The social situation of the castrato was characterized by a stark duality. Some prize performers…rose to stardom and were remunerated with top salaries. Onstage, these castrati were greeted with expressions such as “Eviva il coltello” “Long live the knife”…But castrati who were catapulted to wealth and fame were few and far between; the vast majority faced a rather bleak existence. The operation, though generally a routine procedure, might be performed by a quack, and some boys did not survive it. Even a successful operation was no guarantee of a flourishing career…Aware of these vicissitudes, Patrick Barbier has compared castration to “a lottery from which very few emerged victorious.”
-Elisabeth Krimmer, “Eviva il Coltello”? The Castrato Singer in Eighteenth-Century German Literature and Culture
Voglio strage, e sangue voglio
The king isn’t a bad flute player, Will thinks, relieved. He’s not great; Will can hear his rhythm faltering a little every time he approaches a run of rapid notes, but the younger Bach on the keyboard is clearly used to it, and follows him easily. Will wipes his sweaty palms on his thighs. He’d been prepared to sing tonight, but he hadn’t realized that he was going to have to sit through what feels like interminable quantities of chamber music before doing it. Worst of all, he doesn’t even know when it’s going to be be his turn. Maestro Graun had led him to sit on the finely upholstered couch– in the section of the room that seems otherwise reserved for the rather small number of ladies of the court, Will notices– and explained that he would be called upon to sing once the King’s embouchure tired, and he needed a break from playing.
Will watches Johann Quantz, Frederick’s flute teacher and the only man allowed to criticize the King’s playing openly, tapping his fingers on his leg, as if his involuntary motions could convince his pupil to keep better time. It doesn’t work. Will prays that the rhythmic difficulties mean that Frederick is tired, and will want to sit back and hear some music soon; waiting is always the worst part. Once Will starts singing, he will feel just fine.
By the time Carl Heinrich Graun finally announces him, Will has passed through nervousness and nervous panic into a kind of fugue state of acceptance. His legs feel weak as he stands up, but all this is normal; he knows from long experience they’ll hold him. Graun announces him, in the French that Will had been warned that Frederick and his court favour: “For your Majesty’s pleasure, the musico that your Majesty was so taken by in the recent performance of the State Opera, William Graham, has agreed to stay for a while to partake in evening performances.” Frederick looks delighted, and Will feels buoyed until exactly the moment that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach gets up from the keyboard and haughtily leaves the room with what, if Will didn’t know better, he’d think was a steely glare at the King himself.
But no; the younger Bach had been playing quite happily for his monarch until this very moment, and the only thing that has changed is Will. Will feels frozen to his seat. He hadn’t had a rehearsal for this evening’s performance; Graun had asked him to perform an aria from his own Cesare e Cleopatra, and assured Will that the keyboardist on hand would be able to accompany him easily. The opera is only a few years old, and one of Frederick’s favourites, and Will had only arrived at the palace this afternoon; he had assumed that it would be the younger Bach, Emanuel, the King’s pre-eminent keyboardist, who would accompany him.
Embarrassment coils in his stomach as the door to the spacious performance room closes audibly. Of course a Bach wouldn’t stoop so low as to even be in the same room with him. Of course.
Another man takes his place at the harpsichord; a calm, inscrutable face that gives nothing away about the circumstances of his taking the young Bach’s place. Will stands there, waiting, trying not to show his embarrassment and– disappointment, there’s no other word for it. Of course Frederick’s court counts any number of capable keyboard players, but Emanuel is the one whose fame, helped along by the fame of his father, has spread the farthest. Will had been looking forward to meeting him.
No matter. He puts on a smile as he rises from the couch and stands beside the new keyboardist. Frederick is settled front and centre, one leg crossed over the other and his flute still grasped casually in his hand. He looks like any other man, Will thinks, which is perhaps a silly realization; a King is just like any other man, a man who has no choice but to accept the destiny imprinted upon him. Royalty is hardly the only career with that feature.
The keyboardist glances at Will, takes in his slight nod, and immediately launches into the quick introduction to the aria, which is the beginning of the third act of Maestro Graun’s opera. As the act opens, a furious Julius Caesar enters, singing Voglio strage, e sangue voglio; I want a massacre, I want blood.
Will tries not to focus on the audience overmuch as he sings, but unlike an opera house with the lights on the audience turned low and the stage bright with light, in this room everyone is washed in the same soft glow of chandeliers and candles. Frederick II is immediately in front of Will and he’s well aware that watching the King’s face as he performs can only bring disaster, but he can’t help himself. After all, his acquaintances and colleagues in Rome will be breathlessly expecting a full report from Will when he gets back. Will isn’t the first among them to visit Prussia– the Court Opera, which Frederick had rushed the construction of to inaugurate in 1742, invites Italian singers to perform as often as Graun can round them up– but usually they simply sing their part and then are sent back home. Will isn’t certain how often singers are asked to stay and perform privately at the court as well, but judging by Emanuel’s reaction, there are enough of his notorious type here for the young Bach to have a distinct opinion on him.
He’s lost in the muscle memory of the music, which he’d practised well enough that he could perform it in his sleep, and in his own contemplations, when he realizes that he is rapidly approaching the repeat of the exposition of the aria. Like most works of that form, the first section is sung twice before the second, developmental section of the music starts, and Will has no idea if he is on the first or second repetition of the opening.
His lungs and lips keep working, but his mind seems to have smacked into a wall. He tries to think back, remember, whether he had already sung the material he is singing right now. He thinks perhaps he has; it feels familiar. But then, it would be familiar to him anyway from practice. His heart pounds. If he were on a stage father away from the audience, he might be able to direct the particular kind of wide-eyed helpless look understood universally among musicians to mean help me, I’m lost towards his accompanist, and if he were lucky the other would understand and he would receive a mouthed “go on” or “go back“. But he is right in front of the King, who would surely notice if he looked over now, and anyway Will isn’t certain that he would even be able to see the keyboardist’s face from this angle. Will does register that he hadn’t noticed the keyboardist flipping back in his part to return to the beginning; but that just could mean that it’s all written on the same spread of pages, or that he has the opening memorized well enough to play it for the second time without turning back. Before he has time to consider further, the moment arrives, and without his ever having made a conscious decision, Will launches into the next section of the piece.
It was the wrong decision. Will sees it in the sudden stiffness of the harpsichord player’s shoulders, a minute movement that nobody but Will can likely even see; and then there is a single moment where there is perhaps a beat missing in the accompaniment, too slight to be certain but a space where the man’s fingers could have rearranged themselves into a new configuration, and then they are back together, the other man turning a page quickly to follow Will’s erroneous but overrriding lead.
Equal parts relief and shame flood through Will, and he throws himself into trying to distract any in the audience who might note the missing repeat by turning up the drama of the aria as high as he possibly can, sweeping his eyes around the room as if he could impart Caesar’s thirst for blood and ruin directly into each listener. It seems to work; Graun is leaning forward, one fingertip underneath his chin, smiling slightly; the end of the King’s flute waves unconsciously in time with the music. When they reach the end of the aria, the entire room explodes with vigorous applause, Frederick nodding enthusiastically and, in the noise, leaning in to say something to Quantz that Will can’t make out.
Will bows and bows and then turns to go back to his seat, but Graun waves him over. “Here, Monsieur Graham,” he says, and points to the seat that Quantz has just vacated. Quantz is standing over the harpsichord now, sorting through a stack of music and suggesting various titles to the King. “I recall we have only played this sonata by Johann Janitsch once,” he’s saying, nodding at the contraviolinist who appears to be the composer in question. “Perhaps another try? And if you could stay at the keyboard, Hannibal, I think Emanuel will take the rest of the evening to recover from his little fit of Lutheran sensibility.”
“Of course,” says the keyboardist with the inexplicably Carthaginian name, his French lightly accented with a timbre Will can’t quite place. Frederick rolls his eyes and mutters something to Hannibal that Will can’t quite hear, presumably about Emanuel, and Hannibal leans in conspiratorially to give an answer that draws and quiet laugh from the monarch.
Will spends the rest of the evening’s music slowly relaxing from his moment of terror in the middle of the aria, like a string that stills its vibrations only long after it was plucked. There are seemingly an endless number of pieces to choose from, which makes sense, since it becomes clear that nearly all of the musicians in the King’s employ spend time composing music for him to play or listen to. There are shelves of it stacked around the corners of the room, and on the rare occasion that a piece is requested that hasn’t been stored on one of them, the musician who wrote it will usually pipe up and promise to bring copies for the next evening.
Finally, Frederick turns to Quantz and says, “Johann, I think we’re all ready to retire– one more to send us off, if you please. Would you play the old Bach’s partita for for us?” There is a smattering of chuckling around the room at the request, which is entirely opaque to Will, but the King joins in with a sort of amused grimace. Like listening to this partitia is some sort of hardship. “In preparation, of course. We must be ready.”
Quantz assents and all of the other musicians find themselves places to sit in the audience, which is how Will finds himself listening to some of the best transverse flute playing he’s ever heard in his life, sitting in between Hannibal on one side and Frederick II on the other. Up close, they both smell clean and only lightly perfumed; the scent of men rich enough to take hot baths as often as they like. It’s not like Will has never been around nobility before, but he’s not usually close enough to literally smell them. It lends the entire scene a kind of surreal quality, and when the partitia ends and the assembled musicians and courtiers begin to rise and say their goodnights, Will stays in his chair, not entirely certain how he’s supposed to behave.
The keyboardist– Hannibal— sits there with him, bidding good night to Graun and Frederick and laughing a little with the latter over Emanuel’s hasty departure. Will does not feel like laughing, and the more it appears that Hannibal is waiting to talk to him, the less he likes the implications.
Making mistakes is inevitable, sometimes. Will knows that, but it doesn’t prevent his stomach from sinking at the idea that Hannibal might be expecting an apology from him. Will swallows, and calls to mind the first and only time he’d ever apologized to someone for a mistake during a performance: during his first year of performance in the Basilica, his fourth year in total of apprenticeship in the Sistine boys’ choir, he had made an early entrance and tremblingly approached the director after the performance to apologize. The man had rounded on him and said Well, Guglielmo, I had already forgotten it, and now you have reminded me. And then when Will had been ready to burst into tears on the spot, the man had knelt down– in the first and last display of sentimentality that Will had ever witnessed from him– and continued softly, there, don’t think on it any more. And never apologize for your mistakes to anyone other than God, because the rest of us are all His creations and imperfect just like you. If you must say something, you ought to thank your fellow musicians for their skill in recovering from your error. Will had sniffled and muttered thank you, Maestro, and that was that. He tells the story to students, when they first start performing in basilica.
He no longer even apologizes to God– it is unclear if God is willing to accept apologies from him. So he’ll be damned if he starts apologizing to anyone else, now. Instead, when the room has cleared to the point that it is just him and Hannibal, he turns to the keyboardist and follows his old Maestro’s advice: “Thank you for catching me so quickly,” he says, trying to inject a confidence into his voice that he doesn’t quite feel.
The other man doesn’t seem inclined to push for an apology, though. He doesn’t smile, but his face turns towards Will looking light and pleased. “You’re very welcome,” he says. “Being able to see the faces of your audience so clearly can take some getting used to, I am told. I’m sure you will be more focused tomorrow night.”
Will bristles at the implication that he wasn’t focused, but then, it is accurate. He stands, and begins wandering among the harpsichords and the chairs and piles of music that will doubtless be put away by the servants later in the evening. The concert room of Sanssouci Palace is not the most ornate he has ever been in, but only because Will has sung at the homes of noblemen with less money but worse taste than Frederick. Hannibal watches him, strangely sharp-eyed as if evaluating his movements for hidden meaning. Will rubs at his head. He wants to ask Hannibal about Emanuel, and he also doesn’t. Just because they’ve somehow ended up alone in a room together, just because Hannibal seemed to want to talk to him, doesn’t mean they’re friends. Besides, Will can already guess everything he needs to know. Anything further would just be painful confirmation, like rubbing salt in his own wound.
“So, William,” Hannibal says, as Will is standing by the window looking out into the gardens, “How did an Italian musico come to posess such uncommon names as yours?”
Will turns to stare at Hannibal, trying to figure out how much of the question is sincere. Most everyone in Rome, at least, knows that the social standing of the castrati is mixed enough that most change their last names, distancing themselves publicly from their family names as a kindness to their living relations. Most choose common Italian surnames, of course, but it’s not like anyone told Will not to choose an English one, and if he has roots anywhere, they are in the concept of mobility itself. So, Graham. A prostitute had told him once that it meant a gravel homestead; though how she would know something like that he had no idea, and she’d lost interest in divining his desires from his names once she’d realized he wasn’t her target market.
William, despite the Italianization that he’s grown used to in Rome, is original. He can tell the whole truth about that, at least. “My dad travelled a lot,” he says with a shrug. He watches Hannibal’s face, wondering if the next question will betray his curiosity as to whether Will is zigeuner, Rom. It’s the usual next question, and the answer is that Will has no idea. His dad was a solitary traveller if ever there was one, and his only criteria for moving on to the next town was that the work in the old one had dried up; but perhaps if he’d travelled with his dad for longer than he did, and grown old enough to ask such questions, he would one day have asked about his mother.
Hannibal doesn’t ask that. Instead, he asks, “And what did you think of Fritz’s flute playing?”
Will blinks. It’s a startlingly invasive question, somehow even more so than inquiring as to his ethnicity, because there is no possible answer he can give. The truth is that Frederick is mediocre, of course, quite good for an amateur but that’s only to be expected of a man who can afford to have chamber music almost every night and a private instructor in his castle. The correct answer, the one they both know he should give, is that he is wonderful, an exceptional talent. Either one leaves him at Hannibal’s mercy, conversationally, and from the glint in Hannibal’s eye, he clearly knows it.
Will shakes his head, leafing through some music on top of the harpsichord as he turns it over. Finally he decides that the only way to win this game is to start another instead, and says, “And you? Your French is very good, but but the accent isn’t German, like most of your fellows. Polish?”
He is rewarded– odd that he should think of someone else’s discomfort as a reward, but that seems to be Hannibal’s preferred style of conversation– by a small expression of surprise passing over the man’s face. “A reasonable guess,” he says. “Have you met many Poles, William?”
“Will,” Will corrects, or perhaps allows. “Not many. But all sorts of travellers came through the Vatican, when I was a choirboy.” He’s not sure why giving Hannibal that one more hint as to his past feels like a gift, or a piece given up in a game of chess with the aim of a larger gain in the future. There’s no reason that he should be reluctant to tell Hannibal about himself, and in a way, he isn’t. He simply has the sense that the information is valuable, and he ought somehow to parcel it out.
“My home was originally outside of Vilnius, on the Lithuanian side of the Commonwealth,” says Hannibal, and the way he says it, that sounds like a gift too.
“How did you end up here?”
Will realizes he’s pushed too far as soon as he said it, unbalanced whatever was keeping them inside of the delicate dance of information exchange. Hannibal doesn’t ask a reciprocal question; instead, he gives Will a polite smile. “You look tired,” he says, “which is quite understandable. Where are you staying?”
“Graun offered me a room in the servants’ quarters,” Will says. The maestro had seemed to expect Will to refuse, as if his status as a musician made him above such things. But Will would rather stay in the plain but clean service wing of a newly-built palace than negotiate per diem and have to find lodgings of his own; he had learned his way around Berlin during the run of the opera, but Potsdam is wholly unfamiliar to him. He has no issue with being regarded as hired help, since that is what he is. There are castrati who in their success manage to forget the circumstances of their birth and making, but Will isn’t one of them.
Hannibal, however, seems somewhat offended. “That won’t do,” he says. “Carl Heinrich should have found you somewhere to board; it’s rude to treat you like any other servant, with a voice and pedigree such as you have.”
“I don’t mind,” shrugs Will. He really doesn’t. At least in the servant’s quarters, if one happens to wake up shouting from a nightmare, nobody will take any more note of it than to bang on the wall and demand silence. It’s better than having someone else close by to wake up who knows him and cares.
Hannibal shakes his head. “Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me,” he says. “You may board with me from tomorrow, if you wish; but it is too late to make such arrangements for tonight. Do you remember the way back to your room?”
Will hesitates. He does remember the way, but instead of saying so, he murmurs, “I got here only this afternoon– I’m afraid I might wander into the wrong corridor,” and Hannibal rises to lead him out of the rehearsal room. They walk together through the hallways of the palace in silence, past the library and into the side wing housing the servants and musicians. When they reach the door of Will’s room, the strange replacement harpsichordist’s murmured “Goodnight, Will,” makes the evening feel like a success.
He wonders if Emanuel Bach’s abrupt departure appears as rudeness to Hannibal, and if so, what he thinks of it.
