"Estephe is not in the household today," said Hruther in Visigothic Spanish as he entered Rakoczy's workroom on a warm afternoon three days after the Konige's May Festival. "Barnon says he left last evening and hasn't returned."
"Where was he bound when he left-do we know?" Rakoczy asked, looking up from a large, leather-bound volume with Res Naturae stamped in gold on its cover and its spine; he was wearing a black-silk gambeson of Hungarian cut over braccae of black leather, much simpler than anything he would be seen in outside the gates of Mansion Belcrady.
"Barnon says that Estephe told him he was going to church; he didn't mention which one." There was a note of doubt in his voice. He glanced toward the open windows. "The glaziers are busy in the main hall."
"I can hear them; they have promised to be finished in another four days," said Rakoczy, and closed the book. "Is Barnon worried?"
Hruther nodded. "When he told me of it, he was troubled. He says that he fears the Church has detained Estephe, if he truly went to church, that, or he has gone to inform upon you, but whether to the Council or the Church he didn't venture to say." He noticed the disassembled Roman saw-clock spread out on the trestle-table, and recognized it as the sign of frustration it was. "I don't think it would be prudent to make a close inquiry for him."
"No doubt: it would be seen as an upset or a concession, and either way, there may be trouble. I trust we can deal with it, old friend." Rakoczy sighed.
"Then you do share Barnon's vexations," said Hruther.
"I believe that Estephe's absence could mean ... difficulties," Rakoczy admitted, a rueful smile tweaking the corners of his mouth and then fading. "If he has not returned by nightfall, I suppose I will have to make an inquiry through the Konige's steward, since it would be considered suspect for me-or anyone else in the household-to seek him out directly."
"Is there something you'd like me to do in the meantime? Do you have anyone you could tell to look for him without exposing yourself to risks? Are there preparations we should make?" Hruther asked, adding, when Rakoczy volunteered nothing, "I could send one of the household to ask for him at the Hive and Bees. It would be a start, and one that no one would think strange."
Rakoczy considered this. "Not yet, I think," he answered slowly. "If there is no trouble beyond his being out for the night, then ... We do not want to create misgivings where none exist."
"This might have nothing to do with you. He might have run away from the household. He might have been set upon by street toughs. He may have accepted other employment, to avoid being in a foreigner's household," said Hruther.
"If he has been set upon, we will hear of it soon enough," said Rakoczy, his manner remote-another sign that Hruther recognized for the anxiety it was. "If he has run away, that may be less easily found out."
"But you can do so, can't you?" said Hruther. "Without increasing your exposure to the malice of others."
"If no one forces my hand, it should be possible," Rakoczy conceded.
"When are you next bidden to the Konige's Court?"
"Tomorrow after Mass; that gives a little time to decide upon a way to discover what has happened to Estephe and what it can mean for us. If I must rely upon the Konige to address the matter, then there are apt to be more questions than any of us would like," said Rakoczy. "Still, the Konige does feel some little obligation to me, and I have another two pouches of jewels to present to the Konige and her children tomorrow."
"Does that strike you as excessive? The Konige has increased her requests again, hasn't she?" Hruther watched him while he answered.
"Not from her view of the matter; she is adding to the riches of her daughters, which will give them fortunes of their own. I know she fears she and they may be in danger," said Rakoczy. "She's fretting about the lack of news from Konig Otakar, and adding to her display gives the Court the appearance of confidence of victory."
Hruther nodded. "And how convenient that the display costs the Konige nothing."
"I wonder," said Rakoczy. He started ruminatively at the athanor at the far end of the room. "She is far from ... content."
"The wealthiest Konige in Europe is discontented." Hruther took a long moment to mull over Rakoczy's remark. "It is most unfortunate for her if she is. There are rumors that the Konig was not her first choice for a husband."
"There are always such rumors about Koniges, for most of their alliances are for political ends," Rakoczy said, then added, "But that does not mean that they might not be true of her. She has the air of loss about her."
"She is far from her home and her husband is at war with her grandfather." Hruther hitched up his shoulders. "Not an easy course for any woman."
Rakoczy raised his fine brows. "Did you see what the Episcopus made of her May Festival?"
Because he was worried, Hruther exclaimed, "That one!"
"He enjoys having power over the Konige," said Rakoczy.
"That he does. He enjoys having power over everyone." Hruther turned to Rakoczy, wanting to shift the subject. "Some of the servants are complaining about the taste of the well-water again."
