A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)

2,362
05.03.2019

Nikolai Dmitreivich Urusov, rigged out in a fur-trimmed coat of mulberry wool and britches of dark-gray, presented a very correct appearance as he tended to his duties; his waistcoat was simple dull-red wool, his shirt was heavy ecru cotton, and his neckcloth was lace-edged muslin, all ways to compensate for the cold in the room as well as to distinguish him as a conscientious assistant to Alexander Menshikov and not simply a household servant. Just now, at half past two in the afternoon, he was occupied with the reports from the Clerk of the Foreign Quarter, detailing progress on new buildings and deaths among the work-gangs; he did not immediately notice that the door to his partitioned section of Alexander Menshikov's office had been opened, for he had not been expecting any kind of interruption to his work. Only the firm tread of the new-comer gained his attention, and he looked up, trying to make out the person in the dusk.

The man who approached him with a firm stride was of slightly more than average height, broad-shouldered but trimly built, unusually handsome, and with an aristocratic bearing; olive-complected and dark-eyed, he presented a vigorous demeanor as well as courtly manners. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties, or perhaps a little more. He was in traveling clothes that were both practical and elegant, his tall leather riding boots and tooled-leather britches as black as his long, skirted coat of heavy silk twill over a silver-embroidered black silk waistcoat. His shirt and cuff ruffles were lustrous white silk, his neck-cloth of Bamberg cut-work lace, his gloves were black Florentine leather, and his wig was black, set in proper angled rows of Bohemian-fashion curls; he carried his ermine hat under his arm. He stopped three paces from Urusov's desk and bowed.

"Yes?" said Urusov, sounding a bit annoyed at the interruption in his afternoon tasks. "What is it?" He disliked having to admit he had not learned the names and faces of all the residents of Sankt Piterburkh; he scrutinized the man, trying to put a name to his face. "Have you an appointment with Poteshnye Menshikov?"

"Not yet, but I hope to secure one: I am Ferenz Ragoczy, Grofok Saint-Germain," said Niklos Aulirios, his Russian accented with fourth-century Greek. "I am here to show that I am very much alive, since from what I have been told, that seems to be in question." He stood still, waiting for a response; when none was forthcoming, he said, "I was given to understand that Alexander Menshikov is the man I should speak to in regard to certain claims on my lands and fortune, and that means beginning with you."

Urusov stared at the stranger. "I-"

"You are the man, I understand, whom I need to address in order to secure an appointment with Alexander Menshikov."

Urusov tried to summon up something impressive to say, but could only stammer out, "Wh-why are you here?"

This was a question Niklos was prepared to answer. "Word reached me as I was preparing to leave … the city hardly matters, save that it is a European one. It came from my comrade, Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor, whom you know, that someone has claimed my estates and fortune as my heir, and was presently here in Sankt Piterburkh. I have already dispatched notifications to Bucharest, Buda-Pest, and Vienna, and I now present myself here to resolve this misapprehension." He took another step forward. "I have been traveling for many hard weeks to get here, and I would like to be able to set the matter to rights as soon as it may be convenient. As I have already said, I have been told that I should ask you for an appointment with Alexander Menshikov."

Urusov blinked, attempting to decide what would be the proper thing to do. "If you will wait for a … I will see if something can be arranged." He got up from his chair and hurried toward the door leading to the inner partition of the office portion of Menshikov's house, trying to work out how he would explain the newly arrived foreigner. He tapped on the door. "Poteshnye Menshikov," he called out.

"Enter," said Menshikov, sounding more brusque than Urusov would have liked.

"There is a gentleman … waiting," Urusov began as he closed the door between the two sections of the room, uncertain how to go on. "He is eager to speak with you."

"Russian or foreign?"

"Foreign," said Urusov. "He must have arrived earlier today, for I haven't been told of any new-comer in Sankt Piterburkh, and all new arrivals must be recorded by six in the evening."

"Arrived today, did he? Unusual to come in January." Menshikov put down the map he had been studying. "Did he come alone? And from what place?"

"From Europe or so he claims. I have no idea if he came alone."

Menshikov was musing, his clever black eyes distant. "He had to come overland, and at this time of year: impressive. Where in Europe has he come from?"

"He hasn't told me." Urusov cleared his throat. "He says he's Ferenz Ragoczy, Grofok Saint-Germain."

