A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)


"Tonight should be clear," Yrjo Saari said as he lingered by the stable door, his breath making ghosts in front of his face. "That may mean it will be much colder, as well, but at least there is no fog forming, and no clouds overhead." He regarded Saint-Germain warily. "You are going back to the care-house on your own?"

"I am expected there, and it is not far to go; hardly worth saddling a horse and arranging for its return," Saint-Germain said, a bit apologetically. "I thank you for the information you have provided."

"I wish it were more. Those men who told me about that Moscow gang didn't want to say too much, in case it should get back to them, and they should take action against the informers. That happens fairly often." He shook his head. "Thieves and cutthroats, all of them."

"Well, most of them," Saint-Germain agreed with a hint of amusement, pulling his cloak around himself and raising the wolf-fur hood.

"The coachmen here in the Foreign Quarter have all decided to carry pistols as well as long-guns when they go out. It's probably a good idea. A knife might not be much good on a driving-box." He tapped the scabbard on his belt. "I have my puukko. It is most useful at close range." His chuckle had no trace of humor in it.

"I would think so." Saint-Germain prepared to close the door. "Thank you for the information. I will see you in another two days."

"Unless I learn something urgent," said Saari.

"Unless you do," Saint-Germain confirmed, glancing at Zozia's house as he shoved the stable door and trudged away through the knee-deep snow, keeping to the track he had made when he went to the stable so as not to have to wade any more than necessary. He knew Zozia was attending a small salon at Nyland's house that evening and would not be in to welcome him; wherever Benedykt was spending his time, he would not like to find out that Saint-Germain had been at the house when neither he nor his sister was there. Reaching the street, he looked up into the clear night sky, the stars standing out against the sky like white-hot sparks from a steel-furnace. It was unfortunate that none of their warmth reached this bleak part of the world, he thought, as he made his way to the street where one of the work-gangs had swept the wooden sidewalk clear of snow earlier in the day. He went along carefully, trying to avoid patches of ice that made the walkway treacherous, all the while trying to discern if he were being watched.

Kyril opened the door to him when he knocked, and bowed him inside. "Hercegek. It's good you're back."

"How is everything, Kyril Yureivich?"

"They are quiet, at least on this floor," said Kyril. "Heer van Hoek has taken to his bed with a slight fever, and Ludmilla Borisevna is dealing with the coachman from the Flemings' Residence-you know, the new house nine doors from the end of Spasky Street-who's upstairs."

"The man with the broken arm?" Saint-Germain had set it two days since. "Is he doing badly?"

"Quite the contrary," said Kyril, taking possession of Saint-Germain's cloak. "He has been demanding to be allowed to return to the Flemings' Residence tonight. He insists he is recovered enough."

"How very inconvenient for Madame Svarinskaya," said Saint-Germain quietly. "Should I perhaps have a word with him?"

"You may try-for all the good it may do," said Kyril. "Your manservant is in your quarters, measuring out medicaments for later this evening."

Since this was what Hroger did most late afternoons, Saint-Germain found nothing alarming in Kyril's announcement. "Good. Then the medicaments should be ready to distribute in a short while. I'll try to have a word with him before Madame Svarinskaya has her lessons. Now tell me about Heer van Hoek."

"He fears he may have taken the influenza from one of the patients, and he thought it best not to expose more of them to the condition. He's in with the rest of the influenza patients." Kyril sighed. "It would be an unfortunate thing for all of us if Heer van Hoek should become seriously ill."

"So it would," said Saint-Germain, looking about the main room of the care-house. "No more new patients today, though. That is an improvement." He started toward the stairs. "Madame Svarinskaya is with the coachman, then."

"Yes, she is," said Kyril, looking tired and slightly annoyed. "Unless he has decided to be sensible and stay in bed."

"Do you think Madame Svarinskaya could use my help?" Saint-Germain asked.

Grudgingly, Kyril nodded. "The man is becoming obstreperous."

Sensing that this was more than disapproval of the coachman, Saint-Germain guessed aloud, "Would you prefer I look in on Heer van Hoek before I go up to Madame Svarinskaya?"

