The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 6

Chapter Eighteen – Lower Danubia

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

News of the Duchy’s victory in Hórkustk Ris did not reach the Kingdom of the Moon immediately. A few survivors from the Kingdom’s rout did manage to sneak past the Grand Duke’s Royal Guards and slip across the border into the Kingdom. However, the Kingdom of the Moon survivors, who could not have numbered more than a few dozen, had no incentive whatsoever to contact the Lord’s advisors with news of the defeat. In the Kingdom of the Moon, the military policy was victory or death. Anyone surviving a defeat faced hanging on one of the infamous torture hooks. So, rather than warn anyone, the survivors simply returned to their homes. Two of the men, an infantryman and a member of the elite cavalry, later wrote accounts describing the campaign of Hórkustk Ris from the viewpoint of the defeated invaders, of how an inevitable victory turned into an epic annihilation.

The Grand Duke gave his men a week to rest and recover, while he assessed the campaign that lay ahead. The most dangerous part of the campaign was over, having ended with a spectacular pair of victories and his army still mostly intact. The Danubian fighting men now numbered a total of about 8,000. The remaining thousand men were either dead or too injured to fight. The mounted unit had taken the brunt of the hand-to-hand fighting, so its strength had been reduced by a third. However, the Danubian cavalry now boasted hundreds of captured Kingdom of the Moon horses and the surviving men had the chance to try out the Kingdom’s legendary weapons.

The Grand Duke ordered his infantry and artillery units to start moving south. Meanwhile, he would lead the surviving cavalry against various Red Moon garrisons still stationed around Hórkustk Ris province. The Danubian horsemen would dress up in the uniforms of the Red Moon Army and ride the Lord of the Red Moon’s horses up to garrisons that were unaware of the Kingdom’s defeat in Hórkustk Ris. The garrisons would be easy prey for the vengeful Danubians. Across the southern area of the Duchy, villages and forts were stormed by troops the defenders mistook for “Beautiful Savages”. In every fight, the deception worked long enough for the Danubians to achieve easy victory.

The non-Danubian inhabitants of Hórkustk Ris province at first did not realize what was happening as the Danubian Grand Duke and his disguised cavalry unit stormed garrison after garrison. They welcomed the legendary “Beautiful Savages”, only to realize, too late, they actually were Danubians. When the Kingdom’s garrisons were wiped out, there was panic and confusion. If the Red Moon Army had invaded the Duchy and taken Hórkustk Ris, why were these disguised raiders taking over so many forts? Why were Danubian infantry and artillery units calmly moving into villages cleared by the raiders? Why were Danubian raiders riding the Kingdom’s horses and using the Kingdom’s weapons? Where was the Red Moon Army?

The men accompanying their sovereign later recalled that he fought like a madman as he led the attacks. He was furious about the invasion and the Lord of the Red Moon’s plans for the Duchy. He seemed completely oblivious to his own safety as he charged garrison after garrison. His men had to fight equally hard just to prevent him from being surrounded and killed. As the campaign progressed, the Royal Guards’ respect for the Grand Duke evolved into adoration. Not only was he was a brilliant strategist, he was a brave fighter. He was Royalty, but danger and hardship meant nothing to him.

Had the Grand Duke’s concubines been able to see him in action during the battles, their sovereign’s behavior would not have surprised them. He was frenetic and as fanatical about killing his enemies as he was about having sex. The ruler was fixated and driven, to the point of being maniacal and at times psychotic. His men, convinced that he was carrying out the will of the Creator by destroying the remnants of the Army of the Red Moon in the Duchy, followed him with absolute and unquestioning devotion.

The Southern Campaign

During the first week of July, the Danubian Royal Army achieved another important victory, second only to the victory in Hórkustk Ris. They passed through the narrow range of wooded hills that separated Hórkustk Ris province from the former Ottoman lands that now comprised the Kingdom of the Moon. On the northern side of the hills was a small town called Iyóshnyakt Krepóckt, and on the southern side of the range there was a fort on a hilltop that had served as the Danubian border garrison’s command post from 1531 until the previous year, when it and the town were overrun by the Lord of the Red Moon. Fortunately for the Grand Duke and his men, the fort’s defenders were as oblivious about the defeat in Hórkustk Ris as everyone else in the Lord’s army. They opened the gates to let in the “Beautiful Savages”, only to realize they had just let in hundreds of Danubian soldiers. The fight was over in minutes and the fort was once again under the Duchy’s control.

Because the place was visible to the entire surrounding countryside, the Grand Duke ordered the Lord of the Red Moon’s flags to remain flying over the fort. The Danubians would now make the border fort their main base of operations to consolidate their victory, so the longer they could maintain their deception, the better. The ruler sent for reinforcements and decided to order his medical staff, including the concubines and military wives, to the new forward-operating position on the border.

As she traveled south with her companions, Silvítya tried to suppress a month’s worth of memories of war, atrocities, injured men, corpses, and wretched prisoners. Undoubtedly her master was about to expose her to yet more war, but she consoled herself that at least she would have the chance to see the Duchy’s southern border. She already had been north of the Duchy’s borders: now, just two years later, she would travel south of the Duchy. She thought about how much her life had changed in just four years. Strange to think, a little over four years before she had not even seen what was on the other side of the hill that overlooked her family’s settlement. Since then, she had seen the entire western half of the country. She had seen so much, but what difference did it make? She would have been happy to go home and brag about her travels, but no one from her former life in Rika Héckt-nemát was still alive to listen or care.

Silvítya and her companions descended the final hill before arriving at the border post. The women had to avert their eyes to avoid looking at the rotting enemy corpses that had been dumped in a ditch just north of the Grand Duke’s encampment. The smell from the bodies was horrific, but all too familiar by now. They looked at the region to the south of the fort. It was flat farmland, territory that had been the wealthiest part of the Kingdom of Danubia prior to 1502.

The Duchy’s military now occupied all of the land that had been held by the Crown since the Ottoman invasion and King Vladik’s evacuation. The Grand Duke of Danubia had struck a devastating blow to his enemies, who apparently were not yet aware of what had happened in Hórkustk Ris. The Lord of the Red Moon still thought that his army of 20,000 men was alive and moving north to seize the Danubian capitol, and certainly was not expecting the Danubians to show up in the Kingdom of the Moon’s territory.

As his army assembled in Iyóshnyakt Krepóckt, the Grand Duke pondered what he should do next and now had to make a critical decision. He thought about the sacrifice made by the Danubians under King Vladik, in which he had to abandon half of Danubia to save the other half. Given the amazing victory so far, the ruler wondered if it would be possible to reverse that loss and re-capture the region formerly known as Lower Danubia. Would it be possible to push south, surprise the Lord of the Red Moon, and reclaim the Duchy’s long-lost territories? Would it be possible to restore the Danubian Kingdom to its former glory? What if, after 250 years, the Danubians could once again celebrate religious services in the cathedral in Sumy Ris, where the nation’s first Christian mass was held eight hundred years before?

The Grand Duke badly wanted to push south, capture Sumy Ris, and see if it would be possible to hold the city against the Lord of the Red Moon’s forces. He was torn between caution and the lure of a place that was extremely important to the Duchy’s history and national identity. He understood attempting to enter the Kingdom of the Moon’s territory was extremely risky. However, perhaps the Creator was watching over the Danubians after all and it was the Duchy’s destiny to reclaim Lower Danubia. The Grand Duke looked for a sign, an indication beyond the information he was receiving from his informants, that he should take his troops beyond the Duchy’s current border.

He found the excuse he needed when an informant told him about a large group of enslaved Danubians being held in a compound in the southern city. The captives had not yet been moved further south because there were not enough Red Moon troops available to guard them. Apparently the entire region around Sumy Ris was lightly guarded, partly because of the invasion of Danubia, and partly because other units were fighting against the Ottomans over a position along the East Danube River. The Grand Duke would indeed conquer Sumy Ris: the captives and the lack of enemy troops gave him the justifications he needed for the operation. He announced his decision to his elated followers. Sumy Ris… the Duchy was about to reclaim Sumy Ris!

The mission was foolhardy, but the Grand Duke’s strategy of deception and dressing his troops like the Lord of the Red Moon’s soldiers gave the Danubians an important initial advantage. The Danubians were very experienced moving at night and moving quietly. The Grand Duke’s plan took advantage of the disguises and nighttime to move through the hostile territory in platoon-sized units. The Danubians would regroup south of Sumy Ris, enter the city under disguise, and defeat the Red Moon garrison. The Royal Army would move on the city with its entire force, because the goal was to permanently seize the town and annex the entire region. And to think… the Grand Duke was planning to do all that with a force of 7,000 fighting men.

The Danubians spent three days moving through lightly-guarded enemy territory. The villagers certainly did notice the strange movement of troops, but the Danubians exercised discipline and kept their conversations to a minimum to prevent the locals from hearing them speaking in a foreign tongue. Because they were moving in small groups, anyone observing the infiltrators would not have realized the platoons actually comprised a much larger force.

The maneuver to take Sumy Ris was flawless. On the third night the Grand Duke’s army re-grouped south of the city. At sunrise they marched up from the direction of the Kingdom’s capitol, so the city’s garrison did not suspect that anything was amiss. The local commander was actually were relieved that the Lord of the Red Moon finally had sent a large force to take away the Danubian captives and replace the men who were campaigning in the Duchy. He only had 400 men still protecting the city. The Danubian Royal Army made it as far as the town’s center before the Red Moon soldiers realized anything was amiss. As soon as the first shots were fired, the Danubians spread out and exterminated the garrison. The operation was finished within an hour.

For the first time in 250 years, Sumy Ris was securely under the control of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia. The easy seizure of the city and the apparent helplessness of the Army of the Red Moon was a tremendous shock to the local residents. Like everyone else in the Kingdom of the Moon, the population of Sumy Ris had not received any news that the Army of the Red Moon had been defeated in Danubia. The residents had assumed their soldiers had taken Hórkustk Ris and were besieging Danúbikt Móskt. Instead, the Danubian Grand Duke was standing in the city square, Danubian soldiers were raiding houses and pantries, and Danubian priests had taken over the old cathedral. Fleeing residents would spread the shocking news throughout the Kingdom of the Moon: the Danubians had captured Sumy Ris.

The wretched Danubian captives were chained in the city’s main fort and in three holding pens in the city market. The prisoners had been badly treated, were starving, and most were in poor health. Throughout the rest of the day the Duchy’s soldiers retaliated against the city’s residents, killing the leading male of each family and seizing all food. The Danubians carried around the Red Moon Army’s impalement hooks as justification of what they were doing to the defeated population. The Grand Duke announced to the terrified civilians:

“I have taken note of the way you treated my subjects. I will bestow the same treatment on you. We will eat, and you will starve. We will enjoy your food, and you will have the pleasure of watching us consume it. Anyhow, this is the Duchy’s city. This is land the Creator intended for Danubians, not for you. You have no right to be here.”

The invaders noticed the local women were much more modest than women in the Duchy, and took delight in tearing off the inhabitants’ shawls. The taunting gave the Grand Duke an idea to exert further control over foreigners who, in his view, had usurped Danubian territory. Besides killing the head of each family, he ordered his troops to confiscate all the local women’s clothing and jewelry, including what they were wearing. The troops burnt the clothes and kept the jewelry as souvenirs for their wives and fiancés. The entire female population of the city would have to remain naked until further notice.

Seeing the dismay, humiliation, and panic of the foreign residents bolstered the confidence of the Danubians. It seemed the Kingdom of the Moon was not so strong after-all. The soldiers happily speculated about future conquests. Sumy Ris was destined to return to being a Danubian City. What about the Duchy’s other former territories? How about Sókukt Tók and the lands along the East Danube River? No longer would he Danubians need to call their country the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia. Danubia would be united, large, and strong. The world would once again know the country as the Kingdom of Danubia.

* * *

The Grand Duke ordered the three concubines and the rest of his medical staff to travel south with a large supply caravan. Silvítya looked around at the lands lost by the Danubians in 1502: all of the fine farms and manors laid out on flat, rich soil. The architecture, after 250 years of foreign occupation, was different from what she was used to seeing in the Duchy. She was particularly fascinated with some of the public buildings and mosques that had been constructed by the Ottomans, structures that were totally different from anything she had seen in the Duchy.

Like every other Danubian, Silvítya had heard plenty of history and stories about the long-lost city of Sumy Ris. She vaguely expected the place to be truly special but, with the exception of the old cathedral, the city was simply a larger version of some of the towns she had passed through already. The buildings were a mixture of Ottoman and southern European architecture. Very few structures from the Danubian period remained: Sumy Ris had been heavily damaged in 1502 during the Ottoman capture and the majority of the buildings that survived the siege had been replaced over the ensuing two centuries.

The military wives joined the army doctors in administering treatment to the liberated Danubians. The three concubines had to report to the local governor’s palace, where the Grand Duke had set up his headquarters. On her way in she passed groups of miserable local residents who had been ordered by the Danubians to carry out and bury dead garrison soldiers and executed civilians. The humiliation on the foreigners’ faces, from both the defeat and from having the women forced to forego their clothing, went beyond anything that could be put into words. Silvítya had an ominous feeling as she looked at the conquered populace: 'If these people ever manage to fight back, they would have every reason to treat us viciously.'

Silvítya felt extremely uneasy as she entered the governor’s palace. Danubian flags flew above its towers and griffins decorated the entrances. The Kingdom of the Moon’s flags were used as floor-covers around the entrances. The soldiers took delight in wiping their feet on the enemy’s banners. Everywhere, the soldiers were happy and optimistic. She had never seen Danubians in such a positive mood, which sharply contrasted with the normal somber outlook of the Duchy’s society.

The concubines cleaned up and enjoyed a good dinner, but the Grand Duke did not spend the night with them. Instead he had taken the daughters of several leading families into the governor’s bed-chamber and was indulging himself with the foreign captives. The next morning Silvítya noticed naked palace servants taking bed sheets out of the Grand Duke’s quarters. The sheets had blood on them, indicating he had forced himself on several virgins. The Duke’s concubine felt sick. She pitied the unfortunate girls, but she also understood her master seemed to be doing everything possible to alienate the local population. Raping the daughters of leading families certainly was not going to win him any support.

Two days passed while Silvítya and her companions stood in the palace courtyard watching Royal Guards bring in loot from the city and surrounding manors. There was a well-stocked armory, but the Danubians became truly excited when they discovered a large cache of gold and silver. It turned out Sumy Ris was a regional center for collecting taxes for the Lord of the Red Moon. The Kingdom’s ruler had been distracted with the military campaigns and did not have enough men to spare to move the tax money to the Kingdom’s capitol. Now, all that treasure was under the control of his enemy, the Grand Duke of Upper Danubia.

