The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 4

Chapter Eleven – Lilith the Avenger

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

Jadranka, formerly known to the world as Danka, presented herself to her professors. She recognized two of the instructors from the Followers’ celebrations she had attended earlier in the year. However, there was no special interaction with them. The Cult of the Ancients had dissolved, its members had cut themselves off from their pasts, and to the committee she was just an ordinary student.

She spoke to a panel of academics to demonstrate which educational topics she had mastered and which ones she would need to pursue over the next year. After admonishing her for arriving a week late, the university staff grilled her about her education so far. Although not a word about her former life was mentioned at the hearing, the professors were well aware that Jadranka had been a protégé of the dean’s associate, the Cult leader Babáckt Yaga. Therefore she would have a foundation in field medicine, chemistry, botany, classical readings, and Danubian history. It turned out she also knew archaic Danubian and had a working knowledge of German and Slavic.

After having been forced to stand for several hours, an exhausted Jadranka finally received her curricula for the next year. She would be placed in the advanced course for chemistry and medicine preparation, the advanced course for archaic Danubian, the intermediate course for algebra, the intermediate course for German, the intermediate course for field surgery, and the beginners’ course in chronicles and report writing.

Jadranka also would be enrolled in the beginners’ course for a topic referred to as “land studies”, which covered topography, soil and rock identification, weather studies, astronomy, map-preparation, and rudimentary structural engineering. Europeans were only beginning to understand hard sciences such as geology during the 1700s, but in the Duchy the study of the earth was enthusiastically embraced by a culture which was trying to unlock the mysteries the Creator had left in the Realm of the Living.

The professors handed the new student a list of books she would have to retrieve from the library the following morning. She also received a list of study supplies that included parchment, ink, quills, a lamp and oil, and measurement instruments.

Dean Fítoreckt showed up when the meeting was about to conclude. He escorted Jadranka to the bed-chamber she had selected and told her to move her things to an upperclassman’s quarters. Jadranka was stunned when she saw the new room and realized it was assigned to her. It had a bed with curtains, a wardrobe, a study desk, a bookshelf, a private wash basin, and a private chamber-pot. The floor had a rug and the walls had tapestries. However, the detail that made the room truly luxurious was a glass window. Jadranka touched the glass. She had never slept in a room that was graced by a glass window.

She remembered her bucket and the items she had taken from Babáckt Yaga’s study. She handed the portrait and the two jars longevity potion to her dean. He opened the picture holder and stared at the portraits. His eyes became watery and he struggled to keep his voice under control.

“Babáckt Yaga was correct about you. It truly was your Path in Life to bear witness to the demise of the Old World. It is a blessing… truly a blessing… that you rescued these paintings.”

“Who’s the man in the portrait, if I may ask, Dean?”

“My uncle. From a long time ago… hard to believe it’s been so many years. He married her, according to the Old World traditions. And years later, I left my family and followed him into the Cult.”

“What happened to him?”

“Knowledge brings despair, Jadranka. It brought despair to him, just like it brought despair to me and will bring despair to you. And yet, you must pursue knowledge, just like I did… just like my uncle did. It is your Path in Life.”

Jadranka knew better than to pursue the topic. Dean Fítoreckt changed the subject.

“You proved to the professors that you qualify as an upper classman, not a beginning student. They made that determination, not me. So, like any other upper-level student, you have the privilege of this room.”

* * *

Less than a week after she saw her Mistress, her lover, and the forest settlement for the last time; Student Jadranka started classes. There was no settling in. The day after she arrived she picked up her books, carried them to her room, and joined the other students in the lecture halls. The university’s routine was structured to allow the students to focus on their education and nothing else. The school had professional cooks to prepare meals and collared penitents to clean the linens, heat bath water, sweep out the rooms, and clean the chamber pots. The schedule was grueling: Jadranka’s first class started at 7:00 in the morning and her last class ended at 8:00 in the evening. Between classes she read, wrote reports, and memorized course material. She struggled to keep up with the deluge of new information being pushed at her, but she was satisfied knowing the professors took her seriously. As long as she could keep up with the classes, no one questioned her background or her rough peasant accent.

Jadranka’s manner of speaking during her time at the university was unique among the students. She still had the accent of a peasant, but her vocabulary matched that of any leading intellectual. It was strange for her listeners to hear complicated words and concepts being spoken with such rough pronunciation. The student did consider trying to work on her speech, but she was so overwhelmed with other subjects that she did not believe softening her accent was a priority.

To counteract their sedentary lifestyle, every day the university forced the students to engage in physical exercising. In the mid afternoon of each day they had to run a full circle around the outer walls of the city, regardless of weather conditions. Apart from special leather running slippers, the students performed their laps completely naked, in full view of the city guards and anyone else who cared to step outside the city gates to watch. Failing to attend a run without medical justification was a serious offense at the school, punishable by wearing a collar for a week for the first offense, 25 strokes of the switch for the second offense, and expulsion from the university for the third offense.

The students received military training from the Royal Guardsmen stationed at the nearby defensive fortifications, both as part of their education and as a responsibility for being residents in a town close to the border. On Saturdays they had to perform drills that involved manning the city walls, running over rooftops in the event they needed to avoid enemies in the streets, using flags and hand signals, and carrying injured patients. In addition to the Saturday drills, weapons-training was given three days each week. Sebérnekt Ris was perilously close to hostile territory so, if the place were ever invaded, it would be important that everyone knew how to fight in a war, women included. The citizens of the city took it for granted that if they were ever invaded, it would be best to fight to the death. The Danubians understood, from the stories of the invasions in the early 1500’s, it was likely any prisoners would be tortured and any captured women would be raped before being killed.

Along with the basics of operating a crossbow, a longbow, and a musket, Jadranka also learned the basics of using a dagger and a sword. The sword training was the only part of her new life that she truly hated, because every time she picked up a sword she had to endure flashbacks of those terrible last minutes in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement and traumatic memories of clumsily hacking men to death. However, she always forced herself to pick up the weapon when it was her turn to practice. Whatever trouble she might have had with nightmares or memories, she’d have to keep those thoughts to herself and pursue her duties. Post-traumatic stress disorder was still unknown at the time.

Discipline at the university was strict for almost every aspect of life, not just military training and exercising. A student could not miss a class, cheat or lie under any circumstances, drink alcohol, fight, leave the city without a document signed by the dean, or disobey a professor, city guard, or Clergy member. Failing tests and not completing assignments was considered an act of disobedience against a professor and thus a punishable offense.

The school maintained a punishment bench where offenders were switched. Most of the offenders were young men who were first-year students, and the most common offense was leaving the campus without permission. Whenever a student was punished, the faculty posted a message in the morning to notify the other students about the event. Switchings were always administered at noon. 15 minutes before the punishment, the student had to undress and stand on the punishment bench with his hands behind his head while the audience gathered. At noon the offender bent over the bench with his bottom facing the spectators. The strokes were always administered a minute apart, which was timed with a small hourglass.

The university women, especially the upper-level students, watched the punishments for entertainment if they didn’t have any pressing duties at the moment. They did not openly taunt the offenders, but they quietly discussed the whippings and compared the young men’s bodies and how bravely they endured their chastisements. Jadranka was fascinated by seeing young men her age being forced to endure punishment, and then stand facing the women with their naked bodies and teary faces. Very rarely did she miss the opportunity to witness a switching.

There was one activity that was not restricted among the students: sex. The students were free to engage in relationships and visit each other’s bedchambers, as long as their sexual encounters did not interfere with their studies. The alchemist’s shop maintained a steady supply of birth-control paste, so there was little risk of pregnancy among the women. The staff looked upon sex among their students as a legitimate form of stress-relief, certainly better than drinking or gambling.

Jadranka was one of the most sexually active women at the school. Her fantasies about being Lilith returned full-force within days of her enrollment. Very quickly she forgot about the scandal that her behavior had caused in Dagurúckt-Tók. She made love to anyone whose Path in Life crossed with hers, as long as the man was willing to lie on his back and allow her to copulate by straddling him. She made love to professors, senior students, and first-year students alike, only insisting that her partners assume a position that allowed her to fancy herself as Lilith. She especially enjoyed having sex with young students who had just been punished. Disciplined men usually remained humiliated and submissive when she approached them, which was precisely what she wanted. She loved making them stand with their legs spread and hands on a wall while she caressed the welts on their bottoms and slowly teased their penises until they were erect. Then she’d make them lie on their backs and wait, making them desperate before finally straddling them.

Jadranka never invited any of her lovers into her bed-chamber. That room was her space, a place where she could be alone with her studies, her body, and her thoughts. Also, she wanted to control how long she spent with her lovers and did not want to deal with having to coax a man out of her room once she was finished with him. So… she always went to her lover’s bed chamber if he was a student; or to his study if he was a professor.

* * *

Jadranka was careful to avoid any mention of the Cult of the Ancients whenever she was around the dean. However, she suspected that Fítoreckt had a final matter to settle before the Followers completely vanished into the void; avenging the death of Babáckt Yaga and the elders in the forest. She also wondered what would happen to places such as the Altar of Blood Nourishment and the Temple of the Solstice. She could hardly imagine those locations simply being left abandoned to be looted by fortune-hunters.

The student received her first hint that the Cult of the Ancients was not completely forgotten at the end of her first week at the university. When she returned from her first afternoon of military drills, a package was sitting on her desk. When she opened it, she took out a small jar of blue powder and other ingredients needed to make the special tea. She had turned over all of the mixture taken from Babáckt Yaga’s study without giving any thought about keeping any for herself. Fítoreckt had secretly thanked her by returning a portion of the potion. She calculated there were enough doses in the jar to last about 20 years.

* * *

The Equinox came and went without any fanfare. The True Believers were watching to see if the Cult of the Ancients was planning any special events. They were deeply disappointed when the day passed without any Followers showing themselves in public. That seemed very strange. Perhaps there were far fewer Followers than originally estimated, or perhaps more died in the forest than was evident from the dismembered bodies that had been recovered from the witch’s burned-out settlement.

Through his network of informants, Fítoreckt monitored the True Believers. He noted they seemed much more relaxed after the Equinox had passed. Then during the second week of October, the Priest of Nagorónkti-Serífkti felt confident enough to organize a group to go into the mountains and locate the Altar of Blood Nourishment. It would be destroyed and a cross built in its place, the first step in a plan to eliminate all vestiges of paganism and eventually claim the entire Duchy for the True Believers.

Fítoreckt knew that he had to act before the True Believers had a chance to locate the Altar. During the month following the raid on Babáckt Yaga’s settlement, the surviving leader of the Cult of the Ancients had not been sitting quietly: he had been gathering information on his nemesis to retaliate. His most important informant in Nagorónkti-Serífkti was a laundress whose duties included washing the linens in the Priest’s house. Although the Priest was not married and did not have a partner, the woman frequently had to wash semen out of both the bed sheets and the man’s nightshirt. The True Believer Priest was very worried about the linens and had paid the servant in silver not to say anything about them. Another informant who cleaned the town’s church provided another useful piece of information; that each day the laundress had to clean bed linens, the Priest was in the chapel frantically praying to the Christian saints to protect him against the evil female demon that was causing him to sin. Fítoreckt figured out what was going on: the Priest was having wet dreams and was terrified that Lilith was paying him visits.

Fítoreckt reflected about Lilith. He remembered the fascination that Babáckt Yaga’s protégé had with her. The girl’s obsession with Lilith was still a central part of her character, confirmed by gossip Fítoreckt was hearing about the way she insisted on making love. The dean put on his Follower’s robe and sat at his desk to contemplate the final task the Ancients had given him as the Cult leader and the clues they had given him to accomplish his duty.

'Interesting how the Ancients have asked me to avenge Babáckt Yaga,' he thought. 'I must do so through Lilith… and in my university I have a Lilith. That girl will fulfill her Path in Life. Through her, the Ancients will avenge the murder of our Mistress of the Forest.'

Jadranka received a note from the dean to visit his office at midnight. She wondered what was going on, but figured the summons was related to her sexual activity. Either she was about to admonished for her behavior, or the dean wanted to make love to her. It would be interesting to see which it was.

When she arrived and knocked, no one answered. She worked up the courage to open the door. An ancient oil lamp was lit, emitting a red flame. In the dim light Jadranka could see a Follower’s skull staff and a folded black dress sitting on Dean Fítoreckt’s desk. There was a note on top of the dress.

You will serve the Ancients. Put on your dress and light your staff. When your staff is lit, I will come to you and speak.

Jadranka did as she was instructed. She changed into her Followers’ dress and lit the lamp in her skull. Fítoreckt emerged from the darkness. Jadranka was both scared and happy to see him wearing his Follower’s robe. So… the Followers weren’t completely gone after-all. Jadranka saluted him, held out her staff in the manner she had been taught by her Mistress, and knelt. It felt good to be a Follower again.

“The hour has arrived for us to avenge your Mistress. You will play the most important role in our act of vengeance. Is that your wish, Follower Danka Síluckt?”

“Yes, Alchemist Fítoreckt. That is my wish. I place myself at the command of the Ancients and I will do as you instruct.”

Fítoreckt handed Danka a trader’s dress to wear as a traveling disguise. They left Sebérnekt Ris with a dozen other former Cult members, riding horses in the direction of Nagorónkti-Serífkti. The rode quickly, so fast that Danka had trouble staying on her horse given that she was not an experienced rider. The group traveled the same route she had followed two months earlier when she was riding her mule, but they were traveling much faster. When they approached the path that led into the forest, the other Followers veered to the north, but Fítoreckt and Danka continued in the direction of Nagorónkti-Serífkti.

The two Followers arrived mid-morning at a small farm house just outside the town. The structure appeared to be a humble cottage on the outside, but it was much larger on the inside. The place had a huge multi-chambered basement containing a dormitory, storage rooms, and a study. Fítoreckt ordered Danka to rest and recover from her jarring ride. Shortly before sunset Fítoreckt showed Danka maps of the town and drawings of the layout of the Priest’s house and its interior.

Danka and her mentor joined a couple of other disguised Cult members and entered the town after dark. They scouted the area around the local church and the Priest’s house to memorize access routes, practice their escape plan, and make sure the items they needed for their ruse were properly stored and well hidden. The trip included a trial run into their target’s house. The Priest’s two dogs, which had been drugged, peacefully slept while a terrified Danka snuck into the man’s sleeping chamber and silently crawled up to his bed. She carefully memorized the locations of all the objects in the room and crawled up to the window, which would be her escape route. The Priest slept fitfully as she moved about. Finally she returned to door and slowly backed down the stairs, careful to avoid creaking boards.

