"Do you plan to venture outside the city?" Hruther asked Rakoczy in the language of Persia as they sat together in Rakoczy's workroom while the athanor produced another load of jewels; it was late afternoon and Holy Week was beginning, announced by the ringing of bells throughout all Praha.

"Not yet, and if I do, it will be limited to Otakar's park, as I have done before at the Konige's order. I think it would be best to wait to see what Konig Bela has to say about Konig Otakar's benevolence before testing the limits of what I may actually do." Rakoczy leaned back in his saddle-chair, his dark eyes enigmatic as he stared up at the ceiling. "No matter what I do, one of the Konigs is going to take umbrage."

"Which one can do you the most harm?" Hruther inquired; he had his own opinion, but he wanted to discover Rakoczy's thoughts on the matter.

"It is not a question of harming me, it is my fief that stands in the greatest danger, and Bela knows it." He rubbed his close-trimmed beard. "What I need to ascertain is some means of leaving Praha in such a way that neither Bela nor Otakar can hold it against-"

"The people of Santu-Germaniu," Hruther finished for him. He got up from the upholstered bench. "Do you think Konig Bela would relent and permit you to return to Santu-Germaniu? You have enriched the Konige with so many jewels, might not Konig Bela want some of the same bounty?"

"Probably not," said Rakoczy. "My ... heir will have to wait until Konig Bela dies to return to Santu-Germaniu." He had long since made a habit of leaving property and businesses and fortunes to himself in the form of a nephew or a cousin; in this instance the device was crucial, not simply convenient, and he had gone to great pains to make the succession secure. "My cousin will claim the fief when next I go there."

"Otakar holds you in high esteem just now, and for all he is away on campaign, his orders protect you. Konig Bela is the one who is in a position to do you harm," Hruther said, reflecting Rakoczy's understanding. "He, and the French Episcopus."

"So the city walls are still my prison, because Konig Bela would exact a higher price for my venturing beyond the city than Otakar would," said Rakoczy as if confirming something he already knew.

Hruther studied Rakoczy, his long years of serving him giving him insight into Rakoczy's behavior. "My master, you have done as much as any man in Bohemia to support the Konige and her Court, as her grandfather ordered you to do. You have shown no favor to the Konig Bela's heir, for all that he rules in Transylvania, nor have you allied yourself with the Hapsburg interests. You have not looked beyond the Carpathians for alliances to the east. You have not taken part in any rebellion against Konig Bela. Your service to Konige Kunigunde is beyond any question. If you were to take a day to go into the countryside to evaluate the extent of the flood damage, how could Konig Bela possibly object, since it would be in service to the Konige as well as to Otakar? You are doing what you would do for your own fief if such misfortune befell it. If you took one of the Hungarians from the Konige's Court, Bela would never regard that as a breach of your exile."

"If it suited his purposes, he would," Rakoczy said, unmoving.

"You won't make the attempt?"

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"Not yet," said Rakoczy. "It is too much risk."

"Do not despair," Hruther said bracingly, his ascetical features lighting with sympathy. "You will find the means to leave here."

"And go where?" Rakoczy shook his head. "I could not return to Santu-Germaniu without bringing Konig Bela's or his heir's wrath upon my fief. I would have to get away unnoticed and find a place where I could remain untouched and unknown for as long as Konig Bela lives, and hope that Bela's suspicions are not shared by his son." For a short while he said nothing more. "If Konig Bela offered sufficient reward, I might have to go back to China to be safe." He chuckled sadly to show he knew that was not possible with the descendants of Jenghiz Khan spreading from China to Baghdad.

"Where would you go?-if you could leave here without hazard?" Hruther inquired, hoping to turn Rakoczy's mind to more energetic cogitation. "Constantinople? Alexandria?"

Rakoczy considered his answer for a moment, then said lowly, "The Pays d'Oc would be a possibility. Perhaps Lisboa. Grodno might be a safe place for a few years. So might Bruges, or Uppsala, or Novgorod, as long as we are beyond the reach of Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire, and so long as my vassals are not held to account on my behalf."

"Then you think Otakar will become Emperor," said Hruther.

"He may, but if he does, it will be hard-won. He has done much to expand Bohemian territories, but that has created spite in many of those rulers around him who have lost ground to him. They will not be likely to support him, and that could end his chances." Rakoczy sighed. "Where would you like to go, old friend, assuming we find some means to leave here safely?"

