The chatter arrived before he did. Shoma heard it one fine day, as the wind rattled the willows by the vicarage and they entered the town square and the market therein. Their mother had sent them for aubergines, chard, garlic, and berries. Mrs. Uno was having Cook attempt Western style meals again, which Shoma, Itsuki, and Mr. Uno all tacitly said nothing about. Their mother insisted, despite the fact everyone else would have preferred sashimi or yakiniku, or even miso soup. English food was so bland it made Shoma’s eyes water, and whenever guests visited they preferred Japanese food.
The air hummed as Shoma wound their way through the market. People talked as usual, yes, but they were talking about a particular person. Shoma was so absorbed, listening to Miss Bourne say how he was the mysterious heir to the Orser Estate, come home at last, that they didn’t see her.
“Shoma! I’m right here!”
Shoma curtseyed to their friend, who curtseyed back.
“I’m sorry, Kaori,” Shoma said.
“You were listening to the gossip, weren’t you?”
Their mother always told them not to listen to gossip. It was rude and uncouth. A genteel person did not involve themselves in such things. Fortunately, they had a friend like Kaori Sakamoto, who loved gossip, though, she was still very much a lady and Shoma would slap anyone who said otherwise.
“His name is Javier Fernández,” Kaori said. “He’s supposed to arrive today at the Orser Estate. They say he’s very charming and handsome. All the ladies are in a tizzy, talking about marriage. It’s silly if you ask me. He’s probably ugly and has bad manners.”
“Hm,” Shoma responded.
They’d gotten their fill of gossip and were very much focused on the mound of strawberries before them. Deep, almost blood red, the air around them sweet and sticky. Making sure Miss Bourne was not watching, Shoma picked one up and bit into it. Strawberries were their favorite, and summer strawberries, succulent and decadent, the best.
“Oh you’re not even listening,” Kaori said.
“O’m wisning,” Shoma said around a strawberry.
“Have a strawberry while Miss Bourne isn’t looking.”
“You are naughty Shoma, but that’s why I am so fond of you.”
They were stuffing strawberries covertly into their mouths when a ruckus arouse at the other end of the town square. A man on a giant, velvet black stallion reined the horse in, saying: “Woah.” He dismounted and lead the great animal.
He was polite, tipping his hat to the men and bowing to the ladies. He waited, smiling, and without a thread of impatience while old Mrs. Brown and her son crossed slowly in front of him.
He was slender, but sturdy. Well dressed, in a green waistcoat and a matching brown tailcoat, his neck-cloth creamy and well fashioned. And he was handsome, with a square jaw and brown eyes the same color as Mr. Woodhouse’s honey. Shoma realized this with a bright blaze of panic as the man came towards them. Their mouth was still stuffed with strawberries, and they could feel a trickle oozing past their lips, most unladylike.
“Good day, ladies,” the man bowed to them and Kaori as he passed.
“Wewllow,” Shoma managed, with a curtsey.
The man laughed, not unkindly. The sound was so sunny it made Shoma feel like lying down on the ground in a faint, if it weren’t for the fact they were dribbling on themselves and wanted to die of disgrace.
Shoma swallowed the stolen strawberries as the man left. They looked at their dress, lavender colored with a dark spray of flowers up the side, and wondered what lie they would tell their mother about the pink streak down the front.
“We’ll get it out,” Kaori said, taking her friend’s hand.
They exited the town market and square for Kaori’s house. All the while people were murmuring excitedly and wondering if that was the Orser heir.