The governor’s palace had a high tower that had been built by the Ottomans, from which the countryside would be observed from a very long distance in every direction. Silvítya wanted to climb up to the top, but knew she couldn’t go there unescorted. Fortunately, she saw Protector Buláshckt in the courtyard, examining some of the captured muskets. She approached the Royal Guard, requesting an escort so she could have a look at the region surrounding Sumy Ris. He surprised her by obliging. She noticed that he had a strange look in his eyes, as though he was worried.

The trip up a series of stairs and ladders left the two Danubians winded, but from the top they could see a large portion of the former Lower Danubia. In the distance to the west the guard and the concubine could see part of the East Danube River. Apart from the river, the landscape had no natural features at all. Flat farmland extended in every direction. How hard it must have been for the Danubians to give up all this land two centuries ago. Well, King Vladik had no choice, because there was no way the territory could be defended.

Now, the Danubians had returned, with a small army, to a city that could not be defended. They had taken Sumy Ris with ease, simply because they had superior numbers. When the Lord of the Red Moon learned of his army’s defeat and that his nemesis was indulging himself in this city, he would attack with everything at his disposal, and Sumy Ris would again fall, along with the entire Danubian Royal Army. She looked down at the cathedral and the old seminary. It was in the seminary the bishop of Sumy Ris ordered the city’s defenders to make their last stand. And that ruined gate over there…that’s where the Ottomans hung his body. She expressed her thoughts out loud:

“This city…it’s not our Path in Life to be here at all. Sumy Ris is a trap. The Duchy cannot hold it. King Vladik understood that. That’s why Danubia survived; King Vladik didn’t try to hold onto what we couldn’t keep. We can’t stay here. The Royal Army must leave… and we must leave immediately. Already the Lord of the Red Moon is gathering his army. He will kill us all if we don’t get out.”

“I’ve thought the same thing, Servant Silvítya. I don’t know how to reach His Majesty with my advice. It seems this city put a curse on him, made him lose all concept of reality, made him mad, really. This place is indeed a trap.”

The two Danubians remained silent for a long time, staring out at the flat terrain. Neither knew what else to say about their predicament. Finally, Silvítya glanced at the cathedral.

“Can you take me to the church, Protector Buláshckt? I’d like to see it… and try praying there.”

A few minutes later Silvítya knelt in the church. Her mind filled with visions… of the battle in 1502 and the dead bishop. Her vision went dark and she saw the Grand Duke’s corpse hanging on a Red Moon impalement hook… above the bodies of the entire Royal Army. The entire Duchy was burning… with all its inhabitants lying dead and the banners of the Kingdom of the Moon flying everywhere. The Lord of the Red Moon was riding triumphantly through his newly conquered territory. Yes, that defeat in Hórkustk Ris had been devastating, but how much greater was the glorious victory in Sumy Ris… where the Danubian Duke and his entire army set themselves up to be annihilated. How sweet that moment and how complete the revenge on the Danubian vermin.

The vision of the Duchy’s destruction vanished, to be replaced by Alchemist Fítoreckt. He seemed to have returned to the Realm of the Living; re-invigorated, much younger, and healthier than she had ever seen him in real life.

“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?”

As quickly as Alchemist Fítoreckt appeared, he vanished. Silvítya abruptly stood up. “Protector Buláshckt, I must speak with His Majesty immediately. I don’t care what happens to me after I’m done. He can put me on the pillory or fill me with arrows if he wishes… I don’t care. But I must speak with him.”

“Very well, Servant Silvítya. I will take you to His Majesty and I will insist you have an audience with him. I will share your fate, whatever fate that might be.”

Protector Buláshckt led the concubine back into the palace. He demanded that his fellow Royal Guards step aside so he could take the concubine before the Grand Duke. The sovereign was in his quarters, indulging himself with two young foreign women. Protector Buláshckt opened the chamber door and Silvítya burst into the room. She did not kneel.

“Servant Silvítya! What is the meaning of this? Have you lost your mind?”

“No, Your Majesty, I have not! I’m here to warn you, and to save the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia! You must leave this city immediately! Every one of your subjects must leave immediately! Anyone who stays will share the fate of the Bishop, the one who defied King Vladik in 1502! There’s a reason King Vladik abandoned this city! It’s the same reason you must leave! You cannot hold Sumy Ris against the Lord of the Red Moon’s men! You simply cannot hold it! Go up into the tower and take a good look at the land… everything is flat! The enemy can come at you from any direction! Sumy Ris is cursed! This city will be the death of all of us if you don’t take us out... now… today...”

Silvítya took a deep breath. Her knees were shaking badly. “Your Majesty… I saw what will happen to you… I’ve seen it! I have visions… the Ancients have cursed me with visions and sometimes I know what will happen! I saw the Bishop… and your Path in Life will end in the exact same place as his, and in the exact same manner! And without you, the entire Duchy will die… all of us! I saw it!”

The Grand Duke didn’t know how to respond. His concubine’s face was white, her eyes wide with horror, and her body was shaking badly. She was obviously terrified, but not of him. She cared nothing for herself or her own safety at that moment. She was thinking of the Duchy.

In a flash the Grand Duke’s illusions and hubris vanished. He fully understood the perilous situation in which he had placed his army and his country. No, it was not the Duchy’s Path in Life to reclaim Sumy Ris. The city was a trap, as much in 1754 as it had been in 1502.

The Duke calmly stood up. He looked and felt as though he had just woken up from a strange dream. “Servant Silvítya, you will take responsibility for preparing your companions to travel. Tell them to pack and to report to the palace courtyard.”

Still trembling, Silvítya managed to respond. “To hear is to obey, Your Majesty.”

He put on a robe and called the Royal Guard into the room. “Protector Buláshckt, you will ensure Servant Silvítya and her companions are properly escorted.”

“To hear is to obey, Your Majesty.”

Silvítya would have been happy to pack, but she was still badly shaking when she returned to her companions with the news they were about to depart. The others had to gather her things while she stood at a balcony trying to get her breath back and stop trembling. She couldn’t believe the Grand Duke had actually listened to her and would heed her warning.

Minutes later the Grand Duke was dressed and had summoned his commanders. He asked them for honest assessments about their ability to defend Sumy Ris against a sustained attack from a larger army. The commanders were forced to admit the city could not be defended.

“That is the conclusion I have reached as well. I have decided it would be foolish for us to stay here, after having looked around and assessing what happened in 1502. Therefore, commanders, it is my decision that our raiding expedition against this city has concluded and we should return to the Duchy. Prepare your soldiers for immediate departure.”

“To hear is to obey, Your Majesty.”

The Danubians left Sumy Ris as quickly as they entered, taking with them hundreds of new muskets, cannons, ammunition, gold and silver, loot from the residences, extra horses and wagons, and the 900 rescued captives. The soldiers did not destroy anything or kill anyone else on their way out: they simply let the local population run off. The city’s women scrambled around, trying to find cloth and leather to cover themselves with makeshift clothing as the Royal Army’s men marched northward.

The Danubians returned to their southern fortress four days after abandoning Sumy Ris. The men had to move slowly with all of the wagons and cannons they were transporting. If what the Danubians had just completed truly was nothing more than a raiding mission and a rescue of captives, then it was a hugely successful one. If it had been the beginning of the re-conquest of Lower Danubia, the operation was a failure. The commanders understood the Grand Duke had made a prudent decision, but the soldiers grumbled about their leader’s cowardice. Just five days before, their ruler had been talking about retaking all of Lower Danubia, but now the entire army was returning to the Duchy’s territory like a bunch of common raiders. Yes, the loot was nice, but…

* * *

The Lord of the Red Moon arrived in Sumy Ris with 15,000 soldiers on the same day the Danubians crossed back into the Duchy’s territory. He personally commanded the troops, unable to accept the news that the Danubians had just raided the city. Sure enough, the story was completely accurate: the Danubian Grand Duke had led the raid and stayed just long enough to empty out the city and humiliate the local population. The Lord of the Red Moon couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The armory: empty. The treasury: empty. The food stores and granaries: empty. The stables: empty. This was a personal insult from the ruler of Upper Danubia, who obviously had defeated the 20,000 troops sent to conquer the Duchy. But… how could that have happened? How could the Kingdom’s best invasion force have been defeated? How could the “Beautiful Savages” have been defeated by… Danubians?

The Lord of the Red Moon had never suffered a defeat, so he really did not know how to handle such a loss. Any prudent leader would have accepted the defeat for what it was and taken measures to minimize its impact on his rule. After all, the Kingdom of the Moon was still a formidable nation, even with the loss of an invasion campaign and 20,000 troops. Yes, the Danubians had raided Sumy Ris, but they didn’t have the forces to hold it and were smart enough to know that. The Duchy’s border was back to where it was in 1752.

The Lord of the Red Moon did not see the situation in that way. The Danubians were inferior and had to be eliminated. The raid on Sumy Ris and the Danubians’ refusal to stand up and be killed in a proper battle was proof of that. No, the defeat was unacceptable and it was up to the Lord of the Red Moon to correct the problem. He would take his force north and lead them personally, which was what he should have done in the first place.

A week after the Danubians had evacuated Sumy Ris, their lookouts spotted a large black mass of soldiers and cavalry approaching the border. Yet another invasion force was approaching the Duchy. However, the fort was surrounded by forested hills, precisely the terrain that favored the Danubians and the way they were used to fighting their battles. The Royal Army was rested and had the opportunity to set up their newly-captured cannons. When the Lord of the Red Moon’s men charged recklessly up the wooded road, the Danubians were ready for them.

The battle became a grueling three-day nightmare for the Red Moon Army. The Danubians retreated into the trees, elated to be using their traditional crossbows as they silently picked off their opponents. Throughout the second day of the fighting, a heavy rainstorm soaked the invaders’ clothing and gunpowder, making movement and firing almost impossible. Discipline on both sides broke down as squad-sized units attacked each other in hand-to-hand fighting in the mud. On the third day, the Lord of the Red Moon’s soldiers did something they had never done before: they retreated. As his men scrambled down the hill and away from the border fort, the Lord of the Red Moon could hear the distant taunting of his intended victims:


The Danubian flag flew defiantly over the fortress, in full view of the hostile territory to the south, where it has flown ever since.

* * *

The Duchy did not have time to celebrate the retreat of the Lord of the Red Moon’s soldiers. Although the battle at the border had been fought in a location where the Danubians felt at ease using their traditional tactics, the victory had been the most costly of the campaign for the Royal Army in terms of casualties. More than 2,000 Royal Guards lay around the forested hills, either killed or seriously wounded. The Grand Duke’s men spent a week searching for the injured and the dead, and the rest of August attending the wounded and setting up a formal cemetery, in which 1,400 Danubians eventually were buried. Thousands of corpses from the Lord of the Red Moon’s army were simply left to rot.

Silvítya and her companions spent a grueling month at the fort attending all the wounded. The first days were the worst, when the medical staff had to determine which troops could be saved from their injuries and which men were destined to have their souls separate from their bodies. The first injury she had to deal with was the Grand Duke, who took a musket shot to his right shoulder and broke his left arm falling off his horse. The injuries were not particularly serious, but the ruler insisted that his concubine be the one to treat them.

Silvítya did her best to make sure her master fully recovered. She hated him more than ever, but resisted the temptation to give him an overdose of opium or anesthesia. She was a doctor and proud of what she had been able to accomplish with her piece-meal training, so she was able to separate her personal feelings towards her patient from the tasks she had to perform. Also, she remained a subject of the Grand Duke and a Danubian citizen. As odious a man as he was, the country needed him. Whether it was his cunning, his intelligence, his extraordinary luck, his reckless courage, or Divine Intervention, it was only because of its ruler the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia had survived the threat from the Kingdom of the Moon. So, not only did Silvítya do everything she could to ensure a successful operation; she also converted some of her precious blue powder into special regenerative medicine to ensure he recovered as quickly as possible. With the additional treatment, the Grand Duke’s shoulder was completely healed in just a week, and his left arm repaired itself at a miraculous pace as well.

* * *

The final phase of the Grand Duke’s military campaign took place during the last week of August and most of September. The western sector of Hórkustk Ris province had been completely secured by the Duchy’s men, but many isolated villages in the eastern part of the province remained occupied by subjects loyal to the Kingdom of the Moon. Upon recovering and becoming convinced that no further invasion from the Kingdom was imminent, the Grand Duke ordered his men to reassert the Duchy’s control over the rest of the re-captured region.

As Danubian Royal Guards occupied more villages and the story of what happened to the Army of the Red Moon got out, the non-Danubian population of Danubia’s southernmost province began to panic and flee, abandoning their homes. The Grand Duke ordered several massacres to terrorize the foreigners and speed up their departure. The war against the House of the Red Moon degenerated into a war against all non-Danubians living in the area. The panic was augmented by the fact the foreigners still did not know the details of what had happened during the battle of Hórkustk Ris and the raid against Sumy Ris. The Lord of the Red Moon’s army had simply vanished and now the Danubian Grand Duke and his men seemed to be everywhere.

As he led his cavalry around the southern region of the Duchy, the ruler sent messengers north to order all of the Danubian refugees from Hórkustk Ris to return home. There was no way they could go back into the city, but the surrounding villages were empty and there were plenty of houses and free land available for any takers. The Grand Duke dispatched some Royal Guards to order the refugees surrounding the capitol to return south as well. Hórkustk Ris province now was secure and they had no reason to remain camped near Danúbikt Móskt. As the Grand Duke and most of his army finally finished their campaign and trekked north, they passed a long column of refugees heading in the opposite direction, to reclaim their homes or occupy houses abandoned by the foreigners. The refugee camps along the Rika Chorna river were emptied by the time the Royal Army made its triumphant return to the capitol.

* * *

The Grand Duke celebrated his victory with the jubilant citizens of Danúbikt Móskt. The surviving veterans of the Royal Army happily displayed the souvenirs captured from their enemies: the muskets, uniforms, flags, and impalement hooks taken from dead invaders.

