to Washington as the model company arranges themselves into lines. “What about where it’ll be expected?” I say.
The corner of Alex’s mouth pinches in a grin, “I suppose that’s where we fall in.”
Captain Walker steps to Steuben’s side. We are nearing the top of the hour, the stage is set and all the actors are in place, the Baron poised at the edge of the proscenium arch. When I stood in Walker’s place, I became accustomed to translating Steuben’s long soliloquies to the men of his company. But, when he speaks now, it’s a brief statement in German, given with emphasis while looking General Washington firmly in the eyes.
Walker translates. “It is the Baron von Steuben’s deepest desire that this demonstration will dispel any remaining concerns that this American army is an inferior one.”
Washington’s eyes pinch slightly- as much of a smile as he can give, and he nods.
The Baron faces about. And they begin.
As they move through their static commands, loading and firing in tandem, then marching- right and left faces, obliques, and wheels- I walk to stand closer to General Washington. His expressions are subtle, but I believe I read him correctly- that he is satisfied with the Baron’s announcement. While Steuben didn’t profess explicit loyalty to Washington over his opponents in the Board of War and Congress, he’s done something better: provided an expert opinion that aligns with Washington’s strategic goals, weighty and seemingly unbiased by personal affection.
As I approach, General Washington is observing the conduct of drill while listening to Reed explain a proposal Congress is making. One that would empower the army to call up five-thousand militia from Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
I can tell from Washington’s thin-lipped expression, he’s not interested.
“Only a hundred men showed up to replace the thousand I was able to raise last May when you made a similar offer,” he says. “If I attempt to raise ten-thousand, I may see five-hundred by the time we take the field, and they will be of very little use to me untrained.”
“How often are your militia sufficiently trained, though?” Reed says. “Regardless of when they arrive.”
Washington gives a derisive snort at that, boldly revealing in Reed’s company despite the alliances we know that he keeps. “Precisely why I have not asked for militia,” he says, and he looks out over the Continentals in Steuben’s ranks.
All of them have been outfitted for this occasion in new, pristine uniforms. They’ve taken pains to clean them and ensure their ranks and facings are in line with what a company would take to the field were we perfectly-supplied. Considering the clothes they arrived in when we began these drills, I know this to be a pointed demonstration of exactly what Washington is requesting.
Reed sees it too, and a wry smile crosses his face, “I find I cannot disagree with you practically,” he admits. “But...I understand Boudinot is writing your terms for approval?”
The terms for Lee’s exchange…
I step a little further behind Reed to ensure he cannot see me listening, but this ensures that the General does. His lip twitches- a small quirk in the corner of his mouth. Encouraging it.
“And, you still believe it wise to dismiss the militia right now?” Reed says, transparent.
Washington is making it very clear which opinions he has rejected- whose opinions, and I can see why this makes Reed nervous. The man’s loyalty has never been fixed upon solid foundation, it has always depended upon the foundations of those he leans against. While claiming interest in what’s best for the army, he discouraged my endeavors for Baron von Steuben for fear of creating conflict between the ideologues in Congress and those who realize that, in order to win a war, we must have a professional army to fight it. With General Lee en route to exchange, Reed’s support is more important than ever. Steuben’s demonstration is a small proof that this strategy is possible, but with the method we have used to manage the gossip about him, and in the wake of the drumming out of Lieutenant Enslin, Steuben is a man who can least afford to be disliked by anyone.
Realistically, until we can make battle using the tactics that Steuben is promising to teach, Washington’s supporters must rely on faith in his judgment...
But, “Congress already fears that you are too desirous of a standing army,” Reed says. “The half-pay pension plan is causing great pains on the Floor.”
Washington is endlessly patient. “I am aware, and grateful for your support in the matter.”
Meanwhile, in camp, I know that the General has received the resignations of a dozen officers, quitting because they doubt that Congress will hear his proposal at all. The cabal against him is nearly-defeated, but its effects on the Army won’t relent until everyone believes the chimera is dead.
“Support,” Reed snorts. “I’m not sure what it would do to help were I able to provide you that. The countryside in all directions is mottled with Loyalists as I’m sure you know, and you should be aware that- if you don’t attempt to use the local populace, then Lord Howe will.”
I have to remind myself that Howe’s resignation is not known to our countrymen yet. A mark of our talented intelligence officers that we know at all. But, it also strikes me, as I listen to Washington carefully explain, once again, that the Militia are more of a burden than they’re worth- the diffident tone the General takes with the same kind of insubordination that Alexander would use.
It’s a tone I recognize. One he uses with me.
Reed steps away to speak with Mister Dana, and the Baron’s model company completes their demonstration with a final succession of three shots in one minute, reloading and falling back in succession. A deadly maneuver that even the finest armies in Europe would be proud to execute successfully, one that draws cheers from the crowd. Draws a rare smile from the General.
Baron von Steuben turns and bows to the audience.
“See whether I can promote him,” His Excellency says to me.
And, it’s apparent once again, Washington won’t take decisive action without the consent of his Major Generals. And, in this case, it’s best to get that consent before Boudinot secures the release of General Lee.
In the distance, Alexander is watching us, sees me nod obediently- and he turns away at once, stepping to Reed’s side and striking up a conversation.
This is where we fall in.
THE VERDICT IS UNANIMOUS. What Baron von Steuben achieved as a pro tempore Inspector General merits officiation. The real responsibility that would come with a commission. He has the support- both in camp and in the Committee which will carry it to Congress.
It’s cause for celebration, so I brought the news to his office, hoping to deliver the order in private: “At nine o’clock precisely, all the brigades will begin their exercises.”
The entire American army turned out of doors, learning the New Regulations; Steuben will ride between their ranks, correcting and praising with the full support of General Washington and his council.
It seemed to me that it was Steuben’s achievement to share if he wanted- but Vogel caught the story as he served the Baron’s evening meal, and he inevitably shared it with Duponceau. By the time I step out into the common area of his headquarters, Steuben’s aides are bickering over what theme they will advertise to camp for their Baron’s party.
Duponceau is insistent- since he’s just completed his study of Romeo and Juliet, “A venetian masquerade would transport us if only for a night-”
But, “A waste of materials in our present circumstance,” Walker says, “and besides, no one actually enjoys wearing a mask. They’re itchy and make it difficult to breathe.”
“No more difficult than camp fever or starvation…” Vogel says blithely.
“Then let’s not mask our circumstance.” The Marquis de Fleury has been working on mapping his additions to our fortifications, but he’s lost his concentration in the volume of the other aides’ conversation. “General Greene’s efforts have already begun the improvement of our quartermaster department...I think it’s not too soon to mock our previous administration...”
The concept of holding a celebration seemed frivolous while there was real planning for tomorrow’s drills to be done. But, this catches my attention. The official approval for General Greene’s appointment had arrived on Monday, but the new Quartermaster had been at this work for weeks...long enough to know that His Excellency is confident of the choice.
“What do you have in mind?”
“BRILLIANT!” MEADE TOSSES his head back and laughs, spilling rum punch on his own lap with a loose grip on the wide-necked bottle.
“Don’t we think it’s too soon for a message like this?” Harrison manages to snag the punch from Meade before he’s splashed with it.
Our dear Doctor McHenry has returned to camp, exchanged from his parole, and the General has conferred an appointment for him to join our family. Unfortunately, I have not seen the man to congratulate him. I arrived at the tail end of their celebration and, according to my brothers, he attempted to race Meade through the bottle of punch and lost his stomach. He took leave with a bucket half an hour before I arrived. I think Meade was already too far adrift to feel any pity or guilt.
