“Do not wait for a coronation; the greatest emperors crown themselves.” ― Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
The band played a rousing beat as the nubile belly dancer made old men forget their age and young girls dream of adoration. Shouts of approval to swinging hips, laughter and the cacophony of spectacle resounded through the forest. Celebration masked the sound of footsteps and padded paws moving along a hidden path that circled the parade field in a time-honored duty of service more than 800 years old.
A man adorned in the finery of wealth, the stature of high rank, and the cold stare of a killer moved along the grassy path within the woodline, his two-year-old wolf at his side. They paused. The young wolf stared ahead and whined a warning. Marius knew with every royal family from the ancient Wolf Clan awaiting the ascendancy of Lady Drăgana at the pavilion, only he and his men could stop their enemies from executing a final victory. An assassination of several of the family leaders would only repeat the history of violence and retribution.
“Steady Rolf, steady.” Marius placed a calming hand on the raised hackles of his lupine companion. The music and festivity continued unabated and unaware of the hatred that shaped their lives for more centuries than humans can conceive much less remember. The golden glow of the beast’s eyes pierced the forest and focused on the scent of a stranger in the wood. The hunt began in earnest. The desire for blood drove hunter and animal to innate fury.
* * *
Dari placed her hand on the back of her Duchess below the shoulder blades in a show of support as close friends often do. The tense muscles belied Alexandra’s stoic pose.
“Don’t worry My lady,” Dari said with reassuring tones as her hand sent warm sensations to Alexandra’s awareness. “You’ll see the faces of love in your subjects and you’ll know that everything you say and do will be for them.”
“I do hope so, Dari.” Alexandra turned to her handmaid and felt the strength of her words and saw the confidence in her narrowed ice blue eyes. “I have always been a performer to crowds, an object of their entertainment. I don’t really know how to be their leader.”
“When you walked down the walkway on your way to the fighting cage, did you not hold your head high and show your confidence? Did you not show you were unafraid in front of your opponent? Dari asked, knowing well the answer.
Visions of bloody faces raced across Alexandra’s mind coupled with those rare times she stole a wicked pleasure from her opponent. She faltered at the thought of her terrible need. She felt her iron core crack at the acknowledgment of her secret desire for the Viscount. How would she, so accustomed to the eroticism of pain, find a way to show such a man, she could love him?
Again, the calming touch of her dear friend who fulfilled her subservient role in such a way as to capture the heart of her master lay a soothing hand on Alexandra’s waist and drew near in a whisper.
“A leader need not prattle on to her subjects about business rules and the fine art of maneuver. No, My Lady, they need to see your confidence in yourself and your trust in them. Show them your strength, show them you are unafraid of your hellbound duty. Ask for their commitment to the greater good of the Wallachian people. Give them not words, but good deeds that prove you love them. They will love you in return and their lives will be like pure spring water in your hands and dry mouth.”
Alexandra held Dari in a tight, long-held embrace, feeling her warmth and breath mingled with her own. “I love you, Dari. Only Master Cho encouraged me in the way you do. I promise to make you proud.”
“Make them proud,” Dari whispered against the soft red glow of Alexandra’s ear and pointed the way up the steps to the pavilion.
* * *
The music stopped. The noise from the crowd died down in anticipation. After a long pause, trumpets blared and the drums beat a new rhythm. A long procession of people, men, and women, dressed in exquisite traditional clothing of the Dacian warrior clan filed down the rear walkway to the steps. There seemed a mix of dignified gray hair and defiant silky black braids and beards marching up the steps and disappearing like an army of ants on the top of the pavilion. Alexandra’s heart thumped in her chest as she took note of the curved ceremonial swords at the men’s side.
The band moved down to join the military guard around the pavilion. A Bishop of the Orthodox Patriarchate dressed in his cream-colored robe with golden ornate trim, and tall stylized crown moved slowly up the steps. His thick grey beard presented an elegant and ancient ghost to Alexandra and she shuddered, pushing away intrusive thoughts. When the priest stood beside a massive wooden chair with two wolves facing carved into the back. Dari nodded to Alexandra.
“The Viscount will call your name and then you will go to the side of the Bishop. They will speak English to you and then repeat in our language to the subjects and guests.”
Alexandra turned and faced up the ancient stairway. She steeled herself to calm her nerves and her confidence came as if beckoned. Like words are unspoken yet ringing in the subconscious, a final litany came to Alexandra as she looked skyward to a pair of circling ravens against the veil of white clouds in front of a cobalt sky.
“Questions are the torment of my enemies, their swords, their assaults on my womb. I prepare my answer to you more than the starlings that blacken the autumn sky, each a memory of my enemies’ dagger to my dignity and my people’s heart. My mind tortures me with mysteries of my past far beyond my life. Today I return to the present no longer a stranger to myself or my people. Fate is inexorable. I am inexorable.”
A wolf howled an alert to his companions in the wood. There was a collective shudder felt in the throngs of people and down Alexandra’s neck.