Word spreads

Mixed in with the stunned quiet and the fearful murmur and the crying children, there are rumors of small relief. The Hestrali of Stragosa have holed up in the tavern, where their new friend Cendre will be hosting a night of gambling and drinking on Friday to allow a brief reprieve from the horrors of the greater city. After all, what response can we have to the encroaching dark but bright light and rebellious racket?

There will be traditional Hestrali games of skill and chance, cheap wine, and the delicacies of a better season. Bring what you have if you have something to share. As is tradition in leaner times, trade and barter are all accepted as surety on table debts- talk to Allegra if you want to put something up in exchange for some coin. And remember, the pass is closed. So either we all get through this, or none of us do. Might as well go with wine and chocolate on our lips.

On the sacred subject of the dining table

Allegra had 10 copper left to play. It was a week’s worth of food if she spent it right, but it didn’t look like much piled up like that. The lure had worked anyway, ensnaring the two boys who had settled down across from her with their dinners a few hands ago. She was laughing hilariously at a story one of them- a couple years younger than she was and wearing a formed leather half-mask- was telling, when Marco finally slid into his seat at the table behind them. ‘Late’ she flicked a short hand sign at him, not looking, and so she didn’t see him scratch his nose with one meaningful finger.

As she dealt the cards, Marco started eating, casually signing around his spoon and making sure no one one was watching them. ‘Right: seven coins, two, King. Left: five coins, ??, ??.’ She didn’t like not knowing what was in the second boy’s hand, but Marco’s position wasn’t perfect. She tried to place the table cards so he’d shift to one side, and Marco snapped an update- ‘Left: five coins, Knave, three.’ Each time she dealt cards, Marco would sign what they were behind her opponent’s backs, and she’d play accordingly.

The third round was about to close on Allegra’s modest- but not too modest- lead, when she glanced up from her cards to find that Marco had disappeared. She only had a moment before panic was replaced with confusion as her own leather purse landed upside-down in front of her, spilling a silver coin and a fistful of copper across the tabletop.

“Game’s over, ragazzi. Take whatever you lost and go find somewhere else to play cards,” came a woman’s voice from over her shoulder, and Allegra suddenly understood what had happened to Marco. The boys, who had barely even gotten into the ‘losing’ portion of the evening, each scraped a frankly disproportionate pile of coins into their palms and were gone. A heavy hand fell inescapable on the back of Allegra’s neck and lifted her bodily away from the bench. She knew better than to try to slip free- Gioss might not be able to catch her, but she’d still have to come back eventually.

“They wasn’t even ours, cap!” Allegra protested, shuffling quickly to keep the driving hand from knocking her flat on her face. “I never even seen that kid with the mask- I’d remember- and the other one sounded like a Rog!” There was no response from Giuseppina, who steered the girl out the tavern’s front door and across the street towards the low curb and the canal beyond. She walked them right up to the edge and stopped without letting her death grip loose.

“What did I tell you about hospitality?”

Allegra’s face wrinkled as she tore her eyes off the ominously rippling surface of the water and tried to remember an answer that didn’t sound stupid.

“Like… stuff… with guests?”

She did not succeed. Gioss sighed.

“When you sit with someone, eat and drink, that’s a time for peace. When you put your plate down, you’re making a truce. ‘Now we are eating. Later we will fight.’ You understand?”

A sly, sideways smile crept over Allegra’s face. “But that’s exactly the best time to-”

Gioss moved her hand- still holding the girl by the neck- a startlingly significant couple of inches forward. Allegra twisted sideways and back to keep from falling into the murky water a few feet below them, but her capa’s grip was like prison iron.

“You see in there?” the woman asked, shaking her arm gently to make her point. “There’s ghosts in there. More men betrayed and thrown in that water than you’ll meet in your whole life. They know the cost of staying alive, they respect that, but you cheat someone when you’ve made a truce and they will fly out of that water in a second and tear you apart.”

They stood silent, Allegra watching nervously for any sign of the ghosts and Giuseppina Galdi wondering, not for the first time, if her pain-in-the-ass pesan was worth her temperament. After a moment, Allegra opened her mouth again. “There’s no ghosts in there, just the sharks. I’d’ve heard if there w-”

Gioss pushed.

