Counselor Smiricti stood in the middle of the main hall of Mansion Belcrady, nodding his approval. "Very fine. Very fine. Comes, you have done very well. All that's lacking is a mirror, like the Konige has. The sprays of pine-boughs over the doors are a good touch; the Episcopus will approve, if he sees them. Any noble in Praha would be proud of such a Nativity display. The Konig will be gratified that you show him such distinction." He straightened the front of his marten-fur-lined huch and rubbed his gloved hands vigorously as he strode to the fireplace, where two large logs were blazing away. His boots were wet, and the front of his soft cap, but the rest of his garments were dry.

"You are most kind to me, Counselor." Rakoczy followed a few steps behind him, elegant in a dark-blue woolen bleihaut over a cream-colored silken chainse. He was curious about the reason for the Counselor's visit, for usually he did not call unannounced, but he knew better than to ask directly; with a little bow he said, "Be welcome, Counselor Smiricti." He clapped his hands, and when Barnon came, he asked, "Is the withdrawing room ready for our guest?"

"Pacar is finishing heating the wine; it will be ready shortly," said Barnon, ducked his head, and withdrew.

Smiricti heard this. "The delay is unimportant; I came unexpected, and so must be satisfied by whatever you give me. Yet I'm pleased to be out of the wet. The first rain of the autumn! What a miserable day; it isn't yet noon!" He made a sound between a laugh and a cough as he began to pull off his gloves. "It's a pity it turned cold so quickly. October is only nine days old and it's as if it were November. I was sure we'd have another month of cooling before this kind of-" He gestured toward the shuttered windows, and the rush of sleet against the wood. "This is likely to slow the Konig's return. The army cannot move far in such rain."

"It does seem that he will be detained because of it," Rakoczy said in his most neutral voice, "assuming the rain has spread through all Bohemia."

"We were going to send a civic escort out to meet the Konig and his men a day's ride from the city, and bring them back with buisines and tabors, but in this weather, it's impossible. The musicians would surely get lost, and the water would ruin their instruments." Smiricti chuckled. "Not even your lyre could brave this storm."

"Have any couriers arrived to tell you when Otakar might be here?" Rakoczy inquired, anticipating the answer.

"Not for six days, and then the weather was fine. At that time the courier said it would be ten days until he reached Praha. But now, who can say it will be four or six or eight days?" He stared at Rakoczy and shoved his gloves into his sleeve. "Have you had any word from your fief? Any news of how things are on the roads?"

"Not for some while," he said, being deliberately vague. "Besides, the Konig is more to the south; my fief is more to the east. Any report I might have would be many days old, and in the wrong quarter of Hungary."

"Surely there is rain in Hungary as well as in Bohemia," said Smiricti.

"Probably, but there is no way to know how severe the storm is away from here. What is a downpour in Praha may be a mizzle in Pressburg," Rakoczy said. "At least there is not likely to be much snow except on the highest peaks. That will allow travel to continue for a time."

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"How long do you think it will be until travel stops for the winter?"

"You know as much as I do: what do you think?" Rakoczy replied, again feeling that the Counselor was evading.

"Oh, you know more than I, Comes, being a foreigner with interests in other lands. You deal with traders and traveling scholars-we all know this of you. You know what they have done, why they have been here, and where they have gone. What have you heard from them?" Smiricti asked. "The farmers at market yesterday said that there are more travelers abroad just now, and they were expecting the weather to hold."

"That was yesterday," said Rakoczy. "This came up last night."

"How could no one have known it was coming?" Smiricti stamped his foot. "Not even the monks expected it, nor my wife's mother, whose hands hurt her before the weather turns."

Rakoczy considered his answer carefully. "This storm must have traveled more rapidly than most do, and so the signs came at almost the same time as the torrent we're having just now. High winds-they pass quickly."

"The wind damaged the roofs of some of the older houses in the old part of the city, and ruined a few of the hovels outside the walls." He scowled toward the windows again as if he could see through the wood to the slanting, biting, icy rain. "May it end soon so that the damage can be repaired before the Konig arrives." He clicked his tongue as if he had a new idea. "You wouldn't know anything about the weather coming up, would you?"

