Arcane Inkdustries

Magical writings in a Mundane World (Tuesdays and Fridays)

Category: In Constant Fealty (Page 1 of 2)

Dance Through the Formals

  

          If I just killed everybody, I would have absolute power.

            That’s what it would take, dear no-one. No one able to do anything that could possibly be contrary to my wishes. Pile up the corpses in amusing ditches, or freeze them in my atrium, to better remember the sight of another human being.

            There is a certain appeal. I could terrify the beasts of the fields, and the birds that dared light upon my battlements. Animals would flee in terror, taking the vermin and vile insects with them. The very plants would shrink away from my presence.

            I would look out into this cold world I had built for myself. Weep frozen tears in solitude. Tears of joy that all they beheld was in their frozen grasp. And at a ripe old age, they would die in peace. For some this would be the ennui they so desired. My father among them.

            There is too much work to be done. Too much life in me to consider such isolation.

            This is why I did it. Why I changed the world.

The smell of burning smoke did not bother Sienna. Viola had always enjoyed the warmth and feel of a fire in her room before. The young girl could remember spending so much time in her friend’s room before, the happiness. Viola had always filled her days with books, her nights with song. To spend those nights with Sienna were memories she always treasured.

And it would be tonight. Sienna looked out the window to the setting sun. It was odd, seeing it so quiet. She would always expect the ending of a day to be filled with more of nature’s fanfare. Well, humanity more than made up for the rest of creation. There was the murmur of voices, the titter tatter of footsteps. All growing ever closer to the manse of the Konstantin family.

They were all coming. Viola had called for a winter gala, a showing off of the Konstantin valley. Anyone who was anyone, and many more who weren’t, were expected to attend. Viola had invited everyone who was able. There would be food, and dancing, and people.

Sienna should be downstairs, in a guest room. She could picture it now, her struggling through that last tightening of a corset that by all rights she had no business in. all the while pressuring the servant girls for every juiciest bit of gossip that she could wield for the night’s events. She would blush at one particularly scandalous piece that she was already well aware of, and give a titter at the very thought of dishonor. It was marvelous.

But instead she was here. Already dressed, though in a dress she never believed would rest on her. A golden brown that set off her fair skin, sparkling in the fading sunlight. It held no neckline so daring that gentlemen feared falling into its depths, or a hem that hugged her curves just so. No, it was a functional dress, that allowed her movement, while still looking beautiful.

Sienna never wanted beautiful. Beautiful was not enough. She had to be vexing, so dangerous that others could not help but be enchanted by her before she even opened her mouth. The little noble girl was supposed to be a walking scandal.

But not today. Viola had insisted upon it.

The countess herself stood by the window. She watched the sun set, eyes narrowed into the final blazes of the day. To Sienna, it seemed as if Viola demanded the day end, but only on her own terms. It seemed more certain at the small smirk that graced her lips as the sun finally disappeared behind the horizon.

She turned to Sienna, and the smile deepened.

“Tonight,” she said. “Is about power.”

“Power, countess?”

Viola leaned against the wall, smiling. “That is all a dance is truly about. Who has the best food, the best house. The finest musicians, the most extravagance.”

She walked over to her cabinet. The countess was wearing a midnight blue dress, hemmed in white that flowed like water as she moved. She found a necklace of white gold, with a single white diamond inlaid in a cage of gold. She placed it around her neck, and walked over to the door.

“Those in power do not have to prove they are such,” Sienna said.

Viola stopped, and smiled. “Too true, Sienna. True power does not need these pretty frills.”

The countess raised her hand. She concentrated, willing ice to form. It trailed out of her fingertips like mist, hardening to a perfect replica of her diamond.

“This is true power,” Viola said. She held the false diamond in her hand. “It is strong. It will not break under the force of words, nor the harsh tide of emotion. When all is said and done, it will only be held in my hands.”

She crushed the ice. It snapped and cracked against her skin, threatening to cut in response. She tossed the powder into the fireplace, watching it hiss into steam.

“And when it finds something more powerful, all it can do is break.” Viola murmured.

“Tonight, we are after different power. Something far more elusive, more treacherous. It will require base fawning, some insecure words, and many promises that will never be kept.”

She smiled, and held out her hands to Sienna. “Come, let’s go politick.”

To say the countess had spared no expense would be unfair to her efforts. She had not merely bought the night’s extravagances. She had entranced them there, willed them into being through a voice that’s seduction was matched only by its own willpower. Tonight was not a cheap little hussy that sat in taverns, awaiting the highest bidder. This night was the first princess, so enraptured by the gifts that awaited it now stood on the front steps to do Viola’s bidding.

The music that graced her ears was the first step for her. A full string orchestra, the instruments singing out a fanfare for the first guests. The music sailed around the manse, filling the ears with delight and turning all to the main hall.

