Monday after school, Aksinya and Natalya awaited in the parlor for Herr von Taaffe’s arrival. A wood and coal fire warmed the room. Natalya sewed and Aksinya read a Russian novel. Sister Margarethe sat in a servant’s chair at the side of the room near the door to the hall. Aksinya kept glancing up from her book. She hadn’t turned a single page in an hour.
When they heard hooves outside, Sister Margarethe stood. The two novice nuns must have waited just outside the door, they rushed into the parlor.
Aksinya smiled. Her face filled with joy.
Natalya glanced at Aksinya then bent more diligently over her sewing.
When the bell rang, Sister Margarethe and the novice nuns ran into the foyer. Aksinya heard the door open and Sister Margarethe greet Ernst. She heard the rustle of Ernst’s great coat as they took it from him. In a few moments, Sister Margarethe led Herr Ernst von Taaffe into the room. Aksinya rose to greet him, and she almost fell backwards into her chair. Just behind Ernst stepped Asmodeus. The demon grinned at her, but he didn’t say anything. A whiff of sulfur followed him into the room. Natalya glanced up at Ernst and the demon. She colored, but immediately lowered her eyes back to her sewing.
Ernst’s face was radiant. He stepped to Aksinya and embraced her. His lips touched hers in a light but fervent caress. Aksinya returned his kiss for a moment, then thought better of her response and pushed him slightly away. Ernst didn’t seem put off at all. Sister Margarethe took a step forward as though she was about to intervene, but then she stepped back again.
Ernst pulled Aksinya closer, “Dearest Aksinya, I know your answer before you speak it, and I’m here to take you home with me.”
Sister Margarethe gave a gasp. The novice nuns gasped.
Aksinya pushed him back again, “My answer? You know it before I even speak it? You are a bit too forward and presumptuous, sir.”
“Today, I received your letter in response to mine, and the joy of my heart knows no bounds. But your attentions the other evening spoke more strongly than any letter or any words you might say.”
Aksinya’s voice raised, “My attentions?”
Ernst stared at her with a puzzled look, “Yes, your attentions.”
Aksinya stepped back and almost tripped over her chair, “I don’t have any idea what you are talking about, Ernst von Taaffe.”
Ernst continued to stare possessively at Aksinya. His eyes swept up and down her body in a very intimate glance.
Aksinya was suddenly filled with desire. She immediately pushed any such thoughts out of her mind. She glanced at the demon, then back at Ernst. Only she seemed to realize Asmodeus was in the room with them at all. Aksinya’s voice turned suddenly hard, “Sister Margarethe, leave us. Take the novices with you. I need to speak to Ernst privately.”
Natalya began to rise.
Aksinya didn’t turn, “Lady Natalya, you may remain. I am in great need of a chaperone.”
Ernst laughed, “In need of a chaperone? I think not, but dear lady, I will accede to your will.”
Sister Margarethe and the novice nuns reluctantly departed the room. Sister Margarethe halted a moment beside the door.
Aksinya raised her head, “Please close the door to the parlor, Sister Margarethe.”
Sister Margarethe nodded and slowly pulled it shut.
Aksinya stepped over to the door and made certain it was fully closed then she turned back toward Ernst, “What do you mean, sir by your statements? I did not send you a letter, and I did not attend you the other night.”
Ernst’s face fell for a moment, but he reached into his coat and pulled out a letter. He shook it open and handed it to Aksinya, “You sent this to me.”
Aksinya reached out and carefully took the letter without touching Ernst’s fingers. She scanned the letter. Then read it again, carefully.
Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna
Sacré Coeur Straße
8 January 1919
My Dearest Ernst
I hope I proved my love to you Wednesday night. I couldn’t imagine a more suitable man to take into my arms and reveal my every desire and delight. My answer to you on Monday is yes and yes and yes. I am already yours. You have my heart and soul and body. Please don’t be late because my love for you only exceeds my desire.
