I carefully put another large pinch of salt on my palm before reaching around to the figure between my legs. Having someone lick your hand was admittedly kind of gross, but I wasn’t about to complain right now. Not with a groaning gal desperately trying to keep from puking.
“Why did we go by boat?” Brenda moaned as she leaned back against my chest again.
“Because we didn’t know the teleportation coordinates,” John reminded her. His voice was deeper than usual — he was using his power to adjust his density. I wasn’t sure why.
We’d teleported to one city that had a direct line to New Brockton, and from there we had to take a small ship to get to our final destination. It would be easier in the future, though, once we had the coordinates for it. For now, all that I could do was try and give Brenda as much comfort as I could.
All that the salt would do would be to keep her from throwing up, though. It did absolutely nothing to help her misery. Even Emi was looking a touch queasy, but she was holding it together far better than Brenda was.
“I’m surprised,” Kathy said, looking at me with a warm smile. “I expected the both of you to be going for buckets.”
I shrugged a little. “It’s a little early to tell. I still might.” Ship travel was good if you were going up or down the coast. It could be faster than a carriage, but it came with its own dangers, seasickness being one of them. Nobody had ever taken me on a boat, though, so this was pretty unfamiliar territory for me.
“It’s been long enough,” John observed. “You probably would have by now.”
“Then maybe I just don’t get sea sick.”
That made his face twist into a wry grin. “You could say that you never get sick at sea?”
I shrugged a shoulder absently. “Never is a long time. I wouldn’t–”
John threw up his hands. “God damn it, Jordan!”
I blinked at him in confusion, but Kathy was laughing as she reached over to pat my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. It’s a play thing.”
I didn’t understand. He was toying with me? I didn’t have time to ask, though, as the ship suddenly lurched, getting a gagging groan out of Brenda and making Emi clutch the bedpost tighter. I wrapped my arms around Brenda, unsure of what else I could do to help at this point.
“We’re here,” Kathy announced, not making any effort to get up.
A tinny voice came through a speaker mounted on the wall. “We have arrived. Please remain in your cabins until we’ve finished docking.”
Meanwhile, John was taking slow, booming steps as he began to collect our gear. It’d only been a day’s voyage, not even an overnight trip, but we’d still gotten a group cabin for the sake of a little privacy. Not that there were many passengers on this trip, but still.
“Kathy and I used to take this trip every winter,” John explained patiently. “We’ve brought Emi here once–”
“Twice,” she snapped.
“Twice, right. Sorry. This will make the third. Forgive me. But it’s a good little township. Good people, though there is some classism. On the other hand, it’s… kind of reverse of usual classism. I’m not sure how to explain it. But it’s far from Brockton, and it doesn’t get much news from the outside world.”
“I think they like it like that,” Kathy mused. “There’s a lot of negative news out there, and I think that they’d prefer just to focus on the good rather than let the general negativity get to them. It’s the sort of place where, if you have a problem, someone is likely to come and talk to you about it.”
We’d been through all of this before, but I didn’t mind the reminder. I was pretty sure that they were talking just to fill up space. I could understand that perfectly. “It sounds like they had a rough time in the past.”
“Pretty bad, yeah.” The ship lurched a bit again, but John didn’t seem to mind it at all as he collected our stuff. “But that’s pretty normal, isn’t it? There’s all sorts of ways that a community can go when it experiences hardship, and the original settlers decided to band together tight. People who come either fall into the party line or find themselves quietly unwelcome.”
Which was standard for pretty much any community, as far as John and Kathy told it.
Kathy took back over again. “If anyone gives you any grief, tell them that you have enough money to last at least three months, but you hope to find a job before then. If things don’t work out, you’ll go. But John and I have been here for enough winters that I doubt anyone will say anything.”
“They didn’t with me,” Emi said tightly. “We’ll pull the brother card again.”