The orchestra itself was rather new, and an eclectic affair. Many had never met before they sat down with each other a week previous. It was to be expected, given their varying backgrounds. Three of the musicians, the cellist and two viola players, were from the city, picked up for thievery. Viola had mandated that their hands would be better put to use at the string than on the chopping block.

They played next to two noblewomen on the harp and lute, respectively. To think that their time spent in the countess’ manse would have led to such an event as this. Performing instead of partaking, how could they have considered such an action?

There was a blacksmith’s daughter on a bass. One of Sienna’s friends had his piano delivered to the manse for practice, and ended up accompanying the orchestra. None seemed to have known that anyone else in the valley even liked music.

Their conductor tapped out a beat with his foot. He occasionally tried to lift his fingers, forgetting the tremble in his hands. Therefore he kept them locked to his sides, for fear of disturbing the players.

Instead, they relied on his eyes. With but a flick towards a section he could change tempo, chide a flat note, or horror of horrors, note someone out of tune. None wanted to be subject to his gaze longer than it took to bring the next movement to bear.

He was back. He was a musician.

God bless Viola.

Viola and Sienna waited behind the doors leading into the living quarters. Just beyond the doors, the two girls could hear the party start to truly roar. Every minor functionary had found themselves at the event. They wheeled about, saying hello, expressing surprise at everyone else who simply had to come as well. Viola almost laughed at the seventh time this happened.

Sienna waited, and then looked to Viola. “Are we going in?”

Viola waved her off and said “no, but you go. I’m going to listen.”

Sienna was about to protest. This was Viola’s event, one of the highlights of her reign to date. But Sienna was already starting to understand Viola’s harsh pleasure, and how quickly it could change to a cold fury. She bowed, and walked into the hall.

The young noble was immediately engulfed. All the gentlemen, and ladies, suddenly pressing up against her! She was behind the door, she had seen the countess!

“Dearest Sienna, it has been far too long…”

“You have just come from the main quarters? Ah, yes yes…has it changed at all since I was there last?”

“Countess Viola, she seems to count you among her closest friends. Perhaps you could pass along a small request…”

Parasites, the lot of them. Sienna recognized the ilk. She had been such for so long, it was quite like staring in an old mirror. All these questions that went from barely improper to bordering on stalking. What was she like in her private moments, what was her favorite food? What was she like in the dead of night when none were watching?

Sienna danced around some questions, politely answered what questions she could, evaded most, and managed to make one feigned stumble send a plate of hors d’oeuvres down the dress of the pesky little Prinscilla Vetress. She excused herself for a moment, and retired to a corner with some sappy gentleman.

As he bungled his way through his oath of undying affection for her, Sienna considered her deepening apprehension. Not a few months ago she would have relished in the opportunity to be amongst that rabble. Soaking in all that juicy gossip, spreading anything that barely qualified as rumor or innuendo. Now, it bored her. Sycophants, the lot of them. Was there anything better they could do with their lives than think about the finer details of the life of a celebrity?

Sienna blamed the children. The Koskov children she had been saddled with. They were so, demanding. Not in any word, but it was as if their very existence required a new level of being for the young noble. Sienna lived in fear of their mother, who must have been hiding somewhere in this party, and her disapproval. One word from her to Viola and Sienna did not even want to fathom what punishment would visit her.

It could not be because she liked the children. They were gross, and loud, and cared nothing about the finer things in life. Like gossip! Instead, they just did their studies, and cared for her father’s house, and gave their opinions on matters that Sienna brought before them. So ignoble.

“I love you.”

Sienna’s attention snapped back to the man in front of her. She waved him away. Dejected, he wilted towards another part of the party. Sienna gave him no other thought. He would either get over her, or compose poetry.

“Sienna! Sienna!”

Sienna looked over, and smiled. Yoric had finally arrived. The young man was once again a glorious disaster of fashion, a blood-red cravatte clashed with his salmon attire. The dandy had spent his adolescence running from one lady’s bed to the next. Sienna could not confirm one way or another how many of the new generation of ladies Yoric had spent the early morning hours with, only that Countess Viola and herself were not among them.

He was a boor, a womanizer, and – quite possibly the most hated of professions – a minstrel. She loved him incessantly. They traded pecks on the cheek, and Yoric looked her over.

“Sienna, my dear, you look ravishingly…boring.”

Sienna blushed. “Apologies, Yoric. The countess requested I dress like this.”

“Like a spinster?” Yoric picked at the dress. “Mmhmm.”

Sienna could not have been more embarrassed. To think that Yoric was calling her plain, this was just too much to bear.

“No matter, we shall find more, rebellious pursuits, for later,” He murmured. Turning his gaze back to the party, his smirk deepened. “Now, how is the decadence going?”

Sienna smiled. “Quite tame, at the moment.”