I love you with my body and soul,
Aksinya was suddenly breathing hard, “I did not write this letter. After the opera, I did not spend Wednesday night with you.”
Asmodeus laughter filled the parlor.
Aksinya stared at him, “What do you have to say about this demon?”
Asmodeus’ lips rose over his fangs, “Ask your handmaiden where she was on Wednesday night.”
Aksinya’s voice rose in volume, “Natalya, what do you know about this?”
Natalya cringed. Then she raised her eyes and met Aksinya’s angry glance, “I could not give you to this man. He would take away your virtue and your sorcery. So I gave him mine.”
Aksinya rushed forward and threw the letter at her, “Did you write this?”
Natalya jerked her head to the side and shook her head.
Asmodeus laughed again, “I wrote it. I wrote it in answer to the impassioned missive from this stupid young man.” He glared at Aksinya, “It is all true.”
Aksinya pressed her hands over her ears, “It is not true. None of it is true.”
Asmodeus wrinkled his nose at her, “This evening, you were about to answer Herr von Taaffe that you would wed him. You were planning to give up your virtue to him. You would have gladly lain in his arms and moaned out your every desire. You would have pleasured him already if you had the courage. You would have loved him just as he foolishly loves you. Do you think I could allow that?”
“Don’t you want me to sin?”
“I want you to do evil. That is your purpose and my purpose, and the evil you created in your wake is truly breathtaking. Can you not appreciate it? I would help you bed him now, but you realize he has already been taken.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you hear your lady-in-waiting? Ask her again. She already told you.”
Aksinya’s hand slipped to the side of her face, “Natalya, what did you do?”
Natalya wailed, “I could not let you do this thing. So I did it for you.”
Aksinya spat at her, “You did what for me?”
“I seduced him for you and gave him myself in your place.”
Ernst stepped beside Aksinya and grasped her arm, “What does she mean? I slept with you, Aksinya. I did not sleep with her. I saw your face. I touched your body. I heard your voice.”
Asmodeus cackled, “The Countess herself made the Lady Natalya appear like her. While she was in a drunken stupor, the Countess made her favorite enchantment. She made the Lady Natalya appear exactly like her and befuddled the Sister Margarethe’s thoughts. I sent the Lady Natalya to your bed. You did not sleep with the Countess.” He crossed his arms, “You had her maid.”
Aksinya shook off Ernst’s hand. She moved away from him—toward the demon, “You did this horrible thing?”
The demon sneered, “I didn’t do it—you did.”
Ernst pleaded, “I love you, Aksinya. I don’t love anyone else.”
“But you slept with her,” Aksinya thrust her finger at Natalya.
Ernst put his hands over his face, “I thought it was you. I only wanted you…”
Aksinya pushed him away, “You defiled her, and you defiled yourself. Do you think I would have slept so easily with you?”
Asmodeus voice was droll, “She would have.”
Aksinya barked at him, “Shut up, demon.” She whirled toward Ernst, “Get out, Herr von Taaffe. I don’t wish to see you again. I am not damaged goods, and I will not accept damaged goods.”
Asmodeus laughed again.
Aksinya ignored the demon. She scowled at Ernst, “Leave my house. You stain my honor by remaining here.”
Ernst ducked his head, “But, I didn’t know. I still love you. I want to marry you.”
“Do you think I could love you now? Do you think that after you took the virtue of my servant I could ever think of marrying you? I am not so low. You may have had her, but you will never have me now.”
Asmodeus gave a yawn, “The Lady Natalya had no virtue remaining to give. Others took it from her long before Herr von Taaffe. He was just one of many.”
Natalya bowed her head a little lower.
Aksinya stared at Natalya then jerked her eyes back to Ernst. She didn’t look in his eyes, “Herr von Taaffe, you disgrace my house. I already told you to leave.” She motioned violently toward him.
Ernst ducked his head and bowed, “I am sorry. I will leave. May I contact you later?”
Aksinya screamed at him, “Do not try to speak to me again. I will not entertain your letters or abide your presence again.”
