Although the day was clear, the wind was blustery and cold, but that was not enough to keep most of the people of Praha from lining the switch-back route of the civic procession in the hope of seeing the Konig and the city's display to welcome his return. The atmosphere was celebratory, with pie-sellers and musicians working among the spectators, and the inns and taverns keeping their doors open and their tankards full. Reel-dancers wound though the crowds, the bells on their garters jangling, their tabors pounding out a steady rhythm. In the stands set up for the nobility and clergy, courtiers, priests, and monks jockeyed for the best positions.

The stand built for the Konige's Court was in the square at the entrance to Vaclav Castle, where the procession would end. Konige Kunigunde, her Court, and the wives, widows, and daughters of the nobles who had come to Praha for the occasion, all in their most elaborate garments and jewels, took their places there immediately after the triumphal Mass at Sant-Lukas the Evangelist while the Konig and his Court lined up with the rest of the procession at the bottom of the hill in front of the Council Court, preparing to make their way along the main streets and squares up to Vaclav Castle.

"Look, dear Royal," Csenge of Somogy exclaimed, trying to rouse the Konige from her listlessness. "You can watch almost all the procession from here. They say there are fifteen decorated wagons in all."

Milica of Olmutz leaned down toward the Konige, smiling with unctuous satisfaction as she ducked her head to Konige Kunigunde. "Bohemia is the richest kingdom in the world. Gold has brought us more than prosperity, it has made us the envy of all. What other city can match this procession? Not even Constantinople can boast our grandeur, I am certain. And you, dear Royal, are Konige of it all."

Konige Kunigunde, seated with her almost-five-year-old daughter, pointed down the hill. "There, Kinga. Watch for your father. He'll be at the end of the procession, with his knights." She appeared indifferent to the excitement around her.

At the rear of the wagons and companies of Guildsmen and entertainers lining up, Konig Otakar was mounted on a superb bay stallion; he was wearing a golden crown and the new-style armor plated in gold so that he shone like the sun. He was surrounded by his personal guard of twelve German knights, all on spotted horses. They walked slowly in a circle to keep their horses limber and calm. At the head of the procession, the Counselors of Praha fell in behind the beautifully decorated wagon pulled by burnished red horses in which Episcopus Fauvinel rode, surrounded by youths dressed as angels, their wings fluttering in the wind. At the Episcopus' signal, the procession began to move at a dignified walk. After the Counselors came a consort of musicians playing tabors and buisines and shawms. They were followed by a wagon from the Weavers' Guild, in which Otakar's large rampant black lion made of fine mohair cloth glued onto a wooden form received the submission of Austria and Carinthia in the forms of royal heraldic devices laid at the lion's feet; small German horses with golden coats and flaxen manes and tails were led by the Masters of the Weavers' Guild in glorious Damascus silks. A troupe of tumblers came next, Tahir among them, and then the wagon of the Goldsmiths' Guild, adorned with shining spangles of gold leaf and carrying a throne on which sat a woman dressed as the Konige of Sheba, wearing a chaplet of gold and a multitude of rings, bracelets, and necklaces. The wagon was pulled by four chestnut horses led by the Guildmasters, each one wearing a pectoral with the emblem of the Guild. Moorish dancers came next, the slaves of Pan Kolowrat Atenaze, who, rigged out in Antioch silks, rode beside them on a spirited mouse-colored mare. The Saddle-and-Harness-Makers' Guild's wagon followed, bedecked with bridles, saddles, and harnesses in worked leather, and held aloft by their most handsome apprentices; the Guildmasters led a team of three black horses in an ornate Kievan harness. More musicians, these from the choir of Sant-Lukas the Evangelist singing songs of praise to God for the Konig's victories, followed them. The Tapestry-Weavers' Guild came next, four handsome tapestry banners displaying the arms of Bohemia, Austria, Moravia, and Carinthia moving restlessly in the wind and alarming the four gray horses that pulled the wagon. A company of advocates and notaries followed after, solemn in the dark cotehardies and headdresses of their professions. Another wagon came next, this one from the Blacksmiths' Guild, filed with displays of armor, cooking pots, horse-shoes, and the tools of smiths: tongs, hammers, and files; the Guildmaster, stripped to the waist and dressed like the god Vulcan, stood over a forge, his hair contained in a wreath of iron laurel leaves. The wagon was pulled by ten apprentices, dressed in what they thought was the fashion in Caesar's Rome.

