In the house of Suzuki Takahiro, there is much weeping. Or, it is more accurate to say that the courtyard of Aunt Ruqa contains much weeping.
In the front room, Suzuki-san paces back and forth threatening repudiation or divorce, while Chichi-ue sits idyllically drinking tea. Aunt Ruqa cries quietly in Hisa’s lap, and Hideyoshi kneels in the center of the room before his father’s pacing, in some vain plea for mercy.
Hiko leans against the doorframe, a shadow with peach blossoms stitched to his collar and sleeves.
Gently, Chichi-ue sets the teacup down and, as if waiting for a schoolchild to recite his lessons, looks up at Suzuki-san with a gleam in his amber eyes that Hisa recognizes as calculated.
“Takahiro,” Chichi-ue says lightly. “I’m feeling rather ignored.”
A dead silence falls on the center of the room as Suzuki-san rounds on Chichi-ue, his hand shaking as he points at Aunt Ruqa. “This poisoned serpent of a woman, she, she—”
Against her, Aunt Ruqa shudders.
“She has been your wife for nineteen years.” Chichi-ue looks up at Suzuki-san, the perfect mein of innocence, as if he had not caused the whole scene in the first place by providing the information that sent Uncle Nagamatsu and Uncle Ujimatsu to prison, which landed Aunt Ruqa in this whole mess to begin with. “Tell me Takahiro, has she ever been unfaithful?”
Silence, though Suzuki-san is still pointing in her and Aunt Ruqa’s direction.
“Has she not given you a son?”
“Yes, and a more ungrate—”
“Careful where you point your fingers, Takahiro. Or I might mistake your insults as ones you pay my daughter.”
With a huff, Suzuki-san lowers his hand. “Her brothers swindle a count? And she has the audacity to grace my door as though asking for sympathy?” Two steps, and Suzuki-san leans in close to Chichi-ue’s face, one man completely serene, as though a mountaintop in the clouds, the other a twisted mask of rage. “Tell me, Kawaguchi-san, if I do not divorce her, where do I put my face? Where do I put my life, and the lives of the rest of my household when Uchiha-sama comes calling for his account balance?”
“And why would Uchiha-sama concern himself with you?” Chichi-ue picks his tea back up, and examines the leaves within. “Takahiro,” he says as if mildly disgusted. “The tea’s gone cold.”
“Why wouldn’t Uchiha-sama concern himself with me?” Suzuki-san continues to work himself up into a fury. “I have this woman darkening my door. Who knows what sort of information those two have said about me? Or what information she might’ve told them?”
“Yes, yes,” Chichi-ue flaps an idle hand at Hideyoshi. “Tell the maid outside to bring us more tea will you? The tea’s gone cold.” Hideyoshi scrambles to do so.
Softly, Hisa smooths down Aunt Ruqa’s hair.
Her heart hurts.
When Haha-ue had been alive, Aunt Ruqa had more reason to visit their house. But with Haha-ue’s death, Aunt Ruqa had only a grieving child to use as an excuse to escape the boundaries of her own house, and back then…back then, she had yet to realize that not every man with a honorable surface could be considered honorable the whole way through.
When she was young, she’d thought only two faces existed, and that they presented the truth to the world.
With Hideyoshi gone, Chichi-ue turns back to Suzuki-san, a gleam in his eye. “Yes, what does your accountless wife know about what sorts of business dealings you’d be getting up to when your principle concubine Sayu holds the strings to her allowance? And what motive does a woman who only has a courtyard to her name have for destroying that courtyard?” Soft, like the undertow of the river, Chichi-ue continues onwards. “Unless, you think you’ve managed to offend her that much?”
Suzuki-san does not heed the current of the river. “Who knows what goes on in the mind of that woman?”
Chichi-ue smiles. “Well,” he beckons for Hiko, who had been lurking in the doorway, tall, sallow, with eyes that saw and ears that heard everything. “Bring in your papers, Takahiro, and we shall discuss the terms of divorce, shall we?”
Suzuki-san puffs up in fury. “You come to my house, Kawaguchi, you barely more than—”
“I believe,” Hiko interjects, drawing himself up to his full height, which looms over any average man the same way a crow looms over a sparrow. “We were discussing your terms of divorce, Suzuki-san.”
And the girl who’d married at sixteen is freed at thirty-five. Not without scars, or wounds, or nineteen years lost to a man who had never bothered to look at her and see her for the jade piece she truly is.
But she is free.
Chichi-ue pries Aunt Ruqa away from her husband with the hands of a silk reeler, gentle, yet so insistent that Suzuki Takahiro doesn’t quite realize what he’s lost until the moment Chichi-ue hands his wife of nineteen years up into a carriage and lets the curtain hanging fall behind her.
And if Aunt Ruqa’s nearly seventeen year old son goes with her, it is only because Hiko had smiled just a little too wide and the sight of that many teeth has spooked Suzuki-san, who isn’t used to the sort of river crocodile smile Hiko could employ when he wanted to.
