“Natalya! Natalya!” Aksinya called from her room while she rang the tiny servant’s bell. Her voice was ten times louder than the bell, and it formed a soft counterpoint to her cries.
Sister Margarethe and the Lady Natalya came running.
The moment they were through the door, Aksinya pointed at Sister Margarethe, “You, sister, prepare my breakfast. I shall have tea and something more substantial than the school provides. Sausages with eggs would be fine. Please scramble the eggs in butter.”
Sister Margarethe’s brow rose, but she just curtsied and went down to the kitchen.
Aksinya waited a moment, then she raised her chin and spoke loudly, “Natalya, please draw my bath.” Then she whispered, “First come here—beside my bed.”
Natalya didn’t hesitate, “Yes, mistress.”
Natalya blushed, “Yes, Aksinya.”
“Next time, I want you to drink tea with my guests as well. I did not embarrass you when Lady Bockmann and the Sister Margarethe were in my room, but I will next time.”
“Now, close and lock the door.”
Natalya ran to the door and locked it.
“Come over here.”
Natalya stood at the side of the bed.
Aksinya grabbed Natalya’s arm and pulled her down to the bed. She put her arms around the girl and kissed her cheeks, “Nata, you saved me yesterday. I didn’t have a chance to tell you before. You saved me. You are truly my best friend, and I love you. You don’t know how important you are to me.”
Natalya held Aksinya close and sobbed in her hair, “Mistress, Aksinya, I was so afraid I would lose you. I love you. You are like the sister I never had.”
“And you are much more than the sister I lost. I can’t shed a tear for her either, and I don’t know why.”
Natalya’s embrace tightened, “Let me shed your tears, mistress. That is something I am very good at.” A laugh tinged her sobs.
Aksinya kissed Natalya’s tear streaked cheeks again, “Yes, dear Nata, you are very good at that, but you are an especially great person. I pray you learn that before you fall as I have.”
Aksinya placed her fingers over Natalya’s lips, “Hush. I need to know where my book is.”
“The new one?”
“Yes, I dropped it in the street…”
“Yes, when you made the great sorcery.”
“Hush, don’t say it that way. And especially don’t say it with any trace of pride in your voice. I dropped it, where is it?”
“I’m sorry, mistress….” She noted Aksinya’s look, “I mean Aksinya. I hadn’t thought of it since then. We were so worried about you. The young man carried you back here and placed you in your bed. If he hadn’t been around, I don’t know what we would have done.”
“Did you see the book when he picked me up?”
Natalya shook her head.
“Čort poberí12, that blasted devil.”
Natalya covered her ears, “What you said…”
“…is true. He must have taken it.” She glanced back at Natalya, “Have you seen my courtier?”
Natalya shook her head.
“I’m certain he took it.” She grasped Natalya’s hand, “After we have breakfast and before we go to school...”
“We are going to school today?”
“Yes, before we go to school, look in the cellar for my new book. Check the shelves, but don’t let Sister Margarethe see you and don’t forget to relock the door.”
“Good, now draw my bath. I feel wonderful today.”
After breakfast, Natalya and Sister Margarethe dressed Aksinya in her school uniform. Sister Margarethe marveled that except for some strange cross shaped burns on her chest, Aksinya was not even bruised anywhere on her body. They walked across the street to Sacré Coeur together.
When they arrived, the Reverend Mother was waiting for them. She curtsied to Aksinya, “Countess, I’m so glad to see you well.”
Aksinya nodded, “Thank you, Reverend Mother. I am well. Sister Margarethe has been a great help to me.”
“I’m glad to hear that. When you finish your classes today, please come visit me in my office. You may bring the Lady Natalya and Sister Margarethe.”
“Yes, Reverend Mother.”
Frau Drescher stood in the shadow of the doors. She didn’t say a word.
Aksinya and Natalya went to chapel together, and in spite of her grievous sin of the day before, Aksinya didn’t feel any worse than she usually did.