“Very well. I do still love you. I am sorry.” He dropped to one knee.
Aksinya kicked at him and missed, “Take your apology and get out. Now!” She pulled back her hand and this time connected with the side of his face.
Ernst stood wide-eyed. He took one other glance at Aksinya then backed out of the door into the foyer. They heard the outer door open and close. The fire rose and fell among the coals.
Asmodeus inspected his claws, “He got off easy. If he had taken you, he would be dead. There is still the problem of your handmaiden.”
Aksinya whirled around. She stared at Natalya as though seeing her for the very first time. Natalya was so beautiful. She was so much more beautiful than Aksinya. Aksinya wondered why she hadn’t noticed before. No wonder Ernst or any man would choose Natalya over her. Aksinya moved slowly toward her lady-in-waiting, “Natalya, you took him from me. You took away the only man who ever loved me.”
Natalya crumpled in on herself, “I did it for you, mistress.”
Aksinya’s voice rose to a scream, “For me? For me? How could you do such an evil a thing for me?”
Asmodeus smacked his lips, “Actually, it was my idea.”
Natalya cried, “I didn’t want you to lose it.”
Aksinya’s voice rose again nearly inarticulate, “Lose what?”
Asmodeus smirked, “I told her that if a man took your virtue, you would lose your power to accomplish sorcery. The Lady Natalya knows how important that is to you.”
“But that was all a lie. I could have loved him.” Aksinya’s furious features were distraught.
Natalya raised her eyes, “But not any more. Now, you can do what you love the most. You can have what you love forever. I love you, mistress. I could not see you hurt like that.”
“Hurt? Hurt?” Aksinya’s eyes were wild she sought anything around her that she could take into her hand. She ran to the side of the fireplace and removed the poker from the implements there, “I will let you know how much this has hurt me.”
Aksinya struck Natalya’s side, and she fell to the floor on her face. Natalya put her hands over her head and Aksinya struck her shoulders again and again with the poker. Aksinya’s blows were so wild half of them hit the floor. Curses and cries flowed from Aksinya’s lips, and bright blood suddenly appeared on Natalya’s dress. At each blow, a breath burst from Natalya’s lips. Dark red stains drenched Natalya’s back, but the girl didn’t make any other sound. While Aksinya raised feral and shrill screams, blood began to streak the floor. Sister Margarethe rushed through the door. She grabbed Aksinya’s arms and wrestled the poker from her. Aksinya fell back. She cursed the nun with her remaining breath. After that Aksinya’s mouth only opened and close without a sound.
Sister Margarethe knelt beside Natalya and hesitantly touched her. She glanced up at Aksinya, “What have you done? What have you done, Countess?” Tears streaked Sister Margarethe’s face. She cried out again, “Sister Rita.” She screamed, “Sister Rita, Sister Tria, come help me.” The novice sisters ran to the room and halted in the opening of the parlor. They glanced at Aksinya and at Natalya’s silent body beside Sister Margarethe. Their eyes widened, and they trembled. Aksinya, still filled with rage, rushed at them, and they scattered screaming.
Aksinya ran into the foyer and to the outer door. She tugged at the handle. It wouldn’t open at first. She screamed and ripped it open. She ran out into the freezing night. Behind her, she heard nothing but sobs. She knew nothing but cries, but these were no longer hers. They were the cries of the nuns who knelt beside the broken and bleeding Lady Natalya.
In the street, the cheerful sounds of the Golden Adler Gasthaus came to Aksinya and mocked her. She ran in the opposite direction. She ran, and she ran as though the devils of hell pursued her. She had every reason to believe they did.