Kathy nodded. “Exactly. Jordan, you’re Emi’s brother. And we’ll basically tell the truth with Brenda — she’s a friend that we picked up and won’t abandon due to her extreme light sensitivity.”
“Name?” I asked. Kathy blinked at me. “What’s my name?”
“Nope,” I said firmly. “Something else.”
“They already know me as Ryo Yamada,” Emi said tersely.
“And I’ll be Hideki Smith. Different fathers.” Goodness knew, we had enough physical differences that we’d need it. She was short, I was tall, and I didn’t look extremely Asian. My skin tone was enough that I could pull off mixed blood, but that was about it. Besides, I’d feel weird being called Mr. Yamada after the books that I’d read.
“That works,” Kathy said defusing the situation. “Hideki’s father died before Ryo was born. Jordan, you barely remember your father, but keep his name to honor him.”
I nodded once.
“Attention all passengers,” the speaker said. There were two other people than us. “We are now docked. You may disembark at your leisure.”
“Thank god,” Brenda groaned, uncurling from between my legs.
Emi grabbed me by the shoulder as I stood. “If anyone says anything, you left home young and got a job as a dockworker in New Brockton. We only recently reunited.”
I nodded once, filing that away. Wayward son, stevedore, recently back together. Right.
We collected our gear and made our way topside. A nice bright, sunny day, without any real hint that it was halfway through October. The dock itself was small, with a straight road leading up to a city’s log walls. It was a long way up the hill, but this close to mountains, it was to be expected. A lot of communities were like this as defense from storms or tsunamis.
As the deckhands unloaded the ship, we disembarked. As I got two steps off the ship, though, I stumbled and almost fell over, earning a laugh out of John.
“Got your sea legs, Hideki, but you left your land legs at home.”
I flipped him the bird, but smiled to let him know that I was taking it in good humor. He laughed again, Kathy and Emi joining him as I took hesitant, cautious steps. As I looked around, I realized that there wasn’t a vehicle for us to ride in, not even a horse-drawn wagon.
This was going to be… fun.
The city gate that lead to the ocean opened outwards. That told me a lot. They had problems with wildlings here, but they had been spared parahuman bandits. Parahumans would target those large hinges with attacks, rending the gate a possible temporary distraction. On the other hand, having the doors open outwards meant that they could be closed more easily — you could move something better by pulling than by pushing. Physics was weird sometimes.
As we drew closer, I could see heavy chains leading in from the gates, which told me a lot. They’d use those and some sort of winch, either powered or unpowered, to close the gates. Smart.
“Travelers,” a guard called out. His chest was puffed out as he approached us, trying to make himself look more impressive. But the way that he put his feet down said that it was all show. I could take him. “We have some–”
“Can it,” a female guard snapped as she approached. “I recognize everyone here.” She motioned to the two other travelers before turning to Kathy. “Jenna!”
“Sammy!” Kathy moved her bags around so that she could give the young woman a quick hug.
“We were worried when you didn’t show up last year!”
“The squirt here finally found her brother.” Kathy jerked her thumb at Emi and I, and I offered a polite wave to the guard. “Plus we picked up a fifth. Kinda threw us for a loop.”
“Fair enough.” Sammy turned moving over to me and extending her hand. “Hi, I’m Samantha. I’m an old friend of Jenna and Henry.”
“Hideki,” I said, taking her hand. “And any friend of theirs is a friend of mine.”
She turned to Brenda and paused, seeing the headband over her eyes. Brenda, though, offered her hand without hesitation. “Hello, Miss Samantha. I’m Linda Ward. I’m not blind, either! I just…”
John laid a comforting hand on Brenda’s shoulder as Sammy took the offered hand. “Young Linda here has a birth defect that makes light difficult for her. She’s smart as a whip, though, and keeps making our lives easier. We couldn’t just leave her behind.”
Sammy smiled sweetly, her shoulders rotating back. “That’s so sweet! I wish everyone could be like that. Anyway, I’ve got some bad news. Grimwell Textiles isn’t hiring winter help this year.”
