I'm still not allowed to ride by myself.
If my memories haven't failed me, Rosalia officially began riding lessons at the age of 4. A selection of suitable ponies, and not so suitable....mounts, rotated as I became familiar with the different reigns, rides, and methods of sitting.
I can't say I was a natural genius or anything of the sort. It was quite the struggle to stay on through all the motion, my soft muscles untrained and unused.
Anyone thinking that riding a white horse, flowing in the wind, is as easy and graceful as it looks in a picture book, is an idiot!
Expect sore bumps, rumps, cores, and everything in between your legs. I'm pretty sure horseback riding, along with whatever endurance hell muscle-building torture from Grampa, gave me abs. To lose out against the soft desired femininity that was Lilyanne, so obviously. It was quite the blow to my misplaced vanity then.
Or well Rosalia, same thing at this point.
As a child just starting out, it was a very intimidating and tiresome thing. l grasped with nothing but a few leather reins in soft powerless hands.
Confronting such large animals, controlling something so beyond oneself in size and power. The sheer power of the physical force, the weight, the height. Controlling something so large and dangerous that with one bite, stomp, or even the slightest slip could disable a grown adult's body into nothing but pulp, disabling them for life if not killing them right there in the dirt.
"I am over three and a half, Father."
"Yes, Chip. I have noticed."
"I am afraid Father, that you have not. "
I indicate to my current state, still buttoned to his side, barely resting any weight on the saddle. Instead of sitting and riding on Damask, it's more that I'm in my father's pocket. It's very inappropriate at my age.
"Given that, I am no longer a mere baby-"
I start to reason, only to be interrupted by a mild strange coughing. When I look up, my father is blank-faced as usual. I shall choose to ignore him. It's asking for too much not to be insulted daily by this man.
"Ahem. Given that I am no longer a baby, it would be wise to start me on my own, preferably with my own steed. However, you do not even let me sit in a proper position."
"Hmmm" my father plays along, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. It's a very safe noise to make, especially when talking to Mother.
"I understand your concerns and dismissal. Really. I am very small, while most horses are very big." I pet at Damask's flowing mane, my tiny hand easily getting lost in the horse's hair.
It will be quite difficult for my size, but I've done it before, only at the age of four. What's a bit earlier? Father of the past wouldn't exactly complain, but it was always indicated that he started even earlier than I did. But that's Bicchieri standards for you. It should be easy to sway him of all people to do even more work. The nerd.
"Father. I assure you that I shall not shame you with appropriately timed lessons. I believe after I turn 4. Thus we must search for my horse ahead of time! To train early."
"Hmmm, I see."
He does not see, only continues to give me a vague nod and head pets. My hair is ruined anyways in this wind and galloping conditions.
Damask, smaller and gentler than her mate and thus Father's preferred horse when taking me out, comfortably runs no slower than an average modern car. She is also much more alive and intelligent than one. The complicated line of animal and monster interbreeding creating an abnormally trainable but enhanced steed, though she really resembles more of a puppy horse. A good trait to pass on my favorite Biscotti- eerr I mean, I love all my stable evenly. Shhhhh.
An extra bonus is how Damask has yet to accidentally bite, stomp, or crush me. Wonderful.
There are some very good reasons why children don't typically get equestrian lessons till later on. These things are just big.
"Father, I am being quite serious. I have said, I am willing to bear with the weight of horse riding lessons at my young age, if we get me a certain type of horse."
"My, I had no inkling of an idea."
"Of course not. That's why I'm telling you now. "
It's a lot like a driving parent barely listening to their babbling kid in the child's seat. At least that's the impression I'm getting. I suppose I shouldn't bother him too much while he's 'driving' but this much is nothing for Father.
"Hmm, well now Chip dear, I don't know how pleased your mother will be. Another stable."
"I shall give you permission to be gross and distract her then. As long as it's far away from Lilyanne and I. Oh, a stable?! Yes, I must have one built...."
"Getting ahead there my little rising yeast ball."
"Right right! Horse first. Wait. You still won't even let me ride properly!" I squirm about inside my very improper seat.
I'm already so large at 3 and a half. I can't possibly stay in this makeshift baby sling that is Father's riding coat for much longer. Does he not feel any shame for dragging along a child as large as I? Is it not embarrassing for a man of his status?
I try pulling up memories that do not technically belong to me, but it gets increasingly sparse and blurry the further back I go. The original's memories are clearest working backward, from 17 and downwards. Thus the most vivid, and still most shockingly painful, images are those from her teenage years.
Somehow, I can't recall if this girl had any good peaceful years.
Lilyanne was sick. Always sick.
Then came the baptism. My curse made public.
All those years, further lost in lessons after grueling lessons.
Then, we were left alone. My parents will go missing, presumed dead, in about 7 years.
The entire joke that was my life. Playing not just a side character but a foil, the ultimate stepping stone in the fairytale that is Lilyanne. The pitiful perfect girl that had absolutely everything handed to her.
If I look up and back, I do not see the same exact sights as I did back then. Father's hair is short, not long, both Mother and Lilyanne are absurdly healthy, and faceless characters now have been made regular interruption presences in my life.
Grampa's warnings are already here. Some things are the same, but not all. That's the effect of the changes we bring. Affecting others and their choices, because otherwise, that tragic history would just repeat.
"Not getting sick in there I presume?" Father pats at my head, assuring himself I'm still here, as if he couldn't already feel me in here.
What, was he going to accidentally drop me off the running horse?
