[Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 271 – The Salt Price by B. Pladek - transcript
(Originally aired 2023/10/28 - listen here)
We have a delightful story for you in this episode. The timing is a bit irregular—we should have had the fiction episode last month, but…well, things happen. History is a complex web. The events that seem prominent in the history books are accompanied by all manner of struggles and movements, their details shaping the larger events in small, inexorable ways. Who can tell what moves someone to act? A burdensome tax? A sense of loyalty to a place or a person? In the early 18th century, in France, the trade in sea salt was one small piece on the game board. But it’s the one we consider today.
The author, B. Pladek is associate professor of literature at Marquette University. His debut novel, Dry Land, about a forester in WWI who gains the mysterious power to grow plants, was published by University of Wisconsin Press just last month. You can find him on twitter @bpladek or on his website, bpladek.net. In the early eighteenth century his ancestors on his mom's side were exiled from France for (inept) salt-smuggling.
Our narrator today is Jasmine Arch, who has narrated several stories for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project’s fiction series. In addition to her linguistic skills, I always feel that Jasmine does an excellent job with somewhat otherworldly stories.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
The Salt Price
By B. Pladek
Once in the days of the ancién regime, when the salt tax still starved the people, and armed taxmen beat each copse for smugglers up and down the Loire, a woman contracted a faery to run salt.
The lowlands of Guérande were salt country then. Each morning as the sun brushed the mist from the yellow reeds, the paludiers walked the dykes between the drying pools, plugging the sluices that fed seawater through the canals. Later, when the sun had burnt the water to brackish sludge, they raked green bay salt from the pools’ bottoms. At night the women skimmed flakes of fleur de sel from the waves.
Corentine had raked the faery in at dusk. Or perhaps she had simply appeared atop Corentine’s heap of green bay salt. Whichever it was, as Corentine watched the faery had risen, a tall woman, green and glossy as a beetle. They gazed at one another, wondering, until Corentine said,
“A faery. What are you doing in our king-forsaken Guérande?”
The faery’s voice had a whirr to it, like wings. “I am here to contract my magic to a human. Do you require magic?”
Corentine glanced over her shoulder, then opened the satchel at her side, revealing a half-minot of fleur de sel. In a low voice she said, “Perhaps. I must give this to a fisherman in La Baule tonight, for passage up the Loire. Can you conceal it?”
The faery’s dark eyes did not blink. But she took the satchel. Raising it, she shook the salt into the air, and as its flakes fell they shingled together until she held a soft white cloak. This she gave to Corentine.
Corentine drew the salt cloak through her fingers. “It’s like ermine,” she whispered, “as if I were a lady again.” She had been, once, before the Regent had claimed her estates and reduced her to raking salt. Donning the cloak, she asked, “But what will you wear? A marquise cannot walk unaccompanied.”
The faery looked startled. But in an instant she fashioned herself a second cloak from the green bay salt. Its drape hugged her hard shoulders, framing the knot of muscle where wings met nape. She did not look dangerous, but neither did she look quite safe.
For a moment Corentine stared at her, the color rising in her cheeks. Then she stammered, “Lovely. But you’ll need to raise a glamor when we reach town. Can you do that?”
Watching Corentine flush, the faery’s eyes had a question in them. But she only nodded.
That night in La Baule, the gabelous—the Regent’s taxmen, all Parisians—were drinking. On the clay streets bordering the quays they searched for contraband salt. They harassed the paludiers returning from the marshes, groped the breasts and bustles of the women, and drove rapiers into farmers’ bales of flax. Any smugglers they uncovered were shackled and bound for La Rochelle. There they would face trial and be sent to the galleys, or the gallows, or the Gaspé in Nouvelle France. The smugglers continued anyway. They had to, to eat.
But to the marquise who drifted by in a cloak of ermine, her guard beside her, the taxmen merely bowed. Nor did they notice when the marquise and her companion returned, cloakless, from the seafront. The local Bretons noticed, but said nothing. They knew that Corentine, once Lady Corentine de Cornouaille, was in league with the Marquis de Pontcallec, at work up the Loire raising funds for a coup against the Regency.
