The foreign gentleman’s name was Providence, and he had a knack for younger women. One might wonder as to how the combination of his short frame, a slightly too large nose and the receding hairline did not only not compromise his attraction for the fair sex, but actually increased it. Amongst female circles a thinker’s brow was seemly considered more reliable a signal for virility than ripped abs.
On account of this, his latest conquest was sitting on the bed in Providence’s vast new domicile. The one he had moved into after his maisonette had been raided in the crucial moment. He had lost months of preparation, most of his gear and the the one who had called upon the Mountains. The one he had wanted to keep. Providence had been capable of seeing the culprit, though, shortly before his spirit had been completely thrown back. A woman in black. An Askirtay. She had appeared to be limping on her left leg, but he couldn’t be sure about that. He tended to mix up impressions from different places and times, from different layers once he was in deep trance.
The girl on the bed had introduced herself as Riin. Riin was now down to her tasteful lingerie, yet she still wore her high-heeled shoes. Hidden platforms they called them (although she had baptised this pair “cheating shoes”, as she had shared with him during their dinner). They were the only items of her remaining wardrobe making an effort to hide anything at all. Her black stockings with suspender belt, lace thong and matching brassière testified to what nature her ideas for the night were of. Those signals had not been lost on Providence, a profound admirer of the female form. Alas, he had brought her here for an entirely different reason. He had to build up from scratch.
He approached the sitting girl from the other side of the bed, knelt onto it to be close to her. She felt the mattress yield under his weight, yet made no attempt to turn around. Teased him with coquettish non-observance. Both their minds were light, hers from fashionable absinthe, his from the old Tokaji that had been served at their dinner. Yet she allowed hers to open and drift. The smouldering herbs, which sent ghostly aromas from their bowl on the dresser, lulled her even more, for she wasn’t used to their penumbrous effects in any way. Riin gasped as the blindfold stretched across her eye area. Her hands came up, hovering hesitatingly in front of her face for a moment. When her fingertips touched the black silk at last, it was to hold the blindfold in place whilst her lover tightened it with a knot.
So much was lost. The contact, once so strong, was gone, shattered to a mere reverberation. Providence could still recall the physical pain of the projectile drilling through the head of the one had who called upon the Mountains. Yet it had been the spiritual shock wave that had thrown him back like a rag doll during his phase of utter defencelessness. The one who had called upon the Sea had been thrown with him, and only Providence’s determined will had made it keep its – his – aspect. At the very least it had been able to reach the crematory by its own and had not collapsed in the moment of rupture. But already he had received first notice of someone interfering with the disposal. Providence knew whom to blame even without detailed information: the Houses of the Great Old Ones, of the Outers, claiming this realm for their false gods. And amongst them that redhead sorceress, the thorn in his side, a witch if he had ever seen one.
A gentle push to Riin’s shoulders bid her to lie down. She obeyed. She would not if she were to understand her dire fate. That she was to be marked. To be touched.
A Woman Well Whipped
“Loosen up a little bit,” the physician reproved.
She wasn’t. In fact, Sibyl was remaining in a perfectly upright position on the chrome-heavy examination table, her gaze aimed stoically out of the room’s only window. There was nothing in store for her but having her wounds attended to. Yet she was stiff as a board. It wasn’t the discomfort of having the weals on her back palpated, nor the fact that she had to strip to the waist again. Being once more confronted with her castigation two nights ago – that was getting to her. That, and the sinister battalions of gleaming, polished surgical instruments lying on display for no obvious reason.
Why would he ever be in need for a rib spreader or twenty different kinds of haemostatic clamps?
“Good news. You get your stiches removed. No need for all the bandages anymore, either.”
“You are a good healer. In my younger days I had lost patients with less severe cuts to sepsis.”
“Maybe,” she replied under her breath, “you were just a crappy doctor — Ow! Will you watch it?!”
Sibyl gritted her teeth against the weird sensation of the physician working on her flesh. A quick healer. She had been told that before.
“Will there be… something left?”
“Scars?” She heard metal on metal as he disposed of another piece of thread from his pliers into a kidney bowl. “No. At least no permanent ones. You’ll carry your stripes for some weeks, but they will completely fade over time.”
