Chapter 1: Prologue
She was working tonight, which left me in charge of making food and of my little brother. It was a chilly night and I wrapped the cloak around me and shivered.
I used to pray that she’d find a wealthy man who would take us all in, so we’d never go hungry again, and I could wear an elegant dress to a fancy party like a Baroness would. Now I pray that Natasha not come home burdened with another child in her belly.
“Mircalla?” Jodous asked, tugging on my cloak as I huddled near the fireplace, turning over a log that was too wet and the smoke stung my eyes. “I’m hungry.”
I was hungry as well, as we had little for dinner and mother went out to ‘knock boots’ so we could afford supper. Sometimes she’d come back with a full coin purse, other times she’d just return drunk on ale. More times than not, she’d get fed and drunk and she’d smuggle back food for us. Jodous and I had to steal from the bakery at times, but it was better than starving.
She told me that someday I’d understand; that a man would catch my eye and I’d fall in love long enough to become pregnant, before he’d ditch you and leave you burdened. Sometimes she’d bring the man home and we’d hear the noises they made together. It sounded ridiculous; later on, my mother told me that she sounded so loud in order to get paid even more.
“Someday you’ll do this too,” She said without registering the shock on my face, “and you’ll probably get twice what I will.”
When Natasha returned that night, there was blood on her face and her hands shook with the full coin purse. She wouldn’t tell me what happened as she washed away the blood and had me get some milled wheat to make bread in the morning.
The first time I cramped and saw blood, I was embarrassed and didn’t want her to know. It marked the start of my womanhood, and my mother was already looking for my first client who would pay us plenty for my virginity.
I told her that I didn’t want to do this, but she refused to listen.
“There are little opportunities for people like us, Mir. Best that you learn this now and build a list of wealthy suitors than lose their favor and become a common whore. Jodous is making a decent living as a thief, otherwise he’d be working in the mines and be dead within ten years.”
I didn’t approve of my little brother stealing, but he did seem quite good at it while I was left at home preparing the meals and feeding the hens. I had nearly forgotten my dreams of being at fancy balls and dancing with a young Baroness when a strange, pale woman came calling to my door.
She was stunning as she stood over me, dominating the doorway. Her bodice accentuated her waistline and ample bosom with gold details over the deep burgundy dress and a stiff, standing collar made out of delicate white lace. The skirt blossomed outward and I knew there was some sort of scaffolding inside, which meant overall that this woman was extremely wealthy.
My eyes were locked on blonde curls, blood-red lips, and a beauty mark that seemed to draw my attention back to her smiling lips.
“I’m Countess Lilita von Holstein, and you are…?”
Her voice held a soft accent that sounded exotic, making my pulse rise up. She’s beautiful.
I stammer, trying to regain my voice. “I’m uh… Mircalla.”
The Countess gave a slight smile and nod of her head. “Mircalla…?” Her smile dropped when her eyes seemed to peer into my own. “I’m sorry, I was in search of Natasha.”
I frowned at the lack of a surname, since Jodous and I didn’t know who our father was.
“You’re friends with my mother?” I ask, lowering my eyes until I notice I’m staring at her cleavage and look away, embarrassed.
“I… yes. Have you seen her?”
I shook my head, uncertain if she knew what Natasha did. “She’ll be back later.”
A single finger lifted my chin and her eyes peered through me again, making me shudder involuntarily.
“Mircalla, I daresay…” her voice trailed off as my body tightened in a way I hadn’t felt before, but her sharp features turned away from me as if she heard something.
She disappeared in an instant, leaving me confused in the cool night air.
It was another hour before the Countess returned, carrying my mother effortlessly in her arms. Natasha was unconscious and her clothes were dirty and ripped, and she had cuts and bruises all over her body.
“What happened?!” I asked, fear and panic in my voice.
“Her latest... client... got too physical. I dealt with him .” Lilita replied as she set my mother down on her bed, and I noticed the blood on her hands and face.
“You fought a man to save her? Why?” This woman was nothing like the nobles I had met before.
“Women should not be violated like this. I know what she does to survive, Mircalla; it doesn’t mean she has to be beaten up like this.” Her eyes glance between her hands and my eyes, and I can’t understand the look in them. “I’d like to wash up and tend to her wounds, fetch me some linens please.”
Jodous returned, but didn’t look surprised at the situation as he was covered in dirt and sweat.
“I dealt with the body, Your Ladyship.” My brother looked at her expectantly as she brushed him away and kept cleaning up our mother’s wounds.
I have been way too familiar with her! I thought in a panic, hoping that I hadn’t gotten into trouble with the wrong form of address.
“Thank you; did you strip him of his purse and make him unrecognizable?” He nodded.
The Countess killed the man who hurt my mother.
“I believe that she will recover within a fortnight. Sell the pocketwatch he owned in the next town over, and you all should be fine.” Lilita opened Natasha’s mouth and winced. “Best you make rabbit stew for her, she won’t want to eat anything tough… nor ever smile again once she’s healed.”
It was only a week before the Countess returned, and my mother was attempting a close-lipped smile around her. My mother’s stock as a whore had gone down since she lost some teeth.
“What brings Your Ladyship here this evening?” The bruises on her face were a sickly yellow now.
“Your daughter Mircalla… she has been untouched by man?” Her eyes met Natasha’s. “I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“She’s untouched, Your Ladyship.”
The Countess looked to me, and I felt the familiar tightening under her gaze. “Do you wish to be like your mother here? Renting out your body to the enjoyment of strange, drunken men?”
I shook my head in fear. “No, Your Ladyship.”
“Natasha, I should like to rent her favor for tomorrow evening.”
What? My core went from tight to freezing. “Mother, no!”
Natasha glared at me like I was an ungrateful child, and I wanted to curl up and be small until she was no longer upset at me. As she spoke at me, I could see the remnants of broken teeth in her mouth.
“She’ll be better than what any man would do. About time you learn your place in this world.” She looked to Jodous. “And you, start working the mines with the rest of the men.”
Chapter 2: First Dance
Natasha greedily took the 20 pieces of silver as I was escorted out to the Countess’ carriage. The driver was dressed impeccably and had skin like onyx, a color I had never seen before. He nodded politely to me before turning to the Countess.
“Shall we go back to the estate, mum?”
His voice held a British accent, and I was uncertain if he called her ‘mother’ or ‘madam’.
“Yes, and we’ll get Mircalla some food, too. She looks absolutely famished.”
“Your Ladyship,” I croaked, “do you intend to have your driver use me tonight? I am not… skilled… yet.”
The Countess smiled at me, and immediately I felt better. “Oh no, my dear… I shall not use you for sex. I daresay that you will never have to sell your body in that fashion as long as I am with you.”
Relieved, I took a few deep breaths. “Then why buy me?”
The Countess peered through me once more. “You are a diamond in the rough. You will be my glittering girl, once you are cut and polished to shine like no other child I’ve ever had.”
“You have children?” I ask, confused.
“Alas, I cannot have my own, but I have taken many young ones under my wing. Thutmose, my driver, for example. He and Matska have been with me for ages. Oh, and please feel free to call me Mother.”
I winced at the request, as I already had a mother.
“I know it seems odd right now, but I will deliver the world on a silver platter for you. All I request is your obedience and understanding.”
I nodded uncertainly.
“Besides, Mircalla, your mother just sold you to me for only 20 pieces of silver. Judas got thirty for betraying Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Are you upset that she took the money, or that she took so little… Mother?” I asked as a large estate came into view from the carriage window.
The Countess laughed companionably at that. “Both, I daresay. When I’m done grooming you, you’ll be worth a King’s Ransom in gold .”
As we stood inside the generous mansion, Thutmose followed behind us while other servants took to watering the horse. Portraits of imperiously looking nobles stared back at us, all with dark, curly hair.
“Matska! We’re home!” A squeal came from above and he ran up the stairs, undoubtedly going towards the feminine voice. The Countess smiled at that as she nodded in their direction.
“They have been together longer than they have been with me.” She looked me over. “Come with me to the kitchen and eat up, then we’ll have you cleaned up for the ball. We don’t have much time to lose.”
As I savored the chicken and rice, Matska came down with various ball gowns in hand to see which would look best on me. Once Mother selected one for me, she took me to be bathed and to explain what was to happen this evening.
“Do you know who the King is?”
“No, Your L- um, Mother.”