When the war was over, the Grand Duke turned out to be as cunning with his own people as he was against the Lord of the Red Moon. During his victory speech he spent hours thanking his commanders and numerous soldiers who had distinguished themselves during the fighting. He thanked the town councilmen who had assisted in recruiting and had sent him men, money, and supplies. He praised the Duchy’s people and the Creator for watching over the nation. He did not say anything to bring glory to himself, knowing that his admirers would do that for him. Following the victory celebrations and speeches, he passed out a portion of the captured gold to the soldiers who had fought for the Royal Army and ordered more gold to be given to the widows of the men who had died during the campaign. The rest of the money seized in Sumy Ris would be used to retire part of the Duchy’s debt with the Vienna arms dealers. The sovereign didn’t keep any of the captured gold for the Royal Household and made sure his citizens were aware of that.

The Grand Duke’s public display of gratitude towards the people who had helped the Duchy achieve its amazing victories against the Kingdom of the Moon omitted his most important source of information and advice: his concubine Silvítya. She was the one who had given him the knowledge of the explosives he needed for the victory in Hórkustk Ris, she was the one whose advice narrowly averted a disastrous defeat in Sumy Ris, she was the one who operated on him when he was injured, and throughout the summer she also had operated on countless other wounded Royal Guards. More than any other person serving the Grand Duke, the humble concubine should have received credit for giving him the advice and knowledge he needed to win the war. However, because the public did not know who she was, the ruler felt there was no need to mention her. Instead, he would take credit for everything she had contributed. Her reward would be to simply go back to her old life as a naked sex slave, locked up in the Royal Residence with her “sisters”.

So, while celebrations took place in the city’s central plaza, Silvítya returned to the castle and her duties as a Royal concubine. The matrons ordered her to strip, unbraided her hair, shaved her armpits, cleaned her up, and sent her back to the concubines’ quarters along with her two companions. The Grand Duke expected her to resume her old life as though none of the events she had endured over the past four months had happened. There was absolutely no reward for her efforts and service, nothing except being confined with her ten naked companions and waiting for the bell to ring.

Her only consolation was having Antonia in her arms again. Silvítya’s lover was desperately glad to see her, embrace her, and run her hands all over her body. However, it seemed even that small pleasure in Silvítya’s life was ruined. She was happy to relax and allow her companion to massage her weary body but, after everything she had just been through and witnessed, she couldn’t find peace or enjoy the relationship. She had to pretend to be elated to see Antonia, just as she had to pretend to tolerate the Grand Duke.

* * *

The Duchy returned to its life of peace and isolation. Danubian flags and Danubian uniformed guards appeared along the entire border with the rival nation, as constant reminders the Kingdom’s efforts to invade the Duchy had failed completely.

The Lord of the Red Moon found himself in serious trouble after the loss of 40,000 of his best troops. It was hard to believe that the “Beautiful Savages”, the terrifying and invincible elite cavalry that had been the Lord’s most important source of power, no longer existed. The resurgence of the Duchy, coupled with the humiliation of Sumy Ris and the disastrous defeat at the fort, weakened the Kingdom’s support for the House of the Red Moon, while strengthening the position of the rival House of the Blue Moon.

When the Lord of the Blue Moon sent some of his troops into the region around Sumy Ris, the local leaders changed loyalties and declared themselves in rebellion against the leader who had failed them. The Lord of the Red Moon, who by that time had partially reconstituted his defeated army, sent a detachment of soldiers to retake Sumy Ris. In late October there were two bloody and inconclusive battles near the city. Both sides raised additional men over the winter and prepared to launch a major war in the spring of 1755.

It seemed that, since the Destroyer’s plans to obliterate the Duchy and annihilate its people had been thwarted, the Destroyer instead decided to pay a visit to the Kingdom of the Moon. The Grand Duke’s scouts brought back the welcome news of a civil war being waged between two cousins whose forces were evenly matched. The rival heirs had no chance to worry about Danubia because they were too busy fighting each other.

Historian's Note:Today, there is very little evidence the Kingdom of the Moon ever existed at all. The country was completely destroyed over the ensuing decade by a bloody stalemate between the Lord of the Red Moon and the Lord of the Blue Moon. In 1764 the Ottoman Empire’s army re-occupied the devastated region and the Duchy’s once-formidable enemy became nothing more than a footnote in history.

The Grand Duke’s two victories in Hórkustk Ris, combined with the raid on Sumy Ris and follow-up campaign that wiped out the Red Moon garrisons stationed throughout southwestern Danubia is considered one of the greatest military upsets in history. No one could have expected that an ill-equipped army of 9,000 fighting men would annihilate over 40,000 professional combatants who were considered among the best soldiers in Europe during the mid-1700s. As much as popular Danubian historians like to credit the brilliance of the Grand Duke, and as much as the Danubian Church would like to claim it was due to Divine Intervention, the reality was that over-confidence, lack of accurate intelligence, and two critical decisions by two different Red Moon Army commanders were what led to the Duchy’s victory in the 1754 Hórkustk Ris campaign.

The Danubian defeat of the Army of the Red Moon had very important implications for the history of south-eastern Europe. In the decades leading up to 1754, the Kingdom of the Moon had established itself as a powerful and respected state through its superb military training and discipline, which created one of the most versatile, mobile, and feared fighting forces on the continent. There was general consensus among European leaders that the Kingdom of the Moon would continue to expand into Ottoman territory. Many contemporary writers expressed hope that the Kingdom of the Moon might even become strong enough to threaten the Turks’ hold on Constantinople.

After the summer of 1754, conditions in the Kingdom of the Moon changed dramatically. The Lord of the Red Moon had suffered much more than a simple defeat: he had lost half of his entire army. His cousin immediately challenged him for the throne, the aristocracy split into warring factions, and the country endured a civil war from 1755 to 1764 during which neither Lord was able to establish superiority. Finally, some of the local barons asked the Ottoman Sultan to re-establish order, with the result that Turkey invaded and re-annexed the territory in 1764.

Although no treaty was ever signed, the Grand Duke of Danubia and the Ottoman Sultan maintained an informal agreement to leave each other’s territories alone. The Sultan was under the impression that the Grand Duke’s army was much stronger than it really was, without knowing the details of the fighting over Hórkustk Ris. As part of the informal agreement, the Danubian settlers who had set up residence in strips of former Danubian territory immediately to the south of the recognized border were allowed to stay by the Ottomans, as a buffer between the two countries. (The status of the border territories was not formally resolved until the early 21st Century, when the Treaty of Sumy Ris granted the majority of the disputed settlements to the Duchy, in exchange for abandoning all other territorial claims.)

News of the sudden and devastating defeat of the Lord of the Red Moon’s army by, of all people, the Grand Duke of Danubia, shocked and dismayed leaders and political writers throughout western Europe. European sympathy clearly sided with the Lord of the Red Moon in his effort to annex the Duchy. The Kingdom of the Moon enjoyed good relations with Russia and Austria, and the hope was that the three countries would form a common and continuous front against the Ottoman Empire. Had that hope become reality, Turkish control of the entire Balkan Peninsula would have been threatened.

Foreign historians during the nineteenth century referred to the destruction of the Kingdom of the Moon and the respite it provided the Ottoman Empire as “Europe’s lost opportunity”. After 1754 the idea of a common European front against Turkey became considerably less practical, because the Danubian Grand Duke had no incentive to enter into an alliance with either Russia or Austria. Later events, such as the partitioning of Poland during the second half of his reign, validated his aloof attitude concerning involvement in European politics and the Duchy’s diplomatic isolation.

Many historians, myself included, have indulged in counter-factual “what if” speculation concerning events in the Balkan Peninsula between 1754 and 1914. What would have happened had the Grand Duke’s army been defeated and Danubia annexed by the Kingdom of the Moon? I am convinced the Kingdom of the Moon’s aristocracy would have remained unified, because the Lord of the Blue Moon would not have been in a position to challenge his cousin for the throne, having neither the troops nor adequate support from dissident lords. The civil war that destroyed the Kingdom would not have taken place, and the Ottoman Empire would not have had the opportunity re-annex the region in 1764.

Following a victory in Danubia, the Lord of the Red Moon would have turned his attention to building up the alliance with Austria and Russia, as well as with Serb and Greek rebels, with the likely result of a joint military assault on the Ottomans. Given the military situation at the time, most Daunibian historians believe it is very likely Ottoman forces would have been routed and forced to retreat from some or all of their European holdings in the late eighteen century. (Counter-factual speculation aside, the Ottomans were not forced out of the Balkan region until over a century later, a process that started in the 1870s and culminated shortly before the First World War.)

The events surrounding “Europe’s lost opportunity” and Danubia’s subsequent neutrality towards the Ottoman Empire during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries explains much of the underlying hostility other Europeans have held towards the Duchy. However, that hostility is in no way justified. The Grand Duke did what was necessary to secure the future of his country and protect his people. The vicious treatment of captured civilians by both the Lord of the Red Moon and his rival the Lord of the Blue Moon during the civil war clearly demonstrated what the Danubians could have expected had the Grand Duke been defeated. The destruction of the Kingdom of the Moon and “Europe’s lost opportunity” cannot be blamed on the Duchy. As a nation, the only thing we were doing was fighting for our own survival.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Chapter Nineteen – The Sapphire Necklace

The Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia spent the autumn of 1754 recovering from the war. The country gave thanks to the Creator for having spared the central valley, but the province of Hórkustk Ris, which had been devastated and depopulated, would take years to recover. The Grand Duke was very active in planning the province’s future, realizing that he had the opportunity to shape an entire region to fit the needs of both the Duchy and the Royal Household.

The province’s lack of defenses was a problem the sovereign needed to immediately address. He would reserve territory for a replanted forest from which Royal Guards could launch raids against any future invaders. He also ordered the official abandonment of the ruined city of Hórkustk Ris. The new provincial capital would be located further south in Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt. The southern town had been little more than a large farming village in 1754, but over the ensuing decade it would become the most important city in the region, boasting the Royal Army’s largest garrison. The Danubian Church built a new Temple based on the design of the one in Starívktaki Móskt, which signaled the Duchy’s religious leaders were officially turning away from traditional Christian architecture. Old churches and cathedrals from the “Roman” era would be left in place, but any new ones would be built according to the pre-Christian design.

The Grand Duke continued ordering heavy stones and other building supplies to be brought into the area surrounding the capital for the planned expansion of the city wall. Throughout the winter the kilns burned non-stop and massive piles of bricks and blocks kept growing. The population, which had not seen how useless the walls in Hórkustk Ris had been against the Army of the Red Moon’s cannons, happily anticipated building the new defenses and living in a more secure city.

Silvítya looked over the castle wall with a spyglass that she had borrowed from Protector Buláshckt. She studied the building materials and construction stockpiles, wondering what really was happening. She remembered the words of the wagon driver on the day she entered the capital for the first time:

“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… stone doesn’t beat gunpowder… not for very long, at any rate.”

The siege of Hórkustk Ris had amply proved the wagon driver’s opinion. Certainly the Grand Duke was as aware of the uselessness of city walls as anyone, so, why was he still planning to build a new one around the Danubian capitol? It just didn’t make any sense.

* * *

Silvítya attended the births of several children during the weeks after she returned to her normal life in the Royal Residence, including the babies of ex-concubines. It was strange to see her former “sisters” after not having seen them for six or seven months and knowing they soon would be leaving the castle and starting new lives. It was nice to get caught up on news with her old companions and tell them what had gone on in the concubine group since they had left. The new mothers had plenty of news about happenings in the capital, since their lives in the maternity wing were not nearly as restricted as life in the concubines’ quarters.

The Grand Duke trusted Silvítya more than anyone else in the castle to oversee the successful deliveries of his offspring. He did not love his former mistresses, but was very concerned that the babies and their mothers were healthy. The women would be properly taken care of as long as their children stayed alive, but the ruler made it very clear that if anything bad ever happened to one of his children, regardless of whether or not the mother was to blame, she would be kicked out of her house, her goods would be seized, and the support she was receiving from the Royal Household would immediately stop.

The Grand Duke had fathered dozens of children over that past decade. Once a woman became his concubine, the only way she could leave the castle was to become pregnant. The Grand Duke obviously wanted as many children as he would possibly have, but why? The children were all illegitimate, so none of them could become legal heirs to the throne. Why was he spending so much time and money impregnating ordinary women and then sending them away to live out their lives scattered around the Duchy?

After returning to the castle, Silvítya resumed her status as the Grand Duke’s “favorite” concubine. She could freely move about the Royal Residence and go as far as the end of the garden. The Royal Guards would not let her go beyond the far edge of the planted area, but still, it was wonderful to spend time outside the castle and be able to look out at the capital and surrounding areas. Even as the autumn progressed and being naked outdoors became increasingly uncomfortable, Silvítya was happy to be away from the stifling atmosphere of the castle and the continuous chatter of her companions.

Throughout the autumn, supply caravans pulled into the castle to off-load food and charcoal and ensure its inhabitants had what they needed to pass the winter comfortably. Silvítya often braved the wind to watch the supply wagons off-load, to see what was coming into the castle and hear gossip and news about the rest of the Duchy.

She was surprised when several wagons entered the castle loaded down with heavy powdery black rocks. Seeing the rocks reminded her of her days in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement and filled her thoughts with regret and nostalgia. Only two years had passed since she had been a Follower, but it seemed so much longer than that: an entire lifetime.

Silvítya examined one of the rocks, picking at it with her fingernails. It was still strange to think this thing would actually catch on fire. She remembered the conversations she had with the Grand Duke over the previous winter about the various inventions of the Followers. She realized the Grand Duke had listened to her seriously and had taken an interest in cave-charcoal. She talked to a castle supply-room assistant to find out that, sure enough, the Grand Duke wanted to experiment with heating. So, along with the shipment of ordinary charcoal, he had ordered several wagonloads of the strange black rocks to be transported all the way from the northern border. A wagon master explained that it came from a cave near Sevérckt nad Gorádki and that it burned much better than wood.

“We don’t know what to call it yet, but just west of the pass to Rika Chorna there’s a mountain full of it. A single wagon of these rocks is like bringing in dozens of cut trees. If this works out, the Grand Duke is thinking about using barges to bring in more of these rocks next year.”

“Is he going to use the rocks in the castle’s fireplaces, Wagon-master?”

“I don’t think so, Servant. These rocks burn too hot for ordinary fireplaces. But, from what I have been told by one of the Royal blacksmiths, His Majesty has been experimenting with special iron stoves. He sent drawings of several designs and ordered the metal-workers to create them.”

Silvítya looked up to see Protector Buláshckt, studying at both her and the strange cargo. She had not seen him since he dropped her off at the castle at the end of September. She greeted him and would have left it at that, but she was curious about the stoves. She requested that he escort her to the castle’s blacksmiths’ shop to see the stoves for herself. It turned out the designs were identical to the stoves used in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. The foreman of the blacksmiths proudly described what his men had created over the summer:

“These designs came from His Majesty himself. They are truly amazing, don’t you think? The Creator has blessed the Duchy with a ruler who can create such wonderful inventions for his people.”