“It’s not as though we’ve solved all our problems to be joking about it.”
“Well, General Greene may appreciate the mark of confidence that we will,” Clark says.
Harrison sighs, “Well, General Greene has no idea the magnitude of shit he’s just inherited-”
“And likely never will,” I say. It’s been a few weeks, but I was receiving Fitzgerald’s notes about the former Quartermaster General’s parties at the Angelica estate. The way he’s been talking about Greene’s proposals for the department, dismissive and obstinate as ever. “It’s not as though Mifflin will provide him with detailed notes to explain his administration’s failings.”
A skim of fingertips traces along my neck. Alex’s arm is draped over my shoulders, his chest a warm weight to lean into. “No.” He grins against my ear, speaking low and only for me even though it’s no secret that, “I’ve done that.”
I snort and take the gill of whiskey he’s been drinking from, helping myself. He’s had enough. Prodding for my attention while giving me his own- undivided. For all that he had resisted my pleas to assist with my drill project, he’s draped himself all over me, drunkenly delighted with the progress I’ve made on my own. If he wants to brag, I can spare some pride for his efforts with the Quartermaster department. I tap my head against his where he’s leaning close.
“I only mean- the Baron is still a foreigner- a new one with a heavy reputation,” Harrison says. “If he makes such a statement, even in jest, it will not go unnoticed.”
“If anyone can get away with it, it’s our Baron- no officer is more loved,” Meade says.
I have to smirk at that. Vindication for all the work I’ve done to establish Steuben to the army, to my own brothers that doubted. “It may only endear him further,” I say to agree.
“Mister Gordon will still be in camp, I could invite him...”
“Perhaps just to the start,” I suggest. Meade has only seen what performance the Baron put on today on the drill field. He has not seen the complaints in Steuben’s office from concerned subordinates, believing they had the right to investigate rumors about the Baron’s staff before working with them- “I don’t imagine he’ll want to write anything flattering if he stays long enough to see us-”
“Just imagine if Mister Gordon saw us now,” Clark interrupts me, gesturing to Alex in demonstration. My friend’s shirt has managed to unbutton itself as it always does when he’s drunk, a high flush colors his cheeks, then there’s the arm he’s thrown around my shoulders. “We aren’t exactly the picture of professionalism in such a state.” Clark smiles, a clever, pretty thing, and Meade laughs.
It’s the right point to make- and a wise way to undercut my thoughtless implication. As if the misdeeds that are likely to occur at the Baron’s headquarters are just as harmless as these brotherly displays of affection.
Alex is giggling breathlessly into my shoulder and I can’t tell if he’s amused by the circumstances of Clark correcting me or the implication he’s pointed out.
“Gentlemen, good evening.”
The greeting takes all our attention. Elias Boudinot is standing in the doorway in a deep green waistcoat with his sleeves pushed up to his elbows comfortably. The General’s wife is visiting Lord Stirling’s table tonight, so Washington is hosting the committee from Congress and a few additional guests- two former aides, a merchant from Philadelphia, Major Tallmadge and the commissary of prisoners. For as long as Mister Boudinot’s been a guest in the General’s headquarters, sleeping just a floor below me, I hadn’t found time to speak with him, but I feel like I know his thoughts from my days spent writing pleas to Congress to exchange our prisoners in Philadelphia.
I think he’s managed to escape the General’s party and has come to entertain us with his passionate condemnations of the British commissaries, the conditions our prisoners are subjected to, and the character of the men that he must prioritize for exchange. Instead-
“May I borrow Lieutenant Colonels Hamilton and Harrison please?” he says.
Alex starts moving to oblige, but I hold his wrist for a moment to explain, “He has been drinking with us, sir- if you’re expecting him for any measured opinions, now may not be-”
Alex tugs his hand away petulantly and Boudinot laughs, assuring me that he will ensure the General takes that into account. I'm watching Alex leave as Clark takes his seat, propping his legs up over my lap.
“I worry for you two without me,” Clark says quietly, making himself firmly comfortable. Across the room, Meade searches for the rum punch Harrison confiscated and carried out with him.
“Without you?” I say, looking at him. “You’re leaving?”
“The countryside is teeming with skirmishes, dear boy. I can’t let Captain Lee have all the fun,” Clark says.
I understand his meaning. After the exchange at the Crooked Billet tavern, we have been monitoring the towns and farmland surrounding Valley Forge. Congress’ offer to raise militia from the countryside is a reflection of the conflict that surrounds us- a civil war on all sides, and I know that Clark and Lee and our militia officers have been exploiting this unrest to the greatest extent possible in order to recruit Patriots before whatever unified attack General Washington can muster. In this office, Tilghman has been almost constantly consumed with reports from his friend Cadwalader about our militia general, Philemon Dickenson.
“Besides,” Clark says, “General Greene requires commissaries more than intelligence officers right now.”
The idea doesn’t seem to bother him, but I know how he values the freedom he enjoyed under Greene’s command. So, I’m sure that professional tie has not been severed despite his reassignment. It does raise a question- one I finally realize, “Aren’t you supposed to be in the Auditor’s office in York?”
He was assigned that post months ago but he hasn’t left camp for any extended period of time that I'd noticed.
“I’m not there now, am I?” he smiles in that conspiratorial way that feels reassuring when it really should not.
There isn’t the chance to question him when Tallmadge joins our party with another bottle of rum punch which he offers to Meade’s grabbing hands. Clark lifts his legs and moves away from me to meet Tallmadge. He mumbles something which Tallmadge replies to in a hushed tone to match.
My brows knit, curious.
“I’d hoped that Mister Boudinot might give an account of his meeting with General Lee,” Clark explains to the room. “It seems like we were right to believe our commander is harboring suspicions.”
I look at Meade, but I believe he is far too drunk to appreciate this announcement. He had told me, when Elias Boudinot first came to camp, that Washington preferred not to assign Alexander to work with him, knowing that their suspicious natures compounded one another. Meade had been the first to fear that the choice of assignment had been deliberate- an indication that there was something to be suspicious about.
“What do you suggest?” I say. “Why would Washington be suspicious of Lee? I mean- specifically, what’s he done?”
Our spymasters share a look.
Clark starts at the beginning.
I WAS ALREADY ASLEEP when the garret door opens loudly. Creaking footsteps are attempting stealth, but I wake up anyway and see no point in pretending otherwise. Groggy, I sit up in bed, pushing back the covers to watch Alex fumble up the steps. He doesn’t notice me until, hopping on one foot to remove his breeches, he topples over and I laugh, voice rough with sleep, “Do you need assistance, my dear?”
He groans, defeated.
“How is it you’re more drunk now than when you left our party?” I say, already sliding off the pallet.
“...’m not,” he lies, muffled into the floorboards.
“Didn’t you go to speak with the General?” I doubt that Washington would have encouraged this, so- “What? Did you polish off the rum punch immediately upon dismissal?” I drag him upright.
“God why does he do this to me!”
He’s loud and abrupt and I startle, “Do what?”
Alex leans his head back into my shoulder as I shift his weight towards the pallet. “For once, I wish he’d just give a clear order!” Grasping at me, he throws his voice deep in a very bad impression of His Excellency’s baritone. “‘Anything you choose will come back to me and I will defend it’, as if he could!" Gathering up enough strength to hold his own weight, Alex hefts himself up on the pallet and sits with his back against the wall, drawing his legs up to make space for me beside him.
It’s a curious complaint. But, perhaps I’m not intrigued by the complaint itself- I’m familiar with General Washington’s offers to protect his men’s reputations whilst placing them in particular danger of ruining themselves. I’m curious what danger Alexander is in this time. And moreover, “...can I help?”