"Let them complain-at least they will not spend the spring infested with the animacules that bring flux and fever," said Rakoczy, recalling the time, long ago in Egypt, when he learned to treat well-water to prevent flux in spring.
"They might be more inclined to accept what you add to the water if they thought it held off demons and suppressed miasmas." Hruther waited a long moment before he asked, "Have you decided how we are to leave, my master?"
"Not yet," Rakoczy admitted. "Since nothing has changed, I am still powerless to act without endangering my fief. I cannot put Santu-Germaniu at risk. Konig Bela has not yet relented toward me in any way; he has not looked kindly on anything I do here. That is what causes me to hesitate."
"Is it possible that Konig Bela might have already ordered his troops into your fief? You haven't had a report from Balint in some time, and Bela's heir might be troublesome again." He saw Rakoczy nod. "Do you think that Istvan could have done something that made Konig Bela to forget his pledge to you when he sent you into exile here?"
"It would be unlike Konig Bela to act against his promise-one made in writing and witnessed by his Confessor," said Rakoczy but with an expression in his eyes that ran counter to his words.
"Konig Bela has had to fight Otakar to the west. Who knows what his heir has done to the east? Mightn't that give Bela the excuse he seeks to claim Santu-Germaniu, to hold Istvan in check? Is there any way you can discover what has transpired at your estates?"
"Not that is beyond suborning," said Rakoczy.
Hruther coughed. "One day you will have to deal with him, I suppose-Istvan."
"Perhaps," said Rakoczy.
Hruther brought his thoughts under control and gave Rakoczy his full attention. "What is it? What makes you so indefinite?"
Rakoczy shook his head. "I do not have all the information I need, and so long as Konig Bela reigns, there is little I can do that will not bring misfortune to me and my vassals. Istvan has a hormetic character, and will not readily abandon his ambitions, not with his father growing old." He began to pace.
"Do you think you could enlist the enemies of Hungary to help you?" Hruther asked. "There are other fiefholders who are in a similar position to yours-"
Rakoczy shook his head. "No; that game is too mercurial for me; too many allies could become foes in an instant, leaving me and Santu-Germaniu to carry the burden of treason."
"Have you no other means of preserving Santu-Germaniu beyond this ... this exile?" He permitted his frustration to show and offered no apology for it.
"If we could provide an acceptable reason for leaving, then I would use it, and go far from Hungary and Bohemia, but Konig Bela wants me here, and the Konige is pleased with my service to her, so if we leave, we will be doubly hunted."
"That's happened before," said Hruther. "Think what we've discussed before and consider if it might be worth addressing Konig Bela directly."
"Not with Santu-Germaniu in the balance," said Rakoczy. "That is what troubles me more than-" He broke off as there was a knock on the door. "Yes?" he called in Bohemian.
"It is Barnon, Comes. Counselor Smiricti is below, wanting to talk with you. He tells me it is urgent."
There was a hesitance in his voice that Rakoczy found puzzling, but which he attributed to his own sense of oppression. "Ask him to wait for me in the larger withdrawing room. I will be with him directly." He turned to Hruther. "I will do what I can to find out if he has information about Estephe. Then we can decide how to go on."
"Yes, my master," said Hruther, his faded-blue eyes clouded with dubiety.
Rakoczy nodded, then went toward the door. "Do you think I should change, or will this do to receive him?"
"Tell him you are making more jewels and he wouldn't mind if you wore sacking," said Hruther drily.
"Very likely," said Rakoczy, and let himself out of the workroom. He went down the corridor to the stairs, doing his utmost to calm his thoughts; if Counselor Smiricti had come unannounced, the reason, he told himself, need not be minatory; there were many reasons the Counselor might call at Mansion Belcrady. He descended to the main hall, where the glaziers were busy putting the stained-glass windows into place and adding inner sills to help hold them. He nodded to the men as he crossed the room to where Counselor Smiricti waited.
It being now officially spring, the Counselor was wearing a tan huch of linen twill lined in samite, over a chainse of pale linen; his braccae were of a wool-and-linen blend the color of iris, and his hat was like a soft mushroom in shape and hue. He caught sight of Rakoczy approaching and got to his feet. "Comes. I thank you for seeing me."
"It is I who should thank you, I suspect," said Rakoczy, his manner somber and cordial at once. "I trust Barnon has sent for a welcome-tray for you."
"It doesn't matter," said Smiricti, dismissing this courtesy with a wave of his hand.
"But it should," said Rakoczy, and was about to summon Barnon to ask why the welcome-tray had not been presented when Smiricti went on.
