During a break in the chain of snowstorms that had belabored Praha for more than a week, the brilliant sun brought people out of doors to revel in the light and to join in efforts to clear away the snow that blocked the streets. Even the Konig participated, ordering his knights and his German Guards into the streets with shovels to open the way from Vaclav Castle to the Council Court Square. As the snow was shoved aside, others came behind them to pack the snow firmly so that it would not simply fall back into the road. At Mansion Belcrady, Rakoczy came out of his gate with an offering of small, double-wheeled hand-carts as his contribution to the endeavor.

"Load them up and push them to the gates," he said to Rytir Guilhelm Leuzay in German. "There will be less to clean up when it all melts."

The German knight looked at the line of four hand-carts. "I've heard about these things," he said, regarding them carefully, distrusting their unfamiliarity. "Can you spare a man for each of them? My servants and slaves are all busy."

"Of course," he said. "They brought them here and they await my summons. Two are from the stable and two are stokers in the back-house and bath-house, all used to hard work, and all use these hand-carts in their work." He signaled to his men, who were standing around a small fire in the middle of the forecourt. "Illes, Megar, Estephe, Kornemon. To your tasks." He stepped aside so that his servants could take hold of the cart-handles and trundle them out onto the newly cleared paving-stones. "When your work is done there will be venison, beer, cheese, and bread waiting for you, and the bath-house will be heated."

Illes spoke for them all. "As you wish, Comes." His Bohemian was a bit clumsy, but everyone understood him.

"If you need more from this household, Rytir Guilhelm, send word and we will do what we can to accommodate you." Rakoczy peered up into the cerulean sky. "It will stay clear so long as the wind is calm, but when it picks up again, the storms will return."

"The Episcopus said that the storms will not return until the Feast of the Departure of the Konigs." Rytir Guilhelm crossed himself with his gloved hand, an act that would have earned him a stern rebuke from any clergyman.

"That will be in eleven days, will it not?" Rakoczy inquired politely, although he knew that in Bohemia, the Feast of the Departure of the Konigs was celebrated on the twenty-third day of January.

"That is what the Episcopus has said," Rytir Guilhelm said. "It would be wrong to doubt him."

Rakoczy did not argue the point. "All the same, keep aware of the wind," he recommended as he prepared to ease the gate closed.

"Where is your warder?" Rytir Guilhelm asked, looking up at the top of the gate-house.

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"Minek is in his bed with a hard cough." Rakoczy glanced up. "While it was snowing, I saw no need to keep the gate-house manned, but now that the streets are being cleared, it may be wise to post a guard. My thanks for your timely warning." He swung the gate as the knight moved on, shouting orders to Rakoczy's servants.

Barnon was waiting in the door. "Ambroz has his men clearing the stable courtyard, and they will move to the side-court when the rest is done." He paused, then said, "Those wheeled hand-carts are more useful than I thought they would be. We have restocked all the wood-boxes in the manse and the out-buildings; the hand-carts made it easier than using double-sling hods." He looked about uneasily. "Will the Rytir bring back the ones you've provided, do you think?"

"If he does not, I will order more made."

"Yes," Barnon said, nodding several times. "It's a good thing you brought them."

"They seemed useful to me," said Rakoczy, who had used them often at his fief.

"In the summer they did ease the work of shifting apples and turnips to the root-cellar, but I didn't see the possibilities for winter, for the cart is so new to Praha that it was a novelty that might bring as many problems as those it solved," Barnon burbled on. "It seemed to me that there wouldn't be much use for them once the frosts came. But now I understand how they-"

Rakoczy held up his hand. "I am glad you approve of them. What is it you are trying to avoid telling me?"

"I?" He wriggled his shoulders to make a dismissive shrug. "Nothing, Comes."

Rakoczy fixed his dark eyes on Barnon. "I do not like to accuse you of lying, but I am sure you are avoiding something that troubles you." His expression softened a little. "Why not tell me what it is so I will not have to bother the rest of the household making inquiries."

