...three guesses what I've got for you.
"One Month Earlier"
"One Month Earlier"
Selo and Inya took the unfamiliar path, noticing it slowly ascended, winding through the woods. Selo noticed the trees in this region were tall and slender, almost like a bamboo forest. It was easy to see the space between them, thus provided a clear view for a great distance. It made sense to build a village out here; the sparse forest made it difficult for anyone to hide…except maybe at night.
Selo suddenly caught a whiff of a light fragrant smell. They’d reached a plateau where many trees had been cut down. In the clearing stood a vast vineyard surrounded by tall wooden gates. The scent of fresh fruit wafted over to them, making their stomach grumble.
“Of course!” Inya exclaimed. “Red Palm is known for its brewery, but not for the actual production of fruit. Since fruit can only be carried so far, it would make sense to plant vineyards nearby.”
“It’s beautiful,” Selo gasped. “It rivals the vineyard of Queen Ituti at her palace in Emseti.”
“It would,” Inya nodded, leading Umi along. “The people of Red Palm take wine very seriously.”
The vineyard was immaculate, as were the surrounding grounds. The grass was freshly cut, the weeds under strict control, and the women could see the carefully cultivated fruit was quite healthy, with large black grapes weighing down the vines.
“It would appear so,” Selo murmured. “Whoever cares for this vineyard is very meticulous.”
“They’d have to be,” Inya shrugged. “The brewery in Red Palm is highly selective; they have a six-hundred-year-old reputation to protect. A vineyard like this probably gets weekly inspections from their assigned sales representative at the brewery.”
Selo raised an eyebrow. “So you have traveled here before.”
Inya shrugged again. “Probably. Maybe. Once or twice. Couldn’t tell you.”
Selo snickered. “Drank that much wine, did you?”
The tiny nomad nodded. “Very likely.”
They came round to the front of the vineyard where a giant wooden sign hung. Painted in black ink and in the common dialect were the words Black Grape Manor.
A few feet into the vineyard stood a strikingly handsome man tasting the grapes. He was a regal fellow, with sun-kissed light brown skin and long black hair hanging to his waist. He had a fine silken white cloth draped over one shoulder and around his hips, and he wore golden thong sandals.
As usual, Inya was more than happy to introduce herself.
“Excuse me,” she called, waving slightly. “Do you live here?”
The man turned to them, blinking in surprise. “Yes,” he nodded. He had a deep, warm and friendly voice. He gestured for them to come in. “You’re…not from the brewery.”
“No,” Inya shook her head. “We’re just passing through this country. I’m Inya, this is my traveling companion Selo, and this is Umi,” she nodded towards her donkey, who was already sniffing out the beautifully plump grapes.
“I am Ashvin,” the man lightly touched his bare chest, smiling broadly at them both. He reached to gently touch Umi’s head. “This is my vineyard. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
Selo was immediately uncomfortable in his presence. Then again, she was often uncomfortable in the presence of men; she still wasn’t used to dealing with them in a strictly social capacity. She’d only ever had one male lover and she’d been fraught with nervousness the whole time.
And there was something about this man…something about the warmth in his smile and the brightness in his deep, dark eyes which unsettled her.
“You’re travelers, you say?” he asked. He looked Inya over. “You must be from the lake country.”
“Correct,” she grinned.
“And you,” Ashvin murmured, looking at Selo as though awestruck, “you’re a warrior.”
“That’s correct,” she replied stiffly, tensing as his warm gaze rolled over her.
“You are not…from Soneti.”
“No. I am from Tiy.”
Ashvin’s pretty eyes widened. “Tiy? I have never met a woman from Tiy. The military exploits of your Queen are legend in my northern homeland.”
“I knew it,” Inya beamed. “You look like an Amalian. Which kingdom?”
“My brothers and I emigrated from Kingdom of Umala about two years ago,” Ashvin nodded. “As you may know, Umala is in the very heart of the desert. We couldn’t sustain a vineyard like this, so my brothers and I moved south.”
“Brothers?” Selo almost twitched. “There are more of you?”
“Oh, yes,” Ashvin chuckled, pointing towards the heart of the vineyard. “We’re in the middle of harvesting for the Festival tomorrow. Will you both attend?”
“We hope to,” Inya replied slowly walking towards where Ashvin pointed. Selo followed suit, and in moments wished she hadn’t.
Ashvin had brothers, all right; several of them, in fact. They weren’t his actual kin, of course, but each matched him in flawless handsomeness. They all wore fine loincloths and sandals, showing off their sweaty muscular arms, broad chests and shoulders, and long legs. They all had long hair, with varying lengths; some tied it back, some let it hang free, but all were sweaty, with strands plastered against their faces.
Some were hauling giant baskets of grapes, others were climbing ladders, and some were taking a break to drink water.
“What is this place?” Selo blinked, suddenly having trouble breathing.
Ashvin raised a slightly confused brow. “This is a vineyard.”
Even Inya seemed to have trouble talking. “And…you all…just…live here?”
“In the center,” Ashvin nodded. “We have a very large manor.”
One weary worker poured a whole bowl of water over his head to cool down. Selo watched in growing horror as the silky rivulets slid down the man’s finely honed form, plastered his silky black hair against his body.
“What is this place?” she asked.
Ashvin was slow beginning to understand her reaction, and was deeply amused by it. “It’s my vineyard, Selo,” he patiently repeated. “I’m going to take a stab and guess that you don’t have much experience socializing with men, do you?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Inya interjected, snacking on a grape she’d thoughtlessly plucked from a nearby vine. “She slept with a gold merchant one time.”
Selo’s head snapped towards her companion. “Inya!”
The nomad merely shrugged, feasting both on grapes and the view. “He’s the one who gave her that golden thing around her neck.”
Selo’s head cocked to the side. “Inya here used to dance on table tops for money,” she fired back.
Inya furiously whirled on her. “How many times do I have to tell you it was just one time? It was amateur night at a drinking house. It’s not like I made career out of it!”
“I don’t know,” Selo raised a skeptical brow. She folded her arms across her chest. “According to Vathi, you move like someone who’s spent an awful lot of time on top of a table.”
Inya looked like she was about to burst a blood vessel. “I’ll have you know bounty hunters aren’t nearly as reliable as Vathi makes them out to be, Selo! You can’t even begin to imagine some of the things she’s probably done just to catch a fugitive off guard!”
Selo opened her mouth, no doubt to hurl another retort, but Ashvin smoothly stepped in to diffuse the situation.
“Ladies,” he calmly inquired, “where are you staying tonight?”
The question caught both women off guard. They seemed torn between answering him and getting back to their quarrel.
“Um…I don’t know,” Selo shook her head. “Um…in the village, I suppose?”
“You could stay here,” Ashvin offered. “We built a large manor, with several rooms. And we don’t have guests that often.”
Selo returned to her earlier state of discomfort. “No,” she took a step back. “No, ee couldn’t.”
“Oh, come now,” Ashvin cajoled. “Why waste coins on a dusty inn when you can relax here for free? You could taste the latest vintage, and my brothers will dance for your tonight.”
“No,” Selo adamantly shook her head. “They don’t have to do that.”
“Uh, yes the do,” Inya blinked. “And we would be happy to accept your kind hospitality,” she added pointedly, glaring at Selo.
Ashvin beamed. “Come. I’ll show you my home.”