“No...” He glances at me, down to the hand that I’m placing on his knee, and he hesitates. “It’s my choice…”
It never truly is, but I imagine Alex wants to believe that right now. “Well, I can stand with you when you make it...” I say. “Is it about the exchange?”
He’s quiet long enough that his silence is my answer.
“Tallmadge and Clark told me about the General’s past with him,” with Lee. The vast difference in their military experience and His Excellency, General Washington’s misplaced insecurity in regards to that comparison. Their habitual disagreements over the capabilities of our forces and how best to employ them. “It makes sense to have Lee return now.”
“Because of your...model company?” Alex has to speak slowly to have his lips cooperate and form clear words, and though he poses it like a question- he’s not asking. Not the Baron von Steuben’s company. Mine. He smiles at me, wide and satisfied like he thinks I’m the one generating this radiance and he’s content to bask in it.
“Once the army is in professional order, Lee will come and see it. He’ll have no choice but to subordinate himself and his strategy to Washington’s command.” I draw myself closer to untie his mussed-up queue and run my fingers through his hair, untangling it. He wants to luxuriate in his drunkenness and some tender pride in me, and I know no other way of interacting with him when he’s so openly fond than to indulge him. “Mifflin is dislodged, Conway has been ‘box’d about’ and now ably replaced, Gates humiliated himself on the duel field. With Lee properly cowed, we will have severed the last head of our chimera.”
Alex snorts. “Bad metaphor.”
“Cutting off t’ head?” He leans his face into my hand to smirk at me, eyes reflecting the low light from the window as he peeks over my palm. “Y’hav t’shoot a chimera...else two more heads grow in ‘s place.”
“That’s the hydra,” I say, and move my hands back to his hair. He laughs at himself and I shake my head fondly. “Either way our cabal will be dead.”
His smirk widens into something loose and sloppy, and he leans towards me. I oblige him as his face falls into my shoulder, pulling him down into the pallet and struggling to get the blankets up over us both. He’s been hesitant to accept my touch lately, but this embrace is easy. The stillness. The weight of Alex’s body is warm and comforting, and I sink back to sleep.
We’ll talk in the morning about whatever danger he thinks he’s choosing.
THE EASY EMBRACE is complicated when I wake. Alex’s leg has found it’s way between my own and the pressure there is enough to have my body alert and unconsciously aroused, mind immediately recalling the chapter of The Treatise on Onanism about nocturnal pollutions. Though I hadn’t quite reached that point in my sleep, I think I would prefer it to the distinct feeling of Alexander’s thigh beginning to shift against me curiously.
He’s barely awake enough to know what he’s doing, but growing more and more alert as my breath comes louder and I squirm under his weight. He shifts higher, fully over my chest and I reach up, clutching at him. The press of my hands into the muscle of his back draws a noise low in his throat and he looks up at me, eyes hazy, a novel darkness in them.
I kiss him.
He moves on me with more force and his clear intentions have me rising faster than the sensation those movements inspire- his surety and desire, the weight of so many months of wanting. The way he surrounds me, breathes loudly in my ear and consumes my attention. I am entirely his in this moment, and he knows it, accepts the responsibility, pulls me along higher and higher with each press of his hips.
He bites into my lip as I shake apart, humming his own satisfaction.
Then suddenly breaks from me, jolts upright and-
Alex scrambles off my lap.
“I- I’m sorry- no intent to intrude.” Shrewsberry is standing in the doorway. The fact that he climbed the stairs and unlocked the garret door without our notice is a horrifying testament to how distracted we had been- nearly caught in the very act. By the look on my man’s face, he saw enough regardless of Alex’s haste- “It’s...time to get up for work.”
“Thank you,” I say, grateful when my voice comes out steady. “Please, wait for me outside.”
There’s no question as to why. Shrewsberry bows his head and retreats through the door, closing it behind him with a click that echoes through the room.
I let out a breath, unsure how I had managed to hold it between my release and the fear that followed. My heart is still pounding. I push a hand into my temple, over my eyes, until a soft weight touches my chest and I look down at the washcloth Alex has thrown at me.
“Wash yourself up,” he says and steps away from the bed, fishing on the floor for the breeches he’d stumbled to discard last night. He tugs them up and reaches inside to arrange his cock comfortably, though I know he’s hard.
He snorts before I can complete the offer, and, “A bit late for that now,” he says. “Let’s not keep your boy waiting, I’m sure he needs an explanation.”
I AM SURE ALEX is right, but as I walk from the Potts house, dressed for the day and equipped with my writing desk and papers, Shrewsberry doesn’t broach the subject at all. While I trust the man with my life, grew up with him by my side all my years in this country, I would prefer not to speak about what he’s just seen. It feels so much more illicit for the exposure to him specifically. Still, the silence is not sustainable.
“I wish you would say something.”
Berry looks at me, a brow raised and not meeting my eyes, but looking down at my chest. “I’m not sure what you need me t’ say.”
I don’t know either, but we are nearing the Baron’s headquarters and I’d rather not have this conversation in the company of any of his staff. I slow my walk as subtly as possible, and Shrewsberry matches stride.
“I know what you are, Master John. I have no illusions with it,” he says slowly.
For all that this discovery might serve to level the ground between us, that admission only makes me feel more unsteady. As if all this time, he has held these ruinous secrets as leverage to negate his own position. It’s probably fair, but it leaves me off-balance and unsure- angry despite myself.
“I know that it may not be comforting to hear that, but you are not a boy anymore, sir. I do not believe you need comfort.”
He’s right, so, “No,” I agree. “I need surety, and I think you know I have no desire to threaten you for it.”
He stops then to look at me.
It’s the truth- I don’t want that. But, even this mention of the idea implies the possibility of violence, and with the nature of our relationship, that is more than enough to off-balance the scale. He has washed my bloody uniforms. He knows what I’m capable of.
His brow is set when he meets my eyes, firm.
“I have hidden your family’s shame for my entire life,” he says, and I can’t think of any specific shame my family has done worth the disdain in his expression. None more so than our neighbors. Nothing beyond the overarching theft of labor, life and liberty that mars our whole country. But, it feels like he means something far more personal that I’m not seeing.
“I think you know that,” he says. “This doesn’ change a thing.”
At the moment, I’m not willing to admit I have no idea what he’s talking about.
CATY IS VISITING the Baron’s office when I arrive, working on arrangements for her play. Apparently, with the ban on theater productions, she’s failed to secure the troupe she wanted to perform for us and is instead requesting assistance in hosting auditions for roles.
His Excellency has selected the sensational Cato, a Tragedy, and the irony is not lost on me. At a time when Congress still nurtures suspicions of the army, when we have flirted with implications of his ascension to royalty. The obvious reading of the play would cast General Washington as the Roman Senator, but it is a very simple stretch of thought that would make him an American Caesar.
This dimension of war is one that never fails to surprise me. How much it matters- what everyone thinks. If I trust anyone to guide public interpretation, it’s Caty Greene.
“My husband has been wrestling with himself over you,” she says, draping herself along the back of the sofa I’ve been working on. “Whether it would be polite- or even possible- to have your attention for a department he doesn’t believe you hold much interest in. That is- after we established that it would not be your Alexander managing it.”
The Baron’s drill lessons began today and his need for translators to transcribe his orders to the brigade inspectors is overwhelming. His staff is entirely employed to include many of his foreign officers who could support this work. Captain Walker’s handwriting needs its own translator. I don’t have time to interpret what Caty wants from me, “Speak plain,” I say. “What does he need from me and how long will it take?”
