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It smelled of fish oil, but at least it was quiet. Kneeling behind one of the barrels, he balanced a rough plank on two crates to serve as a desk. He carefully set out his tools – writing brush, ink stone, ink container, paper, and, after some hesitation, the puzzle box off to one side. A Crane would have sneered, of course. The paper was not hanzi, but some rough-cut stock that he’d asked of the servant. The ink container was missing a corner, and the ink stone had broken in two. And his fude – he looked disconsolately at the state of the bristles, which had clearly seen better days. He’d wrapped everything carefully enough, but hard use had taken its toll, and he’d had no opportunity to replace them.

It did not matter. It had to be done, and quickly, for he felt that he might not be given another chance.

He struggled through the letter for Yonaka, going through four sheets of paper before he could wrestle both his thoughts and his characters into some sort of order. With a sigh he sat back, waiting for the ink to dry. The brush felt clumsy in his hand, and though he knew it was unjust, he felt a wave of resentment for the training that made it so easy for him to destroy, and so much harder to create.

The rain was still falling, and the warehouse had grown quite humid. The muted shouts of the gaijin workers drifted in, the guttural language bringing to mind wild dogs quarreling over a kill. In the dim light the low ceiling seemed to press down on him. He moved the letter aside, glanced at the puzzle box, and experimentally traced the character for “beauty” on a fresh sheet.

The world fell away. He saw only the brush, and the paper, and the graceful black characters forming swiftly in smooth strokes. His brush danced in his hand, performing a kata of its own creation. A flute was playing far away, and the smell of cherry blossoms filled his nostrils. He forgot the ache in his legs, and his longing for home, and for a few precious minutes he was neither happy nor unhappy. He simply was.

He looked up with a start. The door to the warehouse had opened, and some of the short hairy gaijin came in, jabbering at each other and filling the warehouse with the scent of pipe smoke. They fell silent as he got to his feet, gathering his papers and his writing tools and finally, the puzzle box, which he put in his sleeve. He nodded to them briefly and went out on the porch, hearing their conversation start up again behind him. Before heading out into the rain he separated the papers, keeping the one meant for Yonaka close at hand, and stowing the rest carefully with his re-wrapped writing kit. He wasn’t sure what he dared do with them, but that was not something he wanted to think about right now.

He stepped off the porch and into the rain.