An hour after the sliver of moon had gone down in the west and all the world seemed sunken in darkness, Rakoczy slipped a black-wool French cotehardie over his dark-red silk chainse, and added a cowled liripipe of dark-gray wool, with the hood raised; he eased open the shutters in his own rooms, climbed out onto the broad sill, and carefully lowered himself as far as he could from the sill, then dropped to the flagstones beneath, all without making a sound any louder than the fall of a cushion. The stable courtyard was deserted but for a pair of cats on their first hunting sallies of the night, and no one raised an alarm. Quickly he made his way to the stable, going through it to the rear paddocks, then climbed the wooden wall at the back of Mansion Belcrady, into the narrow alley that ran behind the mansion's walls and up the shoulder of the hill to Vaclav Castle. Rakoczy went along to the first back-street that led down toward the heart of Praha, out of sight of the Guards on the castle's battlements and the city's walls.
The heat of the day had dissipated, and a slow, cool breeze slid through streets that were mostly dark and empty in this quarter of the city. Rakoczy made a point of avoiding the few taverns, which were filled with roistering soldiers, tired merchants, gamblers, cutpurses, and loose women; he went along the minor routes where beggars slept in doorways and scrawny boys moved in the shadows, hatchets and hammers clutched in their hands, alert for solitary travelers or strangers to Praha gone in drink. At one point three of the youths began to follow Rakoczy, but fell back when he swung toward them, one hand on the hilt of his Luccan short-sword, the other on the empty wallet that depended from his belt.
Reaching the old Church of the Apostles, Rakoczy paused at the front of the round, squat, thick-walled stone building with its pointed hat of a roof, to listen for the chants of monks; when he was certain that the nightly Hours were being strictly kept, he moved toward the rear of the church to the walled graveyard where the Redemptionist priests and monks buried beggars, madmen, lepers, and pox victims to show their humility and faith. As if the church were a jewel set in a high stone ring, the walls of the compound rose on either side of the church, enclosing a dormitory, a refectory, the new hospice, and, at the farthest end of the compound, the half-finished leprosarium waiting for the patients it would soon house. The enclosing wall beyond was as old as the church-more than four hundred years old-and enclosed the original graveyard and the abandoned charnel house. A single gate gave access to the graveyard; it was not locked, for few people entered the cemetery willingly. He made his way through the wooden headstones toward the charnel house at the rear of the graves; it was an ancient, dilapidated, six-sided building of stone with a sagging wooden roof and windows that were no more than slits. No light came from within it; the only door was buckled so that the crucifix nailed to it hung at a precarious angle. Taking great care to pull the door clear of weeds, Rakoczy stepped into the charnel house, his night-seeing eyes observing the abandoned structure with a mixture of sadness and consternation. Of all the places Rozsa had ordered him to meet her, this was by far the worst and most reckless. He picked his way through the disintegrating pallets where the monks had once treated their patients; his footsteps disturbed mice and other scuttling things. At last he came to an examination table made from sturdy slabs of oak. He leaned against it and felt it hold firm. "That's something," he murmured to the emptiness in his native tongue. Rozsa would like it, for it would let her expose her body to him without the disadvantage of having him lie beside her; she had told him from their first meeting that she disliked closeness, and had insisted upon minimal contact once her clothes were off.
An unmelodious bell struck the end of Vigil; at this signal Rakoczy moved into the deepest shadows in the dark building, for the monks would be leaving their church to return to their dormitory, and he had no wish to give them any reason to suspect that he was in their old charnel house. He chided himself on this extreme precaution, but kept in mind the consequences of being discovered, and remained in place.
Chanting the 88th Psalm, the monks moved in a double line away from the graveyard and toward their dormitory on the far side of the compound, the echoes of their voices following them like disconsolate spirits. From where Rakoczy waited, the echoes became a faint, fading harmony as they met and mixed, the dire words of the chant lost. Gradually the sounds died, and only the faint whisper of the night breeze remained.
