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A Dangerous Climate
A Novel of the Count Saint-Germain
By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2008 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
All rights reserved.
He came to slowly, his face pressed into cold, noxious mud, his body lying half on and half off a wooden walkway, his clothes in disarray, his sword gone, his wig missing entirely, and a collection of bruises and small wounds on his shoulders and head that he knew would take weeks to mend. He was just beginning to feel other hurts; through swollen eyes he tried to see where he was, but the night was dark, and although there was a broad smudge of opalescent luminosity on the horizon, it was not bright enough to diminish the night. His usual ability to see in dimness was itself faded: he could barely make out his ruined lace cuff dangling a hand's-breadth from his face; he could not see, but he felt the rawness of his knuckles, and his attempt to flex his fingers in his right hand failed in a flare of renewed pain. How had he come to this? Involuntarily he groaned, and less than a minute later, he heard approaching footsteps, and hoped this did not mean his attackers were returning to finish what they had begun. After a brief hesitation, he took a breath, and then another.
"It's not a body," said a voice in Finnish. "He's breathing."
"Looks like the Lithuanians have been at him; they go for the head with their cudgels," said a second voice in the same language. He nudged at the prone figure with a walking staff. "You alive?" he asked in Russian as he held up a bull's-eye lantern.
Saint-Germain did his best to blink, and said through swollen lips, in Finnish, "What happened?" It was the first question that came to mind; his voice was rough and almost inaudible, and this simple effort brought new pain as a cold wind slid over him, bearing the odor of decaying vegetation from the exposed mud of the marsh. It's all of a piece, he thought.
"You've been damned foolish, coming out here." The second voice went silent for more than a minute, then added, "There're gangs and worse out here once the sun goes down, summer light or no summer light. No one from the fortress or the town leaves its protection at night. Even a foreigner like you should know that." There was another silence. "Don't try to move. You may have broken bones. We'll get a pallet to carry you."
"There are criminals in this part of the island," said the first. "No one comes here after dark, not alone."
"Ehi! Tapio! Get a pallet." The second voice was raised enough to carry, and he was answered by a third voice some distance away.
"All right," the third man called, and his footsteps on the wooden walkway receded.
"Don't try to talk," the first man recommended to Saint-Germain. "You'll make it worse."
"At least there isn't a lot of blood," said the second, inspecting the wooden walkway and the ground around Saint-Germain. "He's got a chance to recover."
"But it will take time, or he might not heal completely. That's a mess," said the first, pointing to Saint-Germain's right hand.
Saint-Germain was able to wheeze out a word. "Time?"
"Oh, an hour or so until dawn," said the first. "The Russians are still drinking in their log houses, but most of the rest are asleep. At least we have tents this spring. Last year most of us slept in the open."
"Work starts an hour after dawn at this time of year," said the second.
How long had he lain here? Saint-Germain wondered, and why had he been so far from the stout, three-room log house in the Foreign Quarter the Czar had allocated for his and Zozia's use? What had brought him out into the marsh at night? How long had he lain here? His thoughts were as murky as the night around him; he had a vague recollection of being summoned to one of the huge treadmills driving a draining screw, but after that, there was only a flash of faces and rough commands in a dialect of Russian he barely understood. He tried to push himself upright, only to be held down.
"You don't want to do that," said the second voice. "If you have broken bones they could burst out —"
"Lie still," the first said. "Tapio will be back soon enough."
Saint-Germain did his best to relax, taking stock of the damage he had sustained. He could feel at least two cracked ribs and possibly broken bones in his right hand. One leg — his left — was swollen in its high boot, and his back ached. The blow to his forehead continued to hurt, and he was fairly certain he had been struck on the throat or someone had attempted to strangle him. There was a knife-cut to his side and one at the top of his thigh. His rings and a gold brooch were missing.
"Can we take him to Ludmilla Svarinskaya at this hour?" The second man sounded worried. "Everyone's asleep at the care-house."
"Where else? She can arrange to get him home once he's been treated," said the second. He sighed. "At least it's not raining."
"And there's no fog — we wouldn't have found him if there were fog."
"True enough," said the second, beginning to pace nervously.
"Paavo, calm down; it's safe," said the first. "The gangs aren't out now — nothing to prey on."
"I hate being on Watch." Paavo stamped his foot and held up the lantern again. "They really pounded him, didn't they?"
"So they did," said the first. "Lucky they didn't strip him of everything, including clothes. He'd be much worse off if they'd done that."
"But, Yrjo, why would they leave him his clothes?" It was a reasonable question, clothes like everything else being in short supply.
"Too foreign. They're bound to be identified. And what working man wants a satin coat?" He laughed. "Not that it isn't ruined, in any case."
Jogging footsteps thudded on the wooden walkway as Tapio returned with the wooden pallet. He was panting a little as he stopped. "Do we lift him or roll him?"
