PART I Chapter 5

"I have come to you bringing gifts, Comes," said Rozsa of Borsod as she entered the main hall of Mansion Belcrady; she was arrayed in an elaborately embroidered bleihaut of dull-red samite over a chainse of light Anatolian cotton the color of primroses. Her headdress was high and broad so that her long veil hung down over her gorget, wrapping around her head in such a way that her face appeared to float in a cloud. She had bathed a week ago and had disguised the odor of her sweat with a perfume of sandalwood and roses. "The Konige was very much pleased with the banquet, so lavish and excellent it was, and so magnanimous your hospitality, and she wishes to reward you for it." She courtisied him, bending her knees to a half-kneel and ducking her head, a degree of recognition usually reserved for Konigs. "Behold in me her envoy."

Rakoczy nodded respectfully to her. "Dear Royal is much too kind to an exile, and I am much obliged to her for her kindness," he said, aware that it was more a plea than politesse; he was keenly alert to four of his servants who were listening, and that everything they said was being noted, and that the news of the Konige's gift would be all through the city by Vespers. He steadied himself and, with superb gentility, swept her a French bow. "Do come into my manse and be welcome, Lady. As the Konige's envoy, receive the hospitality of Mansion Belcrady in her stead." Fortunately he was elegantly dressed in a huch of Damascus silk woven red-and-black; beneath was a very white chainse of Italian linen. Braccae of black Hungarian leather and French solers completed his clothing. It was a little more clothing than the hot day called for, but since neither heat nor cold tended to discomfit him, he was not flushed or perspiring.

"Dear Royal wants to make sure a fellow-countryman is properly thanked for his estimable entertainment," Rozsa countered. She held out the large pouch she carried within the folds of her veil. "This is for you."

"I should not accept it," he said, hearing the clinking of coins in it and gauging the weight by the size and hang of the pouch. "It is far too much."

"To refuse would insult the Konige: is that what you want?" She looked at him through her eyelashes, a faint smile playing at her mouth.

"No, I do not," he said, accepting the pouch from her; it was quite heavy. "Dear Royal is overly generous, I fear."

"This from a man who has given the Konige more than twenty fine jewels, and a banquet for her Court with twelve courses and jongleurs, acrobats, troubadours, and players," Rozsa chided him playfully. "After such munificence, it would be churlish of you to slight her gold."

"Has she presented such lavish gifts to others of her Court?" Rakoczy asked cautiously, anticipating the jealousy such distinction could inspire.

"No one has ever given her such jewels as you have," said Rozsa, her eyes lighting with naive greed. "Bohemia is rich in gold, and it is the dear Royal's to use as she likes."

Rakoczy bowed in the French fashion once again. "Then convey my deepest appreciation and gratitude to the dear Royal, and assure her of my respectful devotion." He looked around. "Barnon, will you go to the kitchen and ask Pacar to prepare a tray for our guest?"

Barnon ducked his head. "At once, Comes."

"Had I known of your visit, a tray would have been waiting for you," Rakoczy said to Rozsa. "As it is, I hope you will forgive me for the lapse."

"Certainly," said Rozsa, her green eyes bright with mischief. "I would not expect you to keep bread and salt on hand all the time in case a guest might happen along. That would diminish the value of the offering." She laughed. "We needn't hurry your cook. I have been told to stay with you a while, so that all Praha will know of your favor." She made a sign of gratitude to punctuate her formal announcement. Then she made herself more at ease, and said to Rakoczy, "I am told you have an herb-garden. I would like to see it. Would you show it to me while your cook readies the tray, Comes?"

"As soon as I deal with this pouch, it will be my honor," he replied, misgivings working deep within him. He ducked his head and turned toward the stairs. "I will not be long."

"So I hope," she told him. "While I wait, I will ask one of my escort to be with me, so that no ill-willed gossip will result from my presence in your manse." She pointed to Ambroz, the carpenter, who had been repairing the shutters and was now watching Rozsa with open admiration. "Will you fetch Pasc to me? He is the leader of my escort. You may know him by his surcote, that has vert, a lion couchant to the sinister or. The others wear Konig Otakar's device: argent, a lion rampant sable, crowned and charged with a cross on the shoulder or. You should all recognize it, but those of you new to Praha might not."