The concubine forced herself to respond: “Yes Master-Smith. We are truly blessed… that His Majesty is so creative… and he can take credit… blessed indeed…”

A few days after Silvítya’s visit to the metal-workers, castle laborers bought one of the new stoves to install in the concubines’ bath house. The bath house would become the concubines’ favorite spot in the castle, since the room would always be warm and heating water would be so much easier. Since the reading room would not be receiving a stove that winter, the concubines would avoid it and abandon their spokeswoman’s regimen of studying and reading. The women would return to light recreation, grooming and massages. Realizing she faced opposition and a possible rebellion if she tried to force her “sisters” back into the cold reading room, Silvítya decided not to push the issue. So… her efforts to improve her companions’ intellects came to an end. She hoped to resume with the groups readings in the spring, but was not optimistic.

Silvítya continued her intimate relationship with Antonia, but she had to force herself to be responsive to her sleeping-partner’s attentions. The awful truth was that she would have preferred to be left alone. She couldn’t figure out why, but by the end of October she realized she had fallen out of love. She did what she could to not hurt the foreign girl’s feelings, but she knew that she would not be sorry when Antonia became pregnant and had to be transferred to the maternity ward.

At the end of October, she got her wish. Antonia missed her menstruation and became totally distraught. When she endured a bout of morning sickness for the first time, Silvítya comforted her and pretended to be sympathetic, but inwardly she was elated. Before long, Antonia would be leaving and the relationship would end without her having to do anything that would hurt her lover’s feelings.

* * *

The weather became colder as the chilly wind blew across the East Danube River, rippling the water and pulling the leaves off the trees. Silvítya stood outside, shivering in the cold and watching the world from the isolated hilltop perch of the Royal Residence. Nothing made any sense to her. Every night she was forced to make love to a man she totally hated. Every day she had to share her meals and baths with a group of women with whom she had nothing in common. She had to speak on behalf of nine other souls and keep them out of trouble, while all she really wanted to do was isolate herself in the library and read. She felt completely alone.

I wish… I could just walk away with my collar and my bucket. That’s all I want. I’d feel more at peace walking naked through a forest full of wolves than I feel now.

The Grand Duke did nothing to put his servant’s mind at ease. The first night after he had a coal-burning stove installed in his sleeping chamber, he subtly taunted her:

“This stove, and the discovery of the burning rocks, are truly ingenious, don’t you agree, my favorite minx?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl agrees the stove and the burning rocks are truly ingenious.”

He ordered her to get on her elbows and knees. He fondled her bottom and teased her by tracing his finger around her sphincter.

“Yes, indeed. I am quite proud of having introduced this creation to the Duchy. Next year, I will provide stoves to town councils around the Duchy. The stoves will be a gift from me… only one gift out of many I leave as my legacy to this nation.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. You have given much to the Duchy.”

“Yes, indeed. I have given much, haven’t I? In the instance of the stove, I sent my drawings and designs to the Royal printing press. I am publishing them, so that everyone can have the benefit of this invention. I will ask for nothing in return, except for three copper coins to cover the cost of the parchment and ink. I am happy to provide such a selfless service to the Duchy’s citizens. Don’t you agree, my favorite minx?”

The Grand Duke continued tracing Silvítya’s anus with his fingertip. The threat, while unspoken, was very clear. You will acknowledge that I invented the stove, or I will enter your bottom and be as rough about it as possible.

“Yes, Your Majesty. Your humble serving girl agrees. The nation is blessed with the invention that you have provided.”

“Very well. Kneel, and I will give you a treat.”

Silvítya knelt, and the Grand Duke placed a piece of Turkish delight in her mouth. She hated being fed like a dog, but by now was used to it. The sovereign sat on his bed, studying her while she chewed the candy and swallowed it.

“You have served me well, my favorite minx. Now, I will serve you. If you have a wish, I will grant it, as long as it is reasonable.”

Silvítya wanted to stand up and scream: A wish? The only wish I have is to never see you again! I want to leave! I want to get as far from you and this horrid castle as I can! I want to go to the other end of the Duchy and live in the wild with the wolves, just to get away from you! That is my wish, Grand Duke!

She knew she was being tested. The words “as long as it is reasonable” indicated there really was not very much she could ask for and expect to receive. Certainly the Grand Duke was not about to let her leave the castle. To ask for that would be foolish. She thought to herself, what can I ask of him, that he’d actually be willing to grant? Finally she made her request: “You Majesty, your humble serving girl requests, when Servant Antonia leaves this castle with your child, that she is watched over and properly taken care of. She is a foreigner, and your humble serving girl is worried that her neighbors might give her trouble.”

“Yes, of course. I will ensure Servant Antonia’s well-being and safety. As you requested, she will live in a nice house and lead a pleasant existence. So, my favorite minx, consider your request granted.”

“Your humble serving girl wishes to express her gratitude, Your Majesty.”

Two days later, Antonia left the concubine quarters. She tearfully hugged Silvítya goodbye and departed down the hallway with one of the matrons. They still would occasionally see each other when Silvítya had to visit the maternity quarters, but their relationship had ended. Silvítya watched her leave, relieved that at least one person who had loved her was not cursed by the Destroyer.

* * *

Silvítya realized that she had changed over the summer. She remained traumatized by everything she had seen in Hórkustk Ris and the border fort by Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt. For a few weeks she could talk to the two companions who had accompanied her during the war, because they were equally troubled by everything they had seen. Yes, the three women now were safely back in the Royal Household, sleeping in their comfortable beds, sitting in the bath, and eating wonderful food… but the contrast between their peaceful lives in the castle and the hardships they had endured over the summer made their lives even more surreal than the lives of the “sisters” who did not go out. However, the discussions with the other two were short-lived, because Silvítya’s attitude differed from that of her two companions. She wanted to try to make sense out of everything she had seen over the summer, while the other two wanted to block out the horrid memories and resume normal lives.

One of the women cynically noted, “Sister, it was the will of the Creator that we return to the castle. Had the Creator wished us to continue worrying about the war, we would still be on the battlefield. Is that not so?”

“We have to bear witness to what happened to all those men! We can’t forget about…”

The other woman cut her off with loud hiss. “That’s not my concern, Sister Silvítya! What’s done, is done! The dead have held up their mirrors and we have not! Therefore, I will indulge myself in the pleasures of the Realm of the Living while I can, and not trouble my thoughts with Hórkustk Ris! I don’t want to talk about it anymore!”

With that, the “sister” walked off to the bath house. Silvítya thought to herself. 'So… she wants to forget. I don’t. The Ancients have commanded me to bear witness, and I will…'

Silvítya remained the appointed leader of the concubine group throughout the winter of 1754-1755. However, her relationship with her companions changed as the winter progressed. Each month one of the women became pregnant, moved to the maternity ward, and had to be replaced. By the end of the year all of the women who had been with the group when Magdala was spokeswoman had become pregnant and departed. Silvítya now was the woman who had been in the Royal Residence longer than any of her companions.

Silvítya spent most of her time away from the concubines’ quarters. She had to deal with pregnancies and childbirths, as well as injuries and illnesses. When she was not working as a doctor, she was with the Grand Duke. She knelt by his side as he talked to his commanders, ministers, and castle staff. She shivered in the drafty throne room and cringed as he ran his fingers through her hair, petting her as though she were an animal. However, she continued to listen to the conversations and learn about the Duchy’s politics and the Grand Duke’s policies. The conversations were interesting and made up for her continuous discomfort and humiliation. When she was released for the day, she went to the library to read up on the topics discussed between her master and other political leaders. She became very knowledgeable about the Duchy and the problems facing its ruler.

By the middle of the winter the Grand Duke was aware that his favorite concubine had paid careful attention to everything discussed in the throne room and had conducted follow-up research. He took advantage of her knowledge and intelligence to test ideas and policy options. Although she was nothing more than a sex slave and totally hated him, she became the ruler’s most trusted advisor. She could provide honest opinions and assessments, without worrying about protecting her status among the nobility or defending the interests of an elite family or guild organization. If she thought an idea didn’t make sense or was impractical, she said so and explained, from the viewpoint of an ordinary citizen, why it wouldn’t work. She was able to detach herself emotionally as she spoke with her Master. She understood that it was to the benefit of people like herself that she give him honest opinions about his policies and plans, even if by doing so she was helping him consolidate his control over the Duchy.

Silvítya remained troubled by the war and wondered how best to bear witness to what she had seen over the summer. She decided to write down her memories of the campaign while the events were still fresh in her mind. So, while the other concubines enjoyed their new metal stove and the over-heated bath house, Silvítya shivered in the library as she filled a stack of parchment with accounts of what she had observed during the fighting. In the beginning she only wrote down what she had seen and the details she picked up from conversations. She studied maps and read accounts of the various places she had visited to make sure her writings were as accurate as possible. She didn’t write about events in any particular order: she just wrote details as she remembered them with the intention of organizing them later. Since she really had no one to talk to about the war, writing became therapeutic. It seemed that a lot of the pain in her mind passed through her hand onto the parchment, while looking at maps and studying past battles and events in the southern region helped put her thoughts into better perspective.

At the end of the year, Silvítya was looking through the map collection in the Royal Library when Protector Buláshckt entered the room and observed what she was doing. He looked through her stack of writings and immediately realized the importance of her research. He was literate, but his ability to write came nowhere close to the project the concubine was creating. He briefly talked to her about her memoirs and volunteered to lend her his campaign maps.

That small gesture was the beginning of an unusual friendship between an elite soldier and a glorified sex-slave. Protector Buláshckt had his own memories of the war, ones of the actual fighting and following the Grand Duke around. He had seen everything war had to offer, from the ruler’s reckless bravery, cunning, and resourcefulness to his viciousness and cruelty, to his genuine concern for the well-being of his men and willingness to share all of their hardships.

Like Silvítya, he had changed over the summer. The strong confidence he had in his life, in the Duchy, and his duties as a guard seemed to have vanished. His expression was very troubled. When she looked at him, at times he tightened his lips and looked away, as though he was thoroughly ashamed of himself. Yes, he could take pride in what he had done during the confrontations with the Lord of the Red Moon’s army, but he could not take pride in his participation in killing non-Danubian civilians following each of the battles and the final expulsion of all the foreigners from the Duchy.

Oddly enough, Silvítya was reassured. Her friend’s conscience was tormented by what had happened in the aftermath of the campaign. He was not a cold-hearted killer, nor an unthinking follower of the Grand Duke. He followed the sovereign’s brutal orders because he felt it was necessary for the future of Danubia, but he understood those some of those orders were immoral. He knew that he would have a lot to answer for when he held up his mirror before the Creator. He needed someone to talk to as much as Silvítya needed to talk to. He understood her need to bear witness to the events of the war. Over time, as the two gained each other’s trust, he started relating his memories of the fighting while she wrote them down. At first he only talked about the fighting and the Grand Duke as a military leader, but eventually he talked about the less heroic things done by the Royal Army. The soldier and the servant exchanged news on many of the injured she had treated. She wrote brief biographies about many of the men who had been killed, but was even more interested in finding out about the fates of the men whose injuries she had treated. The Guard asked around for information on the survivors and brought news as he was able to collect it. Everything she learned went into the growing stack of parchment.

As the trust between them grew, Silvítya and Protector Buláshckt began sharing information about their personal lives. She learned about his past, his military training, his travels, and some details about his family. She gave away some of the information on her own life, describing her life in Sebérnekt Ris and her previous year as a Follower of the Ancients. Like most Christians, he knew very little about the Cult. She talked about Rika Héckt-nemát and the wretchedness of her life there. The only detail she left out was the reason she left: she let him think that she ran off to escape her family’s poverty, not because she had been pilloried. She did not mention anything about her life in Starívktaki Móskt. Protector Buláshckt was aware that she was leaving important gaps in her life story, but he never pressed her for information. He figured if it was the Creator’s desire for him to know those details, he’d find out when the time was right.

Silvítya was so busy over the winter that she did not notice the months pass by. She attended births, comforted new women that had been brought into the concubine group, half-heartedly tried to encourage the others to read, and interceded whenever the matrons wanted to harass one of the girls. She spent her afternoons kneeling next to the Grand Duke as he talked to advisors. Whenever she had time, she met with Protector Buláshckt and wrote down whatever he wanted to share about the Royal Guards’ actions during the war. Documenting the events of the war and the people who participated in it provided a genuine purpose for her Path in Life, something she had not experienced since the Cult of the Ancients was dissolved.

By March of 1755, none of the girls who had been serving as concubines at the beginning of 1754 were still living in the concubine quarters, with the single exception of their spokeswoman. Concubines became pregnant and left, while new women were brought in to replace them. One girl, a merchant’s daughter from the capital, became pregnant within weeks of becoming a “sister” and left the group for the maternity ward a mere three months after she entered. All of the others, and even some who came afterwards, carried the Grand Duke’s seed and had transferred to the maternity ward.

She watched Royal Guards escort new mothers out of the castle on their way back to their hometowns. It was particularly painful watching Magdala depart. She very much wished that Magdala could return to take charge of the concubines and relieve her of that responsibility. She felt terribly lonely, missing the companionship of her predecessor and the intimacy of Antonia. She couldn’t relate to any of the new girls. She dealt with the newcomers’ problems as best she could, but did not bother to become close to any of them. During the first part of 1755, the only friend she was interested in having was Protector Buláshckt, and the only activity that interested her was working on her memoirs about the pervious year’s war.

Three concubines who had become pregnant left for the maternity ward during the last half of March, bringing the number of “sisters” down to six. The Royal Household did not replace them because the Grand Duke was planning to look at some captives from Hórkustk Ris province. The newly appointed governor of Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt had asked the ruler to visit the border to see some suggestions he had for improving the country’s defenses. The official reason for the trip was legitimate, but the governor enticed his ruler by adding that he was holding a large group of captive foreign women in the governor’s compound. If His Majesty was interested, he could indulge himself and take any of the girls that he wanted to the Royal Residence as concubines. The lure of southern women prompted the Grand Duke to accept the invitation. He departed the capital accompanied by a military escort during the first Monday of April, with the expectation of being gone two weeks.

The concubines in the castle were relieved to have a break from their Master, but wondered about the trip and why the departing “sisters” had not been replaced. They received their answer when the Grand Duke and his escort returned to the capital at the end of April. The entourage included six new concubines, all of them girls from the Kingdom of the Moon. Their families had crossed into the Duchy over the winter, trying to escape the civil war raging to the east of Sumy Ris, only to be taken captive by Danubian Royal Guards or village militias.

