THE FOLLOWING EVENING, Tress took stock of the ship’s cooking ingredients. What she found was not inspiring. Stale flour, very few useful
seasonings, rancid oil. And the ship’s oven? Fueled by sunlight spores in a
way that made the kilnlike device heat in an impossibly uneven way. A quick test of wet flour on a baking pan proved that.
No wonder Fort had difficulty cooking anything without burning it.
Indeed, it was possible he did it on purpose in order to cover up the awful flavor of the ingredients. She gave him a look with folded arms, and he
shrugged. They didn’t need his writing board for that exchange.
“All right,” she said, handing him the bottle of rancid oil. “Toss this
overboard. It’s too far gone.”
He regarded it with a thoughtful eye, the bottle looking much smaller in his enormous hands, held between two curled, broken fingers. He was so big, Tress couldn’t help wondering if he was fully human—which was understandable, but all joking aside, Fort was a hundred percent human. Plus at least twenty percent of something else I haven’t been able to determine.
“Trust me,” Tress said. “We can make something of the flour, but there’s no good use for the oil.”
That you know of, he wrote. You’d be surprised at the things people will trade for. He tucked it away. Together, they occupied the
ship’s small kitchen, which wasn’t much bigger than Fort’s quartermaster office—though this room had counters running all around with cupboards underneath, broken only by the door on one side and the oven on the other.
“Here,” Tress said, pushing a small pile of kulunuts across the counter to him. “Mash these.”
“Yes, and do it in the mortar so you don’t lose any of the liquid. Kulunuts have a lot of fat to them, and we’re going to need that, since the oil is bad.”
He shrugged, doing as she ordered while Tress made some small
alterations with pans to turn the oven into a steamer. “For a more even bake,” she explained at his curious expression. “Steam is a good conductor.”
But aren’t we making bread?
“Nut bread,” she said, sifting the flour to check for any mold. Old flour
she could work with, but moldy flour? That was far worse. Fortunately, this seemed dry and pure enough. “We need to avoid basic breads. Old flour has a bad taste, but it won’t make us sick. So we need something where taste
won’t be too noticeable. Kulunut bread should be workable—and we can steam it.”
He took her at her word, continuing to mash. Over the next hour, Tress found herself falling back into old routines. How many times had she cooked food for her parents, using whatever they could afford or scavenge? There
was a calming familiarity about doing so again, if on a much larger scale.
She hoped her parents were doing all right without her. She’d intended to write to them, but with all that had happened… Suddenly she felt guilty for having wished for more letters from Charlie. If his experiences on the seas had been anything like hers, then it was a miracle he’d found time to send her what he had.
Fort didn’t fill the time with idle chitchat, and while you might ascribe this to his deafness, I’ve known more than a few Deaf people who were quite the blabberhands. Fort watched everything she did carefully—and she found his attention difficult to interpret. Was he trying to learn from her? Or was he suspicious of her?
Uncertain, she popped out the first of her test cakes, sliced off a corner, and offered it to him. Fort picked it up between the sides of his hands. He inspected it. Sniffed it. Tried it. Then cried.
This type of response will send any artist into a panic. Tears wash away the middle ground—all the infinite permutations of mediocre are eliminated, and two options remain: one sublime, the other catastrophic. For a moment, both interpretations existed in a kind of quantum state for Tress. And people wonder why artists so often abuse drink.
Fort reached for another bite.
Tress’s sigh of relief could have filled the sails. She went back to
chopping gull—this, thankfully, was fresh—for the meat pies. But Fort tapped her on the shoulder.
How did you do that? he wrote. I watched for sleight of hand.
“What would I use sleight of hand for?”
Secret ingredients. Swapping one cake for another, pre-prepared.
“Are you always this suspicious?”
I’m a quartermaster on a pirate ship, he said.
“Well, there were no swapped cakes,” she said. “And no secret ingredients other than practice and resourcefulness.”
He reached for a third bite.
“How much,” she said as she chopped, “would you say a meal like this each day would be worth?”
Fort stood up straight, then eyed her, smiling slyly. Oh, I guess that’s a matter for debate, isn’t it?
“That third bite you took suggests the debate is already over.”
He hesitated, mid-finger-lick. Then he typed, I thought you said you weren’t tricking me.
“Curious,” she said. “I don’t remember saying that. I only stated that the bread was genuine. Not that I wasn’t trying to trick you. Care for a fourth piece?”
Now, it should be noted that Tress proceeded with this conversation under a slight weight of guilt. She wanted Fort to like her, and she wasn’t generally one to demand trades or payments from friends.
Yet she’d watched how he interacted with others. Fort wasn’t a selfish man. He’d not only been the one to haul her up that first day, he’d given her food when she needed it. He always seemed to have what people needed, quietly providing medicine, shoes, or even a deck of cards for a Doug in need. And he rarely took something of equal worth in trade.
