A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)

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05.03.2019

A chatoyant glimmer along the south-east horizon heralded the dawn; long, attenuated shadows lay across the snowy ice that was alternately steel and brass in the first rays of dawn. In the declivity behind the levee the darkness was like iron; the tarpaulin-wrapped treadmill loomed above in its stiffened shroud. The morning was still but for the crunch of Yrjo Saari's footsteps as he trudged the broad elevated roadway, marking out its length before returning to the enclosed sleigh that stood at the edge of the appointed dueling ground. This was an incisive cold, slicing through to marrow without regard for clothing or other protection; the cold was a living presence that held all the world in its frigid embrace. In the sleigh, Niklos Aulirios sat wrapped in a bear-skin rug, two short-swords on the seat beside him.

From his vantage-point on the driving-box, Saint-Germain stared out across the marshes, his body wrapped in the engulfing coachman's cloak of boiled wool and marten-fur; his muffler wrapped his head so that only his eyes were visible; he held the pair of horses with steady, gloved hands, relieved that the grays were protected with marten-fur blankets and traveling-boots of shearling wool.

"There's room enough, but they'll have to be careful of their footing; it's very slippery," Saari reported as he made his way back to the sleigh. "Shall I post the boundaries of the duel?" For Niklos' convenience, he spoke in Russian.

"Not yet; Rakoczi may want to pace it out himself when he arrives, to be sure we haven't taken advantage of him. He's suspicious enough to want to measure out the area for himself." Saint-Germain slewed around on his box and stared at the road along the dyke-nothing seemed to be moving.

"It's early; the sun has only just risen," said Saari. "He probably won't be along for a while yet, if he waited for dawn to come out."

"His stipulation was that the duel is forfeit an hour after dawn," Saint-Germain reminded him. "It takes a while to drive out this far. If he is not on his way by now, he will miss his own appointed time."

From inside the sleigh, Niklos said in his Greek-flavored Russian, "He may want to draw the wait out in the hope of making me nervous. It's a tactic that other duelists have used."

"True enough, though you do not appear to be nervous," said Saint-Germain as he handed a ceramic flask of Carthusian spirits down to Saari. "Here. To help you keep warm."

"Not nervous," said Niklos, "but hellishly cold. The damp goes through like a razor. I'd rest a bit if it weren't for the chill."

Saari took the flask in his gloved hands, opened the cap and drank, smacking his lips when he was done. He put the cap back in place and held the flask up to Saint-Germain. "Thank you, Hercegek."

"If you would like more, you have only to ask." He slipped the flask into his cloak's outside pocket.

"I thank you," Saari repeated and paced some more to keep warm. "You'll want to let the horses walk a little. Winter coats and marten-fur blankets won't keep the chill out of them if they don't move, and we have no provisions to warm beer for them."

"I'm aware of that," said Saint-Germain, and continued to wait, watching the road behind them. After a silent ten minutes, he set the pair in motion, moving the sleigh along the levee and back to where it joined the dyke at a brisk walk to keep the horses warm. He duplicated the circuit again five minutes later, his grays mincing through the crusty snow, their breath billowing like smoke from their nostrils.

"A sleigh is coming," Saari said, pointing along the dyke-road toward a moving smudge. "Bay horses-three of them, a troika harness: Russian. Two lanterns, as well. He's taking no chances."

"About time," said Niklos, getting out of the sleigh, his swords in his left hand. "Let's settle this nonsense."

"You would think the sleigh would be Hessian, given Lajos Rakoczi's circumstances, and the time he has spent at their new Residence." Saint-Germain secured the reins and climbed down from the driving-box. "He's cutting it very thin."

"He may be the one who's worried," said Niklos in Greek. "He may not be as good with short-swords as I am."

"He was probably hoping for pistols." The chuckle Saint-Germain gave had only a suggestion of humor in it. "Remember the Huns, and use your swords accordingly."

"I can hardly forget them." The sleigh grew nearer, and Niklos exchanged a glance with Saint-Germain. "Do you recognize the horses?"

"No," Saint-Germain said, studying the sleigh. "I doubt they are from the Foreign Quarter; I know almost all the sleighs and carriages and horses from that part of the city. There are few troika harnesses in the Foreign Quarter."

