The man in her study is bleeding from a cut over his eye and another cut across the back of his hand, which means that the report he hands her wordlessly is rather bloodstained.
She pulls a handkerchief out of her sleeve — one of the new ones that hopefully will take to the traditional way of getting rid of blood stains easier than her previously ruined pink cotton one — and gestures wordlessly for him to take a seat.
“Izuna-san,” She begins this time, while bandaging his hand which is also a bit slippery from the blood — which she shall wash off of her own hands later. “Are you sure you don’t want to visit Jizen-sensei before coming back to tell me what happened to you?”
“I’m alright.” He pulls his hand back when she’s done, flips it over to glance at the linen streaked with dye lots of various shades of green, and blinks at it. “This is a different one than last time.”
“I own more than one handkerchief.” Which is true. What is even more true is that she now owns several more linen handkerchiefs that can most likely be sacrificed upon the altar of her shinobi’s various wounds and injuries.
She acquires another one from her desk and applies pressure to the wound on his face. “What happened to you?”
He blinks up at her, unnaturally calm for someone who is bleeding from his face. She does not know if all shinobi are like this, but she rather supposes that hysteria at the sight of blood would serve no shinobi particularly well, so perhaps they are all like this. It would only be logical. “I was attacked.” As if being attacked is the norm rather than the exception. “The caravan was fine though.”
So they — whoever “they” were — were after him specifically, and had caught up to him while he was out.
Which worries her, because he’d been injured before when coming in to hand over reports and collect his salary, but worries her now again because it seems to be the trend rather than the exception.
“I would like you to be safe,” she murmurs, still intent on at least slowing the bleeding from the cut above his eye, and therefore only focusing on one part of his face. “It hurts my heart to see your blood.”
“I’m a shinobi,” he tells her, matter of fact in all ways. “Bleeding is what we do.”
She’d thought that once, didn’t she?
A man of blood.
But it is hard to think that of him now, not when she has taken his measure and given him clothing, not when he has lived in their household and seen Aunt Ruqa cry over her spoiled son, not when she has found him floating upon the koi pond and heard him almost beg to not be called Uchiha-sama.
“You’re a man,” she retorts. “Men were not made to bleed.”
This mortal life is so full of cares and sorrows, griefs and joys not often in equal measure, but it is said, it is said, that even gods envy mortals for the thousand flavors of this world.
For the ability to laugh and cry and sing, to write poems, comedies, tragedies, plays, and novels, to taste the sweet wine of victory and in the same lifetime, drink deep from the cup of despair.
Even the gods envy us.
“Are you sure?” he asks her, suddenly more tired sounding than she’s ever heard him. “Sometimes that’s all it seems that men are made to do.”
“We do bleed, yes.” His bleeding has slowed, and she ties the other handkerchief around his head to at least cover the wound. “But we also sing, and make music, and dance, and create beautiful things, and we love.”
To hear Chichi-ue tell it, love is both the greatest honor and the bitterest truth. To be divine is to have no attachments to this dusty mortal realm of a thousand cares and worries.
To be mortal is to love and lose and love again as many times as it takes with no regret that one is not divine.
Even the gods envy us. In all our joys and sorrows and foibles and in all we create and choose to love.
He looks as though he wants to say something more on the subject, but he doesn’t. “Thank you.” Instead, he rises and begins to make his excuses to go.
“I haven’t written in the record of your payment yet.” She can’t do so with bloody hands, but Kimei has helpfully had a basin of water drawn from the well and sets it on the desk just as she turns. “Have a piece of sesame candy,” she says to fill the silence.
Cautiously, he reaches over towards the lotus leaf plate.
His hands, however, despite the makeshift bandage on his right, were absolutely grubby, as if he had been digging around in the garden. She plucks the plate away from him with newly washed hands and offers him a slab of the rock sugar and black sesame seed candy.
He looks at her for a long moment before attempting to accept the food with his hand, which actually prompts him to look at his hand properly for the first time it would seem.