“The guild?” Suzuki-san wrings his hands, before the carriage, standing out in the street where anyone might see.
For someone who seemed to care so much about face, he really had none.
Chichi-ue pauses for a moment, standing before his own carriage where he had forced Hideyoshi inside not two minutes ago, rearranging his sleeves as though there might be dust on them. “Oh, I assure you, the men of the guild will hear about the sort of shameful allegations you cast upon a woman of good standing.”
Chichi-ue does not gossip, but if anyone were to ask, and surely they would ask why he bothered to house his former sister-in-law in his own house when there is no longer any connection, and has not been for years — no connection except that of a daughter, a slip of a girl grown into a young woman now.
Chichi-ue does not gossip, but he hardly lies either. Any man who asked would receive a straight answer from him, and other men gossip.
Suzuki-san goes pale beneath his topknot.
Chichi-ue observes him for a moment, a level, measured look in his amber eyes, and turns away without another word. “Start the carriage,” he says to Tatsuo. “We’re done here.”
If she holds Aunt Ruqa tighter when they pull away, it is only because freedom has been a long time coming.
Aunt Hasuyo had spared Ima, the manager of her courtyard, to help Aunt Ruqa settle into the long empty southern courtyard though most of the settling process had been completed already by the time they arrived home with Aunt Ruqa and Hideyoshi in tow.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, I’ll see to it.” Ima hustles back and forth, pulling out chairs and waving frantically at the young men moving bags and boxes into the front room. “It is so good to see you again, Fourth Miss.”
Ima, who had once been chief among Haha-ue’s handmaids and has been more recently under Aunt Hasuyo’s employment, seems to have been tasked to manage yet another courtyard. How long she will be staying at this one, and if she will return to Aunt Hasuyo’s employment is unclear. After all, Aunt Ruqa had been her fourth miss once, younger sister to the woman she thought she would serve for all her days.
The only clarity is that she will not leave the household. Her roots here are too deep for that.
An ever careful woman who had done everything just right — married to her miss’s husband’s personal manservant, raised his niece as their only child, ever steady and dependable, the holder of all of her miss’s secrets — it had still not been enough to ensure an entirely perfect life.
Kimei spoke of her mother rarely, but with quiet joy, as a role model, as a pillar of strength and happiness, and they had all lived together, two sets of mothers and daughters in one courtyard until Haha-ue had died and Ima had been assigned elsewhere.
In a way, she concedes, Kimei had lost time with her mother as well.
Aunt Ruqa smiles back at her, tearful. “I, I haven’t heard anyone call me that in a long time.”
Ima smiles, self assured, comforting. “Well, you sit right down and make yourself at home, Fourth Miss. There’ll be no more moving for you if our master of the house has anything to say about it.”
“Only if you’d like to, Fourth Sister.” Chichi-ue looks around once. “It is a little smaller and shabbier than you are used to, and I will have to ask Tatsuo to come in and fix the window frames and reapply the oil paper, but such is not the fix of a day or so, still, I hope my hospitality does not offend.”
“Big Brother’s hospitality rarely if ever offends.” Aunt Niwa’s lighthearted joke sails in from the outside courtyard, and Aunt Niwa herself follows shortly after, arms open wide to embrace Aunt Ruqa. “Come have tea with me and Second Sister sometime, we invite Hisa-chan to lighten up the company so that our average age is not so dreary.”
She makes some protest at this, between childish and relieved, and everyone laughs.
And in the brightness of the sunshine, something is salvaged.
Hiko comes to find her in the middle of workshop seven, account book put away, steps unhurried. “Hisa,” he calls over the din. “Hisa, will you not take a break?”
She turns to him, in the middle of stirring a batch of pastel greens, making sure that the color is consistent throughout the dye lot. “Only if you will help me?” She makes sure to flash him her best pleading face, knowing that in the end, Hiko always caves to her demands, even if he stands firm in the beginning.
With a sigh, he comes to stand beside her. “Oh, Hisa,” he says, taking the metal stirring rod from her, and passing her his handkerchief so she could wipe her face. “Why do you always bite off more than you can possibly chew?”
He’d teased her of this when they were twelve and seventeen, and he teases her now, when they are nearly twenty one and twenty six.
“I don’t know,” she considers it. “Who is it that dares me to eat a whole chicken leg at once?”
“Just because it is a dare,” he sighs, “does that mean you have to fall for it every single time?”
She laughs, sitting down by the open fire to fan it more evenly. “I’m not the only one who falls for it.”
Hiko considers the cloth he is stirring, and smiles, amused. “It’ll be Mid Autumn soon.”
“And Aunt Ruqa will be with us, as will Cousin Hideyoshi.” Slowly, she sits there, fanning the flames. “How do you find Cousin Hideyoshi?”
“He is already seventeen.” Round and round goes Hiko’s hands, expression pensive. “And he has taken the loss hard, as is only natural.” Hiko pauses, as if to say more, but Aka hurries through the door.