She sits up properly. “Your connection to your father and a day or two if you can spare it.”
GENERAL GREENE’S OFFICE, no matter where it has been situated, takes this chaotic form. Battle maps and intelligence reports now replaced with balance sheets, commissary notes, receipts of purchase, and financial reports. The stress and involvement of his position have a physical manifestation in the mess.
“We have a short time before the next campaign is likely to open,” he says as I step inside.
I appreciate the lack of pleasantries, no need to waste our time with unnecessary things, but we also have no need to discuss things- “I know.”
Greene looks at me, “Then you understand. We need supplies- horses and wagons and rifles and powder and uniforms and reserves of food that can be stored for several months. We need these things to be available wherever we march, on immediate notice, and in a form that can be quickly-distributed. We need a large and immediate supply of cash to acquire these things and pay off the debts of my predecessor’s administration, and we need the restored confidence of patriot merchants who can supply them.”
Again, “Sir, I know.” I’m aware of his efforts on each of these fronts, and if not specific details, I at least know the time that my brothers on His Excellency’s staff have devoted to supporting his plans. Time is the commodity in shortest supply and I have no interest in wasting any more of it. “It would help me to assist you if I knew what specific initiatives you need my father to support.”
I RETURN TO THE POTTS HOUSE late that evening after making a perfunctory stop at the Baron’s headquarters to assess the progress they made on the first day of official training. The stories that Steuben’s staff wanted to share consumed my time more than my attention, and I am exhausted as I make my way up to our attic room.
Alex had been up and editing a document at our desk when I entered. He stood to receive me, immediately helping to untie my cravat, push off my coat and start on the buttons of my vest. He’s energetic as I attempt to listen to him. He explains his present work- also for General Greene, an open letter he had written for The General Advertiser in which he announced he’s giving his deputy quartermasters certificates to draw upon the credit of the United States which they could use in lieu of depreciating currency to pay for purchases.
“It’s vital that we amend the damage Mifflin caused by employing improper persons,” Alex says, pushing my waistcoat off my shoulders and folding it for me. “General Greene’s letter reassures the people of the country who have had their property seized that those offenses were irregularities which he will see a stop to.”
I snort at that, crawling onto our pallet and untying my stockings, turning them inside-out for the night. We are both aware that General Greene had the largest part of the blame for those irregularities, advocating for their necessity. At the time, he had been right, of course. It’s just funny to take such a tone about the matter now.
The politick of it.
I am exhausted with politics.
But, “I understand he wrote a letter to your father to support these proposals,” Alex says.
Whatever assignment he had received last night is far from his mind- or whatever burden he was associating with it forgotten. He follows me down into the mattress and settles over my lap with no more thought than he might put into straddling a workbench, so our near-catastrophic blunder from this morning must have also escaped him.
I glance at the door to check that I’d locked it as Alex pulls off his shirt.
He arranges his legs around my hips, still talking, “Mister Biddle is setting up a chain of magazines for food reserves from Philadelphia to New York harbor,” Clinton’s expected path of retreat- he doesn’t need to explain. Alex reaches back to untie his hair and I sweep it back over his shoulders. “Two-hundred thousand bushels of grain in each. Enough to sustain us at any position for thirty days.”
I saw enough of Alexander’s handwriting in Greene’s notes to know that he played the largest part in determining that number. He might have no interest in taking credit for it, but nothing drives my frustration with that fact more than the sight of his edits all over General Greene’s public affairs campaign, and his interest in-
“The party your Baron will host tomorrow- the message is good. We will be more capable than ever, and we have every reason to mock where we have lately been...”
To mock Mifflin.
I raise a brow, and I think I finally understand why he’s talking about this. An invitation into his true work- the dark and selfless sort he would never admit to but I have always seen. Because he is so foolishly kind and it’s a weakness he doesn’t bare for just anyone. Just his finest gentleman- because I am ready to be his.
I only wish this desire for partnership had been reciprocated sooner. I can think of several tasks- several explorations- that would have been simplified by his guiding hand. But, his faith in me now is a necessary balm to the insults he’s lately aimed at my capabilities, and my plans. I cannot be angry about it, stronger for the challenge, all his tests for me to prove myself were chances to show my weaknesses and scars and have him dig deeper. Every scabbed wound peels back more bleeding, aching gaps for him to fill and reinforce.
“He requested the authority to appoint a board to settle the accounts,” I say, reaching up and stroking my thumb into the flat of Alex’s cheek, catching the edge of his smile. “I forwarded the suggestion to my father with Washington’s seal. If Congress is willing to allow the Inspector General to oversee the army’s training, I agree that the Quartermaster General should have whatever powers he needs to oversee its supply.”
“A vanguard to thin out the last of Mifflin’s influence,” Alex agrees, and he would be the one to know what remaining forces Greene faces. This project is his as much as the model drill company was mine. But, it was a project with assured utility. Less a risk of wasting time…
He may have had hesitations to join my effort with Steuben, but I have no such hesitations remaining about his plans for me.
I kiss him, drawing his bottom lip between my teeth until he gasps.
Pushing my hips up against his thigh, he can feel my interest. It works to ignite him and he becomes a fluid thing, shifting his weight over my lap to get at the buttons of my breeches and reach inside them. His touch straightens my spine. I pull his chest against me and he shifts closer, legs widening around my hips and losing coordination of our kiss.
I take advantage.
In the morning, he will return to assist General Greene, and I am invited to help- have Greene’s permission to help. We will be partners. Perhaps not in the way he anticipated when I brought my ideas to him about arming slaves and employing them in the cause for liberty, but in a way that I believe is better suited to his talents. What influence he truly has.
He brings me off quickly, with practiced ease; and I have to touch him, squeeze my arms around him and nuzzle my face into his neck. His hips are pressed into my side hard enough to know that he requires a similar kindness, and I work his flap open to take care of it. But, his hand stops me. I think only to open his breeches more efficiently, but his shoulder moves under my hand and I look down to watch his fist working over his cock.
For a long moment, I am transfixed to watch. My mouth waters like after the first few sips of strong spirits, then I realize my own inaction and reach down to help. Again, Alex knocks back my hand. I look at him, confused, but his eyes are closed in his own pleasuring.
A new mask on his face I’ve never seen. It’s brow creased, teeth clenched and wincing tightly.
I kiss his cheek, his mouth, and he shakes apart.
There’s no wallowing in his small death. Whatever satisfaction it gave him is so short-lived I doubt whether he’s come off at all. He’s stoically efficient, grabbing a washcloth to wipe down his hand and my stomach and then he turns his back and pulls up the blankets.
He goes quiet, and though I know he’s not yet sleeping, I’m not sure how to break the silence.
ALEXANDER AND I TAKE THE MORNING to spar, setting out for the parade grounds shortly after reveille. A late start by comparison, and the brigades’ morning exercises have completed, men making rounds to the river to wash and cool off before Steuben’s drill lessons. Alex babbles eagerly as we walk, reading through the guest list for our Drillmaster’s party and telling stories about the Line officers he is most looking forward to seeing.
Nicholas Fish in particular.
I restrain myself from saying that he could have spent time with the man anytime he wanted had he assisted me with drill from the start. I don’t need to say it. After the exhibition to General Washington and his staff, I have proven my value, capabilities, and judgment a dozen ways and his pride in me and my results are proof of our present partnership. I don’t think I could manage to hold a grudge against him anyway.
We take up our swords and begin, rough with each other in skill alone- which has shown vast improvement in his case.