She laughs, mostly at the frown that has worked its way onto his face, delighting in the comical way he has seemed to just realize that he shouldn’t eat with those hands. “Well?” She asks him and feels delighted again when he very carefully leans over, keeping the proper distance between them, and accepts the candy with his teeth lips just barely grazing the tips of her fingers.
The faint tinge of his embarrassment amuses her, so she doesn’t comment on the social transgression. Having been the one to offer, even if there is something that had gone amiss, she ought only be amused instead of chastising.
“Kuma tells me that you do not eat when you are at home.” The head cook had fussed the last time she’d seen Hisa in the kitchen, chopping onions to go in her fish stew. That shinobi boy, Kuma had grumbled, thin as a weed or an ill fed beggar boy. Like he hasn’t seen a good meal in his life. You make sure you tell him to get a few decent meals when you next see him, Second Miss, or he’ll blow away in the next rainstorm. And being not prone to wanting the shinobi employee to walk about with such thin shoulders and sharpness to his features, she’d agreed to pass the message along.
He starts a little at this, but doesn’t protest, so she considers her job well done.
“I trust that you will let her feed you in the future then?” She writes his payment slip with a steady hand, holding her sleeve back with her left hand and sets her brush down against the inkstone with a soft click as it also hits her table.
Wordlessly, he nods.
As soon as ink dries she passes it over for him to glance at for the briefest of moments before folding it into thirds and tucking it away into one of his sleeves.
“Chichi-ue has reminded me to dispose of the mulberry trees at the very far edge of the fields.” Now that winter has come and the season of silk production has wound down, it will soon be time to take stock of the year’s sales, prepare to pay Lord Fusamoto’s tax collector and ready the household for the winter season, and with it, the new year. “Would you be willing to come along?”
He does not have to if he does not wish to; after all, fires may be set without a shinobi to breathe flames, even if flames are an Uchiha Clan specialty, which is why she asks.
Something amused sparks in his dark eyes. “I’d be delighted.”
And that is that.
She heads to the fields the next morning in her carriage, Kimei sitting across from her, carrying water and lunch with them packed carefully by Kuma that morning with enough for all eight of them who would make the trip.
The five workers led by Yushin’s second brother, Hiroto, had tried to persuade Izuna to ride in the cart with them, but he had elected to drive the carriage instead, sitting up front between the two long shafts hitched to the horse.
Bamboo grows plentifully here, in the south of Fire Country, and while Chubu is more famous for the fruit crops, peaches, plums, cherries, and oranges in the spring and summer, with pears, apples, and persimmons in the fall, the more common but less spoken of craft of the Chubu region is bamboo, be it furniture, containers, mats, or utensils.
They pass by thick stands of it along the roads, leaves rustling like paper sheathes rubbing together in the wind.
Hiroto leads the way through the swathe of chopped down trees to where they had been further chopped and then piled, leaves and all, left out to dry enough to burn far away from the rest of the grove.
“There are some others yet to be added to the pile,” Hiroto shakes his head. “It’s plenty that needed to be taken down, but Kawaguchi-san said to take down the healthy ones next to the diseased ones just in case to prevent further spread.”
No wonder Chichi-ue had been so sad after coming back from the fields. They had passed some fifty or so tree stumps, some older than she was, planted when Chichi-ue himself was a boy, and there are still more to come.
The new trees planted from branch cuttings next year will take a long time before they are at peak leaf production again.
The field manager turns to Izuna. “I was thinking, if you could start the fire early, so we can feed it later on and keep it from getting too big, we could bring in the others on the wagon as we finish chopping them down to a decent size.”
“That seems like the best course of action.” She nods to Hiroto, who takes his men with him, their axes and saws in hand, off to a different corner of the field.
Izuna looks at the pile of branches and leaves for a moment, having brought nothing to start a fire with him, and nods for her to stand back.
With a few gestures, he inhales, and then with a craftsman’s precision, exhales a steady stream of fire at the wood pile, a hand cupped around his lips to guide it.
The flames flicker, dancing gently on the barest hint of a breeze, and in the firelight, she sees him smile.
He is not a bad young man, Uchiha Izuna — not bad looking either, her mind supplies for her — but different perhaps.
