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A Bolt of Silk

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“Hisa-san, do you truly not wish to marry a nobleman?” At least the conversation still proves that he is alive and awake, despite whatever outlandish place his mind has gone now.

The sky is graying, edged with the faint, faint blush of the dawn.

Soon, the darkness of night will no longer hide them, which means a different mode of transportation, and a much different way of getting to where they need to be.

“Why would I ever want to?” Noblemen as a concept are far from her mind. “They’re fussy delicate things who don’t believe that merchants are capable of anything except being a footstool.”

Well, that would be unkind for not all noblemen are like that. Lord Fusamoto isn’t, but he’s married already anyway.

“Oh,” he says, in a rather small voice, and falls into some sort of quiet as if he’s thinking it over. Why he would be thinking it over doesn’t matter to her in particular, because she is starting to at least sort of recognize the shining reflection of water hugging the horizon.

In the distance, Lake Yatan looms like green glass with a touch of the palest pink.

The horses, however, are flagging, and her hands are tired.

“Tell me where your estate is.”

She might’ve been to Yanai before — so many long years ago, so long ago, in much the same time as this one, with flowers blooming, sickness spreading, to the house of her uncle, Hiwara Nagamatsu — but then that cart had been driven by Banryu, who had turned around and driven home.

She has never been out to the city of Yanai, and she could not possibly take him to the estate of her first maternal uncle. For one, it is not safe.

For another, her Uncle Nagamatsu.

She does not know the way to the Uchiha Estate, wherever it might be.

“It is slightly to the north of the city,” he says, morose, still quiet. “An old, faded red gate up on the mountainside, it cannot be missed.”

They are south of the city now, lush fields of rolling grassland, and…an older man driving a cart of firewood slowly along the beaten path before them, seemingly also headed into the city.

She urges the horses forward just a little bit faster, the leather reins stinging her now tired and bleeding hands. “Ossan!” she calls. “Ossan, may I borrow your cart?”

She looks a fright. She looks a fright, and she knows it.

The sun continues on its rise, as she draws beside the cart and the old man driving it to explain herself and the situation.

Perhaps it doesn’t help to say “I have the Count of Tohoku’s youngest son in this carriage, he’s injured and we’re running away from Senju,” for that is not polite, but she is so tired.

She is so tired, and it gets her point across and Izuna under a load of firewood with the stranger helping, so who is she to complain?

She almost wonders if she’s at the right place when the old mule and the cart of firewood finally manage to rattle their way up to the beaten heavy wooden main gate with two faded red pillars, one on either side.

The place looks desolate, as painful as it is to see, worn down in ways she doesn’t truly expect, of a count’s estate.

Not like this, with lacquer and paint peeling from the front gate.

She remembers Lord Fusamoto’s estate for a moment in her mind’s eye — the elegant curve of the roofing tiles, gray blue slate sleek with rain, the freshly painted cranes, stone lion guardians on either side of the gate carved of marble, the door knocker made of beaten bronze, gleaming lightly on heavy oak, two men standing guard day and night.

It is not the gate that presents itself to her now, plain and unadorned, with pale flecks of red peeling from old wooden pillars, chipped varnish, and signs of wear and tear on the walls where the gutter has missed.

But according to the directions both Izuna and the old stranger had given, this is indeed, the place.

It opens to her now, a young man no more than seventeen years of age with hair pulled back messily and bags under his eyes peering out. “Your business here?” he asks, looking her up and down once, and only once.

She must look an odd sight, with her hairstyle in mild disarray, a young woman dressed in silks sitting on the flat front of a mule cart — she had driven through town to further deter any attackers from even attempting anything, and she does not regret it — and the load of firewood behind her, from under which, Izuna makes a faint noise of “It’s me, Hikaku.”

The next thing she knows, the young man — a boy, really, he isn’t yet of age, she doesn’t think — has leaned back and hollers into the house, “Cousin Madara, your brother’s home!” before coming out to help her dig Izuna out of the firewood.

