The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 10

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

Chapter Twenty-Nine – The Scribe

After delivering the sedative that would allow Oana to separate her soul from her body, Danka returned to the safe-house, changed into a workers' outfit, and left Novo Sókukt Tók. She returned to the farmhouse, packed her bucket, and went to sleep. She'd have to wait for Ernockt to return from work before departing. He had promised to help her leave the area, but he had to stay at his desk in the city councilmen’s building until sunset. When Ernockt returned, he handed the stolen trial transcripts to Danka. She could look them over if she wanted, but after reading them she was to throw the papers into the stove. The transcripts were full of mistakes. When Danka pointed that out, her host responded:

"The scribe for the city guards is a total idiot. If you told him that you saw a flock of geese walking along a path, he'd put down it was ducks or chickens. So, after you're done reading, you can burn this and it won't trouble your conscience. I just figured you'd want to see it first."

After a few minutes, Danka opened the door of the stove and pushed in the report. She turned to her host. "Now what? You said you'd help me leave."

"Yes, that's what I said. But I can't go with you. I have to go back to work tomorrow and we shouldn't be seen together. I've brought a donkey so you don't have to walk. I'll give you some letters so you can pursue your Path in Life in Rika Chorna. We need another scribe to follow events there anyway, and we're going to see if we can find a position for you with the Vice-Duke or the city council."

"So you expect me to work as a scribe and collect information for you?"


"That... really wasn't what I had in mind..."

"Maybe it wasn't. But we did help you with your revenge against Oana, didn't we? I risked my own position in this town so you could fulfill your final orders from Defender Dalibora. I hosted you for over a month and spent my own money buying everything you needed. I do expect you to repay me. I don't want any silver, and I wouldn't accept it, even if you offered. What I need from you, and expect from you, is your assistance."

"And you expect me to ride to Rika Chorna, by myself, with letters addressed to strangers, and assume nothing will happen to me along the way."

"Nothing will happen to you, because you'll be wearing your nun outfit. A nun outfit is the same in the Vice-Duchy as a collar would be in the western valley. People here don't bother nuns."

"A True Believers' nun? You expect me to travel disguised as a True Believers' nun?"

"And what's so surprising about that? You've walked all over the western valley wearing nothing but your collar. In the eastern valley, the only way a woman can safely move about alone is to be dressed as a nun. Same goal, different outfit."

Danka reluctantly put on the nun's dress. It was unbelievably hot and cumbersome. However, once outside it would protect her against the cold more than almost anything else she could wear. Ernockt handed her a prayer book and protocol manual so she could learn to act like a real nun. Among other restrictions, whenever a nun was moving around and not carrying anything, she had to keep her hands together in prayer. Also, she was not allowed to look at the face of any man. She cringed at the ridiculous protocol, but realized the rules would help keep her real identity a secret, assuming she could remember to follow them.

Danka was not looking forward to the trip, because she had never traveled in November. She had spent plenty of time outside in various places over the winter, but never actually journeyed to a new destination. However, her traveling conditions certainly could be worse. She’d have a donkey to ride on and carry her belongings, and the heavy nun habit, consisting of an under-dress, public dress, and winter cape would protect her against the cold.

Danka left the following morning as soon as there was a hint of light in the pre-dawn sky. The temperature had gone below freezing the night before, making the ground solid and covering the landscape with a layer of frost. She traveled along the main road, which, combined with the fact she was riding, sped up her trip considerably. She had to remember not to look back at any men who were looking at her. Occasionally a pair or group of thuggish-looking men approached her, but as soon as they saw she was wearing a nun's dress, they moved on. The rules for overnight stays were similar for a nun in the Vice-Duchy as they were for a penitent in the western valley. The nun approached a church of her choosing, knelt until a Clergy member approached her, and was given a meal and a place to sleep. The only disadvantage of the arrangement was having to sing and pray with any other women who happened to be in the church at that time. Danka was hard-pressed to learn enough True Believers' hymns to avoid raising suspicions.

She spent a week traveling towards Novo Sumy Ris. When the town came into sight, she was tempted to go in and return to the church, but decided against taking that risk. She took a road bypassing the town and headed east towards her destination, the city of Rika Chorna.

Danka arrived just in time. As she entered Rika Chorna, snow began falling. It was the beginning of the winter's first real snowstorm, and it became particularly severe, dropping knee-deep snow onto the central part of the Vice Duchy. She knew from experience that towns closer to the foothills, such as Novo Sumy Ris and Novo Sókukt Tók, along with the hilly roads that connected them, would receive even deeper snow. So... that was it for the year as far as traveling or trading were concerned. The roads were blocked and only the most determined or fool-hardy would venture out from wherever they happened to be when the first snow came down.

Rika Chorna, given its name for the same reason the province carried that name, was the second-largest city in the Duchy with more than 40,000 people living there. It also was the seat of the region’s ruler, Vice-Duke Petroickt. Like Novo Sumy Ris, the regional capitol boasted a large church that was an exact replica of the cathedral in the original Sumy Ris. Danka recognized replicas of other old buildings from the former capitol, plus copies of less fortunate ancient buildings that had since been torn down by the Ottomans over the past two centuries. She shook her head, still wondering why, after 250 years, people were so obsessed with the old southern capital. The Grand Duke had nearly suffered a disastrous defeat because of his desire for Sumy Ris. For the exact same reason, the Defenders did suffer a disastrous defeat. Out of three cities in the Vice-Duchy she had visited so far, Danka had seen replicas of the Sumy Ris cathedral in two of them. The replicas of the structures in the lost southern capital surrounded the church, but the rest of the city had standard European architecture and reminded Danka of her hometown Rika Héckt-nemát. There was no city wall around Rika Chorna, nor around any other town in the Vice-Duchy.

Next to the church was the governor's palace, which was by far the most significant building in the city. It was larger and more ostentatious than the Grand Duke's castle. Unlike the castle, which was built first as a defensive structure, the palace did not have high walls and clearly was not meant to serve any military purpose. It was built solely as a seat of government and a luxury residence. Gardens surrounded it and there was a large courtyard containing a stone bathing area for summer swimming.

Danka examined her letters and found a name and house description for her contact. She led the donkey to a two-story residence that was behind the governor's palace. A woman in a merchants' guild dress answered the door and asked the "nun" where she had come from.

"From a farmhouse, right outside Novo Sókukt Tók"

"Very well, sister. You may enter."

The residence was a safe-house belonging to Ernockt's intelligence-gathering network. It had a basement with a secret passageway leading to another safe-house on the same block, so it was easy for anyone entering one residence to exit the other and evade surveillance. Inside the house there were two other "nuns" and a couple of older men dressed in traders' outfits. Outside the residence, the "nuns" couldn't talk to the men, but inside the protocol was more typical of the western valley. The men were in charge, but the women could speak freely to them and offer their opinions and advice. One of the men went out through the other house to deal with the donkey. He brought in Danka's bucket and then took the animal to a stable outside town. Meanwhile, one of the women, who introduced herself as Sister Zánktia, told Danka to bathe and issued her a clean nun's outfit. Danka drew a frustrated breath when she saw the dress. Apparently she would remain a "nun". So, the disguise was not just for traveling.

While eating dinner, the two "merchants" and the two "nuns" questioned Danka about her general knowledge of the world and the Duchy. They were impressed by what she knew and all the places she had visited. They asked her to provide writing samples and practice taking dictation, then show them what she knew about mathematics and using the abacus. They told her to sing and pray to see what her voice sounded like. Like everyone else, her hosts were bewildered by the contrast between Danka's lower-class accent and her expansive knowledge of academic and intellectual subjects. In spite of a decade of wandering and everything that had happened to her, Danka was never able to change her intonation and the way she pronounced her words.

One of the men commented, "It's fortunate nuns don't talk much. Listening to your voice is not at all pleasant."

Danka came very close to tearing off her nun outfit and storming out. Dressing up as a True Believers' nun was absolutely the last disguise she wanted to wear, and now, on top of everything else, that idiot had the nerve to insult her speech. However, she had long since learned to never let her temper get the best of her. It was heavily snowing outside, her hosts had taken back their donkey, she was in a strange city with no money, and she did need to return the favor Ernockt had done for her. So, she had to hold her tongue, at least for the moment.

Danka's hosts gave her the chance to sleep and did not force her to go back out in the snowstorm. She slept alone in a bed with heavy curtains surrounding it and didn't wake up until it was already light outside. The room was bitterly cold, so she was torn between wanting to stay under the blankets and being forced to get up and use the chamber pot, thus alerting the others she was awake. She was able to resist her bladder for a few minutes, giving herself time to think about her situation and how best to deal with it. She began to wonder if Ernockt really was the one who wanted her to go to Rika Chorna. Was it possible he sent her because he was acting under orders from the Prophets in the Great Temple? As for his group of conspirators, she didn't know anything apart from what he had told her. They could be very powerful or not powerful at all. For the moment it would be better to assume the former and that she had no hope of leaving Rika Chorna without their permission.

As soon as Danka finished a late breakfast, Zánktia took her to the main church to show her around and introduce her as a new nun to the Clergy. She had to endure constant whispered reminders of how she should behave as a nun and the complicated prayer protocol she needed to use inside a True Believers' place of worship. She would have to spend the rest of the month learning hymns and Latin phrases, when to cross herself (which seemed to be continuously), and the rituals surrounding the faction's weird obsession with the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The True Believers seemed to really be worked up about that execution.

The True Believers in the Vice-Duchy were even more removed from Danubian traditions than their counterparts in the western valley. One example was the difference between the universal acceptance of collars for Public Penance by both the Old Believers and the True Believers in the west, and the rejection of collared penance in the east. Another example was celibacy. In the western valley the True Believers "encouraged" their clergy members to be celibate, but the rule could not really be enforced. In the east, the priests had to be celibate. Another example was the priests' focus on the deities themselves. In the west doctrine focused on the Lord-Creator and his enemy Beelzebub the Destroyer. In the east there was much more emphasis on praying to the Virgin Mother and the executed son.

Celibate nuns did not exist at all in the west. In the east there was the convent in Novo Sókukt Tók and multiple schools located in various cities. During her stay in Novo Sókukt Tók, Danka had learned that for any girl whose parents were not willing to pay for a private tutor, the only way to become literate was to seek education through the True Believers. The True Believer nuns ran several schools for girls in the Vice-Duchy, but they "strongly encouraged" any girl entering their schools to become a nun. That "encouragement" became a formal requirement if the girl wanted to learn anything more apart from basic literacy. In the western valley, most guilds included teaching their members' daughters how to read and write as part of their services. The Old Believers ran schools for non-guild children and taught boys and girls alike, although the classes were separated by sex. So, in the western valley most women had some knowledge of reading and writing, while in the Vice-Duchy most women were completely illiterate.

Having to learn the protocol for a nun made Danka think about her upbringing in Rika Héckt-nemát. The parish in her hometown was controlled by the True Believers, or at least it was in 1750, the year she left. Thus, she already was vaguely familiar the main points of the True Believers’ doctrine. Her family didn't pay much attention to the Lord-Creator or the executed son, but they frequently prayed to the Virgin Mother for favors such as making their chickens lay eggs or making their vegetable garden grow. The town's finer residents dismissed the Síluckts and their neighbors as worthless illiterates, so they didn't bother taking the time to make the laborers understand the more complicated doctrine coming out of the Christian Bible.

As Danka looked at all the Virgin Mother statues displayed around the church in Rika Chorna, her thoughts drifted to Lilith. In her mind the two deities, the Virgin Mother and Lilith, were both foreign goddesses. The goddess who actually had character and did things and fought back when the Lord-Creator mistreated her was a subject of her admiration. The goddess who did nothing apart from having a kid, without even bothering to have sex like a normal human being, was a subject of her derision. As for the Son of Man and execution that was the focus of the entire True Believers' religion, Danka thought: so what? People are executed all the time. Why was being crucified in Jerusalem any worse than hanging on an impalement hook in the Kingdom of the Moon? Why was one man's execution more important than another's? Of course, she knew the answers to most of those questions, having read the Christian Bible. But those answers made no sense to someone who was not, and never would be, a Christian. She considered herself a Follower of the Ancients, and if she was the last Follower in the entire Realm of the Living, then so be it.

Zánktia told her they understood her distaste for the True Believer's doctrines and practices. Her hosts reminded her that their mission was to undermine the True Believers by collecting information and providing it to the Grand Duke and the Prophets in Danúbikt Móskt. Danka responded that she'd do whatever she could to undermine the True Believers, because her hatred of their doctrine and beliefs was visceral.

* * *

Danka moved out of the safe-house at the beginning of December. Her handlers felt she was ready to begin the next phase of training for her clandestine life by living among the city's real nuns. Zánktia took her to a house adjacent to the church to live with 17 other women, all nuns who had gone through the True Believers' school system and been ordained at the convent in Novo Sókukt Tók. Danka stood out among her companions because she was an outsider and much more attractive than any of the others. She was 23, but she looked considerably younger because she had been administering herself doses of Babáckt Yaga's mushroom tea over the past seven years. The others looked her over with suspicion and jealousy. On the first night at her new home, Danka had to endure a sermon by the leading nun talking about the danger of physical beauty and how it led to carnal sin.

The nuns in Rika Chorna divided themselves into two groups: scribes and instructors. The younger women spent their days transcribing endless hymn sheets and copying or preparing church correspondence such as letters and directives. The clergy from the main church kept meticulous records of all happenings, which the Bishop wanted transcribed in clear, attractive handwriting on fine parchment. Danka frequently transformed a hastily-written note into a finely-written letter with improved vocabulary, converting it into a document that could be sent off and make the author look good to his reader. Meanwhile, the older and more trusted members of the group spent their days in a less grueling manner, giving literacy classes to local girls in a house adjacent to the one where they lived.

Danka took notes on anything she felt was important and compiled them into a sheet of parchment written with the smallest handwriting possible to conserve space and paper. She kept the reports hidden in a special pocket inside the lining of her dress. She read and memorized as much as she could of her companions' writings, making notes and passing them to her contact. She spent her sparse spare time reading every book in the house, although unfortunately most of the material was about theology and True Believers' doctrine. She received plenty of insight about the workings of the diocese and its relationship with the Roman Church, but not much else. Every few days Zánktia passed by with a delivery of washed linens and Danka slipped her the notes she had collected over the past few days. Usually there was a small paper handed to her in return, containing comments on what information was useful and what information was not, along with requests for additional notes on specific topics or persons.

Danka's handlers seemed especially interested in learning about movements within the clergy, knowing who was traveling to different locations and why. During the winter there was not much movement, but Zánktia wanted Danka to practice providing information on any traveling to prepare her to make comprehensive reports when the True Believers moved about in the summer. Danka sighed. Next summer. She couldn't imagine spending an entire summer in her horrible outfit sitting at a desk in a room full of insufferable, hostile, ugly, companions. She'd have to figure out how to extricate herself.

* * *

Danka spent four months transcribing documents. Throughout the entire winter she never left the residence, except to go to the church for daily prayers and hymn practice. Danka's fellow scribes did not talk much to each other and talked even less to her. They sang and prayed as a group, but spent their meals and their duties in silence. She slept in a room with five other women, but never conversed with them.

The room was cold and usually Danka was so tired that she fell asleep immediately. However, about once a week she had insomnia and would spend hours lying awake, thinking about Ilmátarkt. She didn't have much time to think about him or truly grieve over his death during the past year, but lying alone in that cold bed, tormented by loneliness and sexual frustration, she realized how much she missed her late husband. She could have enjoyed a happy life with him, had the Destroyer not taken him away. He satisfied her sexually, treated her with respect, and challenged her intellect. Also, in his own manner, detached and intellectual as it was, he did love her. She could not share the pain of being a widow with anyone, so she had to grieve for him in silence, by staring into the darkness and allowing tears to run down her cheeks.

