Aksinya: Enchantment and the Daemon

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Chapter 6

They visited Sacré Coeur in the late morning the next day. Aksinya wore a wonderful gown Natalya had just finished fitting to her. Natalya had an appropriate matching dress that had come from Aksinya’s closet. Natalya could wear almost any of Aksinya’s clothes without fitting. They never fit Aksinya very well to begin with. Now, Aksinya wore nearly only those that had been her mother’s or her sister’s. Asmodeus insisted.

The weather was clear and cold. They rode in an elegant covered carriage, a coupe, from Aksinya’s uncle and aunt’s mansion to the convent and gymnasium at Sacré Coeur. The busier streets were lined with men looking for work, thin children and adults begging, women selling themsleves or other meger wares. In Russian cities, Aksinya had seen these kinds of people all her life. She didn’t expect them to be so prvailent in Austria or Wien. She tried to keep her face carefully forward. Her aunt and uncle ignored the people completey.

They entered the center of Wien and arrived at a beautiful old catholic church with three attached buildings. The church appeared first. It was tall with a face decorated by stained glass. The bell tower stuck upward from the center. Connected directly to the church was another long building that was constructed in a more modern style. It was mostly sandy brick with long windows on the upper floor and shorter windows on the lower floor. A wide archway cut through the center of this building. Their driver turned the stylish coupe, through this archway. They entered a large retanguler courtyard. That’s when the other two buildings came within sight. On the other side of the courtyard was a building that appeared almost as old as the church. It was wood and stone and built in an archaic style. To the right, another building attached to the building that fronted the street and the older one across the courtyard. The building to the right was the newest. Within the courtyard, to the left across from this building the side of the church. It was as decorated with stained glass as the front.

When they entered the courtyard, Freifrau Bockmann began a running commentary, “Do you see Countess, the building along the street is the students’ dormitory. Most of the rooms front the courtyard. Across from that is the convent. They are both attached to the church. Between them and across from the church is the school... I mean the gymnasium. That is such a new term for me. It was always just a school when I attended there.”

The building between the convent and the dormetory had a fine facade. It looked like a school, but definitely one that taught the highest level of decorum. Over the double door in elegant script was the name, Sacré Coeur. The driver pulled directly before the door. A very officious appearing older woman and a tall nun stepped through the wide door to greet them.

The driver opened the door of the coupe and handed down first the Freiherr then the Freifrau Bockmann. The Lady Natalya followed them, then Asmodeus. At the last, the driver handed down Aksinya. She was dressed in the finest clothing of anyone there. She wore a wonderful creation in red satin and white lace. Her hat was the newest style from , red brushed satin with a bit of lace and feathers. Her mother never had a chance to wear it. Although her uncle and aunt had put on their best, their best was nothing compared to the gowns Aksinya’s mother once wore. That and the long mink cloak Aksinya had on marked her as the Countess Sacré Coeur expected.

The nun and older woman immediately moved to Aksinya’s side. They both curtsied.

Freiherr Bockmann put out his hand, “Countess Golitsyna, may I introduce the Reverend Mother Kluge and Frau Drescher. Reverend Mother and Frau Drescher, this is my niece, the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna. She is the one we spoke about yesterday.”

The Reverend Mother’s wore a full habit with a wimple that only allowed her face to be seen. The wimple flowed over her head and shoulders and was lost in the folds of her habit. The face that showed was wrinkled, but appeared kind. It wasn’t a hard face or a harsh one. It seemed to be filled with a smile most of the time, like the smile that went out to Aksinya right now. Aksinya lowered her eyes, but not her head.

Frau Drescher on the other hand displayed features of steel. Her wire rimmed glasses sat back on her very sharp nose. Her eyes darted constantly until they focused on a person and then they didn’t seem to move at all until the woman was fully satisfied with her scrutiny. Frown lines marked the corners of her mouth and her eyes. She wore a frown now and unsuccessfully attempted to turn that into a smile. She was slightly plump and wore a very severe dress that wasn’t a habit, but might as well have been.

The Reverend Mother wore a large cross that depended from a silver chain around her neck. The demon eyed it then moved to the far side away from her. The smell of sulfur increased slightly. The Reverend Mother engulfed Aksinya in her smile, “I understand Countess that like your aunt, you wish to attend Sacré Coeur.”

Aksinya nodded.

Aunt Brunhilda interjected, “The Countess believes her German is not very skilled.”