“And you are, Miss?” Hikaku asks her, suddenly shy.

“Eyes off,” Izuna grouses as he hauls himself into a sitting position, twigs in his hair and all the manner of bark and loose wood chips on his person. “That’s my employer, baby cousin, be polite.”

“Otouto!” another man with broad shoulders and wild spiky hair races out of the front gate, dragging Izuna the rest of the way out of the firewood almost instantaneously. “Are you hurt anywhere? Broke anything? Who did this to you? Did you get a good look at their face? What about what those bastards were wearing? Any swords you recognized? Any—”

“Anija,” Izuna says, long suffering and deeply tired. “Anija, I killed them. It was Senju Shibima. It’s fine.”

Hearing this, the man she can only assume to be Uchiha Madara turns to her, and bows once, deeply. “Thank you for taking care of my most foolish little brother, Miss.”

“It was no trouble.” She says the words by rote, not because it truly was so, but because that is what one is supposed to say when thanked by someone of much higher social standing, even if no one here looks it.

For all that Izuna seems disgruntled, he has relaxed much more now that he is home.

As she wants to go home, even if she doesn’t even know if —


For later. Best not think of it now.

Uchiha Madara glances at her, his eyes much darker than his brother’s, hooded and somewhat cast in shadow by his shaggy hair. “No, I don’t think it was no trouble at all.”

But a moment later he turns and heads in, Izuna still carried in his arms despite the protests. The funerary white armband on his upper arm flutters in the breeze.

She puts her worries aside and follows.

Izuna has been carried off by his brother, hopefully so someone could ascertain if his ankle is sprained or broken. Someone has brought out tea for her to welcome her in the front hall which is… more polite than she thought, considering the state of affairs and how everyone must be more concerned over Izuna than whether or not the unexpected guest had any tea or not.

Everything she has seen so far is old, old but fine, and falling into a state of disrepair and age, the lacquer chipped in several places, scuffed floorboards showing through.

The tea she’d been given is not particularly fine shincha, but it is clearly meant to be used for important guests, because it and the gaiwan it arrived in have an air of disuse to them. She suspects it is because either they do not welcome guests that often, or there’s simply no protocol here for how to welcome someone of her station at this particular count’s estate.

She is part of a landed, wealthy household, but one without high titles or a proper rank for which manners are to be followed in this situation. Merchants, as they are, as she is, only visit noble estates for the sake of peddling wares, not sitting down with nobles as their honored guests.

Only at home could she expect that of O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto, both of whom welcome her as though she is a baron’s daughter, not someone from a household without rank or noble social class.

So she says nothing of the tea, or the gaiwan, or the scuffed floor and the aging wall scroll. And she says even less when she is left alone to her own devices, still sipping cooling tea.

She is tired. Her mind is working too fast and too slow all at once, a thousand worries crowding in when a girl of about six or seven, dressed in a simple indigo blue waist height ruqun peers around a column at her, curiosity in her dark eyes. “Are you the merchant lady?” she asks, with grave solemnity.

There is no such thing as a ‘merchant lady’, only merchant women, since the wives and daughters of merchants are afforded no titles, but someone as young as this child wouldn’t know that. She sets her gaiwan aside on the low table next to her. “I’m the merchant visitor, yes.”

Merchant women are not ladies.

The little girl smiles, dimples appearing on her cheeks, an excited glee in her gray-black eyes. “Oh!” she appears fully from behind the pillar, drops into a slightly less formal curtsy and then approaches without any fear of strangers at all. “I’m Kaiyo-chan, shonin-san.”

“And I am Kawaguchi Hisa, Uchiha-san.”

“Are all the merchant ladies pretty like you are, Hisa-nee?” Kaiyo-chan turns a very earnest gaze up to her, two short but neat braids swinging, their tails dangling over her shoulders, white, undyed ribbons fluttering.

She is quite at a loss as to how to explain that merchant women are not ladies, and that it is almost inappropriate to call her ‘Hisa-nee’ so familiarly. But Kaiyo-chan is merely a child, and a child in mourning at that.

