To say that there are differences between men and women is about as wit-filled as to remark on how different a dog is from a rose in bloom. And yet it happens so often that both receive the same treatment. A rose is yelled at for not growing fast enough, is denied water due to laziness of its supposed master. And throttled for the crime of pricking when it is strangled.
Women are the rose of life. Too often we are admired for our beauty, put on a pedestal, and forgotten. When we assert ourselves, we are broken apart and given as pretty gifts to children and other roses that dared not rise above their stations. And if we are wise enough to remain silent, and to remain beautiful, and kind, and pacifist, we are rewarded with a loving cut that shears us from life in winter, so that other, better roses, have room to grow in spring.
But now a rose holds the crown. One that isn’t afraid to prick, one that may even have a poisoned thorn. Dear friend, what will happen when the foolish dogs realize that they cannot merely pluck this rose from their boughs? What happens when they realize that their bite cannot match my sting?
“What we have here is a tyrannical woman, trying to impose her silly fantasies on an entire nation!”
How did this man get in the building? He stood on top of the bar, clumsy feet knocking over drinks and sending the patrons to their feet. A poor man, dirty, his clothes torn and weathered. But his eyes were alight, and his voice was clear and forceful.
“Queen Viola, for that is how she believes herself to be, has started a bloody reign that is both as dominating as it is feckless! In one hand she destroys our nobility, while at the other she caters to beasts, to fairies…to laying with the very trees!”
There were shouts for him to shut up. Others for him to be thrown out into the bright of day. It was barely after noon, not the time for politics.
“If the gentleman from the lower part of a ditch would wish to continue,” a man in a much finer cloak said. “Perhaps he would permit us to dunk him in the river? Far be it for him to assault our noses as well as our ears!”
“Lord Canterwight!” The man fell to his knees. However, this was impossible given the length of the bar, and he tumbled off the bar, hitting a stool on his way down into the floor. He remained sprawled, managing to turn it into a measure of obeisance.
“My apologies, my lord,” the man said. “I am so, so grateful that you have given your house to this establishment, and to have us speak is the essence of freedom.”
“An essence,” Lord Canterwright mused. “That can be revoked. Especially if our dear Countess’ best friend and her wards are supposed to be enjoying a luncheon at my request.”
Sienna sat deep in a corner booth. Her hands clutched Pietr and Ivan Koskov. Sophie sat just to her right, leaning in. The three children leaned in to their adoptive godmother, sensing her fear and trying to both gain protection and give comfort. Sienna herself was dressed in a dark red gown, with a thin black cloak for propriety and comfort in the still-cold day.
Lord Canterwright stood just a few steps apart, and nodded to them. “They have come to my home, and my establishment that I gave this town in order to inspire a better place for conversation. Not a rabble to scream to the rafters.”
The man cowered, and remained bowed. “But the countess. She has done great evil.”
“But this is not the forum,” Canterwright said. “You are vulgar, and verbose. Let my men take you and give you a chance to clear your head.”
Nodding, the man was led away. There was a round of cheers and applause for Canterwright. He smiled, bowed, and returned to his seat.
“My apologies, Sienna,” He said. “I cannot abide such rudeness.”
Sienna nodded. She did not like the fact that many were now talking about it.
“Dreadful business,” Canterwright said. “Talking up a rabble. And Viola in her first year, with barely a chance to defend herself.”
“Then you should say something,” Sophie muttered.
Sienna’s hand clamped over the girl’s mouth, and she giggled. “Canterwright, I am sorry for my ward’s outburst.”
“Not at all.” Sienna removed the hand, and Canterwright looked the girl in the eye. “Freedom to express different opinions is the foundation of a society. If we are afraid to speak, then we are afraid to know truth. And without truth, how can we live?”
He gestured around him. “I do not use my entire house, have never needed to. And so had the first floor turned into a taproom for the rabble. It generates some small income, but far more importantly it generated debate. The common man, free to tell his story, to air his grievances before they could fester. Is this not how it is meant to be, in the Countess’ new world?”
Sienna gathered up the children, and pushed her way out of the seat. “Just make sure that grievances are merely spoken, Lord Canterwright, no more.”
The lord bowed low. “Sienna, if I have offended…”
Sienna held up a hand. “No. no…not at all, milord. I simply find myself overtired by this spectacle. And the children have their studies to return to.”
“But you said…” Pietr started to protest, before Sophie’s foot somehow found itself in his shin.
“Studies such as horseback riding and archery…” Sienna winked at the boys. “I think we all must have a well-rounded education, now, don’t we?”
“Yes, Sienna.” The children chorused.
Sienna pulled Canterwright in for a close hug, surprising him. “But I cannot leave without a promise for a real dinner, sometime soon?” she asked.
Canterwright laughed, and returned the hug. “Of course, Sienna, it would be my pleasure.”