Astonished at having been singled out for this honor, Ambroz hurried from the main hall.

"There," said Rozsa, "that should stop any unkindly words in regard to my visit." She walked toward the maw of the fireplace. "In winter this will keep you very warm." No one answered her. "You are fortunate to have so accommodating a master. You would do well to keep it in mind that he has done much for you."

Unusually rushed, Hruther hurried into the main hall, his manner flustered. He bowed to Rozsa, then hurried to remove the long apron over his short cotton bleihaut and braccae of braided leather. "I'm sorry you have not been properly greeted yet, Rozsa of Borsod. The cook is working right now to make a welcome-tray for you. I ask you to forgive his tardiness. I would have brought you bread and salt myself, but I was tending to duties elsewhere, or you should-"

"It's not important. You couldn't have known a tray would be needed," she said. "The Konige sent me without pages to inform you of my arrival."

"The Konige is most gracious," said Hruther with the automatic good manners he had learned over the years, which were measured in centuries.

"Oh, she is, she is," said Rozsa, all but grinning as she saw Pasc approaching from the entry hall, his hand resting on the quillons of his sword, his stride as deliberate as his eyes were wary. "There you are, Pasc," she hailed him with a graceful summons of her arm. "There. All our reputations are maintained."

"Lady," said Pasc, disapproving of her blithe lack of concern.

"You needn't admonish me. I am probity itself." She swung back toward Hruther. "I trust the tray will have enough for Pasc and his men as well as for me?"

"Of course, Lady," said Hruther. "Your escort shall have bread and wine. It is being prepared even now." He met her gaze with calm. "The scullions will bring it out to them in the stable."

"They will be most appreciative," said Rozsa.

"And their horses may go into the stable to get out of the sun," Hruther added. "I assume you came in your wagon?"

"I did," she said.

"We will put it in the stable as well, and see that the pony has a pail of water. If you will excuse me, I will attend to the arrangements." He bowed again and withdrew to the kitchen, where he found Barnon and Pacar locked in a battle of wills, their voices raised enough to make the room echo. "What is it?" Hruther asked in a tone that stopped them for a moment. "What is the reason for all this?" The two men began to speak at once, and Hruther silenced them again. "Pacar, what is the trouble?"

"I am trying to prepare a tray for the guest that is worthy of her; Barnon wants the usual bread and salt alone, which is good enough for the men-at-arms, but hardly suitable for a Konige's lady-in-waiting." He folded his arms for emphasis. "I will not be slipshod in my attention to such a guest, and if others must wait on that account, so be it."

"And in the meantime, the men-at-arms and their horses stand in the sun, at a nobleman's establishment. Pray God the Lady Rozsa does not hold us in contempt for this," Barnon complained. "Besides, all this fussing is taking time. A Konige's lady-in-waiting should not have to wait to be properly welcomed. Offer bread and salt now, and the rest later." He sounded both worried and angry.

"Pacar," said Hruther in a manner that gave no room for argument, "if you will, finish preparing the tray for the Konige's lady-in-waiting. Barnon, be good enough to go out and inform the men-at-arms that they and their mounts and the Lady's wagon may take shelter in the stable. Tell Illes that water and hay should be offered, and that as soon as the cook has attended to the Konige's lady-in-waiting, bread, salt, and wine will be provided for them." He saw that the two men were somewhat mollified. "The Comes will thank you for your good service."

"I'll inform the Lady's escort," said Barnon, huffy but willing to accommodate the demands. He turned on his heel and tromped out of the kitchen.

Pacar indicated the tray he had been readying; it held a round loaf of dark bread, a small dish of salt, a silver goblet, a bottle of straw-colored wine, a plate of dried fruit, a tub of butter, and a bowl of pickled onions. "I thought some carrots and the veal sausage?"

"That should suffice." Hruther smiled his reassurance. "Then the tray for the men-at-arms."

"Of course," said Pacar, continuing with his preparation.

Hruther made his way back to the main hall, where he saw half a dozen household servants lingering to watch Rozsa of Borsod while she made her languid way around the room, stopping now and then to examine the new wood carvings installed between the narrow windows along the walls, or to finger the new tapestry that hung opposite the fireplace. "Return to your duties," he said with composed authority.

