"Rozsa of Borsod has been claiming that you have been importuning her, suggesting that she take you for her lover, but I know that's not true," said Iliska of Szousa as she laid her hand on Rakoczy's heavily embroidered sleeve, a desperate smile transfixing her countenance. "I don't believe what she's saying. You aren't like that. You wouldn't deny me for her." Her face darkened. "My brother does believe her. He says that you are not a man of honor."
The reception hall of the Konige's Court was filled with courtiers and a number of entertainers who juggled, tumbled, or made music, according to their talents, while the Konige and the Episcopus watched from the dais. The windows had been thrown open and the full light of mid-May streamed into the reception hall, limpid and glowing. A squad of servants passed among the Konige's Court bearing tankards of wine and plates of bread-and-cheese.
"It would appear that Rozsa seeks to discredit me: I do not know why." It was the truth as far as it went, but not an explanation. He ducked his head politely, and tried to step away from Iliska, his black-silk gambeson whispering with his movement.
"It is a dangerous stance for a married woman to take." Iliska's eyes shone with rascality. "That's why my brother believes her. He says no woman would say so much if her husband might hear of it."
"He is trying to look after you," said Rakoczy.
Iliska shook her head emphatically. "He's trying to bend me to his will." Her voice lowered. "She says she has been troubled in her sleep, all on your account."
"That is unfortunate for her," Rakoczy said, and saw that Antal of Szousa had seen Iliska at his side. He took a determined step back. "Your brother would not like us to talk."
"I suppose not," she said, pouting coquettishly. "But what is he to do about it? He would have to create a disruption in front of the Konige, and that could get him sent back to Hungary."
"He can take you back to Szousa with him," said Rakoczy. "That would mean leaving the Konige's Court with a blot on your reputation, and your brother would not be pleased, for it would discredit him to have you return to your family unmarried and unpledged."
"Do you think that he would dare to take me home? Wouldn't it disgrace him more than me? Wouldn't it mean that he neglected his duty?" Iliska demanded; the long, open sleeve of her bleihaut was polished, pale-blue linen lined with flame-colored silk, and as she flung up her arms in frustration, she flickered and shone like a candle.
"I think that he is entrusted with your protection; he would do anything to keep you safe." He made a gesture of withdrawal, which she did not acknowledge.
"Then let him settle matters with you. You are rich enough to make him accept your offer with satisfaction if not gratitude," said Iliska.
"I have made you no offer," Rakoczy reminded her as politely as he could.
"All because you have allowed Antal to refuse to consider you as a suitor for me." She shook her head. "You are too modest, Comes. He is supposed to find me an acceptable husband." She licked her lips.
"I am not acceptable," said Rakoczy, holding up his hands to placate her.
"Rich men are always acceptable, if they are rich enough," she said, staring at him. "The Konige will agree, and if she does, how can Antal refuse?"
"Your family might not want you to marry an exile," said Rakoczy. "I understand their position and I esteem them for it."
"Why?" Her smile broadened. "Think how you could use my position and restore yourself to Hungary. You will have your fief again, and I will have a rich husband. Then we will all have what we want." She stepped a little closer to him. "I know you want me; you don't have to tell me. I am the way for you to restore yourself in Hungary."
Rakoczy gave a single, ironic chuckle. "Konig Bela is the way for me to be restored in Hungary, Iliska of Szousa. There is no other for so long as Bela reigns in Hungary."
"My family would see to it. They are well-placed in Bela's favor," she told him, annoyance sharpening her tone. "They are in good graces with Konig Bela-that's why I've been sent here, as a sign of Szousa's high standing."
"What would your family gain from me?" He shook his head slowly. "No, your brother is right. I am no bargain for you or your House."
"Riches. They will gain riches, which they need," she said as if it were obvious. "Give them half the quantity of jewels that you have offered the Konige, and even my Uncle Szygosmund will be satisfied, and he is the most greedy of them all." She was about to continue when Antal strode up to them, his features set in severe disapproval.
"I told you not to associate with this man," he said to Iliska, his fists balled; he deliberately ignored Rakoczy. "He isn't worthy of your notice."
