A Kind of Heart

It has been a day, and no one has tried to assassinate me again.

Dear no one. As always you are my greatest and closest friend. I write to you once again concerned, and hopeful for the future.

They know about me know. I have screamed it from the rooftops, charged down the hill with power coursing through my veins and they are frightened. Good.

I know what I will find today in my manse. No one who could afford to leave. The servants, the prisoners, Nalus…they are trapped with their new Countess. Everyone else has barricaded themselves behind their doors, contacting each other, making plans. Taking up arms, if need be.

I know that my reign will not start out popular. I have ideas to make Konstantin Valley stronger, more prosperous. They do not know this, but I love this great valley. Its streams, the woods, what little farmland we have, our two cities. They fill me with a joy that my family never could achieve. And so I will make it greater.

This is why I’m writing to you, no one. To remind myself of who I am. What I am doing all of this for. Why I will soon turn cold.

It’s all for them. Everything I do, it’s for them.

Viola took the piece of parchment. She looked at it one last time, trying to memorize the contents. After reading it through, twice, she set the letter ablaze with her candle. It crackled and crumpled in on itself until there was nothing left but ash.

The countess wiped her hands free of soot. Shrugged into her clothes. Today was an ice-blue tunic, with white leggings and calf-high boots. Formality barely adhered to. Work required a little more movement.

She steeled herself. Will away the hatred, the joy. There was no sense of sadness, no mirth within her. There was only purpose. What shall be done.

Viola Konstantin was cold as ice. And the world would know her name.

She strode out of her rooms. Nalus awaited her. The adviser adjusted his stance, returning to a more formal position. His grizzled appearance was carefully made so, balanced on the line between formal and terror. Even in his advanced age, his muscles strained against his dark green doublet.

Nalus saluted her, clasping his right hand over his heart, head bowed. Viola nodded her head, and he returned to attention. He still looked at her twice. Nalus had missed something before her coronation, he realized that now. The adviser needed to be twice as careful around his lady, lest she get the drop on him again.

Viola knew he had already made the first move. When her maid had arrived, she confessed that Nalus had spent the night in her late father’s rooms. Perhaps even slept in his bed.

At this Viola had almost laughed. The dog missed his old master, and was unsure about the new lady. She’d let him have this indulgence, for now. If he strayed too far, she’d show him her heel.

“Have you had breakfast yet, Nalus?” Viola asked.

“You have not had breakfast,” He replied. That must have answered the question.

“Ah, yes.” Viola walked through the halls. “Let us go, then.”

They walked towards the kitchen. Nalus was thinking of everything, as was the staff. They remembered that she preferred her meals in the kitchen, as opposed to the grand dining hall. She would have to change her habits for lunch and dinner, but Viola was determined to hang on to breakfast here. It was her only chance to communicate with the chef and servers.

But there was more to it than that. Viola loved the kitchen. The great iron cauldrons that were in a constant bubble and froth. The scents of spice, baking bread, cooking meats. Today a full hock of bacon was being turned over in a giant skillet that sizzled as she made her entrance. That heat that warmed her so.

And the chefs, running around. If they weren’t preparing breakfast, they were looking towards lunch, or even dinner. Viola was the only living member of the Konstantin family, but there were so many others who lived here. Maids, manservants, the Guard. All were finding their way into the kitchen either to work or sneak an early taste.

It was the best example Viola could think of for true Valley life. One she would refuse to give up. The countess would eat in the kitchen. Guests would just have to make do.

As these guests would make do.

Illyana Petrovich, Nadia Koskov and each of the women’s children, six in all. All seated at Viola’s table. The great wooden structure was built for twenty, slid to one side so that the servers would not bump into it. For all their number, the guests only took up about a quarter of offered space.

Perhaps it was because of the ten Guardsmen, arrayed on the wall, looking forward. Or the fact that their husbands were the ringleaders in yesterday’s assassination attempt.

Viola sat down at the other end of the table, and waved her hand. “Has anyone had coffee? Or tea, or orange juice?”

The two families stared at her, uncomprehending. Viola tutted, and looked at the youngest Petrovich. A boy, couldn’t have been more than four. “You there. What’s your name?”

“Gregor?” The boy asked more than said.

Viola smiled. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No, countess.” He said. “Mama said not to.”

“Why was that?” Viola asked.

“We’re not supposed to eat until you do first.” Gregor said.