At home in La Croisic, Corentine and the faery greeted her grey-haired husband. “We strolled straight through La Baule, Sebastién, and the gabelous saw nothing. With this faery’s help we’ll have enough for the Marquis by Christmas. We must make a contract with her.”
Sebastién balked. “Don’t you know the stories? Faeries can’t be trusted.”
Corentine knew the stories: help from Faerie never came free. But she looked at the faery, her face limned by the kitchen firelight, and thought she would rather risk her debt than the Regent’s.
Touching the faery’s shoulder, she asked, “What are your terms?”
But the faery only looked at her, her hair a dark knife on her cheeks.
“I’ll have no part of this foolishness,” said Sebastién. “Braid your own noose, woman.” He grumbled off to the loft. It was the usual end to their arguments, having married late, and cordially, and not for love.
The faery watched Sebastién depart, then turned to Corentine, who tried to raise a smile.
“What should I call you?” she asked. “All evening you haven’t said your name.”
The faery’s wings shifted uneasily beneath their carapace. “Faeries of my—history—have lost their names.”
“Lost? How—” But the faery’s face flinched, and Corentine stopped. “Would you choose one, then, for me to call you? We have plenty: Lisenn, Trifin, Naig…”
“Trifin I like.” The faery cocked her head at Corentine. “You are fighting your Crown?”
“Our Regent. He taxes us to starvation, claims our estates, turns our old nobility into paupers.” Corentine’s voice soured with anger. “With the funds I raise, we’ll depose him.”
“And for this, you would pay my price?”
“I would do anything to rid our coast of a tyrant.”
In the faery’s dark eyes, something kindled. She looked at Corentine, as if for the first time. “Then I accept.”
A Breton saying runs, everything bad asks to be salted. On Guérande’s poor soil life was thin, and its people used salt to render it palatable.
In those days smuggling ran strong as the tides that drove their daily bulk up and down the Loire. On its waters salt flowed from Guérande to Paris in the north, Lyon in the south. As the border between the tax zones, the river hid caches, rendezvous, and punts of sympathetic fishermen. Its wet banks bristled with gabelous—more every year, since the Regent had determined to put the arrogant Bretons in their place.
The Bretons, for their part, refused to abandon their pride, even if that meant sacrificing a portion of their diminished income. Each month the paludiers saved a minot of salt for smugglers like Corentine and Sebastién, who disguised it to pass up the river to Nantes and the Marquis.
At first, Trifin merely aided these plans. When Corentine sewed a false rump beneath her skirts, Trifin charmed it so that any groping gabelous might feel its salt as flesh. When Corentine lined barrels of cod with excess bay salt, Trifin drew a magic barrier to preserve its taste.
With more sous coming in each month, Corentine sewed Trifin a cloak. “A real one this time,” she explained to Trifin, who despite the rumors of faery avarice had seemed unmoved by coin. “Try it,” she urged, smoothing the drape against Trifin’s shoulders. “It’s yours.”
Trifin stared at her. “You were a lady. Ladies do not give their servants presents.”
“I’m a smuggler, not a lady,” Corentine retorted. “And you’re not a servant. You’re my business partner. Aren’t I paying you—well, something? Come, try it on.”
Trifin ran the heavy fabric through her fingers. Corentine had left wide slits in its bodice for her wings. She slipped it on. In the small mirror over the mantel, she caught her reflection, and Corentine’s face behind her. Their eyes met, and Corentine looked quickly away.
“It suits you,” said Corentine, reddening. “More than a dress would, I thought. Was I right?”
Trifin turned, watching the fabric swirl behind her. With a sudden movement she reached to her side, as if to draw a sword, though her hands came up empty. Then she looked at Corentine, and flushed. “You were,” she said.
In La Baule, the marquise and her guard became a frequent sight. They strolled the streets arm-in-arm, Corentine proud and round-shouldered, Trifin vigilant beneath her glamor.
