Summertime in Hyōgo prefecture was hot and sticky, slow-onset and creeping like tropical fever. Thighs stuck to thighs, cotton to flesh, legs to the backs of seats. Mosquitoes droned by nightfall and cicadas cried by day. In the in-between, nature scrambled to reclaim as much as it could while the sun hung high. Creeping vines slithered up windowpanes, only for students with shears to cut them back. Huge centipedes nested in the bathroom sinks. Cockroaches scuttled across the hallway. Snakes hid in the grass on the lawn. What trees hadn't bloomed in springtime let loose the pollen hidden beneath the leaves, golden specks in the damp air.
We forgot all modesty in the heat. Nagihiko slept without a coverlet, chest heaving like a Victorian maid dying of consumption. Something about Nadeshiko's skin attracted insects, as though honey ran in her veins. The raised red welts on her skin filled me with enough pity to light a candle in the window, in the hopes that the smoke would confuse them. After crushing a cockroach under my bare foot, I no longer stepped on the ground in the mornings, like a child playing the-floor-is-lava. I laid out my clothes at the end of my bed, and if not, demanded Nagihiko carry me across.
In this way, the school term drew to a lazy close. We were happy to see it go and return to our cosmopolitan abodes to sleep the summer away in siesta. All except Nadeshiko, who would stay behind with Fujisaki-sensei. Did Nadeshiko even go home for the holidays? I did not ask.
"Take care," I ordered Nadeshiko from the platform, waving my handkerchief. She leaned forward too eagerly, as though she was preparing to clasp my arms and pull me into an embrace. I gripped her thin hand and shook, as though we were cutting a business deal.
"You, too," Nadeshiko said, hand cool, silky. "Remember to exercise, or your ankles will get even fatter."
My grip turned to ice, and I cut off the circulation in her fingers.
I would like to say that we looked a vision of Japan's young ladies on that train platform. If anyone had been out to look at us, they would have only seen a gaggle of red-faced, sweaty children with dust up to their knees, lugging suitcases and trunks and hatboxes behind them. Utau's face was puffy with hay fever, but her tongue was tragically in working order ("Yeah, I don't like pollen, so I look like this. What's your excuse?"). Amu was lost in lethargy, gazing at the machinations of the station ceiling. Yaya had gotten off a station before ours at Yokohama, greeted by a kind-looking man with slicked back hair. And I was…
I was re-reading Father's letter and inhaling the air of Tokyo Central Station. The rattling of the tram and the chiming of the clock outside permeated over the sound of a million conversations. It smelled like tyre rubber, train exhaust, and the barest hint of crisp salt from Tokyo Bay. Home. I folded the paper up so that it wouldn't get infected by miasma.
I must be hallucinating. A little walking children's clothing catalogue, doe-eyed and pin-curled, burst through the throng and onto Amu's arm. Shirley Temple was tailed by a slim, pretty woman wearing a pair of spectacles and a man with a giant camera around his neck. Amu lived but a fifteen-minute's train ride from the station, so her family picked her up in person. Her mother thanked us for taking care of her with smiles and sunshine. Utau and I watched, as the family of four vanished into the throng, the picture of domestic idyll.
"Who's meeting you?" Utau asked, checking the train schedule with a troubled expression. My gaze found the map of the train and streetcar system through Tokyo. I traced the path up from Tokyo Station over to Shinjuku the west in an S-shaped squiggle.
"Probably Emi-san," I said, referring to our hired girl. If she was still with us, and hadn't been fired by one of grandmother's fits of bad temper. "And you?"
Utau stared at the map, and tapped right where we were— Tokyo station. "Our offices are here, in Nihonbashi," she said. "Guess I'll walk over and tell them I'm here. See if I can't get the company car."
"I'm here." I pointed to Ginza, several inches to the southeast. "Close."
"Yeah," Utau agreed. "Sanjō lives around here, I think."
"Yeah, the Sanjōs..." Utau shrugged, voice controlled. "... Well, they're bureaucrats now, obviously."
I did not understand what she said, or why it would be obvious. I preferred to think that my teachers didn't have lives and histories outside of Seiyo. I already knew far too much about Fujisaki- and Amakawa-sensei for my own comfort, I noted, disgruntled.
To my surprise, Utau walked me out to the gaping east entrance of Tokyo Station and stayed with me. "It's not safe for a girl your size," she said. She surveyed the crowd coolly until I spotted my mother's servant.
"My escort," I said, pointing to her.
"Not hard to miss, is she?" Utau demurred, raising an eyebrow.
Emi caught sight of me the same time I did her. Raising the free hand that was not holding a brown bag of rhubarb, she yelled in broad commoner's tongue:
I held out my luggage expectantly for Emi to take. She was too busy hailing a rickshaw to notice, balancing the bag of vegetables on her knee and whistling with her other. The cart-puller wheeled into the gutter, immediately identifying me as the little mistress. Blissfully, he took my suitcase and hat-box.