Eight minutes later the Russian open sleigh pulled to a halt behind Saint-Germain's, and Janos Czobor stepped down from the broad seat, his traveling coat of arctic-fox blending uncannily with the snow, so that his head appeared almost disembodied. He bowed deeply to the three waiting men. "I have come alone, prepared to end this encounter," he said in Hungarian, his voice strained by more than cold; his eyes kept shifting uneasily, as if he expected some kind of ambush had been set for him.

Niklos held up his short-swords. "Lajos Rakoczi has withdrawn his challenge?" he asked in a tone of ill-usage.

"I … I believe he has," said Czobor.

"You don't know?" Niklos was baffled.

"No," Czobor admitted. "I have had no communication from Lajos Rakoczi since I received a note from the Clerk of the Foreign Quarter last night that stated that your patents and proofs, Grofok Saint-Germain, have been authenticated, and entered into the records of the Archive as such, and Rakoczi's have been declared invalid and expunged. You will probably be issued an official apology for the errors that were made because of Rakoczi's claims." He coughed. "And because of those errors, Poteshnye Menshikov has declared that Lajos Rakoczi has three days in which he may leave Sankt Piterburkh and Russia without let or hindrance; if he remains beyond that time, he risks being taken into custody by the Guards and posted to a work-gang."

"I thought only the Czar could banish people or condemn them out of hand," said Saint-Germain.

"In matters of this sort, the Czar has extended that right to Poteshnye Menshikov as regards Sankt Piterburkh when Piotyr himself is absent from the city; Menshikov has a decree to prove it." Czobor rubbed his gloved hands together, flicking snow off them as he did. "I can't recall a time when he has used this authority he has before now; nonetheless, used or unused, he has it."

"Do you think Menshikov would order Lajos Rakoczi's arrest? The weather is such that having to leave would be difficult," said Niklos.

"Someone will surely speak with Menshikov on his behalf," said Czobor, making a fussy adjustment to his fox-fur hat and his thick muffler. "Don't you think? No one should be sent out in the depths of winter."

Saint-Germain said nothing for a short while, and the others kept quiet. Finally he broke his silence. "If one or two Residents spoke to Menshikov, he might be willing to permit Rakoczi to remain in partial custody until spring: as it is, Rakoczi can hardly slip away at present without endangering his life, and if he has done that, we may never know why he has done what he has done. In a few days, when the excitement is over, perhaps you would join me in addressing Menshikov on Rakoczi's behalf?"

"You'd be willing to defend him?" Czobor asked incredulously.

"No, not defend him-spare him from dying out in the wastes," said Saint-Germain. "And perhaps while he is being detained, I could persuade him to tell me how he came to take on this daring impersonation, and for whom." His tone was heavily ironic, knowing he himself was guilty of similar misrepresentation, as was Niklos.

"Yes. Exactly so; you could learn a great deal over two or three months," said Czobor, his expression lightening. "As you realize, there is no need for a duel." He turned to face Niklos. "Your claim, Grofok, is fully vindicated, and you need have no reservations about your standing in the city. I have it from Menshikov himself that all Russian property conveyed to Lajos Rakoczi will be formally restored to you before the end of the month." Czobor lowered his head. "I hope you will accept the humble apology I extend to you on Lajos Rakoczi's behalf."

"Of course," said Niklos. "I have no dispute with you."

"And none with Lajos Rakoczi, whoever he may be," Czobor added.

"That I can't pledge," said Niklos less genially. "He has caused me trouble and effort which I have yet to conclude. Like Hercegek Gyor, I would like to know how he came to decide to make his claims in the first place."

"He probably believed that Grofok Saint-Germain was dead and that being the case, he might as well gain the man's fortune," said Saint-Germain, thinking of the times in his past when similar errors had been made.

"That could be possible," said Niklos, clearly unconvinced. "It's a somber business, whatever the case may be."

"A place like this-so new and with so many strangers in it-will surely attract more than a few adventurers," said Saint-Germain, regarding Czobor steadily. "The Russians are fortunate there has only been this one so far."

"That they know of," added Niklos with a quick glance at Saint-Germain. "Others may still be in the city, undiscovered."

