All of the uncanny snowfall was gone; blossoms showed edges of brown and rust as token of the late freeze, and the roads beyond the city walls were stiff with mud, but otherwise spring resumed as if there had hardly been any interruption at all; throughout Praha the markets were busy and the streets were full. As if to join in the city's activities, Vaclav Castle thrummed with excitement in anticipation of the May Festival. Six large wagons were laboring out the south gate toward the Konige's Field for the celebration that would be held the following day, all of them manned by servants and slaves whose task it was to set up the pavilions, fire-pits, lists, and stands for the grand occasion; the Konige watched their progress from the solarium at the top of her wing of the castle.

"Dear Royal," said Teca of Veszbrem from the solarium door.

"What is it, Teca?" the Konige asked without turning away from the open windows.

"Episcopus Fauvinel is waiting in your withdrawing room." She sounded so apologetic that Kunigunde blinked.

"Episcopus Fauvinel? Was I to expect him?"

"No, dear Royal. He said he was moved by the fervor of his office to seek you out to discuss what remedies your ladies might aspire to through penance to remove the peril of damnation that now hangs over us. The danger is real." Teca crossed herself, fear hidden in her eyes. "Csenge is still claiming that she has seen ghosts and fiends about her."

"Csenge herself may be possessed, and her accusations made at the instigation of the Devil," said the Konige, sounding tired; since Csenge had made her Confession, Kunigunde had been filled with anxiety for all her Court. That Csenge was Hungarian only made it worse, for there were those in Otakar's Court who would use Csenge's accusations as proof of the danger that having Hungarians in Praha created. "We must pray that God will restore her wits and bring her to His care again."

Teca shook her head as she crossed herself. "The Episcopus wants to examine all your ladies-in-waiting to be sure that none are-"

"I trust it will not have to come to that." The Konige closed her eyes for a long moment. "But I should settle the matter of how we are to proceed before the May Festival begins; otherwise the Episcopus may require that we not have it at all. There are those who think the late snowfall was a sign that God wants no merriment in time of war." She glanced at Teca and saw the distress in her eyes. "Have I put you in an awkward position?" she asked, and turned so that she could no longer gaze on the beautiful day.

Teca did not answer directly. "The Episcopus' welcome-tray is being brought, but he is..." She floundered for the right word, and shook her head.

"I know; ever since Csenge made her Confession about the Devil and demons and fallen angels and hobgoblins and imps and enchanters and incubuses, and witches and vampires and night hags, and whatever else-" She made herself stop her outburst. "I am sure the Episcopus is concerned for the safety of our souls."

Advertisement..

Crossing herself once more, Teca whispered, "Amen."

The Konige came to Teca's side. "Well, I suppose it is best to deal with him now. I want the May Festival to go splendidly." She smoothed the front of her dark-gold bleihaut and adjusted the hang on the gold pectoral crucifix that hung on a jewel-studded chain around her neck. "The May Festival will be over in three days, and the Episcopus may resume his hunt for all that is unholy."

Teca coughed gently. "Do you think he will insist that we burn anyone?"

"I'm sure he will tell me," said Konige Kunigunde, falling silent as she went behind Teca down the two narrow flights of stairs to the broad corridor that led to the three withdrawing rooms set behind the reception hall. "Who is attending to my daughters this morning?"

"Betrica and Gyongyi; Milica and Kustansze will replace them at mid-day. Iliska is Court messenger until mid-afternoon; she's in the ladies' withdrawing room."

"Very good," said the Konige automatically. She noticed a rat in the shadow of the main door. "It is time to order something done about the vermin again. They're everywhere and bolder than before."

"I will inform Cyrek that you have given the order," said Teca, frowning a little as she spoke the Bohemian under-steward's name, for it was well-known that he was one of the Konig's spies in the Konige's household.

"If you would," said the Konige, her voice remote. "I don't know how long I'll be with the Episcopus."

"No," Teca agreed.

"So you will supervise the nursery meal," said the Konige as she waited for Teca to open the door into the largest withdrawing room for her.

"Of course, dear Royal," said Teca as she courtisied the Konige, then opened the door for her.