They attended their classes together and at the end of the day, found themselves before the door to the Reverend Mother’s office. Before they could knock, Sister Margarethe came up beside Aksinya and rapped on the door.
From inside the office came, “Please enter.”
Sister Margarethe opened the door, and Aksinya followed by Natalya entered the room.
The Reverend Mother stood and curtsied. She pointed to the seats before her desk. Aksinya sat and pulled Natalya into the other chair before Sister Margarethe could sit there. Sister Margarethe stood behind them.
The Reverend Mother sat and propped her chin on the back of her hands. Her look was piercing, “Well, Countess, Lady Natalya, you are both full of surprises. I do wish you had told me about your accommodations before now, but we will have to make do.”
Aksinya cocked her head, “Make do?”
“Yes, dear Countess. There is no way, I, the Abbot, the Cardinal, or the Freifrau Bockmann could allow two unmarried young women to remain in a house alone unchaperoned.”
“We have been there for almost two weeks.”
“That may be so, but it cannot continue as it has.”
Aksinya’s eyes slitted, “What did you have in mind?”
“I can allow you two to stay in that house only if Sister Margarethe oversees you.”
Aksinya straightened, “Sister Margarethe…”
The Reverend Mother wriggled her fingers, “Yes, Countess?”
Aksinya lowered her eyes, “Sister Margarethe will be acceptable.”
“Good, you may continue to dine with us here, as you desire, but I wish to also provide some of the novice sisters to keep the house.”
“The Lady Natalya and Sister Margarethe can’t be expected to take care of a house that large by themselves.”
“I didn’t expect to entertain.”
“The novice sisters will just take care of the cleaning and the laundry. Lady Natalya and Sister Margarethe will continue to act as your servants.”
“The Lady Natalya is my lady-in-waiting and not my servant.” Aksinya glanced back at Sister Margarethe, “She will be my servant?”
“She has been all this time. What do you think a teacher really is?”
“I see.” Aksinya stood. Natalya stood as quickly as she could beside her. Aksinya continued, “Thank you, Reverend Mother for being so thoughtful. You have been kind to me and to my lady-in-waiting.”
“We wish you both to be successful here. Why should we not accommodate you in these simple things?” She curtsied.
Aksinya and Natalya walked to the courtyard where Freifrau Bockmann’s carriage was waiting to take them to Freiherr Bockmann’s estate, Grossbock.
Aksinya and Natalya spent a quiet weekend with the Freiherr and Freifrau Bockmann. The Freifrau Bockmann discussed the details of her Advent party with Aksinya and Natalya. Aksinya only listened with half an ear. She wasn’t really interested in a party. She wasn’t interested in much of anything. The last encounter with the demon frightened and yet encouraged her, but she didn’t dare imagine she had been in any way successful. She had given in to the demon. She had used sorcery to save Natalya and Sister Margarethe. Aksinya wasn’t certain what she should or could do next, and she couldn’t imagine what the demon might demand from her the next time. She didn’t have to wait long to hear from him.
Late Saturday evening a heavy knock came to her door. Aksinya caught the scent of sulfur. She rolled over, “I really do not wish to speak to you demon.”
The door didn’t open, “You said that last time, Countess. I request an audience.”
She sighed a great sigh, “And, I do wish to ask you some questions—you may enter.”
The door opened and Asmodeus stepped through it. The smell of sulfur increased slightly. He shut it carefully after him.
Aksinya sat up in bed.
The demon bowed, “Good evening, Countess.”
Aksinya took a deep breath, “Asmodeus, where is my book?”
“You have many books…”
“You know just the book I mean. It was the one I was carrying when you precipitated the attack on my lady-in-waiting and the nun.”
“Ah, you are mistaken, Countess. I did not make any attack on your friends…it was entirely the work of those hooligans from the Golden Adler Gasthaus.”