“Smart boy.” Viola said. “Smart Mama.” She turned to the chefs. “Can I have a loaf of bread?”

A whole grain loaf materialized in front of her, atop a plate. Glasses of orange juice, coffee, tea and water besides. Viola laughed, and took a bite. “Delicious, as always.”

She winked at the mothers. “Why don’t we let the children have a bit of a run around the kitchen to get their food while we women talk? Provided they be careful, there are a lot of hot plates around here.”

Nadia nodded, and shoved her children away. Illyana however clutched Gregor close, and shook her head. “We’ll stay here.”

Viola frowned. “The great kitchen is a sight to see. And there are plenty of snacks about.”

“And knives.” Illyana muttered.

Viola laughed. “If you are asking about accidents, Illyana, let me assure you that nothing of the sort shall happen.”

She walked over to Illyana, and plucked Gregor out of her grasp. The boy was thin, much too thin. He must not be strong enough to get the best scraps from his father’s table. But still handsome, striking features. She tousled his hair, a smile on his face.

“If I decide to have your family killed, I’ll have Nalus do it. Or even myself.”

She set Gregor down. “Why don’t you go run? I think I smell some candied chestnuts hiding around here.”

The three Petrovich children scurried off. Viola smiled. “And make sure you share?”

She returned to her seat. “Lovely children.”

“We hope you are blessed with many, Countess.” Nadia murmured.

“That is a ways off,” Viola said. “First let us find a suitable husband.”

They nodded. The chef brought out a few plates of meats and cheeses. Viola took a drink of coffee, and looked at the two women. They still huddled together, trying to find some comfort in proximity.

This was getting nowhere. Viola snapped her fingers, and the Guard stepped forward.

“You there, third from the right.” She said. “Name?”

“Lucan, Countess.” He said.

“Lucan. What is the signal for each of you to kill each and every member of these family members?”

“Only your command, Countess.” Lucan said.

“Nothing else? No hand gestures, no sidelong glance?”

“You have given no such orders, Countess.” The Guardsmen said.

Viola clapped her hands. “There you have it ladies. Your children are safe, for now. And they look like they haven’t eaten in days. Nor have you, this is much too thin for two mothers. In fact.”

She took a second look at Nadia. “Nalus, you didn’t tell me she was five months’ pregnant!”

“My apologies, Countess.” Nalus said. “I was unaware.”

Viola made a mental note to add some more women as advisors. What did they think, she was skinny as a rail except for her midsection?

However, this may have finally broken through to the women. They nibbled on breads, sipping tea.

Viola resumed her eating. There would be time for work later, for now she was feeling peckish. She devoured several sausages, before tucking into a few eggs and hollandaise sauce.

A knock at the door disturbed her reverie. She looked up as a maid ran in, distressed. “Countess, I am sorry, but a tax collector just arrived. As has a young noblewoman…”

“Sienna?”

“Yes, countess.”

“Send them in!”

The maid bowed, and nodded.

“…countess Viola…”

Viola leapt to her feet as Sienna burst into the kitchen. The young woman was dressed in her favorite crimson outfit, all decked out for horseback riding. Her pale skin glowed red after the ride to the manse, while her brown eyes twinkled at seeing Viola. Barely nineteen, she was a constant joy for the court, completely up to date on gossip and rumor. If there was an affair, or a drunken pass, or simply an errant glare, chances were young Sienna was aware of it.

She was also a close friend of Viola’s. The countess loved the bubbly nature of the girl, and treasured her stories. Her rich laugh as she joined the party was enough to send the two mothers into a feeding frenzy.

“It was so wonderful for you to invite me to breakfast, Viola.” Sienna said.

Countess, young lady.” Nalus muttered.

Sienna rolled her eyes. “I wanted to make it to the coronation, but my father was too busy managing one of his little events. Such a bore! Some of his men had trouble dealing with a fallen tree, and for some reason they needed the attention of their lord all day.

“And apparently I missed all the fun! There was an assassination attempt on you?”

Viola nodded, tuning out all the salient details from Sienna. The tax collector was here, but he had not introduced himself. There he was, by the door. Bent over, trying rather unsuccessfully to maintain a proper stance. His traveler’s bag was stuffed with papers and the tax code, while the brown uniform of his office was polished to a shine.

His black hair, however, was a mess. It fell across his face, obscuring a perfectly rounded visage.