Emi bounded in after me, peering at me sideways with her permanently amused smile.
"Kususususu!" she cackled, hiding her teeth with her yukata sleeve. "You're all dusty! You'd better change before tea, or your mama'll never gimme the end of it."
I looked down at my once white stockings, now brownish from Seiyo's dust, and wished for a parasol. The sun shone directly into my squinting eyes, and the rickshaw lurched. Still better than the tram.
"Kusukusu," I said, using the nickname my grandmother coined as a sarcastic allusion to the way she cackled at everything. "Please pull the shade up. I do not want to go brown."
Emi attempted to balance the vegetables on her lap and pull the oiled paper cover over our heads, a two-handed job. I leaned back against the rickshaw seat with a sigh, crossing one leg over the other. A shadow passed over my face.
"Is Mother in a tiff?" I asked, jostling to and fro, yet remaining rigid. Emi sniggered again, swinging her feet inches from the floor.
"The ojou-sans are very busy these days!" Emi remarked, cryptically. If anyone overheard Emi badmouthing her mistresses, she would be out on the streets with the other droves of unemployed, searching for work that did not exist.
"It's a silk factory," I said, forgetting not to discuss affairs with servants. "They go out to Saitama once a month to inspect and do inventory. How busy can they be?"
"Not just the silk factory!" Emi was gleeful that she had crucial information over me. "They should think of your future, Little Miss. Doncha ever worry what'll happen to you?"
I closed my eyes. Before me, I saw the mechanized silk reels of our factory. I recalled tuition fees, and remembered my situation.
"You should worry about yourself," I said, peering around the oiled rickshaw cover. I caught a glimpse of the Wako building and its adjoining clock tower as we breached Ginza Crossing. Its large white face read ten to four o'clock. Teatime.
I held my hat to my head as I disembarked from the rickshaw and onto the busy street without assistance. Several shiny black automobiles wheeled down Chuo Road, no doubt carrying the elite to their summer abodes. A delivery boy on a bicycle gawked at the sight of me and narrowly missed knocking over an old lady on the street. Ignoring them both, I strode forward. I looked right into the brass peep-hole of my black front door, from which my grandmother and I so loved to spy. Empty.
The Mashiro terraced house was tall but narrow. Squashed by a butcher's shop on one side and a department store on the other, it nonetheless wore its brass cornices and rod iron sills like crowns. It boasted chipped Edwardian mouldings as though the old King himself was still alive and well.
I strode into the sunlit entryway without ringing the bell.
Its interior gave the impression of living in a boxy china cabinet. The tall windows faced onto Chuo Road to let the light and prying eyes in. Even in the entryway, Grandmother and Mother cherished their things: a narrow mahogany coat closet, two mirrors on opposing walls, a dark table adorned with scrollwork, balls of clear resin with flowers trapped in them, little animals carved from jade, porcelain figurines from England of shepherdesses and ladies and cowherds, a tall Chinese pottery umbrella stand, a coat rack draped in silk and cotton and wool, a floor tiled black-and-white like a chessboard, and a vase of pink peonies overstuffed into a paltry amount of water. Where a normal home might have a Buddhist shrine to a departed relative, we had a turn-of-the-century photorealistic painting of my grandfather. He hung irreverently on the wall in a thick gilt frame. From his smug vantage point high above everyone's head, he regarded any incoming guests over his monocle with disapproval.
I stopped to look at Grandfather today. His jaw was set, face hidden behind thick moustache and fading ink. I sometimes saw him in Mother, as more lines appeared around her mouth. I never saw any in myself.
"Kusukusu, the peonies are wanting water," I ordered. She appeared behind me, lugging my suitcase and wheezing.
She snickered at my airs. I smiled at the mirror, patting my cheeks.
"Is Mother home?"
Emi couldn't answer. A thin little bell tinkled through the house.
"Kusukusu!" a woman's voice called.
Emi dropped the suitcase at my feet, sticking her tongue out at me with glee. The bright orange mirage bounded off through the adjoining door. Thunk-thunk-thunk. Her noisy socked feet thudded up the twisting staircase, circling up and up like a main artery.
Hopping up the stairs with my suitcase, I stopped on the second-floor landing by Mother's study.
"... To get changed for tea..." Mother's voice drifted through the door.
"Yes, Ma'am." Emi's heels clicked.
I continued my pilgrimage up the carpeted stairs, all the way up to my little third-floor bedroom.
Mother had Emi occupied, and I was certainly not going to heat water for a bath myself. I sponged my face and legs off using a bit of water in the dish on my vanity, combing the sweat of travel from my fringe. I left my uniform, and all its memories, in a black, crumpled heap behind me.