Surely, discussions of manners and propriety can wait until later.

But if the daughter of Lord Tajima would wish to, it is not her place to protest. “It is the clothing that is pretty,” she responds after thinking for a moment. “Anyone can be pretty in pretty clothes.”

There are more beautiful faces in the world on servants in hemp than hers, but she wears silk, and that draws the eye.

Kaiyo-chan frowns at this, as if disagreeing, but they are interrupted by a commotion erupting outside before the conversation can continue.

She turns towards the front of the greeting hall and does not rise when the visitor swaggers in, wearing a low grade silk dachang over even lower grade yichang and cheap jade at his belt. He is a portly man with a smile like oil, and two laboring servants follow after him carrying baskets of tile, along with the harried middle aged gentleman who must be his accountant.

Beside her, Kaiyo-chan has stilled, suddenly likely aware that small children ought to be neither seen nor heard when male visitors from outside the house are present.

Hisa turns her gaze slowly up at the merchant over the top of her gaiwan, cooling tea ignored for the moment.

“And what business,” she says, with a voice like autumn hoarfrost, “does our visitor have with the Uchiha Clan?”

The merchant puffs himself up splendidly, putting on airs despite having nothing of value to offer, the conversation. “I have come, as your most humble servant, to deliver the roofing tiles requested as per the contract stamped by the head of your household, none other than the Count of Tohoku himself.”

The look on his face says that he expects the Count himself to make an appearance within the next few minutes or so, or perhaps for her to rise and summon her host.

She tilts her head to the side, thankful that she has had time at least to fix her hairstyle, buyao and chai in their proper positions once more. “So you say,” she allows. “And yet you have given me no name and no assurance of patronage. The Lord Administrator of Tohoku’s days are busy, surely you did not expect him to come out and confirm this purchase for you himself?”

It is not the typical job of the master of the household to confirm purchases anyway. That right and responsibility rested with his wife, or, she thinks with sudden rue, his daughter.

Asking for the Count of Tohoku and not the Countess implies that either this man is daft, or that there is no Countess. And since the Lady of Tohoku yet lives, she can only assume that the man is daft.

“This one is the most humble Takahashi Hiroshi, and has traveled all this way to speak to the most excellent Lord Administrator about his purchases from this lowly servant.”

Ah, she has heard the name before.

From Kimei, who had heard it while eavesdropping on Chichi-ue and his childhood friend, Chiba Sahei-san who had muttered the man’s name while talking about headaches.

The Chiba owned a slate mine in the northwestern portion of Chubu, though their main household lived year round in Shunan, so she assumes the father of her stepmother knows which tile merchants to avoid.

“You mean, you travelled all the way up from your comfortable estate in the lovely city of Yanai to the Lord Administrator’s estate here, a little ways out of the city.” She wishes she has a fan to tap coyly against the bridge of her nose, but manages only to hide her sharper smile behind her wide sleeve instead. “Did it take you half an hour through the morning traffic, Takahashi-san, or an hour?”

Her words seem to deflate him a little. She sets the gaiwan aside again on the table, and holds her hand out for the account book detailing the transaction.

Doing this steps on someone’s toes within this household, because this is not her home, and she does not have the keys to the accounts, so really, her pretense of power is thinner than a paper mask, but this man does not know that. He has assumed she is a member of the Count’s own household, which means in theory, she has the right to look at the transaction and at least see the seal of approval that Lord Tajima has stamped.

The accountant shuffles forward and turns the book open to the correct page. Kaiyo-chan burrows closer to her side, and she calmly strokes the child’s hair. No sheltered daughter of a Count would prefer to be in the front hall when there are strange male visitors, no, of course not, and she is sorry she hasn’t been able to yet think of some excuse to make sure that Kaiyo-chan can leave safely.

“Here, milady, it says that milord stamped the records of approval just after the first of March, forty thousand tiles to be delivered at the earliest convenience of my employer.”