Danka spent the next day practicing her lines and moving about wearing nothing but a pair of shoes shaped like bird’s feet and a large pair of fake wings. At sunset she unbraided her hair, combed it out, and hid the back of her head under a shawl. She had long fantasized about being Lilith. Now, to avenge the death of her Mistress, she would play that role in real life.

Danka dressed in her traders’ disguise to enter the town, but would change into her Lilith outfit upon arriving near the Priest’s house. As she emerged outside, four mounted men rode up to the farm house carrying cloth sacks. The sacks contained human heads, taken from members of the expedition of True Believers who had been sent into the mountains to find the Altar of Blood Nourishment. It seemed there were a lot of heads, at least 30. Fítoreckt was extremely pleased. Even if they accomplished nothing more that night, already their vengeance against the True Believers had gone extremely well.

When she arrived near the Priest’s house, Danka was greeted by four followers dressed in tightly fitting black clothing with their faces and hands painted black. They took her trader’s outfit and handed her the wings and bird feet shoes. Danka’s naked body trembled in the chilly autumn air, but she forced herself to stay silent. She pulled off her headscarf, trying to ignore the fact that three men and a woman were seeing her with her hair undone. It was a gross indecency, but one that was necessary for Fítoreckt’s plan.

The three men snuck in first, lugging heavy sacks full of human heads. A few minutes later they re-emerged, their sacks now empty. Danka went in next, following the woman. One of the men followed her, holding her wings to prevent them from brushing against any objects in the house and making noise. Danka and the man waited silently while the woman carefully uncovered the Priest and pulled up his nightshirt. She gently and patiently masturbated him, managing to make him hard without waking him up. He was still asleep when he climaxed and the smell of semen filled the room. Danka marveled at what her companion had managed to accomplish.

The orgasm was Danka’s signal to sneak up to the bed and straddle the Priest. The woman quickly lit two green oil lamps, giving Danka a completely surreal appearance. “Lilith” placed her hand close to the Priest’s chest and grabbed his wet penis. He woke up with a start and a terrified grunt. The “demon” placed her hand on his chest and pushed him down, while her two companions reached up from under the bed and immobilized his arms. The Priest started to scream, but Danka put her hand over his mouth.

“You must be silent, my love. Do not be afraid. I am here for you. I am your beloved, and the owner of your soul. So do not fear…”

Danka uncovered the Priest’s mouth and brought her face close to his. He was so terrified that he lost control of his bladder. Danka felt the hot piss flowing against her thigh. She was totally disgusted, but relieved that Fítoreckt’s ruse seemed to be working so well. She continued.

“You have served me very well, my love. You have done everything I could have wanted. I have had many men, but you truly are the good servant. You have killed and betrayed for Satan without remorse… you have brought the darkness into your city. We could not have asked for more.”

Danka caressed the Priest’s hair and kissed his terrified face. With a wild look in her eyes, she stared at him in silence. He was violently shaking from mortal fear.

“And, best of all, every night, just for me… you were my loyal lover. You truly are special. I appreciate that you loved me and none other. I am grateful… so the moment has come for me to show my face.”

Danka stood up, allowing the green lamps to illuminate her entire body. Her wings swayed back and forth.

“I now leave you, my love. But remember who you belong to. Remember, your soul is now sheltered in my womanhood, and there it will remain… forever. The next time I see you, we will travel to the underworld… together… and in the eternal darkness I will love you… FOREVER!!!”

Danka jumped off the bed. The window flew open. She hopped onto the windowsill, spread her arms, and fell forward. Outside, two black-clad Followers were waiting to catch her. The men pulled off her wings and the trio vanished into a narrow alleyway. In a well-rehearsed movement, they dressed Danka in a two-piece set of clothing normally worn by lower-class boys and quickly tied her hair. She hid her head under a peasant’s hat and the three set out running along the back alleys of the town. Danka could hear maniacal screaming coming from the direction of the Priest’s house.

As soon as “Lilith” flew out the window, Danka’s two bedroom companions extinguished the oil lamps, grabbed them, and silently scurried down the stairs and out the Priest’s front door. They ducked into a neighboring house, changed clothes, and ran out the back door. They met up with Danka and her escorts near the city armory. Fítoreckt was waiting to lead the group to safety.

A city guard opened a supply door as the Followers approached. They jumped into the armory’s basement and followed a hidden passageway that lead out of the town. A drainage gate, normally bolted shut, was open to allow their final escape. A city worker pulled aside the grate.

“Everyone’s here?”

“Correct. No one else is coming.”

“Praise be to the Ancients. May the Old World protect you in your journey.”

“Thank you. May the Ancients bestow their gratitude upon you. We won’t forget what you’ve done for us.”

The worker knelt, took Fítoreckt’s hand, and placed his forehead against the leader’s fingers. The alchemist gave the worker a quick blessing and the group ran through a wheat field. As they fled, the town’s church bells started ringing and they could hear shouting. Meanwhile, the worker bolted the grid back in place and used some branches to cover it.

* * *

The town of Nagorónkti-Serífkti woke up to the crazed screams and curses of their Senior Priest. It was obvious to everyone that his soul was possessed by Beelzebub the Destroyer. He was shouting incoherently about the Roman Satan and having sex with a female demon. The guards tried to calm him down, but when he saw several young women in the crowd, he screamed:

“Women! Satan sent the young women to destroy the world! Kill them! Kill the evil harlots! Kill all the women! Must destroy them all! Burn the witches!”

The Priest threw himself at his dumbfounded female spectators, but the guards firmly held him and immobilized his hands. He viciously struggled, foam forming in his mouth. The townsfolk didn’t know what to make of the bizarre spectacle, but they certainly weren’t about to kill all of the city’s women. Finally the chief councilman decided to enter the Priest’s house. A moment later he came back out, with an ashen face and his eyes wide with horror. Inside the house was an altar to Beelzebub the Destroyer and two barrels full of human heads. They were from the town citizens the Priest had convinced to go into the mountains and destroy the Pagan sites.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what happened. The Priest must have been in the service of Beelzebub the Destroyer all along, and he lured the town’s best Christian men into the mountains so his could murder them and use their heads for satanic rituals. When Beelzebub the Destroyer took possession of his soul, the Priest went mad. Not hard to figure out.

The councilman decided to confirm the Priest’s service to Beelzebub the Destroyer, by having him interrogated by relatives of men who had participated in the altar expedition. Sure enough, with the right amount of “encouragement”, he confessed. The townsfolk were so infuriated they burned him at the stake, the first time anyone in the Duchy had been executed in such a manner since 1499. After failing to control the enraged mob and the town’s leaders, the other Clergy members working at the Church in Nagorónkti-Serífkti fled in terror. For two months there were no Clergymen at all in Nagorónkti-Serífkti.

When the Grand Duke was informed about the situation in Nagorónkti-Serífkti, he asked the Senior Prophet of the Great Temple in Danúbikt Móskt to send people to replace the disgraced Priests from the True Believers’ church. The new Clergy members were Priests and Priestesses from the Old Believers’ faction. That was fine with everyone in the town. After what they had been through, no one in Nagorónkti-Serífkti wanted anything to do with the True Believers or their patrons from the Church in Rome.

* * *

Alchemist Fítoreckt wanted to believe that the Followers’ revenge against the men who had killed Babáckt Yaga was a sign that the Cult of the Ancients could return and reassert itself as part of the Duchy’s society. However, after much study and consultation the answer he received was firmly “no”. The Old World was gone and it was not coming back… ever. The Ancients had granted the Followers their final wish, to avenge the death of Babáckt Yaga and the settlement elders. Following that moment of revenge, there would be nothing else. The Ancients were determined to no longer speak through the Cult. Alchemist Fítoreckt knew why; he had even explained the facts to Jadranka, when she was still known to the world as the Follower Danka. Time moved forward, never backward. So… it was up to Alchemist Fítoreckt, the last leader of the Cult of the Ancients, to close it down permanently.

The Altar of Blood Nourishment was indeed destroyed, but by the Followers themselves, not their enemies the True Believers. The Cult members took apart the structure stone by stone and took all of the pieces underground. They were careful not to damage any of the stones or bricks and numbered them so the site could be rebuilt, should the Realm of the Living ever want the Followers to return to the practices of the Old World. However, as the Cult members sadly took down their holy site, they knew they were dismantling the last vestiges of the Old World itself. The Altar and the beliefs it represented would be reduced to nothing more than a stack of stones and building materials buried underground.

The Followers handed over their skull staffs and Cult clothing. The personal items would be stored underground along with the stones from the Altar; in the unlikely event they could ever be reused. The Followers, standing outside in the bitter cold wearing ordinary winter clothing, sadly watched as Alchemist Fítoreckt rigged the explosion that would cause the entrance of the passageway to collapse. The chambers would remain intact, at least for a while, but the entrance would be destroyed, buried, and planted over. Once vegetation grew over the site, no fortune hunter would ever find it.

* * *

Danka, now having returned to her new life as Student Jadranka, immersed herself in her studies throughout the rest of the autumn and the entire winter. She impressed all of the university’s professors with her ability to remember detailed information and to grasp new concepts. She also impressed the university with her willingness to help others. She mentored new students and tutored classmates who were having difficulty with course material. Helping others helped Jadranka develop her own abilities to explain complicated subject matter, which in turn was of tremendous usefulness when she had to take exams and recite her knowledge of class material.

Student Jadranka spent part of her spare time during the winter transcribing Babáckt Yaga’s unpublished research and editing texts for printing. Apart from the dean, Student Jadranka had known Babáckt Yaga better than anyone else at the university, so she knew how her Mistress would have wanted to phrase and express the contents of her notes. The work was important, but also very painful for the transcriber. It seemed that Babáckt Yaga was speaking for a final time from the grave, and when the transcriptions were finished, she’d have nothing more to say.

As the snow fell and the cold mountain wind whipped around the university, Jadranka often sat by her window, contemplating the bitter weather outside. She was extremely grateful her mind was being given the opportunity to develop and to be challenged with new information, but she sorely missed life in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. She missed the late-night sessions with her mentor… she missed the chores and the rough medical training… and she missed her lover Káloyankt. She had known from the beginning that she could never stay with him, but she still deeply cared for him and missed him. There had been an emotional bond with him that she had not been able to find with anyone else. She spent the winter making love to many men, but she couldn’t feel attached to any of them.

She wasn’t sure why, but by the beginning of March, sex was starting to bore her. After months of being as active as possible, it seemed that every love-making session was like every other love-making session. Worse, it seemed that the male students were indistinguishable from each other. The professors were somewhat more interesting, but none of the older men saw her as an intellectual equal. She wanted to talk, but there was no one to talk to.

Fortunately, Student Jadranka’s academic performance did not reflect her increasingly restless state of mind. As the winter months passed and the days lengthened, she continued to perform extremely well in her classes. She finished editing Babáckt Yaga’s final journals and wondered what to do next.

Dean Fítoreckt, anticipating a possible crisis over the sudden lack of extra work, decided to send Jadranka into the city as a member of a team of university doctors and medical students. The group also visited the fortifications on the border and attended the needs of the Royal Guards and the cannon crews. The student took special interest in the cannons and how they operated, and in hearing stories about how King Vladik was able to retake the area after the second invasion from the Holy Roman Empire. The men talked confidently about their defenses, but seemed worried about the military situation on the other side of the Duchy, south of Danúbikt Móskt.

In mid-March, Jadranka even had the opportunity to cross the border. A foreign landlord, smart enough to not trust the medical practitioners in his own country, had contracted the university in Sebérnekt Ris to send doctors to attend his wife while she had a baby. The landlord sent his own escort to bring in the Danubians, so they traveled safely. While on the man’s estate, the Danubians attended other medical issues of family members and servants, including vaccinations, a couple of operations, and disinfecting bedrooms. The trip to the foreign manor was considerably more pleasant than the previous year’s trading expedition, but when she returned to Sebérnekt Ris, Jadranka and the others realized they had brought back lice.

* * *

On the first day of April, 1753, Jadranka abruptly stopped having sex with her classmates. She had long been bored with her lifestyle and her memories of Káloyankt and Ermin made her realize that she’d never find a partner if she continued making herself available to every man who came her way. What she had been doing might be acceptable for a Follower, but the Cult’s Path in Life no longer was available to her. The Cult of the Ancients was gone and Jadranka understood she had to find a new identity. With no serious relationship and no group with whom she could say she belonged, she did not have an assigned place in her country’s society. She felt adrift, every bit as much as she had felt adrift during those first days of traveling between Rika Héckt-nemát and Starívktaki Móskt. Her only consolation was that as long as she remained a student, the problem of not having an identity was not as serious as it would be if she were still wandering the country roads.

Jadranka was not only bored with sex. She became bored with the entire university and its monotonous routine of classes, studying, military practice, and daily runs. She knew that her performance would be satisfactory through the end of the academic year in June, but she pondered whether or not she really wanted to return for the 1753-1754 school year. Ironically, the visits to the fortifications and the foreign manor made her less satisfied with her academic life by reminding her of the world that existed beyond her bed-chamber, the library, and the lecture halls.

Jadranka’s problem was feeling unable to talk to anyone about her feelings. She fully understood that she needed to be grateful to Dean Fítoreckt for setting her up with free enrollment and residency in a very nice room. For a young person from a dishonored and impoverished background, her situation was ideal. But she was increasingly restless and dissatisfied. Why?

Her thoughts returned to her heroine Lilith and the power she held over the righteous. Power… that was one thing Jadranka did not have. As a woman in Danubian society, she never would have any power, assuming she wanted to lead a “respectable” life and marry a man capable of taking care of her. She had been right about Káloyankt: at first glance he had been perfect for her, but she could not have tolerated living the restricted life of an upper-class wife, even if she could have ingratiated herself into his neighbors’ society, which was highly doubtful.

She had hoped to achieve power through sex. Before scandal overtook her in Dagurúckt-Tók, using sex to control men seemed a promising Path in Life. That belief seemed to be confirmed when she played Lilith during the Cult’s final act of vengeance against the Priest who had sought to destroy it. She had tried the same strategy at the university, with no results. She pleased her lovers and for a while pleased herself, but after months of continuous copulating, her standing in the university was exactly what it had been the day she enrolled.