Episcopus Fauvinel rose and blessed the Konige as she knelt to him. "May God smile upon you and upon the Kingdom of Bohemia," he intoned before he held out his hand to assist her to rise; on the table beside his chair the welcome-tray with its wine, bread, pickles, and cheese sat untouched. "I thank you for seeing me although I am unexpected."

"It is the least the Konige can do for the Church, Episcopus," said Kunigunde, feeling dispirited, anticipating the worst from this zealous man. She took her place in her chair, and nodded to the Episcopus to be seated. "I understand you want to discuss the Confession of Csenge of Somogy and what it may mean to the May Festival."

"That I do," said the Episcopus, and launched into the explication of his purpose in coming without an announcement of his arrival. "Csenge of Somogy's Confessions have continued much the way they began-she herself has not yet been attacked, or so she claims, but she fears that several of your ladies-in-waiting have become the abject servants of the forces of the Devil, and through them the whole of the Court is in danger. If her Confession is an honest one, your Court is at grave risk, dear Royal."

"So you have said," the Konige responded calmly. "Do you tell me that Csenge has added to her Confessions?"

"A great deal more," the Episcopus said with a nod. "She has recalled a night when she sat with Erzebet of Arad before she died, when Erzebet declared there were witches and devils gnawing her entrails, and that Csenge saw specters hovering over Erzebet, all of them with knives and spears in their hands, attacking the vitals of Erzebet. She fears now that Erzebet died from a malign spell." He paused to cross himself. "With all that she has claimed already, and the dangers she has revealed, I feel that it would be prudent to examine your women to see who among them is bound to the infernal beings that are the enemies of all that is good and holy."

"Have you any reason-beyond what Csenge has said-to think that my ladies-in-waiting have been corrupted by hellish-"

Episcopus Fauvinel held up his hand to silence the Konige. "We have yet to be certain that this has happened. It may be that the Devil has visited Csenge and filled her mind with visions of damnation and the denizens of Hell, so that the Devil might triumph over God in your Court, dear Royal, through the offices of a single woman who is possessed rather than the corruption of all of your ladies. You can see why I would like to investigate your ladies further than their Confessors have done." He pointed his hand at the Konige. "With Konig Otakar at war, it is apparent that we must be circumspect in all we do so as not to endanger anything that the Konig is undertaking in the field."

"I am agreed," said the Konige, keeping her manner accommodating, "but I would rather that we be allowed to have our May Festival before we subject my Court to your inquiries." She felt a sensation in her vitals, as if a serpent had coiled there and was starting to squeeze the breath from her body.

"Then we should be able to set the seal upon our agreement shortly." The Episcopus gave a smile of satisfaction. "You must know that I am concerned for the welfare of your Court, and the preservation of the souls of your daughters."

"They are very young for such worries," said Konige Kunigunde. "Agnethe is hardly more than half a year old, and Kinga is very much a child."

"All the more reason to take precautions," said the Episcopus. "They do not yet have the judgment that would keep them from becoming the servant of Satan. You know that children and women are especially susceptible to the workings of the Devil, and so must be diligent in preserving their souls from peril."

"There are monks and priests at Court. Their presence must count for something," said the Konige, trying not to bristle.

"Professions of faith do not keep the soul from falling into evil. Think of how readily the monks of Sante-Wisie succumbed to the temptations of the flesh so that not even imprisonment was sufficient to drive the Devil from their monastery, and they had to be burned to eradicate their iniquity."

The Konige paled. "That was twenty years ago, Episcopus. Since then the Church has been more vigilant in matters of monks, and errors such as the ones the Trinitarians committed at Sante-Wisie are now guarded against by authorities, such as yourself. Surely, with so many holy men to watch over them, you don't think that young children would become possessed by lust as the monks were? What child feels lust?"

"It is not what I may think, dear Royal," said the Episcopus smoothly, "it is what the Devil seeks to do to bring about the destruction of the world." He cleared his throat. "It would be well to encourage your courtiers to show their devotion to God and His Church with donations and public displays of penance, some of which could begin during your May Festival."

So that was the bargain the Episcopus was seeking, the Konige thought. "What kind of donations and public penance did you have in mind?"