Chapter End Notes
C.H. Graun, Voglio strage, e sangue voglio from Cesare e Cleopatra
Son qual nave ch’agitata
Will isn’t used to eating breakfast. They had never served it in his days at the Schola Puerorum, the school for the Sistine boys, and he hadn’t picked up the habit later. When Will emerges from his chamber in the morning, however, the meal hall in the servants’ wing is audibly full, so he follows his ears and his nose and sits down at one of the long wooden tables. He had dreamed of that night again, blood on his hands shining in the moonlight. He still feels shaky and sweaty from it, and could probably use something to eat. Upon entering the meal hall he is immediately both accosted by Graun, and served a muddy dark brown liquid in a warm mug by a young woman who quickly bustles away. He stares at it.
“Café,” says Graun. “Do you partake?”
“Never had it,” says Will. He had been brought to a trendy new coffee-shop in Venice once, by a opera producer trying to woo him into accepting a wildly inadequate fee for a performance, but he had realized what the man’s sell was and left before the drinks had arrived at their table. It’s not that Will believes the coalition of English women who made headlines for claiming coffee had rendered their husbands impotent– not that that would make much difference to him, anyway– he’s just never gotten used to the luxuries of upper-class youth. He takes a careful sip. It’s incredibly bitter, but in a way that compels him to try again, just to make sure. After a few slurps, he decides it’s not bad, and sets the teacup down.
“Monsieur Lecter has offered to accompany you in anything you like for the next few evenings of music,” says Graun, and just at the moment that Will is about to ask what sort of arias would suit the King best, the largest man he’s ever seen enters the meal hall and sits down at an empty table across the room.
Sitting, he towers above every other head in the room, perhaps by the length of Will’s entire upper body. Nobody else is looking at him curiously, so Will surmises that he must belong here, and is not a visitor; he rips his eyes away and directs his attention back to Graun, who seems to have intuited his question about repertoire: “perhaps something from Hesse’s setting of Artaserse— Fritz was rather busy ascending the throne when the production came to Dresden, so I don’t believe he has heard it, and Hesse sent me the score–“
“Very good,” says Will, trying to focus, “I heard it in Venice shortly before that. Would we perhaps be able to have the room for rehearsal this afternoon?”
“Of course,” says Graun. “I will inform Hannibal when I see him.”
As it turns out, Will sees Hannibal first; Hannibal is entering the servant’s wing of the palace just as Will leaves the dining hall, coffee and bread sloshing together in his stomach and not quite mixing properly. He agrees to Artaserse readily, and then Will realizes that Hannibal must be here looking for him, because the next thing he says is, “Fritz agrees that it would be best if you boarded with me; the arrangement is common for visiting musicians and students. Would you like to collect your belongings now? I am close enough that we may walk.”
He doesn’t ask if Will would like to stay with him, which rankles slightly, then a little bit more as Will realizes that he isn’t going to refuse on principle, because he does want to. His room here is perfectly comfortable, but there is something about Hannibal that makes him want to see how the man lives.
“Fritz likes to have control over all aspects of the court, including personnel; it’s better to keep him appraised of these things for his own pleasure,” Hannibal says, clearly misinterpreting Will’s hesitation. “I will be paid a per diem for your board as well, if the idea of imposing is what concerns you.”
“In that case, thank you,” says Will, as if that had been the source of his uncertainty all along. “I just have one bag; we can go now.”
Hannibal’s house is small, but to Will– who has been living most of his post-dormitory life in cramped rooms with other singers and assorted other lowlifes– it seems like a lot of space for one person. He almost asks if Hannibal has a wife, or any students or other boarders, but it’s clearly a stupid question; there is no trace of anyone but him in the place. Hannibal shows him to a guest room, which is larger than the room he had been given at the palace and better-appointed. The window looks out into an alley, and Will spends a long time watching people pass by out of it, enjoying the slower rhythm of the small city compared to the frenetic energy of Rome. He’s relieved: the quarters are not close at all, as he’d feared. If he has a nightmare, Hannibal will scarcely notice.
When he descends to the main rooms of the house, he finds Hannibal practising a few passages from Artaserse idly on the pianoforte, all of which branch off and away from the written material into improvisations: miniature fugues flowing out from underneath his fingers like water. Will stays silent and hopes not to be noticed, wanting to listen; counterpoint isn’t popular at Frederick’s court, being considered somewhat churchy and old-fashioned, but then, Hannibal had a life before Frederick. After a moment, however, Hannibal breaks off, nods in greeting and sets up a part for Will on a stand in the centre of the room. Will pretends not to have been caught listening at doors, and over the next hour they choose a few arias from it to perform that evening.
The substance of their rehearsal is longer than it needs to be, both of them cracking jokes in a way Will hasn’t since his school days. Will usually tries to be as serious and focused in rehearsals as he can be; it is well-known that to hire a castrato means resigning yourself to the tantrums of a spoiled diva, and he doesn’t appreciate being judged that way before his employers and collaborators have even met him.
He doesn’t get the sense that Hannibal expects anything in particular from him, though. Will knows that Frederick has had castrati before, some even staying in the King’s stable of musicians for years; whatever preconceptions Hannibal has of him, they don’t show. It makes him think of his own disbelieving stare at the huge man in the breakfast room, and feel vaguely guilty. Hannibal doesn’t look at him like that.
As they’re finishing up, and Hannibal is murmuring to himself about what they could have for lunch, Will thinks back to his coffee this morning. He and Hannibal are alone here, and he has the feeling that he is in the company of someone careful and circumspect.
“This might be– ah. Not sure how to put this,” says Will, “But I saw, today, a man…”
“Yes?” Hannibal’s head is tilted slightly to the side, his hands busy re-folding his part to one of the arias from Artaserse that Will had chosen. It’s full of trills and delicacies; I am a ship tossed around in the water, he sings, but re-learning an aria he had previously heard on short order isn’t such a tall ask when he’s been performing full operas every night for the past little while.
“Well. He was enormous.” It seems crass to say it that plainly, but Will can’t believe that everyone at the court simply ignores the presence of a man who needs to stoop to nearly half his height to fit through doorways. “Like something out of– I don’t know.”
“Ah, you’ve met my onetime travelling-companion,” says Hannibal. “Lukasz was a gift to Fritz’ father from my former patron. I was both a companion for him on the journey to his new posting and, I suppose, an equivalent gift for Fritz.”
“You were… a gift?” The idea of Hannibal being sent hither and thither by a patron seems unlikely, but when Will thinks about it, there’s not really any reason for him to assume otherwise. He’s just a musician; a better class of servant than the kind that empties the chamber-pot, to be sure, but fundamentally hired help nonetheless. Just like Will. The fact of Hannibal thinking of himself in that way is surprising.
“I allowed my patron to believe as much, at least. Fritz had visited some time earlier, and it was appealing to me at the time to find my way into his court. Frederick William, Fritz’ late and little-lamented father, was well-known for his love of giants. He had an entire regiment of them, the lange kerls, and even attempted to force them to breed at one point.”
He says it so calmly that the blatant insanity of the information nearly passes Will by. Nearly. “He– what? Breed?“
“Yes. It was unsuccessful; most of the children born to two giant parents were of average size. Fritz disbanded the regiment immediately upon ascending the throne, but some of the more capable men in it were offered various positions in the new court, Lukasz among them.”
Will tries to imagine it; Hannibal and the enormous Lukasz, travelling from wherever it was that this shadowy Polish-Lithuanian patron of Hannibal’s lived. They would have parted ways towards the end of the journey, since this was while Frederick was still Crown Prince and his father, Frederick William, was king. Lukasz would have headed to Berlin, where the notoriously angry, violent Frederick William apparently had an entire regiment full of men like him, as if his body was nothing more than a plaything in the game of war. Hannibal, meanwhile, would have headed to the Crown Prince’s little court at Rheinsberg, where Frederick spent his days reading, writing, playing music, and having philosophical conversations with his friends. It doesn’t seem like exactly a fair deal.
The more he thinks about it– Hannibal convincing his patron to send him and Lukasz as gifts, the one destined for a life of art and congeniality and the other a soldier and a freak– the more sinister it seems. It feels simultaneously like he ought not to probe further, and suddenly, that he must. “Who was your patron?” he asks, the question escaping his lips before being thoroughly vetted by his mind.
Hannibal lowers the lid on the pianoforte. One of the things Will had been most looking forward to, when Graun had asked him to stay at Potsdam for a while, was to see Frederick’s famed collection of the newfangled instrument; the fact that Hannibal has one as well probably means only that he wants to practice on the instrument he might be called upon to play, not anything in particular about his tastes. Hannibal smooths a hand down the wood of the instrument. He seems to be considering much more carefully than such a supposedly innocuous question warrants, but then, it hadn’t felt innocuous when Will had asked it.
“Stanislovas Leščinskis,” Hannibal pronounces finally, carefully. “It was my father who initially swore allegiance to him; a poor choice, as he was deposed multiple times by the Russians. I hear his court at Lunéville, a consolation prize of sorts, is very civilized nowadays; but such a pleasant outcome was far from assured fifteen years ago.”
Will turns that over in his mind. He can’t blame Hannibal for extricating himself from a situation that could have turned against his political allegiances; in that light, his manipulation appears somewhat less sinister towards Lukasz, who likely would already have escaped with his life from several losing battles on Leščinskis’ behalf. It does appear rather conniving towards his own patron, but Will was born too poor to fault anyone else for taking advantage of the rich and powerful whenever possible. Will gravitates towards the window, the sleepy streets of Potsdam coming to life with morning commerce. He wonders if that knowledge will be given to him for free, or if Hannibal wants something in return.
“Tell me, Will,” Hannibal says, “Do you still remember the pain of the operation?”
Will turns around. It’s not at all a question he’d expected, but he supposes it’s a fair one, after he’d chosen to ask a question that he’d intuited Hannibal wasn’t certain he wanted to answer. Hannibal’s face is serene, but the light from the rising sun casts a glow over his eyes that makes them appear unnaturally bright, practically demonic.
“The surgeon gave me opium,” he hedges, but Hannibal just watches him, hungry.
“There was a boy in the chorus whose mother took him the year before me,” Will says, in a rush. “They gave him opium and pressed on his throat, in the hopes that he wouldn’t be able to feel the pain, and he never woke up. I was– I was afraid, so I only took half the drug they gave me. Yes. I remember it.”
He clamps down the stream of words. There is more he could offer, wants to offer. But he isn’t going to talk about the last time that someone had asked him about the pain.
Hannibal’s eyes sparkle. Will is unsure of whether, on another man, his expression might be termed a smile. “Do you resent what happened to you?” he asks.
“Nothing happened to me,” snaps Will. “I happened.”
This time, Will is certain that Hannibal smiles.
Over the next few days, Will comes to understand how very easy it must be for the musicians in the King’s employ to while away their lives with him, days passing like hours, months like days, years slipping beneath one’s feet. Sanssouci Palace is new; Will had known that, but only realized quite how new when Graun mentioned the King only having moved in here a few weeks ago. The Maestro had asked Will to stay for a week, but nobody else asks him how long he is staying or when he is leaving, and Graun never brings it up again. With the exception of Emanuel, whom Will catches only glimpses of and never greets him, the musicians treat him as one of their own; suggesting arias to him, inviting him to rehearsals, and making off-colour jokes about him.
The jokes do sting, only because Will is too sensitive. He knows that, remembers the raucous laughter of his fellow castrati when they gather like a tribe of freaks in taverns or small poorly-lit bedrooms to drink, laughing about the things that are said to them, letting their apartness from the outside world draw them together in friendship. Will has never found it in him to laugh along. Whatever it is that lets them do it is simply absent from him. Yet another thing missing, and this absence is of no redeeming value.
So he knows the jokes, the names are affectionate. There are other castrati on Frederick’s staff, after all; Porporino and Stefanino, who are well spoken of in the same way that favoured pets are well spoken of, though apparently away on opera rehearsals at the moment. Jokes are a way of showing belonging, just like when Franz Benda the concertmaster stops a rehearsal and points his bow at whatever musician’s playing had prompted the halt, saying “let’s do it again, and all because of this idiot…” Everybody laughs, friends again before the bows even return to the string. So Will forces a smile and accepts that every so often someone will slap him on the shoulder and call him l’émasculé, and that is fine.
He does notice that every time, if Hannibal is present, he makes sure to refer to Will by name shortly afterwards.
On Sunday, the fifth day of Will’s residence and around when he is starting to wonder when he will be sent back to Rome, he goes to the palace early to slip into the concert room before anyone else shows up to rehearse. He carries with him a sheaf of music that a student recently come back from England had given him: scribblings and half-aborted efforts by Christoph Gluck, a Bohemian making a name for himself in opera. “Don’t know if you’ll like any of it,” Mateo had said shyly, “Christophe says he might work the one into an opera about Orpheus and Eurydice. But I thought of you.”
It hurts to think of Mateo’s face, looking up at him for the last time before Will had left for Prussia. Trusting, determined. Grateful. As much as Will has questioned what he did, Mateo never had. Maybe that should be worth something, but the expression haunts him. It’s undeserved; Will was too late.
(You’re not too late for others, comes the whisper in his mind. He pushes it down.)
Will runs through the arias, accompanying himself softly on a harpsichord. Some are more unfinished than others, but Mateo was right; the aria where Orfeo despairs after losing Eurydice suits him. It feels like an accepting kind of despair, and Will hopes that whoever this Christophe is does end up writing an opera to surround it.
He ends up sipping coffee in the dining hall of the servants’ quarters after he’s done, feeling somewhat melancholy despite the early hour and bright sun already shining through all the windows of the palace. Apparently his trajectory was predictable, though, because Hannibal sits down beside him before the cup is halfway empty. “Will you accompany me to worship this morning, Will?” he asks.
The coffee burns suddenly acid in his mouth. He takes another swallow, and it makes his tongue feel dry.
“Of course,” he forces himself to say. “Where is the chapel? Do they need– I haven’t prepared anything, but–“
Hannibal laughs, a sound so low that Will almost misses it. His laugh could be mistaken for the merest smile. “You misunderstand,” he says. “The rumours about Fritz are true; he has no religious feeling whatsoever, and neither you nor any of the rest of us are expected to provide sacred music for worship.”
“Oh,” says Will.
When Hannibal speaks again, his voice is quite gentle. “Neither are you expected to pretend to any piety you do not feel. I attend most weeks on my own, but it is a pleasant walk from the Palace to the Garrison Church, and I thought perhaps you would like to join me.”
The slight disturbance of other people sitting down at the long table ripples through Will’s coffee cup, and he stares into the circles fanning out through the murky liquid while trying to construct in his mind a facsimile of Hannibal’s thinking in asking him this. If it were anyone else, he would assume uncomplicated evangilism; here, in the heart of Lutheranism, a pious man would perhaps consider it a victory to drag someone raised and trained in the heart of Catholicism to church. And yet Hannibal must know, and seems to realize, that Will is no Catholic. Perhaps he would have been, in a different life. But he has been present at enough services to know that the Roman Catholic God doesn’t want him. Or rather, doesn’t want his soul; perhaps He, like His clergy, is satisfied enough with using up Will’s body here on earth and leaving the rest of him to rot.
Will can’t imagine that the God of the Lutherans would be any happier to receive him, a cast-out used-up sin of the Catholics, his body maimed, his soul besmirched. There’s a reason the voices of the castrati are such a novelty in Prussia; no Lutheran choirmaster would even consider using one.
He should say no. It would be an insult to every pious man in the church building for Will to enter it.
“Alright,” he says instead.
They set out quickly, and step into the gardens from the majestic entrance hall. Will has been nervous to walk through the gardens in too leisurely a way; he is here supposed to be working, after all, so he ought to spend most of the day practicing or rehearsing. But as soon as they step outside, he thinks that he could perhaps spend all day here. The beginnings of what seems to be a vinyard are being tended by servants, and as Will and Hannibal amble along watching them work, Will finds himself suddenly accosted by three small thin hounds, a colour of grey deep enough to appear almost blue in the sunlight.
Hannibal watches as Will almost involuntarily kneels to pat the dogs. Their tongues loll from their mouths and one starts climbing up nearly on top of him. Will grins, remembering the mutts that used to show up at the back door of the Schola Puerorum‘s kitchen to beg for scraps; he had tried sneaking one into the dormitory once, and been punished for it. He allows the most enthusiastic of the hounds to press its advantage, and Will is nearly lying on the ground underneath paws and tongues and soft fur when he hears Hannibal saying, “Will. Will,” and feels the man’s boot nudge his thigh.
Will looks up, and realizes Hannibal isn’t alone.
“Ah, so they do have a preference for Italians!” says Frederick II.
A bolt of panic shoots through Will, and he tries to scramble up. The boldest of the hounds prevents him from rising by launching its entire body into his lap and he ends up more or less kneeling at the King’s feet, which he supposes is preferable to the extremely undignified posture the monarch had found him in.