So… what did the university offer? Yes, she was developing her intellect, but for what purpose? The best she could hope for upon graduating would be a position as a scribe for a city official or being the doctor of a wealthy family. In either situation she would live out her life as a pampered servant, taking orders from some man or some woman whose social status was higher than hers. Already she was taking orders, constantly standing in front of her professors trying to satisfy them with how much she had learned. The entire routine was irritating her more and more.

Historian's Note: Geologists surveying the northern mountains with seismic imaging located a series of caves and tunnels deep under the location believed to be the former site of the Altar of Blood Nourishment. However, after consulting with the Grand Prophets of the Danubian Church, Prime Minister Vladim Dukov prohibited any further exploration and ordered the area to be incorporated into the National Park System. The Danubian Church is now officially responsible for administering the location. The site will never be excavated and will never be made accessible to anyone, even archeologists. The only existing map of the area based on the recent imaging is stored in the vault in the Prime Minister’s office.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Chapter Twelve – The Fruits of Hubris

Towards the end of May, Jadranka accompanied her classmates on an expedition into the wild territories to study and identify rock deposits and land formations along the northern mountains. Some of the places she already had seen when she was a Follower. The freedom of the open country beckoned her, reminding her of the previous year when she ran about the woods in the nude. Without thinking about what she was doing, she took off her dress and folded it into her saddlebag. None of her classmates even considered doing such a thing. Instead they stared at her with bewildered expressions, wondering why she would want to act like a penitent or a collared criminal. Jadranka, who had assumed a completely rebellious frame of mind, defiantly responded:

“This is what I’m accustomed to and what I believe. I am in the Realm of Nature and therefore my body must be liberated in the sun. I have spent nine months cooped up in an uncomfortable dress and locked away in my bed-chamber. Now I plan to enjoy this realm the Ancients have granted me.”

Jadranka’s statement and desire to rebel against her classmates had just committed her to spending three weeks as the only naked person in a large expedition of well-dressed elitist students. The others felt uncomfortable talking to her, so she spent most of the trip working and making observations by herself. She regretted taking off her clothes without checking to see if any of her classmates would do the same, but she was convinced that to humbly get dressed again and conform to the group would make her look even more foolish than she looked already. She tried to convince herself that she was determined to make a statement to defend the customs of the Followers of the Ancients, especially to the classmates who knew she had been a member of the Cult.

Well… let them see the freedom we enjoyed…

Whenever she was working alone, away from disapproving glances of her stuffy classmates, Jadranka did enjoy being naked; feeling the sun and mountain breezes on her uncovered body after having spent the last nine months cooped up in university buildings. She satisfied her desire to run in the nude across open fields and jump along the rocks. She loved plunging into cold streams, not having to do anything more than taking off her shoes.

She was enjoying being naked outdoors so much that her thoughts returned to her counterfeit penance collar. She’d like to put it on, but she’d have to leave Sebérnekt Ris and go where no one knew her.

Leave Sebérnekt Ris. Why not? As long as she had her collar, she could go where she wanted and was assured of having meals and places to sleep from the Danubian Church. The collar carried with it a huge range of restrictions and limited what she could do, but in some ways it would give her much more freedom than she currently had. It would be nice to just wander and explore; not having to worry about schedules, professors’ demands, and passing the next exam.

Jadranka wondered where she could go. She couldn’t go back to any of the towns she had visited over the previous three years, nor did she have any desire to do so. She had been almost everywhere between the Rika Chorna river and the northern mountains, with an important exception. She had not yet seen the nation’s capitol, Danúbikt Móskt. That would be perfect. She’d travel there as a collared stranger, rely on the hospitality of the Danubian Church, and see all the wonderful sites that city had to offer.

* * *

The trip into the mountains had socially isolated Jadranka and given her a bad attitude about her classmates. Her soul burned with resentment over having to conform to a multitude of small-minded people whose intellect obviously did not match hers. The more she pondered feeling alienated from the others, the more she was convinced she needed to get away for a while and see something not related to university life. So, she’d put on her penance collar and go traveling. Her original plan was to leave Sebérnekt Ris at the beginning of July and return in the middle of August. She’d explore the capitol and the surrounding areas, satisfy her curiosity, and hopefully, after two months of relative freedom, come back with a better attitude about pursuing second year of classes.

Perhaps two months of wandering would have satisfied the craving she had for freedom. Unfortunately, Jadranka’s craving for freedom was matched by her desire to wield power and influence over others. As the third anniversary of her departure from Rika Héckt-nemát came and went, she bitterly remembered that day on the pillory and the powerless existence she had endured when living with her family. She still felt powerless in Sebérnekt Ris; constantly following the orders of professors and military instructors. Although her circumstances and living conditions had greatly improved over the past three years, she remained completely unable to control anything going on around her.

She knew she was more intelligent than most people in the Duchy, so why should she settle for spending her life taking orders? Shouldn’t she lead instead of follow? It was galling to think that, as an elder among the Followers, she could have led, regardless of the fact she was a woman. That option no longer was available.

Jadranka walked by the local cathedral and noticed a Priestess administering blessings and leading a group of worshippers dressed in black prayer robes. She hadn’t given much thought to the Danubian Church as a possible Path in Life, but she knew Priestesses had as much power over their parishioners as their husbands. She thought about that haughty seminary student in Starívktaki Móskt. Undoubtedly, at this very moment her first mentor was enjoying exercising power over her community.

Of course… I hadn’t really thought about it, but I can join the Danubian Church, become a Priestess, and find my place in society. I will be powerful and reign above others. I’ll put on the black dress and no man will dare disobey me. That’s where I will find my Path in Life… as a Priestess.

Jadranka didn’t give much thought to the rigorous instruction that apprentices for the Danubian Clergy had to endure in their seminaries. She was convinced the education she already had obtained would allow her to bypass much of the training the Church ordinarily gave its Apprentices. After all, she was educated and much smarter than most people, and surely the Prophets would understand that the Creator had sent her to assume a special place among the Clergy.

The obsession took over Jadranka’s thoughts and filled her soul with hubris. For the first time since thinking that simply owning a nice dress would allow her to ingratiate her way into her hometown’s elite society, her ambitions became detached from reality. If she wanted personal freedom, she certainly would not find it in the conformist culture of the Danubian Church. Yes, Priestesses did work alongside their husbands as equals and could command any civilian man, but the only power they exercised was carrying out the orders of the Prophets in Danúbikt Móskt. A large portion of the training Clergy members received in the seminary was to ensure they carried out the will of the Church, and not their own will.

Had Jadranka bothered to talk to the Priestess, her illusions about using the Church to wield power would not have survived the conversation. Subconsciously, she was aware of that. She also knew the Priestess would be very angry at the thought of a university student wanting to become an apprentice in the seminary to pursue her own desires and not those of the Creator and Prophets. From the very beginning Jadranka would have to lie to conceal her motives for joining the Clergy.

Another illusion that would not have survived a conversation with a Clergy member would have been the timing of her plans. If she had wanted to enter the seminary that year, she would have needed to make the arrangements in April. Already it was July. Jadranka was aware of the schedule, but had convinced herself that her knowledge was so extensive that she could join the 1753 class with no problem.

* * *

Jadranka understood, before going anywhere, she needed to talk to Dean Fítoreckt. However, he had become increasingly withdrawn and not very approachable. She already knew that he was very old, but until recently his features had not shown their age. By the summer of 1753, it seemed that most of the life had gone out of him. The cunning and determined man she had known over the past year had faded away, leaving behind a soul that had overstayed its time among the Realm of the Living. Dean Fítoreckt didn’t seem to want to do much anymore: he contented himself spending hours standing at the window of the dean’s office staring vacantly into the distance. She noticed he always stared east, towards the mountains and the former home of the now-defunct Cult of the Ancients.

Perhaps he should have been satisfied with everything he had been able to accomplish: running a respected university, dissolving a doomed religion with a minimal number of deaths, assuring the safety and the continuing relevance of the remaining Followers, avenging Babáckt Yaga and her group of elders, and routing the Cult’s enemies from one of their most important strongholds.

None of that mattered nearly as much as knowing he was the final leader, the custodian forced to oversee the demise of an institution that had been part of his nation’s soul for 5000 years. Now everyone he cared about was dead or in hiding. Only he remained, a forlorn old man (probably the oldest person on the planet) standing alone at his window, staring out at a world where his existence no longer had any purpose. The dean knew his Path in Life had ended, even if his time in the Realm of the Living had not. Like a ghost at daybreak, he was fading in silence.

No, thought Jadranka, there’s no point in trying to talk to him. That man is already dead. And when he holds up his mirror, what will remain to keep me connected to the university? Who in Sebérnekt Ris can I rely upon to help me find an acceptable Path in Life?

I don’t belong here. I deserve better than anything this university can offer me. I will join the Clergy, and from there I will fulfill my Path in Life.

During her final weeks in Sebérnekt Ris, the student didn’t talk to anyone at the university. She ate alone, during hours the other students were least likely to be in the dining hall. She avoided the library and the bathhouse, so her classmates were not sure if she was even still on campus.

She left the campus for several days to wander around the hills overlooking the waterfall and the cliffs that protected the Duchy’s northern border. As a true child of nature, she wore no clothing, not even shoes, and filled her stomach with mushrooms and berries.

Her path crossed with a squad of Royal Guards patrolling the border. They were bewildered by the site of a naked wild girl in the forest. When the leader asked her what she was doing, she signaled that she would be willing to have sex with him, and with all of the men, if they so desired. She had not had sex with anyone since April, and suddenly the desire hit her full-force. She didn’t know the soldiers, so she didn’t see any harm in satisfying both herself and them. When darkness fell and the men set up camp, she stayed with them and shared a meal.

She slept briefly, but then woke up thinking: what am I doing? I’m not acting like a Follower: I’m acting like a common harlot. I need to stop this. I need to leave Sebérnekt Ris before I go mad. I need to pursue my Path in Life.

So, with no words of goodbye to the sleeping soldiers, she left them. She carefully made her way along the trails with nothing more than moonlight to illuminate her route. At sunrise she found her dress and returned to the university.

She returned to the bathhouse to clean up and change into a fresh outfit. When she exited, one of her professors confronted her. “Student Jadranka, you were away from the university for five days. Did you ask anyone for permission to leave, or permission to go up into the hills?”

“No, Professor, I did not.”

“Well, at least you’re not dishonoring yourself with a lie. You do understand the consequences of an unauthorized absence from the university.”

“Yes, Professor.”

“You are an upperclassman. You need to be setting an example, and instead you go running off, like some boy who’s just had his head shaved! Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“No, Professor, I don’t.”

“Very well. You’re aware that you’ll have to go before a discipline hearing. I’d imagine, since you’ve so thoroughly disappointed the standards we’d expect from an upperclassman, you’ll not receive much leniency. But, before I gather the others, perhaps it would help if you’d tell me why you were in the hills alone. What were you doing there?”

“I was fucking soldiers, Professor. I fucked an entire squad of them. That’s what I was doing, if you really need to know.”

The professor was stunned by the young woman’s vulgar language and defiant confession. Speaking in such a disrespectful manner would add to her punishment. Not only did her words shock him, but also the fact they were coming from the mouth of an upper-classman who, until that moment, he had considered one of his most promising students. He felt betrayed, considering the effort and time he had invested making sure she could advance through his course material as quickly as possible.

“Student Jadranka! Have you gone mad? You’re already facing a switching and several months of the collar! What are you trying to do, be expelled from the university?”

“My name is Danka, Professor. Danka Síluckt. Student Jadranka is a false name for me. And you won’t need to trouble yourself with your stupid discipline hearing and you won’t need to expel me from the university. I’m leaving on my own.”

With that Danka turned away from the professor, which was another act of disrespect. A student never turned away from a faculty member until being formally dismissed. The professor was shocked and infuriated, but there was nothing he could do. The worst thing he could threaten her with was expulsion from the university, but the girl had already decided to expel herself. He said nothing more, but would have to report the incident to Dean Fítoreckt.

Danka returned to her room in a very strange and destructive mood. Ordinarily she would have been horrified by what she had just done. However, her frustration with university life and her delusions of importance made her feel completely liberated at the moment. She had taken control! Those professors no longer had any authority over her! She was Danka, not Jadranka, and no longer subject to university restrictions!

Her bucket already was packed. She always kept her most important belongings in it, precisely in the event she needed to flee and only had time to grab one item. She thought about what to do about her dress. It belonged to the university, so she’d leave it. She threw it on her bed and put on her boots.

Students and professors stared at Danka as she walked out of the university. She was naked except for a pair of peasant’s work boots. The only item she carried with her was a battered swill-bucket. She left without saying goodbye to anyone, even Dean Fítoreckt. She walked through the busy streets of Sebérnekt Ris during mid-day. She drew attention, being naked but not wearing a collar. Normally nakedness was a symbol of either shame or humility, but Danka’s gait and expression displayed neither. Her attitude seemed to be: yes, I’m naked. I am displaying myself to you, in the manner of the Old World. There is nothing you can do to stop me.

Danka continued her trek southwards until she reached a grove of trees concealing a trench that was part of the city’s defensive fortifications. Making sure no one was watching at that moment, she went into the trees, put on her penance collar, re-emerged as a penitent, and returned to the road.

She had been walking south for an hour when a farmer passed by, driving a wagon loaded with barrels of salted meat for the capitol. He asked the penitent if she would like a ride. She gratefully accepted, and with that the Path in Life she had led in as a university student Sebérnekt Ris came to an end.

* * *

By the time Danka left Sebérnekt Ris, almost all the men from the squad of soldiers with whom she had shared the previous night were dead. Only one badly injured Guard remained alive to relate what had happened.

The squad woke up to find the strange naked girl of the forest had completely vanished. As they packed up and departed their camp, they chatted about her, wondering who she was and where she could have gone. They had been traveling for an hour when they ran into a patrol of foreign soldiers. The two groups immediately engaged in combat. It was a routine border skirmish, although it had been several years since a foreign patrol had ventured so far south into the Duchy’s territory. Two Danubians were killed immediately from the foreigners’ musket fire, but the survivors quickly retreated into the trees and deployed their crossbows. The skirmish continued the rest of the morning, as the Danubians crept up to the foreigners, fired their crossbows, and fled, hoping to lure their enemies into ambushes. The foreign commander was familiar with Danubian tactics and prevented his men from sacrificing themselves among the trees. So… the two squads simply continued shooting at each other. Every so often a foreigner fell to a crossbow bolt or a Danubian fell to a musket ball.

