When there's tea, there's hope.
Hands tucked into the sleeves of her kimono and shoulders held back, Emika stares at the massive wooden doors as she waits for the attendants to open them.
The closed doors are a familiar sight. The intricate carving of a fire-breathing dragon winds around the doors, painted in vibrant reds and decorated with solid-gold plating, and rainbow clouds encrusted with jewels dot the spaces between the beast's body. An imposing sight, designed to humble and intimidate any who dare enter the Kodaba manor.
She supposes that's the intent of her parents, making her wait as they are. A power play, pulled right from her father Joben's usual bag of tricks. She knows her mother isn't behind it—her mother can't be bothered to put that kind of effort into interacting with her least favourite daughter. Everybody in the manor knows that Masami would rather stare at a wall for hours than waste a single, precious breath speaking to Emika.
Emika isn't put off balance by it, not anymore. She has sixteen years of experience under her belt. She doesn't fiddle with the silken hem of her sapphire kimono, coloured to match her eyes. She has no desire to pick at her nails or brush her fingers against the back of her updo to ensure no baby hairs have come loose.
She stands and listens to the rain patter against the window panes that line the lavish halls of the main building. She could fit right in with the rest of the porcelain statues littered on pedestals around her if not for her mottled skin, visible even through the thick white makeup on her face, her too-big nose, full lips, and unevenly placed features.
One of the attendants who escorted her here watches her. Emika turns and meets her gaze, unsurprised when the young girl flinches. All of the workers refuse to look her in the eye.
Five whole minutes pass before the doors creak open, allowing Emika to float inside of the room.
The room is empty save for a table in the middle, where her whole family sits, and a slew of candles scattered around the edges provide a dim glow. The scents of jasmine and smoke swirl off the candles and fill the massive room, leaving a light haze in the air, the only thing that fills the copious amounts of space between the table and the walls.
Emika strides forward without allowing her chin to dip for a second. Her pace is slow, almost meandering, each foot carefully placed in front of the other.
Once she gets to the table she bows at the waist, even as the temptation to remain upright tickles at her. Joben makes her wait there. And wait. And wait. There's nothing comfortable about the position, but she doesn't move a muscle.
"You may rise, daughter," he finally says.
She pulls herself straight. "Thank you," she answers, her voice a near-whisper, the way she's been taught to answer for her whole life. "I am honoured to be in your presence."
"Yes," Joben says. "I suppose it has been a rather long time since I have seen you, has it not?"
He nods. "That does sound correct." He flicks his gaze around her whole body and his expression, previously blank, twists to match the cruel glint in his eyes. "A shame that you have not bloomed in that time. I had hoped you would."
Emika lowers herself down to kneel on the cushion and makes no reply. She sees Hatsuko fight off a wince at the comment, her face making a twitchy, abated movement. Emika doesn't understand why her older sister held it off. From Hatsuko's spot behind their parent, nobody but Emika would have seen her expression.
The table they sit at is the same red as the door. Solid wood, low to the ground. It contrasts with the dark brown wood of the floors and walls, but matches the pillars along the outer parts of the room.
In much the same fashion as Emika has done her entire life, she sits and waits in silence as her father stares her down and her mother appears bored with the whole shebang. The look on Joben's face tells her enough—even her silence is disappointing.
"As you are well aware, I have spent the last four years attempting to find you a husband," her father says. "I had hoped that you might at least provide some worth for this family, but even still, you fail to bring in an honourable match due to your reputation."
She dips her head in a nod and lowers her gaze. "Yes."
Masami frowns but holds her silence, the way she always taught her daughters to do in the presence of their future husbands.
An apology was expected of Emika. I'm sorry I'm a burden, she should say. I'm sorry I'm so ugly. I'm sorry I'm not able to gossip and host guests the way I should. I'm sorry I can't sing, dance, play any instruments, or write beautiful poems in wonderfully formed script. I'm sorry that I'm so undesirable as a wife that every important nobleman in the Fire Country knows who I am and refuse to even discuss marrying me. I'm sorry I bring shame to this family.
She might say this if not for the fact that Emika doesn't care, not even a little.
Her father is a ridiculous man and she owes him no courtesy.
"However, an… acceptable match has presented itself recently," Joben says. "The widowed head of a wealthy merchant family has agreed to wed you."
Head of the family and already married once, at least.
Only a desperate old man will cough up any money for her, then. Masami always told her that growing up. Emika wonders if she gets any satisfaction out of having been proven right.
Joben snaps his fingers and one of the attendants standing off to the side scurries over, a scroll in hand. She lays the scroll flat on the table and drops a brush and inkwell down beside it. Emika's eyes wander over it, but she has no idea what it says—she can't read upside-down.
