Sorry for the delay, I’ve decided, in this draft, to change some pretty major things, and this is the divergence point, which naturally required a rewrite. Updates might slow down a bit to once every 2 weeks as I slog through them.
“Pilgrims pack their things,
their faith is commendable.
You stay in taverns.
The ivy that grows outside,
Grows strong because of your care.
She folds Hensei’s letter into a simple, locked triangle. He will recognize it as a mountain fold, and attaches to it a small, shiny pebble with some string. She writes more letters to the others that were present in town that day, after Kimiyasu reminds her. The tenor places her as a demure young girl taking uncertain steps, yet the humor is in the possibility that she knows more. She hopes they will be well received. Finally she writes a letter to Tsubasa Changfu, the last in the list of names from her Father through Kimiyasu.
“A single swan sings,
Praised by the one watching.
Empty sake cups.
Best to speak of what is known,
To those who would listen most.
She folds the letter into a swan, and to it attaches a stick of temple incense. The subtle message shouldn’t scare him off, but perhaps, Kaori hopes, force him to consider whether or not his undue interest in her presents a problem of etiquette. Although… she wouldn’t say he wasn’t handsome…
“Sister?” Kimiyasu enters. “I waited a few minutes after knocking, but you didn’t respond. Are you all right?”
Kaori turns around. “I’m sorry sister, I was writing letters, I didn’t hear you.”
“Shall I go then? I don’t want to interrupt.” Kimiyasu takes stock of the letters, folded and ready to go. She looks at the one that Kaori was tying. “Purity and loneliness? Is that for Tsubasa Changfu?”
“Is it too obvious?”
“From what Father said of the way he behaved towards you? Not at all. I think you’ve done…” Kimiyasu stops herself from saying surprisingly, “Well.”
“I would hope for excellent. I was unsure if Father had noticed or not, but since he did not respond as I expected, I presumed he hadn’t.”
Kimiyasu smiles at her sister. “We all hope for excellent, and since the only thing I have to go by doesn’t include the verses within, I’m certain you’ve managed to reach it, if not beyond. I hope you weren’t too hard on him though? Certainly the beginning of a correspondence is also the hardest. You want to make sure he is not chastised into sending you letters through our Father.”
Kaori shakes her head. “At least, I don’t believe so. I would certainly hope he doesn’t scare easy, but I have a feeling there’s more steel underneath the silk than Father and I perhaps give him credit for. There’s something about him.”
“Mother said his clothing was off color?”
Kaori pulls back just a touch and squints at her sister. “I didn’t think mother had noticed.” She tilts her head. “Which is silly really, when has Mother not noticed someone’s clothing? It wasn’t upsettingly off, just a couple of shades too light to be appropriate for the season, or his station.”
“As though perhaps he is a little forgetful and left it to bleach in the sun last summer?”
“As though he does not have a wife to choose the correct colors and fashion something for him on a regular basis.”
“How is that different from what I said?”
“That’s what you like about him though, isn’t it?”
“The off-color clothing?”
“The fact that he’s not certain about how to belong.”
Kaori turns back to her writing desk. Sometimes her sister’s wit can be a little too sharp, too quick. If words were swords, Kaori was certain Kimiyasu would give her Father a fair challenge.
“That was sharp, sister. You’ve cut to the heart of it.” Kaori has not turned back to her.
“I’m not sorry, Kaori. It is good that you are finding an attraction in your memories of him especially if… but be careful not to… well, you do have a tendancy to over-dramatize things, little sister.”
“I do not.” Kaori responds, her bottom lip jutting out as she fires the comment back over her shoulder.
“I did not say it was a fault. Just something to be aware of. If Tsubasa is to be a candidate for marriage, then it is good that you are discovering feelings for him. But potential and action are as yet very separate, and you must be prepared for either eventuality. At any rate, you are young and an artist, you are not expected to know yourself, you are expected to explore the arts and through them learn of yourself. But everyone likes knowing they aren’t alone, either in their manner of appreicating off-color clothing, or in their feelings.” There is a pause, filled with the evening notes of songbirds. “Shall I take these to be delivered through post?”
“If you would be so kind, Kimiyasu. I should get ready for dinner. Thank you, sister.”
“For reminding me of these letters, for these illuminating conversations of ours. For being my sister.”
“Your welcome, Kaori. And thank you for much of the same.” Kimiyasu leaves, carrying the seven letters with her.
After she leaves Kaori has time to stop and listen to the songbirds. She wonders about Tsubasa, about what her sister has said. She cannot deny that her heart beats ever-so-slightly faster when she sees him, or that she is excited to know his response; to correspond with him. However… Kimiyasu is right, and for a brief moment, the crushing weight of being a concubine bears down on her and forces her to sit back in her chair. What would she do? How would she help her sister? Would she still have time for art? Kaori shakes her head and grinds more of the inkstone with a little less water. She changes her brush for something thicker and begins putting it to the paper, outlining mountains and rivers in weighty, bold lines. She knows it should be lighter, even just a touch, but the goal is to bring her peace, to bring her the stability and solidarity of this mountain valley. Soon she is adding the colors, the greens of grass and pink of flowers. Along the sky she writes a simple poem:
“Soft, loamy, clay riverbed,
Only finite streams can join.”
Kaori stares at the paper, still wet and heavy. In the morning, when it is dry, Kaori takes the picture and rolls it up. Tying it shut with another piece of paper, she places it gently into the embers in the fireplace, and with her fan, relights it. She can hear her Father’s voice from the first time her showed her this:
“This is how I am strong, Kaori: I learned to burn away my weakness.”
Kaori and Kimiyasu bounce along in the cart in the rising light of the day. Trying to keep her sister’s mind engaged in things other than the recent news, Kimiyasu asks her for details about Hensei’s guests, their father and the poetry, she asks her for her verse from the poem; whether or not Kaori remembers it, which she does.
“I can’t help notice but an outpouring of description about this Tsubusu.”
“Tsubasa.” Kaori corrects her sister without thinking; her fan moving quickly. “And its nothing… or I should say, in a field of barren grass, its easy to focus on the singular flower.”
