~17~

 Klaus sat in his bedroom, drinking a dark beer, smoking a cigarette, and staring at the unopened green bottle on his desk.

***

He probably would not have even thought of his birthday in years had it not been for the Earl’s unfailing gift. While he was still in his teens, the day had lost importance for him, except on the years when his age bestowed new rights. The few efforts those around him had made to celebrate the day — why celebrate something as mundane as the routine passage of time? — had irritated more than flattered him, and attempts to sing that idiotic song to him were guaranteed to end badly. Long ago, before a certain foppish English thief had first crossed his path, everyone had given up on his birthday, with the exception of his elderly aunts, who never failed to send him useless gifts which were dutifully stored somewhere or other in the Schloss. The butler put them in their proper place without even bothering Klaus with them.

Until his first birthday after that disastrous diplomatic peace summit. Klaus could have told the diplomats that the summit was an idiotic idea, but of course they hadn’t asked, merely set themselves up for a holy mess and then expected him to save everyone’s necks. Which of course he had. With a bit of unexpected and unorthodox help.

Two weeks afterwards, his butler had presented him with a plain white box. He had opened it briskly and discovered a bottle of a good German wine in a pleasantly colored bottle, a vintage he had been fond of for some time. Mosel's Wehlener Sonnenuhr.

"What is this?" he had asked, puzzled.

"It was delivered this morning, sir," the butler had replied.

"Why on earth…?" he had muttered, lifting out the bottle. Beneath it was a lavender card that made his stomach knot. He quickly turned it over.

Happy Birthday. From Eroica With Love.

"Is today May 15th?" he asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Humph."

He had left the bottle and the box and the card for the butler to deal with. It was not important enough to warrant any particular attention.

***

He lifted the phone and dialed a number he hadn’t realized he had memorized, the number of a flat in Bonn which might or might not be occupied at the moment.

"Hello?" The Earl himself answered the phone.

"Lord Gloria. I am calling to thank you for your gift."

***

When each succeeding year brought another bottle of Mosel’s, delivered without fuss or fanfare, he reflected on the astuteness of the Earl’s choice. Such subtlety seemed out of character for Eroica. Klaus would have expected something more flashy. Extravagant heaps of roses or giant heart-shaped boxes of expensive chocolates, embarrassingly delivered to his office, would not have surprised him. Nor would he have considered gifts too well-chosen to refuse beyond the Earl’s capabilities; an antique functioning Benz, for instance — or a new model Leopard tank would have been equally appropriate. Such gifts would have left him torn between delight and rage. He could not help being glad that something had kept Eroica from making such gestures. His interaction with the thief was complicated and trying enough as it was.

But the annual bottle of Mosel’s was a simple and eloquent gesture. To begin with, it was Eroica’s way of saying that he paid attention to Klaus’ words. Klaus had mentioned once that he liked the wine, and Dorian was the sort of person who remembered such things. Other examples cropped up over the years; at every opportunity, the Earl would quietly demonstrate that he remembered how Klaus liked his Nescafé, or that he knew the proper brand of beer or cigarettes to provide. Some people remembered such things; one of Klaus’ aunts still never failed to have the sort of candy he had liked when he was five, even though he hadn’t touched sweets in years.

Dorian never drew attention to these little touches of consideration, and they became noticeable by their very quietness, their marked contrast to his usual behavior. Which was another reason to pay it heed: it was a hint, one of many hints, that grandstand plays were not all there was to the Earl. If Klaus had been able to believe that Eroica was all surface glitter, the thief would have been far less disquieting.

And the steadfast commemoration of every birthday with the same simple gift, too simple to warrant returning or taking offense, appropriately tailored to its recipient’s tastes, became a symbol of the Earl’s maddeningly unwavering devotion. With the arrival of each May 15th, regardless of whether they were in one of their more amicable interludes, or at daggers drawn, or in a long spell of separation, the bottle of Mosel’s never failed to make its appearance. After a few years, every time the Major drank Mosel’s, whether it was from a bottle the Earl had sent or not, the wine seemed to say to him, I am here. I am a constant presence in your life. And I will never forsake you.

***

The Earl’s voice, predictably, was delighted. "It was my pleasure, darling." Klaus braced himself for an invitation or innuendo. None came.

***

Eroica had never mentioned the annual gift. Was he trying to convey that some things between them could be left unspoken, or was Klaus reading too much into it?