By noon all of the Danubians were dead or badly wounded and only three foreigners survived. The noise of the musket fire had alerted another squad of Danubians who spent nearly an hour trying to locate the source of the combat noise. They arrived in time to kill the three remaining foreigners, but too late to do anything to help their comrades.

The second squad found only one survivor who was not mortally wounded. They took him to Sebérnekt Ris, where the doctors managed to save his life. However, one of his legs had to be amputated. After he recovered, the man requested not to be discharged from the Royal Guards. Since he no longer could walk, was re-assigned as a sentry to one of the cannon batteries.

The crippled guard spent many nights looking north into enemy territory and thinking about the strange naked forest girl who had seduced his unit the night before their deaths. He wondered if she was a disguised witch who had brought a curse upon the squad. The story and speculation about the seductress circulated among the Royal Guards. Over the years it became a favorite topic for songs and tall tales to help the cannon crews pass their long, boring hours watching the border.

Chapter Thirteen – The Grand Duke's Castle

Danka’s ride approached the capital from the north, following the main road along the East Danube River. The road was thick with travelers and trading caravans. Fine farms, nice manor houses, and prosperous villages covered the landscape. The land in Danubia’s westernmost province was the best the Grand Duchy had to offer, a rich and pleasant territory compared to the nation’s outlying regions. It was wonderful to just sit as a passenger and watch all the new sites, momentarily free of any responsibilities or worries.

The traveler was truly excited, because finally her Path in Life would take her to the capital of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, where she would fulfill her destiny. After two days of riding in the wagon, finally, there it was, Danúbikt Móskt. Long before she got to the city, she could see the Grand Duke’s castle, perched high on a hill in the distance. Over the next several hours other landmarks came into view: the steeples of several churches, the large city wall, and the high cliffs and mountains along the western shore of the wide, graceful East Danube River.

Danka had been under the impression that everyone in Danúbikt Móskt lived within the city walls, but as she approached the main gate along the northern side, she realized that was not true at all. The inner city was surrounded by an outer city: businesses and residences that had been built over the last hundred years by people who did not want to live in the cramped confines of the older walled-in settlement. Along the outer edges of the suburbs there were huge piles of stones, lumber, and sand. There were several brick factories working continuously and wagon trains were hauling the bricks to strategically placed warehouses surrounding the outer city. The wagon driver explained that the Grand Duke wanted to expand the city wall and enclose the entire outer suburb, and that the stockpiling of stones and bricks was in anticipation of his ambitious project. The wagon driver let out a hiss to signal his disapproval.

“I think the Grand Duke’s wasting our effort, if you ask me. A new wall isn’t going to do us any good. All it takes is some cannon balls and the whole thing comes crashing down.”

The wagon driver let out disapproving whistle and continued: "I’ve been west of the Duchy. On the other side of those mountains. I’ve seen plenty of cities that don’t even have walls… and the ones that do have them aren’t any safer. Stone doesn’t defeat gunpowder… not for very long, at any rate.”

* * *

Danka jumped off the wagon, paid the driver some copper coins, and made her way to the northern gate. As soon as she passed through, she was not impressed with what she saw. Danúbikt Móskt was definitely a disappointment. Danka had expected the houses inside the city to be even nicer than the ones outside, but that was not true at all. The inner city was crowded with aging and moldy wooden buildings, many of which were three or even four stories tall. The upper floors extended over the streets, so in most places a person could only see a thin line of sky between the rows of rooftops. The smell of all that rotting wood along the enclosed streets, combined with thousands of cooking fires and piles of garbage, was impressive.

The city did have a few nice buildings. Instead of going directly to the Temple, she decided to first see the Christian cathedral. The cathedral was bigger than any other church Danka had seen so far and its open plaza was a relief from the claustrophobic streets. Danka noted with interest that no buildings were standing next to the church. There had been wooden structures standing there just a few months before, but the Duke had decided to build a park around the cathedral and ordered surrounding buildings to be torn down. The occupants were evicted and had to resettle outside the city walls.

Danka’s objective, the Great Temple of the Ancients, was only a few blocks west from the cathedral. She decided present herself to the Clergy and talk to the Grand Prophet about entering training for the Priesthood. She figured that she would wear her collar until the got to the Temple, then take it off after leaving the street. She figured that she could hide it in her bucket. Assuming the Priests welcomed her with open arms, she’d simply dispose of the collar, maybe by tossing it into the river. If anything went wrong, or the Senior Priest told her she’d have to wait before beginning her studies, she’d have the option of leaving the Temple and putting the collar back on. She was convinced the Priests would want her as an apprentice as soon as they realized how smart and educated she was, but she did understand that it was possible her studies would not start right away and she might have to keep herself occupied for a few weeks.

The Temple was a massive granite structure with a marble facade that pre-dated everything else in Danúbikt Móskt by more than two thousand years. It was a beautiful and solid building, designed to last forever. It was the most impressive thing Danka had ever seen. The cathedral looked like a flimsy stage prop in comparison. For a very long time the visitor stood in the Grand Plaza of the Ancients, staring at her destination with a dumb expression on her face.

Yes… this is my Path in Life… this beautiful building… this is my destiny… this is where I belong…

The traveler was so distracted that she did not notice the crowd had fallen silent and was stepping to the sides of the plaza. She heard a series of very loud whistles and then the shout:

“Doc-doc Danube!”

The crowd roared its response and snapped to attention. Realizing she was standing alone, Danka scrambled to run off the plaza and join the crowd. She would have slipped to the back to avoid drawing attention to herself, but there was no time. Everyone saluted. She barely had time to get on her knees before Royal Guards marched into view. Not knowing the capital’s protocol, she knelt forward and placed her face to the ground. The man standing next to her kicked her ankle and angrily whispered:

“Up-right, Penitent! What do you think he is, a Priest? He’ll want to see your face!”

Trembling from the strange situation and her apparent violation of protocol, Danka reluctantly knelt upright. Everyone, including the Royal Guards, had noticed her. Being noticed before safely getting to the Temple was absolutely the last thing she wanted.

Four foot-soldiers preceded the nation’s ruler, loudly whistling to announce their presence. The Grand Duke followed, along with four Royal Guards and two of his ministers, on horseback. The entourage wore finer clothing than the populace, but the exaggerated get-ups of other European royalty at the time would not have been considered appropriate in Danubia. The only detail that really set the Duke apart from his companions was his tunic, which was embroidered with gold thread instead of blue thread.

The Royal entourage rode past the crowd, placing their fists against their chests to return the public’s salute. Then the Grand Duke noticed Danka. He rode up to her, signaling one of the guards to follow him.

“Tell the girl to stand up.”

“You heard him, Lass. Stand up so his Majesty can better see you.”

“Y… yes, Master… as you wish.”

Danka stood up, her knees badly shaking. She had no idea why the Duke had taken an interest in her. She figured that she must have committed a breach of protocol and worried she was about to be punished. The guard dismounted.

“Look at his Majesty. Lift your head. Let him have a good look at your face.”

Terrified, Danka obeyed, forcing her eyes to meet those of the nation’s ruler. Her knees were shaking so badly that she had a hard time staying on her feet.

The Grand Duke carefully looked her over, as though he was trying to make a decision. She estimated him to be about 30. It was clear that he spent much of his time exercising, because even under his clothing Danka could tell the Danubian ruler was in excellent physical shape. Apart from that, his appearance was typical of a healthy upper-class Danubian about to enter middle age. He looked intelligent and had the confident expression of a man used to getting his way in life. There also seemed to be a hint of cruelty and arrogance in his face.

The guard exchanged glances with the Duke. The ruler nodded and returned to the other horsemen. The Royal entourage continued on its way, minus one of its members. The guard took his horse by the reins and tapped Danka on the arm.

"What is your name, girl?"

Danka believed that she had to come up with a new identity. She decided to call herself "Silvítya".

"Silvítya, Master. I'm Silvítya."

“Follow me.”

Danka, now to be known as Silvítya, was even more terrified. She wondered if the Grand Duke somehow knew she had been a Follower of the Ancients, and if that had anything to do with her detention. Or, perhaps she had unknowingly committed some serious breech of protocol.

“Master… please… I… I don’t know… what I did… please tell me… what I did to… offend the… the Grand Duke…”

“You didn’t offend the Grand Duke.”

“But… I’m not… being arrested?”

“Arrested? No. You need to come with me, but it’s not because you’re being arrested.”


“Listen, girl. It is not your Path in Life to ask a bunch of questions. Your Path in Life is to obey your superiors and do what you are told.”

“Yes, Master.”

The guard led both his horse and the young woman towards a side entrance of the Temple of the Ancients.

“Go in there and tell a Priest to remove your collar. Be quick about it. If he has any questions, you can show him this pendant.”

The guard took off a large pendant that was mounted on a thick silver necklace and handed it to the terrified young woman.

“Go in there, find a Priest to remove your collar, and come back out. Very simple instructions, even for a dumb peasant girl like you. I will have your head if you do anything other than what I’ve ordered.”

“Yes, Master.”

“And take those boots off and stuff them in your bucket. If you’re wearing a collar, you have no business wearing boots.”

“Yes, Master.”

Silvítya ran into the Temple. It was just as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside, but she had no time to appreciate it. She looked around for a secluded spot where she could take off her collar without anyone seeing her. Her fingers were trembling so badly that she had trouble with the latches. Then she had to stop for a few minutes, because some worshippers in prayer robes decided to stand within sight of her. As soon as they moved, she took a deep breath and again started fiddling with the collar. Finally it came off. She took off one of her boots and pushed the collar as far down as she could. She took off the other boot, shoved both boots into her bucket, and ran out the door. As desperate as she was to run off in the opposite direction, she reluctantly returned to the Royal Guard. Trembling, she began to kneel, but cried out when he gave her a sharp kick.

“What are you doing, you idiot?”

“Please, Master…I don’t…”

“I’m a commoner! You don’t kneel to me! What are you trying to do, get me dismissed?”

“Yes, Master, I… mean no, Master… I…”

“And quit calling me ‘Master’. I’m not a Lord and I have a name, Alexándrekt Buláshckt. You will call me Protector Buláshckt.”

“Yes, Protector Buláshckt.”

The guard held tightly to his horse’s reins and ordered Silvítya to mount. Silvítya struggled to climb up, wincing as the sharp edges of the metal stirrups pressed into her unprotected feet. Everyone stared at the bizarre spectacle of a Royal guard leading a horse carrying a completely naked rider. Silvítya wanted nothing more than to hide. Instead, once again she was the center of attention.

Protector Buláshckt led his horse and his mortified passenger across the entire city. By unhappy coincidence the Temple of the Ancients was on north side of Danúbikt Móskt, and the castle was on the south side. It took more than two hours traveling through crowded streets to complete the trip. The road to the castle zigzagged up a steep hill that overlooked the capitol to the east and the East Danube River to the west. As she rode above the city, Silvítya noted the tightly packed wooden rooftops separated by a labyrinth of narrow streets.

The hill was topped by a large castle that had been built in the Fifteenth Century and had changed very little over the ensuing 300 years. It had been the home of Danubia’s royalty over that entire time, first to a succession of kings, and then to a succession of dukes. The Royal Family’s lineage went back even further than the castle, with the current Grand Duke being a direct descendent of that very ancient family.

The Grand Duke was really the nation’s king, but no Danubian monarch had officially taken that title since 1531. That was the year that Danubia’s most revered leader, King Vladik the Defender, died in battle and his son-in-law took the throne. King Vladik’s heir was a very unassuming and humble man who preferred to be called a Duke instead of a King, and none of his descendants had the nerve to break that tradition.

The guard led his horse and his rider up a final curve in the road and emerged into a large garden. They passed through the greenery and arrived at the castle gate. The castle’s inside totally contrasted with its plain windowless exterior. There were large windows, whitewashed walls, and decorated doorways with Greek-style pillars. Balconies ran along the entire second and third stories, and in the center flowerbeds surrounded a large fountain. The contrast between the beauty of the castle’s interior and the rotting squalor of Danúbikt Móskt shocked the naked newcomer.

Three older women in expensive-looking dresses approached and saluted Protector Buláshckt. Silvítya reluctantly dismounted. Not knowing what else to do, she got on her knees and knelt upright. This time the guard did not object. He picked up her bucket and started to lead his horse to the Royal stable outside.

My bucket… please… don’t… take my bucket…

Protector Buláshckt noticed the desperate look in Silvítya’s eyes, silently pleading with him not to take away her belongings.

“I’m putting this away. I’ll return it to you whenever you leave his Majesty’s service.”

Leave the his Majesty’s service? What on earth did that mean?

Protector Buláshckt exited the castle with his horse and Silvítya’s bucket. She dreaded what might happen the moment he went through her possessions and discovered that she had a fake penance collar stuffed into one of her boots.

Silvítya began to tremble as the three castle women studied her. She later would find out the women were senior servants, among the most trusted and highest-paid members of the Duke’s staff.

“Stand up, girl.”

Silvítya stood up.

“Open your mouth.”


Silvítya felt a sharp pain searing across her exposed bottom. She screamed. The woman holding the switch spoke:

“Learn your lesson, girl. When we give you a command, your Path in Life is to obey. Your Path in Life is not to question. Now, open your mouth.”

With tears flowing down her cheeks, Silvítya opened her mouth. One of the women looked inside and ran her fingers along the newcomer’s teeth.

“She certainly has good teeth. Her mouth is clean.”

The women proceeded to conduct a physical exam of the exposed newcomer in the garden. Silvítya later learned that she was being subjected to a pre-inspection, to make sure her health was good enough for her to be allowed into the castle. The women looked over her skin, closely examined her hands and feet, and pulled apart the braids of her hair to look for lice.

The next part of her induction into the castle was a bath. The three women escorted her to the castle bath house; then totally surprised the newcomer by undressing. They had to bathe the younger woman and did not want to get their own fine clothing wet. The women ordered Silvítya to stand still while they covered her body with soap and scrubbed her skin, paying particular attention to her hands and feet. They put a strong-smelling detergent in her hair and spent a long time massaging her scalp. They rinsed her hair and repeated the shampoo with a much more pleasant-smelling soap.