"Most assuredly," said Czobor, his edginess dissipating still more. He bowed to the three men. "I must return to the Clerk and tell him I have informed you of the developments of the last fifteen hours. You may want to call in at his office tomorrow to receive his formal notification, and have your patents and proofs restored to you." Without waiting for a response, he stepped back into the sleigh, saying, "Mustn't keep the horses standing in this weather. Turn around, Ivan Modesteivich, and back to Sankt Piterburkh."

The coachman snapped his whip and set the sleigh moving, taking great care not to let the runners reach the edge of the dyke-road. When the sleigh was aligned with the road again, the coachman kissed his three horses to a trot, leaving Niklos, Saint-Germain, and Saari standing in the snow, each of them perplexed.

"If he's fled alone, he freezes," said Saari at last. "No man can go into this cold alone unless he has remounts, food, and fuel for fires."

"No doubt," said Niklos, rubbing thoughtfully at his chin. "It does seem a little desperate, running off like that."

"But he is desperate," said Saint-Germain. "He is very desperate; he must believe he has good reason to take such a chance."

"Unless he has an accomplice in the city, someone who will hide him," said Niklos. "In which case, if he remains in the city, he is going to risk discovery and all that goes with it."

"Especially if his accomplice-assuming there is one-turns on him," said Saint-Germain.

"I'd take my chances with winter," said Saari.

"Unless he had more to hide than this fraud: an accomplice would make his situation more precarious," said Saint-Germain, feeling increasingly apprehensive as he thought about Lajos Rakoczi. He motioned to Niklos. "Get into the sleigh and let us return to the Foreign Quarter. There is no reason to remain out here in the cold." For emphasis, he swung back onto the driving-box and unfastened the reins. "Saari, if you will take your place on the rear of the sleigh, we can be off." In response to this, Niklos slid his short-swords onto the seat and climbed in, sitting next to the shining blades while Saari bestrode the rear of the vehicle and took hold of the broad rail that wrapped around the back of the sleigh. "We will start back," Saint-Germain said as he signaled his grays to trot.

By the time the care-house was reached, Sankt Piterburkh was alive with whispers and speculation; two secretaries, a translator, and Colonel Broughton were waiting in the main room of the care-house as Saint-Germain and Niklos Aulirios came through the door, the sleigh consigned to Saari's care, to be returned to the Ksiezna's stable behind the Polish house.

Heer van Hoek looked up. "Thank God you're back, and safe."

"And to all the forgotten gods," said Saint-Germain, and felt Ludmilla's eyes upon him from the top of the stairs as he removed his cloak; he noticed that no one from the Polish house was here for news.

"What happened?" van Hoek prompted. "Was it a hard fight?"

"It was no fight at all," said Niklos, getting out of his long coat and removing his Astrakhan-lamb hat. "Janos Czobor came out to inform us that the Clerk of the Foreign Quarter has upheld my claims and has rejected those of Lajos Rakoczi, who, it appears, is missing." He held up his hands to forestall more questions. "That is all we know-any of us. Tomorrow I'll call upon the Clerk and find out whatever I can."

Van Hoek shook his head to express his incredulity. "What an amazing change." He regarded Niklos with an emotion close to awe. "You left facing a duel, and return unscathed and exculpated without having to raise your weapons."

Niklos bowed. "I have been spared two unwanted battles, neither of which I have sought. I am grateful to have been spared. Neither a duel nor a prolonged action in the courts appeals to me, so it's fortunate that this matter has been settled without having either. Yet I am curious about Lajos Rakoczi, and where he might have gone." He was aware of the interest of all the occupants of the care-house, and added, "I have come a long way to set a great wrong to rights, but I am sure that without the good opinion of you and many others, this happy result might not have occurred." He swung around to Saint-Germain. "I would not have known of Rakoczi's claims had you not notified me, Hercegek. I am most appreciative."

Saint-Germain felt the intended, good-natured barb in Niklos' words, but gave no outward sign of it. "We are all gratified that you could come here so hastily, or matters might not have fallen out so well."

Van Hoek signaled to Kyril. "Heat up some wine and put in cinnamon, as the Danes do. It will be a welcome drink for all."

"Most gracious," said Broughton.

"And if there is anything we must discuss, we may do it in good fellowship," said van Hoek, waving toward the two upholstered benches that comprised the seating in the room. "I will not offer hot wine to you, Arco-Tolvay; you do not drink."