Menshikov gave Urusov a sharp look. "He says he is Grofok Saint-Germain, does he? How interesting."

"So he identified himself," said Urusov. "Do you wish to see him, or would you like me to put him off?"

Menshikov tapped the top of his desk, mulling over the possibilities. Finally he slapped his palm down as if settling a dispute within himself. "I'll have to see him eventually, so why not send him in now? He should be able to tell me what I need to know before rumors can spread too wildly. And don't doubt that the rumors have already begun, for anyone new to the Foreign Quarter must be the object of speculation for everyone in the Foreign Quarter. By tomorrow morning, there will be more hearsay in this city than in all of the army." He waved Urusov back toward the door. "Send him in." He began to roll up the map.

Urusov hesitated, trying to think of some reason to delay the introduction; at a second sign from Menshikov, he let himself back into his own part of the room, still perplexed by Menshikov's concession to receive the stranger so quickly. "Grofok Saint-Germain?"

Niklos nodded. "What have you to tell me?"

"Poteshnye Menshikov will see you now. If you will go in?" He hesitated. "Are you armed?"

"No. My swords and pistols are with Hercegek Gyor. I have a small knife in my boot; it is sheathed. You may search me, if you like." He smiled enough to be polite, knowing the most dangerous weapon he carried was unlikely to be found. "Thank you for your efforts in arranging this meeting so very quickly. May I know your name?"

"Nikolai Dmitreivich Urusov. I am Menshikov's record-keeper." He bowed slightly, not adding that he did most of Menshikov's writing for him as well. "Searches aren't required of nobles."

"A good name, Nikolai Dmitreivich-a very good name," Niklos remarked as he strode to the door and opened it, pausing to say, "Ferenz Ragoczy, Grofok Saint-Germain, at your service, Poteshnye Menshikov."

Menshikov had half-risen, wariness in his eyes as he studied the foreigner, taking in the signs of obvious wealth as well as his remarkable good looks, which Menshikov, who was known for his vanity, could not help but begrudge him. "Be welcome, Grofok. I thank you for coming to me so promptly." He indicated the only other chair in the room. "If you will?"

"As you like," said Niklos, drawing the chair close to Menshikov's desk before sitting down. "And I thank you for seeing me so speedily."

"Well, I did consider making you wait," Menshikov admitted with a calculatedly graceful wave of dismissal. "But given the circumstances, I decided now was strategically better than waiting would be."

"Then I gather that what Hercegek Gyor has told me is true: someone in Sankt Piterburkh has claimed my title and my estates as my cousin and heir-which assertion might prevail if I had cousins named as my heirs." He conveyed indignation without raising his voice. "Yes, I have been traveling for a long time, but that is hardly reason to assume I have died. The manager of my Hungarian estates receives regular reports from me, and would know how to reach me if he needed to do so."

"Then it was fortunate chance that Hercegek Gyor was here, and knew how to inform you." He smiled with his teeth but not his eyes. "I understand you have Russian estates as well as Hungarian ones."

"I do. And others as well. The man could have garnered a great deal of land and money if his claims remained unchallenged."

"So it appears," said Menshikov, a measuring shine in his eyes. "I have to admit, I was skeptical about the Hercegek's assertion regarding you, but I realized that circumspection was a wiser course than out-of-hand dismissal."

"I thank you for that," said Niklos, reaching inside his impeccably tailored coat for a large envelope. "If you wish to examine them, here are my bona fides. I have my signet-ring under my glove, which I'll remove if you like." He was already pulling at the ends of his right-hand glove-fingers. "If you want to peruse the patents and my ring, to satisfy yourself that I am the man I claim to be?"

"You mean because of the man who has declared himself your heir, entitled to your estates and fortune?" Menshikov asked with a note of skepticism in his question. "You are asserting your right to your titles and lands."

"I do wish to regain my titles and holdings, it's true," Niklos allowed. "But I wish to give you reason to endorse my proofs. I believe it is as well to be forthright in these matters." He handed over the envelope. "I will arrange for perfect copies if you wish, with signatures from witnesses as to their authenticity."

Menshikov was not literate enough to read what the various parchment documents disclosed, even if they had been written in Russian. "I'll have Urusov examine them, and Jeremye Kristostomovich Belayov, the Clerk of the Foreign Quarter, who has more experience of foreign languages as well as patents of title and arms than I do."

