Cases and chests stood in the entry hall of Mansion Belcrady, ready to be loaded into wagons for the authorized departure the following day of Rakoczy's Hungarian household for Santu-Germaniu. Despite the warm afternoon, the sky was glary with high, thin clouds that made the light inside the manse more muted than was usual on a June day. Activity in the household was on-going but muffled, a reminder that they were mourning not only the death of the Comes but the coming end of the servants' employment; each of the household members had been given generous service payment and the pledge that the Counselors would see that they found new work, but unease hung over them all. As if to punctuate that restiveness, there was an occasional clash of pots and pans as Pacar loaded up the kitchen supplies; the scrape of rakes marked where the rushes were being taken up.
Hruther was occupied among the packed chests with checking off the items on his inventory that were to go to Santu-Germaniu; a second, smaller list was for the things he would need himself. He was dressed in a dark-gray huch of linen over a chainse of black-cotton, with black-velvet bands on his cuffs indicating his mourning state.
"How many more horses do you want me to purchase?" Illes of Kotan asked as he came in through the door; he, too, was in dark clothes with black bands on his cuffs. "I am off to the market shortly; I plan to return before sundown."
"How much money do you have?" Hruther asked. "How many horses do you plan to buy?"
"I have twenty-five gold Angels and twenty silver Apostles, and a few copper Agnethes," he answered, fingering the pouch that hung from his belt. "I had planned to buy four or five horses and perhaps a pair of mules, since you are taking three of them. They should be sufficient for our journey home. I might be able to buy another two horses without needing any more money than I have now." He gave Hruther a speculative look.
"If you see a pair of good riding horses, you may purchase them. I would like to have a pair of remounts at the least." Hruther made a mark on his inventory, then regarded Illes directly. "How much grain will you need for the journey to Santu-Germaniu? Is there enough in the stable for your journey and mine, or will you need to buy more?"
"I will know when I know how many horses we will have," said Illes, his tone level. He looked up at the new windows. "Seems a shame to go, with the manse finally finished."
"Yes. But the Comes' heir needs to be provided with his bona fides, and to do that, I'll have to find him first. Until the heir is found, no one can live here; it is protected by the Konige and the Counsel."
"Do you know where he is?" Illes asked. "I know it isn't my place to ask," he added hastily.
"I know where to begin my search." Hruther looked away from Illes, his demeanor reserved. "I will find him, and in time he will come to claim this fief; I will see to it. Tell Balint that when you arrive in Santu-Germaniu. I will send word to inform Konig Istvan when I have located the heir, and I will notify Santu-Germaniu, of course."
"Of course," Illes echoed. He filled in the awkwardness of the sudden silence by making a show of examining the nine chests set out nearest the door. "These are the ones that will go with you? loaded on the mules?"
"Yes." Hruther glanced up from his inventory. "Those chests and four sacks of grain."
"Three mules and four horses..." Illes studied the chests. "This big one-you'll have to use the strongest mule to carry it."
"Very likely," said Hruther. "That is my plan."
"And this old chest, with the legs off? It will need to be wrapped well in canvas if the lacquer isn't to be damaged."
"We brought it here in a canvas shroud: it will leave the same way," said Hruther.
Illes studied the chests. "You aren't taking an escort?"
"No. If I need one, I will hire men along the way."
"Not so much of a chance of spies," said Illes with a knowing nod.
Hruther nodded a little, then consulted his inventory once more. "There are eleven more crates to be packed and bound for your return to the Comes' fief. You'll need to put most of them in the wagons that will be in your charge. Only a few will go on pack-animals." His thoughts drifted for a long moment, back to the bath-house ten days ago where he had found Tahir dead on the floor and Rakoczy, in stupor, floating in the vat, a wound in his shoulder, his breathing stopped. After bolting the door, Hruther had pulled Rakoczy from the vat, assured himself that Rakoczy was only in a stupor before laying him out next to Tahir, then unbolted the door and summoned Pacar and Kornemon to witness the deaths and to report the murders to the Konige's Court and the Episcopus- He heard Illes repeat his question.