Sienna squealed, and pecked him on the cheek. “Come along, children. We mustn’t keep Lord Smyth and his teachers waiting.”
Sienna did not let her mood darken until she was out the door. She caught a last glance at the sign above the entrance, and sneered.
“The Serpent and Rose. Accurate.”
Sienna pulled her cloak further against her body. The children huddled close in the cold, seeking comfort.
“Sienna?” Ivan asked. “Do we do it now or…”
“Not right now, Ivan.” Sienna looked around Vladisburg, and winced. “Let’s get to the carriage first.”
The one town in Konstantin Valley had no real name. Or, more accurately, it held one every generation. Konstans, Victorie, Gratistown, all had been names for the town. It changed with the new ruler to reflect their emotion, or power. Currently Vladisburg, after the previous Count, as Viola had not taken the time, or inclination, to change it herself.
The town was supposed to be the pinnacle of the Valley’s achievements. A center of growth, industry, culture. However, all Sienna could see were the crude pictures of Viola. Suggestive cartoons on the backs of buildings. The leaflets against tyranny spread across the street. Another crowd gathering around that same upstart, standing right outside the Serpent and Rose.
Sienna hurried the children into the carriage, and closed the door. The driver had the horses going, and as soon as the blinds were closed, Sienna could breathe a sigh of relief.
“Are you okay, Sienna?” Pietr asked.
“No, not really.” Sienna said. She straightened, and cleared her throat. “Can you tell me why? Ivan?”
Ivan squirmed in his seat. He was the youngest, and was always picked on first for this test that Sienna called a game. He thought about it for a few moments, and nodded.
“Because people do not like countess Viola?”
“Very good, Ivan,” Sienna said. “But we need more than that. Why don’t they like countess Viola, Pietr?”
“Because people are telling them not to.” Pietr poked at the curtain, already bored. “Dirty pictures and drawings, bad speeches. That stupid man howling.”
Sophie poked him. “Hey!”
“We need to be more eloquent than that, children. This is a concentrated effort against the countess, openly mocking her rule and decisions. It’s meant to make people hate her, question her ability to rule.”
“And what kind of people are meant to question?”
Ivan scrunched his eyes shut. He knew it was his turn again. “Regular people?”
“Can you expand on that?” Sienna asked. Pietr started to open his mouth, but Sienna stopped him. She wanted Ivan to answer.
Ivan looked away, and murmured something. “What was that, Ivan?” Sienna heard it, but she wanted him to say it more clearly.
“People like we used to be.” He said.
Sienna hugged him close. “You are still like that, Ivan. All of you are.”
“We’re not!” Pietr protested. “We’re like you, Sienna! We’re…” he trailed off, suddenly bashful.
“You’re what?” Sienna asked. “You’re better?”
The children all looked one way or another, suddenly unsure. Sienna shook her head, sad. A few months was apparently all it took to burn away their common cause with the townsfolk.
“Why are we better?” Sienna asked. “Because we were born right? Because we had opportunities that many didn’t know they had, or never truly did?”
Sienna drew open the blinds, and looked out as Vladisburg passed them by. “These are all people, children. Trying to figure their way through this life, and make the best of it. We play this game to learn how to be aware, to better understand what we are doing, and how to improve. We are able to do so because we do not need to worry about food, or shelter, or comfort.
“Don’t judge those who do not have those chances. Find ways to bring them to your level.”
“But if they hate countess Viola, how are they going to change?” Ivan asked.
Sienna smiled. “That’s one of the questions, Ivan. But it is not the question. Anyone know that?”
Sophie nodded. “Who is trying to make them hate the countess?”
“There you have it.”
“This is of tantamount importance. The manse, nay, even the entire valley, may depend upon this decision.”
Viola frowned, torn in indecision. “Are cream puffs in fashion now, or perhaps eclairs?”
The cooks had joined her on the terrace, with an arrangement of baked goods for her to sample. The countess was trying to decide upon a theme, and it could not be overstated just how refined this choice must be.
She plucked a particularly succulent cream puff of the plate, and held it before her military adviser. “Your opinion, Nalus?”
Nalus snorted, and took the puff. He had never had a cream puff before. Count Vlad never would have had them in the manse, preferring food that he could either chop, suck, or tear apart. This little…delicacy, would crumble before a sharp wind.
Besides, eating a cream puff just seemed to go against his sense of himself.
“Eat the cream puff!”
Nalus popped it in his mouth. He chewed for a moment or two before swallowing.
“The cream is excellent. The puff itself is flaky.”
“Perfect.” Viola said. “I can assure you all that this is tantamount to high praise from the tight-lipped adviser.”
She waved them away, sighing. “Eclairs it is, then. Take this away.”
