Viola awoke well before the first bells. She could barely restrain her excitement.
Today was the day.
She couldn’t help herself. The young woman leapt out of her bed, and gave a small cheer. Today was the day! Viola danced in her nightgown, pirouetted across the silk rugs, and was reclined in the chair before her maid burst through the door.
“Countess! I heard a noise and…” The maid stopped, and turned away. It was unseemly, seeing her lady in such undress.
Viola laughed, a rich tone, and stood up. “I’m not Countess just yet, Bettie.” And still consumed with elation, she leaped into Bettie’s arms. “But I will be!” She shouted.
Viola Konstantin turned to her balcony overlooking the Konstantin Valley. “I will be the Countess!” She shouted to the rising sun, to the verdant trees. To anything and anyone that would hear.
“Countess!” Bettie looked about to faint. The maid had served the Konstantin counts for forty-nine years. Before Viola, she would have sworn that she had seen it all. All of the counts before this latest had been reserved, confident. Not a girl wrapped up in giddy exuberance.
The Count of Konstantin Valley was not supposed to be giddy, or gay, or exuberant. And yet, here was the next ruler of the valley and the lands beyond, dancing in her nightgown with a few short hours before her coronation.
“Oh, go on, Bettie.” Viola shoved the maid back out the door. “I am going to take a bath, and then I will be dressed and prepared for the hairdresser. Go. Go!”
The bath was hot, almost excessively so. The fire spells needed some fine tuning. Viola made a mental note to have the new court mages examine their spells, and perhaps refine them. A countess with constant heat flush would not due.
As she soaked in the bath, she thought about her father. He had tried to master magic as it appeared in the last decades. It had consumed him, quite literally. Vlad Konstantin had never had the temperament of both patience and subtlety that was needed for magic. And now Viola was lord of the valley sooner than any expected.
She stood up, and walked over to the hanging mirror. Viola examined her pale skin for any blemishes. She had kept fit, slim and attractive while hiding her strength. Her black hair would soon be piled into the latest fashionable curls.
And violet eyes. Eyes that were different than any in the valley. They marked her as ruler, descendant of the one true count. They had softened from their mirth, just staring out.
Viola sighed, and mustered up one more smile. She couldn’t be jovial, or giddy, or fun for a long while. It would only be on command, for matters of state and celebration. The only time she’d be allowed to feel good for herself would be in the dark recesses of her own room. Even that was suspect.
But she had done it. She had survived. She was about to become countess.
The hairdresser rushed the job. The ceremony was supposed to be right after dawn, and Viola wanted to get straight into work before the necessary celebration that evening. His hands shook a bit as he ran through the motions, but that was to be expected. Viola knew she was going to be poked and prodded for the rest of her life.
She was also a mystery for much of the court. Vlad Konstantin had always wanted a son to carry on the Count legacy. Not that his daughter couldn’t have done it. Any child of the count was better than any five other mortals. But she was better as a possible bride rather than a ruler. Virgin brides were all the more desirable. So Viola Konstantin received the best education, the best training, the most intensive studies, all while never setting foot outside the manor grounds.
Viola really was looking forward to inspecting all the lands thoroughly. She thought about it as she strode towards the main hall. A small retinue, all on horseback. Every home gets visited, not invaded like a conquering hero. And gifts, there had to be gifts for each home. She needed to talk with the tax collectors, make a list of ideas for these gifts. Add a personal touch.
The Konstantins built the manse with dramatic undertones. The living quarters for the family were positioned behind the main hall, even set up the doors so as to appear at the great chair as if out of thin air. To enter from the large double doors like the rest of the world, she would have had to go through the kitchens and servant quarters underneath the hall. Still, the elders thought of it as tradition. Humility, putting oneself before the mercy of the people.
Viola didn’t have time for tradition.
She left no doubt that she was in the hall. The new countess slammed the door open, and strode forth. The men that made up her late father’s council turned around, alarmed. Landowners, each at least twice her age. Grizzeled, gray, and momentarily stunned. Perfect.