It was some time later that there was a rustle in the graveyard, with the hushed tread of solered feet. Rakoczy, who had tossed aside his liripipe, and had been spending his time casting back over his last few centuries of travel and debating when and where he might go next-if he could go anywhere without endangering his fief-now gave his full attention to the approaching footsteps, marking their progress with great care; his left hand curled around the hilt of his short-sword.
"Comes?" The word was so soft it might have been his imagination that he heard it. The door moaned as Rozsa leaned on it. "Are you here, Comes?" she called, adding in an undervoice, "You had better be."
"I am," he responded, starting toward her to help ease the door open, giving no sign that he had overheard her last remark.
She came up to him as he swung the door back. "Ah, Comes. I'm so glad to see you. You will make me very happy, I believe." She flung herself into his arms, reaching to press herself against him. Her elegant bleihaut of muted-purple silk scrooped against him; her rose-and-sandalwood perfume wreathed around him. "Here before me, and in such a place. You are eager. Are you overjoyed I've come?"
"Keep your voice down," he warned sharply.
"Why? Do you think the monks would notice? Everyone knows the place is haunted. No one will come searching, not at this hour, for fear of ghosts."
"You are not afraid of ghosts?" Rakoczy asked.
"Why should I be? God gave me audacity of spirit and a taste for things of the flesh. How can ghosts be proof against that?" She caught her lower lip in her teeth and offered him a languid smile. "We could light torches and no one would disturb us. We may disport ourselves without worry." She locked her hands behind his head, looking at him with undisguised satisfaction. "You hate this, don't you?"
"Hate is the wrong word," he said, trying not to resist her as she tugged at his head so she could kiss him. He could feel her teeth through her closed lips, and was aware she intended that he should.
"What is the word, then? if not hate?" she asked as she released him.
He shrugged. "Despair, perhaps?"
Her laughter was an excited ripple in the air. "Truly? I cause you to despair?"
"Despair." She grinned and tossed her veil at him, her grin widening as the filmy fabric wrapped around him before slithering to the floor. "How delightful, to have such a hold on you. I have never achieved that before." Seeing the shock in his face, she licked her lips provocatively. "Yes. It's delightful. To have a man of your position, your wealth, your power, at my beck and call without obtaining even so little a thing as expiation from our dalliance is delicious." She twirled away from him, going between the old pallets toward the examination table. "I may have to accommodate my husband according to his pleasure, but you, Comes, you will enjoy me according to mine." There was mockery in her voice as well as seduction, and as she held out her hands to him, she said, "You will pleasure me, Comes."
"As you wish, Rozsa," he responded with a duck of his head.
"See that you do."
"Have I failed to gratify you the three times we have met?" He knew he had given her what she sought, even as her particular fulfillment deprived him of the intimacy he craved, and left him feeling deprived.
"No," she admitted. "But you give me cause to hope for more-much more. Something along the lines of the passions of the great lovers of the past." She hummed a fragment of a song about betrayed devotion.
"I cannot give you the love of the troubadours' ballads," he said, thinking that the fables they told were beyond any human capacity to achieve.
"You provide more than I would have otherwise, as I intended you should, and that will have to suffice," she countered, a note of spite in her words. "I've told you that you are far preferable to my husband. You have agreed to pleasure me instead of risk accusation. And, true to your Word, you will give me no awkward children to shame me and bring dishonor upon my husband; not that you would escape damnation if you did." She maneuvered herself onto the table. "The monks have gone in to sleep by now. I think you and I should begin our dalliance for tonight. We haven't much time before there will be activity in the streets again, and we must be gone before that begins; as the night leans toward dawn, half of Praha wakens, and the servants and slaves make ready for the day. I wouldn't want anyone to see either of us."
He wanted to ask her how she had managed to get out of Vaclav Castle without being noticed, or how she would get back in without being observed, but he doubted she would tell him, so he said only, "I am here to do your bidding. You must tell me what you want."
"Then come here and embrace me," she said, gloating as he approached her. "I've loosened my lacings, so you should be able to undress me with ease."