Nalus grunted, and tried to hide his disgust. The cooks had prepared a feast for Viola. A selection of cream puffs, the eclairs she had just chosen without a bite, not to mention an actual brunch that could have filled the stomachs of not just her, but five of his hungriest soldiers. All now thrown away before it had even gotten cold.
Viola tapped her fingers twice, and the next group appeared.
Nalus was growing used to this sort of gathering. Viola never spoke with the guards, or the nobles. She preferred speaking at the servants. It left everyone with a sour taste in their mouths. The nobles felt left out, and the common folk felt awkward, a ruler trying to pretend to be normal.
“Nalus may be able to help with this one.”
Viola hugged the gardener close, and looked out towards the gardens. “What are we going to do about that?”
‘That’ was the scar in the middle of the gardens. Whereas the rest of the gardens were a plethora of fruit bearing trees that formed a maze around the south side of the building, there remained, since before Viola’s reign, a single gash through the center. Torn and frost-bitten, it was a white and blue sore on an otherwise floral delight.
Nalus frowned. The little eyesore had been around for…perhaps eighteen months or so. No warning or explanation. It had taken the place of a statue to the Konstantin legacy and crest. Rumored to have been conceived by Alexsander Konstant and Ilya the Wise themselves. And it was gone. Not just shattered, or frozen beyond the breaking point. Gone. And in its place was the scar.
Vlad had been livid when it had appeared. He had several of the gardeners flogged, and three guards dismissed. Nalus himself had been threatened with reprisals. But as quickly as he had raged, so did he stop. Nothing to be done, leave it as it is. Perhaps it can be a legacy of its own.
Viola smiled, and looked to Nalus. “What do you think, Nalus? Is it time already to tear up the frost?”
“Lady Sienna and her…wards, have arrived, countess.”
Viola gasped, and squealed. Sienna! Sienna was here! “She is?!? All right, let’s put together a little feast. And then we need toys, and get Nadia over here…”
Nalus cleared his throat. Viola calmed, and looked to the butler who had spoken.
“Um, right. Ahem,” She took on an air, and nodded her head to the butler. “Let lady Sienna and the Koskov children know that we shall receive them here. And inform Nadia Koskov that her presence is desired. And if one of the maids could gather the children’s playthings and bring them?”
“At once, Countess.”
Nalus stopped looking at the scar, and again regarded the Countess. Why did she continue to do this? Try and act the fool? He had seen her enough to know the truth. She hid her guile behind girlish outbursts to distract her opponents before she struck. An effective tactic, to be sure. But to continue to utilize deception after it had been discovered, was truly mind-boggling.
“Eyes forward, Nalus.” Viola straightened, and turned one foot towards the manse. “We must look our best when we receive all opponents.”
She smiled. “There is a difference?”
“Amateurs-in-training,” she clarified.
Sienna and the children displayed themselves dutifully. All dressed up prim and proper, arrayed like they were about to stand before a ball. They did not move or speak, looking up at Viola expectantly.
“Children…” She muttered. “How have your studies been progressing?”
Sienna cleared her throat. “Sophie?”
“I have started training with the violin, learning the strings,” she said. “Also the carpenter said I could soon be able to start working on smaller projects before I build my own.”
Viola nodded. “Acceptable, though let us also have some economics training for her, Sienna. If we are to establish the Valley as a woodwinds and strings utopia, it would be nice if our violinist and manufacturer knew how much to charge.”
“At once, countess.” Sienna said. “Pietr?”
“Military history is hard,” he sulked. Sophie stepped on his toe, and the boy straightened. “But kind of fun, I guess. And I get to run around a lot outside.”
“And your poetry lessons?” Viola asked. “I believe I was promised a sonnet.”
Pietr quailed. He had made a mistake and added orange to the third quatrain, and hadn’t completed it yesterday. Viola’s mouth clicked, and he promised that it would be done by the time they left today.
“Mama!” Ivan shouted. The older Koskov children hushed, and turned around. There at the entrance to the manse stood their mother. Dressed in finest clothes, and holding a two-month-old daughter in her arms. She rushed forward, and hugged them close.
“Oh, children!” she said. “I haven’t seen you in weeks, how are you? How are you?”
The children ignored her questions. Hugs were a far better way of expressing affection. Their mother was there, and walking after a birth! Sienna smiled, it was wonderful.
Viola tutted. “Children…”
Nadia struggled back to her feet. The children were up as well, apologetic. They had pressed too far, had been too bold. They had interrupted the countess’s questions, even worse. Viola coldly looked at them in turn.
“I expect answers for questions I ask,” she said icily. “Ivan, you should know this, even with the unexpected arrival of your mother.”
“Yes, countess,” Ivan said.
“Now, how are your studies?”
“I’m reading go…well,” he said. “And starting to sing. Lord Smyth is letting me sit with him when he speaks to the lumber men.”