Yet with people like Ann or Salay, he’d bargain fiercely for the smallest items. Even ones they should be able to requisition from the ship’s stores. Tress thought maybe he was like her Aunt Glorf, who had always fought for the best deals at the market. She’d been afraid of looking silly by being taken advantage of.
The guess was as wrong as ending a sentence with a preposition. But it worked anyway. Like ending a sentence with a preposition. Because it
convinced her to bargain, even when she didn’t want to impose.
Do this once for each day I fed you, Fort said, and our debt will be equal.
“Now, that would seem like a fair deal,” Tress said, “if one happened to be using a rotting loaner brain that Ulaam dug out of his bottom drawer. The food you provided me, Fort, was practically worthless. I’d say that one good meal should balance out a few dozen terrible ones.”
The food wasn’t worthless, Fort said, mashing some more nuts. He
could hold the pestle in his curled fingers quite easily, pausing now and then to tap with his knuckles on the top of his board—which, resting on the
counter, now displayed the words on the same surface. Food has a
minimum threshold of usefulness, assuming it’s not poisonous.
“It wasn’t poisonous,” Tress said, “but it sure tried.”
It kept you alive, and a life is invaluable, I’d say. So my food, provided when you couldn’t get any other, was therefore priceless.
“Ah,” Tress said as she chopped, “but the captain has repeatedly said my life is worthless. So your food, in turn, is the same.”
If you have no value, Fort wrote, mashing nuts with one hand and tapping with the other, then surely your labor is barely worth anything at all. And hence, I should be able to employ you for a pittance.
“Well then,” Tress said, “I suppose if that’s the case, then I’ll find some other way to repay you. What a shame.” She took the last piece of the test cake before he could grab it, then popped it in her mouth.
Oh moons, she’d forgotten what it was like to eat without forcibly suppressing her gag reflex.
Fort rubbed his chin, then grinned. All right, fine. Each day of work providing adequate meals like this pays off two days of meals I gave you.
“Five,” Tress said.
“Deal,” she replied, “but you can’t tell the others that these meals are mine. I can’t afford to be roped into cooking breakfast and lunch as well. I have other work to do.”
The crew will get suspicious if two meals are bad and one is incredible.
“So the food is incredible, is it?” she said.
He froze, then grinned again. I underestimated you.
“Hopefully that’s catching,” she said. “You’re a resourceful man, Fort.
You can come up with an excuse to put off the crew. Tell them you’re trying new recipes, but only have time to practice one a day. Plus, if we get that oven working, the things you make might not be so…”
Unique? he wrote. “Unrecognizable.”
A deal, I suppose. Assuming you agree to make dessert each day as well. The Dougs have been asking for one that doesn’t melt the plates before it can be eaten.
“They’ve been asking for more of what you were making? Moons, how many of those bargain bin brains did Ulaam have?”
Fort laughed out loud. It was a full laugh, but not like Ann’s raucous one.
More unrestrained than uncontrolled. It was the laugh of someone who didn’t care how they sounded or looked to others.
I’m wrong, she realized. He’s not worried about seeming silly by being taken advantage of.
Well? he wrote. Dessert?
“I want a flare gun,” she said, sliding her chopped meat into a pie tin, “with flares. Without questions.”
He eyed her.
Mask business? he wrote. “Maybe.”
Will it help us with our predicament? He pointed upward toward the captain’s cabin.
“I hope so.”
Then you may have it. In trade for desserts for the rest of the trip.
“Until we reach our destination in the Crimson Sea,” Tress said.
I wasn’t aware we had one. Curious. Well, so be it. He wiped his hand, then held it out.
She shook to seal the deal.
Thank you, Fort said. Genuinely.
“For the food?” she asked.
For the trade.
“Why do you like it so much, Fort?” she asked, leaning against the counter.
I am a hunter by profession, he explained. It is a mark of pride among my people, and my family in particular, to execute an excellent hunt.
Well, we’ve broadened the definition over the years, he
explained. Turns out, a whole society of hunters doesn’t scale well. Who’s going to make the shoes? Bake the bread? Plan the weddings? He tapped, blanking the board, then continued, So, we choose our hunt when we come of age. This is mine. A worthy hunt, same as my mother. I record each great victory and send them home in letters to be hung in our family hall.
“Wow,” Tress said.
You’re impressed? Ann laughed.
“I am impressed,” she said. “Plus, I have a friend who’d love hearing that story. I hope you can meet him someday. Is…your trade deal with me today going to go in one of the letters?”
He laughed again. Tress, it would embarrass you to know how successful my hunt just was. Have you eaten my food? The first bite of bread you gave me was worth every meal I gave you in the past. And you have not only promised more, but are going to let me take credit with the Dougs? He winked at her. I’m going to brag about this catch for three pages! Now, hurry up. I want to try one of those pies.