"It will displease you," Barnon said.

"Then better to do it quickly, and get it behind you. Delay can only make it worse."

Barnon swallowed hard. "Minek wants a priest. For Last Rites."

"Send for one. You do not need my permission for that," said Rakoczy in his calmest voice.

"It's not so simple," Barnon said, fretting. "He wants Pader Tomasek, from the Church of the Apostles. That's well down the hill and it's likely to be hard going to reach the place. If we went to Sante-Radmille, the priest would be here much sooner, but they are Trinitarians."

Rakoczy resisted the impulse to dismiss the matter, for he realized that many of these various Orders were as competitory in sacraments as companies of armed knights were in combat. "Are there difficulties between the Redemptionists and the Trinitarians?"

"There are difficulties between the Apostles and Sante-Radmille."

"Would it be a problem for Minek to receive Last Rites from a Trinitarian?" Rakoczy stepped into the entry hall.

"He is certain there would be," said Barnon. "I don't know what to tell him."

"Offer him the choice of a Trinitarian before mid-day or a Redemptionist by mid-afternoon," said Rakoczy, wondering if the warder's condition had deteriorated so greatly since the previous night. "Be sure he understands that most of the streets are not clear of snow, and it will be some time before Pader Tomasek can come here."

Barnon scowled. "But how can he be sure of God's Will in this? The cough may have disordered his thoughts. The Devil may be hoping to deny him a good death, so Hell can claim his soul."

"It is possible, I suppose, but the decision about who is to shrive him should lie with Minek. It is his soul, after all." Rakoczy read alarm in Barnon's eyes. "It would not be fitting for you, or for me, to decide for Minek."

"If you are certain..." Barnon said dubiously.

"Would you like me to ask him myself?" Rakoczy did his best not to make his question a challenge. He went into the main hall, hearing Barnon's hesitant steps behind him.

"You may be touched by the cough's miasma if you go to him," said Barnon after a short silence.

Rakoczy regarded Barnon thoughtfully. "If there is a miasma, it has touched me already, and if there is not, what have I to fear?"

Barnon considered this. "Put your trust in God and His Mercy."

"As you must do," said Rakoczy, "when you go to him." He saw a flicker in Barnon's eyes. "You do go to him, do you not?"

"I ... go to the door to the room where he has been taken," Barnon said. After a moment he added, in a tone of ill-usage, "If you had slaves, I would assign one to care for him."

"I see," said Rakoczy quietly. "Then it must be a good thing that I have no slaves." He motioned to Barnon. "Go to the door of his room and find out which Order he prefers for Last Rites. Then dispatch one of the housemen to bring the priest. You may tell him that I will attend to him shortly."

"Yes, Comes," said Barnon, ducking his head and shifting his gaze away from Rakoczy toward the blaze in the central fireplace.

Very gently, Rakoczy said, "Do it now, Barnon."

The steward paled and rushed out of the room.

Left to himself, Rakoczy went along to the kitchen and ordered Pacar to prepare a broth with many crushed herbs in it; he selected the herbs to be used from the hanging bundles of dried herbs. "Use these and no others. Heat the broth slowly with the herbs, then put it in an earthenware bowl and carry it to Minek."

Pacar's hands trembled. "One of the scullions will do it," he said, trying to summon up what authority he could.

Rakoczy pressed his lips together, measuring the fear in his cook. "Have it ready before mid-day and I will fetch it."

"Comes!" Pacar was shocked. "No. You mustn't."

"And prepare a venison stew, bread, cheese, and beer for all those working to clear away the snow." Rakoczy ignored the protests that greeted his instructions. "You need not fear: there is no miasma on them."

Pacar ducked his head as if anticipating a blow for his insolence. "No, Comes," he said as Rakoczy left the kitchen, going toward his workroom.

Half-way up the narrow stairs Rakoczy met Hruther coming down. "Have you seen Minek?" he asked in Imperial Latin.

