The wind was out of the northeast, chilly enough to make the fire in the workroom of Mansion Belcrady welcome to Rakoczy, who rarely felt either heat or cold; he was finishing assembling the elements that would produce amethysts and moonstones-"for the Konige's daughters," he told Hruther-his attention fixed on the vessel that was called the womb of jewels. Behind him, Hruther sorted out the ingredients to make emeralds and rubies, measuring them with care into a similar vessel as the one Rakoczy held. Both of them ignored the whoop of the wind and the answering clatter of shutters, devoting the whole of their assiduity to their tasks.

"There," said Rakoczy, stepping back from the trestle-table; he carried the vessel down the room to the athanor, opened the heavy door of the alchemical oven, set the container into position inside it, closed the oven door, added charcoal to the firebox, and set the bellows working by releasing the spring-driven belt at the rear; this last was an improvement of his own; he had contrived it more than eight centuries before, adapting it from a Roman saw-clock and a Persian mechanical nightingale.

Hruther picked up the large hourglass at the end of the table and turned it over. "One," he announced.

Rakoczy took a deep breath. "We have until sundown. That is three more turns."

"Four turns of the hourglass," Hruther concurred. He looked at the open coffer and its contents of gems. "Will you be able to finish the hilt for the ceremonial sword the Konige will present to the Konig upon his departure?"

"More than enough; the matter is having four of each jewels that match. I should have more than fifty left over when the task is done." Rakoczy regarded the list he had been given. "Two large diamonds for the pommel, ten white sapphires for the hand-grip, four emeralds, four tourmalines, four peridots, four topazes, four rubies, and ten golden tiger's-eyes for the quillons. It ought to impress everyone who sees it."

"That's what the Konige wants, isn't it?" Hruther said. "For the Konig to be impressive."

"So I gather." Rakoczy settled into his Anatolian saddler's chair. "Any more repercussions from your interrogation five days ago?" He spoke in the Cypriot dialect.

"Not yet." He completed loading the vessel and set it in its cradle. "I still don't know what the Episcopus' familiars were trying to get from me, which nettles me."

"I find it interesting that they took you while the Episcopus was speaking at the Konige's Court," Rakoczy observed. "He wants to be protected from what the familiars did, but why?"

"I can only guess." He pursed his lips. "I'm sure they acted on the Episcopus' instructions, no matter where he was while my examination was going on."

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"You said they asked many questions at random, or in a succession that seemed disconnected one from another." Rakoczy had undergone just such an interrogation in Constantinople, more than six hundred years ago, and was aware that the random questions were to keep the one being questioned from formulating an effective defense against those questioning him.

"Yes. However, now that I've had time to think about it, most of the questions they repeated had to do with your wealth, directly or indirectly."

"How do you mean?" Rakoczy had until now made only minor inquiries about Hruther's detention, but he was increasingly dismayed that it happened, and wanted to learn as much as possible about the interview itself.

"I've told you that they asked many times about your wealth, and its source, and about the reason for your exile, as well as its terms," Hruther said, as puzzled as he was at the time he was in the familiars' hands.

"Did they do more than threaten you?" Rakoczy kept his voice level.

"They struck me only once, when I refused to tell them what they sought to know, but they kept me on my knees, and that was wearing." He pressed his lips together to stop more words.

"That is typical. That way the Church can claim that no injury was done." Rakoczy looked away in disgust with himself for what Hruther had endured. He leaned forward and slapped the top of the low, round table in front of the fireplace.

"They kept returning to your fortune, but they also wanted to know about your travels and your trading company, and whom among the high lords of Europe you might know. They asked about your studies and your skills. But they put most of their emphasis on your fortune and your fief."

"I gathered that: I would like to know why," Rakoczy muttered, then looked at Hruther. "Yes, old friend, I am aware that you know no more than I do on that point."

"I wish I did. The familiars would not tolerate any questions from me; they required that I answer theirs." He stared at the nearest shuttered window. "They ordered me to pray frequently. I thought at the time it was with the intention to find out if I knew the Psalms, and if I did, how well."

"I trust they were satisfied," said Rakoczy with sardonic amusement.