"An excellent notion; something hot would be most welcome," Niklos exclaimed, and waited for a moment before adding, "You will have much to discuss, don't you think?"

Colonel Broughton was the first of the four to speak in response to this slight prod. "Whatever else we have to discourse upon, you may be sure it will not be to your discredit: I congratulate you on your deliverance, Grofok."

"Thank you," said Niklos.

"Do you have any information regarding Lajos Rakoczi beyond what we have been told-that he is missing?" Broughton asked as if it were only a passing interest rather than the reason for his visit.

Niklos shrugged. "I'd probably be the last one to have such intelligence to impart, since I doubt I'll be told much beyond what I already know. Talk to Captain Fet of the Guards tomorrow afternoon. He's likely to have news, if there is any, and he will know what he ought to reveal." He started toward the stairs. "I can see you have questions, but I won't be in a position to say anything officially until tomorrow after I go to the Clerk of the Foreign Quarter. Whatever I tell you now is nothing more than speculation."

Broughton scowled. "By tomorrow there will be so many rumors abroad that what you say will make little difference; unless the gossip is quelled with hard facts, it will run riot through the Foreign Quarter. After that happens, the mischief, whatever it may be, will be done, and the truth will be lost in the confusion around it."

Niklos bowed again. "I see we understand each other, Sir Peregrine," and before anyone could stop him, he went up the stairs two at a time to the haven of Saint-Germain's quarters on the second floor.

Gerhardt Pfassbinder, the under-secretary at the Hessian Residence, gave a startled jump at this unexpected dismissal; he turned to Micheau Pastorine, the translator at the Flemish Residence. "What do you make of that?" he exclaimed in German.

"I expect his nerves are overwrought; I know mine would be," said Pastorine in the same language; in his not-quite-four months in Sankt Piterburkh, he had developed a calculated indifference to the unexpected, which at the moment served him well. "Think of what he had been through this morning. You might want to recover yourself were you in his shoes."

"I might want to spend the day with a bottle or two of brandy," said Colonel Broughton, also in German. "And a friendly wench to comfort me-not that there are many of those to be had here, more's the pity."

"They say more women will come in the spring," said Pastorine.

"So they do," agreed Broughton. "But that's no help now. If we were in the army, at least we'd have camp followers."

"This is a most … Spartan place, for all the court manners and pomp." Pastorine cocked his head. "It isn't what I expected it would be."

Pfassbinder sighed. "Rumors and secrets: the city is filled with rumors and secrets. How am I to sort out what to tell the Resident?"

"Wait a year and you won't have to be bothered with such things," recommended Hugo Weissenkraft, relishing his own cynicism. "Heer Bourgdrei will have spies in this household and a dozen others, just as the rest do. You won't need to deal with these awkward inquiries; you won't have to come here yourself."

"How can you say that?" Pastorine asked, shocked.

Saint-Germain answered before any of the others could speak. "It is the nature of the place. Everyone is new to it, and striving to seize the greatest advantage possible."

Pastorine considered this. "The Czar sees it as a great city even now, when it is little more than an army camp. When I came here, I thought there would be more, and greater buildings, and more people."

"And who is to say it will last? Many people think this whim of his will fade when its many problems overwhelm his plans, or the Swedes recapture it," Weissenkraft remarked. "The Czar may decide he can direct his energies and money elsewhere, and this place will vanish into the marsh."

"Highly unlikely," said Broughton. "This is his pride and joy. I think he would rather lose Moscow than Sankt Piterburkh."

Saint-Germain nodded. "I would agree. This is where he has gathered all his hopes and ambitions, and unless the Czar falls, Sankt Piterburkh will go on." He gave a small bow to the four men. "To morrow we might know more, but today, we are as ignorant as everyone else." With that, he went to the stairs.

"Hercegek," Broughton called out. "If you learn anything tomorrow, will you pledge to inform us all?"

Saint-Germain was on the third step, but he paused. "If it is of anything significant, I will send a note to all of you."

The four men exchanged glances; Hugo Weissenkraft shook his head slowly. "Don't worry about significance; with so many rumors flying, anything will be grist for the mill. Just give us your word that you will pass on anything of interest."