Kyril did not smile, but there was an easing of his expression that made his demeanor less disapproving. "He's in with the men who have influenza, as I told you."

"Very well," said Saint-Germain, and turned into the larger of the two flanking rooms; here the light was dim, and it took him almost a minute to discern which of the men was van Hoek. Making his way toward the back of the room, he saw that most of the patients were having their evening meal-a venison-turnip-and-onion soup along with a thick slice of black bread. "Heer van Hoek," he said in Dutch as he approached the bed where van Hoek sat.

"Hercegek," he responded with the suggestion of a bow. "I had hoped you might stop here before you go up to your quarters."

"I am sorry to see you in this place," said Saint-Germain.

"No more so than I am." He cleared his throat. "Still, with all the exposure I have had, it is small wonder that I should contract the illness."

"It is a hazard, certainly," said Saint-Germain. "How do you feel?"

"A bit light-headed, my joints ache, my mouth tastes of metal, my throat is sore, and my eyes are beginning to hurt: classic symptoms." He made a self-deprecating gesture. "So I fear I will have to depend upon you and Madame Svarinskaya to treat all our patients, or close the doors to new patients until I am able to rejoin you."

"I shall have Hroger bring you willow-bark tea, and a pastille of minced orange rinds." He did a rapid surveillance of the room. "Shall I offer the same to the others?"

"If you would, please," said van Hoek. "Along with the other medicaments you've provided, this is deeply appreciated."

"Thank you for saying so, Heer van Hoek," said Saint-Germain, taking a step away from the Dutch physician.

"And if you would, give Ludmilla Borisevna any preparations you have that may help in preventing her from taking the influenza herself. You should do so as well. It is bad enough that I should be stricken, but if either of you also contract it-"

"I will bear that in mind," said Saint-Germain, bowing slightly as he took his leave and made for the stairs to the floor above. Turning left toward the patient dormitory, he hesitated for an instant, knowing he would have to meet with Hroger shortly. But the coachman seemed more urgent, so he went into the room and found Ludmilla standing beside the bed of the coachman while he perched on the edge of the bed and tried to pull on his britches using his one good arm.

"Ah, Hercegek; thank God you are here!" she called out. "Will you come and talk sense to this fellow?"

Saint-Germain walked up to the bed, paying little attention to the interested stares from the other patients. "It looks as if you have done so already, not that he has been listening." He stopped and looked at the coachman. "So, Valery Andreivich Rossiev, are you managing to dress yourself in spite of the splint?"

The coachman grunted and continued to try to work his britches over his hips, his cheeks turning red with his effort. "I'm doing it."

"As you see, he is not making much progress," said Ludmilla.

Saint-Germain moved a step closer. "If you are having so much trouble with your britches, how will you pull on your boots, let alone hold the reins?"

Valery looked unhappy, but stopped his tugging and wriggling long enough to say, "The Flemings are new to Sankt Piterburkh. Nine of them in the household, and they've been here only six weeks. They depend upon me."

"And no doubt you are most useful to them," said Saint-Germain, wholly unflustered. "For that reason alone you need to take good care of yourself, which includes another two days of rest before you undertake even moderate exercise of any kind. Your arm is newly set, and until the bones begin to knit, you could shift them, and they would have to be set all over again." He paused so that Valery could consider that possibility. "I doubt you would enjoy the process; I know I would not."

Valery Andreivich gave a snort of derision. "You've splinted my arm with linen and boards. How can I shift my bones?"

"You have very strong muscles in your arms, as all coachmen do. If you exert yourself, you could, by virtue of your strength, pull your bones apart. That could lead to a weakening of the arm itself, and then your coaching days might well be at an end." He said all of this in his most matter-of-fact manner. "I would like to think you are not so foolish as to risk so much for so little."

Valery halted, his face going pale. "That's impossible."

"No, unfortunately it is not," said Saint-Germain. "If you were a long-time family retainer, the Flemings might make allowances for your inability to drive, but as they, as you said, are new to the city, they would have no reason to pension you. What then, Valery Andreivich?"

For several seconds, the coachman sat still, indecision apparent in every lineament. Then he began to pull his britches off. "You must send someone to the Flemings' Residence to explain why I haven't returned," he muttered.