Beyond basic forms, he has begun to develop his own particular style of fighting, quick and resourceful, and mindful of the terrain around him in a way that has been teaching me vital lessons about how to do the same. The value of being able to swiftly scale a log hut, the diversion of a full pile of firewood tumbling in one’s path, the importance of watching out for black ice, the best way to vault over fences and dirks while shifting a weapon from one hand to another.
Since we are practicing one-on-one in preparation for battle and yet lacking any way to simulate that sort of chaos, we have agreed to hold no bars on these tactics. It has always been our way, retreat and pursuit, in constant motion, racing forward together on this path that we set out.
The only rule: do not disturb camp in any way that merits His Excellency’s intervention.
Knocking over a pot of stew was the closest we’ve come to breaking that rule, and then only because Alex tore his stockings when he fell in the coals of the cooking fire, and, “These are my only pair!”
“You can borrow some of mine,” I say, helping him up, “and besides, now you’re ready for the Baron’s party,”
He spends the rest of our lesson making swipes at my breeches.
Trying to ‘prepare me’ in return.
WORKING WITH ALEXANDER is gratifying now in a way that it hadn't been for months- better. We pass ideas back and forth with equal force- with a full scope of the situation.
Sitting on opposite sides of General Greene’s long desk, we sift through the Quartermaster’s records of his commissaries and compile our report to General Washington- form our specific recommendations on His Excellency’s behalf. If General Greene can trust us to advise him in his primary billet, I’m sure he will trust us to advise him in my own interests for my battalion of liberated slaves, and with Alexander at my side in it, I'm confident we will present only viable plans.
Despite the obvious contrast in this work- it’s elevated complexity and involvement, with Alex's toes brushing along the back of my calf distractingly, I'm transported to September when I was new and eager and all my surety was untested. I didn’t know then what to expect of this post. I believed I was capable of anything the General could ask, and I was quickly cut down in my hubris.
Now I see just how much His Excellency requires and I am confident nonetheless.
Alex finds me staring and he startles, brows raised. Then his expression softens and he smiles.
He brought me to this post, assuming my temperament by pedigree. Instead, he found me wild, difficult to control and yet never a threat to him. It is still so satisfying to surprise him. With every test, I have confounded his expectations and he only becomes more and more enamored. Meanwhile, I can feel him growing in me each day, the part of me he’d inhabited expanding, and I’m not afraid of it.
I surprise myself.
In the other room Caty and General Greene have been talking for some time now, but their voices begin taking on a more heated pitch until they are clearly shouting. She complains that she wants to go to Steuben’s party- a fair request when her council to the Baron has been just as active as my own, but the General counters with an unassailable reminder that she’d be the only woman among a hundred young boys starved for feminine company.
I glance at Alex, thinking only of the Baron’s core staff- not particularly starved for her flavor of company and rather well-fed in another.
He must see the thought on my face, and he snorts at it.
But the tone of our hosts’ arguing takes a new pitch when the General declares he will not allow her to attend any parties at all if she presses this issue, knowing how she has been toying with Wayne this last month-
“I think we should take our leave,” I suggest, gathering up the papers I was working on. “You’ll be back in this office tomorrow, yes?”
Alex nods and apprehends my meaning, quickly helping me to pack our letterboxes. “I’ll bring our suggestions then.”
“The Baron’s staff has surely already begun toasting him anyway,” I muse.
“They’ll be through supper by the time we arrive,” he says, apprehending my suggestion that we should get ready and go. “Should we eat first?”
RETURNING HOME TO EAT first alerts General Washington to the fact that we had not yet departed for the Baron’s party. Apparently the rest of the staff had, and as we gather up hard loaves of bread and some dried meat to eat along the walk, he requests to join us- if only to see how his army celebrates.
I exchange a look with my friend, and Alex makes a quick excuse that he must go exchange his stockings for the ripped ones from this morning.
He leaves me to explain the party’s theme to General Washington. The joke does not receive a laugh as I’d hoped.
Alex returns in time to avoid awkwardness, and as we walk behind the General, he slips something into my hand- his flask of whiskey. I take it gratefully and fall behind a step to drink. I close the flask to return it, and two steps ahead of me I see it-
A tear in General Washington’s breeches.
WE ARRIVE TO THE BARON’S HEADQUARTERS in well-earned high spirits. Sips of Alex’s whiskey taken covertly behind the General's back has me feeling comfortably sociable, and the gay feeling in the air is appreciated after many long days of drudgery in this place. I had spent so many hours copying descriptions of marching, there had been times I would almost rather be performing the act itself.
Tonight, the place is transformed.
The Marquis de Fleury has abused his authority over the camp’s pioneer units to erect canvas fences over the lawn of the old Georgian house. I think the barrier was intended for privacy, but it only adds to the mystique of what's transpiring inside. Two large camp fires cast silhouettes on the fabric- soldiers talking, singing, dancing, wrestling, and drinking just behind the screen. The merriment inside has drawn such a crowd that two sergeants stand sentry at the entry post. Their role is two-fold, both verifying invitation and ensuring adherence to the code of dress before allowing admission.
As the men from Steuben’s model company, staff officers, and the dignitaries that Steuben has befriended in camp wait at the post for entry, the guards have them turn round and poke at the holes in their breeches.
I count four who arrived sans the article entirely.
Arriving with General Washington sees us to the front of the line without waiting, but it costs a great deal of tension as drunken soldiers fumble to right themselves and he must again and again insist that he is not here to stamp out their fun.
The Baron’s headquarters is, as a rule, dutifully clean, but tonight attention to that rule is foregone in the celebration. Familiar officers and friends are crowded into every available corner of the house, gathered together in groups around tables and counters and chairs. Lanterns are hung from every truss and carefully lifted overhead so as to provide illumination and be out of the way, but this house was not designed for lavish parties, let alone roaring fêtes such as this.
Despite the crowd and the noise, the General’s presence brings a hush until the Baron comes out to greet him and scolds the room to “Talk on, ma sansculottes! Er ist für mich da!” Which draws howls of laughter from the men who understand what they’ve been called. He shoulders his way across the room to meet Washington and embrace him. Walker follows in tow to explain his gratitude for His Excellency’s visit, the opportunity to train the army, and his faith throughout our labors.
His Excellency accepts a glass of liquor and as is apparently the custom of the night, the Baron lights the drink on fire insisting “It must be swallowed up- flame and all!” Duponceau demonstrates with his own glass. I think he’s done a few more demonstrations than he should as he fills glasses for Alex and I, spilling enough on my hand that I flinch away from the flaming reed he lights it with. “Salamanders are a tradition in the Prussian Infantry,” Steuben insists. “A right of passage for officers.”
At that, General Washington swallows his glass with little hesitation and clears his throat once.
We follow suit behind him. Alex coughing and covering his mouth in his arm. When I glance over to check on him, his eyes are bright and watering, but he offers a smile.
“It’s...bracing,” Washington says, and I translate. The understatement earns a laugh from the Baron. Walker translates for the General as he offers a pipe of Virginia hemp from Mount Vernon, courtesy of Martha.
I step aside to help Alex find a chaser. It’s as good an excuse as any to remove ourselves. We don’t go far before finding familiar faces as I’m recognized by the men that have trained with Steuben and worked with him, but I wave them off to remain with my friend. Until Alex finds Nicholas Fish and is far more interested in his company, though Fish only seems interested in a game he’s devised, finding the tears in everyone’s uniforms and secretly expanding them with clever fingers.
I let myself be pulled aside by a red-faced Ternant carrying Francis Barber on his back, and find myself drinking some concoction they’ve mixed from rum and the stores of the Baron’s wine. It’s horrible. And fast.