"I plan to sign it," Joben says. "That is, unless you wish to accept another offer I have generously decided offer you."
Emika tilts her head, curious.
"You can be wed to this man, the only man in all the Land of Fire willing to take on a wife as ugly and incompetent as you," he says, grinning, "or I can disown you and send you to rot in Konoha with that lot of barbarians."
For the first time since Emika entered the hall, everybody in front of her has a readable expression on their face. Joben is smug; Masami is as close to pleased as Emika's ever seen her; and Hatsuko looks downright ecstatic.
Joben opens his mouth again to speak, and before he has a chance to, Emika says, "I will bade this family goodbye and spend the rest of my life in Konoha."
A pin could be heard dropping in the room.
Masami's painted on eyebrows go all the way to her hairline and her bright red lips form a small circle, all traces of happiness wiped from her expression. "You will?"
Joben's face tightens, the way it always does when he thinks his wife has spoken out of turn, and Masami flinches. She retreats back into her blank state without another word.
"Yes, I will," Emika answers, despite that. "I would very much like to live my life in peace behind the walls of Konoha."
"I suppose I should be surprised that an ungrateful thing such as yourself has made this choice, refusing to even attempt to bring honour to this family, but I am not."
Emika watches him roll the scroll back up and fling it away in disgust.
A number of fantasies sprouted in her head over the years, many of which involved her ending back in the type of life she once lived before she was reborn as Emika. She remembered hating her old job as a barista, her life as a burnout, right up until the day she died. For the first few years, she thought that this new life, with its wealth and extravagance, initial comfort, was her reward for dying to save somebody else.
She thought she could do whatever she wanted. She's rich. Her family is powerful. The world was her oyster, and Emika deserved to crack it open and find the pearl. She was mostly satisfied with her life and its luxury, but there was always one thing she wouldn't have minded to do. An old dream, one that sustained from her other life into this one.
Then the sugary sheen encasing this world rubbed off to reveal the bitter center and she realized the futility of those dreams; now, she has times where she'd give anything to have that other life back.
But Emika's long since accepted that there's no going back from this world.
Once she got over that, her dreams moved into something much more achievable. If she never married, what she assumed would be her reality, she planned to steal as much as she could from her parents and run off to start a life somewhere else. Anywhere else. But if she did eventually get married off, she planned to hire a hand to murder her husband in his sleep and blame it on whatever scapegoat was most convenient. Or, if she couldn't find somebody to take the job, she'd do it herself. Either was fine so long as Emika ended up with his money.
Never had she imagined living in Konoha. She knows what awaits her there. Konoha can spout whatever propaganda they wish, but it's still a village filled with poor people living off the free protection of some mentally unstable, knife-happy brutes. Knowing how their future will unfold and wanting nothing to do with it heightens her distaste.
That said, Konoha is a better option than having to endure a number of months—or years—sharing a bed with a husband dozens of years her senior, as she imagines this man is.
"You will leave in the morning," Joben says. "And you will never return again."
Emika stands and bows to them, a small smile on her face. "It will be my pleasure."
She catches a hint of the laughter in Hatsuko's face before she turns and walks out of the room.
Emika remains in her chambers for the rest of the evening. She is brought her meal, a simple rice dish, and is otherwise left to her devices until Hatsuko comes to visit after nightfall.
She sits at her vanity and brushes oils through her hair, a sheet of black that reaches her knees, so long due to having never been shorn in her life. People can say whatever they please about her face, but nobody can deny that her hair is beautiful. Thick and glossy, feather-soft to the touch. Her one redeeming quality. She has all of it pulled over one shoulder and runs the silver brush through its length, to what degree she can.
A knock sounds against her door. Emika looks over her shoulder and calls, "Enter."
Hatsuko darts in and pushes the door closed behind her. A short, high-pitched squeak leaves her as she turns around to face Emika, her expression alight with delight, her cheeks flushed and her chocolate brown eyes wide.
In Hatsuko, their parents got everything they wanted from a daughter. She's reserved in public but pleasant in private. Warm, even with their father, who Hatsuko hates just as much as Emika does. Obedient. Well loved among the social scene of Fire Country nobility, able to laugh at the right time and smile at the right time, gossip with the shrewdest of the daimyo's court. Gorgeous in the way dolls are, with wide eyes and bright cheeks, her teeth perfectly straight beneath her small lips. High cheekbones carved into a rounded face. Her hair is as bright and yellow as the sun, the colour taken from their mother, and falls to the floor from the insane rate that it grows at.
Emika treats her sister to a smile, a full one. Hatsuko is the only person who can drag those out of her.
She's as enamoured with her sister as the rest of the world, and she's alright with that.