“You don’t say…” Kimiyasu’s arched eyebrows on the other hand… Kaori looks forward down the road. “He’s just someone I met.”
“Someone our father introduced you to.”
“I don’t see why that should matter. At any rate, Tsubasa is a foreigner, from some unknown land, I doubt we’ll see him again.”
Kimiyasu watches her sister closely. “Mother tells me Uncle came from a distant province.” Kaori does not move her head, but her eyes flick to the corner towards her sister.
The two of them arrive at the red-painted wooden gate along the road to town. The songbirds, having wintered here in the valley, are quiet in the overcast light of the early afternoon. Kaori and Kimiyasu get off the cart and proceed through the gateway and into the temple grounds. The diffuse sunlight dampens the vibrant colors of their clothes, as the cracked, dry air seeps through their layers.
The path towards the temple is lined with chestnut trees, bare at this time of year, their seeds long since taken by the birds. White stone paving lines the small avenue towards the main building, visible only barely from the gateway as a small, single-story construction made of wood and rice paper. Kaori and Kimiyasu walk slowly. The gravity of the place demands silence, even if the monks do not necessarily require it.
“Look Kaori,” Kimiyasu whispers. Kimiyasu points towards a line of prayer papers strung over the path between too trees. On top of the prayer’s white papers and black ink, a small songbird sits. Even though the songbird is dusty yellow-brown, the sky behind it is a pale, almost-white gray, the thread is a simple twine darkened to almost black from the wetness of the air. Kaori smiles. “’Even the darkest winter day holds many colors for those who wish to see them.’”
Kimiyasu nods. “Its a good omen Kaori, you should pray for guidance. Maybe this songbird will sing your sorrows to the Heaven and bring you wisdom.”
Kaori also whispers back, “A clear answer would be nice, but Father always taught us to depend on our judgment. That if we remained pure of heart and noble of character and virtue we would always know the answer, no matter how confusing the road may be.”
A monk, dressed in the orange robes of his order, appears from between the chestnut trees that line the path. The girls stop. He bows to them and they bow back.
“Forgive me if I startled you, young ladies. I was tending to the landscape on the other side of the trees, and everything is so quiet that I could not help but hear you. Your Father sounds like a wise man, and yet here you find yourselves.”
Kaori and Kimiyasu look at each other. As if to punctuate the strange, almost magical air quickly settling around them, the songbird chirps out a few notes. When the eyes of Heaven lie upon one, the only acceptable answers are to laugh or to cry, so the two girls laugh. Their fans come out simultaneously, in the same motions, as they take the opportunity to giggle soundlessly behind them. When they have composed themselves they turn back to the monk who addressed them.
“Would you deign, honored monk, to lead us to the well, where we might purify ourselves before meditating in the shrine?” Kimiyasu asks the monk.
“Of course, right this way.” He turns, his motions fluid, trained in the disciplines of temple life.
The monk leads them to a well just outside what can now be seen as a main building for the shrine. The two sisters wash their hands, drawing back their sleeves, washing first one hand and then the other, letting the water drip down to purify the ladle between hand-washings and before replacing it into the well. The monk watches, his attentions both present and distant, contemplative even during such simple acts. When they are done and they turn back to him, he speaks again. His lack of whispers helps to ease through the seriousness of place affecting the two girls.
“Where would you like to meditate?”
Kimiyasu quirks her head to one side delicately. “Do you have an opinion, honored brother?”
“I think wisdom is found in peace.”
“If peace is found within, then yes. Otherwise you must find the peace that will tame the wild soul.”
“And where does a soul go when it must be tamed?”
“’Soul and mind must flow like water, there they find peace.’ A troubled soul finds peace among the trees. A troubled family finds peace within the past.”
Kaori inserts herself into the conversation with a small nod. “And a soul troubled by family?”
The monk smiles. “A soul troubled by family finds peace in the lands of its ancestors. You are the Inaba children, are you not?”
Kimiyasu straightens. “We are…” her statement still implies a question.
“I was born to the Akimura family. Though I may be a monk, I have lived in this valley all my life. What seems like a lifetime ago, I played often with your brother in these very hills. There is a place, not far from here, that is still part of the temple. I would be happy to show it to you?”
Kaori nods. “You have been much help, but we would not wish to keep you from your duties.”
“The greatest of our duties is in service to our fellows, I would be honored.”
Kimiyasu bows. “If you insist, honorable brother, we would be happy to see your wisdom.” Kaori nods, and the monk leads the two of them around the side of the main building.
Kaori spends much time sitting in the garden, despite the slush and snow. When it gets too cold or too wet she stares at the cherry tree from her window, wet black boughs against a gray sky. Her writing desk is bare, even though she grinds the ink-stone every time she sits down and then doesn’t use it. It is Kimiyasu who comes to her first, after three days without one of Kaori’s spontaneous poems that the family is grown accustomed to. She next to her on the cold stone bench, wrapping an old quilt around the both of them. It was made for winter, from scraps of wool and silk, its chambers thick to bursting with cotton, the colors all harmoniously arranged so that it spirals gently from a cool green to warm purple. The wind blows the clean scent of icy air and frozen ground around them. For a time, Kimiyasu simply stays inside the blanket close to her sister. Finally, as she can feel the bone-chill of the stone seeping through even the thick quilt, she speaks without looking at her sister.
“Sluggish black water,
even fountains flow in circles
outside of winter.”
Kimiyasu waits for a response verse from her sister. With no response other than Kaori’s glance in her direction, Kimiyasu continues: “We’re worried about you, sister.”
Kimiyasu’s fan comes out, the blanket slipping down her shoulder, and points at her sister’s obvious untruth. “I’m not so sure. You spend most of your day out here in the cold, staring at the frozen pond. Mother worries that you’ll get sick if you keep this up for much longer.”
“She gave me a lot to think about, I’m thinking about it.”
“Father didn’t want to give you a choice.” Kaori looks at Kimiyasu, inadvertently pulling the quilt more around herself. “He said that this sort of decision should be theirs to make in your best interest. Having lived through it, Mother argued vehemently that you should be given a choice. Father did not believe you were strong enough.”