"The last trader I've had business with arrived the day before yesterday, and he said he had encountered rain three days since, to the north of here, which might not be part of this storm. He is staying at the sign of the Golden Ram, if you wish to talk with him." The Polish trader had carried heavy woolen cloth as well as twine and thread in his train of four mules; he had offered to trade for medicaments. "He said the weather had been windy, but made no mention of encountering rain since he left Erdna. I haven't spoken to a traveling scholar in over a month."

"It won't be necessary to ask the trader; he was here when the storm arrived," said Smiricti. "Let's hope it passes rapidly and fair weather returns." He extended his hands to the fire and rubbed them. "Episcopus Fauvinel has asked all Praha to pray for better weather and the safety of Otakar and his men."

"Better weather, and good hunting. The civic feast will need deer and boar as well as sheep and hogs and cattle."

"Amen to that, Comes. At least we had a fine harvest." Smiricti sighed. "Which has only increased the number of rats in the city."

"Where there is grain stored, you will have rats," said Rakoczy, thinking how busy the twenty cats on the Mansion grounds had been of late. He had seen the same in Egypt over the centuries, at the temple on the Irrawaddy where the rats raided rice paddies without fear, in Natha Suryarathas where the rats were treated as sacred, in Tunis where he had slept among them while he was a slave, in the Polish marshes where he had sought refuge ...

Smiricti cleared his throat. "It would displease the Counselors to have the Konig see rats when he returns to Vaclav Castle."

"I can understand their concerns," he said, thinking that the Counselor had finally arrived at the purpose of his visit, but aware that it would be rude to ask outright.

He shifted uneasily, coughing nervously. "I understand from your staff that you have methods to keep rats away from-" He waved his hand to take in the main hall. "You have the old rushes swept out and new rushes laid once a month. That is trouble and expense, but you do it. Is that one of your ways to keep down the number of rats?"

"It is. The rushes are swept out, the floors washed, oiled with rosemary, and a dozen or so cats are brought in to catch what they can." He would have preferred to have no rushes at all, but that would have given rise to more questions about him, as well as the disapproval of his servants. "The cats have run of the place at night."

"Would you be willing to give your methods to the Council so that we may be free of rats when the Konig comes?" He tugged at his ear, a sure sign of nervousness. "The Council is willing to pay you for-"

"There are several methods I use; you are welcome to them all, at no cost to the Council, but I should warn you that one of them requires the use of a poison." He read the ambivalence in Smiricti's face. "What is wrong about that?"

Smiricti looked even more uncomfortable. "The Episcopus says it is vanity to take such life, and a sin to attack any of God's creatures; he himself does not eat meat except for lamb at Easter. He says that God gave us the task of ruling over all creatures."

"Does that mean that the Episcopus thinks that rats are answerable to God? If they are so dear to God, then surely they would be more prominent in Scripture, and there would be verses to explain their merits." He shook his head. "I have heard the Pope say that rats are a plague of Satan's doing, and that they must be purged or devils will come to work upon men." That the Pope who had said it had been dead for five centuries he kept to himself.

Smiricti considered this. "I will inform the Counselors on this point, and the Episcopus as well. The suit of the Beggars' Guild is still unresolved. None of us wants to act against Episcopus Fauvinel, but surely so many rats as now run in our streets and houses are a danger to the city." He took a long breath. "So you know something of poisons. How much do you know? Or would you rather not say?" He would have asked Rakoczy more, but went silent as Barnon came in with a tray on which stood an earthenware jug and cup as well as a small loaf of bread, sliced into three pieces. "Ah. Most kind; most kind."

"The front withdrawing room, Comes, or the rear?" Barnon asked.

"The front. It is warmer," said Rakoczy. "And when you are done here, will you find Hruther and ask him to come to me?"

"Of course, Comes," said Barnon, going toward the front withdrawing room, his tray held high. "Will you want a meal for the Counselor?"

"Not this time," said Smiricti, speaking directly to Rakoczy, as if the Comes had asked the question. "I am expected home shortly, to dine with my family. On another occasion, it would be my honor."

"We will arrange it," said Rakoczy, leading the way to the withdrawing room

"I will put the tray on the low table," Barnon announced, and set action to his words.

