For Betty Manickle, food and love had always been connected, although she didn't often stop to think about it like that.
When she was a little girl, barely able to see over the edge of the big table in her mother's kitchen, her mother had taught her how to cook. Measuring, stirring, tasting, frying, grilling, baking, boiling; it seemed like Mrs. Manickle knew how to make anything delicious. Betty rolled out dough with the rolling pin two sizes too big for her and regarded her mother with awe, carefully absorbing each pear; of wisdom: The thicker the meat, the lower the temperature. Sauté things first. Let stewed chicken cool in broth. Soak potatoes in salt water before baking. Roast fast, boil slow.
"The important thing," her mother told her one day, dipping thin, tough steaks into flour to fry, "Is to keep your mind open. You can always make something with what you've got, but you have to be willing to get inventive." That was the year Betty's father lost half his crop to disease, and the older brother she barely knew went off with the army to fight for Borogravia. Her mother never cried about any of it, just worked harder than ever to make sure there was something good on the table every night and kissed her daughter and husband every morning.
Betty nodded seriously, measuring out rice, and committed her mother's words to memory.
Nuggan knew you couldn't control the rest of the world, but you could control your kitchen.
Johnny was beautiful, that was the thing.
He was tall and blond and blue-eyed and he smiled like sunshine. He had just signed up with the infantry, he told her, but he didn't have a uniform yet; they would get equipped in Plotz. He helped her carry the buns she was taking to market to sell and talked about how proud he was to be a soldier, how he was sure the war would be over any day now, everyone said they were winning.
Betty listened to him, awed by how anyone could be that confident and strong and committed. The biggest commitment she'd ever made was to preparing a sourdough starter.
She gave him a bun for free, and he smiled brighter than ever.
His recruiting sergeant wasn't going to be looking for him for a while, so the two of them ducked off together into the woods to talk and walk. He held her hand and it put butterflies in her chest.
She was pretty sure this was what being in love felt like, so when he tried to kiss her, she let him. He talked some more, about how much harder it was going to be to be to go off to war now that he knew what he was leaving behind, and one of them suggested breaking a sixpence in half so they could find each other after the war was over. At the time, Betty had been pretty well convinced that it was her idea; in retrospect, she was fairly sure he must have come up with it. In any case, he didn't have a sixpence, so she gave him one that she'd gotten from market that morning and he tucked it into a pocket with promises to find a blacksmith in town who would break it in half. Then he kissed her again.
Then he did a little bit more than kissing, and she let him do that, too, even though she was pretty sure it was an Abomination. It was all so terribly romantic. Like in the song.
In the morning the recruiting party was gone, without so much as a goodbye, but she was sure he would have said goodbye if his sergeant had given him the time.
She was sure of it.
Four months or so later, when she realized that the weight she was beginning to put on couldn't be attributed to too many taste tests anymore, she was a little less certain. Or, if he came back, that he'd be in time to spare her family's reputation.
But it would all work out in the end. Like in the song. Wouldn't it?
Life as a soldier wasn't what she'd expected.
She probably should have expected that.
Betty — Shufti — she was starting to think of herself as Shufti now — was just another part of the Ins-and-Outs, and to begin with she was terribly lonely. Lofty and Tonker had each other, and they didn't seem to need anyone else. Mal was a vampire, Carborundum was a troll, Igor was... Igor — they didn't need anyone, either. Wazzer was... uncomfortable to be around. And Ozzer was so independent and tough, she was afraid that if she tried to make friends with him he'd realize just how independent and tough she wasn't.
She was fairly sure that Lofty, Tonker, and Wazzer were girls in disguise too.
But it wasn't like she could just broach the subject with them out of nowhere. And in any case, she'd be mortified if someone called her out on her disguise. She was a little proud of herself for convincing everyone that she was a boy, just like Ozzer and Mal and Carborundum, and a little distressed that it was so easy to do.
Well, right up until she automatically took over cooking at Plotz — not her fault, the man was going to boil perfectly good meat until it was miserable to eat — and completely blew her cover. With Ozzer, at least.
She wished it had been anyone but Ozzer.
