When Aksinya awoke in the late morning, her first thought was the kiss that still excited her imagination and seemed to tingle on her lips. It tempted her and excited her. In spite of a headache, her body was much more responsive now, and she felt less frustrated afterward. She slowly fell back to sleep. Natalya finally woke her near noon.
Natalya had her hands full dressing and preparing the sleepy Aksinya for their departure. The two maids from the evening helped, and together, they assisted the Countess down to the dining room for breakfast. Everyone else had already eaten breakfast and luncheon, and Aksinya took her time. She insisted Natalya eat with her. Ernst was conspicuously absent.
When Aksinya finished her third cup of tea, Natalya was able to bundle her off to the front of the house where the Bockmanns and their coupe awaited them. All their small trunks had been loaded on the coupe and the driver stood ready to assist them into the cab.
Aksinya met the Bockmanns in the great foyer. Freiherr Bockmann bowed to Aksinya, and Freifrau Bockmann curtsied. She took Aksinya’s hand, “Good morning, Countess.”
Aksinya gave a slight nod. That made her head ache.
Just as they were about to pass through the main doors, the Graf von Taaffe came out of a side opening. He was followed closely by Ernst. The Graf tilted his head toward Aksinya, “Good morning, Countess. I pray you slept well.”
Aksinya cleared her throat, “As well as I could after drinking so much.”
The Graf smiled, “Do you have an answer for me and Ernst this morning?”
“I have not had the opportunity to put my mind fully to the question, yet. I will to give an answer in one week, on the Monday following this next.”
The Graf rubbed his chin, “Very good and very well said. I do like the way you plan, Countess. I still wish you would accept the ring.”
“Ring!” squawked Freifrau Bockmann.”
Aksinya raised her eyes to her aunt’s, “Ernst von Taaffe has made me an offer of matrimony. I am contemplating his proposal.”
Ernst stepped forward, “I have met my father’s requirements, and I hope I meet yours as well, Aksinya.”
Aksinya gave him a look that could melt any man’s heart.
Ernst continued, “I’ll pick you up at our regular time for dinner on Wednesday evening.”
Aksinya asked, “What shall we see?”
“The opera is Tristan und Isolde by Wagner. It is a tragedy.”
Graf von Taaffe laughed, “You may kiss Ernst good bye if you wish.”
Aunt Brunhilda put up her hand, “She shall not. A handshake at this juncture is more than appropriate.”
Aksinya pursed her lips. Natalya smiled.
Ernst took Aksinya’s hand and bowed over it.
Aunt Brunhilda commented, “Yes, very nice, Herr von Taaffe.”
When she passed her aunt, Aksinya snarled, “I would have rather had a kiss.”
They stepped into the coupe and the driver started out toward Wien and Grossbock.
During the entire return trip, Aunt Brunhilda tried to get Aksinya to talk about Ernst and his proposal, but Aksinya would not say a word. She slouched in the corner of the coupe and read her German novel. As they neared the city, Aksinya sat up, “Aunt Brunhilda, Uncle, I would like to return to my house tonight. Please, take us there.”
“Tonight,” Aunt Brunhilda complained, “But we have dinner waiting.”
“I’ve eaten and drunk too much as it is these last few days. I would like to return to my house. I shall take my dinner at Sacré Coeur, that is, if I feel dinner is necessary.”
“I would like time to privately contemplate Herr von Taaffe’s proposal.”
“Oh, I see,” Aunt Brunhilda raised her head and gave a thoughtful look. “I certainly think that is a good idea. Would you like you to discuss your decision with us…?”
Aksinya turned her head toward the door. She would not respond to a single question her aunt asked after that. Eventually, Aunt Brunhilda gave up.
The Freiherr and Freifrau let Aksinya and Natalya off in front of the house across from Sacré Coeur. Sister Margarethe and the two novice sisters greeted them at the door. Aksinya and Natalya ate a light supper in Aksinya’s sitting room and had a late tea. They both studied until it was time for bed.
Saturday and Sunday went well. Ernst came on Sunday to escort Aksinya and Natalya to the Orthodox Ecclesia that was close to Sacré Coeur. The crucifix at Aksinya’s breast burned the entire time. Father Dobrushin watched her with an odd look in his eyes. Aksinya became ill at communion, but she didn’t lose her breakfast. Natalya helped her back to her seat and wouldn’t let Ernst near her the entire time.