She waved her hand. A Guardsman noticed her gaze, and pushed the tax collector forward. He gave a yelp, and bowed low. “My apologies, Countess.”

Viola laid a hand on Sienna, silencing her. “Sienna, I need to greet the tax collector as well.”

“But there was the best part!” Sienna said.

“In a moment.” Viola regarded the tax collector. “You are not Cyrix.”

“The head collector is in bed with malady, Countess.” He said. “My name is Jakob, and I am at your service.”

“Apparently without bathing or a proper grooming,” Viola said.

“I could easily return home and be back in suitable attire within the hour, should your Grace…”

“Oh, just eat something,” Viola said. Jakob sat down and immediately began eating.

Wonderful, a sycophant. Viola truly hoped he had an independent thought in his head. She didn’t need people to tell her her thoughts were wonderful. She just needed her commands obeyed. Perhaps she needed to send for another tax collector.

Later. “Continue, Sienna.”

“Right, well, here’s the most miraculous part!” Sienna leaned close, trying to keep the secret in the bustling kitchen. “Now, this has not been checked out fully, but they said Viola…”

Countess…

“Right, right. Countess Viola Konstantin, long may she reign, she performed magic. Froze that idiot ringleader solid. Not even his small pieces of magic could compare to our wonderful ruler.”

Sienna grinned. “Now, the Countess should have told her best friend of anything this miraculous, but a girl knows that sometimes it is wise to keep a few cards up her sleeve. Still, wow!”

“Wow indeed.” Viola finished off the last of her eggs, and turned to a second cup of coffee. “Assassins, magic, a coronation. You missed quite a day, Sienna.”

“I know! The exciting stuff happens without me, figures,” Sienna grinned. “I would have loved to see the look on those men’s faces when our countess turned the tables on them. Sorry, no coup today, our girl’s got ice in her veins, and she’s not afraid to use it!”

Viola laughed.

“And what were they thinking? Idiots, I say. The lot of them.”

“Foolhardy, yes.” Viola said, looking at Illyana and Nadia. “Leaving behind a wife and children.”

Sienna shook her head, oblivious. “If you ask me, you should take a look at those wives. There were what, half a dozen of them? They managed to break in without a hitch, smuggling weapons into your coronation. No way was this planned without their wives knowing.”

“Exactly what I was wondering.” Viola said.

“Well, you should find them and ask.” Sienna said.

“And if they knew, Sienna?” Viola asked. “What should I do with them?”

Nadia started to cry. She held to Illyana, tears streaming down her face.

“We had nothing to do with their plans, Countess.”

Sienna looked at the two women, then back to Viola. She paled.

“Viola?”

“Nalus has told you twice, Sienna,” Viola said, rising. “You are to refer to us as Countess, or Your Lady.”

Sienna stared, uncomprehending.

“Sienna…”

“Apologies, Countess.”

“Thank you, Sienna.” Viola walked over to the two mothers. “Now, if Illyana and Nadia did indeed conspire with their husbands…if they formed a plot to overthrow my family and most likely have me hanged as a despot…what should be their punishment?”

She ran a finger over Illyana’s face. The Petrovich remained stoic, calm. Nadia did not seem the type for revolution, but her cohort was cold, distant. Viola didn’t want to orphan her three children. But she couldn’t just forgive treason.

Regardless, Sienna had to learn. As much as Viola loved the silly girl, there was a time for silliness, and a time for action. The courtier had a mind, when she cared to use it. Molded correctly she could become a wonder. But not until she was dispelled of some of her girlhood fantasies.

“Well, Sienna?”

The girl was close to joining Nadia in tears. Viola sighed. “Jakob?”

“Punishment for conspiring in treason is death, Countess.” He said. “Nothing else is appropriate.”

Viola nodded. “One of my first actions cannot be to forgive those who are involved in a coup just because they are mothers. But nor should I make it a habit of wiping out families who oppose me.”

She leaned against the table. “You see my predicament, ladies? I cannot let you live if I have even the barest inkling that you were involved. But a ruler with no subjects is a woman ordering air to her grave.

“Help me help you.”

Nadia clung to Viola’s tunic. “Countess, I swear we had nothing to do with this.”

“And you, Illyana?”

Illyana shook her head. “Gregor hated your father. Absolutely despised him. When he died, Gregor thought that the chance to get under your family’s yoke was here. The heir was a girl that had never truly been seen. When he realized that you were intending to take the throne, he must have snapped.

