Aksinya: Enchantment and the Daemon

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Chapter 8

The week continued for Aksinya and Natalya without great problems. The demon led them every night to the house across the street. As yet, he made no other demands on Aksinya. The cellar workroom remained unused for now. The demon didn’t even ask Aksinya to go down to it again.

Chapel was a daily chore. With Natalya beside her, Aksinya could endure it, but it was not pleasant for her. Aksinya spent her time in the evenings working with Natalya on her German. Aksinya’s work in her classes suffered, but the sisters didn’t seem to expect much from a countess anyway. They didn’t praise her, but they didn’t berate her either. Only Sister Margarethe, in German class, seemed to show Aksinya any special attention. No matter what Aksinya did, Sister Margarethe praised her. Aksinya thought, perhaps her German was truly improving because she worked with Natalya so much.

On Friday afternoon, Freiherr Bockmann’s coupe, the covered carriage, came for Aksinya and Natalya. The Freifrau Bockmann herself sat in the coupe. For the weekend, Aksinya and Natalya had taken clothing from the house across the street. They wore something other than their Sacré Coeur uniforms now. Aksinya was dressed like a countess, and Natalya like a lady-in-waiting. Both of their jewelry was much more elegant than that which would have been expected any student to wear.

Freifrau Bockmann’s eyes widened when she saw them. She descended from the coupe and curtsied to Aksinya. Then, she greeted both the girls with a kiss. The Reverend Mother stepped out of the school to see them off. Frau Drescher stood as an after thought in the shadows near the gymnasium’s door.

The Reverend Mother curtsied to Freifrau Bockmann. It was a deep curtsy that included Aksinya, “Freifrau Bockmann, the Countess and Lady Natalya have started well. We are glad you decided to take them under your wing for their social training during the weekends.”

Freifrau Bockmann was effusive, “Thank you, Reverend Mother. I will return them Sunday evening. Please don’t expect them for dinner.”

“Yes, Freifrau Bockmann.”

With the driver’s help, they climbed into the carriage. After they were inside, Freifrau Bockmann tapped the ceiling of the coupe with the top of her cane and the driver started the horses moving.

Freifrau Bockmann gazed at her two charges. The one had a boyish figure and a sharp face. It was so typically Russian it almost hurt to look at her. Her features were not very lovely, but her clothing fit her perfectly and she was dressed exquisitely. Her hair was arranged with a touch of genius. The Lady Natalya had made the most of so little although Freifrau Bockmann thought she could see evidence that it was finally growing out. The young countess before her might not be very lovely to look at but her manner and manners were perfect. She sat and stood and walked exactly as you would expect from a countess or even a princess. Yes, she had the perfect demeanor of a princess. Plus that look in her eyes. The Countess Aksinya’s eyes gave an impression of majesty, strength, and power. That seemed very odd to the Freifrau Bockmann.

The Lady Natalya, on the other hand, was a perfect opposite to her countess. Her face was lovely. Her figure was like an opening bloom. Her proportions were exact and perfect. She looked like the picture plates you found in novels about the royalty. Her appearance seemed like a perfect reproduction in life of one of those still portraits. She didn’t show the exact and perfect decorum the Countess did—her face and actions were much more lively. She seemed the exact counterpoint to the Countess, and the Freifrau Bockmann knew, they were both very intelligent.

The Freifrau Bockmann waited until the carriage had cleared the archway of the convent and school before she asked, “How was your first week?”

Aksinya’s mouth turned into a frown before it raised into a partial smile, “It was pleasant.”

Lady Natalya’s face was set in a bright smile. She didn’t say anything.

“Did you make any friends?”

Aksinya stared out of the window, “We didn’t make any enemies.”

Freifrau Bockmann wasn’t certain what to say. She cleared her throat, “Do you like your teachers?”

Natalya nodded.

Aksinya took a deep breath, “They try hard. Perhaps we can learn here.”

Freifrau Bockmann continued as though she hadn’t heard Aksinya’s last response, “I have made plans for the next week.”

