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Out in the fields the men worked under the declining sun to bring in the last of the harvest; in the vineyards grapes were being taken from the vines for making frost-wine. From his vantage-point in the gate-tower window, Francois de Saint-Germain, Sieur Ragoczy watched these labors while his athanor slowly heated. He saw the men were eager to finish their work and be done. He glanced over his shoulder as his manservant entered the six-sided room, and then turned away from the window.
"Has the Estin boy left yet?" Rogres asked his master.
"Yes." Saint-Germain did not quite sigh. "He is inquisitive, which in another time or another place would serve him in good stead. But here? now?"
"You said there would be risks when you first agreed to teach him," Rogres reminded Saint-Germain in a carefully neutral tone.
"And there are." He gave a single, tiny shake of his head.
Rogres posed a question that had troubled him for the last year. "If that is the case, why tutor him? What can it gain him, or you, to" He stopped himself and waited for an answer.
"He does not want to be ignorant," said Saint-Germain quietly. "And he wants to travel. His father, merchant that he is, wants profit and encourages the boy. He dreams of jewels and spices. The boy dreams of distant lands and ancient wisdom. If he spoke of this to his Confessor, his liberty could be forfeit."
"But why should you" Rogres broke off again. "Your liberty could also be forfeit."
"So it could. Fortunately the priests in Orgon dismiss me as a foreigner who has fought the enemies of the Church, which affords me some protection that the boy does not have." He tapped the surface of his trestle table. "If he wants to study, who else is there? Everyone around him knows the stars are the celestial river flowing from Heaven to earth as God wills it. They know that the Devil stalks the earth personally seeking out souls to corrupt. They know that anyone foolish enough to sail west or south will fall off the earth into outer darkness." He lifted his hand in a gesture of despair. "What else could I do, old friend?"
"You could think of your own safety," said Rogres, no rebuke in his manner.
"I have only agreed to tutor this one boy before he goes to sea," Saint-Germain reminded him. "And Gaspard is not going to tell tales to his Confessor." Heturned back to the window and watched awhile in silence.
"The men should be paid today, now that all but the end of the harvest is over," Rogres said without any sign of a change of subject beyond a nod. "If you are planning to do it yourself" He made a gesture to the window. "They will want to leave before sundown."
"Yes; you are right to remind me," said Saint-Germain. "It would be wise to pay them myself. They might have doubts about me if I do not." His smile was fleeting, filled with ironic humor. "It would surely be imprudent to be any more remote than I already seem to them."
Rogres nodded, a faint amusement in his dignified features. "They do speculate about you."
Saint-Germain chuckled. "Of course they do. I am a foreigner, and therefore the object of curiosity. I am wealthy, and that makes me enviable. My land is productive, which is the most reprehensible of all. Neighbors may be disliked, even loathed, but neighbors are familiar. Foreigners are unknown quantities, despised for nothing more than foreignness. As we have seen many times before." He shook out the long, knotted sleeves in his Burgundian cotehardie of black Antioch silk; the black cote of fine wool beneath was Roman in style, the hem reaching his ankles and decorated with red embroidery displaying his eclipse device. The high collar of the cote was slightly stiffened so that it did not hang limply around his neck but instead curled elegantly, just as his fashionably cropped, wavy dark hair did, and his neat, short beard. "Well, I will be with you shortly, old friend. I have a few things I still must attend to here."
"You are making scent?" Rogres asked, cocking his head in the direction of the athanor. Now that they were no longer discussing Saint-Germain's student, he was once more neat and reserved, his manner was a meticulous blend of respect and affection. His cote was shorter than Saint-Germain's, and made of dark blue-grey wool instead of silk, but he had a better appearance than most of the domestic servants outside the Papal Court at Avignon.
"No, not this time. Today I work with moldy bread," said Saint-Germain.
"The sovereign remedy," said Rogres knowingly. "I did not realize your stores were low."
"They aren't," Saint-Germain replied. "But winter is coming, and with it comes illness. I thought it wise to be prepared. Even in this mild climate, putrid lungs are not unknown."
"Even in midsummer," Rogres reminded him.
Saint-Germain thought a moment. "True enough." He looked back toward the window. "At least in this part of the world they bathe twice a month." When Rogres did not say anything, he went on, "Tell the men I will come directly."
"Very good, my master," Rogres said, and bowed slightly. "There will be taxes on the harvest soon."
"Yes; yes. I realize that," Saint-Germain assured him. "And, being foreign, we will have a higher assessment than those who were born on their lands." He shrugged, dismissing the melancholy that threatened to take hold of him. "When has that not been the case. Even my native earth is taxed as if I were a foreigner, I have been away so long." His people who had claimed the land had left it more than two thousand years before, long after he had gone from it.