"Of course," said Ludmilla. "One of our staff will take care of it this evening." She shot a thankful glance in Saint-Germain's direction. "For now, be comfortable and allow our people to do for you. As soon as the Hercegek approves, you may return to the Flemish Residence."

"Heer Bourgdrei will have to-"

Saint-Germain interrupted, "I will see that all is explained to him." He reached down and picked up the man's britches. "You will have your supper shortly, and then I will see you have a composing draught before you sleep."

Valery said something under his breath, swung his legs back onto the bed, and pulled up his blanket. "I won't stay here much longer."

"That is what we all hope, Valery Andreivich," said Ludmilla before Saint-Germain could respond. "For now, try to rest; it will do you good." She came over to Saint-Germain. "Our lesson should begin in a little more than two hours, as we have arranged. Will this suit you, Hercegek?"

"Most certainly, Ludmilla Borisevna," he said, warmth suffusing his voice.

She offered a quick, shy smile. "I look forward to learning new things."

"And I." He offered her a small bow. "For now, do you have any more need of my aid?"

"Not for now," she said, and turned away from him.

Saint-Germain watched her make her way down the room, her movements steady, her manner calm. How many times in the past had he longed for just such a competent colleague as she! He thought of the Black Plague, and the devastation measles had brought to the Americas, of the many epidemics he had seen over the centuries at the Temple of Imhotep, and of the terrible ruin throughout all China and Central Asia following the Year of Yellow Snow-in all those disasters, Ludmilla's steady capabilities would have eased distress for so many. "Until seven," he said, and left her to her work, crossing the surgery-room to his own quarters, where he found Hroger measuring out small cups of a clear liquid with an iridescent shine: this was Saint-Germain's sovereign remedy, which began as moldy bread. "The day has been difficult, I take it." At the far end of the room, the recently completed athanor gave off a steady aura of heat.

Hroger continued his work. "Difficult enough. I gather you convinced Valery Andreivich to remain with us."

"I did, for now. When was Heer van Hoek stricken?" Saint-Germain asked, going to his red-lacquer chest and removing a small carton of slivered willow-bark which he opened and plucked out half a palmful of slivers. These he dropped into a large earthenware cup.

"Around two in the afternoon. He said he was light-headed and overly warm. Madame Svarinskaya told him to lie down, and by three he was plainly ill." Hroger paused. "Even without the influenza, he is exhausted."

"As are most of the staff, especially the three new aides," said Saint-Germain, setting down the large cup. "Is there water in the teapot?"

"A little. Would you like me to add more from the bucket?"

"I can do it. You have enough to do." He went to the bucket and pulled out the ladle, emptying its contents into the teapot.

"You're making willow-bark tea?" Hroger sniffed the air, recognizing the smell.

Saint-Germain added the ladleful of water to the teapot. "For van Hoek; he should also have some orange-peel pastilles; with a little luck, we can forestall any putrefaction in the lungs, and he will then make a good recovery."

"Just for him, or for all of them? The pastilles, I mean, do you intend them for the rest of those with the influenza?" Hroger asked. "Your pardon, my master, but I am-"

"-concentrating on measuring, as is appropriate: pray continue." He set the teapot over the spirit-lamp, then took out another item, a small flask of anodyne fluid distilled from a tincture of hemp-flowers and pansies. "This is for Valery Andreivich, after he has eaten. It will calm him and allow him to sleep with less discomfort."

"Are the pastilles just for van Hoek?" Hroger repeated; he was peering closely at the amount of the opalescent liquid in the next-to-last cup.

"The others already are getting willow-bark, so pastilles for them; if nothing else, it will help van Hoek to feel less ineffective than he does, and will lend strength to those who are on the mend."

Finishing his task, Hroger set down the vial and said, "We are running low on the remedy, my master."

"So I am aware," said Saint-Germain, a slight frown creasing between his brows. "I may put Saari to work collecting old bread from the various houses in the Foreign Quarter tomorrow for as long as there is light. I could have more made in a matter of days if we could get a sufficient amount of moldy bread." He put the earthenware cup on the trestle-table next to the line of small cups. "Boiling water, just before you take the lot down."