“Čort poberí13, you demon. You confessed to me yourself that you tempted them to it.”
The demon seemed petulant, “I told you before, countess. You can’t curse a being who is already cursed.”
“I don’t care. I want to know, where is my book?”
“I don’t know.”
“You are lying.”
The demon lifted one side of his lips. His fangs glistened in the moonlight, “Ha, why do you think that?”
Aksinya stuck her face forward. Her eyes bore in on the demon’s, “You have lied over and over to me.”
Asmodeus wouldn’t meet her gaze, “How could that be?”
“You lied about Sister Margarethe…”
The demon examined his claws, “I did not lie—she is infatuated with you.”
“You tried to get me to…to get me to…”
“…to seduce her?”
Aksinya lowered her gaze, “Yes, just that. Such a disgusting thing.”
The demon’s fangs were very visible in his face, “Perhaps a misunderstanding?”
“That you fostered. Everything you have told me is a lie.”
“That isn’t so.”
“Then what is the truth?”
“Ah, that is the question. Isn’t it? What is the truth?”
“Tell me, demon.”
“But, Countess, I cannot. The truth is a trade secret.”
Aksinya made a depreciating sound and turned her head, “Just tell me, where is my book?”
“I don’t know. That is the truth. I suspect it will turn up. Why don’t you seek it yourself—you have the skills?”
“I have no desire to trade more of my virtue for so trivial a reason.”
Asmodeus voice rumbled oddly, “That is the rub, isn’t it? You have traded a great deal of your virtue for so little. You knew that to make such a great enchantment without protection would greatly harm you. You knew that without the items as symbols and the proper sacrifice, your body would have to bear entirely both the symbol and the sacrifice. You knew that mixing those new spells with the old would be dangerous. You defied me and that in itself was foolish. You almost died, you know.”
“I almost died. But, I traded all to save my friend, and...” She turned her gaze back to the demon, “I still think you are lying. I want my book. It is dangerous in the hands of others.” Aksinya put her hands down at her side, “Now, why did you disturb my rest?”
“I tried to come late enough that I didn’t disturb your own personal perversions.”
Aksinya just stared.
“Ah, so you have realized that also have you.”
“Your temptation is little more than a discomfort.”
“Because you have surrounded yourself with crosses,” the demon spat.
Aksinya allowed herself a tiny smile. She plucked at one of the petite crosses Natalya had sewn into her nightgown.
“I came to see how you fared. I’m glad you didn’t die. I have not completed all the evil I intend through you.”
“So, why did you come here tonight?”
The demon’s lips slightly rose over his fangs.
Aksinya tapped the covers under her fingertips, “I have another question for you.”
“Ask all you wish, Countess.”
Aksinya snarled, “Because you will not tell me the truth anyway.”
“What happened to the men at the tavern?”
This time the demon did smile. Aksinya could detect his humor before he spoke, “They are all dead.”
“I did not kill them.”
“They are dead anyway.”
“You are lying.”
“Perhaps you should ask them yourself,” the demon let out a great laugh.
“Then they are alive…”
He chuckled, “I meant in hell.”
“Go to hell, yourself.”
“I’ve been there, Countess.”
“You tempted them…”
“I did not give them anything more than they wished themselves—such is the way with temptation. You, more than anyone, should realize that, Countess.”
“I’m tired of arguing with you. Leave me.”
“Ah, it is time for me to leave. I have just one thing to tell you, Countess.”
“I knew there was more to this visit than pleasantries.”
Asmodeus bowed, “I just wanted to warn you. You have chosen to defy me. None of my other masters ever did such a thing. It is incomprehensible to me. Still, your choices do promote evil. Yet, because you defy me, they will bring you much sorrow. A final warning from your servant, it is a threat. Don’t give away too much of your heart. What you give away may never be returned, and when it is, it will result in great sorrow.”
“You spout stupid platitudes…why should I expect wisdom from a demon.”