He did as she bade him, removing her gorget before he reached to lift her bleihaut over her head, raising it with care so that it did not catch on her gold-fretwork chaplet, and setting it on the end of the examination table where it could serve Rozsa as a pillow. "Byzantine silk," he said as he turned back to her. "Very elegant. Very expensive."
"Isn't it? My husband at least clothes me well." She fingered the ties on her knee-length linen chainse. "Shall I raise this or remove it?"
"Whichever will please you the most," he said without inflection of any kind.
"Then I will take my chainse off and move it away from me. It's too much like a married-woman's nightrail, and in any case, it irritates me. I will have to tell my 'tire-maid to wash it for me, though she will note any stains upon it." Her face revealed her distaste for the garment all married noblewomen were required by Church law to wear when having congress with their husbands: a simple ankle-length rail with a hole cut to allow for intercourse, thus preserving the spouses from the evils of lust. "Since you will not penetrate me to preserve my honor, I suppose it's just as well that neither you nor I wear one, for there would be little either of us could do to rouse my carnalistic urges. One hole in a sack, that's what it is. Only a priest could think of such a thing."
Rakoczy said nothing while he watched her pull the chainse over her head and fling it away from her, then kick off her solers, paying no heed as they clattered on the rough stones. Now there was only the clout around her loins to clothe her. He began to untie the bands that held the clout in place.
"Kiss me," she said, capturing his hands with her own.
Obediently he lowered his head and pressed her mouth with his own; he could sense the fury in her ardor as she clasped her arms around him. He took his time with their kiss, his tongue opening her lips to his exploration, all the while wondering if she might decide to bite him, for he could feel her caprice welling along with her desire, and angry mischief. He ended the kiss and took a step back. "Shall I untie your-"
"Not yet. All in good time," she said, her hand caressing his jaw. "So carefully trimmed. You must spend hours working in the mirror to achieve this."
"My manservant grooms me," he said; he had had no reflection for more than thirty-two hundred years.
She managed an artistic shiver. "Embrace me again. I am cold."
He almost laughed. "I doubt I can warm you."
"Oh, yes you can. You have done so the previous times we have met, and you shall do so again." The edge in her voice reminded him of how perilous their connection was.
"Then tell me what you want me to do," he said, trying not to recall the many, many times he had asked that question, and what the answers had been. He banished the memories and gave his whole attention to Rozsa. "What will make you warm."
"I want you to embrace me and caress me-slowly." She smiled up at him. "If you hurry, I will not be pleased."
"Then you must tell me if I go too fast," he said, closing the gap between them and putting his arms around her; she snuggled against his cotehardie. "Where would you like me to begin?"
She thought for a moment, then said, "I think you ought to kiss my face, many, many kisses. Of all sorts. Everywhere on my face." She tilted her head to make this easier. "Begin at my eyebrows. Now. Do not be too hasty."
Rakoczy did as she ordered, making his kisses light, playful, and sensual; he smoothed back her hair and turned her face with his hands. He made his way from her eyebrows to her eyelids, then across her cheeks, never increasing the speed of his kisses, until finally he reached her lips, where he spent his time outlining her mouth with his own, growing more intense as he lingered, his tongue probing deeply. He was aware of her arousal, and her satisfaction, but he knew beyond all question that she did not want to include him in her fulfillment.
"Use your hands," she said, pushing against him so he would have access to her body. "Start at my shoulders."
Obediently, he began to stroke her shoulders as gently as if he held a kitten. Shoulders and upper arms gave way to her breasts. He fingered her nipples, fondled her breasts, watching her face suffuse with a concupiscence so inward that he felt himself an intruder in her arousal. He bent to take her nipple in his mouth and was rewarded with her quick gasp of pleasure. Carefully he leaned her back, guiding her so that she reclined on the examination table, her head resting on her folded garments, his hands continuing to venture over her body, probing enticingly, finding new ways to evoke her excitement, gauging his success by her shivers and encouraging sighs and moans. Gradually he felt her move into his hands.
