Werner was more than a little nervous about his meeting with this woman. He did not know anyone like her. He rolled his shoulders in a vain attempt to relax. The nearly three-hour train ride from Munich had left him tired and restless. He was getting in deeper and deeper with these people he hardly knew, and he wondered why the Countess wanted to help him with his initiation task. Despite the cold, his hands were warm and sweaty in the knit gloves he wore.
The smell of wood burning in a fireplace of the nearby castle made him melancholy. He really wanted to be in the familiar comfort of his family home, with the Christmas decorations around the tall spruce tree in the parlor. Instead, he was trudging in God knows where to find out how to do a stupid task that somehow would get him closer to the respect he so rightly deserved.
He finally reached the bridge that led to the castle’s entrance. He made his way across it and walked through the open wrought iron gate. He found himself in a snow-covered courtyard, and he passed a statue of a knight from the Crusades sitting astride a horse, his sword drawn as if in salute. Looking around for the castle door, Werner saw a torch lit on the western side of the courtyard. He walked over to it and found a massive iron key in the lock waiting for him. He took in a breath, stuffed the invitation into his pocket, and tugged on his clothes to straighten them.
Satisfied that he was presentable, he turned the giant key. A loud clunk shattered the quiet. A slight chill shivered up his spine as he strained to push the massive door open. Time seemed to stand still as he peered around into the grand hall. His heart raced when he gazed up at the soaring Gothic architecture.
His gaze was attracted by movement inside the room. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Werner saw the Countess. She was walking toward him, cat-like, in her floor-length maroon silk robes, their black mink trimming shimmering in the dim light. Smiling, she crossed the black-and-white checkerboard tile floor and extended her hand. “Welcome, Herr von Wiesel. How was your journey?"
Her voice was sultry, and she ran her hands through her waist-length ginger locks, then flipped her cascading hair back over her shoulder. Her mesmerizing, amber, cat-like eyes seemed to glow, and they mesmerized the boy. Then his gaze was captured by a red ruby embedded in a gold spider hanging on a gold chain necklace nestled in her amply displayed cleavage. Werner sucked in a breath as he became more firmly enmeshed in her web.
He managed to tear his gaze away from the spider and licked his lips. “Uh, it was good. I was glad to leave Munich for a while. And please call me Werner.” Fighting to regain his composure, he smoothed back his hair, then crossed his arms.
The temptress said, “You must be cold from your journey.” She took Werner’s hand and led him toward the fireplace. “Come, sit with me on the sofa near the fire.”
As they sat, Werner was grateful to see that the knee-high rosewood table in front of the couch held a polished silver tray with a lavish spread of fresh fruit, cheese, meat, bread, and cakes. A silver teapot with a monogrammed “B” adorned the china.
Werner had last eaten at breakfast and did not pack anything for the train ride. That and the trudge from the station up to the castle had built up a monster hunger. The Countess noticed his glance and said, “Forgive me, you must be famished.” She gestured to the tray. “I had had my servants prepare a snack for you before I dismissed them for the remainder of the day. Please, help yourself.” He needed no more invitation than that and began piling cheese and sausages on a thick slice of still-warm homemade bread. He closed his eyes, inhaled in delight, and his mouth opened wide for a big bite.
The sorceress teased Werner by smiling and pushing his hand with the sandwich away from his mouth. “Not so fast. I invited you here so we could talk privately. Have you told anyone about your visit?”
“No, of course not. You were quite clear I was to tell no one.”
The Countess narrowed her eyes. “Not even Raka? Especially him.”
Werner shook his head firmly. “No, I told no one. Not even my parents. I just said I had to do some school stuff for the day and I might be back late.” His puppy dog eyes pleaded with the Countess to allow him to take a bite from his sandwich.
The Countess paused just a moment longer, letting Werner know who held power here, then, with a smile, motioned with her inch-long, blood-red fingernails for Werner to eat. The hungry young man turned his attention to the food and in just a few brief minutes had sated his hunger. Heaving a deep sigh of satisfaction, he slouched back into the depths of the plush couch and turned once again to the Countess. She had a half-amused smirk on her face as his eyes were once again drawn to the gold necklace... and what it rested upon.
“Do you like it?” she asked coyly.
With an effort, Werner brought his eyes to her face, and he turned quite red. “Um, what?” he asked sheepishly.
“The necklace,” the Countess said, leaning toward Werner and revealing even more of her ample cleavage. “Do you like it?”
“Oh, yes,” he stammered. “It’s very... I mean...”
The Countess laughed and sat back as Werner struggled to bring his thoughts to the reason for his visit. He was very distracted and was experiencing feelings that were unfamiliar to him. The Countess, for her part, found his discomfort amusing. Finally, Werner gathered his wits. “Countess, you said you would help me. Why am I here?”
Victoria was thrilled with Werner’s naiveté. It had been a long time since she’d felt young and vulnerable like him. From childhood, her father held her as a pawn in a chess game of power and influence. Her beauty, plus the fact that she was a von Baden, made her the focus of attention of the rich and mighty. As she grew into puberty and beyond, she learned the effect she had on men. She also learned she could bend them toward her will, but she also had to be very careful and not cross the line with them. Her father’s command that she be demure and please men was alien to her character. When he demanded she be the weak little maiden, it made her want to scream.
The Countess’s mother had died in childbirth. Her older brother was cruel and domineering while her father was controlling and, at the same time, overprotective. Like a lioness in a cage, she had felt trapped for most of her life.
As a teen, she had loved to explore the vast castle. It was her favorite way to escape when life threatened to close in on her, perhaps because they were so isolated from the rest of the world. She loved the cellars and dungeons that seemed to extend into the bowels of the Earth. Even as she grew into young adulthood, she would retreat to these subterranean chambers.
One day she went down into them, hoping to escape the trials of her life. She opened the door to her favorite hiding place to find a terrifying creature sitting on a bench. She froze, unable to move, let alone flee. The sense of a human presence awakened Raka, and he saw a frightened young woman staring at him. The dragon creature in a warm, soft voice said, “Do not be afraid, Victoria, I have been waiting for you. I will not harm you.”
Victoria was mesmerized. Transforming to his human shape, Raka smiled, “I can see that you are a brave and a smart young woman. But you are being stifled by your father’s controlling agenda for you."
Her jaw dropped in amazement. How did this stranger know her? In an instant, she felt as if he could see right through her. Raka smiled to himself.
Raka sensed her vulnerability and knew she needed him to find her real power—which was considerable. “Believe me, I can help you achieve the things of which you dream.” This was too strange. But it was also intriguing. She did not know what to do. At first. But she had stayed to listen.
Over the next several years, Raka had guided her development, building on her frustrations and displeasure with her father’s plans and step by step, corrupting her to his dark ways.
Then her father died, and it was just her and her brother. For a while. Her father had wanted her to fulfill his vision of having a husband to rescue her; a concept she did not share in the slightest. The lord of the manor would have been aghast to learn how she applied the skill she had acquired thanks to his shooting lessons. Such a pity that her brother had died in a freak hunting accident. Even odder that the bullet that killed him had gone through his back and straight to his heart. Following his funeral, the Countess declared herself a lady of the castle.
The Countess brought herself back to the present. She saw a similar conflict within Werner. She smiled and replied to his question, “I invited you here to help me steal back what is mine.”
At Werner’s puzzled look, she continued. “Raka told me your friend has my compass. My father traded it and other jewels some years ago when he needed money to install electric lighting in our home."
Her porcelain face reddened, and her nostrils flared. “My father had no right to take it from me. It is mine!
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