“Maybe he was right. I don’t know what to do anymore. Both of my choices are right answers, in a way. But they cannot both be.”
Kaori looks at her sister before repeating her father’s words. “’The path of virtue is clear to the virtuous.’”
Kimiyasu shakes her head. “That doesn’t say anything about choice. Or what to do when two virtuous options present themselves.”
Kaori’s brow furrows. “No, but that’s what Father always said to me when I had to make choices…”
“Perhaps, then, what you need is a different opinion. Father will not always have the answers. You must learn to interpret the verses for yourself, in the context of your own life, dearest sister. Come let us go to the temple, the changing scenery always helps when I must puzzle out a vexing situation.”
Kaori smiles slightly at Kimiyasu. “I fear I would do much the same thing at the temple as I am doing here, sitting and staring, lost in my own mind. Or worse, distracted by the colors there at this time of year.”
“But there you will have the wisdom of the place and the austerity of the monks to guide you.”
Kaori has no response for her sister’s seemingly infallible logic.
“That settles it then,” Kimiyasu claps her hands and Mikan comes after a short while. “Mikan, have one of the others prepare my cart. Kaori and I are going to visit the temple.”
“Of course. Oh, Kaori.” She looks at the older woman. “Your mother wishes to tell you the fabric has arrived from town.” Kaori nods, and Mikan continues towards the front of the house.
“Sister, I should get to work on the clothing I’m to make, I know—”
“That I mean well?” Kimiyasu sighs. “I think you would try and get distracted, or worse yet, make so many mistakes you’ll ruin the fabric. You need time to still your mind before you begin the project Kaori. Isn’t that what Father always told us? That we should begin our works clear of mind and spirit, that we might give full attention and full… what was it he used to say?”
“The better to give our projects full attention to the spirit of their purpose.” Kaori supplies the missing answer for her sister.
“Yes that, now go, grab your coat, and come with me to the temple. I will not discuss the matter further.” Kimiyasu looks rigidly into the pond. Kaori opens her mouth a few times, and realizing her sister is serious, gets up to go and choose a coat, and possibly do up her hair. For the first time in three days, Kaori’s mind turns to the simplicity of dressing appropriately to go outside and sheds itself of the choice her mother gave her.
Kimiyasu stares at the recently raked furrows in the snows of the garden, subtly reflecting the overcast gray sky, until Mikan comes to tell her the cart is ready.
“Do you think our Father asks too much of Kaori?”
“I would not presume to know Huiren’s actions.”
Kimiyasu looks over at Mikan, one eyebrow delicately raised. “And yet… you refer to him by first name and very obviously have an opinion on the matter, or you would not have been watching from the overhang.”
Mikan nods. “Well of course I do, child. I helped raise the boy. That does not mean that even our families cannot be mysterious, full of hidden depths, or that we do not worry about the well-being of our charges. Just that, as the chick that is stuck in its shell, sometimes we must let things be.”
Kimiyasu nods. “I am too young to ignore my sister’s hardships. But I hope I can help her find her own answers.”
Mikan shuffles towards the doorway that will lead her towards the warmer kitchen, she finishes the conversation over her shoulder. “Then I have raised you to be a good sister.”
Kaori and her mother sit at the small table in Kaori’s side of the house, its a simple affair made from local pine, handed down in Katai’s family. A few candles give light to the room as well as the faint scent of honey. The rest of the family retired reluctantly, Weili stiffly, and Kimiyasu with a look that Kaori could only describe as hopeful and scared all rolled into one. Her mother pours tea for both of them. Kaori smells the faint notes of mint, rose hips and lemongrass. She sips slowly, calmly. Her movement is smooth, but the water still shivers slightly from it. Katai’s movement is fluid, continuous; the water in the teacup does not even know it has left the table.
“Do you remember your Aunt Chochin? On her last visit you were fairly young.”
“Vaguely. I remember her as a happy woman who always smelled of tea and herbs, but if you asked me what she looked like then I would not be confident in my description. Why?”
“Did you know she was married at your age?”
Kaori sips her tea slowly. Her mother does not speak without purpose. Its the one thing her Mother made absolutely certain to teach her: even in idle chatter there is meaning.
“I did not, Mother.”
“It was before the war. Everyone was in a state of… waiting. As my younger sister, Chochin and I would have been married to the same husband, if he could support it, but our Father did not want that.”
Kaori’s fan comes up in front of her face, her eyes are wide. Katai is suggesting that Kaori’s grandfather would be guilty of rebelliousness. Kaori continues listening, even as memory conjures up her father’s voice. By tradition, the family was everything, one listened to the word of the Father and acted in accordance with it. By extension, the word’s of a Father’s father, and further back, held more and more weight, and so traditions were made, breaking with tradition was equal to open rebellion. If you could not be trusted to follow the word of your family, what trust would anyone have for you to succeed at your other obligations?
“He did it because he was greedy, and the spirits dealt with his rebellion. However, since he wanted a separate husband for Chochin, against tradition, he had to find a Matchmaker to find someone suitable for her. So he went to the Matchmaker where we grew up. For an entire season the Matchmaker tried to find someone. Our Father carefully proposed the idea to a number of his friends, always in ways that could be retracted if they proved to value tradition more than friendship, as they should. None of them would give the idea any sort of merit or even very much recognition.
“Eventually, our Father was ready to give up, especially since my wedding day was quickly approaching. Your Father and I had our first and second meetings, and suddenly the Matchmaker came to our house. She said she had found the perfect husband for Chochin, who had always been interested in tea and aromatic herbs. Our father was elated, but both Chochin and I were aghast. But we did as we were told, I should say despite the protestations of your Father, Kaori. And he and I were married while Chochin and her husband went through the ceremonies.”
“I remember Chochin being fairly pleasant when she was here though, and Uncle also. The two… complemented each other.”
“They do. Your Uncle owns several tea farms and processing facilities, and even though he proposes the work is his—”
“As is proper.”