"No. I don't get sick riding mounts. Just carriages and such." I assure myself, matching up Rosalia's preference for solo riding for that very reason. Motion sickness life is hard.
"If that is how you see it Chip." Father teases me by tickling the reigns right in front of me, so close that I could just grab it for myself.
Oh? Wait, really?
Looking up, I see no disapproval. It's a little tricky learning how to read such a subtle communicator like Father. But this is how all nobles much learn to be. Can't say I'm not familiar with such a style either.
Reaching out, my tiny hands really look hilarious holding on to the full-sized reigns. It's more like a plaything than anything, control still fully under Father's will. But it's a step in regaining control again, despite my small size.
Until that fiend kicks the damn horse, speeding us up wildly. Don't think I can't tell what you did! I know how to ride! AHHH! Too fast! Too fast!
This is so not fair?!
Nothing happens of course. Father laughs at my floundering, purposefully speeding up before slowing down, entirely in control the whole time, keeping us steady. At any time he could have easily taken the reigns, and if I were a real child I would have fallen for it.
"Now then Rosalia, if you were sitting on your own, would you have been able to stay on?" he fake lectures.
"....Father did that on purpose. You can't speed up on the reigns. Damask was listening to your orders the whole time. Cheating player. "
"How astute of you. Well, with your height you wouldn't reach anything anyways."
"..." I cannot argue with that. Curses. Short little legs grow longer!
"Hang on now Rosalia."
Father checks on me one last time, making sure I'm secured before really speeding up, the last stretch of our destination. Over the plains of nature and sheer nothing, quickly blowing up dust behind us.
A small town, not too far from where the family vineyards are. It really is in the middle of nowhere, more sun-beaten space than anything. People, animals, all combined look like nothing but ants to all this land. Not all of it suitable for farming, or even grazing. At least not yet.
The soil underneath is rich, but the topmost layers of hard dirt, dust, and rocks require a lot of work. So much so, it's hard to see a profit.
But every single farm and building we passed had to start from somewhere exactly like this.
Besides, open empty space is good in its own way. Making a neutral meeting ground. The only reason why people come to this particular town.
It has a huge outside track and meeting range!
At various times a year, farmers, merchants, and primarily business to business people converge out here to not only make deals but gather information, network, and share their prospects. It's a little bit like a sort of convention ground?
That's a decent comparison to my senses.
Riding up past the gates is quick and easy, the identifier that Damask wears along with Father's badge giving us the quick pass access through security and normal entrances. Everywhere we pass, people stop and stare.
Perhaps they are impressed with Damask's breeding, physique, and speed. The majority of them are men working in a relevant field where horses and steeds are indispensable. Though they could just like a nice horse in the same way modern people look at cars.
Maybe they're staring in awe at seeing the infamous fiend in person, even if for a moment. The flash of his dark red hair a rarity in these parts. His reputation, whispered on only the darkest drunkest nights, in conjunction with his status as the one who dared to take over the Ventrella estate by marrying the famed hero's one and only daughter.
Pfffft like any of you weaklings were going to do it? The things some rumors say. I don't know who else would be able to tame the train wreck that is Mother.
Yes, many reasons they could be staring.
It is absolutely not because the big scary red villain, who schemed his way into marrying such wealth and power, is riding with a fluffy ribboned little toddler in his shirt. Nope. Not that at all.
Even if that was the case, I am pathetically small and adorable ok! No shame! No judging!
When we get further into the paved areas, Father finally allowed me out to sit like a decent person. Though I am still forced to sit right in between his legs, like some helpless swooning maiden who can't even steer. Could Lilyanne steer her own horse without aid? I can't recall?
No shame I am three. No shame at all.
"Halt," Father lightly commands, slowing us down to 'park'.
When we disembark, I am forced to cling on to his neck. The man giving me no other choice of escort down from the horse. My still pathetically short arms hardly leveraging enough, but hang on I do. Though Father does support me from the butt as well.
One day I shall grow bigger, but at three and a half, today is not that day.
Like the smart girl she is, Damask is set free to park herself wherever she so pleases. Off to be pampered at the VIP stables like the pedigree star she is, stable hands chasing after in confusion.
It's not only the stable hands who are confused. The subtle stares and past-by whispers do not stop. It's even bordering on rude how the strangers stare.
I look around from the height and comfort of my father's arms, staring back with the free and blameless gaze afforded to small children.
Noblemen in their finery, gazing silently as others do all their work and whims for them.
Businessmen, merchants, and their aids, bartering, and trading about among one another.
Farmers and craftsmen, advertising if not outright selling their wares. Deals and contracts being made with handshakes and various levels of official parchment, ensuring their business much more securely than a mere word or verbal promise.
All sorts of men, regardless of class or age, about to set bets on the next horse race if they haven't already done so.
I regretfully look down to how Mother fussed, primmed, and poofed me this morning. A floofy little lady's dress, fat laces, cloth flowers, and cute layers tripping all my edges. Even right down to my sunny little bonnet, ribbons, and stockings. All my cuteness standing out like the only clean spot on a dirty surface.
Why I am the only 'lady' here!
I mean, there's a few working wives and daughters with the farmers and merchants. And that stern but efficient old woman managing the outdoor bar tap over there. Not like there' no women, though commoners, at all. But I stand out like a sore thumb!
Of course, this is not the sort of place a typical good-to-do lady would find herself in. Very boring men's work. Filthy too if we're taking the standards a delicate pampered lady would be used to at home and society.
It's almost exactly the same kind of reaction I would get all the time in the past, stepping into a place where 'ladies' don't belong.
