Gold for Salt

I do not own Fire Emblem or any of its characters.

Author's Note: Another one of my fe_contest comm "non-entries," this time based on the "Town Life" prompt. That prompt called for a drabble of 500 words; I'm not good with drabbles and wrote this instead. Regarding the food- it's canon that the northern part of the Thracian peninsula, especially the area around Leonster, is a fertile savanna while the southern part of the peninsula is rugged and poor for crops. Hence the limited and very expensive options in the market.

Frest, Gran Year 666

One ounce of gold for an ounce of salt. Raquesis looked down at the tablet of salt, tightly wrapped in a packet of white paper, and slipped it into her purse. It fit well enough in the space her coins had been. Once she'd thought nothing of salt and had paid more attention to the finely-wrought saltcellars that graced the royal tables in Nordion, Agusty, and Barhara. Her favorite had been in the shape of three silver-gilt lions with ruby eyes, a bowl of crystal supported in their paws. Raquesis wondered now what those small rubies would have fetched her in the markets of Frest.

They'd have gotten me arrested on suspicion of theft, no doubt, Raquesis thought. Five days in town, and already she'd grown weary of the way people narrowed their eyes when she spoke, of the odd looks that the townspeople gave to the plait of fair hair dangling over her shoulder. Bishop Gunna might have opened the doors of his city to them, but that warmth didn't seem to be a trait of the good bishop's subjects; Raquesis gathered that much on her first trip through the merchants' district, as local boys hurled clots of dung at a peddler whose black hair marked him as a native of Isaach.

Raquesis kept a tight grip on her purse as she walked back to the quarter where the bishop had granted a small house to her, Finn, and the children. She tried not to let apprehension or disgust show in her face, though; years of hard lessons on blending in, on not drawing attention to herself, couldn't be squandered here because her pride was wounded by how far she'd fallen from her gilded perch in the Court of Lions. If they lost this toehold in Frest, Raquesis had no earthly idea where they'd run to next.

Someone called out to her, and Raquesis first ignored the shouts of "pretty lady" as the work of a heckler. The source of the noise turned out to be a vegetable peddler, and Raquesis slowed her pace to see what the youth had in his cart. Dark leafy greens, a few small pale cabbages, some orange-striped gourds... Raquesis had thoughts of a nice dinner until she added up the sums in her head and realized that what she wanted would cost their entire weekly allowance and more.

And that's without even a scrap of meat. It stunned her for a moment; for all that Raquesis had gotten used to being displaced, disgraced, and a host of other unfortunate things, she'd hadn't gotten used to being poor. Even in the darkest days of Sir Sigurd's war, there'd been gold in her pockets. There'd been gold, and there'd been ways of getting more gold. Now, confronted by a cart of vegetables she couldn't honestly afford, she felt again the sting of the shock she'd experienced on the long road from Alster- what do you mean we can't? What do you mean there's no more?

Raquesis looked over the contents of the vendor's barrow again, and she pointed to the cheapest thing on offer, a basket of small knobby brown things. The youth grinned and said they were "th' best pertaters this side of the river."

"Are they? How should I do them justice?" Raquesis thought she must have had "pertaters" before, but didn't know whether they ought to be boiled, roasted, or baked.

"Fry 'em up with some duck grease and salt, and they'll be noble," said the vendor said, and Raquesis thanked him for the advice.

There wasn't any duck grease in the larder of the house that Gunna had given them. Nor was there any salt beyond the one precious ounce in her purse, and Raquesis had purchased that not to season their meals but to soothe the inflammation in Finn's throat. He'd managed to stave off taking to bed until they'd had a bed to fall into, but Raquesis needed him back on his feet and looking for work.

"Boiled it is, then," she said to herself; if nothing else, the town of Frest had a supply of good clean water. Boil them up with the leftover mutton bones and hope the children liked it. Hope it lasted more than a day even if the children did like it.

What do you mean there's no more? Raquesis remembered the breakfast that consisted of three hen's eggs divided between four people, with the children getting one whole egg apiece. She remembered the chunk of salt pork that had lasted them seven weeks on the road, measured out one sliver at a time. When she'd gone to bed hungry, she'd told herself that these were passing hardships, that they'd find a safe place soon, some place where sating her own hunger didn't mean that Finn ate nothing at all that day.

They'd found Frest, and not a day too soon. Maybe it was safe, but as Raquesis looked at the whitewashed faces of the houses on their street, the feeling that the days of no more and not enough weren't leaving them any time soon sank in and left an ache all too much like real hunger.

The house was quiet; she'd left Leif and Nanna at the bishop's mansion for the day so that Finn could rest. Leif already had made friends with the bishop's young grandson, and Raquesis expected they'd be busy and happy for another few hours. She put a pot of water on the fire, rolled up her sleeves, and began scrubbing the the dirt off the pertaters. When the water was close to boiling she took out one cupful of it, broke part of the tablet of salt into it, and stirred until the grains of salt dissolved. She added a few drops from the flask of medicine that Gunna had given them and took the cup upstairs to Finn.

She'd tacked red fabric over the single window of their room, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Finn was still beneath their thickest woolen blanket, but he turned his head toward the door as she entered.