“—the true genius is your Aunt. She chooses the leaves, mixes the proportions of herbs and samples every batch. It is her tea that stocks our house right now. Well, a fair mixture of that and local varieties your Father insists we carry for your education.”
Kaori shifts uncomfortably. “I don’t understand, Mother. This whole story seems to end quite well for everyone involved. But should not Aunt Chochin and her husband be living in dishonor? Why does anyone listen to what they have to say, or trust their business?”
“It does present a conundrum, doesn’t it. On the one had, since our Father broke with tradition and your aunt didn’t do anything about it, your grandfather’s family is in disgrace. However, your Aunt and I are no longer part of his family, should we be held accountable? Your aunt works, and works hard, I might add, outside of her home, and thus should be disgraced, since everyone knows you can’t work outside the home and take care of the home. And yet… her very business is her reputation.” Katai’s fan waves back a stray lock of hair that has come forward from the tilt of her head. “And even though everyone knows, no one says anything, or really judges her based on that fact. She is a woman who’s work is judged based on her merit, not her birth or her status currently, or even the past of her father.”
“I can appreciate being judged on merit,” Kaori’s fan movements are erratic, not so much towards her, but past her, trying to blow away the sudden burst of daydream. “But you and Father have raised us to adhere to tradition in all that we do.”
“Your Father has raised you that way in the name of the arts, which are traditions in and of themselves. I have raised you to adhere to tradition in what you present to the world outside.”
“That does not remove the fact though that Aunt Chochin went against the will of the ancestors, with your help no less.”
“And what sprang from that is the greatest beauty.”
Kaori’s fan stills, and she sets it back into the pocket in her sleeve. Her shoulders slump slightly as she rests her elbows on her knees. Outside the lanterns sway lightly in the nocturnal breezes, inside a cloud of aromatic scents has risen to encompass both of them. It toys with Kaori’s nose, further distracting her from what her mother has said; even still Kaori knows she has lost this round of wits. “I am now thoroughly confused about where this is going, Mother. My mind has tangled my suppositions and assumptions while waiting for this conversation to start with what has already been said and what has not been said. Please, explain what you wish of me.”
Katai sighs, likewise places her fan in her sleeve, and looks at her daughter. It is rare that Kaori admits defeat, but family can do that with one another. At least her mother certainly wants her to feel that. “Would you, given the opportunity, adhere to the traditions of marriage or instead adhere to the propriety of reverence to your parents and ancestors?”
Kaori’s head pulls back as her eyebrows scrunch together. “I—” She wants to say that she would adhere to the traditions of marriage, but her parents have always guided her well, as today was any indication; Kaori trusts her parents. “I—” She thinks of the beauty that came from past resistances; choosing to follow the traditions of marriage, and realizes that both ways are tradition, both ways are correct and in a sense, both ways are improper. Finally, only the tea left in the pot still warm, Kaori can speak: “I do not know.”
“Then you will have to decide soon. Your sister is getting married. And unless you have a better prospect, your Father will marry you to him as concubine, as is proper, and despite his desire for your happiness.”
Kimiyasu met them when they arrived back at the house, a splash of violet against the backdrop of white walls, gray snow and dark wood. She is waiting in the courtyard with Mikan, a wrinkled woman in equally bright orange, who had been with the family since Kaori’s father was young. They bow to Kaori’s father and mother, her brother and finally to her, though only Mikan bows. Kimiyasu is older than Kaori, and it is Kaori instead who bows to her. The lanterns are just being lit by servants, and the rich, lacquered cherry wood glows in the warm light of the paper lanterns.
“How was your trip into town?”
“Productive, if I do say so myself. Although I did not attend your mother’s meeting.” Kimiyasu turns to her mother.
“Let us go inside and discuss this while sitting.” Mikan bows and goes inside to prepare the seating room, while the rest of the family ambles slowly in the same direction. Kimiyasu turns towards Kaori.
“Did you find anything interesting, sister?”
“Gossip and rumors, but also this wonderful fabric. It’s a beautiful emerald silk with a simple linen brocade done in lavender. Tenshu said it was a local work, that his kinsman made it, although honestly, it seems a little beyond the work of his kinsman, judging from the past that is. We—” Kaori pauses, “I, got him to throw in enough material for a sash as well, a darker purple. We’ll see how it works, but I have high hopes.”
“I’m so glad it went well. Mother asked me if I thought you were ready to start doing your own shopping.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it went… well. Tenshu kept wanting to say the fabric was beneath me. I argued that it was humbling, and was maybe a little too forceful. I fear I may have left a sour taste. Which would then mean that I at least, will have to deal with increased prices and perhaps less fabric for a time. Tenshu does not have a small memory.”
“Well, virtue always wins over greed, right sister? If the fabric was truly humbling, then he has no right to overcharge you in the future. Although, not every will be pleased about being wrong little sister, although my poetry is not as good as yours, I always find it useful to think of them as a difficult couplet: you have to find the right rhythm.”
“Speaking of, we also met with some friends of Hideki Hensei.”
As they arrive in the sitting room and sit down, Huiren speaks. “Yes, Hensei says they were from a nearby province, people with whom he has corresponded for many years. He invited them to see the newest arrangement of his garden, which is where we met. I accompanied them back into town afterwords in order to meet back up with your mother.”
Kimiyasu’s fan appears, blowing at a brisk pace as her eyes widen. “Oh… then Kaori has made some new acquaintances?”
Huiren smiles, “Indeed. At the very least, any friend of Hensei is a suitable friend for out family. But what did you think of them, Kaori?”
Kaori’s fame waves in the thump-thump of a meditative heartbeat. “Honestly Father, I forget most of their names already. I do remember Changfu, but I also feel like he was trying to stand out. Or if not, then parhaps he needs a wife more than any of us realize.” A look passes between Huiren and Katai, and between Kimiyasu and Weili. Kaori is too busy trying to remember everyone to notice. “Shinobu is a careful, practiced and very quick man, at least I would guess as much from his brush movements. While I couldn’t see his writing, it looked very precise and clipped.” Her father nods. Kaori flushes.
“What have you thought of, my little brushstroke?”