But I'm only three right now! Being escorted, by my own father! What's with all the staring? It's even more so, by far, than the looks of politely concealed distaste whenever I went anywhere before.
"My Lord! Oh my, the Lord graces us!" cries an elderly man from afar.
When Father brings us closer, I can somewhat recognize him as a village elder from one of the local southern farms closer to my home manor estate. As well as few other vaguely familiar faces. Other villagers and farmers, like the middle-aged uncle who first let Father churn his own butter. Starting him on that awful spell of spinning churners. As well as some of the builders we've contracted to work on the mills, roads, and various other construction projects still in the works.
All of them oddly throwing themselves down on their knees, as if in great worship of a deity.
Quite a terrifying sight really.
Father, please make them get up. Father, this is embarrassing.
Alas, this demon is just too used to people throwing themselves at his feet. Men, women, young and old alike. All for various reasons I hope.
It's the internal builders that are the worst. The ones who draft and design their own works, the practical architects and engineers of this world. Sure, everyone enjoys getting paid with an extra job, an extra commission, but this goes beyond sucking up to your boss. I believe they sincerely worship him, not just in fear, in the same vein the home accounting department cries over Father.
Tears and borderline insane devotion in their eyes, running down their burly faces and beards. They act as if they pray and grovel hard enough, Father might just bless them with another project, a new innovative design of something. Some of those designs were almost directly from me, but in my position and age, I shall graciously let Father draft, tinker, and take all the credit.
Seriously Father, stop them! Is this not enough of a power play? Have you been desensitized of all shame?!
Is this Mother's fault? She is the most embarrassing person to be around...
"Alrights, righty get your bootizes up an at em. You all scaring za zittle young miss!" a very elderly and weak-looking woman wacks at them with her broom. Literally sweeping them out the way if they didn't get up.
Thank you, broom granny. I shall impart to you, and solely you, the next dustpan model.
Perhaps a large janitorial size to take care of...larger human-sized trash? Yes, mental note to improve trash can models.
Grampa needs them around the troops I'm sure.
Huh? Must be because I thought of the crazy old man. I'm hearing things. It's so loud around here, with all these people. Such a hustle and bustle. I shouldn't unnecessarily scare myself like that.
Wait, what's that very loud dust cloud coming at us?
Without much more time for thought, Father has me spinning and held up high, out of harm's way from whatever just created a grampa-sized hole through that packed haystack.
Oh god, that could have been me in there.
"It's good to see you as well, honored Father." my own father respectfully addresses the hole, ignoring my fearful clinging as if this were all normal.
It actually, sadly, is.
"Freddy!" a wild grampa pops out, arms wide open.
This time, Father cannot dodge and avoid. It's a two-in-one attack, Frampa's broad muscular arms lifting up both Father and myself in an overly enthusiastic hug of a greeting.
Oooompf. I'm being squished to death here. Bad Rosalia sandwich. Very bad muscle sandwich. No more Rosalia sandwiches!
"I trust you've been well. Thank you again for taking such care of the girls in our absence, I know they're quite the handful." Father says, still lifted into the air by Grampa's hulking strength.
"Eeehhh wasn't much, not like I could take the kiddos out- out."
Grampa sighs wistfully, perhaps fantasizing about how much more he could have wildly tortured us if not for Gable, and his strict 'have them back by dinner time' rule.
"We appreciated that. Please do not while they're so small and easy to snuff out," Father nods in response.
"Now I don't mind it, but someone else still isn't too happy about you slicing a bed in half last you picked the girls up." Grampa finally puts the grown man down, and thus me, still trapped in Father's not so protective hold.
Oh, sweet oxygen. How I miss thee.
"Ah. That." Father seems to consider something not quite pleasant, but ultimately waves the thought off like a pesky fly, "Well, can't please everyone. I've already sent the orders to re-furnish your cabin after you left. There are other matters to see to, even beyond here. Nothing out of place."
"Productive as always, ain't ya Freddy boy?" Grampa adjusts back up the hood to his not so disguise. A small concealment charm in place and activated on his body.
While he's not exactly hiding who he is, it wouldn't do to advertise his presence so obviously.
Wouldn't want some mass fan stampedes or anymore bowing.
Waving off the farmers that have already saw him and the property damage he left, Grampa winks and smiles. Shushing them to go back to their business as usual and not say anything.
The good people, being maybe too used to their technically reigning Lord, my grandfather, and his antics, follow suit. Playing cool in their various ways. Even the builders, though they do wistfully have to force themselves to let my father out of their sights.
"Walk and talk with me." Grampa leads, stealing me out of my father's arms. When he walks, it's naturally large and heavy, though silent, steps.
"Isn't that what we're doing?" the fiend follows along, elegantly keeping pace. Freed from carrying me, he finally activates his own subtle concealment charms, disguised as cuff links or buttons on his clothes.
"I don't know. I never actually know with you."
"Your praises are too much."
"How is the mead and beer brewing?"
"It is as you predicted. Heavy hail and a longer late frost have affected other lands. We're still waiting for reports from the east but my sources say it's affected to as far as mid-ride North. They haven't resorted to officially pleading yet, but aid has been requested in various forms of excuses. How contemptible."
"That's too bad. My vineyards batches are turning out well! Not the best years, gotta admit, but they bottle better. The grapes are still fat and the vines are strong."