Kathy’s jaw fell open. “You’re shitting me! Did something happen?”
“Yeah, Silver Hills finally pissed people off enough that they left in droves. Not that I blame them. But Lucas knew what those folks were capable of and hired them all up. There’s no openings for anyone this winter.”
“Fuck.” Kathy frowned, lowering her hair a touch. I knew that pose — she was thinking fast. “Well… What time do you get off?”
“Alright. That gives us time to get some rooms, grab a bite to eat and settle in. I’d like to pick your brain if I can, see if we can figure out what we can do. Maybe meet up at the bar about, oh, ten-ish?”
Sammy nodded eagerly. “You buying rounds?”
“Don’t we always?” John asked, and the three of them laughed.
“Off with you, then. You know where where everything is, so I’ll let you get to it.”
The hotel was a huge metal building with some sort of weird paint on it. Unfortunately, despite my hopes, it didn’t offer meals. The rooms were a bit on the small side, too. I wouldn’t have room to do much.
Fortunately, most of the restaurants in town were in three massive common houses. John had described it as being like a mall food court, but I had no idea what that meant. What I found were two stories with common seating in the middle, and then ringed by small kitchens that bustled with activity. It was so weird, but it also made sense. Apparently, most people’s homes didn’t have kitchens. What had started off with just a place for the entire community to eat had slowly turned into a culture of eating out every night, and eating meals surrounded by everyone else.
I settled into a chair with a tray of slices of some sort of roast meat that had apparently just been hunted that day, pancakes, some sort of weird looking tuber, and corn. I dug in while everyone else finished buying theirs and returning to the table.
“You look so much better without those robes,” Emi said as she sat down next to me.
“I miss them,” I mused. “I can’t wear as much of my armor without them.” Just the lower half under a set of breeches.
“Trust me, it’s better this way.”
John arrived with Brenda, and a minute later, Kathy arrived, settling down slowly.
“Everything alright?” John asked.
“Yeah. Just thinking.”
“About?” Brenda asked, a teasing tone to her voice.
“The place at the southeast corner here. Tucked away, but I remember that it extends outside.” She sipped her beer before continuing. “It’s all shut down. I passed right by it before remembering that they used to sell all sorts of cakes and cookies.”
“Oh!” Emi stood up quickly, looking over there. “Aw! They were delish!” She plopped back into her chair with a pout.
“Indeed.” John cast Kathy a sidelong glance. “What are you thinking?”
“Well… We’d need to do some checking first, of course. There’s no sense in going hardcore into this until we know for sure that we can do it.”
“Naturally,” he said with a nod.
“But if it is closed for good, then how’d you like to be your own boss?”
John gave a bark of laughter. “Perhaps! But owning a resturant is hard work. The rushes, the paperwork, taxes, supply and demand… But there’s one other important thing. In order to recoup our losses, we would need a niche. Something that they could get in our business that they couldn’t get anywhere else, something that would drive people to us until we leave.”
We were silent for a moment before I turned to Emi. “You’re a good cook, aren’t you?”
She shrugged. “I’m rusty, but I used to help out Mom all the time. I can probably learn to cook whatever you want in a short time. Why?”
John burst into laughter. “My dear, sweet, darling Ryo. Sweet as honey. Bright as the morning sun! As delightful as a cool breeze in a hot day! You can be dense sometimes.” He looked to me. “Good thinking. In all my years coming here, I think that I’ve seen all of three Asians. If Emi could teach us how to cook–”
“Woah, woah, woah.” Emi looked back and forth between all of us. “Okay, first? I’ve had a long time since I’ve cooked proper. I might basically remember everything, but that was some time ago. I’m gonna have to relearn some skills here to cook recipes from home.”
“Oh, naturally.” John smiled at her. “One wouldn’t expect you to instantly be able to run a restaurant. We’d have to double check and see what all we could cook that is both delectable and speedy.”