“It is the middle of May,” she comments, mild, though not a rebuke. The accountant is only doing his job. “And the running price for slate tile is roughly three ryo a tile, which means the total for forty thousand tiles ought to come out to a hundred and twenty thousand ryo?”

The account book says a hundred and fifty thousand. Where exactly the secondary price tag has come from she cannot even begin to fathom. “I am but a very foolish and uneducated woman, but I do believe that a hundred and twenty ryo is rather a smaller figure than a hundred and fifty.”

Her voice is innocent, but her smile is not.

Takahashi-shonin speaks up now, as if suddenly aware that this deal can go wrong. “It is of a superior variety, quarried from the northwestern region of Chubu, I can assure you, Lady Uchiha, it is entirely worth the price.”

“Well, it certainly is an increase of thirty thousand ryo if they truly came from the Chiba mines.” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Takahashi-shonin flinch. Perhaps he thinks she knows nothing of Chubu’s merchant politics; after all, an Uchiha Lady of Tohoku might not. “Chiba Sahei-shonin has always produced the most excellent quality of tile.”

To speak of northwestern slate mines is to bring to mind Chiba Sahei’s standards for tile, if not to insinuate he is the original owner and marketer of said tile.

She rises, careful not to startle Kaiyo-chan, and comes forward to look at the tile herself.

She picks one up through Takahashi-shonin’s protests, notes that one corner is chipped, and that it hadn’t been cut properly, leaving it weak, though it is the correct shape, curved at all the right angles.

“As you can tell, because Lady Uchiha has an excellent eye—”

She drops it, letting it clatter to the wooden floorboards and smash just a little bit by her feet. “I do,” she says, rather calmly, though her patience has worn thin for this short little man and his attempts to both aggrandize himself, kiss her feet, and play games with nobles, especially ones that could crush not only him, but the man he was purporting to represent, “have an excellent eye for tile quality, and am shocked and disappointed to find that you are misrepresenting fourth grade slate as first grade.”

He puffs up again, as if about to protest something else, but she has had enough of him and his poor conduct in someone else’s house.

“And I may, in fact, write to Chiba Sahei-shonin to let him know that you are misrepresenting yourself and purporting to sell slate from his quarries, when in fact, I don’t know what gutter you picked this out of, so that he may complain to the magistrate.” She pretends to consider it. “I am sure that Lord Tajima who is your Lord Administrator can spare the time for ruling at your trial, do you not suppose so, Takahashi-shonin?”

That punctures any and all resistance. “Either you will bring the correct grade and quality of slate at your earliest convenience, or,” she takes a step forward, head held high, spine as straight as beaten steel, “you can get lost.”

The slate merchant slinks out of the front hall like a beaten dog, and she watches him go before turning to return to her seat.

There is a man older than her father standing there wearing a dark indigo blue zhiduo, the type that she had seen Izuna wear before, of cotton, which grew plentifully in this region. His topknot is a severe thing, though, like her father, his dark hair is streaked with gray, but unlike her father, he wears mourning, white ribbons fluttering from where they tie his topknot to about his face.

“Ojiisama!” Kaiyo-chan races over to him and takes his hand. “Hisa-nee sent the bad man away.”

She bobs him a deep curtsy. “My apologies for being so forward as a guest in your house, Uchiha-sama.”

Somehow, she has found herself sitting in the garden courtyard with Lord Tajima, a few delicacies and a pot of mugicha between them.

“Are you often forward in other people’s houses, Kawaguchi-chan?” he asks, not entirely looking her in the eye.

She turns her gaze downwards, to her hands clasped in her sleeves, and tries desperately to fight both the fatigue and worry clouding her mind. “I apologize for having overstepped my boundaries, Uchiha-sama, it was not my intention to.”

“Ah, and you often don’t answer the question either.” Unlike Izuna, his father does not seem to follow the correct script for propriety, but then, perhaps, when one is a count one needn’t follow the rules others must unless one is with others of equal standing.

“Not when the question has to do with my manners, no.”