When Aksinya and Natalya entered Sacré Coeur on Monday morning, every eye in the school followed her. At chapel, the girls and every sister watched her carefully. Aksinya ignored them all. She had to leave before communion, but the tea Natalya made for her between chapel and the first class settled her stomach.
The moment Aksinya and Natalya entered their German classroom, Anna Pfaff followed by the rest of the girls in the class surrounded her, “Countess, we heard that Herr von Taaffe has asked your hand in marriage, is it true?”
Behind them, Sister Margarethe’s face fell. She mumbled, “I didn’t know.”
Aksinya began to push her way past Fraulein Pfaff to her seat, but she suddenly thought better of that, “Where did you hear such a thing?”
“The rumor is all over the school. Please tell us. It is so exciting…”
Aksinya glared, and the girls took a step back.
Anna continued with a trembling stutter, “We are all so happy for you—that is if it is true.”
“I don’t like my personal business shared about, but I will tell you, it is true. At Graf von Taaffe’s New Year’s party, his son, Ernst, proposed to me.”
Anna put her hands together, “What is your answer to him?”
Aksinya growled, “That is definitely my own business. I have not made my decision.”
Natalya grimaced, “She is to give her answer to him next Monday.”
Aksinya turned Natalya an angry look, “Lady Natalya, please don’t share such personal information without my approval.”
Natalya cringed, and dropped her eyes.
Anna turned toward Natalya, “Then Lady Natalya, has the Countess shared her decision with you?”
Natalya shook her head.
Sister Margarethe moved a step toward the girls, and stated in a distraught tone, “It is past time to start class. Please find your seats—immediately.”
The girls slowly broke up and went reluctantly to their desks.
Aksinya stomped to her seat and flopped into it. She wouldn’t speak to Natalya or to Sister Margarethe the entire class.
On Wednesday, Ernst escorted Aksinya to dinner and the opera. He greeted Aksinya at her house with a bouquet of roses. He explained the extravagance, “Because I am working for him, my father increased my remittance.” At each place they visited, Aksinya thought she spotted Asmodeus. She caught a glimpse of him in the mirror at the Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz, and in the grand foyer of the Wien State Opera. A strong whiff of sulfur came to her in both places. When the and caviar came at the intermission for Tristan und Isolde, Aksinya thought she saw Asmodeus sneaking in the corridor just outside their box seats. Warned by his potential presence, she intended to drink less because of it, but ended up drinking more than she planned.
Before the beginning of the second act, Natalya prepared a blemis with caviar and handed it to Aksinya. Aksinya took the flat piece of bread, “Thank you, Lady Natalya.”
Natalya smiled oddly at her, “Would you care for another glass of ?”
Aksinya cocked her head and grinned back, “Please, as long as you are pouring, Lady Natalya, I won’t fear for my virtue.”
Natalya filled Aksinya’s flute and continued to hand her another blemis with caviar. Natalya wasn’t certain how many times Natalya refilled her glass that evening, but by the end of the opera, she couldn’t stand on her own. Natalya and Ernst had to both help her to Ernst’s landau and then back into her house.
Ernst didn’t kiss Aksinya that evening, at least she had no recollection that he kissed her. She wished he had. She didn’t remember much at all. In the morning, she woke with a splitting headache. A strange whiff of incense and sulfur touched her nose. Someone was opening the shutters of her windows. Aksinya didn’t open her eyes, “Don’t let the sun in Nata. I’ve told you so many times.”
“I’m not the Lady Natalya,” came Sister Margarethe’s voice.
Aksinya jerked to a sitting position and was overcome with dizziness. Her head ached. She held her head in her hands and fought down the nausea that enveloped her. Finally, between clenched teeth, she forced, “Where’s Nata? Where is she?”
Sister Margarethe sat on the side of the bed, “I have no idea. I assumed you sent her on an errand last night. She asked me to take care of you last evening, and she said I was to wake you in the morning.”
“You’ve seen her this morning?”
“No. She last spoke to me when Herr von Taaffe brought you home drunk again.”
Aksinya’s eyes widened, “Where is she? We must find her.”
“I’m certain she is fine. She seemed to be off on something important.”
