Early that October, O-Shiki invites her back privately for a much smaller gathering for Kore-kun’s second birthday than the polo match she held in September. Kiyo-hime is in attendance, as is Lord Fusamoto, then O-Toyo and herself. The six of them are gathered around the room, sitting in various chairs, eating persimmons, sipping tea, and passing time.
“Oh, Hisa-chan, I can’t believe you.” O-Shiki sighs, but she is smiling, Kore-kun bouncing up and down in her lap.
“What about me is so hard to believe?” Last year, for Kore-kun’s first birthday, she had made him a pair of tiny shoes, stitched with the little monkeys of his birth year, so that he could be clever and nimble fingered, as monkeys do.
This year she gifts him with a tiny set of shengyi for daily wear, a light blue top embroidered with the Kusakabe cranes across the shoulders, and a wrap around skirt of a darker blue, with some give in the hems so that they might be let out as he grows.
Kore-kun himself had been more interested in admiring the “pretty birds” on his shoulders, twisting around to look at them than realizing that they were the same birds on his father’s jade pendant or the front gate.
“The guest you brought to my last polo match.” O-Shiki laughs, carefree, unlike how she would hide her face behind her fan if there were more than a few of them. “Hisa-chan, that guest you brought with you was such a shock to the senses.”
“Izuna-san?” She tries to recall if O-Shiki had had an actual conversation with Izuna while she was either playing pitch pot or watching polo and comes up short. Besides the moment of their introduction, O-Shiki and Izuna had not spoken, so what could have tickled O-Shiki enough that she still remembers him weeks later?
Well, besides the fact that shinobi are extremely uncommon in Shunan.
“You should have told me if you’d already settled your affairs so admirably.” O-Shiki sighs, leaning back, the long strings of gold and jade teardrop beads hanging from her hair stick clattering gently as she does so. “And here I was, so worried over your future.”
O-Shiki did always worry about her marital future. Ever since they’d become friends, and O-Shiki had come to realize the state of Hisa’s household affairs, she’s been determined to find a suitable match so that her “future is settled well.”
Perhaps this is because O-Shiki has always been confident of her future being settled with the man who is now her husband. People did not lightly use the epithet of green plum, bamboo horse so easily, and O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto were the only people in her acquaintance that she could accurately say do fit the description of childhood friends to lovers.
That same man now leans over languidly to pull their son from his mother’s lap. “Yome, we mustn’t embarrass Hisa-san.” Lord Fusamoto smiles, the action crinkling the laugh line wrinkles about his eyes. “If she wants to keep her secrets, I say we let her.”
Kore-kun giggles beamingly, and Lord Fusamoto taps his nose, making the little boy go cross-eyed with glee. “Chichi!”
O-Shiki sees what she looks for — which is to say she sees a wedding in the future — but Izuna?
She will have to speak with O-Shiki later. It would do no one any good to let that misunderstanding fester. Most of all, it would be insulting to Izuna-san’s reputation. He is here for work, not idle leisure, and having his intentions mistaken would be a hideous faux pas indeed.
Such an assumption is neither right nor proper nor fair.
“But Kusakabe-sama,” O-Toyo comments, hiding half of her face behind her teacup and its lid, her eyes downturn, dark lashes stark against her pale face. “Hisa-chan’s guest really was quite remarkable. We haven’t had shinobi here for some time.”
“Yes,” Kiyo-hime remarks rather blandly, although her interest shines like embers in her gray eyes. “Chubu is rare in that we do not have any shinobi households here at all.”
Seemingly, because she had brought him to this gathering, they all want to know why. This is one secret she’s ill able to keep then, which doesn’t matter so much as all that.
It is nothing sordid or shocking, merely unusual, so it is safe to be shared.
Hisa raises her own teacup to her lips, fingers curled lightly around the saucer before bringing the lid up to block the tea leaves from floating upwards. “Yes, Chichi-ue hired him from Yanai to guard the caravans. We are very fortunate that he is with us.”
There is a silence at this, a little bit of a pause in the conversation, as is to be expected. Hiring shinobi is something that noblemen or the Daimyo did when they needed something terrible done.
Hiring shinobi for the reasons that she has hired shinobi seems a little more like a shock to the senses than a real and legitimate reason for hiring shinobi.
“Well,” O-Shiki says brightly, rising from her seat. “It’s about time to have a proper meal, no?”
And with that the mood breaks back into laughter and talk once more.
Kore-kun is young still, and therefore eats his longevity noodles very slowly with Lord Fusamoto holding the heavy porcelain bowl for him. There are pork and tofu dumplings wrapped in the shape of golden ingots, luck and fortune for the little heir of Chubu, boiled eggs dyed red, sweet pastries, and of course, bowls and bowls of hand rolled noodles flavored with green onions and lotus root.
Because this is a second birthday, and because Kore-kun is now old enough to choose something with great vigor, they all gather around the courtyard table after the midday meal, and they watch as Kiyo-hime lightly sets out the objects — a book, a gold ingot, and finally, a wooden dragonfly toy.