“Adequate, adequate.” Viola walked up to him. “But how are your sliding skills?”
“Your sliding skills, dear boy.” Viola’s eyes narrowed. “You have not been honing those at all?”
Ivan shrinked into his clothes, trying to disappear. “I, I don’t know what sliding skills are, countess.”
“Well, then I shall have to teach you myself.”
Before anyone could blink, Viola had scooped up the young Koskov. He shrieked, holding tight as the countess ran to the edge of the gardens. Viola snapped her fingers, and leaped. Ice poured out of her, over the side of the railing, and down into the gardens into a sudden slide.
Viola caught the lip, and slid forward. Close, but she managed to right herself and Ivan. She willed her power out, letting the ice continue to flow just ahead of the two of them. They spun down, up, and across the gardens.
Ivan shrieked again, but this time it was one of delight. Pietr and Sophie looked on wistfully, trying to imagine what the slide would be like.
Sienna smiled, and pushed Sophie over the edge. The girl yelped, which turned into a whoop as she too slid down into the gardens. Sienna laughed, watching the children. Nadia smiled, and hugged her own daughter close.
Nalus watched it all with a soldier’s eye. Once again, off-putting countess. Why pretend like this? Why go through the motions when everyone is aware of her cruelty?
Viola’s eyes scanned the garden. Her smile deepened, and she hugged the child close.
“Hang on,” She whispered to Ivan. The child clung tight. She pointed upwards, launching them up into the air.
“Countess!” Sienna shouted. Viola spun and flipped, the air whipping about her. Ivan shouted out, but held on tight. The countess smiled, and fell.
“Oh!” Willow Sam burst out of the trees, long arms outstretched. He grasped the countess, holding her and the child close.
The treeman grinned, looking at the countess. “Now what have I caught sky-fishing?”
Viola looked up, her eyes wide. “Is that a thing?”
“Is it?” Ivan asked.
“Humans,” Willow Sam set the two down. “Terrifying the locals, never knowing which way is up or down.”
Viola hugged Ivan again. “He didn’t say no.”
She tussled his hair and sent him back to his mother. The two older Koskovs were promptly caught and returned unharmed, under the watchful eye of the treemen, and Nalus.
The elder councilor did not know what to make of Viola. The countess was cold, and distant, and devious. And yet she could maintain such a façade of joy and warmth to the smallest child and all around her.
What was the truth of Viola? Would she let anyone know?
Viola sighed, and slid down with grace from Willow Sam’s arms. She set Ivan down, and patted his head.
“Nadia, you are raising such wonderful children.” Viola said to the descending Koskov. “Truly a testament to your work and love.”
“My thanks countess.” Nadia said. she cradled her youngest tight, smiling.
Sienna cleared her throat, and looked down from the balcony. “Perhaps the Koskovs could enjoy the gardens for a time, countess?” She asked. “Nalus and I would love a cordial with you.”
“But we were going to play games,” Viola said. She winked knowingly at Sophie and Pietr. “Climb the trees, terrorize the staff, get into no small manner of hijinks.”
“Later, perhaps?” Nalus said through gritted teeth.
“Later.” Viola agreed. She left the Koskovs in the trees, Willow Sam keeping a watchful eye over both the family and the grove.
“Wonderful children,” Viola said brightly. She led Nalus and Sienna back into the house, past the staff. “And so well-mannered. Sienna, your work?”
“They were already pretty well-behaved…” Sienna trailed off. They wanted privacy to speak. But Viola was leading them away from the kitchen, or main dining rooms. They had asked about a drink, not a tour.
Nalus rumbled as well. Another of Viola’s games. What was she playing at?
Viola smiled sweetly, and turned into the throne room. She ascended the platform, and sat in her chair.
Nalus and Sienna stood in the entrance to the door. Viola didn’t use this room. She was always too busy, working her way through the rest of the manse. She was either in the kitchens, or the gardens, or one of several studies and dining rooms. Her throne room had lain empty since she had been crowned. Nalus suspected this was by design.
“Come in, you fools,” Viola muttered. A wave of her hand, and a blast of cold air shut the doors behind them. “I’m not in the mood to shout.”
Sienna gulped. “The drink…”
“Spare me.” Viola said. “You two have barely been able to look me in the eye for the better part of a week. Why?”
Sienna tried to search for the right words. How to put it best? There were suspicions, and maybe something unsubstantiated. But…well…
“Someone’s planning a coup.” Nalus said.
Viola’s eyebrows rose. “Again? Didn’t we just have one of those?”
“They seem to be in vogue, countess.”
“Especially when the occupant of the throne wears a dress.” Viola said. “Sienna, do you concur?”
Sienna nodded. “I am so sorry, countess. It just…”
Viola slammed her hand into the armrest. She stood up, scowling. Waves of cold washed off of her, frost dotting the throne.
