Balogh László was pissed off. Not about the task as such, although he had had better things to do than carrying his arse through half the city in the middle of an autumn night and running errands.
No, it had been the implication which had been wrapped into Albert’s order. “Balogh goes” had meant “You are responsible for her training. Whenever she screws up, it’s to two thirds your fault”.
“Have you got it?”
László threw a laced-up bundle unto the marmoreal counter.
“Why the fuck would I else be back?”
The armourer grunted, but was already busy fiddling about with the straps. He would be finding the Heckler & Koch and full ammunition. There had been the anticipated denial and discussion at the train yard, as someone else had shown up than expected by the boy. Of course he had asked for the lady from the graveyard.
“She is indisposed,” was all he had got as an answer.
Sibyl had conjured the older Nightbringer to not harm Andrus, and László’s terse “Depends on him” had done little to comfort her.
Silly lass, as if he were capable of doing anything that would hurt her.
As the boy had finally handed the gun to László – intimidated, but not harmed –, Andrus had hold it almost like a relic, not afraid of it, but reverential. He had learnt quickly that keeping it was non-negotiable. However, he had resisted to hand over Sibyl’s coat as well, intimidated or not.
“I give that only to her. Here. Next night.”
László had scoffed. She would hardly be in the mood next night.
As he left, Sibyl’s pistol wrapped up under his arm, his side arm at his flank, László’s own mood still had been on an equally low level. There had been another meaning within Albert’s words, one he had liked even less: “Maybe we have overestimated her.”
Why is she here? That’s none of her business!
It had been bad enough for her with only László and the Doktor last night. Now Sibyl had to face a third inquisitor in the exquisitely clad form of Countess Sawatzki. The high priestess was sitting in the lounge suite, and Sibyl felt her eyes on her back – or maybe her sporty arse – as she was standing in front of Doktor Grau’s desk like an unruly school girl once again. Sibyl sensed her ears to become hot, all due to the presence of that redhead. If she was to be court-martialled, then at least by her own people!
“And you ensured the young man’s discretion regarding this incident?” Grau demanded.
“I have stressed in the strongest possible terms to not share any knowledge as to last night’s events to anyone.”
Just like before, László was standing to her left. And just like before, Sibyl had seen him in better moods. She startled as the Countess suddenly appeared next to her other side. Sawatzki gave her an ambiguous smile and strode towards the row of windows.
“There will be no problems as to Andrus’ discretion,” Sibyl hurried to add to László’s statement. “He was only attempting to impress me, nothing more. He had no interests in the events themselves.”
The Doktor only nodded.
“I came to a similar opinion whilst I spoke to him,” the older Nightbringer confirmed vaguely. He considered it not wise to mention the coat.
“There will be no problem,” repeated Sibyl meekly.
Sawatzki, leaning against the nearest sill, followed the discussion in silence. She turned to Sibyl every time the girl spoke, with no hostile expression whatsoever. And as she finally asked to be heard, Sibyl was surprised by her advocacy.
“I have no reason to cast doubt on preili Sibyl’s intentions, and the value of the information she has delivered speaks for itself.”
Maybe she was too drunk to remember what happened in front of her door the other night. Or she isn’t such a bitch after all.
“However, the incalculable consequences of her actions have to be taken into account in determining the sentence.”
There goes that theory…
László made a swift gesture.
“Consecutive punishment: immediate loss of privileges, further measures as seen fit after the High Houses have been dealt with.”
“You want to send her to bed without supper?” Sawatzki snapped.
“It is crueller than you might think, Countess. You already had the opportunity to ascertain what an excellent supper our kitchen makes.”
“Don’t be coy with me.”
She pushed herself away from the windowsill.
“You seem to stand under the impression that with the weapon returned and the juvenile silenced, preili Sibyl’s penalisation is just a formality.”
“I do incline to that view, yes.”
Grau frowned at him, then turned to Sawatzki.
“May I ask for your opinion on the matter, Countess?”
Sibyl already saw where this was leading to: being catechised anew, this time by someone of whom she did not even know why her – Sawatzki’s – opinion was of any interest to the Doktor.
“A supposed-to-be elite assassin who gives her weapon away to a strange and presumably inebriated teenager—”
“I did not give it away!”
“Oh, right: You abandoned it.”
Why again do I have to answer to you, matchstick?