He laughs then, a brief, biting thing. “So sharp with your elders, Kawaguchi-chan.” He takes a sip of his tea. “And yet, you apologize for doing us a service.”

“I wasn’t aware that shameful conduct was a service to be offered.” She had been quite cross with Takahashi-shonin, and she does not regret it, thus the actions are shameful.

“Is sweeping the trash out of the front hall not a service? Or perhaps, you do not consider the life of my youngest son preserved a service?” For a moment, all she hears is the soft clink of porcelain on porcelain as he absently toys with the lid of his gaiwan. “Or perhaps you consider the night you spent out with a young man alone to be a source of shame?”

She is tired, and last night is a haze of indistinct fears and terror, hands rubbed raw and blisters popped from the chafe of the reins.

“If Uchiha-sama is concerned that I will endeavor to end my life out of shame unless I marry into your household, then you are much mistaken.” There is shame in what had happened last night even if the answer is that nothing has happened, because people have seen her, and people will talk. “I’m afraid I’ve never been much interested in pandering to those of higher status in the hopes that it would net me an ideal husband.”

But people already gossip about her plenty, and Chichi-ue if he is still — if he is safe, then he will understand her choices.

When he next looks at her, it is with a bemused amusement. “You saved his life, and yet you will not claim it?”

“And yet, maybe I was acting to save my own skin.” Her own reply is dry as the winter wind. Normally, she has the humor for word games, but today, today she is tired, having not slept at all the night before, and still worried about Kimei. “Oh, how easily the virtuous gentleman falls for a woman’s wiles.”

Lord Tajima’s mouth twitches, as if he is trying very hard not to laugh. “Little Izuna should recover, perhaps sometime soon. I assume he will return to his service in your household?”

“We still need shinobi to protect the caravans.” She finally takes a sip of the lukewarm mugicha. “I don’t see why that job has to end.”

Lady Kiku arrives with two handmaids, one of them carrying a guqin, though she sends them both away after taking the qin from them. “Anata, is Kawaguchi-chan playing for us today?” She wears mourning as well, white fluttering in her hair, hairstyle incredibly simple and subdued to match the white of Lord Tajima’s topknot ties.

A child, perhaps, is who they are mourning, though a daughter or a son is unclear, for they are long past the age to mourn a parent with white in their hair, and only a child would provoke yet another bout of white like this in a lifetime.

Not even a spouse...not even a spouse, however beloved, is mourned with white hair ribbons.

She is not aware that she ought to be providing musical amusement, but she is a guest. She is a guest, and they have been kind enough to let her stay.

Her other option would be to seek shelter with Uncle Nagamatsu, and no matter what—

It does not matter what else she has to do, she will not be going to see him, not after what she had done last night.

“I would be honored to play for my elders.”

Like few other things she has seen in this house, the guqin is exquisite, made of polished dark wood, strung with silk, loved and well maintained.

For a moment, she remembers Izuna’s qin, how it had glowed in the dim light of the lanterns, how he had glowed while playing it.

In this household, only the instruments have caught the eye, though she knows not why a major noble household would have to take care to stay out of the public eye.

Resting her hands on the strings, she begins, “A ferry crossing falls for a mountain glade, a light dusting of snow for the evening lotus flower, the setting sun waits with bloodshot eyes to chat with the morning bell, the person on the heart is by the plum or willow but not by me, the little white snake gets caught in the rain, but the scholar forgets his umbrella.”

Long ago, Haha-ue had sung her this song to tell her why her name is Hisa, why she had been named the word for ‘eternity’ rather than a more beautiful name referring to flowers or mountains or rivers or other virtues.

Your name is Hisa because you are meant to endure misfortune.

A beat, and she continues, “The young lady crushes the swing, a scholar fails the exams for ten years, fate is picky, and life lacks perfection, the little monk has no alms and yet passes a feast…”

Her hands sting, the broken blisters on her palms scream with anguish as she continues to play, but play she does. “Pick up a cup of wine and examine this human realm with care, even if the gods make predictions, this trip will lead to little fulfillment, have courage and venture into the crowd, knock on the door of life instead, through eighty-one tribulations, we can only see how it goes.”