"I cannot stay long," my mother said, stirring her tea. Her hair hung lank on either side of her face in a razor bob, as stick-straight as mine was churning waves. Amu expressed awe at Fujimura-sensei, the short-haired teacher who smoked cigarettes, but I always fancied Mother to be the real modern girl. She dressed as pragmatically as she dared, bare-faced in pressed silk blouses. She did the accounts herself with an abacus. She smoked when the men in the room did. She had no striking looks, but no ugliness, either. She was simply there, a wooden piece of furniture in a room I was not permitted to enter.
"I am taking supper with the overseer this evening. There looks to be a strike again," she said, more to herself than me. "On top of it all, peak cocoon season is about to begin, and last year was poor yield thanks to the pébrine outbreak, so we will have loans to pay from last fiscal year as well as this one…"
She rubbed her temple, staring right through the chinaware. I nibbled on a finger sandwich.
"The English are not buying silk like they used to," my mother continued in a mumble. "Down by half since the market crash. They prefer to do business with the Chinese. For three hundred million pounds in investments, Hell, so would I. The best bet is the domestic market, but in this awful recession..."
I took a sip of my lukewarm tea. Outside, a bush warbler landed on a thick, leafy branch, chirping.
"… And then, in the thick of all this, I get a letter from school, saying you've sneaked out." She frowned at me, like a boss giving an employee a performance review. Rima Mashiro, daughter at this company for 16 years. Sneaks out, sets off fireworks and is altogether hopeless. Liability on profits. 3/10.
"Do you have anything to say in your defence?" Mother added, sternly. I now think a normal parent might have doled out a strict punishment, solitary confinement, perhaps. But Mother (when present to preside) was a strong proponent for the right to a fair trial. I mulled over my options.
May I ask the charges for which I am accused?
I did it for love.
I have a defendant's right to counsel under detention.
"A classmate was going to run away," I said dispassionately, deciding that the less outright fabrications, the more convincing the fib. "We went to convince her otherwise."
A flicker of something like concern shadowed behind my mother's tired eyes. "Run away? Do they mistreat you at Seiyo?"
I thought of the rattan cane, and a chill settled over my back. Freedom was tantalizingly close. If I did well, I could finish school next year, and then I could return home for good. I could learn about the boring business of silk, go to the theatre, never pick up a needle again in my life. I shook my head.
"Good." My mother swilled the tea around in her cup, as though contemplating consuming it for nutrition. She seemed to think better of it, and opened an investigation, instead.
"Who tried to run away?"
"Of the Fukkatsu-sai conglomerate? Hoshina Souko-san's daughter?"
Mother only needed a moment of consideration.
"Don't get mixed up with that girl," Mother said, sternly. "I remember when her mother got seduced by a penniless violinist before you were born. They're cut from the same cloth, those two."
"Yes, Mother," I said, miserably.
We fell into a cool silence. The bush warbler pecked at the branch outside. I smoothed down the front of my frock, finishing the rest of my sandwich. Mother had assumed the same as we had— that Utau had tried to elope. I should have made it clear that Utau was running away with her brother, but even this was a dangerous amount of information.
"How old are you turning?" Mother asked me.
"Seventeen this year," I said, jarred.
Mother drummed her fingernails on the table.
"This talk is overdue, then. Seventeen already? You barely look a day past twelve. Have you given any thought to boys?"
My eyelid twitched. I could only imagine Yaya's gravelly imitation of an adult's voice through her tears of laughter if she could witness this.
'Rima-tan, consider, just for a moment: Boys. What are they?'
'Boys,' I would say, in my best impersonation of a nature documentarian. "Majestic, rare creatures, native to the steaming tropical jungles of Africa. They live in garbage heaps and forage for food-'
After four and a half months with Nagihiko, I could not say with good conscience that I had, as a matter of fact, considered boys. I found them to be lacking. Unwittingly, the memory of Nadeshiko's warm hands, holding mine too tightly as she argued passionately about The Love Suicides at Amijima, rose to the surface of my mind.
"Uh," I said.
"You cannot inherit the silk factory until you marry." She closed her eyes. "If the army continues to demand the bulk of the budget, and Britain continues not to buy our raw silk, and the banks call in our loans…"
My mother was apolitical and worshipped the free market. If the government enabled the family holdings to thrive, it was doing just fine. Why she was telling me this?
"You might find yourself penniless and without anything to inherit."
"Money is tight."
The secure floor tipped to the side. I felt like Alice, falling down a rabbit hole into a Wonderland of financial insecurity. I had no brothers. I was supposed to be an heiress. I had counted on having the power to pick my husband. My blood pumped sluggishly, and I heard the sea in my ears.
As though from far away, Mother's voice continued. "… A rich son-in-law who would pay your bride-price could be adopted into this family and solve all our problems."
"No rich man would give up his family name to run a stranger's business," I said distantly, from the precipice.