“Her behaviour in that case is indefensible, yet we cannot concern ourselves with it for too long, also in your own interest, preili Sibyl. A swift, clean cut is needed, so we can move on.”
The Countess was clearly on the war path. If that was her revenge for the blocked advances, Sibyl had better granted the Countess her good night kiss.
Sawatzki had not finished, though. In fact, she was talking herself into a rage.
“We cannot allow our field operators to act in such irresponsible and careless ways! You have asked for my opinion, Doktor Grau: taking punitive measures, may it be restrictions or other, more traditional forms.”
We stick to traditions.
“We shall not forget,” László tried to thwart her, “that a night before this incident she did a great job in the Jägala Tower – so much for irresponsible and careless.”
“Assuming that Suydam was indeed killed at that occasion, which is called into question by her own statement concerning the events in the parlour.”
“Are you mental?!” Sibyl spluttered.
“Mind your language,” Grau admonished. “Can you confirm that Suydam died in his maisonette?”
“Yes. He was dead, Doktor Grau.”
“That is sufficient for me. And whatever the creatures burnt in that cremator will be subject of later…”
Sawatzki scoffed, but didn’t reply.
“As to your punishment: I share härra Balogh’s opinion that the immediate menace has been averted. But Countess Sawatzki is right insofar that the sole possibility of grave consequences makes any lenity impossible.”
Sawatzki took a sharp breath, Sibyl hold hers.
“Forty less one strokes with the single tail whip. Executed with no delay.”
It took some moments for Sibyl to comprehend Grau’s verdict. And it took some more for her total disbelief to make way to utter horror. Chilled needles ran over her skin, her stomach knotted, and she could feel her heartbeat all the way down into the pit of her stomach.
She opened her mouth, out of reflex, for she did not know what to say.
“I trust you will bear the sentence appropriate to your position, and that there is no need for further measure to ensure your presence.”
Sibyl looked imploringly to László, but the Hungarian’s face was granite once more. Sawatzki’s however sported a cunning little smile within the corners of her mouth.
“I don’t have to lock the door, right?”
Sibyl, still shell-shocked by what just had happened – and what would be happening soon –, was standing in the middle of her room. She shook her head weakly, not looking up.
László’s right hand cramped around the door handle, knuckles turning white, as he searched for words. He could tell her that he would attend, that a physician would observe the whipping the whole time, that maybe it would not be that bad. László chose not to.
“The preparations will take about half an hour. You should use the time as well. Drink something isotonic, but not too much. Eat something with sugar in it. That will prevent you from fainting, keep you upright.”
She gave him a glance, and he could almost read the girl’s thought in her eyes.
Why would I want that?
“Sawatzki will be there.”
Forty Less One
It had been a horrible half of an hour, every minute like an eternity, yet melting away far too quickly. But Sibyl supposed it was more merciful than letting her wait a day or longer. She had almost felt something like sad relief when László had finally knocked at her door to get her. All the way down into the basement she had hoped for him to say something, anything. But he had walked behind her in silence, past the vault, through a door of iron bars, then through another. He was silent now as they entered the Castigation Room. But as the Hungarian stepped away to the wall, letting her stand defencelessly near the centre, he pressed her shoulder like he had done before the immolation.
Two posts rose in the middle of the high and dimly lit room, two metres apart. Dark-stained oak wood, reinforced with forged iron bands. Short chains at the tops and near the floor carried manacles. A place of pain which owned nothing of the whipping post clichés from popcorn flicks or penny dreadfuls.
Given the fact that Grau wasn’t fond of corporal punishment at all, Sawatzki’s influence had to be considerably greater than Sibyl had expected. Not that the House’s penalty catalogue did not know a vast array of variants for physical correction. A dozen licks from a dressage whip was the lightest kind of flogging, suitable for disciplining lazy servants and gossiping maids. At the other end of the range stood the scourging with the thorned flagrum up to a hundred lashes, which was de facto a death sentence.
The verdict would be carried out in relative privacy, sparing her the humiliation of a public chastisement. And despite all the ambivalent emotions towards him in this moment she was thanking the Doktor for it.
Apart from Grau and László, four other persons were attending. A scribe would be counting the numbers of strokes diligently. A physician would supervise the correct conduct and intervene if necessary (Grau, as a doctor of anthropology, was out of his métier here). Sibyl had got her regular check-up not long ago, so at least the stay in this room would not be stretched out by him taking her blood pressure – or whatever examination was required to ensure that one was healthy enough to have their hide shredded.