Something cold touched her, and she involuntarily arched her back. Maybe her “stripes”, as this sawbones had put it, would fade. But the disgrace had torn deeper than the whip’s leather ever could. Was this meant to be Sawatzki’s true revenge? No scars in the mirror to remind Sibyl of her undue behaviour, but the knowledge of its consequences in the faces of those who had witnessed the lashes? The Doktor, who had ordained them on behalf of the Countess. That brute Kask, who had delivered them on behalf of the Countess. Even László, who had been present on behalf of the Countess. The muscles of her back tightened even more, almost to the point of cramping.
“Ow! You are doing this on purpose!”
“Yes. Will you loosen up now?”
It was on her way back from the physician’s torture chamber, of all occasions, that the inevitable happened: She ran into Sawatzki.
“Preili Sibyl! And recovering well, I see!” the redhead woman exclaimed with the sweetest of smiles on her face.
If that isn’t our Countess Bárthory…!
“Someday I will tell you how much your concerns mean to me.”
“I trust you understand that no personal motives were involved in this stern yet needful disciplination of yours. Yet this also means there is no reason to be disrespectfully towards me.”
“It is very brave of you to face me without your thug around to beat me into submission, Countess.”
By now Sibyl was quite sure that Sawatzki had been in her cell that fateful night. Being whipped like a common servant girl was degrading enough, not to mention painful, but that this toffee-nosed witch had touched her…!
“Well, I will be taking advantage of Doktor Grau’s hospitality for some more days. So, given your current attitude, there might be another occasion,” Sawatzki sneered.
“I’m positive we can find you a place more suitable for a countess. Maybe a castle, complete with a nice dark dungeon beneath?”
“I appreciate your offer, preili Sibyl, yet I came to value the convenience of running hot water. And the furnishings beneath this very building have proven themselves sufficient to me, have they not?”
Sibyl had to keep herself from slapping the other woman.
“Whatever works for you…”
Sawatzki leant towards her, copper strands waving around her shoulders. Her smile was still dominating her face, but her eyes had turned hard as sapphires.
“Next time I’ll have him use the scourge on you.”
Without another word nor glance she strode past her and was gone. Sibyl sighted.
That went well…
From the corners of his eyes László saw the black shock of hair appear in the doorframe, only to immediately take cover again. He groaned and put out his cigarette.
“You can come in. He’s gone.”
“You talked to him?” asked Sibyl, carefully inspecting the counting room and only then entering. “What did he say? Can I go?”
“Well…,” he slid off his table, “I had a very lively discussion with our good Doktor – you know how that usually works: points have been made, arguments have been ignored.”
László made a dramatic pause.
“Oh, gorgeous,” he then sighed. “It always pulls me down that you have to hear those things from me—”
She mewled, head thrown back in disappointment.
“Girl, are you easily to bluff! He said ‘yes’.”
Sibyl’s head snapped back:
“Yes. You can go to your date.”
It had been quite a piece of work, though. Albert had categorically forbidden any contact between Sibyl and that boy Andrus, a sentence the Hungarian had considered both unnecessary and unfair towards the two of them. In fact there was a good chance that the lad had averted some serious damage to the House’s cause. Unsurprisingly, the Doktor had held a slightly different view.
“He is a bad influence. He will cause her to make more mistakes. Fatal mistakes,” had been his exact words.
“Alternatively, you can lock her into her room every night, she abseils out of the window to meet that lad in secret – a very romantic picture, I may add – , and Countess Sawatzki has another reason for beating her.”
László hadn’t been sure about playing the Sawatzki card, but another ten minutes of discussion had proven it to be the right approach.
Sibyl thoroughly scanned the room before entering, regardless of László’s reassurance. She really wasn’t too eager to run into both the Countess and the Doktor on the same day. The Hungarian was sitting on his high table, legs dangling, and – of course – smoking until moments ago. She was grateful that he had spoken to the Doktor on her behalf and thus sparing her another justification of her actions in front of Grau’s desk. Andrus had been the first in many long years who had managed to drive off her ever brooding mood, and if only for some hours. Hence it felt like a crushing burden had taken off her shoulders as László informed her she was allowed to meet him.