“No, no,” laughs Frederick, and gestures to the dog, “Madame de Pompadour demands attention; I understand completely. I find her to be the best judge of character out of all of my ministers.”
The dog who is apparently named after the French Marquise licks Will’s cheek. “I have always enjoyed the company of dogs, Majesty,” he says uncertainly, “Though I have rarely seen any as fine as these.”
“Quite right. Three Italian sighthounds are worth an entire court of sycophants. Hannibal, are you taking him for indoctrination, then?”
“Never indoctrination, Fritz,” says Hannibal, “You know that I am as stubbornly heretical as you, in my own way. But I believe Will will enjoy the Garrison Church, and it is a beautiful day for a walk.”
Frederick shakes his head. “I know you are waiting as eagerly as any Silesian on the construction of St. Hedwig’s, Hannibal,” he says, “But I suppose one must put up with oddities of men of the arts if one wants them around, and there are worse traits than Catholicism– though not many. Good day, then.” He gives a low whistle and all three dogs immediately ignore Will and trot after their master as he walks away down the path, a leather-bound book tucked under his arm.
Will is still shaking slightly with the aftereffects of his moment of panic as he accepts Hannibal’s hand to pull himself up with. He brushes the dirt off of his breeches, and they continue through the gardens and out of the palace grounds, onto tidy streets from where church bells are faintly audible.
Will glances at his companion sideways, trying to puzzle out whether Hannibal thought Will had just embarrassed or distinguished himself. It’s impossible to say. Hannibal’s face is upturned to the sun, as if the light were precious and he needed to soak as much of it as possible into his skin. He looks merely very pleased, but then now that Will thinks on it, he has rarely seen Hannibal not looking pleased. He seems to have an infinite capacity for finding the pleasure in the situations of daily life.
“What did his Majesty mean, about St. Hedwig?” Will asks.
“He is building a Catholic church in Berlin for the Silesians,” Hannibal answers. “They are coming to Prussia in great numbers, as is only their right since Fritz took Silesia. It’s true that I will watch the construction with interest, and attend once it is built; not, I think, purely for the reasons that he assumes.”
Will thinks for a moment about what Frederick assumes: probably simply that Hannibal is a Catholic, hardly surprising of a former citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Will could simply ask, but something tells him he’s unlikely to get a straight answer on the matter.
Instead he says, “What other reasons, then?”
The bells are louder now, as they draw nearer to the building that Hannibal must be leading them to. A carrilon of bells, Will thinks, listening and picturing in his mind’s eye the organist in the tower, or perhaps even a full team of ringers working together to operate the array.
“I collect church collapses,” says Hannibal. “Fritz’s father, Frederick William, was the one to finance the reconstruction of the Garrison, where we are headed today; he was greatly influenced by the experience of watching the reconstruction of St. Peter’s in Berlin. Seventeen years ago, the tower in St. Peter’s was almost completed when God saw fit to send a lightning strike to ruin it. It had to be completely redesigned, which Frederick William financed; four years later, he was rewarded for his generosity by the complete collapse of the entire tower.” Hannibal glances skyward again, squinting into the sun. “If he’s up there, he just loves it. I sit in the pews at the Garrison, and wonder if today will be the day that it tumbles down on top of us.”
Will opens his mouth, then closes it. He thinks that this probably implies that Hannibal is not a Catholic, but he’s still not entirely sure.
The bell tower of the Garrison Church rises directly above the street, even jutting out a little bit into what would otherwise be a walkway. Sure enough, a bright gold plaque above the entrance reads Frederick William, King of Prussia, had this tower built next to the Garnisonkirchein to the honour of God in the year 1735. As Will steps into the entranceway, he feels a sudden burst of irrational terror that it will be his entrance that finally causes the thing to give in to its eventual fate and collapse in a heap of rubble and lifeless limbs; but it stands firm. Hannibal leads him to sit in a pew near the front, where they would likely escape unscathed if only the bell tower collapsed, anyway.
Will has never been to a Lutheran service before, but he finds it not all that different from the Catholic ones he has attended. He can also acknowledge that the only reason for that is that he’s never paid all that much attention to the services he sings at; when he is a soloist he spends the wait-time vibrating with nerves, and when he had been a choirboy he’d been too concerned about the regard of the choirmaster, making sure that his face was schooled in the correct expression and that he stood up and sat down at the exact same time as his peers, to really pay attention to the details.
They’d been taken to Confession each week, of course, all of the choirboys; they all made up sins to Confess, serious enough to be worth repenting for but not so serious to merit genuine concern from the priest. This week I had impure thoughts about a young lady who walked by the window of the dormitory, Will and his comrades would whisper through the mesh. There was never any young lady, at least for Will. He’d known nearly from the time he’d joined the Sistine boys what he was eventually going to do with his manhood. It had never occurred to him to seek out the company of women; what would be the point? Who would want him? Not God, and certainly not a woman.
(The truth that he learned only later is that women do want castrati; scurrilous rumours claim that they are excellent lovers, incapable of feeling the pleasure of a man and therefore unselfish, while real men invariably are selfish and greedy. On the occasions that Will has been approached by women clearly intending to test whether reality lives up to the rumour, he has been struck only by wondering what sort of person wants to take their pleasure with another person specifically because of the pleasure the other supposedly can’t feel.)
He listens to the choir and the drone of the priest, and thinks about Frederick’s dogs, and how the King’s expression when Will had looked up at him from the ground had been more open and friendly than Will had ever seen it in the music room. Three Italian sighthounds are worth an entire court of sycophants, he’d said. it’s probably true: dogs are good judges of character. A street mutt can tell who is likely to feed it and who is likely to kick it. It makes sense that the King’s hounds would be the same, but attuned to more complex signals: loyalty, trust, betrayal. Apparently they had liked whatever they’d seen in Will. Does that mean something? Should he pride himself on having the trust of dogs?
(Dogs have been known to kill when provoked. Are they blameless in the sight of God?)
(Dogs don’t plan to kill. Even if you’re blameless for the first, you wouldn’t be for the next.)
Will is lost in thought, and is momentarily discombobulated when he feels Hannibal starting to stand up beside him. Oh. Of course. He licks dry lips, and feels Hannibal’s eyes on him.
Hannibal leans down, minutely. “Anyone may receive the Eucharist in a Lutheran service, Will,” he says.
Will thinks back to the Confessions as a boy; they had to confess, of course, in order to enter a state of grace to receive the Eucharist. Otherwise, one would receive the sacrament unworthily; and eat and drink damnation to one’s own self. Even before the operation, Will had wondered if every Eucharist was one more black mark on his soul. Afterwards, the expectation that he partake quietly disappeared. Castration is a sin: a necessary sin for the Church’s own ends, but a sin nonetheless.
He could go to the front of the church and receive the blood and body of Christ, right now. After Hannibal. He could.
He shakes his head tightly instead. “No, thank you,” he whispers.
He watches Hannibal stand in line with the rest of the congregation, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. He kneels in front of the priest gracefully, a practised motion, and from his position to the side of the sanctuary, Will can just barely see his eyes flutter closed as he opens his mouth and allows the bread to be placed on his tongue.
Will forces himself to look away quickly, as if he’d seen something obscene instead of something taking place in front of the entire congregation. But he can’t help but look back up as Hannibal raises the chalice to his lips, his eyes drawn to the sacrament entering his body under the fragile dome where God, temporarily, allows them to live.
Dove andrò senza il mio ben?
They are back at Hannibal’s house by the early afternoon, ravenous in the way that only church services can make one hungry. Hannibal sets out bread and butter and salt pork for lunch, and they eat sitting at the small table by the front window.
“The quality of the meat in Prussia is, in general, not very good,” says Hannibal, though he doesn’t seem to be disapproving of what they’re eating in particular. Will thinks that it’s some of the better preserved meat he’s eaten, not overly brined or tough in the mouth. “Unforunately,” Hannibal continues, “that’s not likely to change very quickly– Fritz forgot to plan for a smokehouse when he designed the palace.”
“When he designed the palace?”
“Yes. He insisted on doing it himself. Knobelsdorff was the architect, and they quarrelled rather often. Fritz won out, of course, to the detriment of the building. From the vineyard, as you may have noticed, it looks practically sunken into the ground, which Knobelsdorff would have avoided if he had had his way. So here we are, with a too-low palace and no smokehouse, but Fritz is pleased.” Hannibal doesn’t do anything so obvious as shrug, but the corner of his eye gives the impression of one.
Will laughs softly. “Are all kings like that?” He asks, not sure why exactly Hannibal would know, but somehow certain that he does.
“Overconfident? Of course. In most other respects, however, Fritz is unique.”
Hannibal’s tongue flicks out slightly to wet his lips, and his gaze, usually sharp on Will’s face, drifts to the window. It gives him an oddly vulnerable look. “Not many, I think, watched their beloved executed by a tyrannical father,” he says. “It must make an impression on the psyche. Whether the impression leads him towards tyranny himself or away from it, I have not yet quite determined. Perhaps both, at the same time.”
It’s not like Will would have been likely to hear the news of the Prussian crown prince as a schoolboy in the Sistine, but somehow he still feels like he must have missed something to not to have known this. “Who was she?” he asks.
“Katte was a lieutenant in the army, and Fritz’s tutor. He tried to help the prince to escape his father, and paid with his life. Gladly, I might add.”
Will takes a bite of meat and bread as the world, slowly, rearranges itself around the idea of the King of Prussia having a male lover spoken about openly amongst his servants. Or perhaps not openly: he and Hannibal are alone, after all, and he remembers him asking Do you still remember the pain of the operation? and suspects that Hannibal might be more willing than most to wield truth like a weapon in the thrust and parry of conversation.
When he looks back up, Hannibal is watching him intently. It seems almost that he’s going to let the moment pass in silence, and then he asks, “Does that shock you, Will?”
Will is surprised by the force of his own sudden irritation. Hannibal couldn’t have known, of course, how very far off-base he is. He is completely unaware, probably, of the only other profession that those among the castrati who fail to make it as singers have to turn to: their bodies novelties for the affluent and sexually adventurous, often men.
So no: the fact that some men lie with other men doesn’t shock him. But the implication that he has been sheltered from such things does, sending him back to the penultimate quarrel with Mateo’s father. Will had told him that castrating an unwilling boy was a recipe for a floundering singing career and a descent into prostitution. The man had recoiled like he’d been slapped, like Will was insulting him by merely considering that his son could end up like thousands of other boys ended up, and growled, “I’ll take my chances.”
“Just because my prick doesn’t work doesn’t mean I’m a child,” Will snaps at Hannibal, and even he is surprised at the force of the sudden vehemence in his voice.
For a moment Hannibal goes very still, and all of the air in the room suddenly seems dangerous to breathe, and Will has the ludicrous impression of a predator frozen in the moment before an attack. His heart skips a beat, then Hannibal nods and Will feels ridiculous for his white-hot moment of fear as the other man says, “Of course not. My apologies, Will.”
Will breathes out shakily, the aftermath of fear leaving him as wrung out as the moments immediately following a performance. He rubs a hand down the side of his face. “Sorry,” he says. “Bit of a sore spot, I guess.”
Hannibal does his vague-impression-of-a-shrug movement again and says, “Being at court is necessarily isolating from the impressions and norms of the outside world. On one hand, it is easy to forget how differently most people– even one’s former self– live from the nobility. On the other hand, with a monarch such as Fritz, it is easy to become too self-congratulatory on the enlightened attitudes and artistic temperament of the court, and forget that the common people are as varied and knowledgeable as the nobility. Sometimes more so.” He begins to gather the remains of their meal, and Will stands up to help before Hannibal waves him off. “We need to choose repertoire for tonight,” he says. “I’ve laid out some parts next to the harpsichord; go choose what you’d like to try, and we have just enough time to prepare it before the concert.”
Will doesn’t choose from Hannibal’s collection: he pulls out the arias that Mateo had brought him from England instead, and he and Hannibal spend the afternoon trying them together, more leisurely than they really have time for. Will is pleased when Hannibal, too, chooses the fragment of a future Orfeo opera as the best among them, and they just have time to run it twice before hurrying to the palace for the evening’s concert. It goes over quite well, as far as Will can tell from his limited experience of the court concerts.The King lingers with Quantz after the performance, the two of them huddled in a corner trying headjoint after headjoint on their flutes that all sound the same to Will, and the rest of the musicians leave them quietly to it. Just as he and Hannibal are about to leave the room, however, Frederick lifts his head and says, “Hannibal.”
Hannibal goes over to him, crouching down to bring his face level with the sitting monarch in a gesture that manages to not look too obsequious. Will pretends that his attention is elsewhere, and Frederick’s voice is not excessively loud, but Will still hears him ask: “Have you done what we agreed upon?”
“I have made a start,” says Hannibal, “But I believe I can do better. It is no small task.”
Frederick nods. “He will be here soon, if Emanuel’s surly attitude is anything to go by,” he says. “See to it that you are prepared.”
“Certainly, my King.”
Hannibal rejoins Will without a word of explanation, and they are still quiet by the time they exit the palace grounds onto the street, the kind of satisfied bleak tiredness that descends after a performance. The blackness of the sky curls around them, and Will thinks about Eurydice, being swallowed whole by the black maw of Hell. It’s easy to judge Orfeo for looking back at her, but then, Will has had more practice in the art of not looking back then most. Don’t think about the underworld churning away beneath you, don’t look at it, and perhaps you’ll escape it for a time.
He nearly misses the movement out of the corner of his eye. Will is used to lodging in more sordid areas of a city than this: he should be accustomed to watching for stray dogs who might bite, and stray people who might do worse. For a moment he’s just shocked at finding himself suddenly at the business end of a blade; this isn’t how this usually happens. But he had been lulled, somehow, by Hannibal’s presence beside him. Allowed to travel too far into his own thoughts, and now–
“Your coin-purses,” says the man holding the knife, and Will’s eyes seem to trail over an enormous amount of him before finally reaching his head. The man towers over both him and Hannibal, but he seems slightly unsteady on his feet. His knife wavers slightly, pointed vaguely at Will’s chest. “And your shoes. And your jackets.”
Will is taller than average, only slightly afflicted by the typical strange elongated shape that castration produces, but that causes a bubble of laughter to burst out of him. “I don’t think my jacket would fit you,” he says, despite knowing very well that it wouldn’t be for their assailant. He would sell it; and judging by the state of his clothes and the smell radiating off of him, he needs the money.
The knife wobbles again. Will knows he should probably do something– either give the man what he wants, or take some sort of evasive action related to the rusty knife currently hovering around his left shoulder. He is distracted, though, by a momentary glimpse of Hannibal’s face out of the corner of his eye. He looks exactly the same as he had that afternoon, in the moment after Will had snapped at him and felt suddenly that he had just put himself in grave danger.
Hannibal stands inhumanly still, his arms hanging loosely by his sides, almost relaxed. Will is watching him, instead of the robber, which is why he just stands there and lets it happen as the robber lunges forward, in a way that seems more accidental than anything else, and slices the knife into the soft flesh of Will’s upper arm.
The pain feels cold before it hurts; a moment of pure sensation before his mind recognizes that the boundaries of his body have been unnaturally breached and responds with distress. In the instant the pain hits, Hannibal moves. He steps up behind the robber, reaches up to take hold of the man’s chin with one hand and his forehead with the other, and twists. The body falls to the ground in a heap and stays there, unmoving, legs twisted at odd angles under the girth of his torso.
Hannibal stands above it. His lips are parted slightly, breathing only a little bit harder than usual as he stares down at the lifeless corpse. Time, which seemed to Will to be operating very slowly from the moment the knife pierced his skin, now returns to full speed with an almost audible slam. Will looks around: they are alone in the street, nearly tucked into an alley where the robber had probably been lurking, waiting for someone to walk past.
Will takes a deep breath. The air is clean out here, practically country air, not like the stink of Rome or even Berlin. He bends down. The robber’s cheek is mashed into the stone of the walkway. Will puts two fingers to his neck, questing for the thrum of blood underneath the skin. He finds none.
Hannibal is standing over him as he crouches by the body, his face still. He looks down at Will, not at the body. “Go inside,” he says.
Will shakes his head. “We need to do something with him. The lake is about ten minutes from here, right? We need something to weigh him down with.”
Hannibal’s face, oddly, softens. He looks somewhat pleased, as much as he ever does, and he bends down on the opposite side to assess the man’s girth himself. “I can take care of it.”
“I’m not leaving you alone,” Will says, and it comes out like a snarl. “I’ve done this before. You haven’t.”
He’s horrified at himself the moment it escapes him; but his shock at what he’d accidentally revealed is quickly wiped away by the answering shock of what he sees in Hannibal’s face, shining through too clearly to be ignored. He has done this before.