"Antal!" Iliska exclaimed as he slapped her, then swung around to face Rakoczy.
"Leave her alone, Comes. I will not have her defamed by you."
"As you wish, but do not revile her." He ducked his head in a show of respect he did not feel.
"He's right, Antal. You are-" Iliska protested, stopping abruptly when Antal raised his hand again.
Satisfied that she would not continue to make a spectacle of herself, he went on in a tension-quieted voice, "If you behave like a willful child, you will be treated as one." Antal took her by the arm and all but dragged her away, saying loudly so that Rakoczy would hear him, "You are not to speak to the exile again. Do you understand me?"
Iliska shrieked and strove to break free of his hold upon her. "You won't reprimand me this way! Not here!"
"I will, and the Konige will support me," Antal said, his voice hard; the gathered courtiers made a path for Antal through their midst to the corridor to the chambers of the ladies-in-waiting. All conversation was halted, so that Antal's castigations were heard by everyone. "Be silent. It's bad enough that you comport yourself so like a strumpet. Have the good sense to control your character, or it will be the nunnery, not the marriage-bed for you."
"Antal!" Iliska shrieked, trying to twist out of his grasp; he struck her again, this time with more force.
"If you will permit, dear Royal," Antal said, addressing Konige Kunigunde from near the door, "I find I must spend time with my sister to explain our family's wishes once again."
"Go, then," said the Konige, her wince slight enough to go almost unnoticed; she signaled to Rakoczy to approach her dais. "And you, Comes: I would be grateful if you would depart for now. You must see the wisdom of it. I will summon you again in a few days. The sooner this contention is forgotten, the better it will be for all of you."
Rakoczy offered a French bow, recollections of Pentacoste and Odile flickering through his mind. "Dear Royal, I hear and obey." He went toward the door opposite the one Antal had propelled Iliska through, and found himself facing Rozsa of Borsod, resplendent in a silken, rose-colored bleihaut with broad Hungarian sleeves over a sheer linen chainse and a veil of Mosul-cotton pinned to her golden chaplet.
"She won't have you, you know," Rozsa said, her words silky, her green eyes lambent. "I won't allow it."
This promise struck him emphatically, and although he maintained his composure, he felt an inward trepidation that chilled him. "You need not fret. She will not have me in any case; I will not allow it to happen," said Rakoczy, adding with a self-deprecating gesture, "She knows nothing of my true nature or what I would need from her, she knows only what she has heard in the troubadours' songs. I cannot fulfill her dreams." For an instant, Imbolya's plea that he turn away from the flesh in favor of God disquieted him; he shut the memory away.
"She won't know that until she has you, which she will never do. Even if I would countenance it, her family wouldn't." She flicked her tongue over her lips. "That brother of hers listens to me, and is willing to accept what I say as the truth."
"You are telling him that I am attempting to seduce you, to bring shame upon you." He nodded. "If you are persuasive enough, you may succeed in having me banished from Praha and beyond your reach." He turned his enigmatic gaze on her. "Is that what you want, Rozsa? to drive me away?"
"Better that than abandon you to that ambitious child." She beckoned him to come nearer with the summons of one finger. "Erzebet of Arad isn't the only one of the Konige's waiting-women who could die in her service."
Rakoczy's eyes remained unflinching. "If there is another suspicious death, and so soon, there will be many more questions to answer, and the Konige will not be able to protect any of you, even if she wanted to." He gave her a little time to consider this. "The Episcopus will not hesitate to-"
"They will not know that I had anything to do with it. I will see to it that if there is any blame, it lights upon you."
"Think what your are doing, Rozsa," he admonished her, his face revealing nothing of his alarm. "If you drive everyone away from me by raising misgivings that would engage the attention of the Episcopus, you will not be allowed to approach me. Neither the Episcopus nor the Konige would permit any of the Court to seek me out, not even for jewels. I will be exiled more completely than I am now, especially if you continue to say that I have compelled you through ungodly forces to seek me out for sinful delights. What will happen to your plans then?"