The servants complied slowly, taking as long as they dared to get out of the main hall. Ambroz was the last to go; only the sound of Rakoczy descending the stairs made him depart.

"Comes," said Hruther. "There will be trays for your guests shortly."

Rakoczy said, "Thank you; Lady Rozsa and I will go out to the herb-garden, which she has a desire to see, and will return directly, to the rear reception room, where I trust she will have a welcome-tray waiting for her." He looked toward her. "Will you forgive the delay in a proper welcome?"

"Since the herb-garden is my idea, I most certainly will. I have broken my fast, and my hunger is minor," she assured him, and motioned Pasc away with a wave of her hand. "Go join your men, Pasc. You will have your refreshments with them."

Pasc inclined his head. "As you wish," he told her before he made for the entry hall and the door beyond.

"There. I am now ready to view your herb-garden. If you will be kind enough to show me the way? Comes?" Again she offered her sideways smile as she held out her hand to lay on his proffered arm.

"There is a door in the corridor to the kitchen that has access to the herb-garden. We need not go into the kitchen itself," Rakoczy said. At the entrance to the corridor, he moved slightly ahead of her, indicating the large cabinet built into the wall. "This is most useful. We have stored many things in it."

"Better than a pantry, I'd wager; you don't have to have a slave sleep in it if you keep it locked." Her laughter trilled again. Then she asked, "You don't keep slaves, do you?"

"No," he said, stopping at a door set in the wall at the end of the cabinet.

"Whyever not?"

"Slaves can be dangerous for exiles," he said ambiguously, his memories stirring.

"Slaves are slaves. How dangerous can they be?" She moved back as he pulled the door open. "You can certainly afford to own many."

"In terms of wealth, yes, I can; but politically, I cannot; a stranger in a place is at the mercy of his household." While this was true, it was not the reason for his decision-made long ago-not to keep slaves. His experiences with Srau, a millennium in the past, had convinced him that it was unwise and unethical to do so. He stood aside so that she could go out into the herb-garden; he went after her, closing the door behind him, ensuring them a degree of privacy they would not have otherwise. There was a stone bench next to a bed of lavender; he led her to it. "I think you can see all the garden from here."

She took her seat, leaving space enough beside her for him; from here she surveyed the ordered beds. "Lavender, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, savory, basil, tarragon, sorrel, anise, parsley, juniper, hawthorn"-she stopped and pointed to a cluster of unfamiliar flowers-"I don't know that one."

"Saffron," he answered. "Oregano, catnip, mint, nettles, angelica, milk thistle, feverfew, ginger. I would like to plant a willow for its bark, but there is insufficient room for it and all the rest of them."

"Too much shadow, you mean?" She saw him nod. "Perhaps." She patted the empty space beside her. "Come sit with me."

"That might be unwise, my Lady. There are those who would make more of our nearness than either of us would like." He took a step closer to her, asking her with a cordiality that was more form than substance, "What is it you want to say to me?"

"Say to you?" she echoed.

"I supposed that you wanted a private word with me."

"You mean you don't believe all I want is to see your herb-garden?" She laughed again, amused at her suggestion. "You're right, of course. I have a second purpose."

"May I know what it is?" He saw her smile broaden. "Rozsa?"

"In time, Comes, in time." She took a deep breath, deliberately turning away from him. "If I lived here, I would probably spend all day in this garden. The smell is as heady as new wine. I want to bask for a little while, and then I'll explain to you." She put her hands behind her and straightened her arms, leaning back a little so that she could look up into the depths of the endless summer sky. After a long moment, she frowned and gazed toward the city walls. "Oh. I wish those kites and crows would go elsewhere."

Rakoczy squinted at the expanse overhead, making note of the assorted carrion birds that flew above the city gates. "They are attracted to the nine highwaymen hanged yesterday." He felt a rush of pity for the men, for, brutal as they were, their execution had been ferocious and cruel: arms and legs pulled from their sockets, teeth wrenched from their jaws, then hanged in chains where they would rot until their corpses fell apart.

"Of course they are," she said. "But there's dead meat out there." She pointed at the woods a little less than a league beyond the walls. "They should go there for their meals. It is distracting to have them making such a fuss. And they stink almost as badly as the corpses do."