The young women turned their faces expectantly toward the lady. Natalya with her smile, and Aksinya with a crease between her brows.

“The Christmas season is almost upon us, and we usually host a party at this time for our friends and their families. I want to have a coming out and introductory party for you, Countess. That way we will kill two birds with one stone—we can have a wonderful Advent party and at the same time introduce you to the society of Wien.”

Aksinya put her hand under her chin, “But during Advent? When will you have it? Advent is a time of penance. You would have to celebrate it on Sunday for the feast.”

Freifrau Bockmann waved her hand, “Don’t worry about that. I intend to have the party on Saturday after next. We will invite the Abbot of Sacré Coeur and the Cardinal of Wien. That will make everything right. They won’t dare to miss the party, and everyone will come to meet you.”

Aksinya turned her face back to the window, “I see.”

“Yes, it will be a wonderful party. You both will meet many young and aristocratic men. I wouldn’t be surprised if you both didn’t find suitors during the event.”

“Suitors?” Natalya colored.

“Suitors.” Aksinya rested her chin more squarely on her hand.

The Freiherr greeted them all when they returned to Grossbock. He escorted them all to dinner. Freiherr Bockmann seated Aksinya.

Natalya began to take her position behind Aksinya. Aksinya stood and grasped Natalya by the hand. She drew her to the other side of the table.

Natalya was distraught, “Please, Countess, let me serve you.”

“I wish you to serve me by sitting at table with me, Lady Natalya. Please accommodate me in this.”

Natalya pouted, “But you promised I could serve you.”

“You will serve me. I wish my friend to sit with me and not stand behind me.”

Natalya covered her face with her hands.

Aksinya held her close and whispered in her ear, “Please, Nata. Only an accident of birth put one of us over the other. I wish you to dine with me. Don’t the ladies in the royal court dine with their mistresses?”

Natalya peeked between her fingers at Aksinya. She nodded.

Aksinya continued to whisper, “Why do you think you were treated like a servant and not allowed to sit with your mistresses—even in your own house?”

Natalya’s eyes opened wide.

Aksinya pulled out the chair for Natalya. When she released Natalya, she quickly sat herself. Then she as quickly stood and waited beside it. Aksinya smiled and walked back around the table. She sat and the others sat. Aksinya noticed, a tiny smile played at the corners of Natalya’s lips.

The soup was served and there was little conversation. Aksinya had a few moments to think about the week that had passed.

The fish was served. Aksinya was still thoughtful. No one had asked about Asmodeus. It was as if he had never existed. Aksinya did wish he had never existed. Still, because of him, she was where she was with Natalya and her aunt and uncle. At the table, she suddenly looked on all of them with a new light. Were they all temptations for her? Or was she a temptation for them?

Freifrau Bockmann leaned toward Aksinya, “Are you all right, Countess?”

Aksinya glanced down, “I’m just a little light headed from the wine.”

Freiherr Bockmann smiled, “Yes, it is a bit strong for the vintage. I find it refreshing. I hope you do too.”

Aksinya nodded. The meat was served.

Freifrau Bockmann continued, “Now about this party.”

The Freiherr glance up from his stuffed Jagerschnitzel, “The Advent party?”

“Yes, I want to introduce the Countess and Lady Natalya to our social sphere.”

“At the party…yes, that’s a splendid idea.”

“I want to introduce all our friends, and I’d like to invite some dashing young men on the register to meet the Countess and her lady-in-waiting.”

“Not many young men left after the war…” the Freiherr was introspective.

“All the more reason to invite them and introduce them to these ladies. You don’t expect them to remain unmarried all their life?”

“Course not, I just hadn’t thought about it much.”

Aksinya and Natalya didn’t say a lot. They answered questions but didn’t volunteer any information.

After coffee, Aksinya and Natalya went up to their rooms. It was the same suite of rooms they had been given before. Natalya prepared Aksinya and herself for bed. They sat together on the sitting room’s couch. Natalya sewed. Aksinya read. After a while, Aksinya put down her book, “Nata.”

