Aksinya: Enchantment and the Daemon

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Chapter 12

The landau drove them only a few blocks away to the Wien State Opera. The building was large and classical. It wasn’t as brightly lit as the Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz. The gaslights flickered in the chill breeze. Ernst escorted Aksinya into the building. When they entered, Aksinya wobbled a little shakily on her feet. She held tightly to Ernst’s arm, and almost fell when she entered the enormous foyer. She almost lost her feet again near the center of the large entranceway. Aksinya whirled when she thought she spotted Asmodeus in the crowd, but immediately lost sight of him. Ernst clasped her arm tightly under his and kept her from falling. Natalya steadied her. She followed right behind Aksinya. Ernst took care of their coats. He led Aksinya to a box seat. She finally concluded that she was unsteady on her feet from the wine at supper, so she held even more tightly to Ernst’s arm so she wouldn’t stumble. Ernst seated her and then Natalya. He took the chair between them both.

As though the ballet master waited just for them, at that moment, the lights dimmed and the conductor walked across the stage and climbed into the orchestra pit. Aksinya leaned forward and held the side of the rail. She kept a tight grip on her flowers.

The music started. It was bright and melodic. Aksinya was entranced. Ernst propped his elbows on the top of the rail. His face was close to hers, “I didn’t tell you the ballet we are going to see. It is Coppellia and a comedic ballet.”

Aksinya kept her eyes on the stage, “A ballet that is a comedy. I didn’t know there was such a thing.”

“Ah, you Russians are so dower. I can’t remember a Russian comedy.”

“Do you think I am dower?”

“You are entirely too serious, but I find that engaging in you. I have never met a serious woman before.”

Aksinya’s eyes moved toward his face, “I would indeed like to be taken seriously. I am a serious woman.”

“Also a dangerous woman.”

“I don’t wish to be thought a dangerous woman.”

“But you are. That makes your seriousness necessary.”

“Or, I am just dower. What is this Coppellia about?”

Ernst turned his face toward hers. Aksinya kept her eyes on the stage and orchestra. He laughed, “It is a story about an old man, Dr. Coppellia, who tries to use magic to give life to a mechanical woman.”

“Does he succeed?”

“No. He believes he has, but in the end it is all a trick. At the conclusion, the young fool does marry the wonderful and smart heroine. A match between a serious girl and a frivolous boy.”

Aksinya mumbled, “I am like the old man. I have made a terrible thing.”

“You said, Countess?”

“Nothing. I said nothing…”

The curtain rose and the ballet began. Throughout, laughter from the audience punctuated the performance. Natalya and Ernst both chuckled under their breath. Aksinya didn’t laugh. She had never laughed in the theater. Her lips did turn up many times in a gentle smile.

During the very delightful ballet, Aksinya remembered the words of Fraulein Trauen. She took surreptitious glances to see where Ernst’s eyes dwelt. Every time she looked, his eyes were focused on her profile. She couldn’t help but blush. She wasn’t certain he ever glanced at the very beautiful ballerinas who danced on the stage.

At the intermission, a butler delivered caviar and to their box. Ernst served Aksinya, “Countess, would you rather have vodka?”

“I do like vodka, but with caviar is my favorite.” She inclined toward him, “Plus, I’m not sure how much vodka I should drink. The wine at dinner went a little to my head.”

Ernst refilled her glass. Natalya watched closely. She barely sipped at her still filled glass.

Aksinya watched the second Act with greater enjoyment. Ernst thought he heard a giggle from her a couple of times. Natalya frowned.

They returned home late. It wasn’t too late, but still late. Aksinya leaned sleepily against Natalya the entire trip back to the house. Aksinya could not stand without help. Natalya wouldn’t let Ernst sit next to Aksinya. When they exited the landau, Natalya did let him help her on one side while she held Aksinya on the other.