“Yes. You can go to your date.”
“That’s great!” She paused for a second. “And thank you for talking to the Doktor. After what he put me through, I’ll keep away from him for the next week! But it’s not a date. Don’t call it that.”
“I just thought because you were looking towards it with so much… ardour.”
Sibyl sighed, and only after a moment of silence she spoke.
“Have you got any idea how many people my age I know outside this building?”
László shrugged his shoulders.
“Three,” she informed him, “and one of them still calls me ‘Sylvia’.”
“I take it your new admirer won’t forget your name. But there’s more behind it, right?”
She searched for her next words hard, and the Hungarian waited patiently for her to find them.
“Getting padded on the head when I’ve done something well, getting the birch when I screwed up…”
“You cannot extend the other night’s events—”
“I meant it metaphorically. And the padding turns sour, too. Now there’s someone who’s actually looking up at me! Who gives me a different kind of support.”
“You mean, someone you can actually bully?”
“László, I’m serious. I need to be around folk of my own age.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know. This isn’t exactly the environment to cultivate one’s joie de vivre. But since you have mentioned your age: Isn’t he a bit too young for you? Just a wee bit?”
“That’s rich. It may come as a surprise, but everybody around here knows about your various acquaintances half your alleged age.”
“I hope so. After all, I get them to show off.”
Sibyl rolled her eyes.
“If you must know: He’s maybe three years younger tha—”
She noticed him glancing to the door and turned around.
“I take it härra Balogh has informed you about our decision.”
Sibyl tensed up at his voice and inhaled sharply.
Tensing causes pain.
“Yes, härra Doktor.”
Grau nodded indifferently.
“Good. But we have yet to discuss the matter of protection.”
“Yes, protection. Absolutely,” László confirmed.
“What?!” gasped Sibyl, her eyes growing wide. She would rather take another whipping than facing the horrors of being lectured by the Doktor and László on contraception.
“I understand that this new friend of yours has received certain insight into our cause, partly by your fault, partly by course of circumstances. You will not tell him anything more nor explain nor discuss to what he stood already witness. If he makes any attempts to find out more, you will answer for him. If he shows up here for what reason ever, he will not leave this building alive, and I will make you watch. Did I make myself clear on that matter?”
“Perfectly, härra Doktor.”
“You may return to your duties.”
The Doktor threw a quick glance at László, which the Hungarian answered with a short nod, then left the counting room.
That was some harsh rhetoric. But he had given his permission. Sibyl slowly approached the door to leave, too. She just waited to give the Doktor a head start, for there was only one way from the basement to the higher levels of the bank.
“If you do want to show Andrus something impressive, you can give him the tour, though.”
Sibyl looked at László, staggered.
“After that speech?!”
László made a calming gesture.
“Consider it a ‘good cop/bad cop’ thing. The Doktor and I came to find ourselves in agreement on several points: better to know whom you meet and when than having you sneaking out at night; better you meeting a boy who has already shown some degree of loyalty to you than someone who might freak out if he received knowledge by chance. Of course he can’t just say so.”
“Huh… so he tells me that Andrus is dead meat the moment he looks the wrong way, and then you tell me that it’s sanctioned to show him even more?”
“Aye. Nothing too wild, just enough to let him see things more like the way we do. But the main reason is to grant you some slack again.”
“So what is that? Some kind of apology?”
The tall man shrugged his shoulders.
“It is none of Grau’s habits to explain himself to me. But I know him long enough. The good Doktor does not apologise. Think of it as a sign of unbowed trust. He is taking a considerable risk. One more stunt like that nine mil hide and seek under his patronage, and the Countess has her fangs in his neck. Eskravin or not.”
It had already dawned on Sibyl that Sawatzki’s power was at least equal to that of an Eskravin, even though she hadn’t got an own House to be Head of. All of Sibyl’s troubles seemed to radiate from that very person.
“When this woman leaves, hopefully sooner than later, I will be the first to bid her Godspeed.”
“Just suffer through three more days, and you’ve got her off your back.”
Three more days. How hard could that be?