Watching the procession from a dozen paces beyond the end of the Konige's Court stand, Rakoczy shaded his eyes to keep track of the progress of men and wagons. He could not suppress a smile at the Bohemian notion of Imperial Roman clothing, but kept his amusement to himself. Historical togas and dalmaticas would not have looked Roman to the eyes of the crowd; the semi-Byzantine, semi-Moorish garb satisfied them.

"What do you think, Comes?" asked Imbolya of Heves, approaching him from the Konige's Court stand; her sea-blue silk bleihaut was set off by a collar of silver and pearls, her chainse was white linen embroidered in silver, her gorget was silvery-gray, and her veil that trailed from her elaborate headdress was edged in seed-pearls. She glanced bashfully at him. "I hope you won't mind my company; the Konige's Court stand is a little crowded with all the guests; it's noisy and confused-so much so that the Konige ordered Betrica of Eger to take little Agnethe back to her room: there is too much going on; all the baby could do was cry. Not that things are much better inside."

"The castle must be full to overflowing," he said, knowing it was true.

"And Mansion Czernin"-she motioned to the grand house on the far side of the square-"is also." She giggled, her hand covering her lips in a show of modesty. "We're sleeping four to a bed and even then there aren't accommodations enough. The Konige says that the castle must be enlarged."

"And do you agree?"

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"I suppose so, but this occasion is brief, and there would have to be more servants and slaves to care for new rooms, so..." She shrugged. "You didn't tell me what you think about the procession, Comes."

"It is a very elaborate display; I hope the Council approves," he said in complete candor, and did not remind her that she had hardly given him a chance to tell her; he attributed her impulsivity to the excitement of the event, an emotion that had not escaped him entirely, much as he had become used to grand occasions over the centuries; he knew that he had to be careful, not appearing too splendid nor too austere, for as an exile, his demeanor during this celebration would be noted and evaluated, and so he had chosen his garments carefully: he wore a black-velvet huch lined in ermine over a chainse of pure-white silk; his braccae were black leather embossed with his eclipse device accented in silver, matching his silver-and-black-sapphire pectoral hung from large silver links. Instead of a hat, he wore a Comes' coronet in brilliant silver, and rather than wearing a sword, he carried a small francisca tucked into the back of his belt.

"Do you think the Konig will be pleased with the honor the city shows him?" She pointed down the hill to the Episcopus riding in his wagon. "Very grand, isn't he?"

"For a man who thinks killing rats is a show of vanity, he surprises me," said Rakoczy, smiling to show he meant nothing against the powerful Churchman.

"This is for the glory of the Church, not his own aggrandizement; anything less would slight the Church," said Imbolya, her voice raised to be heard over the growing excited babble of the crowd gathered in front of the castle gates.

"Indeed," said Rakoczy, wondering why the young lady-in-waiting had sought him out; it was one thing to want to escape the crowding, but he had the impression that she had come to him deliberately.

Down in the Council Court Square the last of the fifteen decorated wagons was moving; the Carpenters' Guild was following the Stonemasons' mule-drawn wagon bearing its perfect cube of marble and display of tools and three stonemasons in the working garb of their trade. Far less austere than the Stonemasons, the Carpenters had a magnificent vehicle with panels of carved wood and a complex throne for three figures: Victory, Honor, and Glory, all of whom wore the heraldic black lion of Otakar's device; the wagon was pulled by six large, black dogs with black manes attached to their harness to add to the allusion of the black lion. Six masked clowns came next, and then the Konig and his escort; cheers and clamor greeted the dear Royal as he and his men started away from the Council Court, beginning the long, zig-zag climb. As if to join in the occasion, the wind gusted more strongly.