Rozsa's smile became a rictus grin. "Oh, well said, very well said. But I know you better than you think, and I know you would accept a headstrong girl and fill a tun with jewels to regain your place at Santu-Germaniu." She reached out and touched his chin with one finger. "But do not invest your faith in Szousa, Comes. There is nothing for you there." With that, she courtisied him and went back into the reception hall.
Rakoczy watched her go, wondering what she would do next, and trying to discern what she intended, for he was certain she would use Iliska's misfortune to her advantage. With a sigh, he turned and continued down the broad corridor and out of the Konige's Court, through the main gate and down the hill. He paid little heed to the beauty of the day, the warmth of the air, or the activity in the streets as he made his way to Mansion Belcrady, where he found Hruther in the main hall supervising three servants washing the floor with stiff brooms and soapy water.
"My master," he said in surprise as Rakoczy came through the door.
"I know I have returned early; I have no wish to interrupt your work," Rakoczy said, pausing only briefly, preparing to climb the stairs. "If you will have the bath-house heated and the bath made ready?"
"Certainly," said Hruther, barely able to conceal his curiosity; Rakoczy did not often come from Court before he was expected, and his arrival did not bode well. He pointed to Jurg, the newest servant in the household. "You heard the Comes-find Kornemon and have the bath-house made ready for the Comes' use."
Jurg, a loose-limbed fellow with a broken nose, hesitated. "There is work to do here."
"It will wait for you to return," said Hruther, waving Jurg away; the other three servants tried not to notice. As an afterthought, Hruther called after him, "It will take the bath-house some time to heat, even on so pleasant a day as this one. Tell Kornemon to make the fire long-burning."
Jurg ducked his head and ambled out of the main hall of the manse.
"He's lazy," said Hruther, shaking his head.
"Because he knows he will not be beaten for it," said Rakoczy, his manner mildly distracted.
"Did anything happen at the Konige's Court?" Hruther inquired.
"Later," said Rakoczy in Imperial Latin, continuing on to the stairs. "I will explain it all to you. After my bath."
Hruther watched him go, thinking that he would have to get to the heart of the matter as soon as possible; after his twelve hundred years with Rakoczy, he could tell when the Comes was vexed. He saw that two of the men had stopped scrubbing their brushes on the floor and gave them his attention. "It must be clean before any new rushes are laid down," he reminded the servants and clapped his hands for emphasis.
"Jurg isn't here," the younger of the two said to Hruther.
"True enough," said Hruther. "He is doing his duty."
The other servant laughed, but resumed his work; a moment later the younger man did the same.
Vaguely aware of the confrontation behind him, Rakoczy paused in his upward climb, then went on as he heard the scrape of the brooms; the ruction was over. What was it about this day, that there should be so many disputes in it? he wondered. Perhaps some balefulness in the heavens, or a rising of bellicose humors brought on by the rapid change in the weather, had caused tempers and passions to flare. He reposed no assurance in any explanation, and continued to mull the events as he went along the corridor to his private apartments, unlocking the door discreetly and putting the bolt in place once he was inside. He stood for a while, staring at the closed window, an expression of superb blankness in his face. "I cannot continue to do this," he whispered in his native tongue. "One way or another, I will have to leave." He unfastened his gambeson and took it off, hanging it on one of the pegs on the side of his garderobe, revealing his chainse of deep-red silk. He found a braided-leather belt and secured it around his waist, then kicked off his solers and chose instead a pair of thick-soled Roman peri, sighing a little as the anodyne presence of his native earth spread through him. All his soles were lined with his native earth, but the peri were thicker-soled and more restorative than the solers.
A book lay open on his clothes chest, a knotted silken cord keeping the pages from shifting. He removed the cord and picked up the leather-bound volume. It took him less than a moment to find his place on the page; he resumed reading the Tsou Ping Tao, finding comfort in its elegant observations on the well-regulated life for educated men, comparing the sentiments of Djien Hsu with the demands made by the customs of the Konige's Court and Episcopus Fauvinel; he preferred the thoughtful Mandarin to the hectic Court, and the concept of good conduct to righteousness. Not that China was free from troubles, he reminded himself as he sank onto his upholstered bench. When he had been in China, sixty years ago, the impositions made upon foreigners were almost as stringent as those made upon exiles in Praha, and that was before the arrival of Jenghiz Khan and his Mongols. Rakoczy's departure from Lo-Yang for Mao-T'ou fortress had come as the Mongol incursions increased in ferocity. Still, before the invasion, Rakoczy had been allowed to teach at the university and to appear in society, so long as he wore Western clothing on public occasions; he had not felt as trapped in Lo-Yang as he did in Praha. He continued to read.
