The oil sizzled and popped, little globules hurtling into the air. Balsa avoided them with the ease of practice as she hovered her hand over the pan, testing the heat.
Only when she was satisfied with the temperature did she toss on the first cong you bing. She was aware of Tanda’s presence long before he spoke.
“You’ve gotten much better at that.”
She didn’t bother turning to face him. “I had a good teacher,” she said, smiling.
Tanda snorted. “You certainly didn’t think so at the time,” he said as he came around. He sat on a small crate, repurposed as a chair, and examined the dough that she had rolled out. “I seem to recall most lessons ending in a challenge to a bout.”
Balsa shrugged and flipped the bing. “You were also an insufferable know-it-all,” she said. “I had to remind you that you couldn’t do everything.”
“I got plenty of that from Master Torogai,” he said dryly. “Would you like me to roll out the rest for you?”
He picked up the rolling stick and got to work, his hands moving with a skill and ease Balsa could never hope to imitate. “I believe this was the point where you used to challenge me,” he said. “I never understood why. This is the fun part.”
“I could never get them nice and round like yours,” Balsa explained, chuckling.
“You still can’t,” Tanda pointed out.
“Round or square, it fills your belly all the time.” She put the next piece - which was neither round nor square, nor any recognizable shape at all - onto the pan.
“I suppose that’s true.”
They lapsed into a comfortable silence. Comfortable for her, at least. Traveling as she did, Balsa was accustomed to spending months alone, with only herself to talk to. She was happy simply being around people. Tanda had always been a more sociable sort.
He was the first to break the silence. “It’s good to see you again.”
That earned him a quizzical look. “We’ve seen each other almost every day for the past month.”
He waved his hands frantically, trying and failing to ward off misunderstanding. “That’s not what I mean!” It took him a moment to find the words. “It’s just…I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen you for more than a few days every few years. You seem…settled now.”
She didn’t meet his eyes. “Children need stability,” she said. “And Chagum has had precious little. I owe it to his mother to give him as much as I can while keeping him safe.”
She knew he found it strange, her devotion to the wishes of a privileged woman who had forced this lifetime responsibility on her. She would be well within her rights to resent the Second Queen, who had offered her only the illusion of choice.
“You make a good mother,” Tanda said. She was impressed with how well he hid the undercurrent of meaning.
She shook her head. “I make a good guardian,” she corrected him, her answer to his unspoken question unchanging. “And I love Chagum almost as a mother would love her child, but I cannot claim that title.”
She added a little more oil and flipped a fresh bing into the pan. “Besides,” she said, forcing herself to look at him and smile. “I think Chagum is enough child for me. I don’t want any children of my own.”
The flash of disappointment in his eyes hurt. It would be easier if he would just broach the subject, so they could talk about it openly. But he kept silent, likely for the same reason that she didn’t start the conversation herself. He was afraid of disappointment, and she was afraid to disappoint. A small part of her wished that she could offer him what he wanted - stability, family, community. A larger part of her wished that he would be satisfied with what she could give.
Poets made love seem so simple, she reflected, focusing her attention on the ever-growing stack of bing. They made it seem like an all-consuming passion that would either conquer every obstacle or drown its victims in tragedy; something as powerful and mindless as a storm. She never cared much for them, though she could appreciate the beauty of a well-turned phrase or a skilled delivery. She saw nothing of her own experience with love in them. Love conquered nothing; though Tanda would periodically test her feelings, he never tried to change them, nor she his. And despite a certain wistfulness and longing, there was nothing tragic about them. She was happy with her life, and he was happy with his.
“What are you thinking about?” Tanda disturbed her from her reverie.
She flipped the last piece of flatbread from the pan. “Love,” she said honestly.
His eyes sparked with hope, but it soon settled into his usual attentive expression. That had been the first thing she noticed about him, when they met so many years ago - how he listened.
“Do you have any regrets?” she asked.
He took a moment to give the question its due consideration, but his response was quick and certain. “No.” With only a slight hesitation, “Why do you ask?”
“You’re still a young man,” she said, ignoring the question. “You could marry any woman that you wanted.”
“Not any,” he said. It was the closest he had ever come to an admission. Balsa might have used it as an opening, but she shied away.
“It’s not too late for you to start a family,” she continued instead.
He let out a slow breath and leaned back. “I would like a family,” he said. “But wanting something doesn’t mean you need it to be happy.”
“Are you happy?”
He smiled at her. “I’d be happier if I knew you and Chagum were going to be safe.”
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “What about you?”
“The mikado hasn’t sent his assassins after me.”
She huffed, a little annoyed at his deliberate obtuseness.
“I am,” he told her. “Things aren’t perfect, but, well, if you need perfection to be happy, you’re going to spend your life pretty miserable.”
“Wise words,” she said, and began to wrap the bing in cloth. The front door opened, and she recognized Chagum’s footsteps as he approached. “Perfect timing!” she said. “I need you to go into the forest and pick some herbs.”
“Eh? Okay.” The boy did not sound thrilled about the prospect.
Balsa held up the bing. “I made these for you.”
That got Chagum’s attention. “What is it?” he asked.
“Cong you bing,” she told him. “It’s a flatbread with scallions.”
He poked suspiciously at one of the more oddly shaped pieces. “It looks strange,” he said.
Tanda snorted, trying to hold back a laugh, and Balsa scowled at him. “You can blame my teacher for that,” she said. “And it tastes the same no matter how it looks. Now go on.” She handed him the list that she needed.
Chagum frowned as he read it. “I don’t know what these are,” he said.
Tanda put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll go with you,” he said. “I can teach you how to recognize the different plants.”
“Hopefully better than you taught me to cook,” Balsa said. They shared a smile before Tanda led Chagum off. Balsa watched them walk away, the man who was not her husband and the boy who was not her son, then glanced at the sky. The flatbread wouldn’t last a growing boy like Chagum long. She’d have to start dinner soon for it to be ready when they got back. She briefly wished she had asked Tanda to stay; he was the better cook. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, she reminded herself.
Smiling a little, she settled down to tend to her spear before cooking again.