Hatsuko runs over and embraces Emika. "Oh, wow," Hatsuko whispers, breathless. "I can't believe it! They told me they were going to offer, but I—I never—wow."
Emika sets the silver brush down and hugs her sister back. "I know," she says. "It feels weird."
"They warned me they were planning on doing it, but I… I didn't think they'd actually do it!"
"They warned you?"
Hatsuko nods, a rushed motion. "They spoke to me yesterday about it," she says. She settles herself on a nearby stool, the plush velvet matching the colour of Hatsuko's kimono. "Well, Father did, I mean. He thought you might do something 'foolish and rash' if he outright forced you into the marriage, so he thought you'd be more willing if he presented you with the illusion of choice."
"Good to know Father was wrong, as usual."
Hatsuko waves a hand. "Right? He honestly thought you were going to marry the old man."
"So the man Father got for me was old?"
"Ancient. I think he's in his sixties, and he's already had four wives."
"And they're all dead?"
"Every last one of them. His first wife lasted for twenty years, the poor dear, but all three of his other wives died within five years."
"Yes, but… well… no use in dwelling on it."
"A little warning would have been nice."
"I couldn't. Father told me not to."
Hatsuko makes a face. Even as the prized daughter, Hatsuko isn't immune to their father's wrath. The last thing Emika would want is for her sister to get in trouble—even if that bit of information would have been helpful.
Emika goes back to brushing her hair.
Hatsuko comes up behind Emika to take the brush from her hands. She pulls Emika's hair over the back of the chair and runs the bristles through, humming as she goes. Emika closes her eyes and allows herself to enjoy the sensation.
The crickets echo in the background. Her bedroom has two doors: one that opens up into the main part of the manor, and another, on the opposite side of the room, that opens up to the gardens. She likes to leave the latter open in the evenings to allow the fresh air and ambient sounds of nature in, along with a slight floral scent on the breeze.
"I'm going to miss this," Hatsuko murmurs. She sighs. "I'm going to miss you."
"Of course I will." She hesitates. "Won't you miss me?"
"I think so, yeah."
Hatsuko scoffs. "That's reassuring."
"You stop by Konoha whenever Father sends you out into the world. I'm sure you'll see me. And you can write letters. It's not that we're never gonna see or talk to each other ever again." Emika feels her lips crawl up into a smile. "Plus, once Father croaks, we'll be able to see each other as much as we want."
"You'll be getting a letter from me every month, if not more. Those are easy to manage without Father knowing," Hatsuko says, not pausing in her brushing. "I'll only be able to swing a visit every few months or so, though, because that's something I can only do if we stop in Konoha on the way to somewhere else."
"Again, that won't be an issue once Father—"
Hatsuko tugs on a lock of Emika's hair. "Stop that. You and I both know he's not going anywhere anytime soon."
"Father's well into his fifties. You never know."
"That's enough death talk for one day. Honestly. Your sense of humor is always so grim."
"You think I'm joking."
"Of course you're joking."
"I'm not joking."
"Yes, you are."
Emika leans her head back to meet her sister's gaze and gives her a look, expression deadpan. "Fine. I'm joking."
Emika dearly hopes that her father chokes on the next meal he eats, liquid he drinks, or penis he shoves down his throat.
Hatsuko spends the next hour twining Emika's hair into a handful of braids, and then piles them up into a comfortable and beautiful updo for Emika to sleep with. Something has to be done with it before she goes to bed. If she leaves it loose, it knots and gets caught on everything, and Emika's always had the odd fear that it might strangle her in her sleep.
Once that's done, Hatsuko helps her get changed, since none of the servants will enter Emika's room now. The news of her disowning spread like wildfire through the manor.
"You don't need to help," Emika says. "I can get dressed myself. I'm going to be getting dressed myself for the rest of my life after this."
"Oh, don't say that. You might nab yourself a rich husband who'll have servants all his own to dress you."
"Not in Konoha. Nobody there has money for that."
"It's true—you know better than I do. You've been there before."
Hatsuko fusses with the frills on Emika's nightgown. "I have. It's not as poor as Mother, Father, and the rest of the foolish court people have always acted like it. Some of it's rather nice."
"You're saying that to make me feel better."
"No, I'm not," she says. "Some of the ninja clans are very wealthy, actually." Her lips pull up into a playful smile. "Maybe you'll nab the attention of some nice clan leader and get yourself set for life."
"I'd die alone before I'd ever marry one of those."
"Never say never."
Hatsuko sighs. "Why do you always do this?"
"Speak? It's a normal bodily function that every person—"
Before Emika can finish her sentence, Hatsuko pulls her into a hug. She rests her chin on Emika's shoulder. "I'm… really going to miss you."