Natalya jerked up, “Yes, Countess…”

“Aksinya.”

“Yes…Aksinya.”

“Do you remember my courtier, Asmodeus.”

“Yes, he has such a funny name. It reminds me of something.”

“Do you find it peculiar that he isn’t here?”

Natalya glanced around, “In your room?”

“I didn’t mean specifically here, I meant with me, in this place,” Aksinya turned her eyes on Natalya, “That is, don’t you find it odd that he didn’t travel with us? Or that he isn’t here at Grossbock?”

Natalya shrugged, “I just thought he might be at your house.”

“You don’t find that odd either—or that I asked you not to tell my aunt or uncle.”

Natalya brought her brown innocent eyes to Aksinya’s. She smiled, “I’m very used to secrets, Countess…I mean Aksinya.”

“Yes, so you are. Please don’t keep any from me.”

Natalya gave a slight smile and returned to her sewing.

When the house was dark and quiet, Aksinya heard a knock on her door. She caught a whiff of sulfur. Aksinya called out, “I don’t wish to speak with you demon.”

The voice behind the door was low and filled with a hiss, “But I wish to speak with you mistress. May I come in?”

“No!”

The door opened, and Asmodeus strode in, “Next time I won’t ask.”

Aksinya rolled away from him and pulled her covers around her, “I’m tired, and I don’t wish to speak to you tonight.”

“You are wide awake, and you have been longing to speak to me for days.”

“You are mistaken.”

“Why not speak to me, now. You’ve had your fun for the evening.”

“Zatknis'!” Aksinya was suddenly breathless, “You probably encourage it.”

“No, I don’t need to. You are filled with lust all on your own. So therefore I have an easy thing for you to do.”

“Don’t you feel lust?”

“Trying to turn the conversation? It won’t do you any good, Countess, but I will answer your questions. I feel great lust, but I can’t act on it. I rely on you to consummate my sin.”

“But you sin.”

“I don’t sin, Countess—you sin. I told you that before.”

“You stole the bookstand…”

“At your behest.”

“You killed all those people…”

“Because you ordered it. I am simply your tool, your arm, your eyes on the world. I am the eye that offends you. I am the arm that causes you to sin.”

“I wish I could cut you off. I would do it right now.”

“And you would die. That comes of losing an arm or an eye.”

Aksinya was breathing hard, “Why do others forget you so easily? My aunt and uncle didn’t even ask after you. It is as if you were a ghost or something.”

“I am no ghost, only a demon—a spirit, nonetheless. You know exactly what I am and who I am. You know I am not made corporeally of the material of this world. I am an eternal being like your eternal soul. You shall be with me for an eternity. You might as well get used to my company.”

“I am sleepy now, disturb me no longer.”

“Have you forgotten? I have work for you to do.”

“Get out!”

“I shall not.”

“I shall scream. See how that fits with your plans.”

“Dear Countess, you may scream and scream and scream, no one will come. Just as I manipulate the world around us, I can change the sounds and the words as I will.”

Aksinya leapt off the bed and began to draw a circle in her special chalk on the floor. The demon stepped over to her and grasped her by the hair. Asmodeus shook her, “A magic circle will do you no good tonight. I will deliver my instructions and expect you to follow through with them.”

Aksinya writhed in his grasp. She dared not touch him.

“I know what you are thinking. You will make a circle before you go to bed. That will only stop me for a while. You should realize you can’t hide from me. I await your pleasure eternally. Now listen to me.” He shook her again, “Countess, I have a present for you.” He dropped her to the floor, and a heavy brown book fell beside her.

Aksinya crept away from the demon and the book.

The demon cracked his knuckles, “That is a new book for your collection. You read about it in one of the earlier tomes…and lusted for it. It is yours now.”

“Where did you get it?”

“What does it matter where it came from? It is yours now. I grace it to you to use the knowledge as you see fit.”