“Why indeed, Countess.” The demon bowed out of the room. Before he shut the door, he called sweetly, “Good night.”
Under her breath, Aksinya whispered, “One can love without desire, without lust, Asmodeus. That is the secret that causes all your evil to crumble.”
A soft hiss answered her, “But love without desire is not as sweet, Countess. Just look at how you love yourself.” The words seemed to echo within the closed room.
Aksinya covered her head with her blanket and put her hands over her ears.
Aksinya and Natalya took up residence at the house across the street. Sister Margarethe lived there with them. She waited on Aksinya and on the Lady Natalya. Aksinya insisted. Now, Aksinya and Natalya had tea together every afternoon. Sister Margarethe brought the tea and Natalya poured.
They went to school, and although Aksinya didn’t progress well, Natalya began to speak reasonably fluent German.
When the coupe met them the next Friday, Freifrau Bockmann was in it. Before they set off for Grossbock, she inspected the dresses and jewelry Natalya had chosen for the party and nodded her approval.
When they arrived at the Freiherr’s estate, the decorations were already in place. The front of the house, the foyer, and the ballroom were wonderfully adorned for the Advent Ball. Seasonal decorations more akin to Christmas instead of Advent filled the hall. A couple of large Christmas trees loaded with candles and decorations sat next to the great fireplaces. Freifrau Bockmann led Aksinya and Natalya through the rooms and showed everything to them. It took a while. Aksinya was grateful to finally sit down to dinner. Afterward, she and Natalya went to bed.
In the morning, everything in the house was about preparation for the event that evening. By noon all the Freiherr’s servants were dressed in their archaic festal livery. The maids and women servants were adorned in dresses and aprons from a style over a century old. Everything seemed to match the overall festive décor. In the afternoon, Natalya dressed Aksinya in a wonderful maroon dress with gold piping and lace. The gold was real and the dress was ancient satin. Natalya brushed it for hours to make it shine. The bodice was tight and fit Aksinya well. The dress was petticoated and whaleboned. Still, it was from an age younger than the livery Freiherr Bockmann loved so much, but older than the current fashion of the time.
Natalya wore a dress that had been Aksinya’s sister’s. It was white and red with a little more modern flair, but still appeared as though it would be appropriate in the court of an emperor.
When Aksinya stepped down the stairs into the ballroom, everyone stopped to watch. Freifrau Bockmann gave an audible gasp. She and the Freiherr ran up the stairs to greet her. The Freiherr went to one knee on the landing. Freifrau Bockmann curtsied and took Aksinya’s hand, “Dear Countess, you are ravishing.” She looked Aksinya up and down then took a surreptitious glance at Natalya that quickly returned to Aksinya, “You are so beautiful.”
Aksinya cocked her head, “Lady Natalya is very skilled.” Her voice sunk to a whisper, “She even made my hair look pleasant.”
“Pleasant, it is wonderful. She is incredibly artful. You are so elegant and make our simple home seem like an aristocratic court.”
Aksinya smiled, but the corners of her lips didn’t follow.
Freiherr Bockmann took Aksinya by the arm and led her to one of the great fireplaces. A wood fire roared within it. He sat Aksinya in a chair that faced the ballroom. Natalya stood at Aksinya’s side. At first, the Freifrau and Freiherr sat and conversed with Aksinya about the people she would meet that evening and the weather. When the guests began to arrive, they stood beside Aksinya and greeted each one. The guests were announced by the house steward and directed to the Freifrau and Freiherr. Freifrau Bockmann introduced each guest to Aksinya. She did so formally and with gravity and used Aksinya’s full name, Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna. She then introduced the Lady Natalya.
Aksinya’s memory was excellent, but after the first fifty couples, she lost track entirely. Then the young single men arrived followed by the Catholic churches’ leaders in the city. Among this group, Aksinya remembered only the Cardinal of Wien and the Abbot of Sacré Coeur. The Cardinal was a pinch faced older man with an Italian accent. His secretary, Herr Schwab followed him everywhere. The Abbot was jollier and a little younger with a great smile and a provincial tone to his German. They both seemed pleasant men.