For a moment they just crouch together over the cooling body of the robber, staring at each other.
Will breaks the moment first, his eyes sliding off of Hannibal’s and back down to the– giant. He’s clearly not a regular citizen of Potsdam. “Was he…”
Hannibal stands up, and positions himself by the man’s shoulders. Will silently does the same at the other side of the corpse, grabbing him under the thighs and hauling him up. They arrange the weight silently by feel, as if they’ve done this before together, and end up each holding the man under an arm, like a package. Hannibal takes the lead, and they proceed single-file down the dark street. There are no lamps lit at night in this area, which the robber had clearly intended to work to his advantage, and now is working to theirs.
“He must have been one of Lucasz’s compatriots in Frederick William’s favourite regiment,” says Hannibal finally, his voice drifting back to Will on the still night air. “Not all were as lucky as Lucasz. Many had mental or physical defects along with their unusual size, and were of no use in Fritz’s court. It doesn’t surprise me that he ended up like this.”
“Ended up a robber, or ended up dead?”
“Certainly the former leads to the latter with more regularity than some other choices of profession.”
Will shifts his grip on the weight pressing against his side, and wonders if it had occurred to the giant that he might end up dead. If he had even thought about it. More likely, all he had thought about was his own hunger, and nothing beyond that. Will knows too well from the lean days before he’d entered the Sistine that it it is hard to reason with the stomach, as it has no ears. The gash on his arm, forgotten in the excitement of the moment, is now beginning to ache.
Like Hannibal can hear his thoughts aloud, he turns his head slightly to ask, “Are you all right, Will?”
“The lake is not far now. It has a rocky bank, and we will be able to weigh him down easily with stones in his clothing.”
Will just nods. He recalls the quiet industry of sewing together burlap sacks to form a bag for the body, the first time he’d done this; rolling the corpse into it just as he’d planned, and pushing it off the side of a small rented boat in the centre of the Tiber river at night. He had imagined that he could see in the dark, see through the murk of the water, and watch the man fall down peacefully through the water to his final resting-place. He had been brutish and violent in life; perhaps Will had done something good for him, at the end.
He pushes the thought back. No. He hadn’t done anything good for anyone, whatever Mateo thinks. He tries to hold on to the knowledge that it was wrong, but it slips away like the weight through the water. What would have been the alternative? Would the world be better, would God be more satisfied with His creation, if Mateo’s father were alive to steal his son’s wages?
And yet the real secret, the one that Will tries to keep down even in himself, the one that he has avoided churches like the plague ever since he’d slit Mateo’s father’s throat in the hopes of never having the quiet time to reflect on– is that it wasn’t enough. The knife had felt good. The body falling to the floor, falling to the bottom of the river, had felt good. But Will is is still angry; every time he thinks on it, he wants more. More blood. More vengeance on the indifferent world. He wants to set all of Creation on fire.
(Does God smile down even on the surgeon who agreed to castrate an unwilling boy, who still freely walks the streets of Naples?)
They reach the the lake, bright with the reflection of the moon. There is a bridge over a narrow section of the water, and Will silently allows Hannibal to take the entire weight of the enormous body as he goes to pick up stones from the banks. He watches from below as Hannibal ascends the bridge, the dead giant draped over his shoulder. He looks completely comfortable. But then, Hannibal always looks comfortable.
Will fills pockets with smaller stones and his arms with larger ones, then struggles back up to the path and onto the bridge. He sets down his armful on the ground beside where Hannibal has placed the body, and together they fill the giant’s clothes with them, stuffing handfuls in every pocket of cloth they can find. Then they lift him up together, and drop him in.
The sound of the splash in the water hits Will like a memory arrived to drown out his present. He sees Mateo, sitting in the corner of Will’s small teaching studio, weeping. He hears his own voice and sees the relief in the boy’s face as Will says I won’t let that happen. I’ll talk to him. Will had failed. He had failed.
Hannibal is looking at him appraisingly. “How do you feel?” he asks.
Will lets out a long breath. “Shaky,” he admits. The wound in his shoulder is still leaking blood, staining the fabric of his sleeve all the way down to the elbow. It aches with a dull and grimy sort of pain. “You?” he thinks to ask back. Hannibal is, after all, the one who’d snapped the giant’s neck. Even if right now, it feels like they both bear the blame equally.
“I am quite well,” says Hannibal, and he clearly isn’t lying. “Let’s go home.”
Chapter End Notes
Gluck, Che farò senza Euridice
Will gives in to Hannibal’s hand on his back, guiding him off the bridge. He lets Hannibal walk him back to his house like that, eyes unseeing, sliding off houses and churches and animals scurrying through the streets. The night are quiet. They’re lucky that Potsdam isn’t a busier town at night; they had encountered nobody on their excursion to the bridge. Or perhaps they are unlucky: in a larger city, there would likely have been too many people around for the giant to attempt to rob them.
Will doesn’t want to interrogate too closely why he feels a sense of loss at that idea, but the logic presents itself to him anyway. If the giant hadn’t robbed them, he wouldn’t have gotten to see the calm purpose on Hannibal’s face as he stepped up behind him to snap his neck. That that feels like a loss should be terrifying, but Will is too wrung-out to be terrified.
(You’re not alone. You’re not the only one in the room who has done something terrible, and doesn’t regret it. )
Inside, Hannibal builds a fire, then sits Will down by it to stare into the flames as he heats water over it. Will doesn’t even wonder what the water is for, assuming perhaps coffee; he’s not in the mood for it, but he no longer feels particularly capable of being in the mood for anything. Hannibal seems purposeful, almost cheerful. Better to let him make the decisions.
Instead of making coffee, Hannibal pulls the water off the fire before it’s boiling and fetches a cloth. Then, he sits down next to Will and gently undoes the buttons of his shirt, pulling it open.
Will winces; the fabric is caught in the wound and the blood had begun to harden during the journey to the lake. Now, the action of pulling the shirt away from his body re-opens the wound, which starts bleeding freely again. Hannibal dips the cloth in the warm water and presses it to the gash to catch the blood, and Will gasps. It hurts, but the pain is sharp and clean instead of the dull ache he had been ignoring.
“Shh,” Hannibal murmurs, almost to himself. He dips the cloth back in the water to clean it, blood moving through the clean water in eddies that spread until it is stained evenly pink. When he brings it back up to Will’s shoulder, he says, “I’m sorry I didn’t act in time to prevent him from hurting you.”
Most people would feel remorse over killing a man. Hannibal feels remorse only that he hadn’t done it soon enough. Will knows how he feels all too well. “It’s okay,” he says. The cloth dabs carefully around the edges of the broken skin. Then, because the fire and the pain and Hannibal’s hands on him and the shakiness that is fading into a kind of lax exhaustion loosen his tongue, he adds, “This is nice.”
Hannibal doesn’t say anything, but his eyes flick momentarily up to Will’s face, and the next time he brings the cloth to his injured shoulder, he holds Will’s body steady with a hand on his other shoulder, high enough that a warm finger presses into the base of his neck. Will leans into it and closes his eyes, a strange desolation washing over him. He wants Hannibal to touch his neck, his face, wants Hannibal’s hands on his skin warm and comforting and commanding, but it’s better that it just be this. Just Hannibal holding him still while he cleans the blood off of him. There’s a reason for it, and Will doesn’t want to confront what a pitifully small amount he possesses to offer in trade for this. The castrati may be sexual novelties to the Italian upper-class of both sexes, and perhaps it would even be worth it to let Hannibal have him like that, if it meant he got to be close to him. But the thought of being only that, a novelty, makes tears prick behind his eyelids. No. Better to just enjoy this while it lasts.
Hannibal dabs at the wound until it stops bleeding. By that time, Will’s blood is crusted over his fingernails, pale pink streams running down to his wrists. Will stares at them. Short minutes ago, that blood had been inside him, touching every nook and cranny inside his body. Now it’s on Hannibal. He can smell it, metallic, when Hannibal brings his hand up to cup Will’s face.
“Please,” Will whispers, and he has no idea what he’s asking for.
He’d assumed Hannibal would know better than him, because Hannibal always seems to understand what’s going on around him on a level deeper than everyone else. When Will glances up at him through his eyelashes, though, he looks thoughtful. Undecided. “What would you like, Will?” he asks.
Will shakes his head and closes his eyes. “Don’t know,” he says, and some of the despair that he keeps locked up tight in his chest bleeds out and stains the air like his blood stained the water. “Whatever you want,” he adds, trying to convince himself it’s not presumptuous. Perhaps Hannibal doesn’t want. Perhaps he wants Will to go to bed quietly and leave him alone. If that’s the case, that’s still what Will wants to do.
Hannibal strokes a hand down the side of his face, thoughtfully, like patting a dog absent-mindedly to help you think. Then he puts an arm around Will’s shoulders and helps him up. He’s clearly helping Will to his room, even though Will isn’t quite shaky enough to not be able to walk by himself. He leans on Hannibal anway, disappointment twisting in his gut.
He expects Hannibal to merely deposit him there and take his leave for the night, but he doesn’t. Instead he disappears for a moment and comes back with a measure of clean cloth, which he wraps around Will’s shoulder and arm in a way that covers the wound but doesn’t press on it too severely. “That will be more comfortable than bedclothes, I think,” he says, and Will is relieved. He hadn’t been wearing anything to bed, here; the summer is starting to get hot, and Will tends to sweat at night anyway, and Hannibal doesn’t seem the type to burst in unannounced to a guest’s bedroom.
“Thank you,” Will says, and starts to carefully pull his shirt the rest of the way off, expecting Hannibal to turn and leave the room.
Hannibal almost does. He makes a motion towards the door, just as if to indicate that it’s still an option, then pauses and says, “Would you prefer that I stay?”
Will has no idea what that means. But there’s only one answer that isn’t a lie. “Yes,” he says.
Hannibal only takes off his jacket, but even that amount of undressing makes him seem more naked than Will is becoming. Will briefly considers whether he ought to leave some clothing on, if perhaps that was implied, but it’s too late to reconsider now. He strips down to his skin and slides underneath the sheet quickly, hopefully not so quickly as to seem embarrassed.
Hannibal sits down on the edge of the bed and the weight of him tips Will’s body towards him. Hannibal’s hand is on his face, then sliding down his neck and over his uninjured shoulder. Will closes his eyes and wonders, absurdly, if this is how it feels to be a child with a mother.
Hannibal’s touch traces across his chest and to the edges of the wound on his other shoulder, less motherly and more curious. The immediate radius of the stab wound is sore but beyond the boundaries of the pain it is merely sensitive, like his body has only just realized that it can be acted upon by other bodies and is now hyper-aware of the possibility.
Hannibal’s hand lingers at the top of his sternum. Will can feel his interest, the curiosity that should be invasive but feels kind instead, and he nods. Hannibal runs a thumb over his chest, skirting a nipple. Like most of his kind, Will’s chest is hairless. He has, motivated by some sort of vanity that he can’t quite explain to himself, always watched his eating and kept himself lean with exercise; he knows that any girth he puts on his body will tend to accumulate in his breasts and hips, creating the womanly figure some castrati flaunt. Perhaps he’s just never liked attention all that much, and would rather pass unnoticed through the streets of Rome.
But now someone is paying attention, and Will finds he doesn’t mind. Hannibal runs his hand up and down Will’s chest, then pinches one of his nipples lightly. Will blinks, surprised. It’s not a bad feeling. Just different.
“You can look,” Will says, suddenly reckless. “You want to, right? You want to see what happened to me.”
Hannibal doesn’t answer, at least not verbally. His eyes burn into Will’s, several shades darker than they were, and he reaches for the sheet to draw it down. The air is muggy and close against Will’s skin, and he barely feels the loss of the sheet except in Hannibal’s gaze.
Hannibal sits back slightly, and looks. He places a hand on Will’s knee, and gently pushes his legs slightly wider apart. Will’s cock, small and soft, nestles in between his thighs.
“May I?” Hannibal asks, and Will nods. He feels warm and safe but also slightly like he is watching this scene from outside, the oddity lying on the bed and the connoisseur of oddities inspecting him. He’d imagined this so many times: what it would be like to show someone himself, his naked body. Normal people do it all the time, after all, and so do plenty of castrati. It’s only Will who has always known too well what other people are thinking to want to know what they would think about him. Until now.
Hannibal slides the hand on Will’s knee up, and Will can’t help the small gasp of surprise when it reaches his cock. He’d known it was coming; but somehow the reality of someone else touching him there is different. It’s intimate. It feels like an echo of the moment of recognition they had shared over the dead giant’s body, placed right onto his skin.
Hannibal lifts up the shaft and runs a gentle finger over the scar underneath. “Beautiful,” he murmurs, and with all his intuition, Will still has no idea how to interpret that.
“There are two ways of doing it,” he says instead. “The more popular way, because it is easier for the surgeon, is to simply sever the blood supply to the testes, and allow them to shrivel and die on their own. Complete removal is more difficult for the surgeon and painful for the boy, but heals with better results.” He gestures vaguely to his own absent testicles and neat scar.
Hannibal leans forward slightly, his face nearly in between Will’s legs. “It’s very skilled work,” he says. “Did you choose the method?”
“No. My teacher chose the surgeon. I trusted his judgment.” And his trust had been rewarded. Mateo had trusted Will, too, but Will had failed him. He closes his eyes against the memory.
Hannibal notices; of course he does. “Are you alright, Will? I apologize if this line of questioning has brought up painful memories.”
Will shakes his head. “It’s not that. Or at least, the memories have nothing to do with my castration. You can keep touching it– touching me, if you want.”
Hannibal’s hand returns to his thigh, but doesn’t move upwards. “Would you like me to?”
Will sighs. He’s too far into this, into bone-deep warmth and sinking into Hannibal’s dark gaze, for anything but honesty. “I’ve never had an erection, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t even know if it’s possible. Some castrati say they have, but they might be lying.”
Hannibal looks thoughtful. He presses his finger slightly harder into the scar, then releases him. “Will it hurt your shoulder to lie on your stomach?”
Will tries it. It’s easy enough to put more weight on the other shoulder; and anyway, he cares more about letting Hannibal do whatever he has in mind than he does about the ache of the wound. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says. He wonders if Hannibal is going to fuck him. That would hurt the shoulder, probably. He stays as he is.
“Wait here a moment,” says Hannibal, and leaves the room; when he comes back, he has a small vial of oil from the kitchen. Evidence towards the fucking theory, then. Will’s always wondered what it would feel like, though not with any particular sense of desire or urgency.
Instead of spreading Will’s legs, though, Hannibal pours the oil onto his own hand, and spreads his palm across Will’s upper back. He rubs it in slow circles, expanding as the oil warms and becomes slicker. He presses hard into the muscles on either side of Will’s spine, and Will momentarily forgets himself and groans, more playful than involuntary. Once the noise has escaped him, it’s too late not to acknowledge it. “That feels nice,” he mutters, sheepish.
In response, Hannibal just positions himself more solidly on the bed, kneeling somewhere in the vicinity of Will’s knees. He adds more oil to his hands and expands their path, all the way from the tips of Will’s shoulders to the curve of his lower back, pressing into the muscles with his thumbs on every upstroke. When he goes lower, Will barely even notes the change except that now he’s relaxing the muscles in his thighs and ass under Hannibal’s attention. He feels like his entire body could turn into a liquid at any moment. He tries to remember idly, floating, whether that isn’t what the alchemists are trying to do. No, the alchemists are trying to make gold, he recalls. Turning solids to liquids is more the domain of the new chemistry. He had heard two patrons talking of the matter excitedly after an opera. Perhaps Hannibal knows something of Boyle’s natural philosophy, and is applying it to Will’s body.
The warmth runs up and down him. He could almost forget that the skin touching him is skin, that it belongs to another human; it’s just sensation, unlike anything he’s felt before. Will’s limbs are loose and Hannibal’s fingers dip into the cleft of his ass and underneath his arms, the oil mingling with Will’s sweat. They skim over the scar and his hole without intent, treating the most secret parts of his body like they’re the same as any patch of skin on his back or shoulders or legs. It’s extraordinary. It makes heat prick behind Will’s eyes, and he’s glad he has his head turned away so he can close them without Hannibal noting the moisture gathering on his lashes.
It goes on for a very long time; eventually the oil soaks into Will’s skin and Hannibal’s hands are more or less dry, and then he expands his area and loosens his purpose. He rubs Will’s elbow, plays with his fingers, inspects the scar on his hip from cutting himself on a rusty nail when he was nine.
Will takes a shaky breath, and when he lets it out, he says “Nobody’s ever…” before losing his nerve.
Hannibal’s hand is still touching him, gently, now skimming over his calves and the backs of his knees just firmly enough not to tickle. He stills for a moment, waiting for Will to finish.