"Thank you, Barnon," said Rakoczy, and noticed that Barnon no longer winced at this unusual courtesy. He nodded to the upholstered chair. "If you would sit, Counselor?"

"Most gracious," said Smiricti.

"And let me offer you some wine," he went on, taking the earthenware jug and pouring out a good measure of hot, spiced wine into the cup.

"It's a pity you don't drink. Your wines are delicious," said Smiricti as he took the cup and drank. He smiled as the warmth went through him.

"I thank you for your satisfaction," said Rakoczy. He went to poke the log in the fireplace that served both withdrawing rooms; sparks danced in the billowing smoke that rose from the log. "The chimney wants cleaning," he said to himself.

"Better to clean in the summer than the winter," said Smiricti. "There's better weather and the fires aren't needed, so the cleaner can take his time."

"The chimney might not wait so long to catch fire, given how poorly it draws." He thought of the bake-house flue with the rats' nest inside it. It had taken the smallest of the scullions to get the mess cleaned out, and the boy was ill for a week afterward.

"Half the chimneys in Praha smoke like yours," said Smiricti, his words muffled by the section of bread he had popped into his mouth.

"Is there someone you can recommend?" Rakoczy asked, coming back to the table and sitting in the X-shaped chair across from Counselor Smiricti. "I would rather not subject one of my servants to the task."

"Ahil is known to be reliable, for all he's Bulgar; I've had him clean the flues in my house and they smoke much less now. He has two midgets who have worked for him many years; they know what they're doing," said Smiricti, chewing vigorously. "You can find him at the Artisans' Market."

"Thank you," said Rakoczy. He regarded Smiricti for a short while, trying to discern what more the Counselor wanted from him, for clearly he was circling another question. "I will prepare a list of the various ways I deal with rats and have it carried to your house this afternoon. Employ those methods you like." He paused, then took a chance. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"The Konige will be pleased that you have contributed so much to the coming festivities. And it is her intention to see that you have citation for your many generous gifts." Smiricti finished the wine in his cup, and made no protest when Rakoczy rose and filled it again. "She has remained melancholy, in spite of all we have done to help her to regain her spirits. Neither musicians nor jongleurs can brighten her heart for very long. The Episcopus himself has exhorted her for her lack of trust in God, yet she remains despondent."

"She was hoping for a son," Rakoczy reminded him.

"But God gave her a daughter. Undoubtedly He has reason for what He has done. The Episcopus and Pader Stanislas have pressed her to embrace Agnethe." He shrugged philosophically. "It would do her a world of good to bow to God's Will. The Episcopus is right about that. She must not continue to languish as she has done. There should be something that will restore her to her former spirits." He took another section of the bread and began to chew it, more slowly than before.

"It is unfortunate, particularly for the Konige," said Rakoczy.

"If there is something-someone-who could alleviate her misery, you would tell me who or what that is, wouldn't you?"

"If I did know, I would." Rakoczy felt more guarded.

"Pader Stanislas has recommended she drink the blood of merry animals-lambs and puppies, or perhaps songbirds. The Episcopus is considering it."

"That could be risky," said Rakoczy, his manner deliberately thoughtful. "Merriment is not the only virtue of those animals, and what the Konige takes could have results that would not please her or the Konig."

Smiricti nodded, then asked, "What kind of poison do you use on rats?"

Realizing that Smiricti would say nothing more about Konige Kunigunde, he answered, "I use wolfsbane and syrup of poppies mixed with grain and formed into cakes, which I put into boxes with holes in them to allow the rats to enter. They die with little pain. Their bodies must be disposed of quickly, to keep the dogs and cats from eating their deadly flesh." He spoke readily enough, though he could see suspicion in Smiricti's eyes. "It is best to put the boxes in places where rats gather-closets and cupboards and granaries. If you put the cakes where dogs or ferrets can find them, the animals may eat the cakes and die."

"Why not just put the cakes inside the rat-holes?" Smiricti's curiosity kept Rakoczy alert. "Why go to the trouble of a box?"

"I use the box for the same reason that I place them prudently-so that no other creature, except perhaps mice, will eat the cakes and die of them, inside the box," Rakoczy told him. "And any creature who might eat a dead rat will not be able to do so, and perish from it."