Adopting a man to be your daughter's husband was a common practice in families with unsuitable male heirs (or no male heirs at all). In the old days, it was medieval fosterage among nobility. By the time I was alive, it was mostly businesses obsessed with keeping assets in the family.
"He doesn't have to be a Rothschild, for Heaven's sakes." My mother grew quickly exasperated with me. "For a man who would bring a guaranteed market, I told the matchmaker we would consider waiving your bride-price. I would accept an Englishman or American if the prenuptial was airtight."
I remembered Father's letter, balled up in my skirt pocket upstairs. As Mother spoke, the plan wove itself into being before my eyes with a pair of needles. Both my parents, oceans apart, had manoeuvred me right into place. King-take-Queen.
"I received a letter," I stated. "From London."
My mother did not appear surprised at the abrupt subject change. "I see it reached you safely."
I wondered if she was going to beg me to stay. Instead, she just sighed.
"It's not safe here," my mother said. "It is about time your father took responsibility for the English half of his daughter. If you finish school, and we haven't found you a man you like, we will obtain you a visa."
We. My skull was full of pea soup. I knew that I was considered big at sixteen, that I was heiress to a fickle industrial trade, that Japan was not safe— even this, I knew to be crushingly true. All the same, I felt like a terrified child facing a tall doorway full of grown-ups. Married. So soon?
"I don't like boys," I said, stupidly.
"Don't be silly, Rima," my mother said, now checking her watch. "Of course you do."
As if on cue, Emi jogged in with a telephone in her hands, brandishing it in front of her with her nose facing the floor.
"That will be the sericulturist," she said, rising to her feet and leaving her undrunk tea. "I will leave you to it."
The only thing Mother left me to was my own devices. It was the last time we spoke at length, as she was out in the countryside for the rest of the summer, trying to keep the factory girls from striking. Ironically, she was left unaware of the girl on strike at home.
I had plenty more questions for Mother. Firstly, how dare she? Secondly, what kind of man was she going to set me up with? Thirdly, if money was tight, ought I to feel guilty for consuming small luxuries, like roast beef and new shoes? I knew better than to ask Grandmother, who was now getting old and crotchety, nor Emi, who was not privy to such things.
At least Emi and Grandmother could leave the house. Emi was in and out of the door like a one-man circus with lists of things, juggling grocery bags and meat parcels. She stayed when she could, cracking jokes and bringing in ridiculous things to make me smile. On more than one occasion, she burst through the front door, holding a black stray cat up by the arms and hollering.
"Look! His name is Yoru, and he eats old tuna from tins!"
Thoroughly spoilt, I decided that if nobody was going to communicate with me, I would order as many things as I liked. I sent Emi out with lists. She returned cheerfully with anything I demanded. I learnt that there was a shaved ice stand on the corner of Chuo Road, and that if I sent Emi out with a coin, she could run back with a cone before it melted. As July dripped on, I found myself with paperbacks wrapped in twine, oranges and cakes, skeins of raw silk from the factory.
It was on one of these lazy afternoons in August that I received my first gentleman caller. I was stretched attractively out on the cool tile floor of the entryway, fanning myself and eating madeleines from a tin. It was too agonizing to stay anywhere but the ground floor: the hot air rose.
The little bell on the inside of the doorway tinkled more loudly than it usually did. I twisted my head around. Grandmother was out taking tea with her gambling addiction support group. Emi was puttering about in one of the back rooms somewhere; the pots were dimly clanking.
"I have it," I announced, heroically getting to my feet. "Why is the milkman so late today?"
I decided that anyone inane enough to ring the doorbell during the hottest time of day could stand to wait on the stoop and deep-fry a little. I dragged a footstool right up to the door, clambering up to peer through the peep-hole.
Within the fisheye lens stood a tall boy in black maybe a few years older than me, shining hair combed off his head. His face was in sunlit profile. If I wasn't mistaken, he was admiring the blooming astilbes on the front walk. Definitely not the milkman.
I pulled back the deadbolt and opened the door, leaving the door chain on. Through my two-inch field of vision, I squinted up. The mystery man was wearing a formal black kimono, which could not have helped the heat. Two family crests stared at me from either shoulder. Upon closer inspection, he seemed to be breathing a little heavily, as though he had been jogging.
"Rima-chan!" the boy said in an out-of-breath tenor, putting his hands together and grinning at me. "It's been a while!"
I stared at him. Then I shut the door.
Who the hell was that?
I contemplated the deadbolt before removing the safety, allowing the door to fall fully open. Was I hallucinating?
"Pardon," I told his family crests at eye-level, politely. "Are you here to do a kendo demonstration?"
What were those crests supposed to be? Some sort of trailing flower?
"Y-you know, a nice girl would just call me handsome out of politeness and just be done with it…" he said, scratching his cheek and half-grimacing down at me.
"Nagihiko?" I asked, stupidly.
"Of course," said Nagihiko, a bit stung. "Didn't you recognize me?"