“Did I get involved? No. I never thought he would resort to murder. Do I hate you for killing him? You stand here and expect me to beg for the lives of my family while you stand there, the benevolent ruler.

“Go to hell.”

Nalus gripped the hilt of his sword. He awaited her orders that were sure to come.

Viola considered. Killing Illyana was easy. She would not even have to use more magic. But it was likely that she was never involved in treason. Hatred wasn’t an offense. Not unless she wished it.

“Jakob.” Viola asked. “Are we still at a surplus in the treasury?”

Jakob nodded. “Barely, Countess. It was a good year, but preceded by several that had been struck with minor disease and illness. We are still paying off a few debts…”

“And how much to take in new residents at the manse?”

Jakob made a few notations. “Barely anything, countess. The food is made and…”

“Two families?” Nalus asked. Viola arched an eyebrow. To take in possible conspirators in the grand manse, the seat of power? Perhaps she would be kind enough to give the rabble the keys to the treasury as well.

She agreed with him, but still, his tone.

“Not two families. Two.”

“Two?” Nadia asked.

“Yourself and Gregor shall stay as my guests in the manse. He’s a nice boy, and in need of a proper education. And it would be lovely to see new faces, children at the manse.”

“But my children…”

“Shall be cared for.” Viola said. “Sienna’s father shall see to that.”

“He shall?” Sienna asked.

“He shall. You shall see to him.”

“See?”

Viola sighed. “I charge you with the three Koskov children, Sienna. You are to be in charge of their food, their clothing. When they go to sleep, and their care when they are ill. Every facet of their lives are in your care.”

She raised a finger in the girl’s direction. “And mark this. If they are lacking in any small thing. If they suffer because you are too busy playing matchmaker, or rumormonger, Nadia Koskov will hear of it. And she shall design your punishment, unless I believe it is far too lenient.”

Viola walked away from the table, and snapped her fingers. The Guard saluted her, awaiting orders. “This is our command. There is no appeal, there is no question. Let it be recorded, and made done.”

“At once, Countess,” Jakob said.

“Inform the cooks. Send Illyana and her two children back home. We wish them well.”

The Guard escorted the three out. Illyana had never had a chance to say a word in protest.

Viola smiled, and turned to Sienna. “Why don’t we saddle up the horses?”

“Countess?” Sienna murmured.

“You, me, Nalus, Jakob. We’ll put the Koskovs in a carriage, the Guard will follow on. We’ll show the children their new home!”

Sienna shrank inside herself, not wanting to offend. “As you wish, my Lady.”

Viola patted her on the head. Now she was beginning to understand.

Departing the manse was far easier than expected. Apparently when Viola desired something enough, it was considered far more pressing than gospel. It seemed mere moments before her retinue and guests were riding towards Lord Smyth’s estate.

Sienna did not lead the way. She remained by the carriage, keeping a careful eye towards her Countess. She had never seen Viola in such a state. So, regal, commanding. So cold. It was her right as ruler, but the young noble did not know how to react to her past friend.

She spent her time getting to know those in the carriage. The Koskov children were animated, laughing even. Pietr, Ivan, even the eldest Sofie could not keep from smiling. They were amazed by the entire proceedings, giddy with food and exuberance. The little boys could not stop running around. It threatened to overturn the carriage.

Nadia sat quietly. Little Gregor sat in her lap. Though they did not share blood, or any other true connection, they did have the same expressions. Caught between bliss, and confusion, and for the mother, tears that betrayed some sadness. They longed to understand what was happening in mere hours.

The wife, now widow, was especially disheartening. By all accounts her husband had been killed by the Countess’ guards. Those same guards who now escorted her and her children to Lord Smyth’s. Torn from their mother, and placed with a family whose wealth and influence was so enormous it would have seemed godsend if not for the circumstances.

Her eyes took in everything. Sienna, looking back while trying to find some understanding as well. The children, who did not fully grasp the situation and so were happy. The Guard, and Nalus, who rode silently onwards, following orders.

And finally Viola. The countess was ignoring everyone save Jakob. She was animated, cheerful even, discussing the statistics and general makeup of the populace. The woman who controlled everything in the Valley, looking to all the world like she was indeed going for a morning walk.

