Princess of Penance
This vignette follows a splinter story from Xara's epic, Poison Rose, but you don't need to read PR to follow this story. The main characters of this short story are Stefan and Katija. Katija was the nanny Laura contacted in an attempt to see Nikolas -- which led to Lesley's "death". In Poison Rose, Laura looks her up since Katija is the only solid connection she has to the island. Katija is the niece of George Pappas (the man who died in Port Charles, back when Alexis wanted Stefan to think that Katherine Bell was Natasha.). Katija has been in exile in the Czech Republic for quite some time. As you will see, she has more than a passing connection to Stefan and Nikolas.
If you DID read Poison Rose, then this story begins in that no-man's land that exists between Lucky and Nikolas talking at Laura's hospital room, and the one-year jump to "everyone has gone crazy and come back."
It looks like this is a story that could be told in four parts, or less. This would be part one, but currently, it stands alone.
Part One: The Hollow Man
It ends just as it begins.
Katija straightens her back, stretching out the tired muscles, having been hunched over in the garden for the last several hours. The weeds had launched an attack in her absence, attempting to pull down the climbing vines, and overtake the root vegetables. They had been planting when she'd left. Now she has returned home at the height of the season, and finding that the extra work she left her older sister has only been haphazardly attended to.
This is unlike Andrea. She is the epitome of order. The overrun vegetable garden is a clear message of her disapproval of Katija's actions, of late. 'I will not be cleaning up your messes, sister dear. You're in this one by yourself.'
Katija tisks her tongue in irritation. As if she has ever been anything else. Andrea is seven years her senior and has judged every witnessed moment of her sister's life. She sees nothing wrong with the choices that match her own -- the ones that isolated Katija here, kept her tied to this farm house, and this makeshift community. Those she has never questioned. But the rest of them... The rest brand Katija in her eyes. Scarlet Woman. Scandalous and shamed. And she will never let her forget it.
Until very recently, Katija accepted this decree from her sister; her family. She had earned it, after all. But then Laura Spencer had appeared on her doorstep. And close behind had followed the Count. And words of forgiveness for past sins. Not only from his lips, but from the Prince Himself. The banishment was over. She was absolved. All that had been wasn't any longer. And Katija scarcely knew what to do with herself in the face of it.
So she had done the one thing she could think of. She'd come home. Left Greece again, this time with her reputation restored, and tried to return to the life that she'd left behind for those short months.
It ends just as it begins.
The house had been in mourning that night. The ache of loss was in the air. Floors moaned, walls sighed. Outside the winds screeched around the glass, and the waves pounded their temper tantrums on the cliff-face. In the East wing of the house, in the furthest room down the corridor, the child wailed.
He had undergone, at a few weeks of age, a violent change in disposition. A quiet baby, with black eyes, who stared unsteadily at the world around him, fussing only when in need, and never for long, had been replaced by this howling, enraged, uncooperative... Monster.
Katija didn't dare speak the word out loud, but she thought it as she paced the nursery. The child screeched against her shoulder, his cries vibrating through her already shaken body, as the guilt followed her dark thoughts quick and hard. Katija swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat. This was not a creature to abhor, but one to pity.
The news had come that evening with the return of the Count. He had intoned the scant details to the staff, bluntly informing them that the Prince was dead. His wife would not be returning to the island. Nikolas Stavrosovitch, only weeks into this world, was an orphan.
Katija's arms shook as they held the infant. Had been shaking, to varying degrees, since she'd received the news. It hadn't been what he'd said... Laura had been her friend, and she had prayed for her safe deliverance from this place. And though she would be whipped or worse to whisper it, she was relieved to hear of the Prince's demise. He was a drunken brute, truth be told. And Katija had feared that there was only a matter of time before she was ordered to his bed. Yes, his death had spared her, but she still shook. Shook at the expression on his brother's face. The emptiness of his eyes. She knew that she was gazing on a Hollow Man.
In her arms, the new Prince's cry escalated in volume and in pitch. Katija winced, her grip on him unsteady enough to cause her alarm, and turned towards the wet nurse.
"Try feeding him again," she thrust the baby at the woman. "He's not fed in hours."
The nurse tisked her tongue and took the child from his nanny. "Clumsy hands, careful, careful," she clucked, as she undid the buttons on her blouse. Katija's fists tightened at her side. She was notably underqualified for the exhaled position of Cassadine Nanny, and the nurse continually pressed that point with her.
"I've not slept more than a handful of hours the past few nights!" Katija protested. "He will not rest, he will not feed, and he will not give a moment's peace!" She threw up her hands. "He's scarcely HUMAN!"