Pan Podebrad Athalbrech rode up to the Konige's Court stand on a powerful liver-chestnut; he was resplendent in a cotehardie of cloth of silver, with his heraldic device on his right shoulder, over a deep-green chainse; he ducked his head to Kunigunde. "The Konig, your husband, asks that you join him when he arrives to open the gate of Vaclav Castle. Bring your daughter with you, so that the people may see her."

"If it will please the Konig, we will," said Konige Kunigunde, flicking her fingers in dismissal.

"I will be glad to give you and your daughter escort when the time comes, dear Royal," said Pan Podebrad before moving to the end of the stand nearest the gate, where he swung out of his saddle and stood, waiting.

"He wants a favor from the Konig, that's why he's doing this," said Imbolya to Rakoczy, her disgust with Pan Podebrad more obvious than she knew. "The Konige doesn't need an escort to walk ten paces in front of her own castle-that's nothing more than grandiosity. Who would dare to offer her an insult in this place?"

"There are many men seeking favors from the Konig today," said Rakoczy in a neutral tone.

"Of all kinds," said Imbolya, and glanced up at him, her face flushed, her veil threatening to pull away from her headdress; she seemed pitifully young to him.

Rakoczy considered what she had said. "Doubtless."

"And," she went on with a touch of defiance, "the Konig will not be the only one asked for favors."

"You mean because of the festivities? You assume the Konige will be petitioned as well?" Rakoczy inquired, thinking as he did that Imbolya was very young to be so caught up in Court life.

"Yes, well, that's likely," she said. "But there are many favors to be had." She regarded him with an air of experience that was unusual in her. "You know what sport arises when the people are celebrating."

"That I do," he said, thinking back to the Great Games in the Roman arena, to the bear-baiting at the Court of Karl-lo-Magne, to the Mid-Summer festivals in western France. All manner of excess was excused during those occasions, as, he was certain, there would be through the rest of this day and well into the night.

"There will be riots tonight, unless they're all too drunk," said Imbolya. "Look how worked up they are."

"Then let us hope there is sufficient beer and wine," said Rakoczy.

The Beggars' Guild had managed to create a wagon of their own for the procession: it was a simple cart containing an old statue of Sante Marye Konige of Mercy, pulled by the Guild members themselves. As the wagon began to move people in the crowd threw coins at them, and a dozen of the Guildsmen circled the wagon, picking up the coins and dropping them into the open coffer at the foot of the statue. After a little time a fight broke out among the beggars and the street urchins, who rushed to gather up coins before the beggars could get to them.

"I am to be married, you know," she told him.

"When will that be?" Rakoczy asked, aware that there had been no formal announcement of it in the Konige's Court.

"My father hopes it will be before summer. He is making the arrangements." She bit her lower lip.

"Then nothing is yet settled?"

She shook her head. "At least he has written to me to let me prepare for what is to come. If I could not read, I would know nothing of the agreements until my escort came to take me home."

The eleventh wagon, the one belonging to the Brotherhood of Bakers-and-Brewers, had stopped in Sante-Agnethe's Square in order to pass out cups of beer and throw small loaves of bread into the crowd, an effort that grew in excitement until it seemed that a riot would break out; large numbers of townspeople stormed the wagon, nearly oversetting it; the two stout, black-and-white horses pulling the wagon strove to break free of their leaders, who were doing their best to beat the crowd back. The horses might have bolted had not three of Otakar's knights ridden up and shoved back the populace with the flat of their swords. Once the square was secure, the knights took up positions around the wagon and it moved off again, leaving more than a dozen men injured, and five bag-pipers to make their way through the turbulence, clearing a path for the barge-shaped wagon of the Honorable Company of River Merchants.

"There will be more of that as the day goes on," said Rakoczy.

"Comes," she said in a flash of determination. "Will you show me how to be a wife to my husband?"