“Missing a certain flavor?” Yoric asked. “Count Vlad always seemed to have a splash of red to spice up the festivities. Perhaps his daughter…”

“Has not yet made an appearance.” Sienna said, a bit too quickly. She didn’t want to look like she was defending the countess. Viola would be most cross with her for that.

Yoric frowned, and gazed at her. “I must say, Viola has become most peculiar. Not herself at all, not at all. Some people are starting to feel worried.”

“Some people are idiots,” Sienna muttered.

“Sienna!” Yoric gaped openmouthed at her. Sienna frowned, and realized she had spoken aloud. What was happening to her?

“I meant that to give our new countess no time at all, it is truly unwise,” she explained. “Viola is understanding the trappings and responsibilities that have been thrust upon her at such a young age.”

Sienna flashed her most winning smile at Yoric. “But perhaps this dance shall change your mind of her reign.”

Sienna realized later her many mistakes. Under Vlad’s rule, she was nothing more than a pretty face, with no more power than any other silly girl. That powerlessness freed her to dally in rumors, to be vapid, and boor.

Now, however, she learned she must be on guard. Shielding from Yoric’s cutting words, his insinuations on their ruler. His bored expression was interrupted with minor flashes of lust.

Yoric was on the prowl tonight. And he had spotted a few choice prey for his appetites.

He moved forward on a particularly buxom serving girl. He slapped on a charming smile, and slid next to her. “Excuse me, my dear, have you…”

The serving girl ignored him. Ignored him! Yoric moved to correct the situation.

And almost smacked into a monster.

The dancing had stopped. For many, breathing had stopped.

Nothing about the newcomers was right. Some of the men and women had the wrong color skin. It was the color of ash, or fire, or money. They wore unusual clothes, long flowing robes that wrapped around themselves, and skintight vests that were studded with jewels. Strange painted faces, symbolizing animals the nobles of the valley had never seen before. Cloths were piled high on the head, other headdresses that were made of antler, wood, and bone.

But at least they were human. Not the others, those…things. One had wings, floating above the dance floor as it folded its long, twiglike fingers. Another had the head of a bull, snorting at any who got too close. The bull woman sneered openly, wearing battle armor to a dance. A flock of colored lights flit from the drinks table to the orchestra and back around through the rafters, causing a stir.

Myths and legends that had faded from memory were suddenly real. Nobles wanted to scream, or draw swords. Could they even hurt such monstrosities?

Viola clapped her hands. Lords and ladies backed away, stunned. Their ruler had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and yet stood in the center of the dance floor. How could she maneuver such? What did she have planned?

“Honored guests, of all race and species,” Viola opened her arms wide. “Welcome to Konstantin Valley.”

She was met with silence. The strange humans, the myths, stared at the Valley folk, judging their mettle. Some may have broken and run. Others stared back, meeting the challenge with their own.

Viola for her own part kept her smile, and even followed it up with a laugh. “Come now, Aphroda,” She grunted once, and gave a low groan. The bull woman’s eyes widened, and gave a low call in response. Viola lifted her head, baring her neck, and called out again.

Aphroda laughed, and clapped. “Your accent is horrible, countess.”

“Blame an inattentive father,” Viola said. She bowed low to the rest of the guests. “I am Viola Konstantin, countess of Konstantin Valley, and it is an honor to have you all here as guests.”

The myths relaxed, and started to titter. Sienna at this point had made her way over to the conductor, and with a few choice words and a kick at the harpist, the music began again.

The scene then became what one could call more normal. The Konstantin nobles, after fear and suspicion, were struck with curiosity at the new exotics. They crowded all the newcomers, peppering them with questions about homelands and customs. When it was found that they were only busybodies with money, the guests became much more receptive. In mere minutes visitations both to and from the Valley were being arranged, as well as the possibility of trade.

Viola moved through it all in smiles. A calm word here, a reassuring hand or gesture there, was all it took to turn the conversation even more genial. All the guests were sensing something new, and the newness was an opportunity that none had ever considered. Viola could almost count the petitions that were being conceived as she passed by. Konstantin was discovering the world, and it was excited.

“Would the countess perhaps like a dance?”

Viola turned to meet a pair of eyes floating before her. They were connected to what could only be described as a willowman. Seeming to be made more of bark than flesh, the pale wood was contorted in a hopeful smile. He towered over her, easily standing over ten feet tall. He bent down at what Viola would have called an unnatural angle. His height was compensated for by an astonishing thinness. Viola wondered if she wrapped her hands around his hips if they would touch, even with the extremely loose-fitting vest and leggings.

He blinked a few times, bright blue eyes clenched in worry. “Countess?”

Viola smiled, and patted his cold hands. “You have my name. But I do not dance with nameless men, no matter how charming their requests.”

The treeman blushed, and bowed. “Willow Sam, countess. I am a part of the fae retinue.”

“The fae?” Viola said. “I do not believe I know the race.”

Willow Sam shrugged. “It is a human term, describing much of us. Elves, dwarves, ogres, even fairies and treemen.”

“I see.” Viola said.

“I would be happy to tell you more of it later, but the most important thing you should know,” Willow Sam extended his hand again. “Is that the fae are extraordinarily fine dancers.”

“Then I shall put all my efforts into proving your equal,” Viola said. She followed the treeman to the dance floor. All moved out of their way, fascinated. The countess had not been seen dancing since her coronation, and rarely before then. How would she fare? Would the treeman step all over her? Would someone explode?

The tune changed to a waltz. Viola’s smile deepened, and moved closer. She grasped Willow Sam’s hands, matching his gait as best she could. Placing her hand at his shoulder was simply out of the question, but they still managed to make a fine dancing team. They swept one way and another, clearing the dance floor of any who would dare challenge them.

“You are quite a fascinating woman, countess.” Willow Sam said.

“I would say the same, Willow Sam.” Viola’s eyes twinkled. “But I am afraid I have no reference for treemen.”

“Don’t worry, I’m the best.” He said. “Trust me.”

Viola laughed. Oh, this felt wonderful. Yes, there was intrigue,  and plotting. In the back of her mind, she was already considering the tariffs and taxes she would have to impose on these potential deals. But to see this man just want to dance with her for a moment, that was truly worth everything.

Willow Sam smiled, and moved with her for a time. They let the music wash over them, carrying all cares far away. The night air gave a wondrous chill, filtering through the guests to reach them in a cooling breeze. As the last of the song faded away, the two dancers felt more refreshed than when they had begun.

Viola curtseyed to the treeman. “You are a most gracious dancer,” she said. “Thank you for giving me such an opportunity.”

Willow Sam bent down to her ear. “Thank you for showing us the Valley,” he whispered.

Viola cocked an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

Willow Sam smiled. “This place, this valley. You can feel the new life. The trees, they are singing of fresh magic in their boughs. And you opened it up for us.”

Viola smiled wide, and pulled him close. She kissed him, hard. The taste of sap and trees filled her mouth.

His lips tensed in surprise. His responding kiss was slow, unsure.  Soon his passions overruled, his tongue reaching for her own. The countess responded with teeth, biting down.

Willow Sam’s eyes widened. He dared not pull away, as the countess was latched on most forcefully. She did not release till she had tasted his green blood.

Viola could feel the stares upon her. It reached at her, from foreign eyes and her own countrymen alike. Some snuck glances behind drinks and outstretched hands. A few, like Sienna, gaped openly. Good, keep up the guessing.

“Keep smiling, dear Sam.” She whispered, never opening her teeth. “There are people watching.”

The treeman was quicker than she imagined. His winning smile was back, holding her close. He winked at a few passerby. The guests quickly returned to their former conversation, spiced with this new intrigue that their ruler had given them.

Viola felt a bittersweet elation at her nobility. They were so, small-minded. A ruler would say they hoped their highest class of citizenry were obsessed with ideas such as philosophy, the arts, finance, and philanthropy. Instead they whittled away their time with base gossip, trading in rumors and false tales like a local fishmonger or village idiot.

However, her nobles took rumor-mongering extremely seriously. It was not just a frivolous hobby to many of these lords and ladies. They used scandal the way a stonemason would use her favorite chisel, shaping away the raw mineral to something that could be better fit in the construction. They whispered rumors in the right ears, greased the right palms, all for the slightest advantage. Any who stood in their way would soon find themselves publically disgraced. Whether or not such treatment was warranted was irrelevant.

It was a callous way to look at the world, and one that only those of quality could afford. To see life not as a product, or a method, but worse, as facetious entertainment. If the countess had her way, this vapid mannerism would be strung up by its own bloated self-esteem.

But it was too entrenched in the hearts of the populace. Viola’s father Vlad had fostered it, relished in the intrigue. Having the nobles so focused on the vapid left him free to enact any program he wished. And if such intrigue and rumor started to latch onto him, he responded with pure indifference. Rumors had no effect on the ruler who did not care about his self-image and reputation.

Viola cared. She needed a reputation, especially so early in her reign. If she were to have any chance of living to see the coming spring, she would need to conquer intrigue. She would not be above scandal, but rather its master.

She took the treeman’s hand and led him to the balcony. No one dared follow, and after she closed the door, they were alone.

“Countess?” Willow Sam was afraid. Or excited, or so confused that his emotions had taken leave of his senses. What was to make of this human?

Viola walked to the edge. She leaned against the balcony, enjoying the night air. The din of the crowd had lessened to a dull roar, broken by the cool night and the closed door. The snows were coming soon, closing off any pass that lead into the Valley.

“Viola?” Willow Sam dared.

“Yes, good Tree Lord?” Viola said.

Willow Sam stiffened. “Humans do not know our titles,” He said.