Between 1755 and 1764, Royal Guards routinely attacked groups of foreign refugees fleeing north into the Duchy to keep the border region cleared out for returning Danubians. The steady flow of refugees was viewed as a serious threat by the Danubian Crown, given the enormous effort to retake the region during the summer of 1754. Besides being looked upon as a threat that needed to be confronted, the foreigners also provided the Royal Guards with an extra source of income. Typically the Guards killed all the males, but took the women and girls captive and sold them as servants. The more desirable young women became the concubines of village elders, while the others were auctioned in villages or sold to farmers. The slaves had no hope of escaping. They didn’t speak Danubian, wore collars, and were forbidden to braid their hair, which immediately identified them as foreign captives. Their families no longer existed and returning to the Kingdom of the Moon was not possible because it was in the midst of a brutal civil war.

Slavery was officially forbidden in the Duchy by law and by the Old Believers of the Danubian Church, so the women were legally classified as criminals, not slaves. In many cases Royal Guards or village councils even staged quick trials in which conviction was guaranteed and the sentence was always a lifetime of servitude. The trials and sentences were total fiction, however. Convicted Danubian criminals officially belonged to the Crown, had some legal protection and limited rights, and certainly could not be sold. The foreigners were property, nothing more. The Crown officials and slave owners justified what they were doing because the women were viewed as invaders who were attempting to usurp the Duchy’s territory. The foreigners had willingly entered the Duchy, no had one forced them to cross the border (which was not true at all; they were fleeing a war in their homeland).

The most desirable young women were handed over to the governor in Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt. He treated them well and made sure they remained healthy, but to him the captives were nothing more than a commodity. He passed some out as gifts to visiting officials and kept the best ones for his own use. He set aside fifteen women in anticipation of the Grand Duke’s visit, figuring the ruler would choose the girls he wanted for himself and let his commanders take the others. The Grand Duke was fascinated by the captives’ beauty; the governor certainly did have good taste picking out the best women for him. He had a hard time deciding which ones he liked the best and only reluctantly reduced his selection to six. He would have been tempted to take them all, but nine veteran commanders had escorted him, so he rewarded each with a slave.

When the Grand Duke returned to the castle, the naked captives were forced to endure the in-processing routine from the matrons. They had to be examined, bathed, and have their armpits shaved and their hair trimmed. Also, their collars had to be removed. One of the castle blacksmiths carefully removed the collars, ensuring that the Grand Duke’s new acquisitions were not marked when the latches were released.

Each of the foreign girls had to endure a switching before they were sent to the concubines’ quarters. They hadn’t done anything wrong apart from having difficulty understanding orders, but the matrons forced each newcomer to bend over a switching bench and receive 15 strokes. The foreign girls had to understand, even though their collars had been removed, they would have no rights or privileges in the castle. Dozens of Royal Guards and castle staff gathered when word went out that six foreign women were about to be whipped. The matrons waited until the courtyard was full before ordering the girls to stand in a row and assume the prisoner’s stance, with their legs spread and their hands clasped behind their heads. Castle servants moved the switching horse to a wooden speaker’s platform that was about a fathom in height. A matron grabbed the first young woman by the hair and dragged her up to the platform. The girl cried in terror, thinking she was about to be executed. A second matron tied the newcomer’s hands and ankles to the legs of the switching bench. The matron took her time delivering the strokes, giving her victim plenty of time to feel each blow before receiving the next. She ran her hand over the girl’s bottom and patted the welts, which was an insult in traditional Danubian culture. When the matrons finally untied the sobbing captive and pulled her up from the bench, they forced her to stand on the platform and turn around several times so everyone could have a good look at both her body and the welts crossing her bottom. The entertainment lasted all afternoon, as a different matron punished each foreigner.

The Danubian concubines stood on their balcony, watching the switchings. For them the punishments were entertainment as much as they were for the castle staff. However, they knew that as soon as the punishments were over, the traumatized foreigners would be brought up to the concubines’ quarters and the Danubian women would have to deal with them. Silvítya was tempted to tell her companions that the foreigners were fellow “sisters” and needed to be treated as equals. However, she knew such an arrangement was not possible. The foreigners did not speak Danubian and presumably knew nothing about table manners and other etiquette. Besides language, they had to learn many new skills, and learn them very quickly. She correctly assumed the Grand Duke would judge her leadership on how swiftly the newcomers adapted to their responsibilities in the castle. She did not want the foreigners to be kept together and have the opportunity to converse in their own language. So, as the punishments progressed, she discussed with her companions how they should deal with the Grand Duke’s newest acquisitions. Silvítya decided that each of her companions would take a foreigner into her room and would be responsible for training her. The concubines would have to handle teaching etiquette, while Silvítya would take responsibility for teaching Danubian. To make sure all of the foreigners received the same schooling, they would be rotated every week: each Danubian girl would be assigned a new foreign girl every Sunday until the foreigners were properly trained.

Silvítya left her companions and descended to the courtyard. As much as she hated asking a matron for a favor, she felt that she had to borrow a switch. She had no plans to punish any of the foreigners, but felt that it would be good for them to see her carrying the implement when she was giving instructions to make sure they took anything she had to say seriously. The matrons ordered her to kneel while making the request, but finally they gave her what she wanted and she went up the stairs with her new symbol of authority.

The matrons did not bring up the foreigners until the sun was low in the horizon. The girls were miserable and totally traumatized. They were humiliated as well, but by that time they had learned to never try covering themselves. They kept their hands at their sides as they walked through the castle corridors, knowing they’d receive a painful swipe from the switch if their hands moved to cover their vulvas.

As soon as the foreigners entered the concubines’ quarters, Silvítya took over. Fortunately she spoke a little of the language of the Kingdom of the Moon, which was a dialect of Slavic with a lot of Turkish and some Danubian vocabulary mixed in. She didn’t speak it well, but was able to make herself understood. Directing the newcomers by pointing with her switch, she ordered them to kneel in a line. She started by asking them if anyone spoke Danubian. No… none of them spoke Danubian. "How wonderful. Well, you will have to learn, and learn quickly."

Silvítya taught the newcomers several phrases they would need to know around the Grand Duke, starting with “to hear is to obey, Your Majesty”. Then she introduced the Danubian concubines and assigned a foreigner to each, including one to herself. With difficulty she explained that each foreigner would have to treat her Danubian mentor as her mistress and kneel when talking to her.

Her first trainee’s name was Mirjana. Apart from her physical beauty, there was nothing special about Mirjana; in her previous life she was the daughter of a cloth merchant. Her family fled when the Lord of the Blue Moon’s men burnt her village and killed most of the men. In that attack she lost her father and uncle, but her grandfather and brother survived and the remaining members of her family joined a group of peasants headed north. The refugees were totally unaware that the Grand Duke had retaken southern Danubia until they already had crossed the hills into Hórkustk Ris province. A group of Royal Guards surrounded the group, separated the males, and blindfolded the women. Mirjana did not see her grandfather’s killing, but could hear what was going on. It turned out the Royal Guards were somewhat more merciful than the majority of the Danubian soldiers roaming the border, because they spared the younger boys. They ordered the boys to bury the slain men and then to return to the Kingdom of the Moon and warn others not to try to cross into the Duchy. Mirjana had the small consolation knowing that her brother, at least at the time she was taken captive, remained alive.

As soon as they moved the captured women and girls far enough so they could not see what had happened to the men, the Danubians removed their blindfolds and ordered them to strip. Naked except for their shoes, they spent three days walking in chilly rain under guard to a small town that had a slave market. Mirjana’s mother, aunt, older sister, and two cousins were collared and auctioned, along with most of the group’s other women, to separate buyers. The Guards kept Mirjana and one other teenager they considered particularly attractive and transported them by mule to Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt to sell to the governor. The governor handed her over as a gift to the Grand Duke two weeks later.

* * *

The bell rang four times, indicating the ruler wanted four women to report to his bed-chamber. Silvítya surprised her companions by ordering three Danubians to go with her and to leave all the foreigners behind. The girls were still in shock from their predicament and from having been publicly switched and humiliated, so their spokeswoman figured it would be a good idea to give them a day to recover before having to deal with the Grand Duke. She ordered the two remaining Danubian concubines to continue teaching the foreigners how to say phrases in the language of the Duchy.

The Grand Duke was surprised to see familiar faces instead those of his newest acquisitions. He was irritated enough that he did not give his “favorite” any preferential treatment that evening: she had to line up with her companions and endure being taken from behind. However, after he exhausted himself and dismissed the others, he had Silvítya perform the usual routine of preparing his bath and sitting with him while in the water. He chatted about the worsening civil war in the Kingdom of the Moon and commented about the growing number of refugees trying to cross the border. As much as a nuisance as the refugees were, it was nice they were providing the Duchy with an ample supply of slaves, especially young women. Silvítya tightened her lips and said nothing. When he asked how the new concubines were doing, the “favorite minx” described her training regimen and her plans to make the newcomers learn to speak Danubian as quickly as possible.

Silvítya brought two of the newcomers when the bell rang in the afternoon and three others when the Grand Duke wanted women in the evening. As usual, he treated them roughly and wore himself out copulating as though he was possessed. He was pleased with their training and ability to understand his commands, so much so that he forgot about being irritated with Silvítya the previous night for not bringing up any of the foreigners. He dismissed the unhappy girls after he was finished with them. As usual he kept Silvítya after sending off her companions. As usual, she bathed him and knelt, waiting to be dismissed.

“My favorite minx, I’ve just realized something. You’ve been my favorite for a year; it would seem… more than a year. You have served me well, don’t you think?”

“Your humble serving girl’s Path in Life is to serve you, Your Majesty.”

“Yes, it is, isn’t it? But, your service has been exceptional, and therefore I will do something exceptional for you, my favorite minx…”

Silvítya’s hopes rose that maybe the ruler was about to release her or change her status in the castle. She was dismayed when, instead, he produced a fine necklace made from white gold and sapphires and placed it around her neck. He directed her to look at herself in the mirror. Yes, the necklace was a beautiful piece of jewelry that any woman would have desperately wanted. But it meant that Silvítya’s life was about to move totally in the opposite direction of what she had hoped.

She turned and knelt, placing her face to the floor. She pretended to be kneeling out of gratitude, but she really was hiding her dismay the ruler had taken a liking to her and that there was no chance, none whatsoever, he’d ever willingly let her out of his life.

“Your humble serving girl… doesn’t… doesn’t know how to express her gratitude, Your Majesty.”

“Yes, indeed. It is a nice necklace, is it not? And now, it is yours. Something to make the crown jewel of my girls shine the way she should. And how should you express your gratitude, my favorite minx? Simply keep doing what you’ve done already. You’re more valuable to me than all my ministers combined. The necklace is my gift, but also my commitment… that your Path in Life will always be here, with me, serving the people of the Duchy.

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

“Now rise, and run along, my favorite minx.”

As she turned, he gave her a very sharp slap on her bottom. She responded with, “Your humble serving girl wishes to express her gratitude, Your Majesty.”

When she got back to her room, she struggled not to become sick. She had always entertained a glimmer of hope, unrealistic as it might have been, that some day the Grand Duke would become bored with her and release her if she did not become pregnant. The necklace told her there was no way that would happen. The Grand Duke understood how valuable she was to him and had no intention of releasing her… ever. She wondered if he was silently sending her the message: "I know you want to leave, but that is not what I want. I’m keeping you forever, so you’d getter get used to it."

Silvítya wore her new necklace around the castle the following day. She did not dare not to wear it. The necklace changed her status: the staff understood she now was the ruler’s favorite servant. Therefore, the others treated her with deference. Even the matrons were polite and nervous around her, because her status now was above theirs. She easily could have punished a matron had she invented an excuse, but she knew better than to try such a thing. She could fall out of the sovereign’s favor just as easily as she had fallen into his favor, so making enemies would be completely foolish.

She went outside to calm her nerves. She rapidly walked around the garden and the castle grounds to work off her stress. Fortunately the day was warm and sunny, so she was able to wander in the nude in relative comfort. It was nice to be outside and she was grateful for the chance to enjoy sunshine on her body and to exercise.

She saw her friend Protector Buláshckt, sitting on a stone bench with a supply of weapons he had brought outside to clean and sharpen. He had a favorite cross-bow and sword, but the item taking up most of his time was his cumbersome musket. Silvítya was curious to have a better look at it. She approached the guard and, because she was in a public location, saluted him. When he returned her salute, he congratulated her on her necklace. In a sudden burst of honesty she blurted out, “Protector Buláshckt, do you truly think I’m happy having to wear this? Do you really think I’m content with my Path in Life?” Do you think I’m satisfied the Ancients have spent two years, two years, mocking me and punishing me for my stupidity?”

She covered her face, partly to hide her horror at her outburst, and partly to hide the fact she was crying. He calmed her down, assuring her that he wouldn’t repeat what she had just said. He understood what had happened; that she had spent two years concealing her thoughts and emotions, with no one to talk to or confide in. The isolation had gotten to her. He understood because the Royal Guards had to endure the same torment of silence, year after year, serving the Grand Duke and hiding their doubts from each other.

When the concubine recovered and had an opportunity to look at the Royal Guard, she noted the worried expression on his face. Because she had opened up to him, he confided with her his latest concern, which was personal. His step-daughter had just celebrated her ninth birthday. She wondered why such a thing would worry him. He was reluctant to answer that question. He changed the subject by showing her the weapons and letting her try out the crossbow. She aimed at a distant tree and surprised him by hitting it.

Protector Buláshckt talked about techniques for aiming the crossbow. He was about to let her fire a second bolt, but abruptly stopped. He thought over how he wanted to phrase his next statement, and finally asked Silvítya a question. “Tell me this. When you are with His Majesty, what do you see in him? What do you think of him as a man?”

“As a man, Protector Buláshckt? I suppose… I would say… he’s very aggressive with all of us. There’s usually ten of us… twelve now… and it seems we spend all of our energy trying to keep him satisfied… and it’s still not enough.”

“No… no… that’s not what I mean. I’m not interested in knowing about your duties to him in bed. I want to know what you think of him as a man… as a person…”

Silvítya thought about it. What did she think of the Duke as a man?