"You hold your tongue, young one," the nurse snapped, pressing the still screaming child to her breast. "Watch who hears those blasphemous words, lest the roof come down on both our heads."
Katija ignored the other woman's scolding, and stared at the Prince, now sputtering and fusing against the woman's bosom. A chill ran down her spine.
"He knows," she spoke finally. The truth rang through her. "Look at him! Look how angry he is! He knows what happened."
"You're an overly romantic fool, Katija," the nurse righted the child in her arms. "And superstitious beyond your own good sense. Colic. It changes the disposition of the sweetest child, and this one was never very congenial."
Katija shook her head, feeling defensive on behalf of her demon-charge. "He was quiet and agreeable. He ate, he slept and he caused no one any worry."
"He's scarcely aware of his own existence, my dear. He can hardly be mourning the passing of a father he barely knew of."
In the nurse's arms, Nikolas choked out a cry that sounded suspiciously like a car engine warming up.
"He wants his mother." Katija breathed.
"Will you shut UP, child!" the nurse was getting impatient, "He's better off without her and we all know it. Now is hardly the time for you to start courting trouble."
Katija shuddered. "She was a shadow, I agree. But she was his mother."
"She was a selfish wench, and she's best off back in America if not in Hell!" Katija gasped at the nurse's words. The two women stared at each other; Katija in horror, and the nurse in indignation. The nurse broke the gaze, and turned her attention to the baby. Lying in her arms, Nikolas suddenly fell silent and stared up at the woman holding him. Katija was certain she saw the woman's body tense as the quiet of the room rang in her ears. "Eyes as black as coal," the nurse murmured.
"I'm going to call the Count," Katija backed away from the scene, thoroughly spooked.
"You'll do no such thing!"
Katija was already fleeing the room. "I dare you to stop me!"
She tore down the corridor as if the hounds of hell were on her heels. She couldn't explain what had just happened in that room, but the mixture of the nurse's condemnation of Laura, and baby's altogether unnatural behavior had set her every hair on end. She wanted nothing more than to get away from both of them. To set some sort of normalcy into that world. She had to bring the Count. Nikolas would be calmed by the presence of his uncle.
Stefan Cassadine, the younger brother of the dead Prince, was not an easy man to track at the best of times. He was never in his quarters, save for sleeping. He had a library in the West wing of the complex, but he didn't frequent that either. No, the Count was solitary, and as such, was never quick to be found. But Katija knew this time he would not be far. He would not wander tonight because of the child she'd just left. No other servant on the island knew that like she did. They weren't aware of what had passed between Laura and the Count. Not the way she was. She had been Laura's friend. She had seen and heard things no one else had.
Katija found her way out onto the terrace at the South side of the house and moved quickly to the stairs. She knew that she would locate the count in one of the gardens. How? She just knew. She knew more of him that he could possibly have imagined.
She was not surprised when she spotted him. He stood in the Wild Garden, his back to her, and his hand on a leaning tree, heavily curved towards the garden wall. His posture matched the tree -- bent and weighed down. Her heart leapt into her throat.
"Mr. Cassadine!" she blurted out the words before giving them any thought, and he started. She stepped back, immediately cowed. One simply did not sneak up on The Family. No matter how urgent the matter.
"Yes?" his head turned towards her, though she could not make out the features of his face in the dark.
"I..." she swallowed. "The Prince."
The whole body turned then. "Is something wrong with Nikolas?"
"He..." she took a timid step towards him. "He cries. He cries and he does not stop. The nurse is getting..." she stopped short of a sentence that would have most likely sentenced the nurse to an ugly fate. "We are at our wits end. He has been difficult since your departure, but now... Tonight. I'm scared."
He didn't speak for several heartbeats. "There is little I can do for him."
Katija took a step towards him. "Come see him."
The Count shook his head. "I would be of no use to him tonight."
She heard the pain in his voice then. Pain and... something else. Something else that she had heard in his brother's voice many times. Drink.
She had never spoken his given name before. Not to him. Had whispered it under her breath many times as she made up the bed in his quarters. Had spoken it secretly after he departed a room, leaving her alone. She had never suspected she'd have the gall to actually use it to his face. Her mouth went dry with the word on her tongue. "I.. I mean --"
He was staring at her. She could tell that, even in the dark. She awaited his reproach.
"She's not coming back, Katija." his voice was gruff. "Do you know what that means? Do you understand that you will be the closest thing he'll have to mother now?"
Her body began to quake. "Yes."
"Do you understand that you must give him what she cannot?" he was moving to her. "You must be the surrogate. The replacement. There is no one else."
Katija swallowed hard and nodded her head. She could feel every ion against her skin, every stir of wind and change of temperature around her.
"I will do my best."
He was close enough that she could smell the brandy on his breath. Feel the wet heat of it against her skin. But she still couldn't see his eyes. Just black pits where she knew they rested. Stefan reached out and grabbed her hand. He held it tightly, crushing her hand, his body leaning towards her.
"He's the last. He's the last Cassadine Prince. Nothing must happen to him."
She just shook her head. What could she say to that? He was a baby, he was helpless and abandoned. The nurse had been right about one thing... Laura wouldn't have been much of a mother to him. Not as a captive. Not as the wife of that beast.
"I'm sorry," she managed on a quick gasp.
He didn't move. Didn't release her. She wished to God she had some clue of what was going on inside of him.
"There is no reason to be."
"For Stavros." Another familiarity. She really was courting trouble. "And Laura."
"What --" his voice cut off quick, silenced, she could tell, by flooding emotions.
"She was your friend." Katija's voice shrank, but she held her ground. "She was my friend, too."
Again, he didn't speak. She stared into the dark shadows that hid his face, and waited. Waited for anything that might come.
His hand moved swiftly from her side, and up to her face. If pressed against her cheek just for a moment, before slipping behind her neck and pulling her roughly towards him. She let out a squeak of surprise, more than anything else, before his mouth collided with hers. And then she hung -- suspended by that moment, by the unexpected demand of his action. His mouth ground against hers, the hair on his face roughly scratched her skin. She raised both hands and grabbed his coat, holding on with closed fists.
Her aunt, Mama Pappas, had instructed her about this. About being called to a Cassadine bed. Be passive, she'd been taught. Be pliant, do not fight and do not whimper. Close your eyes unless told otherwise. It will all be over soon enough.
As Stefan Cassadine's mouth moved over hers, Katija knew that she was going to break those rules. Her heart was pounding in her chest with a ferocity she had never felt before in her life, and her blood moved as if it was close to a boil. She had wanted this. It had been the reason for her disgust with his brother -- with the idea of being his mistress. She hadn't wanted the Prince. She had wanted the second son. The wanderer. The quiet and inscrutable one. Had died a little in side every time she'd seen his eyes meet with his sister-in-law's. Had ached for even a silver of the attention he'd cast in that woman's direction.
He broke away from her, and Katija heard herself emit a short cry. He was trying to separate from her, to take himself away, but she still held fast to his jacket and his hands reached up and pried her from him.
"I'm... I am sorry. I..." He pushed her away from him. "I have lost myself."
"It's all right."
His voice was firm, determined. She could speculate about what he was thinking, but none of it mattered to her now. She pulled her wrists from his grip and reached up with boldness that was utterly inappropriate for a woman of her station. Her fingertips touched his hair lightly, then trailed along his jawbone.
"It is. It's all right," She told him.
She thought of sirens. Nymphs. Goddesses who lured men from their lives and loves, into darker places. He was thinking of her as one of those people now. And she didn't care.
His words -- if there were any -- were lost in a choking sob, and he sank to his knees in front of her. His arms reached out to her, and pulled her towards him. She stumbled on the path, but didn't fall. He pressed his face against the soft curve of her belly. Her hands found their way to his head, and stroked his hair as he cried against her. She could barely keep on her feet, though she fought mightily against the urge to sink to the ground with him. She was going to lose. She wasn't capable of following anything else but him. And he was infecting her. She could feel him entering her, his need, his pain and his desperation. Pulling her down. Overtaking everything that she thought she was. Making her into what he needed her to be.
She was the one who laid back in the grass. It was her hands that pulled his body to her, and brought his weight down on top of her. And though he ripped her dress, though he kissed her like he was trying to sink into her very skin, she knew that she was the one who was causing this to happen. If she had walked away, no consequence would have befallen her. He was not like the rest of The Family. He was... Stefan. The Dark Sheep in a family of growling panthers.
That was the night it all changed. Teenaged crush mutated into obsessive infatuation. Love, she'd called it, until she stopped being able to compare it to anything else she witnessed around her. Whatever it had been... and whatever it still was... It had claimed everything she'd had. Lead her to make decisions that took everything she had away from her. Destroyed her life. And not a day has passed when she hasn't wanted to make that mistake over again.
Katija looks down at the dirt she is kneeling in. It is hard and only barely fertile. It tears at her skin and dirties her hands. It stays with her even after she has scrubbed it off.
It ends just as it begins.