Emika returns the hug. She whispers back, "I'm going to miss you, too."
The next morning, Emika finds herself standing in front of the manor, a drab travelling kimono adorning her body and no bags in her hands. She's to leave with nothing but enough rations to last her the five day wagon ride to Konoha. None of her possessions are hers now—they belong to the Kodaba family.
Hatsuko is the only person that sees her off. She trails out the main gates with two attendants following behind her, a chest carried between them. The morning light illuminates Hatsuko's form and gives her an ethereal appearance, her hair glistening like spun gold and her eyes like melted chocolate, beautiful even with ruffled clothes, a bare face, and messy hair.
"I'm glad I caught you," Hatsuko says, a small smile on her face. "Seems I slept in."
"We were waiting for you. I knew you'd come."
Hatsuko comes over and grabs Emika's hands in her own. "Thank you." She steps back and motions at the chest. "Some extra rations. It's non-perishables, so you'll be able to use them once you get into Konoha. The kitchen's way of saying goodbye."
That the kitchen staff would take the time to prepare her a gift sounds unlikely to Emika, but she tilts her head and says, "Pass on my thanks."
Hatsuko reaches into her sleeve and pulls out a small envelope that she hands to Emika. "And this is my way of saying goodbye. It's a letter for you to read once you start to missing me somewhere in the next few days."
The envelope is too thick to just be a letter. "Thank you," Emika says. She tucks the envelope into her own thin kimono sleeve and gives a short bow.
Hatsuko smiles. Like the night before, she begins to straighten Emika's kimono, her nimble fingers tugging at the edges and smoothing the imaginary wrinkles.
"Mother is still asleep and Father left in the middle of the night," Hatsuko says. "It's just the two of us and the house staff."
"Do our parents know about the letter or the rations?"
"Nope," Hatsuko says. Emika eyes the attendants, and Hatsuko shakes her head. "Kimi and Sayaka don't know about them, either. Right?"
"Never seen it in my life," one girl says.
"No idea what you mean, miss," says the other.
The attendants never took to Emika, but all of them love Hatsuko. They always have. Emika believes that the attendants will hold their silence about the chest and whatever's actually inside of it.
Hatsuko gives Emika one last, long hug, before she steps back and watches Emika load up into the wagon. The driver cracks his whip and the horses take off at a trot. Emika sits in the back of the wagon. She leans out to watch through the opening, able to take in the waving form of Hatsuko until she disappears into a speck on the horizon.
Her home is gone from her sight.
Emika pulls out the envelope and breaks the wax seal, watching the Kodaba emblem pressed into the wax crack, split through the middle. She sees the bundles of yen tied with ribbon and held flat against the letter inside. Her fingers first reach for the letter.
When she unfolds the parchment, Hatsuko's perfume floods the air inside the wagon.
'My dearest sister,
When we were little, I used to have so many dreams for my future. I wanted to be a dancer, or a future daimyo, or a business owner. I wanted success. I had big dreams for myself. Foolish dreams that Mother and Father would have chastised me for, but dreams nonetheless. You always listened to them with a smile and told me that I could do it. There was never a doubt in your mind.
You may think I don't remember, given how rarely you spoke of it, but I know you had a dream for yourself, too. You were always so excited about it. The expressions on your face when you talked about it were so sweet, so hopeful and happy. I cherish those memories.
In the chest are some of your favourite things. Your silver brush, your hair oils, four of your best kimono, and your favourite tea set. Mother ordered them all thrown out but I had the servants set these aside for you. What Mother doesn't know won't hurt her.
As well, enclosed with this letter is my monthly allowance. It seems like a pittance to me, but for you, I know it'll be helpful. I'll continue to send it. I have no need for it. My wardrobe is full and I've enough makeup to last me a lifetime. This money means more to you than it does to me. With this, you can pay your rent, buy your food, put clothes on your back, and on top of all that, finance your dream.
Go open your tea shop. Live your new life to the fullest. I expect that by the time I manage to get to Konoha, you'll have the place up and running, with customers begging to get inside.
I love you, Emika. I hope you find happiness.
The last few sentences are difficult for her to make out, smudged by the tears falling from her eyes. The driver chances a look over his shoulder at her but Emika can't bring herself to care that he's seeing her in such a state. She raises a hand to her eyes and rubs the tears away with the sleeve of her kimono.
A part of her still thinks that dream is futile, even now that she's free. But that doesn't matter anymore.
Hatsuko wants her to do this. Hatsuko believes in her. That's all Emika needs.
She'll go to Konoha, she'll open her tea shop, and she'll have the best shop in the entire village. Emika won't squander this gift. She'll make her sister proud.