Sienna shivered, and clutched her arms around her chest, trying to keep warm. “C-c-countess…”
“Again.” Viola muttered. “I open up trade, stop senseless killings. I hold power, and compassion, and yet once again there is talk of rebellion.”
She glared up to the sky. “What else do I need to do?”
“Perhaps let others in?” Nalus asked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Nalus looked around the empty room. “Perhaps another of our council members could enlighten us.”
Viola scowled, and sat back down in the great chair. “So the fools have not been in court in a few weeks.”
“Months,” Nalus corrected. “And it is difficult to attend court when you do not hold it.”
“It has been a busy few months,” Viola said. “I was getting used to ruling.”
“It is more than that, Viola.” Nalus said. “The nobles think you do not respect them.”
“That is not true.” Viola said. “I respect Lord Smyth. And there are others, like Canterwright. And there is yourself and Sienna.”
“Can you even name the others?” Nalus asked. “Or how many we have?”
Viola glared at him. “Would you like to continue to your point?”
Nalus sighed. Delicate, delicate. This was a young girl, she needed some time. But time was one thing she did not have. Compassionate bluntness was the best he could muster.
“You are young. And a woman. Two qualities in a ruler the nobles are not used to. And you crowned yourself in the midst of a rebellion, killing your would-be attackers with magical abilities that had, until then, bordered on fantasy. You crushed all dissent, demanding all kneel before you.”
“I am countess, and I was being crowned,” Viola said. “What would you have had me done, ask everyone nicely if they’d let me be their ruler?”
Nalus ignored the remark. “You split your time not with coordinating between the nobles, or developing the estate, but with the peasantry, or beautifying the place.”
“Nalus, I think you are being too hard on Countess Viola…” Sienna began.
“Truly? Because there are townsfolk actively talking about open rebellion.” Nalus pointed a finger at the countess. “If you had just played one way or another. Held the rebellion families in cells instead of mansions.”
“And now it comes out,” Sienna said.
“No, I have as much a right to speak as you.” Sienna said. “Viola has transformed the entire Valley. Some people may not see it, but I do. And so do the staff of the manse. And the treemen, and the Koskovs. It is just going to take time.”
“We do not have time.” Nalus said. “Someone is planning rebellion now. Viola cannot charm the entire Valley before this comes to fruition.”
“I don’t know about that,” Viola said. “I haven’t ever tried.”
Nalus spluttered for a word. Viola held up a hand, and he quieted.
“What would you have me do, Nalus?”
“Comfort the nobles.” Nalus explained. “Reopen the court. Pay visits to those who may be wavering. Stop trampling upon the traditions of the nobles…”
“Traditions?” Viola smiled at him. “What traditions would that be?”
Nalus opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Viola stared at him for a time. Her gaze seemed to bore a hole through his flesh to his heart. No magic, no incantation, no trickery. In that instant, he knew that she knew everything he was thinking. And that she didn’t care.
Viola giggled, and jumped out of her chair. “I’m going to inspect the guard uniforms! Vlad always had them so drab and mysterious. Let’s spice them up with color!”
She left the two of them in the throne room.
“It’s going to be okay,” Sienna offered.
“Our Countess is running towards doom and destruction…” Nalus muttered. “But at least we will be color-coordinated.”
Sienna rode home later that afternoon, alone. The Koskovs had been summoned back to the manse at Smyth’s request, shuffled along by her father’s own men. Sienna had been offered a space in the carriage, which she declined. There had still been discussions to be had with Nalus, which went nowhere, and quiet pleading with Viola, which went worse.
She nodded to the guards. It had been somewhat funny to see guards trying to hide the cream puffs they had been snacking on. Where had they even found them? Probably some cook had slipped it to them.
Sienna herself had left the countess’s manse just an hour or so after the children, but already the shadows were starting to loom. The already cold air was becoming far colder, but still she rode on horseback. She wore a heavy cloak, and though her breath wafted out from underneath her hood, she ignored it.
Sienna was changing, something she truly hated. She had been vain, and silly, and able to grasp the comforts of the world and hold them to her chest. But the noble had soon realized that that was something Viola Konstantin would not tolerate, and changed out of necessity. Now, she could see the necessity there, but no Viola.
The girl could not stop seeing shadows. The Valley which had once been a beacon to her, now loomed. There were whispers she was once deaf to, rumors that she had ignored for far juicier, more risqué ones of the court.
And what was she supposed to do about them? Sienna shivered, consumed in that question. She wasn’t a soldier. She didn’t have magical powers like the countess. She was Sienna, a glorified gossip. Trading on her looks as much as her father’s name. Sienna was, in her own modest opinion, pretty useless in this respect.
“Lady Sienna,” A voice crackled through the trees.