The women then ordered the newcomer to stand with her arms above her head and her legs spread. They explained what was about to happen. They needed to completely clean Silvítya's vulva and make absolutely sure she had no lice. That meant they would have to shampoo her between her legs and run their fingers over her most private area. They had to warn Silvítya because what they were about to do was considered an extreme insult in Danubian culture, but in this particular case there was a specific and practical reason for it.

"We're not insulting you, unless you choose to make an issue of it. In that case we’ll insult your tender bottom with leather, many times over. Do you understand, newcomer?"

"Yes, Mistress."

Silvítya closed her eyes and tried to stand still as the older servant rubbed harsh shampoo through her pubic hair. The woman spent a long time roughly massaging her to make sure she was completely clean for her new master.

Following the bath, the servants combed her hair and stretched it out on a cloth. They noted that because Silvítya had never cut her hair, the ends were uneven and ragged. They produced a pair of sharp scissors and cut off about a third of the length. Silvítya’s hair now came down to her upper back, but it looked neater and would be much easier to comb and maintain.

The castle women clipped her fingernails and toenails, and then did something extremely strange to their ward. They ordered her to raise her arms and produced a straight-edged razor. Silvítya stood still while the woman who had hit her with the switch shaved her armpits. Well, that was certainly weird, but it was a quirk of the Grand Duke. He required all of his women to be shaved under their arms, nearly two centuries before the custom became widespread.

At that moment Silvítya still did not have a clue why she had been brought to the castle. Her terror subsided into worry and bewilderment as she realized that the fate awaiting her was not punishment or execution. The Royal staff had something else in mind for her.

The servants ordered Silvítya to dry off as they got dressed. She wondered if she had been brought to the castle to be a servant, and if so, would there be a servant’s dress for her. However, there was no extra dress in sight. The only thing she would be given was a pair of velvet slippers. She also expected the women to braid her hair, but they ordered her out of the room with her hair still loose.

Silvítya was famished. Certainly the bath made her feel better, but her mind was on eating. Fortunately the next stop of her induction was a small room with a table containing a bowl of fruit. She devoured the fruit as the women looked at her with disapproving expressions. She still ate like a peasant, which was a flaw that would have to be fixed as soon as possible.

“Do you know how to clean your teeth, girl?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Then take this salt to that water basin and do it.”

Finally, after being cleaned up and fed, Silvítya was about to learn why she had been brought to the castle. The servants ordered her to follow them to the Royal chamber. They passed through a banquet hall and entered the Grand Duke’s library. The Duke, now dressed in casual clothing, was standing at a table studying a map with one of his generals. The three women and their ward approached an empty chair. The servants motioned the newcomer to kneel before kneeling behind her side-by-side. They knelt upright and were totally motionless as they waited for their ruler to finish his conversation. Silvítya’s knees were starting to cramp when the Grand Duke and the general saluted each other and the officer left the room. The Duke took a seat.

“Greetings from your servants, Your Majesty. As you can see, the girl has been prepared for presentation. Your servants hope that you find her pleasing, Grand Duke.”

“Stand up, girl. Stand straight, arms away from your body.”

Trembling, Silvítya did as she was told. The Duke spent a long time carefully looking her over.

“Now turn around. Stand straight, arms in front of you.”

When Silvítya turned around, the Duke noted the welt crossing the young woman’s backside.

“The mark… why does she have it?”

“The girl was insolent to me, Your Majesty. I had to correct her.”

“Hmmm… Let us hope that doesn’t happen again. Turn around, girl.”

Blushing, Silvítya did as she was instructed.

“You had better never be insolent towards me, or you’ll receive far more than a single stroke. Is that understood, girl?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

"What is your name, girl?"

"Silvítya, Your Majesty."

The Grand Duke gave a disapproving look at the three servants.

"Have you instructed this girl about the proper way to address me?"

"Not yet, Your Majesty."

"Enlighten her."

The oldest servant stood up and tapped Silvítya with her switch.

"Listen, girl. When you address His Majesty, you will always refer to yourself as 'your humble serving girl', because that's what you are. A humble serving girl who lives for the pleasure of our Sovereign. If you need something or have a question, you will kneel properly and say: 'Your Majesty, your humble serving girl wishes to know' such-and-such. For example, if you need to know what His Majesty wants to drink, you would say: 'Your Majesty, your humble serving girl wishes to know what you would like to drink.' Do you understand, girl?"

"Yes, Mistress."

“Present yourself to the Grand Duke.”

Danka knelt with her hands extended in front, her forehead to the ground, and her knees widely spread. Her back was arched, completely exposing her vulva and sphincter.

“Your Majesty, your humble serving girl uh… Silvítya…presents…uh…myself…to…AIEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

A cruel blow of the leather marked her tightly stretched backside. The oldest servant snapped…

“Idiot! You’re not worthy of saying “me” or “I” or “myself” to his Majesty! You are an object of pleasure, nothing more! You’re not worthy of claiming your own identity!”

Silvítya flinched from yet another cruel stroke of the switch.

“Now… address his Majesty properly!”

Silvítya received four additional welts on her bottom before she finally managed to say correctly: “Your Majesty, your humble serving girl presents herself to serve you. Your Majesty, your humble serving girl hopes that you find her body pleasing.”

“Stubborn little minx, aren’t you? The kind I most like… the little sluts who put up a fight. That’s not a problem… you’ll earn the switch, and then you’ll conform and obey… of that you can be sure.”

Silvítya managed to choke out: “Yes, Your Majesty…”

“And by the way, your desire is granted. I do find my newest girl pleasing. Very much so. I have very good taste in girls, so you are honored to serve me.”

The Grand Duke ordered the other servants out of the room. He deliberately left Silvítya waiting, to increase her tension and fear.

“Very well, my little pleasure-minx. Get on your elbows and knees on the bed. Let’s see what you have for me.”

Trembling, Silvítya obeyed while the Grand Duke undressed. She winced at the painful welts crossing her bottom. She had been hit seven times so far and was very worried about receiving more blows. Tears ran down her cheeks as she felt her new Master’s fingers fondling her pussy and pushing hard into her anus. She tried to avoid flinching. She had not permitted any man since Bagatúrckt to touch or put his finger into her sphincter.

The Grand Duke turned out to be a vigorous, over-sexed, and impatient lover. He took Silvítya from behind, rubbing hard against her welts as he thrust hard into her pussy. As soon as he climaxed, he ordered Silvítya to massage his wet, sticky penis. Within a couple of minutes he was hard and ready for his next target, Silvítya’s tight sphincter. As the young woman winced and grit her teeth against the unbearable pressure on her insides, the Sovereign muttered:

“Oh yes… nice and tight… worth it… totally worth it….”

As Silvítya lay on the bed clutching her burning bottom, the Grand Duke ran a bell and called in two other young women. Like Silvítya, they were completely naked, and like her, they did not wear their hair in braids. The Grand Duke ordered the women to lie in a row on their backs. He vigorously entered all three mistresses while ordering them to hold hands.

Silvítya was taken aback by the Grand Duke’s seemingly endless supply of sexual energy. He copulated as though he were possessed. He had a total of seven orgasms before he finally wore himself out. When he finally tired of using the women, he ordered them to kneel in a row and clean his penis and testicles with their tongues.

“You will thank my manhood for offering you the opportunity to serve, my little objects of pleasure. Show how grateful you are that you can fulfill your Paths in Life as pleasure sluts.”

The other women responded:

“Oh yes, Your Majesty… your humble serving girls are so grateful to serve your manhood… Oh thank you, Your Majesty… for letting us be the sluts we were intended to be.”

When they finished, the Grand Duke ordered yet another young woman to enter his chamber to help him bathe, while telling the other two to clean up their “little sister” and show her to her sleeping chamber.

Silvítya quickly washed off and scrubbed her teeth with fine salt, desperate to get the taste of sex out of her mouth and the smell of sex off her body. Without saying a single word, the other two women escorted her to a small, but elegantly-furnished sleeping chamber. As soon as she entered, the heavy door went shut and she heard the sound of a metal bolt securing the latch.

With anguish, Silvítya looked at herself in the mirror. The image staring back horrified her. Her hair remained unbraided, her bottom was covered with welts, her pussy and breasts were raw, and her lips were chapped from having the Grand Duke’s penis in her mouth. The image staring back at her was that of a concubine, or worse yet, a sex slave. Yes, how many times had she heard that expressed in so many different ways, just during the first day?

Minx, humble serving girl, slut, toy, pleasure slut, object of pleasure, little slut...

And to think… just one day before Danka had been a free, independent woman. She had taken pride in herself and had huge ambitions. Just one day before… What a difference a single day, a bad decision, and a moment of bad luck can make in one’s Path in Life. What a difference…

Suddenly Babáckt Yaga appeared in the room, with an angry expression and pointing her finger: “…remember my words… the day you act on your fantasies, your life as you know it will be ruined. Your Path in Life will change, and you will have to begin anew. Remember my words when that happens.”

As suddenly as Babáckt Yaga appeared, she vanished. Silvítya sat on the bed and held her head, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“My life as I knew it is ruined. I lived in honor, and for an idiotic fantasy I threw it away. Now… I must begin anew… as a pleasure slave… of all things… in the castle of the Grand Duke. What have I done?”

Indeed, what had she done?

Chapter Fourteen – The “Sisters”

Silvítya was startled awake by the sound of the door’s bolt sliding, just a few hours after she managed to fall asleep. The door opened and three naked young women presented themselves. Silvítya had not seen them before, but like the women from the previous evening, their hair was not braided. The newcomer stood up, but didn’t know what else to do. The women did not react or reprimand her. Each had endured a first night in the castle and had experienced what Silvítya was experiencing.

The leader of the group introduced herself as Magdala. She invited Silvítya to accompany her to morning tea, during which she would explain the newcomer’s duties and what she could expect from her new life in the Grand Duke’s castle. She handed Silvítya a set of velvet slippers, which she would have to wear whenever walking through the hallways of the castle. With that, the four naked young women silently walked to the end of the hallway and entered a small dining room. As she followed the others, she noticed that one of the women had lines of fading welts from switch-marks crossing her bottom, thighs, and shoulders. Silvítya guessed the girl must have been severely punished about a week before. She also noticed the punished concubine had a completely miserable expression on her face and never spoke. She communicated with nods and hand gestures, leading Silvítya to wonder if she was mute.

The room had large curtained windows and fancy furniture that Danka later learned had been imported from a foreign country called France. An elderly castle servant had just finished setting up a small table with cups of tea and strange-looking bread-rolls called croissants. As soon as the women were seated, Magdala explained what was going on.

“In case you haven’t guessed, we’re Royal concubines. In this castle His Majesty keeps 10 women for his pleasure. Sometimes it’s one more or one less than that, but most of the time there are 10 sisters here. That’s how we usually address each other: ‘Sister’. You can call me ‘Sister Magdala’, or just ‘Sister’, that choice is yours. My understanding is that your name is Sister Silvítya?”

“Yes, Sister Magdala.”

“Very well, Sister Silvítya. As I said, our Paths in Life are to serve the Grand Duke. It is really the duty of every citizen of the Duchy to serve the Grand Duke, but the Creator has called upon us to serve His Majesty in a special way. We are not soldiers, or advisors, or scribes, or Clergy, but we are just as important for His Majesty as anyone else in this castle.”

Silvítya interjected: “The way the senior women treated me yesterday… didn’t make me feel very special.”

“They treated all of us in a similar manner when we came here. There’s a reason why they’re so strict with any Sister called upon to be a Royal concubine. Remember, our Path in Life is to serve. That doesn’t just mean presenting our bodies for His Majesty’s satisfaction when asked. It means conducting ourselves with dignity and humility at all times, to make ourselves pleasing in the eyes of the entire Royal House.”

“Then… I have another question… if it’s about dignity and humility… what about our hair? Why can’t we braid hair?”

“Those are the wishes of the Grand Duke. He has the power to demand to see what is forbidden for most men. He loves to pass his hands through our hair, to bury his fingers in what is prohibited for anyone else. He does it because he can.”

The group finished their tea and croissants. As soon as Magdala stood up, the others immediately joined her. “Come along. Let us relieve ourselves and then we will bathe.”

The toilet-room was the nicest privy Danka had ever seen. There were marble seats built to conceal the chamber-pots and an attendant was responsible for collecting and emptying them. It was the first time Silvítya did not take care of disposing of her own waste. She followed the others into a large communal tub filled with cool water. As she entered, again she noticed the faded bruises on the mute woman’s backside. Magdala noticed where the newcomer was looking. She exchanged glances with the punished concubine, who gave a sad nod granting her permission to explain.

“His Majesty always has a preferred girl, the one he likes better than any of the others. He makes that choice; we have no say in the matter. Right now I am the Royal favorite. As the favorite, I am the spokeswoman for the concubines and have privileges that no other sister can enjoy at the moment. For example, I can walk unescorted in the Royal garden. If I lose my status as His Majesty’s favorite, I will lose the extra privileges, such as access to the outdoor grounds. That’s what happened to Sister Desislava. She used to be the Grand Duke’s favorite, but on a whim His Majesty took that status away and gave it to me. Sister Desislava had been watching a rose bush that His Majesty planted last year, because it has blooms that are yellow and red on the same flower, and she wanted to see them. After she lost the right to go into the garden, she thought she’d sneak out one last time. She figured the gardeners wouldn’t realize she wasn’t supposed to be there. Even if they did, they wouldn’t have said anything. Sadly, one of the castle matrons was out there and saw her. Even more sadly, Sister Desislava lied about her status, so she received a criminal’s switching and had to spend an afternoon on the pillory. We were forced to watch.”

Sister Magdala exchanged another glance with Desislava and continued: “Sister Desislava’s story has some important lessons for you. First, you might think that something as trivial as checking on a rose bush is a ridiculous thing to risk punishment over. For us, it isn’t. You will discover that your perspective on things changes after you’ve spent weeks and months in confinement. Another thing to remember is that most of the castle commoners wouldn’t do anything against us, but that’s not true for the castle matrons. Their youth and beauty has passed, and every time the see us they are jealous. So, it is best to avoid them.”