“Right, fine. How about this: Here? They don’t have a lot of what I’d need to cook that stuff. I mean, all things considered, they’ve got a limited pantry compared to what we’re used to. Off the beaten map. And some of the staples, and I mean staples, can’t be fixed in a day. Like, tofu and soy sauce. That stuff takes a while.”
“Um.” I raised a hesitant finger. “Can I, uh, can I say two things?”
All eyes turned on me, even Brenda, whose eyes I couldn’t see.
“First of all, uh… I have a teleporter?”
“Alright,” John said excitedly, pointing at Kathy and Brenda. “You two get to forget now, and then we’re all even.”
Emi rolled her eyes. “Anyway, yeah. You’ve got a teleporter. But the thing is, we might be able to get our hands on soy sauce, maybe even sake, but tofu? I haven’t found tofu in ages. Most villages with a strong enough Japanese population to produce soy sauce and stuff don’t produce enough to export. Soy sauce is a bit easier, but even that is other stuff pretending to be soy sauce.”
“Okay,” I said with a nod. “But, uh, you just said it yourself. We use substitutions. Like, I’m not a good cook by any stretch of the imagination. I mainly know how to fix breakfast and field meals, but I know that I can substitute stuff if need be.”
Kathy nodded. “He’s right, actually. Like, his mushroom ketchup is closer to Worcestershire sauce than it is soy sauce, but the folks here would probably still gobble it up all the same. It’s different from what they have, exotic. Interesting. They’d like that.”
Emi frowned, and for a moment I thought she was going to come up with another argument, but after a moment, she nodded once. “Alright. We can give it a shot. But I’ll need a few days to come up with everything and teach you all how to help me. I’m not doing this all on my own.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” John said with a broad smile. “Not for a single moment. Now, before we commit to this, we’d better find out if this is even doable. For all we know, they might just be taking a day off.”
“They aren’t,” said a man sitting at a nearby table. “Miss Dee died a couple weeks back, and her family just didn’t have the heart to keep up the business. If you wanna take it over, then you’ll have to talk to the mayor’s office to rent the space.”
We all paused for a moment, and the man chuckled sheepishly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. But I haven’t had Chinese or sushi since I was a kid. I don’t care if you can’t make it exact, even if it’s close, I’ll be happy.”
“Then it’s settled,” John said in a pleased tone with a clap of his hands. “Jenna, after this meal, won’t you join me?”
Kathy nodded eagerly. “While we’re doing that, why don’t you three go back to our rooms and figure out what we’ll need?”
“No, I can’t make real miso, either. It’s… It’s fucking fermented soy bean paste. I’d need at least six months to let it ferment into something edible. Even sweet miso needs at least four weeks, preferably more. Otherwise it just doesn’t have even a hint of the flavor. Even if I had the time, finding the koji would be a pain in the ass!”
Kathy sneered. “Is everything Japanese fermented?”
“Just the good stuff,” Emi said with a smirk. After a moment, she sobered up again. “I can almost kinda fake it, though. In a way that’s pretty much sacrilege. Good enough for these people, maybe. I’ll need fermented fish sauce–”
Kathy made a sound of disgust.
“–tomato paste and mayo. It won’t be perfect, but it’ll be good enough to fake it.”
“I should have waited until she finished to give my opinion.” Kathy suppressed a shudder poorly.
I turned the page of my book and jotted another thing down.
“Listen, the problem is, and this is going to be hard for all of you to understand… You think of stuff in sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness. I don’t get the difference between sour and bitter myself, but whatever. But for the Japanese, there’s also umami. It’s a completely different kind of flavor layer that is the core essence of so much of our food.
“Now, I know how to hack together a decent enough dashi broth, but there’s some stuff that’s so basic that I can’t even tell you where to begin. Like… Shiitake mushrooms!”
“Twain,” I said absently as I made another note.