"You mean you want the birds to fly to the forest?" he inquired.

"Yes; why not? They have wings," she said with determination.

"Why should they, when the hanged men are so ... convenient?" Rakoczy pointed down the hill to the city walls. "If the Guards do not kill them, what do you expect them to do? They are not foolish creatures. They roost all around the city, and will do for as long as they find ready food here. They kill the rats and many other vermin inside the walls when they haven't easier pickings at the gates." He made no attempt to hide his disgust.

"How fastidious you are. Yet it appears you've seen this before," Rozsa observed, her green eyes on his dark ones.

"Yes; I have," he said as his memories expanded back over the centuries: Spain, Aachen, Cyprus, Constantinople, the Cyclades, the Silk Road, Roma, Persia, Roma again, Gaul, Egypt ... the images flickered through his thoughts like shadows in a high wind.

"As an exile, I suppose you might, traveling the world as they say you have done," she said, reaching out and taking his hand. "And in your situation, I also imagine you might be inclined to accept the favors of those who wish you well? Would you not?"

"It would depend upon the favor," he said, his voice utterly neutral.

"Nothing unpleasant, I assure you," she said, and her tongue flicked over her lower lip.

He concealed the sudden wash of anxiety that swept through him, responding coolly, "If I was certain that the good-will was just that, and not a disguise for advancing a cause, or a clever ruse concocted for some form of maleficence."

"So cautious. But I guess that's to be expected. I know I would be, were I in your ... situation."

"Then I ask you to be forthright with me, Lady." He spoke softly in Magyar. "Tell me your intentions and your reasons and I will give you my answer."

Rozsa sighed. "No one does anything for pure charity but saints, and there are few of them in the Konige's Court." Her laugh this time was cynical.

"Will you tell me your purpose when you explicate your request?"

"Very likely," she said, getting up from the bench and walking a few paces away from him. "Ever since this gossip about you and me began, I have been thinking: what if there were good cause for the rumors?" She glanced back over her shoulder, mocking excitement strong in her face.

"But there is no cause for the talk," he said.

"There might be; there could be," she said. "I have pondered the matter, and I'm sure we have denied all those allegations so often that most of the Court has grown weary of their fruitless speculations and all the Konige's Court is now searching for something else to be titillated by since you and I have provided so little fuel for their fires. Very soon, no one will pay any attention to what you and I may do, and we may do anything we like-anything." She stopped to pluck the end of a hawthorn twig, then resumed walking among the raised beds, dallying near the wall where roses climbed. "Consider how readily we might turn this to our advantage." Her fine, angled brows lifted, encouraging and taunting him at the same time.

Rakoczy scrutinized her without appearing to do so. "Is this some manner of test? Have you been told to discover whether I will capitulate when offered such bounty as you possess?"

"Do you think that's what this is?" She all but spat the question.

"Is it not?" he countered.

"Of course not," she said with heat. "I'm not so foolish as to propose something I am not prepared to do. Think of my position as a lady-in-waiting: my husband is gone on campaign, and when he is with me, he is no better than a rutting boar. He beats me before he demands my submission, as so many men do to their wives because the priests encourage it." She fixed him with her green stare. "There is something about you that makes me believe that you might be more accomplished than he is. I don't think you would beat me, or not very much. You would give me what I seek." Desire and another, less obvious emotion simmered in her face. "Do you tell me I am wrong?"

"It would depend upon what you feel you lack," he replied, speaking with great precision.

"The satiation of the flesh," she said at once. "A man with your grace and courtesy must know something of the nature of women's bodies-something more than my husband does."

"Your husband could demand my life if-"

"If he learned of it?" she challenged, coming toward him.

"Or if the Konig did," he amended.

Rozsa tossed her head and one end of her veil came loose. "Who is to tell him? You?"

"If there were nothing to tell, neither you nor I would have cause to fear either your husband or the Konig," he said as gently as he could.

"Are you denying me?" She stopped a stride away from him, anger turning hot within her. "You would refuse what I ask? You disdain what I offer?" Her voice was loud; she spoke again in a near-whisper. "Do you dare?"