"Those who are burdened in their souls could carry a cross around the Konige's Field, reciting such prayers as are determined to be appropriate to their sin; it would make all the Court aware of the demonic enticements that surround all men, and point them the way to a virtuous life." He held up his hand as he considered the matter, his eyes rolled upward as if he expected to see a revelation in the air above him. "I would think that four times around the Konige's Field, in homage to the four Evangelists, would provide a fine example, and one that would do much to expiate the sins in question. And those courtiers who want to improve their standing with the Church could make an offering of gold and silver-and jewels, of course. There is much virtue in giving donations to the Church." He looked around the withdrawing room, pointedly noticing its luxurious appointments. "The Court is a magnificent place, as befits the Kingdom of Bohemia and its wealth, but surely God, Who has given the wealth to Bohemia, deserves equal splendor."

Konige Kunigunde bit back a sharp retort, reminding herself that this man had it in his power to end the celebrations of spring and to impose severe self-abasement on all her courtiers. She took a deep breath. "It may be that there are some in my Court who would benefit from the penance you describe. And there may be some who may be moved to make donations to the Church in thanks to God for His smiling upon us."

The Episcopus nodded benignly. "Your ladies-in-waiting will have to be examined, but I will postpone that inquiry until the May Festival has ended. Unless I see there is too much licentious behavior among those attending."

"The penitents circling the Konige's Field should dampen the urge to debauchery," said the Konige more sharply than she had intended; the penitents would have a chilling effect on any revelry that might occur. With an effort she went on more humbly. "Your fears for my Court may be founded in the Confession of delusion, as you have already allowed, and it seems to me that had such excesses as Csenge has Confessed been occurring here, I must have known of it, yet I did not. I dislike having my ladies' honor impugned, and as Konige it falls to me to see any aspersions cast upon them are not allowed to stand unchallenged."

"That is your duty, yes," said the Episcopus, his geniality fading. "As it is mine to guard against all the depravity of Hell."

"You are most diligent in your task, Episcopus," said the Konige in a tone that might be construed as praise.

The Episcopus offered Kunigunde a faint smile of approval. "Then we are agreed-members of your Court who wish to make an act of penance tomorrow will be allowed to carry a cross around the limits of the Konige's Field for the purpose of acknowledging their sins and making an example for others to follow. I will attend the festival to monitor the penitents and to accept the donations of those courtiers who wish to contribute to the magnification of the Church in Bohemia. When the two days of the May Festival have concluded, you will arrange for your ladies-in-waiting to be questioned by me and four of my priests to determine whether or not the Confesssion of Csenge of Somogy is as she has described it." He stared at the Konige. "You are wise to comply, dear Royal, for it persuades me that whatever Deviltry may be going on among you ladies, you, yourself, have no part in it."

"For which I am grateful," said the Konige. "And I will be thankful to Heaven when my ladies all stand exonerated of all wickedness."

"May your faith in them be requited," said the Episcopus, standing and motioning to the Konige to kneel. "May God bless and keep you safe; may He smile upon you and your children, may you ever serve His Will, and may the Devil never ravage Bohemia."

"Amen," said the Konige, crossing herself.

The Episcopus nodded again. "I will leave you to make the necessary arrangements for tomorrow." He started toward the door, his crozier tapping on the rush-strewn floor. At the door he turned and regarded her fixedly. "God will surely look kindly on many penitents and on generous donations."

"I thought He might," said the Konige, her eyes downcast to conceal the flare of anger in them. The Episcopus would never make such demands if Otakar were still in Praha, she told herself, and schooled her temper so as not to give him cause to add further restrictions to her courtiers beyond what he had already imposed. As soon as the Episcopus was gone, she rose to her feet and raised her voice, summoning her page Albrech. "I must ask you to fetch Iliska of Szousa to me at once. I have a task for her."

"Yes, dear Royal; at once," the youth said, and ran off.

Alone, Konige Kunigunde paced her withdrawing room, trying to calm herself. She ran through her concerns in her thoughts: how am I to protect my ladies-in-waiting from the inspection by the Episcopus? What is it he wants of me? How am I to convince any of my courtiers to make public penance tomorrow? she asked herself. I would need at least a week to accomplish the task, and well the Episcopus knows it. She clapped her hands and called for another page: Bertik answered her summons. "I have a charge for you."

"Dear Royal," said the youngster. "Command me."