"The City Guards found your man Estephe this morning. He was unconscious so they took him to the monks at Sante-Natike, where he regained consciousness a short while ago. When the monks learned whose servant he is, they sent word to the Council Court, and I have come to you to tell you of his ... misfortune." He clasped his hands together nervously, not meeting Rakoczy's steady gaze. "He is badly bruised and the monks say his shoulder is broken, and that he has a damaged head."
Rakoczy heard him out in silence, and when Smiricti stopped talking, he inquired, "Did he say who had hurt him, or why?"
"He said only that he remembers meeting some men near Mansion Belcrady who invited him to come with them to the Hive and Bees for dicing and drink. He decided to go with them because they seemed like pleasant fellows. Beyond that he knows nothing. He has become confused." Smiricti sat down as if having imparted this news had left him enervated.
"Did you speak to Estephe?" Rakoczy asked.
"No; the monks did and two of them came to inform me of what they had learned. They are praying for him, that he may recover his wits." He paused. "If Estephe had any money with him when he left here, it's gone now."
"Hardly surprising," said Rakoczy with a fatalistic nod. "Is Estephe still at Sante-Natike?"
"As far as I know. They said nothing about allowing him to depart in his present condition." He coughed; it was a nervous sound. "The monks said he was in no condition to walk, being unable to keep his balance when he is on his feet." Then he cocked his chin toward the main hall. "Your windows are finally being installed, I see. Very grand."
"Yes. I will have clear glass put in upstairs." Rakoczy made a puzzled frown. "Where did the City Guards find Estephe: do you know?"
"Near the Sante-Agnethe fountain, or so the monks told me." Smiricti tugged at the lobe of his large ear. "I haven't spoken with the Guards who came upon him, but I will, if it would gratify you."
"I would like to speak to Estephe myself," said Rakoczy, his face unreadable.
"I will ask if the monks will permit it," said Smiricti.
"Why would they not?" Rakoczy concealed the rush of dismay that he felt.
"You are a foreigner, and ... and the Episcopus might not be in favor of it." He looked around uneasily. "The Episcopus is demanding that he be given the right to keep watch on your household. He believes that what has happened to Estephe is proof that you have sinned against Bohemia."
"Sinned against Bohemia," Rakoczy echoed, more bemused than wary. "In what way have I done that: do you know?"
"The Episcopus hasn't been more precise in his observations-it is sufficient that he knows you have enemies, and he is using that knowledge to his advantage. He has declared that as an exile, you must be watched closely." He cleared his throat and spat. "He has wanted to place his men in your household since your arrival was announced in the Konige's Court, but hasn't been permitted to, officially." He lowered his head, and stared at the floor. "Against our agreement, he has placed a spy-or perhaps more than one-among your servants."
Rakoczy felt a kind of apprehension come over him. "What were the terms of your agreement with the Episcopus, Counselor, that you and the Episcopus negotiated?"
"It was not the Council that decided the matter: the Konige had said that it would be the Council who would keep watch on you, not the Church. You are not here as a suspected heretic, but-as you say-an exile, which places you under the Konige's Court's purview. Therefore, she has appointed the Counselors to observe you. In the discharge of her orders, we were allowed to place two spies in your household-"
Rakoczy nodded grimly; the only thing that surprised him about this was that the Counselor admitted it. "Will you tell me which two?"
Smiricti went on as if he had not heard the question. "The Episcopus was not supposed to have any, but he is the Episcopus, and two days ago he boasted that his spy in your household has told him more than my two have told me, and he is sure that what his spy has said proves that he is right to suspect you of nefarious intent, for his spies always report what he wishes to hear. He claims that, if she knew what he has discovered about you, the Konige would not refuse him the right to be the one to observe you, and so he has acted on his own authority, to spare her the necessity. He claims this shows his devotion to Bohemia's interests." He finally looked directly at Rakoczy. "It were better for you, Comes, to have the Council watch you than the Episcopus."
"Probably so," Rakoczy conceded, wondering who among his household was listening.
Smiricti cleared his throat and straightened up. "My spies have defended you often, spoken well of you, and sworn that you are no follower of the Devil, nor are you an ally of the Konig's enemies. You have earned their good opinion in spite of being a foreigner. They have been ready to take your part in our investigation; they continue to counter the suspicions of the Episcopus." His voice dropped to a near-whisper, as if he feared he was overheard. "The spies said you have been true to the terms of your exile; even your manservant has been estimable in this regard. They say he does not work against your vow in any way."