When all the guests had been received, Aksinya was left enthroned in her seat at the fireplace. Natalya brought her a glass of wine and a plate of food. Most of the guests stood a polite distance away from Aksinya as though they were afraid to approach the Countess although they had been introduced. Eventually, the Abbot stepped up beside Aksinya. He bowed, “Dear Countess, I understand you are attending Sacré Coeur.”
“Yes Father Abbot, my lady-in-waiting and I are both attending.”
“That is what I heard from the Reverend Mother. Your progress…”
“Is less than expected.”
“Yes, I’d heard that too. Is our curriculum not to your liking?”
“Not at all. Lady Natalya is learning German. The language is new to her. I must ensure she gains this skill before I can focus on my studies.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I thought I made this clear to the Reverend Mother.”
“The Reverend Mother is entirely complementary toward you. She has not said a negative word concerning you at all. I have other sources. My job is to keep an eye on the school and the convent. You are one of our most important students, so I keep an eye out for you too.”
“Thank you, Father Abbot.”
“The pleasure is all mine. I hope Sacré Coeur can be like a family to you. We do wish you to feel comfortable... and to succeed.”
“I shall apply myself as well as I can. My lady-in-waiting is very bright and is nearly ready to advance in her basic language knowledge. I think in the next semester, I will be able to focus on my other work.”
“I will hold you to that.”
“Please don’t. The needs of my servant and friend are much more important to me than my own progress.”
The Abbot took a sharp breath.
“You needn’t be so surprised. This is what my father taught me. He oversaw a very large estate in with thousands under his care. The needs of the people are necessary to maintain their dignity and your honor.”
The Abbot bowed, “Even so, you are very wise, Countess.”
Aksinya’s smile slipped, “Not so wise as cautious, but thank you.”
The Cardinal and his secretary came up beside the Abbot, who moved to the side, “Good evening, Father Abbot.”
The Abbot bowed and made a slight genuflect, “Your Eminence.”
Aksinya nodded and Natalya curtsied. The Cardinal bowed deeply to Aksinya, “Countess, we are very happy to have you within our spiritual care, but we do understand that you are Orthodox and not Catholic.”
“Have you had the opportunity to acquaint yourself with the Orthodox community in Wien?”
Aksinya tilted her head, “We have attended the Ecclesia where Father Makar presides.”
The Cardinal smiled, “I would like to win you over to our church, but I promise, I will not attempt that. You must take the time to become familiar with the Orthodox community. You will be very helpful to them especially with all the refugees coming across the Russian boarder at this time. I will speak to the Archpriest Makar about you. He is a good friend of mine and may not realize how close your residence is to the Ecclesia.”
“I didn’t realize Father Makar was an Archpriest. Thank you, Your Eminence.”
“That is my pleasure, Countess. I hope the Father Abbot explained how important you are to us.”
“He mentioned generally, but he didn’t say anything about my importance.”
“But you are, dear lady. The people today look for help following this disastrous war. The revolution and now civil war in only made things worse. The people need a strong aristocracy and church to help led them in these times. Our own aristocracy is weak in numbers and control. The Russian nobility, on the other hand, is very well established. Although it is a loss to , we hope to strengthen our own nation with more expatriates like you. We pray you can integrate yourself into our society and culture in a very positive way.”
“My Uncle and Aunt are of a similar mind. I hope I can live up to your expectations as well.”
“Yes, please keep up your studies for their sake. I think your uncle would like to see you as the jewel in the crown of our city some day. He is very proud of you.”
“Thank you. My Aunt and Uncle have been to me like the mother and father I lost in . I am indebted to them.”