Different in that they come from difference, he, from the outer world where men could casually set a pile of wood ablaze with nothing but a few gestures, rougher around the edges perhaps, and she from the inner world, lacquered tabletops and walls, flowers painted on porcelain, silk threads reeled from cocoons by hand, soft, but no less vicious for the softness.
The firelight throws up shadows on his face, stretches long the gentle smile, and there are gaps between them that no wood or words can bridge.
“Hisa, could I trouble you to pass a word onto your father?” Hondo Asa bounces her three year old son up and down on her knee in the main greeting hall of the Hondo Household, back to visit her widowed mother, Madam Hondo, and just in time to also take tea with Hisa. Which she should have found suspect now that she thinks about it, for if Asa didn’t want to see her, Asa wouldn’t. “I would be most grateful if he could speak to the merchant’s guild.”
“Oh?” She sets her gaiwan down, careful not to disturb its lid. The Hondo are an old merchant family, and a proud one at that, even if their family patriarch for many years has been the barely of age Mitsugu, his father having died nearly ten years before.
But now Mitsugu is twenty-eight, more than old enough to shoulder the burden of a merchant household.
“On behalf of my husband, not my brother.” Asa looks down slightly, still bouncing little Arimichi on her knee. Asa had married Yatakara Arimasa, a merchant of newer money and slightly less social standing than his wife’s maiden house, but Hisa does not fault him for that. Her parents had once danced that same dance.
She wishes Asa and Yatakara-san a longer happiness than her parents had.
“Anija does not need anyone to speak for him except on matters of marriage, you know that.” Little Arimichi-kun babbles something about the toy he has in his hand, and Asa leans down briefly to speak to him.
And indeed, if anyone knew the truth about Hondo Mitsugu, they would certainly throw their scandalized hands up in the air and talk much more of marriage with him than they have already been doing, thus her serious friend will never have another moment’s peace in his life.
“I don’t believe that you ought to talk to me about your ani and marriage, Asa-chan. What will your mother think?” She laughingly picks her gaiwan back up, makes a show of admiring the pretty peach blossom design on the lid — Mitsugu’s work, she knows it well. He had painted the profusion of plum blossoms and irises on her porcelain writing box as well — before taking another sip of her tea. “But come now, we are not here to discuss your ani. What message did you want me to take to Chichi-ue?”
“It is about the Senju of course.” Kame says airily as she comes through the door. “Aneja has been complaining of nothing but the Senju these days. All talk of their prices and quality of crop, how it has dragged down prices of grains across Chubu this autumn season.”
“Kame-chan!” Asa casts her little sister a disgruntled glance, upset at having her secret blown before Hisa had to tease it from her.
Which, as Hisa takes another sip of tea, she appreciates her school friend for doing. While she and Kame-chan were mostly deskmate school friends, having been stuck together for both being the daughters of merchants and of the same relative age when studying at Sato-sensei’s many years ago, they share a much closer bond than she does with Asa, Kame-chan’s five years older sister.
And being forced to ask in more detail to seem warm-hearted may yet backfire into another promise she should not make or ask Chichi-ue to make for her.
And this is definitely a promise she should not be making. “The Senju are a baronic household, Asa-chan.” She considers it carefully, for this is about livelihoods, about people and survival. It has been a dry summer, so all goods are a little bit more expensive on the market, and being undercut by cheaper prices is no easy load to bear. “Even the Merchant’s Guild would not lightly offend them when they have committed no crimes.” While merchant daughters across the region and other regions close to them may consider themselves on par with baronic daughters both in money and power, it isn’t true.
Money, yes. Power? No. Without titles, one should endeavor to not offend those who do have them. “They are not merchants, so of course do not follow our rules.” She thinks about it still further, a little bit rueful at the thought of how worried Yatakara-san must be about balancing his account books that his wife would be complaining about the Senju in her maiden home. “But they are also from Danmai, and not Chubu, and I shall write to O-Shiki-sama to see what she has to say of the matter.”
Asa relaxes, her shoulders no longer held so tightly bunched. “That is better than I could’ve hoped for. Thank you, Hisa-chan.”
And their conversation turns to lighter, more pleasant topics.