* * *

When the weather started to warm up towards the end of March, Danka wrote note to Zánktia informing her handlers that they would have to find her another assignment. There was no way she would tolerate staying with the nuns over the summer. She expected the answer to be no; that she'd have to stay in the house indefinitely. However, on the final day of March, an official from the Vice-Duke's palace showed up with Sister Zánktia. He ordered the scribes from the residence to line up and for each to hold a sample of her writing in front of her. Danka's handwriting was not the best from the group, but her face caught the official's attention. He looked her over and asked her some questions about her background. She responded with a fictional biography given to her by her handlers, that she was daughter of a devout guildsman from Novo Sókukt Tók.

The official violated protocol by pulling off her hat to have a better look at her head and braided hair. The other nuns quietly gasped and flinched at the act of disrespect.

"It's a pity you'd waste your beauty like this."

Danka pretended to be extremely nervous, but inwardly she was concealing hope that her intolerable life was about to change. The fact that Zánktia was with the official raised her anticipation of a transfer or change of assignment. The official quietly spoke to the leader of the residence. She cast a suspicious look at her young subordinate, but nodded and put her hands together in prayer. The official motioned Danka to follow him.

Danka left the residence without going back inside or even saying goodbye to anyone. She kept no belongings in her room and the few items she did have with her, such a small supply of blue powder, the ingredients for making birth-control paste, her comb, and the thread for cleaning her teeth were safely stored in special pockets she had sewn into the lining of her dress. She had not seen her bucket since November: she could only hope it was still at the safe-house.

The official and the two "nuns" walked the short distance between the scribes' residence and the entrance to the Vice-Duke's palace. Parts of the palace exterior had been within Danka's range of view throughout the entire winter, but she never had set foot inside. The day was grim, rainy, and overcast, but Danka could feel a hint, just a hint, of spring in the air.

Danka's escorts led her through the outer door of the palace into the most luxurious room she had ever seen. The decor was Baroque and modeled after a palace in France. Expensive-looking vases imported from China sat on equally-fancy tables. The corridors were filled with paintings and statues, including multiple busts of the Vice-Duke.

Beyond the main entrance and reception area a large set of glass doors opened up into a finely-trimmed garden. The grounds were meticulously maintained, much more so than in the Grand Duke's castle. Actually, the Grand Duke's residence, as luxurious as it was to a person with Danka's upbringing, was Spartan compared to the abode of the Vice-Duke. As she looked around at all the statues and imported decor, she wondered how much money the Vice-Duke was spending on his residence. After seeing the interior of the palace, it wasn't hard to understand why taxes were such a problem for the Vice-Duchy's farmers and guildsmen.

The main section of the palace boasted a large round ballroom covered by a dome painted with angels flying around in puffy clouds. The area under the dome was surrounded by marble pillars and stained-glass windows. Portraits of the Vice-Duke and his family members covered the walls and statues stood in front of each pillar. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Danka was no connoisseur concerning decor, but compared with the somewhat simpler furnishings of the Grand Duke, she felt the palace in Rika Chorna was decorated in poor taste.

The exaggerated decor did not draw Danka's attention nearly as much as how the palace women were dressed. To a Danubian, especially a lower-class woman like Danka, the palace clothes were truly shocking and scandalous. The wives of the Grand Duke and his advisors boasted impossibly heavy and complicated silk dresses imported from France. Like all Danubian women, the palace residents wore their hair in braids, but those braids were covered by over-sized wigs. Seven years before, Danka had seen some fashionable European clothing when she traveled north of the Danubian border with the Followers, but to see such exaggerated get-ups in the Duchy itself was a shock. Danka later found out the elite women did not dare go out on the street in their foreign outfits, but the palace had a unique protocol and any respectable woman had to wear French clothes while inside to distinguish herself from the “uncouth” commoners outside.

The group approached the area where the Vice-Duke had his conference rooms and living quarters. They entered a luxurious reception area that was smaller than the outer reception area, but still large and ostentatious. The area was comfortably warm, heated by the cave-charcoal stoves Danka had introduced to the Grand Duke a few years before. There were several guards in the room, along with a group of noblewomen and a couple of advisors holding rolled-up documents. Danka had never seen a picture of Vice-Duchy’s ruler and thus not sure what he looked like. However, in a palace full over over-dressed people he stood out, wearing an outlandish silk outfit covered with lace and jewels, topped with a cape made of imported white fur. His head was properly shaved, but Danka had no way of knowing that because the ruler wore an enormous white wig. On top of the wig he wore a crown so full of jewels that one could barely see the gold or silk underneath. With him were three effeminate-looking teenaged boys wearing equally effeminate clothing. One of the boys was carrying a falcon with its head covered by a tiny hood. Danka correctly assumed the teenagers were the Vice-Duke’s sons.

As she approached the Vice-Duke and the boys (if that’s what one chose to call them), she tried to make sense of the bizarre spectacle in front of her. It was very fortunate that she already had seen pictures of late eighteenth-century western European royalty, so she understood the Vice-Duke and the members of his entourage were attempting to model themselves after elite fashion in places like Paris. Obviously the eastern nobility viewed traditional Danubian culture as primitive and uncouth. Perhaps they had to live in that inferior culture, but that didn’t mean they had to sink to the simplistic and uncivilized behavior of their subjects. The entire set-up would have been more pathetic than offensive, had it not been for the crushing taxes the farmers and guildsmen had to pay to maintain it.

The official saluted the Vice Duke and his sons while the two “nuns” knelt and clasped their hands together in prayer. The boys were leering at Danka. As soon as the official explained that a new scribe had been brought from the local nuns’ house, the ruler told the two women to stand up. He examined younger nun. “Her face is very pretty. Let me see the rest of her.”

The official turned to Zánktia: “Strip her. Remove that habit and whatever she’s wearing underneath.”

Danka’s companion froze, unsure that she had heard the command correctly. Her eyes went wide and she glanced around the room, noting there were a dozen other people present. When she opened her mouth to object, the official slapped her hard across the face. The blow was so hard and so unexpected she fell to the ground. The official kicked her to get up.

“What’s wrong with you, nun? Are you stupid or just rebellious? I told you to strip that girl! Now do it!”

Danka could tell Zánktia was as shocked as she was, that she had not expected to have to strip her. Reluctantly, with trembling hands, the other woman unfastened the hooks holding Danka’s collar in place and lifted her outer dress over her shoulders and head. She untied the stays of her inner dress and let it fall to the floor. Danka was terrified, but not in the way a normal nun would have been. She was not bothered being naked in front of others, but obviously in the Vice-Duchy being publicly stripped, especially for a nun, was meant to be a major humiliation. Had she been in the western valley she simply would have stood straight, with her eyes facing forward and her hands at her sides. However, in Rika Chorna she knew that she needed to behave like a real True Believers nun would act under the circumstances. She cowered and tried to cover herself, and even forced tears to come to her eyes. The official yelled at her and slapped her several times before she “managed” to stand straight and uncover herself. Keeping up the façade of unbearable shame, she closed her eyes, clenched her fists, and pressed her legs together. She felt a hand fondling her breasts and heard the Vice-Duke’s voice.

“Very nice. Very nice indeed. Yes, she’ll do. She’s very young and her bosom is firm. You did well, Sister, to bring her to me.”

“To hear is to obey, your Excellency.”

The Vice Duke further humiliated Danka by ordering her to assume the “prisoner’s stance”, standing with her feet spread and her hands clasped behind her head. He ordered Zánktia to kneel while she neatly folded Danka’s dress and under-dress so she could take them out of the palace. For the time that she served in the Vice Duke’s residence, Danka would be kept completely naked. The boys continued leering at her as the other women approached. The over-dressed noblewomen surrounded the naked newcomer and the kneeling nun, quietly whispering comments meant to be overheard and meant to embarrass the two churchwomen. Danka wondered how on earth the Vice-Duke could get away with so badly mistreating nuns, but she later learned he was free to take liberties with the women because he supported the True Believers’ policies and was generous to the Bishop with his tax revenues.

The Vice-Duke dismissed Zánktia and ordered Danka to follow him through another set of doors into the inner palace. She passed a library where two naked scribes were copying letters, and another room where an advisor was dictating a speech to another naked scribe. He clapped his hands and a naked woman rushed out and knelt at his feet. Danka noticed she had a large number “1” written in ink on her right shoulder.

“A newcomer. Clean her up and put her to work.”

“To hear is to obey, your Excellency.”

The Vice-Duke was ready to dismiss Danka, but one of his sons wanted to fondle her. He granted permission and Danka was ordered to bend over and grab her ankles. The teenager spent several minutes caressing the newest scribe’s bottom and thighs. He then started spanking her. He spent a long time slapping her backside, slowly turning it pink. The punishment was humiliating, but the boy was not hitting her hard at all. She said nothing, wondering if he was just playing with her or if he really was not very strong. When the teenager finished, the kneeling woman whispered to Danka to kneel next to her. Then she whispered:

“You need to thank the prince for correcting your arrogance. Thank him, kiss his shoes, and thank him again.”

Danka did as she was told. She put her hands together in prayer, stated: “Thank you, my Prince, for correcting my arrogance”, knelt forward to kiss his shoes, and repeated the phrase. Satisfied they had sufficiently humiliated their newest servant, the Vice-Duke, his sons, and their escort left the two women and returned to the ballroom.

As soon as the door closed, the woman stood up and ordered Danka to follow her to washroom. She introduced herself as Scribe # 1 and told Danka that she would be known as Scribe # 8. “That is now your name. Scribe # 8. No one here is interested in whatever name you were using when you came in. You’re Scribe # 8.”

As the newcomer sat in a bathtub, Scribe # 1 unbraided and washed Scribe # 8’s hair. While they waited for her hair to dry so it could be re-braided, Scribe # 1 explained what was going on. Like Danka, she had come to the palace as a nun. There were 10 scribes at any time, and all except one had been a nun prior to their internment in the palace. The Vice-Duke preferred having nuns as palace scribes because they were clean, obedient, had the best penmanship, and most of all, were fun to embarrass by forcing them to be naked. The forced nudity totally humiliated them as women and made them understand how inferior they were to anyone else in the inner palace. There was a more practical purpose as well, to make sure the scribes couldn’t try to escape or conceal anything they were carrying.

After the newcomer was cleaned up, Scribe #1 picked up a quill and inkwell and carefully drew a large number “8” on Danka’s shoulder. The two scribes then reported to a room full of books, detailed maps of various localities in the eastern valley, and ledgers that Danka quickly learned were tax records. Two unpleasant-looking men were in the room. Like everyone else in the palace, they wore foreign instead of Danubian clothing, but at least their outfits were not nearly as outlandish as those worn by the nobility.

The two women knelt as the leading scribe introduced Scribe # 8. The men ordered the two women to copy a series of letters and records describing the trial and execution of two farmers for tax evasion and the eviction of a couple of neighbors suspected of helping them. Throughout the rest of the day the two scribes would be copying similar correspondence, and in doing so Danka would quickly learn about the inner workings of the Vice-Duchy’s government. It seemed the Vice-Duchy’s operations centered upon collecting as many taxes as possible; that almost all of the guards’ activities in some way were focused on seizing revenue. The Vice-Duke re-distributed funds to his favorites and more importantly, the True Believers’ Church hierarchy. Most of the remaining wealth went into maintaining the palace and purchasing imported luxuries. Danka already had noticed the eastern part of the Duchy seemed much poorer than the western part, and now she knew why. The Vice-Duke was not spending any of his wealth on the public’s education or infrastructure improvements.

* * *

At the end of Danka's first day, the ten scribes ate a silent dinner together. After the women cleaned their teeth, Scribe # 1 escorted the newcomer to the washroom. The scribes bathed in pairs in a special washroom that contained not only a small tub and a stove for heating water, but also a row of comfortable-looking chairs. The tub was too small to sit in and had a bar hanging over it. After she and Scribe # 1 relieved themselves in the privy, Danka found out why the washroom was set up in such a manner. Several men and boys dressed in fancy imported clothing came in and sat in the chairs. It turned out that the scribes had to take turns washing each other in front of an audience. She had to hold onto the bar and face her audience while her partner soaped and massaged her body. That soaping included her vulva. In front of a group of males, the scribes were required to clean and massage each other’s bottoms and vaginas. It was a gross violation of protocol meant to express domination over the women, in the same way the Grand Duke forced his concubines to keep their hair unbraided.

Danka was used to enduring a lot of different indignities, but the bathing performance was something new. Scribe # 1 not only had to run her hands all over Scribe # 8’s bottom and pubic hair, but she also was required to push a soap-covered finger deep into her companion’s vagina and sphincter, “to make sure she was absolutely clean”. The women switched places and Danka had to bathe Scribe # 1. When Danka soaped her companion’s vulva and pushed her finger inside, she noticed tears running down her face. After having been in the palace for nearly a year, Scribe # 1 still could not suffer such humiliating treatment in public without crying. After finishing their bath and drying off, the two scribes had to present themselves to their audience. They had to turn around and bend over to allow the men to fondle and caress their bottoms and legs. When the treatment was finally over and the audience left, Scribes # 1 and # 8 cleaned up the bathroom and brought in several buckets of fresh water.

The next show would be in an hour, featuring Scribes # 4 and # 6. Scribe # 1’s eyes were still full of tears. She commented, “We were lucky today. Sometimes they make us… do unspeakable things in there.”

As they walked down the hallway, Danka thought about asking her companion for more detail, but figured she’d find out soon enough about the “unspeakable things”. Instead, another question came into her mind. “Does His Excellency ever… take liberties with us?”

“No. He has a couple of finely dressed mistresses running about. Those two (and the Vice-Duchess) keep him busy. We’re not nobility, so we’re not worth his trouble. I guess that’s fortunate. Besides, we’re churchwomen and we’re supposed to be chaste.”

“Chaste? After what we did in the washroom?”

“The men in the palace can’t use us as women. That’s the agreement His Excellency has with the Bishop. So, our ‘chastity’ is safeguarded. But, in every other way possible, they enjoy dishonoring us and mocking us.”

The scribes entered their sleeping quarters. The room was not heated, but it had five very comfortable beds surrounded by curtains. The scribes slept in pairs. Danka’s suspicions about the arrangement were confirmed when she heard faint moans from behind the curtains of one of the beds. Scribe # 1 opened the curtains to an empty bed and motioned the newcomer to pull down the covers and get in. Danka reluctantly obeyed. Scribe # 1 followed her in and closed the curtains.

“When I told you we have to do ‘unspeakable things’ to each other, did you understand what I meant by that?”


“You’re lucky, because I didn’t. Anyhow, it’s best that you practice and accustom yourself to doing what they want. They’ll whip you and put you on the pillory, the one in the city’s main plaza, if you don’t. That’s how I spent my second day here, on the pillory. It was cold outside and I nearly froze to death. The only reason I didn’t was that a guard took pity on me and set up a brazier of cave charcoal underneath me, to keep me warm enough to stay alive.”

Danka said nothing, but she had a flashback of the horrid hours she spent on the pillory almost a decade before. The experience was one that a person never forgot. And hers was during the summer. She didn’t want to imagine what spending a day on the pillory would be like if the weather wasn’t warm.

Scribe # 1 changed the subject. “I have seniority over you. I expect you to obey me and do anything I ask of you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Good. Then I need you to rub my body. That includes the area between my legs. I’ll tell you when I want anything more.”

Danka knew how to give a sensual massage to another woman because of the time she spent with Antonia. She also knew how to give a massage that relaxed a partner and was likely to put her to sleep. She applied that experience while massaging Scribe # 1 and had her unconscious within a few minutes. She exhaled a huge sigh of relief when her companion’s breathing changed to that of a sleeping person. At least that night she’d be spared from having to do “unspeakable things” with her.