“King Leopold, the first of his name. He is the King of Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, and Serbia. He is also the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. We are currently in the War of the Grand Alliance, and he is fighting his cousin King Loius the XIV and the Jacobites. He's on his third wife, who finally gave him a male heir. We have been fortunate that his second wife passed away along with their two daughters."
She looked to me and to the wash basin.
“Well, get undressed.”
I hesitated only long enough to have her snap her fingers at me, and instantly I was doing as I was told and stepped into the wash basin. As she started to bathe me, the awkwardness of being exposed to this woman faded as she continued to tell me about the royal line.
“King Leopold had no male heir for the longest time, and despite locking himself away in a monastery, he was required to marry once more and produce a son. He was partial to raven-haired beauties such as yourself.”
She expects me to seduce and marry a King?
“Moth-Your Ladyship, I simply cannot pretend to be of a higher station and woo the King!” I snapped, face blossoming in pain as a hand struck my cheek faster than I could see.
“Mircalla, he already has a male heir, Joseph, the first of his name in their lineage. And you will woo the Prince, but not tonight.” There was an apology in her gaze when she realized what she had done. “Tonight, we shall attend a ball in honor of the latest victory in the war, and I shall introduce you as my daughter, who shall inherit the title of Countess upon marriage.”
I covered my cheek in shock as she used the soap and brush to scrub my back. “Yes, Mother.”
She nodded curtly and handed me the brush. “Wash your nethers, too, girl. And tonight your name is… Mircalla von Holstein. Repeat that.”
As I cleaned myself, I gathered my courage as I spoke with conviction. “I am Mircalla von Holstein, daughter of Countess Lilita von Holstein.”
“And because men rule the world… for now… you can only inherit your title once you are married to man.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked as I remembered the portraits. She didn’t look like any of the women there. “You’re not really a Countess, are you?”
“What I am is none of your concern. What we can do is all that matters. Now let us tackle this dreadful hair of yours, Mircalla. Hold your breath.” I did as I was told and she used a bowl to pour water over my head and to untangle my hair. She was remarkably gentle as I finally felt her cool hands touching my flesh and it left me short of breath.
“We women are always at war with the institutions that men make to restrict us. In order to win this war, there are two things you must always remember: Nothing is True. Everything is Permitted .”
She finished bathing me and directed me to step out of the wash basin, as Matska had a towel ready for me.
“I’m not used to being naked in front of anyone.” I dried myself off and wanted to hide behind the damn cloth.
“We do not have time for this,” Matska handed me a white chemise to tie on, “and you will need assistance getting tied into the bodice for this gown tonight.”
Once I was tied into the gown, I found it slightly restricting to breathe. Upon looking down, my breasts were on display just like Mother’s.
“Oh, you look ravishing, Mircalla.” Matska turned to Lilita as she arranged my hair. “Mother, I do believe we have outdone ourselves.”
The fake Countess looked me over and beamed in pride. “Not bad for a mere mortal.” She leaned over and kissed Matska in a very non-maternal fashion, which vexed and aroused me.
Women could kiss women?
“Your cheeks are rosy, Mother.” Matska’s voice was low and seductive as she said it.
“What can I say? I’m a glutton. Do be a dear and make certain that Count von Holstein is ready?”
The fake Countess has a husband?
“Mother, I do not understand.”
“Rules like morality hinder experiences. Do you desire women instead of men? I will not think ill of that.”
“I didn’t know it was a possibility, Mother.” I looked again at her and my eyes got caught at her beauty mark and her lips. I watched her lips part as the question came.
“My glittering girl, have you ever been kissed?”
I shook my head sadly. Mother made a sound of disappointment.
“We shall have to remedy that; find a boy or girl you desire, and we shall make it happen.”
An older gentleman knocked at the door, startling me. "Didn't mean to alarm you. The carriage is ready." Something about the way he looked at me was familiar, but I couldn't understand why.
Thutmose and Matska stayed home as I was now facing the Count and Countess von Holstein while the carriage gently swayed and occasionally bounced due to the bumps in the road. The Count was in his late forties, and there was something about him that seemed... dead.
The Count arched an eyebrow at me with interest. "What is it, Mircalla?"
I gulped down my fear as something deep within me reverberated the utter wrongness of him.
“He's… not him.”
They exchanged a glance as the Count nodded with resignation. “She isn't wrong, Mother.”
“What gives us away?”
“I already knew you weren't a real Countess, and he, aside from being dead, looks like a Count. But he's too familiar with you.”
“Smart girl,” She murmured appreciatively, “I do believe you have the aptitude to read people. This will help us immensely.”
“I had a question,” I licked my lips nervously, “you kissed Matska, who calls you Mother as well. Does Thutmose take issue?” I had seen how jealous the married women would get of Natasha when their husbands paid for her company, and could only assume the same here.
The Count laughed at the question, surprising me. “Mother enjoys sampling all of her children. I don’t mind it at all.”
Thutmose? “How is that… you’re witches!”
Mother tittered at that, drawing my eyes back to her. “No, my glittering girl, we’re not. But we each have distinct abilities that help each other. I think you may have Insight; we will figure this out at the ball.”
“You can read minds like books.” I gasp in understanding. “I can’t even read.”
“I can see glimpses into people’s minds, yes. As for literacy, we can work on that at a later time.” She peers out of the carriage. “We’re here.”
As the three of us leave the carriage, I realize that Matska had been driving. Women kissing women, and driving carriages? And Mother wants to hire me again?
I felt unsteady on my feet as we made our way to the entrance.
“Okay, let’s review names and tonight’s target. Who are you?”
“I am Mircalla von Holstein, and I am to speak with the Duke and be introduced to men who may wish to marry me.” I frowned at that. “Am I expected to lay with them, or be married?”
“Only if you want, Mircalla.” Mother responded as we entered the estate and servants directed us to the grand ballroom.
“Otherwise, I shall take their place and nobody will know the difference.” Thutmose, disguised as the Count, said dismissively.
The ballroom was large and opulent, with gold details on the walls and chandeliers making it as bright as day. Musicians were in a distant corner while food and wine were being carried about by servants, catching my attention while Mother looked into the crowd.
“The food isn’t tonight’s goal, Mircalla, and if you do eat anything, you’ll be dainty and reserved about it.” The Countess said sharply, allowing the Count to lead her towards the Duke. “Mircalla, come.”
I obeyed before I even thought about it, taking quick steps to keep up with my ‘parents’. As the Count made introductions, I glanced around and kept my head lowered slightly, swallowing down my nerves.
The Duke was in his mid-forties and had a distinguished bit of white in his hair already, with a bright red jacket that held multiple medals that either signified bravery or wealth. Since it looked more gaudy than anything, and he had no wounds from war, I assumed it was the latter.
“Lady Mircalla von Holstein, I am quite enchanted to meet you.” He took my hand in his, bending at the waist and left his lips to hover above my knuckles for the briefest moment.
As he righted himself, the Duke made a sweeping gesture towards the dance floor. “Now that the formalities have been met, I invite you to go enjoy the ball. My nephew Liam might want a dance with you; but he won’t approach a Lady without certainty of being granted the favor.”
Granted the favor? I looked to Mother nervously, uncertain what this meant. She kept her cool and nodded amiably back at the Duke.
“She will of course be delighted, Your Grace.” I looked up to her in dread as the three of us took our leave and made our way towards the balcony. Seeing a platter go by, I pick up a tiny morsel of food on a cracker and a goblet of wine as I followed Mother. The Count gave a polite nod and broke away from us, mingling with other nobles as if this were his part of the plan all along.
“You’re nothing but a family of liars and thieves!” I whisper into the night air.
“We are, and yet our lives are lead more fully than Natasha or Jodous will ever understand. Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted. ”
I take a sip, surprised at the strange bubbles in the wine.
"What's wrong with the wine?"
"Nothing... it's from the Champagne region."
"It has... bubbles."
"Of course it does! Don't get drunk on it now."
I take another sip, and notice how the bubbles tickle my nose. Fancy wine.
“So how did the Count die?”
“He thought he was entitled to sex with me because I was his wife. I thought he was entitled to a stilletto to his heart.” I paled at that. “You didn’t seem upset at my killing the man who hurt your mother.”
I shook my head. “She was injured, and… it was so fast, I didn’t realize what that could mean.”
“Mircalla, these pangs upon your conscience are a prison made by your own mind. It is time that you free yourself of it.
“What about God? Judgment? Eternal torment in Hell?” I asked, truly starting to wonder about this.