"No," I said. Then I pointed. "Hair."
He touched the stiff, waxen wing of his hair self-consciously. I could now see that it had been slicked back into what looked like a short, boyish cut with clean lines. Nagihiko reached behind the nape of his neck and pulled out his ponytail, from where it was evidently tied low and tucked into his underrobe.
Behind him, the street seemed a little more lively than usual. There were quite a few women out in kimono today, and what sounded like a shrill, elderly voice shouting indistinctly. Nagihiko's eyes darted to his back.
"Would you like… to come in?" I said, looking around his shoulder. Very slowly and pointedly, I stood aside.
"Oh, I couldn't," Nagihiko faffed, slipping through the doorway and prying my fingers off the doorknob so he could shut it. The frame shook a little. "I'd really hate to intrude."
Standing in my cluttered entryway, he looked more like the Nadeshiko I remembered with several mistakes on the part of the sculptor. Nagihiko had always been a little leggy-looking, but now he was downright tall. I used to see him eye-to-chin. Now, it was more like eye-to-collarbone.
Nagihiko hadn't realized how much he had grown, either. There was something distinctly awkward about the way he craned his neck to look down at me, as though suddenly discovering I was a Christmas elf.
"It's just me and the maid," I said, flicking my eyes head-to-toe. "You're ginormous."
"Surely not ginormous?" Nagihiko said, anxiously. The fine lines of his cheekbones and chin were beginning to peek through his once-oval face. I had no doubt that everyone would be bemoaning Nadeshiko's mature-looking beauty come autumn. I could practically hear Manami's voice shrieking 'Lukewarm and salty!' or whatever.
Nagihiko rotated on the spot, slowly taking in every detail of the room with amazement. He stopped directly opposite the door, unfortunately finding himself face-to-face with Grandfather Mashiro.
The portrait glowered down at him, no doubt rolling in his grave about letting an Imperial Kyoto shill under our sacred mercantile roof. Nagihiko stared back at the painting with mild interest.
"Not ginormous," I agreed, touching my own baby fat. While Nagihiko was distracted having a stare-off with my dead ancestors, I kicked the tin of madeleines under the carved bureau. "Come in. We can take tea in the sunroom."
The sentence sounded terribly grown-up. I rode this gleeful wave of mature hostess through the parlour and into the little conservatory, opening the twin French doors with aplomb. The afternoon sun filtered in through the gabled glass ceiling and walls, catching the light.
When I was small, we had a gardener who had filled the room with gnarled tropical trees in pots with blooming orchids and cyclamens. The flowers died when we let him go, but the trees remained, stunted yet thriving. There were only two chairs set around the little tea-table. At the time, I did not find this odd; it was only ever me and Mother, or Mother and Grandmother, or me and Grandmother— never all three at once. But in the years to come, I would note that Nagihiko's eyes had lingered on the chairs in mingled surprise before taking a delicate seat.
"Ah, you must forgive me," Nagihiko fretted, pulling his hair over his shoulder and gazing up at the glass ceiling with wonderment. The sunlight moved over his hair in cool glints, like the surface of an ocean. "I didn't even bring anything."
"You didn't," I agreed. Emi nimbly opened the door with her foot (classy), balancing the tea-tray on her elbow, the tiered stand in her other hand and two plates on her head. She must have assumed I was taking tea with Grandmother. When she saw Nagihiko, her face widened somewhat, into a delightedly confused leer.
"I suppose you will make it up somehow," I continued, boredly, as though Emi hadn't walked in. I drummed my fingernails on the table in an unconscious mimicry of my mother. "Some time this year would be excellent, Kusukusu."
Emi turned to me, placing the tiered tray down with a clatter. Her bright eyes flicked back to Nagihiko, batted, and then returned to me with a snicker. The two plates came off her head with naught but a wobble.
As though Emi was not there, I dropped a lump of sugar into my tea, followed by a splash of cream. I stared at Nagihiko, warily.
Emi snickered. Nagihiko turned to look at her, smiling politely.
"Dismissed," I said, curtly.
Obligingly, she skipped out, hiding her red face behind her sleeve. I took a gentle sip of my tea, eyeing Nagihiko's wan face over the rim. Somehow, with him on my home turf, I felt… comfortable. Relaxed.
Nagihiko tilted his head at me, putting on his classically blank, innocent smile. "For?"
"Why you are here," I added, softly.
"If you had planned to call on me, you would have brought a gift, for wont of us thinking the Fujisakis rude," I interrupted, helping myself to a sticky bun and sawing it in half so I could butter it. Nagihiko seemed to eye them apprehensively, as though he had never seen bread before.
"You would have come as Nadeshiko, because it is less questionable. You would not have dressed so formally. You would have telephoned ahead, or written, I suppose. There were more people on the street today, as though they were looking for something. Or someone."