"Can they be loaded tonight, or will they have to wait until tomorrow morning?"
"All can be loaded tonight." Recovering himself, he patted the nearest chest, a banded one of medium size. "Only my cases need to wait. There's no point in loading up a pack-saddle before it's on the mule."
"Um," said Illes. He looked toward the door. "Then I'm off to the horse-market in Sante-Radmille Square. If you want to inspect what I buy?"
"I'll want to see the two riding horses you buy for me, but otherwise you're capable of choosing animals that will best suit your travels." Hruther's expression lost a little of its asceticism. "The Comes accounted you a fine horseman, and a dependable groom. You know what you will require."
Illes flushed, turned on his heel, and left the manse. He returned at dusk, leading a string of horses and mules; he put them in the stable, fed and watered them, then returned to the manse for a light supper and the last meal he would share with the household. By the time the trenchers were gone and the beer and wine drunk in honor of the Comes' memory, Illes was weary; he found Hruther in the Comes' workroom with a final crate of books.
Hruther greeted him in Hungarian in a desultory manner, then asked, "Is everything ready?"
Iles shrugged. "As much as it can be tonight. Tomorrow we'll get the rest done. I bought two horses for your remounts," said Illes.
"Excellent. Tell me more." Hruther sighed as he closed the lid on the crate of books. "You'll need to make sure this stays out of the rain."
"I'll put it in the lead wagon and remind the driver to be careful."
"Very good." He paused. "Which stalls are the remounts in?"
"The eighth and ninth, across from the dun gelding." He waited to see if there was anything more that Hruther required.
"Rest well-you have a long way to go," said Hruther.
"At least I know where I am bound," said Illes, and went off to his room in the stable and his bed.
Clouds thickened during the night, and Praha woke to a sullen, lowering, canvas-like sky and the heavy, still air that promised rain by the end of the day. Sapped of energy, most of Praha moved slowly, but at Mansion Belcrady, industrious loading and packing began before first light; the lanthorns were kept burning well after the east showed the arillate nimbus of sunrise. As the morning advanced, the pace increased, approaching the frenetic as the loading of wagons progessed; now that the end had come, the household was eager to be shut of the place.
Hruther met Illes in the stable shortly after dawn; he inspected the two riding horses Illes had bought and nodded his approval. "I'll saddle the calmest one for me to ride; with the mules and all their burdens, I don't want to have to contain any frisks from my mount." He picked up his saddle with its pad atop it, and carried it to the stand, and then fetched the bridle.
"The dun gelding is the most steady of the horses, but he is not a plodder; he can walk out all day long. He should suit your purposes." He cocked his head as if listening to the horses. "You'll want to keep him on a slack rein; I had him from a merchant who goes between Carinthia and Lorringaria. He sold his horses because he is ill and is going to enter Sant-Toluc so the monks may treat him."
"The dun gelding it shall be," said Hruther. "Do you have a spare set of reins and a pair of extra lead-ropes?"
"Yes." Illes retrieved them from the back of the wagon that stood in the stable door and handed them to Hruther.
"I have the Comes' saddle and bridle with me, and his saddle pads to present to his heir," Hruther said calmly. "You have his bones to carry back to his native earth, so that he may lie with his fathers."
"Yes," said Illes a second time. "As the great knights were brought back from the Holy Land." He crossed himself.
"Yes. Like that." For a short while Hruther thought back to the night that Tahir had done his utmost to drown Rakoczy, and all that he had done in haste and secret to ensure Rakoczy's protection as well as his escape from exile: the speed at which Hruther had arranged for disposal of the bodies, the search he had made alone through the night for a body that could be used to supply bones to be carried to Santu-Germaniu; it had been well toward the end of night when he had found a monk with four deep wounds in his side, newly perished. He had brought the dead monk back to Mansion Belcrady and to the large cauldron behind the storage sheds that Rakoczy had filled with water, where the monk's carcase would be boiled in his stead. For the following nine days, Rakoczy had remained in the shed, enervated but recovering, until Hruther had conspicuously packed the bare bones in a casket like a reliquary and entrusted it to Illes, and then, one day ago, he had surreptitiously brought an iron-banded chest lined in his native earth to Rakoczy and locked him in it before ordering three of the servants to carry it to the entry hall, where it now waited to be loaded onto one of the mules' pack saddles.