Aksinya couldn’t say anything back to the demon. She wanted to read the book. She longed to read it. She couldn’t say anything to him. She was too embarrassed to do anything at the moment.

The demon took a step back toward the door, “I also have a message that will bring you relief from your disgusting sexual habits. You don’t imbibe in true lust. You will now have that opportunity. Perhaps you have noticed the attentions of Sister Margarethe. She likes girls like you: innocent, boyish, not too pretty. She is gentle, but she is insistent. She has had a problem with this since she was young. The reason she entered the convent was to gain some relief, but she never expected to be a teacher of young women. She controlled herself all these years. Now, she is infatuated, and you are her infatuation.”

Aksinya trembled, “What are you asking—I don’t understand you at all?”

“Are you so innocent and naïve, Countess? I want you to provide sexual comfort to this nun, Sister Margarethe. She desires you, and I know once you taste the forbidden fruit of true lust, you will not be able to control yourself again.”

Aksinya was shaking, “Can women do such a thing?”

The demon smiled, “You know they can. They have since the beginning.”

“You are lying. They did not do any such thing since the beginning. God didn’t make women to do such things…”

“But they can. I wish you to comfort this nun.”

“I won’t do it.”

“We shall see.” The demon backed out of the door and closed it. The smell of sulfur took a long time to dissipate.

Aksinya drew a magic circle around her bed. She made certain it was tight and that it encompassed her completely. Then she fought a silent battle almost the entire night with the book. She lost her fight in the early hours of the morning and began to read it. She lost again when she tried one of the spells in the book. And she lost a final time to her own desires.

Natalya found her in the morning naked, with the book in her arms, and the covers thrown away from her. A small droplet of fresh water rotated next to the head of the bed. Natalya watched it for a long time after she pulled the covers back over her mistress. Natalya couldn’t get the nightgown back on Aksinya because Aksinya wouldn’t let go of her book.

Eventually, Aksinya woke. She stretched and pushed the book away from her. Aksinya turned to see Natalya staring at her.

Aksinya gave a great sigh.

Natalya pointed at the small globe of still rotating water, “It’s beautiful.”

“It is my sin,” Aksinya struck the water and it dissipated into the air.”

“I thought it was wonderful, mistress. You are truly a powerful and magnificent person.” She sucked on her lip, “When will you teach me?”

“I don’t wish you to be like me…”

Natalya’s eyes began to tear.

“I don’t mean it that way. These things I do are sin. They are sorcery. I harm my soul every time I act this way.”

Natalya looked away, “Then why don’t you stop?”

“I…I…I can’t stop. I can’t stop myself from doing these things. That’s the problem with me.”

Natalya reached out her hands. She paused a moment, then she grasped Aksinya’s fingers, “I want to be like you. Even if it is a sin. I wish to be just like you. I want to follow you forever.”

“Would you even follow me to hell?”

“I would gladly follow you to hell, mistress. I have already seen hell. If being with you is hell, then that is where I want to remain.”

“I don’t want to teach you these things because you will condemn yourself to hell. I too have seen hell, the real hell. It is not a pleasant place. Yet, I would have traded my soul to hell for my parent and siblings.”

“Countess, I would trade my soul to hell for you.”

“Then will you trust me when I tell you, I don’t want you to go to hell with me. I don’t want you to be condemned with me.”

“Still, no matter what. I want to be like you, and I want to be with you.”

Aksinya shook her head, “How can I convince you? What can I say to you?”

Natalya smiled, “There is nothing you can say to me. There is nothing you can do to convince me. Please teach me, countess.”

Aksinya sought to put her off, “It will take a long time. You must learn Latin. Before that, you must know German. You must be able to converse with the people here so you can learn in the school.”

Natalya smiled slyly, “Yes, Countess.”

Wearily, Aksinya finally climbed out of bed. Natalya poured her bath and dressed her. They both ate a late breakfast and walked the gardens. Natalya insisted Aksinya speak to her in German the entire time.