* * *

No one from Ernockt’s group had yet contacted Danka about her situation, but starting on the second day she decided to begin taking notes and making summaries of tax collectors’ correspondence, reports from the guards, and any other papers she could look at and understand. No one in the palace seemed to notice or care about what she was doing. The other scribes were too mortified at their own nudity to pay attention to anything other than their own duties, while the members of the palace entourage were too self-absorbed with fashion and personal intrigues to suspect a nun recruited as a female scribe might be part of a conspiracy against them. So, Danka spent all of her spare time working on her notes and by the end of the first week had assembled ten pages of information written on scrap pages of parchment. As always, she wrote in the tiniest script her quill would allow and thought about how she might invent a system of code or shorthand to further conserve space. As for hiding the papers, there was no need to worry about that at all. Scribe # 1 had issued a portfolio to hold her unmarked parchment, drafts, and practice writings, so she simply carried the collected information with her other notes. If anyone examined them and asked her what they were, she’d simply say she was teaching herself to write in small script and the pages were for practice.

Danka was exposed to a lot of information about the workings of the Vice-Duchy during her first week at the palace. She sat taking notes in meeting after meeting for 12 hours each day. When she wasn’t taking dictation, she was transcribing correspondence, including some letters between the Vice-Duke and foreign leaders. She discovered the Vice-Duke was worried about the Grand Duke’s consolidation of power over the western half of the Duchy. The Vice-Duke also expressed in correspondence that he was jealous of the Grand Duke’s popularity, given that he was little more than an uncouth military leader and understood nothing about acting like a nobleman and enjoying cultured activities.

By the end of her first week in the palace, Scribe # 8 already understood much about the Vice-Duchy and how its ruler contrasted with the Grand Duke. It was obvious the Vice-Duke was completely absorbed in his own world of western royal culture. It also was obvious the Vice-Duke had none of the Grand Duke’s virtues as a ruler. He surrounded himself with expensive art and a ridiculous palace and was totally cut-off from the realities of life in the Vice-Duchy. He wanted to live a sumptuous lifestyle worthy of western kings, without understanding that luxury and a fancy palace did not equate legitimate rule.

In contrast, the Grand Duke moved among his subjects and through interacting with normal people was very aware of conditions around the western valley and Hórkustk Ris province. Apart from keeping up his castle, he did not spend much of the Duchy’s treasury on the Royal Family. His one extravagant expenditure, maintaining a harem of concubines, had a specific purpose, to eventually augment his control over the outer regions of the Duchy.

Danka had always feared and hated the Grand Duke because of what he did to her. However, seeing how odious and incompetent the Vice-Duke was, she was able to view the Grand Duke in a more objective manner. Whatever his flaws as a man, the Grand Duke was a competent ruler who surrounded himself with competent advisors and was genuinely concerned about the safety and physical well-being of his subjects. He took personal responsibility for his actions and decisions. Whenever he could, the Sovereign led his army into battle and had placed himself at great physical risk on several occasions. In doing so, he had earned the admiration of his men and the loyalty of the western half of the country. Meanwhile, the Vice-Duke assumed he deserved the loyalty of his subjects because of his birthright, without having to do anything to improve their lives or earn their respect.

* * *

On the eighth day of her internment in the palace, a guard she had never seen before approached Scribe # 8 with a letter his commander needed transcribed. Following protocol, she knelt while receiving the assignment. To identify himself, the guard handed her a package containing the items she had kept inside the lining of her nun’s dress. They exchanged nods to acknowledge each other’s membership in the conspiracy.

“My commander will be very eager to receive the transcription of his letter. My other commander, the one to whom you owe a debt, is anticipating the correspondence you have prepared for him. You have prepared such correspondence, haven’t you, Scribe?”

“Yes, My Protector, I have.”

Danka reached into her portfolio and handed the guard the ten sheets of finely-printed notes. The guard quickly glanced at the papers and hid them under his vest.

“You have done well, Scribe. I will return for the letter this afternoon.”

“Yes, My Protector.”

Danka stood up, enormously relieved to have finally received communication from her co-conspirators and verification she was where she needed to be. She spent the rest of the day transcribing notes about the Bishop’s efforts to identify people likely to be sympathetic to the Old Believers, and working on the letter in her spare time. Thinking the Church information might be important, she made an extra set of notes to hand over to her contact when she saw him in the afternoon. The letter for the commander was legitimate, so there would be no concern about the guard and the scribe being seen together. The guard returned to pick up his commander’s letter just as Scribe # 8 was leaving the conference room for dinner. She knelt as the guard took the letter and looked it over.

“This document will be satisfactory. Next time please leave more space along the right margin. The other commander is quite pleased with your efforts and wishes to thank you for your dedication. You have done well, and your information about the Bishop and His Excellency’s troubles with tax evaders is most useful for the future harmony of our fair land. Also, as we all know, women are the source of much evil, especially women with fine clothing and idle hands, which the scripture has warned us about. Gossip and intrigues can be most harmful to a royal house. Is that not so, Scribe?”

“Yes, My Protector.”

“Very well, Scribe. When my commander needs another letter, I will ask you to perform the favor of transcribing it.”

“Do you know when that might be, My Protector?”

“No, Scribe, I do not. Tomorrow it might rain, or the sun might shine. The right to make that decision belongs to the Lord-Creator, not to me.”

“Yes, My Protector.”

So, as she ate with her silent companions, Danka was satisfied that at least she had an idea what kind of information she needed to collect. She had been correct to gather everything she could about the Bishop and his activities. Information about tax collection efforts turned out to be more important than she had previously thought. She had a new tasking, to attempt to overhear gossip among the women and report on any feuds or intrigues among the Vice-Duchy’s favored families.

So, for the next month Danka’s life mostly centered on long hours spent with a quill in her hand in the Vice-Duke’s study or the officials’ conference rooms. She transcribed several meetings between the Vice-Duke and various Church officials as they negotiated how much tax money the ruler had to pay in exchange for full support from the True Believers. There was talk of identifying and executing sympathizers of the Old Believers and renegade Followers of the Ancients. Whenever possible, Scribe # 8 noted the names of targeted people, hoping her contacts would collect the information in time to warn the suspects or take other actions to prevent their arrests.

* * *

The palace entourage continued their sexual humiliation of the former nuns throughout the time Danka was known to Rika Chorna as “Scribe # 8”. The women bathed every 48 hours, and every single time they entered the washroom they had to endure soaping and fingering each other in front of an audience of men and boys. Then, of course, they had to bend over and submit to “inspections” and more fondling.

Danka managed to put off doing “unimaginable things” with Scribe # 1 for a week by massaging her to sleep every night. However, two nights after she sent off her first intelligence report, Danka’s bed partner was less tired than normal and refused to accept a relaxing massage. Instead, she ordered Scribe # 8 to massage her between her legs and run her fingers through her pubic hair. She rolled over and ordered the newcomer to kiss her bottom and lick the area around her sphincter. It was very fortunate she had just bathed before forcing Danka to stimulate her there, or else Danka would have become sick. Scribe # 1 then flipped on her back and ordered Danka to put her face between her thighs.

“You’ll have to learn how to do this, and do it properly if you don’t want the whip and the pillory. The next time we bathe, His Excellency will want to watch us perform… to do the unspeakable for him. So, you’ll need to do it to me. I am not doing it to you. I’ve dishonored myself enough and now it’s someone else’s turn. Now, start kissing and licking me. Put your tongue inside. You’ll need to figure out how to satisfy me so you can do it again when we bathe tomorrow.”

It was fortunate Danka had so much experience with sex, because even though she had never touched any other woman apart from Antonia, she knew what sensations aroused a typical female. Ignoring the fact she was doing the most dishonorable thing imaginable for a woman, she pushed aside her disgust and misgivings and concentrated on the task of making Scribe # 1 climax as quickly as possible. She avoided sticking her tongue into Scribe # 1’s vagina. She used her fingers instead and concentrated her tongue on her partner’s clitoris. Within less than two minutes Scribe # 1 climaxed, moaning as the scent of her arousal filled the inside of the bed’s canopy. Danka then massaged her to make her go to sleep. She opened the curtains to let out the stench while she went to the wash basin to rinse off her face and clean the taste from her mouth.

No, she would not be crying or show herself as mortified the following evening. She’d simply do as she was told, make Scribe # 1 climax in front of their audience, and get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. It was nothing more to her than a disagreeable tasking, just like everything else she had to do in that awful palace.

Chapter Thirty – The Ghost-Girl

The guard who served as Scribe # 8’s contact visited her one more time during the month of April and three times during May. She passed between twenty and thirty sheets of detailed information during each visit. As requested, she concentrated on collecting data about the Bishop, other church officials, and the Vice-Duchy’s finances. She also paid special attention to copying any correspondence between the Vice-Duke or his advisors and people outside the Duchy. She wasn’t able to comply with the request to overhear gossip from the palace women because her duties mostly kept her with the Vice-Duke’s male advisors. However, she was able to provide information about someone far more important than a bunch of gossipy over-dressed noblewomen. She had direct and continuous access to one of the Vice-Duke’s sons.

During her first weeks in the palace, Scribe # 8 had to endure another indignity apart from the washroom shows and constant groping. Her worst tormentor was the obnoxious young prince who had spanked her the day she entered the palace. Whenever he was in the inner portion of the palace, he looked for her. If he could find her, the teenager called her out and made her bend over and grab her ankles. He then subjected her to fondling and a light spanking, regardless of the duty he had pulled her away from or whoever happened to be milling around at the moment. He called her a “very bad girl” for tempting him and made her grovel at his feet begging forgiveness.

Danka was infuriated, but she was little more than a slave and couldn’t do anything, at least for the moment. However, it was obvious the teenager was attracted to her. In the back of her mind she wondered about turning that attraction to her advantage, perhaps by seducing him and then seeing about blackmailing him. The prince’s name was Hristóckt. She was surprised to find out he was 19, considering his effeminate appearance and lacy clothing. She had thought he was younger, perhaps 14 or 15. Of course, Scribe # 8 also looked much younger than her real age, thanks to the blue powder. She would turn 24 sometime during 1759, although she wasn’t sure what date because her parents never bothered to tell her. However, anyone looking at her would not have guessed she was any older than 18.

So, with her young appearance and submissive behavior, she coldly studied Prince Hristóckt and learned his daily routine. He seemed to be a total idiot besides being an effeminate dandy. It was for sure that he had no experience dealing with the real world. He would be no match for someone like Danka. Her only challenge would be to get him alone without raising any suspicions. Assuming she could figure out how to isolate him, he’d be completely helpless against her wiles.

Scribe # 8 figured the best way to seduce the prince would be to encourage him to take her into his room. She couldn’t be overt about it, but if he “caught” her near his chamber, he’d be likely to take her inside. She started administering birth-control paste to herself and timed her route so she’d be passing close to his door at the same moment he was returning from music practice. Two days later, she bumped into him only a few fathoms from his door. He took the bait and ordered her to go into the room with him.

As always, he made her grab her ankles and caressed her bottom. He started spanking her, with light smacks as always. He spent a very long time “punishing” her, to the point she was uncomfortable, not so much from the smacks, but from her muscles cramping from having to remain bent over and immobilized for such a long time. The prince did something he would not have done outside his room: he put his free hand down his pants and started masturbating while he was spanking the servant. Danka became bored and tired of holding the same position. She took a slight risk and spoke up.

“My lovely Prince. It would be such an honor to have a fine man like yourself use your humble serving girl as you please for your manly pleasure.”

The prince became hard at the suggestion, but it was clear he had no clue what to do. The scribe kissed him and put her hand over the crotch of his pants. She took charge and pushed him onto his bed. She undid rows of buttons and pulled down the three layers of clothing covering his hips. She massaged and kissed him and flattered him with words about his handsomeness and manliness as she pulled the pants completely off. She had a frustrating time with his small, skinny organ. It kept going limp before she had a chance to straddle him. Finally she managed to keep him hard enough to get him inside her. She felt she had achieved a major accomplishment when she finally felt the faint pulsing of a weak orgasm inside. She had to pretend she was enjoying herself instead of wondering how a man could possibly be so contemptible.

Well… that was quite pathetic. However, the servant had accomplished what she wanted. She managed to convince Prince Hristóckt that he was an excellent lover and any woman would be ecstatic to have such a virile man at her service. She knew he’d have only one thing one his mind the next day: her.

That afternoon was the first out of many Prince Hristóckt spent with Scribe # 8. Love-making was always the same. The sessions always started with the prince ordering her to bend over and fondling her before administering a spanking. The spankings were always the same as well, delivered with his hand and long, but never very hard because he didn’t have much strength. Then she had to go to her knees and beg him to forgive her for being so misbehaved. After all that was taken care of, the Scribe took over. She had to work her way through layers of fancy clothing so she could strip him from the waist down. Occasionally she managed to strip him completely, but undoing all those buttons and removing all those shirts truly tested her patience. She spent a long time massaging his thighs and then his penis. Finally, when he was hard enough, she’d straddle him and try to get him inside her and get him to climax before he went limp. Then she’d massage him and snuggle up to him while he talked.

More than any other time in her life, Danka felt like Lilith every time she spent an afternoon with Hristóckt. She was completely in control of him, even when she was bent over taking a spanking or kneeling at his feet. Her submissiveness fed into his ego and made him see himself as superior, both in intellect and in morality. He completely discounted the notion Scribe # 8 could have any ulterior motives for interacting with him; in fact, that idea never even occurred to him. So, around her he chatted, not really for her benefit, but for an opportunity to think out loud. The teenager talked incessantly, as though he had no one else to talk to and had a lot to get off his chest. Yes, he finally could talk. After all, what harm could a naked dishonored former nun possibly do to him?

He bragged about his father’s activities and plots, detailed the intrigues of palace advisors against each other, and plans to favor one advisor at the expense of another. He talked at length about various members of the Vice-Duke’s family, how much he hated his brothers, and how much he held his uncles and cousins in contempt. He talked about his father’s purchases and bragged about how much they cost. He bragged about his father’s foreign contacts and how he managed to use clandestine couriers to move his communications through the western valley. Apparently he had a contact among the guards in the border post in Sebérnekt Ris who helped him smuggle his imported items past the Duchy’s main northern entrance. During the first few days with Hristóckt, Danka picked up so much information she had a hard time prioritizing what was most important and writing it all down. She used up all the scrap pieces of parchment in the palace and had to steal several clean sheets. She realized the next time she saw her contact; she’d have to tell him to supply her with paper.

After a few days of letting the prince ramble about whatever he wanted to talk about, she started directing the conversations towards the Vice-Duke’s relations with the various city councils, landlords, and Church officials. She was interested in knowing who was favored by the Vice-Duke, who was out of favor or under suspicion, and why. The teenager blathered whatever he knew. Danka suspected some of his information was not accurate, but he blissfully told her the truth as he saw it. On the rare occasions he was reluctant to answer a question, a few strokes of her hand and some cuddling and kisses were enough to make him resume talking.

Scribe # 8 couldn’t imagine how she could possibly improve her access to the Vice-Duke’s secrets. She was wrong about that, because she had underestimated the prince’s stupidity. By the beginning of June, she was spending more time with him as his personal servant. She dutifully followed him around, carrying his documents, books, and whatever else he needed at the moment. On several occasions he led her into his father’s private chambers, allowing her to see where he kept his papers, maps, and official seals. She also saw a True Believers’ coding device and several coded messages laid out on a study table. Her heart jumped into her throat when she saw the coder. If only she could get her hands on it…

Adjacent to the private sleeping chamber was the entrance to a small wine cellar. Danka found out the palace had two wine cellars; the general underground chamber for the main kitchen and dining hall, and a smaller one for the Vice-Duke’s personal stash of more expensive wine and cognac. Hristóckt grabbed a bottle of wine and handed it to the scribe to uncork it. She didn’t do it fast enough, so he spanked her. He told her to pick up a wine glass and follow him outside to the garden. The prince ordered two house-servants to bring out a fancy chair from the reception area and set it under a tree. For the rest of the afternoon he sat drinking and eating Turkish delight while Scribe # 8 knelt next to him, holding the bottle and refilling his glass. He did not offer her any of the wine or candy. She was a servant and undeserving of such delicacies. The scribe was not worried about tasting wine or the dismissive treatment. Her mind was on that coding device and how to take a better look at it.

