Taste Test

1629, Sea Season, Movement Week


Serenelda has persuaded Berra to give a lesson on tasting clearwine, as Kesten pointed out to her a couple of years before that Serenelda was no judge of it. Session SA4.16.


The room she is bowed into is lavish. The walls are painted with colourful frescoes of water scenes and water plants. There is a low table set in the centre, with an embroidered tablecloth. A group of well-dressed women lounge on cushions around them. Their varying hairstyles indicate that while Serenelda and two others are from House Hulta, the other three women come from different Houses.1Berra fails Homeland Lore (Esrolia), and has no clue what the hairstyles mean.

Berra bows at the door, to Serenelda rather than the room. The different sides of the table then get a nod, seeing as she’s already down there.

Lady Serenelda waves languidly, rings glittering on her fingers. “Come in child. Sit. We look forward to your lesson.”

Serenelda is watching Berra with open curiosity. She is currently withholding judgement.2Failed INTx5, passed Insight. Cannot remember who the people are, but reads Serenelda a little.

“Thank you for the invitation.” Berra approaches the table, and takes off the left sleeve. “I usually go armoured in public,” she says, “But among friends I need not.” It gets folded and put down and the bag of parcels is moved to sit over it. “I’m not really sure where to begin, but there are two strands to this. The first is about how clearwine’s approached, and then we’ll try a few. I know S…” She pauses, and tries that again. “I know some of you will already know a lot of this, so please be patient about those parts.”

The ladies nod in return, muttering welcoming noises when Berra comes in.

Berra glances around to see how that is going, as her left hand reaches down for one of the tied parcels. She undoes it without looking, and pulls out some odd-looking tiles. “A lot of this is highly formal, where in Clearwine itself it’s sort of known, but I’ll take you through it. First off, like any gathering here, you’re going to be talking to each other, an’ all. But you’ll also be expected to know what your wine should look like.” She puts several of the chalky tiles out on the table, in a neat stack. A master calligrapher has etched names into each of them while they were still wet, and each has a few small dots of colour, yellow to green on it. “Take a look, please. Pass them around – this is colours you’re gonna be expected to understand. The green mostly comes from the skin, and the yellow from the innards of the grape, and they’ve got a different set of tastes.” She picks up the first one to offer to the lady to her left, using the hand that does not hold a sword.3Special on Customs (Heortling). Berra really knows her stuff.

The lady to her left accepts the tile, taking it in her left hand. She peers at it and then at Berra. With a shrug, she passes it to the matron on her own left.

The next matron thanks and nods to Berra.

Berra gives a moment for the tiles to start travelling. If the shrug worries her then she does not let it show.4She did a lot of planning with Lord Raven over which colours to go where so everyone would have to pass things around.

“Golden barley? How Sartarite…”

Berra has been given a space at the short end of the table. To her left is one of the Hulta matrons, recognisable by her hairstyle, if not her features. Sitting across from her and to Berra’s right, is Lady Serenelda. Next to these women, sit two who are complete unknowns. Middle-aged, haughty, but so far polite. Beyond them, there are two more. On Serenelda’s side of the table, there is a younger Hulta matron, maybe in her late 20s. Her brown eyes watch everyone with a degree of curiosity. Across from her there is another outsider. Something about her is vaguely familiar, but nothing Berra can place her finger on.

“Any good clearwine glass-cup has flecks of white in, so you can see the wine colour,” she goes on. That is the next parcel, and in fact the next few. “Mostly, if you’ve got a matched set, that means it’s new to your family.” There is a small fortune in glass getting turned out onto the table. “But sometimes, it means the set’s very old and well looked after, or it’s a gift. Most people have mismatched ones, not because of breakages, but because individual glass-cups get given away unless the set’s famous. The Prince of Sartar’s got one carved of rock crystal. Glass-cups are small, but heavy, and you freeze these in ice as well, along with the wine. That keeps it at the right temperature so you can taste it better. Now’s the time you’d talk about either the history of the set, or the people who gave them to you.” Berra passes a glass first to Serenelda, this time. “You can if you like mentioned the colour.” A tiny slip of grammar. “If it’s unusual or interesting, or you’ve not seen something like it. The usual thing. But mostly this is about friends.” The first glass offered up is a bright Ernaldan green.