Rakoczy gave her a startled look. "How do you mean?"

"You know how I mean." She met his gaze directly.

He said nothing while he considered an answer; finally he spoke. "Why do you ask me?"

"Whom else am I to ask? The Konig's men are at war, and they boast too much, if they would be willing to do as I ask-if they knew what I want from them," she rejoined. "Who would be suitable? The instrument-maker? The tapestry-weaver? The furrier? Or perhaps an apprentice or a servant." She gave him a moment to answer, then hurried on as she turned away so he could not see her face. "Rozsa told me you were a most kind man, who could be relied upon for discretion. I don't know what she needed you to be discreet about, but I know what I need from you."

"What did Rozsa tell you?"

"Nothing more than that you are obliging and discreet," she assured him. "The only other thing she said was that it was a shame you are so carefully watched."

"And you find that sufficient? You make such an offer to me with so little information to guide you? Think what you-" He broke off. "I am much older than you are, Imbolya."

"Yes," she said eagerly. "That's why I thought you'd be safe to ask-that, and you're an exile. You must conduct yourself well. You have regard for women. You must do more than tup." She swung around to face him. "You know it would be folly to refuse me."

"Why is that?"

"Because I can give Konig Bela good report of you, which you need; he will ask if you have done what he has charged you to do. Or I can say things you would rather I did not." She offered him a triumphant smile, like a child anticipating a reward. "I'm one of the Konige's ladies, and for that, I can seek out many things. I've been thinking about this for some time, and I think it would be best if you were willing to comply with my request."

"You are very young, Imbolya, and-"

"All the more reason you should instruct me." The wind whipped her veil across her face; she pulled it back impatiently. "I don't know what man my father will settle upon, but I will do as he wishes. I would like to know how enjoyment may be had." There was a note of desperation in her voice now, a plea that stirred his sympathy for her.

At Sant-Vaclav Dux of Bohemia Square, a third of the way up the hill, the top-heavy wagon of the Upholsters' Guild had to stop when one of its wheels wobbled loose and had to be reattached; the wagon listed dangerously; a dozen men in the crowd helped to prop it up while the wheelwright was brought from the Carriage-Makers'-and-Wheelwrights' Guild's wagon two places behind. The people lining the street surged into the square, pressing close to the wagon and the team of six restive ponies. A company of mummers reached the square and provided a diversion while the wheel was replaced. Soon the mummers had half the spectators in the square dancing and clapping so that they hardly noticed when the wagon moved off again, nor did they pay much attention to the cutpurses who mingled with them as they danced.

"And how would you explain your knowledge?" Rakoczy asked.

"I am one of the Konige's Court-women talk. Everyone knows that." She pulled a pin from her headdress and did her best to secure her veil.

Rakoczy nodded. "Have you not learned enough, then?"

"No." Impulsively she grabbed his hand. "I want to find out everything from you. I want to know for myself, not be told."

"That could be a dangerous wish," Rakoczy warned, disengaging his hand without effort; her desire was much too disquieting, he thought. "Your father would not be pleased if it became known that you sought-"

"It will not become known, not unless you reveal it yourself," she said, making this almost an accusation. "Look at me. Am I not comely? Tell me you don't want to share your bed with me."

Rakoczy remained silent for a short while, listening to the distant roars of greeting that moved up the hill with Konig Otakar. He noticed that the Episcopus was almost half-way from the Council Court to the gates of Castle Vaclav, passing through the Artisans' Market to make the turn for Sant-Gabril the Archangel. "I am flattered that you would want to lie with me, but I fear my ... nature might not be to your liking."

"Let me find out. Oh, please. You have to do this for me, Comes, before I am married," Imbolya whispered fiercely. "I will not be bullied the way most wives are. I couldn't bear it. If my husband beats me, I will run away from him; I don't care what the Church teaches about submission to him." She seized his hand again. "I don't care if you don't love me. All you have to do is want me, and show me what I want to learn."