Two days later Scribe # 8 returned to the Vice-Duke’s sleeping chamber, alone. Prince Hristóckt had given her copies of the keys she needed to access both the room and the wine cellar. She was to bring out a bottle of wine, a box of Turkish delight, and a small snuff box containing white powder. She recognized it as a medical ingredient the Followers called Andean salt, which they imported from the Spanish colonies and used in some of their surgeries.

She did not have to worry about anyone questioning why she was in the Vice-Duke’s chambers or why she had a key to the room, because the prince had written on her back with a quill that she was carrying the key under his orders and was accessing the room because he told her to. The writing on her bare back was supposed to be an additional humiliation, but for a person whose job it was to spy on the household, it was a pass to access the palace’s most important secrets. As she entered the room, sure enough, there it was, the coding device. It was a brass cylinder no bigger than Danka’s hand, made from a stack of 20 disks containing rows of letters in different orders. If she could copy all those letters and deliver coding sheets, Ernockt’s group would be able re-create the device and decipher the True Believers’ messages and secret orders. There was a quill and inkwell on the desk and a basket of discarded paper underneath. Danka decided to take a sheet of discarded paper, copy two rows of letters each time she visited the room, and hide the paper underneath the basket. When she finished copying all the disks, she’d sneak the paper from the room and turn it over to her contact.

She figured she’d have to visit the room a total of ten times to accurately copy all those letters from the cylinder. To copy all those letters in a single sitting would take too long and Prince Hristóckt would start wondering why she was delayed bringing out his wine and white snuff. She’d have to be patient and not tell her contact what she was doing until she had duplicated the complete configuration of letters.

After copying two rows and hiding the paper, Danka reported back to the prince. She patiently knelt while Hristóckt drank about half the wine and took a sniff of Andean salt. He started acting very strange, both happy and agitated. He paced around the chair and shook his hands. He took another sniff of powder and emptied the entire bottle in a single swallow, a bottle of wine that cost the Vice-Duke a piece of gold. He sent the servant back to the Vice-Duke’s secret cellar for a second bottle.

Danka decided to copy three more disks of letters before returning to the prince with the bottle. He continued to pace around, happy and agitated. He did not notice she had come back. When she tried to draw his attention, he ignored her.

'He doesn’t know I’m here. He doesn’t know what’s happening at all. I can leave, and he wouldn’t even notice'… thought Danka to herself. So, she returned to the Vice-Duke’s chamber. With her heart pounding, she copied the remaining rows of letters from the cylinder. Twenty rows altogether, making sure she had not missed or duplicated any letters or made any other mistakes. There were several copies of coding sheets lying on the desk. Having taken such a crazy risk so far, she checked to make sure they were all the same and stole one. Now she had, in her possession, the configuration of a True Believers’ encryption cylinder and a coding sheet needed to decipher messages. If she could hide the papers and deliver them to the guard, her handlers would have access to the True Believers’ entire system of encrypted messaging.

She hid the papers behind a Virgin Mother statue and ran back to the garden with her bottle. Undoubtedly the prince would punish her for being so late with the wine, but it would be worth it if she could deliver the encryption codes. It turned out Hristóckt was in no condition to punish anyone. He was surrounded by guards, his father, and his brothers and was completely incoherent, yelling obscenities at the top of his voice. Scribe # 8 knelt, holding out the second bottle of wine. The Vice-Duke took it from her and slapped her hard across the face. He struck her again and ordered her to return to the inner palace and report to Scribe # 1. He did not notice she still had, in her hand, the prince’s keys to his private chamber.

* * *

The palace entourage was preoccupied with the latest scandal: Prince Hristóckt had pilfered his father’s snuff-box of Andean salt and had sniffed so much that it made him mad. A foreign surgeon using the latest western European medicine bled the unfortunate youth, weakening him even more and prolonging his delirious behavior.

With the palace guards and nobles so distracted, the conspirators’ guard decided to approach Scribe # 8, even though he did not have any letters to give her as justification for meeting her. He was speechless when she handed him fifty pages of notes, keys to the Vice-Duke’s chamber, and the encryption information. He promised to return later in the day with the keys (after the conspirators made copies) and the extra parchment the scribe would need to avoid running out of paper in the future.

Danka spent the rest of the afternoon taking dictation from a group of women writing poetry. They occasionally paused to giggle and whisper comments about Prince Hristóckt and his unfortunate encounter with Andean salt.

After dinner, Scribe # 8 had to bathe and “do unspeakable things” to Scribe # 1. The worst part of the tasking was the audience. Instead of men, the spectators were a group of women. The women insisted that Scribe # 8 tie her companion’s wrists to the bar above the washtub and for the senior scribe to look directly at them while she was forced to have an orgasm. Her eyes filled with tears as Scribe # 8 concentrated on pleasuring her with her fingers and tongue. When she finally managed to climax, the women in the audience whistled approvingly. Finally, Scribe # 8 untied her companion’s hands, but the spectators insisted she kneel in front of the newer scribe and to thank her for making her a happy woman. Danka tried to remain detached from everything going on around her. 'These people are nothing but dishonored degenerates and there is nothing I can do about that.'

When Scribe # 8 finally returned to her room and examined the contents of her scribe’s supply folder, she saw it was full of clean paper. Hidden among the papers were copies of the keys to the Vice-Duke’s chamber. They were not the originals, so Danka could only hope the guard had somehow managed to return them to either Prince Hristóckt or to the Vice-Duke to avoid suspicion.

* * *

Prince Hristóckt had a difficult time recovering from his overdose of Andean salt and the treatment he had received at the hands of the incompetent foreign doctor. The loss of blood worsened the brain damage from the salt. The cuts became infected and resulted in a nasty fever that kept the youth in bed for days. Danka coldly watched that idiot foreigner as he performed one counter-productive procedure on the prince after another. She knew that she could have cured Hristóckt in a couple of days, but no one in the palace would have believed her. Also, had she argued with the foreigner and attempted to take over the prince’s treatment, she would have unveiled herself as a Follower of the Ancients. She didn’t like the teenager anyway and was pleased to see him suffer. So, she simply sat in the corner as a spectator, working on various letters she had been given to transcribe.

After Prince Hristóckt had recovered sufficiently to sit outside, Danka spent much of her daily routine during the final part of June and the first part of July in the garden watching over him. If he wanted something, she had to fetch it for him. She wandered about the palace, naked as always, going after books from the library, snacks from the kitchen, or wine from the Vice-Duke’s stash. She moved about freely, with a message penned on her back stating she was authorized to be in various rooms and that she was not to be questioned or interfered with as she ran her errands. The only item she was not authorized to fetch was Andean salt. However much his son wanted it, the Vice-Duke displayed enough common sense to keep it away from him.

Scribe # 8 was able to glance at a lot of documents as she ran about the Palace. As best she could, she memorized the information and worked on her notes, even while sitting next to the prince. She also wrote her observations of his condition, the procedures performed on him and their effect on his health, and his very slow convalescence. As she entered the Vice-Duke’s chamber to retrieve wine, she paid attention to the desk where the encryption device was located and copied information from new coding sheets and secret messages.

* * *

The guard finally gave Scribe # 8 an explanation of what Ernockt’s group was doing with all of the information she was collecting. Their main concern was finding out who the True Believers had marked as suspicious or heretical individuals and thwart plans to arrest them. Another important goal was to frustrate the efforts of tax collectors and prevent farmers from being arrested and executed as tax evaders. Ernockt passed a lot of information to the Prophets of the Grand Temple so they could position sympathizers to seize control of True Believer parishes and to make sure that any attempt to seize a parish did not end in failure.

All of the Vice-Duke’s messages to foreign leaders ended up in the hands of the Grand Duke. The Sovereign employed a couple of scribes to forge letters, so the Vice-Duke’s messages to his foreign co-conspirators were being re-written, as were the responses from abroad. Already a shipment of expensive imported items had been seized by “bandits” before they had the chance to enter the Duchy, along with two shipments of gold exiting the Duchy. The Grand Duke left the corrupt Royal Guards helping his rival in their positions, but provided them with falsified information. Ultimately the Grand Duke would frustrate the Vice-Duke by giving him the impression the guards had betrayed him and were the ones guilty of stealing the gold and imports.

Danka thought about the Grand Duke’s excellent group of informers who had allowed him to thwart the Lord of the Red Moon a few years before. Now he had set up a similar spying network against the Vice-Duke. She was part of that network and probably its most valuable member. Ironic… she had escaped from serving the Sovereign in 1755, only to unwittingly return to serving him four years later. The Grand Duke always seemed to win, always seemed to outsmart everyone else.

Scribe # 8 was not surprised to find out from the guard that her most significant contribution to her group was the encryption information. Ernockt had created an exact replica and was busy collecting and translating coded messages from the True Believers’ Bishop. The conspirator had discovered the Bishop and the Vice-Duke were planning a terror purge of tax evaders and suspicious individuals in the late summer: a mass arrest and execution of several thousand people around the Vice-Duchy in an effort to scare everyone else into conforming to the wishes of the two leaders. There was too much dissension and free-thinking in the Vice-Duchy, and the executions should resolve the problem and consolidate the Vice-Duke’s control over his subjects.

The guard concluded by speculating the conspirators might attempt to assassinate the Bishop before he had the chance to distribute arrest lists to the parishes and issue the final orders. If that were true, they would have to conduct the assassination within the next few weeks.

* * *

Prince Hristóckt slowly recovered throughout the first half of July. Scribe # 8 knew he’d recover a lot faster if that idiot doctor from western Europe would just leave him alone, but she was not in a position to say anything about the treatments. Even had she been able to help, she would have kept her mouth shut because she enjoyed watching the degenerate weakling suffer. However, in spite of everything, he did slowly recover and spent increasing amounts of time outside.

By July 15 the prince felt well enough to make a pilgrimage to the cathedral in a town called Sihídikti Ris, which was located at the far eastern edge of the Duchy. Danka had heard about Sihídikti Ris: it was supposed to be have the most spectacular setting of any Danubian town, surrounded by sheer cliffs on the east, northeast, and southeast sides. Perched high on one of those cliffs was a True Believers’ house of worship containing the largest Virgin Mother statue in the entire Duchy.

The most important summer mass of the True Believers was traditionally held on August 2. The mass was the opening event of the annual meeting between the Bishop and other important dignitaries, during which the Church hierarchy planned their activities for the rest of the year. Prince Hristóckt announced that he wanted to go to the mass in Sihídikti Ris to receive a blessing from the Bishop. It seemed like a good idea to everyone in the inner palace, so much that the Vice-Duke decided his heir would represent the Vice-Duchy’s royal family at the mass. The prince would make the pilgrimage, receive a blessing from the Virgin Mother, and be exposed to fresh air and sunshine along the route.

Scribe # 8 wondered how he could possibly make such a trip on a horse without getting sick and falling off. Well, it turned out he would not be riding a horse. He would be carried in a litter, or a "sedan chair", which was a silk-covered chair with a large parasol covering the top and poles sticking out of the ends that allowed four men to carry it. Danka looked at the contraption in disbelief. Prince Hristóckt would actually be carried all the way from Rika Chorna to Sihídikti Ris, and no one seemed to think there was anything wrong with that.

There was another surprise for the servant. Not only would the prince be carried across the Vice Duchy in a covered chair, she would accompany him on the trip. He announced that he wanted her to walk alongside the litter, stark naked. Scribe # 8 would be the only naked person in a procession of dozens of top officials and Church leaders. Even the Bishop had misgivings about forcing a servant to walk across the entire Vice-Duchy in the nude, but the prince insisted it was necessary so she could be properly humbled and know her place around him.

The 'scribe' knelt and pretended to be very frightened at the prospect of making such a journey completely uncovered. The truth was that she was fine with the arrangement: she had walked in the nude all over the western valley the year before. Walking around naked in the Vice Duchy didn’t bother her in the least, even though it was supposed to be an unbearable humiliation. The only thing she’d need would be shoes to protect her feet. With some massages and flattery she managed to convince the prince to give her a pair of shoes, as though he were granting her a huge and unreasonable favor. Before leaving, she fixed herself a dose of tea from the final batch of blue powder she had kept in her nun’s habit and packed her medicines and the items she needed to clean her teeth in a small cloth she entrusted to one of the litter-carriers. She wanted to make sure that if she did not return to the palace, nothing of her would remain there.

The Vice-Duke decided not to go to Sihídikti Ris that year, figuring that sending his son would be sufficient representation for the region’s royal family. The Bishop was miffed at the Vice-Duke’s slight, but didn’t say anything. The procession gathered in the city’s main plaza as church bells rang and choirs sang. Scribe # 8’s former companions from the nuns’ residence were present, looking at her with curious and mocking expressions as she walked naked alongside the prince’s litter. The men carrying the prince were strong but wretched-looking guards who had been released from punitive confinement. They weren’t complaining about having to carry the prince: the hardship they would endure on the trip was nothing in comparison with what they had to face in confinement.

The procession was one of the most ridiculous spectacles Danka had ever seen. A group of priests walked in front, carrying a large statue of the crucified Son of Man. The Bishop and his associates rode fine horses immediately behind the crucifix-carriers. Prince Hristóckt’s litter followed, along with the porters and the naked scribe. More priests followed on foot, with mounted guards and supply mules in the rear. The point of the procession was to take the crucifix of the Son of Man to visit the statue of his mother in Sihídikti Ris. The priests chanted, passed out blessings, and waved burners full of incense as the group left the eastern capitol and traveled towards the mountains, on a pilgrimage that would last two weeks going in each direction. The kneeling residents of Rika Chorna lined the streets and waited for benedictions and whiffs of incense as the group headed out. When they saw a naked woman walking in the procession they stared at her in disbelief.

In spite of the stares and supposed humiliation, Danka enjoyed the following two weeks. For the first time since the previous year she was able to move about outdoors and see some new countryside. The pace was slow and relaxing, more of a stroll than a walk. She had to run back and forth with water, wine, and treats for the prince, but those duties were not very taxing. He was still too weak to fondle her or want sex. She managed to ignore her odious marching companions and just enjoy the feeling of the sun and wind on her bare skin, something she had not experienced for a long time.

At night she undressed the prince, bathed him, and slept with him in a comfortable tent. She ate well and encouraged him to eat fresh fruit. During the journey his condition improved dramatically. The Bishop claimed his recovery was a blessing from the Virgin Mother, but Danka knew the improvement was because he was away from that quack doctor and breathing fresh air and eating decent food.

The eastern valley was flat until it reached a range of steep mountains that formed the eastern border of the Duchy. On the other side of the mountains was territory belonging to the Muscovite Empire. Danka knew the Muscovites were as dangerous to other nations as the Ottomans, but the mountains were impassible and thus protected the Duchy’s eastern flank. The land between Rika Chorna and Sihídikti Ris was covered with small farms, but the soil was full of rocks and not really suitable for agriculture. The residents were poor, but that didn’t stop tax collectors from grabbing what little they had. The procession passed through a village where executions of accused tax evaders had just taken place: three destitute farmers slumped lifeless on three posts, with five arrows sticking out of each body. The sullen townspeople knelt and stared listlessly at the procession as it passed through. The marching clerics were not concerned about the executed men and showed no sympathy towards their widows.

The land closer to Sihídikti Ris had better soil, so most of it had been taken over by wealthy landlords. The poorer residents lived in wooded settlements along ponds and streams, in conditions very similar to the conditions Danka had endured growing up. The town itself was clean and had nice stone buildings, but its residents focused on making luxury goods and providing services for the local elite. There were several churches in Sihídikti Ris, including a Gothic chapel modeled after one Danka had seen in ruins in the former Lower Danubia.