"I?" Hruther looked startled. "Roskilde, or if that is too near the Holy Roman Empire, then Opslo or Aberffraw, or perhaps London, at least for ten years or until Konig Bela is no longer a threat. His heir has little reason to continue to hold your fief and vassals hostage."

"He may decide he does," said Rakoczy.

Hruther shrugged. "He would do better reclaiming Hungarian territory from Otakar if he wishes to strengthen Hungary."

"I worry for Balint. It would be poor return for good service to have him taken prisoner by Konig Bela as a means of forcing my hand." He paused, sinking into thought. "If I knew what Konige Kunigunde has told her grandfather in my regard, I would be more able to decide."

"Would she be likely to tell you what she has said in her reports?" Hruther asked, anticipating the answer. "No, I suppose not."

"No," Rakoczy agreed.

"This is an impasse for you," Hruther said, concern showing in his faded-blue eyes.

"True enough, but there should be a way to work through it, given enough time." He sat up, his face shadowed. "I wish I knew how matters stand at Santu-Germaniu. It would ease my mind."

"Assuming Konig Bela has upheld his pledge."

"It remains my hope that he is too caught up in war to turn all his attention to a place like my fief." Getting to his feet, Rakoczy began to pace, his black huch and red chainse swinging with the energy of his movements.

"Bela is still at war with Otakar."

"And Bela is no longer a young man. He is not in a position to squander his army or his own resources," Rakoczy said. He stopped. "I am summoned to the Konige at sunset. I should choose a suitable gift."

"Gems for Easter." Hruther recognized that Rakoczy would not discuss the predicament any further for the present. He nodded. "I'll lay out something for you."

"Thank you." Rakoczy went to his coffer, opening the bands and tipping back the lid.

"Do you want to bathe?"

"Yes, but I had better not. Barnon has already commented on my bathing, and I do not know whose spy he is, or what he makes of my preoccupation with cleanliness." Rakoczy stood still. "I loathe this sense of bitterness I feel, and there is little to alleviate it." He shook his head, but went on, "It is as blighting as frost on blossoms, and it takes away from so much that could be affirmative, or revivifying, like the return of spring. But it lingers, like a slow poison."

"My master," said Hruther with stern sympathy.

"We will have to leave here, I know, before it numbs me to all joy." That had happened in the past, and the memories still rankled within him.

"If it does, you will thaw: you have before," Hruther reminded him.

"Oh, yes," he said quietly. "In time."

Hurther closed the door and went to set out Court clothing for Rakoczy. He had seen the Comes in morose moods before, but he had not been aware in the past of the degree of revulsion he sensed now, and it troubled him. The trials they had endured in India were still sharp in his memory, and he thought that Rakoczy had not yet put them entirely behind him. Perhaps he felt echoes of Tamasrajasi in some of the women he encountered, and had failed to find the intimacy that was so necessary to him. As he took the black-velvet huch and the pearl-white silk chainse from the garderobe, he considered what he might do to make Rakoczy's escape possible. He was choosing between black Damascus silk and fine, black Florentine woolen braccae when the door opened and Rakoczy stepped in.

"I am glad you are still here," he said to Hruther. "I want to ask your pardon for my fit of saturnine self-indulgence." His smile faded as soon as it appeared.

"You have nothing to apologize for, my master."

"Not for someone who has the luxury of time that I do," said Rakoczy bluntly. "I ought not to forget that everything passes. As much as I may rail against my circumstances, they will not last."

"As you remind me, there is no certainty that you will survive." He sat down on the straight-backed chair.

"But I have three millennia behind me. My patience should be greater," said Rakoczy levelly. "So I ask your pardon, and I hope you will not be appalled by my outburst."

Hruther did not smile but there was a change in his austere features, an easing that showed around his eyes and mouth. "You are more bound to life than I am; it doesn't surprise me when there is a price for that bond." He stopped any more conversation by asking, "Would you like me to help you to dress?"

"I will manage, thank you, old friend."

"Then I will tell Illes to saddle which horse for you?"

"Asza. As I recall, she is not in season just yet; the Konige would not be pleased that I would bring to her stable if Asza is."

"It would keep the grooms busy," said Hruther with a suggestion of a grin. "She will be ready, or Phanos, if Illes thinks it best."

"A fine choice," said Rakoczy as Hruther left him to his preparations.

Phanos was saddled and bridled and ready, waiting near the horse-trough, his reins in Illes' hands. Rakoczy patted the gray gelding on his neck, tested the girth, and swung up into the high-backed saddle. "Thank you," he said, tossing a silver coin to him. "He will have earned a good brushing when I come back. What of Asza?"