"As you wish. They will be available to you whenever you like." Niklos held up his right hand, revealing his sigil-ring on his little finger; he studied Menshikov, trying to anticipate what he might next tell him.

"Have you a place to stay? We are lamentably short of room just now. Everyone is crowded, and we have yet to provide actual hostelries for travelers. In a year or two, it will be otherwise, but now-" Menshikov made a gesture to indicate the whole of the city. "We're building as rapidly as the work-gangs can manage, and the climate allows."

"Thank you for your concern; I will be staying with Hercegek Gyor at the care-house in his quarters there. I've one servant with me, a man I engaged at Pskov, and four horses, which my countryman, Hercegek Gyor, has found accommodation for-the Ksiezna Nisko will give space in her stable to all."

"A prudent arrangement; the Poles have bunks in their stable, and a stove to keep the horses warm. Your man and your horses could do much worse." Little as he was inclined to inquire, Menshikov said, "You must have had a difficult journey coming here from-?"

"The message reached me in Transylvania. I had planned to go on to France, where I have some holdings"-that was essentially true; among his inheritance from Olivia was a horse-farm near Orleans-"but when I saw the urgency of the problem here, I came north instead. Wounds of this sort cannot be permitted to fester." He chuckled, the sound more like pebbles underfoot than merry amusement. "I would have rather waited until March or April, but Hercegek Gyor advised me to come at once."

"How very punctilious of the Hercegek." Menshikov frowned at the parchments he held as if staring at them would turn them legible, then abruptly thrust them toward Niklos. "Here; take them. You had best keep these with you until you're ready to present them to the Clerk of the Foreign Quarter."

Niklos took the sheets, folded them again, and returned them to the envelope. "I will try to arrange a time to present them tomorrow."

"Don't delay too long, or the people will ask why." Menshikov regarded Niklos. "I would have thought you would be older."

"I'm not as young as you suppose," he countered. "It is probably fortunate that I have kept a certain youthfulness, for in my travels I would prefer to be thought vigorous."

"The Czar would agree with you on that point," said Menshikov.

"I look forward to meeting him-is he in the city at present?" Niklos inquired, knowing from Saint-Germain that he was not.

"He is with his troops," said Menshikov. "I don't expect him to return until the worst winter storms have passed."

"I may well have left by then; I have diverted from my plans, but I can't neglect my purposes for too long; as soon as my claims are fully established, I will probably depart, weather permitting. Perhaps his path and mine will cross on our travels if they don't cross here," said Niklos, pulling on his glove and preparing to rise. "Whom should I see about authenticating my patents or arms?"

"The Clerk of the Foreign Quarter: Jeremye Kristostomovich Belayov. He will take care of translating and recording the material you provide. His office is in the Archive Building-that's the new one about half-completed at the west end of the Foreign Quarter. In time, when the Admiralty is built as the Czar wishes, the Archive will be kept there, and the current building will be torn down for the permanent residence of the English Ambassador." He regarded Niklos with steady patience. "You may not know how these matters are handled in Sankt Piterburkh; do you want to make it worth my while to speed your applications through the Archivist's hands?"

Niklos had been warned about Menshikov's fondness for bribes, and so he responded smoothly, "I have with me three diamonds of excellent quality, newly cut. If they would help to bring my case to the immediate attention of the Archivist, then it would be my honor to provide this incentive to you and to him."

"Grofok, I believe we can have your claims upheld in ten days or so, which is the most rapid response we can provide." He stood up; so did Niklos. "I thank you for coming to me before announcing your intentions to all the city, which could stir up controversy none of us would like. If you would leave the stones with me, I'll have the Dutch merchant appraise them. In the meantime, my messenger will inform Jeremye Kristostomovich that you will call upon him tomorrow morning-I assume that will be convenient?"

"Most convenient, and I thank you for your … consideration." Niklos pulled open a black leather pouch embossed with the eclipse sigil of Saint-Germain. "With my gratitude, Poteshnye Menshikov." He handed it over with an elegant bow.

Menshikov winkled it away at once. "Much appreciated, Grofok."