The third one was Sawatzki’s thug (she had referred to him as härra Kask). The Countess had asked to let the punishment be executed by him, and to Sibyl’s outmost horror Grau had agreed. László had not shown any reaction to that. Why had he not objected to such an obvious arbitrariness? What was going on?!
And finally – as László already had announced – Countess Sawatzki herself graced this inspiring event with her illustrious presence. She was standing aloof in the far corner, a self-contented smile on her lips.
“Please remove your upper garment, Sibyl,” the Doktor bid her.
She had put on her Vestis over the plain black shirt she had worn in Grau’s office. Mayhap out of defiance, as a silent protest, or as a call for protection. Sibyl had known that this indignity would come, and her fingers trembled as she opened the waistcoat. She almost got caught in her own shirt as she pulled it over her head. Once stripped to the waist, cold sweat already starting to glisten on her skin, she was sure everybody could see her heart beating within her chest. Not that everybody could see her from the front. That privilege was only granted to the physician and the Countess.
In her distress she barely noticed as László took the clothes from her hands. How vulnerable she felt! She saw no point in covering her breasts, though. And she saw no point in giving more than glances at the six faces around her. Two frowning. Three indifferent. One smiling. Sibyl kept her arms at her sides, her eyes fixed upon a point in the darkness behind whipping place, her chest heaving.
Sawatzki came forth, making an inviting gesture towards the posts. The clicking of her fancy shoes on the floor unnerved Sibyl even more.
I don’t care if László sees me crying and weeping right now. Or the Doktor, if it must be. But not you, tomato head!
She stoically allowed Kask to march her to the looming beams. When she stood between them, Sibyl gathered all that was left of her willpower and raised her arms by herself. The sound of the manacles snapping shut around her wrists – first right, then left – sent fresh bolts weakness into her knees. The cold hardness of the metal on her skin was the unmistakable sign that her fate was only minutes away. She tried to grip the chains, to get hold on them both physically and emotionally. But they ran along the back of her hands, and the shackles were too tight for her wrists to turn within them.
It was the only thing the Countess had said so far.
Sibyl felt her legs spread, her arms taking more strain, her back tightening for the lash. The manacles near the ground seized her, revealing their unyielding strength even through the boot leather. The half-naked girl was now spread-eagled between the sturdy posts.
You felt defenceless when you entered? You felt defenceless when you got out of your clothes? You had no idea, sweetie!
Grau asked the final question:
“Do you wish to say anything?”
Why?! Why?! Would you have even considered such a punishment if that witch weren’t here?
She shook her head.
A leather-wrapped wooden bit appeared in front of her face, and Sibyl baulked instinctively.
“Trust me on this,” she heard Kask.
The bit tasted of disinfectant and anguish. She did not want it to be in her mouth. Deep teeth marks were grooved into the leather. She did not want to bite her tongue off, either. But it increased the monstrosity of her situation to almost unbearable heights. Being not only bound, but bound and gagged. Like the girl in the maisonette.
By the way: we will talk about “unbearable” later…
Sawatzki stepped behind her, and the girl turned her head away. The Countess shoved two fingers behind the gag strap, yanked and twisted, forcing Sibyl to bend her head back. The wood pressed into the corners of her mouth, worked her jaws, scraped her tongue. Sibyl felt like a disobedient mare curbed into submission.
Sawatzki came so close to the side of her face that fire red strands tangled with Sibyl’s obsidian hair. As she whispered into her ear, a wave of nauseatic fear hit the restrained girl.
“I will enjoy to see him giving you wench thirty-nine of his best.”
“Countess, please,” Grau urged, visibly committed to get over with it.
She stepped around and back to her place, mouthing over her shoulder to Sibyl.
“Mark my words…”
The implement was uncoiled. She was glad not to see it. She had seen it before, and never imagined it would be used on her some day. A sturdy single tail whip, tightly braided, oiled and heavy and intimidating. Sibyl knew it would break her skin with every lash.
Grau gave a discontented nod towards Sawatzki’s thug.
“Forty strokes on the back, yet she is to be spared the last one.”
Sibyl braced herself.
The impact threw her into her bonds, and her breath was knocked out of her.