Rogres sensed Saint-Germain's unspoken ruefulness; he left Saint-Germain alone in the tower room with his alchemical equipment.
By the time the sun had dropped to the edge of the crested western horizon, Saint-Germain came down to the courtyard at the rear of his villa, a large sack of coins in one hand, a ledger in the other. Rogres had set up a small table with an ink-cake with a trimmed quill on it, and put a chair behind it for Saint-Germain's use; he took his seat and opened the ledger as the workmen gathered in the courtyard. None was younger than ten or older than thirty; all wore cottelles and breeks tucked into brodequins and held their caped hoods in their hands. They kept their distance until their names were called, and accepted their payment without comment. Each man was given a small bonus for his labors. Their participation in the harvest festival a few days ago had seemed more truly the end of the season than this last flurry of work, and the extra money nothing more than an appropriate gift for their continuing labor. When all the men had received their money, Saint-Germain addressed them.
"I will pay your masters for the loan of your labor. They will have no cause to make claim against you. If there is any attempt to tax a portion of your hire, inform my manservant and the matter will be settled by me. I thank you for the work you have done and I pray God will favor you and your families." He crossed himself and watched as the workmen did the same. "God willing and a good planting in the spring, I will employ you all again at this time next year."
"Right. What about the spring planting, then?" one of the men called out, faint resentment making the question sharper than their relative positions required.
Saint-Germain showed no sign of being offended. "You know well that I hire others in the spring; I have done so for the last ten years and more. That way no one group of workmen is favored above any others, and no landholder is left without gain. All of you, landholder and serf alike, share in my good fortune." He had learned centuries ago that as long as farmers and laborers belonged to the landowner, it was sensible to be certain they all profited from his employment; showing preference for any laborer or landholder brought acrimony and strife along with the scrutiny Saint-Germain sought to avoid. "I will be glad to see all of you in the autumn next year."
"And we will be glad to come," said another after scowling at his obstreperous fellow-serf. This assertion was seconded by a number of the men in the courtyard; none wanted to lose the two golden bees he gave when their labor was done. For most it was the handsomest pay they would see all year long.
"Well, then," said Saint-Germain, rising from his place. "May the Good Angels see you home and watch over you." It would be dark before long and these men did not feel safe abroad after nightfall. "My servants will light your way to the main road."
The men crossed themselves again, and the first few began to straggle toward the laborers' gate in the stone wall surrounding Clair dela Luna. Torches were being lit for them although the sun still gave sufficient light in the luminous afterglow of sunset.
When they were alone, Rogres came up to Saint-Germain. "What troubles you, my master?" His centuries-long service to Saint-Germain had taught him to read his master's state of mind with uncanny accuracy. He spoke the Latin of Imperial Rome.
Saint-Germain shook his head. "I do not know," he answered in the same language.
Rogres frowned. "Then what"
"I said I do not know," Saint-Germain cut him off.
This curt response was unlike Saint-Germain and for that reason alone it alarmed Rogres more than it offended him. "My master, I" He stopped as he saw Saint-Germain's face clearly in the torchlight. "You have heard something."
"No," he said quietly.
"But…a message, perhaps?" Rogres suggested.
"No, not precisely," he answered carefully. "It is what I have not heard that troubles me." He strode across the courtyard with restless steps, the heels of his thick-soled boots ringing on the dusty flagstones. "It is probably nothing more than the hazards of travel, but I had expected to have word from my factor in Trebizond by now, and no word has come. His report is usually in my hands at the end of August, yet we are well into October and…nothing." He made an impatient sign of dismissal. "I know; I know. There are a thousand reasons the report has not arrived, and none of them are sufficient to give me this unease." His sardonic smile faded as quickly as it came. "I have told myself that the silence means nothing, but the apprehension will not lessen."
"Do you think it is time to leave this place?" Rogres asked as he busied himself putting the ink-cake back in its box.
"I cannot tell, and that is the most troubling part of it, the doubt. If I could be certain" He stopped pacing and looked up into the night, at the thin veil of clouds drifting between the earth and the stars.
"If the players told you nothing, then it may be you are permitting apprehension to rule you," Rogres suggested. "They hear things, players do."
"The players said nothing," Saint-Germain told him. His dark eyes grew distant. "The rains will come soon."
"It is fortunate they have held off for so long. We might have lost part of the harvest if they had come sooner." He kept his voice carefully neutral as he picked up the ledger. "When you decide what is to be done, you will tell me, I trust."