Passing through the outer section of the office, Niklos offered a suggestion of a bow to Menshikov's scribe. "Thank you, Nikolai Dmitreivich." He dropped an Austrian gold Emperor on the edge of Urusov's desk, and continued on to the vestibule to claim his long Hungarian cloak. He passed out of Menshikov's house and made for the Foreign Quarter along the freshly cleared streets. Since the light was fading to night, the work-gangs had been taken back to their camps to spend the next fourteen hours in tents. There were not very many people abroad in the anemic light of the distant, setting sun, but those who were on the street stared at him, noting him as a stranger in their midst.

"How did it go?" Saint-Germain asked in Roman Italian as he admitted Niklos to the care-house.

"You were right about the bribe. No one in all of Byzantium could have done it more smoothly. He had the good grace not to examine the stones too closely while I was present." He surrendered his cloak to Kyril and removed a thin short-sword from down the center of the back of his coat. "Be careful with that; it's sharp," he admonished Kyril in Russian.

Kyril looked at Niklos with a kind of concentration that demanded attention in return. "You have learned to guard yourself," he declared.

"I have traveled much, and that has taught me practical wariness," said Niklos.

"This is a most subtle blade."

"That it is," said Niklos. "I had it from an old-fashioned blade-smith in Damascus." He had purchased it when the Crusades were at their height. He rounded on Saint-Germain, returning to Italian, "So I am at your disposal, Hercegek. You summoned me-for which I am most sincerely grateful-and I will be at your service while I am in this city."

"Elegantly said," Saint-Germain approved, indicating the main room on the first floor of the care-house; for Kyril's sake, he spoke in Russian, "Now that you have finished with your day's work-and I take it you are finished-I will be pleased to show you about the care-house and the Foreign Quarter, assuming there is no more snow until the city is asleep."

Niklos looked around at Kyril. "Is Hroger in?"

"He's upstairs in the Hercegek's quarters," said Kyril. "As the Hercegek well knows."

"Then perhaps he would be willing to discuss making arrangements with me to permit me to join him in finding food?" Niklos suggested. "I'm hungry."

"Speak to him upstairs," said Saint-Germain.

Niklos noticed that two of the monks had emerged from the side-rooms and were staring at him. "These men must have seen foreigners before."

"That they have," said Saint-Germain, looking pointedly at the two monks. "But winter has been thin of new company, and any novelty is subjected to scrutiny, as much for entertainment as for protection."

"Hardly surprising that you have few new-comers, considering what it took to get here," said Niklos. "Had I not been spurred by necessity, I wouldn't have arrived until April was half over."

"That would have led to more problems than we presently have." Saint-Germain bowed in the direction of the stairs. "If you would care to join me in my quarters, Hroger and I can see you set up as comfortably as is possible." He went to the stairs and began to climb. "You may make arrangements for food with Hroger."

Niklos glanced at the two monks and then followed Saint-Germain upward and through the surgery-room into Saint-Germain's quarters, where he found Hroger setting out a raw haunch of goat between two wooden plates laid out at the near end of the trestle-table. He grinned and saluted Hroger. "What a welcome!"

Hroger inclined his head. "I thought you must be hungry, and reluctant to dine where you might be observed." He spoke in Imperial Latin.

"Which seems to be almost everywhere in this city; I am watched constantly," said Niklos in the same tongue, and looked around at Saint-Germain. "You are in a fix, Sanct' Germain, and no doubt about it," deliberately using the version of his name that he had been using when they first met. "It will take some skill to extricate yourself with so small a community and so many eyes."

"Yes, I am, as you say, in a fix," Saint-Germain agreed. "Which is why I sent for you; I could think of no one else."

"I'm honored that you did. Tergeste was a long, long time ago, and so was Porolissensis. Our legal dispute in Roma was what-twenty, twenty-five years since?" He smiled with great enthusiasm. "All were worthy fights. I'm pleased to be part of this one."

"This one is more subtle than dealing with murderous pirates or holding off marauding Huns. To end one deception while maintaining another-" Almost fourteen hundred years had passed since he had restored Niklos to life, as he had restored Hroger to life nearly two hundred fifty years before that.

"Or protecting my legacy in Roma?" Niklos suggested.

"I trust this is worthy in its own way." Saint-Germain went toward the center of the room. "When you have dined, I will show you how we have set up your bed."