"Listen to what I say to Iliska of Szousa and then go to the stable and to the barracks."

"I will," said Bertik.

"May I come in, dear Royal?" Iliska asked from the door, Albrech at her side; she courtisied the Konige. "You have a task for me?" She glanced at Bertik, then gave her full attention to the Konige.

"I do," said the Konige. She motioned Iliska to approach her. "You are to call upon all of my Court who do not live within the walls of Vaclav Castle. You are to tell them that the Episcopus has set aside a part of the Konige's Field for a penitential procession. Any courtier who wishes to show the Episcopus the depth of his faith should present himself to the Episcopus after morning Mass. Any of my Court who can do so are asked to make a donation of gold or jewels for the churches of Praha, or to the Church itself. You are to ask a pledge from all of them, and, if all goes well, half of the courtiers will promise to do their part for the Episcopus." She felt her body clench as she gave this order. "The pages will know where all the Court outside the castle live, and the escort will protect your name and the reputation of the Court. Go and put on a grander bleihaut and be ready to enter your wagon by mid-day."

Iliska courtisied the Konige again. "I am ready to serve you in all things, dear Royal. You honor me with your trust."

"Then be about your duty, and my thanks for your service," said the Konige.

As she backed out of the withdrawing room, Iliska tried not to grin; she was being allowed to go beyond the castle walls, and to call upon courtiers in their homes, a prospect that delighted her; long days in the Konige's Court had left her yearning to be outside, if only for a few hours. To be received by all the Konige's courtiers would add to her satisfaction, for she would enjoy hospitality at some of the finest mansions in Praha, and that would include calling on Rakoczy. Her step was bouncy as she went down the narrow hall toward the room she shared with Milica of Olmutz.

"What's the cause of your light step, sister-mine?" Antal asked, stepping out of the shadows near the door to the Konige's Garden. He had been gaming with some of the Konige's Guards when the Episcopus made his visit, and had decided to seek out Iliska to learn more of what had transpired.

"I'm to be sent to give a message to all the courtiers outside the castle walls. All of them." She laughed.

"That makes you merry?" He shot a questioning glance in her direction, not trusting her to observe the dignity of the Konige's Court in such a frame of mind.

Her reply confirmed his worst suspicions. "That means I am to call at Mansion Belcrady."

"Does the Konige require that you go there, or can you send a page to him?"

Iliska spun toward her brother, all laughter gone from her demeanor. "No, I cannot send a page. My task is explicit. I must deliver the Konige's request in her stead, as her deputy, to all of her Court outside the castle." She glowered at him. "You will not tell me that I am to defy the Konige's commission, will you?"

"No," he admitted.

"Then I will go to Mansion Belcrady to deliver the Konige's requests, as I will go to all the others."

Antal sighed. "That's unfortunate."

"No, it's not," she declared. "It is the Konige's wishes. I know I shall do well in speaking with the Comes."

"You will say no more than the Konige demands, and you will not spend any time alone with him. You will have an escort, won't you?"

"Of course," she answered, lifting her chin and glaring at him.

"Then make sure one of the escort is with you at all times. I won't have you claiming he's compromised you or made you an offer in order to force a marriage upon him."

Her face paled. "I wouldn't stoop to such devices."

"You're lying, sister-mine."

"I am not," she insisted but with enough hesitation to give him cause to doubt her; she stamped her foot, her eyes snapping with annoyance. "Besides," she said more calmly, "his House is much older than ours and he has wealth enough to let us broaden our holdings. It would be a worthy gift to Szousa for him to add to our lands." She met his eyes boldly. "Who in our family would not want to extend our lands?"

Antal's face darkened and he took a step toward her, his fists clenched. "I've told you that you are not to fix your thoughts on him. He has a grand manner, no doubt, yet he's a poor connection for our House, for all his riches: he is an alchemist, and were he not under royal protection, he might well be in the hands of the Church. More to the point, however, his fief is controlled by Konig Bela to prevent the Comes from taking up the heir's cause, and that alone makes him ineligible as a husband for you. You will have to choose another, or have one chosen for you."

"I won't," she told him. "Of all the men I have met, he pleases me the most. I will not marry if I cannot marry him."

"But you will," Antal said, his voice suddenly smooth. "You will abandon all hope of him, or I will send you home."