Saint-Germain shook his head, his attractive, irregular features losing some of their forbidding aspect. "You need not coddle me, old friend. We have known each other long enough that you may speak candidlyyou often do. I am aware that what I am saying is not sensible. I have tried to set aside my anxiety. But it wears on me, this feeling. I do not know what is best to do." He rubbed at his chin through his beard. "And it will probably come to nothing."
"Are you certain?" asked Rogres, looking toward the door into the villa. "I think we are being overheard."
"Unless their Latin is better than I suppose it is, let them listen," said Saint-Germain with a suggestion of a bow in the direction of the terrace doors. "I doubt they would learn anything to trouble them. Whether or not they understand, what can they learn? That I am worried for no reason. That I am unable to resolve doubts regarding…what? Only a Dominican or an Austin would be bothered by such an admission. Or one of the monks at Saunt-Joachim might wonder about my faith, but no merchant would, or servant, or serf." He switched back to the French of Provence. "Let's get the table and chair indoors. They should not be left out all night."
"I'll send for one of the servants," said Rogres at once.
"No need," Saint-Germain told him as he lifted the table with one hand and the chair with the other in a remarkable display of strength, for both pieces of furniture were substantial and solidly made. "If you take the rest, the ledger and the ink, we need bother no more about it." He followed Rogres into the villa, and gave no sign that he heard the sudden scuff of retreating footsteps as he crossed the threshold.
"Will you return to the tower tonight, my master?" Rogres asked as he closed the door behind them.
"Later tonight, I think," said Saint-Germain. He put the table under the narrow window and set the chair behind it. "I have something to do before then."
Rogres nodded. "You have made arrangements?" It was an innocent question to anyone listening, but Saint-Germain knew what his manservant was asking.
"Sufficient," he answered.
"Orgon?" Rogres put the box with the ink-cake on the table and held out the ledger to Saint-Germain.
"Near enough," was Saint-Germain's oblique reply.
"Does she know?" Rogres spoke with a quick glance toward the door.
Saint-Germain gave a minute shake of his head. "She dreams." Rogres frowned. "Nothing more?"
"I think more would be…unwise." There was something in his expression that kept Rogres from pressing further. Taking the ledger, Saint-Germain went off to his private apartment above the reception room. In his library he chained the ledger to a high desk, then passing through to his bedchamber, he removed his cotehardie and chose a garnache of heavy black Damascus silk shot with silver from the chest at the foot of his narrow, austere bed. He swung the garnache around his shoulders and closed the two tabs over his chest, making himself a patch of darkness, his eyes darker than all the rest. He smoothed the front of the long garnache and admired the swing of the flared, marten-edged hem, thinking how little the garment had changed since the Romans. He did not miss having a mirror, for he had no reflection. Satisfied that he was ready, he turned on his heel and left his apartments through his treasured library.
The evening had turned chill and the wind was keen, but neither of these things troubled Saint-Germain. He made his way along the entry lane to Clair dela Luna toward the broad merchants' road that wound through the groves of trees, leading to Avignon in the north and to Aix and Marsailla in the south. It was better-maintained than most roads because the merchants paid well to keep it in good order, and charged a toll to use it. Saint-Germain walked tirelessly and silently until he came to the first enclosure of serfs' dwellings. He stopped and lay down at the edge of the trees, closed his eyes and was quickly in a strange attentive doze; his fine brows pulled together as he searched out the dogs that guarded the enclosure and deepened their sleep so that they would not give the alarm at his presence. Only when he was certain the dogs would sleep the night through did he open his eyes, get to his feet and resume his walk toward the stockaded huts. The rough logs were easy to climb and he was over the wall without effort. He avoided the midden where it steamed in the cool air.
A donkey gave a half-bray as Saint-Germain went past his pen, but when no other disturbance came, the donkey went back to chewing on the end of his leadrope that had been left looped over the fence.
Saint-Germain paused in the overhang of the roof of the nearest hut. He listened, his senses preternaturally tuned to his surroundings; he knew five people slept in the hut behind him, and that they had eaten pork and bread for their supper. He could hear the animals, smell them, as they waited through the night. When he was certain he was unobserved, he made his way to the small cabin set apart from the rest; slowly he swung the rickety door open. The place was there for the use of travelers, but just at present it was occupied by Deonis Vigny, who was eking out an existence in this place in defiance of the order of the court that she marry. Widowed at twenty-nine, she had promised herself she would not be wife again, and so far had been able to retain her precarious independence in defiance of the magistrate and the Bishop in Orgon.