“It is inappropriate.” Everyone waits expectantly for Kaori to continue, when she notices her father is as well, she sighs. “I thought Zheng to be judgemental, too close to being dismissive, like he was humoring me by allowing my verse into the poem.” Kimiyasu’s fan moves master. “I know that is unfair, to him and my work, though.” Kaori bows her head.
Kimiyasu sweeps in, “Wait, they put one of your verses into their work?”
Kaori nods eagerly. “It was a simple verse, one of them called it rustic and pointed, but they still put it in.” Kaori turns to her father, her eyebrows have gathered like the folds of a sash. “Who kept the poem?”
Huiren thinks. “I imagine it was Hideki, since he was the cause of everyone being together and thus the host. Although, since Zheng acted more as a host, Hideki may have gifted it to him instead of keeping it. Hmmm, I genuinely do not know, Kaori. I shall ask Hideki when next I write to him.”
Kimiyasu turns towards Katai. “And what of your meeting mother?”
Katai’s fan wafts lazily around her face, it is a practiced gesture, and Kaori thinks of her own experiences in learning how to speak with a fan as much as with her tongue. “It went well. Your brother did a good job and I’m so proud by how much the two of you have grown up.” Katai looks to Weili and Kaori, who turns to her sister.
“Yes, I asked your sister for advice.” Katai leaps into the conversation, her fan closed and angled with the spines facing the space between them for just a brief second, before being tucked into her sash. “I thought you would be ready to do this on your own, but I wanted the opinion of your sister; the two of you are close. Not to mention you are almost the same age she was when she started handling her own shopping.”
“You took to the arts so much better than I did, and have gained such maturity from them, that I figured even though you’re younger than I was, you would do just fine.” Mikan enters, and leans in to speak to Kaori’s mother. The fan comes up to block their faces as they converse briefly. When the fan comes down, Katai looks at the rest of the family.
“Dinner is ready, and afterwords I think would be the best time for a fairly important announcement to be made.” She turns to Huiren, “Shall we?”
Huiren turns to his wife, framed as she is in warm wood and lantern-shadows. “One hurdle and you already think its time?”
Katai pauses midway up from the ground and then continues. She turns to her husband. “Time is exactly why. It continues to pass. I know you think its too early, but it we went according to your ideal schedule, we’d be mentioning it as it was happening. Now is as good a time as ever, Huiren, especially after we’ve put it off this long.”
Kaori, Kimiyasu and Weili have all turned to one another in a furious exchange of glances and fan movements honed over the many years of their lives into a fairly well developed secret code. It seems to Kaori that not only do Kimiyasu and Weili know what’s going on, but they know that Kaori has no idea of what their mother is referring to. Kaori quickly realizes that everyone is sharing a secret that she isn’t privy to. But why would they keep this from her? She will simply have to wait until after dinner, and likewise after tea, and then likely after practicing her flute playing. Kaori becomes much less certain she’ll be able to wait until her mother tells her. She hopes that the calming scent of jasmine from the food and tea will help curb her impropriety.
“Yes, Shinobu, I believe it has. Henghai, you’ve been quiet for much of this visit. Would you grace us then with the first verse?”
“Only if Noboru will grace us with the second and Inaba pays for the tea.” The men smile again. Kaori’s father gestures to the shopkeep and speaks to him softly, yet loud enough to hear. “It seems I have lost this round of exchanges. Would you be so kind as to set us up with a pot of the local tea.”
Hensei aims a question at Huiren, Kaori has seen that look before, and falls prey to the shot before her father can respond.
“The character of a place is in its tea. For art, the best way to capture the essence of place is—” In a flash, Kaori realizes she is lecturing men twice her age on a man’s art. She finishes the thought quickly, “in the drink chosen to accompany the writing.” Changfu tilts his head, but has not stopped smiling at her. Indeed, Changfu, Kaori notices, has not taken his lime green eyes off of her. She is uncertain if her father has noticed his gaze, or the way his eyes clash ever so slightly with the emerald of his clothing, or if Huiren is simply acting as though he has not noticed it. The other men however, strangers to Kaori, shift in their seats. Inappropriate behavior settles awkwardly, an ill-fitting bed sheet for the table. Several fans, variously painted, reveal themselves, their motions blocking sight towards the exchange, but leaving the view open for Hensei to respond. The shopkeep quickly retreats from the table; Hensei turns to the other men. “Her father has taught her so well, she even reminds me of my lectures some time. You are absolutely correct, Miss Inaba. Thank you.” He nods his head to her and she bows slightly. Kaori returns to hiding behind her fan as the conversation swirls around her. Verses fly back and forth between the men, their cadence predictable, their laughter soft, but genuine. Her father and Hensei, knowing her so well, both look at her expectantly every time she has thought up a rejoinder to the current verse, but Kaori does not contribute. She is still too embarrassed.
Instead, Kaori carefully studies the men at the table. Most of their names are long gone, and most of them are subdued, quiet, proper. Their clothing is drab, and like her father’s plain colored in darker shades, simple. Except for Changfu. His clothes are just a couple shades too bright to be proper, and as he shifts, she could swear there was embroidery in it, invisible in this light and likely done with the same color as the rest of the fabric.
“Newly grown grasses cut down.
The oriole cannot blend.”
The verse flies from her like a songbird as soon as the cage is opened. She looks at the one who is writing, Shinobu? But her gaze lingers on Chengfu for a brief moment. He smiles a half-smile, and her father leans in slightly towards the table, interrupting their view of each other. Everyone has turned to Zheng, who has watched and judged the exchanges. “I see, Miss Inaba, that you truly have imbibed the art of this place. The verse is rustic and pointed, but so appropriate I cannot help but say yes.” Kaori bows towards him, and catches a wide smile from her Father while Zheng continues: “Perhaps one day Tsubasa will have a wife make him more appropriate clothing for his travels?”
Changfu smiles, “One day, perhaps when Hideki gets too old to show off his gardens.” The men laugh. The verses continue. Kaori leans back, sipping her tea slowly. She notices the river on one of the screen’s moving, and the elderly woman gets up to leave. Searching her face for any sort of clue as to what transpired, she notices the elder shake her head just slightly, breathing deep as when Kaori is preparing her mind for a new task. Weili and her mother continue sitting at the table, Katai’s fan barely moving. They speak few words to one another, but neither is frowning. In fact the two look enviably calm. Her father apparently sees them as well.