I follow them outside to find Ponthière, Francy, and Des Epiniers aggressively attempting instruction with a squad of drunken officers in the movements of a French folk dance. It’s worse than their earliest attempts at marching together. Des Epiniers cannot manage to get himself in step. He stumbles into Francy one too many times and they dissolve to fists.
Colonel William Davies is discharging the contents of his stomach as I find my way back inside in search of my brothers. Instead I find Major James Monroe. He is not much better off than Davies, though his affliction is not from liquor. He’s sweating profusely and clinging to L’Enfant, clear-eyed and mumbling that he has to leave. L’Enfant stops me to return Lady Washington’s pipe, and I don’t ask how they got it.
It’s easier to find the General once Tilghman reminds me that I should do that. I’m not sure when they found me, but I find myself standing around a table, drinking with him, Harrison, Meade, and McHenry, and their company reminds me that I have to return Martha’s pipe. So we determine we’ll go to find the General together.
He’s still talking to the Baron, nursing his original glass, refilled with a foggy punch. His eyes pinch in a slight smile when he sees us approach, and I attempt to hold myself steady as I report to him and make the return. He laughs, clamps a hand on my shoulder and says, “I’m heading out, boys. This scene is not for me, and I defer to the Baron’s celebrity for tonight. I trust my men are well in-hand.”
I do my best to translate that, but words are difficult and I don’t believe I quite convey the meaning. Steuben smiles anyway and clasps the General’s hand before he turns to leave us.
Tilghman takes His Excellency’s exit to mean we will be his escort and begins walking with him to the door. The other aides have turned to find their next drinks while I watch. Washington stops Tilghman with a gentle hand to his chest, pressing him back inside as he steps through the door and closes it.
For a moment, Tench looks lost, staring at the door-
“Mon ami!” an arm wraps around my side as Fleury steps into view, hanging off me to offer another drink- though I was holding one just a moment ago. I’m not sure where I placed it, so I accept the new one. “You skipped our meal,” he scolds, “Shirking a seat by the father- so rude.”
I roll my eyes but smile at him, drawing away far enough to take his hand. “You forget I’m not the Baron’s man.”
“Not on paper,” he admits. “But in truth?” a shrug.
I’m not amused. “Come help me make my friend sociable. He knows enough French to get by.”
I drag him through the crowd to Tilghman, and though I’m sure they’ve crossed paths before, I make an introduction formally. Fleury takes only a moment of prodding questions that I barely listen to- before he decides that Tilghman must match him drink for drink with something stronger, and they depart on a hunt for such a potion.
Left to myself, I find my way back into the parlor somehow. The room is crowded, and yet only one man is talking- a face I recognize though his name eludes me and I know it’s usually the reverse. I’ve never spoken two words with this man but I’ve been following his exploits in the papers and our intelligence reports. His audience asks questions about the Red Lion Tavern, Daversers Ferry, and the Crooked Billet, and his stories almost always include names of other men I know-
Mostly John Clark.
He’s recounting the Battle of the Beef near our former Fort Mifflin when I spot Meade walking towards where I’d leaned against the wall to listen. Perhaps the only man in this room who knows my involvement behind the scenes of so many stories they’re hearing. I’m fairly certain the bloviate himself has no idea who I am. Of course, at the moment, I can’t remember him either.
“Wasn’ aware you were a Light-Horse Harry fanatic,” Meade says, grinning cheekily as he leans in beside me-
“Lee!” I exclaim, finally recalling and slapping my leg in small victory. Several men of the audience turn to glare at me, and I can’t bring myself to care. “That’s what his name is! I’ve been trying t’remember this whole time,” I only mean to explain myself to Meade, but Captain Lee is staring at me now, openly. So I address him, “You offered me your horse once, then reported Alex was dead...some stuff about flour- I get a lot of your reports, good stuff-”
Meade is already dragging me away.
Another canteen is pushed into my hands. I drink from it without question, brows knit when it’s just water.
Meade is fixing me with a look that melts into a smile when I offer one first. “You’re a mess, my friend,” he says. “Let’s go find Alex.”
He doesn’t explain why, but I very much like the idea. I can’t remember why I didn’t want to be around Alexander before- how I ever could’ve lost him, so I follow Meade obediently through the crowd, outside. The fresh air is kind, sobering.
Alex was spending time with his college friend. But, Major Fish is talking to Ternant now, so we keep searching. Inside, the house has grown louder as drinking songs begin in earnest, and part of me expects to find Alex here- among the boisterous noise. Instead, Meade pulls me along so I don’t get distracted and join in.
The crowd outside has not thinned at all- though the line to come inside has dissipated. Meade and I make our way across the lawn, and I’m surprised when we walk up to Joseph Reed. “I thought y’left for York,” I say because I did.
“We were talking about the Baron’s performance,” Alex says, and I smile. We found him!
“All good things, I’m sure,” Meade hands Alex another drink that I don’t remember him picking up anywhere.
I don’t think that one’s water.
Alex accepts it with a smile. “Exclusively.”
“The matter of half-pay has also been a subject of discussion,” Reed says and he looks at me sidelong.
I’m sure I know why, but I’m not sober enough to debate him. Reed has lately made himself a convert to most of Washington’s wills, including the proposal that Alexander raised in February about providing officers with a pension to compensate the costs of their service. I, personally, never had any moral compunction one way or another. While I don’t need the money myself, I know many peers who desperately do and I’ve expressed this matter to my father in letters.
Still, he is staunchly opposed. It is perhaps the one matter in which he is a true Whig.
“Working on your angle for the debate on the floor?” Meade says, glancing between Reed and Hamilton as if trying to impress the urgency for cooperation by force of his smile.
Reed inclines his head in agreement.
Alex decides to be more of a blunt instrument, “We were until you brought Laurens over here. Now, I think he’s found a simpler angle. Which requires no effort from him at all.”
I don’t understand.
Meade covertly steps between me and the conversation.
“You presume to think. But, I wonder how much thought goes into anything that comes out your mouth,” Reed says, tone shifting from controlled politeness to something else entirely. “Just because I support your thoughts today does not guarantee I will always agree with you. Yet you think it wise to insult-”
“I don’t want you to always agree with me, but in this case, I am right, so you do. If I weren’t, I would hope you wouldn’t,” Alex says, drawing closer to Reed in a way that makes Meade’s shoulders tense. “I understand you’re not a soldier anymore, but I didn’t expect you to forget the personal honor that-”
“Laurens can express the General’s ideas and opinions but he cannot control his father,” Meade says carefully. “That’s not the nature of what we do,”
“No, it’s not,” Reed agrees and turns his attention away from Alex as if he’s obliging him by doing so. “But, the influence you’ve chosen as aides de camp is very different from the influence of a son on his father.”
Managing his opinions...I realize my father’s are en route to make him a very unpopular man among the army. “He thinks that officers already have enough to profit from the reputations and connections they’re uniquely positioned to find with their commissions. That opportunity is payment in itself…” But, explaining as much only casts me as if I agree. I only realize that when Meade winces.
Reed pounces on the blunder, “I wonder if the Honorable Mister Laurens also believes all children should be dependent upon their parents’ wealth and left unable to accumulate their own fortunes.”
I don’t know what to say.
“Send for me when you’re ready to depart,” Alex says, glaring at Reed, and he shoulders his way past him roughly, stalking back inside.
Meade and I follow. He’s nearly lost in the crowd until I spot the distinct shape of his wavy queue next to Harrison and McHenry. “What did he mean?” I say as we move towards our brothers. “Ready to depart? Is he arranging the escort to York?”
