Second Daughter, 4

“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.”

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