“She can’t be fine. She can’t be. Why are you speaking so nonchalantly about this?”
“Let me help you with your bath. I’ve already drawn it for you.”
Aksinya was suddenly listless. She allowed Sister Margarethe to pull her out of bed and remove her nightgown. The nun helped her into the bath, “I’ll bring your morning tea and breakfast in a moment.”
Aksinya sat in the warm tub with her hands clasped together. She heard her sitting room door open and close. She couldn’t remember a waking moment when Nata was not at her side. This seemed too strange to her. Aksinya stared at her hands. Her eyes opened wide, the faint line of new scar crossed the many others on her left hand. She couldn’t imagine how it could have happened. She hadn’t done that kind of magic in a while. Finally, the sitting room door opened again. She heard Sister Margarethe as she directed the novices. The door shut again, and Sister Margarethe stepped into the bathroom, “Are you ready to get out, Countess?”
Sister Margarethe helped her out of the tub and dried her. She put a dressing gown around Aksinya’s shoulders, and led her into the sitting room. Sister Margarethe poured the tea and served Aksinya breakfast. That’s when Aksinya finally caught a whiff of it. Aksinya lifted her head and enunciated a couple of Latin words. She hadn’t practiced any sorcery in a while. The crucifix between her breasts heated immediately, but Aksinya knew it then. Sister Margarethe had been touched with sorcery. Her room had a definite scent of incense and under that, the sink of sulfur. Aksinya understood there could only be one source for it—it had to be that cursed demon, Asmodeus.
She didn’t know what to do. She had no idea where Natalya had gone. She wasn’t certain she could get anyone to help her. Sister Margarethe was convinced that Natalya had just gone out on an errand. Aksinya couldn’t appeal to her or to anyone in this world except… She began to pray. She wasn’t certain it would do any good, but she reasoned prayer couldn’t hurt. If Natalya didn’t return soon, Aksinya would call the demon that evening and demand that he come to her—explain everything to her.
After breakfast, Sister Margarethe dressed Aksinya and brushed her hair. She didn’t notice the strange expression on Aksinya’s face. She didn’t see how pale she was or how wide and frightened her eyes were. Or, if she did, perhaps she attributed it to the alcohol and lack of sleep.
Aksinya was ill during chapel and vomited before Sister Margarethe could rush her into the hallway outside. Sister Margarethe tried to comfort her and brought her tea before class, but the tea was not made to Aksinya’s taste, and Aksinya was in no mood to be comforted. By the time, she arrived at her first class, her hair was loose around her face and her clothing had spots from her accident and from the tea she spilled. She put her head down on her desk and tried to sleep. She couldn’t do anything else, Sister Margarethe had forgotten Aksinya’s bag. It was the bag Nata always carried for her. The bag had all her school books and papers inside.
Finally, in the late morning, Natalya opened the classroom door. Someone touched Aksinya’s arm, and she raised her head. Aksinya’s eyes widened. She stood at her desk and nearly fell. She started toward Natalya and did fall. She tripped on the desk and dropped to one knee. Natalya was instantly beside her. She took Aksinya’s arms and lifted her up. Aksinya put her arms around Natalya and held her close. Her eyes widened again—there was that smell plus another. There was the scent of sorcery and a strange musky smell Aksinya couldn’t place. Aksinya pulled back slightly from Natalya and stared at her. Natalya lowered her eyes. She led Aksinya back to their desks. Natalya straightened Aksinya’s hair and brushed off her clothing.
Natalya didn’t say anything to her, and Aksinya was afraid to ask anything.
That evening at dinner in the dinning room at Sacré Coeur, the moment after Reverend Mother Kluge finished praying Anna Pfaff asked, “Well, did Herr von Taaffe take you out last night?”
Aksinya didn’t answer.
Natalya replied in very precise German, “He took her to Tristan und Isolde by Wagner. It was a tragedy.”
Frieda Trauen scrunched her lips to the side, “I wanted to see that, but papa wouldn’t take me.”
Fraulein Pfaff took a sip of soup, “Whyever not, Frieda?”
“He said it was too German.”
Diedre Vogt tried to catch Aksinya’s eyes, “Countess, have you considered what you might answer Herr von Taaffe?”
Aksinya turned her head away.
Fraulein Trauen grinned, “Did you have a fight with him?”