But one day as they entered the town square, Trifin jerked as if fettered. A hasty gallows had been erected on the mud. Around it, the people of La Baule clustered grim-faced. Upon it, three of the local brigands swung. A shrill gabelous was proclaiming in Parisian:
“Remember, salt fraud betrays the Crown!”
Behind him on the ground, two chained women stood with puffed faces. They were newly widowed, and bound as king’s virgins for Nouvelle France.
“There is no quarter for traitors,” the gabelous finished. “Respect the gabelle, my good Bretons, and keep faith with your king.”
“Regent,” the crowd hissed.
Trifin was trembling so violently she nearly dropped her glamor. Frightened, Corentine took her elbow and drew her away. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Trifin did not hear, but wrapped her hands about her neck. Her fingers rubbed her nape, where the joints of her wings met beneath her glamor. “No quarter for traitors,” she said. “No—bargains? Exchanges? Is that how it is, here?”
Corentine unlaced her fingers, and held them. “Not for Bretons, no. But it’s either smuggle or starve.” She looked down, and her voice softened. “I’m sorry for drawing you into it. I thought you knew what happened to traitors. Is Faerie so different?”
Trifin looked away, and did not answer. Beneath her glamor a muscle jumped in her jaw.
Corentine swallowed. They stood there for a moment, hands linked, Trifin’s shudder running up Corentine’s arms.
“Well, no matter,” Corentine said at last. She threaded her arm in Trifin’s. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
As spring stretched into summer and sun drank the pools down to their salt beds, Corentine’s plans grew bolder. Trifin exchanged the down of Corentine’s grey goose for fleur de sel, and Corentine carried him to market. Corentine rode behind Trifin astride a sparkling green-grey mare to Bourgneuf, her arms tight on Trifin’s waist. Together they poled a punt up the canal to Guérande-ville, past stationed gabelous who wondered at their cages of flaking white doves.
Between salt runs, Corentine stitched Trifin clothes, for the delight that lit her face at each gift: an embroidered waistcoat, long jacket, fine lace jabot. At dusk they sat together in the front room, planning, while Sebastién dozed in the kitchen. Sometimes Trifin took the broomhandle and performed graceful maneuvers as Corentine clapped, dreaming of how she might look with a sabre. Sometimes—often—they danced.
After one such evening, Trifin collapsed panting in a chair, and Corentine sank to the floor beside, to rest her head on Trifin’s knee.
Gazing down at her, Trifin’s face clouded. She said softly, “Remember, we are business partners. My work comes at a price.”
Corentine flinched against her knee. “Of course. I would never cheat you, Tri. I know the magic won’t let you tell me what the price is. But you can be sure I’ll pay you what’s required, when the time comes.”
Trifin looked away. “I know,” she said.
Among the paludiers of Guérande it became known that Corentine employed a faery, for they were proud of their onetime marquise and the trouble she caused the Regent. As the summer wore on, she began to receive as much contraband as the brigands, whose ranks had been thinned by the spring arrests. Her neighbors left pots of salt on her doorstep, with requests to disguise it as canola hay or fly it magically to Nantes. At length the kitchen was so piled with saltkegs that Sebastién had to wiggle over them to reach his grousing corner.
“How much longer do you think you can hide this?” he asked Corentine. “That faery is too great a risk.”
Corentine snapped, “She’s helped us run more salt than we could have in a year. A bit more and the Marquis will have enough to recruit a militia. And we’ve got some good runs planned. Right, Trifin?”
At the table Trifin put a hand to her neck, the jabot Corentine had embroidered. She did not look up as she nodded.
One week later, a covered barge drifted saillessly up the Loire. Beneath its flapping cover, huge blocks of green and white marble sweated in the heat. Corentine and Trifin lounged together in the prow. Trifin, half asleep below the gunwale, had let her glamor slip.
On the banks, poplar stands alternated with reedy slips on which bored gabelous played cards. The August day was hot, the taxmen drowsy. Corentine prayed they would remain so.
