“When an oathbreaking squire came to this land, I planted a seed of power in him as he slept. Every summer it has grown and flourished under the sun. And now that it is ripe, I have need of that power.” — Xedravina
With Bravadi Rovino in custody and the summer’s conflicts largely settled, the group drifts apart. Opilio returns to Cinquedea, gathers his family, and heads back to his estate to oversee affairs there. Ettorio and Carenza also return to Cinquedea, the former after some time spent with his fiancee in the capital, the latter to drop off her Ladies and put in some more training time. Rugo remains in Raspian City, continuing to build groundwork and connections. Vesper also remains for a time, spending as much time with her mother as possible.
The preparations for Ambira’s wedding begin in earnest a week before Harvest’s Birth. Carenza, Vesper and Kosvach arrive a week early, after a stop in Canteria (where Carenza managed to find Catafarza’s Prismatic Players and commission them for a pre-wedding show, and where Vesper had a few grim words with Tenumbra Sespech about just how little the Miriadis are to be trusted). Rugo sends his regrets, but also a gift of a fine Canterian draft horse for the young couple.
On a hot day that week when Alesci and Kosvach have gone to the swimming hole, Ambira and Ivella approach Vesper with an unusual proposition: to go spy on the young men. After a bit of circuitous discussion, Ambira asks if Vesper has ever wondered if the bond between Alesci and Kosvach has ever been… more than good friends. She suggests that if the two of them had some sort of spark, the parting before Alesci marries would be the ideal occasion for them to express it one last time. Vesper expresses her doubts, but does admit she can’t say she’s never wondered, and finally allows herself to succumb to Ambira’s pressure. The three of them creep up on the swimming hole, and get a notable eyeful before they’re noticed. Ambira and Ivella race for safety with the speed only country girls can muster; Vesper stands up calmly, turns, and walks away with all dignity.
Ettorio and Bessari arrive a few days before the wedding. He introduces her to the Borsaris and shows her around. Ivella and Bessari are very polite to one another, though it’s the blindest or most oblivious who fail to pick up on the undercurrent of no love lost between the two.
The day before the wedding begins with the tradition of the Bride’s Throne. Ambira sits on the makeshift throne, guarded by Opilio, Dechera, Vesper and Carenza. The four guardians carry skins of sour wine; the goal is to mark any would-be “suitors” that attempt to win past them for a kiss. Ambira’s first beau, the pig-herder Gillis, is first to try his luck, and he’s easily drenched. Ettorio puts up more of an acrobatic attempt, but Carenza throws him off his game with a disdainful castigation of “Opilio’s daughter? Really?” Before the Iluni can recover his balance, he takes a splatter of wine. Kosvach, on the other hand, seems to care less about winning past the guardians and more about directly challenging Vesper. He evades her splashes, steps into her guard and redirects her attack to douse her with her own wineskin — only to be himself caught by Dechera. The only “attacker” to win through the guardians that day is Carpa, who takes advantage of Ettorio’s distraction and his penchant for being overlooked to slip through and claim a chaste kiss on the cheek.
The night before the wedding, Catafarza’s Prismatic Players set up to perform the play commissioned by Carenza. Reputedly one of their bawdiest, The Enchanted Lance provides a great deal of spectacle surrounding a jousting tournament in Sundrin, and the comings-and-goings of the knights and gentlefolk involved. It strikes quite a chord with all the assembled young ladies. Opilio, from his vantage point atop the hill, wonders a bit at all the uproarious laughter drifting up from near the Falcon and Goose. It seems a bit out of keeping with the soppy romance that Carenza had described.
The bachelor party, on the other hand, follows Ettorio’s direction. The Iluni blade admites to making arrangements for an entertainment at the Coiling Snapdragon down the road. Alesci objects the idea of actually fraternizing with prostitutes, but Kosvach calmly describes the practice as traditional. Opilio is left uncertain as to how serious the references to Alesci’s “education” are up until the gentlemen depart. They return the next morning in a cart driven by Carpa, most of them quite ill-prepared to deal with the morning. Opilio treats them to a boisterous welcome, which sets Ettorio’s teeth on edge.
“You are aware that I am on good terms with assassins?” Ettorio queries in a low tone, holding his head.
“Certainly. But I don’t see any here.” Opilio throws open another window to let in more summer sunlight. “There! No shadows to be found.”
“I am fairly certain I could arrange for a stabbing at a sizeable discount.”
“True. But that won’t help you now!”
Finally Harvest’s Birth dawns. The consecration of the Chanethi chapel takes place at sunrise, banishing the last remnants of the Phouthite blight. In the afternoon, Hedera Threevines and the local priest oversee the marriage ceremony. Carenza and Vesper downplay their more martial nature by wearing civilian dresses, though each still carries her weapon. Opilio does his best to be the member of his family who doesn’t blubber openly. Nobody objects or causes trouble, and the two are happily wed.