Viola made a long, circuitous route to the throne. Everything was planned, and worked just as she had practiced before.
And her attire only added to the performance. She knew her dress flared around her bare feet just right. Yes, bare. Let her have some measure of comfort, and mobility for true dance. The dress was velvet, burgundy. A golden clasp around her throat denoted her station. Aqua marine earrings brought the notice to her eyes, narrowed and confident.
She took each person in in turn. The elders were all seated, just beneath the chair. They looked out at the fifty or so courtiers that hoped to curry some favor with the new lady. Each and every one of them only had eyes for Viola, though. She reveled in it.
Countess Viola seated herself at her father’s throne. No, no longer. Her throne. She allowed herself a small smirk, and turned to the elders.
“Let us conduct business.”
One of the men stood. Nalus, one of her father’s more ardent supporters. “Viola, we have yet to swear you in…”
“Why should you?” She asked it softly. Every word had to be perfect. Not just the right words, but the right intonation. She was the first countess, and her father would be rolling in his grave at the thought. If he had a grave.
The treasurer Callovin stood up. “It is tradition that the Count of Konstantin valley…”
“Countess,” She said. “I am the countess. There is no Count of Konstantin Valley, until I desire it.”
“Tradition…” There he was, going on about tradition. If they were going to hold on to tradition, why was Viola even sitting on the throne? Women didn’t rule in the Baltics. She should just go back to her bed, hike up her skirts, and wait for whatever stag the elders chose to be their puppet.
“Tradition maintains that the elders consider all the Konstantins and advise the family which would be most suited to rule after the passing of the current ruler.” Viola clarified. “Did my father have any siblings?”
The elders squirmed in their seats. “No.”
“And as far as I know, I am an only child,” Viola said. “Is that correct?”
The looks on their faces was all the confirmation she needed. She stood up, and bowed.
“I apologize, dear elders. To all my subjects. This is a new time, for all of us. Our great ruler, Vlad the Hunter, has passed on. To even consider that I could ever replace him is laughable. But as his daughter, I am duty-bound to be a ruler, and a just one at this.”
Lies? The court turned to the back of the room. Who dared interrupt her? Who would even challenge this, today?
The men stood in the back, right up against the great doors. Eight of them, all dressed in black. All armed with swords and crossbows. Viola hadn’t even heard them draw weapons. She’d need to train the guards.
“No, don’t!” A crossbowmen pointed the bolt straight at the guards. “Don’t move!” he barked.
One of the swordsmen stepped forward. Masked, his glare could still be seen by Viola. “Lies, that is what your reign would be built on.”
Viola leaned against Nalus’ chair. “And you are?” coy, play coy. Play yourself off. She still had that option. People only saw her as someone stretching too far. Set on that.
“A man. Not a slave of the Konstantins. But a citizen of Estonia!” He shouted.
“This land, all the way to the northern sea.” The masked man smiled. “You have been remiss in your studies, young lady.”
Of course she knew this was Estonia. It used to be. It was another failed state after the folly of man. Her history courses, pah! Anyone who listened at Remembrance Day knew about Estonia.
“And Estonia is a democracy,” He pointed his sword straight at Viola. “Not ruled by stupid little girls.”
She was going to find a way to kill him.
Play stupid. Just play it stupid. This was going to go to violence, but perhaps the court could be an asset. “Estonia? I think that is mentioned on Remembrance Day. Isn’t that what used to be?”
“It shall be again!” One of the crossbowmen shouted. Fanatics, damn it. “We are free men, not ruled by the will of another.”
Viola pouted. “But, my father ruled these lands. And his father before him, and so on for…centuries.”
“All based on a lie. The Konstantins ruled on the claim that they are descended from Alexsander Konstant…”
“A great man.” Viola said. “A leader, who brokered peace in the region and set up our valley free from any oppression.”
“Except yours!” The swordsman thundered. “Konstant stole these lands.”