“Nobody’s ever touched me like the parts of me that are here matter as much as the parts that aren’t,” says Will finally, bluntly.
He hears Hannibal’s own intake of breath, the only indication that he heard what Will said, and then he moves to Will’s head, running his fingers through Will’s hair. Will wants to see how long he’s going to do it, be there for the moment he decides to stop, but it’s too easy to keep his eyes closed and let himself drift. He falls asleep with touch lingering on him like a blanket, and dreams of bodies falling weightless through black water.
Se oscura nubegià l’offuscò
“Sorry, sorry.” Will waves his hand as he pulls the other musicians to a stop, in a way that indicates he isn’t really sorry at all. “Can it move a little more?”
Franz Benda nods and re-settles himself in his chair, tapping a finger almost imperceptibly on his leg to establish a new tempo for him to begin the aria in. Will watches with a bolt of something pleasurable that feels almost like power; he had mostly requested the tempo change because he’d wanted to see how Benda, the King’s foremost violin player, would react. It would be easier and safer for Will, a visitor among men who are entirely comfortable in this court, to keep his head down and be as agreeable as possible in all matters. But something inside him feels reckless.
It’s been several days since, but the image of the dead giant that he and Hannibal had dropped in the river together lingers behind his eyes and under his skin. Nobody knows that they did that. Nobody here– except Hannibal– knows anything about him at all. And ever since the night of the giant, Hannibal has been inviting Will to his bed, where he lies chastely beside him and strokes Will’s back or arms or forehead until he falls asleep. Will isn’t sure if he’s supposed to touch Hannibal back, or even allowed to, so he doesn’t; he just lets himself be lulled to sleep in the other man’s large bed in his empty house, and he dreams. They’re the same dreams as ever, but when Hannibal is beside him, the sheen of terror drops off of them and the scenarios that used to make up his nightmares become soft and sweet. He savours the feeling of his knife piercing flesh and the sight of the soul fleeing another man’s body. It should scare him even more than the nightmares ever did, but it doesn’t. It makes him want to push.
It had been Benda who suggested Sovente il sole, an aria from Antonio Vivaldi’s offering to a visiting Cardinal in Venice on the subject of Perseus freeing Andromeda. The sun shines more beautifully if a dark cloud has previously obscured it, Will sings on top of Benda’s delicate playing. The violin obbligato part to this aria had been, as far as anyone knows, il Prete Rosso‘s final time playing the violin in public; he had deemed it more appropriate to his status to retreat to his teaching and composing until his death six years ago. Will remembers an opera rehearsal around that time, a choirmaster with relatives in Venice running in right at the beginning of the rehearsal exclaiming “Vivaldi is dead! Vivaldi is dead!”
It’s hard to care about a composer being dead, and one who had lived a good life at that, when less distinguished people die every day and nobody notices. Benda plays as well as Vivaldi ever did, probably, or at least there’s nothing about him that Will can find fault with and plenty that comes as a surprise in his playing; just to the right or left from what he expected in a way that is both easy to catch and absorb, and seems entirely correct and obvious in retrospect. In addition, he is kind. Will likes him, as he likes most people he’s met here.
Will, he knows very well, is not kind. He suspects Hannibal isn’t, either. It’s probably good that this is temporary: Will will go back to Rome, to his church services and small operas and students. And he will kill again: he feels sure of it now, it is lodged underneath his skin and won’t leave, the idea that although he can never set to rights what happened, he can do better than he has done. Mateo’s father is gone; Mateo’s surgeon, the one his father had found who agreed to do the deed on a bound and protesting boy, ought to go too. Nobody will ever find him, or know what he’d done. Will will carry it alone. That feels right, in a terrible way: the disaster that his life has been inevitably leading towards, all this time.
The aria goes faster, as requested. It’s easier, feels more natural, and Benda nods his approval more with his eyes than his head as he plays. It’s a strange paradox that slow music ought to feel full of movement, and fast music ought to feel pulled back by it’s coat-tails, for best effect. And sometimes the calm sea appears that way because a storm has raged beforehand, Will sings in the aria’s second half, and wonders if he and Hannibal appear that way: if rage, passion, murder, make you different, in some way that other people can see.
(Is he the calm after the storm? Or is he the storm itself?)
There is no keyboard needed for this aria, but Hannibal sits in the back of the rehearsal hall anyway, listening. He had insisted on accompanying Will to the palace, but disappeared into the King’s lunch-room as soon as they had entered. Will had expected him to be some time, if he had cause to seek audience with Frederick, but he had appeared in the concert room only a few moments later, before Will’s rehearsal had even started. Benda had slapped him on the shoulder and laughed as he entered, wordless, and Will has no idea if he hopes the silent communication had something to do with him, or hopes that it doesn’t. Perhaps Hannibal just likes listening to his colleagues rehearse. He moves with the music like he can’t help it, as if he is evaluating every one of Will and Benda’s phrasing choices by whether or not they fit well with the gentle waving of his hands on his lap. The Sistine choirmaster had explained once that every musical choice must have physical expression somewhere in God’s world: an object thrown into the air must come down, and the higher the throw the longer it must take. A phrase that starts slowly and speeds up must do so as if it were rolling down a hill, the exact variation subject only to the steepness of the slope. As must an object being rolled up a hill, for that matter; the music must convey the effort and heaviness of the decreasing tempo. Hannibal looks as if he has taken that lesson to heart already, and is mapping the music as if it were a physical object in his hands. Will watches them as he sings, and remembers them on him, touching every part of him like all of him is equally precious.
They rehearse the aria for almost an hour: Benda is meticulous, stopping whenever two players who need to enter or change notes together are even minutely off. Will doesn’t mind it, even when Benda makes suggestions for Will’s part. It feels good to be respected and trusted to make changes. It feels like he is no longer considered a potentially typical self-centred diva castrato, but a member of a family, who has no need of being treated with kid gloves.
He’s going to miss this place when he leaves, Will realizes as they finish up his aria and the string players move on to a quartet they plan to play that evening. He’s going to miss more than just Hannibal.
He and Hannibal go to drink coffee in the servants’ quarters afterwards, a ritual Will gets the impression Hannibal is vaguely mystified by, but goes along with cheerfully. Will likes the servants’ wing of the palace rather better than the main wing. The palace isn’t ostentatious by the standards of, well, palaces; but every inch of it is still imbued with the understanding that important men congregate here, that every space must be up to the task of witnessing momentous decisions. The servants’ wing, by contrast, is alive with the understanding that no one task can be taken to have all that much importance; that one’s life is merely a collection of small actions that will perhaps add up to something virtuous, in some way, with enough repetition. It makes Will wonder if perhaps he wouldn’t have been able to find a menial position in a good household, and been happy. The thought aches and he presses into the ache by remaining here, amongst the servants, pretending for a moment that he is truly one of them.
“How is your shoulder?” Hannibal inquires, just as he has every day since the incident. He doesn’t bother lowering his voice, which strikes Will as both audacious and practical. An aura of furtiveness is more suspicious, should someone overhear them, than the question itself is. There are all sorts of ways that Will could have injured a shoulder, most of them completely innocent.
“It still aches a little when I draw too large a breath,” Will says. He’d noticed it as he’d warmed up that morning, but the pain had faded into the background as they’d rehearsed. It’s returned now, but he he’ll be sorry when it finally fades entirely. It feels more like Hannibal’s gaze is boring into his shoulder, burning him from the outside, than that the wound is a true part of him. A reminder that only one person knows what he’s done. What he is.
“I’ll change the bandages one more time tonight, and after that I think we ought to leave it open to the air,” says Hannibal, and before Will can wonder whether he is supposed to protest that he can do it himself, a servant is beside him, tapping his shoulder. “Are you Will Graham?” she says.
“His Majesty would like to see you. I’m to accompany you, he is just finishing lunch.”
Lunch is evidently a rather long affair in the King’s company, is Will’s first and completely extraneous thought, before the full impact of the girl’s words him him. He glances at Hannibal, and evidently his panic shows on his face. Had the King, somehow, found out about the giant? If so, it makes sense that he would want to speak with Will only, and not Hannibal. Hannibal is a valued member of the court. And wrongdoing on his part could be glossed over easily, so long as there was a scapegoat– a foreigner, a castrato, a type known for poor temper and worse judgment– to blame the incident on.
Hannibal is, as always, unreadable. For a moment Will practically wants to punch him, for the gross offence of not giving away either trepidation or reassurance on his face. (Or perhaps, Will’s mind whispers to him, he gives nothing away because that is his intention. This was his plan, all along; ensure that he would never be blamed even in the event of his victim’s discovery, by blaming it all on you. It would make his short audience with Frederick earlier in the day make sense: he was giving Will up.)
“Perhaps I will meet you at home,” says Hannibal placidly, “and put together a more substantial meal in the meantime before tonight’s concert.”
Will nods jerkily, and forces himself to turn away to follow the girl who had come to fetch him. She, too, gives away nothing of the purpose of this summons on her face; but then, in her case, it is probably more that she doesn’t know or care. Frederick speaks to many people each day.
The girl knocks only cursorily before leading Will into the palace’s main dining room, one door towards the main entrance from the concert room. it occurs to Will that it might seem odd to someone else that it had never occurred to him to wonder what all of the other rooms looked like: most, perhaps, would have some interest in a royal dining room or library or study. He’d assumed that all of the rooms were busy and visually overwhelming, just like the concert room, and as they enter the dining room he sees that he was right: paintings and purple silk damask adorns the walls, and carved stone cherubs seem to burst from every surface around the entrance.
Frederick II is sitting at the lunch table in the centre of the room, food now cleared away save for a few cups of coffee. A burly, well-dressed servant sits at ease beside him, sorting idly through a basket of letters.
“Ah! Come in, come in,” exclaims Frederick as soon as the door opens. “Thank you, mein kind,” he adds in German to the girl leading Will, and she curtsies slightly and disappears. Will approaches the table uncertainly, casting an eye over it despite himself. Frederick quickly pushes a stack of letters back towards his servant– all save a single scrap of paper which seems to have a fragment of music written on it. Will cannot make out what it is before Frederick picks it up and tucks it into a pocket.
“William, I think we ought to go for a walk in the garden,” says the King. “Fredersdorf, I will be back shortly.” The man at the table nods, and continues sorting through the correspondence, clearly not overawed by his master.
Frederick walks quickly, actually rather more quickly than is comfortable for Will as it forces him to nearly jog to keep up up and jostles his shoulder. Madame de Pompadour appears from somewhere in the dining room just before the door swings closed– had she been fed from the table?– and trots along behind them, tail wagging furiously as they emerge into the sunshine and the fragrance of flowers.
“How have you been getting on, then?” the King asks.
Will’s mouth feels dry. He’s not the greatest at small talk at the best of times, let alone when one is summoned for it by one of the most powerful men in the world. “Very well,” he hazards. “The palace is beautiful, the musicians accomplished, and the city restful in comparison to Rome. Thank you for permitting me a time here.”
“Hmm.” Frederick pulls to a stop, only because Madame has found a particularly interesting patch of grass to sniff at. “And how do you find your collaborator, Lecter?”
Will suddenly remembers the first night, when Hannibal had asked him And what did you think of Fritz’s flute playing? it forces a slightly hysterical laugh out of him, which he doesn’t quite muffle in time for Frederick not to notice. He can see why Hannibal and Frederick get along; they have the same conversational style that is part collaboration, part game. The game is absorbing with Hannibal, but terrifying when it’s Frederick. He’s always set up to win.
It occurs to Will to wonder whether that’s frustrating for him; to never be able to have a conversation with an equal in intellect that holds the true possibility of being outwitted. Even if one of Frederick’s dining-companions were to outwit him, they would hardly be impolitic enough to point it out. It makes his attachment to dogs more understandable. Dogs aren’t afraid of their own strength; they aren’t afraid to win when they play games with their masters.
He had refused to answer Hannibal, when he had asked him about Frederick; but he knows them both better now. “Hannibal is a wonderful keyboard player,” Will says. “He plays the harpsichord more sensitively than the pianoforte, I suspect because the prefers the former to the latter. He speaks openly of matters that ought usually to be whispered about, and keeps silent on matters that ought to be addressed plainly. He has travelled far from home and is here because it is where he has chosen to be, and no other reason. I think that he uses small oddities in his manner and personality to obscure larger ones, and I would like to know which is which. He enjoys nearly everything, and I would like to learn the trick of that.” He hesitates, then adds, “And how do you find him, your Majesty?”
Frederick smiles. It’s an easy, inviting smile, and Will can see why so many people gravitate to him, want to serve him even beyond the bounds of citizen’s duties to their monarch. “I find that you have paid very close attention,” he says, “As Hannibal has paid to you, ever since he suggested that you be invited to visit the court based on your performance in the opera house. I am inclined to give credit to such things. Do you have many upcoming engagements in Italy, William?”
Will’s mind stutters momentarily as he tries to shift from thinking about Hannibal, to pragmatic thoughts of his future schedule. He has students who await his return, taking their lessons from other singers of his recommendation in his absence. He has weekly engagements at churches, and a few opera presenters who favour his voice and will likely call on him again. But his life in Rome is something that happens last-minute; money comes in just at the moment it is needed, or sometimes slightly after. The only thing he can really come up with, tugging at the back of his mind, is the thought of killing the other man responsible for Mateo’s castration. But that can hardly be counted as an engagement.
“None of significance,” he answers, his heart in his throat. There must be another reason that Frederick is asking. There must be. But he looks around the garden and adjoining vineyard, up at the building that the king had insisted on designing himself despite being ill-qualified to do so, and it suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched that a man who won’t let an architect design his house for him also won’t let a steward hire his servants for him. Frederick likes to do things himself.
“Then I would like to offer you a permanent position at the court,” says Frederick easily, as if he isn’t changing the course of an entire life in a single word. But perhaps he’s used to that. “At a salary of 300 thalers, with additional compensation for any roles at the Königliche Oper that Graun sees fit to cast you in.”
I can’t. The thought is so strong, so clear, and so despairing inside of Will’s head that for a moment he is unsure if he said it out loud, and nearly claps a hand over his mouth in horror. Frederick doesn’t look like Will has just refused his offer, though, he’s strolling along comfortably, waving at one of the gardeners in the vineyard. He looks like it would be the easiest thing in the world to say yes. Stay here, forever, and forget about anything else.
But in the moment that he wants so badly to leave his old life behind, the desire to set things right crystallizes into a need, one large enough to swallow him whole. The sunlight, the flowers, the hound nosing at his palm as if to say speed up, you’re making our master walk slower and he doesn’t like that, all seem so idyllic as to be almost an indictment: Will Graham, retired to frolick amongst the flowers and idle men of letters while he knows what injustice he could have prevented.
He can’t refuse outright, not right now. After all, he’s just told Frederick that he has nothing in particular going on in Rome, and there is no reason for him to stay there. He needs time. He needs to manufacture some reason– a sickly parent, perhaps, or some obligation that he had forgotten about– that he can gracefully turn down the best offer he’s ever received.
“Thank you for your most generous offer, your Majesty,” he murmurs, and he can sense Frederick’s posture tensing at the shift in Will’s manner from almost inadvisably impertinent, to polite. Will swallows. Whatever lie he tells to Frederick, he’ll have to tell to Hannibal, as well. “May I have a few days to consider it, and see about putting my remaining affairs in order in Italy?” He feels sick to his stomach. It won’t even be difficult, to fabricate some reason that he’s discovered in the course of putting his affairs in order, that he can’t stay. Poor men find themselves in situations of obligation all the time, and that is what he is. What he always will be, since he will never have a steady salary of Roman scudi anywhere near equivalent to what Frederick has just offered him here.
“Of course,” says Frederick, and his voice is unexpectedly gentle. “You may have all the time you like. What will you sing tonight, William?”
Will nods, businesslike, and hopes his voice comes out steady when he says, “Vivaldi, on Perseus freeing Andromeda.” In a moment of inspiration it occurs to him to add “Benda plays the obbligato part very beautifully, but I think it would also be possible to play it on a flute to great effect.”
“Wonderful, wonderful,” mutters Frederick, and his walking pace speeds up to the point that Will is no longer certain if he’s meant to be following him any more. The question is resolved when the King waves a hand and says, “I look forward to it, then. And to hearing your answer to my proposal.” Will nods, and takes that as a dismissal, standing stock still in the bright sunlight and watching the King’s back as he walks away, blinking tears from his eyes. He thinks he sees the King unfold the scrap of paper that he had tucked into his clothes and contemplate it as he rounds the corner, but Will no longer cares all that much what it might be.
