Her duties kept her locked away in the castle far longer than she had anticipated. The King had kindly allowed her with a guest suite of rooms in which to live whenever she needed to work late in her role as Finance Minister and these had been her residence since arriving in Fenia. This would never be home, however convenient it might be to remain at the castle, but it was certainly a more comfortable alternative to living in an Inn. The King had granted her an estate to oversee in addition to her Council duties, but getting a handle on things in the Finance Ministry had taken all of her time and energy in the early days so she had sent Iris on ahead to get the house in order. The steward had communicated through daily messages the state of affairs at Firestorm Manor. Her reports were concise yet detailed. Nikola knew Iris well enough to know that the more cryptic messages indicated the steward’s unhappiness with certain aspects and she had written back giving the steward full authority to make whatever personnel changes she deemed appropriate. Nikola trusted Iris explicitly in this. The woman had served her for years, inserting her expertise at the castle in Bravia when Nikola had served as Vicerine, and again at Grimstad House when she had been forced to leave her own comfortable home in Paz and move into the family estate.
Now she was finally on her way to her new home. It would be the first time she had ever seen the estate or the house that would become her home. She could have taken a carriage, but preferred to ride her faithful mare, Starr, as this allowed her to enjoy the Fenian countryside however leisurely she desired rather than being confined to a carriage driven by someone else. Her two retrievers and their new collie companion trotted along the path beside her. The dogs amused her and she found she enjoyed their company. She scanned the woods and fields she passed along the path, smiling as the dogs scared up a rabbit and later a squirrel to chase. Fortunately for the smaller animals, the dogs were not focused on the hunt today and so their prey easily escaped.
The day was warm, but a gentle breeze kept it from being uncomfortably hot and she wore a wide brimmed hat to shade her face from the rays of the sun. She had left the castle later than she had anticipated and as Starr moved down the lane at a leisurely stroll, she saw that the sun was well on its way to meet the horizon. Iris had given her several landmarks to watch for so she knew she was close. She urged Starr into an easy canter, the mare’s fluid motions making the ride pure pleasure for the young woman, blonde hair flowing freely behind her as the wind generated by the ride swept it from her face.
At last they came to the turnoff and left the main road, veering onto a well maintained path that swung to the right away from the road and led toward the lake. They path almost immediately turned into the woodlands that had bordered the road for some miles. The canopy of leaves blocked the heat of the sun and the temperature cooled noticeably here. She loved the closeness to the earth she felt whenever she was around trees and she silently thanked the Viceroy for choosing this particular estate as the one granted her by the King.
The path wound through the trees, but she could see enough of the sky through the canopy of leaves to know that the sun would have touched the horizon by now. The scattering of clouds that had drifted lazily across the late afternoon sky when she left the city had increased and were becoming grayer as the day waned, hinting of a coming storm. Movement at treetop level told her the wind was picking up as well and she hoped she would make it home before the storm broke if it did not simply blow itself out. The path turned to the right and she was out of the trees as suddenly as she had entered the woods. She reined Starr in and allowed her to rest as she surveyed the scene in front of her.
The manor was large, much larger than she had anticipated. Ivy had been allowed to take root among the stones of the front of the manor, lending it a weathered yet comfortable appearance. The front lawn was filled with shrubs and the pathway leading from the small road to the house was paved with the same stone used to build the house. The house was beautiful, but that was not what took her breath away.
The sun had kissed the horizon to the west behind the house. It’s dying rays reflected off the water of the lake and lit the clouds gathering in force in such a cacophony of reds, oranges and yellows that it appeared at first glance that the manor itself was on fire. Firestorm Manor was well named, she observed as she took in the scene, searing it into her growing memories as a new thing and something to be treasured.
Barking finally drew her attention from the scene to realize that Iris was striding out of the house to greet her, a line of people following her that she assumed would be the manor staff. Nikola smiled to herself and touched her heels lightly to Starr’s side, urging the mare into motion. By the time they had rounded the circular drive and reached the front of the manor, Iris had everyone lined up and ready to greet her. A man approached and reached for Starr’s bridle, but the mare tossed her head and danced back a few steps. Nikola stopped her and patted her neck, soothing the horse before dismounting. She spoke softly to the mare, knowing that she had been on edge since the move from Bravia. Much had changed and her horse had not adjusted as well as she would have liked, but she had no doubt that would resolve itself once Starr settled in.
When the mare had settled, Nikola handed the reins to the waiting groomsman. “She is a bit antsy of late, so be gentle with her. She means the world to me,” she told him and he bowed as he took the reins and led Starr off to the stables to get her settled in. The dogs had greeted Iris enthusiastically, jumping on her to demand her attention. The woman was trying to shoo them away, but the canines were having none of it. Nikola realized the woman was trying to be formal in front of the staff and already a couple of the maids had hands cupped over their mouths, probably giggling at the steward’s antics.
Nikola’s eyebrows arched in amusement before calling the dogs to heel. They immediately left Iris to come and stand at her side. She smiled down at them and gave them each a pat on the head before focusing on the group gathered in front of her, giving Iris a nod that indicated the steward was free to make introductions as she deemed proper.