“Stole?” Viola said. “From who?”
“The people?” Viola looked at each of the men in turn. “You men tell me your forefathers had their goods taken from them?”
The rebels behind the masked man faltered. “Not exactly,” one of the others said. “But we could have been so much more if…”
“If what?” Viola asked. “If Alexsander had not fought? If he had not killed thirty soldiers in a single night?”
She stepped forward. Off the dais, to their level. The nobles stepped back. If the rebels attacked, they could be caught in between.
“Alexsander Konstant spent the day after the fall in war. For years unending, with sword ever by his side or in his hand. He carved the valley out from any who chose to run reckless. His son, Piotr, built the first walls around the Valley, and laid the foundation of this manse with the help of the people. It wasn’t until Alexsander’s grandson, Ilya the Wise, that the people bestowed the title of Count upon the family now known as Konstantin.”
Viola narrowed her eyes. “Meanwhile your family, Gregor Petrovich, sat in filth while my ancestors watered the valley with their blood, in defense of these peoples. You wish to rule over us?”
“We wish to give the people back their power!” He shouted.
Viola stared ahead at him. A patriot. Anarchist. She hated the very sight of him. She thanked her father for his lessons in politics. Every night he had shown pictures of all his allies and enemies to her. She was beaten if she was unable to name them and describe their allegiance to the Konstantins.
“Good.” She muttered.
She lifter her voice. “We shall let the hordes in. I shall turn back our soldiers myself,” she nodded to the elders. “Disband the army.”
“We won?” One of them asked.
“No,” Gregor said. “It’s a trick.”
“There is no trick,” Viola removed the clasp from her throat. She started undoing her earrings. “We rule by the consent of the governed. We collect taxes so that when winter comes there is fire to keep the wolves at bay. We stand upon the walls so that the farmers can grow the food we survive on.”
It was not enough. She knew this. Democracy was too seductive, too inviting for those who already had a taste for power.
She sighed. “I do not wish to give up this throne. It was held by my father, a hard man. He wished to expand, to build upon our progress and give new wealth to the people. He died before his dream was realized. I was taught all he knew, so as to be the best ruler the land needed.”
Viola frowned. “I am trained. I have the throne, and the blood of Alexsander Konstant in my veins. And beyond that, Vlad Konstantin named me his heir. And on the day of my coronation a rabble bursts into my father’s hall to deny the people the best candidate for rule.”
She held the clasp high. “No. I will not relinquish this throne.”
She pointed with her free hand. “Kill them.”
They fought well. Two guards were killed before anyone could move. And they had magic. Gregor himself had it, the bastard. A wave of his sword sent flames high up into the air.
“Democracy shall not be denied!” He shouted. The flames shot forth, licking at Viola’s dress. She ignored it.
“Democracy is a tool for those with power to fool those who don’t. It pretends all have a voice. I will not pretend.”
A rebel gurgled as his throat was cut. The elders rushed forward, swords in hand. Nalus cut down two more men. Viola had to give credit to them. While they may not have approved of a woman, they hated rebellion all the more.
Gregor swept his hand forward. Callovin screamed, flames consuming him. The rebel leader moved towards Viola. His eyes were alight in fury. The sounds of his men being cut down made his glare all the more venomous.
“Are you going to speak?” He demanded. “Throw down our weapons, you will spare our lives?”
“No,” Viola said. “None of you shall leave this room alive.”
Gregor laughed. “Nalus is to be our executioner?”
“For those who are naïve enough to surrender, yes.” Viola pointed at Gregor. “You I shall kill myself.”
Gregor raised his sword. “I am going to enjoy this.”
He rushed at her.
Viola clenched her hand into a fist. And released her grip. “Freeze.”
Ice poured out of her outstretched hand. Gregor dropped his sword, and threw his hands up. Flames tried to beat the frost away in vain. His fingers were the first to freeze, blackening before icicles started to crawl down his hands. Any attempt to beat them away just spread the cold.