"For your safety as well as my own, I am certain I must; you may rely on me to hold your offer in confidence so that nothing ill may come of anything you have said," he answered quietly; adulterous wives were often condemned to the stake for apostasy and betrayal. "I would not want your burning on my soul." He met her eyes and held them.

"Or your own? That could be your fate as well as mine." She pointed at him, wicked amusement in her eyes. "I've thought this over, you see, and my Confession would say you seduced me with diabolical powers. I might be immured in a convent, but you would be given to the flames. I implore you not to force me to such a desperate act. Say you will be my lover and we may be happy together."

He calmed his turbulent thoughts, and said with equable determination, "I am flattered beyond all reckoning that you would seek me out in this way, and, as I have assured you, I pledge never to repeat what you have said. But I could not bear to think you might be burned for betraying your husband-"

"You mean you fear what he would demand of you for his honor to be restored, don't you?"

"No, Lady, I do not." He waited for her rejoinder; when she remained silent, he added, "You are a beautiful woman, and if you want to take a lover, I am sure there must be many men within the Konige's Court who would be overjoyed to-"

"I don't want any of them: I want you!" She closed the distance between them, trying not to touch him quite yet. "What use have I for the men at Court? They are the same as my husband. You-you are different. You listen to me: you don't swill wine and stagger into bed, making demands no woman would want. You don't ... You treat me the way the heroes in the troubadours' songs treat their women." She took his hands in hers. "They may be only tales, but, oh, Comes, I want that sweetness for myself."

"Which you believe I can provide?" Ruthfully he drew his hand from her grasp.

"Which I know you can provide." She stared into his face. "When you have sung for the Konige, you have given such pathos to the songs you offered that I know there is mercy in you. You cannot deny it. I have yearned for such affection as you must have, and there are few men in the Konige's Court who can provide me what I want."

"The kind of passion you seek cannot be demanded or contrived, it must answer the longing-"

"All right; I long for you. Everything within me cries out for what you can offer. Is that enough, or must I abase myself still further?" Her voice was still low, but emotion turned it rough. "What do I have to do? Tell me."

"You have to do nothing," he said, compassion making his tone tender.

"You don't want me?" Disbelief and outrage soared through her. "Can you say that to my face?"

"If I cared nothing for your safety, or my own, yes, I would want you," he told her softly, knowing that when he had first met her, before he became aware of the intricate jealousies of the Konige's Court, he had wondered if she might be inclined to accept a discreet arrangement. After two weeks, he had known that it would be foolish and desperate to form such an alliance, and he had contented himself with visiting women in their sleep to satisfy his esurience. "But there is too much danger for us both if we should decide on such a course. I would rather you suffer only pangs of disappointment than spend your days in a cell, isolated from everything and everyone you know." This was not an unlikely possibility, and both of them knew it.

"I am willing to take the chance," she said, reaching for his hand again and pressing it to her breast. "Tell me this doesn't move you. Tell me your flesh isn't stirred."

"Rozsa, I am not a stone," he responded, dropping his hand. "Your welcome-tray should be waiting."

"I waited for it, let it wait for me," she said severely. "We are not done yet."

"I think we must be," Rakoczy said sympathetically.

"You will not love me?" There was more anger than yearning in her question.

"Not as you wish," he said with an apologetic bow; he started toward the door.

Rozsa remained where she was. "What if I were to say you raped me?" she asked in a remote voice. "What if I Confessed that you forced yourself on me? What do you think would happen to you then?"

He stopped but did not turn toward her. "I would be burned at the stake," he said, aware that it would be his True Death.

"Yes, you would," she said, her words like a closing trap. "Your name would be utterly disgraced, Konig Bela would claim your lands, your dishonor would be complete when your ashes were scattered to the winds, never to rest in hallowed ground."

"Would it please you to see me burn?" he asked, showing little emotion.

"If you hadn't given me what I ask, it would. It would delight me to describe the depravity you unleashed upon me, and to renounce the world because of how you had used me." She approached him, fury in her smile.

"Tell me then," he said levelly, "what you want of me."

"You know already-the rapture sung in the heroic tales. I want to be Blanchefleur, Ysolte, and Messeuline. I want to have what they had for myself." She reached for him, pulling herself to him, rubbing her body against his. "You know the way to ignite my flesh, don't you, Comes?" With a sudden effort, she put her hands around his neck and kissed him full on the mouth, and when she was done, she laughed breathlessly. "Tell me, Comes, am I not sweeter than flames?"