After a while, Aksinya slowed and stumbled on the cobblestones. A carriage rushed by and almost struck her. She fell to the side and cowered against the wall of a building. She pressed her burning body against the cold stone, and crept along beside it. After a few steps, Aksinya began to run again and fell. The cobbles bruised her hands. When she raised them in the circle of gaslight near her, they were covered with blood, but she couldn’t tell if the blood was hers or Natalya’s. Aksinya let out another anguished cry and pressed against the wall. She stood and ran again. She ran until her breath was gone. She ran until she could not run any further. Her throat was hoarse. Her body ached. She couldn’t think at all. She had just seen everything in her life, every thing that loved her and that she might have loved melt away to nothingness. She had discarded Ernst. She had killed Natalya. She had threatened and cursed Sister Margarethe. She had thrown away God. There was nothing for her now. She had nothing at all now.
The darkness enveloped her and she fell again. The cold ground was hard against her burning cheeks. She lay there panting for a long time. Then before her, a door creaked open. Light streamed through the opening. Aksinya raised her face from the cobbles. A voice called out in the darkness, “Who’s there? Who is it?”
Aksinya thought she recognized the voice. She couldn’t immediately place where she had heard it. She squinted into the light, but she couldn’t make out anything except a dark silhouette. Without much thought, without much more than a whisper, Aksinya cried out, “Save me. Please save me. I’ve nothing left. I’m dead to everything.”
A step came next to her ear. Someone knelt beside her. The voice came to her again, “Who is it?”
“Aksinya. It is Aksinya.”
A hand grasped her arms and lifted her up, “Are you alright, Countess?”
Aksinya didn’t answer.
Another voice came from the doorway, “Father Dobrushin, what is it?”
“I think it is the Countess Golitsyna.”
“Here? At this time of night? Do you need help?”
“No, Father Makar, she isn’t heavy.”
Aksinya felt herself lifted from the ground. Father Dobrushin held her close and carried her through the open doorway. Aksinya heard the door shut behind them.
Someone touched her face and felt her forehead. The hand was soft and gentle, it brushed the hair away from her face. A woman’s voice this time, “Is she ill? I don’t think she has a fever.”
Aksinya couldn’t speak properly. Her voice was rough and torn, “Father, father, please confess me. I must confess, for I am guilty of much evil.”
The woman’s voice chuckled, “Confess you, Countess. Let us take you back to your house.”
“I have murdered. I can’t go back there. They will be coming for me soon, and I must confess now before it is too late.”
Aksinya’s eyes flashed open. The light was too bright and she closed them again. She panted still in a hoarse whisper, “I am a murderer. I must confess.” She held out her hands.
“They are covered with blood…”
The Father Makar’s voice spoke too gently, “Just a few scrapes—a little blood.” The tone of the voice lowered and changed slightly, “Father Dobrushin? Will you confess her?”
Aksinya cried out, “You must all listen. You must know what I am.”
“That isn’t the way it is usually done, child.”
“For me, you must listen to my confession. Then you must give me over to them. My life is forfeit and my soul is forfeit, but I will die knowing I am confessed.”
The woman’s voice, “She sounds serious.”
Father Makar replied, “Ekaterina, she’s delirious, unbalanced. Such a confession is irregular, and a confession from an unbalanced mind…”
Father Dobrushin clasped Aksinya a little more tightly, “I will hear your confession, Countess.”
“Don’t call me that. I am nothing now. I am nothing.”
“Take her into the Ecclesia.”
Ekaterina spoke, “I’ll light the candles.”
Father Makar’s voice was tired, “I’ll get the sacrament.”
Father Dobrushin carried Aksinya a little farther. Aksinya felt the crucifix between her breasts begin to heat. They passed through a doorway, and the heat increased suddenly and nausea overwhelmed her. She gagged and bile filled her mouth. She breathed in and vomit burned her nose and throat. Father Dobrushin made a sound, “Are you all right?” He placed Aksinya on the floor and lifted her head.
Aksinya couldn’t stop retching. Her body writhed. The priest held her until she couldn’t retch anymore. The crucifix still burned against her skin.
Father Dobrushin gave a great sigh, “She is ill.”
Aksinya croaked out, “Not ill. It is the evil in me.” She opened her eyes and tugged at his cassock, “You must confess me.”