Frau Drescher’s response was slightly tense, “Does she speak any tongue well?”

Freifrau Bockmann raised his eyebrows, “She is a Russian Countess but speaks French, Greek, and her German to my mind is excellent.”

The Reverend Mother bobbed her head, “Frau Drescher takes care of our dormitory and the students. She speaks only German. She is concerned that the Countess might not understand her or our rules well.” She turned to Frau Drescher, “Frau, you should prepare your dormitory for the Countess’ visit. Thank you.”

Frau Drescher’s brow rose, but she nodded and curtsied to Aksinya then departed toward the dormitory.

The Reverend Mother let out a sigh, “Will you all please come with me. I’ll show you around our school and answer any of your questions.” The Reverend Mother gestured Aksinya to her side, and Natalya stepped right behind her.

Aksinya halted and turned toward Natalya, “Reverend Mother, this is my lady-in-waiting, the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska. I address her as the Lady Natalya. She is my confidant and my friend. She will be attending Sacré Coeur with me.”

The Reverend Mother’s smile widened. She turned her gaze to Natalya, “That is very interesting. Is there something wrong with your eyes, Lady Natalya?”

Natalya blinked the moisture from her eyes.

Aksinya repeated the question in Russian to Natalya.

Natalya blushed and ducked her head, “No, Reverend Mother.”

Aksinya continued, “The Lady Natalya doesn’t speak German yet. She is very conversant in French. Though she serves me, the Lady Natalya is to be treated with the same respect as any other student.”

The Reverend Mother nodded and continued in atrociously German accented French, “Then for her benefit, as well as yours, we shall use French.”

Aksinya barely constrained a laugh. She glanced at Natalya, and they shared a smile. Aksinya whispered to her, “Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about my German.”

The Reverend Mother led them from classroom to classroom. They saw girls of every age from as young as six up to twenty-one. The classrooms were small and comfortable. The classes were rarely larger than ten girls. The teachers were nearly all nuns. The Reverend Mother explained, “Our day begins with chapel. The priest of our church, Sacré Coeur, is Father Abend. The Father also acts as the chaplain for our order and for our school. He officiates on most days and the sisters and students take turns with the details of the service. We have communion every day... ”

Aksinya interjected, “The Lady Natalya and I are Orthodox and not Catholic. We will not be able to commune with you.”

“There is an Orthodox church a couple of blocks from here. They cater already to many Russians who have escaped from the war and the Russian revolution. You will be allowed to attend there as you desire, but I must insist you be present for our chapel each day.”

“Of course.”

The Reverend Mother smiled, “Good. Our school, a gymnasium, is broken into classes divided by ability and not by age. We teach primary and advanced subjects including philosophy, languages, history, mathematics, art history, religion, science, literature, as well as culture and domestic skills. For those ladies, like the Freifrau Bockmann, our classes prepare them for their future responsibilities among society. For those others who continue on to the university, our classes provide the foundation for excellence and success. Most of the young women accepted into universities in and attended our gymnasium. We also provide a means toward vesture as a nun in our order as well as leadership for other orders in the Catholic church.”

They ended the tour at the Reverend Mother’s office. The Reverend Mother sat Aksinya directly in front of her desk. Natalya stood behind Aksinya. The others arranged themselves on the chairs against the wall. The office wasn’t very large. The Reverend Mother called for tea and served them herself. The tea was thin and the sweets meager. While they had their tea, the Reverend Mother asked, “Countess, do you have any questions about our gymnasium or our curriculum?”

Aksinya shook her head.

“Then when we are finished with our tea, I will take you to the dormitory and let you see the room we have prepared especially for you.”

Aksinya glanced over her teacup, “Thank you.”

When they were finished, the Reverend Mother led them to the dormitory. The long hallway down the center of the school building ran into a large set of open doors. To the left of the opening was a small office with a split door. On the other side, Frau Drescher sat at her desk and handled paperwork and correspondence.

The Reverend Mother rapped on the top of the door. She changed back to German, “Frau Drescher, we are ready to begin our tour of the dormitory.”

Frau Drescher frowned then tried unsuccessfully to turn the frown into a smile. She paused a moment too long, then stood abruptly. She came to the door, opened it, and stepped out. She spoke intentionally in exaggeratedly enunciated German, “If you please, Countess, follow me.”

Aksinya twisted her lips in a grimace and replied in quiet but finely articulated German, “I will be pleased to Frau Drescher.”

