A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)

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05.03.2019

"Oh, look!" Zozia said, standing on tip-toe to peek out Saint-Germain's small bedroom window. "A doe and her fawn. Right by the trees. Aren't they pretty?" The brief dusk of night was giving way to the first flush of dawn, and Zozia was up in her elegant flounced wrapper, her butter-colored hair as yet in a long, loose braid down her back. She turned so Saint-Germain could see the rise of her breasts and offered him a provocative smile.

"Keep your voice down; the others are still sleeping," Saint-Germain recommended from his single chair, where he busied himself writing his account of the last week for Augustus' confidential secretary, Klaus Krems, on his portable desk. "And you do not want to alert the deer, unless you want to eat venison tonight." Although he no longer wore a splint, he was still writing with his left hand while his right regained its flexibility. This was his third day without strapping for his ribs.

"That's horrid," she said, making a face.

"But reasonable," he assured her. "There are hundreds of working men who would be pleased to have a decent meal of fresh meat, as would most of this household."

"You're being cruel," she complained, thrusting her lower lip forward.

"Not I," he responded. "I would just as soon the deer live."

She was silent for almost a minute, then exclaimed, "Oh, but do come and look." She held out her hand to him. "Please. For me."

He set the portable desk on his bed and rose to his feet, the hem of his comfortable black-silk chamber-robe just brushing the floor as he went to the window. "Out by the trees, you said?" He kept a little distance between them as he glanced toward the stand of birches at the corner of the house; while he watched, the doe minced through the pale trunks toward the stable, her fawn following her by bounds and starts. "Clever creature-she wants the hay and grain. The horses may protest the raid."

"If we feed her, we could tame her," Zozia suggested, laying her hand on his arm. "We have tame deer at home."

"That would not be kind. They would be venison all the sooner if they came to trust people; this isn't a private estate," Saint-Germain reminded her, aware of her gaze on him, and the nearness of her body. "Leave them to their occasional thefts, and hope no one sees their tracks." He started to turn away but was stopped as she pressed against him, her lips open and a hair's-breadth from his. He went utterly still.

"Don't you want me, Grofok?" she whispered, using his actual title, then brushed his mouth with hers. "My good, faithful, anonymous Grofok?"

"I cannot, Ksiezna," he said with a tranquility he did not feel.

"What do you mean, cannot? Aren't you a man?" She nudged her hip into his, as much of a challenge as an invitation. "Don't you long to possess me? Don't you lie awake and yearn for me? Isn't your blood singing with desire?"

As awkward as it was, she was right; her passion had stirred his own, and his many weeks of survival on the blood of his horses was taking a toll on him. "Zozia."

"Tell me, Grofok: isn't every fiber of your being urging you to ravish me?" She ran her finger down his chest to the cross-over of his chamber-robe.

He took a moment to answer. "Even if all that is true, it means nothing."

"How can it mean nothing?" Her pout turned taunting. "If you burn for me, surely you'll want to do all you can to ease your torment?"

"Our agreement made before we left Poland says that I will not compromise your marriage," he said quietly. "I gave my Word."

"I know," she said, moistening her lips with the tip of her tongue.

"You have a right to expect me to keep it." There was no rebuke in his voice, only a slight world-weariness.

She made a breathless little laugh. "But you needn't break your Word in order to enjoy me. Surely there are ways you can … can pleasure us both and not … You know. You can keep your Word and revel in me, can't you?" Her sigh was languorous. "Flirting is amusing, but it's not the same."

He looked into her shining eyes, thinking back to Pentacoste and Estasia, to Avasa Dani and Heugenet, and to Nicoris. "It would be a reckless act, one that you might regret."

Her hands slid down the revers of his chamber-robe and stole under the silk to rest on his skin. "I would only regret it if you couldn't give me the gratification I lack. That would be insulting, and I wouldn't be inclined to approach you again. I'd have to find what I want elsewhere. There are many men without women in Sankt Piterburkh." She fingered his nipples. "It's been so long. My husband has been missing for almost a year-a year." Her neck smelled of attar-of-roses.