Aksinya’s uncle and aunt took them to an Orthodox church on Sunday morning. It was the Orthodox Ecclesia close to Sacré Coeur and her house. The Ecclesia was in an old building that had not begun as a church at all. The exterior was dark aged stone. It was a low building with a roof that shot upwards in a graceful arch that lifted to a high Saxon styled point near the back. The interior was very luxurious but filled with items that were obviously not part of the original building or of the same style. The pieces appeared as though they had come from many different places, but they were all beautiful. The font was silver and the communion patens and cups gold. The large cross at the back was a wonderful sculpture with gold and silver highlights. The icons were the most perfect ones Aksinya had ever seen, and she had seen many. Natalya stared in awe. They were a little late and sat at the back. An older priest, a young priest, and a deacon took care of the very long communion service. It was in Greek and Russian and exactly what Aksinya and Natalya were used to.

The moment Aksinya entered the church, the Ecclesia, she felt nauseous. She had to avert her eyes from the crucifixes and crosses. Her mother’s crucifix next to her skin burned her. She was miserable. It was the worse since she went first to the chapel. Natalya clasped Aksinya’s hand the entire time. When they went forward for communion, Natalya held a handkerchief for Aksinya. She almost vomited when she was given the mixture of bread and wine. She held it down only by sheer willpower. Still, Aksinya was happy with herself. She would fight the demon in this small way. She would regain some control over her life. She promised herself, she would not be dragged again and again into sin. She would do this.

At the end of the service, the Freiherr introduced the Priests to her, “Father Makar.” The Freiherr stumbled over the simple Russian pronunciation. Father Makar was a short man with a very calm face. His smile pressed through his full beard and even touched Aksinya’s heart. The Freiherr continued, “This is the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna.”

Father Makar put his hands together, “We heard that you were in the city, Countess. We are very pleased to greet you in our Ecclesia.”

Aksinya held her handkerchief before her lips. The crucifix burned against her chest, “Good day, Father.”

“Are you all right, Countess? You seem a little pale.”

“I did not get much sleep last night. I am well enough, thank you.”

“Then please let me introduce my wife, the Matushka Ekaterina.” He pointed at a woman who was a little shorter than he. Her features were as pleasant as his. Her face was round and her eyes large. She gave an impression of youth, but her hair was gray and she wasn’t more than a decade younger than Father Makar.

Matushka Ekaterina’s voice was gentle. She took Aksinya’s hand and curtsied, “Good day, Countess. I hope to make your further acquaintance.”

Aksinya couldn’t imagine a person she would less like to be close to, but she simply nodded.

Father Makar waved the other priest over to them. He was young and tall. His hair was not gray and his face unwrinkled. He appeared not more than thirty, but that was difficult to tell since he wore a priest’s typical beard. The beard was a little less than full, but it seemed to fit his face. His face was fine boned and gentle. At that moment, his features did not appear very pleasant to Aksinya. His mouth was set in a severe frown. He gazed at Aksinya with unconcealed concern. Father Makar still smiled, “This, Countess, is Father Dobrushin. Countess, don’t let Father Dobrushin’s demeanor bother you. He is young and still too solemn…”

Aksinya spoke from behind her handkerchief, “He does not hate me because I am a member of the aristocracy, does he?”

Father Dobrushin tried to smile, “I’m sorry for my appearance, Countess. I do support our Russian nobility, but I felt that you were not comfortable here and that concerned me.”

“Not comfortable?” Father Makar gave Aksinya a second appraisal. “Father Dobrushin is usually very sensitive about theses things. Are you certain, Countess, that you are well?”

Aksinya could not smile, “Don’t concern yourself about me. I am well and comfortable,” she lied. “I will feel better when I have dined. If you will excuse me?”

The priests bowed and the Matushka curtsied.