“Which one, never happens, and that’s a lie. Have you ever met this Christian God? Or have you been fed stories your entire life to behave, to breed, and to tithe money to keep the churches powerful and able to control society? Thutmose attempted to gain power and wealth through the Nizari, but religious fanatics will always be religious fanatics.
“The channel of power we can most easily access is through the nobility; find a good target, marry the lonely, wealthy man, and then take over the estate until we are found out. Tonight I need to see if you’re able to engage in the delicate dance that we do.”
I looked to the ground, frowning. “I don’t know how to dance.”
Mother closed her eyes and took a deep breath in frustration. “Diamond in the rough…” she whispered to herself as I cowed and wanted to apologize to her. “No matter, glitting girl, I shall show you the Minuet Step.”
She gestured me to face her and she lifted her skirt so that I could see her feet were in a strange position.
“Okay, Mircalla, we begin with a plié on left foot flat on the up-beat and we rise to ball of right foot on beat 1, straightening both legs, keeping our heels close together. The plié on right foot flat on beat two…”
I couldn’t keep up, frustrated that I had never learned what a plié was.
“Mother, I can't…” She gave me a look that had me apologizing and trying even harder.
“Okay, just watch my feet and repeat me as we spiral towards each other.”
I was able to copy her quickly, moving towards her as she moved towards me.
“We are circling like two predators acknowledging each other's ability to hunt. Shoulders back, extend your right arm, look at mine, and…” We move closer, hands about to touch, “there... and we clasp hands. Once we let go, you back away and resume the spiral.”
She curtsied to me and I copied her, understanding the impromptu lesson was over.
"You're a smart girl; now, Liam is on his way over. Make your Mother proud."
Chapter 3: Fireworks
Liam was in his late 20’s, but the nervous look on his face made me want to guess even younger. His dark hair was shaggy, and it clashed with the military jacket he had on. Unlike most men here, Liam was entirely clean-shaven. Picking up the goblet, I quickly gulp down the last of the wine and fidget before Mother pulls the goblet out of my hands.
“You're a Countess in Waiting, you don't get nervous.” She whispered to me.
As he approached me, I saw his cheeks blush. There was a kindness to him, and a quick nervous glance over his shoulder where other men scoffed at him.
Older brothers? I tried to remember his relatives, but I had only heard about his uncle the Duke.
“Lady von Holstein,” Liam began, “I am Prince Liam Audelier Medici de Lorraine. But call me Liam.”
I was stunned at that, and curtsied in thanks. “You honor me, Liam. Please call me Mircalla.”
His face split into a grin before he recomposed himself. “My Uncle Charles will be absolutely scandalized.”
“Mother, too. But pray tell, how are you a Prince?”
“I'm related to Duke Charles Léopold Nicolas Sixte de Lorraine, who is the brother-in-law of Emperor Leopold Ignaz Joseph Balthasar Felician. So technically I'm a prince, just not a crown prince.”
We make our way to the dance floor, and I'm much more relaxed with the situation. “Where is your father?”
“He had been hoping to serve in the War of the Grand Alliance in Piedmont, but alas he's going to the Caribbean to engage the English. At least he wasn't sent to fight in the Pondicherry district in southern India, or God forbid, the American Colonies and the savage Iroquois League natives. I'm being bought a commission and trained out here before I see an actual battlefield.”
As we took to the dance area, I curtsied again and was glad that my dress touched the floor as I wasn't certain I'd get the steps precisely right. He began turning widowshins and I matched him, keeping my back straight and poise precise as Mother's words came back to me.
We are circling like two predators acknowledging each other's ability to hunt .
It was then that I realized he'd never be a predator. There was something missing in him that I saw with Mother. And Thutmose. And even Matska.
We began to coil inward to touch hands, and I pulled into it and grabbed his with my own. He was simultaneously relieved and intimidated, and by the time we released hands, he was scrambling backwards and the other men were laughing at him.
As we continued with the dance, I realized that this had been mainly a test for me to pass. I had to be able to blend into society and understand people in order to know what they want.
Liam wanted to prove himself.
As the dance progressed, I copied him exactly and have a reassuring squeeze when we clasped hands again.
“This is my first dance with a girl.” He confessed.
“Mine too… I mean, with a man.” I corrected myself as the song ended and the tempo changed.
The people nearby must have known and liked the song as they all began to arrange themselves on the floor.
“Liam, which dance is this?” I asked, quickly trying to make sense of the step-hopping.
“Assemblé. You bring your feet together like so,” Liam began to demonstrate, “and you do a tiny hop like so.”
As I attempted to copy him, his hands took my own instinctively. It gave me a sense of worth, to be able to help him feel needed and useful.
Soon the song was over and I thanked him for the dances, letting him go back to his male friends and take their ribbing in stride.
I made my way back to Mother and Thutmose, who were chatting amiably with the Duke.
“Well that was marked improvement, Lady von Holstein. I'm not certain I've ever seen him near a woman for so long.”
“He just needed a bit of confidence, Your Grace.” I replied, seeing his face light up at that.
As the night progressed, other suitors approached and danced with me, though most were terribly dull or forward with their intentions.
No wonder men paid for sex, if this is how they treat women.
When Mother took me outside at the end of the ball, I wondered if I had impressed her.
“You have, Mircalla.”
“How did you know?”
“You want to please me. I can tell these things. In a few days I'll return to your home for more training, and to see how you are doing with my book.”
A loud pop was overhead and I looked to see the sky was on fire. Rather than panic, everyone on the balcony applauded.
“Oriental Fireworks, designed to light up a battlefield. Also pretty.” The Countess replied, holding me closely as I had clung to her in fear.
Once I looked out to the display, I realized that it was indeed very beautiful. Something caught my attention and I realized that Mother had been looking at me the whole time.
As I saw the various colors reflect off of her pale-ivory skin, I couldn't help but feel drawn towards her red lips.
“Mircalla?” She asked gently.
I want to kiss her.
“Everything is Permitted.” I whisper, leaning towards her to feel her lips touch mine for the first time.
Chapter 4: The Second Encounter
A fortnight had nearly passed, and Natasha (I felt odd calling her mother now) had been pressuring me to take on clients now that the Countess was done with me.
“She's coming back; she lent me this book.”
“Whores get left behind, Mircalla. Don't think you're special.”
But I am.
“Natasha, why didn’t you go to the city and join a brothel? Surely you’d have been protected better.”
She sneered at that. “They wouldn’t let me in with you two suckling at my teat, and they have too many rules and keep a percentage of my earnings for rent. Better to be free on your own.”
Jodous came back from the mine, skin black from coal dust. He had bragged about making silver coins from ‘real work’, making me glad that I had hidden the small coin purse Mother had given me.
“You just going to look at paper all night? Draw me a bath, whore.”
My jaw clenched in anger at that. “Don't call me that!”
He rolled his eyes at that. “You sold your body to the Countess. That makes you a whore.”
“I only danced with a few suitors at a ball. I was the distraction while another scouted the room.” It was a lie, but believable.
“Why would she pay you money if not to make you spread your legs?”
I had enough of his attitude. “Because I'm intelligent and can read people like books!”
They laughed as Natasha put a pot of water over the fire to heat up for a bath.
“You can’t even read, sister!”
“Intelligent? If you say so, Mir.” She cackled, “now I have to ‘go dance’ with some men tonight. And draw your brother a bath; you aren't too good to do chores now.”
As she left, Jodous stripped naked and sat in the wash basin expectantly. “So how many men used you?”
The way he looked at me was not unlike some of the men who expected more from a dance.
“None. Like I said before, all I did was dance.” I replied, pouring the first pail of water in.
He scoffed in disbelief. “You’re too ugly to fuck, Mir.”
I ignored him as I brought over the pot of warm water, thinking back at how much better Mother and Matska were. It was strange, but a life of trickery and deception seems better than this.
He was touching himself and I couldn’t help but notice how swollen he looked down there.
“Oh get used to seeing these. Now pour the water in!” He demanded childishly.
I poured the bucket over his head, making him sputter and gasp for air.
“STUPID WHORE!” he yelled at me, and I scrambled out of his reach.
“Stop calling me that!”
I knew we fought a lot growing up, but this felt different. He lunged for me, grabbing my wrist and pulling my hand into the water to touch him down there.
“Jod! I’m your sister!” As I struggled to pull my hand away, his other hand clasped my throat and squeezed hard.
“Don’t you get it? You’re just another cunt now. Better get used to it.” His expression went from rage to something… different. “You told the truth about the Countess and the ball; you really have no idea what to do with my cock?”