“Hisa, Hisa, Kusakabe-sama’s body servant is here. He is holding a decree and it cannot wait.”
Curse her for wearing originally undyed linens splattered with confusing colors after a full day in the workshops.
Either way, Lord Fusamoto’s Suteo will not wait.
Suteo is standing in the center of her courtyard when she arrives, holding a scroll edged in gold silk the dragon motif dripping from the tassels.
She drops to her knees immediately, pressing her forehead to the stone.
Even in their workshops, they cannot make gold silk. Legally, they can make nothing gold except for thread, and even then, are not allowed to use dragons or phoenixes in their embroidery. Only four men in the entire world are allowed the dragon robes, and Lord Fusamoto of Chubu is one of them.
All the gold silk in the whole world it seems, came from inside the imperial city, from craftsmen in charge of the dragon robes.
Suteo clears his throat, and snaps the scroll open briskly.
“By the decree of Lord Kusakabe Fusamoto, the eighth imperial prince, His Highness the Prince of Harmonious Peace, Lord Administrator of Shunan, Count of Chubu, for her services to the clan of Kusakabe at the risk of her own life, he awards sixty acres of wooded land east of the Mujin River, and the Residence of Secure Glory in the Koedo district to Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san of Chubu.” He snaps the scroll shut. “So he decrees.”
For a moment, silence reigns. Silence reigns, and there is a roar in her ears like the anger of the river in the springtime.
She raises her hands above her head, palms up. “I thank His Highness for his magnanimous gift.”
Rarely does Lord Fusamoto use the courtesy titles granted to him ten years ago. For him to use them now, this decree had come directly from the imperial capital, somewhere higher up within the royal family than the son of a princess of second rank.
Suteo places the scroll in her upturned hands, finally able to drop the front of decree bearer. “The deeds to the properties are with me as well, O-Hisa-san.”
She shakes her head. “Just Hisa.”
Never in her life has she ever thought she would be anything more than Hisa-san, or perhaps Kawaguchi-san when, when such a thing no longer describes her father. O-Hisa sounds like the daughter of a lord, the O- prefix given to ladies of stature and name.
Suteo helps her up, a man with clear features, and dark eyes that the sunlight tinted with rings of gold. “O-Hisa-san, as my lord decrees.” But he smiles, warm, in much the same way as his liege lord.
When he leaves, she walks to her study, still wooden despite the warmth of the day, and slowly sits down, setting the imperial decree and the property deeds on her desk.
Is there a place in this household worthy of keeping this?
The dragons gleam, golden in the sunlight, but do not respond.
After the lanterns had been lit, after Chichi-ue has left her courtyard, still whimsically whistling the notes of One Cutting of Plum Blossoms — written by Kiyoteru, one of the most famous poetesses of the past hundred years, after everything, Izuna arrives in her courtyard, though this time he flips over the wall instead of coming through the door.
He lands in the garden, a dark clothed shadow, and it is only recognizing his face when he’d peered over the top of the wall that keeps her from screaming.
He has the grace to look abashed.
“How terrible,” she remarks, quietly, because Kimei had just gone in to fetch a cloak to protect her against the evening chill and likely wouldn’t be long. “Izuna-san, you’re being improper, visiting a young unmarried woman you are not related to by blood after dark.” The corners of her mouth tilt down in barely concealed laughter as she watches him make a face. “What would the poor folk of this refined city think?”
He huffs at her. “As if you care about what other people think.”
“I do actually.” She tilts her head to one side, staring up at the stars that are appearing.
There, the Cowherd.
There, the Weaving Maid.
And between them, a river of stars.
“You rarely give that impression.” He is equally quiet, feet making no sound as he comes to sit on the paving stones beside her. “I heard it is your birthday today,” he says, after another moment of quiet. “Though no one would tell me which one it is.”
“Asking after my age?” She does smile at this, still watching the stars. “Uchiha Izuna-san has been all sorts of improper behind my back, trying to discover what age I am.”
“Is it really such a secret,” he grumbles. “One that you must keep from me pettily?”
“Well,” she considers it, twirling the golden chrysanthemum she’d plucked earlier while dancing between her fingertips. “How old do you think I am? If you guess correctly I’ll tell you.”
He considers it for a moment. “Ageless.”
“Ageless?” She admits to amusement upon hearing this, for she had not thought to imagine herself as such. For what reason would one think so?
“Aren’t all fox spirits?” He sounds perfectly serious.
“You think I’m a fox?” She rises. “I admit I have not heard that one before.” She turns to him, still almost on the verge of laughter. “Though your silver tongue reminds me of one.”
This, he meets with a baffled silence.
“Let me ask you a question, Izuna-san,” and perhaps it is unkind to tease, because he is a serious man, and seemingly not used to teasing, but her spirits are more than good tonight. “How old are you?”
“You just said it was an inappropriate question.” He rises as well, a hand fiddling with something in his sleeve. “I—” He sighs. “There was something I wanted to ask you about Bear.”