"Asza is turned out in the paddock for the day. She was kicking at her stall."

"I wish we could settle on a stallion for her," Rakoczy said as he gathered up the reins. "Maiden mares feel their blood more keenly than those who have had foals." With a nudge from Rakoczy's heels, Phanos started for the gate.

The streets were busy but not so crowded that making his way through them was impossible. At Mansion Czernin a group of noble pilgrims had just arrived, and the confusion at the gate slowed Rakoczy's progress through the gates of Castle Vaclav. Leaving his horse with stable grooms, he went toward the Konige's part of the huge stone building. Pages escorted him to the Konige's Court, and her herald announced him.

He approached the tall, gold-plated chair where Konige Kunigunde sat, resplendent as a sunrise in a bleihaut of red silk embroidered with gold and silver thread. For Holy Week, she wore a gem-studded gold crucifix larger than her hand on a heavy chain around her neck; beside her, the Episcopus glittered with rubies and garnets on his white-silk vestments. Rakoczy knelt and held up a pouch of figured velvet. "May God grant you and your children His Mercy at this sacred time, dear Royal."

One of the Konige's pages took the pouch and carried it to her, kneeling as he did.

Konige Kunigunde opened the pouch and poured a scintillating cascade into her lap, the look of disinterest fading as the jewels streamed through her fingers. "Gracious, Comes," she exclaimed. "How many!" She picked up an emerald the size of the end of her thumb, holding it up to the light from a tree of candles set up behind her. Putting the emerald down, she chose an opal to inspect. "This is lavish, even for you."

Rakoczy studied her. "With the Konig gone, I had hoped to provide you and your daughters with a pleasant distraction."

"Most generous," she exclaimed with a faltering smile, motioning him to rise.

"If this brings you joy, dear Royal, I am more than rewarded." He took a step back and gave a deep French bow to her.

As if it were an afterthought, she added, "If you have had word from your fief's steward, I would be glad to hear what has been said." She sounded only mildly interested but there was a need in her eyes that held his attention.

"When you like, dear Royal. I will be here until the meal is served." He moved aside, puzzled by the intensity he had felt from the Konige. What had she heard that she was so overstrung?

"How do you contrive to keep giving her such fine gems?" Rakoczy swung around to see Rozsa of Borsod coming up to him, her feline smile widening. "I would be jealous if she were not the Konige."

"Jewels are expected of me; presenting them is my duty," said Rakoczy, inclining his head respectfully; he looked to see if Imbolya was in the room, but he caught no sight of her.

"A half-dozen perhaps," Rozsa said. "But you bring them by the peck." She smoothed the front of her burnt-umber bleihaut, subtly emphasizing her pregnancy. "Have you kept yourself amused during my absence? Or need I ask?"

Rakoczy did not answer her question; his manner remained affable. "You look well, Rozsa. I trust your child thrives."

"He grows," said Rozsa, a flash of anger in her eyes. "You appear much the same as you were."

"Did you suppose it would be otherwise?" He made sure there was an arm's-length of distance between them, certain they were being watched.

"I had hoped you might have languished without me." She looked away to hide the spite in her face. "But men do not languish, do they? no matter what the troubadours sing."

Rakoczy would not be dragged into the wrangle Rozsa so clearly wanted. "Troubadours tell what their listeners want to hear."

"So you believe that I-"

He held up his hand. "The Konige would not approve our talking together in this way. It draws undue interest to our conversation."

"She isn't paying any attention, not to us or anyone else," Rozsa snapped, but she turned away from him, saying softly as she did, "Would you like to meet again, as we have done in days past? I haven't forgotten the hours we spent together."

"Not while you are with child," he said in an undervoice, watching the men and women milling around them.

"My pregnancy repels you?" Her question was a furious whisper.

"This is not a prudent discussion for this place."

"Spies. I know. We will talk later," she said, her brows angling into a frown. Abruptly she walked away from him, going toward Pan Kolowrat Atenaze, who was entertaining Betrica of Eger with a display of amateurish juggling.

The Angelus bell began to toll, first from the bell-tower of Castle Vaclav, because the Episcopus was attending Court, then from the churches of Praha. Episcopus Fauvinel rose and pronounced the blessing for Holy Week while the Court knelt. This was followed almost at once by Sant-Boleslav's carillon ringing the anthem Vinea Mea Electa, the mournful notes darkening with the day; while the bells rang, conversation in the Konige's Court was subdued, and only after the last peal had echoed away did the reception hall begin to seethe with words and the courtiers to circulate through the hall.