For Jakob, this was a dream too fantastical to have ever been his. His Lady was talking with him, one of the lowly collectors, about taxes. And not just listening with some boorish expression on her face. She asked for explanations, and the justification for several codes. Why did a farmer that produced as much as a woodsman receive a credit? Did the tax code actually reward marriage, or make it an unnecessary burden?

These were not the questions of an inane despot, content to compose poetry on her throne. Viola meant for action, and it involved him. He was giddy, and quite possibly in love.

The morning was calm, it was clear, and to the young countess, it was exhilarating. Viola’s earlier experiences beyond the manse were always on careful guard. Suddenly the guard that she held were subject to her wishes. This was not some forced excursion. Rather, it was enjoyable.

She took every second to take it all in. while Jakob clued her in to the tax of children, she could feel the smell of pine. A fresh, cool smell, tingling her nose. Just beyond that, the horses, she could feel the horses’ breath! Even her own mare, just a bare hint of a breeze. The horse was not even exerting itself.

This was pleasant. Viola had missed pleasant. But still, something was missing. Something vital to her.

The countess’ eyes glinted, an idea forming. She nodded to Jakob, asking him for a brief respite while she consider his words. The tax collector, downcast but hopeful for another encounter, returned to the carriage.

“Nalus.” The adviser appeared at her side. Viola smiled, and nodded to the carriage. “Bid the Guard to stay with the carriage.”

“Of course, milady…” Nalus trailed off, starting to understand.

Viola smirked. “If you feel the need to pursue, pray do not keep too close.”

Before he could protest, off she went! Spurring the horse forward, Viola sprang through the trees into a field. She tore across the grassland. Hooves tore at the dirt, kicking up dust in their wake.

On they went. The carriage slowed, and stopped. Sienna, Gregor and the Koskovs stuck their heads out, unsure if this was another distraction. Was Viola leaving them behind on purpose?

Nalus tried in vain to catch up, barking at his horse. His steed tried valiantly, but what was the use? What could grit compare when it tried to match joy?

Viola flung her arms out wide, and let out a cry. The wind buffeted at her chest. Viola felt herself lifting out of her saddle, and gravity threatened to leave her behind. Viola shouted again, defiant. Let it abandon her, she would go on without. With such joy as she was feeling, the very earth could not hold her still.

As the field turned back to woods, she slowed. There the road was again. Soon the carriage would come. Viola slowed, letting the mare relax. The others would come, quite confused at their steel-hearted Countess. Let them have their confusion. It would only be in such moments, such quandaries, that she would find any respite.

“Alms?” a voice whispered. “Please, fine girl, do you have anything to spare?”

Viola stopped the horse, and stared. Leaning against an oak tree was a man. withered, spent, his legs sprawled out in front of him. He was no cleaner than the rags upon his body, a scraggled beard perhaps the only warmth he was offered at night.

A quivering hand lay outstretched towards her. Viola frowned, suddenly unsure.  “Who…”

“Countess!” Nalus shouted. He cleared the field, tearing after his liege.

The beggar leapt to his feet. Off into the woods he ran, as fast as he could go. Behind Viola the carriage came into view.

“A beggar…” Nalus sighed. Viola shot a glare at him, and whistled.

“Two men, with me!” Off she went, weaving through the trees. The two soldiers kept pace with her. The beggar came into view.

Viola pointed at the man. “Detain him.”

The two easily outpaced her, and the beggar besides. One leapt from his horse, dragging the two of them to the ground. With a shove he brought the man to his knees.

Viola dismounted, and stared at the man. He collapsed over his knees, bowing.

“Please, I’m sorry, Countess. I didn’t know, I’m just hungry. I haven’t eaten in…”

“Silence.”

Viola held up a hand. The carriage had caught up with her, led by Nalus.

She looked at the Guard who had wrangled the man. “Soldier, does detaining a man not require he be in one piece?”

The man blinked, and paused.

“I asked you a question.”

“Countess…I just wanted to make sure he didn’t escape…”

“And you could not do that astride a horse. Curious.” Viola came closer, and looked at the beggar. She tapped his side with her shoe.

“Stand up. I won’t talk with a man who is unwilling to look me in the eye.”

He was up in an instant. However, his eyes were caught between trying to obey her command, and not wanting to presume equality. They would stray across her face, then down to her feet, off to a side, then he was able to force them back to her eyes.

Viola grasped his chin, and positioned his face. Her eyes were cold, icicles that bore through his soul.