But he was surprisingly understanding about it. Which was odd, but she was too relieved to think much of it. In any case, she became the de facto cook of the squad, responsible for all meals, and she started to relax. Cooking she knew how to do, and she knew how to do it well, even with very little to work with. It gave her a role in the squad, and a kind of respect, and she usually knew what she was supposed to be doing, which was a nice change from never knowing what she was supposed to be doing.
The baby grew inside her a little more each day, as they got closer and closer to her goal, and she was beginning to realize she'd never had a very good idea of how this was supposed to work.
That stupid song.
Jack grew like a weed, and Shufti — Betty — was so wrapped up in him she sometimes lost track of the other things she was supposed to be doing. But not often. She had a job at The Duchess, and a family, and she didn't want to let either one down. So she looked after Jack at the same time she was cooking meals for the inn's patrons and looking after Paul while letting him think he was looking after her and waiting for the next letter from Polly, off fighting in the next war in an endless series of wars.
Everyone called her Betty, except in Polly's letters, where she was always Shufti.
When Jack was old enough to sit still and follow instructions, she started to teach him how to cook. They kneaded bread dough together, and greased pans, and measured sugar, and mixed seasonings. She explained every step to him so he would know where to experiment later, and she always let him taste test, and when their concoctions were successful — they always were — she kissed him in congratulations and told him she could never do it without him.
Polly sent a letter that said, in between the heavy black marks of the army censors, that she and Mal agreed that their unit's quartermaster wasn't half as good at the job as Shufti and they missed her intensely, and Shufti laughed loudly so that no one would notice how the words pierced her to the heart.
She wasn't a soldier. Not the way Polly and Mal were, not the way Jackrum had been. The army was a confused stopover in her life, not the destination.
But for just a moment, she missed the days of the Cheesemongers too much to bear.
Then Jack climbed in her lap and demanded "a kiss, mama" and she could put those thoughts aside. For the moment, anyway.
After far too long, Polly came home.
Shufti scrubbed The Duchess from roof to ceiling in preparation, directing Polly's father and Paul in all the maintenance work they needed to do to get things in tiptop shape for Polly's return, and she cooked and baked until the tables of the inn were full to bursting with all of Polly's favorite foods. She scrubbed Jack and Paul from head to toe, too, and would have done the same to Polly's father if she wasn't — still — a little intimidated by the man.
When Polly walked through the door, in her dress uniform with sergeant's stripes and looking tired and burnt out, for a moment Shufti couldn't breathe.
Jack was the first to move, flying across the room to hurl himself into Polly's arms, even though he'd been so young when she left that he couldn't possibly remember her. She smiled so wide, like sunshine, and something tight in Shufti's chest began to dissolve. She followed Jack in giving Polly a great big welcome-home hug, an action echoed moments later by Paul; Mr. Perks hung back, but there was a proud smile on his face.
That first day was all eating and talking, Polly full of stories about her squad and the girls that had joined the army both openly and in disguise, Shufti and Paul telling her all about things at The Duchess and about Jack, little bits of things all of them had heard about the war, about the government, about Alice.
The next day was quieter, and in between the lunch and dinner shifts Polly asked Shufti if she would like to go on a walk.
So Paul looked after Jack — his favorite job, anyway — and Shufti washed her hands clean of flour and they went for a walk.
Shufti didn't ask about the parts of the war Polly had left out of her stories. There were some things an ex-soldier didn't need to ask about.
Instead she said, "I wish you wouldn't go away again."
Polly didn't say anything for a moment. Finally, she said, "I wish I could say I won't."
Shufti nodded. She'd half-expected that answer.
"This war is over, but... this is Borogravia."
"There'll be another war before the year's over."
They walked on in silence for a minute or so.
Then Polly said, "If there is another war, and I do join up... "
She would. If there was another war, Polly would be in it.
"... would you mind if I got a locket?" Polly was watching her carefully, like she was uncertain of how to handle something.
"A locket?" Shufti echoed, at a loss. Why should she mind if Polly got a locket?
"It's just... " Polly shrugged nervously. "Every soldier should have a locket. With a picture of the girl waiting back home. To help remember why you always need to get back home — "
This time, Shufti didn't let herself be kissed.
This time, Shufti did the kissing.