"Hruther?" Illes inquired.
Aware that he had been distracted too long, Hruther shook himself. "I have much to do; I don't want to forget any task. How many wagons are packed?"
"Four are filled; the rest will be ready before mid-day."
Hruther glanced down at one of the mansion's cats. "We should provide food for them so that they won't wander off, but will hunt here. The Comes' heir will not want to live in a place filled with rats."
"I suppose that's a good plan," said Illes. "I'll get the pack-saddles." He started for the tackroom, but paused. "Will I ever see you again after today?"
"If God wills, I trust so," said Hruther.
"If God wills," Illes repeated, crossing himself, then brought out the first of the pack-saddles and its pad. "Which of the mules shall I-"
"That one," Hruther said, pointing to the one with the broadest back. He picked up the nearest brush and went to work on the coat of the dun gelding he would be riding. "Do you think I can be away by mid-morning?"
"If the rain holds off, yes," said Illes, brushing down the broad-backed mule. "Rain will slow loading the pack-saddles."
"Do you suppose it will? so soon after dawn?" Hruther asked as two of the household servants brought another large wooden crate to put in the wagon in front of the stable door.
"It's likely. There's no thunder yet, and the rain won't start until the thunder awakens the clouds." He picked up the harness for the wagon and gave it to one of his assistants. "The piebald mule and the liver one." He pointed them out to the under-grooms.
"Do you have the Konige's safe-conduct with you?" Hruther inquired.
Illes touched the wallet that hung from his belt. "I will keep it with me until we reach Santu-Germaniu, as you told me."
"Very good," said Hruther, and went on grooming the gelding, taking time to pick out his hooves and to comb the tangles from his mane and tail. As he secured the saddle-girth, he said, "Will you bring the mules and the remounts around to the front of the manse so they can be loaded? I'll lead this horse." He patted the gelding's neck.
"I'll be there shortly." Illes put his brushes away. "As soon as this team is harnessed."
"I'll have the chests and crates in position for you."
"As you like," said Illes, ducking his head respectfully as he stood aside to let Hruther lead his gelding down the aisle between the stalls, past the wagon awaiting loading, and out into the dim sunlight.
Illes was as good as his word: by mid-morning the mules were loaded, the remounts were tethered to their lead-line, and a few of the household staff had gathered to wish Hruther farewell and safe travels. Pacar was the only one of the household who appeared to be sad about the coming separation.
"I thank you all for your good service, and for your care of my master and Mansion Belcrady," Hruther said, gathering up the reins and the leads. "May God send you good fortune, good employment, many children, and good health. And may God guide and guard Konig Otakar, Konige Kunigunde, and Episcopus Fauvinel."
Since Minek had been killed the same night as the Comes was drowned, Kornemon served as warder, opening the gate and waiting until the mules and remounts were through to close and bar it again. No one paused in their activities to wave or offer any other farewell; there was still much work to do before Illes and the wagons left and the keys to Mansion Belcrady were given into the care of the Counselors of Praha to hold in trust for Rakoczy's heir.
Passing through the south gate, Hruther could see the bodies of the three Bulgarians hanging in chains beside a forger, a pair of tergiversistic monks, and a blasphemer; the weather intensified the stench from the decaying flesh; crows flapped around the corpses, and high overhead kites shrieked.
Hruther took the river road, carefully avoiding the places where the bank had sunk. He maintained his horse, the remounts, and the mules at a steady, fast walk over the level ground, slowing only slightly as the land began to rise, so that by the time, late in the afternoon, that the first thunder grumbled overhead, he was almost six leagues from Praha, the city long lost to sight behind him. Half a league farther on, lightning ripped the clouds, thunder thudding after it. "Time to find shelter," Hruther told his gelding, and began to watch for tracks leading away from the river; he chose a path that was narrow and old, leading off toward a spinny of larch and oak, and what appeared to be ancient, tumbled walls with an abandoned almshouse beside it.