“I do not give food. Nor do I encourage begging in this Valley.”

“My pardon, Count…”

“Why do you deserve food?”

“I…don’t know, mi…”

Viola’s grip tightened. “Sir, I asked you a question. Konstantin Valley will not reward food for do-nothings.”

She leaned close. “So what. Can. You. Do?”

He squirmed under her grip. “I can play.”

“Play? Play what?”

The man sobbed. “Countess, I used to play the violin. I could play to the point when kings and their fine ladies asked me into their bed chambers so I could send them off to sleep. Dwarven lords wanted violin music, mine!”

He leaned into her grasp, and choked. “But I got old. I couldn’t hold a bow, and all my relatives had died long ago. I’ve been wandering, and just couldn’t do so anymore after I got here. I just needed food, and maybe a soft place to rest my head for the last time. Countess, I’m not trying to be a burden…”

“Be silent.”

Viola released him. He collapsed to the ground, gasping for air. She tapped her foot, stuck a lock of hair in her mouth.

“Could you play any other instrument?” Viola asked. “The harp, the fiddle? Lute…”

“Anything with strings, countess.” He rasped. “But I don’t have my hands anymore.”

“Very true.” Viola said. “I will have to supply those.”

She pointed at the Guard who had ridden him down. “You shall escort him back to my manse. Tell the servants that I require him bathed, clothed, fed and in a good countenance when I return this afternoon.

“As for you.” She looked at the man. “I do not give you permission to die a useless death. You shall spend many a night in my house. You shall give me players, an entire quintet of stringed players the envy of five kingdoms. Only then shall I consider letting you die.”

“Countess…”

“Go! We have no time to waste!”

The two raced away on the Guard’s horse. Viola smiled, content. So she could inspire action in men. A useful skill.

She turned to the carriage, and leaned in.

“I believe the Lady Sienna would like to ride ahead with myself.”

“We will only be a hundred yards away from you fine gentleman.”

One of the Guards rode up, and offered his horse. Sienna, paler than normal, agreed. The two moved to their horses, and were soon off towards the Smyth estate. Nalus stuck close to the carriage, measuring as accurately as possible one hundred yards. Viola could imagine his mutters and glares sent her way.

“This is absolutely lovely, don’t you think, Sienna?” she asked.

“Absolutely, Countess.”

“And the day has taken such wonderful turns. We have improved the lives of so many people, and before lunch!”

Sienna kept her gaze straight ahead. “Thanks to you, Countess.”

Viola smirked. “It was even more miraculous to some. They did not even expect to live so long as midafternoon. Such a gift is life, and such is what I can give.”

“You are merciful…”

“Sienna, I have enough people lining up to be my sycophant.” Viola snapped. She glared at the young lady. “If you are one of them I shall need to reconsider the children’s well-being.”

Sienna looked up, scared. “Countess…”

“Keep staring ahead,” Viola commanded. “You shall remain scared, and obey these orders without question. Am I clear?”

“Of course.”

“Good.” Viola said. “Then let me make myself clear. The Koskovs and Gregor are serving several purposes in their new homes. Can you name them?”

Sienna nodded. “Hostages. Illyana will not move against you when you hold her child in your grasp. And Nadia might even be deluded to think you her friend.”

“Right to the first, but to the second…” Viola turned to Sienna. “Do you think me so cold?”

Sienna blushed, and turned away. “Not this morning, Countess.”

Viola smiled, and looked ahead. This was wonderful news.

“I also expect the children to become nobles I would be glad to name my own.” She said. “Literate, well-spoken, accomplished. This is why I placed them where they are.”

“My father is a great man.”

“I was speaking of you.”

Sienna looked up.

“Oh, don’t look so surprised, Sienna.” Viola smiled. “You have a mind, buried in all that gossip and rumor. I would not give you a great task if I did not expect you to rise to the occasion.”

She nodded to the lady. “So when you are ready to come out of the funk you have placed yourself in, return to my house. We have much to discuss.”

The great house loomed ahead. Viola stopped, and sighed.

“Nalus!” she shouted. “I have grown rather weary with all this excitement. And Sienna, I hope, is competent enough to show the Koskovs her own home.”

Nalus nodded. “Would you prefer the carriage back?”

“No I would not.” Viola said. “How else is Nadia to return to the manse tonight?”