Aksinya couldn’t eat anything at luncheon. She took Natalya’s tea. She was unaccountably bothered by Father Dobrushin’s candid assessment, and she was preoccupied with thoughts about the book the demon had given her. She wanted to finish memorizing it. That was the main desire she felt. Eventually, Natalya dressed her for dinner, and they went down together. The weekend ended when Freifrau Bockmann delivered the two of them back to Sacré Coeur. She left them in the hands of the Reverend Mother with the promise to pick them up on Friday so they could begin preparations for the Advent party on the Saturday after next.

Aksinya and Natalya returned to their rooms and prepared for bed.

Monday morning brought more problems for Natalya. Aksinya had spent the entire night with her new book and would not wake. Natalya finally dragged Aksinya out of bed and dressed her in her uniform. They were too tardy for breakfast and chapel, and they came in late to German class. Sister Margarethe just gave them a glance. There was no animosity in it. Before the class was half done, Aksinya fell asleep at the desk she shared with Natalya.

Natalya couldn’t ignore her, but she tried to not draw any attention to Aksinya.

Sister Margarethe came by with a look of concern and made a couple of notes. She glanced over Natalya’s work and spoke German with her for a while. The sister was obviously preoccupied in her concern about Aksinya. She kept looking over at the Countess. At the end of German class, Natalya shook Aksinya awake and led her to their next class. It should not have been a surprise that Aksinya slept through most of each class. Or that the sisters were perturbed. They dared not treat a countess like they would their normal students with a swat from a ruler or a thump from a book. They felt helpless to do anything other than keep a careful eye on her.

That afternoon, the Reverend Mother heard about Aksinya’s sleeping and lethargy. All the teachers wanted a conversation with her about it. Yet, after the Reverend Mother heard from them, only Sister Margarethe sent a note to Aksinya through Frau Drescher.

A knock came that evening at Aksinya and Natalya’s sitting room door. Natalya answered it. She addressed the Frau in German, “Good evening, Frau Drescher.”

“Good evening, Lady Natalya. Your German is improving.”

“Thank you.”

“I have a note for the Countess from one of her teachers. Would you please give it to her?”

Natalya didn’t understand half of what the lady said, but she accepted the folded piece of paper from her and nodded.

Frau Drescher took a long look around the sitting room she could see from the door then stated, “Good night.”

Natalya closed the door and brought the note across the room to Aksinya. Aksinya was memorizing the brown book of sorcery the demon had given her. Natalya handed the note to her and went back to her studies. Aksinya ignored the note for a while then finally opened and read it.

Dear Countess,

I have been asked by the Reverend Mother and your other teachers to talk to you about your classes today. She has allowed you to come to my cell and office in the convent tonight. Please come at eight and be on time. We will also go over the German you missed during class.

Sister Margarethe

Aksinya looked up from the note to Natalya, “Nata, we’re going over to the house early tonight. You should bring your books.”

Natalya stretched, “Will we study together?” Her eyes moved excitedly toward the brown book.

Aksinya sighed, “Yes. I shall start you with some Latin, but only a little. We can work mostly on German.”

They put their regular cloaks over their uniforms and snuck down to the back exit from the dormitory. It was still unbarred, but Aksinya had to open the lock. They went over to the house and stayed there until late. They didn’t see Asmodeus anywhere.

In the morning, Aksinya was much more wide awake. When she and Natalya went to German class, Sister Margarethe greeted them at the door, “Good morning, Countess, Lady Natalya.” She stood in front of Aksinya when she tried to move to her seat, “Did you get my note last night?”

“No,” Aksinya lied. “It must have gone astray.”

Sister Margarethe eyes widened, “Surely not.”

“In any case, I shall not sleep through class today. You needn’t worry. You may tell the Reverend Mother and my other teachers that. I spent Sunday evening in study, so I was tired.”

“But you didn’t finish most of the work assigned to you.”

“I did not say what I was studying, only that I was in study.”

Sister Margarethe took a deep breath, “Yes, I see. Take your seats. I will speak to you later.”

“During class?”

“Yes, during class.”

Aksinya and Natalya sat at their desk. Natalya pulled out her books. She spoke Russian, “You did get a note last night.”