“He’s very restless. I’ve never seen anyone as restless as him. And he’s obsessed with learning and curious about everything. He loves to outsmart people and force them to give up their secrets. He got out of me that I used to be a Follower of the Ancients and lived with an alchemist, and as soon as he found that out, he demanded that I tell him everything that I learned from her. He was very interested in her ideas about the rat-plague and her medicine-making. The cave charcoal and the metal stoves… that wasn’t his invention, he learned that from me. The explosions from last summer… he learned that from me, and I learned it from the Cult. He uses other people’s ideas, but can do incredible things with them. He’s alert and seems to understand everything. I mean… he is a brilliant man. When I talk to him I have a very strange feeling… I don’t know how else to say it… it’s like he has the soul of an Ancient, trapped in the body of a mortal.”

Silvítya paused. “The problem is that I don’t know what he wants. He wants something, but I don’t know what it is…”

“That I can answer. He has plans for the Duchy… huge ambitions. You’re part of those ambitions. I am too, or at least my wife and daughter are.”

“I don’t understand, Protector Buláshckt.”

“Hórkustk Ris is just the beginning. He wants the Duchy to be united, a strong modern kingdom, like some of those countries to the west. He wants everything under the control of the Royal House. He has plans, and most of them are good. He wants better roads, better houses, better farming, schools for the peasants, and to end the Destroyer’s curses such as the rat-plague. He understands that we can no longer defend ourselves by hiding behind trees and shooting arrows. I hate this musket: it’s heavy, slow, and hard to use, but it is the weapon everyone else is using, so we have to employ them as well.”

“But how do I fit into that?”

“You’re a concubine. Do you know why the Grand Duke keeps concubines?”

“I suppose he’s not happy with just one woman… he wants more…”

“That’s only a small part of it. I’m sure he doesn’t mind enjoying his privileges with you, but the concubines serve a larger purpose. You are the mothers of the future of the Duchy.”

“So… that’s why he wants all those kids?”

“Not kids, daughters. He wants as many daughters as he can have. He plans to use them.”


Protector Buláshckt paused, trying to figure out how to explain the Grand Duke’s complicated plans. He answered with a question. “How much do you know about the vice Duke of Rika Chorna?”

“I know he doesn’t like the Grand Duke… and that they never pay taxes or help out in wars and stuff like that.”

“That is correct. The vice-Duchy of Rika Chorna has always been a problem for the Grand Dukes, ever since the days of King Vladik. They don’t consider themselves part of the Duchy. The Grand Duke will use his daughters to change that. He has daughters and sons scattered around the country. He doesn’t care anything about the sons: they’ll just lead normal lives. He very much cares about the daughters. When each one turns ten years old, he separates her from her mother and brings her to the castle. The girls receive special education and training to serve their father. When the time comes for each to braid her hair, he will marry her to the son of one of the families in the east who has sworn allegiance to the vice-Duke.”


“Yes… why. I suppose you still don’t know about that part of Royal protocol. A family that has any member married to a relative of the Grand Duke is prohibited, by the law and by the Church, to act against him. I repeat… any member. So… over time the Grand Duke will summon the sons of the east to visit him in the capital. There will be goodwill, and then… a forced marriage. The marriage will be blessed by the Church and Royal proclamations will let everyone know how fortunate the man’s family is by having a son return to Rika Chorna with a young flower, plucked directly from the Duke’s garden. The young men will not be able to say anything to argue that the marriage was not consensual, because to do so would entail losing honor. And… anyhow… I doubt the young men themselves will fully understand what is happening until it is too late, because His Majesty is gifted with trickery and deception…”

Silvítya responded by sadly nodding. The Royal Guard continued, “He will do this over and over… with a steady supply of daughters coming from the wombs of his concubines, until every family from the east is allied to him through marriage. Their sworn loyalty to the vice-Duke of the east will mean nothing. When the Royal Army marches east to assume control of the vice-Duke’s palace, the nobility in the other towns will not be able to raise a hand against the sovereign.”

“But if the Grand Duke needs to secure the loyalty of Rika Chorna, isn’t that a better way than war?”

“It is, except for one problem. I married a former concubine, a beautiful young woman, just like you. Her daughter, who is from the seed of the Grand Duke, is the girl who just tuned nine. But she is not the Duke’s daughter. She is my daughter. She knows no other life, no other family, than the household she shares with me, my wife, and our sons. When I look at her, see her with her mother or playing with her brothers, I know we can’t give her up. She’s of the Grand Duke’s seed, but she’s my daughter, just the same as my sons. Now that I seen everything that man is capable of, I don’t want him touching her.”

“So you have just a year to figure out what to do.”

“That is correct. A year.”

“Do you have any ideas?”

“We’ll have to escape somehow, but we must do it in a way that will make the Grand Duke think we’re all dead. Maybe stage an ambush or burn our house. I still don’t know, but I’ll have to come up with something before my daughter’s 10th birthday.”

There was a long moment of silence. Finally Silvítya spoke, “I don’t want to bear the Grand Duke’s child. I’ve been able to prevent that so far. And I don’t want to spend another winter in the castle. When you leave, can I go with you?”

“Of course. And I’ll move your bucket to my house.” The guard gave Silvítya a mischievous smile. “I suppose I shouldn’t ask about that interesting item you have in there.”

“It’s a secret, Protector Buláshckt. I’m sworn to protect it as best I can.”

“Yes, we both have our secrets, don’t we?”

Chapter Twenty – The Great Fire

Silvítya was worried that the Grand Duke might somehow find out about her conversation with Protector Buláshckt, given his talent for figuring out people’s secrets. However, living two years in the castle had made her as talented at hiding her emotions and thoughts as the ruler was for discerning them. Besides, he was distracted by a secret project. He constantly wrote letters and studied mysterious architectural plans. At first she thought he was still worried about expanding the city wall, but that didn’t explain his behavior, given the entire country knew about the wall project. So, whenever she had the chance, she glanced at the drawings any time she happened to be near a work-table or desk. The drawings had nothing to do with fortified defenses; instead they were pictures of strange beautiful buildings unlike anything she had seen in the Duchy, with columns and domes and elaborate stone carvings.

The training of the foreigners went extremely well. By the end of their first six weeks as concubines they had a working knowledge of Danubian. Three of the girls were literate in their own language, so the spokeswoman trained them to read and write in Danubian, with the understanding they would teach their illiterate companions how to read and write in the Duchy's language. Silvítya also trained the new girls how to sexually satisfy their master, showing them the submissive postures they were expected to assume and how to massage the ruler to get him aroused after he had copulated with the first of his women for the night. Without directly saying it, she made the newcomers understand that the sooner the Duke became aroused, the sooner he would have sex with the remaining women, and the sooner they would be released for the night. Silvítya took it for granted the foreigners found dealing with the Danubian ruler unpleasant and wanted their time with him to end as quickly as possible.

During the late spring of 1755, the Grand Duke’s behavior towards his favorite concubine changed. He actually started treating her decently and with limited respect. He did not force her to kneel while he fed her treats, he made love to her in a completely normal manner, he quit threatening to sodomize her, and most importantly, he quit fondling her scalp and running his fingers through her hair. He talked to her in a conversational tone, dropping a lot of the condescending phrases he used to address his concubines. Usually he referred to her as “Servant Silvítya”, which was the name by which she was known around the castle. That was much better than being called “my favorite minx”. Silvítya hated being called a “minx”.

Another sign of the ruler’s increasing respect for his servant manifested itself when he forced her to bring the foreigners to his bed-chamber. He was as rough and demanding with the newcomers as much as he was with any of his newly-acquired women, but he did not make his favorite participate in the group sex sessions. In fact, he never had sex with her at all if any of the other women were present. Not at any time during her two years in the castle had she ever heard of any concubine, even Magdala, not being forced to have sex with the ruler while the other women were present. Apart from forcing her to remain naked at all times, he quit doing anything to her that a normal Danubian woman would consider disrespectful or humiliating.

On the first day of June, the Grand Duke gave Silvítya a set of bracelets to match her necklace. The necklace was shocking enough, but now the former peasant girl was walking around with bracelets as well. The castle staff stared at her as she wandered around in her new jewelry. Never had anyone seen a concubine wearing such items, which were among the most expensive pieces of jewelry in the Royal Family’s collection.

Silvítya forced herself to smile and act grateful, but to her the necklace felt like a criminal’s collar and the bracelets felt like metal cuffs. She dreaded to think what the jewelry might mean; that possibly the Grand Duke was falling in love with her. He certainly enjoyed having her with him as much as possible, especially at night. He spent hours with her in the bath or in his bed, massaging her shoulders and talking about his various experiences while growing up.

There were a couple of memories he inadvertently shared that gave Silvítya some important insights into his character. He talked in a detached manner, as though trying to distance himself from whatever emotion he was feeling at the time, but the experiences were real and must have been traumatic when they happened. There was one incident in particular that stuck out in his mind. His father had been making him train with both a long bow and a crossbow throughout his childhood. At age 12, like every other Danubian child, the future Grand Duke passed the farewell-to-childhood ceremony at the Great Temple in a hugely public ceremony. When the ceremony was finished and everyone went home, the old Grand Duke gave his son a long lecture about what leaving childhood behind meant for a future ruler. He then celebrated by taking his son to the castle courtyard, where a prisoner had been tied to the execution post. The old Grand Duke handed his son a longbow and told him he had to pass his first test to prove he could become the next sovereign. The boy, at age 12, had to carry out an execution. The prisoner looked at his young executioner with a totally despondent expression, more like he felt sorry for the boy than anything else.

The Royal heir, terrified of displeasing his father, did as he was told and shot five arrows into the prisoner. Unfortunately, the man was not quite dead after the fifth arrow, so the boy had to shoot him with five additional arrows. The heir was trembling and felt totally sick after the tenth arrow. His father commented, “You shot that prisoner like you were a woman. You’ll need to learn, boy. You’ll learn to kill a man with your first shot, and if I have to bring every criminal in the country into this courtyard for the next decade, I will, until you learn archery like a man.”

The heir had to kill over 20 prisoners before his father was satisfied with his performance with the longbow.

The Grand Duke treated the incident as a legitimate right of passage, but Silvítya wondered how much it really affected him, deep down. It was interesting that the Grand Duke, for all the women he had taken as concubines, had not yet married. He had as many illegitimate sons scattered around the country as daughters but, apart from sending their mothers a silver coin each month, he never interacted with them. The concubine vaguely wondered if subconsciously the ruler was afraid of having to raise a son and having to decide whether to repeat his father’s harsh system of “tests of character” to for the heir to claim the right to assume the throne.

* * *

At the beginning of June the Grand Duke decided to offer his favorite concubine a second wish. Since she couldn’t expect release from her servitude, she pondered what she could ask for that would be useful in her life. She decided to ingratiate herself with her “sisters” by requesting that all of the concubines have access to the garden, if she escorted them. The ruler surprised her by granting that wish. For the rest of the summer the concubines could enjoy being outdoors, as long as their spokeswoman kept watch over them.

When Silvítya announced that she had obtained permission for all of the “sisters” to enjoy the garden, they were thrilled. However, their spokeswoman used the privilege to re-assert her authority over the others. Since she decided who could go out with her and who would have to stay behind, she re-instituted the regimen of reading and learning. The girls from the Kingdom of the Moon would have to participate as well, reading books with simpler texts and discussing them in Danubian.

In the garden, Silvítya established a regimen of exercise which included relay races and ball-catch games. The guards and male servants spent their afternoons watching the 12 naked young women as they ran around the garden, but the concubines were enjoying themselves too much to really worry about their audience. The Grand Duke noted with satisfaction that the girls had the chance to truly enjoy the summer and that their mood as a group had improved.

At the end of June, Antonia gave birth to a son. Silvítya was relieved the child was not a daughter and that the ruler would not seize her offspring in ten years. Antonia was distressed that Silvítya still showed no signs of being pregnant, since she had been hoping that perhaps they could reunite, share a house, and raise their children together.

Silvítya sadly responded, “My Path in Life brings misery to those I most love. So… I ask you to forget about me… you’ll be free soon, in your own house and making your own decisions and happily eating from His Majesty’s coin. You’ll have a pleasant life, if you choose to be happy.”

“But… my happiness was when I was with you, Sister Silvítya.”

“Then you were deceived by the Destroyer. You don’t want to be with me. I don’t bring happiness into peoples’ lives. The Profane One looks over my shoulder and has cursed everyone I ever loved. I want you to be the first person who escapes my curse. Leave this castle, don’t look back, and banish me from your thoughts. That is the only way you can spare yourself from the curse I carry with me.”

Silvítya handed the baby to Antonia and squeezed her hand. It would be the last time they would ever see each other.

Antonia left the castle, but did not receive her own house. Instead, she went to the estate of one of the Grand Duke’s foreign emissaries. He was about to become the Grand Duke’s ambassador to Montenegro and needed a translator. Antonia accepted the assignment, since she really had no reason to stay in the Duchy.

Antonia spent the rest of her life in Montenegro, living within sight of the Adriatic Sea. She married the ambassador’s nephew and bore him a son and a daughter. She raised three children and spent her free time writing stories about her former lover, making up several adventures that were totally fictitious. She wrote from the perspective of a heartbroken lover, so her future readers assumed the stories had been written by a man. Like the others before her, Antonia never mentioned Silvítya by name, preferring to leave her heroine more mysterious. Years later, when the Grand Duke’s son returned to visit Danúbikt Móskt with his stepfather and half-brother, he took his mother’s writings with him to see if they could be published. The strangely-written fantasy stories about a girl with no name quickly became popular reading in the Duchy.

* * *

It was fortunate that the concubines were able to spend the summer outdoors in the Royal garden, because the middle of 1755 was unusually hot for the Duchy. Temperatures everywhere were unbearable, especially in the upper floors of the castle where the concubines’ quarters were located. The women were outside sitting in the shade during the long hot days, reading and practicing penmanship and embroidery.

Silvítya had to keep the others within her sight, but she often wandered away from them to be alone with her thoughts. Often she stood looking out at the East Danube River and the steep cliffs along the western shore, wondering what life would be like in Austria, Prussia, and some of the other kingdoms of Europe that were nothing more to her than drawings on maps.

Less frequently she walked around to the east side of the garden and studied Danúbikt Móskt. The tall wooden buildings and their dilapidated rooftops were not an attractive sight at all. The only improvement was that the smoke had mostly cleared, because the majority of the city’s population had departed to work in the fields or spend time relaxing along the river. The Danubian capital was most unpleasant during the summer, so summertime was when most residents tried to get out for a while. The summer of 1755 was particularly hot and dry, which made the residents even more desperate to go somewhere else and the city even more deserted than during a typical year.