Madam Hondo comes to sit with them a few minutes after that, perhaps having already judged from the sound of conversation that serious discussion between juniors in the business has already passed, and makes herself known.
In the years since her husband passed, Madam Hondo had grown older than her age, white streaking her hair and fish tail wrinkles creasing deep around her eyes. The upkeep and care of the business on top of the household had fallen to her in the two years between her husband’s death and Mitsugu coming of age, and for a few years after, she had kept tight control of the Hondo Pottery situation as well as the upkeep and settlement of her husband’s concubines and their children, settling Asa with a relatively well off family, and hounding her only son to marry so that he may secure the family business from the grasp of his younger, shu brothers.
In all respects besides the last, Madam Hondo has done well for her family at the cost of herself and her youth.
But so thinking of Mitsugu, she remembers that he had been the reason she had come to tea today. He’d sent her a hurried note, out of character for his normally meticulous and careful self, and she had found some reason to come see the Hondo household. “And Hondo-senpai?” she asks, setting down her gaiwan and leans forward. “I haven’t seen him today.”
Had anyone even told Mitsugu that she’d arrived? She doesn’t imagine that his authority in his own house would be undercut so severely that he doesn’t even know that she was coming, not when she knows that Asa came back to visit just because she was going to take tea with Madam Hondo and Kame today. However, she does suspect that perhaps no one had told the master of the house that “Hisa-chan” is here already, which is something she wouldn’t put past the whiles of Madam Hondo, whose gaze is ever watchful when it comes to her only son.
However watchful Madam Hondo may be though, the servants of the household should properly notify Mitsugu of a guest in his own house, so it’s only a matter of time before one of the handmaids present for her arrival cracks and tells the master of the house.
“Oh, he’s been very busy.” Madam Hondo smiles at her, fishtail wrinkles about her eyes creasing deep. “Preparing for the exams, you know, Hisa-chan.” Oh, yes. The Imperial Exams, held once every four years. It’d been, it’d been— ah but that doesn’t matter now. “Every household in the city has a young man preparing to take them.” Every household but yours.
Words spoken lightly, but chosen to cut and bleed.
The exams had been her father’s dream, the reason Anija had read so many books. But now here she sits, and Anija is gone, another dream flown as far as the moon.
The exams no longer matter now.
Behind her, Kimei stiffens, and she wishes she could say something, but to say anything to Kimei now is to admit that the words and their implications have hurt them, and the House of Kawaguchi is not hurt.
“Oh, yes.” She says, and smiles behind her folding fan, hands unshaken, face unchanged, “how remiss of me to have forgotten, and to visit to ask Hondo-senpai on his expertise on a matter of business at such a crucial time.” I’d forgotten. It wasn’t important enough for me to remember. “I suppose it could wait until we hear about his exam results. After all, it would only be a month or so to hear them.”
The results for the city of Shunan will be posted before the new year begins. The results from the imperial city would need to wait until after the last round of exams in mid May.
Perhaps her face is unchanged, but it still hurts to bleed.
If it offends Madam Hondo to learn that the tigress’s daughter is also a tiger cub with claws, then perhaps she should not have chosen to rebuke with a blade as sharp as the sorrow of her father’s four dead sons.
Much as she loves Mitsugu, she does not love his mother, despite respecting Madam Hondo for all the work that she has done. It is no easy thing to be the axle on which a household turns, a lightning rod in all weathers, the first in line to brave a storm.
So Madam Hondo ought to be respected, but not this statement.
The corners of Madam Hondo’s lips turn down, but anything else she might’ve said is averted, for Mitsugu strides into the room, a handmaid on his heels. “If it isn’t Hisa-chan,” he smiles briefly, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, lighting up the room with his good cheer. “I’d been meaning to talk to you recently.” He looks around the room, offers his greetings to his mother and sisters, and then steals her away like he’s still a little boy sneaking fried dough twists from the kitchen.
With the doors shut behind them, and only Kimei there as a witness, his facade of good cheer crumbles like a smashed clay pot.
“Dearest Mitsugu-senpai,” she whispers. “What has happened to you?”