"Don't drink this," Raquesis said as she set the cup down next to the basin she'd left by their bed when she'd gone to the market. "Just rinse."

"How much did it cost you?" Finn asked, halfway through the cup of saltwater when his throat was just clear enough to speak.

"Even exchange for gold," she said; there was no sense in lying.

Finn closed his eyes, shook his head, and forced his way through the rest of the salt rinse.

"I'm making soup tonight and I'll bring you some when it's done," Raquesis said she tipped the used saltwater back into the cup. Strands of mucus, an ugly color in the reddish light, glistened on the white enamel of the basin as she emptied it. "I swear, Finn. If you don't get better, I'm going to tell your Lord Leif that he doesn't have to worry about reclaiming his kingdom, because that's not going to happen. I'll tell him he can just be my little boy from now on, and I'll take him and Nanna both back to Isaach to be with Delmud, and we'll all live together in Tirnanogue."

Finn didn't try to speak again, but he reached up for her hand and brushed the rough tips of his fingers against the curve of her palm. Raquesis sighed and began to smooth the damp locks of hair away from his face; she regretted giving voice to the fantasy of rejoining her son in Tirnanogue, but sometimes it took a little shove to keep Finn doing the next-to-impossible things they needed from him. That Raquesis knew these things were next-to-impossible didn't make them any less necessary.

When Raquesis came back downstairs with the dirty cup, the pot was at a full boil. She tipped the pertaters and mutton bones into it and sat down to wait for it to cook, however long that would take. As she waited, the earthy, greasy smell of it pushed her hunger over the edge. Raquesis knew there was a little bit of mutton fat in the larder, and really she did owe it to herself...

She fished one of the half-cooked pertaters out of the kettle. She put a skillet on the fire, added a shaving of fat, and threw slices of pertater into the fat to cook. The slices went translucent, then slowly turned golden and crispy. Raquesis pulled the skillet from the fire and turned the pertater slices onto a plate; they looked good and smelled good and her hunger was searing now. Raquesis eyed the broken tablet of salt; a few scattered grains lay loose on the paper. She sprinkled those grains on top of her pertaters, then gave in to temptation and scraped a little more salt off the tablet with her fingernail. The salt grains glittered like snow atop brown mountain ridges, and Raquesis had a sudden memory of gold flakes dusting a platter of pastries at some long-ago banquet.

She closed her eyes and began to shovel the pertaters into her mouth with her fingers. They stuck, scalding, to the roof of her mouth, and tasted like nothing so much as the very earth they'd grown in mixed with salt. Raquesis remembered the handful of soil she'd inexplicably eaten when carrying Delmud and retched. Tears leaked from her eyes as she tried not to choke; the saltwater blinded her for a moment. Then she swallowed, blotted at her eyes, shoved away the greasy plate and began to set the table. Bishop Gunna's man ought to be bringing the children home before long, and it wouldn't do for them to see her like this. The children, bless them, didn't yet understand no more or not enough, didn't know the true cost of a boiled egg or a handful of barley sugar, or the value of a grain of salt. They'd learn one day, but not today, not now, not with Leif not yet seven and Nanna only five.

The children, she found, liked 'taters very much, and wanted a second helping each in spite of the ample lunch that Gunna had given them. Raquesis smiled through scorched lips and ladled out another bowl apiece to Leif and Nanna. The single basket of pertaters wouldn't last beyond a day, but there was leftover broth, and if the boy with the vegetable cart was still there tomorrow she might buy two more baskets and still have enough gold to last through the week, and once Finn was well again and able to work they'd have more than the meager allowance from Gunna...

And the sun went down on another day of keeping no more and not enough at bay. Raquesis sipped at a cup of greasy mutton broth and thought of ruby-eyed lions and gilded pastries. She wondered if it had all been the dream of someone now waking to four sparse rooms of a whitewashed house and a kitchen with nothing left in the larder, a dream scattered in tiny fragments across the continent, flakes of gold turned to salt in the fading light.

The End

No, really. Year 666. That's what the artbook says. :)

Anyway, the whole Frest interlude is kind of a sketchy artbook retcon that doesn't gel with the FE5 script (which implies Raquesis left for Isaach from Alster, in year 765 or earlier) much less the FE4 script (wherein Leif and friends hid in a village, not a whole series of cities and villages with catastrophic intervals). Given that the citizens of Frest ultimately sell Leif and company out, my headcanon has decided that they made an attempt to blend in as ordinary people before being discovered, instead of maintaining a blindingly obvious little court-in-exile like in Alster or Tahra. I'm also assuming the bishop doesn't have nearly the resources that the King and Queen of Alster did.

Also, regarding retcons- the longer Raquesis stays with Finn and the deeper they travel into Thracia, and the more hot water they get into on Leif's account, the less her departure for Isaach makes any sense. At all. Going back to fetch Delmud after a couple of deceptively peaceful years in Alster? Not a great idea, but at least it's somewhat plausible. Leaving from Tahra after it's evident that simply being around Leif leads to disaster wherever they go and the body count of friends and allies is astronomical... AND they'd been out of contact with Delmud and the other Tirnanogue exiles for years with no way of knowing if any of them were alive? That's borders on nonsensical. The more thought the creators put into that particular subplot the less sense it makes!