But as they floated by a listless pier of gabelous, a young man at its edge leapt up pointing. “How is that barge moving?” he cried. “It has no sails!”
Trifin threw up her glamor a second too late. “A faery!” the taxman screeched. His groggy fellows stood. “Rifles! Rifles!”
“Get down!” cried Corentine. But Trifin had risen, lifting her arms. Like dark shears her carapaced wings snicked free. Before them, a wound opened in the summer’s day from which a night cold rushed, glinting darkness.
On the pier, flintlocks snapped.
Corentine hurled herself on Trifin—“Tri, down!”—only to watch the prow and its faery tip into the cold wound. The whole barge slid through as if down a dark throat. Behind it, summer closed like a mouth.
Her body still shielding Trifin, Corentine looked up. The barge was gliding down a river dark and polished as obsidian. Trees of black glass tinkled overhead. Below her, she could feel Trifin trembling.
When the faery stood, Corentine gasped. A metal collar bound her throat, chained to clamps that locked her wings shut. “Now you see my history,” Trifin said.
“Tri,” Corentine began, but the faery pressed a hand to her mouth.
“Don’t call me anything. I can’t have a name here. Quickly, we have little time. If we find a tributary back to your world before the Queen’s guards catch us, we can reappear on the Loire five miles upstream of those gabelous.”
“But those chains—”
Trifin’s eyes were hard. “Humans aren’t the only creatures with corrupt monarchs.”
While Corentine was still gaping, Trifin reached below the barge’s tarp and handed her a pole. “My magic does not work here. We have to steer.”
They guided the barge downstream in silence. Little night-beetles ticked in the ebony reeds. No moon shone, but silver creases of starlight marked the boat’s wake in the inky water. In the prow Trifin poled painfully.
Watching her elbows brush her wing’s chains, Corentine began, “To free yourself, what do you need—”
“The tributary,” said Trifin.
She pointed to where an arm of dark water looped off the main course. Light spilled down it like carelessly thrown straw. Puffing, Corentine and Trifin steered the barge over. The channel was short, and its reedy cul de sac framed a wobbly square of sun, a window into summer just large enough for the barge.
Before it was a guard.
“You have brought your human here, captain traitor?” he asked. On buzzing wings he hovered just over the water, his beetle’s horn nodding with amusement. “Do you hope to win her trust so? A strange choice.” He grinned. “Most humans do not recall Faerie fondly.”
“Let us pass, lieutenant,” Trifin growled. “I’m a Queen’s convict, bound by her laws.”
The guard laughed, then spat at Trifin’s feet. “I always did think the Queen let you rebels off too lightly. Bargains with traitors—fah! And just because she found it amusing.” He paused, and his pale eyes flickered over Corentine. “Though you have found yourself a pretty human. You always did do well for yourself, captain…”
Trifin’s shoulders stiffened. She glanced back, and raising her pole like a staff, stepped between Corentine and the guard.
He raised his eyebrows. “Or perhaps our Queen is wise. Your freedom will hurt you more than I thought. Imagine her face when—”
Trifin snarled and sprung forward, sweeping her pole up to hook the guard’s horn. With a great hollow crack she wrenched his head aside, hauling him out of the air. As he fell howling, his fingers locked on Trifin’s chains, dragging her after him. Together they crashed into the reeds. The dark water gagged the cry from Trifin’s mouth.
Corentine fell to her knees. “Tri!” she screamed. She drove her pole at the guard’s shelled neck. At the third blow his fingers jerked, and Trifin surfaced choking. Her bound hands scrabbled for the pole. Levering it beneath the faery’s body, Corentine flung her out and onto the barge. Trifin grabbed the pole and swept it down to deal a fourth blow to the guard’s submerged face.
She kicked Corentine the second pole. “Push!”