Again he freed his hand. "This is not the place to talk. Too many people can listen." He knew that the Konige had spies in the crowd, as did the Episcopus, and that in spite of the noise, they could be overheard.

"But where else is there? Csenge of Somogy is the Konige's messenger now that Rozsa's gone. How am I to find a way to speak freely with you, if not in this crowd?"

"That may prove difficult. If we were to attempt to have a clandestine meeting it would be more difficult still," he said as gently as he could, adding, "You are watched, Imbolya, and I am watched."

"I don't care," she insisted.

"Possibly not, but I do," he said to her, his voice low.

"Why? What can I say that will persuade you?"

"Nothing right now." He took a step back from her, nettled by how her arousal was working on him; he found her youth too disquieting. "Think about what you are risking."

"I have already."

"Think again," he said without any show of temper. "It would pain me to have you expose yourself to shame and disrepute."

"See?" she persisted. "That's why I want you. You think of me before you think of yourself. How many men in the Konig's Court would do that?" Tossing her head, she slipped back through the crowd to the Konige's Court stand.

Gradually the procession grew nearer, and the welter of sound increased until it was enough to drown out the tolling of the bells of Sante-Radmille that announced the Episcopus' wagon had reached the square. The crowd stamped its feet in growing anticipation. The gathering at the castle gate stopped roving about and settled down away from the gate, leaving room for the wagons and walkers to enter the castle courtyard as soon as the gate was opened. A loud sounding of buisines from the castle walls signaled the opening of the gate; the people started to cry out in exhilaration.

Rakoczy moved back into the shadow of Mansion Czernin's high walls, keeping his attention on the Konige's Court stand, where pages were wriggling through the packed benches, tankards of mead in their hands. He saw Imbolya work her way along the benches into the covered part of the stand where the Konige's Court was seated; she accepted some mead as she sat down. He studied her for a while, reviewing all she had said to him and trying to determine how much he believed her. He could not deny his responsive desire for her, and his cognizance that he yearned for something more than the passionate dreams he provided the widowed innkeeper at the Black Horse, or the Polish dressmaker who lived at her shop at the Virgin's Well Square near the eastern gates of the city.

The buisines sounded again, and the Konige rose in her seat and, taking her daughter by the hand, clambered out of the Konige's Court stand to make her way to the gate of Vaclav Castle; young Kinga began to bounce in a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. Her mother bent down to speak to her, and the child stood still. Another outcry of buisines heralded the opening of the gate, and caught the attention of all those waiting in the square. The clanking of chains accompanied the buisines, and the gate began to swing inward, revealing the forecourt, where servants and slaves were gathered to assist the members of the procession as they and their wagons arrived at the castle. Konige Kunigunde tugged at her daughter's sleeve, guiding her to the edge of the opening and taking hold of her child's hand to keep her from running off; belatedly Pan Podebrad Athalbrech joined them there, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, his stance imposingly self-important as he held his horse's reins with the other. The buisines blared once more and now more church-bells joined in.

"Comes Santu-Germaniu?"

The voice came from close behind him; Rakoczy pulled the francisca from where it lay under his belt along his back as he turned, the small throwing axe in his hand as he met the eyes of the speaker. He found himself facing a page in a Royal tabard, who paled at the sight of the weapon Rakoczy held. "Your pardon."

The page shivered from something other than cold; he spoke flatly, no emotion of any kind in his recitation, and he stared at a point somewhere over Rakoczy's left shoulder. "The Konige has asked you to attend her Court within the walls when the procession is over. She and the Konig will hold Court in the Great Hall. She asks that you bring your lyre; there are songs she wants you to sing for her and her Court. I have been charged to bring the lyre to you, if you will tell me what I am to say at Mansion Belcrady to receive it."

"If you will first tell the dear Royal I am honored to be included in her Court on this day." He paused, ordering his thoughts. "At Mansion Belcrady ask for my manservant Hruther, who will bring the lyre to me in your company. Tell him the reason for this summons, and he will reward you with a silver Moravia."

The page ducked his head. "Do you want me to bring him to you?"