She suppressed her cry, not too hard with the little air left in her lungs. This was no-nonsense – the whip was meant to punish, and so it did from the first lash on. A fiery line blazed across her shoulder blades, and she was sure it was already bleeding. The pain was far worse than Sibyl had ever expected. It increased to mind-searing torture, never stopping, mocking her with its cruel delay from the actual hit. It tormented her for an exquisitely spread moment of agony before ever so slowly transforming into a fierce, excruciating hurt.
The whip hissed again.
No! I’m not ready yet!
But the lash sliced into her without mercy. Her teeth hacked into the bit. The pain made her forget the rhythm of her lungs, and she awkwardly gasped for breath.
The next stroke’s path crossed the bloody welts already painted onto her back, and Sibyl was sure she heard her skin snapping. Too soon every blow would have this effect, carving a diamond pattern into her flesh, one row at a time.
Lines of fire were running across her back, burning into her flesh. Again and again the ferocious whip fell. There was no real fading of the pain anymore, just a gruesome adding.
How many more?!
She had expected someone to count the strokes out loud, but the only indicator for the devastating progress was the whip itself.
The leather repeated its terrible kiss, and now Sibyl tried to scream. She did not care anymore who was listening. Should Sawatzki get off on it – she just had to scream, or she would go insane! But all air had again been driven out of her lungs.
I’ll never stand this!
The whip cut into her with constant severity, never hurrying up, never tiring.
Sibyl finally managed to scream. A tormented wail, barely muffled by the bit. Saliva flew from her distorted lips and her eyes were watering as she howled out her misery. Her mind searched desperately for a way to cope with the pain.
The sound of the whip came again. Sibyl panicked, fought against her chains, made every contortion possible in her stern bonds. She did not even feel the manacles’ edges pressing deeply into her wrists.
She bucked in pain-inducted cramping, sprained every ligament, pulled every muscle in her arms and shoulders.
Just stop it! Please!
Maybe she had only thought it. Maybe she had yelled it.
Doesn’t matter! Just stop!
One lash reached around her bloodied body, the white-hot tip coming to smash into her right breast. From far away she heart László protesting and the physician reprimanding.
Again across her shoulder blades. Was there any flesh left on the bones?
Once again slightly above the small of her back. The next one would kill her.
Once again diagonally across her whole upper back. And she was still alive to suffer.
Suffer the next one and the next one and the—
At first Sibyl’s mind wasn’t capable of comprehending what was happening. Why there was no impact, no fresh cutting or new burning.
She gave another weak scream as somebody touched her. Hands supported her whilst she was released from the manacles. Her sore mouth was freed from the gag, silvery strands of drool spanned between lips and bit. She sniffed. Her vision was clouded by tears. Utterly exhausted, she kept most of her weight resting on those hands holding her.
“Can you walk?”
Sibyl managed to nod, took a faltering step, and then her legs gave way under her.
They carried the semi-conscious girl along the dim hallway to one of the cells. A dark, vaulted chamber with an iron bed frame as sole furniture. At least it was offering a thick blanked as a mattress substitute. László placed her carefully upon it on her belly, whilst the physician was producing a worryingly large amount of dressing material from his scuffed leather bag. There was little doubt that he would have to use all of it. Sibyl’s back, from her shoulder blades down almost to her floating ribs, was a labyrinth of broken welts. It oozed blood where the weals ran unhinderedly and spilled it freely at each gaping crossing. Especially her right side, where the whip’s tip had landed again and again, was ghastly wounded. The swollen areas not bleeding weren’t red anymore, but had turned purple.
“I have to stich that one, and maybe a few others, too.”
“Oh, gorgeous,” sighted László.
He stepped back, giving the medic room to work. Giving himself room to be appalled.
The Hungarian’s head snapped around when he noticed Sawatzki standing behind him.
“Can I help you, Countess?”
She slid past him towards the bed, entirely ignoring his query. It seemed almost as if she were drawn by the sobs and muffled cries that came from there every time the medic wiped another part of devastated flesh clean with an alcohol pad. A strange mixture of satisfaction and fascination appeared on her face as the high priestess pulled one glove off and touched the procumbent girl above the kidney area. She then traced the lowest whip cut with her index finger. Slowly and deliberately, giving not even the slightest sign being aware of the two men’s presence. Sibyl gave a weak cry as Sawatzki’s touch seared her raw flesh.