Chapter End Notes
Vivaldi, Sovente il sole
Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci
Potsdam is a good place to get lost in, if you want to not think about something. Will, used to speaking Italian and somewhat awkward in the German and French, finds himself absorbed by the languages around him. The native French of Huguenots stands out against the speech of the court. He hears Russian and something that might be Dutch spoken on street corners and shouted out of windows, and is reminded that most immigrants came here in search of religious freedom; almost by definition, every family in the city must be descended from some horror or persecution. A secret horror lurking behind every door. It’s a comforting thought. He could be one of them: yet another refugee come to this place to be a new person.
But if he were going to do that, he wouldn’t be wandering the streets of Potsdam listening to the garbled mix of languages like music. He would be back at Hannibal’s house, sharing the happy news. He loses himself in imagining it for a moment: a fantasy that Hannibal wants him, wants him here, wants him close. Wants to touch him again. Wants to know him. Hannibal would be pleased to keep him here, Will thinks, and it doesn’t even feel like hubris to make the assumption. It’s just true. They had knelt over a dead man’s body and seen each other.
Will isn’t going to stay here. He isn’t going to tell Hannibal what Frederick offered– it will be easier to pretend it isn’t an option if nobody but Will knows that it is. He is going to go back to Italy, stain his hands with blood again, and then go back to singing in operas and churches and pretending that he cares what God thinks. And in private, pretending that he doesn’t care what God thinks.
He finds himself by the river, and walks to the spot where he and Hannibal had dumped the body. It looks completely different by daylight. Some children play by the banks where Will had collected stones to weigh down the corpse; a young girl find a particularly flat one and throws it at the water, angled to skip off of the surface before it finally sinks in the middle of the river. Will watches as her friends try to match the feat, but the stones are too small, and sink after just a few skips.
Eventually, he can’t stall any more; he needs to go back and get ready for the evening’s concert, and Hannibal will be wondering what Frederick wanted him for. Will wracks his brain, steps plodding as he makes his way back to the house. There is nothing, no reason that he can think of that the King would want to speak to him that couldn’t be easily verified or have some ramification. By the time he enters, his mind feels wrung out and blank, so that by the time Hannibal appears and says, “Will. How was your conversation with Fritz?” Will just stands there; incapable of lying, incapable of telling the truth.
Apparently, his face shows something of his distress. Another man might see it and stop pushing, allow him space. Space, apparently, is not Hannibal’s style. “Will,” he says. He was clearly in the kitchen, and is holding a wet rag in one hand, which he drops to the floor like his house isn’t immaculate. He closes the distance between them in a few strides, and takes Will’s face in both of his hands. It’s a shocking way to be held. Cradled, unable to look away. Will’s eyes stutter around instead, going from Hannibal’s eyes to his lips to the set of his jaw. “What’s wrong?” Hannibal asks, in a tone of voice that carries no uncertainty about whether or not he is going to be answered.
He has to lie– the entire point of turning down the position is that nobody else can know why– but in that moment, Will finds himself suddenly incapable. “He asked me to stay,” he whispers. “And I can’t.”
Hannibal’s hands cup his jaw nearly tight enough to be uncomfortable, pressing just a little on the blood flow to his brain. Will leans into it. He images Hannibal just choking him out, right now, blackness welling up in front of his eyes until he loses consciousness. That would be nice. He almost wants to ask for it.
“What do you have to do in Italy, Will?”
Will shakes his head. It’s all he can manage.
“Will.” Hannibal’s voice is so gentle, compared to the violence will knows his hands to be capable of. “If there is some creditor to whom you owe something, anything, it can be arranged. If you wish to stay, you can stay. I’ll make sure of it.”
That forces a laugh out of Will, the air tangible as it passes by Hannibal’s hands underneath his jaw. “A creditor. You could say that.” He owes something to someone, after all. Death. That makes him a debtor, yes.
“Fritz is generous with his artists. If you need an advance, I daresay you shall have one. If you need help of some other kind, he can provide that also.” Hannibal pauses. “I can provide you with help, Will. Anything you need.”
Will just shakes his head. His eyes close, because there is nowhere to look that won’t weaken his resolve. “I can’t,” he whispers.
Hannibal lets go. It’s abrupt enough that Will feels unmoored, like he might fall down, even though Hannibal was only touching his face. Come back, he wants to say, but catches the plea before it escapes him.
He opens his eyes to find Hannibal picking up the rag he had dropped on the floor, shaking it out. Calm. There is nothing about him that seems angry or purposefully aloof, but it feels as though a wall has just slammed down in between them. “Dinner will be ready shortly. I would like to go to the palace early to warm up on the fortepiano I’ll be playing tonight, so you may come with me or not.”
“I’ll come with you,” says Will. It sounds entirely too plaintive, and when Hannibal looks at him again, his gaze softens.
“I didn’t ask Fritz to keep you,” he says. “If he didn’t come to the decision on his own, I believe it may have been Graun or Benda. In any case, if another musician interceded, they perceived that they were doing so on my behalf.”
Will swallows. The honesty of it rubs him raw, as it was clearly designed to. It makes him want to tell Hannibal everything. It makes him want to stay. That, too, is probably by design.
“I’m not worth it,” he says, and Hannibal throws him a look but doesn’t answer.
They walk to the palace in silence. The setting sun throws pink light over the entire city, still illuminated despite the hour. Fritz is just sitting down to dinner, probably; plenty of time before he will appear in the concert room and call for music. When they arrive, Quantz is set up at a small work-desk in the corner making some sort of repair or improvement to a flute; he greets them quietly and but then goes back to ignoring them as Hannibal chooses a fortepiano and begins to play scales. Will can hear from the timbre and the fact that the scales start out uneven in tone that the action or feeling of this piano must be different from the one that Hannibal has at home; Fritz’s passion for having all of the latest designs is probably somewhat irritating in practice, if exciting in theory, for the musicians who are expected to play equally well on all of them.
Will could warm up at the same time; he’s quite used to blocking out other sounds and concentrating on his own from the practice and rehearsal rooms in the Sistine dorms, which were always cacophonous. Hannibal is probably used to the same just from working in a busy court. But he allows his lethargy and sadness to pin him to the chair at the back of the room he’s settled in, watching Hannibal just like Hannibal had watched him from rehearsal today. His fingers dance, finding the exact amount of pressure needed to depress each key and no more. He becomes more agile quickly in the course of his scales, and soon starts picking at this and that bar of the music, playing the most complicated parts slow and soft as if nobody else was listening and there was nobody to impress.
Hannibal doesn’t want to impress him, Will knows. He just wants to… keep him. Against all odds, someone wants Will.
The concert room fills up with musicians slowly, and Will draws his eyes away from Hannibal and forces himself to fill himself up with the emotions and small worries of the others. Benda’s E-string has a twangy sound when he takes the violin out of the case, and he replaces it hurriedly in the corner before spending the next fifteen minutes tuning the instrument minutely and frowning. Graun himself warms up on the violin in a more perfunctory manner, wandering around the room with the thing drooping casually underneath his chin as he greets his colleagues. Janitsch goes around the room soliciting musicians to play at his home the following Friday; it seems to be a regular enough occurrence that most of his fellows agree without hesitation, and Will has only a moment of wishing that he might be asked himself before he remembers that he will likely be gone by next Friday. If he’s going to leave, he should leave soon; pain that is drawn out is always worse than that which is enacted quickly.
When Emanuel arrives, Hannibal gallantly gets up from the pianoforte he had been playing, and gestures for the other man to take his place. Apparently the instrument is preferred, because despite the many other harpsichords and pianofortes in the room, Emanuel accepts the spot– after throwing a look at Hannibal that is so frankly inimical that for a moment it takes Will’s breath away.
Ever since he suggested that you be invited to visit the court based on your performance in the opera house, Will remembers Frederick saying. The revelation had been entirely overshadowed in his mind by the offer that had come after it, but now it comes back to him. It had been Hannibal who had particularly liked him, wanted him to visit. Although Hannibal claims he hadn’t asked Frederick to extend the permanent offer, he had certainly suggested the temporary one. And now, seeing Hannibal’s small, nearly cruel smile as Emanuel takes over the keyboard with poorly disguised hatred, Will wonders if the younger Bach’s initial slight had had much to do with him at all. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with castrati, the product of a staunchly Lutheran upbringing, but he must be used to them from his time spent in the court. It wasn’t Will’s genitals that Emanuel despised; it was his admirer.
The emotions of others wash over Will the way they always do, too much knowledge about the people around him that he’d rather not have. Emanuel’s anger is hot and bright; not an old grudge based on some abstract philosophical disagreement, but a new slight, something urgent and painful. Hannibal makes his way back to the chair where Will is sitting, trying to distract himself from the maelstrom of emotions around him with lip and breathing exercises. Hannibal is no stranger to the reason for Emanuel’s ire, clearly. He knows exactly what he has done to the other keyboardist, and is pleased about it.
He’s dangerous, but Will is dangerous too, and it makes him want to curl up and rest safely inside the skin of a man who can feel another person’s hate and hurt and enjoy it like a god enjoying the consecration of an offering.
In that moment the King enters, and any musicians sitting hurriedly rise. Frederick has a sheaf of paper in his hand, and heads straight for Quantz to have him look it over; his own composition, likely, to start the night off. He takes it to Emanuel, who does a better job disguising his feelings in front of Frederick than he did for Hannibal; nevertheless, the anger is evident. Will watches, fascinated. A small string orchestra begins to assemble, Frederick’s work being apparently a concerto for his own solo flute. The musicians not required for it begin to settle into the seating area, chatting as the orchestra tunes.
A servant enters the hall, approaching Frederick’s place at the centre of the room with casual deference. He hands the King a piece of paper and bows slightly. “The list of new arrivals at the town gates today, your Majesty,” he says, and Frederick takes it offhandedly, waving the man away.
Frederick glances at the list, already moving to put it on his stand and put his flute to his lips. Then his eyes catch, and his grip on the paper tightens. The assembly quiets suddenly as Frederick lays his flute down on the closed lid of the pianoforte and holds up the list of travellers in one hand excitedly. “Gentlemen,” he says, “old Bach is come!”
Chapter End Notes
Adolph Menzel’s painting of an evening concert, Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci
There’s no question of the concert going ahead as planned. Musicians put away their instruments and the servant is immediately called back into the room, then sent with instructions to bring the traveller to the palace immediately.
Will winces a little at the idea of receiving royal summons the instant you arrive in a new city. The roads are muddy, and even the carriage ride between Berlin and Potsdam had left him feeling shaken up and nauseous. He can’t imagine that someone much older than him, and having travelled for far longer, would want to do anything but fall into bed, perhaps after some meat or a glass of beer.
Emanuel seems to be thinking the same thing about his father’s preferences. The elder Bach is, as relayed to the servant sent to fetch him, staying at the house of the younger; this seems to be as much family reunion as work visit. Emanuel has two young children, Will knows, who must right now be meeting their grandfather for the first time as their mother lays out a meal. Emanuel first paces, then sits down at a clavichord and picks away at it in poorly disguised irritation. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. And yet, he doesn’t seem entirely surprised.
Hannibal, by contrast, is practically glowing with anticipation. Will thinks back to his eyes closed in rapture as he accepted the communion bread onto his tongue, and the way he swayed slightly at the sound of the organ in the Garrison church, and thinks that he wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Hannibal preferred the god-fearing, bone-shaking faith of an old Lutheran cantor to the frothy amusements of his monarch’s musical preference.
By contrast to their intended roles, it almost appears that Frederick is hanging off of Hannibal, watching him, staying near him, asking him questions. Hannibal doesn’t sit down next to Will, probably because he doesn’t want to saddle him with the stress of the King’s close presence; but he throws him glances; amused, knowing, although Will can’t quite figure out what it is that he’s supposed to know.
It can hardly be more than a quarter of an hour when the door to the concert room sweeps open again, and Sebastian Bach enters. Will’s suspicion that the old Bach would have preferred to stay in is immediately confirmed by his clothes: he is still dressed for the road, dirty and rumpled. He walks heavily, clearly tired, and peers around himself with cloudy eyes as soon as he enters the room.
All eyes in the room are on him, and despite his dishevelled appearance, Will suspects that that would be the case even if he weren’t the evening’s featured guest. Even just from his walk into the room, from the way he takes in the attention of the crowd and lets it slide off it like it doesn’t matter, Will suspects he has the same magnetic effect on others as Hannibal does: the peculiar charisma of those who simply don’t care what others think of them.
It makes Will’s chest hurt with a strange envy to think of the particular reason why the cantor don’t care: nothing touches someone who believes so strongly and personally in his God that the presence of the deity is the brightest sun in every room. It is clear that God outshines the King so easily that the old Bach barely seems perturbed by his presence; his niceties are rote, not cowed.
What Frederick wants, apparently so badly that it could not wait a single day, is for Bach to try his pianofortes. Although there are several in the concert room, mixed in with the harpsichords, there is one in the dining room as well, and apparently in the library. Frederick leads the way to the first, declaiming its make and heritage– which mean nothing to Will, but Bach nods gravely at the information– and the cantor settles himself at the bench.
When he starts to play, Will nearly laughs– and he does, in fact, feel the slightest frisson of a nervous titter pass through the assembly of musicians and other hangers-on gathered around the instrument. Hannibal comes to stand beside Will, slipping through the crowd like water, and he feels Hannibal’s amusement at Bach’s choice, too. He could have played something lively and amiable, as his son could surely have told him would please Frederick. He could even, if he’d really wanted to make a good impression, have played a composition of the King’s own.
What the old Bach plays instead is hymns. His own, probably, though Lutheran chorales are hardly a mainstay of church services in Italy and Will doesn’t recognize them. Very possibly, he plays hymns written by Martin Luther himself. He adjusts the stops and pedals, elongates the ends of some phrases and lets them trail off, listens carefully to the tuning and balance of the steady, implacable chord changes. He plays them in multiple octaves, plays some with small flourishes and some with a sort of austere plainness that is almost frightening. Frederick leads, with an expression that is somewhere between bemused and anticipatory, between all of the pianofortes of the palace, and the entire assembly trails the pair of them like the long tail of a strange dog. Will walks beside Hannibal, and when their fingers brush he consoles himself with the fact that at least this night will be an interesting story to tell when he gets back home.
It is only when they have traversed every pianoforte in the entire palace and arrived back in the concert room that Frederick sits down at one. Hannibal goes very still beside him, and Will cranes his neck to see the King pull something out of his jacket and place it on the lectern of the pianoforte: a small scrap of paper. The one that Will had seen him tuck there this afternoon.
“I have written a theme,” says Frederick, “And I thought you would be so good as to demonstrate your famous ability in the improvisation of counterpoint by playing me a fugue in three parts upon it.”
The old Bach merely nods gravely, and Will wets his lips. Counterpoint had been a small but gruelling part of the curriculum at the Sistine boys’ school; merely to write a satisfactory three-part fugue, let alone improvise one, is a task that was beyond the skills required even of Will’s teachers at the school. But Bach doesn’t look particularly concerned, and this is after all what he is famous for. Will is acutely aware that he will never hear anything remotely like what he is about to hear again in his life, and he presses against Hannibal’s side. He wants to remember both equally: the fugue, and the man beside him.
Frederick sets his fingers on the keys and plays the theme. The opening, a minor triad: good stuff for building fugues out of. Then, a drop, jump back up, and– semi-tones; more chromaticism than should be possible in such a short span, the notes crowding in on each other like a pack of dogs trying to get at the same hunk of rancid meat. A dizzying descent until the ear loses track of where the tonic was, and finally the theme resolves with an air of uncertainty.
The room falls deathly silent as Frederick finishes playing the theme. Few in the room could be counted as experts in counterpoint, but they’re still musicians. It is glaringly obvious to everyone that the task the old Bach has been set is insane. Not only is Frederick’s theme longer than any thinking composer would take for a fugue subject, it is the most singularly unsuitable for fugal treatment that Will has ever heard.
Singular. Intentional. There is no way that Frederick had simply written a bad theme by accident: it isn’t bad. It’s ingenious, and can only be the work of a musician accomplished in counterpoint creating an assignment intended to embarrass the guest.
Will glances at Hannibal, because although he can read the emotions off of every other person in the room, and practically feel the tension of the assembly vibrating through him, Hannibal’s reactions are still a mystery to him.
Hannibal is standing with his hands clasped lightly behind his back, staring at the old Bach with a hungry intensity that makes his eyes appear luminous in contrast to the shadows cast over his cheeks by the chandeliers. He looks like owns this room and everyone in it. He looks just like he did in the moment that he’d stepped in to snap the giant robber’s neck.
Will swallows. There is only a slight swish of fabric and the creak of the bench as Bach steps in to take Frederick’s place. The little scrap of paper is in front of him, in case he needs a reminder of the unreasonable terms of the task.