Sister Margarethe met them at the door. She took one look at Aksinya and pulled both her charges into the house. She was wary of Ernst this time—she partially closed the door and stood directly within the opening, “Thank you, Herr von Taaffe for your attention to the Countess this evening. I will help the Lady Natalya see her to bed.”

“Please convey my thanks to the Countess.”

“Next time, don’t ply her with so much wine so you may convey your own sentiments.”

Ernst bowed, “Yes, sister. I shall. I’m sorry.”

When Sister Margarethe turned around, Natalya and Aksinya were already gone. When she climbed up to Aksinya’s room, she found the door already shut and locked. It was much too late for tea, so she returned to her room.

Inside Aksinya’s room, Aksinya lay across her bed. Natalya undid the buttons and hooks on her dress. Aksinya was still awake, but her eyes were closed. Natalya pushed against her side, “Roll over Aksinya.”

Aksinya rolled with Natalya’s help. Natalya undid the rest of the buttons. She pulled the dress up and over Aksinya’s head. That was a struggle. The petticoats and underclothes came off more easily. When Natalya tried to put on Aksinya’s nightgown, Aksinya fended her off, “I’m hot. I don’t want to wear anything.”

“That’s the wine. You’ll be cold soon enough.”

“Just wait a bit. The room’s spinning.”

“That’s the wine too. Put your feet on the floor.”

“I’m dizzy. Why did you let me drink so much?”

Natalya snorted, “I didn’t have any say in it. You may remain like you are for the time being.” Natalya washed Aksinya’s face while she lay on the bed. She tugged Aksinya to sit and leaned against her back so she couldn’t flop back down. Natalya began to brush Aksinya’s hair, “Your hair is finally growing out a little.”

Aksinya clumsily brought her hands to her face, “Are you certain?”

“Yes, it is almost to your shoulders at the very back. It is beautiful hair—why did you cut it? You never told me.”

“I thought I did.”

“You didn’t. Was it part of your sorcery?”

Aksinya trembled, “Is it that obvious to you?”

“It was cut with a very sharp knife, snick-snack. Your aunt told me your hair once reached down to your waist. She said you used to put it in a long single braid and that it was the most beautiful hair she had ever seen.”

“My mother would brush it for me every night. She kept her hair short—I was never certain why. She loved to let my hair cascade through her fingers.”

“She loved you very much.”

“She loved my hair—me, not so much.”

Natalya tugged a little harder on the brush than she needed to, “Why would you say that?”

“Because I think it is the truth. Why do you brush my hair?”

Natalya smiled, “Because I love you.”

“Do you love me because of who I am or because of what I did for you?”

Natalya brushed a little harder.

“Ouch, you don’t have to be so rough.”

“If you weren’t drunk, I’d hit you with this brush.”

Aksinya didn’t turn, “Why are you crying?”

“Why does love have to be like a contract with you?”

Aksinya didn’t reply.

“I do love you because you rescued me, but there is much, much more. I love you because you were the first to look at me as if I was a real person.”

“Then you should not love me at all. Asmodeus found you. He convinced me to take you as my lady-in-waiting and… and… as my apprentice.” Aksinya clutched her hands to her small breasts, “He forced me to take you into my household. I would not have done it without his temptation.”

Natalya leaned her face against Aksinya’s back. Her hot tears trickled down Aksinya’s cooling skin, “But you did. You made me your friend. You let me go to school with you. You told me you loved me. I can offer you nothing, but still you do love me.”

Aksinya’s response was a mumble, “Yes, I love you, Nata.”

“Then why do you think I love you with any less love?”

“I’m sorry, Nata.” Akisnya’s voice was slurred, “There is a time when I know everyone will deny me.”

“I will not deny you.”

Her speech slowed a little more, “If you don’t deny me, then you will betray me. You see, I am not allowed love, and I am not allowed friends. I am only allowed suffering.” At the end, Natalya had to strain to hear her.