Natalya voice sounded too happy, “She was drunk last night.”
Fraulein’s Trauen’s smile widened, “Too drunk to fight. What kind of wife will Herr von Taaffe get for himself.”
Natalya took a bite of her fish course, “Herr von Taaffe knows exactly the kind of wife he will be getting.”
Aksinya didn’t act as if she heard. She didn’t eat. The moment dinner was over, she stood and made her way back out of the dining room. Natalya followed closely behind her.
They walked across the street to Aksinya’s house. Natalya unlocked the door. The novices came when they heard the door open. Aksinya didn’t wait for them to take her cloak. Sister Margarethe entered directly behind them from the street. She was out of breath. She started to say something and follow Aksinya, but Natalya put up her hand and waved her back. Natalya handed her cloak to the first novice. She took a deep breath of the collar first. Then she followed Aksinya up the stairs.
Natalya closed and locked the door to Aksinya’s rooms. The mink cloak lay in the sitting room floor. Natalya picked it up and smelled it. She took a deep breath of the lining and smiled. She placed the cloak reluctantly down over one of the chairs and went into Aksinya’s bedroom. Aksinya fought with the buttons on her blouse. Her uniform short coat lay on the floor.
Natalya came over and pulled Aksinya’s hands away from the front of her blouse. She pushed them to Aksinya’s side and began to unbutton the blouse. She pulled it off Aksinya and lifted the camisole over her head. She unbuttoned Aksinya’s skirt and untied her slip. She took everything to the gross schrank and hung them inside. She pulled out a silk nightgown and returned. Aksinya already sat on the edge of the bed. Natalya pulled the gown over Aksinya’s head and plucked her hands through the sleeves. She pulled the bottom of the gown over Aksinya’s thighs.
Aksinya lay back on the bed and her head touched something hard. She frowned and reached up behind her head. She felt a book. No, two large books.
Aksinya sat up suddenly. She half turned and mumbled, “My books.” She glanced at Natalya, “Why are my books here?” Without waiting for an answer, Aksinya pulled the books over to her. One had a brown cover, she opened the book and her mouth formed an “O,” “This is the book Ernst took.”
Aksinya’s hands trembled. She pushed the book aside and took up the other. She caressed it with an overly light touch as though she really didn’t want to handle it. She opened it and whispered, “This is not my book. It is a Greek Book of Heka.” She stared at Natalya, “This is Ernst’s book.” She dropped it back on the bed, “How did these books come to be here?”
“What did you do, Nata?”
Natalya pulled the covers down on the bed. She carefully didn’t touch either book, “Now that man has no power over you. You have no reason to see him anymore. You have your book again, and you have his book.”
Aksinya picked up The Book of Heka and held it against her breast, “I do have his book.”
Natalya smiled, “Get in bed, mistress. I know that you wish to read tonight. I will leave the gas lamp lit over your bed.” She bent forward and helped Aksinya crawl under the covers. Aksinya would not let go of the new book.
In the morning, when Natalya entered Aksinya’s bedroom, she had to immediately cover her eyes. The room was filled with brilliance. Aksinya sprawled naked across her bed, and a rod of light lay on her open palm. The bedclothes all were on the floor, and a large and strange magic circle encompassed the bedroom.
Natalya carefully crossed the circle and moved to Aksinya’s bed. She held her hand in front of her face and squinted between her fingers at the bright light. Natalya knelt at the edge of the bed and smiled a great and wonderful smile. It filled her entire face and the sparkle in her eyes vied with the light of the rod. Natalya reached out her hand and touched Aksinya’s lengthening hair. She stroked it and gently clasped it. Her eyes filled with tears, and she whispered, “I knew you would make something beautiful with the book. I longed with all my heart to see it.” She gave a great sigh, “I love you so much, mistress. I would do anything for you.” Her mouth trembled, “What I gave for these books was worth every moment of agony.” She buried her face as though in prayer for a moment then raised her head. She couldn’t take her eyes from the piece of light that lay so easily on Aksinya’s palm.
A knock came to the door. Sister Margarethe’s voice came clearly to Natalya, “Lady Natalya, Countess, you will be late for chapel and class.”
Natalya didn’t want to take her eyes off Aksinya. She replied without turning her head, “The Countess was up late studying. I don’t wish to wake her yet.”