“That is a very nice green you have in there. But even with a white spot won’t the content have a green tint?” the young Hulta at end of the table asks leaning forward.

Berra nods. “Yeah. Yes, I mean.5Lord Raven is correcting her pronunciation and grammar. They do. The white tiles there’re for showing you what it is, but learning what the tint’s gonna be like is part of the expertise. The best wine’s yellow, and really pale, so you’ll be able to tell, but even the ones with colour – it takes practice to be good. Like a lot of things.” The Humakti smiles like that was a good question.

When the younger woman speaks, the matron on Berra’s left arches a brow. Her lips narrow into a thin line, but she does not say anything after Berra does.

Berra probably did not know enough about the room to work out relative rankings. She just answered.

“It is like life, you rarely see things like they are…” The lady on left side of the young matron notes.

Serenelda glances across the table, then up at the young woman. “Asking questions is a good way to learn.” Her tone is warm. “Thank you for getting us started, Hareva. Berra, is there a preferred colour for the glasses in Clearwine?”

Berra considers that note about life, and rubs the Truth Rune on her cheek thoughtfully. “As an Ernaldan, great lady, you’d be expected to have at least one green cup. The rock crystal ones are clear, but the real trick is to avoid yellow. You want it to be something that can be seen in …. that the wine can be seen in. If you go with pale yellow, you’re boasting, but you’d also be seen as someone credulous. Giving a yellow glass would be a bit of an insult. For you, for the ladies here, green or whatever your favourite colour is would work. If you want to get a design that only you use, that’d be pretty good too. The dots and the patterns inside.” She searches through a couple of dull-red glasses, and turns one the right way up, showing a polished inside. She passes it left with a slight bow, and tells the table, “That one’s got the white in flower designs.”

The Hulta woman passes it left. “Orenda, you are still in mourning aren’t you? Why don’t you use this one? That red, with the flowers… it seems suitable.” The woman who receives it does so with a serene expression. “How thoughtful of you, Urvarna,” she replies. “It has been some time and the formalities have been observed, but it is kind of you nonetheless.”

“We got some on ice for later, but yeah, there’s going to be some tasting first so you know what to look for.” Berra lets the glasses circulate a bit, and listens to see if chatter rises. At rest, she looks unnaturally placid, like a statue down from its plinth. She looks like she is listening to something, carefully.

“Pass me that yellow one, please” the lady furthest at the left asks quietly.

“Soialya, dear, I think you’ve forgotten to pass along one of the tiles,” Serenelda murmurs gently to the women asking for the cup.

“Oh quite. The golden barley. Looks more like golden wheat to me.” She smiles and passes the tile on.

Berra now stands with a handful of cups, and walks carefully around the table, to give everyone down at the bottom the chance to have new things first. “Barley and wheat would be pretty local,” she says, “And maybe you’ll have noticed the scribe left off the state of the harvest6A more vicious person would have said ‘of course you will have noticed’ but she is not like that. – it’s the barley at the best time of year. An… aspirational colour.”

“And what are the topics of conversation at such gatherings, in Sartar?” the woman called Orenda asks.

“Just before it will be cut down…” lady sitting beside Serenelda says without a smile.

“Oh, sorry Orenda, I did not mean to talk over you.”

The woman shakes her head. “Lady Norinel, no. The apologies must be mine,” she protests.

“The ice-breaker… that is, the first things are small talk about glasses, because then you can usually find something based on that.” Berra pads back to where the string bag is. “Nothing that’ll cause a fuss – but mostly anything you like. There are just a few things you do have to do – give people a chance to talk about the people there or not there, respect the wine. This is an oddly formal lesson for something that’s sometimes very casual, and sometimes done by Princes.”

“Then we shall converse for a moment, so that our experience is more authentic,” Lady Serenelda decides.

“How exciting, like travelling abroad” Hareva blurts.

Urvarna openly glares at the younger woman.

“Travel is not glamorous, child.” Her use of the word child to describe a matron leads to arched brows all around the table.

“Oh but it is, to ride out, see the world. Gain glory like… I mean. Yes, madam.”

Both dame Norinel and Soiyalya seem to freeze into a polite smile for a while.