"You can't," said Iliska, her defiance tinged with dread.

"I can. I have excellent cause if I decide to remove you. With Csenge of Somogy Confessing to dealing with the Devil, no one would fault me for taking you away from such dire influences as the Episcopus believes may be active in the Konige's Court. Do not think that anyone in our House would take your part, for no one will." He bowed to her. "So go about your mission, Iliska, but bear in mind that what becomes of you is wholly in your hands."

She would not deign to look at her brother. "So you tell me."

"You would be wise to listen," he said.

"Because you tell me so? Because you have already chosen a husband for me, but won't tell me who it is? Or are you still waiting for better offers?" She flung her accusations at him without apology.

"No-so that you may keep your reputation." He lifted his brows in surprise. "Of course I tell you. Our father doesn't wish to endow a nunnery for you, so marriage it will be, and not to some minor lord with small holdings and no influence."

"I know that," she said, carefully emphasizing each word.

"Our father will not let you throw yourself away on-"

"A nobody, I know. All the more reason to encourage me to fix Rakoczy's interest," she persisted.

"Not so long as he is an exile. His fief means nothing if Konig Bela will not allow him to live on it, and keeps him confined in Praha. If you continue to pursue him, he will have to be removed."

"Konig Bela has sent him here to the Konige's Court. You can't remove him," said Iliska, enjoying the satisfaction she got from besting her brother.

Antal shook his head. "Women are fools about men, and will be swayed, like Eve was, by honied words. See you do not bring about the fall of our House through your self-indulgence."

She wanted to scream at him, but she knew what that implacable note in his voice meant, so she ducked her head and turned away. "I must change. I can't do the Konige's business looking like a frump."

"It is only a matter of time before you will be betrothed. Keep that in mind, sister-mine."

She flounced down the corridor, not looking back; she was seething. How dare he! she thought. "He will not command me in this way," she said under her breath as she entered her room and found it empty. She opened the door again. "I need a 'tire-maid," she called out, and went to get out of her bleihaut.

Rusalka, one of four 'tire-maids assigned to the Konige's ladies-in-waiting, answered Iliska's summons, coming into the bedchamber just as Iliska dropped her bleihaut on the floor. "Lady? What am I to do for you?"

"Help me to dress, of course," Iliska snapped. "The Konige is sending me to deliver a message to all her courtiers living outside the castle walls, and I must present an appropriate appearance." She pointed to the bleihauts hung in the main garderobe; the odor from the vials of camphor-oil hung with the clothes was very strong in the room. "I will need some perfume, as well," she added, wrinkling her nose.

"Yes. But shall you choose your bleihaut first, and do you want to select another chainse?" Rusalka pointed the clothespress. "You have a pretty one in pale-blue silk."

"So I do," Iliska said. "Yes, all right. I'll change my chainse, too. And I think the white sculptured velvet bleihaut will do, with the blue veil and gorget." She began to smile, aware of how pale colors set off the golden-peach color of her skin.

"Then let me help you out of your chainse," said Rusalka. "I will help you to get into it in a moment." She went to the clothespress and lifted its lid. "Oh! There are mice in the press," she cried.

"There are mice in the pillows, if it comes to that," said Iliska. "And the Devil has sent a miasma of flies to the castle well, to plague us." She crossed herself.

"God between us and harm," said Rusalka, and made the sign of the cross for the whole chamber. "Pray that no harm comes from them."

"Let the Episcopus entreat God-it's what he does." Iliska was about to laugh but stifled the impulse as she saw the appalled expression on Rusalka's face. "Well, it is what he does."

"With all that Csenge of Somogy has Confessed, you would do well to be less light-hearted."

"And since you are a servant it would be well for you to be less impertinent." Iliska pulled her chainse over her head and handed it to Rusalka. "Give me the pale-blue one."

Rusalka ducked her head. "Yes, Lady."

"And find me those pearl-topped pins for the gorget." She glanced at the small mirror that hung on the garderobe. "At least the weather is improving. That's a relief."

"As you say, Lady," Rusalka murmured as she held out the chainse to Iliska, averting her eyes.

Iliska pulled the garment over her head and shifted it on her shoulders. "This should do," she approved. "The bleihaut."