"Of course," said Hroger. "I will attend to them and then go find something to eat."

"Very good," said Saint-Germain.

Hroger paused, not wholly to attend to placing the small cups on the rimmed tray set out for them. "You will be doing lessons with Madame Svarinskaya?"

"Very likely," said Saint-Germain.

Hroger's brow arched, but that was the only change in his demeanor. "It's a good thing that she's such an apt pupil, for both your sakes."

Saint-Germain regarded Hroger with a discerning eye. "Let us keep that between you and me, old friend."

"Whom would I tell, and why? I am glad you have gained her companionship as well as her assistance." He rubbed his faded-blue eyes. "Less than five hours of sunlight a day, and that so wan that it's largely useless."

"We have encountered worse," Saint-Germain reminded him.

"The Year of Yellow Snow?" Hroger asked. "That was not like other years. Here the sun fades every winter."

"And farther north, it disappears altogether, or so they say." Saint-Germain studied the spirit-lamp as if willing it to boil the water in the teapot faster.

"Did you ever want to see the places of the earth where the sun vanishes?"

"We did see such a place when we left Novo-Kholmogory, bound for England. Much of the White Sea is wholly dark in winter." That had been slightly more than a century ago, and the trip had been a hard one.

"Fortunately we weren't there in winter," said Hroger.

"That may have been the one good thing about it," said Saint-Germain drily. "Night may be kinder to those of my nature than day, but there is also so much night that the living spend many days shut within doors, and do not welcome travelers, who may not be all they seem. It is as if the households all enter their houses as if they were winter burrows, and remain there until spring, in a kind of hibernation; even this Foreign Quarter has not escaped that immurement entirely." He looked over at the spirit-lamp. "The teapot is thrilling."

"And will boil shortly," said Hroger, making his last adjustment to the tray before he reached for the teapot. "I will take this down, and then I'll see to my evening meal. If there are other tasks you want to assign me, I will be pleased to perform them." He poured the water into the large earthenware cup; the sharp smell of willow-bark wafted up from its depths.

"By which you mean you plan to stay away from this part of the care-house for some hours," Saint-Germain observed. "Your discretion is, as always, impeccable."

Hroger blew out the spirit-lamp, picked up the tray, and started toward the door, which Saint-Germain went to open for him. "Most gracious, my master."

"And practical," Saint-Germain said, leaving the door ajar when Hroger had left. Taking stock of the room, Saint-Germain went to inspect the athanor, making sure the seal on the door was even and tight, that the pipe that served as a chimney was still properly anchored at the top of the window, its sleeve of iron bolted into position; he satisfied himself that the intake valve was performing to standard, and then he went to the bunk built onto the wall, and tested it. The linens were clean, the woolen quilt washed, smelling faintly of camphor and garlic, as a repellent for insects. The single pillow, stuffed with goose-down, had been perfumed with tincture of jasmine-and-attar-of-roses. He glanced at his clock at the end of the trestle-table, and saw it was only five-thirty. "An hour and a half," he said aloud. "The gold will not be finished until midnight." He thought for a short while, then picked up his log-book, found the standish and his quills, and sat down to record the events of the day.

"Hercegek?" Ludmilla's tap on the door was quiet, and her voice was low. "It's seven o'clock."

Saint-Germain dusted the page with fine sand, laid it open on the occasional table beside his chair, and went to admit her to the room. "Welcome, Madame, and forgive me; I had lost track of time."

"I hoped you were expecting me," she said, dubiety making this almost a question.

He smiled at her. "Most certainly, Ludmilla Borisevna. I have been looking forward to our time together."

She stepped inside, a bit hesitant, filling the possible silence with, "When the Czar first insisted that we all be governed by clocks, I thought it was another European affectation, for the church-bells provided enough time for anyone. But since I've been working with Heer van Hoek, I believe that a more specific delineation of time by minutes is useful, after all."

"Then I thank you twice-over for your promptness." He took her hand and lifted it to his lips. "Come in and be comfortable."