The procession had arrived on July 29, a few days early, in anticipation of the mass three days later. After spending a night in a compound owned by the Church, the prince became bored and decided he wanted to go up to the cathedral ahead of the main procession. He told the Bishop he wanted to pray alone to the Virgin Mother, but actually he wanted to try out a new telescope and stargaze. The Bishop was pleased to send him up the mountain ahead of the others, so his litter would not distract from the dignity of the procession. The road up the cliff-side was paved with cobblestones, but it was so narrow that the litter-carriers had a hard time lugging the prince without falling off.

The cathedral overlooking Sihídikti Ris was the most impressive structure Danka had ever seen apart from the Great Temple in Danúbikt Móskt. It had been built halfway up a sheer cliff, rising nearly 140 fathoms above the ground below. The site was located on a natural ledge that was large enough to fit a full-sized house of worship and a small plaza, which allowed for both indoor and outdoor ceremonies. The view from the plaza was truly amazing: on a clear day it was possible to see all the way across the eastern valley to the mountains separating the two main regions of the Duchy. The view and the dizzying height gave one the feeling of Divine inspiration.

The cathedral itself had been started in the 1560s and was not finished until 1609. It was a fine example of Danubian Baroque architecture, but also boasted several unique features. The back of the cathedral was carved into the cliff’s bedrock. The bell tower contained the largest bells she had ever seen, bells which were designed to echo against the cliffs and be heard throughout the valley far beyond Sihídikti Ris.

As Danka walked up the winding road behind the prince’s litter, she had noticed a detail that should have been worrisome to the True Believers. The Lord-Creator had formed the cliff from solid granite, but a large crack had opened up and the stone of the lower portion of the cliff had started to separate. The crack extended up to the ledge and ended a few fathoms underneath the plaza and the outside altar. It seemed the church itself was not in immediate danger, but from her understanding of geology and the looks of the crack, Danka knew it was likely the outer part of the plaza would sheer off and fall away sometime in the next few years.

The men carrying the prince were completely worn out by the time they had hoisted their royal cargo up the steep road. They collapsed from exhaustion as they set down the litter and Prince Hristóckt stood up. He ordered his servant to take out the telescope and set it up near the outer edge of the plaza. Curious to see the famous outdoor altar where the Bishop would be giving his benediction, Danka walked over to it and noted gaps, some of them as wide as two fingers, had opened up between the rows of stone blocks behind the spot where the Bishop would be speaking. She peered down and realized she could see a thin line of daylight. This ledge is going to collapse any day, she thought to herself. Another disconcerting detail that caught her attention was the smell of cannon powder. When she put her nose into the gap, the smell of explosives was quite strong.

The prince called her away from the altar and ordered her to accompany him inside the main chapel. The church was deserted because its priests were in the town meeting with the Bishop, so there was no one to object to her presence. Danka marveled at the building’s interior and its carvings, statues, and mosaics. The builders had cut a large grotto into the granite and installed the Virgin Mother statue, made from solid marble and overlaid with gold and fine paint. The statue stood more than three fathoms high and was the largest statue of its type in the Duchy. The grotto was surrounded by finely carved stone, mosaics, and gold leaf covering the granite.

The prince took advantage of the deserted chapel to do something truly shocking to both the scribe and to his deity. He ordered his servant to stand in front of the huge statue, face towards the back of the church, and bend over. He fondled her in one of the holiest places in the entire Duchy, right under the eyes of the venerated Virgin-Mother. Scribe # 8 was supposed to be a nun, so the prince was trying to disgrace her as much as possible, to strip away any shred of self-respect she might still have. She forced herself to cry and pretended to act traumatized. She actually was appalled that any man could show such contempt to his own deity. She knew the prince was a degenerate, just like everyone else in the Vice-Duke’s family, but even she had not realized how disrespectful and depraved he really was. And to think, this was the heir, the man who someday would be ruling the Vice-Duchy.

The prince led his servant outside. The sun was setting, so he decided to indulge in some wine, cheese, and Turkish delight while waiting for the stars to come out. After she served him, the prince ignored his servant. He emptied his bottle and grabbed another. What he really wanted was his father’s Andean salt, but he’d have to settle for wine. By the time the stars finally appeared in the sky, the prince was too drunk to look at them. Scribe # 8 returned to the church to see if there was a priest’s quarters where the prince could be laid out to sleep. When she found a bed, she told the workers to bring in their master. They also took away the sedan chair and the telescope. The scribe told them to rest, but the guards complained they had not had anything to eat or drink all day.

“I don’t know what to tell you. I guess you can go back down and get something to eat in town. I’ll watch the prince. I don’t think anything will happen to him up here, and if it does, I’ll be the one who’s responsible. Just come back as soon as you can.”

So… the men left, leaving her alone with the unconscious prince. She looked outside to see several workmen rolling a barrel towards the outside altar. They seemed to be pouring its contents into the ground. Danka snuck around the wall of the church to see what was going on. The men had posted watchmen at the entrances, but they must have assumed the cathedral was empty because no one was guarding the back of the plaza.

“…this is what I keep telling you. It keeps falling down below. You’ve dumped in four barrels so far. I’m telling you the hole is too deep. It won’t stay, no matter how much you put in.”

“Then come up with something! You’re a Follower! We’ve got to kill him here! We have to do it this week! You know that!”

“A Follower… as though that means anything to you. Don’t talk to me about being a Follower, unless you figure out how to save the girl from the palace. She’s a Follower too. She’s one of us. She’s done a lot for you, and she’s worth more than the rest of us put together!

“And I’ve told you we can’t risk it! The Ancients will just have to take care of her in the Afterlife. What’s worth more, her soul or all the others? Now what are we to do about that gap?”

The other men thought silently for a few moments. A third one answered:

“Wooden wedges. That’s what we’ll put in. We’ll make some wedges, shove them down in between, and put the vials on top of them. That way they won’t fall through. We’ll surround the vials with cannon powder, just to be sure, and put sand over the top. That’s how we’ll handle it.”

“And we can still set the fuse and time it?”

“Yes. Same plan on that. When he lights the incense, we light him.”

“And I want to make something very clear to you. We light him, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who else is out here, even me. You will light that fuse.”

“…and you won’t warn the palace girl… what difference would it make?”

“No! We’re not warning the girl! She’d draw attention trying to get away, and too many people know about this already!”

The men carried away the now-empty barrel and departed down the path. Danka didn’t know any of the others, but she recognized their leader, the man who was perfectly willing to separate her soul from her body and not feel any remorse. He was Enockt, her commander. It seemed Danka’s debt to him included giving up her own life.

The men returned the following night, shortly before dawn. The prince was up with the telescope well past midnight, so the conspirators had to wait until he had gone to sleep before showing up with the wedges. Like everything else made by people trained by the Followers, the wedges were ingenious devices, designed to expand and firmly hold their place between the stones.

From her hiding place Danka watched Enockt, dressed as a worker, install two sets of fuses going in two different directions before pouring gunpowder over both the wedges and the fuses. He very carefully inserted ceramic tubes a hand-width apart along the entire area behind the outside altar. Finally, he covered his handiwork with dark sand. The conspirators were completely quiet and departed after just a few minutes. After everyone else left, one of Enockt’s assistants remained behind to sweep the stones and keep watch over the trap.

* * *

The bells rang in the town below to announce the commencement of the Bishop’s ascent up the mountain, leading the carriers of the large crucifix statue which would symbolize the executed Son of God coming up the mountain to greet the giant Virgin-Mother. Danka frantically woke up the prince and helped him get dressed in his fine silk clothing. However, a couple of priests entered the room and yelled at her to “remove her whoring naked body” from their presence. They would help the prince get dressed, not her.

Danka realized how important the mass would be when she saw that many of the top and mid-level clergy members of the True Believers hierarchy, including men from other parts of the Vice-Duchy, were emerging onto the plaza from the road. There would be over a hundred top officials present, plus dozens of assistants and aides. Even the abbess from the convent in Novo Sókukt Tók was present, along with a couple of older nuns. Danka worried about the wisdom of assassinating the Bishop in such a public setting, that maybe Enockt’s plan wasn’t so smart after-all. Wouldn’t seeing their leader murdered make the True Believers even more determined to kill off their rivals and wage war against heresy?

Also, she was extremely concerned about the lost barrels of cannon-powder. That powder had not just disappeared: it had gone down into the cracks between separated layers of rock. Enockt seemed not be worried about that risk, as though the extra powder had ceased to exist the moment it fell out of sight. If Danka’s observations concerning the cracks in the cliff were correct and the explosives forced the rocks to separate, it was likely Enockt was about to trigger a much larger disaster than he could possibly imagine.

The mass began inside the cathedral with the presentation of the crucifix before the oversized Virgin-Mother sheltered in the grotto. Prince Hristóckt was escorted to the front as the guest of honor and the representative of the region’s secular authority. Danka had to remain outside along with the lower-ranking guards and servants. All those men were staring at her, given that she was one of the few women present, and the only one who was naked.

Danka realized part of Enockt’s plan was to use her as a distraction. That was why he refused to let anyone warn her about the plot to kill the Bishop. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw him skulking around the plaza in his worker’s outfit. No one else would notice his suspicious behavior because the men were all too busy watching her. With so many eyes on her, Enockt assumed Danka would be too nervous to notice him or think about anything apart from the embarrassment she was enduring.

From what she had overheard, Danka knew that she’d have to be as far from the Bishop as possible the moment he lit the commemorative incense, because that was the signal Enockt planned to use to detonate the explosives. She also realized she had no hope of sneaking away from the plaza unnoticed. That simply wasn’t going to happen. If she wanted to get away, she’d have to jump up and run. She’d have to choose the exact right moment to do it, an instant during the ceremony when everyone would be focused on protocol and reluctant to pursue her.

The sun was setting, which meant the outdoor portion of the mass was about to commence. The deafening bells rang and echoed against the cliffs as the procession came out the main doors. A group of priests, ringing hand-bells and swinging incense burners, came out, leading a group of companions carrying the large crucifix. They were followed by the Bishop, a group of more senior priests, and secular leaders, including the prince. Enockt had vanished.

Time was running out for Danka if she wanted to prevent her soul from separating from her body. She had a hard time working up the courage to move, with all those men staring at her. Also, she wasn’t sure she wanted to escape. Part of her tried to hold her back, the part of her soul that told her all existence was vanity and that to continue in the Realm of the Living was pointless. After all, wasn’t everyone she ever cared about already in the Realm of the Afterlife? Wasn’t it time to hold up her mirror and join them? However, the lonely and defeated part of her character was no match for the simple instinct to prolong her life, no matter what. She was a peasant before she was anything else, and if peasants were good at anything, they were good at surviving. Her instincts took over and cleared away the sad reflections her lost loves and the desire to join them. Her thoughts focused on the singular goal of living to see the next sunrise.

She eased off her knees, ducked behind a group of startled officials and ran to the edge of the plaza. Spectators turned around as she passed through the southern gate and disappeared into a wooded side trail. It was a disgraceful breech of respect and protocol. Maybe she had gone mad or was possessed, but the Church officials would have to deal with her later. They couldn’t break away to pursue a disgraced servant precisely at the most important and dignified moment of the mass.

She avoided running down the main road, because as it descended it turned and crossed in front of the plaza. Danka knew she did not want to be below the site of the blast when it took place. Instead, she pushed sideways along a narrow path on a mountain slope. She ran past a startled man in a worker’s tunic who was holding a piece of flint and several fuses. She ignored him and kept running, pushing through bushes and trees towards an outcropping. She followed the trail around the rocks and moved onto a steep slope covered by large trees. She no longer could see the church, so she figured she was safe.

She was expecting a loud blast and had covered her ears. She was not expecting an earsplitting crack that sounded like a lightning bolt hitting the ground right next to her. The bang, magnified by the echoes of the cliff walls, took her breath away. The lighting crack was followed by a muffled explosion. The second blast was more sinister. It was not as loud as the first explosion, but it was much larger, causing both the air and the ground to tremble. The second blast didn’t end quickly like the first one. Instead, it changed from a roar to a rumble, punctuated with loud cracks and the sound of large objects breaking. At first Danka thought she could hear some screams, but the screaming stopped long before the rumbling stopped. Several large objects crashed through the nearby treetops and something hard slammed into the outcrop, dislodging a boulder and sending it tumbling down the slope. Within a few seconds clouds of choking dust billowed past the outcrop and obscured Danka’s vision. The rumbling stopped and for a long time all she could hear were the chattering of panicked birds.

It was dark by the time the dust settled and Danka felt it was safe to investigate what happened. Fortunately, the moon was overhead, so she had some light to make her way along the rocks. As soon as she passed the outcrop, the light-colored dust covering the trees augmented the moonlight and made it possible to see the ground. However, as she moved towards the church, she couldn’t see it. That was strange. Certainly she’d see at least a bell-tower or part of the dome, but there was nothing there. As she moved forward and stared at the spot where she knew the church should be, she felt the ground slide underneath her feet. She frantically pulled back and grabbed at a small tree trunk, only to dislodge it and send it tumbling downwards. She crawled up loosened dirt and gravel and gasped as she finally found solid ground. More trees and debris slide past her and tumbled into the void.

She was shaking when she stared at the spot where the trail should have continued. There was nothing there. She looked in the direction of the church. She saw nothing, except for a perpendicular cliff-face. The church and the ledge it sat on were completely gone. Was she imagining things? She looked again. There was nothing but a sheer wall of rock, but it was not completely bare. The back wall of the church, complete with the Virgin Mother statue, remained embedded in the cliff-side. The rest of the structure and the ground it sat on had completely fallen away. The statue serenely prayed over a drop of nearly 100 fathoms.

Danka’s heart raced and she struggled to breathe as she tried to suppress the raw panic that had taken control of her soul. The event and the physical change were so overwhelming that it took her mind several minutes to comprehend what had just happened. Her body shook uncontrollably as she backed away from the void, as the new precipice continued to consume trees and soil along its edge. She could see nothing below, except billows of settling dust faintly lit by the moon. The colors and lighting around her were all wrong: everything looked like the world had been covered with a shroud of death.

Danka realized she needed to retreat to the “safer’ side of the outcropping, see about finding an alternate route so she could descend, find a safe place to hide, and figure out what to do next. She worked her way past the loosened outcrop. Just seconds after she moved beyond it, boulders dislodged into a rockslide and went tumbling down the mountainside. Danka was left breathless by the narrow miss. Had she passed under that spot only a few seconds later, she would have been crushed. She knew that before doing anything else, she needed to settle her nerves. She knelt and desperately prayed to the Ancients, begging them to either rescue her or grant her a quick separation of her soul from her body. A few minutes later she calmed down enough to continue moving.

The moon settled towards the west as she studied the steep slope for paths leading downwards. In some places there was enough light to navigate through rocks and outcroppings, and in other areas she needed to grope her way through darkness under the trees. Fortunately, the steepest and most dangerous areas were also the ones with the fewest trees and most visibility. She focused on what she needed to do at each moment, not on how high above the ground she was or how far she still had to go. As she moved closer to the base of the mountain, she could hear human voices and see an enormous pile of tumbled rocks. Everything was covered with dust, which became much thicker as she emerged onto flatter ground. Guards and civilian on-lookers carrying torches lined the edge of the rockslide. The same instinct that forced her to move away from the explosion and guided her down the cliff told her to stay hidden and avoid being seen by the crowd. She slipped around them and made her way towards the pen where the expedition’s horses were being kept. Danka decided that she needed to get away from Sihídikti Ris as quickly as possible. She’d return to Rika Chorna, tell Zánktia what happened and that Enockt was likely dead, reclaim her bucket, and leave the Vice Duchy. She didn’t know where she’d go, but she knew she definitely needed to leave the eastern valley.