There was a pause while the four women rubbed soap on each other’s backs. Sister Magdala handed Silvítya a bar of soap. The newcomer hesitated because, apart from practicing medicine, she had never touched another woman. Sharp glances from her companions warned her to comply. Communal bathing was an important part of the concubines’ daily routine and a way they established trust and intimacy with each other. After Silvítya had soaped the backs of the others, Magdala continued:

“You must remember, even though we are favored by His Majesty, our punishments are severe for any transgression. Sister Desislava did nothing more than tell a simple lie in a moment of panic, but she will suffer for it as long as she remains in the castle. His Majesty dictated that, because she proved herself untrustworthy, she is prohibited from ever speaking again. She had to take an oath to never use her voice while in his service. If anyone hears any sound from her throat, she will be tied to the execution stake and receive five arrows to the chest. Let that be a lesson for you. Do you understand me, Sister Silvítya?”

“Yes, Sister.”

“Another thing to remember is we try to take care of each other. We are a household, the ten of us. We call each other ‘Sister’ for a reason. You will never speak poorly of another Sister to His Majesty or to any of the matrons. Never think you have anything to gain by betraying one of us, because the Grand Duke understands that if you can betray one of us, you can just as easily betray him. The matrons will test your loyalty. And when one of us falls, the rest of us gather around her. An example is Sister Desislava. Because she is prohibited from using her voice, I have decided that at no time, and for no reason, is she ever to be left alone. One of us will always accompany her and speak on her behalf.”

After finishing their bath, Magdala, Desislava, and Silvítya put on their velvet slippers and stood on a balcony that overlooked the interior of the castle. For a few minutes they watched the daily routine of the Royal staff working in the courtyard below. They were interrupted by one of the concubines Silvítya had seen the previous night:

“Sister Magdala! The service bell just rang five times!”

“Thank you, Sister. Stay here with Sister Desislava. I’ll fetch the others. Sister Silvítya, you’re coming with me. Better for you to learn your duties sooner than later.”

The two concubines went back inside and entered a parlor, where six naked young women wearing velvet slippers were waiting. From the group, Magdala selected three companions and dismissed the rest. As the five women shuffled towards the Royal chamber, the favored girl explained that the Grand Duke had rung the bell five times because he wanted five concubines. The group ran up to a castle matron dressed in a white gown and carrying a leather switch. With a smug expression she used the switch to point towards the throne room.

The throne room had remained unchanged since 1531, the year King Vladik the Defender was killed, which meant that every item in there was at least 220 years old. The single exception was a large tapestry mounted behind the throne, portraying a crow sitting inside a cage with a white dove sitting on top. The gaudy colors of the new tapestry looked out of place among the drab medieval décor of the rest of the chamber. The Grand Duke was seated on the throne. The only other people present were four Royal Guards. Silvítya recognized one of the men as Protector Alexándrekt Buláshckt, the guard who had brought her to the castle the previous day.

Ignoring the guards, the five concubines immediately positioned themselves in front of their master. The current favorite knelt upright in front, while the others knelt in a row, assuming the more submissive posture with their hands extended out front, their foreheads touching the floor, and their knees spread with their backs arched to expose themselves as much as possible. The Grand Duke gave his guards time to look over the young women before dismissing them. Because she was the new girl, she knew the guards were most interested in seeing her. As she felt the cool air blowing against her exposed vulva and sphincter, she could feel four sets of eyes carefully studying her crotch. She remembered that she still had seven welts crossing her backside, a detail that added to her embarrassment.

After the guards left, the Grand Duke called Magdala to his throne while the other women waited. She knelt next to him and placed her hands on one of his thighs. She smiled and looked up at him while he absent-mindedly ran his fingers through her hair.

“Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl wishes to know if the day has been pleasant for you so far.”

“Yes, my favorite minx. Very much so. I see that you’ve brought the new girl. You’ve instructed her, I trust?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Like all of your humble serving girls, our newest sister is looking forward to making Your Majesty’s life pleasant and fulfilling your wishes.”

“Then you will go to my chamber and wait for me there. To be honest, the morning has been stressful for me.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. To hear is to obey.”

Magdala kissed the Master’s hand and quickly stood up. With a faint whistle she ordered her companions to stand up and follow her to the Grand Duke’s bedroom. She knew him well enough to know what he wanted. She pulled down the covers and ordered Silvítya and another girl to get on their elbows and knees, with their feet hanging over the edge of the mattress. She ordered the other two women to kneel on the floor, facing the bed. She kicked off her slippers and assumed her place on the bed, kneeling between her two companions. As they waited, with their bottoms in the air and their vulvas exposed, Magdala gave Silvítya’s hand a quick squeeze to try to comfort her.

The Grand Duke entered the room and stood facing the three women on the bed. The women on the floor stood up to undress their sovereign. They removed his clothes item by item and massaged his chest and thighs to arouse him. Not that he really needed to be aroused: by the time they took down his inner trousers, the Duke already had a huge erection. He entered Magdala first, pushing into her as roughly as he could. Magdala moaned and gasped as though she was having an orgasm, but Silvítya could tell she was faking it. As soon as he climaxed, the Duke pulled out and ordered his favorite girl to kneel on the floor. He ran his fingers over Silvítya’s welts and fondled her exposed vulva while Magdala licked and sucked him to get another erection. As soon as he was hard, he grabbed Silvítya’s thighs and pushed into her. Magdala massaged and caressed his bottom and thighs as he climaxed inside his newest acquisition. He pulled out of Silvítya, but Magdala did not stop licking him and massaging his thighs. Within a few minutes her efforts were rewarded with another erection. He climaxed into the third concubine while Silvítya watched out of the corner of her eye from her kneeling position.

As soon as he finished, the Grand Duke dismissed all of the concubines except Magdala, who would have to stay behind to help him bathe and dress to meet with his ministers.

* * *

After getting cleaned up from their latest round of sex with their Master, the concubines gathered for their main meal of the day. They had their own dining room and normally ate around 3:00 PM, which was the hour the Grand Duke was least likely to want their services. If any of the women was absent, the others waited until she showed up.

The table was set with fine imported china and a bewildering array of silverware. Silvítya looked dumbly at all the fancy objects in front of her. Unfortunately, her learning so far had not included anything about table etiquette. The meal started badly when she slouched in her seat as the others sat upright. Then she picked up her bowl of soup with both hands and drank from it. Instead of cutting her dinner roll, she tore it open and poured the remains of her soup into the hole, then bit off half. When soup dribbled down her chest, the other concubines had stopped eating and stared at the newcomer. Magdala stood up.

“Sister Silvítya, you need to leave this table. Get out of this room, now. Go to the kitchen and eat in there.”

Silvítya looked up, her mouth still filled with an oversized chunk of bread. She noticed the hostile and bewildered stares of her companions.

“I mean it. Leave this table immediately. I don’t know where you think you are, but I can tell you, we are not an encampment of ditch-diggers.”

Silvítya sadly stood up. Magdala pointed at the door.

“You can return when you learn to eat without dishonoring yourself. Ask the kitchen staff to enlighten you.”

Silvítya ate alone in the kitchen, with the serving staff instructing her about the proper use of forks and knives. She had to learn how to sit properly, how organize and use silverware, and even how to properly chew her food. She was very clumsy with the utensils at the beginning, finding them difficult to hold onto and manipulate. She became horribly frustrated, but she knew that she had to persevere if she was to be accepted by her peers. She also realized the strange skill of eating etiquette was an important part of upper-class living. If she could master the use of dining utensils, that knowledge would set her apart from her upbringing as a peasant.

* * *

After spending her second afternoon in the kitchen struggling in frustration with those horrid utensils, Silvítya returned to her sleeping chamber to pick up her salt and toothbrush. A very unpleasant surprise was waiting for her: an envelope sitting on her nightstand. She wondered who on Earth would write her in the castle, or who would even know where she was. Her hands shook when she noticed the wax seal was imprinted with a university seal. She opened the letter. Sure enough, it was in Dean Fítoreckt’s handwriting. She read:

When you departed on your journey to the capitol, I had one of my assistants follow, in case there was any hope of extracting you from whatever dilemma you were destined to get yourself into. That was hubris on my part, because I now understand that it was not my Path in Life to rescue you. The Ancients placed you in the one location where I cannot come to your assistance without placing the university at risk.

Your Mistress and I both advised you that hubris, thwarting the will of the Ancients, and the pursuit of vulgar worldly desires would lead you to grief. You can never claim we didn’t try to warn you. Now your Path in Life has changed and you will suffer the consequences of your decisions.

We will move forward with our Paths in Life, both you and I, but from this point our Paths must diverge. You understand that you are dis-enrolled from your studies and no longer have a home to return to in Sebérnekt Ris. That is not to say the Ancients will not call upon you to serve. I firmly believe they will, but the manner in which you serve will be different from what your Mistress and I envisioned. Be patient and continue learning. Perhaps you will find yourself in a position to temper and influence the actions and decisions of our nation’s leader. How many of us can make such a claim?

Although I will never see you again, I wish you the best. I expect and hope that your new Path in Life will permit you to draw upon the knowledge you acquired with us to serve the people of Danubia.

P.S. If you check under your bed, you will see that I sent jars of birth-control paste and some of the tea-mixture your Mistress bequeathed to you. I provided these items out of respect for the memory I have of her, not because I think you deserve them.

The letter was a hard blow to Silvítya’s hopes but, in a way, receiving it was a relief. She was indeed starting over. There was nothing to connect her to the past two years of her life with the Cult of the Ancients and the university. Her world now consisted of pleasing the Grand Duke and getting along with her “sisters”.

* * *

Silvítya’s first test of loyalty took place when she stepped out of her room to travel to use the privy. Upon exiting the concubines’ sleeping chambers, Danka was confronted by two angry-looking castle matrons carrying switches.

“What did Magdala tell you about Desislava?”

“Sister Desislava, Mistress?”

“Yes. His Majesty demands to know what Magdala said about her.”

“I… I mean… you need to talk to Sister Magdala, Mistress.”

“Right now I’m not talking to her. I’m talking to you. In the name of His Majesty, you will answer.”

“Mistress, I don’t speak on behalf of the sisters. I can’t tell you anything about Sister Desislava. You need to talk to Sister Magdala. She’s our spokeswoman, not me.”

“I’m just asking you if Magdala said anything about her. Judging by your answer, she did. Now, in the name of His Majesty, you will tell us what she said.”

Silvítya’s heart pounded. However, she realized what was happening. The castle matrons had assumed, because her accent was lower-class, that she was an uneducated simpleton and thus easily intimidated. Her vocabulary should have given them a clue their initial impression was erroneous, but they were paying so much attention to her accent that they had ignored her educated words and correct grammar.

“Mistress, you really must first speak to Sister Magdala. I can’t say anything to you. I can’t speak on behalf of anyone except myself.”

“Then you’re coming with us. We’ll show you what happens to ‘sisters’ who are disobedient.”

“Did you talk to Sister Magdala, Mistress? My understanding is that all of His Majesty’s orders are relayed through her, our spokeswoman. I’ll come with you, but not until Sister Magdala has passed that command. Please, Mistress… she’s right here, in her chamber.”

The matrons made no move towards Magdala’s chamber. Silvítya’s suspicions that she was being tested were confirmed. She noted the matrons no longer seemed so confident.

“Very well, your failure to obey a command will be passed to His Majesty. He’ll deal with you appropriately.”

With that, the matrons turned away. Silvítya immediately ran to Magdala’s sleeping chamber and woke her up. When she described the confrontation, the other woman replied: “They won’t tell His Majesty anything. You did what you were supposed to do, and as you saw for yourself, they did not relay the order to me. There was nothing from His Majesty to relay. I guess they underestimated you. They’re normally not so direct.”

“They try this with everyone?”

“Yes, but they’re usually more subtle about it. It must have been your accent… making them think it would be easy to turn you into an informant against the rest of us.”

Silvítya thought about her accent. She had wanted to get rid of it the previous year, precisely because it gave such a bad impression among the educated when she first opened her mouth. However, in a place like the Grand Duke’s castle, having the combination of education and a peasant’s accent could be a huge asset. The Royal staff and advisors would tend to underestimate her, which would be extremely useful when she needed to gather information.

* * *

With his women the Grand Duke was cruel, dominating, and egotistical, but he never assumed he had nothing to learn from them. He was curious about their backgrounds and their lives prior to being taken into the castle. Each of the women under his control had a unique life story and could provide him with perspective about the Duchy’s society that he could not obtain through his advisors. As a group they were an important asset, not just for providing pleasure, but as a way to keep his view of his subjects grounded in reality. The concubines provided him with a good sampling of the population from the western half of the Duchy, a way he could obtain unfiltered information about the lives and attitudes of ordinary citizens.

When the girls entered his service, most were terrified and eager to please him, which was the way it should be. However, after the concubines became accustomed to their circumstances and understood how they needed to behave, the sovereign encouraged them to converse with him and talk about themselves. His ministers would have wondered why he was interested in listening to trivia about the girls’ families and daily routines. While it was true that the majority of the women had little of importance to tell him as individuals, the over-all picture of the Duchy’s society they provided was extremely valuable for setting realistic policies that actually addressed the needs of the public.

Unlike the castle matrons and most of his advisors, the Grand Duke never underestimated Silvítya. From the beginning he noticed the contrast between her accent and her vocabulary. He correctly assumed that his newest acquisition was born into poverty but had somehow managed to receive some education. He could tell right away she was intelligent and curious. Judging by the way she had been behaving in the plaza when he first noticed her, it seemed that she was unfamiliar with the protocol of the capital, which meant she came from some other place and was visiting. He also had noticed the smallpox vaccination scar on the girl’s shoulder. He could tell the scar was relatively recent: she had been vaccinated as an adult within the last couple of years.

At the end of her first week in the castle, the Danubian sovereign ordered Silvítya to go to his bed-chamber alone. Magdala explained, “He does this with all of us. He likes to hear about our lives. He’ll ask you things… and will expect you to answer honestly. Please don’t try lying to him, about anything. You’ve seen what happens to a Sister who was caught telling a lie, so don’t do it, even if you think if you’re telling him something that sounds bad. And… he’ll give you some really nice treats if you talk to him enough and tell him something interesting.”