Snatching it, Corentine plunged it deep in the marsh below the stern. She hove. At the prow Trifin flipped her pole into the water and hove, too. The barge wallowed towards the sunlight. Below, the guard’s clawed hands scrabbled at the hull. Resurfacing for an instant, he spat at Trifin, “Enjoy your chains, beetle! Humans never forgive—”
With rage Trifin cracked her pole against his nose. He gurgled under.
Beside her, Corentine gave a final push. The barge lurched clacking past the reeds and fell through, into summer. Behind it, night closed like a mouth.
On the Loire, noon laid a white haze on the water.
Trifin dropped her pole and collapsed, blank-faced, in the prow. Her dark wings trembled, still free in this world.
Kneeling, Corentine wrapped the faery in her arms. She held her for a long time, but Trifin did not stop shaking. Finally Corentine pulled back and cupped her chin in one hand. “You saved us,” she said softly. “Thank you.”
Trifin did not reply.
Corentine brushed the hair from her bowed face and tried to meet her eyes. “What did he mean, ‘traitor?”
“The Faerie Queen.” Trifin’s voice was dull. “She is like your Regent, a tyrant. I was her captain, until I—we—rebelled. We lost. I will always wear chains there, until I pay her price.”
“So you can buy back your freedom? Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Faerie is not like your world.” Trifin jerked away from Corentine’s touch. Her voice shook. “Our coin is trickery. Our laws are magic. Our contracts are binding.”
“And you can’t tell me anything more.”
This time Trifin made no answer. Instead she lifted Corentine’s hands, and, after pressing them hard for a moment, replaced them on the deck. Corentine could not make her meet her eyes. Leaning forward, she folded Trifin again in her arms.
They clung together for a long time, shivering, though the August sun was hot.
If Corentine’s schemes now grew more desperate, they also grew more careful. All the paludiers of Guérande sought her for their traffic: she had promises to keep. She grew haunted and silent. Trifin, too, drifted between rooms like a green ghost, and would answer no questions, about Faerie or otherwise.
As autumn fell and the saltkegs mounted in the kitchen, Corentine turned her thoughts to Paris. One last run there could secure the funds they needed; it lay in the Grande Gabelle, where the tax was heaviest and the profit greatest, and which could be reached by sea around Normandy. Corentine looked at the barrels of fleur de sel, white as wings. “Sails,” she murmured.
Three weeks later, as the first apples were falling, a chasse-marée slipped from the port at La Baule. Instead of fresh herring, its hold was stuffed with salt cod. Its sails were brilliant white. On its deck Corentine stood, and Trifin in her glamor, and Sebastién, coaxed from his kitchen corner to serve as mock merchant. Two hired sailors fussed with the rigging.
“I can’t believe I’ve consented to this madness, and I still don’t trust that faery,” Sebastién said, watching Trifin steady the salt-sails.
Corentine stepped beside her and took her hand. “I do.”
Trifin winced. To the question in Corentine’s eyes she said nothing.
Over the next week they followed the carbotage routes up the coast, sails flapping in the autumn gusts. Corentine sang Breton harvest songs in the prow. The hired sailors joined her, proud to assist the woman who had so roundly conned the Regent. Sebastién grumbled.
Though the chasse-marée was small, Trifin avoided them all. Nor did she break her silence, even for Corentine.
When at last they put into Le Havre at the Seine’s mouth, two gabelous boarded to shake down the cod. Wrenching open each barrel, they waggled a sample fish over a small scale to ensure it had not been packed in extra salt. Over their heads, the white sails flaked.
“Your cargo is legal,” one at last told Sebastién. “But I can’t understand why you sailed from La Baule just for salt cod. This is a swift little chasse-marée, and your fish will keep. Why such speed?”
Sebastién frowned at Corentine. “My reasons are my own.”
Behind them, Trifin stood. Her eyes were hollow.
“Not one woman, but two?” added the gabelous, noticing her. “This is strange business, my friend. Let’s have another look at your hold.”
Trifin raised her arms.
Above, the sails stilled. Wind knocked them together like old plaster. Where they touched, a dry shuffle like rubbing chalk drifted down the air.
Corentine looked up, and her heart seized.