By that time her mind had cleared enough to allow her to realize what had happened. The entire ledge on which the cathedral sat had fallen in a single landslide, due to the cracks in the rock and Enockt’s over-zealous use of gunpowder. The first explosion she heard must have been the blast at the surface that killed the Bishop and undoubtedly anyone else standing next to him. The second rumbling explosion would have been from the barrels of gunpowder poured into the gaps. That blast blew apart the inside of the ledge and caused it to disintegrate and collapse, taking with it the plaza and everything else except the back wall of the cathedral. There was no way anyone participating in the mass could have survived. Not only was the Bishop dead, but entire upper echelon of the True Believers’ Church would be dead as well, along with Prince Hristóckt and the town councilmen of Sihídikti Ris.

She did not want anyone to see her. She felt that, as the only survivor from the pilgrimage, she would immediately be suspect, especially given the superstitious world-view of the True Believers. They’d have to blame someone for the disaster and she’d be an easy target. Her head would be wanted by… let’s see… the True Believers’ Clergy, the Vice-Duke’s family, the town of Sihídikti Ris, the towns of other dignitaries attending the mass: in other words, the entire Vice-Duchy. Whether or not she was being paranoid didn’t matter. There were times in her life she had been paranoid, but “irrational” fear was the only thing that had kept her alive.

She spent the next hour walking along a dust-covered path towards the corral where she remembered the procession’s horses were being kept. Her plan was to hope the guards were distracted enough to allow her to steal a horse. She’d ride west, hide until she could steal some clothing, and sneak back to the safe-house in Rika Chorna. She was relieved to hear the whinnying of horses. So, no one had moved them. Good. The corral seemed deserted. That was even better.

She quietly hopped a fence and looked for an animal that seemed relatively calm. She was only a mediocre rider and would have to find a horse that would be tolerant and not try to throw her. As the more nervous horses sidled around her, she identified a couple of calmer animals near a feeding trough. Just as she approached them, she realized none of the horses in the corral had a saddle. She had wasted her time, because without a saddle she couldn’t ride. She didn’t want to give up on the plan to steal a horse, because it was the only means of escaping she could think of. So, she left the corral to look for a saddle and bridle. Fortunately, the tent where the supplies were being kept was not guarded. In fact, it seemed nothing in the corral was being guarded. Maybe all of the guards had abandoned their posts because of the landslide. A lit lantern had been left outside. She’d have to take it in with her to see what she was doing. She selected a saddle and bridle. She put out the lamp and went back out.

She was careless upon leaving the tent and had not bothered to check outside before emerging. Right outside the door were six local guards she had never seen before. The guards looked totally shocked as soon as the young woman came into their sight. Danka’s determination to escape vanished. She had been caught and that was the end of it. She dropped the saddle and stood listlessly, waiting for the men to grab her.

The guards had their muskets ready, but they did not move towards her. Instead, they were backing away. Danka stepped forward and held out her hands. One of the guards, in a trembling voice asked, “Who… who… who are you? What do you want from us, Mistress?”

“Who am I? Who do you think I am, Protector? Who could I possibly be?”

“Please Mistress. Have pity on us.”

“Pity on you? Why should I have pity on you?”

The six men sank to their knees and began praying to the Virgin-Mother. Suddenly Danka understood the guards were mortally afraid of her, but why? Was there something strange about her appearance? She glanced at her arm and noticed it was covered with light-colored dust. So were her legs. She was covered from head to toe with dust. Maybe in the dark camp the dust made her look like a ghost.

“Mistress, please. We are simple men. We have our families. We’ll give you whatever you want.”

Danka realized that if the men thought she was a ghost, that misunderstanding might be her salvation. She also realized they were obscenely drunk. She had to think of a good response that would keep up the ruse long enough for her to saddle a horse and get out of the camp. If she chose the right words, the guards might even help her.

“And what could you possibly give me, sinners? Look at yourselves, drunk on your master’s wine. Your commander leaves, trusting you, and this is how you repay him? Why shouldn’t I take you with me? I have taken far worthier men than you. Answer, drunkards.”

“We are sinners, Mistress, and drunkards. We confess. We’ll give you anything. Even the Bishop’s horse. Just please show us mercy.”

Danka’s heart raced. The Bishop’s horse. They were offering her the Bishop’s horse. Trying to maintain a controlling monotone in her voice she responded, “Very well, drunken sinners. Put the Bishop’s saddle and saddlebag on the Bishop’s horse. Tie him to the fence so your patron can make his last ride. But that won’t spare you. The only thing that can spare you is prayer. When you have the horse ready, you are to face east and kneel, the six of you, close your eyes, and pray to the Virgin Mother. You will pray until sunrise. If the sun touches your faces, you will know that I chose to spare you.”

“Thank you, Mistress.”

“And another thing. You will keep your heads bowed in my presence. I forbid you to look up. You drunken sinners are not worthy of looking at me.”

Danka spent several of the longest minutes of her life waiting for the men to bring the Bishop’s horse and saddle him. She tried to stand impassively, terrified that at any moment the men would sober up and realized they were being tricked. However, as soon as they had the horse ready, they lined up facing east and knelt.

“Pray, drunkards, pray! Pray loud, so the Realm of Sin can hear your repentance! If I choose to spare you, I grant you permission to stop praying when the eastern sun touches your faces.”

The men began reciting a common prayer to the Virgin-Mother.

“Louder, drunken sinners! How can the Virgin-Mother hear such soft mumbling? Louder!”

The men prayed loud enough to hide most other sounds within their earshot. Danka led the Bishop’s horse to the edge of the camp. Remembering she was still naked, she decided to steal a guard’s uniform. She peeked into a tent and saw bedrolls laid out, covered with various articles of clothing. She gathered up the pieces necessary to assemble a complete guard’s uniform, including a helmet and boots. She worried getting dressed would take too long, that at any moment one of those guards would sober up, realize he was being tricked, and come after her. She needed to leave immediately. She could worry about getting dressed later, after she had put some distance between herself and Sihídikti Ris. She found a black cloth bag and stuffed in the clothing. Then she saw something else, a crossbow. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. A crossbow… and a satchel with bolts. She grabbed an extra saddlebag to cover the church logo of the one belonging to the Bishop, slung her weapon over her shoulder, and mounted the horse. He was a fine stallion, totally black to match the cleric’s dark clothing.

She galloped out the west exit of the corral in the pre-dawn light, desperate to get as much distance as possible between herself and the disaster before the sun rose. Ride… escape…

As she emerged onto the road and galloped around a corner hidden by a large stone building, she stumbled into a large group of panicky residents running around on foot carrying torches. She didn’t have time to change the direction of the horse: her only option was to charge right down the middle of the group. The crowd screamed and ran away in panic. Danka flinched, expecting to feel an arrow or a musket-ball hitting her body at any instant. She emerged on the other side of the mob unscathed; shocked no one had taken a shot at her. She glanced back at the crowd. Most had dropped their torches and were still running away from the road. No one was trying to go after her.

Danka did not realize until later that she was still covered in light-colored dust and in the darkness looked more like a ghost than anything else. She was riding a black horse with a black saddle, saddle-bag, and cloth bag which were invisible to anyone on the ground at night. The townsfolk, already in a panic because of the landslide’s noise and dust, thought she was a ghost floating through the air.

Desperate to avoid any more encounters with local residents, Danka veered off the main road and galloped along a deserted country lane passing through some orchards. There was just enough light in the pre-dawn sky to allow the horse to see where he was going. Just as the sun was about to rise, she came up to a stream. She figured she should let the horse have a drink. She remembered she was still naked and covered in dust, so she quickly bathed and got dressed. She couldn’t do anything about her filthy hair without another woman to help her wash and re-braid it, but at least the rest of her was clean enough to put on the guard uniform. She pulled the helmet over her braids and slung the crossbow over her shoulder.

The horse finished his drink and was ready to continue. She re-mounted and continued her flight west. She knew, as long as she didn’t get too close to anyone, a guard uniform was the best disguise and the best hope she had of making it back to the safe-house in Rika Chorna.

* * *

The six guards remained on their knees, sobering up over the next two hours as they prayed to the Virgin-Mother. They cried with relief and joy when they felt the sun shining on their faces. Even after the sun was up, they remained kneeling and praying for a few extra minutes, just to be sure they truly were forgiven. When they opened their eyes and stood up, a horrifying sight greeted them. The cathedral and the cliff it sat on were gone! In their place nothing remained except a sheer stone rock-face! They looked at each other, and then back at the cliff. In the middle of newly exposed granite was a large gold rectangle, and in the middle of that gold rectangle the famous statue of the Virgin Mother prayed serenely over a sheer wall of rock and a jumble of massive broken boulders at its base. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They didn’t want to believe. How was it possible the cathedral was… gone? And why? What did it mean?

As Danka had suspected, the men were local guards from Sihídikti Ris who were assigned to help watch the horses while the Bishop’s escort accompanied the entourage to the cathedral. They had been startled by the landslide and saw the huge cloud of dust in the twilight, but didn’t react coherently because they already had spent several hours indulging themselves from an unwatched cask of fine wine left in one of the tents in the camp. When none of the Church guards returned, they decided to continue drinking and played several rounds of cards through the rest of the short summer night. Finally, they realized they had consumed so much of the cask it would be better if they departed before passing out and being discovered unconscious by their counterparts from the Church. As they were leaving, the ghost-woman came out of her tent and confronted them with their sin.

The guards tried to figure out who was the mysterious spirit who admonished them. Was she the Virgin-Mother? But if she was, why would she be naked? As far as anyone knew, the Virgin-Mother had never appeared naked in front of anyone. And why would the Virgin-Mother want the Bishop’s horse? If the ghost-woman wasn’t the Virgin-Mother, who else could she be? Had Beelzebub the Destroyer destroyed the cathedral and sent a naked spirit to mock the Bishop by taking the horse?

As they discussed the terrible mystery, one of the guards remembered a story he heard a few years before from a visiting cousin. He related the tale of the cursed town of Rika Héckt-nemát and the beautiful but infinitely evil girl who condemned the city when she called out to the Profane One to save her from drowning. The guard shook from fear and apprehension.

“I’m sure that’s who visited us. The cursed girl from Rika Héckt-nemát. That wasn’t the Virgin Mother at all. Nor was she any saint or ordinary ghost. That spirit-girl was Beelzebub’s daughter!”

The men chatted and frightened each other with speculation for a couple of minutes, remembering the details of the ghost-woman’s visit confirming their suspicion she was the evil beauty Beelzebub had saved at the expense of cursing the city of Rika Héckt-nemát. Another man added a theory that connected her to the Bishop:

“Don’t you remember what she said about the Bishop’s horse, that she wanted him so she could give his master a final ride? Now I know what she meant by that! She took the Bishop with her to the Realm of Beelzebub! And she had to take away the entire cathedral to do it!”

* * *

The frightened crowd gathered around the rubble tried to make sense of what had just happened. Their beautiful church and all of its occupants were buried under fathoms of rocks and massive boulders. The only evidence the cathedral ever existed at all was the Virgin-Mother statue, safely protected in its grotto, standing in the middle of the newly-formed cliff nearly 100 fathoms above the jumble of debris. Why would the Virgin-Mother do such a thing to her faithful followers… and to her own cathedral… and to the heir to the Vice-Duchy’s crown?

A large group of panicky residents arrived, bringing with them a terrifying story of being attacked by a woman’s naked ghost. The ghost charged at them with a thunderous noise. At first some in the group thought it was the sound of a horse galloping, but later they realized the roaring must have been the echo of rocks falling from the landslide. There was no disputing the ghost story: dozens of people saw her. The crowd’s fear worsened when a town councilman arrived at noon, bringing with him six terrified guards and their awful story about the ghostly visit by the condemned girl from Rika Héckt-nemát.

The crowd remembered another detail, that a mysterious young woman had accompanied the procession as they entered the town and ascended the mountain. She was naked and beautiful beyond belief, but no one among that procession seemed to notice her. So… the strange nude girl walking next to Prince Hristóckt’s litter must have been Beelzebub’s daughter, the curse-bringer from Rika Héckt-nemát. That made sense, and would explain who was the ghost that attacked the townsfolk.

The story of the destruction of the cathedral by Beelzebub’s daughter fueled wild speculation and spawned legends throughout the eastern part of the Vice Duchy. The witnesses spent the rest of their lives telling and re-telling the story of their scary encounter with the ghost girl. As the years passed, the details became more terrifying and exaggerated, along with the beauty and allure of the evil seductress.

Meanwhile, the Virgin-Mother statue stood serenely on the inaccessible cliff, looking down and silently mocking the people who had placed their faith and hopes in her. How could such a thing have happened? How could a daughter of Beelzebub obliterate the most holy men of the Vice-Duchy right in front of the Virgin-Mother? What message was the Lord-Creator sending?

The True Believers of the Vice-Duchy never recovered from the disaster. Their hierarchy had been decapitated by the deaths of the faction’s most senior officials, but eventually the men could have been replaced. However, the faith of the people in the blessings of the Virgin-Mother and power of the Roman God’s executed son had been irrevocably shaken.

Chapter Thirty-One – The Destroyer’s Gold

Throughout the morning, Danka sped past bewildered peasants as they lined the roads, staring at the gap in the distant mountainside where the cathedral used to be. They were so shocked by the disaster that no one bothered to take a close look at the slim feminine-looking guard galloping past them on one of the most expensive horses in Central Europe. The Bishop’s horse was an excellent ride, fast but very controllable, even for an incompetent rider like Danka. In fact, the ride seemed almost too good, more like she was floating through air than bouncing around on a living animal.

Danka didn’t stop again until noon, when she came up to a stream with a patch of grass next to it. She’d let the horse drink and graze while she adjusted her clothing and examined the contents of the Bishop’s saddlebag. It was heavy; full of coded messages, a Christian Bible, dried meat, preserved fruit, and Turkish delight, and… gold coins. Danka couldn’t believe what she was seeing. There were several coin-purses containing more than 300 coins. For the first time in her life, Danka was wealthy.

She moved the Bishop’s possessions to the guard’s saddlebag and discarded the one from the Church. She removed a fine saddle-blanket with Church emblems from the horse and folded it. Her trip suddenly became much more complicated, because not only was she worried about escaping, she also was worried about safeguarding her fortune. 300 gold coins. What could she do with all that money? She’d buy land, lots of it, and put a nice house right in the center. She’d buy a library of books, and have a garden, and hire servants and guards. She’d spend long relaxing summers sitting under her fruit trees, sleeping, reading, and eating fruit. She’d bathe every day in her own heated tub. She’d never bother to wear any clothing when the weather was nice. She’d enjoy her body and her male servants would be available to pleasure her whenever she wanted. And during the winter, she’d wear the finest dresses and sit in the front row of church and go to fine parties with the wives of guild masters and city councilmen.

She decided to continue riding west, in spite of the risk from riding in broad daylight. She wanted to start her new life as soon as possible, but she also wanted to return to Rika Chorna before news of the avalanche reached the eastern capital. She stopped only long enough to let the horse graze and rest. The meat and candy were enough to keep her going, and she supplemented the preserved food with pieces of fresh fruit taken from orchards. Her plan was to return to Rika Chorna just long enough to retrieve her bucket from the safe-house, obtain a couple of different disguises, and then continue towards Novo Sumy Ris and the pass.

In the late afternoon four days later Danka returned to Rika Chorna. Both she and her mount were covered with dust from the lengthy trip. She entered the outskirts of the city and saluted a group of guards who returned her salute. She was very nervous, fearing the guards would more closely examine her and discover that she was a woman and that her horse was far more expensive than one normally issued to a guardsman. The Ancients continued to protect her, however. The men were distracted trying to extort an extra silver coin from a farmer attempting to bring a wagon of produce to the market square. When she moved past the checkpoint, Danka reflected on the irony of the situation. Those guards were worried about a single silver coin. Had they more closely examined her, they would have been rewarded with a haul of 300 gold pieces.