Some while later, Hruther knocked on his door. "My master? The bath-house is almost ready. You will want to gather your things."
Rakoczy closed the book, marking his place with a scrap of black silk. "Thank you," he said loudly enough to be heard through the door.
"Do you need anything from me?" Hruther inquired, a host of unasked questions hidden in this single probe.
"Not just at present, thank you," said Rakoczy, getting to his feet. "When I return to my rooms, you and I will talk. If you will, bring your basin and razors; my beard is getting a bit unkempt."
"That I will," Hruther promised, and left.
Rakoczy opened the garderobe and removed a Persian caftan made of soft-woven cotton, the color of dark wine. He folded this over his arm, then took a vial of oil-soap from the small coffer at the side of the clothes chest. Moving smoothly and rapidly, he unbarred his door, took the key from its hook, stepped into the hall, closed and locked his door, then strode off to the stairs, descending quickly to the main hall, and passing to the kitchen corridor and out the side-door, and into the long, deep-blue shadows of afternoon.
The bath-house was in good repair at last, and the smoke rising from the chimney promised the interior would be warm. Rakoczy opened the door and stepped into the damp warmth, his eyes adjusting to the half-light provided by a single, small window set high in the wall beside the chimney. He noticed that the steamy, smoky air smelled slightly of rosemary-Kornemon had tossed a handful of branches of the herb in with the logs when he laid the fire.
Rakoczy undressed quickly, putting his clothes into the small closet near the door where they would stay dry. Naked, he walked to the deep wooden vat that sat atop a base of Rakoczy's native earth, climbed up the small steps, and sank into the wonderfully warm water that rose to his shoulders. Opening the vial of oil-soap, he began to rub the fragrant lotion over his chest, moving to the upper ring inside the vat that allowed him to wash his arms and the striated scars that covered his abdomen, the last token of his execution more than thirty-two centuries ago. He extended first one leg and then the other for washing, working the oil-soap down his thighs and calves to his feet, taking time to inspect his toenails, deciding that it was time to trim them again. Throughout his long, long life, he had always taken pleasure in bathing when protected by his native earth, and today was no different than any others; he welcomed the lassitude that the warm water offered.
Finally he stood up in the vat and poured the last of the contents of the vial into his hair and then worked the lather over his face and neck. Satisfied that he had done his best to get clean, he settled back in the water and slipped under the surface to rinse the oil-soap from his hair. Then he shook his head to keep his hair from dripping, stretched, and leaned back against the edge of the vat; he hooked his arms over the edge of it and let himself doze, willing the tension to leave him, and his thoughts to find more pleasant subjects to explore than the perfidy of the Konige's Court and his own perilous situation within it. Gradually his eyes closed and he drowsed as the sunlight faded from the window and the activities of the manse became centered in the kitchen as the household servants gathered for their evening meal.
The fire that heated the bath and the room was dying and it was quite dark when the door to the bath-house opened with hardly a sound and a small figure came silently inside; he paused to take stock of the place and to confirm that Rakoczy was still in his bath. He swung around, making a summoning gesture; a moment later three larger figures came after him. The door was closed softly as the figures gathered together before starting toward the vat.
Although Rakoczy's eyes remained closed, he was now alert to the presence of unknown men in his bath-room. He wished now that he had brought a dagger or a francisca with him. He listened attentively for every step the men took, marking their progress in the gloom.
Somewhere outside two cats shrieked at each other and prepared to launch into battle. One of the men swore under his breath and was hissed to silence by another.
Taking advantage of this, Rakoczy sat up and drew his arms into the vat. "Hruther?" He looked about, his dark-seeing eyes taking stock of the four men. The smallest moved forward.