She was asleep, as Saint-Germain had intended. He stood in the doorway of the tiny room and watched her, learning the rhythm of her sleep. Then he went in, closed the door, and spoke, so softly that the sound was hardly louder than her breathing. "There is nothing to fear, nothing. Dream sweetly, Deonis. In dreams nothing is forbidden. What you seek you may have for the taking. You may have all that you want in your dream; no one will forbid you to seek what gives you satisfaction." He came a step nearer to her. "Let your dreams carry you to realms of pleasure you have longed for all your life. Find the sweetest delights and have them happily. Be sustained by rapture. Be radiant with bliss. Deny yourself nothing that would give you elation."
In her sleep, Deonis Vigny sighed and lay back more comfortably under her single, rough blanket, her head pillowed in a husk-stuffed sack that rustled as she moved. Her brown hair was confined, even in sleep, under a lace widow's cap. Saint-Germain knew her eyes were a hazel shade that was sometimes green, sometimes brown; he did not want to see them that night, and risk discovery and detestation.
"Let your dreams bear you away from your unhappiness and open the door to your joys," he murmured as he finally reached her side. He dared not touch her yet for fear of waking her and terrifying her; she had already eluded two attempted abductions and would be certain he had the same purpose if she became aware of his presence. "Nothing will harm you, nothing will put you in danger, nothing will make you unhappy," he went on, his words were like soft music, lulling her and arousing her at once.
She sighed audibly and one hand moved restlessly. She was more deeply asleep than when he had come through the door, but not as deeply asleep as he would have wished. Only when he knew she was lost in her dreams would he continue. "You are free of all unpleasantness, you are as God made you, you are filled with the delight known by those who are true to God's Will. Your whole being is consecrated to your joy. Your heart answers the music of your veins. You will achieve all you have been promised of Heavenly rewards." He wondered how much she understood of this doctrine that she had been taught since infancy. How much did she truly believe that she was as God made her and only God or the Devil could change her? Nothing in her blood revealed doubt, but nothing there showed comprehension beyond a rote grasp of the idea. His touch remained light and evocative, knowing and responsive to every movement, every breath, every nuance of expression.
When finally he bent over her, Deonis Vigny was engulfed in an exultation that seemed to be the very gift of Heaven as the priests described it, but visited on her flesh. In her dreams she rushed to have his kisses, her unfettered passion as vast as the distant sea. She reveled in the voluptuous images that swam in her mind and made her body thrill. Her needs were as fully awake as her mind was wrapped in sleep, and she surrendered to the opulence of her senses and the fervor of her flesh. When she reached the culmination of her desires, she was distantly aware of the soft brush of lips on her neck, but this seemed nothing more than the fading fulfillment of her dream.
As was too often the case with these unknowing encounters, it was over quickly and the illusion of connection could not be sustained beyond the glorious delirium of her release; he had long ago ceased to try.
Saint-Germain withdrew from her cabin, his whole being filled with the cherished reality of Deonis Vigny, his senses heightened by hers, his gratification as intense and ephemeral as her dream had been. The kinship he felt with her at that moment was as comprehensive as any he had known; he was aware that she had no similar response and that his own would dissipate because of her lack of comprehension. Over time he had come to accept this fleeting unity without grief, although he continued to search for knowing lovers; acceptance of his nature was rare and could not be imposed or demanded or cajoled. He knew the value of intimacy and revered it. Through the centuries he had sought love without reservation which continued to elude him. He closed the door with care and slipped away through the cluster of huts. How much ardor there was in Deonis Vigny, and how little she knew of it. The tenuous link of their dream-bond began to vanish as she shook off her elation; he felt her stir and smile as he went up the road toward Clair dela Luna.
By midnight he was once again in his tower with his athanor, preparing more of the soverign remedy that he made from moldy bread. As he poured out the first beaker of the opalescent liquid, he had to shake off the disquiet that had taken hold of him once again, reminding himself that he had chosen this quiet life, that he had wanted to be at peace in the troubled world. Somehow that peace had evaded his attempts to secure it: he had achieved tranquility without serenity, and increasingly the tranquility escaped him. He had to resist the lure of melancholy as he continued his work into the pale dawn.
• • •
Text of a letter from Atta Olivia Clemens in Rome to Francois de Saint-Germain, Sieur Ragoczy; written in the Latin of Imperial Rome and delivered 2 February 1345.