She leaned back against the door to close it; her features softened and she reached out with her free hand and touched his face. "If you wish to … do as you did the other evening, I would be happy to have it so."

He reached behind her to set the latch in its staple. "Thank you, Ludmilla Borisevna. It is my desire that you achieve happiness." He escorted her to the chair and bowed her into it. "But there are some matters we need to discuss before we begin again."

"So you told me," she whispered, continuing hurriedly, and increasingly softly, "I do understand that your first loyalty must be to your wife, of course, though you are not under her roof." Her mouth trembled. "Everyone says her brother ordered you to leave."

Saint-Germain was startled by what she said. "Oh, no; that is not the issue," he said once he had recovered himself. "There is not room enough for all three of us at the Polish house as things are." He gave a single laugh. "Not that Benedykt does not prefer to have me gone."

"Then what is-" She stopped herself. "It isn't my place to ask."

"I have to explain about … about what has taken place between us, not about the Ksiezna or her brother," he said.

"Adultery is what … Yes."

Again it took Saint-Germain an instant to compose himself. "Specifically there was no true adultery, as there was no-"

"It was kind of you to spare me that." She put her hands together. "My husband could cast me upon the world with nothing if I were defiled, but I assume you know that. My family wouldn't receive me, either."

He took her hands in his. "You will have nothing to trouble you, Ludmilla." Then he waited until she met his steady gaze. "It is not in my nature to do that which would dishonor you."

"Are you certain of it? It is one thing for a man to pledge that, and another for him to remain committed to his promise." Very carefully she withdrew her hands from his. "Or do you say this so I will be more compliant now? I don't intend to refuse to lie with you, but you don't need to tell me that you will accommodate me if you intend otherwise."

"You have nothing to fear, Ludmilla," he promised her.

There was something in his voice that was utterly convincing, and she gave a little sigh of hopeful expectancy. She could feel an anticipatory quiver deep within her, an echo of what she had experienced with him before; this quiver of sensuality sent tiny ripples through her, summoning more responses until the prospect of recapturing that wonderful delirium weighed against the prudence she was trying to exercise, and all the while her flesh became flushed and sensitive, and her breathing quickened. It gave her a long moment of dismay, knowing how she had come to depend on him for her gratification, but she banished it with the expectation of the euphoria to come. "I don't fear you."

"Good; for you have no reason to." Slowly he took her face in his hands, and softly kissed her eyelids, her cheeks, her mouth, the touch of his lips awakening her ardor and her unrecognized need; she leaned into him, as if carried on the supporting current of a warm river. After more than a minute, as she moved back from him, he said, "You have no cause to think that I might require more of you than you are willing to give, in any way. I will not ask this of you more than four times after tonight. You need not worry that I may come to expect this to continue for many months."

"Four more times?" The specificity startled her. "Only four?"

"Among those of my blood, there is an understanding that more than six … exchanges and you would be one of us. That would be a burden for you, and one I will not ask you to bear, not here." He spoke indirectly, for he did not want to try to explain his true nature to her, not yet, not while she was still doubtful and ambivalent; he was well-aware of the dread tales of his kind would awaken in her. He kissed her again, lingeringly, inquiringly; her lips softened again, feeling the fervency of her desire increase. "Come, Ludmilla." He stepped back just far enough to be able to guide her to the chair. "I will bring you a cordial to warm you."

She sat down, her face perplexed as she looked around the room. "Don't you worry about being watched? In such a place as this, there are eyes everywhere."

"Everywhere but my rooms; here I have taken precautions," he said calmly as he removed a small glass from the tall cupboard next to the trestle-table, then removed a narrow glass bottle from his red-lacquer chest.

"Are you so sure? Have you made any tests?" Her face was a study in consternation, as if she had realized how exposed they might be.

He poured out the potent herbal cordial, a brilliant, clear yellow-green, into the glass. "Ludmilla Borisevna, I have lived as a foreigner in many places, and I have learned how to guard against prying eyes and ears. You may be assured that you are safe here." He put the bottle back in his chest and carried the glass to Ludmilla, making sure the oil-lamplight shone through the glass before he put it down. "The monks in the Alps make this to revive travelers lost in the snows. They are famous for their elixir throughout all of Europe."