The horse reared up with a whinny. Sienna’s hands clenched, and she looked around for a weapon. Why did she not carry one? Of all the vestiges of civility to remain, a lady remaining unarmed had to be the worst.
“Peace, human.” Willow Sam emerged out of the trees. “We merely want to speak.”
We? Ah, Sienna could see them now. Leaning against the trees, or hidden in the boughs. Their own appearance a natural camouflage in the forest. Sienna wondered how many treemen were now in the Valley.
“Willow Sam.” She managed. “Speak.”
He bowed his head. “We did not want to speak. We are content with our grove, provided by the countess. When there are problems for us, or our flock, we know that the countess can be relied upon for response. And to not offend your countrymen, or anyone else, we stay silent. It is our way.
“However…” The treeman looked back to his brothers. “When it comes to her own safety, we do not know how to proceed.”
Willow Sam nodded. “We are fae. We know humans, of course. But someone like Viola…is there such a thing? We do not know what will break her.”
His face cracked into a smile. “You humans are just so fragile. One wrong move and you’re broken.”
“Was that a threat, tree?”
Willow Sam turned around, and saw fire.
A man stood there. His face was drawn, weathered. His silver hair was worn in fine curls that trailed across his face, thinning as he neared middle-age. He wore fine furs, lined with filigree.
Even so, this was a man who knew how to wield the axe by his side, or the torch in his right hand, held aloft. And from the look in his eyes, he had every intention of using either should the situation deem it.
Sienna’s eyes widened. “Father!”
Lord Smyth frowned, and nodded to his daughter. “Sienna. When you did not return with your wards, I grew worried.”
“I was talking with Vi…consulting with the countess,” she corrected herself quickly.
Lord Smyth nodded, and turned to the treemen. “And then I look at the edges of my estate to see these…men, here. Consulting, with my daughter.”
Willow Sam stared back implacably. “We had a message for the countess’s counselor.” He nodded to Sienna. “And a request for counsel of our own.”
Sienna felt more than saw her father draw closer. “My daughter is busy. If you would talk with her, arrange it with staff. Or better yet, do without.”
The treeman’s eyes twinkled. “Are you scared of a tree, Lord Smyth?”
“Why should I be?” Smyth asked. “If you sticks were going to claim vengeance, you’d have done it before I felled the first thousand trees.” He turned his back on the treemen, and walked away. “Come along, Sienna.”
Sienna followed her father. She snuck a glance back at the treemen, curious and a little embarrassed of how Smyth had treated them.
They stared back. Silent, and never seeming to judge. Sienna didn’t know if they had moved through the entire exchange. They hadn’t even flinched when Smyth had mentioned cutting down trees, or waved fire in their faces.
Willow Sam was the lone exception, the spokesman for them. And he kept his smile on his face. Small, wooden.
She tripped, and stumbled to the ground. Sienna scrambled around, her hands seeking purchase.
A branch reached out to help her, closing around her wrist.
Sienna shrieked, jumping back up. Smyth’s axe was in his hand, ready to strike. His face was contorted in fury, and his arm swung down.
Sam caught the man’s arm by the wrist. The treeman’s twiggy fingers wrapped around the lord’s wrist. Smyth wriggled, but could not move.
“Why harm a tree?” Sam asked. “We never try to hurt anyone. We just live here.”
He released Smyth from his grip. The lord prepared to strike again, but Willow Sam simply melted away. In seconds, the two appeared alone.
Sienna breathed in deeply. Viola was counting on her, and she couldn’t be rude to the treemen.
“Thank you!” She called out. “I hope we can live together in harmony.”
There was no response.
Sienna felt even smaller then. She had not seen the treeman, at all. Could anyone mistake treemen for trees if they weren’t looking closely? Were they still there, watching the humans?
What had Viola done?
Dear words, how often I feel thy sting.
To be poetic, thou art so beauteous. Your curved grace, the lift and fall that can raise the viewer to highest of heavens. I love your sight, your sound, your taste. To be in the presence of such words cannot help but fill mine ear, my soul with glory.
But words are not always so kind. In fact, your malice far outweighs your grace. For every one word of compassion, of concern, there is a deluge of ten thousand biting remarks. The floating whispers, the hard consonants hissed in the shadows. The call to rebellion.
As I sit at my window, I can almost hear such words. They are wafting in on the midnight breeze. The chill adds to their bite, even as the poison settles upon my veins. The condemnations, the simplistic curses that beat at my open window.
“She is too weak.” “Duplicitous.” “Why doesn’t she just find a nice man?”
“What do we expect from a woman?”
Yes, words. I accuse you so. You hate me, even when thou singest my glory. For I have forsaken my pedestal, my crown and wings, to instead commit the grave sin. I am working.
Forgive me, words. Work with me.
Or I shall destroy you.