When the Episcopus had moved from his place beside Kunigunde, Rakoczy was summoned to the Konige once again; she had left her throne and was standing in the largest of the window embrasures, her unguarded expression filled with aching, a look that vanished as soon as she realized she was no longer unobserved.

"Dear Royal." Rakoczy was about to drop to his knee, but she motioned to him to remain standing.

"Comes," she said without inflection of any kind.

"How may I serve you, dear Royal?" He saw that she was still troubled.

"What have you heard from your steward in the last month? What has he to say of my brother?"

"I have heard nothing from Balint, which has caused me some worry. I hope it may only mean that the courier was delayed by the floods."

"Yes," the Konige murmured. "The floods. I, too, have had only scant news of my grandfather."

"Do you have a particular fear, dear Royal?" He knew it would be folly to press her, but he shared her anxiety.

"Only a rumor. As such, it means very little, as rumors so often do. I should probably pay it no notice." She forced a smile. "No doubt both of our concerns will prove baseless by the time May comes and our reports reach us at last." For a long moment, she remained quiet, then said forlornly, "It's just that my grandfather is old and my brother hates him so."

It took Rakoczy an instant to form a response. "That has been the case for several years, dear Royal, and the rumors that filled the Court of coming war or open confrontation meant nothing. Your brother has not raised an army in spite of his threats, nor is he likely to."

"Thus far," said Kunigunde. "If my husband did not war with my grandfather, I would not be troubled by my brother's malice, but as it is-" She stopped herself from saying more.

"It is a hard circumstance for you, dear Royal," Rakoczy said with genuine sympathy.

She did not seem to hear him. "I was supposed to prevent the war. That's why the marriage was arranged, so that Hungary and Bohemia would not go to war, and so that the Hapsburgs in Austria could be contained between them. I was the assurance of peace! How could they have gone to war? Why did God turn against me?"

Rakoczy regarded her solemnly. "Their war is no fault of yours, dear Royal. You do yourself a disservice to think so."

"The Episcopus tells me that if I had had sons and not daughters the war would not have happened." She crossed herself; her eyes shone with tears. "God has not heard me."

"Why would anyone assume sons would have brought peace, when your own brother is prepared to take as much of an army as he can raise against your grandfather? Are not daughters more useful than sons?" Rakoczy saw a flicker of something in her face that suggested the Konige was distressed for her children. "They will surely find worthy husbands, and do so without war."

The Konige sighed. "May they succeed where I have failed," she said with more emotion than she usually revealed. She put her hands to her temples, her eyes closing. "My head hurts."

Rakoczy signaled to one of the pages. "Would you fetch one of the Konige's ladies?"

The boy ducked his head and hurried into the crowd to find the nearest lady-in-waiting. He reappeared with Iliska of Szousa trailing after him.

Iliska gave Rakoczy a speculative smile as she courtisied the Konige. "Command me, dear Royal."

Konige Kunigunde blinked. "I need to be alone for a short while," she collected herself enough to say. "Take me to my apartments. I will be better soon."

"Of course, dear Royal," said Iliska, looking at Rakoczy as she spoke, measuring him with her eyes. "I will find you to tell you the Konige is ... is improved. I will stay with her until she is." She offered her arm for the Konige to lean on, patting her hand gently. "You'll be more yourself in a little while, dear Royal."

The Court parted to permit the Konige and Iliska to pass, the departure marked by a susurrus of inquisitive whispers. At the door, the Konige turned and said, "I will join you when you go to eat. Until then, you may amuse yourselves as you think best."

Feeling uncomfortable from the notice he was attracting, Rakoczy soon found an excuse to depart. He reclaimed Phanos at the stable, mounted, and left the central courtyard by the main gate, letting the gelding pick his pace down the hill to Mansion Belcrady. A luminous light in the west was fading as night closed in, and the town was shut up for the night, households devoting the evening to simple food and prayer.

"You are returned early," Minek remarked as he opened the gate for Rakoczy.

"That I am," Rakoczy agreed, dismounting and looking about for Illes; the wavering torchlight emphasized the darkness and turned Illes' approach into a flickering apparition. Although Rakoczy's night-seeing eyes were not deceived, the impression was a disquieting one.

"I have warm mash for him, Comes," he said as he took the reins to lead the gelding away.