Lord Fusamoto sits down at the table across from the open side where O-Shiki will set Kore-kun down to choose an object to prevent his son from crawling off the table by accident and Hisa and O-Toyo end up standing right behind him.
“Now,” Kiyo-hime smiles, “let’s see what my favorite grandchild’s interests in the future will be, shall we?”
This is not necessarily a game so much as a test.
Whatever object catches the child’s eye is said to determine his interests and passions in the future, which means that this ritual is a closely watched and awaited one, as Kore-kun is to be the future heir of Chubu.
Would he value learning? Money? Leisure?
The heir of a region is held to different standards than the heirs of merchant families, or even of minor nobility.
So really, there is only one right answer when O-Shiki sets her son down on the table. “Kore-kun,” she leans over and whispers, “pick something from the table, alright?”
The little boy looks up at his mother with wide, serious eyes — the eyes of the Kusakabe have always been swallow dark — and nods. Carefully, he looks over the table before him, and makes a choice.
Slowly, Kore-kun ends up toddling forward past all three objects, without much of a second glance, until he reaches the other side, to put a hand on his father’s sleeve. “Chichi,” he babbles. “Pick Chichi!”
For a moment, no one says anything, but by the next Lord Fusamoto’s swept his son into a tight hug, O-Shiki hides a tearful smile behind her round fan as the rest of them clap and chatter.
A choice has been made. And it has been made well.
The young heir of Chubu does not care for learning, money or leisure so much as he cares for his father.
And that says everything, in the end.
Before she can leave later that afternoon, O-Shiki keeps her, even after O-Toyo boards her carriage and leaves, promising to return for any other gathering O-Shiki would like to hold in the spring.
For soon, the Kusakabe household will pack to return to the capital for the winter, as they do every year both so O-Shiki could see her maternal family, and so that Lord Fusamoto could deliver his yearly reports of Chubu’s situation to the Inner Imperial Court. With their station, they could stay longer, but Lord Fusamoto’s personal history and love of his country estate means that they are unlikely to.
Winter is fast approaching, beyond Mid-Autumn and the last rice harvest, and soon it will be the new year again. Another year, another spring approaching, and beyond that, summer, hopefully a kinder one than the dry summer that has just passed them by.
Chichi-ue had said that out in the countryside, there were hungry faces, and the leaner faces of regular townsfolk had given that statement much validity in her eyes. It has been a hard summer, and will be a harder winter though she herself did not feel it. She prays that next summer will be kinder.
“Hisa-chan,” O-Shiki begins when it’s just the two of them, the servants having brought in tea and sunflower seeds. “There’s something I want to ask you.”
“Oh?” Clink, clink, she lets the sunflower hulls drop into a porcelain bowl.
“Is it really true that you hired Uchiha Izuna-san?” There is a strange emphasis on this question, as though hired is not the right word for it.
“Is he someone who should not be hired?” Izuna is mild-mannered and proper. One can achieve a false veneer of propriety by putting on a mask and pretending at manners, but someone had taught this shinobi the manners of people who care for manners, as they are, not because it will give them some personal gain.
“No, it’s not like that.” O-Shiki looks around once to make sure that they were completely alone, no husband around the corner, no toddler about to ask for something else, no mother-in-law with a specific request, no loitering servant, not even Kimei or Tamasu. “Hisa-chan, how did you end up hiring him?”
This behavior is out of character for O-Shiki, who generally didn’t fuss over the details because she didn’t normally need to pay attention to them, who lived with and exuded the nonchalance that her rank afforded her.
Whatever news O-Shiki has heard about Uchiha Izuna-san, it is likely far more accurate than any understanding she has of the man through the few times she has interacted with him even if she does think that she is not a shabby judge of character.
“Chichi-ue wrote to Uchiha-sama in Yanai, because Yanai is the closest seat with shinobi regarding protection for the caravans.” And Yanai specifically over, say, Kamakura which is also not far, a few day’s travel at best, because he has lived in the city for a long time. “He chose Yanai, I suspect, because…” Well, it is not hard to figure out why he has done so. “Haha-ue grew up there,” is what she settles for. Haha-ue grew up there, and they met in Yanai, so his feelings about shinobi from that city are at least a slightly more positive association than shinobi from any other city.
Even if that is not how this works at all.
“Your father wrote to Uchiha-sama and—” O-Shiki shakes her head, golden buyao topped with a golden orchid trailing two strings of gold and jade teardrop beads clattering. “Hisa-chan, I looked through the Chubu records again for you, so I could be certain of who Uchiha Izuna-san and—”
“Has he done anything I should be aware of?” She is growing mildly concerned.
O-Shiki rarely cares about details, but this level of meticulous concern is not that O-Shiki believes in wedding bells then. Which means it is something else and that is cause enough for concern.
“Hisa-chan,” O-Shiki takes her hand. “The official records of Chubu says that Uchiha Tajima-dono has a son by the name of Uchiha Izuna. I looked up his age to be sure, and—” here she smiles, rather amused once more. “It does fit Izuna-san’s age.”