Frau Drescher paused again and her mouth rotated up in a little line that became a frown once more. She turned around and led them to the end of the corridor. It went around a corner to the right and there entered a long well lighted corridor. The corridor halted at a stairway where the archway into the courtyard bisected the lower floor. The hallway was decorated with heavy, flowered wall paper. The flowers were light pink and yellow roses. Along the street side were high windows that let in much light, but still hid the street from view. No one would be able to look outside or in. The hallway was cold and stuffy. Because of the crisp December weather, none of the windows were open. On the other side of the corridor were widely spaced doors with a gas lamp on the wall between each of them. The floor was dark oak and covered with long runners that were similar in decoration to the wall paper. The runners were each centered on a door and ran from room center to room center.

Frau Drescher opened her hand and gestured toward the doors, “These are the chambers of our regular students. The young ones share a room with eight together. As they progress in age, we allow them to have four as roommates and finally, after they reach fifteen, they are allowed two to a room. We always keep at least two to a room to prevent any impropriety. The room we have prepared for you is our best. We don’t have any other students of your social standing right now. The highest is a bevy of ladies of the courts, but none of them are titled.”

Aksinya asked, “Is that unusual?”

“Not really. Most of the titled ladies are educated and trained at home.”

Aksinya looked down, “I see. That is so. I was also educated at home—when I had one.”

The Freifrau stepped up, “Really, Frau Drescher, there is no reason to remind the Countess of her loss. Her home is with us now. It is, to my mind, better for her to gain your gymnasium’s knowledge and prepare herself for higher learning.”

Frau Drescher’s lips formed a fine line that then fell into a frown again, “What you say is very true, Freifrau Bockmann. I was simply answering the Countess’ question.”

Aksinya tilted her head, “So she was Aunt Brunhilda. Please Frau Drescher. Lead on and show us our room.”

“Our room?”

“My roommate shall be the Lady Natalya. She is much more than my lady-in-waiting. She shall attend with me.”

Frau Drescher made a face with an expression that was completely indecipherable, “The Lady Natalya?”

Aksinya grasped Natalya’s sleeve and pulled her up beside them, “This is my lady-in-waiting, the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska. She is untitled, but a lady of the court. She shall be my roommate and attend here with me. She does not speak nor understand German yet.”

“You will explain all the rules to her. I don’t wish there to be problems.”

“She is my responsibility, and I am certain your rules are the same in French as they are in German. I shall explain them to her and be responsible to you for her as necessary.”

Frau Drescher let out a tiny laugh, “You surprise me, Countess. I have never met a titled girl or woman who would take on such a responsibility. Perhaps we will get along much better than I imagined.”

The Reverend Mother stepped forward, “Really, Frau Drescher, you are much too candid.”

Aksinya touched the Reverend Mother’s hand, “Please, she is not too candid. I do realize her worries. She thinks I shall cause her and her charges many problems. She is concerned that I am a privileged and spoiled girl who will excite controversy and rebellion. When she knows me better, she will see I am no better nor no worse than anyone else she is responsible for here.”

Frau Drescher’s lips made a flip-flop but never became a smile, “Yes, you are very perceptive, Countess. I am very concerned about having a woman of your quality and standing in my dormitory. Your own appraisal does make me feel much more comfortable…”

“Please take us to our room.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Frau Drescher led them to the stairs where the archway cut the building. She directed them up to the second floor. On the upper floor lay a very long corridor that led from the school to the church. The street side was similar to the bottom floor, but the windows were full. Aksinya could see the street and the building across from it. That building appeared to be a very fine residence. The wallpaper was a darker mix of flowers to match the brighter light from the windows. They were also roses but colored shades of red. Everything seemed fresh and well taken care of. The floor here was also oak, like the lower floor. Runners that matched the handsome wallpaper ran at the center of the floor and marked off the corridor by rooms.

Frau Drescher turned down the corridor away from the church and toward the gymnasium proper. At the end, she turned left. The doors at this end of the corridor would have opened directly on the second floor of the school. They were closed and locked.

They all followed Frau Drescher to the end door on the right that also happened to be directly above her office. She pulled out an old key with an attached heavy bob like those from a gasthaus and unlocked the door, “Usually, the doors are kept unlocked while the students are away from them. They may be locked when a student is inside, but I don’t recommend that.”