“Twain has shiitake?”
I nodded without looking up. “Twain has tons of mushrooms. They export them by the carload.”
“Truckload,” John corrected.
“Whatever. To me, a truck is something with two wheels that you use to move a stack of boxes. Anyway, yeah, I remember there being a lot of shiitake mushrooms when I was there.”
Emi thought about it for a moment. “Alright. I, uh, I think that we can get dried sardines in New Brockton. Ugh, I really don’t wanna have to go to both places. Do you think that Twain would send them to Brockton for sale?”
I sighed, closing my copy of Homesteader’s Cookbook and fighting to keep from rubbing my eyes. All of this was insanely boring to me for some reason. “I don’t know, but we’re going to be going to Twain anyway.”
I handed Kathy the list. “I took a look at the menus of all the restaurants, and I looked for things that were different from what they sold, but had common ingredients to what Emi listed off in the book. That’s what I came up with. I threw in my portable soup, too — it’s not good on its own, less appetizing than just a bouillon broth for sure, but it makes for a good base with other things, and if we can make enough of it, we can sell some on the side for when we leave.”
She nodded a little. “And the stuff at the bottom is the extra ingredients that we’d need?”
“Yeah. I know space is a premium, but I saw that there’s a place outside to do more cooking for that particular restaurant. We might be able to store some stuff there, or in my room if need be.”
Kathy frowned a little. “MSG?”
“Monosodium glutamate,” Brenda said quietly. “Isolated by the same guy who came up with umami when he was trying to figure out why one broth was more filling than another even though they had comparable amounts of food in them. It’s a naturally occurring glutamate salt in many foods that has since been synthesized.”
We all stared at her for a long moment before she shrugged. “This is the sort of stuff that I learned as a kid. Tasty chemistry, our teacher called it. I couldn’t tie my shoes, but I could tell you what gluten was and how it worked. I didn’t understand what that stuff meant yet, but I could tell you it. I still don’t understand most of the stuff that they tried to teach us, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? I’m not there any more.”
There was a long pause before Emi coughed softly. “Okay, so, uh, we’re going to pick up all the MSG that we can, right?”
I nodded. “And all the mushrooms that we can get, and not just shiitake. I’ll need a bunch for the mushroom sauce. But at least we can probably sell the powder from it on the side. I didn’t see any dishes with mushrooms, so it’s probably something extra special for them.”
I took a deep breath. “Now, I’m not the best at this sort of thing, and I usually leave it up to you all, but I understand that you all don’t get into New Brockton as much as I do. I know of a few places where I’d pick up supplies to take back to Burlington. However, if you were to teleport to New Brockton tomorrow, do some shopping, spend the night and let the teleporter recharge, you could also take the teleporter to Twain the next morning. Hunt down everything there.
“I’d choose the Jade Pool to stay at in New Brockton. It isn’t the nicest place, and the food isn’t the best, but the beds are nice and it has an indoor heated pool for crying out loud. What more could you want? You can eat elsewhere.”
John’s smirked at me. “It doesn’t help that we can check up on your little project there, eh?”
I blinked at him. “What project?”
John took a breath, but Kathy stabbed a finger in his direction. With how small my room was, she probably could have poked him. “Save it. We can talk about that sort of thing after we’re settled. Thanksgiving, probably.”
She turned back to me, frowning. “That’s going to be expensive.”
“I have the money,” I said reassuringly. “I’ll buy it all. I’d suggest Emi goes, and someone goes with her. I sure as hell can’t — they know me too well in New Brockton, and I was a brief celebrity in Twain.”
“I’ll go,” John said without hesitation. “It’s closer to home than what I’d like, but there’s some people there that I’d like to check in on. People that I know won’t flip me.”
“Right,” Kathy said, nodding. “Then it sounds like we have a plan.” She turned and grinned at me. “Trust me, Jordan. I think a winter in Angel Grove is just what the doctor ordered.”