Rusalka handed it to her. "I have the gorget and veil here as well."

"Lace me up," Iliska ordered.

"Yes, Lady," Rusalka muttered, and said nothing more.

"Tight enough to make my breasts swell," Iliska added, cupping her hands around them to move them into the preferred position. "Like this."

When Iliska was finished dressing, she turned to Rusalka. "While I'm gone put out my clothes for the May Festival. You know which things I want. And make sure you include perfume with my garments."

Rusalka nodded, but held her tongue.

"Pray for me," Iliska said to the 'tire-maid. "If I do the Konige's desire correctly, I will come out of it with a pledged husband." With this as a final announcement, she bounced off toward the door, humming in anticipation.

Text of a report to Rudolph von Hapsburg, Comes of Austria, from his most highly placed spy at the Konige's Court in Praha, written in code and delivered by private courier seventeen days after it was written.

To the most worthy Comes of Austria, Rudolph von Hapsburg, the faithful greetings of your servant at the Court of Kunigunde of Halicz, Konige of Bohemia, on this, the fifth day of May in the 1270th Year of Man's Salvation, by my own hand.

Most noble Comes,

As she has done in years past, the Konige celebrated the coming of spring with a May Festival, one that had to be postponed from the first or second day of May to the fourth and fifth days. I have just returned from the Konige's Field and before I retire to bed, I am taking my pen in hand to tell you of how the festival was kept this year. You may decide what significance the events may have.

As I informed you two weeks since, the Konige's lady-in-waiting, Csenge of Somogy, has Confessed that she has witnessed Devil's Rites practiced by the Konige's ladies, and that for her knowledge she has been tormented by imps and devils and other creatures of Hell. Because of these accusations, Episcopus Fauvinel has declared that he will examine the ladies-in-waiting to determine if Csenge's claims are those of virtue or those of possession, and to set the tone for what is to come, the Episcopus required that many courtiers make public penance by carrying a cross in much the same way that Our Lord did to His crucifixion, while reciting penitential Psalms. In all, twelve members of the Konige's Court made the four circuits the Episcopus had ordered. Their presence certainly reduced the gaiety of the festival. Not even the troubadours who were singing for the Konige's entertainment were able to infuse the usual delights into the courtiers, although it is fitting to say that only one of them made any serious effort.

The lists-usually filled with jousting-were used only little, and those knights who decided to show their skills were ordered to pledge whatever prizes they might be awarded to the Church. The few knights who did joust were displeased by this condition laid upon them, but none of them were so outraged that they refused to give their winnings to the Episcopus. It is said that a number of the men have sworn not to compete again next year unless they are allowed to keep their winnings, but the Konige has not been able-or perhaps has not been willing-to offer such an assurance. Some of the knights said they feared that Konig Otakar was trying to buy the favor of the Pope in his bid for becoming Holy Roman Emperor. While that may be true, I doubt it is the way the Episcopus views his requirements, for he made no mention of the Konig, only of the Konige. It may be that he is playing a subtle game, laying traps for Otakar's supporters, but he has never seemed so crafty to me; he is more a zealot than a schemer from all I have seen of him. But it may be that I am underestimating the depths of his contrivances.

Tomorrow the Episcopus begins his examination of the Konige's ladies-in-waiting, to determine how many of them the Devil has claimed for his own. The one lady excused from this process is Imbolya of Heves, who departs in two days to return to Hungary to prepare for her wedding. Her Confessor has said that she at no time exhibited the kinds of depravity that Csenge has claimed occurred, and while Imbolya admits to taking delights in the tales of the troubadours and the stories of marvels that are told in the marketplaces, she is cognizant that these are the inventions of clever men, not creations of God. So she will be gone and the Konige will once again lack a lady for her service. It will be up to Konig Bela to decide who among his noblewomen is to come to Praha to serve the Konige.

When there is more to impart, rest assured, revered Comes, I will again take up my pen so that you may be apprized of all that goes on in the Konige's Court in Vaclav Castle. If there is any way in which I might serve your interests further, I ask that you inform me in the same code with which this is written, in case that this or any other dispatch falls into unfriendly hands. Know that I pray for your victory morning and night, and that my dedication remains fixed on you and God.

Your secret servant