And suddenly she is no longer in such high spirits. “Ask.”
“The toy boat,” the one that you bought “Saka says that you gave it to her daughter. That he promised to bring one back when he returned.”
Ah, so he knew Yushin’s family better than she’d first thought, if Saka would part with that information.
“I do what I can do.” She considers it, considers the spaces her hands are too small to fill, the burdens her shoulders are too slender to carry, and wonders what this world would’ve been like if the horse had thrown her instead. “It is not much, but money never is. A small thing, is it not?” She does not turn to look at him. “To replace the love of a brother, and a son, and a father and a husband.”
And yet one man is all these things that money cannot buy.
“Is that all you think you can do?” He asks her, once, suddenly raw and aching, as though experiencing something far more than what she has said.
She has not said much.
“What more is there to do?” All the acts people do for the dead are actually a show for the living. Once one has crossed the border between this world and the next, no show of love or filial piety will return the dead to life.
No matter how many tears she weeps or sticks of incense she lights, no matter how many hours she kneels in the shrine and begs for mercy, for one more moment, for the memory of what the dead looked like — enough time has gone by that she no longer quite recalls Anija’s face — they cannot be returned to this realm.
If it is only a matter of worship, only a matter of grief, if tears could move heaven and earth in that way, then she would have a mother, and her father would have four sons and no second daughter.
“Is that all you think you have done?” he asks again, voice gentler this time. “Because that’s not what I’ve seen.” He looks down, corners of his mouth twitching, thin lips and a frail heart, yet still beating. “Forgive me, I don’t—” and his tongue trips. “I don’t mean to wound. My words seem to lose their meanings when I speak to you. And take up some other sort of meaning instead.”
“You mean something else when you ask me these questions.” She does not know him as well as she thinks, this outside man with his careful words and serious face. Even if they are both two dolls Nuwa has fashioned out of clay.
Even if beneath their painted on colors, she has seen the kindred spirit in him.
They still paint their colors on differently, and expect each other to understand.
He smiles at this, edged with pain. “You always take them so cruelly.” As if you consider me cruel. He does not say, but it lingers in the air anyway.
“You speak cruelly.” She turns her face up to his, still standing among the chrysanthemum flowers, the moon a pale white high above them. “What am I supposed to take a knife as? Except an object meant to wound?”
And in the moonlight, the sharpness of his face seems more pained than cruel for he is not a cruel man, merely a careful one, unless it comes to words he says in anger.
“Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san,” he says, more to the gathering dark than he does to her. “You are also cruel to me. In all you choose to do. In all you choose to say. And everything you don’t.”
“And for that I apologize.”
“It is as much my fault, I suppose.” He holds a hand out to her. “What I want, is, as you say, inappropriate.” There is something on his palm, a wooden mandarin duck, brightly painted feathers and gently polished to a brilliant shine. “Happy birthday, Hisa-san. I did not intend to be upsetting.”
She comes to stand beside him. “You were hardly upsetting.”
She does not remark upon the symbolism of mandarin ducks — a pair represents lovers, often lover’s tokens especially from the city where he grew up — though she does hold it up to the light of the flower lanterns they are standing under to admire it. “The craftsman has a good eye.”
It had been lovingly made.
She wonders, indeed, for a moment, what he expects and what he hopes to mean, but nothing has ever been lost by playing obtuse.
“Do you,” and here he ducks his head, a boy, embarrassed. “Do you like it?”
“It is very pretty.” And if she chooses to miss how his expression crumples for the barest hint of a second before he straightens it again, well, it is only her due. “Thank you for thinking of me.” She turns to go in, passing him as she does so, their faces lit only by the light of the red lanterns above them. “And if you must know, I am hardly a fox. And thus, it is impolite for me to tell outside men what my age is.”
She is twenty-one tonight. And no closer to marriage than she was at fifteen.
But such things do not spoil with the passage of time.
Her mother had married at twenty-four, conventionally late for a woman, but her marriage had been a happy one.
Aunt Ruqa had married much earlier and borne the weight of a husband without patience or kindness for the nerves of a girl who had yet to see much of the world.
For women, what matters more is how the second half of a life is written. Maiden to madam, one must choose a husband well. Someone with money. Someone with reputation and status.
Someone one hopes will still be kind in fifty years.
When she steps inside, Kimei is waiting for her, a comb in hand to take down her hair.
“What did Uchiha Izuna-san want so late at night?”
“To wish me happy birthday.” She laughs. “And to ask what age I happened to be tonight.”
Kimei frowns, though her eyes are alight with mischief. “Oh,” she says “to be a shinobi concerned about the age of his employer!”
Still laughing, she sets the wooden duck on her desk before linking arms with Kimei on their way to the vanity. “Oh,” she says “to be the poor employer who does not want to admit she is turning into an old maid!”