Klaus had never mentioned it either, much less thanked the Earl. Generally, he supposed, the bottle was added to the wine cellar and drunk when called for. One year, when Eroica had exceptionally annoyed him only a few days before his birthday, he had snatched the bottle from its box and dashed it against the wall, making a satisfying crash and a spectacular mess.

This was the first year the Earl’s gift was acknowledged.

***

Eroica continued, "I hope you had a happy birthday, Major."

***

Klaus would never have remembered his birthday without the usual token. But this year, even though he had forgotten it until the bottle arrived, he had been aware of the passage of time. He had sensed it in the cold, quiet sadness which had of late been his constant companion.

If pressed, he could not have pinpointed the exact source of this sadness. Objectively, he could look at his life and say that it was satisfactory enough. He had a great deal to be proud of. He was in excellent shape. His lack of patience with idiots made it likely that his next promotion would be long in coming, but just the same, his career was rewarding enough; he was defending what he valued, and fighting what he abhorred. As for the rest… the rest was overrated.

And yet….

***

"Tolerable. I was working."

"Work is the only thing you enjoy, isn’t it?" the Earl asked, sounding lightly amused.

***

The adequacy of his life was precisely the problem. Because it was good enough, no question, and yet it had not eased this deep and quiet sadness in him. This sadness had made itself felt occasionally over the years; the first time he could remember it, he might have been as young as sixteen. And recently it seemed to be present more often.

He did not examine it too frequently. Doing so inevitably brought up trivial memories that made it worse. Memories of things that hadn’t really mattered at the time, of offhand snubs, of people who had disappointed him, of things he had had to do alone because no one else had wanted or been able to do them with him.

When he had returned home a bit later than usual this evening, he had wearily informed his butler that he had dined already — a sandwich delivered to the office because he did not wish to pause in his work. But, he added, he wanted a drink. Before fetching the usual dark beer, the butler had suggested that instead he might open the wine, displaying the by-now familiar plain white box. Klaus had looked at it for a moment, vaguely startled as he remembered what the bottle commemorated. He had requested that the beer and the unopened wine both be sent to his room.

He had looked at the wine for a long while before picking up the phone.

***

"I have never enjoyed drunken parties or other idiotic self-indulgence," Klaus replied.

"Do you enjoy intelligent self-indulgence?"

***

At the age of nineteen, Klaus had read a book of Norse mythology. He had been captivated by the figure of Odin, leader of the gods. He was not an omnipotent Creator, like the Catholic God of the Church Klaus had been raised in. Nor was he a hedonist like the Greek Zeus, squandering his godly powers on seducing maidens and tormenting annoying but ultimately trivial mortals. Odin was a somber figure, carrying the mantle of godhood like a heavy burden. Rather than forcing unpleasant tasks upon others as one might expect of a ruler, he shouldered the burdens himself, always doing the humblest or most perilous deeds himself because no one else was willing to do them.

***

"Sounds like an oxymoron," Klaus said, the play on words intentional. But instead of cutting off that line of inquiry, he asked, "Just what might that consist of?"

"Oh, perhaps a quiet evening spent in the company of someone who likes you," the Earl replied cheerfully. Klaus snorted, prompting Dorian to continue, "Now, now, Major. Mind out of the gutter. This is your day. I wouldn’t do a thing to annoy you."

Klaus noticed that the Earl had not actually extended an invitation. Perhaps a lack of pushiness was part of Dorian’s idea of the proper treatment of someone having a birthday.

The idea of Eroica being genuinely considerate was an intriguing novelty.

"In that case," Klaus found himself saying before he had time to reconsider, "since you sent me this bottle, perhaps you could help me drink it."

There was a beat as the Earl recovered from his surprise. "That sounds lovely, Major. Would you like to come here, or–"

"Ja. No, wait. Have you had dinner?"

"Good heavens, no. It’s only eight."

"Then meet me." After all, Klaus had only had a sandwich. He could stand to have a proper dinner. With wine. And the company of a man who, at his most congenial, could be quite pleasant indeed, and who seemed set on behaving congenially this day. They would be in a public place, where even the Earl would be forced to restrain himself somewhat. Klaus could take advantage. He named a restaurant he liked but seldom went to, and quickly changed clothes.

What he expected or hoped from the evening, he could not have said. But as he walked to his Benz, carrying the bottle of Mosel’s, his step was lighter than it had been in a very long time.

 

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