"Do more, and do it sweetly," she said, opening her legs. "You know what I like. Run your hands up my thighs."
He faltered, wondering if she were trying to trap him in some way. "There is more I can do before I-"
"I want you to move lower. Now. My ardor is rising. I want you to use your mouth and your hands to delectate me. I want to be wrung with ecstasy." She met his eyes with more determination than passion. "You promised me that you would not deprive me of my fulfillment: I hold you to that promise."
Slowly, expertly, Rakoczy kissed and nuzzled his way from her breasts, along the flare of her ribs, the curve of her abdomen, to the dark curls at the base of her hips; Rozsa quivered as he gently tugged at the dense hairs, then bent to tongue the small bud that lay at the top of what she called my most lovely rose.
"Not yet," she said, her breath quickening. "Hands first. I want to prolong my exhilaration as long as I can."
"As you wish," said Rakoczy, and separated her sea-shell-scented flesh with his fingers and softly rubbed the little nubbin until it stiffened and grew red as a plum; Rozsa moaned her exaltation. Then he slid two fingers into her, taking his time so that she would gain the most arousal from it; when he tantalizingly withdrew his fingers and entered her again with three, all the while stroking the reddened kernel, Rozsa jolted in response.
"Use your mouth. Now!"
His lips closed on the swollen mote; he felt it jump and tremble; he heard Rozsa give an ecstatic whimper as she dug her hands into his hair. He increased the pressure of his mouth and her first spasm seized her, rocking through her like a miniature tide; she shuddered, her hips lifting rhythmically with her culmination, her throes casting her into a private paradise; Rakoczy wondered briefly what she envisioned behind her closed eyes. Her cries were soft, high, like the call of a distant hawk, and they, like her transports, faded fairly quickly. She shivered a last time, sighed a little, then let go of him. "I am most satisfied," she declared, shifting away from him. "You have done what I require of you. I ought to thank you."
"And you will keep your bargain-I have to be grateful to you," he said with a tinge of sardonic amusement.
"You should be." She contemplated him with the attitude of her superior rank. "Yes, I will abide by the terms I have laid out, I will spare you my-"
"Accusations of rape? That is good of you." Rakoczy stepped back from her, feeling her disdain as if it were a cold wind between them. "I fear I may have broken the skin..." He gestured toward her loins.
"Did you?" She laughed quietly. "You must have been more determined than last time. You certainly increased my consummation." She sat up and swung around. "You say you broke the skin: did you taste the blood?"
She laughed again. "How perverse. Will you Confess it?" Saying that, she reached for her chainse, her mordant amusement fading rapidly. "Help me dress. I will have to leave shortly."
Her abrupt shift from rapture to practicality, although he had seen it before, still had the capacity to shock him. "What do you want me to do?" he asked, feeling, as he had at the end of their previous trysts, a bit mystified. The very small amount of blood he had taken from her tasted flat, and he knew it would provide little nourishment, for there had been no real intimacy between them, no connection beyond the most superficial; the sustenance it provided was minimal.
"When I have my bleihaut on, you may tighten my lacings," she said as she tugged her chainse over her head. "It is a good thing that you don't undress, for all that it displeases me." Without warning, she reached out, grabbing for his genitals through his clothing and shaking her head in disapproval "Soft, too soft."
"Does that trouble you?" he asked. More than a thousand years before he had lost all embarrassment from his impotence and offered no apology for it now. "Were you not fulfilled?"
She fastened the neck-bands of her chainse, chuckling. "I'm not troubled; it suits me that you are ... as you are. In fact, there is something very pleasing in your ... condition. I feel that I achieve more because you achieve less." This last revelation was accompanied by a wink. She got off the examination table and tugged the hem of her chainse to make it smooth, then reached for her bleihaut, shimmying into it with practiced ease. "The lacings," she said to him bluntly.
"Of course." He stepped behind her and began to secure the silken cords. "How tight?"
"I'll tell you when you've-"
The sound of a door opening in the rear of the church made both of them start, then hold in place.