Aksinya moaned. Her eyes snapped open. She glanced at the rod of light in her hand then turned her face quickly from it. She started to say a Latin phrase, Natalya touched Aksinya’s lips with her outstretched finger, “Don’t make it go away yet. Let me look at it a little longer. It is so beautiful.”
Aksinya yawned and stretched. She clasped the light a little more tightly in her hand. She pushed herself up and sat cross legged on the top of the bed then she held the light out to Natalya, “Would you like to hold it?”
“Take it in your hand,” Aksinya placed the rod of light in Natalya’s outstretched palm.
“It isn’t hot. It’s cold. It’s beautiful, mistress. Do you have to make it go away?”
Aksinya giggled, “No, why don’t you place it in the schrank then you can take it out whenever you like.”
“May I take it to my room?”
Aksinya’s lips turned up into a smile, “You may do whatever you like with it, but you must not let anyone else see it.”
Natalya’s eyes lit up, “Thank you, mistress.” Natalya cupped the rod in her hand and carried it to the schrank. She placed it inside and closed the door. When she turned around Aksinya sprawled with her legs open on the bed, “Mistress!” Natalya colored.
Aksinya turned her face toward her.
Natalya did everything not to point, “The way you are sitting. Everything…”
Aksinya laughed and stretched again. She scooted to the edge of the bed and hopped off, “Draw my bath, Nata. I didn’t sleep very much last night, but I feel very refreshed.”
Sister Margarethe crossed the street to Sacré Coeur before Aksinya was ready. Aksinya, and of course Natalya missed chapel, but they were just in time for their German class with Sister Margarethe.
In the class, Aksinya slumped in her seat. She yawned. When Sister Margarethe came around to review the work and lessons she assigned, she turned a smile toward Aksinya, “Countess, your work is well done today. Your study last night paid off.”
As usual, Sister Margarethe didn’t spend much time with Natalya. While keeping her eyes on Aksinya, she stated, “Your work, Lady Natalya, on the writing is well done. I didn’t find a single error. Your accent is also improving. Keep at your studies, and encourage the Countess to continue to complete hers.”
When Sister Margarethe was out of earshot, Natalya whispered, “Did you work last night on your German?”
Aksinya cocked her head, “Of course not, silly. I spent all night reading my new book. I just finished some of her earlier exercises the other day. You know that’s what I do for every class—I slowly feed them the work so they don’t get too upset with me. In spite of that, you know I am serious about study—I just have other things I need to study too.”
Natalya nodded at that. She began to read the current assignment Sister Margarethe had assigned her.
That evening before dinner, Sister Margarethe helped Aksinya and Natalya prepare to travel to Grossbock for the weekend. Aksinya was dressed in finery and Natalya not less than a degree below that. Aksinya held the book of Heka wrapped in brown paper in her lap. She wouldn’t let anyone else carry it. While they waited together in the parlor for Aunt Brunhilda to arrive, Aksinya lounged and Natalya sat in the large overstuffed chairs. Sister Margarethe stood and held their cloaks. Sister Margarethe cleared her throat.
Aksinya sat up, “Yes, Sister Margarethe, you wish my attention?”
“Yes, Countess. The novice sisters told me this afternoon that they saw a strange man remove your post.”
Aksinya made a frown, “Ah, that must be my courtier, Asmodeus.”
“Yes, perhaps you have not met him.”
“Then he has been intercepting the post?”
“I expect the bills and any official communications. There were no letters today for me?”
“No, not today, or at least I don’t think there were. So he has been allowing your personal correspondence to go through?”
“Yes, I expect so.”
“They thought they saw him take what looked like personal letters from the box.”
Natalya turned her head away.
Aksinya stuttered, “They were likely letters concerning my business.”
“So your courtier takes care of all your bills and business. You should introduce me to him.”
Aksinya’s voice was suddenly very weak, “The bills…the bills, they have all been paid—have they not?”
“Oh yes, every one. I have heard no complaints and the larder continues to be filled.”
Aksinya’s voice shook with relief, “That is good. It is as it should be.”
“Your courtier must be very efficient and a careful steward. Everything seems to be in perfect order. Everything comes on time and is of the very best quality. He must choose your goods very carefully, and he must tip very well.”