I struggled to breathe as he squeezed harder. “Grip it.” I struggled against him as my free hand tried to pull his hand off of my neck, only to have both hands begin to choke me even harder.
My vision went grey as both of my hands went to his, and he shook me violently as he spat his next words at me.
“You’re a dumb whore, aren’t you?” His saliva was on my face and I reached out to claw at his face in desperation, only to find myself slammed to the floor and to have his wet naked body sprawled over me.
“Don’t even know how to defend yourself, Mir!” His erection was pressing against me now and instinctively, I drove my knee up and hit him square in his groin.
Jodous rolled off of me, curled up in pain while cursing my name.
“I’ll learn, brother. Don’t you ever try to do anything like this again!”
“You’re nothing but rape-fodder, Mircalla!”
I was prowling the streets, just wanting to be away from my brother for a few hours while Natasha worked. What I hadn’t expected was to see my life giver at work.
Mother’s carriage was parked on the road as the woman who gave birth to me was in a dark alley, on her knees in front of a man who was moaning softly.
“Will you make that your future, Mircalla?” Thutmose’s voice behind me gave me a start as I jumped in shock.
“I uh, hope not.” I reply stiffly. “Did I need to return Mother’s book to her? I’m not done reading it yet.”
“She’s not here for the book, little one. I daresay she’s looking to hire you again.”
I didn’t want to give myself that false hope so I changed the subject.
He shrugged in another direction. “Doing her own form of hunting tonight. Some wealthy bloke is beating his servants, so she’s paying him a lesson.”
I looked back to the alleyway where the man, now spent, handed Natasha a few coins as the Countess made her way towards her.
“Mother mentioned something about you and the Nizari. What are they?”
“Ancient history, Mircalla. Mother was right; we’re better off climbing the ranks of the nobility than using the artifice of religion.”
“You also do not believe in the Christian God?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“There are different gods, both great and terrible. The Nizari are a subset of Shia Muslims, and, similar to the Protestant schism by Martin Luther with his 95 theses, the Shia and Sunni branches broke apart.”
“I was told that the Muslims were violent savages.”
“Whereas the Protestant reformation lead to a thirty year war with a death toll of eight million.” Thutmose shrugged at that. “Looking back now, I should have never shared my ideology at Alamut.”
I looked at him oddly. “I don’t understand; you cannot be that old.”
“It is a long story, one that I do not wish to share.” Mother and Natasha approached us and Thutmose automatically opened the carriage for the Countess.
“You are still... untouched?” The Countess asked as her eyes lingered on my neck.
“Yes, Your Ladyship.” I replied with a respectful bow. I had a feeling she didn’t want me to call her Mother in front of Natasha.
“You have a bruise on your neck. We’ll need to hide it. If tonight goes well, I will put in a contract for you.”
“A contract?” I ask, almost impertinently. “...Your Ladyship?”
“I would buy you to exclusively serve me. I’d take care of you, you’d live in my estate, I’d settle any debts you have…”
I understood what she meant by that. “I’d be your property.”
The Countess nodded sadly at that. “Men respect property more than they do a common whore.”
I looked to Natasha, who kept her head down and eyes averted from Mother. “We both would be set for life, Mir.”
As I looked between the pair of them, I understood that the contract would not be signed by me, but by Natasha. She’s going to profit off of my sale.
I felt disgusted at that, but also wanted to prove myself so that I would be under contract with the Countess. “What will we do tonight, Your Ladyship?”
“Royal Ball; the King and Crown Prince will be in attendance, but it’s a day-long journey. We will make headway tonight and stay at an inn. Have you eaten yet?”
Why is she concerned about this?
“I… no, Your Ladyship.” I say in apology.
“No matter, we’ll get you supper at the Inn.” I thought about the coin purse I left back home. Mother looked at Natasha cooly. “It won’t be deducted from our negotiated price.”
Natasha smiled happily as Thutmose handed her a sizable amount of silver.
"I'll see you in a few days, Mir. Your mother's proud of you." Natasha said flippantly, not even looking at me as she walked over towards the pub.
I climbed into the carriage, fully aware that I had been rented out by my own flesh and blood for the next few days. As the Countess entered, I tried to look away from her gaze as we sat facing each other and the carriage door closed.
"Thank you for keeping up the Countess ruse with her, Mircalla. I know for certain she would turn us in for a reward if she knew we were only posing as nobility."
It struck me how foreign she felt to me in that moment, and I fought myself from crying as these relative strangers felt more like family than my own. The carriage began to pull away, shaking from the road beneath us for only an instant before slowing down again as Matska entered, sitting next to Mother.
"I won't let her turn you in." I promised, uncertain how I could stop her.
"Who gave you that bruise?"
"My brother Jodous."
"Your mother should have done more to protect you," she muttered angrily, "I'm sorry."
"She's not my mother." I spat bitterly, wiping away a tear in anger.
"No," The Countess replied, handing me an embroidered handkerchief, "I am."
Chapter 5: The King's Ball
My stomach was growling when we finally made it to the Inn, where Mother directed me to get some food while Thutmose and Matska unloaded the trunk behind the carriage.
“You go hungry often, Mircalla?” She asked as I finally got a bowl of stew.
“Only when I cannot help it, Mother.” I reply as she sips at some wine, her eyebrows knitted together in concern.
“I daresay you must eat properly, else you’ll faint at the ball. How goes your reading?”
I shrugged. “I memorized the letters, but the rules concerning the sounds they make keep changing.”
Mother chuckled at that. “Language changes over time, and they borrow words from other languages. Did you know that the numbers we use come from the Arabian Peninsula?”
I shook my head. “No, but that's fascinating. What-"
"Roman numerals; a series of letters assigned to have values depending on the order they are in. I don't know how the Europeans survived without the concept of Zero." She pulled out a piece of parchment and unrolled it for me to see. “Time for a test... can you recognize what this is?”
As I mulled over the letters, I recognized both my name and hers. Lilita von Holstein… I found that I quite liked her name.
“This isn’t the contract… it’s a declaration that I’m your daughter and of noble blood.”
“Very good; this will be needed since the Count is to fall ill in a few weeks and we’ll need to restart the whole process.”
I saw the Count’s signature at the bottom of the paper. “Thutmose cannot…?” I had no words for what he does.
“Possess the corpse? The body is no longer fresh; his own pigs will refuse to eat him.” She said dismissively.
"You've done this before."
She smiled at that. "Your intuition is quite good, Mircalla. I'm proud of you."
I looked to her and wondered why she wasn’t having any stew with me.
“Oh, I already fed dear; I just came for the company and ambiance.” She nodded her head over where a woman was prowling around and looking for men to flirt with. “Let us see how well your people-reading skills are. What is going on there?”
I looked over her scandalously low-cut top and the way she leaned over to give the man an eye-full. “She’s working the room, just like Natasha does.”
Mother flinched at the name of my birth mother. “Yes. What else?”
“...she’s doing it inside this Inn, so the owner must be okay with it.” I reply, looking back at the man in the kitchen.
“Her husband, the owner here, likes to watch.” Mother said, and after a few more minutes of watching the surreptitious glances between them, I was convinced that she was right.
“How did you know?”
“I’m much better at reading people than you are, Mir. In time, I think you’ll be as good as I am.”
“This isn't a brothel, is it?” I looked around and it looked too normal to be a den of iniquity.
“Not at all; I'll take you to a decent one where the girls aren't addicted to Laudanum.”
I nearly choked on air as I recomposed myself.
“Mother, I thought that I wouldn't-”
“-as a customer, my dear.”
I stammered uncertainly.
“They will have harlots and fancy men alike, so you may choose accordingly.”
I bristled at that, not wanting my first time to be with a whore like Natasha. It wouldn’t be real. “What's laudanum?”
“It was supposed to be a medicine to stop coughing, but it's addictive and many people have abused it. Even so, most you find on the streets today are much better than Paracelsus’ original formula.”
Before long, I finished my supper, eyes hungrily latching onto the Countess’ lips. She gave a wry smile as I tore my gaze away in shame.
“You'll prefer a woman, I wager.”
She caught me looking!
“I'm... sorry for my sinful thoughts, Mother-”
“Don't you dare be ashamed of who or how you desire, Mircalla. Everything is Permitted. ”
I desire you, though. “I don’t want my first time to be for coin. I want it to be-”
“-patience my dear. I know exactly what you want, and if you perform well, then I shall reward you.”