Berra cracks a grin. “That cup there? I got a couple of kids I know to go out and buy it for me,” she says. It is one of the dark red ones, but without a flower. “Hareva, lady – you want to tell us which cup you like?” And therefore stay off dangerous subjects.

“The blue one there with a wavy pattern, lady Berra.” young Hareva seems thankful for being rescued.

“It is very… watery,” Orenda observes. “It suits you.”

“The waves’re watery, yes.” Berra corrects herself. “Are watery. But with that sort you might also want to have others that speak to other elements. Or you might not. Sets are personal.

“It reminds me of rain and thunder” Hareva says defiantly.

Berra turns to someone else. Orenda. A related conversation. “And you, high lady?”

“A bit like your little one,” Serenelda says with a soft smile. “We can hear him throughout the palazzo when he thunders.”

Hareva smiles mischievously “It was not the little one I was thinking, aunt Serenelda.”

Orenda peers at the cups. “They are all pretty enough. None of them speaks to me particularly. Perhaps it is more about how they feel in the hand?”

“That’s a lot of it, yes. Chunky. Some are rough on the bottom or have patterns. Feel a few? Everyone should.”

The younger Hulta is in the receiving end of a small, but final, head shake. No more, Serenelda’s expression warns.

Orenda begins to pick up the cups, one by one, feeling them in her hand. At first, she seems dissatisfied, but then she pauses with one, her eyes lighting up. “Oh. This one. Yes. This one speaks to me. It fits just so in my palm. See?” She holds her hand up, ignoring the tense under currents. In an instant, she has transformed from mildly amused to fully engaged.

“Oh, good.” Berra does not mention the cup with flowers in. “We’ll probably want a few each. It’s good you got that one.” She seems a little more animated.

At her side, Urvana sniffs disapprovingly at the youngest Hulta, before turning to Orenda. “Pick one for me, will you?” She does not appear to have been listening closely to the lessons.

Berra idly looks through the set and finds one to spin on its base. “Sometimes you can get good whirring notes out,” she explains to the woman to Serenelda’s right. “But the sound is not the point, of course.”

How… quaint,” Urvana says, her attention caught. She glances at Lady Norinel, to see how the older woman responds.

Being called quaint does not seem to worry Berra at all. She just smiles a tiny bit. Maybe it is real amusement.

“Sounds that are not the point… They can be amusing, and less dangerous than the ones that are to the point.” She smiles “Like casual chatter.”

The smile on Berra’s face widens a fraction, although she does not comment. She goes digging into the bag once more.

“Sometimes sound can be the point. Not in glasscups. But even just beauty of it can be a thing with worth of its own.” Soiyala says quietly and nods towards Serenelda.

The Humakti lets the conversation go on, and lines up a few small amphorae.

The host gives Soiyala a sad smile. “Music and song are worthy indeed. Treasures to cherish when heard and to remember when lost.”

“Let us not speak of losses,” Orenda says with determination. “Tell us, Berra. The Sartarites who drink with such ceremony… are there speeches or poems to accompany the occasions?” She still holds the cup that she has declared to be hers, her fingers lightly playing with the glass surface.

“You’d have it in the background if you wanted it – entertainment isn’t a problem. But you’re the focus. So harpers or singers, probably, but nothing really epic, no great sagas. Concentrate on each other. And of course later in the evening you’re going to have had a bit to drink and you might go on to something else, expec… especially at an informal gathering.” Berra takes a moment to get the words out, but the sense is good. “At that time, you’ve had a good time and could call for a harp or songs, but that’s a different kind of drinking, and I don’t tend to drink like that any more. This could be the start of a party, though.”

There’s a look of mild disappointment from Urvana. “And here I was hoping you’d sing us a Sartarite drinking song.”

Lady Norinel looks at Berra to see if she is going to answer the call immediately.

“Maybe fortunate it’s not the way – I don’t have the voice for it. I’m good at battle commands, but bad at entertainment.” Berra chooses that moment to lift the first of the amphorae to the level of the table. “So, I got what’s called green wines, today. They don’t need to be chilled, and they’re made with the same grapes, but not with the clearwine process and there’s probably different rituals involved. I only know a bit about the making, and some of it’s secrets. They’re different colours, because in this case green means it’s young and fresh. Then once you know a few of the flavours, we’ll get the chilled glasses out.” It’s a definite change of subject.