Rakoczy smiled wryly, briefly. "He is an excellent-"
"That is what we all hope of our servants, and what we often believe to our folly," Smiricti said, waving his hand in dismissal. "Yet we often see that they are suborned, that they betray us for their own gain, that they are ready to place their advancement in the hands of others. If your man has never done these things, you have a most rare man in him."
"So I think," said Rakoczy, again wondering why the welcome-tray had still not been offered to his guest. He went to the door and looked out into the main hall, where the glaziers stood on ladders, fitting in the fourth window and putting shutter-levers into place; neither Barnon nor Pacar was anywhere in the large room.
"You needn't trouble yourself, Comes," said Smiricti.
"You are a guest in my manse, Counselor," Rakoczy reminded him, offering him a slight nod.
"Still, I came unannounced," said Smiricti as if making excuses for his servants. "You have no need to-"
"You say your men in my household speak well of me-then let me requite their good opinion of me."
Smiricti allowed himself to be persuaded. "I will accept your hospitality with gratitude."
Rakoczy clapped his hands loudly. "Barnon!" he called out. "Barnon! Where are you?"
"He isn't in the manse," said Smiricti, sounding defeated. "He has left Mansion Belcrady."
"Why is that?" Rakoczy asked.
"Because I sent him away, as soon as he informed you of my arrival. The Episcopus ordered me to do so." A little color rose in his face. "He is my man, you see, and the Episcopus wants him out of here, so that others of his own choosing may take his place."
"Then Barnon is one of the two?" Rakoczy shook his head, wondering why he had not seen Barnon's divided loyalty.
"Yes. I had hoped to keep that from you for a little longer." He offered a jittery smile. "You will have to assign another to his duties."
"Someone who may or may not be your man, as well? Or shall I assume that anyone I hire is in the pay of others?" Rakoczy made a gesture of apology and stepped out into the main hall. "Hruther! Have a welcome-tray prepared for the Counselor!" Then he returned to the withdrawing room, certain that Hruther would attend to this courtesy.
Now Smiricti was truly chagrined. "Comes, it isn't necessary."
Rakoczy held up his small hand. "This is not just for you; I will not have my servants say I neglected a guest."
"Even one who has abused you as I have done?" Smiricti looked truly shocked.
Rakoczy sighed, a short, hard sound. "You forget that exiles cannot afford to ignore the customs of their hosts. Servants talk, whether by assignment or by inclination, and what they say, I need hardly remind you, is often noted by others. You are a man of position and authority in Praha and you deserve to be received well, as all the household knows: you will be, for my sake as well as yours." He had a brief, uncomfortable recollection of his time in Tunis, before he was seized and made a slave to the Emir's son.
"You are too severe," Smiricti said, a suggestion of relief in his voice. "I don't expect any display of welcome from you, not today."
"I should hope you will not mind accepting my hospitality. I will be diligent, for the sake of the Episcopus' man and my reputation." Rakoczy came across the room and drew up the small upholstered bench to the table, straddling it as he sat. "Since you are being forthright with me, let me press you on a few points."
"I suppose I owe you that much," said Smiricti, suddenly cautious.
"Then, if you can explain it to me, why has the Episcopus taken this opportunity to claim jurisdiction over me and my household?"
Smiricti slowly shook his head. "I don't know. I believe he is exceeding his authority, but my opinion has little weight with the Konige; with the Konig away she depends heavily on the Episcopus, who is the Konig's deputy in Praha during his absence." He got up and went to the newly glazed window. "If it were left to me, I would only keep one spy in your household, Comes. The Episcopus has taken that possibility out of my hands." For a short while he remained silent. "And I am alleviated from bearing a burden because of it."
Rakoczy heard him out, outwardly unfazed by Smiricti's admission. "Then the Council is no longer ... concerned with me and my affairs?"
"By order of the Episcopus, we are not," said Smiricti. "Keep in mind that the Konige must have consented to this."
"Of course," Rakoczy said, swinging around on his seat to motion Hruther into the room, a welcome-tray in his hands. "Place it on the table if you would, Hruther."
As he did, Hruther said, "I am told Barnon is no longer in the manse. I have taken the liberty of telling Pacar and Kornemon that he has gone to find Estephe."
"Thank you," Rakoczy said, glancing at Smiricti. "That should satisfy them for a while-would you agree?"
Smiricti came back from the window and sat down. "You have a clever manservant."
"Yes, I do," said Rakoczy, pouring a cup of wine for his guest and indicating the bread, cheese, butter, and sausages set out for him on the welcome-tray. "If you would select what pleases you."