"If you would. After you inform the Konige of my answer, use the back-street and you will reach Mansion Belcrady without difficulty. If you try to go down this street, it will take you half a day to get there." Rakoczy slid the francisca back into his belt at the small of his back. He recalled his battle with Saito Masashige at Chui-Cho fortress when the francisca had proved invaluable.

The page signaled his compliance and disappeared amid the flood of people who poured into the square ahead of the procession. A dozen foot-soldiers emerged from the castle and attempted to push back the throng, but without much success. A short while later, Rakoczy saw the page kneel to Konige Kunigunde, then rise and depart again. The soldiers and the crowd continued to jostle as the wind snapped at the banners unfurled along the battlements.

Rakoczy drew back farther into the shadows, making sure his back was against the wall of Mansion Czernin. He was still filled with the sense that he was under observation, and that left him edgy. He could not bring himself to go to the Konige's Court stand although he knew he would be permitted to sit there; the stand was too exposed and so crowded that movement between its benches would hamper any attempt at a quick departure.

There was a sudden burst in excitement around the square; people strained against the foot-soldiers holding them back, and then the Episcopus' burnished sorrels appeared, with the grandly decorated wagon behind it. The Episcopus was standing, his crozier in his hand, surrounded by his shivering angels. The wagon stopped in front of the Konige's Court stand, and the Episcopus made the sign of blessing over the Court, then turned and blessed Konige Kunigunde where she stood in the open gateway before going into the forecourt of Vaclav Castle. The Counselors of Praha, some of them red-faced with exertion, were the next to arrive, and they all bowed to the Konige's Court and then the Konige herself, then followed the Episcopus' wagon. The consort of musicians played a short dance-tune for the Konige's Court, the rendition more forced than spritely, and afterward went through the gate and into the forecourt, their steps faltering. The spectators sent up another cheer of approval for the Weavers' Guild and their wagon with its large black lion.

Two more wagons arrived and were permitted to enter Vaclav Castle, but the dancers and musicians were left to fill the courtyard with their tunes and antics. It was not long before there was an eruption of cacophony as two different groups of musicians began to compete for the crowd's attention. Most of the spectators enjoyed the improvised contest, but some did not; Konige Kunigunde made a point of putting her hands to her ears, her face pale. Next to her, Kinga was bouncing again, grinning at the din. Rakoczy did his best not to flinch at the more strained notes, and hoped that when he played for the Konige he would not have such contention to deal with. As he waited for the next wagon to appear, Rakoczy again found himself thinking about Imbolya of Heves and wondering if she truly wanted his intimacy. He was so preoccupied that he almost reached for his francisca when Hruther laid his hand on his shoulder, saying, "My master, I have your lyre."

Rakoczy took the instrument, holding it carefully to keep it from being damaged by the milling people.

"Perhaps the Konige will allow you to enter the forecourt before the end of the procession?" Hruther suggested. "It's safer."

"So it is," Rakoczy agreed, and started toward the open gate where the Konige stood, greeting all those who were passing through to the next round of entertainment; Hruther followed him, watching the crowd and trying not to hear the worst of the musicians.

Konige Kunigunde accepted the bow Rakoczy and Hruther offered and motioned them on, saying, "I look forward to hearing you, Comes."

"It will be my honor to perform for you, dear Royal," he assured her, and hoped it was true.

Text of a letter from Atta Olivia Clemens in Flanders to Ragoczy Sanct' Germain Franciscus in Praha, written in Imperial Latin on vellum and carried by personal messenger, delivered thirty-eight days after it was written.

To my oldest, most revered friend, the greetings and good wishes of Atta Olivia Clemens on this, the fourth day of November in the Christian year of 1269.