Natalya clasped Aksinya around her naked shoulders, “I will try my hardest not to deny or betray you, Mistress.” She held her tightly for a while. Aksinya’s breathing came slowly and regularly. Aksinya sagged in her arms. Natalya realized Aksinya was asleep. Into Aksinya’s lengthening hair she whispered, “I love you. I will never deny or betray you.”

Aksinya was impossible the next morning. Natalya had to shake her for ten minutes to wake her. She had Sister Margarethe bring coffee instead of tea and made Aksinya drink a whole cup while she bathed and dressed her.

Aksinya protested the entire time. Natalya had to request help from Sister Margarethe. Together, they finally dressed, bathed, and fed Aksinya. Then they walked across the street to Sacré Coeur. Chapel was a chore. Aksinya fell ill from the very beginning and had to leave before the blessing of the elements. She was sick, but afterwards, Natalya found her a cup of tea. Sister Margarethe joined them until it was time for class.

When they entered the classroom together with Sister Margarethe, Aksinya stepped directly to her seat by the window and fell into it. She lay her head down on her arms and closed her eyes. The rest of her classes didn’t go much better for Aksinya. She was behind in everything and didn’t seem to care. Natalya kept better than an average pace.

At dinner, Aksinya was listless and ate little.

Anna Pfaff started the conversation at their table, “So, Countess, did Ernst von Taaffe escort you to the ballet?” She would not look Aksinya in the eyes. They darted all around the table.

Natalya sat a little straighter, “Yes, he did escort her. He was a very pleasant gentleman.”

Frieda Trauen glanced over her glass, “I understand our sweet countess was a little under the weather today.”

Aksinya didn’t move much, “I had too much to drink, but the evening and the gentleman were pleasant.”

Fraulein Trauen smirked, “I hope for your sake, he wasn’t too familiar during your drunken state.”

Natalya glared at her, “My mistress was in no way imprudent during the evening.”

“She was drunk.”

Aksinya snarled, “I just drank a little too much. By the way, Herr von Taaffe did not ogle the ballerinas.”

Fraulein Trauen cocked her head, “Oh really, then were did he keep his eyes?”

Aksinya stared at her, “He kept them on me the entire evening. I’m not certain he looked at anyone on the stage. He took me to the Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz for dinner in the red room and to the ballet. We had caviar and at intermission.”

Diedre Vogt sucked in her breath, “The red room—ooh.”

Fraulein Pfaff shook her head, “You have totally ensorcelled Herr von Taaffe.” She bent her neck toward Aksinya and blinked her eyes, “You should strike while the iron is hot.”

Fraulein Trauen was shocked, “Whatever do you mean? She should strike while the iron is hot?”

Fraulein Pfaff scowled, “You can’t be so naïve, Fraulein Trauen. The Countess should use her every womanly wile to entice Herr von Taaffe.”

Fraulein Trauen rose in her seat a little, “What do you mean Fraulein Pfaff? Are you suggesting the Countess act in some imprudent way?”

Aksinya’s laugh startled them all. She didn’t sit up, “It is only the first evening, but Herr Taaffe pleases me very much. I shall see what will come of it. Perhaps he will ask me out again.”

Natalya touched her lips with her napkin, “He will certainly ask you out again.”

Aksinya laughed again, “Do you really think so, Lady Natalya?”

Natalya smiled. Her brow rose, “It is certain.”

Aksinya smiled, “Then, Lady Natalya, you must ensure I don’t drink so much I miss Herr Taaffe’s untoward advances. I would surely not wish to miss something like that.” She glared at Fraulein Trauen who didn’t dare squeak out a reply.

Indeed, a letter came to Aksinya’s house the next day.

Ernst Franz von Taaffe

Stal Straße

19 December 1918

Dearest Lady Golitsyna

Thank you for attending the ballet and dinner with me last evening. Your presence was dazzling. You lit up my evening the same way the Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz lights up the night sky. You made me so happy, dear Countess, I would like to see you again this weekend, and I wish to invite you next week to dinner and the grand Christmas performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. We shall work out the details when I see you at Grossbock on Saturday. Until then,

Sincerely,

Ernst Franz von Taaffe, heir to Graf von Taaffe”

On Friday evening, Aunt Brunhilda greeted Aksinya and Natalya when they arrived at Grossbock. She curtsied and took Aksinya’s hands. Her first breathless words were, “Dear Countess, Ernst von Taaffe has asked to dine with us on Saturday night…”

Aksinya frowned, just a little, “Did you accept?”

