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.

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