"Not since last night," said Hruther. "His cough was worse."

"He has asked for a priest, for Last Rites."

Hruther looked surprised. "He didn't seem that far gone to me."

Rakoczy nodded. "How much sovereign remedy do I have left?"

"After treating the innkeeper at the Red Wolf? Ten vials," said Hruther. "I suppose it would be useless to remind you that you're not supposed to treat the sick."

"Yes," said Rakoczy with a swift, ironic smile. "It would be useless."

"I hope you won't regret it," said Hruther, continuing downward.

"I would regret more doing nothing," said Rakoczy, resuming his climb upward, aware that his progress was being watched by Magda.

In his workroom he unlocked and opened the ancient red-lacquer chest and removed a vial of opalescent liquid from one of the drawers; he set this aside, closed and locked the chest, then took a little time to build up the fire and to pull a slim volume from the shelves of books. Then he picked up the vial and returned to the kitchen, where he found Pacar bent over a cooking pot of simmering mutton-broth, a bowl waiting on the cutting block at his elbow.

"The broth is almost ready, Comes," said Pacar in as conciliating a manner as he could achieve.

"Very good." Rakoczy turned to the three scullions who were pouring beer into the large cooking cauldron where chopped onions and cabbage lay atop collops of venison. "Make it substantial; the men are working hard in the cold."

The oldest of the scullions summoned up his courage and said, "That we will, Comes. That we will. And have some ourselves, for our labors."

Pacar started to ladle the broth into the waiting bowl; he spilled a little of the liquid, and he swore by the Virgin's tits under his breath, then glanced nervously at Rakoczy. "I will Confess it, Comes."

"As you wish," said Rakoczy, and went to take up the ladle and finish filling the bowl himself. "Do you have a cloth so I can carry it without burning my hands?"

Wordlessly Pacar handed him a long strip of quilted linen.

"Thank you," said Rakoczy, and picked up the bowl. He took the narrow hall to the servants' quarters and made his way to the rear-most room. The odor of sickness and urine struck him as he opened the door, and he realized that no one had removed the chamber-pot or the basin of mucus on the floor next to the narrow bed for at least a full day. The sound of Minek's wheezy breath faltered as the sick warder looked up, his features shadowed; the only light in the room came from the torch in the sconce in the hallway.

"Comes," said Minek, the word ending in a spate of coughing that left him gasping and pale, the fever spots on his cheeks bright. He was clearly very ill, but his eyes were not sunken, nor did he have the smell of death about him.

"I have broth for you, with herbs to help you heal," said Rakoczy, coming to the side of the bed and setting the bowl on the small chest next to the bed. "And there is a ... a remedy that those of my blood have used to treat illness for a long time." He offered the vial. "Drink it first, and then the broth."

"It's wasted on me," Minek managed to say, then spat into the basin.

"I doubt it," said Rakoczy, and unstoppered the vial. "Drink this. The taste is not pleasant, but it has much virtue."

Reluctantly Minek took the vial, sniffed at it, coughed, then drank it, making a face as he did. "It better have virtue," he muttered.

Rakoczy bent down and without any apparent effort moved Minek into a sitting position. Then he retrieved the bowl of broth and handed it, with the quilted linen cloth, to the warder. "This will take away the taste and should provide you some strength."

"I am dying," said Minek, paying no attention to the bowl.

"Perhaps, and perhaps not," Rakoczy said, unperturbed by Minek's declaration; he put the cloth and the bowl into Minek's hands. "Has Barnon spoken to you about a priest yet?"

"He says"-he broke off, coughing-"that Pader Tomasek is"-he coughed some more-"still snowbound."

"And will be for some while as the Konig's men work their way down the streets," Rakoczy said. "Sante-Radmille is open, but I understand you would rather not ask one of the priests to attend you." He waited for Minek to speak, then went on, "Sant-Norbrech should be cleared of snow in a short while. Do you have any objections to a Servite?"