Nagihiko looked right at me. Slowly, he pulled his untouched tea forward on its saucer, gazing into its carnelian depths and carefully turning it once round. He took a tentative sip.
"What is this?" he said, aghast.
"Assam," I said. "Hurry up."
"You are correct," Nagihiko said, before taking another careful sip. "I was at a marriage meeting."
I choked on my sticky bun, and pounded my chest. Eyes watering, I looked up. "Pardon?"
"I was at a marriage meeting," Nagihiko repeated, almost savouring my reaction. He ripped the corner off a bun with delicate care, like a monkey trying to pretend it knew how to eat. "With a girl. I am still a man, you know. Time is ticking."
Have you ever considered boys? Boys. Boys reside in the jungles of the city, feeding on birdseed and corn. Boys. What are they? We just don't know.
"It must have gone excellently," I said, "For you to come running to my door like this."
"Oh, it was splendid," said Nagihiko warmly. "She will make a man very happy someday."
"Humour me." I stirred my tea. "What sort of man will she make happy?"
"One who prefers his girls teary," said Nagihiko, with a hennish cluck. "She is the youngest daughter of a well-renowned Kabuki actor who resides in the new capital. They shoved her into the garden with her fan positioned in front of her face, so that nobody could see her puffy red eyes. I thought I would spare her the agony of my presence." A glint of pearly teeth. "So, when everybody was busy looking at the koi, I jumped the gate."
"What does she think to accomplish, dragging her heels to slaughter?" I remarked. "Marriage comes for us all. Better to accept it than to snivel."
"How utilitarian of you," Nagihiko said, dryly. "Is there not the smallest part of Mashiro-san that believes in fated love?"
"The inexorable destiny of you and Puffy-Eyes, you mean?" I enquired sarcastically in my tiny voice. Since mother's chat, I had made up my mind. "Pretending marriage is anything more than a business transaction is naïve."
"Of course," said Nagihiko. I did not expect the Queen of Schmaltz to agree with me. Then, pointedly—
"But I was not asking about marriage."
"It does not matter what I believe in," I said, feeling hot. My heart hammered behind my ribs. Time is ticking, time is ticking. Money is tight.
"It does to me," Nagihiko insisted. "If marriage satisfied everyone, we would not have mistresses. Every man who can afford it takes one, don't they? The wife is the business transaction, and the mistress is the… ah—"
He cut off upon finding me stark white, little fist gripped around my teaspoon as though I would like nothing more than to lunge across the table and gouge his eyeballs out. The vestige of an older habit, I was determined not to let Nagihiko know that he had wormed under my skin.
Nagihiko cleared his throat, awkwardly.
"The weather is terribly hot," he remarked, slipping his haori off his shoulders. "I may have imposed on your kindness."
His eyes glanced up at mine, a careful up-and-down. I took his well-disguised apology at its word, putting the spoon down and uncrossing my ankles. Unwelcome prickles of heat stabbed the back of my eyeballs and threatened to burn around the rims. I stared down the barrel of my impending, loveless future, and had the urge to do something reckless.
"No imposition," I said, re-crossing my legs so one was draped over my knee. The corner of my slippered foot grazed Nagihiko's leg.
"You might notice that women do not take mistresses. The privilege of loving belongs to men alone."
Nagihiko looked well and truly stumped at this. However much I might like to be proved wrong— love was such a pretty notion, the thing of kabuki plays and fairy stories— I worried for Nagihiko's sheltered, romantic upbringing, and hoped he would have a little acumen.
"Rima," Nagihiko said in an alluringly low voice, leg moving under my foot as he leant forward. His hair slithered over his shoulder and onto his black breast. "Are you crying?"
I leaned into his new, long face, gazing at him vacantly through my damp eyelashes. He gazed up at me through the tiered tray with a face I knew well, of a man staring into the sun. His mouth was slightly open, and his brown eyes were wide.
"They're fake," I said, deadpan. "Got you."
The sunroom door swung open on its creaky brass hinges. "Rima?"
My mother stood in the doorway, a terrifying five-seven vision in crochet lace gloves and a sweeping day-dress. Emi fidgeted behind her, holding a brimmed hat. She made a slit-throat motion.
"Good afternoon, Mother," I said, calmly, not bothering to lean back in my seat again. I was pressed right up against the edge of the tea-table, hands braced against it.
"Who is this?" She gestured to Nagihiko's back. My heart sank.
I stared at Nagihiko. Nagihiko stared at me. Emi stared at her own reflection in the window, and began pulling faces.
"Fujisaki-san is the brother of a friend," I said, hiding my losing hand of cards behind an empty face. "He happened to be in Ginza, so he dropped in."
For a terrible minute, I worried she wouldn't buy the lie. I ought to have known better. Any child of strict parents knows that lying becomes a second skin.