"The night-warder," whispered Rozsa. "He is going to wake the slaves."
"Then we have to hurry," said Rakoczy, securing her lacings without her approval, and tucking the slip-knot into the neck of her dress. He gave her her gorget and veil. "You will need these."
She grabbed them without ceremony, and bent to guide her solers onto her feet. "The warm nights will soon be over," she murmured.
"Yes?" Rakoczy waited to hear what more she would say.
"When the rains come, the army will return from fighting." Her voice was flat.
She straightened up, still speaking softly. "We won't be able to meet while my husband is here."
"I suppose not," he said, keeping his voice quiet and level.
"We won't be able to speak except when meeting at Court functions, and then only of minor things: gossip, clothes, entertainments."
"I am not completely ignorant of Court life, Rozsa," he reminded her with a quick smile.
"No, no, of course you're not," she said with a dismissing wave of her hand. "But you are an exile, as you often remind me, and customs do vary from Court to Court." She pulled her gorget over her head and reached for her veil. "I'll leave first. Wait until the side-gate is closed before you-"
"I will see you safely away," he told her firmly but without raising his voice.
She stared at him, as if shocked by his assertion. "I will leave first," she reiterated in a tone that did not encourage argument.
"If you will permit me to create a diversion, you should be able to get away without being noticed."
As if to underscore his instruction, a sleepy voice was heard ordering the slaves to collect their bread and then to set to work.
Rozsa nodded. "All right. But be quick. I must be in the castle garden shortly, and delay will do me no good."
"Delay is what I seek to avoid," he said, and went to the door of the charnel house, pulling on his liripipe as he went, making sure the hood was up and his features obscured. "You will know when to take your chance, Rozsa."
She frowned. "If you must, I suppose you must."
Carefully he eased the door open and stepped out among the graves. He stayed in the cover of the wooden markers, keeping away from the path the slaves would soon use, and putting distance between himself and the gate in the wall. Finally he found two grave-markers leaning together and he dropped down behind them, unbuckling his belt and sprawling in their shadow. Once laid out, he began to sing in the language of Brabant, the melody an off-key rumble; the song was plaintive, but his rendition only made it sound disjointed:
The wind in the mountains
The wind on the sea
The wind in my lover's heart:
Why has she gone from me?
He was well into the second verse when he heard hastening footsteps and subdued voices, and saw out of the corner of his eye a monk and two slaves hurrying in his direction, the monk carrying a stout wooden staff. He lolled onto his back, spread out his arms, and sang more loudly:
The vines in the valleys
The trees on the hill
The holly in my lover's heart
With thorns that softly kill.
"Over there!" the monk cried, pointing toward the pair of grave-markers; the slaves followed him through the graves, not quite running, but more than walking. Guided by his song, they hastened up to him, and stopped as they discovered him, lying supine, his face hidden, his clothes in disarray.
The monk stood over him uncertainly, then nudged Rakoczy with his toe. "Good man," he said more loudly than was proper in this place, "wake up, good man."
Rakoczy interrupted his song and blinked at the monk. "What?" he asked in Bohemian with a pronounced French accent. "What's the matter?"
"Foreign and drunk," the monk grumbled.
"What's the trouble?" Rakoczy slurred his question.
"You cannot lie here," the monk said, patience and annoyance in his manner.
"Why not?" Rakoczy flailed about in an effort to sit up; he almost struck one of the two slaves huddling next to the monk.
"You are lying on a grave," said the monk, and was satisfied to see the stranger jump and make a serious effort to clamber to his feet. "These are church grounds, and you have been lying on-"
"Yes. Yes. Graves." Rakoczy crossed himself clumsily, then looked around, peering into the darkness. "God have mercy on me."
The monk made the sign of the cross for them all. "Amen." He stepped back as the stranger lurched one step, steadying himself on the nearest grave-marker, then moving away from it, his steps uncertain. The monk made no effort to assist him. "How much did you drink last night?"