Kimei bends over, a hand covering her mouth though that does not hide the laughing. “You?” she asks, dimples flashing. “You? Kawaguchi Hisa? An old maid?” Her handmaid takes the pins from her hair, freeing the black waves. “Never. Not even if you are eighty-four and still unmarried.”
“Ah,” she says, watching their reflection in the mirror. “That just means you admit if I am eighty-five and unmarried I would turn into an old maid!”
And if neither of them says anything else useful that night, it is because they laughed too hard to form coherent sentences.
She pays a visit to Chiba-san’s courtyard two weeks after her birthday, aware that with Chichi-ue’s birthday fast approaching, that the older woman wanted to speak to her.
Chiba-san has the tea set out when she and Kimei arrive, speaking quietly to one of her handmaids that Hisa does not recognize.
But then, she is less familiar with Chiba-san’s dowry servants than perhaps she ought.
It has been six years now, but she is still the most familiar with Sute, who spoke for Chiba-san’s courtyard more often than Chiba-san herself.
“Hisa-chan,” the older woman nods, offers her a seat and a cup of tea. Kokeicha, upscale in theory, but not terribly so, this particular batch more middle grade than others she’s tried. She is aware that Chiba-san can afford better, but perhaps like her love of mugicha, it is only taste, not wealth that inhibits the desire for anything more upscale.
“Chiba-san.” She nods behind her folding fan, “A thousand well wishes for your health.”
The moment freezes as Chiba-san judges her statement and finds it rings just as hollow as it did six years ago, when she was welcomed to the household. Hisa had welcomed her then, newly come of age at fifteen, the household staff arrayed behind her, and while she does not have the full staff behind her now, Kimei is enough.
“I thank you for them.” For another moment, all that is heard is the clink of the gaiwan and the swish of buyao.
Momo arrives with the pattering of little feet, dressed like a little peach doll in pinks and greens, pigtails swinging. “Neesan’s here!” She visits Chiba-san first, presenting her embroidery to her mother, smiling happily, round cheeks dimpled by her joy.
Chiba-san leans over, pressing her cheek to Momo’s, pointing out flaws and strengths in equal measure, voice even and gentle.
If nothing else, she is a responsible mother and a devoted wife.
If Hisa wishes that Chiba-san could be someone else’s mother and someone else’s wife, that is because she is fiery and uncharitable.
Her mother’s approval sought and acquired, Momo comes to visit her on the other side of the table. “Why’s Neesan visiting?”
“Chichi-ue’s having a birthday soon.” She tugs lightly on one of Momo’s pigtails. “You remember the time of year, little peach. Since he is the family patriarch, it’s only natural that everyone will throw him a party.”
It might not be a big party, but it will be an affair sure enough.
Her little sister’s mouth goes round, surprise and delight warring within her. “Is Chichi-ue’s birthday soon?”
“Yes,” she says lightly. “It will be his forty-eighth birthday soon.”
From the corner of her eye, she catches a sliver of surprise working its way across Chiba-san’s face, but it is carefully tucked away.
Odd, that a wife does not know the age of her husband.
Having been assured that she would have the seat of honor during the festivities — and Hisa gracefully acquiesces if only because only one of them is small enough to still fit in Chichi-ue’s lap these days — Momo happily follows Sute off to the outer courtyard.
Another silence falls upon them when the door closes behind Momo and Sute, a measured, weighing look in Chiba-san’s eyes. “She’s very happy here.”
“I assume she commands your full attention.” Momo-chan would not, in her courtyard, burdened as she is with the practicality of the dye houses, with the thousand and one cares and troubles a household concerns itself with.
But here, in the quiet courtyard of an unconcerned madam, her only child might have her full attention indeed.
“She does.” A hint of color high on Chiba-san’s cheeks as she raises her gaiwan once more. “But we are not here to discuss her.”
“No, we are not.” She taps her folded fan against the palm of her hand, thinking. “Your message said you wanted to discuss Chichi-ue’s birthday.”
“I am aware that he rarely celebrates the occasion, but I thought—”
“He used to.” A corner of her mouth tilts down as she stares at the vase in the centerpiece of the table, a single large chrysanthemum of deep red rising from it, and does not raise her eyes. “When I was a child, his birthday would open the estate. There’d be all sorts of friends.”
And when the party was over, Ima, who used to manage her mother’s courtyard, would herd both her and Anija off to bed, in the background, the sound of her mother’s laughter.
She has forgotten the sound.
But ever present.
Kawaguchi Yasutaro had been an open man before the death of his first and more beloved wife.
The woman who followed cannot compare.
“I thought,” Chiba-san continues, shaken but not diverted. “That perhaps this year we could hold a family dinner and invite your aunts.”
She considers it. The idea is not displeasing, because Chichi-ue had not considered travelling on business this year, preferring to leave it to Naoji, the gardener’s eldest son, who had stepped into many of Yushin’s roles over the course of the year though he was quieter and not dispositioned towards the same boisterous energy that the man everyone called Bear possessed.
