He came to slowly, his face pressed into cold, noxious mud, his body lying half on and half off a wooden walkway, his clothes in disarray, his sword gone, his wig missing entirely, and a collection of bruises and small wounds on his shoulders and head that he knew would take weeks to mend. He was just beginning to feel other hurts; through swollen eyes he tried to see where he was, but the night was dark, and although there was a broad smudge of opalescent luminosity on the horizon, it was not bright enough to diminish the night. His usual ability to see in dimness was itself faded: he could barely make out his ruined lace cuff dangling a hand’s-breadth from his face; he could not see, but he felt the rawness of his knuckles, and his attempt to flex his fingers in his right hand failed in a flare of renewed pain. How had he come to this? Involuntarily he groaned, and less than a minute later, he heard approaching footsteps, and hoped this did not mean his attackers were returning to finish what they had begun. After a brief hesitation, he took a breath, and then another.
"It’s not a body," said a voice in Finnish. "He’s breathing."
"Looks like the Lithuanians have been at him; they go for the head with their cudgels," said a second voice in the same language. He nudged at the prone figure with a walking staff. "You alive?" he asked in Russian as he held up a bull’s-eye lantern.
Saint- Germain did his best to blink, and said through swollen lips, in Finnish, "What happened?" It was the first question that came to mind; his voice was rough and almost inaudible, and this simple effort brought new pain as a cold wind slid over him, bearing the odor of decaying vegetation from the exposed mud of the marsh. It’s all of a piece, he thought.
"You’ve been damned foolish, coming out here." The second voice went silent for more than a minute, then added, "There’re gangs and worse out here once the sun goes down, summer light or no summer light. No one from the fortress or the town leaves its protection at night. Even a foreigner like you should know that." There was another silence. "Don’t try to move. You may have broken bones. We’ll get a pallet to carry you."
"There are criminals in this part of the island," said the first. "No one comes here after dark, not alone."
"Ehi! Tapio! Get a pallet." The second voice was raised enough to carry, and he was answered by a third voice some distance away.
"All right," the third man called, and his footsteps on the wooden walkway receded.
"Don’t try to talk," the first man recommended to Saint- Germain. "You’ll make it worse."
"At least there isn’t a lot of blood," said the second, inspecting the wooden walkway and the ground around Saint- Germain. "He’s got a chance to recover."
"But it will take time, or he might not heal completely. That’s a mess," said the first, pointing to Saint- Germain’s right hand.
Saint- Germain was able to wheeze out a word. "Time?"
"Oh, an hour or so until dawn," said the first. "The Russians are still drinking in their log houses, but most of the rest are asleep. At least we have tents this spring. Last year most of us slept in the open."
"Work starts an hour after dawn at this time of year," said the second.
How long had he lain here? Saint- Germain wondered, and why had he been so far from the stout, three- room log house in the Foreign Quarter the Czar had allocated for his and Zozia’s use? What had brought him out into the marsh at night? How long had he lain here? His thoughts were as murky as the night around him; he had a vague recollection of being summoned to one of the huge treadmills driving a draining screw, but after that, there was only a flash of faces and rough commands in a dialect of Russian he barely understood. He tried to push himself upright, only to be held down.
"You don’t want to do that," said the second voice. "If you have broken bones they could burst out—"
"Lie still," the first said. "Tapio will be back soon enough."
Saint- Germain did his best to relax, taking stock of the damage he had sustained. He could feel at least two cracked ribs and possibly broken bones in his right hand. One leg—his left—was swollen in its high boot, and his back ached. The blow to his forehead continued to hurt, and he was fairly certain he had been struck on the throat or someone had attempted to strangle him. There was a knife- cut to his side and one at the top of his thigh. His rings and a gold brooch were missing.
"Can we take him to Ludmilla Svarinskaya at this hour?" The second man sounded worried. "Everyone’s asleep at the care- house."
"Where else? She can arrange to get him home once he’s been treated," said the second. He sighed. "At least it’s not raining."
"And there’s no fog—we wouldn’t have found him if there were fog."
"True enough," said the second, beginning to pace nervously.
"Paavo, calm down; it’s safe," said the first. "The gangs aren’t out now—nothing to prey on."
"I hate being on Watch." Paavo stamped his foot and held up the lantern again. "They really pounded him, didn’t they?"
"So they did," said the first. "Lucky they didn’t strip him of everything, including clothes. He’d be much worse off if they’d done that."
"But, Yrjo, why would they leave him his clothes?" It was a reasonable question, clothes like everything else being in short supply.
"Too foreign. They’re bound to be identified. And what working man wants a satin coat?" He laughed. "Not that it isn’t ruined, in any case."
Jogging footsteps thudded on the wooden walkway as Tapio returned with the wooden pallet. He was panting a little as he stopped. "Do we lift him or roll him?"
Saint- Germain listened distantly, aware that whichever they did, it would be painful. He steeled himself against it, reminding himself that as bad as this would be, he took ironic consolation in the certainty it would not be as hideous as the pain he had suffered from being crucified in Mexico more than fifty years ago.
"Best try to lift him," said Yrjo after considering the situation. "But turn him on his back first, and get his head and shoulders onto the walkway." He stared down at Saint- Germain. "We’ll make this as easy as we can." With that, he bent, got his hands under his arms, and lugged him onto the wooden path; Saint- Germain moaned once, but otherwise endured the brief agony in silence. "Good. Now, Tapio, you take his legs, and Paavo, help me with his trunk, and get him onto the pallet. Get a good hold. We don’t want to drop him."
"We’ll be careful," said Tapio, preparing to grab Saint- Germain around the knees.
Paavo and Yrjo positioned themselves and, on Yrjo’s count, raised Saint- Germain and set him on the pallet; Ragoczy set his teeth against the varieties of agony that went through him, and remembered to breathe as he was set down, the air hissing in and out.
"Good enough," said Yrjo. "Come. Hoist the pallet, and keep to the walkway. Not too fast. We don’t want to end up dropping him."
The three men set off at a steady, sober pace, their boots sounding loudly on the wooden walkway; around them there were the various murmurs and soughings of the marsh, the slap of water against the newly built wooden embankment, the call of night- birds. The sound of the Dutch clock in the wooden church dedicated to Sankt Piter and Sankt Paultje chimed the half- hour. One- thirty? Saint-Germain wondered. Two- thirty? He longed for the deep, restorative night, but this far north, he would not find it until July was gone. The regula