Meade doesn’t answer, distracted as we join their party around the Baron’s whiskey hutch. Our brothers on staff are especially animated, standing around Tilghman with an odd mixture of amusement and sympathy-
“All that practice to improve your French, I’d think your tongue should appreciate the lessons!” McHenry is saying between breaths- as though he hasn’t been able to stop laughing for some time.
Tilghman is sitting on the table between him and Harrison, hair mussed up, face wet, and shaken.
“Is he alright?” I say.
Harrison huffs a breath of a laugh and rolls his eyes. “Fleury showed him a proper French greeting.”
“He kissed you?”
“I’m sure he doesn’t know what to make of that,” Meade says.
McHenry is less sympathetic, still focused on ribbing Tench, “Now all of France will know how sloppy his tongue is- just as America does.”
”You seem very interested in his tongue...” Alex says, smirking widely.
I step away, shaking my head and refocus, “Meade, what I was asking-”
At my side, the man shares a look with Harrison as I repeat the question of whether Alexander is arranging Reed’s escort. “Reed is traveling with us so far as Mount Airy, then we part ways to Philadelphia,” Harrison says.
I reel at that.
So, he further explains, “We are assigned to make the exchange for General Lee- Colonel Grayson, Hamilton, Mister Boudinot, and myself. We leave on Saturday.”
Alexander hadn’t said…
I look at him and he must feel me glaring- looks up from where he’d been rubbing soothing circles between Tilghman’s shoulders and fending off McHenry’s taunts.
I step around our friends and grab him, and he could be fast enough to flee, but he doesn’t attempt it. I pull him through the throngs of stumbling officers towards the stairs. Steuben’s aides occupy rooms on the second floor, so the Baron has the entry closed off to guests. I decide we will need the privacy- “What the hell, Hamilton?”
He backs himself against the wall of the stairway without prompting, on the retreat and immediately defensive- “You knew I was assigned to this mission. You suggested me for it!”
“I know!” I snap. “But, you’ve said nothing about when you’d go.”
“I didn’t think it necessary-”
“Of course it was necessary!” My urgency seems to frustrate and confuse him, and I cannot stand it- the little crease in his brow. He is smarter than this. I press my weight against him on the wall, feeling sharp and determined. “You think no one will care when you leave but I do- I’ll miss you.” As I’ve missed him all this time, working so close at matters so distant. I finally have him now and he plans to leave.
His expression softens and I wrap my hand around his wrist where his hand's pressed against the wall- needing to touch him. He doesn't resist. “I figured you knew the timing when you suggested me for the job...” he says. “I sort of assumed that was why.”
“To have you sent away? After you’d just recovered from your last trip? While the General is in the midst of planning our next campaign?”
“Given the timing, I’m the obvious choice…”
“Obvious?” I say, “The General wants you involved in that planning.”
“But he doesn’t want me involved with the ladies. Didn't you wonder why he jumped at once to an assignment that would send me away for a few weeks when he knew the families were visiting?”
I hadn't considered.
“He has his suspicions of General Lee, but only so far as Lee has suspicions of him. Meade likes to assume I’ve been assigned because of some investigation of Boudinot’s ill-feelings about him, but I think it’s because he doesn’t like to assume the General harbors ill-feelings about me.”
I’m familiar enough with this debate to not want a repetition of it. We both know what I think of Washington’s affection for him, and what he thinks of the General’s ability to trust any of us. I’m much more interested in communicating that, “I don’t want you to go.”
He brushes a hand against my jaw and I reach up to hold it there, lean into the touch. My leg has pressed between his own where we lean together in the stairway.
It’s not close enough.
The house is noisy, the Baron leads the room into a round of uncoordinated songs, complicated by the drunkenness of his singers and the broken English he leads in. I’m sure Alexander and I are the last thing anyone has a mind to notice, but with the crowd amassed here, if this place was ever safe for such things, it’s certainly not now.
I don’t care. I am tired of these American tactics, hit and run. We deserve a true victory, so I say, “Come upstairs- where it’s quiet, no one will disturb us…” I grab up his hand and urge him to do so.
He could fight me, but he doesn’t even try.
We lock the door to the bedroom reserved for the Baron’s distinguished guests, and Alex crouches by the fireplace to light the box while I start taking my clothes off. The angle of the window allows lights from the bonfires below to cast flickering shadows on the ceiling, and it’s possible- if the angle is just right, that some of the men on the lawn can see me through the window, bare and throwing my clothes eagerly to the side. I doubt they are looking, doubt they’d recognize me if they were- or would draw accurate conclusions of what they’d see. The possibility is still reckless.
I am perhaps not sober enough for this, but again, I don’t care. It makes no difference now. This is where I want to be- what I want to do. We cannot go back.
Alex turns and sees me undressing. He lifts the remaining liquor in the glass that Meade gave him and swallows it widely, sets the glass on the floor and stands to meet me, chest to chest, “Finally taking me to bed, Mister Laurens?” he says, and I know it’s flirtation. I know that he means it that way, but his voice comes too dry.
I slip my arm around his waist and draw him close, reach behind his back to loose the curtains. “I mean to have you in that bed,” I say, and my voice is so low and rough I barely recognize it.
The sound seems to sap the strength from my friend’s body and he goes loose in my arms- then a loud clamor in the hallway has him tense again. A group of drunken men outside try the door, and we watch transfixed as they jiggle the handle. They find it locked. A frustrated fist slams on the wood, shakes the door in its frame, before they give up and carry on their raid of the next rooms.
I roll my eyes.
Alex is not as amused, “I should not have come..."
“Contrary, I think you should have come. But I’ve been offering that for days,” I say, and he’s close enough that I can press our hips flush in demonstration. Words are difficult, and I’m losing the ability to simplify them. I think Alexander will understand- “I have been the repeated beneficiary of your sweetest depravity. I need you to accept mine.” As he said he would- accept all the parts I was so ashamed of. I am aching to share, see and be seen, grasp his hand in the dark and hold tight. Allow it to pull me under. The sea doesn’t question its right to consume and I’ve been dying to drown. “Here- tonight,” my thoughts drift. Such a simple sentiment, but there aren’t words- no translation for a language I have no command of. Instead, my rationalizations come out like pleas, “We have privacy, opportunity- everyone here is preoccupied and intoxicated and-”
Alex doesn’t wait for me to complete my babbling.
Where we're already standing so close, he reaches down and grabs up my legs, toppling us both onto the bed. A little ‘oof’ escapes my chest, and Alex climbs onto me, covers me, and initiates a campaign of kisses and bites along my bare shoulders and chest, lighting my nerves in his wake. Simple touches, but so effective I cannot regain my breath. I'm in awe of his intent. He doesn’t need rationalization to make bold moves, so far from our careful American tactics, he loves a la Francaise, as if he has empires to fell in our wake.
I had no idea that I could be so aware of my own skin, so enthralled with simple touch. I luxuriate in this treatment for only a moment before rolling Alex over to return it. And, it becomes the objective between us to impart affection upon any flesh we can reach- touch and taste until the disparate lines of our separate existences merge into a clearer idea of what we could be together- how to optimize our joint pleasure. Until I have catalogued the places that make him squirm and gasp and he has selected his marks to bite and scratch.
I need his breeches off.
I see to it quickly, and Alex accommodates, lifting his hips for me. “I’ve wanted to touch you since the first time I saw you,” I say, and he moans. I’m not sure if it’s in response to those words or my hands sliding back up his body. “You’ve been strangely shy about it.”
“Not shy,” he protests.