"I told Barnon Pader Toma-" He coughed so strenuously that some of his broth slopped out of its bowl.

Rakoczy reached to steady Minek's hands. "As soon as the way is open, Pader Tomasek will be sent for. It may be some little time."

"He is my Confessor," said Minek.

"No other will suit you?" Rakoczy asked. "Very well, you shall have him." He bent to pick up the basin and the chamber-pot.

Minek goggled at him. "Comes. No." His coughing was tighter.

"It is unhealthful for these to remain with you. They have contagion in them. I will see they are disposed of." Rakoczy went to the door. "I will leave this open so you will have light. One of the servants will bring you a clean chamber-pot and basin shortly." With that he sought out the rear door and carried the two vessels to the midden to empty them into the steaming heap of garbage, sweepings, and ordure; the severed front hoof of a deer protruded from the pile, which he shoved back into it with the six-tined rake lying beside it.

One of the mansion's nine cats went purposefully past Rakoczy, a mouse feebly twitching in its jaws. Rakoczy watched it go, thinking back to his centuries in Egypt where cats were venerated and worshiped, quite unlike the suspicion they aroused now in most of Europe. His reflections were interrupted by Barnon, who emerged from the herb-garden gate, his steaming breath revealing that he was in a hurry.

"Comes. There you are." He came up to Rakoczy in four long strides. "Counselor Smiricti is here. He desires to speak with you."

"Does he," said Rakoczy, and handed the empty basin and chamber-pot to Barnon. "These were in Minek's room. See they are washed and that he has clean ones."

Barnon ducked his head. "The Episcopus says that it is wrong to wash chamber-pots over-much."

"The Episcopus may say what he likes; in this household, vessels of this sort are to be emptied and washed daily-I thought I made that clear months ago." He swung the herb-garden gate open, going through it ahead of the steward.

"Zenka says she has chilblains from all the chamber-pots you require she wash," Barnon said as if this settled the matter.

"If she washes the chamber-pots in hot water, there will be no chilblains."

"Hot water stimulates lust," said Barnon, dutifully repeating Episcopus Fauvinel's warnings.

"In a laundry?" Rakoczy laughed once at the absurdity of the notion, and again wondered if he should enlarge the washroom, which was a single, small, stone chamber at the rear of the bath-house where Zenka and her niece Bedriska did the linen and clothes-cleaning for Mansion Belcrady.

"The Devil is everywhere," said Barnon, following Rakoczy in the side-door. "Counselor Smiricti is in the rear withdrawing room. Pacar is making a plate of bread and sausages for him. I have already given him a tankard of beer."

"That is good of you," said Rakoczy, and continued on to the main hall, crossing it to the withdrawing room, where he found Counselor Smiricti in a long huch of marten-fur with a hood he had thrown back; his large ears were red with cold; a tankard of beer stood half-empty on the table in front of the fireplace. "Welcome to Mansion Belcrady, Counselor." He gave a polite bow.

"And my thanks to you, Comes," said Smiricti, not bothering to rise. "Your houseman said he would return to build up the fire."

"I will attend to that," Rakoczy offered, going to the bin next to the hearth and taking out an arm-long section of log. "This will catch soon enough, and you will be warm again."

"You wouldn't think a sunny day could be so cold." Smiricti pulled off his gloves and vigorously rubbed his hands together. "The beer he brought me is very good-not cloudy or bitter."

"Thank you," said Rakoczy, studying Smiricti.

"You probably want to know what brings me out on such a day," he began, and not waiting for an answer said, "I'm here to extend you an invitation, but it might not be to your liking." This last he said in a rush.

More curious than circumspect, Rakoczy asked, "An invitation? What is the occasion?" He put the log atop the piled embers of the old fire; sparks flew up like tiny, bright insects.