Hroger looked at Niklos. "It's a bit unnerving, seeing you all in black, and my master in colors." He indicated the knives and forks set out. "If you would like to begin? I don't want to rush you, but I'm afraid I don't have much time, and I'll need to dispose of the bones before I do my rounds with Madame Svarinskaya."

"Certainly," said Niklos, drawing up one of the stools set along the table. "Do you have any recommendation about what I should do next?" he asked Saint-Germain as he perched on the stool.

"What did Menshikov recommend?" Saint-Germain inquired. "Did he give you any instructions?"

"He said that I should take my patents and other bona fides to the Foreign Quarter Archivist tomorrow and submit them to his examination. I expect the Archivist will be more helpful to my cause if I give him a bribe. You were right about Menshikov; I gather that if he has his hand out, I must suppose other officials do, as well." He began to cut a good portion of meat away from the bone, and when he had enough, put it on his plate.

"Then that is what you must do. Anything Menshikov suggests, unless it would compromise either of us, do it, and with an appropriate token of gratitude." Saint-Germain sat down in his high-backed chair, remarking as he did, "He is both the most efficient and the most corrupt man in all of Sankt Piterburkh."

"Strange fellow, Menshikov; I'm surprised the Czar puts so much faith in him. Still, I gather he gets things done," Niklos said, cutting a number of small bits of the meat before starting in on them. "Is it true he can't read?"

"He knows a few basics, but that is the extent of it; he is not able to write much more than a simple sentence, and all the reports submitted to him have to be read aloud; he is hardly the only one," said Saint-Germain. "I will say this for Menshikov: he can make good sense of maps and plans, however little he can manage a book."

"And he's the Czar's most trusted advisor? Truly? How could that have happened?" Niklos shook his head in bafflement.

"He is not stupid; never think he is. And he is truly effective in his post, for all that he uses it to enrich himself shamelessly." Saint-Germain gave a little sigh. "Compared to some of the old nobles, he is forward-looking and brilliant in his own way."

"Do you like him?" Niklos asked in surprise.

"I did not say that," Saint-Germain answered obliquely.

"But do you?" Niklos persisted.

"I do not dislike him," Saint-Germain conceded.

"How difficult was your journey here?" Hroger asked, changing the subject.

Niklos accepted the new direction in their conversation. "It was bitterly cold, and thank goodness we could use secondary roads, for there are bandits in plenty along the main ones. Boguslav Miesienkevic knows his way along many roads. I was sorry to have to bid him farewell when we reached Pskov. I gave him the money you promised him and he turned west toward Riga and a ship bound for England or France as soon as the ice is gone, so that from there he could travel on to the Americas." This report was calmly provided, and there was a knowing nod from Hroger.

"He drove a hard bargain, but he certainly knew his way about. If he's determined to see the New World, may he have better fortune there than my master and I had." Hroger was rushing his eating, not only because he was bored with goat-meat but because he had no wish to be hurried to his duties. "Madame Svarinskaya will be up within the hour and would like a word with you," he added to Saint-Germain.

"Very good. If you will, tell her I am at her disposal. She needs to know more about our guest." He gave his attention to Niklos again. "I read the material Moricz Losi sent with you-and I thank you for bringing it."

"He told me to inform you that your lands need your attention, and sooner rather than later; he thinks you should return home," said Niklos, not apologizing for chewing while he spoke.

"I am aware of that," said Saint-Germain. "I will need to arrange something with the Ksiezna as soon as the thaw begins. She may want to stay here longer, and if that is her decision, she and Benedykt can arrange that." He was silent for a few seconds, knowing how displeased Zozia would be to have to answer to her brother; then he added, "I doubt if she and I can sustain our imposture much longer in any case. It is becoming too complicated; her brother will be glad to be rid of me."

"Are you certain of that?" Niklos asked.

Hroger answered, "Oh, yes. Ksiaze Radom wants his sister to be wholly under his influence. He was delighted when my master was compelled to leave the Polish house for here; he made no secret of his satisfaction."

"Why would he-" Niklos stopped himself. "No doubt the man has his reasons."

"Everyone has reasons," said Saint-Germain. "They may not be sensible, but they are reasons."