He has not been studying, no matter how carefully disheveled the books all about his desk are and the essay he had been in the middle of working on placed strategically in the center. No, the bowl of tangyuan on his desk with the soup spoon laid neatly beside it speaks of his own distraction, having been left untouched for some time now, so that the sticky rice dumplings have grown soggy in the sugar water, sticking to each other and slightly starting to come apart, revealing the red bean paste inside.
If he couldn’t make an effort for his favorite food, his mood is poor indeed.
At her question, he shakes, the corner of his mouth trembling before he takes two large steps towards her and buries his face in her shoulder. “He doesn’t want me anymore.”
There is only one 'he’ that Mitsugu-senpai could be referring to — Satoshi-sensei who played the pipa for the Shokin-tei teahouse in the entertainment district.
For at least five years now, Mitsugu-senpai had first been enamoured, then in love with, then lovers with the most famous pipa player of Shunan. And after five years, the sudden breaking of the relationship is a bit of a shock.
Carefully, she sets her hands against his back, aware that should anyone come in despite Kimei’s protests, this position is very improper indeed. A scandal, that a young, unmarried woman and a young, unmarried man are caught embracing in his study, nevermind that Mitsugu-senpai does not care for women or that he is clearly more distraught than amourous. He deserved the comfort now, because he could tell no one else, despite how clearly this has hurt him. For other people, he would need to pretend to be studying, or at good cheer, but for her he need pretend at nothing before her. “Did he say anything about why?”
His answer is a wordless shake of his head.
Even more carefully, she pushes him back into a chair, straightening her collar and her sleeves as she does so, glad that he has not lost his composure enough to cry, for the stains would be rather hard to explain to anyone else she might pass by on her way home, and his red eyes might be even worse to explain to anyone who might see him.
He has the grace to look abashed, although a shake of her head prevents him from commenting on it. “I think,” she says, with sudden chagrin, knowing that Chichi-ue who plays the pipa so well will be irritated with her odd desire to look for pipa teachers while he is away when he could just teach her himself. “That I am struck with a sudden desire to learn how to play the pipa.”
She shakes her head again when he attempts to thank her. “I did have a business question for you, most beloved Mitsugu-senpai. Will you humor your poor misguided kouhai about it?”
He breathes out softly. “Whatever you would like to know, Hisa-chan.”
She steps through the shrine door later that same evening, wounds still raw from Madam Hondo’s words.
Even the wood inside is dark, varnished and glowing in the light of the nine candles, one before each memorial tablet, three blank and without name, for the three sons born after her who had not lived to see their names written in the family book at a month old.
After setting her flickering lantern down by the door of the ancestral altar, she turns to take the few steps across the room, the inscription above the altar barely visible.
From the same roots we come, spreading into the branches of a great tree.
Other families may have larger shrines for those who had passed on to watch over their descendants from the heavens, crowded altars with only memorial tablets for men, but not so for the House of Kawaguchi, which is young, and bore each sorrow personally.
She can name and has met every person who has now become a tablet in the family shrine — Jiisan, Baasan, her two uncles, Anija, three younger brothers...Haha-ue.
It is this last name that she stops before tonight, to wipe away the candle wax before her mother’s tablet, and replace the incense burning before it with another.
“Haha-ue,” she begins, sinking to her knees when she has finished replacing the incense. “The Imperial Exams have come around again this year.” And I am twenty years old. This year, Anija would’ve been twenty-three. Old enough to take the exams and do well. Old enough to see his name listed on the banner of names they would paste to the city’s message board, showcasing the names of men who would advance to Chubu’s regional exams, and then again a month later, who would advance to the exams in the capital.
Anija had been so brilliant — and dead now for twelve years, she realizes suddenly with a cold chill, having never grown up, never come of age, taken the exams, married, had a chance to hold his own children, or bemoan the appearance of his first white hair.
The exams had been her father’s fondest dream, an honor to their young name, a clan title, one that she could never hope to give him.
After all, they did not allow women to take the exams. In all respects, she is a pale reflection of what Anija could’ve been, slim shoulders when his would’ve been broad, small hands when his would’ve been large, a daughter not a son, bound to the limitations that daughters must bear, even though she has beaten her hands bloody on doors that will not open for women.