"All the more reason to be circumspect. You are being scrutinized both here and in Poland, and all you do will have implications for him." He wished he had found a woman to visit in her dreams, someone who would enjoy the delight of his presence and would not notice what little he had had from her, for then he would not have such a keen response to the Ksiezna's ministrations. Zozia was too tempestuous and too masterful to accept a dream; if only he were able to find other sustenance. But women were in short supply, and he would never be so foolish as to seek out a dreaming woman among the household servants: that would lead to precisely the kind of exposure he could not afford.

She pinched his nipples; when she spoke, she sounded like a child with a new toy. "You do want me. I can feel it."

He stopped her before she explored his broad swath of scars, taking her hands and pulling them up to kiss them. "You are most tempting; I will not deny it." His voice was deep and musical, and she smiled receptively. "I would have to be well and truly dead not to want you," he told her, an ironic light in his dark eyes.

"Well then, why not? If you don't have to spend your seed in me …" She kissed him again, this time with something approaching passion. "I need to be loved, Grofok. This is most difficult. You shouldn't make me have to tell you." When he said nothing, she went on. "It's been over a year I've been chaste, and …" Her voice had dropped to less than a whisper. She took his head in her hands, and this time there was no doubt that her ardor had awakened fully; her tongue brushed his, then she pulled his lower lip into her mouth and held it gently with her teeth, only letting go when she felt Saint-Germain return her kiss. Then she gazed into his eyes, a triumphant smile showing her confidence. "My bed is nicer than yours, Grofok." She took his hand and led him around the partition. "Just keep in mind, that if you decide to tup me, I will scream and my servants will come and restrain you."

"You needn't worry," he said, feeling her arousal as if it were a spark within him.

Her bed was broad and the mattress deep, soft, and luxurious. Zozia pulled back the comforter and upper sheet, and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Come. You'll like this," she said, patting the place beside her. "The servants won't mind. They suppose we must lie together, since they know us as man and wife." She giggled and reached out to pull at his chamber-robe. "Hurry. Hurry."

Again he hesitated. "I fear I may not give you the fulfillment you seek, and you have said this is of paramount importance to you," he said to account for his faltering as he thought of the risk he was taking. "You have imposed necessary conditions on me, and they may limit the degree of satisfaction you will experience."

"How can you say this?" she asked sharply. "You're so … so heedful of strictures."

"As you required of me," he said.

She kicked out negligently to show her annoyance at this delay. "Don't think to put me off, Grofok. I don't like being fobbed off like a servant."

"I don't want you screaming for help," he told her as he reached out and lifted the ruffle at the neck of her wrapper, letting it slide through his fingers. "So I will have to be sure you are content with what I offer you, and you will have no wish to scream." It was just the kind of thing she might do, he realized, if she thought she had a good reason for it; he touched the line of her clavicle, feeling her concupiscence welling, and felt his own need answer it.

"Go on," she prompted him.

"I am a fool," he said softly in Persian, but he loosened the four ties that held her wrapper closed, taking his time, drawing out the act so that she could increase her lascivity.

"You're making me wait," she chided him as the third tie was undone, but with a thrill in her words. "I don't want to wait."

"Do you want it to be over quickly?" he asked her as he bent down to kiss her bared shoulder, his kisses feather-light and tantalizing.

She wriggled in anticipation. "I want to have it last for hours and hou-"

"S-s-s-s-s-sh," he admonished her, then kissed her thoroughly, taking his time while he opened her wrapper, revealing her soft, vibrant, pampered skin, the color of new cream. Her face was rosy, her lips reddened from stimulation.

Saint-Germain laid his hand between her generous breasts, thinking that hers was the kind of figure Rubens liked to paint, eighty years ago. Not knowing how adventuresome she was, he chose a safe beginning; he caressed her opulent body, stroking her shoulders, her breasts, her waist, never hurrying, summoning sensations she had never allowed herself to experience before. Where she sighed, he lingered, until every touch brought an indication of pleasure. With this to embolden him, he expanded his attentions and the variety of his touches, sometimes light and supple, sometimes eager and provoking. She made quiet murmurs as he continued, moving to follow the path of his hands; her breathing deepened and her eyes took on a brilliance that he had never seen before. Gradually a quiet rapture took hold of her and she gave herself over to what he was doing to her; her eyes were half-closed while she gave herself up to a growing frenzy of sensation. Feeling her excitement increasing, he interspersed his fondling with a variety of kisses, some teasing and evocative, some intensely exciting. When he finally began to explore the sea-scented folds at the top of her thighs, she quivered.