"Good. And some olive oil with the mash; he is shedding, and the oil will help him to be rid of the hair."

"As you wish, Comes," Illes promised, clucking at Phanos.

Barnon admitted Rakoczy to the entry hall. "It is good to have you home, Comes."

"Thank you, Barnon." He noticed that Barnon was trembling. "Are you well?"

"Yes. But I am cold," he said.

Relief went through Rakoczy like a gust of wind. "Then have Kornemon stoke the fireplaces and set the fires. There is no reason for you to be so chilled." He went into the main hall, pointing to the hearth. "The Episcopus has not banned heat for Holy Week. You need not hesitate to light the fire."

"Yes, Comes. Thank you for that." Barnon ducked his head more respectfully than he usually did. "The household will be glad."

"There's no point for you to have to huddle around the spits in the kitchen to keep from succumbing to cold." Rakoczy went toward the staircase. "Is Hruther in my workroom?"

"I don't know," Barnon answered.

"Um," said Rakoczy, to make it plain that he had understood, as he continued upward, his thoughts in a tangle and his worries multiplying with every step.

Text of a letter from Antal of Szousa in Praha to his uncle, Szygosmund, Comes of Czongrad, at Konig Bela's Court in Buda, Hungary, dictated to Pader Bedo, Premonstratensian scribe and Court clerk, carried by private courier and delivered twenty-three days after it was written.

To the most respected and esteemed leader of our family, Szygosmund, Comes of Czongrad, the duteous greetings from your nephew, Antal of Szousa, at the Court of Konige Kunigunde in Praha:

My venerable uncle,

I have, at your request, been at pains since arriving here to be vigilant in the care of my sister, Iliska, serving Konige Kunigunde as a waiting-woman, and to seek out likely husbands for her, a task that has been made more difficult than either of us anticipated with the Konig away at war with most of his Court accompanying him. There are men at Court, but not many of them offer the kind of alliance that would improve our family and increase its holdings.

One of the men at the Konige's Court is a Transylvanian Comes, Comes Santu-Germaniu, who is formidably wealthy, but who is here under terms of exile. Apparently he is unmarried, about forty, judging by his appearance. There are those who say that he is actually a spy for Konig Bela, and others who say that he is an ally of Konig Bela's heir. In either case, he would be a poor bargain for us to make. Unfortunately, my sister has become fascinated with him, either because of his elegance or his fortune, but neither of those things will serve to advance our family, so I am doing what I can to discourage Iliska from setting her hopes upon him. She may be a willful girl, but she knows what she owes to the House and to her blood. I am confident that she will turn her thoughts to more appropriate noblemen than this discredited Comes.

Now that Easter is over by a day, the Court is preparing for the Konige's May Festival. There will be jousting and feasting and as many kinds of competition as can be possible in a Court so lacking in suitable men. I've granted Iliska the right to wear the gold necklaces you have entrusted to me for her adornment, and I will let her wear the pearl earrings. She has appropriate bleihauts for all Court functions, of course, but I am mindful of your recommendation that she not be encouraged to make too great a display, not only to keep her from the envy of the Konige's other ladies, but to depress the greed of potential suitors.

The Konige herself is well, if a bit downcast by the absence of the Konig. She and her daughters are surrounded by all manner of entertainments, and although Agnethe of Bohemia is still a babe-in-arms, she is not a difficult child, and she has taken a liking to Iliska, so Iliska has been much assigned the task of looking after her, which should benefit her while she remains at Court.

We have heard rumors here that Konig Bela is unwell. Two cloth merchants from Bologna have arrived here bringing news that he is not in the field yet, although Konig Otakar's armies have been on the move for three weeks and more. One of the men said that he had heard that Bela's heir had hired an assassin to poison him, but the other said that was a baseless tale. Whatever the case may be, I ask you to let us know as soon as you receive this, what the condition of Konig Bela's health may be. For the sake of Konige Kunigunde as well as Bela's courtiers here in Praha, such information may prove crucial in days to come.

Never doubt that I have the welfare of our House always foremost in my thoughts, and with God's help, I will serve the family honorably. You may be confident that I will continue, as long as God grants me life, to protect and promote the good of our House and the heritage we will bequeath to those who come after us.

Antal of Szousa

(his mark)

By the hand of Pader Bedo, Premonstratensian clerk and scribe to the Court of Konige Kunigunde of Bohemia at Praha the 20th day of April in the 1270th Year of Man's Salvation.