"Only when carefully pruned. Rot, vermin, and disease are always lying under the foliage as we have clearly recently seen. But yes, we have more than enough being produced, in addition to the granaries. The alert to stockpile and secure after last year's shortage has been quietly worked on. This year's output so far was only mildly an improvement, but against other territories' losses, it's remarkably significant. To be fair, our weather conditions are more favorable."
"That's great! I always said poop was great, we have much from the troops and stables and they work just fine in the greenhouses! But nooooo one likes listening to me till it works. But somehow you all listen to the baby. It's because she's cute isn't she?!" Grampa idiotically pokes at my cheek.
While I am very happy to be finally hearing about the anti-famine preventative measures and news, I don't know why Grampa always chooses such awful times and places.
Can't we be somewhere more fortified, and a lot less public?!
But there's nowhere for me to interject into this conversation. It's a little frustrating but I have nothing to contribute here. Nothing to add on or ask.
Children and women should be seen and not heard. I feel like a prime example of this right now.
"A processed and ready-made form does much better with the public. Bottled or dried pellets. Most buyers aren't agricultural workers themselves who handle the matter, and won't know well enough. The first market batches will be sold here, but production is kept overtly complicated, hidden, even as widely dispersed in our own territory. Our people have other things to distract themselves with, plenty in their daily lives. "
"I hear old Serra's boys are coming back! And old farmer Luigi's grandkid, dragged me down for 2 pints, roaring drunk to rave all about how he rubbed it in his face raw. But the lad met a nice girl to bring home and call his own, now that's something to celebrate."
Grampa talks a little the way he walks. Strong, bold, with a little too much-exaggerated hand motions and facials expressions. Yet the louder he is the more he seems to become invisible, blending into the faceless crowds. I don't know how he does it but I know it has nothing to be with magic charms at all.
"Well, I said we'd try to make to the wedding, up to our Maria. She loves those things! Hope those kids don't take it too hard. Cities and wild adventures sure aren't as easy to strike it rich as those youngsters always seem to think." Grampa waves around his free hand, somehow keeping me perfectly steady as he hops and steps about the stalls and aisles.
All sorts of wares pull the eye, hawkers, and advertisements further overloading the senses, competing for attention.
No more staring. Not even a passing glance. No one notices us anymore.
"The shortages affect larger populations of inner cities the most with rising prices. Goods, rent, fees, the cost of living let alone supporting a family. Returning countryside, while not a statement of pride, could be far more lucrative than suffering in the downward limited situation." Father follows along, never more than a step behind.
His face is the same, devilishly cut and primmed. His subtly placed expensive gems still shine, and his pockets still look richly stealable from as ever. He's not even wearing a proper hat to cover his trademark bloody locks. Let alone a rough rugged hood like grampa, playing peasant. But no one looks, no one really sees.
It's oddly intimate. To be so secluded, our own little invisible bubble in between all these people.
"The construction all of last year, news of it, now gives people hope of better prospects. The port is already open, and always expanding. The road renovations and new bridges. The dotting mills. It's simply attractive." Father lists out.
Part of me is already lost, confused in the slew of information.
Another part finds it a very familiar feeling, even though I've never been here.
Scenes of Rosalia play in my mind as if there were my own recollections. A girl still young and short enough to need extra lifts to her chair, struggling over deciphering Father's notes and codes in his abandoned offices. Turning and twisting over Grampa's illegible scribbles, trying to make sense of any clues.
Those two, despite all appearances and differences, aren't an incompatible pair. The way they work and the way they operate. Grampa covers a wide range, Father takes care of the details. Layers and layers of influences webbed further, tighter between them and the spectrums they cover.
A lady's place is forbidden in too many parts of the world. Especially one as young as I was then.
I wonder then, not for the first time, nor the first life, if it would have been different if I were born a boy. If a male heir had been blessed to this household instead of someone such as I.
Would they have included me more?
Would it have been easier?
Would they have even cared?
The answer does not have to be spoken out loud. I already know a truth that obvious by now.
"In the end, the tastes of our home-brewed wine really are the best!" Grampa laughs, tasting the wares.
Barrels stacked on barrels. The undiluted red wine flowing a little too freely to be samples. He tips in his old flask as if it were a free water fountain, chugging down the merlot.
"Your orders?" Father looks bored, pulling out a crystal glass from seemingly nowhere. Swirling the liquid, letting it breathe, the way he drinks is entirely different but no less.
"Depends, what did you tell them?"
"Inconclusive. We need more than their petty flattery and tricks to open up our stores. We can afford it, despite what they may say in retaliation, but we're not a charity. Honored Father, you would not have asked me to look into this without a gross payoff."
"Think you'll get any souvenir Tuica from those kiddos you sent East? They call it white lighting, in how the alcohol burns ya! Ah, the plum brandy on the way back is pretty darn good as well, you prefer brandy don't you!"
".....results have yet to be verified, especially by direct injection. I still don't trust them. Especially not the servent. Do not mistaken me. Your final orders?"
"Oooooo Stigghiola! I was looking for something to munch on with my drink! "
"The smokers have been upgraded and increased in capacity yes. Freezing creates less product loss though, and reports say the taste is more popular compared to salting and brining. We sold much less meat produced from this year’s hunt to focus on this 'rations' research. "
"Oh, that's nice too! But I was being serious. Want one, Freddy?" Grampa points to a street stall, literally grilling up skewers of deliciously smokey cheap meat.
Father blinks. Looks down at the poor man's offerings. And excitedly chooses the cheapest thing ever, deep-fried polenta fritters, like a fancy spoiled child allowed the rare treat of terrible greasy fast food.