“I am sorry,” she whispers, and realizes that she is crying. “I cannot make you proud this year either.” Not this year, not any year after. Her brilliant mother, who does not deserve her name dragged through the mud, must bear this injustice in death as well, as she had smiled and bore it in life.
No sons for the House of Kawaguchi, not in this life.
The whispers of other people are cruel and malicious, and they cut deep.
And she who is only Hisa could not hope to ever prove them wrong.
A week later, she sits in her study and waits for Kimei to announce the next pipa teacher that Hiko had found for her despite not really knowing or caring why she would be looking for pipa teachers when her own father played the pipa brilliantly and could teach her easily.
“Satoshi-sensei, from Shikon-tei,” Kimei pushes open the door, announces the man, and shows him in. She’d personally never met him, having never in her life, been to Shikon-tei.
She takes a moment to examine him, a young man, clean shaven, who wore pale green and had a high forehead. He did hold a pipa well, though that explains nothing of how well he could play it. Perhaps he could be considered attractive, she really couldn’t tell.
He is beautiful to Mitsugu-senpai, and that is all that really matters.
She raises her eyes to meet his from across her desk, idly tapping her fingers against the side of her face. “Satoshi-sensei from Shikon-tei,” she muses. “For a pipa player, you’ve made yourself very hard to find, Sensei.”
Men could visit tea houses and speak to the musicians and the dancing girls and the shopkeep and the other patrons easily and without question, but a young unmarried woman, while she could go, could show no preference for any entertainer and only speak to the shopkeep through using her handmaids as a go between, much less talk to any strange men alone in private.
Thus, Satoshi the musician had made himself very hard to get to for someone of her social class.
He freezes, slowly dropping the pipa that he had held before him to a spot by his side, grasp loose around its neck. "It does seem that you've found me, despite my best attempts to hide my existence."
Well then, no facades between them then. It makes things easier that they do not have to dance with poetry and could use plain language instead. "Tell me quite plainly, Satoshi-sensei, what does Mitsugu mean to you?" And why did you leave him?
"I would think that you would prefer to have him to yourself, Kawaguchi-san,” His words are airy, lightly spoken, but rehearsed. Not lightly chosen though, and that gives her some hope for the future of Mitsugu-senpai’s happiness. “A wonderful young man, a capable young woman, is that not what all songs sing of?"
Trust a musician to put his life’s ambitions into songs and to turn to songs to seek out what those life goals should be.
Life is no song unless it be a stringless cacophony.
"If that is really why you have left him, then you are vile." If he could not see that Mitsugu-senpai loved him, through the wool he’s pulled over his own eyes and convinced himself that he is doing what is best, then he does not deserve someone like Mitsugu-senpai who has never lied to him once.
"Oh?" Satoshi the pipa player raises his right eyebrow at her, as if daring her to put her angry thoughts into words. Someone like you could never understand.
"If you were using his love for you for money, then you are scum. If you find you no longer love him and want to leave him, then we have nothing more to say, for he will find someone better. If you are leaving him because you can't fathom him choosing you over anyone else then you are treating him like a vile man might treat a lover. Without truth. Without trust." Let him be the judge of his own heart, his own destiny.
Her words do strike something in him, because he attempts to leave, but finds that Hiko, tall and sallow, with black eyes and long black hair, and a gaze like a watchful praying mantis who has sighted prey has leaned himself against the doorframe, his black boots scuffed up against the opposite side, a worthy enough deterrent against troubles of all sorts.
“Why do you do this?” Satoshi tries a different tact: pretense at offense and anger. “I am only a poor musician from a teahouse in this city. What right do you have, Kawaguchi-san, for inviting me into your house as though promising me a job and then threatening me here where I am at your mercy?”