Unexpectedly, Smiricti grinned. "The Episcopus should approve that, if he approves killing the rats at all." He looked around, his eyes shining with speculation. "Is there such a box in this room?"

"No; most of my boxes are in the kitchen, the pantry, the bake-house, and the stable. I have two on the upper floor." He watched Smiricti finish off his second cup of wine and went to refill the cup, but was stopped as the Counselor held up his hand.

"You are most generous, Comes, but I have a way to go, and cannot linger much longer." He made a moue of regret. "The demands of the Council are with me, day and night, and the rain will not spare me."

"Are you afoot or do you have a carriage-"

"I'm walking. I have two men-at-arms to walk with me: they've gone to the servants' hall. They have my pluvial with them." He patted his huch. "That is why I'm dry." He rose, ducking his head to his host. "I will look forward to your methods for killing rats later today. The rain always brings them out in droves."

Rakoczy accompanied Smiricti to the door of the room and called for Barnon again. "There are two men-at-arms in-"

"-the servants' hall. I will tell them their master wishes to leave. Hruther is in your workroom, busy with the task you assigned him." He left without waiting to be dismissed, offering little more than a nod.

"Insolent fellow," Smiricti remarked.

"He is unaccustomed to my ways, and that makes him brusque. He has not been treated with much respect until now. There is no harm in him." Rakoczy escorted the Counselor into the entry hall, taking care not to rush him, and hoping the Counselor might give some sign of what his underlying purpose for his visit was. "When you learn when the Konig will arrive, will you be good enough to let me know? I want to be sure that Mansion Belcrady is ready for his return, with fir garlands hung from the walls."

"Yes, I will," said Smiricti, his attention on the half-completed mural by the door while he pulled on his gloves. "They say we may have flooding along the river if the rain persists."

"That has happened before," Rakoczy said.

"It is God's Will," Smiricti grumbled, then said more genially, "Well, the Konig will be back shortly. We will pray the rain ends and that no flood comes."

"Are you still planning the civic procession? If the weather remains wet, will you have the procession?" Rakoczy anticipated the answer.

"Of course we will have the procession, but we will wait until the skies clear and Otakar is here; the procession will take place. Even Episcopus Fauvinel has said it is a worthy deed." A loud thump on the door announced the arrival of Smiricti's escort; the Counselor nodded to Rakoczy. "I thank you again for receiving me and for your help." He was startled when Rakoczy opened the door for him. "Too much honor, Comes."

"Hardly an honor," Rakoczy said, taking note of the two bedraggled men-at-arms huddled on the steps. "Why should we all wait for Barnon to return and open the door?"

Smiricti reached for his dark-gray pluvial and tugged it on, raising the hood. "May God guard and save you, Comes."

"May He watch over you, Counselor," he said, and closed the door. He stood in the entry hall for a short while, his thoughts contending within him. With none of his questions resolved, he went back through the main hall to the stairs and climbed up to the floor above. At the door to his workroom he tapped twice before going in.

Hruther was near the athanor, his heavy dull-red cotehardie showing two large stains on the left sleeve. "I would have come, but it is almost cool, my master," he said in Imperial Latin. He nodded toward the beehive-shaped oven at the end of the room.

Rakoczy nodded, and spoke in the same tongue. "Before mid-afternoon we can remove the new jewels; I'll prepare a pouch to present to the Konige tomorrow. I will have more by the end of the month." He went to the fireplace and put two cut branches on the dying fire. "I have to supply the Council my various ways of killing rats. At least that is what Smiricti has requested."

"You think he may have had another purpose," Hruther said quietly; he came down toward the reading-table, a small stand with a tilted top and a lip to hold a book in place. "Do you know what that might be?"

"He seemed inordinately interested in my knowledge of poisons," said Rakoczy, his voice remote.

"Did he say why he was interested?" Hruther asked.

"He wants to kill rats. I pledged to supply him a list of the methods we use," Rakoczy said, making his way to the athanor and testing the heat-plate on the door; he pulled his hand back at once, shaking his fingers. "I may be seeing things in the shadows, but I have the sense that he is seeking something more from me than how to kill rats."

"What did he say that made you think so?" Hruther's austere features revealed nothing of his thoughts.

