Duchess Irena Ippolitovich III, Guardian of the Steppes, Hero of the Stygian Glaze, Mistress of Dragons, the Never-Broken Shield, Friend of the Dwarves, and Defender of the Frosted Isles, was staring off into space while a burly farmer clad in furs and thick denim told a sorrowful tale of his neighbor stealing his best pigs every spring. She already planned to give him a small bag of gold, the equivalent of years of his hardscrabble labor, for his farm was on an island gradually becoming of strategic interest and she wished it built up and prosperous. But it wouldn’t do to immediately hand gold out like striped candy and so she stared into space in the chilly throne room while the farmer droned on.
Irena was thinking of her mother, gone now for more than ten winters. The peasants and soldiers had called her Natasha the Fierce, for a deed involving a collapsed dragon, a broken spear haft, and an angry bear in the snow, but Irena always knew her as Mama. She had lived her life in emulation of moody, resolute Mama and she still missed her keenly. On certain cold nights when Irena was young and couldn’t sleep, they would sneak together to the kitchens, fill huge mugs with milk and cinnamon, and then sneak again to the Dragons Den at the center of their ancestral keep. They would sit surrounded by the warmth of their dragons, Mama would put her arm around Irena, and they would sip their milk while listening to the rumbles of the sleeping dragons and the whirling wind outside.
The Duchess smiled at the memory, her slight wrinkles fading away from her stern face with the glow of remembered happiness and her blue eyes sparkled like polished sapphires. The farmer, in full swing of his complaints, trailed off in confusion as he timidly looked up at Irena.
She focused and her smile fell away and it was as if a cloud suddenly covered the wan winter sun. She adjusted her bear-fur stole and curtly gestured for the farmer to continue. His deep voice again filled the room, the other petitioners shuffled quietly as they waited their turn, and Irena stared again into the distance and returned to her memories.