My treasured Sanct' Germain,

Recent trouble here has become truly hazardous, so I have decided that it would be wise for me to leave Flanders for the time being, not for the reasons you might think. This has little to do with my right to own the land or problems of erosion, although both are present, nor it is because I have come under scrutiny that might expose me. I have decided to spend the winter in Sant-Pons and then, when the roads are dry, to go on to Lecco and stay there for a while. My situation has become difficult and I see no advantage in remaining here while all I do is left under a cloud of suspicion from a gaggle of nuns who have nothing else to do but accuse decent widows-I count myself among them-of dealing with the Devil. Already three have been condemned to prison cells for no greater crime than living without the so-called protection of a male relative; as a foreigner and a person of means, I have to prepare to defend myself against the insinuations that I am a tool of Satan, or depart.

How did it happen, that the Church insinuated itself into every aspect of life as it has? A century ago there was a clear line between the laity and the clergy, and each had its recognized province. But since they stopped priests from taking wives-and leaving Church lands to their sons-the Church has been tightening its grip on everything. They find heresy and devils everywhere, and declare no one is safe. The nuns here at Sant-Laizare are hardly unusual, for there are many convents and monasteries that have seen outbreaks of visionary nonsense that belongs more to fables than to faith, but, of course, we are speaking here of cloistered women who only pray, spin, pray, weave, pray, sing, pray, eat only enough to keep from starving, pray, and pray. On such a regimen, I would have visions, too. Of course, the visions are carnalistic, and that implies, according to the local Episcopus, that there must be an external cause, for no devout ladies ever had so much as a hint of lust or desire for anything but the choirs of Heaven. Thus accusations have fallen on three widows in the area as I have said, and I may well be next.

I was hoping to remain here another five years, but that would be unwise. Niklos has told me that he is convinced this place is unsafe. They've burned heretics in Hainault-six widows, a midwife, four prostitutes, one catamite, and an old woman with a hump-and it may be that they will also burn witches in Brabant and Flanders. If that should occur, it would be better if I were gone from this place. Fire, as you taught me so long ago, kills vampires as well as the living. And if I am burned, my estate will go to the Church, since I would have fallen to the snares of Satan, a consideration that is only an afterthought to the zealous Episcopus. Lecco should be safe enough for a year or two, and by then I will be able to find a place where I would not become the focus of religious disapproval.

It is the Crusades that have done this-this ferocity in the name of Jesus the Savior. They're saying that there will be yet another one. What number is that-seven? eight? Haven't any of the rulers learned that they will not conquer the Holy Land no matter how laudable they claim their cause is? The followers of Mohammed will not give up their faith any more than the Christians will give up theirs. No slaughter will lessen the devotion of either side, but it will create a taste for vengeance and rapine, as we see. That it should spread to those called heretics shouldn't surprise anyone now that the nobles have acquired the rewards of their dogmatism.

I am in the process of helping my so-called half-brother Niklos in deeding my estate over to my "niece" and her "husband," both of whom have written to accept this bequest. I have found a steward to manage the place in my absence and have obtained pledges from the Dux that the deed and its terms will be upheld, which is the most I can hope for, given that there still is no Pope to endorse my claims.

If I lose this estate, then I will lose it, but it is better to go while I still can leave of my own accord. Niklos has already secured a villa for me near Sant-Pons and I will leave in six days. Half of my chests and crates are packed and will soon be loaded onto the best wagons I possess. I am choosing the horses I shall take with me, most of them coldbloods. They're already fuzzy as dandelions, which will help to keep out the cold. I have decided to ride in the saddle most of the way, and will select my riding horses for the journey in a day or two, so they may be given extra feed in preparation for the journey ahead.

In spring I will set out for Lecco and will send you word of my departure, assuming I know where you are. If you are no longer in Praha or Bohemia, I will send messages to Eclipse Trading in Roma and in Venezia, and you may have them sent on to wherever you are. I must tell you that I hope you will stay closer to home for a time. Those years you were in China were most distressing to me, aware you were alive but with no idea where. Spare me that for a decade or two, will you? I know you do not travel on whim, but I ask you to choose a place next time that I might expect a letter to reach you in less than a year.

And with that supplication, I will send you my loyal friendship and my

Undying love,

Olivia