"There was no one thing, except that he dwelt on the details of how the poison is given, though I did offer him details." Rakoczy began to pace, his dark eyes clouded by worry. "I am fretful. It is as if my soul were itching, or it may be little more than that my mind is growing bored and restive with this place." He turned at the athanor and came back toward Hruther. "My aggravation may be nothing more than a sensation of frustration."

"You do not usually like imprisonment," Hruther observed. "Why should this be any different because the accommodations are amiable?"

"Imprisonment?" Rakoczy stopped moving and stared at him.

"Why yes," said Hruther calmly. "I've been mulling this over for a few months. Praha may be more pleasant than a lightless cell in Kara Khorum, or a barred hut in Tolosa, but you are still confined and constrained: you may not return to Santu-Germaniu without bringing war and rapine to your vassals; you may not leave this city without abandoning your people and your land to the vengeance of Konig Bela. You are bound here as if by chains; half the Konige's Court might as well be your jailers, so closely are you watched. So it is a prison."

Rakoczy considered this, and nodded. "I had not thought of my exile in that light." He folded his arms. "I have let myself become more captive by seeing faces in the shadows."

"Which may well be there," Hruther interjected.

"So they might," Rakoczy agreed. "No doubt there are some of those faces here in this household."

"Only two of the staff can read, and only one can write," Hruther reminded him.

"So if they spy, they spy for Konige Kunigunde, and give their information to other spies," said Rakoczy with a fatalistic nod. "Unless there is someone from Konig Bela here at Court to whom they report, or a priest who keeps Episcopus Fauvinel clandestinely informed." He clapped his hands in exasperation. "Only one of the Konige's ladies-in-waiting reads-Imbolya of Heves. I was told that Erzebet of Arad could read and write." He looked toward the hearth. "Perhaps she had discovered something in her reading that was secret and that was why she was killed."

"Or one of the women was jealous of her and wanted her out of the way," Hruther suggested.

"That, too, is possible," Rakoczy allowed, his brows lifted to a sardonic angle. He went to the Persian chair that stood near the fireplace and sank into it. "Am I being foolish, do you think, or am I wise to be frightened."

Hruther was startled. "You rarely admit to fright."

"That does not mean I do not feel fear." He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. "But I cannot tell if being afraid in this place is sensible or mad."

"It may be both, given the way the Konige's Court functions," said Hruther, "as staying in Lo-Yang for as long as we did was mad and sensible." Their days in the old Chinese capital had been pleasant until the northern part of the Kingdom was threatened by the forces of Jenghiz Khan, when all foreigners had come under suspicion.

"But there, at least, we had been well-regarded for some years; here we have been mistrusted from the start."

"All the more reason for you to feel so discomfited," said Hruther. "If nothing else, you have powerful impositions upon you, restricting the possibilities you can address without hazard." He paused. "I assume you know that Barnon understands Hungarian."

"Oh, yes," said Rakoczy wearily. "I suppose that is why Counselor Smiricti recommended him to me. But I believe he watches me for the Council."

"Very likely," said Hruther, then added, "You've been unusually circumspect since we came here." He saw Rakoczy lift his brows. "You have offered very few medicaments to anyone beyond the treatments to make the wells safe in summer, so you will not draw any more attention to yourself than what Konig Bela requires of you. Your reluctance to provide the Konige and her Court with little more than songs and face-creams is so unlike you that if any of these courtiers knew you better, they would regard you askance for your refusal to treat the injured and ill."

"I would do so, but it would not be safe for me or those I treated: my jewels for the Konige are questionable enough." He slapped the arms of the chair. "They're ensorceled, all of them."

"The people follow their rulers, who are guided by the Church-what can you expect?"

"Precisely what is here," he said, his temper sharpening his words. "If it were possible to travel, even to Austria or Poland, I might be able to do more to help those who are suffering, give them remedies and comfort. But Konig Bela would not approve it, and he would not permit me to come any nearer to Hungary. I miss being able to study. I would like to have my books on medicinal plants with me, but they would be thought dangerous. Counselor Smiricti showed me that when he asked about poisoning rats."

"And they would have to be read and endorsed by the Episcopus," Hruther pointed out.

