As he rubbed his face, Istvan Bathory tried to banish the fatigue that was consuming him; he had three more audiences to give before attending evening Mass. He concealed a sigh and smoothed his beard. What he longed for most was two hours to sleep; it was the one thing he could not grant himself. Not too many years ago he would have been pleased at so much activity, but that was before his successful start of the campaign against Russia. Now he felt the weight of hours more heavily even as time swept by more swiftly than ever. He attempted to sit more comfortably on the large carved chair his noble host had provided for him, but could discover no position that did not cause the scar of his year-old thigh wound to ache from knee to hip; it had bothered him less in the summer, but now that winter was near it took a toll on him. He was grateful for the fire that blazed in the hearth, for it provided some relief.
“Rakoczy is here,” said the ambitious young Jesuit priest who served as his secretary as he returned from delivering Istvan’s formal thanks to the nobleman whose estate they occupied. “He arrived an hour ago.”
“Rakoczy,” said Istvan, straightening up and ignoring the renewed pain it caused. “Already. He came quickly.”
“Your summons said it was urgent. He acted promptly, which is fitting.” The priest never smiled, but occasionally he showed an inner satisfaction; this was one such instant. “Hrabia, Prinz, or whatever he styles himself, you are King.”
“Yes,” agreed Istvan, his weathered eyes thoughtful. He righted the coronet he wore. “But he has complied immediately, unlike some others—”
“The Turks are swarming over his homeland,” the priest reminded Istvan. Though he was only twenty-six there was already a deep vertical line between his brows and it grew more pronounced. “He was driven out, in spite of long resistance. It has been the fate of many Transylvanians. He must be very pleased to have any notice at all.”
Istvan regarded his secretary with sharp attention. “Father Mietek, I depend on men like him. Without them we could not do the Pope’s bidding. There would not be men enough to advance on Russia. We would have no hope of gaining Russian help to stem the Ottoman tide. That the Turk overwhelmed Rakoczy’s land is not to his discredit. There are many more who have surrendered, joining their enemies, and that is the disgrace, not heroic resistance.” He rarely gave such a stern reprimand to the priest, out of respect for his calling and for fear of the power the Church could wield in these times.
“They say the Rakoczys have fought valorously,” said Father Mietek as a kind of peace offering to Istvan. “The name has long been honored.”
“Yes,” said Istvan, establishing a truce between them.
Father Mietek indicated the massive, closed doors that led to the corridor beyond. “And Rakoczy is waiting.”
“In the corridor?” asked Istvan, scandalized that a noble would be given such poor treatment.
“In the antechamber,” said Father Mietek. “I left him there with two of your guards. To show respect.”
“I hope he sees it that way,” said Istvan dryly. “Better bring him here. Hrabia Saint-Germain ought not to be kept waiting like a simple tradesman, guards or no guards.” He made an impatient gesture to Father Mietek. “Where is my aide? Where is my Captain, that I must send a priest to escort Rakoczy.”
“They are at supper, Majesty,” said Father Mietek. “Where you sent them.”
Istvan nodded. “And the rest are preparing for the inspection tomorrow. Yes. Of course.” He glanced around the room, reminding himself of the size of the building itself. “Has my host arranged for any of my company to stay at other estates, or are we all to remain here?” There was great risk in remaining all in the same place, knotted together. If his enemies should discover where he was, with all his officers and aides, it would be a simple matter for them to fall upon him, secure in the knowledge that there were no reinforcements nearby to come to rescue or avenge him.
“There is a town not far away. Most of the soldiers have been sent there for the night,” said Father Mietek. “The inspection is the most important matter facing them. We don’t know what supplies are left to us, or what repair we have for our weapons. You were the one who insisted that—”
Istvan held up his hand. “Yes, I’m aware of that,” he said. “Well, I trust that Hrabia Saint-Germain will understand my situation here.”
“I will explain it to him,” said Father Mietek as he started toward the door.
“No,” said Istvan. “If there are explanations to be made, I will make them myself. There is no reason for you to provide any.”
The priest lowered his head in a show of humility. “If that is your wish, Majesty.”
Istvan Bathory made a warning gesture. “Prudence, Father Mietek. I need this Hrabia to assist me; he is the only man I know of who can achieve what I require. It is important.”