Saint-Germain listened distantly, aware that whichever they did, it would be painful. He steeled himself against it, reminding himself that as bad as this would be, he took ironic consolation in the certainty it would not be as hideous as the pain he had suffered from being crucified in Mexico more than fifty years ago.
"Best try to lift him," said Yrjo after considering the situation. "But turn him on his back first, and get his head and shoulders onto the walkway." He stared down at Saint-Germain. "We'll make this as easy as we can." With that, he bent, got his hands under his arms, and lugged him onto the wooden path; Saint-Germain moaned once, but otherwise endured the brief agony in silence. "Good. Now, Tapio, you take his legs, and Paavo, help me with his trunk, and get him onto the pallet. Get a good hold. We don't want to drop him."
"We'll be careful," said Tapio, preparing to grab Saint-Germain around the knees.
Paavo and Yrjo positioned themselves and, on Yrjo's count, raised Saint-Germain and set him on the pallet; Ragoczy set his teeth against the varieties of agony that went through him, and remembered to breathe as he was set down, the air hissing in and out.
"Good enough," said Yrjo. "Come. Hoist the pallet, and keep to the walkway. Not too fast. We don't want to end up dropping him."
The three men set off at a steady, sober pace, their boots sounding loudly on the wooden walkway; around them there were the various murmurs and soughings of the marsh, the slap of water against the newly built wooden embankment, the call of night-birds. The sound of the Dutch clock in the wooden church dedicated to Sankt Piter and Sankt Paultje chimed the half-hour. One-thirty? Saint-Germain wondered. Two-thirty? He longed for the deep, restorative night, but this far north, he would not find it until July was gone. The regular thudding of the lantern against the handle of the pallet was almost soothing, helping him to think. It came back to him that he had set out around nine o'clock while the brilliant glow of sunset was still hanging above the horizon. He had passed the first levee and gone along the embankment past a large tavern that welcomed all seafarers. Not far from it, a Russian tavern echoed to laughter and drunken song. Try as he did — distracting himself from the affliction of his injuries — he could recall nothing more until the Finnish Watchmen came upon him.
"After the second levee, take the path toward Ludmilla Svarinskaya's street. You know the way."
"That I will," said Tapio. "I don't like to wake her up in the middle of the night, though; a well-born woman like her."
"She should be used to it." Yrjo was beginning to breathe harder; the other two men slowed their pace to accommodate him.
"Who ...?" Saint-Germain managed to ask.
"Ludmilla Borisevna Svarinskaya," said Paavo. "Some kind of boyar's daughter. Runs a care-house. There's a foreign physician who helps her during the day, and he studies at night. The Czar insists on it."
Saint-Germain tried to conceal the alarm he felt, but something of his emotion must have been revealed, for Yrjo said, "Don't worry about her: she's not going to cut off your legs or give you foul potions to drink. She's good with bandages and poultices, splints and purgatives; she knows what to do to take care of those who are injured. She'll wrap up your cuts and set your bones, just as she does for anyone on the island. Two days ago she took care of those two woodcutters who —" He stopped.
The three men went on in silence for several minutes, entering a muddy street flanked by wooden sidewalks and wooden houses, some of which had been painted to resemble bricks instead of logs, after Czar Piotyr's own house. This was the newest part of the city, no house more than four months old. "Third on the left," said Tapio. There was the sound of an argument in one of the houses across the road, and the three Finns stopped, then went on to the third house, which was somewhat larger than the others along the street. They set the pallet down and Yrjo went to pound on the door, calling for Ludmilla Borisevna. Three minutes later a sleepy voice asked in Russian, "Who's there?"
"Yrjo Saari, Tapio Pyhajoki, and Paavo Lyly," he announced. "We're on Watch. We have an injured foreigner. Looks like he was set upon by robbers."
There was the sound of the bolt being lifted, and then the door swung open, revealing a sleepy servant with a lamp in his hand. "Bring him in." Behind them to the southeast, the sky was brightening.
The three men did as they were told, carrying the pallet to the side of the main room where a row of ten beds stood, all but two occupied. "Where do you want him?" Paavo asked; the smell of wood-fires, illness, and astringents engulfed them.
The man in the bed at the end of the row was whimpering in his sleep.
The servant pointed to the nearest empty bed, the second from the end. "There. I'll go and get Ludmilla Borisevna." He ducked his head, set down his lamp, then went into the adjoining room.
Saint-Germain endured being transferred to the eighth bed, did his best to thank the three men in as few words as he could, then closed his swollen eyes, not opening them again until he heard a woman's voice above him.
"Saints aid us!" exclaimed Ludmilla Borisevna Svarinskaya, crossing herself in the Orthodox manner — right to left. She bent down, holding her candle near her patient, doing her best to inspect his battered flesh. "This is dreadful. Where did you find him?"