He sighed again, “I will confess you, but you must be able to speak. You must be in your right mind.”
“I beg you. Let me kneel at the altar. I will tell everything to you.”
“God will not listen to me anymore. I forsook Him. But you will do.”
Father Dobrushin made a sound that was a cross between a sob and a laugh.
“Don’t mock me. You can’t know.”
“I don’t know until you tell me. I will listen to you. Are you well enough that I can carry you again?”
Aksinya nodded, but the nausea still filled her body and the taste and smell of vomit in her mouth only made it worse.
Father Dobrushin lifted her again. Aksinya swallowed and fought down the desire to retch. The crucifix still burned against her skin. Father Dobrushin placed her on her knees and held her hands. She would have fallen on her face otherwise.
Aksinya pulled one hand from Father Dobrushin’s and made the sign of the cross. She gave a cry. Father Dobrushin grasped her hand again before she could topple over. Aksinya began: “I confess to God the Father Almighty,” She gagged slightly then rushed through the words, “and to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit, in the presence of Virgin Mary and all angels, prophets, seventy-two emissaries, twelve apostles and four evangelists, and confess in the faith of the three holy synods of Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus, trusting in the honorable priestly authority conferred upon you, Father Dobrushin, by which you bind and retain sins.” Aksinya paused and took a shallow breath, “I have sinned in thought, word and deed. I repent my sins. You are the master, and I am the servant. Accept me as the prodigal son. I have sinned against heaven and against you. I believe that you have authority to bind and retain sins and that you are the mediator between God and me. And I pray that you deliver me from all my sins by your priestly authority that I may obtain forgiveness. I pray that you remember me before God, in your prayers and in the holy Qurbono. Amen.” Aksinya began to tremble and the crucifix over her heart felt as though it was on fire.
Father Dobrushin held her hands more tightly, “Go on...”
Aksinya continued, “Father, I am a sorceress.” Aksinya raised her face and cried out, “Let me confess. You can’t stop me. All the pain in the world will not stop me from confessing.”
Father Dobrushin stiffened, “Who is stopping you?”
“All the devils in hell are trying to stop me in this.”
Father Makar’s voice came from the side, “She can’t confess. She is not right in her mind.”
Father Dobrushin commanded, “Tell me, Aksinya, your sin. I will listen.”
“I brought a demon up from the pit. He was the Demon Asmodeus. You must know of him. He was the demon who tormented Raguel's daughter, Sarah. He killed her bridegrooms when they came to her. He was the one that Solomon wrote about in the Testament of Solomon. Tobias forced him into upper Egypt, but he came to me when I called him, and I bound him to myself in a contract. Asmodeus is the demon of luxuria and lust. I have worked much evil through him and he through me, but the worst is that I am truly a sorceress.”
“Can there be such a being? She is insane.” Father Makar’s exasperated voice came again.
Father Dobrushin turned his head a little, “She believes it with all her heart. Such a thing can be.” He faced Aksinya again, “Please, confess everything you wish, Aksinya.”
“I desired to seduce Herr von Taaffe, but my lady-in-waiting was encouraged by the demon to sleep with him for my sake. Because of that, I sent Herr von Taaffe away and I beat the Lady Natalya. I think I killed her.” Aksinya gave a cry. “I am guilty of so many sins, I can’t begin to tell them all to you. I used sorcery to kill. I used it to harm. I have done nothing but harm others for my entire life.”
Matushka Ekaterina stepped beside them, “Father Dobrushin, something is burning. I thought it was the tapers, but I can see smoke near you.”
Aksinya cried out again. She yanked her hand from the priest’s and placed it over her heart.
Ekaterina yelled, “She is burning.” The Matushka ripped the front of Aksinya’s dress open. The fabric was charred. The camisole beneath it was smoking. Ekaterina pulled the burning fabric away from Aksinya’s chest. Her bare skin was singed. The beautiful gold crucifix was almost glowing. A repeatedly blackened mark marred Aksinya’s small breasts. It was shaped like a cross. Ekaterina grasped the chain and pulled the crucifix away from Aksinya’s skin, “Let her continue. She must continue.”