The heat of her body seemed to brand him through his clothes. "How can you ask?" he told her, all the while puzzling out how he would deal with her if he acquiesced to her demands.

"Then show me," she said before she kissed him again.

* * *

Text of a letter from Balint of Santu-Germaniu, steward at Santu-Germaniu in the Carpathian Mountains, to Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes Santu-Germaniu, at Mansion Belcrady in Praha, dictated to Frater Lorand, written on vellum and carried by personal courier; never delivered.

To the most puissant Comes Santu-Germaniu, Rakoczy Ferancsi, currently living at Mansion Belcrady in the city of Praha in Bohemia, the greetings of his faithful steward Balint of Santu-Germaniu at Santu-Germaniu on this, the first Sunday in July, the 1269th Year of Salvation,

Good Comes:

In fulfillment of the charge you gave me upon your departure, I send you this report to inform you of the current state of your fief, and all that pertains to it, in the hope that you will find what I have done satisfactory and appropriate.

The orchards within the walls of your principal seat bloomed lavishly this year despite the late snow at the end of March, of which I have already informed you, and I am confident that the harvest of apples and plums will be the best in the last eight years, barring summer misfortunes. I have ordered more grape-vines planted on the south slope below the orchards, and in time they will yield good red wine. The oats and rye are ripening in the fields and again, the wheat is flourishing but not as abundantly as the other grains. Yet even with that consideration, the assumption is that the harvest will be bountiful unless there are more heavy rainstorms.

The drainage ditches you ordered be dug are finished, and they have done much to keep the fields from being inundated with water during the rainstorms of May. The weather has remained hot, which has been beneficial to the crops, including those of the kitchen gardens, for we have a great crop of beans and onions already flourishing. The berries on the vines behind the kitchen garden are so plentiful that we have had to post men to drive off the deer and bear that come down from the peaks and out of the forest to raid them.

Konig Bela's men have come here twice since the middle of May, and they are warning of high taxes that will be levied on the crops we harvest and the livestock we may breed. To that end, they have already requisitioned three grown hogs, ten lambs, and a yearling calf, with promises that more will be required. After their selection, we have now thirty-four hogs, sixteen shoats, eighty-four sheep, twenty-three lambs, fifteen goats, six kids, twenty-nine head of cattle, thirteen calves, seventeen horses, eight foals, and fifty-eight various fowl. I have, in accordance with your instructions, refrained from disputing with them on any of these demands, and when they return in August, I will do what I can to supply their wants without cavil.

However, I have made a protest to Konig Bela on behalf of Erno the Blacksmith, whose daughter Ildiko was carried off by the Konig's men to be their maid and whore; they paid no price for her, and they boasted that they would share her among them. Ildiko is almost fifteen, and she was pledged to Vida the game-keeper, who is now demanding payment for her loss. If the Konig is unwilling to pay the price Vida is asking, then there will be bad blood between him and Erno for a long time, I fear, and more anger at Konig Bela for allowing the debt to remain unpaid. I ask your permission to send an official petition of redress to Konig Bela.

The Konig has also not stopped the robbers who prey on those traveling into Santu-Germaniu; his men said that because of his war, the Konig cannot spare any fighting men to patrol the roads to rid them of the outlaws. I know you cannot hire men to do it, for then Konig Bela would seize all of Santu-Germaniu and conscript or enslave all those living as your vassals, but surely there must be some way to stop the attacks, which grow bolder every month that passes. If you have some means of dealing with the robbers, tell me and I will attend to it at once. Something must be done, or no one will be safe on our roads.

We have heard that there has been some trouble for the river merchants on the Moltava, and for that reason, I have not yet dispatched to you the two boats you have requested, unless you would like me to load them on a lumber-wagon and hitch ten mules to pull it. It may be wiser for you to go to the Boatwrights' Guild and have the craft built there, little as Konig Bela might approve. He would not like you to have boats brought to you as loads of wood, either.

This in all devotion, by the hand of Frater Lorand, who continues to serve as scribe to Santu-Germaniu, and clerk to

Balint, steward of Santu-Germaniu (his mark)

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com