Content warning: Nudity and sexual innuendo
The Di Grisogno dell Aquila’s old winery in France, early autumn…
It’s under a drizzling rain that the newlyweds return to Champs-sur-Sauloise from their extended honeymoon in Bora Bora.
Shasta looks up at the forbidding building from under the umbrella Leonardo so attentively holds for her. She can’t wait for him to take her to sunny Tuscany.
‘Wait.’ He searches for the keys in his pockets. ‘Mustn’t bring misfortune over us by tripping on the threshold!’ He scoops a surprised Shasta up in his arms. The gesture is supposed to be romantic, but he buckles under her weight when he carries her over the threshold for good luck. Relieved he lets go of her as soon as they have crossed the doorstep.
‘Welcome home, amore mio,’ he says a little out of breath and Shasta is not a little offended. She works hard to stay slim. Alexander Liebersturm had carried her like she was almost weightless. So had Magnus. It must be because he is old, she deducts, straightening out her red LK Bennett. She watches Leonardo light the candles on the wall and looks around the poorly lit room.
The house is cold and damp and all the furniture is covered in white drapes. Leonardo gets a fire going, while heads upstairs to powder her nose. She’s soon back downstairs again.
‘Where is the staff?’
‘Yearly vacation. I thought we could play house for a couple of days.’
‘Play house? You mean, I’ll have to clean and cook?’
‘Of course not. Jean has made sure the kitchen is stocked with food ready to microwave… And there are restaurants just a few kilometers from here.’ He dries his hands on his trousers and picks up the umbrella by the door.
‘Why don’t you put away the sheets while I get our weekend bags in the car?’ He doesn’t wait for an answer, and what could she say anyway? No?
Shasta already regrets the carefree days sipping Pina Coladas in the shadow of a palm tree, the soft shush of the waves being the only noise. She had loved the luxury of the hotel where the personnel seemed to attend to her every wish before she even knew she needed something.
Irritated with herself for letting Leonardo so easily talk her into pay a visit in France before going to his ancestral home in Monte Aquila, she starts pulling off the white sheets covering the furniture and sculptures. She can’t wait to start decorating the austere building. There is potential, and they could always knock out some walls if needed.
Leonardo is soon back. He lets go of the dripping suitcases right inside the door and rubbing his hands walks over to the custom-made old gramophone cabinet that hides a sophisticated sound system. Barry Manilow’s smooth voice fills the large room.
‘May I have this dance?’ He pulls her into his arms.
Shasta can’t deny him this pleasure, especially as he’s a wonderful dancer. She holds him at arm’s length, protesting lamely, ‘Just one – I’m terribly hungry.’
She lets him pull her closer, trying to forget how annoyed she is that the staff weren’t there to greet them and take care of the luggage – and everything else. But at the same time it will be easier to put her plan in motion if there is no snooping Butler.
After a light supper, Shasta retires to take a bath. A needs a long, hot bath to get warm. Leonardo wasn’t sure there would be hot water, as the mansion has stood empty for almost a month. She hates the plumbing in these old mansions but she’s lucky. There is enough warm water to fill the antique tub. She empties a bottle of expensive bubbles into the water and with a sigh she starts reading Marie Claire Décoration. Everything about the old winery seem different compared to the single night she had spent here. If she had known about the defective plumbing and the lack of furniture… The magazine overflows with expensive redoing’s of old mansions, giving Shasta tons of ideas to redo her winery. Why hasn’t Leonardo just payed to get it done before? she asks herself. He sure has enough money. Just seeing how much he tipped the hotel personnel, the waiters and the guides during their honeymoon, showed it to her beyond doubt.
While Shasta is soaking in the tub, Leonardo gets a fire going in the bedroom to chase the autumn cold and humidity. He shaves and takes a quick shower in the guest bathroom, letting his wife linger in the bath. He puts his socks back on, the tiled floor is horribly cold, before settling on the bed with a book.
The authentic plumbing has decided to shorten her pleasure. With an ominous gurgling it starts sputtering out rusty, disgusting water. Shasta jumps out of the tub, sliding on the cold floor and grabbing a towel.
Using a language definitely not fitting for a Contessa, she towels off. To top it all, she’s overcome by nausea.