"Fujisaki, of the Fujisaki house?" my mother asked, extending a hand. I felt as though we were all having a business meeting on a live wire.
"The same," Nagihiko said without batting an eyelash, standing up to shake her hand. I gave my mother a startled stare. What did my rigid mother know of Kabuki?
"Fujisaki Aoi IV's troupe used to buy their silk from my father's mill," my mother remarked dispassionately. "It shipped to Hiroshima for dyeing, of course."
Nagihiko's eyes widened, and I felt a jolt of foreboding. Oh, noooo.
"Pardon for the sudden question, but… the portrait in the entryway isn't of the Mashiro-san of Mashiro Silk Holdings, is it?"
I rolled my eyes at Emi, unimpressed with the flattery. Emi crossed her eyes back at me.
"It is," said my mother, never happy but distinctly proud. "Rima's grandfather."
Nagihiko turned to me, mock-surprised. "My sister never told us! Surely she would have known?"
"I cannot see how it is relevant to anything," I said, decapitating the conversation.
A hush settled over the sunny little room. I got to my feet, admiring the floor all the while, and bobbed a little half-curtsy.
"We will take our leave, Mother."
I felt Nagihiko's dark eyes on my sticky back all the way up the open-well staircase. The heat was suffocating by the third landing, but Nagihiko stubbornly refused to loosen his kimono.
"It's warm," I said, grateful for the short sleeves and breeze under my skirt. I wiped the back of my neck with my handkerchief. "Who is looking?"
"You," Nagihiko said. I could imagine his face taking the shape of the mask I called distress: eyebrows pulled together, brows embracing, eyelids pulled up, lower lip out. "That is my worry."
I took a few dainty steps into my bedroom. Nagihiko flirted with the doorway, uncertain. I beckoned him towards me.
"You have scruples in my childhood home," I needled. "How comforting."
Nagihiko glanced up at the moulded ceiling, and back to my eyes. Lifting his kimono in one hand, he glided round the rocking-horse and dollhouse on the floor. He took a fluid seat through the cloud of disturbed dust and frowned at me.
"Well, I'm Nagihiko today, you see."
My features settled into a strange expression. I picked up a round music box, assuming Nagihiko would be the type to like such things.
"Mother isn't old-fashioned like that. She cares little of my honour, so long as I demand my price. And anyway," I added, in a low voice, "The maid is probably outside the door, making sure you aren't r—"
"Demand your price," Nagihiko talked over me. "Your bride-price. Like what the fortune-teller said."
It was a strange thing for him to recall in such a moment. I turned over my shoulder, thinking the same thing he was: if Saeki Nobuko could know this without being told, what else did she know?
You will die in a land far from your home, with blood in your mouth.
"Oh, come now," I said, reading Nagihiko's eyes. "It was a lucky guess."
His eyes left mine, leaving me frustrated at lack of insight. He still seemed a little fidgety.
"What about your father?" Nagihiko added, anxiously.
"Hm?" I said, absently twiddling with the key.
"I don't think any father wants to think there's been a man in his daughter's room."
I raised my eyes from the gilt, having the pride to look affronted. "Firstly, you aren't a man, so jot that down."
Nagihiko mockingly mimed plucking an ink brush and poised his pinched fingers over an invisible sheaf of paper before him.
"Secondly, you shan't worry. He lives…"
I trailed off. My fingertips worried at the metal.
"He's not here," I murmured.
Nagihko's joints cracked as he got to his feet. His breath on the back of my neck tickled the baby hairs.
"Did he give that to you?"
Even the nice way he said it felt like a crowbar cracking me open. Nonetheless, he stood at my mercy, so I felt it well-mannered to be an honest host.
I pointed to the wide-eyed English doll in the china cabinet, dusty lashes framing wide blue eyes. "That, too. And the dollhouse." My nails scrabbled in the grooves of the music box. "This, also. And the rocking-horse, and the pearls on the bureau."
"So little Rima-chan is spoiled." Nagihiko's smile came back. I thought of Amu's doing the same thing— slowly at first, and then like the sun.
"My father did the same thing when I was little. I think he felt sorry for leaving me alone when he travelled, so he tried to make it up to me."
I put down the music box. My shoulders relaxed, though my jaw didn't.
"No," Nagihiko agreed. "But when I grew older, I could look at the situation through his eyes, and understand that a hollow gesture is preferable to the agony of doing nothing."
"Doing nothing is preferable to the insult of the thing." My voice cracked.
Nagihiko put a hand on my shoulder. It was not authoritatively planted at the junction between neck and scapula, like a father would, nor condescendingly steering my elbow. Instead it grazed the rounded curve of my upper arm, less an order and more a suggestion. I looked up to tell him off, but found a friendly face, frowning in innocent concern instead.
"Sit down, Mashiro-san," he said, soothingly. I let him guide me into the armchair, hands still clutching the music box with white fingers.