“Yes. I’m certain he does.”
Natalya turned Aksinya a strange look that Sister Margarethe and Aksinya both did not see.
Sister Margarethe shifted the cloaks in her arms, “Have you decided what you are going to answer Herr von Taaffe on Monday?”
Natalya cocked her ears.
“I have considered Herr von Taaffe’s proposal very carefully. I think it would be unfair to the gentleman if I told anyone before him.”
“He is a very fine young man. You could not do much better than to accept his proposal. I would hope that I might continue to serve you afterward.”
“Thank you, Sister Margarethe that is very kind of you. I will take your request into consideration. I don’t expect to leave this house or the school for a while even if my decision is to join myself with his household.”
Sister Margarethe seemed relieved, “Then you anticipate a long engagement?”
“I take everything under advisement depending on my answer to the gentleman. I enjoy his company. Perhaps I shall tell him I would like more time to consider his offer, and perhaps I will request a longer time to get to know him. Then again,” Aksinya’s eyes sparkled, “perhaps I shall accept him and his offer and entertain him here.”
Sister Margarethe put her hand over her mouth, “Surely, you would not. The Reverend Mother would not allow such a thing.”
“You have kept my other secrets well, Sister Margarethe. Why should you not keep another one? What the Reverend Mother doesn’t know will not burden her or me.”
“But such a thing…and right across from Sacré Coeur. You wouldn’t be able to keep something like that a secret for very long.”
Aksinya shrugged, “I did not say what I would do, yet. I simply suggested that as a possibility. You would keep my secrets, wouldn’t you, Sister Margarethe?”
Sister Margarethe raised her eyes, “Yes. Yes, you know I would.”
“Very good. Then whatever decision I make, I shall feel comfortable that my interests are guarded by those who serve me.” Aksinya turned toward Natalya, “Isn’t that so, Nata?”
Natalya glanced down, “Y…yes, Countess.”
They heard horses’ hooves on the cobblestones outside and Aksinya stood, “My cloak, please.”
Sister Margarethe moved a little too quickly. She fumbled a little and began to place the mink cloak over Aksinya’s shoulders. Natalya intercepted her and took the heavy cloak from her. She put it over Aksinya’s shoulders herself and lingered a moment too long when she tied it at Aksinya’s neck. She put her face discretely close to the side and took a deep breath.
Sister Margarethe placed the other cloak around Natalya’s shoulders. Then she answered the door.
The driver helped Aksinya and Natalya into the coupe, and the carriage took off with only a slight lurch. Sister Margarethe watched the carriage until it was out of sight.
Inside the coupe, Aunt Brunhilda looked Aksinya over for a moment. She tapped the side of the glass window and held the strap as the carriage moved forward, “Good evening, Countess, Lady Natalya.”
“Good evening, Aunt Brunhilda,” Aksinya smiled. She couldn’t help smile when she said her aunt’s name.
“Aren’t you going to share your decision about Herr von Taaffe with me? You will certainly tell him, yes, on Monday.”
Aksinya looked out the window, “I haven’t informed my confidant, the Lady Natalya yet. I am not ready to let everyone know. On Monday, you shall all know everything.”
“You haven’t told the Lady Natalya yet?” Freifrau Bockmann pouted and put her chin on the back of her hand. She glanced at Natalya, “Then there is not reason for me to try to cajole the answer from her?”
Aksinya frowned and didn’t turn from the window, “None at all.”
“Lady Natalya, the Countess has told you nothing about how her heart swings?”
Natalya shook her head.
Aunt Brunhilda snuck a look back at Aksinya, “Surely you will say yes to him.”
“I just had this conversation with Sister Margarethe, and I really don’t wish to be interrogated about it again.”
“Yes, Countess,” Freifrau Bockmann stared at her hands with an unhappy look on her face.
At Grossbock, Aksinya and Natalya went to their suite of rooms immediately after dinner. Aksinya would not answer her Aunt or Uncle’s questions during the evening. After Natalya had prepared Aksinya for bed, Aksinya sat up in her bed with the large book of Heka on her knees. A large magic circle encompassed the room. Natalya watched her through the servant’s door. Under Natalya’s covers was a very bright light. Aksinya didn’t notice it. She made a bright light of her own to read the book. Natalya just watched. A look of absolute contentment filled her features.