And, I don’t believe him, but I don’t need to debate. I need to kiss him, so I do. He bites my bottom lip and tugs on it. I reach down to wrap my hand around his cock. He is so hard. So wanting and not in any position to deny himself if the stumbling, breathy noise that escapes his lip is any indication. Shyness is not a sin, and if he has any humility at all he will hide it if I tease. Instead, I squeeze his length, stroke up to rub my thumb into the fluid gathering at the tip. “The Greeks preferred men to be small- considered it a mark of intelligence…” I say. “Used t’ think you’d make a fine subject for their statues, but perhaps not.”
“They’d think me an idiot then?” he says, voice unsteady. “Endowed on a satyric scale, so I must be just as foolish.”
I laugh into his mouth. There’s that humility.
My touch is probably clumsy and his hips are still- restrained, but as he begins to relax, this feels easy, loose and fun and between sighs and moans we’re laughing at our fumbling. If we’re to be Greeks, I think it makes sense to take their lead and I shift to push Alex’s legs together as I stroke him. He only takes a second to realize my intent, and I hadn’t even begun to mount when he pushes me off and exchanges our positions to assume the same role from above. He clamps me between his thighs and moves, and it’s glorious- all the strength and sinew in the muscles that I had trained with him to develop now squeezing my cock and pulling me higher, the tension rising, but he moves too slow and I cannot reach his length to return the favor, so I push him back over.
The rolling and wrestling is growing tedious.
So, I pin him under my weight. All the roughness and biting has been his so far. When I commence the same such attack on him, he goes soft and pliant, all gasps- near sobs- and weak grabs for purchase. I reach my hand down to stroke him off, angle my thrusts higher, and he bites into my shoulder to muffle the noise that escapes at his crest, mouth going slack there as I see myself over the same precipice between his thighs.
Alex is quiet as I roll off him.
Catching my breath, I watch him for tension, but he isn’t tense- rather shocked silent. The last mask is cracked and the small vulnerable beast beneath it only seems confused for having been disturbed out of hiding.
After such exercise, I touch his chest to settle my thoughts and soothe his skin, his heart pounding under my wrist, my fingertips tracing his collarbone where my arm falls around him. After this, there will be no return, and we have known that. We’ve been striking at this flint for months, knowing a spark would eventually come, but when all the rains clear, summer is coming.
The empty hulls will dry and torch.
I hold him until he pulls away forcefully and starts getting up to find a rag to wipe us down. But…
“What makes you think I was done with you?” I say, grabbing his arm and tugging him back to the bed.
I MUST HAVE FALLEN asleep, though I don’t remember settling in to do so or cleaning the sweat and emission off my body. I wake slowly and in parts, drifting back to sleep several times before fully clearing the fog and recognizing my surroundings. I’ve spent plenty of nights at the Baron’s and often in this room.
But, I was here with Alexander.
The only trace of my friend is the scent of his pomatum in the sheets, the blankets tucked neatly over my chest up to my shoulders, and the ashes in the fireplace where someone had doused the flame. The fact that I’m clean and cared for is a small comfort, but after all that we did last night, to wake up alone...
Descending the stairs to the main floor of the house, the Baron’s guests are strewn about in various states of unconsciousness. Soldiers have the unique capability of sleeping in uncomfortable positions and the guests of the house are utilizing that skill to its fullest capacity, curled up in every corner and over every flat surface available to include tables, benches and desks.
I maneuver carefully on my way through the foyer, most concerned about where I step. I nearly make it outside until the last door to the kitchen opens and Vogel steps out with the tray he uses to deliver the Baron’s meals. “Sir,” he says, “I just prepared coffee- would you like some?”
I don’t have the chance to answer. Steuben’s joined us at the doorway and the quirk of his brow makes me worry that I had failed at some point in my effort to compose myself this morning. My hair may be askew or...I hadn’t checked for bruises on my neck. But, even in the state we had been in, surely Alex would’ve been careful.
“Pour him a cup, please,” Steuben says. “And keep the pot boiling. I’m sure it will be needed.”
He gestures me into the kitchen, and I have no choice but to follow, watching Vogel as the boy works gracefully with the Baron’s fine china cups. Unlike the rest of the house, the kitchen has no sleeping soldiers strewn about. I think the stone floors deterred it, or perhaps the Baron had already shooed them off to enjoy his morning rituals in peace- his coffee and morning meal, sitting to read his letters or books and have his manservant club his hair.
“How are my erotes this morning?” he says.
I know what he means to say, but, “Sir?”
“Is Colonel Hamilton still asleep?”
I swallow tightly and close my fist around my sleeve where my hands are clasped behind my back respectfully. Vogel replaces the lid of the pot and leaves my cup on the edge of the table, making a quick retreat from the room. “He already left this morning- sir, about the stories that will arise from this party, we must be prepared to take advantage of your celebrity.” I quickly change the subject, needing him to not pursue the subject of Alexander. Not him. “When you’re officially appointed- and you will be- we’ll need you to speak highly of our cause to your friends in Europe. Gaining the favor of the French court will deter any opposition that may find offense in the message we have sent against General Mifflin.”
“Do you speak Spanish, Lieutenant Colonel?” Steuben says, and he’s been standing uncomfortably close at my side all this time, finally moves away towards the windowsill to pluck a book from his pile of reading material.
“My father wanted me to learn. I’m afraid I haven’t mastered it.”
He sets the book on the edge of the table, fingertips resting on the leather cover, “I love this story. It’s a clever reminder,” he says. “We may invent our own characters, but we only get so far as we can live up to our own lies. ”
He intends to talk about me rather than himself and his role in General Washington's political strategy for the army's employment- as we eventually must. But, I don’t need to hear this again. He and Caty love to sit and philosophize about me. I am sick of it. “And what character do you believe I am playing?”
He steps behind the wide-backed chair at his desk, leaning an arm against it for support as he looks at me, close. “The bayard, yes?” I know that’s what Reed called me- along with Alexander and Gilbert, but hearing it from the Baron makes me apprehensive. “The hero- a fearless and foolish fellow. Lusting for glory.”
“And you believe that’s a lie?”
The Baron smiles and shakes his head. Without his long coat, emblazoned star and hat, he always seems smaller. Less of the imposing caricature of martial skill and more human. “A necessary one. A vital character with no better actor to play the role,” he says, and steps closer to me, reaches up and starts untying my cravat.
I resist the urge to pull away- for what it would reveal about my apprehensions right now.
His voice is low and gentle, a timber that tells me- he sees it. Some evidence of what I experienced last night- who I am. The final proof of our parallel paths.
I cannot stand it.
“I believe you are lucky. Your vision of the world as it should be is as close to madness as any man should ever come, and you have found a friend who is so wretchedly sane he might save you. I believe, if your vision can be saved, you boys might just make that beautiful madness a reality. And that thought is exciting.”
I don’t know what to make of that, but there’s some emotion swelling in my chest that I can’t manage to swallow down.
“Your Hamilton has not gone away from you,” he promises. Somehow I’m inclined to trust that, but it’s still inexplicably painful, a deep and pleasant ache. “You cannot lose him now.”
Steuben’s hand had found my shoulder again and it squeezes.
I’m crying. Inexplicably, my cheeks are running hot with it and the flood is forthcoming. I don’t feel the panic. I’m not bitter, heartbroken or hurt. There’s no specific emotion to attach to this overwhelming collapse, but the Baron’s arms are open.
I don’t step forward into them. He draws in to me, collects me down into his shoulder and strokes my hair gently. The same hands I had looked on with suspicion for the overly-expressive gestures he makes when speaking and the delicate way he interacts with the things he touches, are now the only tether I would trust.
I am so lost, so free.
“Everything is going to be alright, my boy.”