She took the glass and sipped at the cordial. "Not unpleasant," she pronounced. She sipped again. "Why do you delay with me?"

"Because I would rather you not be haunted by uncertainties, and this gives you time to contemplate the possibilities," he said tranquilly. "I have no wish to impose myself on you."

Ludmilla thought this over. "But you would rather I lie with you-"

"After my fashion," he interjected.

"After your fashion," she agreed. "Wouldn't you?"

"Yes, but only so long as our intimacy gives you pleasure; it is you who must decide that," he told her, and reached out to touch the neat braids wrapped around the crown of her head. "If you would rather that I not embrace you, then we will have our usual lessons and wait until a time that would suit you."

She finished the cordial. "Why?"

He sat on the upholstered arm of the chair. "Because without your consent and fulfillment, the act between us is empty-you would have little joy of it, and I would have none. If you want more time to assess your position, then we can wait until you are certain."

"If I don't want to wait?" She held her breath waiting for his answer. "I came to you tonight for this, not for lessons in Russian and Dutch."

'Then what can I be but delighted," he said as she leaned against his thigh.

"I'll keep in mind all you've said," she murmured, touching the lacing on his long coat. "But for now, all I want is the passion you give me." Reaching up, she pulled him down to her, for a long, intricate kiss that left her breathless and almost giddy. "No matter what comes later, for tonight, I want to feel all the pleasure you can give me."

He moved off the arm of the chair and drew her up against him; she was only a bit shorter than he, so their eyes met levelly. "I have prepared a place for us, at the warm end of the room."

She managed a little laugh as she slipped her arms around him; she found his sturdiness and strength not only comforting but stimulating. "You ought to be warm enough, Hercegek." It was wonderful to be so frank with him, to speak what she had been feeling since he had first offered her his love a week ago.

"The bunk is more comfortable than the chair, or the floor." He let her rest her head on his shoulder. "You may want to let me loosen your lacings and your stays. You will be more comfortable without them."

"Thank you, but I can manage for myself," she said, and reached around over her shoulders to untie the lacings down the back of her dress. She performed a complex wriggle and the lacings grew slack. "If you would help me pull it over my head?"

"How do you manage this alone?" Saint-Germain asked.

"I have a dress-makers' tool-a long wooden double-hook that permits me to unfasten dresses and stays, and I have three wooden hooks on my bedstead that allow me to pull out of the dress without the help of a maid." She bent over slightly so that he could get a good hold on her corsage, then she stepped back, and the dress slid upwards. Working the snug, long sleeves, she peeled her arms out and stood straight, her petticoats and farthingale revealed, and her whale-boned corset. She remained still for a long moment, then asked, "Will you unfasten my stays for me?"

"Certainly," he said as he laid her dress over the back of his chair. "Turn around?"

She did, and felt his lips make a light excursion along her shoulder to the nape of her neck, all the while he undid the bow-knots that held the corset closed. The sudden release of pressure on her breasts and torso gave her a little unstableness; she leaned back against him as he whisked away her corset, and gathered her close to him. The pressure of the lacings of his long coat against her naked back was more exciting than anything she had believed possible, and she gasped with the intensity of the sensation. "I can manage my petticoats and farthinga-"

"If you would allow me," he offered, sliding his hand into the waist of her petticoats. "These first, then their frame, and then your under-clothes."

The suggestion sent another pleasurable quiver through her; where his hands touched her flesh, she felt such heightened awareness of him that she was surprised her skin did not begin to sizzle with the anticipation of what was to come. She hardly recognized her own voice when she answered, "Yes, yes. If you would."

Saint-Germain pulled the ties open and let the petticoats and farthingale drop to the floor. He turned her toward him, his hands grazing her breasts before drawing her to him. "Let me wrap you in blankets so you will not be chilled."

"Chilled? That's not possible," she breathed.

He nuzzled her neck and bestowed more feather-light kisses on her throat and shoulders, then took a single step back so that they could walk the short distance to the bunk, where he threw back the quilts and sheet, bowing her into its warm interior. As she drew the covers around her, he removed his coat and put it down on the trestle-table, then came back to the bunk and reclined beside her. "What would you like of me, Ludmilla?"