Lady Kiku, from the corner of her eye, looks a bit disappointed in the choice of the song. Perhaps, but then, this isn’t a happy song per se.

“The childhood lovers part ways, Bo Ya breaks the string on his qin, good friends meet to be parted, and a husband must remarry, some young couples meet when the magpies aren’t on duty, we depend on heaven’s mercy to live to old age.”

The next line always makes her weep, but this time her eyes are dry. “And yet the old and the sick live twenty years longer than the young and healthy, Chang’e flies to the moon and yet envies the mortal realm.”

No matter what happens, it seems that gods must envy mortals. For all that they lose and all that they love. Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku exchange a look, both love and pain, and for a moment she wonders who they have lost to find this particular line so painful.

“Living in this realm is unsatisfying, losing sleep and losing love…” Life is loss. Life is senseless loss and terrible pain. “Step onto a boat, say you’ll never come back to shore, to the edge of heaven, to the corner of the sea, a disappointment is only a new experience, looking back, this mortal realm has a thousand flavors.”

She sets her hands on the strings to pause their vibration when she is done. No matter how painful life is or becomes, even the gods envy mortals. In all we feel and choose to love.

Lady Kiku offers her a tearful smile, “it’s a beautiful song, Kawaguchi-chan. Did you write it?”

“No, my mother did.” And suddenly she remembers a rain of peach flowers, Haha-ue braiding her hair in the garden, the soft way her mother’s voice had always sounded blending into an indistinct memory. Ten years, and now she no longer quite remembers the sound of her mother’s voice. “She finished it after she married my father.”

No, sometimes the arch of Haha-ue’s eyebrow at Chichi-ue when she sings ‘a thousand flavors’ had been positively wicked, and on one memorable occasion she’d chosen to sing ‘this mortal realm has a fox king’ instead of a thousand flavors.

There are fair few things in the world that could make Chichi-ue blush, but blush he had.

Soon, it will be her mother’s death day. Soon, it will have been exactly ten years since Haha-ue left this realm for a kinder one.

She smiles back, suddenly rueful about how much she’s unearthed in memory. “She liked to call it ‘The Mortal Realm Isn’t Worth It’”

But everything about this life is so very much worth the pain.

One only has to walk and see.

Lady Kiku leans across the table and picks up one of her hands, turning it over so that she could look at the palms. “Oh my, my youngest has cost you quite dearly, Kawaguchi-chan. At least allow me to offer you a bandage, and a meal?”

It is a test passed, though she does not know its parameters or how she has passed it.

“A letter?” she asks, voice suddenly hoarse. “To my father, to let him know that I am well.”

She is unwell, and very tired, but she clings to the hope that perhaps—

Perhaps Chichi-ue is well and alright. Perhaps nothing has happened to anyone when they could not find Izuna.

Perhaps, but her heart weeps and she does not know.

She falls asleep while hungry before lunch, laid out in a guest room that clearly seems to have been aired out quite recently, and rather hurriedly at that.

Perhaps the time she’d spent with Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku was so that someone else could find her a place to stay. Either way, she is exhausted enough to have to be roused for lunch by a young woman she can only assume is only a few years older than Chiba-san if she had to guess, even though her hair is more white with a faint tinge of blue than black. She too, wears mourning, full, bleached linen but a simple wooden hair stick.

Izuna had not ever worn mourning, but he’d been at work then, so it wasn’t appropriate to.

What else has he not told her about himself?

Quieter still, in her heart she places the loss as a son of Lord Tajima, because this woman is of the right age to be a daughter in law. Her husband then, is the one who has been lost.

Likely, one of Izuna’s older brothers, with Kaiyo-chan being her daughter.

“Hagoromo Miyuki,” the woman offers, after noticing her silent question. “You brought my fifth brother-in-law home.” Quietly Miyuki-san bows from the waist. “My family is in your debt, Kawaguchi-san.”