"I think so." He considered his answer and added, "But I don't know; I can only guess."

"I respect your guesses," said Rakoczy. He leaned back in his chair. "I might as well be bound in chains and confined to a dungeon. I am not safe to know; I am encumbered so that I may not defend my friends or myself."

"Don't tempt the Episcopus with thoughts of dungeons. He would rejoice in seizing your fortune for the Church."

"And Otakar would want it for the Crown, wherein lies my only safety-that those two are locked in stalemate. If they ever decide to make common cause against me..." He stared at the flames consuming the two logs in the fireplace. "I wish I could leave here without bringing harm to my fief and my vassals."

"They say Konig Bela will be sending an envoy to the Konige's Court, to assure the Konig that all is well with his granddaughter and her children. Perhaps you could have a private word with him while he's here? If the envoy delivers a good report of you, Bela might reconsider your terms of exile." Hruther brushed away the bits of detritus on the table. "How many more vessels of jewels do you want to make?"

"Two or three, to be sure there are enough to make reasonable matches; the Konige has specified she wants the jewels to match. Additional tiger's-eyes should be part of what I make tomorrow; that will give me a day to polish them before sending them on to the goldsmith for mounting." He stretched and settled back into the chair. "As soon as the current batch is cooling, I will start sorting what I have, and polishing them in the drum."

"And tomorrow?"

"The rubies and emeralds will be tumble-polished while I make the compound for tiger's-eyes. When this is done, I will have to take time to produce more azoth. I am running low on it." A slight frown settled between his brows.

"Celestial mercury can be dangerous to constitute. Think of the Polish marshes." Hruther regarded Rakoczy with worry.

"I do think of them," said Rakoczy. "I will use a triple-vessel to contain the formulation. That should lessen the chance for it to explode."

Hruther nodded. "I'll keep a number of buckets of water on hand, on the chance there is any trouble. One fire in this manse is enough."

Rakoczy smiled. "Such admirable caution."

"Better caution than recklessness when dealing with azoth," said Hruther with no sign of upset. "Shall I send the servants out for the day?"

"A clever notion. Yes, of course. Send them to the open market. Provide each of them with two silver Vaclavs, which should allow them to indulge themselves. Tell them they may have the day until Vespers, when I expect them to return."

"And if any of them should ask why you extend yourself so generously? what do I tell them?" Hruther inquired.

"Say it is the custom of those of my blood to give their households a sign of appreciation of service after the Christ Mass and before Lent begins." He managed a twisted smile. "In case any of the Episcopus' familiars should ask."

Hruther nodded once. "The scullions as well as the rest?"

"All of them. The swineherd and the shepherd, too." He paused thoughtfully. "Tell them I would join them, but I must finish the commission from the Konige."

"Joining them is another tradition of your blood?" He kept most of his incredulity out of his voice.

"Let them think so," said Rakoczy.

"Good enough." Hruther thrust his hands into the large, closed sleeve of his bleihaut, drawing out a twice-folded note. "This was handed to me this morning. I was told not to give it to you until after mid-day."

Rakoczy took the note, studied it, but did not open it at once. "Where did you get this? Who gave it to you?"

"One of the Konige's Court pages handed it to me as he accompanied the heralds. They were going to deliver more plans to the Counselors, for the Konig's departure."

"And the page just happened to encounter you?" Rakoczy made no excuse for his skepticism.

"He said it saved him stopping here on their way back," Hruther told him. "I took the note; I thought I would draw attention to it if I refused to accept it, with the escort to make a report in any case."

"That is probably true," said Rakoczy.

"You have received many notes from the Konige."

"So I have, but always my title was on the outside, with her sigil. There is nothing on this." He held up the folded note. "Quite blank. It may be a trap of some kind," Rakoczy mused aloud. "If a page carried it, any number of the Konige's courtiers might have written it."

"That's possible, and it would be like the Episcopus to try something of the sort," Hruther agreed. "So it might be a device on the part of the Episcopus to snare you."

"That, too, is possible," Rakoczy said, then unfolded the note; he recognized the neat hand at once: it was Imbolya's.