“I am here to serve you, Majesty,” said Father Mietek as he left the chamber that had become Istvan’s headquarters for his stay.
With Father Mietek gone, Istvan got to his feet and paced, letting his rolling stride take the worst cramps out of his leg. Tired as he was, he was restless as well. He wanted to pray but there were no more supplications left in him to address to God. Instead he recalled the letter that had been brought to him by a cloth merchant who had sworn it had been given to him by one of the military officers in Moscovy. That letter—assuming it was genuine—was the one promise of hope he had to gain influence with Czar Ivan. What he had read had prompted him to send word to Rakoczy, for he was known to be a powerful alchemist, one who had the wisdom to make jewels; he was also noted for his good sense, and therefore would not be easily trapped or compromised.
Father Mietek appeared in the doorway. “Hrabia Saint-Germain,” he announced, reluctantly stepping aside for Ferenc Rakoczy.
“Majesty,” said Rakoczy, his accent clipped and old-fashioned, while bowing in the Italian manner instead of going down on one knee, his sable hat in his right hand. From his black velvet mente to the silver-embroidered black silk dolman with ruby buttons beneath it, Ferenc Rakoczy, Hrabia Saint-Germain, was elegant. His black leggings were finest-quality wool and his heeled boots on his small feet had been made by a master. His dark, loose curls were cut short, and contrary to fashion, he was clean-shaven. He wore a single ring on his small hands, a dark signet ruby with the sign of the eclipse cut into it. Although he was of average height, he occupied the room in a way much larger men would envy. There was something arresting in his dark eyes, an expression that was at once enigmatic and compassionate. His composure was formidable; most men fidgeted when Istvan perused them; Rakoczy did not.
Little though he revealed it, Istvan was impressed. “You present an excellent appearance. And a prompt one,” he said at last.
“Majesty is gracious,” said Rakoczy.
“I’m nothing of the sort,” said Istvan. “Father Mietek, I am certain you have duties elsewhere.”
The young priest glared at the King, but he accepted his dismissal with what grace he could muster. “Of course.”
“You have my permission to tend to them.” Istvan waited until the door was firmly closed before he paced around Rakoczy. “I understand you’ve traveled.”
“With what has become of my native land, it’s been necessary,” Rakoczy said calmly.
“Yes; unfortunate. But perhaps you will consider what I offer: I wish you to travel for me,” Istvan informed him.
“From Bohemia to Poland, at least,” said Rakoczy, not quite smiling. “As swiftly as you ordered, Majesty.” He had covered the distance on horseback accompanied only by his manservant because the roads were too poor to trust a carriage, and there were too many brigands to tempt them with a show of property and wealth a larger escort would imply.
“And you may travel farther than that,” Istvan said in a tone that would not permit an argument. “If you are the man I think you are?”
Nothing of his expression changed, but there was a quick jolt of fear that went through Rakoczy, as disturbing as it was senseless. For more than forty years he had concealed his true nature; surely he had not been found out. He knew better than to demand that the King of Poland tell him what he meant. He steadied himself, and decided to risk disfavor. “What man is that, Majesty?”
“An astute one, at least, and one with a reputation for valor with a cool mind,” said Istvan. “And perhaps something more.”
This time the fear was stronger, but Rakoczy controlled it. “Whatever you believe me to possess, if it is truly mine to command, it is at your service.”
Istvan laughed once, a harsh, ill-used sound. “Very pretty. Where did you learn courtesy? Certainly not in Transylvania. Or Poland.”
Rakoczy shrugged. “Various places in my travels. Italy.” Saying the word brought memories still less than a century old; they were painful. He banished the faces of Demetrice and Laurenzo, the burning paintings of Sandro Botticelli from his thoughts.
“Some trouble there, um?” Istvan asked, aware of the change in Rakoczy, a change that was gone even as Istvan remarked on it.
“There is often trouble in Italy, centuries and centuries of it,” he answered smoothly.
The evasion was not lost on Istvan, but he ignored it. “Well, it is behind you. There are other tasks to concern you.”
“Are there?” Rakoczy raised his fine dark brows.