“Well gentlemen, the work is nearly finished, and this old man must go rest his weary bones in his own house. Good health and safe travels unto all of you, it was a pleasure to meet and contribute.” Huiren rises and bows to all of them, as does Kaori. Several of them express their desire to correspond with her Father, to which he agrees with a casual but meaningful “Of course, of course.” Changfu also rises.
“It was also a pleasure to see all of you again. I hope we can meet again soon, perhaps when the roads aren’t slurry and the crossings dangerous? If you will excuse me however, I have other business to attend in town. Thank you all.” Changfu bows to the men in turn, finally bowing to her father and then to Kaori herself. She hides her blush behind the fan; surely she is not worth such recognition? As Changfu exits, Kaori and her father approach the table with her brother and mother. Her father speaks, his voice resonant surrounded by wood and paper.
“Let’s go home.”
Kaori, Katai, and Weili inhale the aroma of the various herbs and teas of the tea shop. No place like any other would smell like this, or so Kaori’s mother has told her. The memory of that conversation rises, her mind speaking in her mother’s voice: “Each tea shop is different, each featuring the local teas with nearby imports. Some Lords and Ladies, your Aunt, for instance, make it a point to travel as much of the realm as they can in order to sample and choose the finest ingredients for their home.” Cherry-wood tables have been set up in a small-ish section of the shop, with movable paper screens between them, painted sparsely with suggestive lines. Here a small oriole, there a budding branch. Most of the tables have been pushed together, occupied by a group of six men. One of them rises and approaches them. In the quiet lighting of the indoor lamps it takes Kaori a moment to recognize her father.
“Beautiful wife and lovely children!” Katai and the family bow to him, smiling.
“Husband. What a surprise.” Despite the cool flippancy with which her mother says it, Kaori can tell she is genuinely surprised.
“I came to meet with Hensei, and discovered him occupied. They have kindly invited me to join them.” Kaori’s father looks at her. “You should join us Kaori. These men would be good for you to meet, and the conversation has just turned to poetry.”
Katai’s fan lazily waves near her shoulder. “Will you not be joining me in my meeting then, dearest husband?”
“Weili can join you. I trust his judgement in the matter.”
Kaori looks to Weili and catches his eye. His shoulders move upwards a fraction of an inch and then back down. A subtle gesture she recognizes from their playacting. He bows to his father. His mother inclines her head.
“All right. Come Weili, let’s grab a table. And don’t forget to pull the screen.” As the two of them move towards one of the tables, someone calls them from the table of gentlemen.
“Huiren! Come on then, we’re ready to start.” Kaori recognizes Hensei’s voice from his sporadic but frequent visits with her father. She knows little about him, other than his close friendship with her father. The two walk back towards the table, and her father introduces her.
“Gentlemen, this is my daughter, Inaba Kaori. Kaori, these are some of my acquaintances from afar. They’ve come to visit with Hensei.” Despite the deep burning desire to know why, Kaori understands that such a question would be improper at best, insulting at worst. She bows to each of the gentlemen in turn.
“Tsubasa Changfu, Zheng Quishui, Henghai Shin, Shinobu Gangan, Noboru Michi, and of course, you know Hideki Hensei.”
“It is my fortune and pleasure to meet all of you esteemed gentlemen, and to see you again in good health Hideki Hensei.” Kaori and her father join the men at the table. Kaori turns when she hears the sound of wood scraping together as the door opens. An older woman walks in, dressed in simple fashions, linen clothing heavily layered against the cold, done in shades of yellow, her hair the gray of the snow outside Kaori’s window. She goes over to the table where her mother and brother are sitting and joins them, a screen is pulled, replacing Kaori’s view of the scene with a river landscape. The turbulence of river against stones reflects in her thoughts, causing her to loose the thread of conversation briefly; when she returns to it, Hensei is speaking.
“…I think I would have preferred the red flowers in that border, but they’re impossible to get a hold of in the Winter.”
“I agree. The red flowers would have made a much more dramatic point, but the subtlety with which the ferns executed it cannot be ignored Hideki, you’ve done well.” Kaori thinks this is Zheng speaking, but already some of their drift away like leaves in the current. Changfu turns to her. Kaori’s fan comes out by reflex and covers her face while fanning ripples through the air.
“What do you think, Miss Inaba Kaori?”
Kaori takes a moment to still her fan and lower it slightly. “I have been told that Hideki Hensei’s landscaping is legendary, mostly from my father. I did not think anything in this village was legendary until I knew it could attract those from other provinces, but I have never seen Hideki’s work.”
Many of the men smile, Changfu the broadest. “You should make time to see that, Miss Inaba. Surely the friendship your father has would dictate such things.” Kaori finds herself wondering if Changfu’s mouth is just large, or there is that much enjoyment in him.
“In truth, Hideki’s house is so far for an old man, I have not thought to bring her with me. But now that she older and stronger, perhaps her old father could lean on her during the journey.” Kaori smiles pleasantly and hides behind her fan, the other men chuckle quietly in good humor.
“You are the perfect picture of health… for your age, Father.”
Several of the man now laugh outright, including her Father. Changfu turns to Huiren, “You have raised her with sharp wit and gracious manners, a rare but appreciable combination. Well done, Inaba.” Kaori’s father bows at the compliment, while Hensei speaks up.
“He has also taught her appreciation of poetry, which I know more than a few of you enjoy better than flowers and grass.”
“Ah yes, has the time come for me to recover my writing box?”
“Did you see that group of strange men at the tea shop?”
“I heard one of them is visiting from a nearby province.”
“Who would visit from that far in this weather?”
“It seems someone with great business to attend to.”
“Junue said they were diplomats, here to arrange for local participation in the war.”
“But, the governor—!”
“Said there would be no war, but how much can the governor guarantee? The war is everywhere now.”