Gregor dropped to the ground, screaming. He tried to call up fire, but there was no heat to speak of. His body blackened, and chipped in several places. In seconds Gregor was frozen to the floor.
Viola stared down at the corpse. Nalus moved next to her. He knelt, and tried to pry the mask off the face. It shattered, pieces scattering across the floor. The elder nodded.
“That’s Gregor. Idiot never liked your family, Countess.”
Viola could feel the gazes of the court on her. She turned, and walked back to her throne. She sat, and did not allow herself even a shiver. She thought on the next portion, and nodded.
“There are many who will question my decisions in the coming years. Discussion and reasoned advice will always be welcome in my hall. Vigorous debate may even turn violent, and we have duels for such purpose. I invite all such methods.
“But if any question my ability to rule. If any question my right to rule, you have but one option. Pick up Gregor’s sword. None shall stand between your hand and mine.”
Viola stood up and glared at the court, then the elders still scattered amongst them.
An entire court kneeling before her was to be a rarity. There were far better things to do with their time. But to see all these fools, who once called her child, princess, nobody, kneel before her, well. It was a satisfaction that she would carry for many years.
Viola nodded to the court. “Someone remove the refuse from my hall. I will speak with their families tomorrow to determine whether or not there are any colluders left to speak with.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Court is adjourned.”
Elders were usually allowed more access to the lord of the manse. Most decided against it. A few guards picked the remains up, and carried them away. Soon only Nalus remained with the new Countess.
Viola ignored him. Callovin’s ashen corpse could not be properly removed, and one of the rebels had bled all over the wooden floor. She moved to the far corner. The servants always kept some rags secreted away in case of a spill. Most of the time the spill was wine, though.
She started to sop up the blood. Nalus watched all of this, and nodded.
“Impressive display of power,” He said.
Viola nodded. None had known of her abilities with magic. Even her father had not known. She had trained in secret, poring over new books for a subject all had only recently realized existed.
“Strange. Your father never exhibited such power.”
“My father had other power,” She said.
“He had a heavy hand,” Nalus agreed. “And wasn’t afraid to use it. On anyone.”
“Servant, peasant.” She laughed. “I think he beat you once or twice, Nalus.”
“None were safe. Be it guardsmen, lover…daughter.”
Viola stood. She had a bloody rag now, and realized she had not a clue where to put it. “Vlad Konstantin was a hard man. Maybe harder than he needed to be.”
Nalus nodded. “Not everyone agreed with his methods.”
“You did.” Viola said. “More than most.”
Nalus stared at the young woman. Viola had seen him, back then. Seen his eyes turn away just before Vlad’s hand would come down. Sometimes it was because her makeup was not good enough. Sometimes her studies weren’t progressing enough. Sometimes it was because he was a bastard. And Nalus just turned away.
“I will admit,” He finally said. “Your father’s death was the release of a burden for many. But the manner of relief…
“Freezing to death in early spring.” He said.
Viola’s eyes narrowed. “You have something to say, Nalus?”
“Just odd, Countess.” He said.
“There was a spring storm.” Viola said. “And he was away. I have never even left the grounds.”
Nalus nodded. “Impossible. Just like magic.” He bowed. “May I take my leave, my lady.”
Viola waved her hand. He turned away, and she thought better of it. “Oh, Nalus?”
He turned. She stuffed the rag into his hands.
“I believe you are the best to get rid of this,” She muttered. “You are so good at making messes disappear.”
His walk was stiffer the second time. Viola waited until the doors closed, and then walked to her room. She wanted to run, she wanted to collapse on her bed. No, there were eyes everywhere.
She merely sat in her room. Sent for a measure of wine. Considered how the rest of the day would go.
Perhaps the tax collectors. They would still be around. And one of them was to be promoted. She best start getting to know them all now.
Viola stepped back up to her balcony. The day was still bright, had barely even started.
She would make the most of it.
copyright 2017 Jack Holder