“I think so,” said Istvan, and reached into his sleeve to draw out the letter from the unknown Russian. “Read it.” The command was also a test, and both men knew it.
Rakoczy went through the message quickly, frowning a little at the imprecise hand. “A…an interesting communication,” he said carefully when he was through. “The writer has some understanding of Greek, but I suspect does not use it very often, not if this is an example of his comprehension. Is it authentic, do you think?”
“The very question I have been asking myself since I received it.” Istvan clicked his tongue to express his doubts. “I have heard rumors, of course.”
“Everyone hears rumors,” said Rakoczy. “Even the peasants gossip about the Czar.”
“And say that he dines with the devil and devours virgins, no doubt,” said Istvan curtly. “Who can put stock in such tales?”
Rakoczy smiled fleetingly. “Indeed.”
Istvan stopped moving and rubbed once at his leg. “But that letter—it troubles me. If it is true, it might mean, oh, a great many things. If the Czar is as distressed as the writer claims, there may well be disorder in Moscovy. Which may or may not serve my purpose.”
“But you and Sweden have made peace with Moscovy,” said Rakoczy. “Surely you are not planning to continue your campaign.”
“We have made peace with Ivan, of a sort,” said Istvan in some irritation. “But if he has fallen into madness, what peace will we have? And what chance is there of bringing Moscovy to join with us in stopping the Ottomans? Father Possevino has not yet been able to persuade Moscovy to unite with us, and if the Czar is in the state this writer claims—” He gestured to the letter as Rakoczy handed it back to him. “And why does he write to me? What is his reason?”
Rakoczy knew what was expected of him. He looked directly at Istvan. “Perhaps, if the Czar’s mind is so filled with desire to expiate his…sin, he might be more willing to lend you his aid than he would have been at another time.”
Istvan pretended the notion was new to him. “Yes. Yes. That is a possibility.”
“Majesty,” said Rakoczy, his face suddenly world-weary, “why not dispense with this game? What is it you want me to do? go to Moscovy to discover if what the letter-writer claimed is true?”
This was more direct than Istvan wanted to be, but he conceded the point to Rakoczy. “That is part of it, yes. I want you to go to Moscovy. I rely on you to get word to me about the actual state of mind of Czar Ivan, and of the state of his government. If there is to be rebellion or strife, I want to know of it.”
“Why do you wish me to do this for you?” asked Rakoczy. “You have noblemen in Poland who would feel you had honored them with such a commission. Yet you send a messenger all the way into Bohemia to seek me out. Why is that, Majesty?”
Istvan nodded, acknowledging the question. “I have been told you are astute.” He pulled at his lower lip. “All right, I will answer you: you are of ancient Translyvanian blood, as I am. Your family is older than mine, I have been told.” He gestured to Rakoczy to remain silent; he went on bluntly, “And because of the Turks you are an exile.”
“An exile,” Rakoczy repeated, his tone ironic.
“And for that reason you well may be regarded with less suspicion by the Rus. They are wary of strangers, but an exile might not trouble them so much.” He touched his blunt fingers together. “And there is a greater reason than those two, though they are sufficient to my purposes.”
“And what reason is that, Majesty?” It was rare for a nobleman to insist on an explanation from Istvan, and rarer still for him to provide it.
Istvan decided that the question suited his purposes very well. “I have been told that you are an alchemist.” He motioned to the closed door. “The priest isn’t here. You may speak freely.”
So that was it, thought Rakoczy, aware that were he in Istvan Bathory’s position, he might well attempt the same ploy. “I have some measure of skill in the Great Art.”
“A great measure of skill, or so I am informed,” said Istvan. “It is said that you have the secret of jewels.”
“And who claims that?” asked Rakoczy, once again feeling his apprehension increase.
“I have word here from His Holiness Pope Gregory stating that you provided him with four rubies and four diamonds upon the establishment of the Collegium Germanicum in Rome, jewels that you had made. That was eight years ago. Do you tell me now that His Holiness has lied to me?” Exhausted though he might be, Istvan was crafty and experienced in manipulation. “I requested information on several Transylvanian nobles who were displaced by the Turks. His Holiness most graciously provided me with as much as he could.”