Only it’s not unreasonable to Bach– apparently. The cantor plays the theme, almost offhandedly; like he’s listening to it more than he is doing the work of drawing it into being, and God will provide the rest. Apparently He does. He fills in the rest of the measure where Frederick had left off with quicker notes, and the second voice enters, lower than the first, playing lightly with the first once it’s done the required work of restating the theme. The bass voice enters last, like a voice of reason reigning in the others; then a countertheme in triples against which Frederick’s impossible request impossibly fits, canons that seem to travel sideways and backwards alongside the main tune, the cheeky chromaticism of the original becoming something serious and almost threatening before it resolves like clouds parting to reveal blue sky.
Someone– not the King– starts applauding nearly the moment Bach’s fingers leave the keyboard; a far cry from the reverent silence he’s probably used to greeting his work in the echo of his church in Leipzig. Both the reverent silence and the deafening applause that follow would be appropriate reactions, Will considers as he joins in, just positioned on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of expressing emotion. The tension that had permeated the room in the moments after Frederick had played the theme has drained; not only is everyone awed at what they just heard, they’re relieved, and maybe the tiniest bit smug, that Frederick’s attempt to embarrass his guest had failed.
Bach takes in the applause with just a nod. When it finally dies down, after a much longer period than is usual at Frederick’s concerts, the King turns to him again and says, “How about in six parts?”
Will wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been pressed up against Hannibal snugly enough to feel every twitch of his muscles, but he is, and he does: Hannibal stiffens slightly, in unison with the muted gasp that sweeps the room.
There is a long pause. If the previous request had been deliberately abstruse, this one is transparently impossible. Bach places his fingers back on the keyboard, sweeps them soundlessly over the ivory, considering.
“I apologize most deeply to your Majesty,” he says finally, “That, through no fault of the outstanding theme which You have provided, I find myself unprepared to set forth a six-part fugue upon it. Would you permit me to play a six-part fugue on another theme, and prepare your request to send to you from Leipzig?”
Frederick nods, more an indifferent shrug than anything, and Bach plays. It is, in all likelihood, an outstanding achievement; merely the idea of a six-part fugue is enough to twist the mind in knots. There are very few people in the world who could do it, and Will ought to pay attention to the one in front of him, but he can’t, and he’s not alone. He can feel Hannibal beside him, his stillness no longer relaxation but a kind of conscious suppression of movement. What Frederick has just done is, unquestionably, rude. It is difficult to imagine more discourteous behaviour than entirely ignoring an impossible feat performed in one’s presence to merely demand another, yet more impossible.
The assembly applauds again when the old Bach is finished; this time more subdued, although by rights this round ought to be even more raucous than the last. Frederick calls an end to the concert, and there is no question of any of the previously prepared performances happening now; there is a general feeling of jittery tiredness, a malaise that the King seems to share despite the fact that he was the one to create it. Hannibal is just standing there, outwardly calm but clearly thinking about something very hard indeed.
When the room starts clearing out, he says, “You may go home, if you wish. I have a few conversations to finish up here.”
Will doesn’t miss the fact that he says home, like it’s a home they share. It warms Will more than it should, even while the rest of the evening seems to have left ice in his veins. For a moment he almost wants to stay, tell Hannibal that whatever he has to say or do Will wants to be there for it, but that would be the opposite of the direction he needs to go in. He’s supposed to be disentangling himself from this.
He goes home, slides underneath the covers and completely fails to go to sleep.
Will stares at the ceiling of the bedroom, then gives up and lights a candle so he can stare at it properly. The flame dances and casts flickering shadows over the white walls, and Will imagines that, given the exact right size and shape of flame, one would be able to create any picture imaginable in the shadows cast. He watches, half in reality and half behind his eyelids, the scene of him and Hannibal killing the giant. In the vision, they do it together; Will not an observer but a participant. Killing an innocent wouldn’t slake his thirst for blood, though. His monster isn’t of that shape. The flickering image twists in front of his eyes: now he and Hannibal are killing Mateo’s father together, and that feels right. It would have been better together than alone.
His monster. Will turns the idea over in his head. Most of the priests he’s come into contact with have been called upon to perform at least a few exorcisms; it’s part of the job. Sometimes people simply are possessed by demons, and there’s no other solution. Vade retro, satana. As a boy he’d pictured the possessed as men with demons on their backs, hunched over with the weight of them. He tries to imagine himself like that, now: his need to kill Mateo’s surgeon dangling from his shoulders, apelike, external to himself. But he can’t quite see it. Bloodlust feels light; more like an absence than a presence, something inside of him crying out to be filled. It slots into place in the same way Hannibal slots into place in his life, unknowable and terrifying but right.
And what of Hannibal’s monster?
He can no more imagine a demon dangling from Hannibal’s shoulders than he can from his own; if anything, he is more likely to picture Hannibal as the demon himself– charming, fun-loving, more likely to take your hand and lead you to perdition than to drag you down kicking and screaming.
Does Hannibal delight in righteous violence, as Will does? Will replays his calm still joy at the moment the giant’s neck snapped, and he thinks not. Killing the giant hadn’t been righteous. It hadn’t even been necessary; the only reason the man had had the opportunity to cut Will at all is because Will had been distracted staring at Hannibal, and once his knife had actually pierced flesh, he’d seemingly had no idea what to do about it. They could have simply walked away. The robber was never a real threat.
What he was, however, was rude.
Will bites his lip. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me. The night air feels charged with possibility around him. Hannibal wouldn’t do anything untoward to Frederick, surely. The surely catches in Will’s mind. He isn’t sure at all. It seems insane, but everything about the situation suddenly seems insane. He has no idea what Hannibal is or isn’t capable of, and it makes him want to run towards him instead of away.
Without thinking too hard about it, Will is up and out of bed, only marginally dressed for his walk to the palace. He nearly breaks into a run as he approaches and only relaxes once the building comes into sight, as if the sunken-in palace might have disappeared in his absence. It is there, though. The lamps are low in the hallways. Will closes his eyes and listens.
Chapter End Notes
Blute nur, du liebes Herz
The halls are silent until Will gets close to the concert room. Soft voices float through the hall, and for a moment he nearly turns around, assuming that it is Frederick having a private conversation, and Will’s night-time flight of fancy was not just silly but about to lead him to interrupt a private conversation. Then he hears that the conversation is not in the King’s favoured French but in German, and it takes him a moment to recognize Hannibal’s distinctive syllables and slot them into place in the new language, a flavour Will can only hear as Polish but now knows to be Lithuanian, and he freezes in the hallway, unsure.
Listening at doors is still inadvisable if it’s your lover– is Hannibal his lover? Will thinks he’d like to think so– and not the most powerful monarch in Europe, that you’re listening in on. But his feet are silent on the stone floors, and as he draws closer he can see the light of candles spilling out of the concert room.
“…Fritz adores them, of course,” Hannibal is saying, “So I would never say a word against them in his presence. And from a musical standpoint they are unimpeachable. I must admit, though, to retaining a fondness for the harpsichord.”
Will peers into the edge of the gap between door and the frame. The old Bach is sitting heavily on a bench in front of one of the Silbermann pianofortes, and Hannibal is in a chair a little ways away, his back leaning against his favoured harpsichord.
“The early instruments were very weak in the treble,” says the old Bach, his hand passing over the damper stop on the pianoforte contemplatively, “and the keys hard to play, even though the tone was pleasant. I told Herr Silbermann so, and thought he was offended; but I must say that the action of this newest instrument is much improved. What further criticisms do you have, Herr Lecter?”
“None with regards to the action or temperament,” says Hannibal. “Or at least, not the temperament of the instrument; perhaps the particularity in temperament is my own. The harpsichord is the instrument of death, with the notes fading as quickly as they appear. I find myself unwilling to part with such a memento mori, regardless of the improvements of Herr Silbermann– though, it must be admitted, he owes much to the Italian Cristofori in the nature of these improvements. Speaking of Italians–“
For a moment Will is just confused, and then he realizes Hannibal is staring right at the sliver of space through which Will is visible.
The old Bach’s head swivels towards the door, and while his face is merely either surprised or still haggard from his journey, Hannibal is waving Will in with a smile. “Guglielmo, your timing is impeccable, come in.”
Will enters, feeling wildly underdressed; the old Bach is cleaned up considerably from his appearance during the concert, and Will had barely made himself presentable after dragging himself out of bed in a panic. Here, in the soft glow of chandeliers, the force that had propelled him from the house feels as alien as any dream. Hannibal moves to sit on a longer bench next to the harpsichord, and gestures Will to sit beside him. “Herr Bach,” he says, “This is my dear friend Will Graham, a very beautiful singer on a tragically short loan from Rome. Maestro Graun persuaded him to take part in an opera for Fritz’s pleasure, and he has been kind enough to give many other performances besides.”
“It is an honour to make the acquaintance of another of His Majesty’s humble servants,” says the old Bach, inclining his head towards Will, and as much as it’s rather a formal thing to say, he seems sincere.
“Herr Lecter is too kind,” says Will, because something of the sort seems to be expected; “Maestro Graun has assembled the very best of Italian opera at the King’s theatre, and I count myself lucky to be permitted among them. I am told that an area composed by His Majesty himself may even take pride of place in the opera.”
The old Bach seems almost pleased with this response, and Will is just about to relax fractionally when Hannibal says, “Will, you really ought to sing Herr Bach an aria of his own composition as a demonstration of how very exceptional you are. Perhaps you would do us the honour of a rendition of Blute nur, du liebes Herz, from the Matthäus-Passion? I believe I could make a quite passable rendition of the continuo from the pianoforte.”
Will freezes, horror coursing through his veins despite the warm comfort of Hannibal’s body beside him. Blute nur; an aria taken from the passion of Matthew as set out in the Luther Bible, on the betrayal of Judas Iscariot: Bleed now, loving heart! A child, whom you reared, who sucked at your breast, is threatening to murder its guardian; that child has become a serpent.
A soprano aria; which the old Bach, of all people, the kapellmeister of Leipzig, knows to be intended to be sung by a boy. A fourteen-year-old would be perhaps the ideal age, old enough to have studied music for long enough to do a complex aria justice. An eighteen-year-old, maybe, giving his final concert as a farewell before his voice is admitted to be too mature for such things.
The old Bach can surely see that Will is much older than that. Judging by the look on his face, he can now see equally well what Will is; the living embodiment of the depravity of the Catholic church, a walking, talking, singing mortal sin. If Will were more superstitious than he is, he would think too that perhaps Bach can see through him even further than that, into the black reaches of his soul, that he can see how blood once dripped from his hands glinting black in the moonlight, and that it will again. And here is Hannibal suggesting that Will sing, as if it were an honour, the old Bach’s own dearly held Lutheranism back to him with his ungodly voice, from his ungodly body.
For a moment, Will and the old Bach are tied together by the strange unity of horror. Then the moment stretches and snaps, and Will stammers, “Perhaps– perhaps an aria from the Coffee Cantata, at such a late hour.” He feels rather proud of the suggestion; if Hannibal wants him to sing the old Bach’s music for him then Will can do it; but a secular cantata, one which the composer won’t find revolting coming from Will’s mouth.
“Nonsense.” Hannibal shuffles through one of the many piles of sheet music on the shelves beside the harpsichord, until he draws out the sheaf of papers that he needs. “Your voice ought to be lifted up the heavens each night, as a plea for peaceful rest for us all. Come, do you need the words? Stand behind me.” Hannibal settles at yet another of the pianofortes in the room, and Will, feeling slightly unsteady, moves to stand behind him.
(I came here half-expecting you to be standing over the bloodied corpse of the King, he wants to say. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this is what I get instead.)
Hannibal moves the damper stop carefully, and begins the aria with the pianoforte seamlessly emulating the soft, lilting quality of a string section. His fingers move more slowly and carefully, compared to his decisive actions over the keyboard of a harpsichord, and Will finds himself leaning slightly into Hannibal’s back as he relaxes into the music. He can feel the old Bach’s eyes burning a hole into him, but ask he loses himself in the melody, it stops mattering. Strangely, the bone-deep knowledge that the music is written by one who seeks fervently to praise makes him feel better; if the old Bach wrote this for God, then it is God’s, and surely Will can do nothing to wrest it away from Him.
If Will’s body is a sin– as the Lutheran church declaims, and the Catholic church acknowledges but turns a blind eye to for its own purposes– then surely he does not matter, has already been cast out from the sight of God. He is, therefore, alone with the music, and can do with it as he wishes.
But as Will finishes the text and listens to Hannibal play out the rest of the melody like waves rhythmically meeting the shore, he doesn’t feel feel cast out from the sight of God at all.
“Very nicely done,” says the old Bach, as they re-settle themselves on the benches, and Will can tell that about that much, at least, he is being truthful.
Will nods, swallows around the sudden tightness in his throat. “Thank you for permitting me the honour of singing God’s praises in your distinguished presence,” he says, the sort of thing a proper courtier would say, humble, obsequious. But he is beginning to suspect that the old Bach is never insincere in his humility, and Will doesn’t feel insincere either. If the flames of Hell lick his tongue as he speaks words he has no right to, he doesn’t feel it.
Will leans sleepily against Hannibal’s side, feeling both wrung-out, and also calm in a the way that he had been missing when he’d tried to go to sleep earlier. Hannibal and Bach talk aimlessly of instruments, their favourite styles of harpsichord and great organs that they have played and heard. Hannibal asks questions more than he speaks, when it comes to the organs; and he hears Bach talk about the great instruments of Germany with something that seems to approach wistfulness.
“If your great master permits you to travel,” says the old Bach at what seems to be the winding-down of the conversation, “You ought to take in, at the very least, the instrument in Dresden. And I would be pleased to receive you in Leipzig, as well.”
“I would be honoured,” murmurs Hannibal, and then: “It has been a great pleasure and honour to spend the evening in your company.”
Bach stands up slowly and laboriously. “If you would be so kind as to accompany me, Herr Lecter, Herr Graham– I have a carriage waiting, but my eyesight is poor, and I fear in the dark I will lose my way.” There is a tremor in his voice as he says it that sounds like genuine terror; not for the possibility of losing his way on this specific journey, Will presumes, but for the possibility of the light going out in a world that was once full of it.
In the still night at the entrance to the castle, Hannibal helps the cantor up into his carriage, then hesitates. “Herr Bach,” he says. “About the fugue in six parts, that Fritz was so impertinent as to–“
Bach cuts him off with a wave of the hand. “I will send it from Leipzig, just as I said,” he says, with an air of finality that approaches anger. His voice softens, however, when he says: “And if there are some in the court who appreciate the offering in a way the King does not, so much the better.”
The carriage clatters away, and Will and Hannibal are left standing in the entranceway to the palace.
Chapter End Notes
Eviva il Coltello
When they arrive home, Will follows Hannibal into his bedroom like he belongs there. In a sense he does: Hannibal has been inviting him in each night. Tonight, though, he doesn’t want to wait for an invitation. He doesn’t want to lie passively and allow Hannibal to touch him. He has no idea what he does want, but it churns under his skin like a boiling sea.
Hannibal undresses for bed, as shameless in his nudity as he is in all things. Will closes the door and hangs back, then goes to the side-table and lights a candle. He wants to see Hannibal’s face, and the slopes of his musculature, and the unmaimed manhood between his legs. He undresses himself quickly, trying not to call attention to his own movements, wanting purely to watch.
“You wrote it,” Will says, when he can’t hold out any longer.
Hannibal sits down on the side of the bed and stares back at him, his eyes dark and the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips.
“You wrote it,” says Will again when it’s clear Hannibal is waiting for him to go on. His mind feels like it’s going in reverse, walking slowly though from the present into the past, picking up pieces of a puzzle that he had seen scattered around him in its entirety but had never constructed into a whole. “The theme the King presented to the old Bach. It had to have been someone skilled in counterpoint, and most of the court musicians aren’t. Only you, and Emanuel.” Another piece slots into place. “That’s why Emanuel’s been angry with you. Frederick asked him to write a theme for the express purpose of embarrassing his father, and he refused, and you volunteered.” Will steps in close, the candlelight wavering but strong enough to see that Hannibal’s eyes are shining with something that looks very much like delight. As soon as he gets close enough, Hannibal reaches out and places his hands on Will’s hips, pulling him in closer, in between Hannibal’s knees. “Why?” asks Will, but his mind is still turning it over, presenting him with answers even as he thinks to ask the questions. “You don’t dislike Bach, or even think he’s old-fashioned. You respect him more than you respect Frederick, I think. And you don’t share Frederick’s taste for casual practical jokes, at least not the sort that he favours. You just–” Will is distracted by the feeling of Hannibal’s hands, digging into the flesh of his waist, his thumbs rubbing small circles into the front of Will’s thighs. He takes a deep breath. “You wanted to see what would happen,” he finishes.
