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I crushed the dried sage between my fingertips and added it to the bubbling stew, breathing deeply of my favorite herb. Everything green and growing sang music to my soul. Music I knew, by now, nobody else could hear. It was the only thing that made long hours in the kitchen bearable. Barely.
“Is that stewed quail?” My brother Nestar sidled past me to grab the tray of plates and utensils that sat waiting on the counter behind me, his dark curls tumbling across his face as always.
“More stew than quail.” I lifted my chin toward the tray. “I can bring those.”
“I’ve got them. Plates on the table will tell the men the food isn’t far behind.”
“It’s nearly ready,” I said, the words tiresome and familiar on my lips.
“You’re fine, Mara.” Nestar flashed me an understanding look as he left, though his words held the harder edge that had been growing lately.
I gave the stew a final stir and started to spoon it into the large tureen that would empty quickly at the hands of the vineyard workers I fed every day. Graylaern Vineyards, run by my father and all the Graylaerns before him, was the most famous winery in Perin Faye. I’d grown up running up and down the rows of vines, and sun-warmed grapes had been sweet on my tongue since I’d first eaten solid food. I wished I could spend most of my time tending the vines instead of behind pots of stew.
Mother had been so graceful in the kitchen, never flustered and seldom showing signs of wear, unlike the splattered apron around my own waist. She’d taught me as much as my meandering mind had allowed her—how to slice carrots thin, to stretch them; how to season a soup so no one would notice how scant the meat was. The workers would smile at me when I brought napkins or knives or wooden bowls of roasted corn to the table—little Mara, her mother’s shadow.
I never wanted to be her shadow, though. Her own was long and dark, and she wanted me to hide in it. “The world beyond our vineyards can swallow you before you catch your next breath,” she would say. “Your life is here, where you are safe and needed.”
I didn’t mind feeling safe, but being “needed” in the kitchen didn’t make my heart dance when I lifted my head from the pillow each morning. I knew our vineyards as well as Poppa did, and better than Nestar. More than anything, I wanted to be out there with the workers. When Poppa wasn’t there, they listened to me. Asked my advice and came to me to settle their petty disputes. They didn’t know I whispered to the grapes to make them ripen plump and juicy. They never saw my hands banishing rot from vines before death took hold.
Mother had warned me long ago never to speak of the dark magic that came unbidden, and especially never to entertain it.
“No good comes from dark thoughts, Mara,” she’d said whenever she sensed my mind was wandering places she didn’t want it to go. And then she would hand me a ball of dough to pinch into biscuits.
It had been almost two years since she had breathed her last, and I was more convinced than ever that I could never take her place. And that I didn’t want to.
Gravy splashed my hands as I bumped the door open with my hip, and I flinched. An appreciative murmur arose from the men seated at the long table near our house; I set the tureen on the table before turning back toward the kitchen.
“Smells like heaven, Maralyth!” Kenton, Poppa’s assistant, was always quick to compliment me. His gray-whiskered face crinkled in a smile.
I smiled back. “The credit’s yours, for bringing the quail.” Meat and fowl were hardest to come by.
I went to fetch the roasted root vegetables and fresh-baked bread, Nestar close behind me.
“Honestly, I don’t need your help,” I said, cutting him off as he reached for the steaming vegetables.
“It’s almost half an hour past noon. I’m just trying to help.”
“Has anyone complained?” I gave up on the vegetables and grabbed the bread instead.
“Of course not. They’re grateful.”
“Hungry,” Nestar said. “They’re hungry, that’s all.”
“Well, I’m feeding them.” I hooked the butter crock with one finger and slid it onto the top loaf of bread, steadying it with my chin.
“Mara.” Nestar slid in front of me, blocking the door. “It doesn’t have to be this lavish every day. Bread and cheese fills bellies just as well.”
My insides tightened, ready to snap. “Mother never would have served that.”
“You’re not Mother.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” I nudged him out of my way and waited for him to open the door so I wouldn’t drop something.
He sighed. “Maybe start a little earlier, then?”
“When I start telling you what to do in the vineyards, you can tell me what to do in the kitchen.”
“You do tell me what to do in the vineyards.”
But I ignored him and presented the bread at the table as though it were grand prize. Poppa appeared around the corner of the house just then; I caught his eye, but his smile lacked its usual brightness.
Not that it had been all that bright since Mother died.