Van Hoek wagged a finger at them. "Be wary of gossip, gentlemen. This city is a hotbed of rumors as it is."

"I will guard my tongue, and suggest that others do the same," said Weissenkraft, adding piously, "That's why I want the information Hercegek Gyor can supply, so that I will be able to quash any outrageous bruiting that I may come across. There are so many untruths about, as you have been told already."

Saint-Germain offered a gentle bow as he continued up the stairs, but stopped as there came an energetic pounding on the door. "What now?" he asked the air, halting once more as Kyril went to discover who was outside; the four visitors clustered around him, eager anticipation in their eyes; van Hoek joined them, not as avidly.

In a moment the door was opened, and Adolphus Gronigen all but fell into the room, his eyes wide in shock, his face pale beneath his hat of fox-fur. "Hercegek! Come! You must come." His dark cloak flapped open where he had neglected in his hurry to lace it. "Please, Hercegek!"

Van Hoek moved aside so that Gronigen would not be completely surrounded. "Come in," he said. "You need help."

Saint-Germain rushed back down the stairs and pushed the visitors aside to reach his coachman. "What has happened, Gronigen?" he asked, noticing that the arm of Gronigen's cloak was stained with blood. "Are you hurt? Have you been attacked?"

"Not I," Gronigen panted. "No. It's Saari." He staggered as if he had been struck a blow.

"Kyril, some brandy, if you would," Saint-Germain ordered, determined to find out what the trouble was.

"At once, Hercegek," said Kyril, pushing his way back toward the stove and opening the chest that contained all their strong drink.

"No. No," said Gronigen, gasping for air. "You must come. Now." He reached behind him for the door. "Now, Hercegek. It's Saari."

"What about Saari?" Saint-Germain asked, sensing that the news would be bad; he gave Gronigen his full attention.

"You must come with me!" Gronigen insisted, his voice going up five notes. "He's … he's dead."

"Are you sure?" Saint-Germain kept his voice low and steady, but he felt a cold come over him that had nothing to do with ice and snow.

"Yes. Yes. He's dead." Gronigen noticed the other four men as if he had been unaware of them until now. He drew back as if his coat could protect him.

"Calm down," Heer van Hoek recommended. "Tell us what you require. We will be better able to serve you. You say Saari is dead. How did it happen?"

Gronigen took a deep breath. "The sleigh came back to the stable at a fast trot. That troubled me, because Saari was supposed to be leading them-at a walk, of course. In so much snow, the horses shouldn't move too quickly; over-heating is bad for them."

"About Saari," Saint-Germain said, recalling him to his purpose.

"I was going to admonish him about not minding the horses"- Kyril thrust a mug of brandy into Gronigen's gloved hand-"Thank you." He took a deep sip, coughed once, and went on. "I thought he might have tried to drive them, but he wasn't on the driving-box."

"Do you mean he, too, is missing?" Saint-Germain asked, astonished at such a notion.

"I thought that he might be. So I looked inside the sleigh." He shuddered. "He was on the seat, on his side. His throat was cut and he was nearly dead. I think he realized I was there, because he struggled to talk. He said something like lan or lank or lang, I think; it was hard to hear him. He said it twice, and then … he died." He drank more brandy. "I took the sleigh to the stable and told Vincenty to unfasten the horses, take off their harness and blankets, and groom them, then I sent Antek to the Guard station and I came for you."

"He must have been attacked almost as the sleigh reached the stable," Saint-Germain said. "If he could speak at all, the cut had to be within-"

"Blood was still running from his wound, but the spouts of it were slowing; they no longer reached the ceiling of the sleigh." Gronigen was shaking again.

Saint-Germain heard the hush around them as ominous. "And Saari-what did you do with him?"

"I left him where I found him. There was so much blood, that even putting my arm on the seat, well, you see-" He lifted his bloody cloak and indicated the stain, like a black blot on the dark-brown canvas. "I couldn't bear to move him, not with so much blood. It was so fresh that it steamed in the cold air." He thrust out his arm for support, and found Saint-Germain beside him, holding him up.

"Finish the brandy-you need it by the look of you-then take me with you. I need to see him before the Guard takes the body." Saint-Germain reached for his cloak and pulled it on. He looked directly at van Hoek. "I do not know how long this will take. I apologize for having to leave you this way."