The following evening, we were entering the Royal Ball and I was nervous about meeting the Crown Prince while Mother quietly quizzed me on my identity.
“Who are you and why are you here?”
“I’m Lady-in-Waiting Mircalla von Holstein, looking for a suitor so I may inherit my fortune and title of Countess.” I was wearing a stunning ivory and blue gown that made my eyes stand out and I was wearing an actual powdered wig, which made me feel hot and itchy as I tried to ignore the extra weight on my head.
“Now you don’t have to mention that as an introduction to anyone; I’ll be dropping hints around the room to do that for us. Just be beautiful and approachable. And don’t waste your time on anyone below a Duke.”
I looked up at her, puzzled. “How would I know the difference?” Behind us, Thutmose and Matska were being announced as Royalty from North Africa.
What part were they playing in all of this? I wondered as they walked to a different part of the ballroom.
“They have their own targets for tonight, daughter.”
“This is a con within a con?”
“A separate yet... parallel scheme. Should we fail, they can still succeed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go charm the Crown Prince’s most trusted adviser.”
As she made her way into a thick crowd, I couldn’t help but think that she had some sort of magical ability to make people like her. Would I know if I were under her thrall?
I kept a pleasant smile on my face as I took wine from a server and sipped it with a nod of thanks. A handsome young man (two years older than me?) approached with a simple bow of his head, and I replied in kind, making him chuckle slightly.
“Lady von Holstein, you need not do that for me. I’m Lord Francis Taaffe, Earl of Carlingford.”
I blinked one too many times as I took in his poise and demeanor, unable to get a good read of him.
“...an Earl is equivalent to Count; I was confirmed by King William III himself to refute my family’s connections to the Jacobites.”
Sensing his nervousness at that, I knew how to respond, and would have to research history more. I gave a pleasant smile and used a reassuring tone.
“You cannot be burdened by the sins of your family. You are solely responsible for what you do.”
His face split into a toothy smile. “Precisely! Unlike my family, I understand why we cannot allow Clan Stuart to take back the throne! King Charles the Second kicked them all out of the British Isles, restored the Church of England to its rightful place, and vowed to never again let a Catholic sit upon the throne!”
I nodded in understanding, and I began to understand what Mother and Thutmose meant about religious fanatics.
“I apologize, Lady von Holstein; I came to ask for a dance and not to speak of the wars.” He held out a hand and I put my own gloved hand in his, putting down my glass of wine as he escorted me onto the dance floor.
As we danced, he spoke of his estate and the number of horses and servants he had. I understood he was trying to impress me and I played my part accordingly, noticing his frequent glances to my cleavage.
“How is a charming Earl like yourself without a wife and heir yet?” I asked as we did the Minuet, and I sensed a bit of danger from him. He looks at me like I’m prey.
“I haven’t found the right match yet, I suppose.”
I used a line that Natasha would common say with scorn, but I changed the inflections to be flirty.
“Fortune has smiled upon us this day.”
His eyebrows shot up in pleasant surprise. “You’ll listen to me prattle on about the wars and know Goliardic poetry? You are unlike any other Lady I have met.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, Lord Francis.”
The song ended and he bowed in thanks and parted. Mother, of course, was ready to introduce me to another noble in search of a wife.
“Mother, what’s Golidardic poetry?”
“Sarcastic poetry written by ex-clergy who found the Catholic Church corrupt. Why would the Earl of Carlingford-”
“He said he isn’t a Jacobite like his family-” I started.
“-of course you’d fancy the one man here with the religion that allows divorce! We’re trying to marry into wealth , Mircalla!”
“Sorry, Mother, I didn’t realize.”
She silences me with a wave of her hand. “It is of no importance; the Crown Prince is our target.”
“I thought you wanted me to woo and marry King Leopold?” I asked, confused.
“No, he's already had his heir to the throne, the Crown Prince Joseph.”
“So I should try to woo the Crown Prince?” I ask, beginning to understand.
“Correct, I need you to dance and charm the Crown Prince so he will want to marry you. Or we may need to prune their family tree a bit, whatever it takes.”
I looked to Mother as a chill ran over me. Were King Leopold’s wife and daughter killed?
My concern disappeared instantly as I found my eyes locked onto Mother’s. “Don’t you worry about that, my glittering girl; look to your left.”
As I turned my head, I noticed a pale, skinny blonde in conversation with the Duke and a few other military commanders. “Who is that?”
“Countess Eleonore Magdalene Therese, Palatine of Neuburg, wife or King Leopold, and mother of the Crown Prince Joseph. Known for her monastic and charity work, and helped translate the bible into German.”
As I looked at the men, I realized that they were engaging her like one of their own. I moved closer and realized that I couldn’t understand a word she said.
“What language is she speaking?”
“Latin; it's a dying language in my opinion.”
My heart sank at that. She is comfortable with people in power, speaks multiple languages, and I don’t even know what Goliardic Poetry is.
“Mother, I may look the part, but I’m woefully inadequate for this. I apparently need to know history, multiple languages, and politics. At least with Natasha all she had to do was offer to suck on a-”
“-Mircalla, you will not speak her name!” She chided me while smiling towards a young man approaching us, barely moving her lips. “A lesser noble is approaching, a Prince I believe, so consider this practice for the Crown Prince!”
I put on my own fake smile and followed Mother’s lead. “Your Highness, allow me to introduce my daughter Mircalla von Holstein.”
I gave the proper greeting, knowing that he’d get an eyeful of my cleavage from the curtsey.
“It is an honor indeed to meet you, Your-”
“What a charming daughter you have,” The Prince replied, cutting me off. “Might I have a dance with you?” I nodded my consent and Mother left us as we took to the dance floor.
As we danced, he told me that his name was Eugene of Savoy and that while he had been an impressive military commander in the Great Turkish War, he was still despised by the King as he had a long standing feud with his father, King Louis XIV.
“They are merely cousins, so your claim to the French throne would be replaced easily by a male heir.” I surmised, making him nod appreciatively.
“Any noble woman looking to marry her way to the Crown realizes this and won’t waste their time with me. It makes my search for a wife all the better; they will only laugh at my jokes if they truly find me funny.”
I stifled a giggle as we turned about the ballroom floor, eliciting a grin from him. “Or you’ll find a woman willing to do anything to ensure that you do indeed inherit the throne.”
“I would impress my father Louis that way; he had been upset that I gave up on a career with the church and joined the military. No matter how many victories I had on a battlefield, I was plagued by the scandal of possibly being born a bastard and Louis refused to let me be a part of his army.”
“That explains how a French noble has risen the ranks in Austria. I commend your ambition, Eugene.” I reply flirtily, gambling that he’d like that I would use his given name without leave.
“As I admire yours, Mircalla.”
The song came to an end and we decided to dance the following song as well, while a jealous Lord Francis Taaffe looked on.
“Isn’t that the Earl of Carlingford spying upon us?” Prince Eugenie asks as we both turn our heads to see him.
“I take it that rivalries are not limited to Monarchs?” I ask impishly, getting a chuckle from the Prince.
“Growing up, I was quite sickly and wasn’t expected to amount to much; hence the appointment to be clergy with the church. I have constantly surpassed the low expectations people set for me.”
“Would I be part of the low expectations, I wonder?”
“Not at all; I daresay I would be reaching above my station should I ask for a kiss this evening.” I couldn’t help but blush at that, knowing that Mother will be proud of me.
“I’m wishing to walk through the garden this evening. Perhaps you might escort me?”
He was full of nervous energy as we left the dance floor in the middle of the song, passing by Matska and Thutmose who were chatting up a Viscountess and her female companion.
“Well done.” Matska whispered to me with a celebratory wink as quietly as possible.
Prince Eugenie allowed me to hold him by the elbow as we made our way out to the garden as he asked me if I could identify the various flowers there.
Yet another subject I need to read up on… I thought as I pointed out a rosebush and lied my way through it. It wasn’t long before he chuckled and turned my face to meet his.
“You didn’t actually want to gaze at the plants, did you?”
I blinked nervously and licked my lips, causing his eyes to break away from mine and began to lean in to kiss me, and a shiver of fear and apprehension went through me.
This is just a ruse, a con… can I manipulate someone’s feelings simply to thrive?
It might be less honest than what Natasha does, but it also didn’t leave me the risk of being raped or beaten to death by a drunk man.
I could also be imprisoned for impersonating royalty if not executed on site.
His lips pulled away from my own, and I realized that I hadn’t noticed anything as I was too deep in thought.