Frau Drescher pushed open the door and exposed a small sitting room. The wallpaper, flooring, and floor covering were all similar to the corridor. The entire suite was comparably decorated. In the center of the sitting room sat a short tea table, a small sofa, and two chairs with padded seats. A couple of curtained windows lay behind the sofa on either side. A radiator hugged the wall between the windows. The room was still cold. A gas lamp hung next to the door to the corridor and next to another door on the right. In the right hand corner built into a cabinet was a gas burner. A fine tea service sat on the cabinet. The room was simple, but still elegant.

Frau Drescher allowed them to look around for a few moments, “You can see there is provision for preparing tea in the room. We have no need for fireplaces since there is radiator heating. Water for tea is available from the bath that I will presently show you. Please, follow me into the bedrooms.” The door on the right opened into a very short corridor. Within the corridor, were a door at the left, one right before them, and a door on the right. The entire corridor was less than six feet long.

Frau Drescher opened the door on the left. It let them into a very bright bedroom. Its decor was similar to the sitting room. The room was somewhat “L” shaped. The door opened toward the outside wall which was also the back wall of the sitting room and looked down into an alleyway. A radiator sat against this wall. About five feet separated the door from the outside wall. A turn to the right revealed the rest of the bedroom. It was small. The bed rested against the right hand wall and the street side of the building. The bed was almost entirely concealed from the door. They had to take a step and turn the corner for the bed to become entirely visible. At the head of the bed was a high curtained window. To the left was a bedside table, a desk, and a chair with a padded seat. Another high curtained window lay behind the bedside table.

At the foot of the bed was a large ornately carved schrank for storage of clothing. Behind the desk on the other wall were two matching high curtained windows like those in the sitting room. They looked out on the elegant residence across the street. The room was very bright from the winter daylight that came through the windows. A gas lamp hung on the wall between each set of windows. That provided light for the desk and for the bed.

Frau Drescher let them look through the room then she led them back to the center door, “This is the other bedroom.” She opened it. The door led into a slightly smaller room with a bed, schrank, desk, and similarly padded chair. The room had two windows behind the bed and a gas lamp both over the desk and between the windows. The desk took the place of the bedside table. “These rooms were intended for a suite for two young ladies. It will be very appropriate for the Countess and her lady-in-waiting. Finally, I wish to show you the bath.”

Frau Drescher led them to the final door. This entered into a room that was smaller than the other two. The door opened into a blank wall, but a turn to the left revealed the rest of the room. At the end, against the street side, the high window was crazed and curtained. The top could still be opened, but it was more than six feet above the floor. Under the window lay a bathtub. To the left sat a standing sink and instead of the usual stove of the bathrooms Aksinya was used to stood a water closet and a bidet.

Frau Dresher pointed proudly at the devices. Freiherr Bockmann turned his back and blushed. Frau Drescher ignored him, “We have indoor plumbing including hot water in our dormitory. We also have modern toilets and bidets. We want our ladies to have the comforts of modern sanitation at Sacré Coeur. As I mentioned, water for making tea is available from the sink here. We do ask that you do not attempt to cook or bake anything in your rooms. Our kitchen can provide you baked goods for tea, and you can bring your luncheon or breakfast to your rooms for consumption. Dinner is considered an important event for the school and dormitory. Only students who are not borded here are allowed to miss dinner.”

The entire time Frau Drescher spoke, Aksinya gave a running commentary and translation in Russian to Natalya.

Natalya asked many questions in return to Aksinya, but Aksinya was able to answer most of them herself. Finally, she stopped Frau Drescher, “The Lady Natalya wishes to know more about breakfast and luncheon.”

“They are very simple meals. We serve coffee and tea at breakfast. You may have soft boiled eggs, bread, meat, and cheese. Luncheon isn’t much more than that. We have a break of one hour at noon. Usually, the ladies take a long tea, but the dining room is open and tea is available there.”

Aksinya explained everything to Natalya.

Frau Drescher was suddenly finished. She made one last statement, “I do have very strict rules about the dormitory. Those rules are to protect the ladies here. I will provide them to you with the materials that include the rest of the details.”

Aksinya asked, “Rest of the details?”

“The linens and use of the facilities. The storage of items. The care of your clothing. The cleaning schedules for your rooms. Each of these things is taken care of for our dormitory students.”

Aksinya cocked her head, “Very good. The Lady Natalya and I like these rooms very much. We accept them. My servant Asmodeus shall bring our clothing and such things as we need.”