Lady Norinel nods. “Let us sample this form of Ernalda’s blessing. And respect it.” It is possible Hareva gets a smile hidden in that stern look.

Berra stands. “Normally, a servant does this,” she says, “Or the lady of the household might, or the hostess. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s not left to the guests.” She checks everyone has a glass-cup, and pours for Serenelda first. “This is pretty sweet, light, and what people call heartless. It doesn’t leave much taste behind, except a memory of sweetness. Drink it as you get it, don’t wait. If your cup’s cold, you’ll be leaving fingerprints on it, and lip-prints. Try not to mess those up, because you want to prove you’re concentrating on the wine.”

Serenelda takes a sip as soon as Berra moves to Lady Norinel. She already knows not to wait.7Varanis: Aw. I was just googling green wines and was all ready to have noses wrinkling and sour expressions!

Lady Norinel swills the wine around in her cup. Carefully she watches the patterns wine does when it flows down to cup. Then she carefully smells the liquid from careful distance and only then takes a sip.

Lady Norinel gets a smile that says ‘yep’, like Berra just marked her as knowing a thing.

Berra passes around, pouring, and even has a sip for herself. She has three of the green wines, each with their own lesson – the one with the body comes next, and then a slightly bitter palette cleanser, and then she asks Lady Serenelda to be the hostess, because what’s about to come is the true proper clearwine.

She is definitely doing her best to perform, but not trying to fit in. She is too precise, always has a change of subject ready, or a new thing to say when asked a question she does not like, and while very knowledgeable, does not seem to warm fully to anyone there. It is clear there is no dislike, and maybe she favours Serenelda, but there is so little emotion in this Sartarite…

Serenelda solemnly accepts the invitation and rises to mimic Berra’s actions, albeit with regal grace rather than Humakti efficiency.

Lady Norinel is polite to the Sartarite but there is an undercurrent of sharpness that good manners do not completely hide.

Berra steps back, and does not try to take the lady’s place. Instead, she talks about how once you’ve taken your first sip, to prove you are eager, you can then examine the shapes that the wine makes – another way of determining how good it is – and the scent. Rolling it over the tongue should be a good experience.

That is probably not a dig at Lady Norinel’s care and knowledge. It’s just that Berra had not yet mentioned it. She then lets Serenelda take over completely.

It is done well. So well that Serenelda may not be as new to this Sartarite ritual as expected. Or, perhaps she is just a quick learner. Everyone is served smoothly, though the approach around the table is different from that which Berra took. First served is Lady Norinel, one of the leading matrons of Nochet’s Great Houses. Then Serenelda slips to the other side of the table to serve Lady Urvana Hulta, Lady Orenda Delargareo, and Lady Soiyala Yelendar. Last served is the youngest Hulta, clearly the lowest ranked amongst those gathered.

Berra has found her way to the side of the room, where she can be called if needed, but is out of the way. She watches with interest, showing more animation now than she did when being treated as an authority. That slight, sardonic smile is hardly there at all.

Lady Norinel looks around and proposes a toast to their gracious hostess Serenelda and their teacher for tonight, Berra.

Berra bows to that, politely, but does not even put herself so far forward as to reach for a drink. If she is going to have one, it will have to be offered.

“Please do join us, Berra. Your lesson has been much appreciated,” Serenelda says, gesturing to the cushion where she was sitting before.

Berra gets up and moves into place. “Thank you. I was taught a lot of this by a Ernaldan and vintner, and some of it by the elders of my clan.” She sits carefully, loosening the buckles on her swords and being sure not to swing either into Lady Norinel. She barely glances to see if there is an iced cup for her, finds there is a spare, and picks it up with her usual grace. For all she is not a dancer, she has poise.

Serenelda fills Berra’s cup and then her own.

“And now, as though the party were about to begin, I shall introduce you. This is Berra Colymar. She is a friend of my husband, Kesten, and a Wyter priest visiting us from Boldhome. Berra, may I introduce you to my friends? Derendala Norinel is one of the leading matrons of her House. Urvana, here, is my cousin. You have something of a connection with Orenda, though you might not realise it, of course. Her husband was your friend’s brother.” She carefully does not name the friend, but judging by the expressions that range from outright disapproval to keen interest, everyone knows who is referred to.