She had no idea what she wanted, but could not bring herself to say so; she answered with as much nonchalance as she could summon up, "Begin as you began before."

"Very well," he said, and kissed her once more, this time aware of her ignited ardor, and responding to it with esurience, caressed her breasts until he felt her nipples harden against his palms; he bent to tantalize them with his lips and tongue.

Ludmilla arched back, her head sinking into the fragrant pillow. Now her whole body felt limned in marvelous fire that made her life more real by its presence. She felt his hands work the ties of her under-drawers, and she shivered in anticipation of what was to come. "Yes. Do that," she whispered as she raised her hips to allow him to remove her under-garment; the awareness that he had access to her very core gave her body a preparatory jolt of culmination. She felt a tightness at the apex of her thighs, a delicious tension that sought release.

He moved down to her belly, then maneuvered between her legs, all the while stroking her thighs, her hips, and the curly hair at the base of her abdomen. Each touch brought her a new and rapturous discovery; his fingers and his lips evoked an ecstatic panoply of sensations that were more than anything she had experienced before: not even her previous evening with him had been ecstasy wholly awakening. She delighted in the many ways he caressed her, and his increasing closeness as she neared her release; with a soft cry, she pulled him as near to her as she could, his lips brushing her neck as the first spasm expanded through her.

By the time the first of her spasms of fulfillment took her, she was already transported, the limits of her body seeming to have fallen away, her exaltation banishing her anxiety and exhaustion, filling her with an elation that seemed to extend as far as the stars. Finally her all-encompassing satisfaction began to fade and she felt his gentle, persuasive stroking that eased her from the heights of gratification to the comfort of his touch. Gradually her excitement abated, and she opened her eyes, whispering, "That was better than the first time. You've done glorious things to me."

"You were willing to achieve more for yourself," he told her, kissing the arch of her brow.

She snuggled against him, reluctant to break their closeness. "I suppose I shouldn't linger here."

"Probably not," said Saint-Germain, making no move to shift her from the bunk.

She lay still for several minutes, then summoned up her resolve, sitting up and patting him on the shoulder as a sign that he should move. "I'll need your help getting dressed," she said with unconvincing briskness.

"Of course," he said, rising and offering her his hand for support as she threw back the bedding and sat up.

"I'll need my under-drawers," she said, doing her best to be as pragmatic as she could. "Then the stays, then the petticoats and farthingale."

"I know," he said; while she stood up and stretched, he gathered up her garments and readied himself to assist her back into them, all the while aware of the strength of her passion giving way to her concern for the patients in her care.

Text of a proclamation from the Metropolitan Matvei Nikitich Golrugy of Sankt Piterburkh, to the residents of the Foreign Quarter.

To the many foreigners and their households, the blessings of God be upon you.

As the time of the Nativity is approaching, it is my duty and privilege to instruct you regarding the celebrations to come to mark the Birth of our Savior, since most of you are not of the Orthodox Church, and are far from the comforts of your usual religious traditions and have limited opportunity to practice your customary observations of the season.

For those of you who may wish to join your Russian hosts at the Cathedral for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, you would be welcome among us. The Mass is sung and lasts for over an hour, at the conclusion of which there will be a banquet at the master station of the Sankt Piterburkh Guard for all who have attended the Mass. For Epiphany, the Mass will be sung at dawn, and there will be a banquet sponsored by Marfa Skavronskaya at the new warehouses. Any Christian, man or woman, master or servant, will be received with Christian charity and fellowship.

For those who prefer to keep to their own rites, Thomas Bethune has offered his services at the English Residence to the Protestants, and Father Lothar Blaufeld will celebrate the Catholic Nativity Mass on Christmas Day, and the Epiphany Mass at the house of the Flemish Residence in the Residential chapel. Let no ungracious acrimony blemish this sacred time.

May the peace of the season brighten the dark of the year for you, and for Christians everywhere.

Matvei Nikitich Golrugy

Metropolitan of Sankt Piterburkh

December 10th, 1704