"And here … I thought you … were … a monk," she gasped as he continued his gentle, adept seeking. She reached up to draw him down to her, her thighs flexing.

"Monks are said to be a randy lot." He stretched out beside her so that he in no way impeded her reaction to his skillful excitation. Gradually he felt her fervency center in the swollen nubbin between her legs, and he gave more concentration to its titillation.

Zozia made a little moan of disappointment. "Not yet … not yet."

He felt her release begin deep within her, and he bent his head to her neck, and as the first spasms swept through her, he took what was essential to him while her frenzied ecstasy engulfed her. As her culmination faded, he resumed his caresses, this time to soothe her.

Residual shivers surged through her, and she smiled with a gratification that was almost feline. "You did that … very well," she said at last.

"Thank you," he said, troubled by the vividness of her gratification; he could feel a lingering mania in her, a heat that would not be easily cooled.

"If I had known you were so experienced, I would have approached you sooner." She tugged on his arm. "I would like to think that you are as pleased as I am that this has occurred."

"I am," he said, starting to rise.

She held him where he was. "You don't want to spoil the aftermath, Grofok." It was more than a warning.

He gently removed her hand. "The servants are stirring. Your maids will be with you shortly."

"I could tell them to leave us alone," she suggested. "Surely you would be willing to do this again?"

"Yes, I would," he said, and sat up. "But then what?"

She reached to close her wrapper, a moue of discontent on her lovely mouth. "I take your meaning. Very well." She smoothed the sheet next to her as he got to his feet. "If only the Czar provided proper palaces for us, not this little box. Then we could have real privacy, and our servants wouldn't be forced to sleep in bunks like sailors on a ship. Our kitchen wouldn't be in the reception room, either."

"He has said it is his plan, and these houses will give way to grander accommodations," Saint-Germain said, adjusting the front of his chamber-robe. "In ten years this is to be a city of palaces."

"That's all very well, but a three-room house is barbaric. I'm not a peasant." She patted one of her pillows and moved it to the head of the bed; she cast about for something they could discuss without rekindling the excitation they had shared. "You know about herbs and such: I will need a sachet to keep the bugs away. Now that summer is here, the whole marsh is alive with them."

There was the sound of sectioned logs being loaded into the stove, and the clang of pots.

"It is that. The marshes breed them, and all the work-gangs out sleeping in tents provide fodder for them." He had seen the first outbreaks of Swamp Fever already and knew worse was coming.

"At least the supervisors have barracks to sleep in, or will have by the end of summer," said Zozia, making an effort to keep from approaching Saint-Germain. She fiddled with the flounces on her wrapper as if suddenly taken with modesty.

"That is the plan, and more work-gangs are arriving to increase the building. I have been told that there are also gangs of woodmen working in the forest, to provide sufficient lumber for all this building. Most of what is wood is supposed to be replaced by stone in three years, but for now, timber is of top priority."

"So Menshikov has said." Zozia motioned to him to get back, and when she did, she went to her dressing-table. "But who has money enough to bribe him to allocate more men to do what's wanted?"

One of the servants called out for dishes and eggs.

"We paid the carpenters to give us more windows, and the stable," Saint-Germain pointed out; he had given the carpenters sixteen guineas and the work-gang administrator twenty for allowing them to add these identified luxuries to the house.

"So we did," she agreed, although none of the money had come from her. "And the English paid a large bribe to get their terrace and their coach-house. The Prussians are paying a great deal for the extension on their main room for receptions, and the Dutch have given enormous amounts for their two storehouses." She recited these complaints as if the money came from her purse. "I'm not a woman of unlimited means."

"No, you are not, nor is Augustus," Saint-Germain agreed. "But at least the Czar has allowed certain modifications for houses in the Foreign Quarter, or you would find the house even more unsatisfactory. There would be no bribe sufficient to allow for modifications." He bent to pull the comforter upward. "Remember: the Czar's house has only four rooms."