My most dear Comte,

It has befallen that I will be at the Sant-Mattiza Chapel this evening for Mass, at the conclusion of which I am charged with coming to you for the purpose of choosing the jewels for the hilt of the Konig's ceremonial sword. I will be accompanied by two men-at-arms and two pages, whom I ask you to receive with your usual hospitality.

The Konige is aware that such careful sorting of jewels as the sword requires may take a good portion of the night, and so has excused me from attending bed-time prayers in her private apartments while I meet with you to make the best selection possible. The castle guards have been ordered to admit me and my escort upon my return at any hour without question or hindrance, so I need have no reason to be hurried in choosing the stones needed.

Dear Royal is distressed at the thought that the sword will not be ready in time for Konig Otakar's departure; this has caused her much distraint, and to lessen her anxiety, she seeks to be informed on the progress of all involved in its making: my cousin Csenge of Somogy will be attending to the goldsmith, and Gyongyi of Tolan will be dispatched to the smith fashioning the blade. All of us will be suitably escorted, so that no disrepute may bring dishonor to the sword.

The Konige has been kind enough to let me write this note to you rather than have her heralds announce my arrival formally. She sees my writing as a kind of modesty, although the Episcopus does not. I trust you will not be offended by this means of informing you of my coming visit.

In the name of Kunigunde of Halicz, Konige of Bohemia,

Imbolya of Heves

"Trap or not, we should prepare for a visit," said Rakoczy when he had read the letter twice. "If it is a ruse, it is a bold one. The Konige would disapprove of mischief done in her name."

"So she would," said Hruther, his voice completely neutral.

Making up his mind, Rakoczy said briskly, "Have Pacar prepare a supper for the men-at-arms and pages. Ask Illes to invite the men-at-arms to dice with him and the grooms. Make the servants' hall available to the pages, in case they should grow tired."

"You are planning to receive her?"

"Since it appears that the Konige requires it, I must."

Hruther gave a little sigh. "Shall I inform the household that the Konige wishes the jewels to go unseen by all but her ladies-in-waiting and the craftsmen working on the sword until the weapon is presented to him at his departure?"

"Adroit as ever," Rakoczy approved. "Thank you. Yes, indeed, spread warnings throughout the household, and make it plain that to attempt to see the jewels will be against the will of the Konige." He got up from his chair and went to put another log on the fire. "Pacar will want to prepare a tray for the Konige's lady. If you will carry it up to this room, I will be most grateful."

"Certainly," said Hruther, a glint in his faded-blue eyes. He looked around the workroom. "Do you want the room swept?"

"That would attract too much speculation. At least I have carpets on the floor instead of rushes, which are more suitable than rushes to receive the Konige's envoy. And most of the rats are gone." Rakoczy gazed at the hourglass. "The current jewels should be out of the athanor by the time Imbolya arrives. I will attend to them if you will arrange a proper reception with Barnon."

"I'll start the household in motion now, if you will excuse me." Hruther ducked his head as he went to the door. "My master? Do you need anything more from me just now?"

"I doubt it." He paused. "When Vespers begins, meet me in my quarters to help me change clothes. The Konige's lady, who is Kunigunde's deputy, must not be welcomed in an old cope and stained braccae."

"Of course. At Vespers." He pressed down the latch and let himself out.

For the rest of the afternoon, Rakoczy kept to his workroom, turning the hourglass as it was required, taking out a blanket fashioned out of bear- and wolf-skins and spreading it over his Anatolian saddler's chair, lighting two braziers and adding incense to the cut branches in them. He put his trestle-table in order and set up a velvet-covered stand where the jewels could be examined. By the time he took the vessel from the athanor and put it on the cooling-rack, he was ready to change clothes, and went along to his own rooms to meet Hruther.

While he donned black, sculpted-Antioch-velvet braccae and a chainse of dark-red silk, Hruther summed up all the preparations under way in Mansion Belcrady. "I've suggested that bread and beer be taken to the stable for the men-at-arms and grooms."

"Will their supper be served there?" Rakoczy asked as he chose his huch of black Damascus silk shot with silver thread.

"If they request it," Hruther said. "Which is likely."