"True enough, and for what purpose I have studied these things would be called into question; it is awkward to have it known that I have knowledge of poisons. To be seen as someone who treats the sick with methods not approved by the Episcopus, who determines what is acceptable treatment for every malady, is dangerous enough, but since I use poisons as well, what treatment of mine could be trusted? The Episcopus would condemn my sovereign remedy because it is made from moldy bread, since mold is a sign of corruption and therefore cannot heal-which makes it worse if the medicament succeeds, for it compromises the Church in doing so." He shoved himself out of the chair and began once more to pace. "So I must keep from bringing more scrutiny on myself or face the consequences of it."

"You've been careful," said Hruther, alarm brightening his faded-blue eyes. "You have kept to the restrictions placed upon you."

"In most things," Rakoczy said heavily. "But not all. There is Rozsa of Borsod to consider."

"She isn't here any longer," Hruther said, trying to discern the cause for his worry.

"But she has not been completely discreet; think of what Csenge of Somogy said when she accosted me at the Konige's autumn festival; I told you about that. If Rozsa should start to ... to reveal what she and I have done while at the Bohemian Court, I will be accused of seducing a noblewoman at the least."

"You can't spend all your waking thoughts on what others might do, not when there are more immediate difficulties weighing on you," Hruther warned him. "All of us do as we decide we must, and those decisions are our own, no matter what the Church says. If Rozsa denounces you, then you and I will need to find a way to leave here, and quickly, before we are taken as prisoners. It may be hard for your Santu-Germaniu fief if you do, but once you are accused of diabolism, Konig Bela would have no compunction in breaking his pact with you."

"He may not have such compunction in any case," said Rakoczy sardonically, then lapsed into melancholy again. "So what am I to do to disengage myself from this coil that will not be exacted from the people of Santu-Germaniu?"

Hruther considered the question. "It may not be possible for you to influence that. You are exiled, and Konig Bela is closer to your fief than you are."

"So I am jumping at shadows I have made for myself. No wonder I think I am trapped, in a cage with bars of my own making."

"Probably some of the shadows are yours alone," Hruther agreed. "But that doesn't mean you aren't watched and there are no spies."

The tension went out of Rakoczy's demeanor. "You are right, old friend. We have enemies in plenty." He listened to the moaning of the wind in the chimney, and watched the smoke rise from the fire. "The trouble is determining who they are."

Text of a note from Frater Holeb, scholar to the Konig Otakar, at Vaclav Castle in Praha, to Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes Santu-Germaniu, at Mansion Belcrady in Praha, written on vellum and carried by Royal messenger.

To the most noble Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes Santu-Germaniu, the greetings of the scholar to the Court of Przemysl Otakar II, Frater Holeb on this, the 17th day of October in the 1269th Year of Salvation.

Esteemed Comes,

Now that the Konig has brought his officers and his Court once again to Praha, I have been charged by the dear Royal to visit with all foreigners living in the city, to consult them on any knowledge they may have that will aid the Konig in his current campaigns and expand his knowledge of lands beyond his borders. To that end, I ask that you will receive me within the month to impart to me such information as you possess that bears on the present wars and on the places in the world where you have been. It is a service that will do much to advance you at the Konige's Court and in the Konig's good opinion.

I am told by some at the Konige's Court that you are much-traveled, which interests me not only on the Konig's behalf, but in regard to my own studies. It is not easy to get good information at this time, and most of what is reported is as much fable as it is truth. If you would be good enough to answer questions that do not derive from the Konig's needs but my curiosity, I would be truly appreciative. If this is not possible, then I ask that you will provide me introductions to those who can give me truthful intelligence on the issues I study.

The Konige has given her permission for us to talk, and even the Episcopus has approved the arrangement, subject to his review of my record of our discussion. I have assured both dear Royals and the Episcopus that I will well and truly make note of all you say, and will bear witness to your truthfulness, so I ask you to bear in mind that more than my attention will attend upon your answers, and any mendacity on your part will bear the weight of a lie in Confession.

The civic procession is in two days, and I understand you are assisting the Counselors in their preparations, a most estimable act for a foreigner. I will present myself to you at the conclusion of the procession before the banquet and entertainments. At that time we can determine a time to meet, and the subjects we will address.

With all respect and high regard I sign myself

Frater Holeb, Premonstratensian Monk and Konig's Court Scholar