The three speakers are gathered around a cart for roasting chestnuts, two of them munching mindlessly as they talk amongst themselves; simple rough-spun clothes to adorn their frames, although Kaori cannot help but notice that their stitching is very precise.
A voice calls out to their mother. “Ah, Inaba Katai! Always a pleasure.” The shop owner bows deeply to her.
Katai nods back, “Tenshu Ichigo, I hope the winter is treating you well.”
“As well as it can, please please, come in, we just received a shipment from a neighboring province, with some beautiful fabrics you’ll love.”
“I’m sure. Come along Kaori. Weili, will you wait for us here?”
“Of course mother.”
The shopkeep turns to Kaori and bows to her as well. She bows slightly back. “Your daughter grows quickly, Inaba Katai. Are we here for her, or for you today?”
“I’m here accompanying my daughter today, Tenshu Ichigo. She said she absolutely needed new clothes for the Spring festival, so I decided that we could spare the time for a visit. Besides, too long at home is not good for the mind.”
Kaori looks at her mother as Katai pulls out a fan and begins lazily fanning herself, her fan a simple affair with the character for “mountain” painted on it. Well aware that Kaori has said no such thing, the subtle ease of her mother’s movements makes Kaori feel less nervous about participating in this potential lie.
“Uh, yes. I heard rumors that some men had come into town and had hoped they would be merchants bringing shipments in. Gossip can be so fickle though, I heard the visitors were important, so I assumed merchants.” She waits for him to speak as she browses the fabrics near the front inattentively.
“Well, hmm.” Ichigo takes a moment. “I’m not certain how much the fabrics that just came in will appeal to you, young Miss. They are… plain by comparison to what you should be wearing.”
Kaori’s fan comes up to cover most of her face; she looks at him sidelong over the top, her eyes narrow. The shopkeeper’s eyes widen.
“However, I, um… do have something that I think you might like. A glorious emerald brocade that is slightly more local. The brocade is done in a subtle lavender that compliments nicely without being overwhelming. You can almost barely tell it is lavender, it runs almost white.” He laughs nervously. Kaori’s eyes do not leave his face. She watches it grow more red for a few moments before finally he says, “Let me get that for you.”
Kaori nods and the shopkeep bows himself away. She turns to look at her Mother, her fan lightly working.
Katai smiles at her daughter. “I want you to do this yourself today. I think it’s time.” Kaori nods turning back as the shopkeep returns with a large swatch of the fabric. The brocade is well done, arranging in swirls and twists that give hints of flowers and the character for perfume. Kaori runs a hand along the fabric. The brocade is not silk, likely a linen. If it were not so beautiful and different, she would have agreed with the shopkeep. Kaori looks around at the lacquered, wooden walls of the building, just above the rest of the fabrics.
Ichigo’s forehead acquires a sheen, barely visible in the lamplight of indoors. “Of course, if you were interested in the fabric, considering its uh… nature, I would be happy to give it to you at a discount, since you would be doing me a favor. Selling fabric like this is difficult work you see, since it is so different. Everyone tells me the contrast is too great, that it is too bold. But my kinsman’s wife made it and so I had to try my best. It would make a great gift for someone else though, especially with how well your mother and Mikan work with these fabrics. You could even gift it to one of your favored servants afterwords.”
Kaori’s fan snaps shut; Katai’s fan begins fluttering. Kaori slowly turns to look at the shopkeep. She looks into his eyes. “You think it is unworthy because it is different, that its boldness is a flaw, that it is too conflicted? Is that not part of who we are though? Is it not our conflicts that make us? Can the sword be forged without the hammer blows of the smith? Perhaps instead this fabric is meant for someone who believes more in honesty than extravagance. Someone who wishes to maintain sincerity in everything they do and present. Do I strike you then, Tenshu Ichigo,” a pause, “as another petty young girl to be distracted by bright colors and fancy fabric work?” Kaori’s face flushes, hardly visible behind her makeup, but the sudden red tinge just under her eyes is all the more deadly for it. Ichigo steps back. He bows deeply and stares at the ground.
“I meant no offense Miss Inaba Kaori. Your uniqueness is a contribution to your beauty, and this fabric would be as well.”
The sound of carts and conversations seep into the room to try and fill the space left empty by their words.
“We’ll take the fabric.” Kaori finally says.
“Of course, I will coordinate a darker purple for the sash, if that please you, and send that as well. My gift, as an apology.” Katai nods, slowing her fan and returning it to her sash. She turns to Ichigo. “That will do, Tenshu.” The women nod their heads and leave, turning their backs. Ichigo does not rise until they have gone.
Being the final draft, before publication. Feel free to comment with helpful criticism, and keep an eye out for something to buy just in time for Christmas.
Kaori looks up from her writing desk at the winter garden. A single black bough frames the top of the window, with a dusting of light gray slurry raked into whorls and furrows away from the paths. There are no plants growing now, her father does not believe in fostering winter growths. But Kaori can still see the etchings of future designs in that snow, a whorl where he would plant a statement, furrows around it indicating the accent pieces like clever turn-of-phrase in one of their poems. She sighs, and looks back at the blank paper before her, brush dripping ink back into the bowl.
She knows she cannot force the poems to come, but lack of inspiration is no excuse for lack of practice. Besides, her father’s words ring through her concentration, “Art is gardening, if you do not give the words the chance, they will never grow.” She wets the brush again, making sure the ink is even, and sets it to the paper. The words come as bold brush strokes, soft edged but steely-cored. A verbal riposte to the cold of winter and good common sense.
Frozen pond hides carp
sludging through frigid water.
Spring sap through the trees.
Waiting for spring festivals,
Ferns gather strength from each other.
Pouring sand over it, Kaori looks up as her brother crosses the courtyard. She waves at him, and he waves back. Kaori brushes the sand away and quickly folds the poem into a crane, then goes over to her curio cabinet and grabs a small twig with two buds coming off of it. She is tying the twig to the crane when the knock comes. Kaori opens the door, composing her face, she pulls the fan from her sash, the one painted with two colorful fighting fish and flutters it about to hide the slight smile.