The room comes to focus in extreme clarity — the painting of peony petals falling done by Lord Fusamoto two lines of calligraphy in the lower right corner, a couplet about the summer season, the delicate stoneware teapot painted with a tumultuous wave pattern that O-Shiki had set on the lower table, the gaiwan she is holding with its feathered surface and brightly glazed characters for double luck — everything comes back clear.
“Are you certain?” Her thoughts are a frightening tumble, flipping between shock and incomprehension in the space between breaths. If Uchiha Izuna-san is Uchiha Tajima-sama’s youngest son then that would mean—
It would mean—
“I definitely double checked with shujin to make certain.” O-Shiki sighs. “When have I led you wrong on anything like this, Hisa-chan? I know the difference between light and heavy.”
Well, there goes her hope that it was all a misunderstanding. “No, I know you’d never.” Slowly, she gathers her thoughts regarding the matter into a pile. It can wait until later. “Thank you for telling me,” she unclenches her hands and lets herself relax once more, taking a sip of her tea from the gaiwan. It is sencha, and a high quality one at that, as is only fitting for the Lord Administrator’s wife to be greeting guests with. “I’ll have to speak to Izuna-san.” Screaming internally all the while and wondering how she could possibly house such an important guest in the servant’s quarters or give him a salary.
O-Shiki smiles, bright and lively once more after her news has been delivered. “It will work out, you see.”
She is unclear if it will work out, but such things are for later. When she is no longer a guest in someone else’s home.
“Besides,” O-Shiki continues “there was something else I asked you to stay behind for that’s far more important.” She leans closer, still checking to make sure that there is no one about. “Hisa-chan, Kore-kun might be getting a little brother or sister within the year.”
O-Shiki had been somewhat blithe and noncommittal about any possible parties or engagements in the spring when O-Toyo had promised to come, but this itself is out of the blue.
“You’re expecting again?” She smiles, giddy in spite of the news she had just received about whom she'd potentially employed — later. “That’s wonderful news, O-Shiki-chan.”
“Shhh,” O-Shiki looks around one more time to make exceptionally sure that there is no one about. “Hisa-chan, I haven’t told anyone else yet.” Kore-kun’s birth had been hard on her friend, both long and taxing after a difficult pregnancy. “You know that shujin will worry, and then I won’t have a moment’s peace for over half a year.”
Lord Fusamoto would worry. He would worry so much that he might even become nonsensical.
Even so. “Your safety?” She wants O-Shiki to be safe more than anything else. At Kore-kun’s one month old party, just under two years ago now, O-Shiki had still been pale from blood loss and more seated than standing.
“I am stronger than I was two years ago, Hisa-chan, don’t be so worried.” O-Shiki pats her hand. “All will be well, you see, for shujin will realize sometime in the next few months.” She laughs. “Maybe when I start craving salted fish and fermented radish.”
Hisa laughs at this too, aware of how funny the realization would be. After all, both are things that O-Shiki vehemently dislikes, to this day.
“And this means!” O-Shiki leans back in her seat, struggling to keep her mirth in check. “That that old fool from Danmai can shut his mouth once and for all!”
The two years since Kore-kun’s birth is not a long time, certainly not long enough for it to be worrisome that Lord Fusamoto has no second child, but Lord Orihito of Danmai hadn’t cared. He had not said so in so many words, but his hints of sending one of his daughters to Chubu to be Lord Fusamoto’s concubine had said it for him.
O-Shiki had talked about it in the past, first with offense, and then with mild amusement, and it seems that her current hopes have lobbed the Count of Danmai’s words and veiled insinuations back to offended pride.
“As long as you keep yourself safe,” Hisa takes another sip of her tea. “Lord Orihito can eat his words for many, many years yet.”
When she returns home, she asks the carriage to pause by the gates, and exchanges a few words with the twin gate guards, Taishi and Taiga, about whether or not Izuna is in residence still.
Despite not always being out with one caravan or another, he did sometimes go out which is only his right.
However, it would seem that he is at home this particular evening, which only makes her conversation with him more immediate.
She isn’t sure that she wants this conversation to be immediate, but the faction of asking him about his origins “right now” wars with the faction that demands she ask about it “never” and has done so the whole way home from O-Shiki’s estate, which means that her mind is thrown dreadfully out of rhythm, and she would like her thoughts to stop tumbling like her father’s unruly koi fish in their pond.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Kimei asks. “He is an outside man, and he’s not like—”
She slaps a hand over Kimei’s mouth quickly. She has not told Kimei about O-Shiki’s declaration of his origins, but if it is true, then Uchiha Izuna-san is the most honored guest their household has in residence, and they’d been paying him to spend time with the caravans.
The thought is enough to make her lightheaded.
“No, I think I’ll visit him myself.” She turns to Kimei. “It’s a personal matter.”
His origins are a personal matter.
If he is the youngest son of the Count of Tohoku, and didn’t tell people so when they assumed otherwise, she assumes it is because he didn’t want people to know.
Which then begs the question of why.
Why did Lord Uchiha send his youngest son in answer to her father’s letter if he knew that Izuna, once discovered, could not possibly be asked to do anything at all?
Kimei looks as though she is about to protest more, but Hisa leaves her with the small gifts of sunflower seeds and candied persimmons that O-Shiki had foisted upon her through her protests while she climbed into her carriage to take her home and continues onwards to where Izuna lived, her thoughts still swirling.