"...I'll have the panelle...fascinating..." his eyes sparkle.
"Great! We'll get both! Ooo and some stuffed Ascolana olives, nothing says the terrible crowds like deep-fried fare! I bet our pumpkin is starving! Just look at her glaring at me to death! Ah yes, the eyes of hunger!"
"...hmmpf!" I pout and turn away in his arms, just to make a point. How rude.
The menfolk of my terrible family then spend the next ten or so minutes waving greasy food on a stick, trying to temp and lure me out of my self-induced ball. Eventually, I must give in, otherwise, it will get cold and lose its tastiness.
While I'm glad the anti-famine measures have been progressing so well, and there's admittedly nothing I can do on my own, it's a little offputting to be so out of the loop. Marketing and selling fertilizers? Limiting trade? Stockpiling? Smokers? Freezers? Requests for international aid already started?
While I roll around playing singing dress-up or napping with toddler Lilyanne, everyone else is getting actual productive work done.
I know it can't be helped. I know I need Grampa to mysteriously convey my future warnings, in the most unnaturally effective ways. I need him to take credit and command. The same way I need Father to stand in front of all my random modern inventions and conveniences. It wouldn't be possible without them.
My power would be nothing without them.
I hate it. I hate having no standing of my own. I hate the cold stares who only see the shadow of wealth and riches these men built before me. Eyeing me as a mere inconvenience to swallow up. AS if I'm nothing but a little girl playing in her elder's work chair. As If I didn't, couldn't hold up the Ventrella name on my own.
"Is it too salty, pumpkindoo? Stinky? She's making a weird face."
"Well honored Father, you did offer her a stick of lightly seasoned but ultimately very salted animal intestines, grilled to a crisp. Rosalia has always enjoyed a strange variety for a sheltered child but children tend not to enjoy that as much as men with a drink."
"Juice! She needs her juicey! Oh, I am so dumb sometimes!"
I glare and sigh when the big bad powerful hero tries squirting a slice of lemon over my food, on a stick right in front of him mind you, only to get it in his eyes and scream over sideways.
So heroic. I am so assured to trust my life and fragile future in such capable hands.
"Grampa...get up....Father do something about him." I finally break out of my brooding thoughts, no longer able to watch this farce.
"How did the first of mankind think to collect enough oil to fry things so thoroughly?" the other supposedly much smarter man in my life pokes and awes over some damn fritters.
"...and where did they think to try it with mashed chickpeas? Wouldn't it be too easy to dissolve? Was it desperation that drove them to it? Tastes like a long-term disease, how delightful."
"I'm fine! Just gotta wash out my eyes, aaaand aaah that's wine, not water!"
Can I have one functioning adult in my young life? Please!
Gable, oh dearest Gable, please adopt me into your hermit forest life and take me away from here.
My prayers go unanswered and I munch on my street food in cheap comfort. Ah, the taste of greasy meats, would really go well with some strong wine. I cry into each bite. It seems I can only really rely on Alfonso to raise me.
The mood has changed to something very light as it is stupid, losing all the importance of their previous hidden discussion. Eventually, the clowns move on, picking me back up with them.
The crazy old man and the nerd strangely in their natural element window shopping around busily and pointing at weird things.
Very tiny horse saddles? Industrial-sized vats for unknown purposes? Scam magic stones that promise amazing things too good to be true at these bargain prices? The race show? More alcohol?
I make them buy me another fair food snack, it's the least they could do dragging me around like this.
It's when I was munching on my second stick of the day, a grilled red octopus of some kind, while the grown menfolk discussed the pros and cons of horse oil or something, that I noticed a very lonely merchant.
No, it was more their great brown stacks, loaded by the wagon fulls in their lot. Various wooden signs with black writing, scratching out the prices cheaper and cheaper in hopes of a buyer. With obviously no results. A seemingly empty space of people avoided the awkward air of an overly desperate seller.
I toddled up, still munching.
"Extremely cheap! What a deal! Your animals would thank you if they could talk! Such a fine fodder! At such low low low, I can make it lower please don't walk away, prices! " a young man pathetically tries, and fails, at attracting any attention outside scared maybe pitiful looks.
Sitting on the sacks fodder, an old man and a little girl of about 10, most likely relatives, shake their heads at the sight. As if waiting for him to just give up so they could go home already. Their appearances were worn, but neat enough. Healthy though poor. That's the impression they gave off.
There was a lot of those type of folks anywhere you go, but especially so in this rural world. I thought nothing more of it as I turned back around before Grampa or Father noticed I was gone, though I hadn't stepped far.
That was until the terrible merchant kicked and tripped over me.
"Ack! No my octopus! I didn't get to finish eating you!!!" I couldn't help but mourn on the ground. What a waste, my summer grilled squid! It needed some soy sauce, but still good!
"Ow! What the-"
"My octo! Use your brain and eyes a little and watch it!" I clamor, bumped but overall unharmed from all the hay layering the ground.
I've been through worse. A lot more painful hits from rude little brats, muscle-bound troop drill sergeants, and the wild shenanigans that is Grampa. Whose's grandchild did the fates of the world make me? I don't think I bruise as easily anymore after all that.
"Eh? It...it talks?!" the young man fearfully backs up.
"Brother?!" the little girl gasps.
"Oh my. Oh my dear! Are you alright?!! My humblest apologies, spare them, young miss. Are you harmed?"
Only the old man rushes up to my aid, though he does so slowly on a cane. I could snap at how rude his apparent grandkids are, but I've been raised better than that.