“Inaba Weili. So good of you to come visit me.” Her brother smiles at her formality. It fades as quickly as her fan flutters.
“Inaba Kaori. I wish I was here on pleasant matters.”
Kaori’s fan slows and her eyes narrow. “I wrote you a letter.” She presents the letter with a flourish, the crane now delicately balanced on the fan. The thought of how many nights she spent practicing comes without hesitation. The time it took to get the point where the motion is reflex stings with promise of other arts she could have practiced instead.
As Weili takes the crane: “And so we must fly. Mother wishes us to go with her into town.”
Kaori’s hands drop with her playacting. Her shoulders slump and she tucks the fan into the sash along her waist, turning towards the standing mirror. “Did she say why?” She looks at both of them through it.
Weili takes the opportunity to tuck a stray hair back behind his ear, clearing his sharp, but still soft, features and removing a barely visible irritating black line from his vision. “She says she has business.”
The two of them take the time for minor adjustments to their clothing. Kaori pulls her elaborate sash up slightly from where it slid, and secures it even more tightly. Her brother runs his hands along the edges of the deep-V of his own outerwear, pulling them more slightly closed, briefly obscuring their house symbol. His much simpler cream-colored sash and muted olive clothing contrast with Kaori’s bright white snow-flower patterns and elaborate five-piece outfit. She pulls her hair upwards and looks at him, urging him to action. Weili goes and rings the bell for a servant to come and assist her.
“I’m guessing that means business with the weaver, but she was surprisingly vague about it.”
“You know how she is, especially after her time at the provincial court.”
“Yes, dear sister, I’m well aware of our mother’s quirks. This was different though, she wasn’t concealing but she was still… vague?”
“You, brother, will never be a poet if you can’t express these simple thoughts with the appropriate words.” She smiles at him as she says this.
“But that, Kaori,” he unfolds the crane, taking care not to rip the delicate wings, “is why I rely on you. I’ll let her know you’re getting ready.” Weili turns, reading as the servant comes in. He folds the letter in quarters and tucks it, and the twig, into his sash.
Within the hour, Kaori, Weili and their mother walk down the country road towards the village. They keep to the drier areas in the middle of the road, where much of the snow has melted in the sunlight and run off down the sides. Occasionally the three of them must step to the side of the road along a dry patch as peasants driving heavy loads pass them by along the cobbles. They bow profusely and thank them graciously for allowing them to pass, while Kaori’s mother and Weili nod their heads. Kaori keeps her face behind a parasol, fan, or simply staring at the ground. The lighter carts that can, risk going towards the side of the road so as to let this portion of the Inaba family pass them.
As they walk they pass by a large urn that has spilled over the cobbled road. On one side of the road a father berates his son for his clumsiness in dropping the urn, gesturing angrily to the other side of the road and a large, wooden gateway. The archway is painted in fading red, indicating a temple, but the grounds are surrounded by cypress trees and difficult to see from the road. Kaori tilts her head.
A single white line
in a network of black cracks.
She releases the poem from her mind, an offering to the temple in place of the spilled rice; she hopes the spirits will accept. Soon the trio approach the nearby town. Not many merchants filter through the gates today. Several nearby areas are still inaccessible due to the snow and rain, so the traffic through the town is peaceful. Kaori prefers it this way, as it allows her and her family to really engage with the shop owners and the people who live here. In the spring and summer, the town becomes a mad house so dense it is almost impossible to push through the crowds in the street, let alone have a leisurely conversation. In the autumn, women send the men to deal with the town as everyone prepares themselves for the coming winter snows. The simple wooden buildings feature a raised walkway from which shop owners can call out at those walking down the street. Several are doing that now, but most are simply talking among themselves, discussing the latest gossip.
The vampire is waiting for me when I open the door to the basement, off to the left, away from the light.
“I was starting to think you’d never come.”
“I debated it. Got held up.”
“I can see that… Should I be concerned?”
“No. Back to the Depths with it. I’m starting to put a picture together of what this guys is doing, and I don’t like it.”
“Let me guess, just enough to be dangerous type?”
“What was your first clue?”
“He seemed… apologetic, when he kidnapped me. As though he didn’t really mean it but didn’t have a choice. When you know what you’re doing there’s a little bit more resolution to your actions.”
“I think he’s using the dead to get revenge on the living that have wronged him. But those deals tend to escalate quickly.”
“Well… while I certainly could eat a whole wheel of cheese right now, shall we?”
I nod and turn around. “There’s a lot of bright spots and reflected light filtering through the building, but I imagine he’ll be back here later tonight, so I don’t have another option to get you out. If you can run through the hallway half a floor up you can get to the service elevator…” I can feel her breath of my neck. Tense.
“And ride it up to the second floor?” Her voice runs along my flesh like satin, with an edge of diamonds caught in lace spiderwebs. Its a voice that could turn lumberjacks into simpering sycophants. I think about her face, what I saw of it, contorted by hunger.
“Yes.” My voice still cracks. I cough. “I’ll leave now and pull the blinds on the hallway window. 22A is on the right. Give me a count of 60 before you head out.” I start walking up the stairs. When I get to the normal elevator I toss the coffee into a waiting trash can, and run up the stairs the rest of the way. Halfway down the hall, I hear the service elevator door open and sprint the remaining distance, tossing my shirt up over the window to help obscure some it. She runs out the hall and into 22A, breaking the lock as she goes. When I hear the door click, I take the shirt down, putting it on while shivering. When it comes down off my face there’s a young man staring at me.
This time, my brain isn’t hyper alert, I’m not thinking of an excuse as to why my shirt was off, or why I’m putting it back on, I’m just staring back at him and waiting till he breaks the silence.
“What’re you doing?”
Still can’t think of anything. I can hear a whisper from the door of 22A, “There was a perv taking pictures on the street, thought I’d give him something to take pictures of.” He doesn’t respond, so I repeat what the whisper said. He nods, apparently not having heard it the first time.
“Fair enough. Wish I’d seen it though.” The dude shrugs then turns towards the stairs, and continues out the building. I shake my head and prepare myself to go into 22A.