"Olivia used to say much the same of you, when she was exasperated with you," said Niklos, and then went silent. The mention of Atta Olivia Clemens resounded like the toll of a bell throughout the room, and the silence deepened. Then Niklos made himself continue, "It is not quite fifty years since she died the True Death. I know she's gone, but it hardly seems possible."

Saint-Germain stared in the direction of the athanor, seeing something else, seeing Olivia in a garden at Nero's Golden House in Roma. "No, it does not seem possible." Then he cleared his throat and went on, "I can only guess at Ksiaze Radom's reasons for what he does, but I have thought from time to time that he is jealous of Zozia, and wants to constrain her so that her talents will not diminish his own, which are not as great as hers. For her part, she is a woman who chafes at constraint, and that has resulted in a very precarious balance between them. Occasionally I wonder if she provokes him deliberately, in the hope he will make a mis-step and expose himself."

"It is better to be here, at the care-house, than with the Poles," said Hroger, adding to Niklos, "You will find that with a little circumspection, it isn't too overwhelming to have so many sick and injured around you. Think of the conditions when the Huns attacked: this is nowhere near as bad."

"You're right," said Niklos. "But I wouldn't want to remain here for long. It's too easy to be all but imprisoned in such a place as this."

"It may be true," said Hroger.

"Tomorrow there is a concert being played at the Hessian Residence. If you think you might enjoy it, plan to come with me; the Hessians are the newest faces here, and they will be glad to have someone divert the attention of the Foreign Quarter away from them," said Saint-Germain. "If it seems that you are hiding, your claim against Rakoczi will lose credibility. This will be a suitable occasion for you to make yourself known to the Foreign Quarter."

"Will Lajos Rakoczi be there?" Niklos asked shrewdly.

"He very well may; he has stayed there from time to time, and he works to be visible." Saint-Germain was aware of Niklos' hesitation. "Better to meet him sooner than later, and in company rather than alone."

"I suppose so," said Niklos, having more of the raw goat. "I didn't come here to hide."

Saint-Germain managed a wry chuckle. "I should hope not."

"But will it matter that I don't join them at table?" It was always a problem for Niklos, as it was for Hroger, for the only thing he ate was raw meat, as did all ghouls.

"Say you do it as a courtesy to me. They all know I do not dine. And with food in short supply, their protestations will not be great, in fact, you may be regarded as a conscientious guest for not taxing the dwindling reserves here." He thought a moment. "Every one of us is under scrutiny; bear that in mind."

"You warned me," Niklos said, and glanced around the room as if wondering if there were spies watching them. "And you were right to do so."

Saint-Germain touched his fingertips together. "Yes; unfortunately."

"This game is a very dangerous one, Sanct' Germain," Niklos warned him.

"I know," said Saint-Germain.

Text of a challenge issued to Ferenz Ragoczy, Grofok Saint-Germain, by Lajos Rakoczi, Grofok Saint-Germain, written in German and carried by the Hessian Residence's messenger.

To the so-called Ferenz Ragoczy, claiming to be Grofok Saint-Germain, this formal response to your answer to my challenge.

Spurious Grofok,

Despite your smooth words at the concert, I do say, and will continue to say, that you are an impostor and that I am the rightful heir of the man you claim to be, and I will vindicate my claim on your body under the terms put forth in your answer: you have the choice of place, hour, and weapons, which I am willing to accept.

The duel will take place as you have chosen on the dyke-road by the second treadmill at dawn on the first clear morning to come.

The weapons will be paired short-swords.

You will have your ally Hercegek Gyor as your second, and I will have the only other Hungarian in the Foreign Quarter, Janos Czobor, to act as my second.

Each of us may bring our own short-swords, subject to inspection by our seconds.

Each of us may engage a physician.

Each of us may bring a carriage or a sleigh.

Each of us will have no more than four men attending him.

Each of us pledges to bring a signed and witnessed Will to the engagement.

The Watchmen and the Guards are not to be informed of this meeting until after it has occurred.

If either of us should fail to appear on the first clear morning, then whichever party has arrived will be said to be victor by default, and the defaulter engages to remove himself from Sankt Piterburkh within forty-eight hours of the default or face ignominy and odium. If both fail to keep the appointment, then the challenge and all that goes with it are null and void.

In the hope a clear day will come shortly,

I remain

Lajos Ragoczi

Grofok Saint-Germain

January 24th, 1705