“I am not threatening you.” She rises from her desk, comes around it to stand toe to toe with him, eyes narrowed. She is the tigress’s cub, and perhaps other people should well remember that her father called her mother Byakko in life, tiger goddess with tiger children, a goddess and a tigress even well before her passing. “If my words feel like insults, it is because of your own guilt.” He loves you, she almost wants to say, he loves you and wishes he could marry you, that is why he is twenty-eight years old and unmarried, do you understand? “Think on that if you would like.” She jerks her head towards the door, and Hiko unbends himself from the doorframe to step aside.
He turns to her with a rueful smile after Satoshi-sensei had already disappeared down the walkway, hurried, troubled, and with shoulders bowed. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the tiger, Hisa.”
She looks up at him, wry and fond. “I am always a tiger, Hiko, just sometimes I have teeth.”
The week after, Mitsugu-senpai sends her a new tea set, six gaiwan and a blue and white porcelain teapot hand painted with a spray of delicate orchids.
The accompanying note has only two words, written in Mitsugu-senpai’s cramped, narrow handwriting — Thank you.
And it is enough.
Chichi-ue’s return from Yanai brings with it, much rejoicing. He pauses for lunch with Momo-chan and Chiba-san in Chiba-san’s courtyard, as is only fair and proper of a man returning from a long trip.
She does not intrude, having never really been to Chiba-san’s courtyard all that frequently, in the five years she has lived with them in the household, and eats a simple lunch with Kimei and Hiko instead.
“Hisa, Hisa, you should try this new type of fermented cabbage. It goes well with the rice.” Kimei tips a piece of the cabbage into her bowl between bites, chattering all the while about whatever came to mind.
On the other side of the courtyard table, Hiko makes a face of bewildered amusement as he carefully sips another spoonful of winter melon and smoked pork soup, so hot that it is still steaming as he watches the two of them.
Kimei notices this and makes a face at him. “What are you looking at, oh Prince of Birds?”
Hiko childishly makes a face back at her. “I was just wondering why you think Hisa can’t feed herself, Butterfly Brain.”
Kimei shakes her head at him, pink ribbons in her hair fluttering as she does so. “Men,” she sighs. “Always only seeing the surface of things.” After another pause, her handmaid turns back to Hiko. “And what is your favorite dish of the three we’ve had today?”
Besides the soup and the fermented cabbage, there’d been a dish of bok choy greens blanched quickly in hot water and then sprinkled with candied almonds.
Hiko hums, thinking about it for a moment around another bite of soup. “I think I much prefer the winter melon and smoked pork.”
Kimei tsks at this, shoving more bok choy into his bowl of rice. “Glutton,” she sings, still more amused than actually disapproving. “Glutton!”
“I’m a growing boy,” Hiko protests around another mouthful of pork, and he looks so disgruntled and guilty that she laughs at him.
Kimei and Hiko ate lunch together often, with and without her, depending on if she is called away or not, but it is good to see them happy and teasing, good to know that some things remain unchanged and constant.
They were friends long ago, when Hiko first came to the estate, and Kimei snuck up on him, putting her hands over his eyes, and they are friends now, even as the years roll onwards.
“You’re a grown man,” Kimei teases. “Hisa, don’t you agree? Twenty-five is grown, right?”
Hiko casts her a pleading look, as if begging her to say “no, twenty-five is a mere child’s age,” but thankfully she is saved from having to respond by Toshi being shown into the courtyard by Aka.
“Chichi!” Kimei rises, bobbing a slight curtsy to greet her father who, in turn, gives her a quick nod and a small smile before turning to where Hisa sits at the table.
“Second Miss, your father sent me to ask you to come to his study after you’ve finished your lunch.”
So as it would seem, Chichi-ue ate lunch quickly today and has already said his goodbyes. He’d barely been there for longer than a stick of incense burning down, Kimei had set out a new one right before they had sat down to lunch and it still only had two finger-widths of height remaining.
There are a few reasons why it might be so — Chiba-san saying something he didn’t want to hear, some exciting news he had learned in Yanai, a present he might be eager to give her, some combination of all of these perhaps — the look between herself and Kimei is enough to know that she will have learned all the various reasons by the time she returns.
Chichi-ue is humming when she enters his study, which brings her joy, because it has been so long, and yet she can count on one hand the number of times she has heard him hum in recent years.
It is more than a good mood this time then.