The Cardinal glanced from the sides of his eyes, “You are a very pleasant noblewoman. I can see that you will go far.” He smiled, “I will gladly help you all I can. You may contact my secretary, Herr Schwab.” He pointed at the layman beside him, “If you have any needs.”
“Again, thank you, Your Eminence.”
He bowed. The Abbot bowed. They both bowed their way back to the floor of the ballroom.
Aksinya leaned against the arm of her chair. She put her hand under her chin and gave every indication that she was bored. She was bored. The crowd seemed to move a little further from her. Slowly the party wound down. No one else approached her or her lady-in-waiting. The crowd cleared out a little and Aksinya noted some late arrivals who had not been introduced to her. They didn’t approach her either. They were mostly young men without a female companion or women with an older male escort. Aksinya felt a little piqued that they had not greeted her.
After a while, Aksinya glanced at Natalya, “Lady Natalya, please get me another glass of wine.”
“Would you like something to eat?”
“No, just wine. The very sweet wine Uncle opened just for me. Ask him to open another bottle… or two.”
Natalya smiled then frowned and hurried off.
Almost immediately a young man moved from the ballroom floor and stepped directly up to Aksinya. He dropped to his left knee and bowed his head. He was dressed in finery. Not as fine as the clothing Aksinya wore, but very formal and slightly out of fashion. Aksinya’s Uncle would have approved. His frockcoat was charcoal and his pants were cream colored. His shirt was also cream and everything was pressed to perfection.
Aksinya straightened her back. She couldn’t see anything of his face only the top of his blond head. She wondered if, with such a display, he mocked her. The young man didn’t stand. He lifted his face to hers and reached for her hand. Aksinya was too slow to keep him from taking it. His face was gentle and pleasant. It matched his voice which was almost melodic. Aksinya might have described it as like a snake in a more pointed moment, but it was sweet and calm. His eyes were blue and met hers without apology. He glanced at her hand and then at her face again and smiled, “You are truly the one, Countess.”
Aksinya took a deep breath, “The one…?”
His smile broadened, “I have met you twice, but we have not been introduced. Please don’t think me forward if I introduce myself. I am Ernst Franz von Taaffe. My father is the Graf von Taaffe. So, you see, we are of nearly equal rank.”
Aksinya tried to pull her hand from his, “Why should that matter to me?”
“Because, first, I am infatuated with you. I warn you, I will do anything to have you. Second, I know exactly what you are…”
Aksinya pursed her lips and yanked her hand back. The man would not let it go. “Where did you meet me?” She hissed.
“Outside the Golden Adler Gasthaus.”
Aksinya’s free hand stole to her face, “You were one of the rapists?”
The furrows in Ernst’s smooth brow deepened, “Dear Countess, surely you don’t count me with that sort. Search your memories. You stared directly at me. You spoke to me. I carried your sweet body back into your house and placed you in your bed. Your blood ruined one of my good suits, but I purposely haven’t thrown it out.”
Aksinya’s eyes widened, “You were that man.”
Ernst’s lips drooped, “Yes, that man…”
Aksinya’s eyes filled with fear. She tried again to pull her hand from his grasp, “Why were you there? What did you see?”
Ernst grinned, “I was there because your courtier, Anatov Aznabaev told me you would be there.”
Aksinya shook her head, “Wait, Anatov Aznabaev.” She whispered a sentence of Latin words under her breath, “Say that name again.”
Ernst repeated, “Anatov Aznabaev.”
And clearly to Aksinya’s ears came, “Asmodeus.” She puffed out her cheeks, “Scheize.”
“Countess! I was led to believe you were a completely refined woman.”
“I don’t care.” She stared at the man, “What do you know?”
“That you are a most wondrous sorceress. I saw everything. You made a great enchantment without any protection. Such power, unbelievable power…” He noted the look on Aksinya’s face, “Don’t worry, Countess. Your secret is safe with me, but only if you do as I wish.”
“Who would believe you?”