"Such a pretty doll! Brother I've never seen one so fancy! It can talk!?"
"I don't know!!!"
"If we sell it, it would make so much!!!"
Really now, very rude of them.
Out of nowhere, I'm lifted up high into the air. Familiar thick hands inspecting me like a sack of flour, patting my tummy and butt. My own grampa blows the dust off me and I cough but seemingly pass his inspection none the less.
My dress got dirty though? As long as Mother doesn't notice?
"Every bone." unfortunately Father has.
A dreadful aura finally makes itself known to me, swirling around and behind like a graded hurricane. A true black bubble has made its barrier from the outside world. At the center of the storm stands Father, still as the dead, face dark.
"Even if you pay with every bone in your body, it won't be enough," he looks down, rasps out like a foreboding curse.
The old man drops to the floor, bowing low on all fours, not even begging for mercy while the foolish youngsters clutch each other, shivering violently behind.
"Freddy calm down. Freddy~" Grampa tries, waving me up in a puppy dog hold. "It's kinda our fault for letting her wander, it can be my fault if you want?"
Taking mercy on the innocent old man at the very least, I try to placate my father with Grampa. Key word, try.
"Papa. I'm fine. It's not the grandfather's fault. Papa?"
When I hold out my pathetically short arms, bundles in the floofy sleeves and layers of my dress, Father seems as if he's possessed by a force. Slowly he turns his head over, the chilling blank look of death with him. Like the devil plucking an apple, he carefully takes me back into his hold, forcing me through a whole another round of physical inspection. The dark threatening storm barely contained with me sacrificed as a hostage.
"Forgive them my Lord, I have failed to raise these pitiful orphans. They know not their sins." the old man coughs weakly, still covering for the shaking young pair.
What a headache.
"Father. This old grandfather already has a very hard time. Look he has such rude and stupid grandkids. The boy kicked me and the girl said they should sell me as a doll for money? He must suffer a lot. I think if we leave them as is, that will be more than enough punishment?"
Oh wow, I don't think that worked at all. It sure got a lot more dreary feeling around here, the invisible hurricane picking up danger-level winds.
Alright, that's enough. I rather not deal with bloodshed today.
"Papa?" I try distracting him, pawing at his chest.
Understandably, my cuteness is not enough to contest against my father's insulted honor. As a Ventrella, it is my duty to be treated and seen with respect especially in public. Father's pride as a traditional noble may not deal well with the slight that is me being pushed over today in this manner.
"...Kicked?...Sold? All excellent and fair exchanges." Father smiles down at me.
Ah, those kids are screwed.
"Or," Grampa interjects, "we just buy our baby girl another grilled thing on a stick?"
"Impalement? Another good option." Father considers.
I'm pretty sure someone pees their pants in fear. Meanwhile, the old man still grovels, apologizing with all his being against the powerful noble his family slighted. While I do feel quite bad for him, the cowering grandkids put me in a bad mood. And I don't just mean from earlier.
"You!" I point over to the young man, trapped in my father's unrelenting arms, "Are you really going to hide in the back this whole time? Help him up! Useless! Just like your sales pitch! Papa? He's the one that kicked my snack, just make him buy me another one."
"Father!" I motion him down to climb and whisper in his ear the best I can, "I don't actually want an innocent old man to keel over from a heart attack. That puts a bad taste in my mouth. Capiche?"
"...Well. If it will ruin your appetite." Father finally relents. Immediate execution and torture off the menu.
I nod in appreciation.
"Silence! Both of you! Thank you! Thank you oh kind and generous one for your mercy. We do not deserve it. We have little nothing to offer, hardly two coins to scrape together. Spare the young ones. Please, if it does not displease you, my family and I offer you all our wares."
The grandchildren protest to their still bowing grandfather. I find them quite an eyesore, still uselessly being protected at their ages.
These kinds of citizens? Really a tiresome draining type. I don't need to wonder what kind of useless adults they'll make.
"Get up. Father, make him get up, this also leaves a bad taste in my mouth. As for the fodder that no one wants to buy? I heard that doesn't sound very good?" I point again, "Is it poison? Why are you trying to get rid of it so badly?"
"They're our land's-" the girl tries speaking up, apparently having more of a backbone, until the grandfather shushes her.
"If I may be so rude but to answer.... Our family has toiled and guarded our plots in the Marches region. But the land...is not so forgiving, our fields easily flood into swamps. Another wild grain has interbred with our crops resulting in these. They still make for a fine and safe fodder for the animals. This poor farmer only wishes to provide a living with what we can. "
"Ok, whatever. Pack it up. Papa buy me another octo, I'm still hungry. And don't send the guards after him or anything, I know you will. I feel bad enough," I throw a few of my pocket change at the elder, the best I can do as I am unable to get down from my prison.
The Marches region is eastward of here, and definitely past my own family's territory further south. The upcoming famine will affect the common people the most. I'll think of it as charity towards the elderly. It's also my own fault for coming over to watch in the first place, can't even blame Grampa there.
I'm like a little cloud of bad luck.
"Too much like your mother." Father sighs as we walk away, no longer wishing to waste any more of our time. That is fair, though I don't understand what he means by that statement.
"Rosie! Lookie look! It's a bigger better one!" Grampa waves another stick in front of my face, trying to placate me. One with a much larger grilled squid thing on it.
It's not as cute looking as my octo-pop, but it does look tasty when it's been battered up like that. My saliva glands already working at the steaming sight. Both men seem to sigh in relief when I accept the snack bigger than my own face.