Allegra’s feet scrabbled on the stone curb for a second, but the capa stepped clear of her pinwheeling arms and she went in with a shriek and a splash. It only took a minute or two for the girl to fight her skirts and her new-found respect for canal ghosts and struggle to a rope ladder, hauling herself out of the scummy water. She stomped back over, dripping, fists in furious balls, and Gioss met her impassively with an outstretched handkerchief. Allegra snatched it away, wiping her face with as much spite as she could summon up.

“Listen, bambina. Our rules are all we have.” She tapped Allegra under the chin, tipping her angry face up. “We keep them, or we fall into chaos. You’ve never seen a good churn, maybe, but when the rules go, we all suffer. Only ones do good in a churn are the brutes, and the very lucky. Plus-” Her mouth twitched into a quick, dry smile. “-ghosts.” She ruffled the girl’s soaking, slightly slimy hair and gave her a little push back towards the tavern. “And tell Marco to keep his hands down, or they’ll hear him all the way in Holy Lethia.”

When Allegra was gone, Gioss stretched, considering the dark water below. She’d contributed her fair share of ghosts to these canals, but she knew the real threats were the living left behind. Some day these dumb, unshakable children would figure out the importance of walking the line between being weak and disdainfully ignoring the established order of things, but until then… tales of the mystical dark would have to do. And if they didn’t, well. There were always plenty of real monsters around to do the job.

A Brief History

It’s Spring, and Allegra is 5. She chases Luciano around their father’s vineyard, pretending at the serious work of trimming and twining the vines in preparation for the growing season. Fausto, only a year younger, is much too much of a baby to do such important work. When Allegra is made to sit too long in one place, she shreds things – wide brown grass and veiny green grape leaves if she can get them, unattended burlap sacks and bright ragged skirt hems if she can’t. Her life is a peaceful cycle of chores and learning practicalities, and there are always other children around for her to play with.

It’s Summer, and Allegra is 9. Every morning when she wakes up, more of the sour green rocks hanging in clumps from the vines have transformed into precious grapes. Luciano is learning how to tell when a crop is ready by taste and feel. Fausto joins her at their mother’s feet whenever possible, but more and more often lately Nerina is nowhere to be found. Allegra has noticed that the people in the village whisper behind their hands when they think she won’t notice, but it doesn’t concern her. She makes up songs about them as she does her chores, imaging she sings to a bustling tavern instead of a dusty storage barn.

It’s Fall, and Allegra thinks she might be 12. She is fast, and small, and clever. She imagines what her brothers must be like now. She understands Aquila better – where it’s safe to sleep, who it’s safe to talk to, who will take your money and give you protection and who will just take your money. The basements and alleys are full of rats, but no one bothers her as she works. And so she works, and scratches by, and dreams of barrels of wine and hot fires.

It’s Winter, and Allegra is 15, though she couldn’t have told you that herself. She no longer sits by the canals, or banters with the whores in the taverns, or scuffles with the other urchins. She keeps her head down. Sometimes while she works she reaches for something too quickly, not thinking, and the raw flesh where her fingers used to be scrapes unbearably against the bandages.

It’s Spring, and Allegra is 18… or near enough. The kitchens in the palace are already too hot, and each night she curls up on the floor wet with sweat and smelling of acrid soap and cooking food. Even still, it is safe, consistent work. She has no time for anything that isn’t food- chopping, cooking, cleaning, running things from place to place. But the palace, for all its size, keeps as much in as it keeps out. So she watches, and listens. She learns.

It’s Summer, and Allegra is 20 – or as the young Princess puts it – “as ancient as the sea.” She wears fancy dresses and tries to keep the middle Dilacorvo child from doing anything too terribly wild. She knows which guards will take a bribe, and how much, and what their limits are. She knows the vices of those who cling to the royal family like leeches, and she knows the virtues of the beggars that crowd the alleys at night looking for noble charity. She does not dream.

It’s Fall, and Allegra is 32. The harvest is an apprehensive time with the grapes still fighting to make sense of the Stragosan soil and strange weather, but they have not failed her yet. Every market brings a new horror, and she leans on her people. Quietly relies on them. She wonders sometimes- often- if her little princess will succeed, and tries to make sure that there will be something in Gotha worth returning to. But winters are not kind in Stragosa as they are in Hestralia, and she can feel the cold creeping back into her bones…