"And he built it himself-yes, I know, and claims he is satisfied with such a dwelling. His mistress is supposed to arrive shortly, and remain in residence here as long as he orders her to stay." She frowned portentously. "But how is it that he can expect highborn people to live like this?"

"He is Czar," Saint-Germain said patiently. "It is his right to make such requirements."

A muted buzz of conversation came from the next room, along with the aroma of baking eggs and grilling fish.

"And his mistress began life as a chambermaid, so I'm told, some kind of orphan who worked in the household of a Livonian Protestant. She hasn't been with him long; perhaps he'll tire of her, and send her to a convent, as he did his wife. He surely will see the disadvantage of such a connection as this woman. They say Menshikov bought her and gave her to the Czar." She sniffed in disapproval. "They say she's pregnant by the Czar, and he wants his child born here, in his city. Martha is her name, I've heard, or Marfa."

"If she is as sensible as she's reputed to be, it might be worthwhile to have her here." Saint-Germain took a step backward toward the partition between their quarters.

Zozia got off the bed and finished smoothing it. "I don't know what to make of this place. Nothing of it makes sense."

"It is uncomfortable and isolated," said Saint-Germain. "A difficult combination at the best of times. With the Swedes about, Karl XII may decide to put pressure on Russia by reclaiming this place, although it would be a costly effort, and one that would gain him little. If he wants to make an impact on Piotyr, he should wait until the harbor is dredged, the docks are built, and the fortress is improved. Then he would gain something useful. As it is now-" His gesture finished his thought.

"Yes, yes. All that is clear to me. It's Piotyr's view that eludes me." She sighed. "I wish we had spoken more of these matters before. Not that I anticipated the need for it."

"Do you think you may want to discuss these issues further?" He was aware of her carefully banked volatility; she would need time alone today, he knew, and the evening could prove difficult.

"I think you and I ought to talk." She caught the end of her long braid and unfastened the bow securing it, then carefully pulled the hair apart, shaking her head as the thick, yellow tresses fell loosely about her shoulders. "We both have to make our reports to Augustus, but we may benefit from sharing our information."

"You said originally that this was of no interest to you," he reminded her. "You wanted no part of what I reported."

"So I did. That was a mistake. I hadn't realized how useful you can be." She smiled at him, holding up her mirror to inspect her face; he took another backward step, out of range of the mirror. "I assumed you were only here as a substitute for my husband, not as an experienced diplomat. I begin to think that I've underestimated you."

One of the maids appeared in the doorway, still looking a bit sleepy. "I'm preparing your tray, Ksiezna. There are eggs, fish, and bread. We'll have tea ready shortly. Do you want anything more?"

It was the same breakfast that Zozia had been given every morning since their arrival. She sighed. "No. But this evening, I would like fruit preserves with the meat. There are some in the stores we brought. See they're served."

The maid bobbed a curtsy. "Yes, Ksiezna." She went away.

"I wonder why you insist on dining alone," Zozia said slyly to Saint-Germain. "Have you special foods you are saving for your own use?"

"Something of the sort. I have restrictive dietary requirements. It is easier if I tend to them myself." He bowed slightly to her and slipped away to his side of the partition.

"Perhaps I'll dine with you, privately, one night?" she called after him.

"Perhaps," he replied, suppressing an ironic chuckle. He busied himself laying out clothes for the day, aware that Hroger would come shortly to shave him and clip his hair. He chose a deep-grape-colored ensemble of superfine wool with a waistcoat of salmon-colored damask-silk in a pattern of twining vines, a silken chemise of peach-colored silk, and a neck-cloth of ruffled silk to match the chemise. For leg-hose he selected a pair to match the coat and knee-britches.

"Are you going out this morning?" Zozia asked.

"I am-for two or three hours. I will have Gronigen drive me, if you don't mind. Vincenty Adzynski is available to you, and Stepan Tarkiv. I'll order the grays; you can have the chestnuts."

There was a rich laugh from her side of the partition. "How generous. This morning seems to have put you in a generous mood." There was a brief silence, then she said, "Bring the tray over here, Salomea. I'll eat here."