"Perhaps this is out-of-line—" he began.
"But I asked you, last spring, for your loyalty."
"I gave it freely," I reminded him, from my throne of authority.
A soft flump of knees hitting Oriental carpet. Nagihiko sunk to his knees before me like a daimyo's retainer, with the sort of aggressive air that suggested he might put his sword before me if he had one. His hands braced against the wool, and his hair slid off his shoulder as he leaned forward.
"As I did mine," he said, mannishly. "I have pride, you know. You have not used me in any way to repay the debt I owe."
I deeply enjoyed Nagihiko at my feet on his knees, and couldn't help but straighten my back a little, staring down at him.
"Debt? Do you refer to the burden of concealing your sex?"
I thought back to all the strange little kindnesses— the yukata, dancing to my koto, cool hands on my back, making ink. A debt? My stomach sank.
"How do I repay it?" I asked, stiffly. "It's an inconvenience."
"Confide in me," Nagihiko said forcefully, from the rug. "I troubled you, with the talk of mistresses. So, confide in me."
For a fake girl, he was terribly arrogant. Confide in me, he says, to absolve himself of guilt. Lay yourself bare for my peace of mind.
"No," I said— tried to. Instead, I pulled my knees to my chest in the chair, pressing my chin into the tops of my knees, and opened the music box. The rusty, click-like notes settled into the dusty room like they belonged there. I narrowed my eyes at the rotating ballerina figurine in its centre, as though this was all her fault.
I closed it, and the last high C clanked out to dismal nothing.
"My father does not care that you are standing in my room because he is a foreigner," I said without passion, clutching the music box to my breast and feeling the comforting, cold stab of metal. The blackness of my eyelids was blissful.
"He was stationed in Tokyo as a diplomat, and married the daughter of a textile magnate. A year later, he was recalled to London. … Showing," I added, bitterly, "Just how meaningless alliances are."
"You told me to confide," I said, opening my eyes. "I am confiding. As I was saying. Did you know that diplomats cannot legally marry Japanese nationals?"
"I didn't," Nagihiko said, averting his eyes again.
"He was recalled to London, with nothing to hold him back," I repeated, with vehemence. "And left us here. He did not even stay long enough to see me born. I don't even know what his face looks like. So, you see, my mother is a mistress, and ruined for it. And I am, as the fraud said, lowborn. How convenient for you."
Nagihiko's eyes flicked back to me, settling back into seiza at my feet. The confused mask settled easily into his features, like distress, but wider eyes and an open mouth.
"Your mother would not throw a well-born girl in with her son, but a mixed-blood bastard is disposable enough." The air sucked between Nagihiko's teeth at the rude word. I did not mean to, but all the resentment at Fujisaki-sensei came bursting forth like water from a dam. "You could do whatever you like to me, and get away with it."
It might have not been the best idea to insinuate Nagihiko was a philanderer, insofar as he had been rakish at worst and a gentleman at best. To my immediate regret, I saw Nadeshiko's warm eyes fill with tears.
"That's cruel, Rima-chan!"
Her hands bunched at her own hakama. I could barely see the arrogant boy there seconds ago, nor whether the tears were fake or not. Curse the mask.
"Just because I could doesn't mean I will. Should I think the same way my parents do, always? Is that how you see me– my mother's arm?"
I started to talk, but Nadeshiko was still going.
"I don't," she said, teetering on the edge of a fury she was not used to. "I don't think of Mashiro-san that way. A lady is a lady, no matter blood or circumstance."
I did not know what to say to this, and could only look at him, aghast, and mutter something indistinct. Nadeshiko turned to the mirror and immediately began dabbing at her pink eyes with her sleeve, looking flustered.
It was not Nadeshiko's fault she did not like me and regarded me as her debtor. But it was also not my fault that she happened to have a reptile for a mother.
Apologizing did not come easy to me. I cast my eyes about for anything else to give in repentance. Spotting a glittery object, I began to inch it towards her before Nadeshiko turned to smile at me.
"No need," she said, cheeks pink. "If I did whatever I wanted to you, you would gouge my eyes out and give me a terrible scolding."
I was a debtor, but I felt rather chummy nonetheless.
"If I did whatever I wanted to you," I said, imagining pouring bathwater over her head when she started going on about poetry, "You would be sopping wet most of the time."
"What?" said Nadeshiko.
The bush warbler from a few days ago called out in the silence. A piercing voice came through the propped-open window.
"Nagihiko!" a woman's voice called, familiar, from countless school speeches. Nagihiko froze, still pinkish, and began stuffing his arms through his hakama.
"Mother," he said. "I have intruded long enough, I think."
He took my hands in his. This time, I let him.
"I will see you on the train?"
He would. But I dreaded the sheer thought of it.
Quick-posting this one, warts and all, before I dash off to the Sunshine Coast for the long weekend. Thank you for your patience! Glad to be back.