The view of the capital and the countryside beyond reminded Silvítya of the outside world, a world that was both threatening and alluring. Another reminder of that world was Protector Buláshckt, who occasionally showed up in the garden to maintain or clean weapons. He wanted to see her and to talk, so he often took spare weapons from the armory and cleaned them to provide himself with justification to be in the garden when the concubines were out. The friends chatted, usually in places where others could overhear their conversations so that no one suspected them of having a romantic relationship.

She continued to work on her narrative of the battle of Hórkustk Ris, so he brought updates on what was going on in the region. The ruler considered the province the most important project for securing the Duchy’s future. The region was more secure than it had been in decades, but the Grand Duke was not satisfied. His biggest worry was that, even with the resettlement of the civilians from the city itself and the forced repatriation of the refugees living around the capital, the number of Danubians remained inadequate.

After going on about some details concerning the re-settlement of various villages, the Royal Guard got to the point. “The Grand Duke had no way of knowing how long the respite will last and when the House of Moon or the Ottoman empire will again turn their attention towards the Duchy. The only solution is to populate Hórkustk Ris province with loyal Danubians as quickly as possible. Now there are 110,000 Danubians in the southern region, but everyone knows that’s not nearly enough. The Grand Duke thinks that the province will not be secure unless at least 200,000 people from the Duchy live there. So… the Duke’s dilemma is from where he will recruit those additional 90,000 loyal citizens. If we didn’t have to worry about our enemies, over time we could convince landless peasants and debtors to move, but we can’t wait for a gradual re-settlement. The Duke needs to move a bunch of people there quickly, and I am very fearful thinking about where he will find them and how he plans to force them to move. I’ve seen what he’s capable of… things I never could imagine him, or us, doing. And yet we did them. As an army, we lost our honor after the defense of the city, and often it seems I’m the only one who can see that. And now… something terrible… and I don’t yet know what it is… must happen to our people, so the Duke’s plans for Hórkustk Ris can be fulfilled. And the worst part is that His Majesty is right. We do have to secure that province.”

* * *

Love is the strangest of human phenomenon. It strikes when a person neither expects nor wants it. It is truly blind and forces even the smartest man to see what is not there. So often a man will do things to make himself irresistible to the object of his desire, only for the actions to have the exact opposite effect.

The illusion of love struck the Grand Duke in the late summer of 1755. He showered his favorite concubine with gifts such as exotic food treats and more jewelry to match the items she already had. By August the “favorite concubine” was walking around the castle wearing the sapphire necklace and bracelets, along with sapphire anklets, rings, and a waist chain. Everyone thought the jewelry was truly stunning, which it was. However, to Silvítya the items felt like additional chains and shackles, each item signaling that she was less and less likely to ever recover her freedom. However, she was patient. Just like her friend Protector Buláshckt, she’d have to keep the ruler happy while waiting for the opportunity to escape.

The Grand Duke never realized that every additional piece of jewelry made Silvítya more determined to get away from him. Precisely because he was so enamored, he became foolish around her and placed confidence in her that he never would have placed with anyone else. He left military maps lying around when she was in his chamber, held secret conferences with his advisors with her hidden under his desk, and allowed her to overhear schemes he had against various rivals within the Duchy. Had Silvítya been a foreign agent or in the pay of the vice-Duke of Rika Chorna, she could have done some real damage to the Grand Duke and his ambitions. However, she didn’t care about most of the things the ruler carelessly shared with her. She did not want to harm the Royal Household nor the Duchy. The only thing that interested her was picking up information that would aid her plans, or Protector Buláshckt’s plans, to escape his reach.

In the middle of August she was in the Duke’s study when she noticed a large map of Danúbikt Móskt laid out on his desk. The map was strange, because it clearly portrayed the city wall and the area surrounding it, but the layout of the city’s interior was totally different from the way it was in real life. Instead of the narrow, winding streets of the real capital, the map showed wide boulevards, large parks, and rows of elegant symmetrical ministry buildings with domes and columns. The buildings were very nice, but they did not look like anything Silvítya had seen anywhere in the Duchy. However, there was no question the map was of Danubkt Mostk because a few existing buildings, such as the cathedral, the Duke’s castle, and the Temple of the Ancients were included. The old city walls also appeared in the city plans, but several large openings were added to accommodate some of the boulevards. It was clear the city walls were not going to be expanded, nor the old walls further fortified for defense.

There were a lot of other documents scattered around the Duke’s study… such as correspondence with foreign architects and city planners. Most of the documents were in German. The Grand Duke did not know that his servant could read German, that was one of the few secrets she was able to keep from him. So, he allowed her to mill around the table and glance at the letters, not realizing she was able to understand them. The letters focused on a massive building project, but not one that had anything to do with fortifying the capitol’s defenses. No… instead it was apparent the Grand Duke was in the final phases of planning the complete rebuilding of the Danubian capital.

That night, after the foreign girls had performed their duties with the ruler and were sent back to their quarters, Silvítya remained behind to comfort her master. She carefully observed his mood, making sure he was talkative enough to give up information. She smiled and massaged his chest as she absent-mindedly commented, “Your Majesty, your humble serving girl was wondering about all those drawings… of the buildings...”

“Ha! Inquisitive little one, aren’t you? And observant… I might add…”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Well, let me ask you something. How would you like to go visit the city where those buildings are? Actually see them for yourself?”

“Your humble serving girl would be honored, Your Majesty.”

“My humble little love will be honored. Hearing that pleases me, because you will indeed be privileged to see the buildings you so admired in those pictures. They are not reality yet, but soon will be. To see them, you won’t have to go anywhere. You will see them from the garden of this very castle.”

“Your Majesty will build them here in Danube City?”

“Yes. It is the Duchy’s Path in Life to have a new capital. Every building you see in those plans will become reality. So you will see the grandeur of the future, without ever having to travel. The Duchy will build next year.”

Silvítya wasn’t sure she had heard correctly. Next year? “Your Majesty, your humble serving girl wishes to know about the fate of the wooden city… and the residents.”

“Wood burns, does it not?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“…and it burns even faster at the end of a very hot summer when everything has dried out. So there is your answer, my loyal one. Just two days from now we will clear all of the wooden structures once and for all. The residents are away, so they will be powerless to save their houses. It will all burn… all of it, and a new Danube City will rise from the ashes… the Danube City that is my Path in Life to create.”

Silvítya went pale, wondering if she truly understood what the Grand Duke had just told her. Was he really planning to destroy the entire capital? She tried to remain calm as she asked her next question. “Your Majesty, your humble serving girl wishes to know your intentions for the people here.”

“Those who can serve the Duchy’s new capital will stay. I have already collected outside the city walls the building materials they will need to build new houses.”

The sovereign smiled mischievously, as though he was plotting a simple prank, and not the destruction of an entire city and the disruption of tens of thousands of lives. “As for the rest, they will also serve the Duchy, by going south. The province of Hórkustk Ris awaits. It is crying out for help, and for people. I will send both.”

Silvítya remembered her friend’s words: “And now… something terrible… and I don’t yet know what it is… will happen to our people, so the Duke’s plans for Hórkustk Ris can be fulfilled.” Protector Buláshckt was right. Indeed, something terrible was about to happen, and now Silvítya knew what it was.

The next day Silvítya spent wandering the garden and even ventured into the stables looking for Protector Buláshckt. She had to find him as quickly as possible. She spent the entire day in frantic futility, but just as she was about to give up her search for the day, she saw him riding in with the ruler and a contingent of other guards. She knelt in clear sight as the entourage passed by. She exchanged glances with her friend, letting him know with a slight jerk of her head and a wide-eyed fearful expression that she needed to talk to him. He answered with a quick nod. She’d have to wait for him in the garden, but he’d try to get to her as quickly as possible.

She didn’t bother to talk to her companions. Instead, she passed her time picking a flower arrangement to present to the Grand Duke, slowly and carefully plucking the thorns off roses. Finally Protector Buláshckt showed up. Silvítya told him what she thought was about to happen. To her relief, the guard believed every word of her story.

“Very good. Now I understand the orders he’s given around the city. He took actions that to me didn’t make any sense, but now they do. For example, he took down the gates so the hinges could be replaced… all of them at once. Just a few days ago, he ordered a check of the walls, so there are ladders everywhere. And it would explain all the boats. The docks along the Rika Chorna are full of boats.”

“What does all that have to do with a fire?”

“You don’t understand? Everything he’s done will make it easy to get out of the city. To escape the inferno, all a citizen would have to do is make it as far as the city wall and climb over. The gates are open… easy to run out. The docks are full of boats… easy to row away. Simple plan, really. Set the city on fire and evacuate it. No one dies, so the Duchy is too busy praising the Lord-Creator for sparing the people to understand what really happened. Brilliant. His Majesty may be mad, but he’s no fool.”

“So what can we do to stop it?”

“Stop it? We don’t. Tomorrow night the city will burn and that’s when we escape. You, me, my family. For us, this couldn’t possibly be any better. The Grand Duke will have no way of knowing we didn’t perish in the blaze. I’ll have my family pack up and leave tomorrow afternoon. They’ll wait on the road going south. They’ll be safe. The only problem will be getting you out of the castle. There’re several options, but they’re all risky. Some of it will depend on luck, and I hate depending on luck.”

“Protector Buláshckt… I don’t… I mean… I want you to get your family out… save your daughter… maybe I can go later…”

“You’re having second thoughts about leaving His Majesty?”

“No. I want to get away from him more than ever. But… you’re more important. It’d be a lot harder for you to worry about me, than to simply take your family and run.”

“It would be, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. You stood by me in battle, which makes you my sister. You are not any less important to me than the other members of my family. If you want to leave, tomorrow night will be your only chance, unless you want to wait another year and depart with the Duke’s baby.”

Protector Buláshckt looked hard at the concubine. She shook her head.

“Then it’s settled. Tomorrow night we leave together. There’s several secret passageways dug through the hill that we can choose from, to get out of the castle and into the city. We run through the Merchant’s Gate, get on a boat, and disappear into the crowd. That’s the plan.”

That night Silvítya spent what she hoped would be her last night with the Grand Duke. She put on all the jewelry that he had given her and presented herself to his study with the bouquet of flowers she had picked while waiting for Protector Buláshckt.

She could tell that the Danubian ruler was totally exhausted. He had been up for days finalizing his plans to burn the city, get as many of its residents out as possible, and then arrange to force anyone who was not a guard, an employee of the Royal House, or a mason or craftsman, to move south. She casually glanced at the pile of documents on his drafting table to see if there was anything useful among all those papers. She noticed a map of the castle, which she would try to examine more closely before leaving the Royal Chamber.

The night would be a very long one for the Duke’s favorite concubine. He wanted to relax and have a bath before settling in bed with her. She massaged him and treated him with sympathy. Oddly enough, as much as she hated him, at that moment she felt somewhat sorry for him. It was strange to think she was unlikely to ever see him again.

Finally, the sovereign went to sleep. As always, he did not gradually doze off like most men: his energy suddenly vanished and he passed out. Silvítya figured he must have gone three days with no rest and finally it caught up with him. He would not have let down his guard with any of his other concubines, but because he was so enamored with Silvítya, he had been so careless around her. Strange to think, had she wanted to, she could have assassinated him with no problem.

Instead, with her Master unconscious and being in the room with no supervision, she took advantage to have a thorough look at the huge collection of plans, drawings, and maps piled around his desk. Most of the papers were blueprints of the future Danube City, but the item that had drawn her attention was a map of the castle. The map had several pages, each showing a different level of the Royal residence. The bottom pages proved to be invaluable to Silvítya’s plans, because they contained diagrams of the passageways that Protector Buláshckt had talked about. The most important detail was discovering the access points in the castle. It turned out there was an access point in the kitchen, one in the Duke’s study, and another from one of the guard towers.

Silvítya spent a good part of the night trying to memorize the labyrinth under the Royal residence. If she knew the layout of the tunnels, that would help her plans tremendously. She knew that Protector Buláshckt had calculated that he’d have to come up into the castle and escort her out. However, Silvítya felt that no longer would be necessary. She’d be able to meet up with her friend somewhere underground. The further she could go on her own, the better. She knew that the best choice would be a tunnel that she could access from either the Duke’s study or from the kitchen, and yes, there was such a tunnel. The conspirator sketched out a rough copy of the route she planned to take, with several spots where she might meet up with Protector Buláshckt. She marked off several alternatives and would let him pick the one she thought would be best. She didn’t worry about the exit routes into the city. She took it for granted the guard would have the information he needed to make the best choice.

She looked under the rug near the fireplace. Sure enough, the rug hid an escape hatch. She checked to make sure there was no lock. There were some heavy bolts, but no lock. She slowly eased the bolts into the open position and lifted the hatch. It was heavy and creaked terribly. There was another problem; the rug. How could she get the rug back over the hatch to hide it once she passed through? That would entail trusting another person to replace the rug, and she had no such confidant in the castle. Maybe it would be better to check the kitchen.

It turned out the kitchen hatch was a better option. It was built into a wall, not the floor, so there was no rug to put back into place. Instead, it was hidden behind a tapestry. Like the Duke’s study, she slid out the bolts to save herself the worry of doing that the next day. The kitchen was the riskier of the two choices because of the cooking staff. However, it was the better choice because once she got past the tapestry, it would not be so obvious someone had just slipped through. Also, far more people had access to the kitchen than to the Duke’s study, thus when the cooks discovered the unbolted door, they’d have a much harder time guessing who went through it. So… that was settled. She’d have to go out through the kitchen without being seen by the cooking staff.

Before she went to bed, Silvítya carefully put away all of the jewelry the Grand Duke had given her. She knew better than to try to take a single piece of it. She calculated that if she took anything, the sovereign would know for sure she was still alive. Also, simply leaving the castle without permission was not really a crime, but attempting to take anything with her would be. She didn’t want to imagine what the punishment would be for stealing Royal jewelry.

However, none of that mattered to Silvítya nearly as much as her own sense of honor. She had entered the castle with nothing, and she would leave with nothing. For two years the Grand Duke had housed her in comfort, fed her the best food, and given her the education she needed to pass as a woman from the upper class. For all that she would give him nothing, not even return his love for her. The time had come for her to go, but she would try her best to respect him.

The next morning she found Protector Buláshckt near the Royal Stables, overseeing the re-shoeing of his horse. They exchanged glances and she went to the garden. A few minutes later he caught up to her and she handed him the pages of her manuscript about the war and a package containing her stash of secret alchemy ingredients. Then she showed him the rough map she made of the upper passageway.

“I figure there’s three spots we can meet up. This intersection, or maybe this turn with the pillar… but I think the drainage grid would work best, because it’s set back and whoever gets there first can hide.”