She hears the sound of the qin before she even arrives at the courtyard, deep and melodious, played with light and airy hands, as though the musician is having a very good time indeed.
She pauses for a moment to listen to it, The Sun on Spring Snow, being played with an elegant sort of cheer.
Uchiha Izuna-san, for whatever reason, is in high spirits today, and she is almost loath to ask him what she plans to now.
The notes in this particular piece are quick, light, and resonate, and unlike the last piece she heard him play, filled with celebration of the life of spring, deeply unseasonal and ironic considering the coming autumn season.
When he finishes, she claps, “My compliments to the musician,” which causes him to open his door and stare at her with something in his eyes that could be shock, or amusement, or confusion, or something of a mix of all three.
The tiny pink plums on his dark sleeves shine in the fading evening light, pleasant enough that she feels a surge of pride at having done the work of making them herself.
“Hisa-san,” he says after a moment. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Still, he steps aside to let her in and she steps past him, into the room, if only because such topics should not be discussed outdoors where anyone could see.
“An unseasonal piece.” She turns to look up at him. “Izuna-san has heard good news then?”
“A gift of gratitude.” He doesn’t say much more, but takes a seat across from her at the low table before his qin. She hadn’t noticed before, but it is a beautiful instrument, made of finely varnished dark wood, strung with twisted silk.
He pours her a cup of tea from the teapot by the side of the table, his wrist straight, holding back his wide sleeve with his other hand, the scent of mugicha fragrant all around them. “It’s not refined but,” here he smiles, a little rueful. “It’s what I have on hand, and I hope that Hisa-san doesn’t mind it.”
She picks up the open cup, amused by the lack of a saucer or the lid, though mugicha does not require a gaiwan, and swirls the amber liquid around until the aroma settles in all around her. “It’s my favorite. Shincha and Sencha are for guests.” Strangely now, sitting here, with the fragrance of barley tea all around her, her unruly thoughts seem to have settled a little bit. “I thought I’d ask you something, Izuna-san, because O-Shiki-chan mentioned it today.”
“The Lord Administrator’s wife?” He takes a sip of his tea, seemingly relaxed as well.
“Mmm, yes. She was looking over the records that Chubu has on Tohoku, and realized something.” She looks up at him. “Uchiha Tajima-sama has a son about your age, Izuna-san.”
Izuna freezes, his cup halfway to his lips. It is odd to realize how open his facial expression is, like a small child caught painting over his father’s official correspondence with a particularly funny stamp.
Everyone says that shinobi have no heart and no face, merely blades to be wielded in the dark, but all of his actions only say that he is a young man.
“I was previously made aware of this,” he says, slightly faint.
With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she continues. “She also mentioned his name, you know.”
Slowly, Izuna rises, looks outside at the empty courtyard, and slides the door all the way shut. “Hisa-san,” he says very quietly. “I am still the shinobi you hired from Yanai.”
“You,” she says, with a sad and sinking clarity, “are the son of a Count.” After a moment where she doesn’t receive an answer, and he does not turn around, she continues. “Why did Uchiha-sama send you?”
Doesn’t he know that once discovered, it would be mortifying for all involved?
“I-” he turns back around to face her. “Hisa-san, it would’ve been insulting to send a cousin to do a job like this when there was so much on the line.” He speaks in riddles, and she does not understand.
She rises as well. “What is insulting is how my family has treated you. How I have treated you, Uchiha-sama.”
Something briefly akin to terror passes over his face. “Hisa-san, I’ve never considered it insulting.” He looks around the room once, as if trying to figure out what to do. “Please sit back down.”
Since he has asked, she does so. “As you wish, Uchiha-sama.”
“Please,” he sounds a little as though she had just strangled him. “Izuna-san is just fine.” With a thump, he drops into his seat across from her. “I can explain, just—” he rubs a hand over his face. “Please, I like how it was before.”
And something, something settles.
“It is only handwriting.” She hears her little cousin Toraki-kun grumble this before she sees either him or Somei-chan from her place by the now long faded peony blossoms. “It is not as if that is in any way important.”
It is still a beautiful afternoon. She had moved outside to her courtyard to enjoy the weather, and passed a slow, rather lazy day embroidering the finishing touches on a set of new handkerchiefs. As she had expected, her last pink cotton handkerchief had not survived the struggle of coping with Izuna’s blood and whatever else he had stuck to his face at the time.
Thus, it is apparent that she ought to make herself several other ones, as it seems likely that in any further acquaintance with Uchiha Izuna will result in further ruined handkerchiefs.
However, it is too kind of an afternoon to waste, and she had ended up lying down on one of the stone benches, an old linen robe pillowed beneath her head, and had fallen asleep there, for at least half a stick of incense. When she had woken again to the late afternoon sun on her face, she’d listened for a while to the wind rustling through the branches of the peach tree by the corner of her courtyard, thinking over the thoughts she had had while dreaming.