That is until a wild stampede of escaped horses, some of them still with their race tags on time, runs by in a whirl. The wind and motion making me drop my snack, again.
Nooooooo not the squid too!
It's just not my day! Why oh why?!
"AAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!! Bad muscle floofies!!!" screams a small child, caught trapped on one of the renegade horses.
"Lukas?!" I feel my jaw-dropping, unfortunately recognizing the child.
"Huh? Swore I left him in the petting zoo section? " Grampa strokes at his chin.
"There's no petting zoo?!" I yell at him.
Once again, everything is Grampa's fault. Somehow.
"I should probably do something about that," Grampa decides.
"Yes. Please get rid of it." Father responds by promptly turning around and taking me the other way. In a way that says, nope, not our problem.
Amazingly, without taking a single step, Grampa has the problem solved? The horses slowly halt, as if paralyzed, or suddenly tired. A screaming child loud in the distance is no longer screaming, as much.
"Oh. We should run." Grampa turns right around with father and I, intent on booking it.
"I believe honored Father. It is really too late. "
"Aw come on Freddy! Where's your sense of-"
The confused and panicking crowds disappear. Quite literally fade into dulled outlines of themselves.
Quiet as the night, light footsteps echo, along with Lukas's little voice going "ow ow ow ow ear ow ow ow."
Without seeing anyone, a heavenly voice echoes around the open space, drowning out the strange background noise. Getting closer and closer.
"When I said, you can take him out to play, this was not what I meant."
Hallelujah! My prayers are answered! An angel of mercy and goodness has descended! Though the elfen angel named Gable does not look too happy right now, carrying a horse pack called Lukas with him.
"I swore I just left him in the petting zoo. It was so safe and nice and he likes it!" Grampa holds his hands out in defense.
"There's not...a single ...petting... zoo here!" Gable snarls back.
Oh, common sense. Oh, the beauty. If I wasn't being held up and supported already, I may have swooned.
As glad as I am that Gable is here, where's the exit to this thing? Father and I awkwardly stand there, rather trapped in between it all. And I dropped my calamari!
"Frederick." Gable turns to address, his other hand already bunched to drag the back of my whimpering grampa's neck and cloak.
"Sir," Father respectfully bows.
".....control your bed destroying tendencies...how old do you think you are already? Come. There are safer places to talk." and with that Gable turns around, completely pulling along not one but two Ventrella men through the fog.
By the time it lifts, we end up on a wooden balcony table, a bar or tavern-like restaurant I suppose. One that oversees over the track and market aisles, but in a much more secluded and quiet location away from any panicking crowds or animal control.
Amazing. All praise Gable!
Oh if I could only run and swoon properly into his responsible safe arms. But alas, he simply releases Lukas on the balcony, indicating for the menfolk to join for a moment inside at the bar.
"We'll be right back children. Yes, with some snacks. Do not, I repeat, do not jump over and leave this balcony. Either of you." Gable's perfect mildly stressed face peers at us, glaring enchanting grey eyes down at... Lukas.
Oh the lucky little brat! He gets all the attention with his troublemaking ways.
The heavy VIP wooden door to the inside slams, and I see no more.
Well at least I got the view from the balcony. Wow, what a mess! It's like some crazed goblin of a monster went and released half the stables!
"Red. Angry looking. Smells less stinky and more sour, yep! This one is Rosa! Hi Rosa!!!" Lukas screams into my ear.
The worse part is when the monster child pulls me into a bone crushing hug, dangling my little legs up in the air. Oooompf!
"Bad Lukas! No. Bad! No Rosalia wrap either! Bad mochi wrap....air..."
"You breathe really really loud Rosa!"
How does a little mochi have so much strength? It's not even evenly distributed. Instead of the pure overwhelming suffocation of Mother or Grampa, it's like a rubber band has tied to my squishy body and will snap me in twos or threes. I think I hear my spine snapping.
"Gable says I can't have any fluffies because of lots of stuff. Like I'm no wee pons stable. So I thought if I visited lots of big stables that would fix it! They were so fluffy!" he blabbers, readjusting my organs and bones.
"Ok! Hey Rosa! How does your hair get redder every time! Do you really stick your head in juice?! If I stick mine in snow will that turn it white? Or yellow in cheese? The stinky baby stuck cheese on my head before and that made it yellow and green but Gable says that color is called mold. I smell like hay and fluffies! But I like more fluffies. Muscles fluffies are kinda too weird for the awesome me right now, they don't listen right when running. But they're cool!"
When he does plop me down, it's on the ground. And immediately after he picks through my hair like a monkey picking for bugs, or the maids picking the stray cheese out of my sister's hair.
I try not to think about how his brain operates. It's just...a little too much.
"Horses are cool. Help me look for one with a gold body, white dots, and black hooves and mane." I sigh, already given up on this child.
"Ok! It's like that game Eye flies!"
"Eye spy Lukas. "
"Hey, that's cheating!"
"....just help me look for the horse if it's down there. She's not very big, because she's still young."
"Ok! But I didn't hear or see one like that! And I petted lots of floofies in lots of colors!"
Aw, well that's too bad. I was hoping for my first horse to be around somewhere.
Given, I don't have to follow things out from the first lifetime. But somehow, it just feels wrong if I didn't get some things. Like revenge. Or my ponies.
Besides, I miss Adorita.
"What's an adoria?! It's it yummy?" Lukas still monkey picks at hair from behind my head.
"No. Of course not. That's the name of my horse, I just need to find her."
"Oh! How come you have a fluffy already but I don't!"