“Will,” breathes Hannibal, like having his intentions and motivations divined is the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to him. Will breathes it in and it feels powerful. He pushes in Hannibal’s shoulders back slightly and Hannibal lies down with no resistance, his calves hanging over the side of the bed and Will kneeling over him.
Hannibal’s hand caresses over his face, down his neck, over his wounded shoulder with just enough pressure to make him feel it. “What do you want?” he asks.
Will swallows. “I want to stay here with you until God drops a church roof on both of us,” he says honestly. “I want to get inside of you and live under your skin. I want a lot of things I can’t have.”
“And yet you have just named two that you can.” Will shakes his head, and is about to protest again all the reasons that he can’t stay without actually naming them, when Hannibal cuts him off by reaching over to the side-table and pressing a vial of oil into Will’s hand. “Let’s address the latter desire first, and leave the former for the time being,” Hannibal whispers, and his fingers are already nearly pressing into Will’s throat so surely he can hear the catch in his breath and the way his pulse speeds up. “If you want to be inside me, Will, that can be arranged.”
Will’s fingers tighten around the oil. He’d already told Hannibal that he’s never had an erection; and if he were ever going to, it would surely be now, and yet his stunted cock hangs limp and useless as ever. It feels like a lead weight in his stomach that he has to say it again. “I told you,” he says, “I can’t–”
Hannibal grabs his free hand before he finishes the sentence. He holds it delicately with his thumbs on Will’s palm, inspecting it, running his fingers up every one of Will’s as if to measure them. His expression is both reverent, and almost mocking. Like Will was the one being ridiculous.
“You want me to…” Will pulls his hand back, wetting dry lips.
“I realize your desire to come inside of me was likely mostly metaphorical. But then, as two unconventional Catholics, we are surely both aware of the power of the physical in representing the mysteries of the universe.”
Will shakes his head, sitting back slightly. A smile finds its way onto his lips despite himself. “I’m not any sort of Catholic unless and until I’m being paid to be.”
“All the better.”
Will laughs. He feels light and almost giddy. He nearly asks Hannibal again if he’s sure, but decides not to, and instead just raises himself up on his knees to let Hannibal slide himself fully onto the bed. Will wishes he’d thought to light more than one candle, so he could see better, but even by the light of the single flame the sight of Hannibal laid out in front of him, waiting, is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. His cock is fully hard, or at least Will assumes it is, as it is nearly laying flat against his belly and Will can’t imagine it being able to fill out any more than that. It’s pink, nearly reddish in places in a way that looks to Will’s entirely untrained eye almost painful. He reaches forward to touch it, then thinks better of it and pours a small measure of oil in his palm first. Hannibal just watches, eyes shining.
When Will finally touches him, he doesn’t bother trying to make it pleasurable; Hannibal had got to explore him, after all, so it’s only fair that Will get a good look at the organ so important that its alteration sets him apart for the rest of his life. He rubs his palm up the shaft, his fingers around the head and over the slit. Then he travels lower, and takes Hannibal’s balls into his hands, just holding them. They’re not heavy. They feel slightly wrinkled and incredibly delicate. One wrong move, a squeeze or a tug in the wrong direction, could leave them suddenly equals on the playing field of manhood.
Hannibal lies still for a while and finally shifts a little, sighs with a slightly shaky breath. “Do you want me to beg, cruel boy?” he asks.
Will considers the fact that everyone else who has ever attempted to call him “boy” since the conclusion of his actual boyhood has been quickly and vigorously corrected, then leaves it be. It sounds different when Hannibal says it. It makes him shiver with– something. As does the idea of Hannibal literally begging to be penetrated, even if only by insinuation.
“Not yet,” he murmurs, but he pours more oil over his fingers anyway. Hannibal pulls his feet up so the soles of his feet are flat on the mattress and his knees are spread wide enough to give Will access to his hole. It’s stunningly vulnerable. It makes Will respond in kind.
“They tied me down, for the operation,” he says quietly, and touches the tip of a finger to the puckered skin in between Hannibal’s cheeks. It flutters ever so slightly, Hannibal visibly forcing himself to stay still with every muscle he has direct control over. “The surgeon said that he only castrated boys who walked in the door willingly, but once I lay down on the table, I had made my choice and he would see it through to the end, whether I begged to be let go or not.”
Will pushes slightly, and the tip of his finger slips inside. He stares, captivated for a moment by the strange sight of his own flesh disappearing inside Hannibal’s body. He can feel the muscle clenching around him, and he pushes in and pulls out experimentally, more for himself than for Hannibal. Clearly, however, it has an effect on Hannibal too: he actually moans, a soft low sound that sounds both involuntary and like Hannibal had deliberately decided not to bite it back. Will pushes the finger back in, deeper this time.
“And did you?” asks Hannibal breathlessly, torn in his interest between the conversation and Will’s fingers.
Will concentrates for a moment on what he’s doing, sliding the one finger deeper and deeper until he’s buried in Hannibal’s ass all the way to the knuckle. Hannibal writhes a little, the muscles of his abdomen jumping and his thighs clenching around where Will kneels. Will keeps it there, making only the tiniest of circles inside Hannibal’s body with his fingertip, as he says, “Don’t remember. I know I screamed because my voice was hoarse for days after. The walls of the operating room were covered in thick curtains to absorb the noise, and the surgeon stuffed his ears with small scraps of cloth before he began. I probably did, but he didn’t hear.”
“A man of his word,” Hannibal says, then seemingly loses track of his composure and says all in a rush, “Another finger– Will, please–”
Will adds another finger, and marvels at how Hannibal’s hole stretches easily to accommodate it. Then on a whim he quickly adds a third, bunched together tightly with the other two, just to see what will happen. What happens is that Hannibal whimpers and tries to shove himself forwards into Will’s hand, utterly shameless. Will finds his own breath is shaky; it’s a kind of power he’s never experienced before. Hannibal looks completely undone. He bears no resemblance to the meticulous, controlled keyboardist of Frederick’s court– except perhaps in the way his eyes close in bliss, in the way he abandons himself to physical pleasure in a way that was perhaps the same, all along, as the way he abandons himself to every other joy that he seeks in life.
“Will– curl– stroke along the top. Yes, like that.” Will strokes his fingers along the inside of Hannibal’s passage, towards his belly, marvelling at the softness of the tissue and the small protrusion that makes Hannibal arch off the bed in pleasure every time he touches it. He wouldn’t have guessed that Hannibal had any further interest in talking, or indeed was even able to, but apparently the pleasure of getting inside of Will is equal to the pleasure of having Will inside of him. “Do you regret it?” he pants.
Will keeps stroking, almost mechanically, and tries to come up with an answer that is true. The answer is yes, every day he wishes he had a different life entirely, and also no, he’s never once wished that he’d chosen differently. Both at the same time. Never anywhere in between. “I had good reasons for choosing as I did,” he says. “There are things about me that are more damaged than a little missing flesh.”
It’s bait. He shouldn’t want Hannibal to take it, yet he does want that. Will wants to be as helpless, as utterly uninhibited, as Hannibal is right now, and Hannibal is the only person who’s ever gotten close to touching this part of him before.
“Tell me.” Hannibal reaches for his own cock as he says it, slowly, never intending to actually get there but only intending what actually happens: Will catches his wrist and leans forward to pin it to the bed, rearranging his weight to be leaning over Hannibal’s chest even as he continues pumping his fingers deliberately in and out.
“No,” Will growls. “Like this, or with my hand. But you don’t touch yourself. You’re mine right now.”
“Yes.” Hannibal’s eyes flutter closed. Manipulative bastard; he’d gotten just what he wanted, and Will just wants to keep giving him more.
“You already know,” Will says, the half-truth feeling like a dam about to break, letting in the flood. “I told you I’ve killed before. You have too.”
“Yes,” says Hannibal again, entirely too sanguine. Will lets go of his wrist and reaches for his cock, lightly, teasing, touching the tip with oil-slick fingers.
“How many?” Will asks quietly.
Despite the situation, despite the fact that he had been writhing and shaking just a moment ago, the same uncanny stillness that Will has learned to expect from Hannibal descends over both of them like the eye of a storm. “Many more than you,” he says, “Though not, I think, more than you would be capable of matching. Stay, and one day I’ll tell you about each.”
When the dam between Will’s mind and his mouth finally breaks, he closes his eyes and concentrates on his hands as he talks: one pushing in and out of Hannibal’s passage, the other stroking gently up and down his cock. He tells him, the words flowing from his mouth like a river, that he had had a student in Rome who, despite his sweet voice, wished not to be castrated; he could have spent his musical talent in any number of other ways. He would make a fine keyboardist, or an imaginative composer. How the boy’s father– his mother gone, just like Will’s own, a point of similarity that had always made Will feel closer to him– had insisted that the salaries of the castrati (of the top castrati, the lucky ones, not the unfortunates selling their bodies on the streets) were all that would do to sustain him in his old age. That the father had taken Mateo to a surgeon in Naples, one who had no policy of consent from the boy. Will tells Hannibal how he had tried to set it right, the only way he knew how even though nothing could ever put back what had been taken. The feel of the father’s skin splitting around his knife, the light fading slowly from his eyes. He tells Hannibal how good it had felt, how right, how much like he was supposed to have been feeling in church all along, and he feels Hannibal convulse around his fingers and coat his hand with seed, and Will falls down on top of him, burying his face in Hannibal’s shoulder, panting like he’s the one who’s just reached release.
Hannibal’s chest is warm and wiry with hair and slightly sticky with sweat. Will pulls his fingers out of his ass and wraps them around Hannibal’s shoulders, and lets Hannibal reach up to hold him in return. Now that he’s started, perhaps the first true Confession of his life, he can’t leave it unsaid. He says it into the skin over Hannibal’s heart, like it could travel though his skin and lodge there: “I can’t stay here while the surgeon still lives.”
“Stay,” Hannibal whispers.
“I can’t.” The words feel like an evisceration.
“Stay, until such time as the King sees fit to grant us a leave. Then we will go to Naples together.”
Will’s world warps, twists in on itself, rearranges. Very nearly literally, as Hannibal pushes himself up and rolls them over, so that Will is underneath him and held firmly under his weight, Hannibal’s newly soft cock pressing into his groin, their chests pressing together, Hannibal’s lips inches from his own.
Will closes his eyes, and the feeling of power returns; just as he had felt when he’d had Hannibal writhing and helpless beneath him. Blood washes across the vision behind his eyelids, dark and vengeful and they could do it together.
“Hannibal,” Will says, and he feels the other man’s fingers tighten slightly. “I want you to beg now.”
He feels more than hears Hannibal’s intake of breath, a slight coolness on his face. Then he says, “Do you enjoy being kissed?”
“I don’t know,” says, ragged. Perhaps his father had kissed his forehead when he’d left to journey to the Sistine and his destiny. Certainly nobody has tried since then.
Hannibal leans down, and brushes their lips together, the barest contact. “Stay,” he murmurs into Will’s mouth. His lips travel over Will’s cheek, his temple, into his hair. “Please,” he says, a little stronger. “Will, please. Stay.” He nips at Will’s earlobe, and Will jerks away and presses into him all at once. “I’m begging you. Please stay with me.”
Will brings his sticky-slick hands up to grab at Hannibal’s face, and pulls him back in until their lips meet. He does, he thinks as their tongues slide together, enjoy being kissed.
“Yes,” Will says into his mouth. “I will. I’ll stay. And we’ll do it together.”
Amor tenendo meo core in mano
Will wipes sweaty palms on his breeches, and laughs a little at himself. “I’m nervous,” he says.
From the pianoforte, Hannibal smiles back. They usually rehearse at home when they play together, but Will had insisted on coming in to the palace to get a sense of the piece in the room; it seems more important than usual to get this right, their last performance together before the long-awaited trip to Italy.
“For your performance, for the leave-taking, or for what comes after?” he asks.
“Maybe I’m just anxious about doing you justice.”
Hannibal plays quietly through a few passages in the aria in the offhanded way that keyboardists do as they talk. “I ought to be just as anxious, then. It’s my first time writing for voice; there has never been a singer at court accomplished enough to interest me, nor a subject worth exalting to the extent of taking the trouble to select a text. It would be a shame if my colleagues whispered behind my back that the melodies were inadequate to showcase the voice singing them.”
Will shakes his head and stares down at the music stand in front of him. There is, he thinks, very little chance of that. Hannibal writes like nobody else, especially nobody else at court: where Frederick has chosen most of his musicians for their sweet and amusing trifles, the aria in front of Will carries a palpable sense of heartache. It’s also stunningly difficult; Hannibal had begun work on it nearly two months ago, on the day that Will had requested audience with Frederick to officially accept his offer and request a leave to travel back to Italy to attend to personal matters at a time that pleased his Majesty. He’d been nervous about the second part of the ask, but as it turned out he hadn’t even needed to say it– Frederick had simply said “and will you be taking your keyboardist with you, then?”
It’s appropriate that they perform together on the final evening before their departure, but it does imbue the entire thing with a sense of occasion that only heightens the nerves. “Alright,” says Will, “Let’s run through it.”
Hannibal’s aria is terrifyingly tender, in a kind of still tempo that disguises just how many notes and how much movement is happening inside of each beat. It had taken weeks of practice both to be able to sing it, and to be able to sing it without blushing: he had chosen the first sonnet of Dante’s La Vita Nuova as a text, and Will is nearly certain that singing it for other people will tell them everything they need to know about both composer and interpreter. Hannibal seems to like the idea. Will might be coming around to it.
They’re nearing the end of the aria when the door to the concert room opens. Will tries not to look to see who it is: “Allegro mi sembrava Amor tenendo meo core in mano,” he sings, “e ne le braccia avea madonna involta in un drappo dormendo. Poi la svegliava, e d’esto core ardendo lei paventosa umilmente pascea: appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.” The loved one eats her lover’s heart, and Hannibal winds down on the pianoforte as Will finally peeks up to see who was listening.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is walking towards them, a manuscript in his hand. He nods to them, and says, “Monsieurs Lecter, Graham. Very beautiful work. I think it will both please the King, and confound him.”
After more than two months here, Will is almost getting used to the King’s servants talking about him like just any other man. He hasn’t quite gotten used to the young Bach’s silent presence, seeming always to be watching Will and Hannibal, evaluating them. It’s better than the outright disdain he’d first encountered, but also more confusing.
“And I have another work, this one written solely to confound the King,” says Emanuel, and hands Will, who is closer, the sheaf in his arms. “My father has sent it; and though I doubt Fritz has the slightest interest in glancing at it, he sent me a copy along with a note that I ought perhaps to pass it on to those musicians at the Court who might appreciate it. That, and his personal thanks to the King for providing him with so worthy a challenge through which to serve God and occupy his powers.” He meets Hannibal’s eyes squarely as he says it, and Will feels the unspoken passing between them like a mutual prayer.
Will opens the manuscript. There is a dedication in German, which Will skims his eyes over before turning the page: To Your Majesty is hereby consecrated in deepest submission a Musical Offering. Consecrated, as if the music is a sacrifice to be sent to God. He places it on the music stand on the harpsichord in front of Hannibal, who turns a few pages until he finds what he’s looking for: Ricercar a 6, is written at the top of the page. A six-voice fugue on Hannibal’s impossible theme.
“Since I’m sure everyone will be pressing around you to wish you a fair journey after the concert tonight,” says Emanuel, “Allow me to wish you swift travels and good health now.” He grasps Hannibal’s hand, who responds with the sincere warmth that he always seems to have in reserve somewhere for his fellow man, ready to be stoked into a fire of vengeance. Then Emanuel clasps Will’s hand, and Will doesn’t quite manage to look him in the eyes, but when he brings his eyes to the level of the younger Bach’s jaw, he sees that he is smiling.
Emanuel takes his leave, leaving the Musical Offering with Will and Hannibal. Hannibal glances at it, then back at Will. “Would you like to run the aria one more time? Or shall we go home, and rest before the concert?”
“Let’s go home,” says Will, and snakes his arm around Hannibal’s waist as they leave the room, because there is no reason, here, why he ought not to. They emerge into the sunlight in front of Sanssouci and their gaits fall into pace beside each other, as if they had been walking side by side all along.
Chapter End Notes
That’s it! <3
A very informal bibliography: although I make no claims to accuracy of any kind, any of it that this story does happen to possess probably came from one of the following sources:
Nancy Mitford, Frederick the Great
James Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason
John Rosselli, The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550-1850 https://www.jstor.org/stable/932789
Elisabeth Krimmer, “Eviva il Coltello”? The Castrato Singer in Eighteenth-Century German Literature and Culture https://www.jstor.org/stable/25486267
Mary Oleskiewicz, Music at German Courts, 1715-1760: Changing Artistic Priorities https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81kqh.12
Enid Rhodes Peschel and Richard E. Peschel, Medical Insights into the Castrati in Opera http://www.jstor.com/stable/27854886