Aunt Brunhilda stared as though Aksinya had lost her mind, “Of course we accepted.” She smiled and shook Aksinya’s hands, “He is the perfect match for you.”

Aksinya rolled her eyes, “I’m cold. Could we retire to the family parlor?”

“Even better, we can have aperitifs in my sitting room until dinner.”

Throughout dinner and Saturday, Aunt Brunhilda wouldn’t stop talking about Herr von Taaffe. Aksinya wondered if she would be able to put up with her Aunt for the rest of the weekend. Ominously, Asmodeus did not make an appearance Friday evening. Aksinya had not seen him for a long time. She had not attempted to contact him, and she had not called him. She had a very bad feeling about his lack of appearance and speculated that the demon was either preparing something very unpleasant for her or that she was accomplishing everything he desired her to do. The later worried her the most.

When Saturday evening came around, Aksinya did not greet Herr von Taaffe at the door. She read a book in the family parlor, and Natalya sat with her. Freiherr Bockmann wanted to use the formal greeting parlor, but Aksinya liked the large fireplace in the family parlor with its very warm wood and coal fire. She remained facing the fireplace when Herr von Taaffe entered.

Ernst came around to the blazing fireplace and stood in front of Aksinya, “Countess Golitsyna, good evening.”

Aksinya made a wry face, but didn’t look up from her book, “Good evening, Herr von Taaffe.”

“Sweet Lady, I told you, you may call me, Ernst.”

“Very well, Ernst.” She glanced up from her book. “Do not neglect my lady-in-waiting. She is not your servant, and you have been introduced.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Obolenska. Good evening.”

Natalya nodded.

Freiherr Bockmann pulled a chair over for Ernst. He put it close to the left side of Aksinya’s seat. Ernst sat down. Aksinya opened her book again, and Ernst pulled it out of her hands. He laughed, “You didn’t intend to neglect me, did you?”

“No, I did accept your invitation to dine and to the opera next week.”

“I received your post.”

“Then, you see I have no intention of neglecting you. In fact, I shall give you all my attention on Wednesday evening.”

“What about tonight?”

Aksinya scowled at him, “You did not ask my permission about tonight. You came to entertain my aunt and uncle. I certainly don’t want to get in your way.”

Ernst laughed again, “I warned you I was coming. I invited myself to your aunt and uncle’s for the purpose of seeing you again. Will you let me entertain you?”

“What? Entertain me in my own relation’s home? That is certainly pretentious.”

“With your and their permission, I will attempt to engage you in a pleasant evening’s conversation.”

“I intended to read this evening.”

“Then I shall read to you.”

Aksinya’s eyebrow rose, “You would?”

Ernst nodded.

Aksinya took the book from him and stuck it between her hip and the chair, “Perhaps after dinner.” She stood, “Ernst, you may escort me to table. Uncle, I am ready for dinner.”

They went together into the family dining room.

Aksinya was pleasant to Ernst during dinner and the rest of the evening. He left before the Freiherr and Freifrau retired for the evening. Ernst did not read to Aksinya that evening, they were all too busily engaged in polite conversation.

Aksinya felt a little better at the Ecclesia on Sunday. The younger priest, Father Dobrushin’s piercing glance seemed to linger too much on her face, but Aksinya wasn’t certain if that was just her imagination. She didn’t speak to either of the priests that morning. Asmodeus did not make an appearance the entire weekend.