• • •
To my dearest, oldest friend, the greetings of the Nativity, or perhaps the Resurrection, given the exigencies of travel;
Since the Churchor more to the point, the Popehas gone to Avignon there is no occasion quite so vexing as the Mass of Christ in Roma. You cannot imagine how hollow the bells sound. The churches try to make it seem that all the pomp is still here, but is it not, and there are those in the Church who are no longer willing to pretend. It is rumored that the Pope must return to Roma or the Church is doomed. As much as I claim to doubt these rumors, I fear they may contain more truth than anyone in this city would like to think. If the Pope is afraid of the Holy Roman Emperor, let them come to an understanding rather than have the Pope hide away in France.
You are close enough to Avignon to have the festivities of the season all around you. Does that please you, I wonder? Or do you fret to have so many religious around you, with their demons and dreads? To me, few things are so Roman as the midwinter celebrations, be they the Christ Mass or the Saturnalia. You told me long ago that you were born at the dark of the year, so it may be you can regard these rites as those of your birth. What a very heretical notion! I trust you will not repeat it to any cleric.
I have made up my mind to return to Trieste with the spring, and take up residence in the city itself for a change. Living here in Roma has become difficult once again, and I can see the wisdom of taking a decade or so to let the speculation about me fade. I should have remained away longer, but I thought with the Pope gone intrigue would go with him. You need not tell me that I should know better; I have said that to myself often. Niklos has been urging me to leave in March for some weeks now. I am going to allow him to persuade me so that he will have the satisfaction of bringing it all about.
No doubt you have had reports of trouble in the East. I was recently told by a Greek monk come to Roma on some errand, that there have been travelers warning that a plague is loose in the East and that it may well spread. It is not certain which plague this is, or if it is anything more than a tale. If it is a plague, it may have already reached the Moghul cities; trade from those distant places has fallen off in the last months, and merchants are delaying going to those places until it is known if there is plague or if something else has occurred. Plague and war are not the only disasters the East has known. Flood, famine, eruptions and convulsions of the earth have all taken their toll. Not that I would wish for any of these catastrophes, not even those that cannot touch us; for while you and I have nothing to fear from the plague, the terror of the people stricken is another matter. And you need not remind me of your centuries in the Temple of Imhotep, or whatever that Egyptian god called himself. You should know better than I that when plagues come, no one is safe. So I urge you to consider travel yourself, in a year or so. You have those holdings in the north, and they may well be beyond the reach of the disease, if disease comes.
I thank you again for those two Andalusian stallions. They are superb; you must have trained them yourself for them to be so willing and well-mannered. You never beat your horses into submission, as so many others do, and it makes them finer mounts than all the drubbing others do. I have kept them busy and their get will certainly be sought-after if they keep true to their sires' color. Silver coats and golden manes. No wonder every minor king in Spain wants a stableful of these fine horses. I have six mares in foal now, and they will drop in the spring. I will take the stallions with me when I go back to Trieste and leave the mares and their babies here. When I return to Roma again, I expect my stables will be the envy of Italy.
The players arrived four days ago, and they are as accomplished as you told me they would be. I will have fine entertainment here until Epiphany. How could the magistrate and Bishop of Orgon be so blind as to think they were immoral in their amusements? They showed human frailty, to be sure, but so does every parish priest in Christendom, and the priests are not faulted. I predict they will be the delight of all those churchmen remaining in Roma, for they show the absurdity of sin while causing laughter, and where is the harm in that? No, I do not intend you to answer that question. I know what the response must be. But a jest or two about gluttony will not turn one to a heretic, no matter what the monks say.
How much I have missed you these last few years. As I write this, I long to have your company, so that I may laugh with impunity, since I cannot weep. I wish you would relent and visit me for a time. It need not be long, just enough to make me feel less alone in the world. Sometimes I feel I am a leaf on a fast-moving river. Other leaves fall into the water only to be left on the shore while I am swept along. With you for company, the river does not seem quite so kindless a place. How do you endure it? This isolation that those of your blood experience must be greater for you. And doubtless I do you no service by reminding you of our plight. If plight it is. For when I am thrown into this state, I have only to remember that I would have died the true death during Vespasianus' reign but for you. So weigh my complaint against the gift you gave me and count me a discontented matron out of sorts with the world.
So I will venture out to Mass and pretend that it has nothing to do with the Saturnalia, and I will watch the monks dance through the streets while the people sing for them, and I will visit a handsome young Bishop in his dreams so he will have something wonderful to confess, if he remembers. And then I will begin to choose what I will take to Trieste. Write to me there, and deliver the letter yourself if you want to best please me.
By my own hand and with my undying love,
At Sanza Pari, the eve of the Mass of Christ, 1345 Church years.
Copyright © 1998 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro