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

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