Silvítya nervously accompanied a matron to the Royal bed-chamber. As usual, the older woman was carrying a leather switch, which she used to direct the concubine with taps to her hips and shoulders. Silvítya bitterly reflected that she was being trained and directed in the same manner as a horse, responding to taps of the switch instead of verbal commands.

She was surprised to see the Grand Duke completely naked when she entered his chamber. Normally he liked to be ritually undressed before indulging himself with his women. However, Silvítya had come up alone and he did not want to bother with having her undress him. He grabbed her, pushed her onto his bed and, with no foreplay whatsoever, vigorously thrust into her body. When he finished, he ordered the girl onto her knees and deliberately humiliated her in two ways. She had to lick his penis while it was still sticky from the first round of sex, which was disgusting for the concubine and meant to be. While she was working on trying to achieve a second erection, the sovereign ran his fingers through her hair. She cringed as she felt her scalp being violated by her master’s rough explorations. When the Grand Duke became hard again, he ordered her to get on her elbows and knees. He entered her from behind and thrust in his usual obsessive manner. However, Silvítya was hugely relieved that he had not entered her sphincter.

The routine changed when he was finished. Instead of ordering her out of the room, the Grand Duke told his servant to follow him into an adjoining chamber containing a sunken stone bath large enough to comfortably fit three people. As he settled into the water, he directed her attention to a washbasin with salt and a fresh toothbrush. After she cleaned her mouth she was to join him in the bath.

She knew that she had to push aside her anger and bitterness over having her body violated in so many ways. Like it or not, the country’s ruler was now her owner. Throughout her life she had been indoctrinated that the Grand Duke was the supreme worldly authority in the Duchy. Nothing in her background or her studies indicated that an average citizen, and much less a woman, had the right to object to a ruler’s orders. Like every other Danubian, she owed him absolute and unquestioning obedience.

The bath relaxed her slightly, even though she was sitting with a man she feared and hated. He touched her shoulder and ran his finger around the vaccination scar.

“I can see that you bear the Follower’s mark, the one that protects you from the pox.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl bears the mark.”

“Excellent. I see it is recent. Where were you when the Followers marked you?”

Silvítya was terrified, but she decided to follow Magdala’s advice and tell the Grand Duke the truth. Already, through nothing more than looking at a scar, he had figured out a lot about her. If she lied about something as basic as her past and he caught her, the consequences would be too terrible to contemplate.

“Your humble servant was in Nagorónkti-Serífkti when she was marked, Your Majesty.”

“Then you must have been there when the Followers visited in the summer of last year. That scar is too new for you to have received from the previous visit three years ago.”

“That is correct, Your Majesty.”

“But your accent… it is not from the Nagorónkti-Serífkti region. You’re not from that area.”

“I… your humble serving girl… is from…”

“You’re from the river valley. A laborer’s daughter, no doubt, judging by the way you pronounce your words. I find it interesting… a girl from the river valley receiving the Followers’ mark in Nagorónkti-Serífkti. So, you seem to be well-traveled, is that not so?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl has traveled.”

The Grand Duke continued his probing comments and questions, gathering information that he needed to work out the details of Silvítya’s life. She was impressed and worried by her master’s talent of figuring things out about a person’s life through nothing more than casual comments. His memory was excellent and he was quick to catch any contradictions in what a person was telling him. Within a very short time, and without asking her directly, the Grand Duke had reconstructed her travels: starting in Rika Héckt-nemát (through her accent), Starívktaki Móskt (through vocabulary unique to the Old Believers of the Danubian Church and a couple of references to the seminary), Sevérckt nad Gorádki (through some comments about the northern mountain region), and Sebérnekt Ris (through her correct grammar and the fact she had attended the university). She later found out he did the same with all of his concubines, practicing his skill deducing details of a person’s life through clues instead of through relying on deliberately spoken words.

The Grand Duke was extremely pleased with the newest addition to his collection of girls. This one had seen many places and had experienced life from the perspective of several social groups. It was very likely he’d learn some interesting facts from her and obtain a unique view of his realm. The majority of his concubines were daughters of guild members. In a few cases, like Silvítya, they had been randomly chosen off the street, but most of them had been handed over as bribes by professional tradesmen who had run afoul of the Duchy’s laws, were hopelessly in debt, or had in some way offended the Grand Duke and needed to placate him. So… the girls’ backgrounds were similar: the daughters of middle-class tradesmen who had led irresponsible lives and needed to extricate themselves from legal trouble. Few of the concubines had an expansive view of the world. They had grown up in a single location and had known the same people throughout their lives. Their levels of education varied, but none had university-level training. Silvítya (if that was really her name) was different, more interesting, and potentially much more useful.

* * *

During the first weeks of her internment in the Duke’s castle, Silvítya discovered that life as a concubine consisted of much more than having sex, bathing, and sleeping. The Grand Duke wanted his women to have good etiquette and to have a basic understanding of the skills expected of any upper-class woman. When she was not with the Duke or in the bathhouse, she was with one of the Royal tutors. Over the next few months she would improve her penmanship, learn how to knit and embroider, and learn how to prepare and present upper-class meals.

Ten days went by before the kitchen staff felt that Silvítya was ready to rejoin the other concubines in the dining hall. She was extremely nervous as she sat down and the others carefully watched her eat. The women were still critical of her table etiquette, but they decided that the newcomer’s manners had improved just enough that they would let her stay with them. That moment marked an important accomplishment, not just because Silvítya could eat like a woman from the upper class, but also because being accepted at the dinner table meant that she was officially accepted as part of the concubine group.

* * *

The concubines led a strange life together, as they spent their days waiting for the bell to ring. They had to pass their time engaged in activities they could break away from at a moment’s notice. They played chess and cards, practiced music and embroidery, gossiped about events and people in the castle, and groomed each other in the bath. They chatted about their families, their respective towns, food, pregnancy, and compared notes on their experiences with babies and small children. They were artificially polite to each other, determined to avoid anything that hinted at conflict or discord. They knew the matrons were watching and would be quick to exploit any disputes among the group. The obsession with politeness meant the concubines did everything they could to conform to the small culture they had created. The obsession with etiquette and conformity explained their hostility towards breaches of group protocol such as Silvítya’s table manners.

Silvítya did everything she could to get along with the others. Whether or not she liked them, and regardless of whether she would have wanted to be friends with them in the outside world, for the moment the other concubines were all she had. She had to establish trust with them. Her lowly background, her travels, and her education set her apart, as did her curiosity about the world. Of the group, Silvítya was by far the most traveled and intellectual. If she couldn’t travel, then she wanted to go back to reading, which was an activity most of the other women did not seem to miss. She felt that the constant conversation among the women could have been much more useful to everyone if they could be discussing educational topics and books instead of the inane trivia that filled up their days.

The detail about the other concubines that secretly grated on Silvítya was their lack of interest in anything not directly related to their daily lives. Fortunately, the newcomer had passed through the hometowns of nearly all of her companions, so at least she had an introductory conversation topic to work with. She was curious about the towns, so she questioned the others to fill in information about places that she had visited only in passing.

During her first months of internment, Silvítya gravitated towards Magdala. The spokeswoman seemed a bit smarter than the other “sisters” and was good at analyzing and explaining things. She originally was from a village south of Dagurúckt-Tók, an area where Ermin and Káloyankt had vaccinated the local population the previous year. Magdala had the “mark of the Followers” on her shoulder, which meant that one of Silvítya’s lovers at that time must have vaccinated her.

Magdala commented, “The Followers of the Ancients always fascinated me. I remember people talking about a young female medical practitioner working in the town of Dagurúckt-Tók itself, and I was hoping to talk to her… see if I could join the Cult and become like her.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“My grandfather. He wouldn’t let me go, and I didn’t find out until later. I was living in his household and he was dealing with my father’s debts...”

Magdala talked about her family for a while, focusing on her parents’ complete irresponsibility handling their affairs. She concluded with: “…so the Royal Guards came to my grandfather’s house, looking for my father. The money-lenders wanted to take control of the house, but my grandfather offered me instead of the house. I was shocked, because I couldn’t imagine my grandfather dishonoring me by offering me as collateral to save his home. But he did. And the Guards took me to the moneylenders and asked them what they wanted to do with me. I was convinced they wanted to use me for their own pleasure. However, when they decided that my appearance was very pleasing to a man’s eye, they offered to sell me to the Grand Duke. The Guards agreed. The Guards paid off my father’s debts, brought me to the Royal Castle, and were in turn paid off by the matrons. So… that’s my story. The Grand Duke bought me from my father’s money-lenders.”

“Are most of the sisters’ stories similar to yours?”

“Each of us has her own story… how she came to the castle. Some of us were purchased with silver, and some of us were captured. You were captured, I was purchased.”

* * *

About a month after she entered the castle, Silvítya noticed that Desislava’s stomach was starting to swell. There wasn’t any doubt why: the woman was pregnant. This is going to be interesting, thought Silvítya, to see how they handle pregnancies. As soon as the Grand Duke realized the concubine was pregnant, he stopped having sex with her. A few days later the castle’s hair-dresser visited the concubines’ quarters and braided her hair. Then Desislava left. Silvítya asked Magdala what would happen to her.

“She carries His Majesty’s seed. She will stay in the castle until she has the child. Then she’ll return to her home.”

“The Grand Duke will just kick her out? With a baby?”

“No, not just kick her out. His Majesty will build her a house and send her a silver piece each month. The man delivering the coin is a doctor, and he will check the child each time he visits. She will have to make her own life, but will do so on the Grand Duke’s coin.”

“And this happens to everyone who gets pregnant?”

“Yes, it is our Path in Life. We stay and please His Majesty until he plants his seed. Then we go home, but we continue to serve him by raising his child.”

“But, even with the Duke’s coin, that seems awful… to just sit in a house, alone…”

“Alone? Sister, how naďve are you? A woman favored by His Majesty and living on his coin? Many men greatly desire such a wife. She’ll have her choice of men. She’ll be the wife of an Army officer or a city official within a year of her return.”

* * *

A few minutes later Silvítya stood on a balcony, studying the Moon and thinking over what her companion had told her. She realized that she was much closer to achieving her teenaged dream than she had ever been before. If the Grand Duke made her pregnant, and then sent her back to her home in Rika Héckt-nemát, she’d have that nice house and nice husband she always wanted. She could return to Rika Héckt-nemát in triumph and seek revenge on that city guard who had been so cruel to her. She’d be much better off than her sister ever could be, and she’d taunt her parents for having treated her so badly. The dream, the one that had ended so badly with a bucket of stolen apples and a horrid day on the pillory, was within reach.

The strange thing about a dream or a goal is that a person can spend a lifetime pursuing it, but the moment it is within reach, one realizes that dream is no longer desired. That was what Silvítya realized, as she stood staring at the moon and thinking about her old life in Rika Héckt-nemát and a possible new life there. She no longer wanted to live in her old hometown and spend her time taunting her mother. She really had no desire to go back at all. She had moved beyond that. She didn’t know what she wanted, but now she knew that she would not find it in Rika Héckt-nemát, even if she could spend the rest of her life “living on the Grand Duke’s coin”.

She looked under her bed and checked her supply of birth-control paste. She very grateful for Dean Fítoreckt’s parting gift and would use it to prevent the Grand Duke from “planting his seed” for as long as she could. The paste would give her some time to figure out how to avoid leaving the castle burdened with the responsibility of bearing and caring for a Royal child.

* * *

For the first time during her internment, Silvítya performed another duty she had as a concubine the day after Desislava left the group. She had to spend several afternoons in a parlor posing for two portraits.

The Grand Duke was a generous patron of painting, but his taste in themes was limited to pictures of his women. He had two painters who worked full-time in the castle, doing nothing but painting pictures of concubines. Besides employing the two full-time painters, the ruler also provided temporary work for any reasonably-talented artist passing through the capitol. Traveling painters could count on earning some silver in Danúbikt Móskt if they paid a visit to the castle and the Grand Duke liked samples of their work.

* * *

As August passed and the summer days grew shorter, Silvítya spent more time with the Grand Duke than any of her fellow “sisters”. He continued to treat her roughly in bed, but afterwards he comforted her in his bath and calmed her nerves with wine. Her life story fascinated him. He started by questioning her about university life in Sebérnekt Ris. It was obvious he already knew a lot about the university and, in fact, had met Dean Fítoreckt. Several castle doctors and scribes had been trained at the university, but the Duke was interested in hearing Silvítya’s perspective as a student. She dreaded the thought of the ruler checking university records and discovering there was no student at the university using her current name. Through her conversations she found out that Dean Fítoreckt had died only two weeks after she left for the capital; a fact that saddened, but did not surprise her.

The ruler questioned the concubine at length about her studies, probing to see how much she knew about medicine, history, and the Duchy in general. He was impressed with her knowledge. He pondered how to use the girl’s brain to his advantage. He decided to start by giving her a complicated task that could potentially be useful. He ordered her to go into the Royal Library, write summaries of the books she considered the most important, the most interesting, or the most useful, and provide recommendations for new acquisitions. The ruler admitted that he did not have much time for leisure reading, so when he did have a chance to read, he wanted to make sure he was spending his time with the best his collection had to offer. So, not only would Silvítya have access to the Royal Library; she would be tasked with knowing and describing its contents.

The Grand Duke escorted Silvítya to the library, to make sure the matrons and librarians knew that she was supposed to be there and was acting in his orders. The library contained many books on military equipment and strategy, religious works, maps, Danubian history, poetry, and translations of foreign novels, but was sorely lacking works on medicine, chemistry, and hard sciences such as botany. Silvítya was surprised by the collection of architecture studies and drawings of buildings from foreign cities around Europe. Those were the most recent purchases, a reflection of the fascination the Grand Duke had with architecture.

Silvítya entered the library at day-break and stayed until noon, Monday through Saturday. She started by trying to remember the titles and authors of books she had read during her year in Sebérnekt Ris. As various books came to her mind, she compiled the titles into a list of proposed acquisitions. She began her summaries with the history and theology books. She did not feel qualified to assess the value of the military studies and figured that the Grand Duke would be least interested in knowing about the novels and poetry. She buried herself into her work, relieved to have her mind occupied and to spend her mornings not having to listen to the chatter of her “sisters”.