"Shall I bring you tea, Ksiezna?"

"In a moment. For now, brush my hair. I'll want a fetching style when I go out later." There was enough of a taunt in this for Saint-Germain to realize it was aimed at him, that she was trying to engage him. "I suppose I must don my stays now."

Saint-Germain had removed his chamber-robe and was pulling on his drawers when he heard a footfall behind him. He remained still. "Zozia, go have your breakfast."

"I have eaten, my master," said Hroger. "I had rabbit."

With unconcealed relief, Saint-Germain turned toward him. "A good morning to you, old friend. I see you have your basin and razor."

"Yes," he said, removing the small ewer of hot water from the basin and pouring half its contents into it. "It seems I am almost late. You'll want all this done before you dress." They both spoke in the Vulgate Latin of a thousand years ago.

"So I will," said Saint-Germain, pulling on his chamber-robe again.

Hroger set the basin down on top of the single standing chest in the room, and set out his brush and razor for use. "If you will sit down?"

Saint-Germain sat where he was ordered and waited while Hroger unrolled a towel that contained a brush and a square of soap; he put the towel around Saint-Germain's shoulders. "I've selected my clothes for the day," he remarked as Hroger took a cake of soap and moistened it with a soft brush.

"So I observed," said Hroger as he lathered Saint-Germain's face, humming as he worked. "You'll want boots, I believe." He opened the razor and started to work, taking assiduous care to do a thorough job.

"Umm," Saint-Germain agreed.

Wiping the razor on the towel as he worked, Hroger completed the shave in short order, then turned his attention to Saint-Germain's hair. "Close-clipped, as before?"

"If I am to keep wearing wigs," said Saint-Germain. "Do you have the shears?"

Hroger took them from his pocket. "A good thing your hair grows so slowly."

"It is certainly convenient." He remained still while Hroger made expert passes over his scalp, the shears snicking. "English-style," Hroger announced in that language. "Half an inch long."

Saint-Germain ran one hand over the neat stubble. "Very good."

"The Ksiezna has said she'll be going out in an hour. She plans to be gone well into the afternoon. She and four other ladies are examining new fabrics that arrived two days ago on the Saint-Michel from Calais." He kept up his steady work as he spoke. "She hopes to find fabric for another two grande toilettes."

"I hope she enjoys herself. I gather she and her maid have left the other side of the partition. I have heard no conversation from them."

"Yes. The Ksiezna has donned her stays and her petticoat and has gone into the main room to finish dressing. The male servants will have to wait for their breakfasts." Hroger wiped Saint-Germain's face and head, then whisked the towel away. "When do you want to go out?"

"In half an hour, I think."

"Then I'll have Gronigen ready the carriage. Do you want my help in dressing?"

"Just with the neck-cloth, thank you. If you will inform Gronigen now, I will be ready for your finishing touch in ten minutes." He glanced at the wigs. "You can decide which of the three is best with these clothes."

"I would think the English wig would look better. When I return, I'll help you place it." He bowed slightly and withdrew. By the time he came back, Saint-Germain was fully dressed and pulling on his boots. "Gronigen will be at the front of the house in twenty minutes."

"I will be ready," said Saint-Germain. "Now, about the neckcloth?"

"The neck-cloth …" He reached for the one Saint-Germain had set out. "A double pair of loops would be best."

"I bow to your superior eye," said Saint-Germain with a quick, amused smile.

"Most kind of you, my master," Hroger said as he worked the complicated knot in the neck-cloth.

Saint-Germain touched the results of Hroger's work. "As always, most expert, as far as I can tell."

"That is the trouble with having no reflection." He went to take the wig from its stand. "No hat, I assume."

"No hat," Saint-Germain agreed.

"You are going to the care-house again, I gather," said Hroger, his statement almost a question.

"Before I go out to where they are building a second treadmillpump. One of the Finnish Watchmen was attacked late yesterday. I thought it would be wise to talk to him." He said it levelly enough, but Hroger knew him well enough to know Saint-Germain was troubled.

"One of the men who found you, I surmise?"

"Yes. His name is Yrjo Saari; he is more or less the leader of their Watch."

"And he's been attacked."