"Not much," Rakoczy answered, inwardly reminding himself that this was the truth. "My comrades and I were in a tavern, and then we went and bought a skin of wine." He stared about, befuddled. "I don't remember what..." He slapped the front of his bleihaut. "My belt!" He stared down at the ground. "My wallet." He crouched awkwardly and began to feel around the place he had been lying. "My belt," he exclaimed, snatching it up and holding it aloft like a trophy taken in battle. "And my sword. But where's my wallet?" He hoped that when they finally came across it, they would assume it was empty because of theft.
"Help him look," the monk said in a resigned tone, bending over himself. "The sooner we recover it, the sooner we all may return to our duties."
All four of them set about scrabbling among the graves for the missing wallet, the sounds of their labors sufficiently loud to cover Rozsa's careful retreat. Only when Rakoczy heard the side-gate sigh open did he stop searching and sink down on his haunches. "It's no use. It's gone." He slapped the ground with his hand.
"The dead have claimed recompense for you disturbing them," said the monk, relieved to straighten up. "I will order another search after sunrise, if you are minded to wait." He took a deep breath. "You could attend Mass."
Rakoczy shook his head and crossed himself. "Not this morning. I haven't Confessed for a long time."
The monk's expression made it plain that he was not surprised. He motioned to the slaves. "Come then. Be about your work. This man can find his way to the gate that he came in." He shoved the slaves ahead of him. "May God guide you to His-"
"Thank you. You've been good to me, Frater-better than I deserved." He staggered away a few steps.
"The gate is that way," the monk said, pointing. "Leave now, and choose your companions more carefully in future." With that, he swung around and herded the slaves toward the path to the bake-house.
Rakoczy made a show of fumbling his way through the grave-markers until he was sure he was out of sight; then he walked to the gate and slipped through it, mildly surprised that Rozsa had left it open for him; he closed it behind him, then started up the hill toward Mansion Belcrady.
Text of a letter from Frater Castimir, battle-scribe to Konig Otakar II, near Graz in Styria, to Pader Stanislas, clerk and scribe to Konige Kunigunde at Praha in Bohemia, written on vellum in Latin and carried by royal courier; delivered nine days after it was written.
To the most worthy Augustinian scribe and secretary to the exalted Konige Kunigunde, I, Frater Castimir, battle-scribe to Konig Przemysl Otakar II of Bohemia, send the most sincere greetings of the dear Royal to his Royal wife, and entrust the honest reading of this letter to you on this, the nineteenth day of August in the 1269th Year of Man's Salvation.
To the most serene Konige Kunigunde, the greetings of her husband and Konig, Otakar II, bearing with them the hope that this finds her well, her pregnancy advancing without difficulty, and her Court abiding in her Good Will,
My Konige, it is my wish that you be ready to receive me and my Court in Praha by the middle of October; I have had many successes in the field, and the borders of Bohemia are greatly expanded, much to the distress of Rudolph von Hapsburg, and it is my intention to bring my soldiers out of harm's way before the weather turns; I have been told that the signs are for a hard winter and an early one, and I do not want my army to be bogged down in mud and cold that can only serve to weaken them at a time when they will be wanted in strength next spring.
My Court and I will remain with you until the first signs of spring, and then we must go to Pressburg, where we will make ready for another summer on campaign. It is my wish that you and our children be kept away from the turmoil of battle, and I believe that your grandfather, Konig Bela, shares that wish. For that reason, you may choose what festivities we will observe during my stay in Praha, and you will set the tone of the Courts, yours and mine, for the time they are combined.
May God grant you a safe delivery of an heir, and may he be a sound, healthy boy who will be ready to take the reins of power when God takes them from my hands. Know that I pray daily for our coming child, and that I have offered Masses and tribute for our son. As I know you pray for my victories, so your delivery of my heir shall complete my conquests and secure an Empire for our descendants. In this we are united in purpose and in faith.
Przemysl Otakar II
Konig of Bohemia and Moravia
Lord of Styria and Carinthia
Dux of Austria
by the hand of Frater Castimir, battle-scribe to the Konig Otakar and Premonstratensian monk