“Order! Order!” The Lord Canterwright slammed his fist into the table. “I will have order, or I will have you all thrown out of here!”
The Serpent and Rose hushed. No one wanted to risk Canterwright’s ire, lest he remember their face. Being banned from the tavern was tantamount to suicide.
He slicked his hair back, and sighed. “Citizens of the Valley. Friends, all. I convened this event for a chance to air grievances, and find a way to remedy them. But screaming does nothing to help your cause.”
He nodded to one of the men who stood still. “Brekk,” Canterwright handed him another mug of ale, and settled the woodsman into an empty chair. “You were speaking.”
“Sorry, Lord Canterwright.” The man sipped his drink, and tried to calm down. “And I’m sorry, everybody. I know that, tensions are high and all that. We supposed to be better, and I want to. But Viola…”
“The Countess,” Canterwright murmured.
Someone spat in the back of the room. Canterwright ignored it, and focused on the words.
“That’s it, though!” Brekk said. “Since we got this girl in charge, we been nothing to her. No tax relief, and worse! She’s giving the trees, our livelihood, to damn…things!”
Other woodsmen muttered their approval. Many had seen their profits cut deep by Willow Sam and his treemen. At least, they could not cut down certain trees.
“I worked this land,” Pol stood up. “Going on thirty years. My father worked it, and his father, down five generations. And then some woman comes in and says I can’t work it no more? And gives it to some foreign twigs?”
“And she’s talking of putting some of these creatures in the guard.” Another voice volunteered.
What? The guard? They’d have to salute such a thing? They’d have weapons, and able to…what? Kill honest humans for the crime of doing honest work?
“Makes sense,” Brekk muttered. “One spell loves another.”
“Um, excuse me.”
Every eye in the room was fixated upon him. Someone who spoke, but almost apologized beforehand.
And worse…a tax collector.
Jakob cleared his throat, and tugged at his collar. He did not normally drink in public, especially at one of the rowdier establishments in Vladisburg. But when he had heard of a possible convocation to speak on Viola’s rule, he felt a duty to attend.
If only he had known the tenor, he might have summoned a guardsman. Still, he did collect their taxes. There was some measure of backbone in him yet.
“Countess Viola Konstantin has been nothing but kind to those around her,” he said. “She wields the powers given her with precision and aplomb. No matter the situation, or circumstance, her first question is how will this help Konstantin Valley.
“As for her powers,” Jakob breathed in deep. “After the attempted coup on her coronation, I am glad that she was able to defend herself. The men there tried to murder her without even giving her a chance, in an attempt to take power for themselves…”
“For everyone!” Someone shouted from the back.
“For themselves,” Jakob corrected. Angry mutters silenced him, and he looked around, suddenly nervous.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen.” Canterwright clapped Jakob on the back. Jakob jumped, fearful. He had not heard the lord approach him from behind. But Canterwright flashed him another smile, and looked around.
“We value all opinions. Even from tax collectors, right Jakob?”
“Even from fellow people of the Valley…” Jakob said. “I’m neighbors with all of you. And I stand with Viola Konstantin.”
“As do we all,” Canterwright said. “We just need a venue to air our grievances. Since the countess has closed court, it has been harder to get in contact with her.”
“And that shall change soon.” Jakob said. he stood up, and nodded to everyone. “To any man who has disagreements with the countess, be here tomorrow at nine. I shall personally escort you to the countess myself. She will hear your words, and try to make your life better.”
Canterwright chuckled. “You hold that much power over the countess, tax collector?”
“I hold no power over the countess,” Jakob said. “But I know her method of ruling. She will listen. I can guarantee that the same way I guarantee the rising of the sun.”
With nothing else to say, Jakob got up and left.
Canterwright laughed aloud, turning to the crowd. “It looks like someone is a bit too infatuated with our leader, eh lads?”
There was laughter, but it was mixed. The crowd of men hushed, suddenly unsure. Would someone make them a guarantee like that without meaning it? A few made plans to be at the tavern the next morning, just in case.
Canterwright ordered another round for the tavern. That got spirits up immediately, and conversation turned back to the usual rumor-mongering. Their fear was gone, as so many of the words and promises would be in the morning.
Canterwright sat in his usual seat in the back, and settled into his own drink. Another man sat down next to him.
“You’re needed upstairs.”
The man wore a hood to disguise his features, not that Canterwright couldn’t tell who it was. The fine clothes, the rings on his fingers. The fact that the new man looked like he wanted to burn the place down and put up a salon.
“Yoric,” Canterwright muttered. “What are you doing here?”
“Watching,” the noble growled. “Not that there was much to watch.”
Canterwright looked around, and nodded. He leaned back, and slipped out of his chair. Yoric followed him through the back behind the bar, and through a passageway hidden behind the liquor bottles.