He dismounted and led the horses and mules into the long, narrow almshouse, taking care to be sure it had not become a den for foxes or bears before stepping inside. The place was musty but not too dilapidated; it would do for the first night. Hruther unsaddled his dun gelding, securing his reins to a half-fallen beam. He found two more substantial beams where he could tie the mules and the remounts, all at the same end of the almshouse; then he unloaded the pack-saddle on the largest mule, setting the single large chest down away from the door and the tethered animals, leaving space for the other chests and crates and easy reloading. Taking great care, he next unloaded the iron-banded chest, putting it next to the large one. He unlocked the banded chest and held out his hand. "My master," he said in Imperial Latin.
From his cramped, folded position within the chest, Rakoczy looked up at him, an expression of relief in his dark eyes. "Old friend." Slowly he straightened up, stretching carefully, his back and shoulders stiff from almost two days in the chest. "Where are we?"
"South of Praha; I reckon it about six leagues, or perhaps a little more." He helped Rakoczy to rise, brushing away the small clods of earth that clung to his gambeson and high boots. "A fair distance."
"Good. We're beyond prying eyes," Rakoczy approved, stretching carefully, favoring his left shoulder where the wounds of the misericordia were concealed by a thick bandage; then he brushed the grime from his face.
"I hope you haven't had too difficult a time in the chest," said Hruther, still steadying Rakoczy so that he could move without falling.
"I've spent years in an oubliette; two days in a box was nothing." He hitched his right shoulder. "Well, not nothing, but far from trying."
"You must have been bored," said Hruther, suiting his tone to Rakoczy's. "There was so little to do."
"No, I was not; I used the time to think-I needed to think." He inhaled gradually and let the breath out slowly. "And Illes? where is he?"
"As far as I know, he left some time after we did. He is bound for Santu-Germaniu with six wagons, a pony cart of food, and an escort of ten men-at-arms. He carries a safe-conduct from the Konige."
"Will he stop at Pressburg to report to Istvan, do you think?" Rakoczy was becoming more alert as he spoke.
"He plans to." He took another case-a small one of leather and iron-from the third mule's pack-saddle. "Jewels and gold."
"All of it?" Rakoczy asked.
"All that wasn't paid to the Counselors and the household," said Hruther. "We may yet have to bribe our way out of Bohemia."
"It is not impossible," said Rakoczy, and looked at the largest chest. "What have you there?"
Hruther opened the chest. "Your bed, and your native earth."
"Thank you," said Rakoczy. "You anticipate everything."
"After so long, I would think so," Hruther said with a touch of amusement in his faded-blue eyes.
"It is good to be away from Praha," Rakoczy said as he took a turn around the almshouse.
"You couldn't remain there, could you?-not after what happened," Hruther remarked, taking the lanthorn from the pack-saddle of the second mule. He used flint-and-steel to strike a spark, and put the lanthorn down on the large chest.
"No," Rakoczy said, accompanied by another mutter of thunder.
"No doubt you are pleased to be free."
Rakoczy considered his response. "I could not remain there as I was."
"And that is no answer," Hruther said.
"No, it is not," Rakoczy conceded. "We are still in Bohemia, so I am not yet free."
Hruther nodded. "But your bones are being carried back to Santu-Germaniu. That should keep anyone from pursuing you."
"They have no reason to assume I have got away, unless Rozsa convinces them that has happened." There was a note of dismay in his voice.
"Who will believe her, even if she should decide that you aren't dead."
"But I am dead," Rakoczy said gently.
"You are undead," Hruther corrected him. "As you have often reminded me, you haven't died the True Death yet."
Lightning filled the almshouse with cold, jagged light and vanished; the horses sidled and pulled, and the mules laid back their ears.
"I believe this is the first time that anyone has tried to drown me deliberately," said Rakoczy; there had been another time, but it was centuries before that day in the Year of the Four Caesars when he had come upon the exhausted and beaten Rogerian in the shadows of the half-built Flavian Circus and restored him to life.