Aksinya seemed oblivious to everything. She whispered, “If I were to confess everything I would be here on my knees for weeks, and I’m not certain I have the strength for another minute.”
Ekaterina called out, “Absolve her. Absolve the girl so I can do something to help her.”
Father Dobrushin placed his right hand on Aksinya’s head and loudly announced, “May God have mercy upon you, and may He guide you to everlasting life through the authority of priesthood which was entrusted by our Lord Jesus Christ to His disciples who, in turn, entrusted it to their successors until it was given me; I who am weak and sinful, absolve you, Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna of all the sins that you have confessed and are repentant of them, as well as of all the transgressions which have escaped your memory in the Name of the Father, amen, and of the Son, amen and of the Holy Spirit for everlasting life. Amen.”
Aksinya screamed and arched her back. Ekaterina held her tightly. Father Dobrushin rose and lifted Aksinya up with him. He kissed her cheeks. The crucifix was suddenly cold. Aksinya, senseless, fell forward into his arms.
Ekaterina returned to the rectory kitchen.
Father Dobrushin glanced up. He asked in Russian, “Is she all right?”
“Obviously in pain and sleeping fitfully, but I don’t think she will awake for a while.”
Father Maker pulled his fingers through his hair, “Dear God what are we going to do about her?”
Father Dobrushin’s face fell into an appearance of serious introspection, “What do you mean Makar?”
“What I mean is that we have an insane girl in there,” he pointed toward the bare bedroom where they placed Aksinya. “She confessed to murder. She is a Russian Countess. Someone will soon come looking for her…”
Ekaterina sat at the table, “What would you have us do, Makaruska? Turn her in to the authorities? Throw her out on the streets?”
“I…I don’t know. What she confessed…can we even believe it—sorcery?”
Ekaterina put her hand on Makar’s, “The crucifix around her neck burned her chest and her clothing. From the looks of the scars, it had been burning her for a long time. It was hot enough to catch her clothing on fire. Whatever caused that was a true miracle.”
“Plus, her hands and arms are scarred everywhere,” Father Dobrushin added
Father Makar pursed his lips, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“When I was in the seminary, my mentor, Father Alexis, introduced me to the church texts that describe sorcery. One of the key identifying features in those who are sorcerers is scars on their hands and many times on other parts of their bodies.”
Father Makar shook his head, “Why is that?”
“Sorcery requires blood for sacrifice. They use knives during the rites to cut their hands or arms.”
“What about the other parts of the body?”
“According to the texts, failed spells result in wounds. Sorcerers can be known by these marks.”
Father Makar sighed, “You know I’ve worked a long time with the insane. Those who cut themselves display similar marks.”
“Sorcerer’s scars are always fully healed.”
“And why is that?”
“The result of successful sorcery is the healing of the wounds.”
“I’m not sure I believe any of this…”
Ekaterina frowned at her husband, “Not even the crucifix?”
Father Makar mumbled, “We still have to decide what to do with her.”
Father Dobrushin leaned back in the chair and the front legs raised a little off the floor.
Ekaterina tapped the table top and pointed at the chair.
Father Dobrushin lowered the chair to the floor, “Sorry.” He slouched a little in the seat, “Tomorrow morning, when she wakes, I’ll talk to her and try to get more information from her. Father Makar, why don’t you go speak to Reverend Mother Kluge at Sacré Coeur? She will know something about it.”
“What if we find the police are seeking her?”
Father Dobrushin opened his hands, “Why don’t we cross that road when we get there. For now, she is here and under our care.”
“What about the girl she said she killed?”
“Lady Natalya? I remember her. A member of the Russian court. You should find out how we can help her. If she is dead, she will need an Orthodox funeral. If she is alive, she will need all the help we can give her.”