"The Beggars' Guild is having a burning of rats in Council Court Square as soon as it is clear of snow. Since the Episcopus has decided in their favor in their suit against the rats, and the Council has concurred, the city's beggars have been trapping and killing rats in great quantity." He pursed his lips. "We have been using your poison cakes and trapping boxes in the Council Court, to good effect. We have more than a hundred of the bodies stacked up behind the privy. But doubtless you know that the Episcopus has declared that since the bodies of rats bring fevers and generate wasps and gnats, the bodies must be destroyed or buried a league outside the city walls. The ground is too hard to make a grave-pit, so there will be a fire. The Beggars' Guild is going throughout the city collecting rats to give to the flames."

"Why was I invited?" Rakoczy asked, genuinely puzzled.

"You have helped us to be rid of the rats. The Counselors would like to thank you for your deadly little cakes, and where better than at the burning of poisoned rats? But you may prefer that not half the city know that you are skilled with poisons, being an exile and one of the Konige's Court." He saw Barnon in the door with a tray in his hands. "You're always the gracious host, Comes. Very much to your credit. Some of our Bohemian lords could take a lesson from you." He sat forward in his chair. "Sausages!"

"Of veal with cardamom, boiled in wine," said Barnon, putting the tray on the round table; he glanced once at Rakoczy, then devoted his attention to Smiricti.

"Your master provides well for his guests," said Smiricti, reaching for one of the finger-sized sausages. "Still hot. Good." He popped it into his mouth, chewing energetically.

"Tell me, Counselor," Rakoczy said while Smiricti ate, "why is such a burning of rats afforded so much attention?"

Smiricti looked at him, surprised. "Rats are the bane of the city. Since the Episcopus has granted that killing them is allowed, even on days of the Peace of God, it is just as well to make such an act a grand one, so that all the people can see that they need no longer suffer the creatures to infest their houses, where they do Devil's work."

"We have few rats here," said Barnon. "The Comes sees to it."

"That's good of you to say," Rakoczy told him.

"The Comes keeps an orderly household," Barnon said with more emphasis. "He sees to the welfare of all his vassals."

A number of questions roiled in Rakoczy's mind, but he kept them to himself, not wanting to draw Smiricti into his private business. "Barnon, has Minek been attended to?"

"Yes, Comes. He has." He ducked his head and left the withdrawing room before Rakoczy could ask for more information.

"These sausages are delicious, just delicious," Smiricti enthused as he bit into a second one.

"I am pleased you find them so," Rakoczy said, sitting down across the table from Counselor Smiricti. "Whom else have you invited to this ... festival?"

"The Konige and her Court, of course, and the Episcopus. The Masters of all the city's Guilds, and all visiting merchants within the walls, since they have often complained of damage done to their goods by rats." He broke off a section of bread from the oblong loaf he had been given. "The Beggars' Guild plan to light their bonfire at sunset. You will want to be in place ahead of that hour."

"So I might," said Rakoczy, "if I come."

"But you must. There are those who will see your absence as a slight." He drank more beer. "You can't want that, can you?"

"No," Rakoczy answered, his attention on his small hands. "But I have had nothing from the Konige informing me that my presence is required." He considered his situation again. "Konig Bela has laid restrictions upon me, as you know, and without an order from Konige Kunigunde, it would violate the terms of my exile to attend so public an event."

"I shall send a messenger to the Konige, then, and have him deliver her decision to you. That should prevent any delays." He bit into the wad of bread he held, and his next words were muffled. "The Beggars' Guild is happy to have this chance to show Praha what use it can be."

"Killing rats is a great service," said Rakoczy with no hint of sarcasm.

"So they say." Smiricti took another sausage.

While the Counselor munched his way through his food, Rakoczy got up from his chair and paced the length of the withdrawing room. The fire was beginning to blaze again, lending its heat to the chamber, and Rakoczy moved away from the flames. He went to the shuttered window, wanting to throw it open, but mindful of the snow beyond, he left the window closed. "How long do you expect the bonfire will last?" he asked Smiricti.