Reasoning does not always work. Like speaking with drunks people on the job, communicating with Lukas takes not only a lot of patience but creativity. And a lot of excuses.
"...because... my house owns lots of stables?"
"Ohhhhhhhhh! Yeah, that makes sense. I'mma ask Cap if we can build em too so that way Gable can't wee I'm only a wee stable anymore. It's gonna be a big one! Where did you get your floofie!"
"Yeah that funny name one! Where! And what does that mean? It doesn't sound like a Rosa word!"
"Well if you must know, Adorita means something like adore. Because I adore her and .... "
"....and...I got her...." my memory stalls, splutters. I know it but I don't.
"Ooooooh you don't remembers! I can waits!"
"No....no it's not...I got her...from my father."
In a sense...I received all my pets from my father. I had to. There are no other means for me to get them as a child? That's not a big deal?
I adore you.
As a little girl, I really adored my Adorita.
But I didn't, or I wasn't.....I didn't name her that?
"What will be her name?" a red shadow had asked.
Father had longer hair then, long enough to tie and braid. In sunlight, it looked even brighter, as if it were hot to touch.
I remember how I couldn't answer. I remember feeling sick. A little hot with shame...or nerves...something like that. I was sick? Right, I had a fever from falling somewhere?
"I don't know." I had answered.
"Surely you must?" that intimidating figure questioned back. Why was my heart beating so fast? Fearfully? Why does the father of the past feel so much taller?
"....forgive me lord father. I do not know...I do not know enough names to pick... a good one... or for a horse."
I was bold that day. My youth and condition perhaps making me act out. The fear and awe of such a gift. It made me speak out without controlling myself like I was so carefully trained to surpress.
I feel all the more shame to admit, but perhaps....had I dared ask Father to name my first horse for me?
"It can't be helped if you must take after your mother.....Adora... Adorita then. Can you say that properly Rosalia?"
"Adorita. -ita? Small? Small adore? Because she's small? "
"My, a bit quicker witted than my Maria. There may be hope for you yet. Take care of her. After all, I can't just so easily get you another horse. They're not toys to be trifled with."
A lie and a truth. I had 5 personal horses in my stable, while not exactly easy to get, I got them. They were not toys, but living breathing creatures, very dear to even the most heartless of villainess.
Adorita, my gentle working first horse. An easy favorite. The kindest and easiest to ride. The only one of my stable to let even Lilyanne sit on her back.
Radicchio came next. I was right to let someone else name my Adorita, for I named my second horse on my own, after a vegetable. A literal radicchio, a chicory plant, for the reddish white color of his coat. Poor Radicchio, his master was such a terrible name giver. No wonder he was so wildly stubborn so often.
Caprice. Goodness gracious to think he was intended for Lilyanne? Caprice had a beautiful coat and appearance, very attractive to many a delicate young ladies. Only Caprice was...quite...violently unpredictable. Deemed too dangerous for the youngest miss, and thrown over to my slightly more experienced care. Again, I admit, my terrible naming sense came in. For I was enjoying a Caprese salad when the decision was made.
Biscotti. Color of sweet biscuits. I was a bad namer, we have established this. Damn it. I hated Biscotti so much, absolutely impossibly intelligent little foul. Can't believe she came out of Damask and Gino's puppy horse gene pool. Absolutely hate. A mother does not play favorites! Hate so much. So cute. Going to take some years for her to be born.
Last but not least there was Mignon. A lovely imported baby, Philippe wishes he got Mignon. The absolutely adorable thing with a buckling streak. Could throw you off and stomp you down into a morbidly named little petite steak.
Why oh why did I keep naming them after what I was eating or wanting to eat? Except for Adorita, the only one named by father. Why?! What was wrong with me?
"Oh oh oh I know! A lot! More than your horsies! How many horsies? You talk too much around and round in a little voice. But that's your super power! Like me being awesome!"
"....Thank you Lukas."
Lukas is still too loud as always, even as he plays with my hair and I sigh into the recollection of information. I'm doing that thing where I'm about to overthink again.
So what if Father gave me all my horses, or named Adorita in the first place. It doesn't mean anything in the end, and I need to stop from instinctively searching anyways.
It's just pathetic at my age, mental I mean. Really sad and pathetic. Someone who doesn't know how to let go will only meet a bad ending. I have already met mine.
There's plenty of other things to think about, to analyze, and predict. This isn't one of them. The sooner I let go, really truly let go, of the things this body wants to hold on to, the lighter and freer I'll be.
You should trust me, Rosalia, I would know.
In fact, my head feels lighter and cooler already. How refreshing in this heat.... Wait.
"Oh! It really is red on the inside too! Not juice! Haha! Cool! Oh! Oooops!"
"....Lukas....what's that dust and what are you doing to my hair?"
"I froze it. And broke it! How super cool, I didn't even use ice! Man, I'm so amazing."
Frantically reaching up, I feel the top and sides of my head. Uneven jagged icicles replace what was once my hair, if it's there at all?! What are these sharp short ends?! What?!! I don't mind getting another annual haircut but what is this?!
"Try it!" Lukas demonstrates, snapping off another frozen curly lock to drop in my hand.
I'm pretty sure I screamed.
"Lukas!!! What did you do now?" Gable comes running first, blocking off if not already dismissing my own relatives.
"Being awesome! Look!" the brat snaps another increasingly red handful. My hair apparently not the only thing frozen here.
Finally, I get to swoon and cry into Gable's arms today. At no small cost but hey, I can afford it.