“Mircalla?” Prince Eugenie asked as he had a disappointed look on his face.
“I was distracted, Your Royal Highness, I apologize.” I need practice on this too.
“Was… was that your first?”
I nodded, knowing that I would be able to convince him of this lie.
“I can try again, Your-”
My words were cut off by his lips on mine again and I responded, doing my best to show nervous passion. His hands held me and I couldn’t help but think of my first kiss with the Countess.
With the woman who has me calling her Mother.
As he pulled his lips away, his eyes opened slowly and I gave the best smile that I could. Soon, however, his adviser and Mother had spotted us and we tried to not look guilty together.
“I should like to call upon you in a fortnight. Look for a letter.”
I nodded as he started to go back into the estate, followed by the adviser and Mother.
I cannot believe I’m wooing a Crown Prince!
I actually took the time to peruse the flowers in the garden, looking up towards the clear night sky. The stars were bright and twinkling, giving me hope for a better future if I keep up this charade.
“Mircalla?” A familiar voice slurred from a shadow. I gasped in shock, only to see Lord Francis Taaffe approach me slowly. “I didn’t expect you out here.”
“My Lord, I…” He smelled sickly sweet, and I knew he must have thrown up out here.
“I saw you with him out here… whoring yourself out because he’s the Crown Prince, am I right?”
I gulped down my fear, thinking of what Jodous tried to do to me.
“No, my Lord, I… it was barely a kiss-”
“He thinks he can have anyone because he’s next to inherit the throne, the spoiled bastard.” Something was missing in his gaze as he grabbed my wrist and pulled me back into the dark recess he had been hiding.
I couldn’t find the words to speak as panic flooded through me. Stop him!
“He can’t have everything ,” Francis muttered, pinning my back to the wall. His hands went under my dress and trailed up my leg, making me shudder in horror as he made disgusting noises of pleasure. “I’m going to win the girl this time.”
I was frozen in fear as he tried to rip apart my bloomers when a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back from me.
“Apologize to my daughter, Lord Francis.”
I saw the fear in his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Countess von Holstein! We were simply-”
“Mircalla, go inside and tell our companions to fetch the carriage immediately.”
I nodded, glad to have something to do rather than stand there frozen in fear. “Yes, Mother.”
I ran inside, refusing to look back as the Earl sobbed in apology for getting caught. I was safe... this time.
Chapter 6: Droit du Dame
As you know, I've been working on other projects but promised that I wouldn't abandon this story.
So here's why this is so difficult:
-I have 30 pages of historical notes for this story, spanning 300+ years, and I'm cross referencing the dates
(YES THAT MEANS THAT I'M WRITING ACTUAL HISTORICAL CHARACTERS AND SITUATIONS INTO THIS)
***NOTE: I'm having to re-write parts of the previous chapters for more historical accuracy***
-I have the flashbacks and obscure one-liners about Carmilla's past in the trilogy to fit nicely into this without making a paradox (except for when Carm was actually making up stuff in book one before she 'came out' to Laura)
-Carmilla (Mircalla back then) is not just dealing with trying to survive in the 17th century, but falling in love with Maman/Mother/Lilita/Lilith as it slowly spirals into an abusive relationship. Having to take a naive provincial girl and slowly strip away layers of her humanity in order to accept the monstrous nature of vampires (at least how Mother, Matska, and Thutmose treat humans as food) is very challenging, as well as getting Jodous' (the brother/villain in books 1-3) character properly set to show the Nurture vs Nature differences between their vampire lives.
We were back at the Inn, feeling like I had failed at the impossible task of wooing a crown prince. Mother, however, seemed way too happy considering. Her cheeks seemed way too rosy for the chilly evening as well.
“My dear Mircalla-”
“-I’m sorry, Mother. If I am to compete with women like Countess Eleonore, then I will have to do more than be pretty and ‘approachable’. I’ll need to understand politics, speak different languages, perhaps even play an instrument-”
“-then that’s what we’ll do, my shining star. Thutmose and Matska completed their tasks impeccably, so we’ll be able to stay in our current mansion despite the poor Count ‘falling ill’. Starting tomorrow, I will be entirely focused on training you in the ‘Feminine Arts’. I think, however, I will claim the right of the Lady.”
She looked at me with hungry eyes, making me have to swallow down a lump in my throat.
“What’s that, Mother?”
“My little twist on the droit du seigneur . Come to my bedroom and I’ll show you, dear.”
I followed her up to her room, breathing heavy as she directed me to help undress her from the fancy corset. As I untied the laces and she slinked out of it, she turned to face me and captured my lips in a ravenous kiss, leaving me stunned and breathless as I could feel her bare breasts touching me.
“Oh, call me mother, my jewel…” she whispered as her lips trailed over my neck, making me feel desired, trembling with anticipation, and strangely exposed. “Be a good girl and call me that tonight.”
“No…” I mumble as teeth gently nip my neck, making me shudder as her fingers made fast work of undoing my bodice and dress, and I realized exactly how much I wanted her and wanted to be praised.
I shook my head again, knowing that Natasha was my mother, and Lilita was nothing like her. “You’re better than her, you don’t deserve to be compared to my-”
A sharp slap stopped me mid-sentence; the pain didn’t seem to sap away from my arousal but instead added to it. Lilita’s eyes shone darkly as she took that information in.
“Mircalla, I’ve offered to buy you from that detestable woman so that you can be all mine: mind, body and soul. I will protect you from violent men and from the ravages of time. In due time, you’ll forget her name and I’ll be the only mother you’ll need.”
Her fingers found my nipples over the chemise and pinched them with increasing pressure, making me gasp in strange pleasure as I felt moisture begin to trail out of my quim.
My mind was too caught up in the sensations to understand everything she was saying, but I caught the end of her saying, “...do I make myself clear?”
“Oui, maman.” I mutter out loud, glad to hear her chuckle in approval.
“Good girl,” she whispered just behind my ear, making my knees weak. “I can accept that title. Now crawl onto the bed and spread your legs and arms out for me.”
I nod, pulse heavy in my throat, and comply with her order. I don’t know what to expect as she brought me pleasure with a slap and a pinch, but I had been willing to be permanently sold to please her exclusively to escape the fate that my moth - Natasha - has.
Once on the bed, and saw the predatory glint in her eyes before she put her tongue down there on me, I knew that I had done the right thing to sell myself into service to her. I wasn’t a paid whore; I actually wanted my first time to be with Lilita.
Lips pressed against my most sensitive part as her tongue slid inside me, making my hips buck upward in a wanton need that I had never known before. If this was corrupt, if this act between two women was a sin that would taint my soul, then I’d happily be damned to eternal hellfire for this sweet bliss.
She continued to lap until a finger slid inside, making me shudder with the knowledge that she was inside me, willfully doing this to please me and not simply herself like any man paying for sex would.
The rhythm of her finger going in and out quickened before a second one went in, making me feel more full and desperate for her to use me as her thumb pressed on my sensitive nub and circled with a deft quickness, strangling sounds out of my mouth as I began to lose control and felt her fingers curl slowly inside me in time with the in-and-out motion, leaving me lost in sensation as I didn’t know what would happen next.
“Maman… I uh… think this is…”
Her voice was warm and like silk in places that I never knew existed before.
“Let go and feel it, and I’ll kiss you as you ride the pleasure cresting inside you.”
I comply, teeth biting down on my bottom lip until I tasted blood on my tongue. “Please, now… I don’t know how…”
Her lips were upon mine as I felt the pleasure explode and ripple over me, rushing through my body repeatedly like waves crashing upon the sand. She doesn’t stop when I think it’s over, instead slowing down, and adding a third finger inside me.
Maman’s eyes seemed to glow amber as she worked her fingers in me, pulling my body and soul to crest again, making the world begin to blur as she seemed to tap the very essence of me, melting and blending into her.
I shudder as I explode again, legs trembling as I fall into an abyss of pleasure. As she finally slows down, Lilita lays on top of me, kissing me and her skin feeling warmer than usual. I wrapped my arms around her, holding her warmth against me as I mumble my thanks to her.
“Je t'aime ma fille scintillante.”
“I love you too, Maman…”
I woke to the carriage rocking, eyes bleary to the morning light as Mother nudged to wake me. My quim felt sore, yet good. I knew I'd have to try that finger-trick she did to me again some time.
"Mircalla, we're home."
I yawned as I looked out the window, expecting to see the estate that we've occupied only to see Natasha and Jodous glaring at me with raw envy.