As she moved through the city, the stallion drew the attention of anyone with knowledge of horses. Even exhausted and dirty, the animal was too flashy, a liability for a person who needed to stay anonymous. Danka realized she’d have to somehow get rid of him, preferably by selling him. But, how on earth could she find a buyer for the Bishop’s horse in Rika Chorna? She’d have to somehow take him to the western valley before selling him, but she realized there was not a chance she’d ever make it. She already had drawn too much attention to herself and people would be watching to see when she left the city. The horse would undoubtedly be stolen, probably with her being murdered as part of the bargain, as soon as she resumed her journey.

The doubts about the horse expanded to doubts about the gold. To use the gold, she knew she’d have to somehow smuggle it over the pass and then find a safe location where, as a single woman, she could anonymously purchase property and avoid being cheated or double-crossed. She had to worry about being recognized almost anywhere she went in the western valley. It was possible she could buy land in Hórkustk Ris province if she could travel that far, but she’d have to cobble together small parcels purchased from homesteaders, an action that was sure to draw attention from the Royal Guards and the curiosity of the Grand Duke’s informants. She arrived at the terrible realization that, although she was wealthy, it didn’t matter. Her circumstances would not allow her to enjoy that wealth. So, what was the point of attempting to transport all that gold? She’d be risking her life over nothing.

She arrived at the safe-house and announced her presence with those thoughts still on her mind. Zánktia answered the door, dressed in her nun’s habit. She was shocked to see Danka dressed as a provincial guard, but that shock quickly became irritation when she realized Danka had shown up at the safe-house with the Bishop’s horse.

“You fool! What are you doing? Move that animal away from here, immediately!”

“But, what do you want me to do with him?”

Zánktia thought for a moment, before telling Danka to take the horse to a rendezvous spot behind the city’s church. She’d send a guard to take charge of the horse, disguise him, and get him out of Rika Chorna. Danka was enormously relieved when the contact met her and took away the Bishop’s fine stallion and exchanged him for another black horse. The new horse was much more ordinary in appearance, but looked like a nice, dependable animal. Danka moved her saddlebag to the second horse. She didn’t bother moving the Bishop’s saddle.

Danka knew that she should have been upset, because she had just been horribly cheated by her co-conspirators. The Bishop’s stallion was worth far more the horse she had been given. However, she was more relieved than anything else. Both she and the Bishop’s stallion were much better off being separated. She did not have the means to take proper care of such a fine horse and she couldn’t use him or sell him without drawing attention. She had exchanged a horse she couldn’t use for one she could use. She returned to the safe-house with her new mount and led him into an adjacent stable.

Danka unloaded her saddlebag and took off her guard uniform. With Zánktia available to help her, she settled into a tub of warm water and finally was able to bathe and properly wash and re-braid her dust-filled hair. Zánktia offered her a nun’s habit, but Danka refused it. When Zánktia objected, Danka grabbed a worker’s dress for herself and insisted on putting it on.

Zánktia sent out messengers to gather the conspiracy’s members while Danka ate. Still dressed in the simple garment of a city working-woman, Danka gathered her companions around the dining table to summarize the Bishop’s pilgrimage and what she knew about how it ended. From what she had seen, the plot to assassinate the Bishop had succeeded beyond the conspirators’ wildest hopes. The entire True Believers’ hierarchy had been wiped out and their most sacred shrine completely destroyed.

When her audience asked how she managed to trick the guards watching over the horses, Danka replied, “I didn’t trick them at all. They tricked themselves. When they looked in my direction, they didn’t see me. What they saw was their own drunken fantasy. With the help of the Ancients, all I had to do was play along.”

Zánktia asked about Enockt and the men who were working with him. Danka responded that she wasn’t sure if Enockt survived the blast, but it was for sure at least one of the men setting the fuses did not. She ran past him while escaping, but when she returned to see what had happened to the church, she observed the spot where he had been stationed had completely fallen away during the landslide.

Danka had not yet mentioned anything about Enockt’s willingness to sacrifice her as part of the assassination. Resentment against him burned inside her, but if he was dead it didn’t matter. Even if he was still alive, she wouldn’t benefit by telling anyone about the betrayal before directly confronting him. She was more interested in leaving Rika Chorna. She insisted her debt to Enockt was paid and she had no further obligations.

“I’m sure a dead Bishop and a dead heir are worth far more than a dead Nymph squad-leader.”

The conspirators exchanged glances with each other, as though they were bewildered and offended. Zánktia coldly looked at Danka and spoke on behalf of her companions. “What are you talking about, with this nonsense of debt? There is no debt, and you’re not going anywhere without our orders. Your Path in Life is to serve the Duchy, by serving us.”

“You mean… I’m not free to leave?”

“Of course you're not free to leave. What made you think you’re free to leave? That’s why I don’t understand why you put on a worker’s dress. You need to change back into your nun’s habit because you’re going back to the convent in Novo Sókukt Tók. You’ll wait there until we can reassign you.”

Danka was speechless. She felt she was going to be ill. After everything she had endured, her only reward would be to go back to pretending to be a True Believer nun. She realized the group did not see her as one of them. She was nothing more than their servant. A useful servant, but a servant with no rights and no purpose in life apart from following orders and collecting information.

Before she had the chance to think of a response, a look-out excitedly showed up with the news Enockt had just entered Rika Chorna and was on his way to the house. Everyone quickly dropped their conversation with Danka. Enockt, the planner of the assassination, would have much more to say about his victory. The distraction gave Danka time to go to the storeroom where weapons were kept and pick up a goose-egg bomb. She pulled off the protective covering, thus arming the device so it would explode if she threw or dropped it. She waited in the passage entrance while the others gathered around the outer door.

Enockt entered, still wearing the worker’s clothing he had on the last time Danka saw him. The others excitedly saluted him and whistled to celebrate his victory. He froze and his smile vanished when Danka stepped out of the doorway, casually holding a bomb in her hand.

“What’s worth more, the soul of the girl from the palace, or all the others?”

“Put that down. Put the bomb down.”

“Not until you answer my question, in front of everyone here. What’s worth more, the soul of the girl from the palace, or all the others? Then you can explain why I’m asking it.”

Danka held the bomb above her head with just her thumb and one finger.

“If I drop this, all that’ll happen is I’ll die, just like you wanted. Your only problem is that I’ll die in the wrong city. Isn’t that so?”

“The others, if you really must know! You're just one person! My concern was to preserve the lives of several thousand! But right now you’re still alive! So what difference does it make?”

“Exactly! I’m still alive, and your plot succeeded anyway! So what difference would it have made to have the honor to tell me to move out of the way, since it was my information that helped you murder a church full of people! Just a simple ‘move out before the Bishop lights his incense’. That’s it! That’s all you would have had to say to me! After all I’ve done, you really don’t think I’m worthy of a simple warning?”

“It’s of no importance. You survived! You should give thanks to the Lord-Creator, not be challenging me!”

“It is of importance! A lot of importance! I don’t work with dishonored liars! And you had better tell everyone here my debt to you is paid! Paid in full! I’m leaving this city and none of you will dare come after me!”

“Stop it, you dishonored fool!”

“NO! I will not stop it! I swear, before the Ancients I swear, I will NEVER wear a nun’s dress again, do you understand me? NEVER! I will NEVER collect any more information for you! I’m done with this conspiracy! I’ve paid my dues and I’m finished!”

The conspirators glanced at each other. Danka knew there was no way they would let her leave. Since they were about to kill her anyway, she might as well drop the bomb and take them to the Realm of the Afterlife with her. Then she remembered the Bishop’s gold. She realized what she needed to do with it: use it to ransom herself, and in doing so rid herself of its burden. The gold, stolen from the hard labor of thousands of ordinary working people, was the cursed product of great injustice and evil. It would destroy anyone who tried to keep it, including Enockt and his companions. Still holding the bomb, she held up the saddlebag with her left hand.

“I want to show you something. Once you’ve seen it, I’m sure you’ll change your minds about letting me leave.”

Danka struggled to pull out a coin purse with one hand and undo the drawstring. When she scattered the coins across the room, the expressions of her handlers completely changed. One of the men bent down to pick up a coin, but Danka shook the bomb, which was a very risky thing for her to do. The conspirators hissed in fright and held up their hands.

“That’s only a small part of what’s in this saddlebag. I took it from the Bishop. If you want the rest, I’ll give it to you, in exchange for a few trivial things. I want a longbow and arrows and some more crossbow bolts. I want a clean set of guard’s clothing and a standard traveling kit with unused supplies. As payment for my services, I want 50 silver pieces, which is a bargain compared to what I’m about to give you. Give me those things, let me walk out of here and mount my horse, close the door behind me, and we will part ways.”

In spite of his desire to keep Danka under his control and punish her for calling him a “dishonored liar”, Enockt told the others to bring her bucket and the other items she demanded, including the silver coins. Seeing the gold completely changed him. He didn’t care about his informant or the insult: the only thing he wanted was the contents of her saddlebag. To speed up the delivery of her items and to prove she still had most of the coins in her possession, Danka scattered another bag of gold on the floor. She warned the others not to touch it until she was outside.

The conspirators were no longer looking at her at all: they were looking at the coins. When she saw the greed in their expressions and the weird glint in their eyes, Danka’s belief the gold had a special curse on it seemed to be confirmed. Something definitely was not right about that fortune. She could feel it. She felt no remorse about leaving it to people she hated. Instead, all she felt was relief it no longer was her problem. She emptied a two more purses of coins on the floor. A couple of coins dropped between floorboards, to the dismay of the conspirators.

Danka set the saddlebag against the wall behind her while she moved her bucket, clothing, and traveling kit out the door. She had to move everything with only one hand while holding the bomb in the other. She could only hope that, once she was outside, the others would be too busy picking up coins to worry about stopping her.

“I’m sure you think I’m an idiot, leaving this fortune behind, or that I'm doing you a favor. I’m not. I know for a fact this gold is cursed. The only person I’m doing a favor for is myself.”

When she stepped outside, one of the conspirators slammed the door shut and dropped the crossbar. She went to the stable, saddled and loaded her horse, and changed into her guard outfit. She had been right about her companions: they were too distracted by the fortune to worry about pursuing her. She replaced the cap on the bomb and gently set it down. She didn't care who found it. That no longer was her concern.

* * *

The disguised traveler rode through the western sector of Rika Chorna in the middle of the night. No one took notice of a slightly-built provincial guard riding an ordinary-looking horse. She left the town and emerged into open countryside. She wondered what to do. The allure of returning to the western valley had faded, but she certainly didn’t want to stay in the Vice-Duchy. She thought about the region’s odious ruler, its odious religious leaders, and the equally odious people who conspired against them. The sooner the Destroyer dealt with all of them, the better.

She had been riding for a couple of hours when the horse suddenly stopped. He whinnied and backed away from something that obviously had frightened him. She tried to get him to move forward, but he shook his head and whinnied in protest. The animal absolutely refused to go any further. The rider reached for her crossbow. She saw nothing, but a strong premonition entered her thoughts, a warning from the Ancients that she shouldn’t continue towards Novo Sumy Ris. She decided to turn around and avoid whatever had spooked her horse. Life had taught her that whenever she had a premonition, she’d better heed it.

She directed the horse along a country lane to distance herself from the road. She figured the animal needed to graze and she badly needed to rest. She had endured an entire week with almost no sleep at all. She crossed some fields before coming across a poorly-maintained orchard. It was evident the owner was poor, so perhaps in exchange for one of her silver pieces she could count on him for a couple of meals, a place for the horse to rest and graze, and a safe place to set up her tent and sleep. She changed into her worker’s dress, approached the cottage, and introduced herself as Vesna Rogúskt. A destitute-looking family blankly stared at her until she held out the coin. It was a small fortune for them, as it would have been for her father ten years before. Assured by the parents that the children would take care of the horse and make sure he was fed and watered, she set up her bedroll and tent under one of the trees and promptly fell asleep. She woke up in the late afternoon just long enough to indulge herself in some stew and half of a roasted chicken. She wanted to resume her journey, but was too tired. She decided to obey the needs of her body and continued resting.

She didn’t wake up again until the middle of the night. She thought about leaving, but was hungry and wasn’t sure she’d find all of her belongings in the darkness. She saw no harm in waiting until the following morning. She got up and went to the cottage. The farmer’s wife gave her another bowl of stew and a scrawny roasted rabbit. As they conversed, Vesna emphasized her lower-class accent, putting her host at ease by letting her know they were both peasants. The visitor didn’t talk much about herself, but asked questions about the area to find out what she could about people she needed to avoid, such as tax collectors, guards, and church officials.

Vesna stayed with her hosts for three days. A heavy rainstorm prevented her from leaving on the second day. She was glad about that, because she realized she needed the sleep. Finally, when she was ready to depart, she left a second silver coin with her hosts. 'Might as well let someone have a good year,' she thought as she saddled her horse and prepared to ride off.

Vesna realized she didn’t know her horse’s name, if he even had one. She decided to call him Moonlight, since she expected to be riding him mostly at night. She would have to train him to respond to that name. She had no proof she was his owner, so the only thing she could fall back on was having him respond when she called him.

* * *

Vesna resumed her journey towards Novo Sumy Ris and the pass. She changed into her guard outfit and approached the main road. She pulled back when she heard the galloping of a platoon of mounted guards. They sped by, carrying black mourning banners. In the Vice-Duchy, a black banner was the sign that an important person had died. It wasn’t hard to figure out the news of the deaths of the Bishop and the Vice-Duke’s oldest son had just caught up with her. As if to answer that suspicion, Church bells rang all around her to announce the Vice-Duchy had just entered a period of mourning. The roads were closed and anyone attempting to travel along them would be arrested for disrespect, so Vesna would have to give up her plan to return to the western valley through the pass.

She remembered a possible alternative route, which might actually be better if it allowed her to avoid the Vice-Duchy’s guards. When she was living with the Followers of the Ancients and visiting the cave-charcoal mines, the elders had mentioned a couple of paths going east through the forest and eventually leading to another set of mines. Beyond those mines, even further to the east, were several small silver mines the Followers avoided because they were under the control of owners from the Vice-Duchy. It seemed the paths could all be traveled by horse. Assuming the information was correct, it would be possible to ride from Plátnackt Dék, the northernmost town in the Vice-Duchy, to Sevérckt nad Gorádki, the northernmost town in the western valley. Vesna figured the alternate route was worth investigating. Going over the main pass was no longer an option, and probably wouldn’t be for the rest of the year.

Vesna avoided the main road as she moved north. She traveled along country lanes as church bells continued ringing all around her. She traveled at a casual pace, more interested in keeping Moonlight healthy than she was in moving quickly. She’d have to take proper care of her horse. She’d have no way of escaping the Vice-Duchy if anything happened to him.

She had traveled about half the distance between Rika Chorna and Plátnackt Dék when a strange urge hit her. The night was hot and she was tired of sweating in her guard outfit. The paths were deserted, so she didn’t see any harm in dismounting, taking off her clothes, and walking naked for a while. Her legs were stiff from so much riding, and Moonlight needed a rest anyway. For several hours she walked in the dark, enjoying the peaceful night air and the gentle breeze caressing her body. She led the horse by his reins and followed a dark trail that was barely visible between fields of wheat. She ascended a hill, and tied the horse to a fencepost. She stood alone, trying to make out what lay ahead and what kind of countryside she’d be traveling through the next day. It occurred to her that she should pray to the Ancients. She received no answer, apart from confirmation she was where she should be and going in the right direction.

* * *

Plátnackt Dék was the most recently founded of Danubia’s major cities. Today it is a pleasant place full of unique architecture from the late nineteenth century, located at the base of the Northern Mountains. However, in 1759 the town had existed for only twenty years and was a raw, primitive settlement of wooden shacks and ore processing kilns. The town’s name, “The Silver is Here”, reflected both the main source of income and the population’s total lack of imagination for naming things during the first decades of its existence. However, during the late 1700s Plátnackt Dék was of vital economic importance for the Vice Duchy. Its mines produced not only silver, but also iron and copper.