Long dark hair, a whisper of “Danna, you look good today,” the scent of peach blossoms, a bronze mirror, a man’s wooden hair stick in her right hand, the topknot finished with a ribbon of dark blue…
Ah, but that is the domain of those who become wives. She has no place for such fantasies, and thinking so, turns her attention to different thoughts.
It has been a long summer, and a hard one, and winter will come and only be a harder time, but there is hope for a better new year, a kind and gentle spring, and a long and pleasant summer after, where rain might come and relieve the dry spell.
Which brings her to the current moment as two sets of feet move through the walk on the far side of her courtyard when in passing, she hears Toraki-kun arguing with Somei-chan once again.
They are only a year apart in age, which means that while Somei-chan is the elder of the two, there’s really not enough of a gap between their ages for that year to have weight just yet, especially since Toraki-kun is Aunt Niwa’s only child, and therefore far more spoiled than he appears on the outside.
“Why isn’t handwriting important?” Ah, there’s Somei-chan, pouting as she often does. “And Sato-sensei said that my handwriting was excellent and didn’t mention yours. You’re just upset he didn’t, which is why you don’t think it’s important.”
“He was just being nice to you, because you’re a girl. People are supposed to be nice to girls because they can’t be criticised as hard.”
She sits up, checking to make sure that none of her hair had come loose since she fell asleep on the stonework, wincing slightly at the weird crick in her neck because of it.
“Well,” Somei-chan says, turning her face away because of the tears in her eyes. “I think you say that because what you want to be is cruel instead of kind.”
“See!” Toraki-kun has scented his advantage and will not let it go. There is a sense of smug triumph to him at having won this argument that sticks in Hisa’s throat. Had Anija ever said such a thing to me? “I have not even said anything so critical of you and already you are about to cry.”
Anija had died at age eleven, a year younger than Toraki-kun is now, but she remembers him as a kind figure pulling at her pigtails instead of someone who would tear down her accomplishments for a little satisfaction of his own.
“Toraki-kun?” She makes herself known to the two children on the other side of her courtyard, both who start as if not expecting to meet anyone else midway through their argument. “Could you come over and help me for a moment?”
Toraki-kun casts one last glance at Somei-chan, who is determinedly marching ahead, her school basket held tightly in one fist and will not look at him. Somehow, he looks a tiny bit guilty to have made her sad despite wanting to make her sad in the first place.
“Hisa-neesan?” Toraki-kun comes to a stop before her, a little bit shamefaced, but overall, so cute that if she didn’t hear him say such things to Somei-chan she would have a hard time believing it. “Hisa-neesan needs my help?”
“Mmm.” She offers him the old robe that had been her pillow, sewing basket by her feet. “Would you be a lovely one and cut this into squares for me?”
“Of course, Hisa-neesan.” Toraki-kun sits down on the bench next to her, and taking the shears, dutifully begins to cut the cloth into pieces.
She lets him get comfortable before asking him a question, her needle flashing through the cloth. Hemming comes naturally to her, as naturally as something one has had many years to practice does. “Was it really so hard to hear Sato-sensei praise Somei-chan?”
Toraki-kun frowns as he continues cutting. “He is always praising Somei-chan.” And never me.
“But even so,” she observes as she continues hemming. “Will you repeat what you said to Somei-chan to me?”
“No!” He sets the shears aside and stares at her with open shock. “Why would I ever say that to Hisa-neesan?”
“Maybe,” she observes dryly. “Because I am also a girl who cannot stand to be criticised without having my feelings hurt?”
He frowns mightily at this, as if trying to find some way to square the circle without cutting off any bits of his previous statement. “But it’s different,” is what he settles on at last. “Hisa-neesan is a different type of girl.”
“There are no different types of girls, Toraki-kun.” Her tone is mild, but her words are not. “There is only one type of woman, and that type is the same no matter if it is your mother, myself, your cousin or another woman you have met on the street, do you understand?”
Slowly, he nods, as if having thought it over. “I didn’t mean it.” Ah, so she has abashed him into scuffing his shoe on the courtyard stone.
“Even so,” she pulls her little cousin close, his upturned hightail brushing lightly over her arm. “You meant it to hurt and to wound, and it did its job didn’t it?” He makes a disgruntled sound at this, and she continues. “So you know what you have to do, don’t you?”
“Yes, Hisa-neesan,” he says, wiggling out of her embrace to continue cutting up the old linen robe. “I’m sorry.”
“And to Somei-chan?”
“‘M extra sorry.”
That promise secured, she turns the conversation away to other, lighter topics.
The autumn moon is round hanging high in the night sky when their entire family gathers together on the day of the festival in her father’s courtyard.
They had eaten dinner together earlier on in the evening, but this is a night for family, for remembrance and gratitude, for remembering Chang’e and looking up at the moon. The duality of celebrating family has never been more stark, where in their household there is not a courtyard unmarred by loss and separation.
But then, Chang’e and Houyi are also parted lovers, a family separated, never to be reunited.
Briefly, she wonders if Houyi is looking up at the moon tonight, if he remembers how much his wife loved him, how betrayed they’d been by people they thought they could trust.
And even more briefly, she wonders about the woman who had the ambition and the means to ascend to godhood.