"Mother? I thought..."
Lilita brushed my comment away with the flick of her wrist. She seemed paler than she had last night, and I wasn't certain if it was a trick of the light or the clothing she was wearing.
"We'll return within a fortnight; now get going, and keep up with your reading. And do not let any men spoil you if you do not wish it."
I climb out of the carriage, trying to catch up with everything that happened as Thutmose spurs the horses, taking the carriage away. We must have ridden through the night to be back here already.
Had I done something to offend Mother?
No, she said she'd return.
So why is she leaving me here again when she said she'd teach me?
Natasha glared at me as she pointed me inside, holding a stack of books that were apparently being loaned to me from the fake Countess.
"I knew you'd become a good whore. But don't think for a second you're too good to quit cleaning our home, with your nose in books."
Jodous leered over me, skin black with coal dust.
"Draw me a bath, I've got something for you to clean with your mouth."
As I took to my duties, I couldn't wait for Mother to come back and rescue me from this hell hole.
Chapter 7: Lisibilité, Civilité, Subtilité.
I spent the week cleaning, cooking, and reading The New England Primer whenever I had free time. The words began to make more sense, as I had bought a used hornbook as reference material for pronouncing the letters. The Lord’s Prayer was something I had memorized back when we were allowed in the church (until the wives of Natasha’s clients learned who she was) which helped me make sense of the English words.
Each letter of the alphabet had an image, usually sad in nature and almost always made from a wood carving. It didn’t take long for me to understand that the words would rhyme, which made it flow like poetry.
“What does a stupid whore need with books, Mircalla?” Jodous would usually ask, sneering at the favor that the fake Countess Lilita had taken with me.
“You’re just envious that I am learning how to read, brother.”
He pointed to woodcarving image of Adam and Eve with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. “I don’t need to know words to know what that’s about. Reading is stupid. ”
I bit back my temper as I read the words to him, “ ‘In Adam’s fall We sinned all.’ .. It’s to help me learn the letters and the words. Don’t be angry at me because you cannot read.”
Jodous took the hornbook away from me, looking it over. “This first half is just gibberish.”
“It’s the alphabet, all of the letters arranged in order.”
“Why do letters need to be arranged in an order? Aren’t you supposed to scramble them together for words?”
I rolled my eyes, frustration growing. “That’s just what the alphabet is. So we can learn all of the letters that go into words!”
He looked at me before throwing the hornbook back at me, cracking the thin layer of horn that covered the inked sheet.
“It doesn’t make you any less of a whore.”
A whore that he’s envious of, I thought as he scowled and left me to the book as I continued to read aloud.
“ ‘Thy life to mend, This Book attend.’ ” The bible speaks ill against the things I did with Mother, which didn’t feel evil. It felt very good, in fact, to touch myself there as she did.
Everything is Permitted, she said, and perhaps she is right. Men like Earl Francis Taafe can get away with cornering and forcing themselves upon women, commoners and royal alike, so why should I restrict my desires to the type of men who see my body as only something to conquer, and then later call me defiled? Why are they not similarly defiled?
“ ‘The Cat doth play, And after slay.’ ” I have always been fond of cats, they are sneaky and quiet thieves of food. Though they have playful natures, we had been told that black cats were evil and tools used by witches who do the Devil’s work.
Cats would make poor tools though; they seem to heed nobody but themselves.
“ ‘A Dog will bite A thief at night.’ ” That is quite obvious; more than once I’ve had dogs set upon me when I had to steal food for my brother and I to not go hungry when we were little.
“Cats get called evil while dogs are praised for being obedient to man… I wonder if that’s the only reason why cats are reviled.” I mused aloud, wondering if I could ever have a cat for my own.
“‘An Eagle a flight Is out of sight.’ ‘The idle Fool is whipt at school.’”
Why would someone be a fool if they were given the opportunity of schooling?
Perhaps there are idiots among the wealthy as well.
I continued to read the book, over and over, wishing I had something else to read.
“Mircalla! Get your nose out of your book, you have a caller!” Natasha called out, making me drop the book and stumble to the doorway. It had been only five days, less than half of a fortnight since Mother had said she would return.
Who would be calling on me? I wondered as I peered around Natasha to see the pleasant face of Lord Frances Taafe, carrying a small stack of books. There seemed to be something different with the way he looked at me, however.
“Ah, Mircalla! Might I have a word?”
I nodded, mutely, as Natasha scrutinized him. He knows I’m not really a Countess in waiting?!
“Ten silver crowns for her mouth, five Louis d'ors for her quim, double that for her arse-”
“NATASHA!” I cried at her, affronted at her blatant attitude to pimp me off.
“I am your mother, Mircalla , and I can tell he can easily afford you.”
“The Countess-” The Countess gave me ownership of my body, not you!
“-had her fun and is now gone, despite whatever trinkets she left you with.”
I turned to Lord Francis, curtseying as I humbly seek his forgiveness for her behavior.
“Forgive me, my Lord, for my mother doesn’t know you are the Earl of Carlingford .” I said, enunciating the last part slowly for her to stay silent.
Natasha, however, harrumphed at that.
“I should have doubled my price then. She’s still a virgin with men. ”
Frances bristled at that, giving a polite-yet-disgusted smile to her.
“It is the Countess that brings me here today. She bade me bring you these books, and to instruct you on them.”
Natasha rolled her eyes and walked away.
“Fine, be the most literate whore in all of Styria!”
When it was only myself and Frances in earshot, I understood what was different. He wasn’t ogling me like before.
“What happened to the Earl of Carlingford, Thutmose?” I whispered as he entered our shabby domicile, shutting the door behind himself.
“You can tell? Mother was correct; you may indeed have insight. What happened to the Earl is what will happen to any man who forces himself upon you. Mother sends her regrets as she couldn’t call upon you; we had to change our plans at the very last minute, despite that Matska and I had prevailed.”
I lead him over to the fireplace where I had been reading, and he sat beside me, smiling at my progress so far.
“You are picking this up much faster than we had expected; usually if you do not learn to read as a child, it becomes much more difficult later on. Perhaps this is also your gifts manifesting.” Thutmose handed me the first book, which I opened to the title page with near reverence.
“ ‘A dictionary of the English language’ ... What is a dictionary?”
“It’s a book that explains words; skip the preface, he’s long-winded and then goes into the history of the English language.” He turns about thirty pages in. “Now he goes into grammar; this is imperative that you read and understand. It will be all the difference between speaking good or speaking well .” He enunciated the last part to indicate that the proper phrase in that instance is ‘well’ and not ‘good’.
“So that I can speak like a lady?”
He nodded. “Precisely.” He took the second book, stood up, and placed it upon his head.
“What are you doing?”
“A lady is to walk with grace and poise, in such a fashion as to not let her head bob up and down, keeping a book alit upon her head.”
I laughed at how ridiculous it looked.
“Have you ever… been in the form of… a woman?”
“Oh, Mircalla… the stories I can tell.”
I studied him as he walked with a practiced grace of a high-born lady.
“I won’t be able to do what you do, will I?”
He smiled sadly.
“Alas, no. Mother has a unique set of talents, and she seeks children who emulate a… certain pale imitation of it.”
“What is Matska’s gift?” I asked, curiously.
“She has an easily forgettable face, when she wants. Having the ability to disappear in plain sight by being unrecognizable is quite useful when we need to pickpocket or trespass.”
“Describe what she looks like, if you can.”
I thought about it, and while I could recall her dark skin, her round eyes, and her average height, I wasn’t able to remember any true details.
“She… has dark skin?”
“Darker than mine, or paler?” He said with a smirk.
“I… cannot be certain.”
“Is her nose wide or narrow?”
“Wide, of… well not that wide, just…” I looked at him in shock. “How can I not describe her?”
“Matska was always good and blending in, but Mother was able to... enhance her gift. In time, she may do the same for you.”
Thutmose, in the guise of Frances, handed me the next book, The Accomplished Ladies' Rich Closet of Rarities .
“It’s English, but good. Mother wants you read up on both English and French decorum. A lot of this may seem like common sense since you were at the ball, but alas, it had to be written down in the first place for someone.”
“Having clean hands when you sit to eat, not to chastise the servants in front of guests, and to not drink wine so fast that you choke on it.”
I stifled a laugh at the last one, to keep Natasha and Jodous from listening in.
“Why would someone want to choke on wine?”
He shrugged, putting a smile on that was more Frances than Thutmose. It was amazing how well he seemed to assume their form.