The Reverend Mother beamed, “Are you decided then, Countess. You will be studying with us?”

“Yes, we shall.”

Frau Drescher frowned, “You will need to be fitted for your uniforms.”

“Uniforms?”

“Yes, all the ladies here wear similar uniforms.”

Aksinya smiled, “Ah, the clothing they were wearing all matched. That will be fine for us. The Lady Natalya can fit us both, she is very skilled.”

The Reverend Mother put her hands together, “If it is all right with you, we can loan you both uniforms until yours can be made for you. That would allow you to start classes right away. Frau Drescher, please find uniforms that will fit the Countess and her lady.”

Frau Drescher frowned again, “Yes, Reverend Mother.” Frau Drescher disappeared.

Aksinya stepped around the rooms again. She asked Natalya in Russian, “I should have asked you before, Lady Natalya, can you live here? Will this be acceptable to you?”

Natalya’s face was ecstatic, “Yes, Countess, I would love to live here. I will be very happy with you.”

Aksinya addressed the Reverend Mother, “Everything is worked out. We will live here, and we will study at your school.”

The Freiherr and Freifrau Bockmann nodded in pleasure. The Lady Natalya’s smile was almost as wide as her beautiful face. The Reverend Mother held her hands together with delight. Asmodeus grinned. Aksinya smelled a whiff of sulfur. She caught that grin, and she was suddenly filled with foreboding.

Freiherr and Freifrau Bockmann left Aksinya, Natalya, and Asmodeus and took their coupe back to their estate, Grossbock, at the edge of the city.

That afternoon Aksinya and Natalya received a pair of uniforms from Frau Drescher. To her credit, Frau Drescher chose clothing that was not too worn or faded, and the uniforms fitted the two of them reasonably well. After Natalya was finished with them, they were perfect. The stains were gone and the fitting was perfect. They flattered both of them. The uniforms were classic grey woolen skirts that reached to the ankles with a black belt at the waist. The blouse was made of white silk with some gentle lacy frills at the collar. For the winter seasons there was a grey short coat and a grey sweater. The shoes were button-up black brushed leather. Asmodeus gladly found shoes that matched Aksinya’s requirements from his large chest. He brought out the basic items Aksinya requested from him.

Before dinner, Natalya dressed Aksinya and fixed her short hair. Frau Drescher and the Reverend Mother came to retrieve them before the meal. In their sitting room, the Reverend mother held Aksinya’s arms and looked her over carefully. She grinned and spoke in her badly accented French, “You look very nice, Countess.” She glanced over at Natalya, “Lady Natalya did you adjust the clothing?”

Aksinya answered for her, “Of course she did. She does everything for me. She is very skilled, isn’t she?”

“You both look perfect. She also made your hair look wonderful.”

Aksinya turned her face away.

“Don’t be pained. Your aunt told me what she knew about that.” She whispered, “You may desire the comfort of confession at some time, Countess. You may consider me your confessor any time you wish. I will attempt to comfort you as much as I can.”

Aksinya was breathless, “What if that isn’t my sin?”

“Sin isn’t the only reason for confession, Countess. You might wish to share something that hurts your heart and soul.” She smiled, “I would be pleased to listen to anything you desire to share.”

Aksinya mumbled, “Thank you.”

They made their way out of the dormitory and through the corridor on the lower floor of the school. The elementary level girls stood in careful lines with their teachers ahead of them. The older girls stood in the halls and waited for the dinner bells. They all carefully scrutinized Aksinya and Natalya as the two of them followed Frau Drescher and the Reverend Mother. Whispers followed in their wake. The corridor from the school ended in a door barred to the outside. On the left was a large double door with a rounded top that led into the convent. Just before six in the evening, the Reverend Mother opened the doors and nodded to the elderly sister inside. The sister picked up a small block bell and a matching mallet. She rang the quiet bell and began to move among the girls in the hall, and they all began to file into the room.

The Reverend Mother and Frau Drescher led Aksinya and Natalya into the large dining room. There were at least twenty tables. The tables were round and each had ten chairs around them. They were covered with lace tablecloths and full silver place settings with cloth napkins. Maids and novice nuns stood at the sides of the room.

The Reverend Mother led Aksinya and Natalya to the first table in the room. This was the only one that wasn’t round. The head table was rectangular and at the center was a high backed chair carved with a cross and the emblem of Sacré Coeur. The Reverend Mother stepped behind the table and motioned Aksinya and Natalya to follow her. She pulled out the high backed chair and pointed to the two seats at the end of the table, “I would like you ladies to sit there, please.”