László felt his arteries pumping with growing rage.
“Countess! Please?” He waved angrily towards the door. “Do you mind?!”
She looked up at him, bearing the expression of someone who had just been ripped out of deepest thoughts. An expression completely different to the one she sported a mere minute ago.
“Yes. Yes, of course… no.”
She put her glove back on.
“No, of course I don’t mind,” she uttered, still absentminded.
László did not know what to think of, let alone say to that performance. Not giving him the opportunity to do either of it, though, the Countess left as silently as she had come.
It was dark. When did László and the physician leave? Minutes ago? Hours ago? Or had she just imagined that actual moment they had left? Had she just imagine them having been here in the first place? Like she had imagined Sawatzki having been here?
Sibyl tried to prop herself up, and the wave of pain washing across her back was beyond description. So she tried not to move. But trying not to move made her cramp up. Made her flogged flesh tremble and twitch. Made her wounds blaze.
So it is true. The punishment by whipping does not end after the last lash.
Which was the reason why she was lying in this cell. So she could not escape the well-deserved after-pain. Not even a single dry Aspirin Sibyl would be allowed. At least she was not secured by all fours by the means of the manacles welded to the corners of the bed frame. They carried the threat of culprits to be cuffed down and even gagged so they could undisturbedly think about their wrongdoings.
One may reckon that so severe a flogging would be sufficient to kill a woman of a mere fifty-five kilogrammes. It might, if it wasn’t for the dark gift handed over to the true followers of the House.
The Doktor, not aged a day in decades.
Balogh László, two packs between dawn and dusk and never short of breath.
Sibyl, remarkable physical endurance – and a quick healer, too!
And what a wonderful gift it was! Weird mixtures of hormones kept her system pumping through the ordeal, the following healing pain of days thus shoehorned into hours. Very still she lied, suffering the clean, searingly pure hurt of her gashes. Then it started tingling, somewhere deep within the grisliest cuts. A flickering sensation first, turning into smouldering throbbings, pulsing with the rhythm of her heart beat.
No! No, please no!
A strain, tugging at her raw flesh. As if the leather never had left the wounds it had cut and was now pulled out, over and over again. And finally it arrived, the pain of wounds closing with unnatural speed. Reverse suffering, amplified, intensified by a metabolism turning against its system, a body turning against its owner.
Sibyl was past shame as she bit into the blanket and screamed nonetheless…
Formations beyond descriptions clawed at the chaos above. A titanic mountain range under a tortured sky. Raised, eroded and folded up again during æons of madness. This was a place never meant to be beheld by a human eye. And yet she saw. The sheer alienness of the scenery tore at her mind as the light of sickish suns finally broke through the boiling clouds. Its nameless colour finally revealed the bottom of the abyssal valley she was heading to, though neither she nor her insane surrounding was moving at all. Only the clouds were raving in lunatic circles. Those terrible clouds.
I don’t want to go there! I beg of you!
The pain was even deeper now, but manageable, blunt. She had somewhat overcome the initial shock – a state which had hold everything but anguish down. Now all kinds of emotions keep on rushing on Sibyl. She felt violated, dishonoured to the core. And above all stood the overwhelming belief to be betrayed. How many hours she had been in this cell she knew not, but she trusted many more were still to follow.
Time enough for one excessive crying fit after another.
Sibyl had found her composure back to some degrees. She was still lying on the bed, on her belly, of course, gathering strength. Having suffered through several waves, movement now brought less severe pain, but was accompanied with the sticky and utterly repulsive sensation of her bled-through bandages adhering to her wounds. Two dozen strides below the surface there was no telling of time. She was thirsty – and ironically, she needed to pee.
Please don’t forget me down here…
Some time ago she had realised how cold it was in this cell. So she had laid the rough blanked around her shoulders and pulled it tight – all of it with due carefulness. Wrapped into it, she was now sitting on the cot’s end, leaning against the massive stone wall with her left shoulder. Sibyl did not even bother to change her position as she called out with a weak voice.
“Let me out! Please!”
She startled herself as she began to giggle.
Don’t lose it!
“Open the door! I’m a good girl now!”
She moaned, mostly to get rid of that stupid giggling, and shifted on her lair. The girl fished for her boot and threw it against the door, where it thudded into the wood. A cutting pain across her whole back immediately disciplined her for that inappropriate action.
“Don’t forget me down here…!”