“Tonight?” Nadia asked.

Viola’s eyes steeled. “Tonight. You are to take rooms in my house, after all.”

“But the children…”

“Are cared for.” Viola said. “Clearly.”

“Mama?” Pietr asked. “You’re going?”

Nadia looked back to Viola. The Countess stared ahead. Nadia’s presence at the house was expected by Viola. If the mother were to try and talk her way out of it, who knows what Viola would reconsider.

“I’m going, children.”

Viola grunted. “Late this afternoon. After the children have seen their rooms and are settled in.”

Nadia nodded. “Thank you, Countess.”

Viola looked at the morning sky. “The dinner bell rings at seven o’clock. It waits for none but I, Nadia. I expect your company tonight, as shall the chefs.”

“Of course.”

Viola nodded. “Very well. Your health, Sienna. Give my regards to your father, and tell him his presence in my house is missed.”

“At once, Countess.” Sienna said.

Viola considered. They were off-balance, but perhaps later they would think her benevolent. She would need to start thinking of her next cruelty.

“On your way.” She turned around. “Nalus, Jakob. Guards. Let us depart.”

Viola tried to keep herself apart from the men as they returned home. She was not hitting the mark yet. There wasn’t enough steel, enough ice in her veins. She knew that she needed to be hard, to be uncompromising in some respects. But others…what else could she do but be kind?

“Your father would have had those families executed.” Nalus said.

Viola sighed. She would have to get used to Nalus’ appearance. Even in his age he was her own personal phantom.

“Most likely.”

“Illyana especially.” Nalus said. “The Koskovs did not seem to know anything, but to reward the family of a traitor with a courtly life…”

“A chance at a life, Nalus.” Viola said. “And these families hold anger not completely without reason.”

“Most anger is not without reason.” Nalus said. “This does not make it any more wise to reward it.”

Viola looked on ahead. “Not at all. You are right on that respect.”

Nalus nodded.

“Which is why in the dead of night, you are going to strangle Illyana Petrovich.” Viola said. “Bare-handed, in front of her two remaining children.”

The adviser looked at her. Viola smiled. “You are not to kill her. Just a small reminder of what the Konstantins are capable of.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Or do you disapprove of that?”

“Not killing her, and doing it in front of her children, would only create more problems.”

“I am well aware of this.” Viola said. “Just as making the name Petrovich synonymous with martyr. This family is not going to dictate my actions as if I were a petty chieftan dealing with rebels.”

She stopped, and pulled Nalus in close. “We wait. Months, until next winter even. If Illyana has not changed her ways, or even worse follows in her husband’s path, her eldest child’s body will turn up gored by some animal in the woods. Six weeks later the middle shall drown in the lake.”

Viola looked at Gregor, sitting astride a Guard’s horse. “And if she still shall not change her ways I will cut her youngest’s throat myself in her home, before I set that miserable cottage ablaze. Is that what my father would have done?”

Nalus shook his head. Vlad was never so methodical, so vicious. He wondered if this girl truly had the gall to move forward with it, should it come to pass.

“I am not my father, Nalus.” Viola snarled. “I am not some idiot tyrant whose first, last, and only response to pressure is to smack it down with brute force. First we shall try honeyed wine. Kind words, and kinder actions. Make those around us actually want those in power to remain so. A novel idea for the Valley, I’m sure.

“If the people do not respond, then the cold winds shall blow, Nalus. And your skills will be mine. But not if I can avoid it. Until then, we play with kindness.”

Nalus bowed his head. “As you wish, Countess.”

Viola smiled. “Then fetch me some new players for our new music instructor. I expect to have a string quintet. We are to have a ball in three months’ time, and I shan’t disappoint my guests.”

Viola rode on to the house in silence.

To be hard requires all of me.

But to be hard with purpose, is both easier and far more difficult. The Koskovs are in my grasp now, I can sense their desire to be mine just as Jakob starts to pine for my every word. Illyana and Nalus, however, shall require my coldest gaze. They will only respect me when I have demonstrated strength time and time again until my very essence breaks under the strain.

Then there is Sienna. Dear, naïve Sienna, what can I do to make her perfect? Hard words, with kind undertones, it all revolves around the girl’s desire to be more than she has ever been. Will I reach her? Or will the strain break her, just as it threatens always to break me?

I will not break. I fear that will be my undoing.

copyright 2017 Jack Holder

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