“Apparently that is incorrect.” Viola said. “Though not making your title known did leave the staff in a bind on how best to accommodate you.”

Willow Sam threw his hands up in the air. “Good countess, what am I supposed to say to that?”

Viola shrugged, and turned away.

Willow Sam spluttered. This was supposed to be fact-finding endeavor. Konstantin Valley had opened its borders, apparently with a new ruler. He and much of the fae had gone forth to investigate. He had hated to leave his grove, but to leave this to others would have been a diplomatic catastrophe. Besides, they had expected nothing more than a backwater, with very little in terms of governance.

Instead, he had come upon this, this creature. Forceful, forward, and at the same time seeming so fragile. He wanted to wrap his arms around her in comfort even as his hands reached for her throat. Worse still, the treeman suspected this was exactly what she intended.

The best response was none, as of yet. He remained, freezing, and wondering if he should kiss her or flee in terror.

“What do the trees want?”

Viola looked out into the Valley. “That is our greatest resource, Willow Sam. Lumber that has been plentiful and hardy in these cold climes.”

She smiled. “But would a treeman want to endorse the cutting of such lives as trees? Are we committing murder in your eyes, on a scale so wide that it could tear the heart from me if I could feel for the branches?”

Willow Sam joined her on the balcony. He looked out, and nodded. “It’s pine here. No spirits, but still a certain amount of power.”

“Power?”

“Life, countess.”

Willow Sam frowned, considering his words. “The taking of a tree is not in itself tragic. Life has gone on, and even the oldest tree must fall. But the wholesale cut, tearing up groves that lasted for millennia before man even stepped foot on this world…”

“Is not what I intend.” Viola said. “Konstantin Valley is about to become a resource to the outside world. And in our haste we may want to prove ourselves better than our means. But with care, we may become far better than we could ever hope for, especially with the guidance from an interested…tree gardener.” She inclined her head slightly toward the treeman.

Willow Sam smiled at that.

“And the treemen could have another grove that extends further than they have ever been before,” he said. Viola nodded. “A nice little thought. Treemen have no need for castles, or rule. We merely want our trees protected and cared for. You pick your dalliances most wisely, countess.”

Viola merely bowed her head.

A loud belch broke the silence.

“What happened, Sam? Your sap get stuck?”

Neither Viola nor Sam had heard the doors open behind them. Viola knew immediately who the dwarf was. She knew every soul that had been invited, and many who were considered likely crashers. This was no crasher, but he remained very much a problem. His name was Persival Glittern.

The belch did not describe him in the slightest. His attire was made of the finest metals, being one of the few fae to be able to touch iron without ill effect. A true dwarven construct, the metals were wrought so finely, and with such cunning, that his attire seemed to move and fold like silk. It shimmered like his namesake, highlighting his gray beard and dark eyes.

Persival nodded to Willow Sam, “Finding a new place to take root, Sam?”

The treeman bowed once. To Viola. “Countess, it was a pleasure to get to know you. Perhaps I may call upon you tomorrow, say for a repast?”

Viola nodded. “We shall continue our discussion then. It was a shame we were cut off.”

Persival bared his teeth. “Bummer.”

The treeman stalked back into the hall.

“Now then, countess…”

Viola returned to looking at the trees. Persival walked up to her. “It seems you have much to discuss with anyone who might interest you.”

Viola remained silent. The trees really did look quite lovely. She made a mental note to speak with Willow Sam in particular about maintenance and aesthetics. A grove of trees really could be as wonderful as flowers.

Persival stayed a foot behind her. He made a few noncommittal grunts in an attempt to make conversation, which were pointedly ignored.

Persival nodded, and turned away. “When we destroy Konstantin Valley, shall we tell the tale of the vain girl who would not lower herself to talking with a dwarf?”

Viola turned around, and stared at him. “There’s a good girl.”

Persival motioned back to the crowd. “Such a lovely rabble you have in there. They are all so…fine. Elegantly dressed, with the choicest morsels of gossip that you choose to feed them with.

“We’ll be sure to rid the world of them first.”

Persival clenched his fist. “We will burn this manse to the ground. Fill your serfs’ lungs with the ashes of your dead. The very stones will turn against any in this Valley. And when all of humanity has become dust, we will wipe its memory from the planet.”

Viola smiled. “We may have begun on the wrong track.”

Persival lashed out, striking her to the ground. Viola slammed into the balcony. She gasped, trying to draw breath.

“You stupid, insignificant girl. You can charm the humans, seduce that little sap of a treeman. I know the truth, I was there. I know what you have done.”

Viola raised her hand. Persival grabbed it, and clenched. Viola bit her lip, trying not to cry out.

“A meager taste of power and humans want to devour the world. What did you think would happen when you took over this little backwater of swill? That you would invite all these fun little creatures and they would just fall in love with you?”