Trifin dropped her arms.
The sails burst. Like glaciers their shrouds split, calving white bergs that the wind punched to dust and then let fall in gouts, hundreds of minots of sparkling fleur de sel, an avalanche, drowning the deck in warm snow.
When Corentine had choked her way from beneath the drifts, she saw Trifin standing, arms limp, watching her.
“I’m so sorry,” Trifin whispered as the gabelous clapped Corentine in irons. Her voice broke. “It was the price.”
A dagger at her back, Corentine let herself be led ashore beside Sebastién and the stunned sailors.
Behind her Trifin held out her wrists to be manacled, as if the chains belonged there, as if she deserved nothing else.
In the prison at Le Havre, Sebastién raged. “She’s a faery! What did you expect?”
“Be quiet!” Corentine barked from across the dirt-floored aisle.
“I asked you to dismiss her and you never listened. But did I forbid you? No. I gave you your freedom, and you let a faery’s beauty fool you into—”
“Be quiet!” Corentine yelled again. Her voice cracked with tears.
“Now we’ll all hang for your foolishness,” Sebastién finished bitterly. “For choosing that faery over our lives, and your own good sense.”
“Please,” Corentine repeated, her voice wilting, “be quiet.”
One cell over, Trifin crouched, her face pressed to her knees. Corentine could not look at her.
In those days the prisons overflowed with salt-runners, so to make room they were brought quickly to trial. Not a week had passed when Corentine, Trifin, Sebastién, and their hired sailors stood before a weary provost who had already seen ten cases that morning and would see another ten before day’s end. Behind the dock, armed gabelous guarded the bay where Le Havre’s townsfolk crowded to cheer the smugglers.
“The crime is salt fraud,” said the provost over their noise, “in the form of false sails sewn from fleur de sel.” His voice remained level through this statement. He was an old provost, and had seen stranger. “What have you to say in your defense?”
Though he addressed Sebastién, it was Corentine who stepped forward.
Sebastién hissed, “What are you doing?”
In her eyes where pride had once floated, something harder and darker had crystallized. “Paying the price,” Corentine said. She turned to the provost.
“Honored prévôt,” she began, “I confess: for the purpose of fraud, I had my—my maid spin sails of sea salt, and did so without my husband’s consent. He did not know the true purpose of our trip to Le Havre.” Sebastién’s eyebrows rose, though he said nothing. Behind the dock, the crowd whispered. “Nor did the sailors whom I hired. All thought we had come to deliver salt cod. You should let them go free, for my maid deceived them.” Corentine risked a look at Trifin, who stood below her in the stand, head hanging. Her voice sharpened. “She deceived me as well.”
“How so?” asked the provost.
Corentine opened her mouth several times, then closed it. Flakes of salt trickled down her scalp. Across her mind darkness passed, and the memory of firm shoulders under chained wings; and those same shoulders, elegant in a linen cloak; or warm beneath her hands, dancing; or in her arms, trembling at the shout, no quarter for traitors.
The provost waved his hand. “Never mind. We’ll return to it later.” He straightened to address the room, one eye on the crowd jeering him from behind the dock. “This woman has confessed to salt fraud and exonerated her spouse and hired sailors. I believe her that they are guiltless. Bailli, remove them.”
The bailiff, his kerchief yellow with sweat, hustled Sebastién and the sailors out of the room. The crowd gave a few soft cheers. Sebastién struggled to glance back, though not too hard.
Resumed the provost, “Now, as to what to do with you and your—”
“Your maid.” He leveled his eyes at her. “I am not uninformed, Lady Corentine de Cornouaille. Of your activities, and those of your upstart Breton Marquis. Nor am I uninformed as to their origin.” He glanced at Trifin. “Word has reached me that your—activities—escalated after the arrival of a peasant woman who is not what she seems. Whether a noble in disguise or something stranger I do not know, but it is clear she is the leader in these ventures.” He looked back to Corentine. “You say she deceived even you. You had estates once, Lady Cornouaille. Our Regent is merciful, and rewards loyalty. Reveal this traitor and her plots, and you will walk free on your own land again.”