“You could have waited,” Canterwright said. The passageway led upward, a discrete way into his own apartments above the bar.
Yoric ignored the remark, and pushed ahead of him into the apartments. Unlike the Serpent and Rose, Canterwright’s living quarters were the height of fashion. Gold filigree lined the walls. Deep carpets from around the world rolled out underneath their feet.
Yoric and the other nobles gathered around the chairs that Canterwright had set up in his own living room. Each had taken the finest chairs, leaving him to find one of the wooden chairs in the kitchen reserved for the servants.
Canterwright sighed, and took a seat. About a dozen men, and three or four women, looked at him behind masks or hoods. Each must have thought they were so clandestine and mysterious. As if their clothes and hairstyles didn’t expose each and every one of them, let alone their carriages currently parked in the woods behind his building.
“You could have waited, nobles.” Canterwright stretched out, enjoying the quiet. “It wasn’t exactly easy pulling together the boys downstairs.”
“That rabble,” one of the women remarked. “Can wait.”
“We have concerns, Canterwright.” Yoric said, removing his hood. “We came to you because you had seemed to show some vision.”
Canterwright snorted. He knew why they came to him. He was one of the few nobles that made his own money, and didn’t simply rely on the estate. They considered him beneath their notice, but worthy of helping stage a coup.
“But now you spend your time in that…establishment beneath your house.” One of the men said. “You aren’t speaking with the guard, or coordinating armies…”
“Armies?” Canterwright asked. “Is that what you think we are doing? A civil war?”
The nobles looked back at him.
“We are rebels. Contemplating treason. Any soldier worth a damn will turn on us in a second. Any who won’t, isn’t worth the ground he spits on.”
Canterwright held his hands out. “What we need is the people. The common man. Stupid, malleable, and whose voice is worth gold. Get them on your side, and suddenly the army will beg to join us. And Viola will fall.
“I am trying to foment such feelings. Viola is helping, in her own way, by putting in these treemen, and spending too much time with individuals instead of groups. There is an opportunity. But if I rush it, we shall all swing, or worse freeze.
“In the meantime…” he grit his teeth. “get off my back, and let me work. Or you shall see just what a common-born noble is made of.”
The nobles bristled. How dare a workman noble speak to them so? Yoric held up a hand, and they calmed.
“And the tax collector?” he asked.
Canterwright laughed. The tax collector was already dead.
Sienna stood outside the door of her father’s study. Her hand rested on the wood paneling, trying to trust herself to knock.
The Koskov children were all abed. Sophie took much longer than the boys. She had questions for the older girl. Questions about boys, and clothes, and the finer aspects of arranging an orchestral accompaniment to an address of the court. Sienna had answers to two of those, but the chance to talk was welcome.
Not like this. This was her father.
She steeled herself, and knocked twice.
Sienna opened the door, and walked in three steps. She stopped at the edge of the bear rug, and looked around.
Lord Smyth always fancied himself a noble in the woods. His personal study reflected his desire of a man’s triumphs. The trophies from his hunt dotted the dark wood panels, while two great bookshelves opposite the fireplace were filled with some of the great texts both pre- and post-Folly. There was one window, a stained glass affair that shone green light upon his desk. The desk was a simple affair, with papers neatly stacked and collated into piles for easy reference.
Lord Roland Smyth sat at the desk now. He looked through one of the papers, ignoring his daughter in deference to real work. His sword leaned against the desk, well within reach should the situation call for it.
Sienna remained standing just beyond the rug, waiting for her father to finish. After an eternity, he set the paper down, and looked at her.
“You are late, Sienna.”
Sienna bowed her head. She thought she actually was right on time.
“You wanted to see me, Lord Smyth?”
Smyth nodded, and stood up, he looked towards his fireplace, and thought better of it. “Are the Koskovs abed?”
“Yes, Lord Smyth.”
“Lord Smyth…” He selected a book from the shelves, looking at it. “It wasn’t too long ago that I was father. Months, even. Though it feels like only days ago that you were calling me dad. Or even this morning, it was daddy, or a soft gurgle trying to form the words.”
Sienna stood still. She didn’t say anything. What could she say? Lord…father was acting unusual.
“You have always been a child.” Smyth handed the book to Sienna. A picture book, fairy tales from before the Folly. A rush of memories flooded into Sienna. A large bed, a roaring fire. Two parents at her side. Struggling through the words, or gaping at the pictures.
“You kept it.”
“Focus, Sienna.” Smyth said.
“Yes, Lord Smyth.”
He nodded. “You are going to need this book for Ivan, and Pietr. Even Sophie may find herself young enough for the book. We all are young enough for fairy tales.”
Smyth shot a hard look her way. “Acquiescence does not befit a Smyth, Sienna. Remember that.
“We’ve bent far too much for this Valley already.”
copyright 2018 Jack Holder