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?”
copyright 2018 Jack Holder