"Not easily done, in your case," said Hruther with the hint of a smile. "Do you want me to build a fire?"
"Unless you would like one, there's no need. I am not cold."
"No," Hruther agreed, thunder silencing him for a long moment. "Smoke would make our presence known, if anyone should be searching for isolated travelers. I won't bother with a fire." He unloaded the largest sack of grain and put down generous measures for the three mules and three horses. "I have your tack, for the morning."
"I never doubted it," said Rakoczy, swinging his arms to loosen them.
Hruther resumed untacking the mules; after a few more stretches, Rakoczy took over stacking the remaining crates and chests with the others, then, while Hruther wiped down the pack-saddles and shook out the saddle-pads, he brushed down the mules and horses, taking his time while the animals ate.
More lightning flashed overhead, cracking and spitting.
"I'll lead them out for water. There must be a stream nearby," said Hruther as Rakoczy finished with the hoof-pick.
"Or a well inside the old walls," said Rakoczy.
The thunder was louder now, more ominous; one of the mules brayed his disapproval.
"Perhaps I'd better bring a pail for them to drink from," Hruther said as the mule continued to protest the storm.
"A good notion," said Rakoczy. "The rain will come very soon now."
"And you won't want to be out in the water, not after-"
"Being drowned," Rakoczy finished for him. "Thank you for that consideration, old friend."
Hruther picked up a large bucket from the assortment of uncrated supplies and let himself out through the leaning door. He found an old well inside the broken stone walls, where Rakoczy had surmised one would be, filled it with water, and hauled it back to the almshouse, shoving his way through the door, then setting the bucket down where the mules and horses could get at it. "I'll take them outside in a bit."
"No need," Rakoczy said from the earth-filled mattress that lay atop the long, narrow chest of his native earth. "We will not be here longer than the night, and both of us have slept in worse places than stalls."
"True enough," said Hruther, his expression sedate; he could see that Rakoczy was finally out of the stupefaction his drowning had imposed upon him. "What is it about drowning that is so terrible? You can't die from it."
"That is what is terrible; water enervates me, leaves me in a state of stupefaction so that all I can do in water is drift and wait to be pulled out or be devoured by one of the many hunters that live in water."
"But the vat stood on your native earth-that should have preserved you: it has in the past," said Hruther, finally giving voice to what had been troubling him.
"Ah, but I had been stabbed and Tahir aimed to reach my heart." He touched his left shoulder. "It left me as incapacitated as the open sea would do."
Hruther considered this, then said, "It must have been unspeakable." He saw Rakoczy nod once; he deliberately changed the subject. "I have a haunch of lamb that I can eat from. The lamb was killed late last night and the meat is fresh enough. It should serve for another day as well." He opened one of the supply boxes and pulled out a joint of meat wrapped in a sheet of vellum. "Will you take sustenance from one of the horses?"
"Not tonight. Tomorrow I may," said Rakoczy, and leaned back on his sustaining bed, only a slight furrow between his brows revealing the discomfort he still felt from his stabbing and drowning.
"It has been many days," Hurther remarked as he took out a skinning knife and sliced a section of lamb, then cut it up into edible strips.
"It has," said Rakoczy. "But one more night will not harm me."
The first rattle of rain sounded on the roof, accompanied by another shudder of thunder.
"Did you manage to visit one of the women you sought out while they slept in the days after your attack?"
"Not after the drowning, but the night before I did." He paused for a long time. "I am grateful for them, for the women at Court..."
"But there were only two ladies, weren't there?" Hruther asked, startled by the enigmatic tone of Rakoczy's voice.
Lightning blanched, cracked, and vanished.
"Rozsa, because she insisted, Imbolya, because she is too young to marry," Rakoczy paused. "Rozsa sought no intimacy from me, nor, I suspect, from anyone. She wanted no touching beyond skins. Imbolya is an intelligent girl, and that is enough for her to want her aspirations fulfilled, though most of them are based upon the songs of troubadours. Both of them believe what the Church tells them: that the gratification from union is possible only with God, that all other satisfaction is carnalistic and therefore debauched." He stared up into the rafters. "They have forgotten that profane is not depravity, it is only outside of the Church. So Rozsa demanded the full pleasure of her senses but would not extend any of herself to me. Imbolya was more willing to risk a kind of touching, but she would not abandon herself to what she so deeply desired."