Aksinya pressed her lips together, “She…she…I can’t tell it to anyone. I can’t be alone with her. I never can be alone with her—it’s too dangerous for me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to understand. Just realize that I must do everything I can to prevent her from being alone with me.” Aksinya glanced at Natalya, “You must help me in this.”

Natalya frowned and nodded, “Yes, Countess.”

Aksinya pulled out her books, and Sister Margarethe started her lecture. After the teaching, and assignments, Sister Margarethe made her way around the room to collect assignments and check on the new work in progress. She came to Aksinya and Natalya’s desk last.

She gave a perfunctory look at Natalya’s papers and spoke to her for a moment in German. Finally, she praised her, “Your German is improving quickly. Has the Countess been helping you?”

“Yes, sister. She has been working with me every night.”

“That is evident. Every night? Does she take time to do her own work?”

Natalya’s eyes suddenly filled with fear, “I…I…don’t know sister.”

Aksinya slapped her hand flat on the desk, “Please don’t berate my lady-in-waiting for my choices or my behavior. If I chose to put all of my attention to her understanding of German, that is my decision and not yours.”

“So you have been working with Lady Natalya to the exclusion of your other work.”

“Yes, I have. Is there something wrong with that?”

“It is a waste of our teaching.”

“I never said I didn’t get anything from your teaching, only that my primary responsibility right now is my lady-in-waiting’s German proficiency.”

“I take it you won’t relent on this.”

“Not until she can communicate in the language.”

“That could take a while.”

“Perhaps a month. The Lady Natalya is very intelligent and easy to teach. If you gave her more attention, you might notice that.”

Sister Margarethe colored, “I will ignore that last comment because it is unseemly.”

“I don’t like the amount of attention you have shown me over my lady-in-waiting. Please give her more attention especially during this time of learning for her.”

Sister Margarethe’s eyes narrowed, “I will give the appropriate attention to each of you.”

“I need less attention from you—do you understand me?”

“Not really. Let us drop this because I have a question for you.”

Aksinya stared at her.

“Were you in your rooms last night?”

Natalya squirmed in her seat.

Aksinya gave a half-smile, “Of course. That is an unseemly question to ask of me.”

“I thought perhaps you and the note I sent missed one another for that reason.”

Aksinya stared in the nun’s eyes, “We were in our rooms as much as you were in your cell.”

Sister Margarethe colored again, “I will not tell the Reverend Mother. Do not sleep in class again.”

“I can promise nothing, but I will attempt to meet your demands.”

Sister Margarethe turned Aksinya a look, but moderated her features before she turned back to the rest of the class.

Natalya whispered in Russian, “You shouldn’t antagonize her too much.”

Aksinya snarled, “Why not?”

“I just don’t think you should.”

“If you knew…if you only knew. I can’t say it. It is too horrible to contemplate.”

Natalya’s brows knit.

Each evening after the dormitory was quiet, Aksinya opened the lock at the back door. She cast a spell to prevent observation. Then she led Natalya out of the dormitory and across the street to her house. The place was comfortable to Aksinya. It was filled with her family’s ancient possessions. She could make magic circles to protect herself and Natalya there. She could work the sorcery she found in her new book there. She could study whatever she wished. She could sleep in her own bed whenever she wished. She could work in very comfortable conditions in a place that seemed completely familiar to her. She literally had her own place.

As an excuse, Aksinya helped Natalya with her studies, and sometimes she worked on her own studies. She taught Natalya a little about Latin, but she was very slow and deliberate about it. She never wanted to teach Natalya anything about sorcery, but she didn’t want to bring on the attention of the demon or the ire of Natalya, so she taught her just a little. Enough to give the appearance of teaching, but nothing that had any real meaning. Aksinya reasoned the Latin itself could be helpful to Natalya anyway.

They didn’t see the demon the entire time.

Before the night was over, they returned to the dormitory and went back to bed. No one was the wiser, so they thought.

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