She pauses there for a moment listening to the tune of Water Town waft through the air — the scent of lotus leaf on both banks, the traveller’s pavilion and the weeping willow keep each other company — she has not heard this song in over ten years now, and she does not want it to end.
When she was younger, it had been her favorite song, a tale of romance, homecoming, and care all in one melody, for long ago, her father had written it for her mother, who quietly delighted in whenever he would care to play it for her.
But it does end, because as the song itself says, these feelings cannot be contained within a single song.
He turns to her then, a smile still on his lips, as if he had not realized what tune he had been humming. “Ah, Hisa-chan, come sit?” For one brief moment, she wonders if it is Chiba-san that has made him so happy.
But she dismisses that, because in the five years that Chiba-san has lived in their house, she doesn’t remember a single time when Chichi-ue hummed Water Town.
It is her mother’s song, just as much as The Mortal Realm Isn’t Worth It. Even if Chiba-san did make him happy — and this would be something that she would have to accept, wouldn’t it? — it wouldn’t inspire this song.
There is a chair beside him, pulled out already as if he’d been waiting for her.
She does come sit with him. “What has made Chichi-ue so happy today?”
“Is it not enough to be home?” Yes, her father likes to play word games like this as well, half teasing, half truthful.
“Then Chichi-ue flatters his silly daughter, and it shall go straight to her head.” She props her head up on her hands, looking at the account book that he was going over.
“Nonsense.” He lightly raps her forehead with his knuckles. “Not one of my children has ever been silly.”
“Chichi-ue, why have you marked out a section for next year already?” It is months yet, until the new year, but this new section of the account book speaks of both growth and new knowledge of the year to come.
“Ah, that depends.” He smiles, amused fondness tugging at the laugh lines around his mouth. “Do you want the bigger news first? Or the smaller news?”
“Of course the bigger news first!” The years may pass, but she does not change much with them. Big news comes first, the little things for later.
“Then I am pleased to announce that I received word while in Yanai that the Nakatomi Clan wishes to buy their silk from us next spring.”
The news almost stuns her into silence. “The Nakatomi?” When Chichi-ue nods, she tries a different tack, asking again. “The ducal household?” Again, a nod.
It takes a moment for the enormity of the situation to sink in. For a long time now, Chichi-ue has wanted to expand their commissions in the capital, but without a proper patronage from one of the upper class households in the city, they’d never been able to expand properly.
The Nakatomi, however, held the highest of rankings within the capital at the moment, second only to the imperial household itself in power, one of the three ducal households, the current Kogo’s maiden household, and the future daimyo as a relation.
To earn a commission from them is high praise indeed, so high that it might as well have been a brush with the moon.
She throws her arms around her father’s neck, suddenly aware of why he was so pleased. “Congratulations, Chichi-ue. Your daughter wishes you a thousand years of happiness.”
He pats her hand with a quiet sigh. “I’ll accept a few months’ worth of joy from your thousand year well wishes. That would be quite plenty for an old man like me.”
They stay like that for a few moments more, careful, but happy until she remembers that there is something else he had mentioned. “But Chichi-ue, what is the little thing you mentioned?”
“A letter from your cousin,” he pulls the paper from the inside of his sleeve. “Shige-kun did beg me to deliver it directly, and he looked so distraught that I couldn’t possibly refuse.”
Hiwara Shigematsu is the eldest child of her first uncle, the elder of her mother’s younger brothers, a sweet boy whom she remembers fondly, though the last time they had met in person had not been an ideal time.
He turns seventeen this year, she recalls, and seventeen is a fraught age.
Reaching out, she accepts the letter, with a reminder to read it before she sleeps tonight so that she could draft a reply shortly and have it sent on its way.
“Thank you for bringing it home with you.” It’s on the tip of her tongue to add that Shige-kun is likely lonely, perhaps more so than he realizes, and that she hopes they had a few good conversations in the two weeks that Chichi-ue had been in Yanai, but there’s a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Chichi-ue again picks up his brush, and she rises to go.
It is Aunt Niwa that she passes on her way back to her courtyard, but for what purpose, she does not know.