During the afternoons Silvítya did spend her time with the other women: eating, practicing etiquette, embroidering, bathing, and waiting for the bell to ring. During the month of September the pregnancies of two women became evident. The matrons braided their hair, they were provided with maternity dresses, and they left the group. The ruler replaced them with two new concubines, one of whom had been purchased from an indebted guildsman and the other from an independent farmer. A third girl appeared; a foreigner who was totally different in appearance from a typical Danubian. Her hair was completely black and her skin was considerably darker than anyone previously seen in the Grand Duke’s castle.

The foreigner’s name was Antonia. She was a gift from the Grand Duke’s ambassador to Constantinople. Originally she had lived on an island in the Adriatic Sea, but her family had been captured during a pirates’ raid against her village. She had seen some terrible things during her voyage to Constantinople, but her captors had kept her in good physical condition to maintain her value. As he was getting ready to return home, the Danubian ambassador bought her and another Adriatic girl and brought them to the Duchy. He kept the other girl for himself and presented Antonia to the Grand Duke. The Grand Duke had mixed feelings about the newest member of his collection. Her appearance fascinated him, but she knew nothing about protocol and was unable to understand and follow orders. She did not speak a word of Danubian and was mortified at being forced to be naked. Her failure to obey orders and her constant efforts to cover herself already had earned her a severe switching from the matrons. Magdala decided to task Silvítya with teaching the foreigner how to communicate and, whenever she was not in the library, to not let her out of her sight.

Silvítya spent the last half of September and all of October and November working with Antonia. She taught the foreigner to speak in the same way she had been taught how to read by the Church apprentice in Starívktaki Móskt; starting with the names of simple objects and later moving on to actions and commands. She broke Antonia’s habit of trying to cover herself by gently touching her arms and forcing her to move her hands to her sides. Antonia came from a culture in which women never appeared naked in public, so covering her body was a reflexive reaction to her situation, something she did by instinct and without thinking. The culture of the Duchy, and especially in places like the castle where nudity was required, was different. Oddly, Antonia was not bothered in the least by having her hair unbraided and her scalp touched by the Grand Duke. Silvítya still was made very uneasy by the feeling of her loose hair brushing around her bare shoulders, while being naked around the castle staff was not nearly as much of an issue.

Antonia followed Silvítya around the castle whenever her mentor was not attending to her duties in the library. She became psychologically dependent on Silvítya: being in such a strange place, forced to constantly be naked, being subjected to rough sex with an arrogant master, and not being able to properly communicate with anyone. Because they were together constantly, the Silvítya and Antonia washed each other’s hair and bodies, ignoring the unspoken protocol of sharing their baths and grooming with the other concubines. They moved on to giving each other soapy massages in the bath, and then to caressing each other in Silvítya’s bed-chamber. In the middle of October, Antonia quit sleeping in her own bed-chamber and joined Silvítya in hers.

Silvítya and Antonia were not the only concubines to share a bed. During the winter it was common for unmarried Danubians, especially women, to sleep together to be warmer at night, even if they were not romantically involved. Magdala, for example, slept with one of the new girls. So the other concubines did not question the arrangement Silvítya had made with Antonia. However, as they lay naked together, sleeping in each other’s arms and caressing each other’s bodies, the peasant girl and the foreigner developed a relationship that came very close to being a sexual romance. Neither would have defined what they were doing in those terms, because an overt physical relationship between two people of the same sex was strictly forbidden by both Danubian society and by their respective churches. They never kissed and never touched each other’s vulvas, so they could claim to others and justify to themselves their relationship was nothing more than friendly intimacy and had nothing to do with sex. However, the emotional attachment between Silvítya and Antonia was very strong, going way beyond simple friendship. They were not “in love” as the term would be understood in the 20th and 21st Centuries, but they shared a unique emotional bond that was part friendship, part sisterly love, and part sexual desire.

* * *

Silvítya provided the Grand Duke with reports and summaries about the contents of his library throughout the final months of 1753. She had to kneel in the throne room and do formal presentations with scribes and matrons watching. The Grand Duke took her reading lists and recommendations seriously. If she recommended acquiring a new title for the Royal Library, she could count on seeing it added to the collection within about three weeks. The Grand Duke also paid attention to her summaries. He actually read some of the titles she recommended and discussed them with her.

Silvítya’s relationship with her master changed as a result of the conversations he held with her. He continued to want sex with her and to have her with him in his bath, but he called her to his bed-chamber by herself, not with the others. He stopped forcing her to lick his penis and no longer wanted to enter her sphincter. Silvítya was hugely grateful to have her bottom spared from the Grand Duke’s attention: she found anal sex painful and did not enjoy it in the least.

The Grand Duke carefully calculated how much freedom to give Silvítya. He wanted her to understand that she was still his property and he could do with her as he pleased, but he also wanted to take advantage of her intelligence, education, and experiences. He couldn’t do so if she was totally terrified of him: she had to have enough self-confidence around him to express her opinions and talk freely. He considered taking the “favored concubine” position away from Magdala and giving it to Silvítya, but realized that would not serve his needs. Silvítya’s duties required her to be away from her “sisters” during much of the day, and Magdala seemed to be a good leader for the group. The Grand Duke had learned that if a person was performing well in an appointed position, especially a position that entailed relaying orders, making changes usually did more harm than good. So, Silvítya would continue her work in the Royal Library and Magdala would continue speaking on behalf of the concubine group.

The Danubian ruler continued asking Silvítya about her travels and her past. By the end of October he realized that she had been a member of the Cult of the Ancients. That was an extremely useful detail about the girl’s past life, but one he did not plan to question her about directly. Her training as a Follower meant that she would have medical experience and could perform field surgery. It also meant she probably had a good idea what happened to the Followers: why they so suddenly and mysteriously vanished at the end of the summer of the previous year. The Grand Duke was patient with such topics. He would bide his time, wait for Silvítya to make casual comments and then, when he already knew too much for her to deny anything, force her to tell him the full story of what happened to the Cult and its members.

In the meantime, the Grand Duke was interested in other parts of Silvítya’s former life. He was particularly interested in hearing about the Senior Priest of Starívktaki Móskt and his wayward son Bagatúrckt. The ruler knew that Bagatúrckt had been killed (the incident was a regional scandal) and realized that his concubine knew what actually happened to him. Another interesting detail he’d have to extract from her when the right moment came.

The Grand Duke pressed his servant for details about her life as a day-laborer’s daughter in her hometown of Rika Héckt-nemát. The rivalry between her and her sister and the intrigue within her family interested the Master, as did details about the irrigation project. He was especially curious to know the exact date of the girl’s departure. When she answered that she had left in early June of 1750, he responded:

“Then the Creator was indeed watching over you. You do know that within weeks of your departure, almost everyone in Rika Héckt-nemát held up his mirror in the Afterlife?”

Silvítya’s heart jumped into her throat. “No, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl did not know that.”

“Yes, indeed. The Destroyer passed through your city with the rat-plague. It was the worst epidemic anyone has ever seen in recent times. It’s possible it was the worst epidemic ever, considering how many people died and how quickly. I have read about the rat-plague throughout history and I never encountered a case as severe as the one in Rika Héckt-nemát. I had to order your city cut off from the rest of the Duchy to safeguard the neighboring towns. A painful decision that condemned that city, but spared the others.”

“Your humble serving girl wishes to know if anyone survived, Your Majesty.”

“A few people. Some starving survivors came up to the roadblocks the following spring. I ordered them quarantined until we could determine they did not carry the plague, then the guards fed them and let them pass.”

“Your humble serving girl wishes to know how many, Your Majesty.”

“No more than 600, I would estimate. I presume there are a few people still in the town, but I don’t know how many. I’ve maintained the blockade. I don’t want people going in there. You know… your city was cursed by the Destroyer.”

“No, Your Majesty, your humble serving girl did not know that.”

“Yes, indeed. The place is cursed. The story I heard was that some city guards tied up a girl and threw her into the Rika Chorna river to drown. She cried out to Beelzebub (that’s what the True Believers call the Destroyer) to save her. The Destroyer did save her, but at the cost of her soul and the lives of the town’s other citizens. The whole region was dead within days. You were very lucky to get out before the Destroyer seized the city.”

“My family… my brothers…”

“Most likely their souls separated from their bodies. There were no day-laborers reported among the survivors, at least none that I am aware of. But, as I said, it doesn’t matter. Rika Héckt-nemát carries a curse, and I will not risk the lives of any more of the Duchy’s citizens trying to determine what happened. The city died, the rest of the Duchy lives, and we must avoid the curse and confront other problems.”

* * *

Silvítya tightly held Antonia that night. For a while she didn’t say anything, but she needed to be comforted. Her thoughts wandered to the cold rational mentality of the Grand Duke. For fifteen years Rika Héckt-nemát had been Silvítya’s entire world. She still spoke with an accent from that location. That world now was gone, its people taken away by the rat-plague, or by Beelzebub, or the Destroyer, depending on who one talked to.

To the Grand Duke the city was just one out of many, one minor issue among a myriad of problems facing his realm. The death of an entire city was an unfortunate incident, but not one that loomed large among his worries. The city died: there was nothing he could do about it apart from sealing off whatever problems remained, and the Duchy would move forward. It seemed the Grand Duke was no more disturbed about the deaths of 20,000 people than he would be upon encountering a flock of dead birds along the roadway.

Through the language barrier Silvítya explained to her lover what had happened to her family, that most likely they all were dead. Her thoughts were conflicted and she really didn’t know how to take the news. Yes, she had hated her sister Katrínckta and resented the way her parents had treated her. But she had loved her younger brothers. Also, she had entertained ideas of eventually returning home in triumph and somehow using her new status to set things right. There was nothing to set right, because it was very unlikely anyone from her family was still alive.

She wondered about Farmer Tuko Orsktackt and his large family and happy estate. Did any of them survive? She hoped so, but was not optimistic. She had hoped to return the farmer’s estate in triumph and reconcile with him, a hope similar to the one she had for her family. Perhaps he survived the rat-plague: more likely he didn’t.

Antonia carefully listened to Silvítya and understood most of what she said. She now spoke Danubian well enough to relay her own painful memories; that she had witnessed the killing of her parents, along with most of the other older captives from her village. The raiders did not consider the older people worth transporting. They could have simply been released, but the captors instead chose to kill them and dump their bodies into the Adriatic Sea.

Silvítya realized she was more fortunate than her lover. At least she had not been forced to witness the death of her family. There was that terrifying vision of her sister’s death, but that was not the same as what Antonia must have felt, watching the killings in real life and seeing her parents’ lifeless bodies disappear into the water.

* * *

The next day, while eating dinner with her group, Sister Magdala became violently sick. She barely made it out of the dining hall before throwing up. Over the next several days she became sick at random times with spontaneous vomiting spells. For a group of women who spent their days waiting to become pregnant, it was obvious what was happening to their spokeswoman. The moon had paid her a visit. Now, it was Magdala’s turn to carry the Grand Duke’s seed. Within a few weeks her stomach would start to swell, she would depart the concubine group, and would spend the rest of her time in the castle living in the maternity ward.

The news of Magdala’s pending departure greatly depressed Silvítya. Besides being a good leader for the “sisters” and maintaining harmony among them, Magdala was the only woman among the concubines Silvítya felt she could really talk to and share her feelings. She would be sorely missed.

The spokeswoman’s pregnancy reminded Silvítya of the reality of her relationship with Antonia; that if Antonia became pregnant, they would be separated. She now faced a moral dilemma with her lover. She kept her supply of birth-control paste and longevity potion hidden in a box tied to the underside of the bed. She loved Antonia enough to seriously consider giving her both. She did not want her partner to become pregnant and taken away from her, nor did she want to see Antonia age. However, she realized that to let Antonia know anything about her secrets would place both women at huge risk by involving them in a conspiracy. Conspiracy against the Grand Duke or his wishes was a capital offense. Also, there was not a chance Silvítya could escape the castle and take Antonia with her. Under the right circumstances, she could escape on her own, but Antonia’s foreign physical appearance was sure to draw attention. The only Path in Life open to Silvítya’s partner was to wait until she became pregnant, have the Grand Duke’s baby, and hope that she could have an acceptable life upon leaving the castle, “living on His Majesty’s coin”. Silvítya rationalized that perhaps she could reunite with Antonia and they could continue their relationship after both left the castle. Subconsciously she knew that hope was completely unrealistic.

As she lay with Antonia, gently running her hand over her partner’s bottom and thighs, Silvítya sadly reflected that her relationship with Antonia was a lot like her relationship with Káloyankt. Whatever love she felt for the person currently in her arms didn’t matter. Their time together was doomed to come to an end as soon as “the moon paid Antonia a visit”. Their Paths in Life would not permit them to stay together.

Historian's Note 01: It is difficult for a non-Danubian to understand the humiliation the concubines had to endure by allowing their Master to run his fingers through their hair. Braided hair is a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of the Danubian nation and is a woman’s primary symbol of honor. According to Danubian protocol, the top of a woman’s head is considered her “space” and a forbidden zone for men. Religious traditions, among both the Followers of the Ancients and among Danubia’s Christian denominations, strictly prohibited men from touching women’s hair and prohibited women from allowing men to see their hair unbraided. The Grand Duke, by fondling the women’s scalps and breaking the most fundamental sexual taboo of Danubian culture, was demonstrating absolute dominance over his concubines and stripping them of all of their dignity.

Historian's Note 02:The pair of paintings were the first out of many the Grand Duke commissioned of her: in modern times there are 26 confirmed paintings portraying Silvítya alone and another eight of her posing with a companion, housed in various museums and art collections around the country. All of the images are nude figure studies. The paintings were extremely explicit for their time. Rulers throughout Europe sometimes commissioned nude portraits of their mistresses or models, but in most cases the pictures did not portray the woman’s private area in detail. The Grand Duke of Danubia would have none of that. He insisted that his concubines’ pubic hair be included in any picture portraying them from the front, and if their genitalia were visible in their pose, that had to be detailed in the picture as well. The images created in the Grand Duke’s castle were as explicit as any high-resolution photograph taken in the late 20th Century. The paintings from the Royal Residence were popular among visiting dignitaries, and the sovereign had an ample supply to pass out as gifts. There are over 500 surviving concubine portraits scattered around Danubia and neighboring countries, of which we have information on only half of the models. Fortunately, art historians have identified the images of Silvítya, so we have a very good idea of what she looked like in the mid-1700s. It is interesting to note that the Grand Duke never gave away any of the portraits he had commissioned of Sister Silvítya.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

End of part 4

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