He brought his face close to hers, “I have your book.”
Aksinya gasped and trembled, “You must give it back.”
“No, no, no, Countess. That is not how the game is played.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Anatov Aznabaev, told me you were a special person. He told me I would find everything I desired with you. He is right. I myself have tried for years to study sorcery. I have been, as yet, unsuccessful.”
“Your body doesn’t seem unduly marked.”
“The scars are well hidden by my clothing. It has not touched my face or hands much.” He pulled her hand toward his face and turned it over. He gently stroked the many scars that marked Aksinya’s fingers, “A successful sorcerer, so says my books, has a multitude of knife scars on their hands. They are from the constant use of blood as a sacrifice.” He turned his face toward hers again, “The smell of the use is strong on you now. You can’t hide it from me. Although, I can’t accomplish any of it, I know its smell. I know its feel. I know its marks.” He kissed the scars on her fingers.
Aksinya finally was able to pull her hand from his, “I asked you what you want?”
“I would like to learn from you, but first I must win your affection.”
“What makes you believe it can be won?”
“You courtier, Anatov Aznabaev told me that you long to find love and someone to share your life. I offer myself. You are exactly the woman I wish to love.”
“My courtier is mistaken. I do not need love or anything else…”
“But you need your book.”
“I have memorized it already.”
“Zut! I know you still desire that book.”
Aksinya raised her chin, “How would you know that?”
“Anatov Aznabaev told me.”
Aksinya snarled, “Anatov Aznabaev, Anatov Aznabaev… do you believe everything my servant tells you?”
“In this case, yes. But I have another temptation.”
Aksinya stared at him. An angry scowl set her features.
He didn’t seem to notice Aksinya’s very dangerous appearance, “I have another book that your courtier told me you would desire. It is one you have not seen before.”
Aksinya trembled, “Which book is it?”
“It is the book of Heka…”
“That is ancient Egyptian. It isn’t effective.”
“The Heka I have is Greek. It isn’t death sorcery of the Egyptians but the practice of light. I know you are interested.”
Aksinya took a breath, “If it is a Greek Heka…”
“It is a Greek Heka.”
“What about my book. You stole it.”
“Those are strong words, Countess. You dropped it in the street. I picked it up for you. Who’s to say who such a book belongs to?”
“It is mine, and you know it.”
“I also know that you are a marvelous sorceress, and I wish to entertain you.”
“I will not accommodate any lewd behavior.”
“Lewd behavior? Countess, you mistake my intention. I wish to woo you. I do not wish to seduce you.”
“How can I trust your intentions?”
“I have your book,” he laughed.
“And you blackmail me with it?”
“I only want to take you to dine and to a play, the ballet, or to a concert. Surely that is not lewd.”
“I will bring my lady-in-waiting as a chaperone.”
“You may bring your guardian nun as well.”
Aksinya sat back, “Pardon me then. I did not understand your intentions.”
“My intentions are pure, but I would like to know much, much more about this enchanting sorceress who came to Wien. The moment your courtier described you, I had to meet you.”
Aksinya stared suspiciously at him, “Just where did you meet my courtier?”
A puzzled look crossed Ernst von Taaffe’s features, “I don’t entirely remember, Countess, but wherever and whenever it was, I am thankful for it because that meeting led me to you.”
“You don’t think me plain, diminutive, and unwomanly.”
Ernest von Taaffe bowed his head, “On the contrary, I find you mysterious, powerful, and exciting.” He glanced up, “I will contact you at your house. Please make an evening open for me next week.”
Aksinya sighed, “I will entertain you when you visit. Please return my book.”
Ernst rose, “Not until you attend a dinner and an evening event with me. Then I will discuss the return of your book. It is late or I would ask you to dance. Countess,” he bowed deeply and wandered back to the ballroom floor.
Aksinya slumped in her seat. When Natalya finally returned, Aksinya drank the whole glass of wine and sent Natalya back for more.