Persival spat. “You arrogant little bitch. You tore open the seal.”

Persival looked down in contempt. “You are so pathetic.”

Viola lay there, staring ahead. Her hand remained in Persival’s fist.

After a moment he finally released her. “You will end this bacchanal of mediocrity. Withdraw back into your little world. I never want to hear about this Valley from nowhere, ever again.”

Viola stood up, and dusted herself off. She patted Persival on the cheek, and smiled.

“Would you like to see the grounds?”

She gripped him by the hand, and led the dwarf firmly down the edge of the balcony.

“We never have outsiders from beyond the Valley. Generations of Konstantins have spent their capital and life’s blood trying to improve upon this great manse, and yet no one sees it that hasn’t witnessed it a thousand times before. This is a rare opportunity to be truly vain and self-aggrandizing, one I would not want to waste it.”

Persival looked at her. “Did you not just hear a word I said? I intend…”

“I hear everything, Persival,” Viola said. “And worse, I remember.” She turned. Persival wrenched free from her grip. That glare, it pierced at him. It was a gaze of steel and resolve. She demanded respect, and by the gods, she would have it.

“Especially on such a momentous night, I will remember.”

She smiled. “But, here! Look, isn’t this magnificent?”

Indeed it was, though many would challenge its grace. The Konstantins did not have use for flowers, or greenhouses. Glass was too costly, and summer too short for such frivolities. Instead, they invested in orchards and ivy. Apple, cherry, and a host of other fruit-bearing trees were arranged around the gardens.

The orchards were, for the most part, unoccupied. There were couples scattered throughout, hoping for a moment’s respite from the party. Perhaps they found it romantic, to be surrounded by what they considered a wild nature.

What was more interesting was the layout. The trees were displayed in a pattern that buggered the mind. It swirled one way, and then another. Persival would have sworn a rune was shown, if he could understand it.

The center was bare. There was a gash in the earth, gaping wide and sore. Crystal bits of frost and ice winked at the edges. Persival felt that something was supposed to be there, but could not understand just what.

Viola sighed. “I’ve always loved these orchards. I would get lost in them for hours on end. Hidden amongst the branches, counting the leaves, and hoping to predict the harvest for the next year.

“But, though I was lost, I was never unsure of where I was.”

Viola pointed to a copse of trees. “Those apples, they were my favorite hiding spot when Vlad took off his belt. If that strip of leather came off, he was more than five drinks in. In such a stupor, he would only drift left, and move in a clockwise manner. I could easily track his movements as I walked one way to another.”

She smiled, and pointed to a bed of ivy. “That is where I slept when he had found another whore. I knew he did not want to be reminded he had had a mistake of a daughter when he was entertaining. It was soft and cool in the summer heat.”

Viola almost giggled at the next thought. “Though in the winter, I almost froze to death when he had a whole pack of sisters to himself for a week.”

Viola stayed quiet for a moment, and nodded. “Every tree, every blade of grass has a story of my cowardice. Of how I was never strong enough, or quick enough, or smart enough. There was always someone there who could take everything away.

“Even now, being countess, I know that this will always be the case. There will always be those who can destroy me, destroy the Valley. Any misstep may be our last.”

Viola gripped Persival by the throat. Even with his stout nature and weighted clothes, she lifted him with ease.

“As such, I tend to look poorly on thinly veiled threats from those I know cannot back them up.”

Persival scratched and wrenched at her grip. How did she hold him? She was a human, powerless. But her grip was worse than iron, unbreakable.

“Let me make this abundantly clear for those who sent you,” Viola said. “I will comport myself as a ruler should. I will be courteous to my guests, and more than fair to my allies. I will be more than willing to give aid to those in need, and Konstantin Valley can be a place of refuge to those who have a use but not a home to their name.

“But if you seek to raise your hand against me, a word of advice. Strike before I know you exist. Obliterate me utterly. Salt the bones, grind them into dust. Because if I rise again, you shall never die. I will make your agony eternal. You will beg for death, for a merciful end. And it shall never come.”

Viola dropped the dwarf on his rear. “Go speak to your idiot lords. Tell them the countess has fangs, and a quick hand.”

Persival scrambled back to his feet. He made to run.

Viola smiled. “Oh, and send Sienna out as you leave. I do miss her company so.”

Sienna appeared. It seemed out of the ether, though she had never left from more than a hundred paces away. A true feat of skill and artistry, maneuvering through the dance and conversations along the edge of the wall while keeping an eye on her countess. Not a challenge for the lady of rumor and innuendo, but it did strain her skills a bit.

“You called, countess?”

Viola’s shoulders slumped, she waved her hand, and let the cold drift up out of her hands. Snow began to fall, obscuring the two ladies from view. Another effort, but some discretion was needed.

“The dwarf shall be trouble,” Viola said.

“The little man?” Sienna asked. “Not the tree man?”