“I see.” Rakoczy was staring into the fire, as if there might be secrets behind the flames. “Very well. I did provide the Pope with jewels.” He paused thoughtfully. “I have…property in Rome. Occasionally I visit there.”
“Was that why you gave the jewels to the Pope?” asked Istvan, becoming curious.
“No, not precisely,” said Rakoczy. “Nor was it entirely to mark the establishment of the Collegium Germanicum.” It had been the only means he could think of to turn the attention that had been paid to his alchemical skills away from the suggestion of diabolism, for many priests and bishops still preached that alchemy was devil’s work. A gift to the Pope spared him their scrutiny.
Istvan decided to press the most important matter. “You gave the jewels to the Pope, though. Jewels you made?”
“I did.” He turned his penetrating gaze on the King of Poland.
“And can you make more of them?” asked Istvan.
“If I have the proper equipment, and the correct materials,” said Rakoczy. “Without them, the work cannot be done.”
“I understand,” said Istvan, and went on with dawning satisfaction. “But with proper materials you could present Ivan with jewels? On my behalf?”
“If I have the necessary equipment and the materials are fine enough, then it can be done.” He felt a coldness within him that had little to do with the fading year or the setting sun.
Istvan clapped his hands decisively. “There are six Jesuits who are to leave for Moscovy as soon as the worst of the snows are gone in the spring. I want you to travel with them.”
“To Moscovy,” said Rakoczy.
“You will go as my emissary, one who is not a priest, who is noble and an exile. You will be able to tell for yourself the dangers posed by the Turks.” He rubbed his leg again. “If the Czar is too crazed to listen, give him jewels and hope to persuade him that way, through their magic, since he believes in it.”
Rakoczy watched Istvan closely. “Majesty, are you in pain?”
He shrugged, disliking to admit to any weakness. “Occasionally. I was grazed last year. There are times…” His voice changed, softening. “Yes. Today it hurts me.”
“I have something that will help,” said Rakoczy at once. “If you are willing to take it?”
Istvan shook his head. “No. As much as I may long for it, syrup of poppies may end the ache, but it stops thought as well.”
Rakoczy studied Istvan a moment longer. “This will not rob you of your reason, nor make you sleep long hours. It has no lethargy in it.” He gave Istvan a moment to consider it. “I carry such medicaments with me, as a precaution. You need not wait to use it. I can give you some before you eat tonight.”
“An interesting offer,” said Istvan, unable to hide his curiosity. “Is this another aspect of your alchemical skills?”
“Yes,” said Rakoczy, thinking it was no more than the truth, for alchemy meant the Egyptian study, and he had learned to prepare that compound more than three thousand years ago in the Temple of Imhotep at Thebes.
“Most diverse, your skills,” Istvan mused, then spoke more decisively. “Yes. Yes, I will avail myself of your offer.” He regarded Rakoczy with increased respect. “I confess that what I heard of you at first made me suspect that there had been exaggerations about you. Now I begin to believe that if anything your abilities have been underestimated.” He patted Rakoczy once on the shoulder, a familiarity that would have roused bitter jealousy in many courtiers, had they happened to see it.
Rakoczy had learned not to welcome such distinction; for what little favor such acts imparted, they reaped a greater share of hazard from those who coveted royal attention. “Majesty is most kind,” he said very properly, relieved they were unobserved. “What talents I do possess, and in whatever measure, are at your disposal.” His bow was perfect. “Even in Moscovy.”
This made Istvan grin, and he decided to make the most of his opportunity. “According to what I have been told, in addition to your other talents, you are something of a musician and you speak several languages.”
Rakoczy knew he had to tread carefully. “I can sing and play competently; as to the other, I have some knowledge of a few languages, yes.”
Istvan nodded sagely. “English wouldn’t be one of them, would it? They say that the English are in Moscovy, purchasing rope for their ships. If you could speak with them, you could be very useful to me, more than you are already.”
“I can manage a few phrases,” said Rakoczy, who spoke English and more than a dozen other languages fluently.
Something else struck Istvan and he rounded on Hrabia Saint-Germain. “And I’d almost forgot: you do speak Russian, don’t you?”
Concealing a sigh, Rakoczy said in that language, “It will be an honor to serve you, Majesty.”