Van Hoek held out his hand and shook Saint-Germain's. "When you return, tell me what has transpired."

"Do you want to be wakened?" Saint-Germain asked as he pulled the door open and let Gronigen precede him outside.

"Yes. In such a situation as this one, I do. Madame Svarinskaya will be up, of course, and you should inform her, as well. She and I will worry until you return." Van Hoek motioned to the four men. "Come. Have your drink and give yourselves time to talk."

"By which you mean you don't want us to follow the Hercegek and his coachman," said Weissenkraft.

"A good precaution, with the Guards coming," said Colonel Broughton as the door closed.

"You said the stable at the Polish house, did you not?" Saint-Germain set out in the broken snow that marked Gronigen's approach to the care-house. "The sleigh is still there?"

"It should be where I left it," said Gronigen, lengthening his stride to keep pace with Saint-Germain, although Saint-Germain was a hand shorter than he.

"Did you notice if he was warm?"

"I told you I saw steam rising from his blood. I didn't touch him but once, and I couldn't tell through my gloves if he was warm or cold." He almost stumbled as Saint-Germain strode on.

"Did you tell anyone in the Polish house about this?" Saint-Germain asked, keeping up his rapid pace.

"Antek, when I told him to fetch the Guards," said Gronigen. "I would guess he told someone about it before he left the house."

"But you don't know for certain," said Saint-Germain, glancing toward the Guard station at the far end of the road where nothing seemed to be happening. "Do you know that Antek has made his report yet?"

"How could I?" Gronigen sounded rancorous. "I came to get you as soon as I told Antek to inform the Guards."

"That's right," said Saint-Germain as he turned toward the Polish house. "You did," he said grimly as he made for the stable and the sleigh with its appalling contents.

Text of a letter from Zozia, Ksiezna Nisko, to Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor, written in Krems' code and carried by Salomea to the care-house.

To the man I know as Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor,

Hercegek,

There has been so much scandal attached to you in the last ten days that I fear I must change our arrangement: as soon as is possible I am asking you to leave Sankt Piterburkh. Do not wait for the thaw, but leave as soon as there is a sufficient break in the weather to allow you to travel overland to Hungary; the next arrival of the supply-train should be a good time to leave. If there were some way to nullify the rumors, you might be able to remain, but between the murder of your body-guard and the continuing absence of Lajos Rakoczi, you are too much an object of gossip and speculation that can only lead to problems here.

I have been questioned by Captain Fet of the Sankt Piterburkh Guard, and I am convinced that he believes you have played some role both in the Finn's death and the disappearance of Lajos Rakoczi, and for that matter, my brother agrees with him. I want to think well of you, but there are too many questions being asked, and this cannot continue much longer. You can understand why I have decided that you must depart, for it would be most difficult for my mission to have you unmasked or imprisoned; it would undo all the work I have undertaken here for Poland.

My brother has convinced me that your presence compromises my purposes here, and I find that, regretfully, I must agree with the points he has presented to me. Benedykt has told me that he has heard far too many discreditable things about you to allow you to continue here, for you complicate all my efforts; my brother has assured me that he will be at pains to guard me and support the tasks Stanislas has charged me to accomplish for the benefit of Poland, and to be more attentive to my welfare than he has been since he arrived here. He admits that he has been lax in his duties, but that was because you were so shielding of me that his attentions seemed superfluous. You have done all that you can for me in that capacity now that Benedykt has promised to support me as well as you have done, and better; he and I agree that it would be best for you to leave now, before any more misfortunes befall you.

You have done much good work in Sankt Piterburkh-your departure now will salvage the last of the good opinion you have enjoyed for so many months. If you leave money to endow the care-house for another several months, it is likely that your reputation can, in time, be restored, and the problems of the last several weeks may eventually cease to be spoken of. This would please Stanislas and make my position easier. With Ferenz Ragoczy, Grofok Saint-Germain, still in the city, you could announce your intention to return with him to Hungary, to aid him in regaining his titles and estates. That would also spare me from having to invent an argument to account for your departure and relieve me of the necessity of risking my mission to protect you.

I thank you for the service you have given me and Poland.

In highest regard,

Zozia, Ksiezna Nisko

February 22nd, 1705