Moving smoothly along, she introduces Soiyala, who Berra has met before, of course. And young Hareva is Serenelda’s niece.

Berra bows her head, says, “Pleasure to meet you,” to Derendala after all of the names have been listed, and gives Orenda a slightly sympathetic look. Now that the concentration is over, it is plain that she was working hard to get the information over, and is a little more relaxed. Soiyala gets a glance, that says ‘oh yes, now I do recall’ and no outward judgement.

The party goes as smoothly as can be expected for such a gathering. The more experienced matrons steer the conversation. The wine is poured generously. There are even snacks supplied in the form of fresh fruit, with no vegetables in sight.

Berra lets the conversation be steered, although she does tell someone that the reason there are no quails eggs is because Lady Serenelda knows she can’t eat any, which is probably more information than she absolutely needed to mention. As a guest she is a far warmer person than as a teacher. She seems to be enjoying herself, and is more deferential sitting at the table than when she knelt by it. She even has a small stock of talk about most of the subjects they bring up, although sometimes she pauses to think about an answer. She is definitely not drunk, and her words are considered.8Having failed Charm as a teacher, she passes it as a guest.

By the end of the party, most of the guests seem to have warmed to her. She faces the occasional considering glance from Lady Norinel, but nothing overly bitter. Finally, the lady rises. “Serenelda, thank you for your hospitality. And you too, young Humakti. I am tired now and think it is time to return home.”

It is a signal, as everyone comes to their feet. They express their appreciation while servants are sent to ensure the three palanquins are prepared.

As Orenda says her goodbyes to Berra, she murmurs, “Tell Ranie to visit. There are some things of Desdel’s that I think she ought to have.”

Berra stands easily, like she has been ready for action all night. Her farewells are a Sartarite phrase, and then the Esrolian equivalent, or perhaps translation. Just a little, safe, foreignness. Orenda gets a nod, and a slow blink to indicate that she has been heard.

Then Berra takes enough time packing up that if Serenelda wants to say anything, she’ll manage to.

Faintly, in the distance, there’s the sound of a baby wailing. Hareva winces. “I am being summoned.” Before she vanishes, she whispers to Berra, “I had a nice time, mostly. Thank you. And tell Lenta I said hello and I miss her and I wish she’d come visit.”

One would swear that sound was coming from at least two floors up.

“If I can,” Berra says, very quietly. No promises, save that a Humakti will do what they say.

As she finishes packing, Berra finds Serenelda watching her, having returned from seeing off her guests. “You did well, child,” she says. “Perhaps even patched a fence. I think I shall acquire a set of these cups. A deep green, of course.”

Berra bows her head. “I need to sleep for a week,” she admits. “Thank you for having me. S’it alright if I use the side door?”

The Humakti looks tired now, and has forgotten titles, although her diction is still better than it usually is. She adds, “Lady,” a moment later.9When Lord Raven reminds her.

“It is fine. The boy will guide you.”

Berra turns to the servant, done.

Serenelda makes a shooing gesture at the pair before making her own exit.


On the way back, Berra argues with her sword about that bit where he went quiet. She and her Wyter are barely on speaking terms when they get back to the inn.10He rolled a 99 on Customs and he was distracting her and she told him to shut up.

  • 1
    Berra fails Homeland Lore (Esrolia), and has no clue what the hairstyles mean.
  • 2
    Failed INTx5, passed Insight. Cannot remember who the people are, but reads Serenelda a little.
  • 3
    Special on Customs (Heortling). Berra really knows her stuff.
  • 4
    She did a lot of planning with Lord Raven over which colours to go where so everyone would have to pass things around.
  • 5
    Lord Raven is correcting her pronunciation and grammar.
  • 6
    A more vicious person would have said ‘of course you will have noticed’ but she is not like that.
  • 7
    Varanis: Aw. I was just googling green wines and was all ready to have noses wrinkling and sour expressions!
  • 8
    Having failed Charm as a teacher, she passes it as a guest.
  • 9
    When Lord Raven reminds her.
  • 10
    He rolled a 99 on Customs and he was distracting her and she told him to shut up.