The idea is not displeasing, but that it had come from Chiba-san’s courtyard, perhaps from one of the handmaids who would consider this a worthwhile way to get back into Chichi-ue’s attention and good graces displeases.
“I assume, then,” she twirls her folded fan around her fingertips, still thinking. “That the Big Madam has thought of everything?”
Chiba-san looks away for a moment, her hand gently gripping the table’s edge. “I had hoped the Second Miss would not mind if I organized it.”
And she is not so bereft that she cannot concede this.
“Have the party if you wish.” They are done here, and she rises. “I don’t understand why you thought you needed my permission, keibo. You are, after all, the big madam.”
They’d been speaking of something else over the course of dinner, the evening bringing with it an unseasonal bout of cold rain.
Perhaps that had been the first omen, because it had forced everything indoors, into Chichi-ue’s front study which he’d opened and allowed tables placed in, mostly bemused by the sudden interest of his wife than any other emotion.
But in a pause in the conversation, Chiba-san sets her chopsticks down, picking up her folding fan for a moment before setting that on the table as well, her hands clasped lightly together in lap. “May I ask you a question, Kawaguchi-san?”
Chichi-ue turns to her, in the middle of brushing a crumb of sugar away from Momo-chan’s face. “I don’t see why you must ask if I am open to answering questions. Surely past experience says that I do not mind it.” Momo’s face falls, looking back and forth between both of her parents, but Sute does not step in to whisk the littlest miss away.
“Kawaguchi-san, why did you marry me?” Underneath the table, Hisa sees her stepmother’s hands ball together, knuckles white, nails digging deep.
For a moment, Chichi-ue’s gaze flickers upwards, to the top shelf of his bookcase pushed against the opposite wall. A box of paintings lived up there, scrolled up and packed away when Chiba-san moved in. All the tigress and fox spirits, all the scenes of Lake Yatan, and an old oil paper umbrella laid across it.
“I thought perhaps,” Chichi-ue says, slowly, as if weighing his words carefully. “That it would make the house feel less lonely.”
“My father told me differently.” Underneath the table, Chiba-san’s clasped hands are shaking, white at the knuckle, bruised at the back.
“Oh?” There is a lightness in Chichi-ue’s tone, though he pats Momo-chan once atop the head and turns to face Chiba-san fully. “And what did Sahei say?” Still so light, but she hears the river’s undertow in his voice, the first warning sign of danger.
She does not understand.
Chichi-ue’s remarriage to the daughter of one of the friends of his youth…
Yes, Chiba Sahei-san is one of Chichi-ue’s friends.
But what did he have to do or say, what secrets would he have to tell his daughter of Chichi-ue’s motives?
“The truth is so ugly.” Chiba-san says, while staring straight ahead, amber eyes unseeing, as though frozen by the chill that has descended. “Did you really want me to tell everyone?”
Their entire family is here tonight, even Hiko, who had sampled a skewer of shrimp and decided to partake in the lamb stew instead.
All eyes are on their table now, all watching, stunned into silence.
Momo looks back and forth between her parents one more time, and starts sliding off of her seat. “Haha-ue?” she asks, childish voice loud in the roaring silence. “Haha-ue, what do you mean?” The silence drips, like ice on the river cracking in the springtime. “Haha-ue, what’s ugly?” She grabs onto Chiba-san’s skirts, tugging, though she does not get a response from the woman who even now stares at Chichi-ue, equal parts fear and horror in her eyes.
“Well,” Chichi-ue says, as he sits back down, languid, and sets his chopsticks down. “Let’s hear what Sahei has to say about our marriage.” The river shudders, though its surface is the same as ever.
Whatever this is, Chichi-ue does not want to hear it either.
And though she is curious, though she has always wondered, though she, even now, burns with the desire to know, what price this would come at she doesn’t know.
On the other side of the table, by Chiba-san’s side, Momo starts to cry.
It comes at the price of a little sister.
It comes at the price of a disgraced mother.
“Enough.” She hears herself say, already rising to walk around the table. “You both have sent Momo into hysterics, acting as you have.”
She takes one of Momo’s hands. A little girl with puffy red eyes — a little girl crying in the family shrine, a little girl crying at the stone faced idol called mother — is it not enough?
Will it ever be enough?
But for the two people with their gazes locked on each other, it is not enough.
“No,” Chichi-ue says, almost flippant though the river current in his voice says it is anything but. “Let’s hear what Sahei had to say about this.”
You’re scaring Momo, she almost says. You’re frightening me.
But she knows Chichi-ue’s personality.
Chiba-san hadn’t pressed him hard enough last time, but this time she’d tried to corner him by asking him in front of an audience.
But try to corner a fox, and he disappears like dust in the wind. In his own domain, as master of the house, there are few things that Chichi-ue does not control. And though he has spent little time angry in recent years, what had happened in the capital and its aftermath had awakened the long dormant fire in him once more.
Whatever it was this time, Chiba-san had not thought it through.
Her face, round like the moon, paler than undyed silk, gleams with a thin layer of sweat in the candle light.