“I understand. The Countess is delusional. The Lady is likely safe in her bed right now...”
Father Dobrushin smoothed his beard, “What I worry about is this demon, Asmodeus.”
“Surely you don’t believe any of that.”
“I don’t know what to believe. I know I will spend much of my time in prayer this evening about this very thing. I will also study everything I can to determine what we might do against such a demon.”
“I don’t believe any of it.”
Ekaterina puffed out her cheeks, “All I know is this girl’s clothing caught on fire from a crucifix around her neck. I can’t explain that either. How much less faith does it take to imagine a demon?”
Father Dobrushin cracked his neck and rubbed the back of his head, “I’m tired. It’s time to go to bed.” He stood, “Matushka, did you lock her door?”
“Yes. I locked and barred it.”
Father Dobrushin stretched, “Whatever happens, our little sorceress faces a lot in the future. It would be unwise for us to let her out of our sight for now.”
Aksinya didn’t wake until late the next morning. The pain in her chest finally overcame even sleep. Her eyes opened to a dark windowless cell. She lay on a cot. Her hand went to her breast. The crucifix was still there and so was a deep stinging pain. Her eyes felt oddly damp. She wasn’t certain what that meant. Perhaps it was from straining to see in the darkness.
Her clothing had been changed. She felt the fabric. It was very coarse and thin. Her eyes were well enough acclimated to the darkness that she could make out much of the room. She sat up and set her feet on the floor. She sat on a cot. A woolen blanket had covered her. She was cold, and she needed to go to the toilet. There wasn’t anything else in the room.
Aksinya wanted to make some light. She knew exactly how, but she consciously stopped herself. She was confessed, and she intended never to do sorcery ever again.
Aksinya stood. She was a little wobbly. She staggered to the door and tried the latch. The door was locked. She tapped on it.
Almost immediately she heard a bar raised and a key scratch in the lock. The Matushka from the Ecclesia pushed open the door. The light rushed in, and Aksinya covered her eyes with her sleeve. She blinked her damp eyes and slowly lowered her arm. The woman smiled at Aksinya and began to curtsy. Aksinya grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up. Aksinya tried to speak, but her throat was raw, and she couldn’t squeeze even a squeak out of it. She shook her head. The Matushka took Aksinya’s hand, “Come with me, Countess. I’ll show you where the outhouse is and where the bathroom. Then we can go to breakfast.”
The Matushka kept very close to her. They went out the door at the back and to the outhouse behind the rectory. She waited for Aksinya then took her to the bathroom. The water was tepid, but it wasn’t cold. The Matushka stayed right beside Aksinya.
They went to the kitchen, and Aksinya sat down. The Matushka served Aksinya tea and a bread roll. She sat down opposite Aksinya and sipped on a cup of tea herself. After Aksinya had drunk half her tea, she tried her voice again. Her throat was still raw but she forced out in a hoarse whisper, “Thank you, Matushka.”
Ekaterina smiled, “You may call me Ekaterina, Countess.”
Aksinya’s lips didn’t exactly smile, but they turned up a little, “I wish you would call me Aksinya.”
“You know that isn’t possible, Countess.”
“It would please me, Ekaterina. Because of what I really am.”
“We all have our own problems… and sins… even the nobility.”
“Perhaps you don’t understand…”
“I heard it all last night.”
“Oh…then you hate me.”
Ekaterina laughed, “Not anymore than anyone else. It depends on what you mean by hate… and love. You know your Greek?”
“I am called to love you with the love only God can have—that is agape love. I think I can love you like that. I don’t not love you like that. There is also phileo, the kind of love between people who trust each other.” She smiled to take away the sting in her words, “I don’t know you well enough to have phileo love toward you.”
Aksinya look up from the sides of her eyes, “How might you come to love me like that?”
“By sharing together in work. By companionship and pleasant conversation. By sharing thoughts and ideas.”