What must that have been like?
Mid Autumn is a festival of dichotomies, of separation and reunion, neither one existing without the other, and tonight the moon is full, and their family is complete as it could possibly be, given their circumstances.
She plucks a piece of fried taro heavily dusted with cane sugar from the plate with a pair of chopsticks, absently looking up at the moon. The food is sweet, with a chewy center, slowly diffusing across her tongue.
Tonight, Hiko is in the courtyard with them, plucking idly at his guzheng. Perhaps he intends to play a new composition as he sometimes will on festival days and idle moments. Behind him, Kimei leans over his shoulder to peer at the sheet of musical notations, pointing and talking rather animatedly about something or another.
Beside her, Chichi-ue slowly fans himself with a folding fan. It is one of the last warm evenings of the season before the frosts hit and days turn cold once more. “Is the taro to your liking, Hisa-chan?”
She smiles before she answers, savoring the sweetness of it. “Chichi-ue knows me very well.” Taro had been something Chichi-ue had bought from the Danmai region this autumn for Chubu proper grew very little of it. “It tastes delicious.”
Giggling, Somei-chan snatches a piece of taro from the plate. “Thank you, Yasu-jisan!”
Her thirteen year old cousin skips around the table to stand before Chichi-ue, bobbing a light curtsy to him. “In hopes that Oji-san and Hisa-neesan have a prosperous new year.”
Laughingly, Chichi-ue waves Somei-chan over, brushing the dusting of cane sugar from her lips with a handkerchief. “And how are you today, Somei-chan?” Her cousin’s face darkens for a moment upon the asking, and Hisa knows why, but Chichi-ue, who continues, does not. “I heard from your mother that Sato-sensei praised your handwriting recently.”
This brightens up Somei-chan though, and she takes a seat on Chichi-ue’s other side, chattering happily about what school has been like.
Chichi-ue has always known what to say to bring smiles to people’s faces, even when he is unaware of what they are unhappy about.
Toraki-kun and Aunt Niwa arrive together, Toraki-kun a little bit ahead of his mother, and while the little boy makes a noticeable face when he sees Somei-chan and Somei-chan makes a face right back, he comes to pay respects to Chichi-ue anyway.
“In hopes that Oji-san has a year more prosperous than the last.” Toraki-kun speaks softly, and sullenly does not look in Somei-chan’s direction. “And Hisa-neesan as well.”
Chichi-ue nods. “And I have heard that you’ve been doing well, recently, Torakichi-kun.” Chichi-ue waves him closer, and straightens his collar just a little bit. “And if you learn to listen to others who may tell you things you do not want to hear, grow up to be a fine young man.”
So Chichi-ue had heard about the argument between Toraki-kun and Somei-chan and had chosen to express his opinion of the matter lightly tonight, when the Mid-Autumn festival meant that no one ought to argue with each other.
He always phrased things so delicately when asking people to reflect on their failings, always something good and something bad that they have recently done.
“Yes, Oji-san.” Suddenly abashed, Toraki-kun ducks his head, a flush of red on his cheeks.
Chichi-ue offers him the plate of fried taro. “Try a piece, Torakichi-kun. I have heard from two reputable sources that this is a very fine addition to our festivities.”
The words prompt a giggle from Somei-chan, who swings her feet back and forth from her place on Chich-ue’s other side.
Toraki-kun selects a piece, still shamefaced, and takes a seat at a different table next to Aunt Niwa.
The next to arrive are Retsu-chan and Aunt Hasuyo, both engaged in conversation with each other speaking in animated but quiet tones.
Retsu-chan comes to pay her respects with a bounce in her step, and Chichi-ue laughingly offers her a slice of taro as well.
Somei-chan leans up, reaching for more dessert, and Chichi-ue casts her a fond, but disapproving glance. “Somei-chan, save a little for your littlest cousin who, through no fault of her own, is late to arrive.”
Though Chichi-ue means this with no heat, she can see from the corner of her eye, Aunt Hasuyo beginning to frown, and Aunt Niwa hide her interest by pretending to be observing her own son instead.
It would not do to let the argument between Somei-chan and Toraki-kun, and, by extension, Aunt Hasuyo and Aunt Niwa, start once more out of nothing more serious than a plate of taro.
“Chichi-ue,” Hisa hides a smile behind her own round fan, tapping the bridge of her nose with the edge. “You can’t blame Somei-chan. You were the one to introduce a delicacy tonight.”
It has been some time since Chichi-ue bought taro from Danmai, and certainly not within the past three years.
Momo-chan hasn’t had the chance to try it yet.
Chichi-ue taps her forehead lightly with the back of his knuckles. “And Hisa-chan is now shifting this blame back to her old father. What woe this is, to have a quick-tongued daughter.”
“Chichi-ue! Chichi-ue!” A small pink and green blur bounces from the courtyard entrance to Chichi-ue’s lap in the space of no more than a few moments. “Chichi-ue,” Momo-chan demands. “Chichi-ue isn’t old and Neesan isn’t a woe.”
Her pigtails are still bouncing from running all the way here, which means…Hisa raises her head to find Chiba-san following Momo-chan at a much more sedate pace.