She lingers a moment on the floor, seeking comfort in the cool porcelain, but is called back to reality by her husband who is getting impatient next door. She had hoped he had fallen asleep by now exhausted after the long drive from the airport. She certainly is drained.
‘Is everything all right, cara mia?’ he enquires, caring. Maybe a little too caring. Since their pagan wedding night, he has shown an unsuspicious ardor for a man his age. She assumes all Italian men are like him – seductive, romantic and skilled… Leonardo is very experienced – she doesn’t want to linger on where he has got that from – attending to her every need, desperately trying to pleasure her. She should be blissfully happy if the act wasn’t so… so repugnant. Sex has always only been a means to an end to Shasta, and even Leonardo’s expert lovemaking can’t warm her up. She’s not sure she can go through with this right now, even if she knows he’ll fall asleep like a log afterwards.
‘Si. Va bene,’ she answers in Italian, knowing he approves when she uses his language. Becoming a Contessa is not easy and learning Italian is part of what is required, but it is extremely difficult for lazy Shasta, who is used to get what she wants using her good looks to get her way. She has never really liked sex, though, and usually rapidly loses interest. It might be that Taïga’s father set the stakes to high – she compares everyone to him.
Shasta takes her time getting ready for bed. Studying her face, she meticulously tracks the telltale signs of time. She’s lucky to have such a perfect complexion, there aren’t many lines or wrinkles. Finally, she can’t put it off any longer. She has to join her husband, hoping that he has given up waiting and fallen to sleep.
Maybe her husband will leave her alone when he learns that she is pregnant. At least she hopes he will. She washes out her mouth with some mouthwash and pinches back some color to her pale cheeks before pushing the door to their bedroom.
Unfortunately for Shasta, he’s not asleep.
‘Carina, mi amore. Come to bed!’ Leonardo puts down the book he was reading and looks her over. ‘Get rid of the towel, cara. What took you so long? Was there no hot water?’
Shasta drags her feet, approaching the bed. ‘Leonardo, I’m so tired.’
‘No capisco, carina. I don’t understand. Sei sempre stanco… You’re always tired lately.’
‘The journey wore me out…’
‘But you slept the whole way on the plane! And in the car on the way here, too.’
‘I haven’t felt well for a couple of days…’ she tries but Leonardo doesn’t want to listen anymore. For a man his age, he’s certainly vigorous – she is his wife and he wants her.
‘It’s all right, mi amore… You’ll feel better dopo che avremo fatto l’amore (after we make love).’ He tugs at her towel, admiring her lithe body. ‘Brava ragazza…’ he murmurs, caressing her full breasts.
‘Ouch… Leonardo! You hurt me…’ she protests, taking his hands off her swollen breasts.
‘Shhh…’ He silences her with a kiss, not caring about her obvious lack of enthusiasm.
At last her husband falls asleep. Shasta lies by his side listening to his light snoring. She must find a way to tell him about Taïga. She has started to several times, but something has always gotten in the way. Now it becomes urgent to share her secrets with him. Her health is at stake, after all. If she is to believe her mother, it is even a matter of life and death. Her hand lingers on her still flat stomach. It won’t take long before it shows, though.
But before she drops the bomb about having a daughter, she must be sure about being pregnant… Slowly she counts to 500. When she is sure he is sleeping, she slips out of bed. Tiptoeing into the bathroom, she grabs her robe and continues out onto the landing.
Where is she supposed to start? She stops to put on her slippers after silently closing the door behind her. The flooring is in marble and incredibly cold. She looks around her, trying to get her bearings in the dark. She thinks she has a relatively good idea of the layout of the old mansion, but without a real map it might take some time to find what she has been looking for ever since Leonardo took her to the mysterious underground stele.
Closing her eyes, she pictures the mansion, trying to remember what it looked like last summer. Their bedroom is on the second floor, in the right wing. Or is it the left? Whatever. The part of the house that intrigues her is in the opposite wing…
After erring in the numerous corridors, checking out several empty rooms, passing through some of them and even stumbling on Jean the Butler’s den, she emerges on one of the balconies. It stretches the length of the north wall, and offers a view over the backside of the manor.