"Well done," Rakoczy approved, and continued his dressing. As he set his silver collar in place around his neck, his eclipse pectoral hanging at the middle of his chest, he remarked, "My appearance shows my respect for the Konige, as everyone in the household will be aware, including the spies."

"If we only knew beyond doubt who they are," said Hruther, running a comb through Rakoczy's hair. He nodded his satisfaction and went to open the door. "The envoy should be here shortly."

"Is Pacar ready?" Rakoczy asked as he locked the door.

"Probably. He was setting out trays and plates when I left him."

"Very good," Rakoczy approved.

The main hall was brightly lit, as was the entry hall. Barnon stood near the door in his most impressive garb, trying to appear at ease. He ducked his head to Rakoczy. "The Konige's envoy will bring honor to Mansion Belcrady."

"As the Konige herself has done," Rakoczy agreed.

"To be able to add to the Konig's departing gifts, and you no Bohemian." Barnon clasped his hands. "It is a fine thing for you."

"It is."

A cry went up from the warder's tower, Minek announcing the arrival of the Konige's lady-in-waiting and her escort. A few moments later the main gate swung open, and an enclosed carriage painted iris-blue and drawn by a pair of brown-and-white spotted horses came through, accompanied by two men-at-arms and two pages, all in bag-sleeved cotehardies with Otakar's lion blazoned on the chest of all four. Two grooms hurried from the stable to take the horses' heads.

Rakoczy opened the door and welcomed them all to Mansion Belcrady. He said to the escort, "My steward, Barnon, will take you and the wagon to where you will be given hospitality." With that, he pulled back the carriage door to assist Imbolya, offering her a French bow. "For the Konige's sake, you are welcome as her envoy." For the sake of his staff, he spoke in Bohemian.

Imbolya, in a bleihaut of turquoise wool over a high-necked chainse and wimple of rose-colored cotton, stepped down and courtisied him. "In the name of the Konige I thank you, Comes." She spoke in Magyar, then repeated herself in Bohemian, adding, "The Konige is grateful to you for your efforts on her behalf."

Rakoczy stood aside to allow her to enter the manse, where the household servants were gathered to make their greeting. Barnon went on his knee on behalf of the entire staff, then rose and clapped his hands to send the servants back to their work, and only Hruther remained in the entry hall. "May your stay here be pleasant." This time he spoke in Magyar.

"I'll tell the dear Royal how well I have been received." Imbolya looked at him with a suggestion of hope in her face.

"The servants would appreciate that."

"And you?" The playfulness she might feel was lost in the tentative note in her voice.

"Tell me when you leave how pleased you are, and I will take my satisfaction from that." He bowed to her. "If you will come with me to my workroom, we can begin to sort the jewels."

She looked a bit crestfallen. "Will it take long, do you think?"

His smile was gone almost as soon as it was begun, but there was no mistaking the anticipation in it. "That will depend entirely upon you."

Imbolya's demeanor lightened. "In that case, let us set to work at once, Comes."

Rakoczy signaled to Hruther. "If you will bring the tray of food and drink up to us as soon as it is prepared?"

"Of course, my master." He inclined his head, and was about to leave the entry hall, but paused. "Will our noble guest want hot wine?"

"I would," said Imbolya.

"Then, good lady, you shall have it," Hruther assured her with a bow as he left the room.

"If you will come with me, Royal envoy?" He said it loudly enough for anyone listening to hear. "I have a good selection from which you may choose; if they are not sufficient, there will be more tomorrow."

She followed his example. "I look forward to seeing what you have."

They went through the main hall and up the stairs beside the fireplace to the gallery, saying nothing so that they would not be overheard. Only when they were in the corridor leading to his workroom on the left and his private apartments on the right did she dare to speak. "I want to be sure we have the best matches possible. It may take some time."

"Whatever you wish," he said as he unlocked the workroom door and led her inside, where the fire was burning brightly and the room was pleasantly warm. He indicated the saddler's chair with the fur blanket thrown over it. "I think you will be comfortable there."

"I have good memories of that chair." She looked warily around the room. "We are alone?"

"We are. And when he has brought the tray for you, Hruther will keep guard." He smiled as he went to the trestle-table and took a small case of ivory and brought it to her. "For your inspection, while we wait."