"Not your manservant, Comes, a juggler," said Tahir, climbing up the steps at the side of the vat. He carried a double-bladed misericordia in one hand and a had a spiked glove on the other.
"On what errand, Tahir?" He saw the other three men moving toward him.
"On a mission from Antal of Szousa. I am to deliver a message," said Tahir with such satisfaction that Rakoczy knew the men had been sent to kill him.
"Why did he choose you?" Rakoczy asked, thinking rapidly.
"Your warder knows me; he let me in. My comrades dispatched him before he could raise the alarm." He grinned at the cleverness of the plan.
"You wanted to kill him," Rakoczy said, certain of it.
The tallest of the three men muttered a warning, hefting his battle-hammer.
"Szousa disapproves of your interest in his sister," Tahir said, making his voice menacing as he took a testing swipe with his spiked glove.
"I have no interest in his sister: she has interest in me." Rakoczy did not flinch; he knew it was useless to tell the men that he had grown tired of Iliska's relentless pursuit, and of Antal's determination to punish him for Iliska's infatuation, just as he realized that any show of fear on his part might well set Tahir on the attack.
Tahir laughed, his voice harsh. "So you say."
Rakoczy kept his eyes fixed on Tahir, who was now leaning over the lip of the vat, a fierce shine in his eyes. "Why are you doing this?"
"Why do you think?" Tahir countered. "Because he has paid me handsomely, and vowed to place me in his household."
"Are you certain he will keep his Word?" Rakoczy asked, knowing that so long as Tahir was talking, he would not attack.
"He pledged on the Cross," said Tahir, adding, "You won't turn me from my purpose. If you must waste breath, pray; God might hear you."
Rakoczy ignored the juggler's mockery. "What did Antal offer the other three: do you know?"
"They are here to help me carry out our mission," said Tahir, preening. "He gave me the privilege of killing you."
Rakoczy saw a flickering look pass among the other three men; he wondered if he should warn Tahir of treachery when he felt a blow on his shoulder next to his throat and saw the two prongs of the misericordia pulled out of his flesh. The pain struck him as water sloshed over the pair of wounds. "You are..." The words trailed off to a groan. He took a breath and added in a soft hiss. "Be wary. Those three will kill you."
Tahir uttered an incoherent cry of rage and pushed Rakoczy's head down beneath the water, yelling curses as he did. "You are the Devil's spawn! Die and go to him!"
Rakoczy coughed as he stopped breathing and sank down in the vat below where Tahir could reach. The remnants of oil-soap stung his eyes but not enough to force him to close them; the pain from the two stab wounds was intense but not spreading, and he was able to resist the urge to place his hand over the punctures. He knew long submersion would leave him weak and disoriented, but he preferred that to having to fight Tahir and his three fellow-assassins, which might result in serious injury, or perhaps the True Death. He made a last, feeble flailing with his arms, then let himself hang in the vat, moved only by the motion of the water.
Tahir remained at the rim of the vat, his spiked glove lifted, ready to strike if Rakoczy should make another movement. He repeated the De Profundis Clamavit, as much to be certain that the Comes had been under the water long enough to drown as to implore God to hear him. While he prayed, he thought about what he was saying, his voice faltered, knowing that God might well condemn him for killing Rakoczy, though he did it at the behest of Antal of Szousa. At last he straightened up, noticing for the first time that the front of his clothing was soaked and that there was blood on the sleeve of his chainse. He turned to his three companions. "There-you see? You can tell Szousa that I didn't need your help."
One of the three glanced at the other two, gave a nod, and launched himself at Tahir, grabbing him and pulling him from his place on the steps.
Startled, Tahir whispered a protest. "I can get down by mysel-"
The man who held him turned so that the tallest of the three of them could help subdue Tahir with a sharp blow to the abdomen with his battle-hammer.
"What?" Tahir gasped, trying to bend over and get air back into his body, but the leader of the three held him upright.
"Hurry," said the oldest of the three in the Bulgarian tongue. "There's been too much noise. Someone will come."
