Kaori grinds the inkstone, sets the papers, and begins writing her letters. The first, she writes to the Governor, as is appropriate:
“Winter snows cover
A humble garden with ice.
A single shoot sprouts.
The stars are unconcerned,
But the Sun takes interest.
She folds it into the shape of a sunburst, attaches a pressed camellia blossom, and sets it aside. She pulls forth another paper and addresses her second letter to Hideki Hensei.
“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, now that Kimiyasu has reminded 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 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 would not 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.”
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 excellence, if not beyond. I hope you weren’t too hard on him though?”
Kaori shakes her head. “At least, I don’t think so. I want to continue the conversation. There’s something about him.”
“Mother said his kimono 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 status.”
“As though perhaps he is a little forgetful and left 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 kimono?”
“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.
“You’ve cut to the heart of it, yet again, Kimiyasu.” Kaori has not turned back to her.
“I’m sorry, Kaori. I didn’t mean to imply anything. You are young, and an artist, you are not expected to know yourself, you are expect to explore the arts and through them learn of yourself. But everyone likes knowing they aren’t alone.” 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.
“I see you’ve been corresponding with Tsubasa Changfu, Kaori.”
Kaori turns to her Father, standing just outside the circle of branches of the cherry tree that Kaori is sitting under. “We have. It has been… proper, in all things. Several conversations, in fact, about the nature of art and the benefits therein. Tsubasa is a font of contradictions, and I think he does so just to get a rise out of me, but I’ve taken to turning his criticisms aside.” Her fan is quickly working in Kaori’s hand. “Has he written you, Father?”
“He has not.” Huiren looks down as he says this, and Kaori’s fan slows. He looks back up at his daughter, his face is smooth, but his mouth has pulled down and his eyes threaten to start glistening.
“What is it, Father?” Kaori moves to one side to allow Huiren to sit down on the bench.
“The plum tree on the hill has started budding.”
“There is no word from the Matchmaker then?”
“And no word from Tsubasa means…” Huiren cannot finish his thought. Kaori’s fan slowly stills and drops down to her lap, still open. The only sound comes from the wind over the eaves.
“I will be prepared to marry Tsukino Baichang.”
Huiren finally walks over and sits next to his daughter. “That is your final decision?”
“I would bring shame to our family if I didn’t follow tradition. I bring shame to our family by not trusting in your wishes and following them, but no one will know that shame, where everyone will know the shame of not committing to the marriage.”
“You aren’t wrong, daughter. I wish you did not have to shoulder such a burden.”
“I will not be shouldering it alone. Kimiyasu and Weili both choose the same path as I do, and now we will all share the private shame for having disobeyed your wishes. Honestly, I wish this also wasn’t the truth, but I do what I do for our family.”
“Our family… yes.” Huiren looks over the pond, he slaps his sigh. “It is supposed to be my responsibility to take care of and decide what is good for our family. But you are not wrong in feeling that such an obvious breach of tradition would be bad for our family. I only hope that the burden of my shame will not drive us apart.”
“Nothing could drive us apart Father, you raised to believe in harmony and the truth of right action, and that is what we will naturally gravitate to.”
“I certainly hope so. You bring honor to me by following what I have taught you. Perhaps one day the honor you children bring to our household will be enough to overshadow the personal shame the three of you shoulder from disobeying me.”
“I should certainly hope so Father… we are making good progress. You are building a pillar of peace within the valley by marrying my sister… and I… to the Tsukino family. Weili’s marriage will also help the valley to prosper. Oh, and I almost forgot! I received another letter from the Governor today.”
“Oh? Any good news?”
“Not particularly, but I’m pleased that Kimiyasu was right and that he is genuinely interested in corresponding and exchanging verses.”
Huiren smiles. “I am pleased to see you forming connections that are appropriate, but also I am pleased to see you making friends, and that your skill is strong enough to make the Governor forget you’re a woman that is writing to him.”
“I know better than to bring it up. I do find it somewhat annoying that these men see me as childish and naive as to the workings of the world of art.”
“But daughter,” Huiren pulls her close to him in a half-hug, “you are childish.”
Kaori taps her father’s thigh with her fan. “You know what I meant, Father.”
“I do, I only hope you do not hold it against them and try to understand their perspective.”
“I do, Father, I do.”
Kaori and her Father sit on the bench quietly, both enjoying the simple smells of winter, the black waters in the pond contrasting with the warm lacquered wood of the house and the white of the last snow on the shadowed corners of the garden. The soil itself, moist and black from its time sleeping through the winter, is ripe for the work the garden will taken after the Spring festival. Eventually the two of them begin discussing the plans for what Huiren will do with the space after the garden, what flowers he will plant and where, the paths and the borders of herbs and ferns, the beautiful colors when the flowering time comes. Kaori nods, enjoying the time with her Father. Landscape is one of the arts Kaori did not take to, mostly because of the exertion involved, the aesthetics that recalled obscure points in the past, and in truth, everything about it was not something Kaori found easily comprehensible, or even remotely exciting. Slowly, the conversation shifted to the wedding of Kimiyasu and Baichang, and the meeting that would have to take place soon. Here, in the garden, Kaori felt calm at the prospect… She was not certain how she would feel later, but for now, she was calm.