Second Daughter, 3

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?”


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