Shasta leans out to verify if the roof belongs to the outbuilding they emerged from after the labyrinth, but she can’t be sure as the rain soon forces her back indoors again.
Finally she discovers a dark staircase that seems to lead in the right direction.
She can hardly see the top of the staircase, the wooden steps disappear into the darkness. Could what she’s searching for be up there?
There’s only one way to find out. She gets moving before she can talk herself out of it.
After yet another flight of stairs she seems to have arrived as far up as she can get. She must be in the attic, if old manors like this one have an attic. The old floorboards creak under her feet. She holds her breath, listening…
She pushes open the only door on top of the stairs. An enormous empty room with just some rusty medieval armor and an enormous bookcase against the far wall.
She peeks around the corner of the doorway, hesitating. Should she go back? She is not even sure any more about how to find the bedroom and her intuition tells her she is close… The extravagant winged golden armor in the middle intrigues her. It seems to be made for a woman from a Conan movie or some sort of video game. Maybe this is the place after all.
A little shakily, she lights a gas lamp on the wall, but the faint light can’t do much more than chase the shadows into the corners. She takes a closer look at the armors on display along the wall. When they say medieval people were short, they must have forgotten to mention the giants wearing this heavy war gear. The swords are almost her size and must surely weigh as much.
The hair on her arms and neck prickles. She is feeling watched, and slowly she raises her head and stares into the dark space where the knight’s eyes should be, expecting the armor to have come alive. But there is nothing to be seen.
She shrugs off the creepy feeling. It must be the flickering light playing games with her, not to mention the general atmosphere. She can hear the rain splatter on the roof, and the old wood snapping and cracking softly.
She studies the bookcase. The books seem real enough, but why leave such a treasure up here in the dank atmosphere. Could it be a secret door? If it is, there must be a lock mechanism somewhere…
Shasta is not very patient, and when she after a few minutes of pulling and pushing on books she still hasn’t found the opening mechanism, she backs away with her hands on her hips.
‘I bet you know how to get in here, don’t you?’ She glares at the silent armors. ‘Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe it’s just an ordinary bookcase and nothing else?’ But deep down, she knows that it isn’t.
‘And darn it! If I could just push this bloody bookcase through the wall!’ she exclaims, exasperated, slamming her fist into a worn red example of Alexandre Dumas’ The three Musketeers.
With a raspy, hollow sound the bookcase slides open a few inches. Shasta backs away, surprised by the fierce light sipping through the tight opening.
She stumbles on her robe, falling heavily on her bum, but she doesn’t feel the pain. In awe she watches how the faint crack grows larger.
Still without leaving the bookcase with her eyes, she stumbles to her feet. A fierce golden light takes on the form of a doorway, but Shasta can still see the outlines of the books in the background.
What is this?
She steps forward, letting the warm glow fall on her like rain. She opens her hands, touching the rays. It feels like touching water. Or silk. The rays are alive. Caressing. Warming. Beckoning.
Without hesitating, Shasta steps into the light.
Blinded, she stops, covering her hurting eyes with her hands. Where is she? It is dark and damp, and the smattering rain on the rooftop is replaced by an uncanny silence. Her eyes acclimate to the dark, showing her she’s standing in some sort of anteroom.
It had not taken long for Shasta to understand who was buried in the old winery’s basement. One of the favorite stories circulating amongst witches is the Legend of the White Witch after all, a tale as widespread as Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella. The labyrinth and the stele pointing to the Grimoire of all Grimoires, the spell book that would only show itself to the chosen witch, a direct descendant, issued from a pure bloodline. A witch who was not yet born, but would be the queen of all witches, more powerful than Lady Ravendancer herself.
Just as she remembers from her childhood bedtime stories, there are three archways in front of her. The one to the right is lit up by moonlight and will bring her to the eerie plains of the damned. The one in the middle is pitch dark, and even if you have no notion about the legend of the White Witch, you would know that that kind of darkness never brings any good.
Shasta knows the tale, so she staggers forward towards the left archway, where the light is flickering in the specter of the rainbow.
She stops in awe at the beauty of what is taking place in the high ceilinged room overlooking the forest. Even if she had heard about the rainbow birth, witnessing the spell book materialize out of thin air in the whirling light takes her breath away.
