Bretel stared at the oblong fruit he'd been handed, its green skin puckered with small granules of pink crystals. He took a hesitant bite.
His body convulsed in reaction to the bitter flavor.
"You're kidding," he said to the pretty young procurement officer, once he'd finished scrubbing his mouth with a chunk of brownbeer bread. "I can't feed this my customers."
Her expression hardened. "It's this or nothing, Bretel. Every sweetwater bean between here and the sea rotted this year."
Bretel flinched, appalled. "How?"
She shrugged. "Some alchemical horror from one of the old wars, I guess." She softened a little. "Look, if you soak it in lemon-water for a week or so, it's not so bad."
Bretel barked a disbelieving laugh. "If that were true, you'd have soaked them yourself and brought me something that was at least a little palatable. Whatever these are, they're no substitute for a sweetwater bean."
"Ok, well, how do you want to approach this then?" She spread her hands, weighing invisible options. "You can take your star confection off the bakery menu, or you can figure out a way to make it work with these, because this is the only varietal of wild bottlestar sweetwater vines growing right now."
"Fine. How much?"
"800 shells a barrel." She didn't even have the grace to look abashed about it.
Bretel's eyebrows flew up, wrinkling his receding browline. "That's six times the normal price!"
"Which is a bargain I'm only offering because you're a regular customer and I don't have enough warehouse space to soak it properly myself." She twisted the words bitterly.
Bretel's shoulders slumped in silent apology at his earlier dig.
She sighed. "You aren't the only one whose business is hurt by this, Bretel, and this stuff takes a lot more work to harvest than the other cultivars. You ought to be grateful I bothered to harvest any, but we've got a contract, and you worked with my mother for a long time. I know that sweetwater cakes are your big seller and you're maybe the only baker who might be able to pull it off."
Bretel glanced around the empty shelves lining his shop. It wasn't as though he had much choice. "Thanks. I'm sorry, it's just — where am I going to get enough lemons? They only grow in Nahria and the Temples don't share with non-residents."
"Well, that's what took me so long," she said, and lifted the tarp off one of the crates.
Bretel gasped when he saw the tidy collection of aetheral spheres, each containing a single bright yellow fruit.
"How—?" Nahrian Temples never sold preserved fruit.
She shrugged, but there was a smug look in her eye. "Smugglers exist, Bretel."
It cost him a fortune, but in the end, Bretel's Bakerie was the only cake shop with sweets for sale during courting season.
I've been thinking a lot lately about how pop culture treats smugglers and pirates (and thieves, and hitmen...) as objects of romanticism. Criminals like the protagonist of Breaking Bad and the gang members featured in Sons of Anarchy represent objects of fascination and sometimes guilty pleasure. Even when they're presented as "bad guys," they're very rarely "villains." For every Captain Phillips, there are five Pirates of the Caribbean.
We present these characters as dashing heroes — if not exactly figures to emulate, then certainty hey aren't portrayed as objects of disdain, either. These aren't villains, they're fantasies, the same way the cowboy cop trope is a fantasy that speaks to the desire to cut through bureaucracy and be a hero by following hunches instead of procedure and solve problems by giving into our impulses instead of controlling them.
I think there is something very common, but perhaps also dysfunctional, about the propensity to, even in fantasy, laud and perhaps in some small way envy smugglers and thieves — people who get away with not "working," not paying their taxes, and not making nice with authority.