A murmur rippled the gathered crowd. Corentine stared at the provost. “But what will happen to her?”
“You know the penalties for treachery.”
Behind the dock, the murmurs ebbed. Into the falling silence rang a small chill sound. Corentine turned to look again at Trifin. Her manacled hands covered her face, and she was shaking. The iron gave small cries as the cuffs hit.
As the silence lengthened, Trifin grew aware of its spread around her. She raised her head. Salt lines streaked her cheeks.
“Well, Lady Cornouaille?” asked the provost irritably. “Will you buy your freedom today, or won’t you?”
Trifin met Corentine’s eyes. She nodded, once, as if giving permission. Then she looked down.
Through the darkness of Corentine’s mind flared a small, bright image like a flame—her cheek on a knee, and a promise.
She drew a deep breath.
“Honored prévôt, I don’t doubt our Regent’s mercy,” Corentine began. The crowd hissed. “But surely the Parisian families working my land now would advance their claims against mine. And as our Regent is also a just leader”—more hisses—“he must acknowledge those claims. Further, honored prévôt, you’ve seen fit to part me from my husband. My maid and I are two healthy women of childbearing age. I say it would be a pity to hang us when Nouvelle France needs wives. Surely our merciful Regent would agree?”
The provost frowned. “You plead transportation, for the both of you?”
“So you refuse to condemn your maid, and forgive her deceptions?” His eyes were sharp.
Corentine met them. “I do, prévôt.”
The provost leaned back in his chair. “Mercy is a virtue, in states and in persons,” he said in a tight voice. He addressed neither Corentine nor Trifin, but the whispering crowd. “If a smuggler can be merciful, so too can our Regent.” Sitting up, he straightened his papers and dipped his pen. “Lady Corentine and her, ah, maid: I sentence you to a life’s exile. You go as king’s virgins, to find husbands and yield children for the glory of Nouvelle France. Vive le roi.”
Vive le vrai roi, the crowd replied.
From a dark elsewhere, there came the sigh of falling chains.
One month later, seventy years before the ancién regime would end in blood, the Marquis de Pontcallec’s conspiracy to overthrow the Regency failed, and he too ended in blood on a scaffold at Nantes. Those conspirators who did not swing beside him were exiled, alongside their salt smugglers, to Nouvelle France. They shipped at La Rochelle aboard an airless frigate in October. Despite quays bristling with grenadiers, crowds cheered the smugglers from the shore as the ship sailed.
Belowdecks the mood was more somber. In Ville-Marie where they were bound, the smugglers could choose either military service or indenture. Passage took two months; lice crawled already beneath them in the straw.
Corentine and the faery, whose name was not Trifin, sat on a keg of salt-pork near the bow. Together they gazed out a porthole towards the grey waves.
Behind them, in the dark shadow of our world that is Faerie, the faery’s wings stretched.
“You know you don’t have to come with me,” Corentine said. “Ville-Marie is cold, and the work will be hard. I understand if you want to return to Faerie. You’re free now.”
“Because you forgave me even though I betrayed you,” the faery said softly. “That was what the magic demanded, but you did it yourself.” She touched Corentine’s sleeve, the prisoner’s rough hemp. “I’m in your debt.”
Corentine took her hands. “You don’t owe me anything.”
The faery smiled. “Then take this as a gift—one failed rebel to another.” She cupped Corentine’s chin in her hands. And drawing her gently forward, she kissed her.
Corentine flushed; then laughed; then bent her forehead against the faery’s. “Well, then.”
Above the hold, muffled thumps on the deck signaled sails being loosed. The ship bucked as the wind caught the canvas.
Far away in Nouvelle France, snow was already falling. But behind in Guérande, the last dry summer wind was raking across the salt pools, blowing white fleur de sel like lace from the waves.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “The Salt Price” by B. Pladek, narrated by Jasmine Arch.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to B. Pladek Online