* * *
Text of a letter from Atta Olivia Clemens, written in Latin, from London.
To my dearest and most provoking friend, Ragoczy Sanct’ Germain Franciscus, my heartfelt greetings;
So it’s Moscovy, is it? Not content with facing Turks, you’re going to try the Russians? And do not excuse yourself with claims that the king of Poland has ordered it. You know as well as I that if it were not your wish to go, you would have discovered any number of excellent reasons why it was not only impossible but inadvisable to send you there. I want to hear no protestations that this was forced upon you. Although to give you your due, you have not made any such protests.
But I am still annoyed with you, Sanct’ Germain. You are going to be farther away from me than ever, and that does not please me. I confess I am vexed. It is all very well to say that the Queen’s Grace has commanded an embassy be sent to Moscovy—which is true enough—but to suggest that I use her Ambassador to be my messenger to you could prove to be dangerous folly, and you are aware of it. You have not seen Elizabeth Tudor, and you do not know her temper. Suffice it to say that she has inherited her father’s rages and added to them a will of steel. I have seen her give vent to her anger once, and that was enough to convince me I would do well to be prepared to return to Rome on short notice.
You say in your letter that you do not believe you may return to your native earth in any time soon. It saddens me to hear it, for I know what it is to be far from Rome. Crates of earth are not the same as the earth itself, and while it provides sustenance it lacks the richness of home. You describe the precautions you are making to ensure you have sufficient amounts of your native earth while you are in Moscovy. I truly hope that they will suffice, for it is a great distance from Moscovy to Transylvania or Dacia or whatever those mountains are called. Do not remind me that you are more experienced in these things than I am: I am well aware of it, but that changes nothing. You are the one taking the risk, and you are the one who will suffer if you prove wrong.
And that brings me to another matter. You make no mention of when you are going to return. You indicate that Istvan Bathory has not set a limit on your mission. Perhaps you would care to guess? It may be that he wishes you to remain there until his dream is realized and Poland has united with Russia. Have you considered that? So suggest a year when I might expect you to come to London or Rome; if that is too limiting, then a choice of two or three would do.
Incidentally, the Queen’s Grace always refers to your Polish King as Stephen, not Istvan, although she does not change Czar Ivan to John. Elizabeth is a woman of strong mind and definite purpose, and does not welcome opposition, as Father Edmund Campion has found to his misfortune. She is also holding out against the change of calendar the Pope has declared. It would be rare for her to support anything the Pope approves, no matter how minor or sensible. So England and the Catholic countries of Europe will be misaligned by ten days. I predict there will be constant trouble until they are rectified.
Among those of the English embassy, there is a fellow you will wish to know. His name is Benedict Lovell, and I suppose you will find him a useful friend. As a student at Oxford, he was one of the scholars sent to study with the Russian Ambassador when Richard Chancellor brought him here, for he was skilled in Greek and knew enough German to read it passably, and therefore was ordered to learn Russian. While the people of London gaped and stared at the Ambassador, Benedict Lovell was learning his tongue, much to the disgust of his brother, who hankers to be a courtier and has neither the manner nor the money to do it properly. Benedict and I have had some dealings in the past, and for my sake he might well extend his goodwill to you. He does not know the secret of our blood—we were lovers only twice and it was not necessary to tell him. I will send word to him to make a point of speaking with you once you arrive in Moscovy. He is about thirty-four or -five, and was called from Oxford because of his knowledge of Russian to join the new embassy, at the request of the Ambassador, Sir Jerome Horsey. Do not chuckle too much, Sanct’ Germain: the poor fellow cannot help his name. I hope the Russians will not find it as funny as the English do. I have met Sir Jerome twice but I have no measure of the man to offer. For that, consult Benedict Lovell.
I wish you a safe journey and the achievement of whatever you are seeking. And while you are gone, I will miss you as I would miss an arm or the warmth of a cloak in the rain. You are not to take risks, Sanct’ Germain. I do not permit it. Not that I could stop you if you were determined.
Send me word when you can. And know that you can never be so far away from me that my love will not find you, you infuriating man.
By my own hand and with my dearest affections,
At Greengages, near Harrow,
11 November 1582, English calendar
Copyright © 1993 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro