Kalr Five was cleaning the third-best tea set. It was a marvelous thing, pale gold porcelain with blue threads wrapped around it in an organic pattern. She sighed wistfully. So many good tea sets that would never get use! This one would be perfect for tea with a junior officer from off-ship, someone important enough for a good set, but not important enough to for the best two.
Next to her, Translator Zeiat, with great dignity, took a counter and stacked it on top of another one.
“Ah”, Sphene said. “An ingenious move.”
Their game of counters was impenetrable to anyone not playing it. Counters were stacked atop one another at random, and occasionally replaced by fish cakes or a bowl of fish sauce.
Sphene moved a counter. Zeiat took one of the fish cakes, dunked it in fish sauce, and ate it. Kalr Five went back to cleaning the tea set.
“What are you doing?” Zeiat asked.
“She's cleaning a tea set”, Sphene answered.
This seemed to pique Zeiat's curiosity, as the Presger Translator sat up straighter in her chair.
“What is a tea set? It can't have anything to do with tea, tea is a liquid. One doesn't clean liquids. Or does one melt a tea set to get tea?” Zeiat asked. She abandoned her game of counters and came over to look. “Oh, that is a tea set. Breq told me I wasn't supposed to eat them.”
“Yes, I'm sure she did”, Kalr Five said, mentally horrified of the thought of Translator Zeiat breaking off a piece of the best tea set and eating it.
“Why did you paint it?” Zeiat asked.
“I didn't. It's a different tea set. The Captain has several.”
Zeiat looked scandalized. “Why?”
“The choice of tea set to serve tea from depends on many things: the rank of the person being served, the message one wants to tell her, the message one wants to show to any other people present.”
“What would this tea set be for?” Zeiat tilted her head to an unnatural angle. “Wait, when Fleet Captain Breq told me not to eat the tea set, was she only talking about that tea set or all tea sets?”
“All tea sets, I believe”, Sphene said from the game of counters.
Kalr Five had instinctively clutched the teapot closer to her chest. She relaxed her arms. “I concur with Sphene. This tea set would be for junior officers from off-ship.”
Zeiat nodded sagely. “Of course.” She scrunched her brows together. “If tea doesn't come from tea sets, where does it come from?”
Kalr Five took out one of the packets of Daughter of Fishes they still had. “Tea is made by placing tea leaves into hot water, and letting them infuse their aroma into the water. Then, the leaves are removed, and the tea is drunk.”
Zeiat nodded along while she listened, then thought for a moment. “If tea is made by improving the taste of water, what if one started with something that already tasted good?” She perked up noticeably. “We could make tea with fish sauce!” She bounced.
Kalr Five called upon all of her experience of remaining ancillary-blank, and failed. Dismay crept onto the edges of her face. She held the teapot closer to her chest.
Zeiat looked particularly pitiful and pleading.
“That would be an interesting experiment, Translator”, Sphene opined. (Kalr Five wished that Sphene would meet a particularly painful end.)
“Ooh, let's! The fish sauce is here! How does one heat fish sauce?” Zeiat bubbled.
Kalr Five resigned herself to sacrificing the third-best tea set. “The water heater is there”, she said, and showed Zeiat how to use it. (She was very thankful that it was easy to clean, though the next few boils would probably taste like fish sauce.)
“Where's the tea stuff?” Zeiat asked. “The leaves that make water taste better.”
Kalr Five mutely lifted the packet of Daughter of Fishes.
Zeiat oohed appreciatively. “A tea that's a daughter of a fish? That's kind of weird, actually, but I suppose it would go very well with the fish sauce, what with being a fish's daughter and all that.”
“It's the particular tea's name, Zeiat. Names are not necessarily accurate labels for things or people. For instance, Mercy of Kalr is not, actually, the platonic ideal of mercy, if you haven't noticed”, Sphene said. Zeiat looked like she would object, but then segued into thoughtfulness.
Kalr Five, not wanting to press the matter further, simply placed the leaves into the strainer and immersed it into the hot (but not boiling, green tea was best steeped in slightly cooler temperatures) fish sauce.
“Is it ready yet?” Zeiat asked.
“Typically, tea requires some minutes of straining time. That's for water. I don't know how it would work for fish sauce”, Kalr Five admitted. “Probably longer.”
Zeiat made a disappointed sound and went back to the game of counters. Kalr Five mourned her teapot. She really should have called in the Captain to save her. Alas, she was stuck with fish sauce with tea flavoring.
Five minutes later, Kalr Five was eager to get the whole thing over with, and lifted the tea strainer out of the fish sauce.
“Is it ready?” Zeiat squealed, eyes wide with delight.
“I suppose so”, Kalr Five said. “I have never brewed tea with fish sauce.”
“Oh, you just need to practice more, then!” Zeiat said.
Kalr Five did not answer. She poured tea into a teacup and handed it to Zeiat.
Zeiat gave Kalr Five a grave nod of thanks, then almost (but thankfully didn't actually) tried to glug down the whole teacup's contents, thought better of it, and gave the Daughter of Fish Sauce a thoughtful sip. Her face lit up. “This tastes excellent! We must offer some to the Fleet Captain!”
“I believe the Fleet Captain isn't on the station, Translator”, Sphene said.
“Oh”, Zeiat said in a small voice. She perked up. “We can just brew it again later for her, then! Oh, Kalr Five, do pour some for yourself and for Sphene.”
Kalr Five gingerly poured cups for herself and for Sphene. She tasted it. It tasted exactly like warm fish sauce.
“It tastes very much like fish sauce, Translator”, Sphene said. Kalr Five nodded in agreement.
“Yes, doesn't it?” Zeiat drained her cup in appreciation. Kalr Five refilled it.
Later, Kalr Five was boiling water in the heater. A few dozen boils, and hopefully the taste of fish sauce would be out of it. (She'd thankfully managed to dump the fishy contents of her cup into the pot of a nearby decorative plant. Sphene had dumped hers into the fish sauce bowl on the table of counters.)
With enough rinsing, maybe the tea set would recover. One could always hope.