She opened the lid of the box and gasped. "They're lovely," she said at last. "Is the count complete?"

"Very nearly. You may review them for yourself."

She turned the contents of the case into her lap and began studying the gems, putting them back in the ivory box as she reviewed each of them. "Four emeralds, all the size of a fingernail, all polished. Three peridots, the same. The Konige will be delighted. Four topazes, the color of butter. Four rubies. Four tourmalines. Two diamonds." She held them up in turn to the shine from the fire. "Excellent. And as large as pigeon's eggs. The Konige will be delighted." Picking up the white sapphires, she counted under her breath, "... eight, nine, ten. There's an eleventh!"

"In case there is any trouble setting one of them into the hand-grip," Rakoczy explained.

"Is there an eleventh tiger's-eye as well?" she asked, not bothering to count the stones.

"There will be, and for the same reason." He took the ivory case from her as soon as she had put the last of the tiger's-eyes in, closed it, and returned it to the trestle-table; he paused to open the casket of gems that stood at the other end of the table near the athanor. "I will leave this open, so that any servant who sees it will know that we have passed all our time together sorting jewels."

She laughed, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. "You are a very clever man, Comes."

He went and knelt next to the chair, pushing the jointed frame so that its back half-reclined. "I am glad we will have this time together."

"It will probably be our last. The new ladies-in-waiting will arrive shortly, and when their escort departs for Buda, I will have to go with them. I will be married soon, I believe. Married." It seemed that she was on the verge of weeping, but she made her face pleasant and managed not to cry. "So this will have to be enough to suffice for all my lifetime."

"Are you sure you will not come to love your husband?" He took her hand in his and kissed the palm; he was suddenly aware of how very young she was.

"I hope not, for he isn't apt to love me. My father is seeking alliances, not a lover for me, as Konig Bela did for the Konige. My duty is to have children, preferably sons, and to oversee my husband's estate when he is away from it. And to be virtuous, or appear so." She pulled her hand away from him and stared into the flames lapping at the logs in the fireplace; he saw the youth had gone from her eyes. "If I am fortunate, I will love my children."

Her desolation transfixed him, and he took her into his arms, encompassing her knees as well as her torso. "Imbolya, I am sad that you are so constrained."

"You're constrained, too," she said, and slipped out of his embrace as a tap sounded on the door.

"I have the tray," Hruther said. "If you will allow me to bring it in to you?"

Rakoczy got to his feet. "Yes; bring it in." He brought the low table nearer to the saddler's chair, where Imbolya was now sitting upright.

Hruther brought in the tray and set it on the low table. "For your delectation, Lady," he said, ducking his head and withdrawing.

"The wine is hot: would you like some?" Rakoczy inquired with great court-ship.

"I would," she said, looking at the large earthenware pitcher with its wispy crown of spice-scented steam. She reached for the green glass cup as soon as he filled it, her eyes bright. "You have wonderful wines."

"It may burn your lip," he warned her.

She put the cup down and shook her hand. "Yes."

He took a linen polishing towel from the end of the trestle-table and handed it to her. "Use this. It will keep you from being hurt."

"Thank you." She wrapped the linen around her glass, lifted it, and blew on the dark wine before attempting a little sip. "There's bread and cheese, too," she observed, needing to say something. She took a second sip, looking up at him as she did. "I wish you'd stop acting as if we were in the Konige's Court."

He came to her side again, laying his hand tranquilly on her arm. "When you are ready, we will seek your pleasure."

"I'm ready now," she said, putting the cup of wine down. "The food can wait, but I cannot."

"Then let me move the table away," he said, and went to pull the table back a full stride; the legs of the table made no sound on the magnificent carpet.

"Where are we going to lie?" She bent over and touched the carpet. "Here?"

"Not unless it would gratify you," said Rakoczy, coming back to her. "The chair will let you lie back, and I will kneel beside you."

She considered this. "That might work," she allowed. "But I suppose you know it will already."

"Yes," he said, and pressed on the side of the chair so that it rocked back. "You will be comfortable."