"And the third? The one whose brother sent your killers?"
"Iliska? She is a child: Imbolya is painfully young, but she is no longer a child. Iliska is like the Konige's daughters, who see a bauble and demand to have it. Iliska is of the same nature. She has no sense of what she is playing at." He went silent again, thinking back on his time in the Konige's Court. "It is ... so sad."
"For them, or for you?" Hruther asked, taking another strip of lamb and chewing it vigorously.
"For all of us," said Rakoczy slowly, the rest of his observation overwhelmed by the peal of thunder that brought a deluge from the clouds, one that thrashed the almshouse unrelentingly for half the night, stilling their conversation and lulling them into rest with the steadiness of the downpour. As the thunder rumbled into the distance, the horses and mules drowsed and the lanthorn burned down, leaving the almshouse in darkness.
Morning brought watery sunlight and soggy ground. Rakoczy and Hruther fed the mules and horses, groomed them, saddled and bridled them, then loaded up the pack-saddles. They went back to the main road and turned south. When they had gone another league, Hruther asked, "Have you decided where we are going yet?"
"Out of Bohemia and Hungary," said Rakoczy.
"Have you decided anything more than that?"
"West," said Rakoczy tersely.
Hruther nodded. "West it is."
Text of a report from the Counselors of Praha to the Episcopus Fauvinel and Konige Kunigunde, dictated by Counselor Smiricti to his scribe, Frater Ulric, and delivered by Council messenger.
To the most puissant Episcopus Fauvinel and the most honored Konige, Kunigunde of Halicz, the report from Smiricti Dedrich, Counselor of Praha, concerning the death of Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes Santu-Germaniu, submitted on this, Mid-Summer Day in the 1270th Year of Salvation:
Most exalted Episcopus and most Royal Konige:
Having been charged with the determination of responsibility in the murder of the Comes, we of the Council have made a thorough inquiry into the events, and we have found that the juggler Tahir was paid by some unknown enemy of the Comes to kill him. He was accompanied by three Bulgarians, whose bodies are now little more than bones, for the purpose of ensuring that the Comes would not escape them. Since the Bulgarians were taken before they could be questioned, and their execution carried out promptly, who may have paid them could not be learned from them.
Therefore, the Council instigated a Process to try to discover who had spoken out against the Comes, and who among those people could be said to be willing to order his death.
We have dismissed the various accusations of Rozsa of Borsod, for a pregnant woman is prey to all manner of visions and delusions that are part of her condition. Between the news of the death of her husband, Notay Tibor of Kaposvar, the day after the murder of Santu-Germaniu, and her impending departure, hers are unreliable opinions. She will be returning to Kaposvar in three days, in any case, and will not have her remarks included in the records of the case.
Three household servants have told the Council that they knew of no revealed enemies of the Comes here in Praha, and offer no explanations for the murder. They did remind us that the warder at Mansion Belcrady was killed after admitting the murderers, so it may be that he was part of the scheme and was betrayed by his fellows.
Among the Hungarians of the Konige's Court, no one has any revealed enmity toward Santu-Germaniu, and therefore it is our conclusion that the murderers were in the employ of an unknown person who has probably fled Praha and was probably neither Hungarian nor Bohemian, but perhaps in the pay of Rudolph von Hapsburg, who is known to be envious of Bohemia and a foe of Hungary. Arranging for such a killing as this one is a way to strike at both kingdoms and to sow dissension in the city and the Konige's Court.
May God bear witness to the truth of this, and protect the Episcopus and the Konige's Court from all malice and treason.
Given by duty in all fealty,
Smiricti Dedrich (his mark)
Counselor of Praha
by the hand of the Hieronymite monk and scribe to the Council, Frater Ulric