“The rules of Civilité have become an art form, after a fashion, and King Louis the Fourteenth… I shall have to teach you the Roman Numerals, remind me… has opened a literal school of manners. This was to help train the high-born to act differently and more refined than the common blood. If the students failed at a single action, Louis would ignore them for the day as if they were a commoner. And the threat of the King excluding you from power quickly remedied most of their faux pas. ”
I was puzzled at that.
“How did Mother believe I would be able to fit in at a ball without the proper training?”
Thutmose smiled and nodded at that.
“Mother and I have had a spirited philosophical debate about that for many years now; is one truly born great, or do they require to learn how to be great? Is Royal Blood truly better, or is it the money and power they are born with that give them advantages? Mother believes it is truly by blood and birth alone that guides our fates, whereas I believe it is how one is raised and taught. Nobody is born knowing how to read; you must learn it. And commoners cannot afford books like this.”
Thutmose put down the remaining books.
“One on the different major powers in the world, complete with their standards and coat of arms, another on the pure sciences from Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica, but it’s in Latin so you’ll need to pick that language up as well. It is a mother language of French, which you’re fluent in already, so you won’t struggle too much. The english dictionary should help you with any other terms you cannot understand.
Thutmose grinned as he handed me the final book.
“Finally, L'Astrée . This book is the most-read book in the world , just behind the bible. It is set in fifth-century French province Forez, a complex yet amazing love story between the heroine Astrée and her lover Céladon. Every detail, even when it doesn’t seem to affect Astrée and Céladon, comes back in a marvelous way.”
I couldn’t help but see how his face lit up as he spoke of this novel, and I knew I would have to read the book from cover to cover.
“It’s not just intricate, but it reflects how society is today; how we are all connected because some men’s ambitions will trample another man’s dream. It’s… there is no word for seeing how people are all little points on a spider’s web, and Fate is the spider who spins the web and seizes her prey.”
Natasha returned, sneering at the sight of us reading books together.
“Is your Lordship staying for dinner? I’d have thought you’d be done with my daughter and gone by now.”
Thutmose stood and faced her, pulling out his coin purse and reigning in his disgust.
“The Countess bade me give you 40 crowns to preserve her purity. She is not to be on a street corner like a common whore.”
Natasha took the coins without thought.
“She payed more to ruin her before, now she pays less to protect it?”
Thutmose towered over her, and I felt goosebumps on my arm as he spoke in a cold manner.
“Mircalla is not your property; remember that. And remember that you are alive only because the Countess rescued you from the man who ruined your face and teeth. Show some respect. ”
Natasha trembled in fear, surprising me. What did he do to his voice?
“Beg your pardon, my Lord. I meant no disrespect.”
Thutmose nodded, turning to me.
“Mircalla, put on your best clothes and we shall sup at the inn.”
I savored the pork stew as Thutmose sipped at his cup of wine.
“Are you not hungry?” I ask, noticing him not touch his food.
“Mircalla, you do realize that this body is not Thutmose, made to look like Lord Frances Taafe, but actually his body?”
I nodded before sipping my wine.
“That’s what I gathered from what Mother said of the Count.”
“How would a corpse handle food?”
I gasped in understanding. He was wearing the body like a mask.
He smiled a Thutmose smile back at me.
“And yet you do not run away in fear, knowing that some sort of devilry is at work before you.”
“So far you’ve only hurt those who meant myself or my birth- um, Natasha- harm.”
“Should the day come that you are officially inducted into the family, I will be proud to call you my little sister.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the idea, earning a raised eyebrow from Thutmose. It looked foreign coming from Frances’ face, and I could actually imagine that look on his ebony-dark skin.
“When we are in public, Mircalla, we will have to do our best to keep our emotions from our faces. We’re playing a deadly game, you see, attempting to climb the echelons of power built by mortal men by revering bloodlines-”
“-Mother mentioned the Nizari, and you said that it was something ancient. How old are you?”
He shook his head knowingly.
“That’s family business , my dear Mircalla, and you are not yet family. Not until Mother… gifts you.”
I took a sip of my wine, stopping myself from mentioning that I had spent an evening in her bed.
“I suppose I can just keep reading books and I will eventually find out. Alamut sounds like the name of a Moorish Castle.”
Thutmose froze-mid sip as he regarded me with fascination.
“Go on; use your uncanny insight upon me.”
“Well, we’re in the Year of Our Lord 1696, and there is some devilry at work here, so…” I shake my head as the thought ‘he is much older than he looks’ comes unbidden into my mind.
“What is it?”
“You are much older than you look. The Moors were a part of the Crusades, and that was over four hundred years ago.”
“Six hundred, but go on…”
I stopped my thoughts, staring into him as he seemed lifelessly still.
“The way you said that gives me pause. You said six hundred years as if it were simply a long nap. And your skin is too dark; as if you come from further south than the Mediterranean Sea.”
“Go on…” he urged, fascinated.
“Why do I want to say you’re older than Jesus?”
“Because your insight is smarter than you are.”
“That would put your age in the thousands of years…” I trailed off, shaking my head at the idea.
“Just barely two thousand, Mircalla. Mother won’t tell us how old she is, and we’ve been asking for as long as we’ve known her. Now, what do you want to know of the Nizari?”
“Your ploy to gain power, what was it?”
“Oh, that?” He began, glancing around to be certain nobody was listening in, “So five hundred years ago, Mother, Matska, and myself were in Cairo when Saladin was named the first ever Sultan of Egypt. Mother objected, as she had tasked us to infiltrate the Fatimid Caliphate and help guide humanity as a shepherd would tend to his flock.”
“Why would you need to help humanity?”
“My dear Mircalla, if it were not for the Muslim world, we would still be using Roman Numerals and dying from the Black Plague. Humans… cannot be trusted to govern themselves. They will waste resources in order to attack each other for more resources, which could have been prevented had they not been so fearful of each other and their weapons.
“So as the three of us attempted to weave ourselves into-”
“-has it always only been the three of you?”
Thutmose nodded. “Mother has told us she can only give her gift a certain number of times, so she is quite careful with whomever she chooses to bestow it upon. It is a great honor that she has taken interest in you. May I continue my tale?”
I nodded eagerly.
“Before Saladin was named Sultan, he was simply a Vizier. But he was busy undermining the Fatimid establishment to the point that when al-Adid died in 1171, he had the backing to fully abolish the Fatimid Caliphate and aligned with the Sunnis and the Abbasid Caliphate.
“And the Abbasid Caliphate was both very forward in their thinking when it came to science and invention, but behind as they kept their women away from the communities affairs. So under Sultan Saladin, Mother and Matska had zero power and influence.
“As we realized the strength that these caliphates held under the guise of religion, we sought an enemy of Saladin to bring him down along with the backwards notions that the Abbasid have about women.
“Which lead us to Masyaf, where the Hashashins directed us to Alamut. I used my gift to climb the ranks and befriend the leader Rashid ad-Din Sinan, who twice attempted to assassinate Saladin for us, but the Sultan got away both times.”
“Well, what happened?”
“The Sultan didn’t like the attempts on his life and put Alamut under siege. When you begin to run out of rats to eat, you start to consider surrendering. Mother and I, playing our parts behind the scenes, convinced the Old Man of the Mountain to allow us one more assassination attempt. This time, instead of letting him send one of the Asāsīyūn , I waited for nightfall and entered the camp myself, using the body of one of the guards at the perimeter.
“I made my way into his tent, moved his lamps so that my figure would not be seen by anyone in the camp, and left the Asāsīyūn ’s mark with hot scones, and a poisoned dagger pinning a note telling him to not tempt our resolve. I nearly ruined the whole venture when leaving his tent, tripping on a rope and I fled by releasing the body I possessed.”
I looked at him in wonder, then confusion.
“If you were there, why not simply kill him?”
He nodded sagely at that.
“Killing leaders never halts their followers; and in many cases, it strengthens their resolve. In this case, it worked and the Sultan and Rashid made an alliance against the Crusaders.”
“So you won your point against Mother, right? You influenced the Hashashins and made them have an alliance?”
Thutmose shook his head sadly.
“I intervened to save ourselves. We were supposed to simply help the mankind decide for themselves.”
“You speak as if you do not consider yourself man anymore.”
“I was spared from old age by Mother before Cleopatra was the Queen of Egypt. While I can walk and talk among them, I cannot always think like them. And that’s why your insight is so important to our family.”