Aksinya and Natalya had a good beginning week at school. Natalya spoke passable German with a Russian accent. She was fluent enough now that she could keep up with her classes. Natalya still tutored her, but expended more effort on her own work. Her teachers were pleased. Natalya was pleased. Sister Margarethe was pleased. Aksinya was somewhat pleased with herself.

On Tuesday during dinner, Fraulein Pfaff again engaged Aksinya in conversation, “Well Countess, did you hear again from Herr von Taaffe?”

Aksinya grinned, “He came to dinner on Saturday.”

Fraulein Trauen dropped her fork, “At Grossbock?”

“Yes, at Grossbock.”

Fraulein Vogt asked, “Did you invite him?”

Aksinya sat up straight, “No, he invited himself through the Freiherr and Freifrau, but he informed me first of his intentions.”

Fraulein Pfaff clapped her hands together, “That is soooo suave. He is obviously a well bred gentleman.”

The elder sister at the table snapped her fingers at Fraulein Pfaff’s clap and loud response.

Fraulein Pfaff put her hands at her side and lowered her voice, “Sorry sister.”

Fraulein Vogt spoke excitedly, “Still that is very polished of him. I am more and more impressed by this gentleman. Has he asked you to accompany him again, Countess?”

“He has invited me to the opera and dinner on Wednesday.”

Natalya nodded.

Fraulein Trauen grinned over her glass, “That’s Christmas Eve. I hope you don’t intend to drink as much that other evening.”

Aksinya’s lips turned up in a grin, “I intend to drink and eat as much as I like. I shall not drink so much I will miss any of Ernst’s advances.”

“Ernst?” Fraulein Trauen dropped her knife.

“Yes, he asked me to call him by his given name.”

Fraulein Trauen’s eyes widened, “And you do?”

“Of course I do. Why should I not?”

Fraulein Trauen was breathless, “What does he call you?”

Aksinya put her chin on the back of her hand and batted her eyes at Fraulein Trauen, “He calls me, Countess, of course.”

On Wednesday evening, Ernst’s landau drove up to Aksinya’s front door. Ernst brought another bouquet. It included a red rose in a nest of small blue flowers. Aksinya wore her mink cloak when she stepped out of her house, but Natalya hadn’t tied the collar very tightly so Aksinya’s brilliant red silk and pink lace gown showed at the opening. The dress fit her perfectly and showed off her status and limited figure to best effect.

As Aksinya stepped out of her house, Natalya touched her arm and pointed at the windows of Sacré Coeur that overlooked the street. The faces of their classmates were pressed against the tall windows. Aksinya raised her bouquet and waved. Fraulein Vogt and Fraulein Pfaff waved back. Fraulein Trauen stepped quickly away from the window and out of sight. A host of other younger girls waved back vigorously.

Ernst glanced up and laughed. He didn’t wave—he placed his finger at the side of his nose and winked at the girls. Ernst and his driver helped Aksinya and Natalya into the landau. The driver snuggly tied down the leather sides.

After the landau began to move, Ernst laughed again, “Your cheering gallery was out in force tonight. I didn’t notice them before.”

Aksinya kept her head forward, “They weren’t there before.”

Ernst stroked his chin, “Why not?”

“I told them the other time, but I don’t think they believed me. Plus, the fact I had a house was somewhat a secret at the time.”

“It isn’t a secret now?”

“It is still a secret, but such things are nearly impossible to keep quiet in a school for girls.”

He laughed again.

Aksinya frowned, “Where is my book?”

“It is safe. I promise you, Countess.”

“When will you return it to me?”

Ernst sat back and turned more toward her, “Perhaps, Countess when I have my way with you.”

Aksinya blushed but smiled behind her hand.

Natalya also colored, “I warn you Herr von Taaffe, my understanding of German is improving and your comment was most unbecoming.”

“I apologize to both of you. I did not intend my words to be taken as innuendo. I simply don’t want to give up my surety until I am certain I have achieved my goals.”

Natalya squinted through the darkness in the landau at Ernst, “I would like to know just what your intentions are toward my mistress.”

“Shouldn’t her uncle ask me that?”