“No,” she hastens to get up, to make sure that Miyuki-san also straightens, and make herself at least slightly presentable all at the same time, which is rather hard when her shoes are halfway across the floor. “No, there’s no debt, please—”

She still does not have her shoes, but that is a small thing to pay for the watery smile that Miyuki-san offers her. “Kawaguchi-san—”

“Hisa.” She is not the matriarch of her family, and thus couldn’t possibly afford the -san suffix in conversation attached to her family name.

“O-Hisa-san,” this, this title is worse than the last, if only because at some point in her life she might be referred to as ‘Kawaguchi-san’ but the O prefix is only used for women who hold titles, either in their own right or because they are the daughters of lords.

She would never in her life be an ‘O-Hisa-san.’

She is no daughter of a great lord, merely a wealthy man — and here her heart stumbles because — Chichi-ue, she thinks, Chichi-ue please…be safe, I miss you, but her face does not change.

“Hisa-chan is alright, Hagoromo-sama.” Despite sleeping she is still...drained.

And sleep had done nothing for her worries or her now sore wrists and shoulders, scabs having formed on her fingers and palms where the reins had rubbed them raw the night before.

Miyuki-san sighs, looking at her. “Then you must call me Miyuki, no? It is only right and proper.”

And so thus, outmaneuvered, the two of them make their way to lunch.

There are two boys she does not recognize who join them at the table for lunch, one about eight or nine years old, the other still a toddler in child’s clothes, simply made, and clearly preserved from when either his elder brother was a boy about that size or another close relative.

Both wear white in their hair, ribbons wrapped around low ponytails.

Miyuki-san’s sons then.

When Izuna joins them, protesting at being carried to the table by his brother, he too, has a white armband.

The only one at the table who is not wearing mourning is her, still dressed in lilac, flowers of red and gold flashing in the light of the afternoon.

And she is out of place here, with the plain wheat noodles and tofu and fish soup, with the stir fried bean sprouts and bok choy greens, where salt seems like an uncommon form of luxury.

What Izuna had said to her once comes back to her now, though she had dismissed it the first time he’d told her.

Please don’t ask me to leave, Hisa-san. My clan...needs the money.

She did not understand then, how the house of a count, especially of a region as rich as Tohoku, could fall to such dire straits as to hire out a son to a merchant household without titles or old name.

But perhaps she understands that more now, white fluttering all about her, a single bowl of noodles placed before the placard of a man who has only lived thirty years.

Death is expensive, and grief even more so.

After lunch, the duty of entertaining her seems to fall back to Miyuki-san, even though a woman with three small children grieving a husband does not seem like the proper person to host a guest.

Grief is a private thing, and Miyuki-san seems to have set much in store by it, which makes this feel like even more of an imposition.

Home is the only place that one could be sure one is supposed to impose, and sometimes, not even then.

“I am so sorry you had to deal with the tile merchant earlier today.” Miyuki-san has taken her and the children out to the courtyard, her toddler son situated in her lap while Kaiyo-chan and her elder brother carefully recite their school lessons to each other, occasionally consulting their mother when a character is unclear or if they arrived at any dispute. “Honored Father-in-law said that we troubled you to take care of it.”

She smiles, her hands clasped together in her lap, aching still, and brittle. “Takahashi-shonin was quite rude.” No doubt, she knows, that Chiba Sahei-san would not be pleased to hear of how his name had been misrepresented far from home. For people without titles, there is only reputation and word of mouth to ensure a fair trial in court. “To be lying about his tile grade and yet selling it for such high prices.”

“So he really was lying about the quality.” Miyuki-san muses, while gently removing her son’s fingers from his mouth. “Kure-kun, we don’t try to eat our fingers.”

Hisa pauses for a moment, trying to ascertain if this is something she should push.

Guests, after all, do not push or comment on the quality of anything unless to compliment some aspect of the food of which the host is clearly and reasonably proud.

But she is already an unconventional guest in a strange land.

She pushes.

“Actually, there is something more about that…”