The multicolored light gives way to a slight haze and Shasta realizes she is in truth looking at Lady Ravendancer’s famous grimoire. The grimoire of all grimoires. The master’s most secret and powerful spells, written down in her own blood. And she, Shasta Grey, is the one it had chosen to reveal itself to.
‘Oh. My. God. I found it… I finally found it!’ She laughs nervously. ‘So I must be standing right over the gravestone, it was pointing towards the spell book all the time… All I had to do was getting married to access it…’
Slowly, as if any brusque movement would make it disappear, she advances towards the lectern.
What does it say? She frowns. She can’t read the old script. Now that doesn’t make sense. She found it. She is the chosen one. So why can’t she read it?
‘Oh, forget it,’ she mutters under her breath. ‘Let’s get down to business. I’ll take it with me and get some help to figure all this out later… A trained witch or not – soon I’ll be the most powerful witch among them all…’
Her heart racing wildly, she reaches out to pick it up.
As soon as her fingers reverently touch the yellowing pages, she is struck by lightning. The pink beam of electricity lifts her violently off her feet then forces her down onto her knees. Too late she remembers the warning written in runes.
She has trespassed.
She will die.
Whispering voices mix with the sizzling of electricity. ‘She’s not the one. She’s not the one. She’sShe’sShe’snottheoneoneone…Kill her!’
‘The baby…’ she whispers, her eyes rolling backward as the lightning intensifies, becoming a red-hot beam transpiercing her.
The glowing light withdraws, as if confused, but it is too late.
Void of her life force, Shasta falls forward headfirst onto the floor. A whirlwind starts spinning around the lectern holding the spell book.
Faster and faster it spins, until a little glowing light detaches itself and hovers over Shasta’s head.
Sparkling, it intensifies as the whirlwind spins even faster until it climaxes, exploding into a blinding light.
Left is only the whirlwind, spinning towards Shasta’s inert body.
Like a puppet, she is hoisted to her knees. For a few seconds, she hovers in the air, the whirlwind spinning around her so fast it looks like a golden cocoon.
Then nothing. Left is only an empty room, the high windows overlooking the starlit autumn landscape, 65 feet below…
The first light of dawn finds Leonardo is up and about. It is already 8:30 and he has some numbers to go through before the working day is over in Beijing. He realizes he must have left his cell in the car last night. Bringing the necessary documents, he hurries downstairs, only to stumble on his wife peacefully sleeping on the couch in the living room and literally on her bag, scattering her things all over the floor. He rapidly scoops everything up with one hand, smiling at the typically feminine things. Suddenly his smile freezes. What is this? But he already knows the answer. A pregnancy test. Not yet opened, but the fact that she has bought one implies that she might be with child. He puts the test back into her bag with trembling fingers.
He stands uncertain for a moment before putting down the business folders he is supposed to go through on the mantelpiece, the table being too cluttered. They never bothered to clean up after last night’s hasty dinner, the ashtray is overflowing and an upturned glass of wine is spilling its sticky content over the mahogany table, forever ruining it.
She shouldn’t be drinking. It can’t be good for the baby. His baby. His firstborn son… Or daughter. The successor to the title… But his father has made a promise Leonardo never thought much about, a promise he now realizes he doesn’t care much to keep.
He sits for a while, watching his wife. She looks stunning, as usual. But what is that smell? He approaches, sniffing the air. Burnt hair? He touches her hair lightly, seeing the burnt tips. Is that why she slept on the couch? The fire had gone out in the bedroom this morning, maybe she went downstairs where there still were logs available for the fire. He must tell her to be more careful…
He picks up a pillow that has fallen to the floor and puts it under her head. By doing so, he discovers her iPad that had been hidden beneath it. He picks it up, ready to put it into her bag when he changes his mind and brings it into the dining room, where the Moondial is.
While Shasta is still serenely sleeping on the couch, Leonardo consults the Moon Phases, calculating.
Summer solstice was in June… Hmm… I’m sure it worked, the pregnancy test will confirm it… But why hasn’t she said anything? Maybe there is something on her iPad…
And that is how Leonardo discovers that he is already if not a father, a stepfather.
Part I – End of Chapter 16