Kosvach rather openly admires Vesper’s attire as the two of them dance. “A man could get drunk,” he says as he traces the grapevine-patterned trim on her dress and stockings.
Her answer comes in a stern tone. “Do you not care for the way I normally dress?”
“Mm," he says contemplatively. "A man can have a taste for venison and also enjoy lamb.”
As the revel continues, a small tremor shakes the land. A goblet of wine tips over and spills its contents on the ground. From the ground where the wind was absorbed, several sprouts of grapevines quickly emerge, grow rapidly, and coil together into the framework of a woman. In a matter of moments she’s complete — a voluptuous woman with four ram-like horns, her flesh the color of ripe red grapes, clothed minimally in living vines and leaves. The woman — clearly one of the fata, or perhaps some sort of spirit — kisses Alesci, then Ambira, and offers the confused newlyweds her goodwill and blessing. She then summons Opilio. His friends attend as well.
Her name is Xedravina; and long ago she planted a small measure of power in Opilio. As she explains it, that power has grown from summer to summer, and now she has need of it. A rival of drought and hunger, the pauper-prince Witherwords, is soon to challenge her for authority over her lands. She needs the power back to resist him. Out of deference for Opilio’s good stewardship, she offers a choice. She can remove the power, and leave him to a rather quieter mortality, or she will accept his service in her court, granting him extended years — but cutting him off from his family.
Opilio considers both options, clearly finding neither attractive. As he does so, Vesper speaks with Xedravina about the rivalry: Witherwords will not accept her challenge in the growing months when she is stronger, and she has avoided his challenges when she is weaker. Vesper proposes a third option: hold the challenge tonight, on the equinox, when both parties are equal. Xedravina is soon convinced, and sends the challenge by a messenger bird. The reply comes quickly (Vesper taking the opportunity to change into her fighting garb), and Xedravina conjures more vines to form the lattice of a portal to the Overworld.
With the Overworld as the duel’s site, Vesper tells Ettorio that he should likely remain behind. The Overworld has a tendency to make fae things… more so, she explains, and his mixed blood might be transformative. Ettorio agrees, and Kosvach keeps him company. The two stand watch over the wedding party as Opilio, Carenza and Vesper step into the Overworld. Xedravina offers protection to Carenza, growing armor and a shield made of living wicker.
The battlefield is a simple clearing in a strange, almost exaggerated forest — the trees are oddly angled, their branches almost more dramatic. Peculiar obelisks stand on either side of the field, which is itself divided. The half that the mortal heroes enter is lush and green, the grass so thick and soft it’s like moss. The other half, marked by a portal of withered and dead vines, is a swath of burnt, decaying vegetation. From the portal issues a lean, angular fata dressed in tattered finery the color of late Rathember leaves. He takes a seat formed from the withered wood of the surrounding forest, and Xedravina seats herself in a living throne as well.
The opposing champion looks unwholesome enough — a haggard, slouching knight, wearing rusty and corroded armor held together by dead tendrils. Instead of fellow-champions, he’s flanked by strange birdlike humanoids, something like ill half-molted carrion crows. The very aura of him feels wrong — if Opilio is suffused with verdant life, Witherwords’ nameless champion seems to be a font of miasma.
Neither side holds back. As the fight spills from one end of the clearing to another, it becomes evident that the lush half offers some protection from the mystical decay channeled by Witherwords’ champion, while the dead half enhances its power. The anti-warden conjures vampiric, hollow vines as a parody of Opilio’s own power, and the harpy-like fata whistle up cold winter winds to buffet and freeze the three. The enemy focuses on Opilio — but Xedravina’s gift appears to have matured well, and they’re unable to cut him down before one of the bird-things falls, and the mortal heroes bring the champion low.
When the champion falls, the surviving harpy-thing flinches and cowers behind an obelisk. “You cheated!” screams Witherwords, much to the amusement of the elated Xedravina. With no champion and no tricks, the pauper-prince concedes and retreats through his portal.
Xedravina leads the three back to the material world, well pleased. She thanks them for their assistance, promises to see Opilio come winter, and then she is gone in a rush of wine and fallen grape leaves.
The celebration resumes in earnest. Opilio spends more time watching from afar and discussing things with Dechera, but the others resume as if nothing were wrong. Vesper changes back into her dress, and soon draws Kosvach away into a secluded corner to relate the tale. Of course, they soon fall to more pleasant discussions as well, and finally between kisses the Vargari murmurs “I want to make you my wife.”
“Well," she says, unruffled. "What’s stopping you?”
When Opilio comes to find Vesper to propose a toast, a pair of murderous glances inform him that the two would rather be left to their conversation in peace. He retires quickly, sagely postponing the gesture of thanks and returning to play host as the celebration unwinds slowly into the evening. Long after the guests have drifted off to bed, he and Dechera are still quietly talking of the season that’s been and the seasons to come.