Aksinya curtsied, “I’m sorry, Reverend Mother, we will not take the first place. That would not be appropriate for students. Please seat us at a lower table. Since we are new, it would be most appropriate to seat us at the lowest tables.”

Frau Drescher was aghast, “The Reverend Mother wishes to honor you.”

Aksinya didn’t blink, “But I don’t want to be honored in that fashion.”

The Reverend Mother put up her hand. She motioned to one of the novices behind the head table, “Sister Rita, please seat the Countess Golitsyna and the Lady Obolenska at the older scholar’s table.”

Novice Sister Rita’s eyes opened wide. She stared at Aksinya, “Countess?”

“Yes, Countess. I want you to take care of them yourself, Sister Rita.”

The novice sister curtsied to the floor. She couldn’t take her eyes off Aksinya and Natalya. She led them to the round table just below the head table and tried to seat them.

Aksinya sat and Natalya stood behind her chair. The novice sister stared at Natalya, “Lady, you should sit. That’s what the Reverend Mother instructed me.”

Natalya shook her head.

Aksinya spoke to the novice sister in German, “She doesn’t understand German.”

Novice Sister Rita pulled out the chair beside Aksinya, “Please lady, sit here. Countess, you tell her.” She glanced nervously at the head table.

All this time, the other students entered the dining room. They sat in their places and gawked at the odd scene at the older scholar’s table. The young women who sat at that table came in and took their places. They stared at Aksinya and Natalya. Natalya still obstinately stood behind Aksinya’s seat.

Sister Rita ran over to the head table and whispered to the Reverend Mother. The Reverend Mother slowly stood and stepped over to the older scholar’s table. She took everything in a glance and spoke in French, “Please Lady Natalya, sit at the table. It is necessary for the good order of the school.”

Natalya cocked her head toward the Reverend Mother, “For the good order, Reverend Mother?”

Aksinya laughed, “Yes, Lady Natalya. I told you already. You must sit.”

Natalya frowned and appeared as if she was about to cry. She complained, “But why isn’t it good order to wait on my mistress?”

The Reverend Mother pressed her lips together and seemed completely reluctant to say what she knew she must say. The other young women around the table strained to hear the Reverend Mother’s words.

Finally, the Reverend Mother opened her mouth, “Please, Lady Natalya. Because of your social position, most of the ladies in this room should serve you. You must sit and eat with us otherwise the good order of our school will be in question.”

Lady Natalya’s mouth fell open. The other young women at the table mouths’ hung open. Tears formed in Lady Natalya’s eyes but she quickly and with embarrassment fell into the seat beside Aksinya. Aksinya put her arms around Natalya and held her close. The girl was obviously crying. The Reverend Mother moved to her and put her arms around the both of them. She clucked soft sounds under her breath, “Please don’t be sad Lady Natalya. You may serve your lady all you desire, but you must eat at table with her.”

Natalya let out a great wail, “But I have never sat at table with her before. I have never sought to put myself above her. Never.”

Aksinya whispered in Russian, “Silly, we sat together like sisters and ate together like friends during our whole trip here. Please act like the great lady you are, Lady Natalya.”

At that word, Natalya sat upright. She covered her face with her napkin for a moment then sighed and laid it in her lap.

Aksinya smiled. The Reverend Mother smiled, “That’s much more pleasant, Lady Natalya. Thank you.”

Under the eyes of the whole room, the Reverend Mother made her way back to the head table. She stood in front of her chair and raised her arms, “Ladies, may I have your attention. Today, we accepted two new students to Sacré Coeur. They are very special students. May I introduce to you the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna. She is the niece of the Freiherr and Freifrau Bockmann. Freifrau Bockmann is an alumna of Sacré Coeur. The Countess is sitting at the older scholar’s table. Please make her welcome when you have the opportunity. Accompanying the countess is her lady-in-waiting, the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska. The Lady Natalya is not used to our informality. She is very uncomfortable with our egalitarian ways. Please help her to become familiar with our community. She doesn’t speak German, so you must use your French to good effect.”

Aksinya explained the Reverend Mother’s words to Natalya. Natalya colored and again hid her face.

The Reverend Mother said a prayer and everyone crossed themselves. Then she sat in her high backed chair and the novice sisters began to serve the meal.