“Tree Lord,” Viola corrected absentmindedly. “And yes. Willow Sam shall be joining us for a luncheon tomorrow.”

Sienna bowed. “Wonderful, countess. He is a…remarkably fine…specimen.”

Viola glared. “I have no interest in mating with a tree, Sienna. The only way to get some privacy in this house is to make it perceived a dalliance is imminent.”

Sienna smiled. That was true enough. “What would you have of me?”

Viola looked at the orchards, and beckoned Sienna onward. They moved down from the balcony into the trees.

“Describe how the evening has gone,” Viola said.

Sienna smiled. “This will keep the nobles placated for months. They won’t be happy with you, of course. Week after week there will be requests for a trade route, or an embargo against a rival family. They will be so busy scrambling for advantage, you will have an opportunity to finally get some peace and consolidation. All the while collecting taxes and bribes on every arrangement that is reached.”

“All true, go on.”

Sienna’s smile flickered, and faded. She knew that Viola was not expecting her to be smarter than her, or more observant. That just did not seem possible. Instead, she was hoping to prove that her investment in the vain girl was worth it.

“The…magical beings, are a wild card. There’s no way to tell how every one of them, or every thing…” She quailed under the intake of Viola’s breath. “Will be received. At the moment they’re a curiosity, but later? A threat. A new choice fruit for advancement? No one can know. It is just too exotic.”

Gods above, Viola loved this woman’s mind. She thought in ways that were her own, and yet she was able to say what she did not know. She wanted to please her countess, but Sienna was not going to pretend to knowledge that she did not have. This was possibly more valuable than an army.

However, she was still young. Younger than Viola by no more than a couple of years, but much younger in the mind. Even if the noble was maturing with children to look after, she had not yet developed. She needed iron in her stomach, and a will that would not bend.

Sienna had not yet made a hard decision in her life. Viola knew that was to change immediately.

“Yoric is on the prowl again,” the countess remarked.

Sienna smiled. Yoric, a true joy. The dandy did not seem to have anything but good humor in his body. A quick wit, quicker laugh, all wrapped up in such a delectable package.

Viola returned the good humor. “You like him.”

“Absolutely, countess.”

“Some would say that his antics are a bit too risqué, even for our nobility.”

“Some people have an overdeveloped sense of propriety.” Sienna retorted. She blanched, realizing who she had spoken to.

But Viola laughed, and placed a hand to her mouth. “Ah, never change your fire, Sienna. You are one of the few who will still find the courage to challenge my views.”

Sienna bowed. “Countess.”

Viola’s smile disappeared. “And I know of your affection for Yoric. He is amusing to those above his station. And a sexual tyrant to those beneath him.”

“Countess?”

Viola pointed into a copse of trees. “Remove him, and explain the new order.

“Or I shall.”

Sienna stared at her ruler. Viola returned the gaze, before walking back to the manse. Her steps faded away, leaving the girl alone. Sienna gathered up her dress, and walked into the trees.

She could hear Yoric before she had taken three steps underneath the branches. He was obviously hard at work, given the panting and groans that emanated from behind a particularly robust oak tree. Underneath the grunting and fumbled sound of ripped cotton, Sienna could hear a slight whimper.

The whimper gave her resolve, of a kind. She cleared her throat in the tree’s direction. Her sound was either ignored, or not heard. She tried again, more forcefully. Still no response.

“Yoric,” she called out. There was a gasp, and a hoarse curse. The girl stepped away first. A pretty, buxom thing, her blonde hair mussed beyond all sense of fashion. Her serving clothes were in disarray, but she held onto a shred of decency and propriety. Her gaze immediately swept down and at an angle, not willing to look the noble girl in the eye.

Yoric poked his head out from behind the tree. His makeup was smudged, making the wild gaze in his eyes all the more frantic. “Just give me a sec…Sienna?”

Sienna ignored him, and looked at the girl. Sienna tried to not just see this girl, but to understand every movement and the meaning behind them. The serving girl shivered, and withdrew within herself. This was not someone who was embarrassed to have been found out. She felt shame.

Sienna drew closer, and whispered in the girl’s ear.

“What are you afraid of?”

The girl gasped. “I’m not afraid, miss. I would never…”

“Tell the truth.” Sienna put as much force behind the hushed tone as she could muster. The girl quailed. Sienna had to hold the girl’s shoulders to keep her from falling. The shaking grew with fury, gods she was so scared.

Sienna could not show any mercy or compassion. If she wanted truth, she needed to be harsh. “Silly girl, I know you work in the manse. Do you want me to bring the countess?”

“No!” The girl started to cry. “Nothing happened, miss. I promise, nothing happened.”

“Gods, Sienna!” Yoric had finally found his drawstring and pulled his pants clothes. He stood with no shirt on, looking shocked at Sienna’s behavior. “The girl was just here for fun. There’s no need to involve Viola.”

