The Greatest Gift
By Aela Thunderstorm
Dining no longer had the same allure and pleasure for Santana since she had joined the Kingdom of Zabar. As everyone kept telling her, resources were scarce. Very little could be spared for proper food, like the kind Santana had enjoyed at Adex every day.
Just the memories of the savory liver mousse the cooks made at just the right balance of fluffy and creamy made her mouth water sometimes. Not out of physical hunger. Rather a deeper one that Santana could feel within her very soul.
From an early age as a young girl living in the land of wind, she gained an appreciation for all the finest things. When she worked in the academys as an apprentice, she was given special eclairs filled with chocolate as a treat by the old cook if she did her job well.
He told her with a kind smile, "If you serve with distinction, you should eat with distinction."
It was a moment of awakening for the young girl. From that day forward, every step she took to become the person she was, every test she endured at the hands of the people around her was a test to see if she truly deserved the fine things she desired.
When she succeeded, she rewarded herself with the best clothes, foods, jewelry she could obtain. But the moment she failed in something she set out to do, those very things she valued became a burden, a sign that she was not worthy of what she had earned before. So she wore simple clothes once more, threw her jewelry in a box, out of sight and out of mind. She would eat only bread and water, just enough to keep herself from starvation. And then threw herself into her work. She would not touch the markings of distinction until she had reached it again.
But each time she stumbled, her response was the same: Deny herself what she had earned until she had earned it again. And along the way, her appreciation of the finer things only heightened. Her new well-laced boots became gold-encrusted ones. Her simple gown became a gold encrusted dress trimmed with black diamonds. And the special eclairs became...more special. With caramel, chestnut purée, crème pâtissière now filling them.
All of it earned.
But now, here she was, sitting at a simple wooden dining table, surrounded by a gathering of companions from throughout ala that she would never have imagined in her wildest dreams. And being forced to eat a few slices of barely-cooked ham and poorly-mashed potatoes, with a side of mushy peas. There wasn't a slice of butter, or even a shaker of salt to give the meal some semblance of taste. Even the spices were reserved for other purposes.
The only time Santana regretted her choice to join these people was when she sat down to a meal such as this. It filled her with nothing but anger and bitterness. She had lost so much of what she had earned in a lifetime of playing to the whims of society. She had played the Game. And played it well.
And the the first award she had ever earned for herself was being taken away out of 'necessity'.
After a while, Santana found herself alone, her companions all gone. Even the Sparrow, who was always a lengthy eater with his four plates and extra three mugs of ale, had left by now. Santana still toyed with her food in an idle fashion, her pewter fork twisting into the cold ham, only a small slice of it consumed, along with a few of the peas. The potatoes remained untouched.
Suddenly, a few small footsteps alerted Santana to a presence at her side. Turning, she saw an vaconic serving girl with dirty blonde hair and an even dirtier apron. She was young. younger than Santana's companion Nico, who shared her hair if not her attitude. This vaconic seemed like if she were to speak, she would be unable to breathe afterward. Nervousness seemed to shake out of her every limb.
In her hands, she held a rusty iron serving tray with a copper-green dome over it. Both had obviously been salvaged from some forgotten storage cellar in the castle, and the didn't even fit together. But the girl was holding them together like a vice, the copper dome firmly placed and unshifting.
"M-Madame," she said, her voice a terrified stumble, "A-a gift."
And without another word or explanation, the girl set the dish down and scurried away, not even taking the time to lift the dome off and present whatever the 'gift' was.
Curious as much as anything, Santana lifted the too-small dome off the rusty serving plate, and was greeted by a sight she would never have expected to see in Skyhold.
Pain perdu, or 'gypsy toast' to the masses, was the main food on the plate. It was a common dish, just partially-stale bread soaked in beaten eggs and then fried. But this particular bread was cut into the rough shape of a horned crown. It looked eerily close to Nico’s crown. The same curves and shape, though not the same size. A temperate but still substantial amount of watery maple syrup had been poured on the bread.
To one side of the bread were two long well-steamed asparagus stalks, their stalks somewhat flacid due to age, but the tops still solid and supple. On the other side was a simple sausage, but as Santana flipped it over with her fork to find that it had been carefully sliced in half, and a small amount of cheese had been carefully placed between the two halves and than the sausage was put back together, melting the cheese from both sides until it almost glued the meat together. The top side of the sausage remained uncut, so as not to let the diner know of the slicing.
And lastly were two slices of radish and a small handful of overripe grapes on the top of the plate, seemingly for presentation.
Santana simply stared at the meal for a minute, completely dumbfounded. Every part of the meal was painstakingly arranged, but by an amateur. Someone who was clearly motivated to make a pleasant plate had made this, but they had little training or instruction. When she finally took a sniff to test its scent, she could feel a raw assault on her nasal senses, the mixture of partially-cooked and over-cooked aromas nearly sending her reeling to the floor. But it was truly the greatest scent she had smelt in a long time, a reminder of the days when the finest kitchen in the Imperial Palace were hers to enjoy. This dish was far from that, but it was closer than Santana had seen in what seemed like an eternity. Unable to do more than stare, Santana could only ponder how to thank such a kind and thoughtful, if poorly executed gift.
Suddenly, she heard a pained sob and turned to see the back of the vaconic serving girl as she fled the dining hall. The sobs continued until the girl was well down the hallway.
Santana looked around to see if anyone else had observed the serving girl and her strange 'gift'. Most of the other servants had already left, their duties done. Santana was alone.
Standing up immediately, Santana grabbed the plate and walked as swiftly as her silver heels would allow without spilling any of the plate. She made her way to the kitchen. Outside she saw the head server, a middle-aged human woman with grey slowly engulfing her hair berating a pair of young vaconic boys for their poor job at cleaning the west end lavatory.
When she saw Santana, the woman shooed the boys away, and they looked grateful for Santana's sudden arrival, though they didn't glance at her as they made a swift retreat.
"Madame," said the head server, "May I help you?"
Santana held up her plate, "You will tell me which of your girls brought me this, and who made it."
The look of horror on the woman's face let Santana know that she knew exactly who had done this.
"You-You have to understand, Madame, I didn't know she was serious!" the woman almost pleaded, "I though it was idle talk!"
Santana stared at the woman, waiting for her to elaborate.
"One of my girls, Aelsa," the woman blurted out, "she...she mentioned how she thought it was..."
The woman had trouble speaking the next few words, but a steady few taps of Santana's boots on the ground sped her right up.
"She said you looked sad when you eat and she wanted to make you a nice meal to cheer you up!" the woman let out in rush, "please don't hurt her, Madame! It's my fault! I should have seen Aelsa would do this. She's far to impulsive. I swear, I'll give her a small beating, and she'll never do this again. I promise."
"I should hope not," said Santana, "the next time, I will expect better from her."
The woman's face was shocked beyond words. After a moment, she was able to croak, "Next time?"
Santana nodded, "Yes. I will not be at lunch tomorrow until your girl sends word through a page that she had prepared my dish. I will have a man waiting outside the kitchen for her word. She will not have any other duties while she is preparing my dish, understood?"
Dumbfounded, the head server only nodded.
"Let your girl know that her gift is much appreciated," said Santana, "and will be enjoyed must thoroughly. And if she ever needs anything from me, she need only ask."
Without another word, Santana left with the plate in her hands, intent on savoring every last bite of the grotesque meal she carried. It may not be all that she deserved, but it was truly the best she could get, and far better than any of the others were eating. For now, she would be eating with greater distinction than any of them.
She remembered that with every single unevenly-cooked bite.