“Not a woe is she,” Chichi-ue pinches Momo-chan’s cheek lightly before offering her a piece of taro. “She says that it is your old Chichi-ue’s fault for trying to save you some dessert from the bottomless stomach of your cousin Somei-chan.”
This however, does not truly deter Momo-chan who now digs in her heels and tries to debate the matter with Chichi-ue around several pieces of taro, cane sugar dusting a circle around her mouth as Momo-chan continues to grumble about how “Neesan isn’t a woe.”
Chichi-ue lifts Momo-chan up until she sits on his lap. “Alright, alright, I recant that statement, your Neesan is my beloved daughter and of course not a woe.”
This seems to satisfy her younger sister enough that she offers Somei-chan the platter of taro.
“Kawaguchi-san.” Chiba-san’s first word is extremely quiet. “In hopes that you have a prosperous and happy year ahead.”
Chichi-ue pulls out a chair for her with a nod. “And in hopes that you lack nothing in the year ahead, Natsu.”
Hisa rises, offers Chiba-san a curtsy. “Well wishes to my stepmother for a happy and fortunate year ahead.”
There is a slight pause as everyone watches what Chiba-san will do next, and all is quiet, until Aka steps over the doorway with a tray of mooncakes, molded into fanciful decorations, the two in the center representing the characters for fortune and prosperity.
With a smile, Chichi-ue accepts the knife, and begins partitioning the mooncakes into fourths, offering portions to each person in turn depending on which filling they are most fond of.
Kimei shares her love of lotus paste and double egg yolk filling, so they split one between themselves, Hiko snagging a half of the one with plain lotus paste, while the red bean paste filled mooncakes are split between Aunt Hasuyo and Aunt Niwa.
The last one Chichi-ue cuts is the five seed mooncake, through the word for fortune which tops it, and offers half to Chiba-san and keeps the other half for himself.
A symbolic gesture, and one that everyone notes, because Chichi-ue happens to be fond of plain lotus paste filling more than any other one, but Chiba-san liked five seed mooncake and had no one else to share it with her.
“Would Kawaguchi-san offer any thoughts on harvest tonight?” Every year, Chichi-ue offers some other poem as his thoughts for the coming year ahead, but only after someone asks.
This year, it seems, the task has been taken up by Chiba-san, whose face is round and pale as the moon above.
Chichi-ue pauses between bites and considers it. “Have you not seen,” he begins, “that the waters of the Mujin come from Heaven, surging to the oceans never to return again.” Carefully, he sets aside his plate and continues. “Have you not seen, in the bright mirrors of great halls how they grieve over white hair, at dawn like black thread by evening snow. In this mortal life accomplishment must exhaust our joy, so do not allow an empty wine cup to face the moon.” He stands, and walks to the center of the courtyard, still speaking as he does so. “Heaven made me — my abilities must have purpose, I have spent a thousand gold pieces, but so they will return to me. Bring in the wine!” Chichi-ue says with a smile, just as Kuma steps into the courtyard with a jug of osmanthus wine. “I’ll sing you a song, and together with you wipe away the cares of ten thousand years.”
She covers a smile behind her fan. “Chichi-ue is in good spirits for the next year.” And so saying, she also rises. “After all, though there is only one mention of the moon, there is much to be merry for.”
“Drink a toast to the new year, Hisa-chan.” Chichi-ue comes back to his seat, still smiling. “And we shall listen to young Hiko-kun compose his ode to the moon.”
For Moon Odes are the dominion of the young.
After Mid-Autumn, more serious topics came for them all once more. Chichi-ue’s worries about the mulberry trees earlier in the season had proven accurate, despite his high spirits at Mid-Autumn, and they had to be summarily destroyed and burned on the far edge of their outlying fields, which has made his current plans to go to Yanai to speak to Uncle Nagamatsu filled with a very somber mood indeed.
She does not often spare much thought for her maternal uncles, both of whom have not the patience of her father, nor his grace, for they live far away enough from Shunan that she does not often have to see them at all.
Her father kept ties with them because they are the younger brothers of his beloved late wife, nothing more for they did not share much of the same worldview or the same business sense.
But Chichi-ue is nothing if not sentimental, and these are her mother’s people. No matter how much they had disavowed her, he would not turn away completely and they, guessing at his prosperity, found the connection worth keeping even if the ties of blood and marriage could not bind them.
She does not mention this to Chichi-ue though, because he is intelligent enough to know why both of her maternal uncles still associate with him, but sentimental enough that he will still go anyway.
Mentioning it would only be insulting, so she says nothing at all.
The weather has turned cold now, however, as it has passed the date for the “Little Frost” it is only to be expected. There is not yet sun, and the pre-dawn light makes everything a shade colder than the past.
Toshi has already saddled up a horse, packed all the belongings they would need, and prepared the carriage as well as notified the escort of when they would all be heading out. It is Yushin who ends up leading the group of young men who will travel to Yanai with Chichi-ue as he often does.
He bids goodbye to his father, Banryu, at the front gate, and the foreman turns and begins limping back up the garden path, having taken a fall earlier in the week, but his twin little brothers are less willing to let him go so easily.