Momo buries her face in Hisa’s skirts, still crying quietly, and she wraps her arms around her little sister.
For all that she has wished Chiba-san gone, it is only at this moment that she remembers Momo. Guilt strikes like a serpent, teeth dripping venom.
For personal gain, with personal wishes, but the little girl crying deserved so much more.
“My father told me of his near bankruptcy seven years ago.”
How tightly had Chiba Sahei-san kept such news? She’d been familiar with most merchant houses in Shunan and their relative standings ever since she’d come of age, and even though she had been barely fifteen at the time, the stain of bankruptcy would have travelled far indeed.
That she had not heard…
“I married you, and it disappeared.”
How tightly had Chiba Sahei-san kept such news? Tightly enough that his only daughter did not know of it.
“That sounds like an accusation, wife.”
But that is what daughters are good for, isn’t it?
To pay their father’s debts.
“I have never been your wife.” Underneath the table, even clasped so tight, Chiba-san’s hands shake, white at the knuckle and increasingly white at the wrist. “How else am I to explain?” she asks, a woman, betrayed. “I saw the numbers. A million ryo. And my dowry. Was that my asking price? Did it give you joy to buy me?”
A father’s debts.
Suddenly, Hisa understands.
As though the fog had been lifted, she understands.
Why Chichi-ue will not put her aside.
Why he has never sought other sons.
Why though he had stopped wearing white, he had never stopped mourning.
Softly, Chichi-ue laughs, a bitter, bitter sound. “So now that Sahei has what he wants, he leaves me with the cruel reputation.” She has never seen this look on Chichi-ue’s face before, the wildfire behind his eyes, the storm that threatens to drown. “Did you ask him whose idea it was? What proud fool would not accept a loan?”
The debts of an old friend. A grieving widower. A man, who, out of pride or out of greed, would not accept a loan and instead chose to barter a daughter.
And Chichi-ue would never leave a friend behind to bear bankruptcy.
Ice, on the river cracking. “I was not the one who sold you. I was not the one who would rather leave his family homeless. Tell me, Natsu, what is it that you blame me for?”
Slowly, her stepmother unclasps her hands, finger by finger, breath by breath. “That you wouldn’t tell me the truth unless I forced you. Unless I angered you enough until you forgot that you swore you’d take it to the grave.”
Across the table, Chichi-ue’s eyes go wide, as if realizing what he had just admitted, caught between admiration and a horrified guilt.
A secret seven years buried, and a woman who had forced the truth from him.
Slowly, Chiba-san bows her head. “I know that you love her. And that you love your own daughter. What man wouldn’t? And perhaps, I was a fool to think that there might be a corner of your heart you might spare for me.” And here she draws a breath, already halfway to a sob. “I had always wondered why you could not. But I understand now.” Woodenly, she rises. “Thank you for having me, Kawaguchi-san. I’ll see myself out.”
Chichi-ue catches Chiba-san by the wrist. “Natsu,” he says, suddenly rueful once more. “Why?”
“Flowers grow where they are planted.” Her stepmother takes a shuddering breath, but does not pull away. “But they die where they are planted too.”
“I have wronged you.” Chichi-ue breathes out slowly. “In many ways, worse than Sahei has.” Silence follows. “If it is my respect and attention you want, you have it. If it is my heart…” Chichi-ue smiles, more pained than anything else. “Time,” he admits at last. “I will try.”
Far away, there is the scent of incense and the sound of laughter, joyful, like the silver bells Haha-ue wore in her hair.
“That is all I ask of you.”
It is winter again, and the flower lanterns are lit in her courtyard, though that means very little since the light steals away early during this time of year.
And Izuna appears, though this time he has taken the walkway and braved Aka’s disdainful glance as he passed.
It is a warm evening, so she sits on the wooden walkway winding along the side of her building, watching the wind in the garden, resting for a moment from the day.
So much has changed, and yet very little has changed at all.
“Would you like a seat?” She turns her face up to his, the sharp line of his jaw, the hesitance in his eyes.
“You don’t mind this time?” He pauses for a moment, but she gestures for him to sit.
If he’d been Hiko, she wouldn’t’ve even had to say.
For all that they are not related, she and Hiko are family in a way that she could claim for few people.
“We cannot always tease the shinobi, can we?” she asks, only half teasing.
He grumbles at this, his hands loosely curled, forearms rested against his legs. “I didn’t realize I was so amusing.”
She sets her chin on one of her hands, lightly tapping her open fan against the bridge of her nose. “Aren’t you always?”
He huffs at this. “I came to say goodbye.” For a moment, she forgets and worries about what sort of thing would take him away for good. “For the new year,” he clarifies, though his mood does not lighten at the mention of his family. Or, indeed, at the approaching holiday.
“You don’t look forward to it.” It is improper to ask, but there is a storm heavy on his face, a shadow weighing down his shoulders, and she realizes that despite living for a few days at his house, she does not know much about his family.
And yet…she asks. “Why?”