Around Aksinya and Natalya’s table sat seven other young women who were from sixteen to twenty-one years old plus an elderly nun. The sister watched Aksinya and Natalya with as rapped an expression as the girls.

After the soup was served, one of the older girls asked in French, “Are you really a Countess?”

Natalya almost leaped out of her chair, “What do you mean asking such a question? My mistress is the Countess Golitsyna.”

Aksinya pulled Natalya back into her seat, “I am the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna. You may call me Aksinya if you wish. This is the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska. I insist you address her as the Lady Natalya. She is my friend and confidant. She is also the daughter of a Prince.”

Natalya sucked her lip and stared back at Aksinya, “And the Countess is the daughter of a Princess and a Count. She…she…rescued me.”

“Hush, Lady Natalya.”

When the fish course arrived, Natalya served Aksinya then Aksinya served Natalya. Natalya tried to protest and attempted to stop Aksinya, but Aksinya would have none of it. Natalya covered her face with her hands. The rest of the girls gaped at them. Finally, the girl who spoke before asked, “Lady Natalya what’s wrong?”

Natalya spoke through her tears, “I serve her. That is my purpose. That’s what a lady-in-waiting is supposed to do.”

“Ha,” exclaimed Aksinya, “Now you serve me by eating with me. I do wish you would converse with us all. I’m certain your input would be very pleasant.”

Natalya glanced between her fingers, “Do you really think so?”

“Of course I do.”

Natalya took a deep breath. She slowly lowered her hands. She picked up her fish knife and the proper fork. She began to eat her meal.

Aksinya smiled.

The girls around the table smiled.

The sister smiled.

The older girl who spoke already to them introduced herself, “I am Anna Pfaff.” Anna had a round and gentle face. A sweet smile pleasantly filled her features. Her hair was blond. Fraulein Pfaff continued, “Since the Lady Natalya doesn’t speak German, what country is she from?”

Aksinya grinned, “Is my German that good. You didn’t ask what country I am from.”

One of the other girls rolled her eyes, “Anna, are you so slow? They are Russian. That’s obvious from their names. I’m Diedre Vogt. You are both Russian, aren’t you? You escaped from the civil war?” Diedre Vogt wore an immaculate uniform. Her short coat and blouse looked as if they had been pressed just moments before dinner. Her long dark brown hair was brushed to perfection, and her face was beautiful and slender.

Aksinya and Natalya nodded.

Diedre pressed her hands together, “That’s so romantic. Where is your family?”

Lady Natalya came out of her seat again. Aksinya didn’t stop her this time, “That is not a subject that may be discussed.”

Diedre almost fell out of her chair, “I’m sorry. I do apologize. I understand.”

Aksinya’s voice was a little tense, “There is no reason to apologize. My parents, brother, and sister were murdered on the front lawn of our estate. Only I escaped. That is why I am the Countess Golitsyna. The situation is equally difficult for the Lady Natalya. You would be the best of friends not to mention it a second time.”

The table immediately became quiet again.

After supper, Aksinya and Natalya went back up to their rooms. Natalya undressed Aksinya and put a silk nightgown on her. She brushed out Aksinya’s short hair. After a while, Aksinya took the brush from Natalya’s hand. She told Natalya, “Put on your nightgown and come to my room.” Natalya returned quickly.

Aksinya patted the top of her bed. She sat and Aksinya began to brush her long hair. Natalya put her face in her hands, “I really wish you wouldn’t do that, mistress.”

“Tomorrow, Lady Natalya, we will begin our studies together. We will still be a Countess and a lady, but we will also be students and friends together.”

Natalya turned abruptly, “Do you really think of me as your friend?”

“Yes.” Aksinya smiled, “I never really had a friend before. You are my friend, Lady Natalya. Would you address me as, Aksinya?”

“No…no, I could never do that.”

“What if I just call you, Nata?”

“That’s what my mother called me, but I don’t think it would be allowed.”

“Allowed? Aren’t I allowed to call you whatever I desire?”

“Y…y…yes.”

“Then, in private, I shall call you Nata. I want you to call me, Aksinya.”

“In private. Anywhere you wish, but in private would be fine.” Natalya took another deep breath, “Very well. I will try, Ak…ak…sinya.”

“Thank you, Nata. Tomorrow, we will begin a new kind of life together, and in our world, it is a new thing, is it not?”

“Yes, mistress.”

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