"That is what Kyril Yureivich told me when he came here last night: they think it was one of the robber-gangs who did it. You were out when he called." Saint-Germain pondered the matter for about a minute. "I will take more of my sovereign remedy with me. Kyril also said they wanted another four vials of it."

"Then it must be working for them," said Hroger. "Do you want your small case?"

"If you would: the four vials they asked for, and the willow-bark-with-pansy infusion. And some of the ointment for rashes and bites. The flies and midges are getting worse every day, and the bed-bugs." He went to the chest and removed a pair of gloves in pale-ivory Florentine leather.

"I'll ready your case."

"I appreciate it, old friend," he said, and went out into the main room, where he found Zozia, fully dressed in a lovely morning gown of extravagantly embroidered linen with frothy petticoats of sprigged muslin. Salomea, her maid, was brushing her hair and pinning it into tossed curls. A lace-edged hat stood on the sideboard, ready to be placed atop her coiffure. "I will be departing shortly, Ksiezna, so I will wish you a pleasant day."

"I will have one, after so fine a beginning," she responded; Salomea simpered. Zozia picked up her hand-mirror and looked at the way her hair was turning out. "It is really a pity that Minka had to be sent home. She has a real gift for dressing hair, and sewing." She sighed and lowered the mirror. "Still, I suppose this will do."

Salomea turned bright red but continued to work on fixing long hair-pins in place.

Saint-Germain felt a stab of sympathy for the young woman, but said nothing, not wanting to give Zozia any reason to reprimand her servant again. He bowed to Zozia, then went to the bench under the window, where he sat, waiting for Hroger to bring his case and for Gronigen to drive up to the door.

Text of a letter from Heer van Hoek to Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor, written in Dutch and delivered by messenger.

To the most respected Hungarian resident of Sankt Piterburkh, Arpad, Hercegek Gyor, the greetings and gratitude of Heer van Hoek of the care-house.

My dear Hercegek,

I have some good news to impart; this morning, for the first time since he was brought here, Yrjo Saari has been able to stand on his own, a vast improvement from when you saw him. His comrades, Paavo Lyly and Tapio Pyhajoki, have come daily to tend him, to see he is fed, and to minister to his needs, which has been of great benefit to him as well as to several of our other patients. Saari's fever is almost gone after only four days, and I am certain we have your sovereign remedy to thank for that. He continues to have pain, for which we have given syrup of poppies diluted in cognac, and that seems to be sufficient to calm the worst of his hurt. I am confident that in a few days he will be able to impart much more useful information than was the case when you tried to question him five days ago.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that he will be able to return to work anytime in the near future, and I am reluctant to inform the Czar's lieutenant of that. The deliberate dislocation of his shoulder has created some problems, as has the injury to his head. I doubt he will regain his full vigor, and I am afraid that the motion of his arm will be restricted and its strength reduced. It may be that I am being pessimistic, and I very much hope that this is the case, but I would be less than forthright if I failed to mention these possibilities to you.

Kyril Yureivich Bolkov has told me that there have been men watching the care-house, We do not know who they are, or why they are watching us, but we thought that since you have been so kind as to visit us and contribute so generously to our work, you should be made aware of this observation, so that you may make any changes in your habits that may seem prudent to you. Given the two assaults you have endured, you may wish to keep your calls here to a minimum. Neither Ludmilla Borisevna Svarinskaya nor I would like to see your charity repaid with greater injury.

If I learn anything of use regarding these watchers, I will speedily inform you of all intelligence I have gleaned. In the meantime, I encourage you to be on guard, not only in your visits to this place, but in all your activities, for it is apparent to me that you stand at high risk for more violence, which is Saari's opinion, as well. If you will not engage a body-guard, then at least arm your coachman, and yourself I look forward to seeing you again at the banquet to be given by Alexander Menshikov on the twenty-first, when all of the Foreign Quarter will gather to honor the arrival of the Czar's mistress. Such a grand occasion must be a rare delight for us all.

With sincerest respect and the most profound appreciation,

I remain

Your most obedient,

Lodewick Kerstan van Hoek

anatomist and physician

July 18th, 1704, at Sankt Piterburkh