"The Comes is dead. Szousa told us to leave the juggler's body with the Comes'," the tallest whispered.
"Then have done with him," said the leader, and clapped his hand over Tahir's mouth as the dwarf began to scream. "He's strong for a poppet."
Tahir wrenched and twisted, bucked, kicked, and bit, but aside from getting out a single yelp, he was held securely enough for the third man to drive a falchion two times into Tahir's broad chest. Blood erupted from the second wound, covering the man who held him with the gory flow. Tahir jerked and managed to free one arm, but when he attempted to batter at his captor with his fist, there was no strength left in him; his blood still pumped out of him, but the amount was diminishing.
"Drop him," the oldest man snapped. "We must leave. We've done our work."
"And we can claim the rest of our fee," said the tallest man.
"Ten gold Angels each," their leader gloated as he released Tahir, letting him fall as he might.
Tahir was distantly aware that he had been betrayed, but it hardly seemed to matter now. He could feel the stone floor beneath him, but it was unimportant. He was vaguely aware that there was something unfinished, that there was a wrong that was unredressed, but it was no longer worth the effort to recall it; he let it go as he let all the world go.
"He's gone," said the oldest, going toward the door and pulling it open carefully. "I hear noises."
"The household at supper," said their leader, picking up his falchion and slipping it into the scabbard in the small of his back.
"No; listen," said the oldest, holding up his hand. "Someone is coming."
"What's another body?' the tallest asked, swinging his battle-hammer.
"It's trouble, and there's no money in it," said the oldest. "Come on. Now!"
The other two went to flank the door; the leader stepped over Tahir's body and slipped out into the darkness.
Lying in the cooling water, Rakoczy had a fleeting, ironic thought that he now had the means to leave Praha.
Text of an edict issued by Konige Kunigunde, Episcopus Fauvinel, and the Counselors of Praha, distributed to all churches throughout the city.
To the people of the city from Konige Kunigunde, with the blessings of Episcopus Fauvinel, and the approval and duty of the Counselors of Praha on this, the 27th day of May in the 1270th year of Grace:
On the occasion of the reception of the notification to the Konige Kunigunde that her royal grandfather Konig Bela has been called to Heaven and the presence of God, for which the Konige's Court and the people are now to mourn until the season of the Nativity, when the Konige's Court will celebrate the ascendency of her maternal uncle, Istvan of Transylvania, to the throne of Hungary, there will be one hundred Masses said for the repose of Konig Bela's soul, and one hundred more for the long and glorious reign of Istvan of Hungary. All residents of Praha will show mourning by placing a black crucifix on their doors and in distributing alms to the poor in the name of Konige Kunigunde. All officials of the Council and the Konige's Court are to dress in red or black through the period of mourning; any lapse in such demonstrations of respect will require a fine be paid to the Counselors and the Episcopus of three golden Vaclavs for each offense.
No weddings are to occur until thirty days of deep mourning have passed. No music but the chants of monks will be allowed within the city for sixty days. No entertainments such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting will be allowed inside Praha's walls for sixty days. No dancing or other wanton games are to be permitted for sixty days. All failures to abide by these dictates will be met with fines, and, if repeated, public whipping.
There will be, in honor of the Konige Kunigunde's grief, a cessation of all executions for a month; all those condemned to be hanged in chains will be kept in prison until the thirty days have passed, at which time their sentences shall be carried out. The sole exceptions to this degree are the three Bulgarians captured by Antal of Szousa and condemned for the murder of Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes Santu-Germaniu, and the Konige's juggler, Tahir. These vile assassins have claimed that they were employed by Antal of Szousa, but admitted, under the boot, that they lied when they accused Szousa, which Confession will grant them absolution of their sins and the glories of Paradise.
The Mid-Summer Festival will not be held, nor will any tournaments, until the principal six months of mourning have passed, at which time there will be a civic procession to mark the end of the Konige's grieving. The end of mourning will also be recognized with dignified demonstrations of thanksgiving and renewed fealty to Konig Otakar, his Konige, and their daughters.
Witnessed and signed in the presence of Episcopus Fauvinel
for Konige Kunigunde
the Counselors of Praha