“Bring us back something fun, Bear-anija!” Taiga calls from his guardpost at the front gate. “Taishi and I are going to start growing mushrooms out of boredom sitting here waiting for you to come back.”
“Only if you promise to look after Shimo-chan and Hisato-kun for your sister-in-law,” he calls back. “The two of them are rascals, and I doubt that Saka can keep up between directing all the laundry maids.”
“Of course we will, Bear-ani,” another identical face to Taiga’s pops out from the other side of the door, Taishi only distinguished by his light cross collar compared to his brother’s darker one. “But you better bring us back something fun!”
“Get back to work.” Bear comes to stand beside her, smothering a fond chuckle. “And how are you today, Hisa-san? Waiting to bid goodbye to your father?”
“Yes,” she replies, turning to look up at him, having been warmed by the sight of him bidding goodbye to his family. His wife and children had not come out to wave him off, but she assumes that they had said goodbye earlier, perhaps when they were all still inside. Her own family may not be complete, but his is, three generations living in one household, under one roof. His parents yet live, his brothers are younger and may be married in the next few years, and his children are young but will grow up well. “Since he is traveling and it is cold, I thought to give him his birthday present early.” She glances down at the completed cloak in her arms. “After all, a cloak is warmer about the shoulders than it is sitting in a box at home.”
Bear nods, a smile on his face. “You’re a filial daughter, Hisa-san. I hope Shimo-chan learns from you and treats her parents as well someday when we are older.”
“I’m sure she will.” She smiles, for Bear is affable and gregarious, generous by nature and could not possibly end up raising any child of his to be less than honest and giving to a fault. “You have a wonderful daughter, Yushin.”
Shimo-chan has clever fingers and an eye for color, and maybe one day would work either in her courtyard or among the weaving workshops turning silk into brilliant patterns. She has the aptitude for it, and it would make her parents proud.
He almost blushes, rubbing the back of his neck. “Ah, Hisa-san compliments the little one too much. She’s right spoiled is what she is.” He looks away, but his pride is evident in the fondness in his dark eyes. “I promised to get her one of those little model boats that they have in Yanai.”
Bear is a big man with wide shoulders and a thick neck, which is why Chichi-ue brings him along. He leads the escort because everyone loves him, but he is brought along because he looks and can act intimidating enough that the average bandit would think twice about attacking any caravan he’s near.
It’s a good thing that no one from outside knows just how incapable he is of violence.
Chichi-ue steps out of the gate, rearranging his old cloak, which is slightly worn, about his shoulders with one hand, a black box held tightly in his other, followed by Toshi and Kimei, who hugs her father goodbye once tightly before disappearing back indoors.
“Chichi-ue!” Hisa makes her way back to the gate, breath hanging about her face in white clouds.
“There you are, Hisa-chan,” he says, “I was just looking for you.”
“And I was waiting for Chichi-ue.” She offers him the cloak in her arms, tugging quickly at the ties about his neck before switching the cloaks until the new one is about his shoulders instead. “I was waiting for Chichi-ue’s birthday next month, but if you are travelling to Yanai now, I thought it would be better to give this to you now.”
“Your work?” he asks, examining the dark gray wool and the white fox fur trim she had Kimei buy from the marketplace.
“Kimei and I’s, yes.” She steps back. Chichi-ue looks much warmer now than he was before, and there is less reason for her to worry that he would catch a chill.
“I shall be the most gossiped about man in Yanai.” He sweeps her close in a fond embrace. “And they will all envy me, for I have a wonderful and talented daughter.”
“Chichi-ue gives me too much credit.”
When they pull apart, Chichi-ue offers her the little black box he had been holding. “Toshi had to remind me that you would be outside waiting, I was about to go to your courtyard to look for you.”
She accepts the gift, and slides back the lacquered top with its tiny lapis lazuli inlay, and gasps at the set of ox horn combs inside. The largest has a handle carved in the shape of a sleeping tiger, the two beneath it the shape of half moons with tiny carved plum blossoms clearly meant to be worn in her hair together, and a much smaller comb carved with a fanciful needle and spool of thread imagery for parting her hair.
Beneath the combs there is a tiny placard of stiff paper edged with little cutout birds with a couplet written in her father’s sweeping handwriting.
When red leaves dance on the autumn wind
I look to the blue skies of the spring moon.
“For your twentieth birthday,” he says by way of explanation. “In hopes that it is a wonderful day.”
“Thank you, Chichi-ue. They’re lovely.”
“I’m glad you like them.”
She watches as Toshi pulls back the curtain and Chichi-ue climbs into the carriage, his new cloak about his shoulders, as Toshi climbs up onto the driver’s seat and takes up the reins. “Saddle up, Little Bear,” he calls to Yushin. “Yanai will wait on us, but the dawn will not.”
The five young men in the entourage beside Yushin also leap onto their horses, the front street becoming noisy with the sounds of traffic before the coming dawn.
She does not stand outside for much longer, but she does catch Chichi-ue’s wave of goodbye before his hand retreats back into the carriage, and the thought leaves her warm.