"Out on one of the walkways, not far from the new treadmill," said Yrjo.
"We have to patrol out there, to stop any mischief against the engines," Tapio explained.
"I know about that," said Ludmilla, stroking Saint-Germain's arm. "What was he doing out there?" Seeing his eyes open, she spoke more softly still. "Can you hear me? Are you in pain?"
Behind her, her servant tried to dismiss the three Finns, assuring them that the man would be cared for, and handing each of them a small silver coin for their services as he ushered them out the door and then put the bolt back in place. "Shall I bring water?"
"And rags, and bandages; I need to clean him up before anything more is done," said Ludmilla, making a first perusal of the damage done to Saint-Germain. She sat on the edge of his bed, taking care to disrupt him as little as possible. "Both of your eyes will be black, and you'll have a lump on your forehead. Let's have a look at your hands." Her touch was practiced and gentle as she peeled back his blood-soaked ruffled cuff. She shook her head. "We'll have to give him a thorough washing, Kyril. By the look of him, he's been battered about."
Through his swollen eyes, Saint-Germain could not make out her features clearly, though he could see she had bronze-colored hair done in a simple knot at the back of her neck, and a substantial, opulent body; she wore a robe-de-chambre of ecru silk with the cuffs turned back, revealing soft, long-fingered hands. He took a deep breath before saying, "Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor. In the Foreign Quarter." It was more of a croak than speech, but she stopped working on his clothes and stared down at him.
"The Hungarian with the Polish wife, who arrived four days ago?" She was at once resigned and shocked.
"I am," he said, not surprised that she should know such things: the residents of the island lived in a sea of gossip. Any new-comer was the subject of immediate speculation, something that Zozia encouraged.
"Don't try to talk, Hercegek Gyor. It could be bad for you."
"Cracked ribs," he said.
"And other injuries, no doubt." She saw Kyril returning with a basin and a collection of rags. "I hope you don't mind, but I'll have to cut your clothes off you. I don't want to have to turn you any more than necessary, and the clothes can't be saved in any case."
She paid little heed to this. "Yes, yes. Kyril will go along to your house to fetch him and whatever you may need as soon as the Quarter is awake. He'll carry a message from you, if you like, so your wife won't be worried for you, and you can tell your manservant what you need." She took the basin and rags, then ordered Kyril to bring scissors. As soon as he was gone, she began to bathe Saint-Germain's hand, taking care to inspect his knuckles closely. "You may have a damaged bone here. I'll put your hand in a splint and have Heer van Hoek examine it in the morning. He's a physician-anatomist, very skilled."
"So ... I hear." It was becoming more difficult to speak, and he tried to gesture to his throat; she contained his hand.
"Keep quiet. You have a very nasty bruise forming on your throat. I don't want it to swell any more than it has." She continued to wash his hand off. "There are a number of small cuts other than the blows to the knuckles." Satisfied for the moment, she dried his hand gently, and moved around the bed to work on his other hand. "This one isn't so bad. Many little cuts and bruises on two fingers — they must have pulled off your rings — but you should be able to use your hands in a day or two." While she washed it free of mud, she went on, "How unfortunate. Here only four days and this happens. I hope you won't hold it against Sankt Piterburkh."
"No," he said breathlessly, thinking back to the long months following the Year of Yellow Snow, more than a millennium ago, when he had recovered from a slashed throat. This was surely no worse than what he had already survived.
"I'll have to cut your boots off, as well. I hope you have another pair, for if not, getting new ones will take months, unless you're willing to wear workmen's boots." She wiped his hand and began on his face, working deliberately and delicately. "There are nine bruises, two quite severe. Your eyes will be swollen for a while, and black, as I warned you. You won't like what you see in the mirror. It's more than bruises. Your left ear has a cut, and there's another along your jaw. I haven't seen all your injuries yet, but what I have seen indicate that those who attacked you meant to kill you, I believe."
He nodded his agreement, and pondered who would want to do that. Was it happenstance or had he been singled out?
Kyril returned with the scissors and stood by to collect Saint-Germain's clothes as they were cut away from his body. He was impassive enough until the chemise was pulled away, revealing the broad swath of ancient scars that ran from just below his ribs to the base of his abdomen. Then he crossed himself and stared.
Ludmilla strove to remain composed. "An extensive injury, long ago."
"It must be bad for your digestion," she observed, and continued to cut away his clothes, reaching for a sheet as she began on his black-satin britches.
"It is," he mouthed.
"Then I won't give you any tea just now. We'll see how you feel by mid-day." She looked at the knife-thrust in the heavy muscle of his right thigh. "A little more to the left and you would have bled to death."
Were it not for his pain, Saint-Germain would have laughed; it had been thirty-seven hundred years since he had been disemboweled; bleeding might enervate him, but it could not kill him.
Excerpted from A Dangerous Climate by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Copyright © 2008 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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