During the early years of Plátnackt Dék, small farmers supplied most of the food eaten by the miners. Landless peasants from other parts of the Vice-Duchy had moved in, filling the region with ramshackle homesteads. The area was poor, but the people had a culture of independence that contrasted with the tightly-controlled society of the rest of the eastern valley. That was not to say life was safe for a single woman, especially a young one moving about, because it was not. Vesna’s plan was to stay in the town as briefly as possible. However, she did have to go in and find someone trustworthy to ask about the trails going up into the mountains. She could not afford to become lost as she worked her way past the metal mines towards the cave-charcoal mines. She wasn’t worried about surviving in the forest, but she was worried about what would happen if roving groups of miners found her traveling alone. She was very glad to have her guard disguise, which she’d have to wear during the first part of her journey along the trails.

Before going into the town itself, she decided to find a farming family with whom she could stay so she could reconnoiter the region and figure out the route she needed to take. She had to re-supply herself with food and rest Moonlight before subjecting him to a rough trip through the forest. She prayed to the Ancients to assist her. Shortly after she finished praying, she approached a farm with a garden and some fruit trees. An old man on crutches was outside, directing a teenaged girl and five children to weed the garden. There were no young or middle-aged adults on the property and it was clear the family was not doing well. The children did not look healthy, and the old man’s condition seemed even worse.

The group was frightened when they saw a guard entering their property. The children instinctively clustered behind the old man and the teenager. Vesna considered leaving, but she remembered her prayer. Was it possible the Ancients had led her to that particular farm? She decided to take a risk and remove her helmet. The family stared at her with bewildered shock.

“It looks like you could use some food, and I need a place to stay. Maybe we can help each other.”

“You… have food, Mistress?”

“No, but I have a have a silver piece.” Vesna held up a coin. “It’s yours if you give me a safe place to set up my tent and rest my horse.”

The old man tapped the teenager with one of his crutches. Very reluctantly she approached the stranger.

“You’re offering us silver, Mistress?”

Vesna looked around the farm. There was a chicken coop, but it was empty. There was a pen for keeping pigs, but that was empty as well. It was clear the first thing the group needed to do was eat, so they’d have to procure some food. Vesna realized that going to the village market with a local girl to buy a meal would be a perfect way to have a look around.

“Let’s do this. I want to go to the local market anyway. We’ll buy a pig and you can help me cook him. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind having roast pig?”

“Mistress, you shouldn’t be taunting us. We’ve done you no harm.”

“I’m not taunting you. I’d like a good meal, a safe place to eat it, and companions to share it with. I can’t eat a whole pig by myself.”

After convincing the teenager and the old man she was serious, Vesna unloaded Moonlight and piled her belongings next to the cottage. She excused herself to change into her worker’s dress. She decided to take her longbow with her.

Vesna led her horse, the teenager, and the oldest boy, who was ten, into the closest village. The townspeople seemed surprised to see the destitute children accompanied by an armed young woman who was considerably healthier. The food merchants had no problem accepting Vesna’s money, however. She bought the pig and ingredients needed to roast him, but she knew that it would take at least a day to prepare and cook the animal, and the family needed to eat right away. She bought a half-wheel of cheese, eight loaves of bread, a bag of apples, vegetables and salt to make stew, a cage containing six hens, and grain to feed them. She ended up spending not one, but four of her silver coins. As the sun set, the stranger and the children returned to the farm with the pig and the loaded horse. She ate a good meal with her astounded hosts before setting up her tent. She announced they’d slaughter and cook the pig the next day.

The pig took two days to properly prepare, so the family continued to feast on the food their guest bought at the market. Vesna sent the girl back to the village to purchase more hens to re-stock the chicken coop so everyone could have eggs. She examined the old man’s legs and treated an infection. Over the following week the children started to recover from being malnourished.

Vesna talked at length with the old man about the surrounding area and the new silver-mining town. She found out that his name was Plámenckt and the teenager’s name was Margíckta. The children were all Plámenckt’s grandchildren. Margíckta and the oldest boy were the orphans of a daughter who was executed by the True Believers for prostitution. The other four were the offspring of a son who went into the mountains with a group of prospectors and never returned. Plámenckt’s daughter-in-law had moved in with him, bringing her children. However, in the spring a neighbor found her dead along the lane leading to the village. She was killed by a musket-ball, but no one knew why. After burying the daughter-in-law, Plámenckt tried to keep the farm going over the summer, but his health was failing and he did not have the resources to take care of six children by himself.

When Vesna was alone with Margíckta, the girl provided additional details about the family’s history. She also confessed she was planning to run away to the mines and work as a prostitute, in spite of what happened to her mother. Vesna responded, “Well, you’d better not try doing that while I’m here. You won’t need the True Believers to separate your soul from your body. I’ll track you down and execute you myself.”

“But… what can I do?”

“Braid your hair and find a husband. That had better be the only Path in Life you think about.”

“But, I… can’t. I don’t have a dress… or anything else…”

“We’ll see what we can do about that. Don’t assume you’re the only girl who’s ever faced that difficulty. But I’m warning you not to try running off. Be patient.”

* * *

The days went by and Vesna’s instincts as a peasant took over as she started addressing many of the farm’s longer-term problems. Without giving much thought to what she was doing, she directed the children to start cleaning up the homestead. The house was in deplorable condition, so she returned to the market to buy some tools and nails to make repairs. She addressed the family’s lack of cleanliness by converting an old barrel into a primitive bathtub. She oversaw a bathing and teeth-cleaning regimen. She inspected the children’s clothing and made sure it was at least reasonably clean.

By the beginning of the second week she began working in the garden. She couldn’t help it: she just couldn’t bear looking at a farm in such deplorable condition without doing something about it. When she was outside in the dirt, she returned to the western Danubian custom of wearing nothing but shoes and a broad-brimmed hat to reduce the amount of time she had to spend washing and drying her worker’s dress. To save time dealing with their own clothing, the older children followed her example while performing their chores. At the end of each day the visitor insisted that everyone use the improvised bathtub before going into the house.

Vesna spent August exploring the area around Plátnackt Dék when she was not trying to fix the problems with Plámenckt’s farm. She took Margíckta with her a guide and companion, but also to keep the girl under her watch and make sure she didn’t try leaving the farm in her absence. Vesna inquired about the mines and paths going into the mountains. She discovered there was a book-seller in Plátnackt Dék who was able to provide her with what she needed; a map of the paths and lanes surrounding the silver mines, including the trails going west towards the cave-charcoal excavations. He warned her not to go into the mountains, however. Recent rainstorms had washed out one of the mines and some of the trails. Unemployed miners were repairing the area, but the men were destitute and a single woman attempting to ride through the area on a horse would be a tempting target.

“It won’t be so dangerous after they fix their mine and go back to work. But right now those men are starving and blocking the road. Your horse would make a fine meal and you’d provide the after-dinner entertainment.”

“So, when do you think the road will be clear?”

“Not till the end of August, at the earliest. Whenever you come into town I’ll update you with anything I find out.”

Meanwhile, Margíckta was paging through the books, looking at the text with bewilderment. Vesna glanced at her, then at her map in frustration. The end of August. Knowing how the Realm of the Living worked, the date was optimistic. Probably those workers wouldn’t have the road fixed until sometime in September. It would take at least another month to navigate the paths to Sevérckt nad Gorádki, meaning the best she could hope was to finish the trip in mid-October. She wouldn’t make it before the first snowfall in the higher elevations stranded her. So, she’d have to wait until the following year. She sighed in frustration. She had wasted her time, coming to Plátnackt Dék.

There was more bad news awaiting Vesna when she and the girl returned to the homestead. Plámenckt was in bed, unable to talk, with the kids gathered around him. When Vesna examined him, it was apparent he had suffered a stroke. Vesna questioned Margíckta about the old man’s health over the summer. The girl related he had suffered a previous stroke, the one that forced him to use crutches. The second stroke was even more serious. It was obvious he was not going to recover.

Vesna sat by the old man’s bed. He struggled to talk. He was able to nod, but not much more. After looking around the room at his grandkids, Plámenckt looked at her with a pleading expression. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he wanted. Vesna took a deep breath and accepted the responsibility the Ancients had given her. She took his hand.

“I’ll stay with the kids over the winter. I can’t promise you anything more than that, but I’ll help them make it through the spring planting. I know a few things about surviving and I’ll teach them what I can while I’m here. And I’ll watch Margíckta. I already told her what will happen if she tries to run away. I know how to use a switch and she’ll find that out if she tries anything stupid.”

The old man continued looking at her. She didn’t know what else to do, so she continued talking to reassure him. “I came here because I wanted to go through the mountains to get to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. I’m a fugitive from Rika Chorna and I can’t risk going over the main pass. I just found out I can’t go this way either, because I can’t go past the mines until next spring. So, I’m stranded. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to.”

Vesna’s cold logic reassured the old man more than any promise she could have made. Vesna called Margíckta to her side. She placed the girl’s hand onto that of her grandfather.

“You heard me tell your grandfather that I’ll watch over you. I will keep that promise. Do you understand, Margíckta?”

“Yes, Mistress Vesna.”

Vesna figured it would be best to let the grandkids be alone with the old man during his final moments in the Realm of the Living. She carried a new pickax to the gravesite of the murdered daughter-in-law. She took off her dress and started a new grave next to the one already there. She began hacking at the ground halfheartedly. However, as the memories of the Vice-Duke and his hideous palace and the hideous people who filled it took over her thoughts, rage built up inside her. This… right here… this was the price of what that group of degenerates was doing to the Vice-Duchy. She grunted and perspired as she wildly swung the implement. She was sick of her life and sick of the Realm of the Living. At that moment everything disgusted her. The face of the weakling Prince Hristóckt, as he lay in his bed beneath her, filled her imagination. She savagely swung at that offensive apparition, landing the pick squarely into his nose. Oh, how she would have liked to use that pick on him for real. He had died suddenly, in an explosion or a landslide. That was way too good for him. Why couldn’t he have suffered like that old man inside the cottage?

As she swung the pick, the faces of other people she hated came into view: Enockt, Oana, the Vice-Duke’s family, the women from the palace in Rika Chorna, the nuns, the matrons from the Grand Duke’s castle, Guard Anníkki … and the Crown Prince of her bitter memories, Bagatúrckt. She grunted in rage as she swung the pick into each of their faces.

Before she realized what she had done, Vesna was standing in a grave that was as deep as her chest. Sweat poured down her naked body, she was covered in mud, and her hands were full of painful blisters that already had broken. She looked up to see the bewildered children standing above her. Margíckta made the announcement that her grandfather’s soul had separated from his body. Vesna climbed out from the muddy hole and told the others to wait until she could bathe and get dressed. Half an hour later the patriarch of that sad family was laying in the ground, holding the remains of a broken mirror as the dirt piled on top of him. The funeral consisted of a prayer to the Ancients and three hymns of mourning sung by Vesna in archaic Danubian.

* * *

Later that night, after the children were asleep, Vesna returned to the grave. She silently stared at the mound of dirt for a long time. As pathetic as it was, the funeral for a stranger was more than she had been able to give either her dead husband or her dead lover. She decided a prayer to the dead was necessary. Yes, she had prayed for Plámenckt, but it had been a while since she prayed for the souls of Ermin and Ilmátarkt.

Before she could kneel, an owl flew over her head and landed on a fence post. The bird turned his head and stared at her with cruel yellow eyes. The world slowly went black and the ground grabbed her feet. She was immobilized. The eyes grew until they filled her entire range of vision.

“Danka… Danka… Danka Síluckt. Answer me. Do not try to ignore me.”

“Why are you calling me that? I’m using the name Vesna Rogúskt right now.”

“Not with me, you’re not. To me, you will always be Danka.”

“So, what now? What are you taking from me this time? Or are you here to tell me something awful about the old man?”

“I’m not taking anything from you, Danka Síluckt, and I’m not here to tell you anything awful… at least not about anyone you care about. I’m here to congratulate you. I tested you, and you were one of the few mortals who’ve ever survived that challenge.”

“Tested me? You’re… you’re talking about the Bishop’s gold?”

“Exactly. You saw the gold for what it is. It took you a while, but you realized what that fortune would do to you. You were smart enough to get rid of it. I’m impressed. It’s not often I can say that about a mortal. You impressed me.”

“So, I guess… I should thank you for the compliment.”

“If you wish. I know you’re curious to know what’s happened to the gold, whether you care to admit it or not. So, I’ll tell you, and in doing so I will give you some insight of the true stupidity of humans, and why I see fit to torment them. As you know, the gold was indeed cursed. The Bishop collected it over the years, making life miserable for tens of thousands of people in doing so. That gold was his purpose in life, so I saw fit to destroy him. Would you like to know what happened to your co-conspirators in Rika Chorna?”


“Very well. As soon as you gave them the coins and departed, your companions argued over what to do with my fortune. The smartest member of your group argued for taking it to the Great Temple in Danúbikt Móskt and handing it over to the Prophets. Had they followed that advice, they would have rid themselves of my curse. Unfortunately for them, Enockt overruled that member and asked what else should they do with the gold? Buy land? Weapons? Use it for bribes? Construct a better safe-house? As the arguing continued through the night, your companions lost trust in each other. Each began to wonder how he or she could take away a portion of the gold for personal use. They became greedy, so no one had the common sense to admit the coins should be evenly split up. The quarreling turned into an open fight. Finally, close to dawn, Enockt snuck out, retrieved a flash-bomb, and tossed it into the room to paralyze the others. Your leader killed his companions, people he had worked with for years, with a short-sword. He gathered all of the purses, stole the Bishop’s stallion, and departed to return to his home in Pívdenkt Tók. Shall I continue?”


“As soon as the sun rose, a group of provincial guards recognized the Bishop’s horse and pursued the rider. It took several hours, but finally they cornered Enockt, arrested him, and found the gold. Without bothering to ask any questions or formally put him on trial, they bayoneted him. Interesting, is it not? They had, in their custody, the most notorious criminal in the Vice-Duchy, but they were so deluded by the gold they never bothered to learn their prisoner’s true value. The guards spent the rest of the day arguing over what to do with the gold and how to divide it up. Each thought he deserved to have most or all of it. At sunset, the guards grabbed their muskets and clubbed and bayoneted each other until a single man was left alive. He took off with the Bishop’s stallion and fled. This surviving guard was dead in less than an hour, murdered by brigands who recognized the horse and wanted the animal for themselves. By sunrise the following morning, the brigands were dead and the treasure changed hands yet again. So, that was the fate of the gold and the horse. For the rest of the summer, the coins and the animal moved from town to town, separating souls from bodies wherever they went.”

“And how will it end?”

“It just ended, today in fact. Another mortal, a bit smarter than most, did what you did. He rejected the gold and refused to touch it. I spared his life and took back my coins and my horse.”

There was a long pause, as Danka (as she was still known to the Destroyer) stared into the unblinking yellow eyes. “I have a question. I’d like your permission to ask it.”

“As you wish. Ask.”

“You seem to enjoy punishing people who indulge in hubris. That’s the weakness that seems to attract you the most. Am I correct about that?”

“I don’t ‘punish’ mortals, Danka Síluckt. I separate souls from bodies because that is what the Cosmos calls upon me to do. But you are correct about hubris. A person, or a nation, indulging in hubris is more likely to draw my attention than one that is not indulging in hubris. And remember, hubris takes many forms and destroys mortals in many different ways.”

The eyes vanished and the darkness receded. The ground released the young woman’s feet. When she looked at the fence-post, the owl was gone. She felt strangely at peace, which was the first time she had ever felt that way after a visit from the Destroyer. Previously she had felt frightened or bewildered or angry, but this time the Destroyer had not visited to taunt her. Instead, the Destroyer had given her some insight about the Realm of the Living. She was always grateful for insight, regardless of where it came from.

End of part 10

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