“Join us, Doreck!” several of the workers called.
But Poppa raised his hand and kept walking. “In a minute! I’m looking for these two.” He motioned for Nestar and me to follow him to the front of the house.
I checked to see that I’d remembered to lay out knives for spreading the butter, then followed Nestar and Poppa. The glorious rows of grapes spread before us on either side of the pathway leading to the main road, their canopies rustling faintly in the breeze. Always my heart sang when I beheld the beauty of our vineyards; I wondered if Poppa merely wanted us to drink in their bounty the way I often caught him doing as the sun set.
But no. He drew us to his sides, his arm encircling my shoulders.
“What do you make of that?” he asked, dipping his head toward the north.
I followed his gaze along the length of the road. Two riders on white horses made their way toward our gate, decked in the azure blue of the House of Nelgareth.
My stomach dropped. Ogden Nelgareth ruled the lordland of Delthe as though he were king. He kept our roads in good condition and an army known for its fierce loyalty, but stories of his dark temper had graced the ears of many a fireside listener.
He wasn’t too pleased with the crown’s control of our vineyards, either. Generations ago, the king of Perin Faye had subsidized Graylaern Vineyards after the Great Blight had decimated over half the vines. The subsidy saved the vineyard—and satisfied the thirst of the nobility for Graylaern reds and whites.
But then the first Thungrave king seized the throne, and soon after, he limited wine production to ensure a high price, except for fifteen percent of the yield from every acre—wine for his own cellars. The Law of Firstfruits, it was called, and it was applied to anything produced in the fields—linen, barley, oats. By law, Lord Nelgareth was allowed to require his own ten percent, bringing our yearly offering to twenty-five percent.
A famous vintner who provided drinks for the tables of a king ought to have been well off. We were left each year with barely enough to live on.
“Do you think they’re coming here?” I asked.
Nestar made a bitter sound in the back of his throat. “What business would they have with us right now? Fermentation has another two months at least for the Clarion red, and harvest is a few weeks out as well.”
“We’ll know shortly,” Poppa said. “If they turn in at the gate, I’ll go meet them.”
“I’ll come with you.” Nestar was Poppa’s only son—my half brother—and stood to inherit the vineyards someday. At nineteen, he was already more than capable of handling the daily demands of grape-growing and winemaking, though I often felt like I could do it better.
He didn’t love the vines the way I did. The way Poppa did. His eyes didn’t shine when he saw the first, hard-green grapes, tiny and new, emerge from beneath the blooms each spring. He only stood at sunset to gaze across the rows of vines because Poppa was doing the same—and he valued his place by Poppa’s side perhaps better than anything. Which is why I knew he wouldn’t shrink from meeting Nelgareth’s men and defending Poppa any way he could.
Neither would I—in my thoughts, where sharp words took shape and humbled Nelgareth’s faceless riders. In reality, I’d stay silent, Mother’s “be seen and not heard” still reminding me how to behave to strangers, even though I’d much rather be seen and heard.
And I would be—soon. I had a plan that could benefit small, family vineyards in nearby Windsbreath and across Delthe, and tomorrow I’d take my first step toward implementing it. It was my greatest excitement—and biggest secret.
My hope that the men would pass us by fizzled as they turned their horses into our entry, and I sighed.
“Gracing Graylaern Vineyards after all.” Poppa’s pride for his winery was evident in each syllable. “For all I know, it may simply be a request to purchase any barrels I might’ve laid by,” Poppa said.
“That would take a simple written message,” Nestar said. “Not a special visit.”
Poppa gave me a squeeze, then released me. “Come, Nestar. We’ll treat them as guests.”
“Will they want some food?” I asked.
“We’ll offer wine, I think,” Poppa said. “Will you go fill a flagon awhile?”
“I’d rather come with you.”
Poppa nodded. Slowly, he was learning how important it was to me to be included in his work. “Of course you would. But look.” He lifted his chin in the direction of the house.
I turned to see several workers hanging just behind the corner of the house, curious. Watching.
“Poppa, no.” I wasn’t in the mood to manage nosy workers.
My sigh had a hard edge. “Fine. I’ll take care of them.”
“You always do,” Poppa said.
I was glad Poppa could count on me, but I wished I didn’t have to miss whatever was about to happen. I had done more for the well-being of these vineyards than anyone knew.
Copyright © 2021 by Jill Schafer Boehme