Sienna fixed him with a glare, silencing him. She turned to the girl again, who had never been released from her grip. “Tell the truth.”

The girl looked to Yoric. “Do not look at him, look at me,” Sienna commanded. “Who led you here?”

“Sienna, what are you…”

“Be silent!” Sienna shouted.

The girl’s sobs rose in pitch. “I’m sorry, miss. He said I needed to do it. I had to please him.”

She finally looked Sienna in the eye. The serving girl wiped her own cheek, and nodded. “Master Yoric is one of the kind ones. He don’t hurt anyone long as we stay quiet.”

“Stay quiet?” Sienna whispered. “How many of you are there?”

The girl looked up, puzzled at the question.

“All, miss. It’s expected.”

Sienna released the girl, and stepped backwards. She couldn’t look, she couldn’t breathe in the girl’s direction. All? All the servants? Viola employed dozens of girls. Cooks, maids, servers, stable women. Not to mention all the young men, or the hundreds that resided throughout the Valley.

What was going on? How had she been so blind to it?

“Sienna, just go away.” Yoric said. “Let me finish up, and we’ll talk.”

He pecked her on the cheek.

Sienna lashed out. Her blow struck him in the throat with a satisfying crunch. He fell to the ground, gasping for air. Her second strike was a kick straight between his legs, shattering all defenses. He collapsed to the ground, groaning.

Sienna ran out of the trees. She tore through the grounds, to the center of the orchard and that stark frozen plot.

“All the nobles!” She screamed. “Anyone, everyone, out of the trees!”

There was silence, confusion. Sienna? What was Sienna doing there?

“I know you’re out there,” She shouted. “If I have to, I’ll sic the entire house guard on you! We’ll parade any noble we find naked through the house for all to see!

“NOW!”

They came. A dozen and more. Mostly men, young and old, in various states of undress. More than a few women were there as well, using the suits of their ‘conquests’ for protection. Sienna knew all of them. Over half were married, three in the last six months alone.

The servants came out, and that was when Sienna felt true shame. They all seemed vaguely familiar. Like an old song, or perhaps a family horse that had long since passed on. She could sense that she should know them, that perhaps she had even spoken with one or two. But she did not even know their names.

“To all the servants,” She muttered. “You have real duties. The countess does not employ you for such services as this. Return to your quarters, and await further instructions.”

The servants left without a word. She turned on her class.

“I was sent to fetch one of you. But perhaps I was meant to see all of you…gross things. Preying upon the weak because you desire a moment of heated flesh.”

She pointed back up to the mansion. “There, in the hall you are supposed to be in, are foreigners. Distinguished guests and persons. They are here with opportunities for trade, art, diplomacy. And instead of taking every opportunity to forge new relationships, you are here. Grunting and thrusting like crazed bulls and cows.

“You all disgust me.”

“Who do you think you are, girl?” A lord asked. “You can’t speak to us in this way.”

Sienna laughed, a harsh and biting “ha” that hit him like a blow. “What, have I been too kind? Then let me be perfectly clear. This practice, this, this tradition, has ended. The servants, all servants, in every part of the Valley, are sacrosanct. They are extensions of the will of the highest citizen.”

“Sienna,” Yoric finally stumbled out. “Why are…”

“Never,” Sienna whispered. “Never speak to me again.”

She paused, and began anew. “Countess Viola knows of your actions. And she disapproves of them in totality. This is your first, last, and only warning.

“The servants are now considered a part of the countess. To touch them in such base manner is to make a pass at the countess. Do not forget how she deals with displeasure and assaults on her person.”

She turned back to the mansion to leave.

“Viola will hear of this!” Someone shouted.

She stopped at the edge, and nodded.

“If the countess,” she drew out the title as long as she dared. “If she had been with me, it is more than likely that none of you would have lived to see the morning.

Silence reigned among the trees, the only sound the soft music that filtered from manse.

“Reflect on that.”

Power resides where all believe it to be.

            I have heard this said often and with great reverence. And while it has always struck me as silly and ineffective towards building change, I must respect the truth of it. Power, the power to shape the world, is built far more on perception than reality.

            Armies do not rise and fall based on the strength of one tyrant’s will. Slings and arrows are not flung with the force to level mountains because of some fantastic spell. They are wielded by men and women who consider their side to be powerful, and right because of it.

            I maintain power in this early stage because of the curiosity of others. I hold a new talent, and a gender that is unused to the trappings of such prestige. To move beyond this, I shall need to normalize this new construct. Women must be seen as natural rulers.

            They will not be seen merely as objects of affection. Women are not the treasures of quests in need of honor’s defense. We are thorned, we wield beauty in the same way that a knight could hope to hold a sword.

            I am a woman. And you shall fear that, or you shall die.

copyright 2017-18 Jack Holder

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

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén