Mina knelt before the altar of the deserted church. Both she and Jonathan had belonged to the Church of England, but these days it seemed like only the searing pain of consecrated objects could make her feel like she was in any way in the presence of God. Or that she was repenting, something that she had found ridiculous before now, but these days felt as though she needed desperately.
And so she came to the small, dusty church which was nearly always empty except for on Sunday mass, and knelt before the altar, sometimes praying, sometimes merely reflecting, until there was no priest around to see her reach out and touch any of the consecrated objects in the room and hear the sizzle of burnt flesh.
For perhaps the red mark had disappeared from her forehead when they destroyed the Count, but his blood still flowed in her veins, and in some ways, his curse was still upon her.
She would never let Jonathan know that, never. It would destroy him. She could remember his joy as the mark disappeared from her forehead, the way he looked happier than he had for months. He had put his arms around her and kissed her, and she had kissed him back, ignoring the desire to bite into the skin of his neck until his blood flowed. She knew in her heart that it wasn't over, not for her, but she said nothing and tried to cling to the hope that it was merely her imagination.
But when, a few days later, she put on a crucifix and nearly screamed at the burning pain it caused, she couldn't pretend to herself anymore. She looked in the mirror at the ugly red mark on her chest and started to cry, putting her head in her head so that her sobs were muffled, so that Jonathan wouldn't come in from the other room and see the damning evidence. After some time, she put a scarf on to hide the burn, and went about her day as though there was nothing wrong. For Jonathan couldn't ever know that.
And so she began coming to the church, hoping that the hours spent kneeling on the stone might atone for that one sin which she knew could be enough to damn her, even though it was one she never wished to commit.
Jonathan hardly wondered at her new piety, for neither of them questioned anything the other did anymore. They both understood that there were things they had to do in order to remain sane, and to question those things could lead to far more trouble than it was worth. And, of course, she was careful to hide the burn marks, make them always in places easily hidden by clothing, and it became natural to wear scarves or shawls, and to calculate how long it would be till a burn faded, as they eventually did.
But this time was different, for she was pregnant.
She hadn't told Jonathan yet. He would be overjoyed, she knew that. She had known how much he wanted children since they were young, and if perhaps she was not quite as excited about it as he was, it had always been a happy prospect. But now she wasn't so sure.
It was an overwhelming fear of hers that her child would inherit the cursed blood that now ran through her veins, and be forever burned by holy objects, and perhaps damned from birth, with no chance of redemption.
That also would mean, though she would never admit it even to herself, that the child was as much the Count's as it was Jonathan's. And she would not give birth to the Count's child.
And so she had come here to repent a final time in hopes that she could save her child.
Before it had always been slight burns, touching the crucifix with the tip of her finger, pressing the inside of her wrist against the Host for an instant, little things, insignificant, minor penance, such as saying twenty "Hail Marys". That hadn't been enough before, and it wouldn't be enough now.
Some would call what she intended to do blasphemy, but what did that matter if her every movement was blasphemous?
She pressed the palm of her hand against the crucifix lying on the altar, gasping at the pain and biting her tongue so that she didn't cry out. The urge to pull away from the searing pain was great, but she kept her hand pressed to the metal for several excruciating seconds before finally pulling it away and staring at the ugly seared flesh there, like a brand of her shame.
She didn't muse on that thought for long before taking up the vial of holy water, pulling the cork out before she had time to rethink this and poured it out over her upturned face, lifted to Heaven.
This was almost more painful than the immediate pain of the crucifix, for the holy water fell slowly from the bottle, one drop at a time, each drop causing a new burn as she tried not to wince, not to turn away from the flow of painful redemption.
The bottle was eventually empty, and she let it fall to the floor, heedless of whether it broke or not. She knew her face was covered with small burns, but what did vanity matter? This time she didn't even consider the fact that now it would be impossible for her to conceal this from Jonathan.
There were a few wafers of the Host there on the altar (she didn't know whether that was normal or not, for she had never been raised in this faith), and she picked one up, ignoring the burning it caused on her fingertips, for by then such pain was becoming almost natural to her, whether or not that had been that aim of this entire thing. Against the pain she crumbled it in her fingers, letting it fall on her neck and shoulders and down her arms, the crumbs of it falling into her dress and becoming lodged in her sleeves and continuing to burn her there.
She was crying by that time, the dear running over the burns on her face, her face still uplifted as she begged Heaven wordlessly to release her from this curse.
But Heaven had no answer, and the burns still hurt and the shape of the cross was still branded into her palm, that mark of shame.
She wasn't worthy to gaze up at the high ceiling, at the beams of sunlight coming in front the skylight. And her child, by no fault of their own, would not be worthy for that either.
Her body still aching with the many burns that now covered it, Mina fell to her knees before the altar, her head pressed against the stone floor, humbled as the Count would have made her, the words ringing her mind.