The vineyard, still young in the old bones of Stragosa’s hills, rolled out over acres of trellises and green vines. A few people moved through the rows, carefully trimming extra buds off of the fresh creepers. Allegra trailed behind, checking the work of these inexpert helpers, pointing out mistakes when necessary and swallowing her impatience when possible.
Just before the perfectly warming sun peaked overhead, she shouted for lunchtime and the small band disbursed. Sitting in the little shelter by the edge of the fields, hardly more than one wall with a roof and stacked high with crates, she sipped her wine and considered her tiny empire.
A rustling in the nearby bushes and Luca’s head popped up, shaded from the sun by his extravagantly wide-brimmed hat.
“Eyyyyyyyyyy, Allegra! Excuse the entrance–when I got here you seemed hard at work, I didn’t want to get in the way!”
Allegra grinned widely and stood up, arms outstretched in invitation. “Luca! Welcome! I’m so glad you made it.” She motioned to the shelter, where a tapped barrel stood propped on the crates. “Come, have a drink!”
“That is an offer, my friend, that I will never refuse!” Luca embraced his friend and snuggled himself down in the shade of the shelter. “Seriously”, between drinks, “what is with this hot hot heat? It’s so pleasant right now in the shade of the forest!”
Allegra refilled her cup and settled back against the crates. “I am not going to complain. It reminds me of home. Hopefully it will remind the grapes of home, too- with all of these clouds and this soil, I’m surprised every harvest that doesn’t shrivel up before it even ripens.” She glanced over at Luca, and then back out to the fields. “How was the trip? You are not too burned, I hope?”
“No, no, my cloak and hat ‘cover the action’, so to speak.” Luca’s cloak had been rolled up and tucked into his downed hat as soon as he achieved the shade. Sweat marked his bald pate where the felt of the hat had graced it. “But they in themselves are their own irritants. Oh for the forest shade! Of course it is fine for you and your grapes. But I’m a man of Etruvia, land of cool mountain breezes and gentle morning mists! In matters of climate, we’re hardly Hestrali at all you know!”
Allegra smiled wistfully. “I was born in Etruvia. I remember it, sometimes. That is where most of this stock comes from, in fact,” she waved her arms out over the fields. “A land of grapes and rocky hills and quiet trees. How does the wood here compare with the forests of your home?”
“You know it’s not that bad! The forests of Etruvia are higher up, altitude wise, and farther from the sea, but we’re so much more northerly here. Snow this far down in the lowlands. Outlandish!” Luca fished some bread and dried apples out of his pouch. His eyes twinkled. “I know it’s a matter of pride with you only to eat grapes, but if you’d like….”
She grinned and accepted some of the offered food. “Ah, but if I eat all of the grapes, then there will be no wine,” she indicated the contents of her cup with a little shake, “and that would truly be a tragedy.”
She popped a piece of apple into her mouth and said around it: “How was your market?”
“Well, you know, it was pretty good! I got a lot of stuff done, saved the city from a plague of rats, wrote up some contracts for Borso. Spent some quality time with a variety of young ladies…” Luca got a brief, dreamy look in his eyes and subconsciously fingered a woven bracelet around his wrist. “Anyway, profitable and enjoyable! My logging proceeds are starting to pile up, I’m looking around for a good way to invest. Bishop Celestria gave me the business about hoarding wealth, I need to find a way to put it to work to benefit the community!”
“Ah yes… hoarding wealth… There needs to be more opportunity for people like you and me to spend what we’ve earned here. If this were Aquila, I’d hire children to run messages, street toughs to guard the tavern, people to cook land clean and serve and run errands… But there are no people for that here. It seems we have more jobs than people to do them.”
“You say that, but have you spent any time in the outer districts? Full of ne’erdowells, widows, orphans, general criminals. All of those people could be turned into useful members of society with the right care and backing! Bishop Celestria talked to me about those orphans too–she sort of objected when I offered to take them all out in the woods and stick axes in their hands, but only sort of…”
“You definitely are not from Aquila, my friend,” Allegra laughed. “And apparently neither is the Bishop. Those criminals are a necessary part of life in a city, and giving work to an orphan is the only opportunity they have to better themselves. Do you have enough means to feed and house these children, if you can pin them down?’
“I mean, what’s housing? I’ll just bring out a bunch more canvas with me to string up between the trees! As far as food, we pick our own food out there and do very well. I foraged 75 units of vegetables last season–how much can each kid eat?
“I was going to see if I could get somebody to come out with me to care for the little rascals, though. I’ve got no experience parenting.”
“Eh…” she waved her hand dismissively. “That will take care of itself. They will form their own hierarchy, and as long as you can show them which part of the axe to hold and keep them from mutinying, they will do what you tell them.”
“See, that’s the can-do attitude I like! The Bishop said *somethingsomething*childlabor*somethingsomething* when I proposed it! But really, if you want kids to grow up strong you need to teach them a trade! Are you really sure they don’t need a woman’s touch? I mean some of these kids grew up pretty rough, they could use some love!”
She shrugged lightly, but there was a brief moment of bitterness in her face. “That is a luxury. Give them the things they need to survive, and they will survive.” She reconsidered Luca’s words again for a second and then eyed him suspiciously. “Are you looking for a wife, Luca? Is that what you are thinking about?”
“Woah woah woah woah, let’s not get ahead of ourselves! I was just saying these urchins could use a mother, not that I need a wife! I mean I’ve got my hands plenty full of all the women in my life already without adding somebody else on top of it!
“I’ll admit it was a bit lonely up in Ebonvoss Hollow, but now that I’m staying closer to Portofino and all the Hestrali girls, the company is much more plentiful and pleasant!
“When I want kids of my own, then I’ll get a wife. No need to rush things!”
Luca gave Allegra a suspicious look. “But so I noticed what you said there, calling love a luxury. We’re not poor here in the valley–if it’s a luxury it’s one we can afford!”
She shrugged again. “There are so many more important things. You can get them love, but if it’s extra coin you have, get them meat instead. Make sure they have shoes. If what you have is time, lay boards for them to sleep on and raise walls to keep the rain off. Children need things they can touch and eat, and softness won’t teach them the lessons they’ll need to survive. Especially not here.”
“Oh, Allegra! Even here in the idyll of your vinyard you’re so grim! Sure, there’s hard work in plenty out here, and night terrors and whatnot, but really! If we built up our stockpile of love, we could build all those things you mentioned and to spare!
“I mean obviously I’m being fanciful. But there’s enough earnest, hard-working God-fearing people in this valley that nothing should be beyond our grasp!”
“You are a strange man to believe these things,” she laughed, but affectionately. “I find the more God-fearing people that gather in one place, the harder it is to get any kind of honest work done. But we can only hope that you are right.”
“I’ve got a lot of faith! Faith in God, yes, but also faith in us.” Luca drained the last of the wine from his jug with relish. “Ok, so what’s the agenda? I’ve been dying to get a look at that tower of yours, but I can see that it’s nearly nap time! Guide me, Allegra!”