Protector Buláshckt was more than impressed with her planning. As much as he admired her calm assistance during the battle of Hórkustk Ris, he did not think she’d be capable of memorizing the underground tunnel system and thinking ahead on hiding places.

“The drainage grid it is, Silvítya. We’ll meet up there, just like you said. Whoever gets there first will wait.”

“Another question. What’ll I do about something to wear?”

“We’re both going out in caravan trader’s outfits. That’ll be our disguise, at least until we get away from the city. Don’t take any castle clothing; it’s too easy to recognize.”

“I’m not taking anything from the castle.”

“Very well. I don’t know where His Majesty is planning to be, but do I know what time he’ll set the city on fire. It’ll be when the Moon is straight overhead. He’s very predictable that way. At night he always uses the Moon as a signal, because, as he puts it: ‘the Moon never lies and the Moon never forgets where it’s supposed to be.’ What that means is we need to be in the tunnel before the Moon is directly overhead, but not too far in advance. You need to wait until your companions are asleep so you won’t be missed. Probably I’ll be at the grid first, because I fully expect you to have delays trying to sneak out of the kitchen.”

“Do you think we’ll get out before the city’s on fire?”

“No. You’ll see it burn, Silvítya. You’ll have a story to tell your grandkids.”

* * *

Silvítya never saw the Grand Duke the following day. He was nowhere in the castle; his disappearance a mystery to everyone. The concubines wondered about him the most, given that he never missed an opportunity, even if it was for a few minutes, to indulge himself. No one noticed him in his study, nor in the throne room, nor in the dining hall, nor at the stables.

Silvítya had dinner with the other concubines. She tried to be extra cautious with her dinner etiquette, so her companions would have a good last memory of her. She had a final bath with the others in the bath house, and then bid good night. And… that was it. If she did manage to escape, she’d never see any of the women again, women who had been her constant companions for two years. Strange to think, she now was the member of the group with the most seniority: everyone else had changed. So many women had come and gone over the past two years. Now, she too was leaving.

She took a small oil lamp from her bed chamber, the only item that she would remove from the castle. She walked past the latrine and down a flight of stairs. She had to wait hidden for several minutes to avoid a couple of guards. She walked along another corridor, passed the Duke’s art gallery where several of her pictures were hung, and continued past the throne room. The room was deserted and completely dark. Just two doors to go: the banquet hall and the kitchen.

Protector Buláshckt had said that part of Silvítya’s escape would depend on luck. Well, that night she had it. When she entered the kitchen she heard a man’s grunts and a woman’s moans from the storage pantry. The kitchen night staff was busy, but not with their duties to the Grand Duke’s breakfast. Silvítya lifted up the tapestry. The bolts were still pushed open. She opened the heavy door. The squeaking of the hinges startled her and she heard voices from the store room. She quickly slipped through the door and pushed it shut. She edged around a corner and hid her lamp, just in time.

“What was that?”

“The door… check behind the tapestry.”

“Ha! No wonder! Someone left the bolts undone! Door’s swinging loose! Idiot!”

“Please… put ‘em back! … If this gets out!”

“I know… the pillory… well, I’ll fix it… and tomorrow I’ll find out who the dishonored idiot was…”

Silvítya heard several pieces of metal sliding behind the door. She was both relieved and completely frightened. She had escaped, but with no chance to change her mind and go back. Words could not describe Silvítya’s fright as she made her way along the pitch-black corridor. The stones were cold and slimy on her bare feet and her unprotected body shivered in the clammy air. She was frightened of slipping and breaking her lamp. She realized, with her return to the kitchen now cut off, if she lost her light source or if Protector Buláshckt did not show up, it was very possible she could get lost and no one would find her until it was too late.

She passed her first two landmarks, the intersection and the turn with the pillar. An animal jumped out and scurried into the darkness, frightening Silvítya so much that her knees shook. She worked up the nerve to continue, cursing herself for being a dishonored coward. The tunnel now sloped downwards and Silvítya had trouble keeping her balance on the slick stones. It seemed to take forever to reach the drainage grid. But she did reach it, and Protector Buláshckt was there, sitting in the darkness and drinking from a wine bottle.

“Ha! You naughty girl… didn’t even give a man time to finish his wine!”

He held up the bottle, which Silvítya gratefully accepted. After the frightening descent into the dark unknown, she needed a drink. He handed her the dress and a pair of work shoes. After two years of almost always being nude, the rough fabric felt very strange on her skin. The dress was a practical worker’s outfit: short, made of thick cloth, and designed for the harsh and active lifestyle of a caravan trader’s wife. She tied her hair and he gave her a hat to hide the fact she didn’t have it braided. Finally, he handed her a short sword, “just in case”.

The two fugitives made their way down a maze of tunnels. Now that Silvítya was dressed, armed, and united with her companion, she felt totally different about her escape. She was not frightened at all. She knew that the greatest danger still lay ahead, but it is much easier to face danger when one doesn’t have to do it alone.

Down… down… down… Silvítya was surprised by how far they had to go. She didn’t realize that, because the castle maps did not show the descent, the tunnels would be much longer than they appeared on paper. Finally the passage leveled out. They climbed a ladder and Protector Buláshckt groped for a door handle. He tapped several metal bolts with a special tool and pushed open a concealed hatch door. They entered a stone room that was completely dark. Protector Buláshckt told Silvítya to hold her lantern near the outer door while he opened several locks. They pushed open the exit and emerged into a city that was not yet dying, but just about to. Protector Buláshckt closed the secret room and the couple snuck along a deserted alleyway. The place stunk horribly and several rats ran fled across piles of rotting vegetable debris. The garbage smell was the least of the escapees’ worries. They could smell smoke, and the smoke was rapidly getting thicker.

They emerged onto a chaotic street, where guards were desperately banging on doors and chasing residents towards the gates. Dozens of confused civilians milled around, carrying children and bundles of belongings. Protector Buláshckt shouted, “To the gate, dishonored fools! The gate! Go to the merchants’ gate!”

The civilians started shuffling towards the wall and safety beyond. Silvítya took a screaming baby from a woman loaded down with another child and a bundle of clothing. Protector Buláshckt picked up an older child and the fugitives joined a stream of people being herded like cattle towards the Merchants’ Gate and the Rika Chorna river.

The path became increasingly smoky. Gusts of wind blew sparks and burning bits of debris past the fleeing crowd. Silvítya looked back, and wished she hadn’t. The street glowed orange beyond the smoke and sparks pouring in the direction of the crowd. Now some of the civilians panicked and ran. Protector Buláshckt picked up another screaming, disoriented child and hoisted the kid onto his shoulders. With three kids and dressed as caravan traders, the former guard and the former concubine walked right by several guards who knew them both, without being recognized.

Finally they pushed through the city gate, surging forward with the panicked mass of other residents. All three children were screaming and Silvítya had lost track of the baby’s mother. They ran along the docks towards boats that already were packed.

“No good! The boats are full! We’ll have to wait it out on the shore!”

The couple pushed their way off the crowded dock and ran along the river’s edge. Fortunately, the crews of the first boats to ferry passengers across were returning for a second trip. Protector Buláshckt shouted: “Kids… kids… we’ve got kids! This way! Please!”

A small boat turned in their direction. They waded into the river, passed up the children, and then were helped out of the water by one of the rowers. More panicked residents waded into the water to pass up children and climb aboard. The rowers turned their boat southwards and slowly took the passengers to the safety of the opposite shore.

As she crossed the river, Silvítya watched the death of the Danubian capital. The entire city was engulfed in towering flames. The roar of the fire and the sound of crashing buildings were just as bad as the battle noise from Hórkustk Ris… different, but just as bad. As the fire drew closer, people continued pouring through the gate, although the crowd was starting to diminish. Along the walls people were climbing down ladders. Silvítya watched the residents clustered on the wall near each ladder, waiting and praying there would be enough time to get off before the flames engulfed them.

They got off the boat and stood on the shore, but could not take their eyes off the inferno on the other side. Silvítya muttered, “The Duke isn’t just mad. He serves the Destroyer. No… he is the Destroyer. Now I understand… now I can see him for what he is… he’s not an Ancient trapped in a human body at all… he’s the Destroyer trapped in a human body.”

Protector Buláshckt, holding a stranger’s child in each of his arms as he watched people still trying to get across the river, had no response.

* * *

Danúbikt Móskt burned to the ground in four hours. By the time the sun came up the flames already had died down, leaving nothing but piles of smoldering ashes and smoking ruins. Not a single wooden structure within the city walls remained standing. Over time a new city would rise in its place, a city that would come to be considered one of the most beautiful of Europe, but that would be in the future. The reality of the moment was a pile of ashes and a mob of homeless Danubians standing on the southern shore of the Rika Chorna river, wondering what the future held for them.

Silvítya spent the morning looking for the mother of the baby she was carrying. It was mid-day before the two women found each other. Protector Buláshckt located the parents of one of the children he was carrying, but told Silvítya to hand-off the third child to a Priest. They had to cut short their efforts to find his parents because a large group of Royal Guards showed up with several wagons loaded with food from the capital’s main garrison. With so many of his fellow Royal Guards roaming among the refugees, he and Silvítya couldn’t wait around any longer. Even with their disguises, there was the risk of someone recognizing them. The road soon would be crowded with tens of thousands of migrants, so Protector Buláshckt wanted to get out as soon as possible and stay ahead of the others. More importantly, his family was waiting.

By Divine Fortune the garrison had just moved to a new location outside the old city wall in anticipation of having more space when the new wall was built, so the Royal Guards and their storerooms were unaffected by the fire. That was a blessing indeed, because the Royal Army had plenty of food to pass out to the now-homeless refugees of the capital. The meals, however, came with a price. The Royal Guards interviewed every man coming up to them to request food: anyone who was not a craftsman in a building trade or the relative of a Royal Guard would need to leave the area. But… where would all the displaced people go? South, of course. There were plenty of empty houses and vacant farms, completely free for whoever arrived to occupy them first. The Guards gave each refugee family a letter from the Grand Duke granting them title to whatever vacant land they could find and occupy, on the condition that no other Danubian family was already there. Any remaining foreigners could be evicted if Danubians needed their property.

The Royal Army set up an encampment just north of the ruins of Hórkustk Ris to pass out yet more food to refugees travelling into the province and to maintain order. The promise of more food helped lure the capital’s homeless residents towards the southern border. Several other military encampments helped move the refugees further south and prevented anyone from turning back. Within a month the massive migration of 90,000 people would be completed, in an amazingly efficient operation considering that it took place in the mid-1700s.

* * *

They spent the remainder of the day walking south, trying to stay ahead of the crowd. Protector Buláshckt commented, “You know what we are, now? Refugees. Vagrants. Wanderers. We’re no better than anyone else on this road. No different. Someday we’ll be something, but now we’re just a couple of drifters, just like all the others. So, we need to change something.”

“What’s that, Protector Buláshckt?”

“What you just called me. That’s no longer my name. Before I was known as “Protector”, my name was Alexándrekt. That’s what you’ll call me, because I have forsaken the right to use ‘Protector’.”

Silvítya was silent as she worked up the nerve to call a man who had always been a Royal official by his first name. A question came to her mind, and she forced herself to address him as requested. “Al… Alexándrekt…I was wondering if… you have any regrets about… any of this… what we’re doing… what you had to give up…”

“I’d have to be mad not to have any regrets. I’m full of them right now. Maybe we should have tried to stop the burning of the city. Maybe we would have succeeded and maybe not. Maybe I should have just accepted my daughter’s path in life and kept my position… I don’t know. Maybe my Path in Life was to serve the Grand Duke, and I am going against the will of the Lord-Creator by running off like a scared rat. Yes, I have my doubts. I can tell you the Duke is right about the Duchy. Most of what he’s doing has to be done. It’s just that… I don’t know… your comment about the Destroyer dwelling inside his soul is accurate. It does seem he carries the Destroyer in his soul; that he brings destruction to everything he touches. I don’t know what to think about that. Maybe he feels coerced, by the times… the constant threats to our people… and maybe his conscience is just as bothered by what he must do as mine has been following his orders. I’d like to think that.”

“Then you’d be wrong, Alexándrekt. The Grand Duke’s conscience is not troubled by anything he’s done. I have never seen him reflect on what’s good and what is evil. For him, everything in his Path in Life consists of what will serve him and what won’t. That’s all that worries him; what will serve his plans and what won’t.”

They walked in silence, giving Silvítya time to think about her escape. She wondered what measures the Grand Duke would take to find her. Given that everyone in the castle had seen her talking to Alexándrekt Buláshckt, it wouldn’t be hard for the Grand Duke to connect her disappearance with that of the Royal Guard and his family. She decided to express her concern and the prospect the entire Royal Army would be looking for them. Alexándrekt did not seem overly concerned about that, which struck her as odd, given his caution and worries about everything else.

When she pressed him, he provided an explanation that sounded more like a pained confession. “My house was within the old city walls and was burnt along with everything else. It burned quite thoroughly, I can assure you. Moreover, anyone searching the ruins will soon discover that my wife, my children, and I did not escape the fire.”

“You mean… there’re bodies in your house?”

“Yes. I placed corpses in there before I left.”

“But… where’d you get them?”

“I robbed graves, Silvítya. Over the past year I took note of the funerals the refugees were having. Whenever I saw a corpse whose appearance corresponded with a member of my family, I dug it up, preserved it, and concealed it. I don’t want to go into details, because the faces of those four dead children trouble me. But the Lord-Creator, or perhaps the Destroyer, mandated that I must sacrifice my own honor to preserve the honor of my daughter. I did what I needed to do, just as in war I did what I needed to do. In war I sacrificed my honor so the men around me could live and the Duchy could live. In peace I sacrificed my honor so that my family could live. It seems that, no matter what, I must sacrifice my honor so others can live. So, there’s your answer, Silvítya. We did not survive the inferno, and my companions will find the bodies to prove it.”

Silvítya wasn’t sure how to respond. Robbing graves was one of the most dishonorable things a person could do in the Duchy. She wondered what he had seen of the Grand Duke to make him take such a desperate and extreme measure to assure his step-daughter’s escape. Alexándrekt continued, “I presume the charred corpses of my family and I will be buried with honors. Strange to think those poor souls will have to hold up their mirrors twice. As for us… you, me, my family… we’re all dead, and our names now mean nothing.”

“My name hasn’t meant anything for a long time. I don’t think it ever meant anything. I can have any name I choose, or no name at all, and it doesn’t matter.”

End of part 6

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