"As long as there are rats to burn. The Episcopus has said that he would allow the gathering to last until Vigil begins."

"So long," said Rakoczy in surprise, for he had not often seen the Episcopus endorse any street celebrations that continued so long after sundown. He had been told that Easter celebrations could go on all night, but for such an occasion as this one the Episcopus most often insisted that strict limitations be imposed, to lessen the chances for public crime and lewdness.

"The Episcopus has rats in his cathedral. He has given the Beggars' Guild the task of killing and collecting them all." Smiricti chuckled and pulled another hunk of bread off the loaf.

"So the bonfire is a reward for the Beggars' Guild," said Rakoczy.

"As much of one as they will ever receive from Episcopus Fauvinel, who has said that the Guild, for being a Guild, has put its members beyond the Church's charity," said Smiricti. "I would count it a favor if you would be willing to attend."

"And the Konige-what of her decision in that regard."

"If she tells you that you mayn't attend, that will be the end of it," Smiricti declared through a mouthful of bread. "She has said that your natal-day gift to her older daughter was the handsomest of any the child received, and for that reason alone she is kindly inclined to you. She may look forward to another display of your generosity."

"What do you recommend I do if she makes no decision at all?" Rakoczy inquired; he wondered whether or not the Konige would want him to be at such a function, where public unruliness would likely be rampant.

"Oh, I doubt she'd do that. She's unlikely to leave her preference in doubt." He picked up the last sausage. "These are really very good, Comes. I thank you for providing them." He began to eat the sausage. "You wouldn't consider providing more of these for the celebration tonight, would you?"

"If I am permitted to attend, I will gladly bring some with me," said Rakoczy.

"Of course," said Smiricti, "if you're permitted to attend."

Text of a letter from Frater Purvanek at the Monastery of the Holy Martyrs three leagues from Praha on the bank of the Moltava, to Episcopus Fauvinel at the Royal Court in Praha, written on vellum and delivered by private Church courier.

To the greatly pious, most reverend Episcopus Fauvinel, this letter from the hand of Frater Purvanek at the Monastery of the Holy Martyrs on this, the 9th day of February in the 1270th year of Grace,

Most excellent Episcopus,

It is my duty to tell you that the Fraters here have done me the honor of electing me to succeed the former Abbott Varengara, who has gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is the Abbott's hope to die in that most holy city and as his illness is worsening, he has departed so that he will have time enough to reach the Holy Land. To that end, I am taking it upon myself to write to you to inform you of conditions here.

Since it is now my duty to see to the monks and the maintenance of this monastery, I apply to you for what help you can provide us. The storms of the winter have left the cow-barn with a badly damaged roof, and the creamery with water standing on the floor. We will have to be rid of all the cheeses ripening there because the damp has made them unfit to eat, according to Frater Miloslav, who is in charge of the creamery. Without cheese, we will be able to tend to fewer travelers, which will lessen the donations upon which we depend, and without help from you and the city, some of our monks are likely to starve before the damage here is repaired. I beseech you to provide us as much assistance as you can.

Let me ask you to come to the monastery to see for yourself how we are suffering. It would restore the hopes of many of the monks here if they were certain of your attentions in this hard time. God may send us many tribulations but He also sends us you, our Episcopus, to shepherd us through the trials of this world, so that we may join in the celebration of Resurrection on April 13th; for without your help and succor, we will surely by that day be awaiting the Last Trumpet in our graves. We implore you to aid us as if we were your children, for surely your rank puts you in the position of a parent, for we are all vassals of the Church, and we receive Grace from your offices. God has laid His hand upon you, and entrusted many souls to your keeping; ours are among them. With the Devil abroad in the land, we call upon you to help us restore our faith in His Mercy and the protection of the Church.

With my devotion and prayerful submission to our Rule,

Frater Purvanek

Abbott of the Monastery of the Holy Martyrs

Benedictine