“I protect her, so you must answer to me.”

“Very well. I am obviously wooing her with the intention of marriage.”

Natalya sat back, “I gathered as much, but I wanted to hear that from your lips.” Natalya had a very thoughtful look on her face, but it was mostly covered by the deep shadows in the landau.

They arrived at Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz and were greeted again by the bright lights and Herr Leichter. Once more, Aksinya thought she spotted Asmodeus in the mirror over the mantel in the foyer, but she did not see him a second time so she counted it her imagination.

They ate in the Red Room again. This time, Aksinya’s dress didn’t clash with the décor. After a wonderful dinner, Ernst’s landau delivered them to the Wien State Opera. The Die Zauberflöte held Aksinya enthralled. A faint scent of sulfur touched Aksinya’s nose for a single breath, but she didn’t see the demon. Although she had drunk a little too much at supper, her mind wasn’t fuzzy at all through the opera.

At the intermission, an attendant delivered and caviar to the box. Ernst served Aksinya and then Natalya. Aksinya thirstily drank her first glass of , “Ernst, is this another comedy?”

“Yes, Countess.”

“It is all about marriage…”

“It is indeed about marriage and magic.”

“Yes, I couldn’t miss that part too. So who am I cast to be?”

Ernst poured Aksinya another glass of . Natalya frowned.

Aksinya raised her glass, “It’s all right Natalya. I’m thirsty and it matches the opera and my mood. So, who am I cast to be in this opera by Mozart?”

Ernst smiled, “Who do you wish to be?”

Aksinya took a deep breath, “I wish to be Pamina, the heroine, but I think I am The Queen of the Night.”

Ernst grinned, “If you are the Queen of the Night, then I must be the traitorous Monostatos.”

Aksinya raised her eyes to his, “You can’t be Monostatos—that role has already been cast.”

Ernst stared at her, “You aren’t kidding, are you?”

“I’m not kidding at all.”

He tried to take her hand in his, but she pulled it back at the last moment. Ernst’s appearance was very serious, “Then, I do have a rival in love?”

Aksinya giggled, “Only if I am truly the Queen of the Night.”

“I beg you not to play with my heart, Countess. I love you. I am serious…”

Aksinya sobered immediately, “I am also serious. If you wish to be my Tamino then you must find a way to transform me from the Queen of the Night to Pamina.”

Ernst grasped her hand, “Listen to me, Countess. I don’t intend to lose you to anyone in this world.”

Aksinya laughed. She couldn’t stop her laughter. It was slightly wild and uncontrolled. The other guests in the box seats next to and above and below them became silent. The audience close to them silenced. The conductor stepped across the stage and still Aksinya’s sweet laughter sang out in the suddenly quiet opera house.

Finally, Natalya put her arms around Aksinya. She whispered in her ear in Russian, “Please mistress, be quiet. You are embarrassing yourself.”

Aksinya immediately sobered. Her lips turned down. She appeared like she might cry but that lasted for only for only a moment. She turned her face to the side and pushed Natalya away.

The music started and the lights came down.

Aksinya held out her empty flute, “Ernst fill my glass and continue to fill it.”

Ernst poured the remainder of the bottle into Aksinya’s glass. He moved a little closer to her and whispered, “I’m terribly sorry. What did I say that so upset you?”

“It was nothing you said.”

“There had to be something.”

“Are you arguing with me, Herr von Taaffe.”

Ernst shut his mouth.

Aksinya sipped on her , “I will tell you this, Ernst von Taaffe. You have no idea what you desire from me or what you ask of me. You may never learn what you ask or the danger you run, but I will tell you this, nothing in this world competes against you. You have put yourself up against powers and evil that you can’t begin to imagine.”

Ernst stared directly into her eyes, “That may be so, Countess, but I swear I will overcome anything for you.”

Aksinya put her hand against his lips, “Do not swear anything in regard to me.” She turned back to the opera and held out her glass to be refilled.