"And warm, too, when I get out of my clothes," she said, sitting up and turning away from him so he could loosen her laces. She unpinned her veil and removed her gorget, handing them to him. "Don't wrinkle them."

"I will not," he promised, and rose to hang the veil and gorget on pegs near the door. "If you will give me your bleihaut..."

She struggled out of the garment, muttering, "My hair must be a mess."

"With a little luck, you will have the chance to repair the damage before you go." He took her bleihaut and hung it on the largest peg, then waited for the chainse and her braccae.

"Are you sure your man can be trusted?" Her voice was low and a bit unsteady.

"With my ... life," he said, and took her chainse.

"Then I suppose I must rely upon him for my honor," she said, suddenly sounding very old and world-weary. She tossed her braccae to him.

As he caught them, he regarded her with concern. "What troubles you, Imbolya?"

It took her a little time to frame her answer. "I have realized that no other living man, not even the greatest hero, will ever please me as you have-and that you are something not entirely natural, not if you gain your pleasure as you do, through mine; you are like the heroes in songs. Perhaps you are an earthbound spirit, or perhaps an incubus, such as the troubadours sing."

He remained very still. "What makes you say that?" He hung up her braccae and came back to her side.

"You have taken my blood and nothing else, and only a little blood. You do not take my body with your flesh as most men would do, but you still have desire, and your desire fulfills mine. You seem to have no reflection: I saw you in front of the Konige's mirror in her Court and there was no sign of you in the glass that I could see. You have no fear of holy things, but you take no Communion. When you speak of your travels, it's hard to think you have gone so far in your life, if you look your age." She laughed sadly and held out her arms. "The stories of embodied pagan spirits are like the stories of the Saints, but opposite, violent, and goatish, yet you're kind beyond what is asked of any courtier. You may say that it's alchemy that gives you these qualities, but no other alchemist has ever been like you. You tell me about those of your blood, so you must be an elemental force in flesh or an earthbound spirit. If that is what I have in you, then I am satisfied. What is better for me than a lover who is not of this world?"

He returned to her side, his emotions in tumult, but his face revealing little of his consternation. "Would you like me to tell you if you're right?"

"No," she said. "Because then I would have to Confess it, and that would be dreadful for us both. Besides, if you tell me, then I will have to give up my imaginings, dangerous though they may be." She took his hands and pulled him close to her. "If I'm wrong, don't tell me. I prefer my illusion to whatever might be real, even though both are damnable. Take what you want of me, and let me have the ecstasy of your passion." Rising up in the chair, she kissed him with an intensity she had never shown before. Their kiss deepened and his hands moved over her slender body, inviting response and apolaustic joy; she clung to him, moving only to give him access to all of her body and to increase her passion. His esurience was made keen by her desire, and, when she achieved her ecstatic culmination, as his lips touched her throat, he succumbed to her fulfillment with rapture fully equal to hers.

Text of a report from Bartech of Tabor, Master Bricklayer in Praha, to Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes Santu-Germaniu, written in Church Latin by Frater Jedric, scribe at the Two Fishes Inn, and delivered by Guild messenger the day after it was written.

To the noble foreigner, Comes Santu-Germaniu at Mansion Belcrady, on this, the ninth day of March in the 1270th Year of Grace,

Most esteemed Comes,

We have in hand the plans for your new double-chimney for your bake- and bath-house. I agree that rats' nests will not so easily be made in flues of your proposed design. I also believe that the rats' nest where the fire began was not accidentally set alight. The bricks we have taken show that the rats' nest was touched with oil, or wax, and rats rarely take either of those things for their nests.

We will begin work as soon as the sum we agreed upon is in our hands, and we will work all days but Holy Days and during the Konig's departure celebration. I will bring eight men with me, and if the weather does not interfere, your chimneys should be finished within a month. If the weather works against us, we may need another ten days to finish the task.

Our work is guaranteed to last through storm, through snow, through rain, although we do not guarantee it will last if it is struck by lightning, or other manifestations of the Will of God.

It is the honor of the Bricklayers' Guild to serve you.

Bartech of Tabor

Master Bricklayer

(his mark)

by the hand of Frater Jedric, scribe