“I see… I told you I murdered my lady-in-waiting. I know she loved me. I’m not certain I loved her.” Aksinya shook her head, “What is wrong with my eyes? They have been damp since I woke.”
“Let me look at them.” Ekaterina inspected Aksinya’s eyes, “What do you feel, Aksinya?”
“I feel very sad, and I feel great pain.”
“Your eyes are filled with tears.”
“I don’t remembering ever crying before.”
“But you are crying now.”
Aksinya laid her head on the table top, “Natalya cried all the time. I didn’t understand it. Do you think she was always sad? I think she loved me. Do you think she was that sad because of me?”
“I don’t know. Did you make her sad?”
“No, I think I loved her, but I killed her.” Aksinya let out a sob, “Why did I make that sound? What’s wrong with me?” Her shoulders shuddered.
Ekaterina moved next to Aksinya. She put her arms around the girl.
Aksinya sobbed again in a hoarse whisper, “You shouldn’t try to comfort me. Instead of comfort, I beat Natalya. I don’t deserve comfort.”
“Everyone who is confessed deserves comfort. That is what we call agape love.”
“I see. I wish I could see Natalya. I miss her so much.” Aksinya buried her face in her arms. Aksinya couldn’t speak for a while, “Do you think she will hate me now?”
“She may hate you.”
“Do you think that is why I am so sad?”
“I think there are many reasons why you are sad.” She gently stroked Aksinya’s hair.
“You really shouldn’t try to comfort me. I should not be comforted.”
Ekaterina held her more tightly, “Should I beat you?”
“It might be a good idea.”
“You said you were in pain already.”
“I am in great pain.”
“Is it from your burns?”
“Then there is no reason to beat you if you are already in pain.”
“I see,” Aksinya sobbed.
“Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
“Will that help you to love me?”
“Yes, and it will help me get to know you.”
Aksinya put out her arm and dipped her finger in a small puddle of tea spilled on the table, “My mother hated me.”
Ekaterina rocked Aksinya, “I doubt that very much.”
Aksinya ignored her, “I was her first child and the child of her first husband. He died before I was born. I reminded her too much of him. My adopted father loved me very much. He gave me whatever I wanted, but my mother didn’t give me what she did my younger sister or brother. She knew I loved fine clothes. Mine were always the least in the house. My mother couldn’t give me hand-me-downs, not at first. Her clothing was too elegant, but when my sister grew taller and larger in the…you know, the chest, than me, I received her old clothing. My sister had jewelry. I had nothing. My father gave me the old guest house. It was too unimportant and too ruined for my mother to care. That’s where I found the books on sorcery. I taught myself everything. I learned Latin on my own.”
“On your own?”
“Yes, perfectly. To use sorcery, you must speak the Latin words exactly as they should be spoken. Most can’t do it. I memorized the books on sorcery. Then I could have everything I wanted. At least I could make the appearance of everything I wanted. Much of sorcery is similar to illusion. It shapes the way the world looks. Some of sorcery is like…”
“Hush, Aksinya, Countess…you shouldn’t speak about sorcery. You want to give it up. You shouldn’t let your mind dwell on it.”
“Yes, you’re right, but it has been a part of my life for so long…”
“How old are you, Countess?”
“You look younger.”
“I know.” Aksinya played with the spilled tea. “What am I to do now that I don’t have sorcery?”
“What do you know?”
She let out a strange sob, “I know how to be a countess.”
Ekaterina smiled, “Beyond that?”
“Latin, Greek, German, Russian, French. I can speak, read, and write in them. Can anyone do anything with that knowledge?”
“Yes. Those are very good skills. Surely you have read a lot?”
“That is almost all I do—I read.” She sighed, “I wanted to go to school. I’m certain that is at an end now.”
“Perhaps, Countess. We can’t know much of anything right now.” Ekaterina looked up, “I must say the prayers and clean the Ecclesia.”
Aksinya didn’t look up. Her voice was thick with tears, “May I pray too? May I help you?”
Ekaterina smiled, “You may.