In the end, Ernst had to carry Aksinya into her house. Sister Margarethe frowned at him the entire time. Ernst said nothing at all and after he placed Aksinya on her bed, he simply glanced around her room and quickly left. Sister Margarethe stepped after him to speak to him, but Natalya took her arm, “Sister, it was not his fault. He simply accommodated the Countess. She could not be reasoned with tonight.”

Sister Margarethe nodded.

Natalya continued, “See him out of the house and then come help me undress and put the Countess to bed.”

Natalya began to work the buttons on Aksinya’s gown.

In the morning, Sister Margarethe and Natalya would not allow Aksinya to sleep late. They woke her and poured strong coffee down her and dressed her. With one on the left and the other on her right, they half carried her to chapel where she lost the coffee and breakfast they had fed her. They both took her to the dining room and served her tea and a half a roll. Aksinya slept through her classes. She and Natalya finally arrived at dinner. Aksinya did not look very well. She ate listlessly.

Fraulein Trauen couldn’t remain quiet, “Well Countess, how was your evening? Did you drink too much again?”

Aksinya played with her soup, “I was provoked.”

“Provoked?”

Natalya didn’t look up from her bowl, “Herr von Taaffe declared his undying love to her and announced his challenge against any other suitor.”

The women around the table stared at her. Fraulein Trauen swallowed.

Fraulein Pfaff sighed, “Right in the middle of the opera? How romantic.”

Natalya nodded, “At intermission.”

Fraulein Pfaff stretched her arms toward Natalya, “How did she accept it…?” She immediately thought better of her address. She turned toward Aksinya, “Did you accept his love, Countess?”

Aksinya rolled her eyes and gave Fraulein Pfaff a disdainful scowl. No one spoke. Finally, Aksinya stated in unequivocal terms, “I took Ernst’s confession under advisement. For now, I will allow him to continue to court me.”

Fraulein Pfaff’s mouth hung open, “Do you love him?”

Aksinya ran her fingers through her short hair, “Love him? I’m not certain I desire him.”

Fraulein Trauen cried out, “What a shameful thing to say. To desire him? What are you thinking?”

Aksinya pushed her soup out of the way and lay her head at her place. She plucked at the tablecloth, “What would I want with a man. I have everything I need right now. The only reason I would want one is to satisfy my desires.”

Fraulein Trauen’s ears reddened. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times finally, she choked out, “There is certainly much more to a man than to satisfy your desires. No proper woman should have any desires at all.” Fraulein Trauen glanced around, “At least that’s what my mother says.”

Aksinya glanced up at her, “Your mother is a fool and so are you. The purpose of men is to fulfill a woman’s desires. That is the only reason I would have one, and Ernst von Taaffe must prove his willingness to meet my needs before I will consider anything else.”

Fraulein Pfaff asked, “Is that what love means to you?”

Aksinya smiled. She sat up so the fish course could be placed in front of her. When they were served, Aksinya picked at the small piece of salmon on her plate and answered, “Yes, truthfully, that is love to me. A man should meet my needs and desires—to me that is love. What else could love be?”

Fraulein Pfaff surveyed the table. Fraulein Trauen wouldn’t meet her eyes. Fraulein Vogt stared at her plate. Natalya’s gaze was steady, but she remained silent. Only Aksinya would look directly at Fraulein Pfaff, and Aksinya’s opinion was the last one she wanted to hear. Finally Fraulein Pfaff asked, “How would you love a man then?”

Aksinya smiled a very broad smile, “I would meet his every need and desire myself.”

Fraulein Trauen’s hands moved up to her mouth, “You don’t mean every desire, even those…”

Aksinya grinned, “Even those. That’s what I’d expect from him.”

The nun at the table finally took notice of the women in her charge. She raised her head in time to catch Aksinya with a very smug look on her face, Natalya with a bored look, and the others with their hands over their mouths.

Aksinya’s appetite improved considerably, but the conversation at the table didn’t continue at all that evening.

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