He swallows, quiet for a long time, and she thinks perhaps, she has overstepped and offended him.
“I am my father’s youngest son.” The words are soft, as though echoing in a deep well. “It has been a year and a half since my eldest brother died and my fourth brother became the heir to the estate.”
Three elder brothers gone then, for various reasons she has yet to learn. A year and half.
It has been a year and a half since he arrived, and never once has he worn mourning while at work, far from home, among a people foreign to him.
She sets her fan aside, and gently reaches out to squeeze his closest hand. “It must be hard.”
He smiles, but his eyes are sad and far away. “I am used to it, Hisa-san.” And yet, she knows no one ever gets used to grief.
“We may learn to bear it well,” she thinks back to the way that Hiko never speaks of his early childhood spent in the capital living the goddess of mercy knows how, “But we are hardly used to it.”
We shouldn’t have to be, she thinks, even though all the truths of this world are written in blood, bought and paid for with pain.
“Maybe,” he says watching the dying light, the dying season, the frost of age creeping onto the year. “I have seen so many die. I should be used to it.”
I have killed so many, the defeated line of his shoulders seems to say. Shouldn’t I be used to it?
She has not the hands to hold this grief, not the shoulders to carry this weight with him.
“He is your brother.” Nothing replaces the love of a brother. Not money, not titles, not all the joys of paradise.
All the pleasures of their poor mortal realm could not make any one person’s love interchangeable with another’s.
“And he will always be your brother.”
With the softest of shudders, he leans his head against her shoulder. “Will he?”
“Being born of the same roots, why should we hold grudges against each other?” Whatever you are so afraid of being blamed for, so afraid of losing, you never can, and you never will lose it.
He laughs wetly at this. “Sō Shoku. I didn’t know civilians quoted him.”
A poet from the warlord era, during the years of unrest before the establishment of the dynasty. A younger brother, a brilliant military man, lied to and betrayed on all sides, never to hold office.
The Seven Step Quatrain comes from one such struggle, of being the younger brother to a paranoid warlord. He’d died young, of illness at age 41, and the tragedy of a great man forgotten in wine and depression echoed down the ages.
She assumes now that she’s thought about it, that he had to have been a shinobi, because in previous centuries, shinobi had made up the backbone of the military, brilliant generals and statesmen, and perhaps too, poets like Sō Shoku.
“He was a poet, of course we quote him.”
“He was a shinobi, never trusted.” Izuna shudders once again. “And now the Sō Clan is gone.”
“Most of the warlord clans are.” Of all the nobles who now have lands and titles, only the imperial clan of Kageyoshi had been warlords in their own right nearly five hundred years ago, when the warlord period was in its height. The others, scholar and shinobi all, had been vassals.
“I dream about his death.” Ah, they are speaking of Izuna’s brother again, his eyes closed, lashes dark against a pale face. “All of his family there, except for me. I couldn’t go.”
“You were away?” To have missed the death is a heavy pain indeed.
“No.” And the word could almost be a moan, the rattle of air in a drowning man’s lungs. “I was hiding in the abandoned mineshaft at the base of the mountains. I—” he stumbles, nearly cries, shaking like a reed in a gale. “I couldn’t watch. I thought maybe—”
“If you didn’t see it, he wouldn’t leave you.” She knows that feeling, knows it in the way she begged Anija not to leave her. But I am so tired, Hirin. I am so tired, and I hurt so much. And he had left her. He could not stay. “But he did, and you must live with that.”
She does not know why or how his eldest brother died, but she can hazard a guess that the fighting between shinobi is cruel, and it takes and it takes and it takes, good and bad, sinner and saint, in the end, how long a man lives is written in the book of lives when he is born.
No one can outrun heaven.
His face crumples. "He left. He left. He left." And he cries like a broken boy, tears hot against the lavender silk. "He would not wait for me. He would not wait. I could not make him wait."
Slowly, she wraps her arm around him. “It was not because he didn’t want to.”
“He thought I was punishing him. He—” he chokes, for half a minute all he does is shudder. A year and a half. Has he ever told someone about this before, this crushing weight on his heart that threatens to tear him to pieces? But then, who would he have asked to hold this for him for even a moment? “He didn’t know I was afraid.”
No, he had no one to ask to listen to him, to his reasons of why and wherefore, to understand that it was not disrespect and irreverence that kept him away from his brother’s deathbed.
“You played the qin for him, ‘Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute.’” Torn between duty and love, between honor and compassion. She sees it now, having not understood the look on his face before when she asked him who he missed so late at night.
“He taught me to play the qin,” he says, quieter now, eyes still closed.
He is a careful man, most always contained despite the storm beneath his placid surface.
What must he think of her, to tell her such things? To let her hold his soul up to the lantern light and see the parts of himself that he considered most ugly?
She does not know.
The night deepens, and he cries until he has no more tears to cry, falls asleep while still leaning against her shoulder, and she holds him, sitting there until the lanterns go out.