"It would please me to take my leave of you," said Smiricti, coming back to the table and looking over the bounty set out for him. "But I will have some wine and bread so that no one can say that I disdained your cordiality." With that, he took the cup of wine and drank half the contents in a single gulp. "You have excellent wine."
"Thank you," Rakoczy responded ironically.
As he sat down again, Smiricti held out the cup for more. "I should probably ask if you are aware of your enemies at Court, as a gesture of respect."
"I suppose I have them," said Rakoczy carefully.
"You may be certain of it," said Smiricti; he drank avidly again. "And not just the Episcopus. There are others."
"Ah?" Rakoczy turned the whole strength of his dark eyes on Smiricti, and waited for him to speak.
Smiricti took a sausage in his fingers and began to chew. "You have ... angered some of the Konige's ... waiting-ladies ... and their families." He licked away the grease from where it had run down his palm.
"How have I angered them?" Rakoczy was puzzled, thinking again that his position at the Konige's Court had become untenable.
"You have disappointed some. You know what women are: they set their sights on what they want and become outraged if they cannot attain it."
What had Rozsa done now? he wondered. "It has never been my intent to offend anyone in the Konige's Court."
"Then marry, Comes, and put an end to foolish jealousies. So long as you have no wife, the Konige's ladies will vie for you, for your fortune, for your title." He laughed and took another sausage. "Even without the title, you are too rich not to have women eager to wed you. No doubt you can have your pick of the Konige's Court."
"It is not advisable for me to marry," Rakoczy said.
"Certainly that is a prudent answer, but it won't keep the ladies from trying to win you. They woo as heartily as anyone." He laughed again and drank the rest of his wine, then waited for the Comes to pour him another cup. "More than half the Konige's ladies are Hungarian. You are Hungarian. They have lands. You have lands. Those things would be sufficient for them to be interested, but you have wealth, and that"-he quaffed most of the contents of his cup in sarcastic salute-"ensures their attention."
"Without a fortune, I would be a poor match, in spite of my lands and tittle," said Rakoczy, once more refilling the Counselor's cup.
"True enough, but since you are a very rich man..." He shrugged to finish his thought.
"In what way does this lead to enemies? It may bring envy, but enemies?" Rakoczy gave himself a little time to consider who among the Konige's Court would have reason to call him an enemy.
"Envy is reason enough," said Smiricti, pulling a handful of bread from the oblong loaf on the tray. "So is ambition."
"Whom do you believe could be so envious or so ambitious as to become my enemy?" Rakoczy asked, watching Smiricti sway in his chair, and realized that the man was well and truly drunk.
"Best not to know," Smiricti said, wagging an admonitory finger at his host as he raised his cup and drained it.
Text of a letter from Frater Sandor at Sant-Gidius in western Hungary near Pressburg, to Kunigunde of Halicz, Konige of Bavaria, at Praha, carried by Royal courier and delivered eighteen days after it was written.
To the most excellent Kunigunde of Halicz, Konige of Bohemia, the greetings of the Hieronymite monk and scribe to Konig Bela of Hungary, on this, the seventh day of May in the 1270th Year of Grace,
It is with a grieving heart that I write to you to inform you of the death of your grandfather, Konig Bela of Hungary, yesterday. He had been stricken with a fever five days since, and was brought here to be cared for by the monks. I accompanied him so that he might continue to exercise the obligations of his rule. From the time he arrived here, it was his intention to return to the field of battle as soon as his body was healed.
God has willed otherwise. Two days ago Konig Bela worsened, his fever increased, and he became disordered in his thoughts. The monks urged him to make Confession and accept Extreme Unction, but he refused, declaring that God would minister to him and restore him. Late in the afternoon he sank into a dreamy swoon, and by sundown, his last breath had left him.
A company of six knights have been dispatched to Transylvania to inform Konig Bela's son and heir, Istvan of Transylvania, that his father is dead and now he reigns in all Hungary. The knights will escort him to Pressburg to receive the Crown of Sant-Istvan and the allegiance of the army. There are those who see a good omen in Konig Istvan and Sant-Istvan's Crown, but my sorrow is too great to consider such matters.
Since Konig Istvan will want another scribe near him, I will remain at this monastery, although the monks are Benedictines, until the Superior of the Hieronymites sends me otherwhere. This will be the last time I address you, Konige Kunigunde, and so, in our hour of mourning together, I send you my blessing and the assurance that God will console us, as He will welcome Konig Bela to the Glory of Heaven and a place at His Right Hand.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, Amen,
Sandor, Hieronymite Frater and scribe
by my own hand