Even just standing outside the gate to the Watanabe estate, Shouichirou could tell that his first impression hadn’t misled him – marrying into this family would be a major step up for the Tsurugi family. It was easily the largest estate in the entire neighbourhood, and not because its surroundings were poor, no. But alas, that was not why he was here, and the weather was too cold to idle in order to marvel at prime real estate, so he crossed the threshold and made his way towards the main house.
He was respectfully greeted by servants who took his cloak and hat before ushering him towards a splendid room. It was lined on three sides with artfully painted sliding doors, covered in magnolia flowers and herons captured in delicate brushstrokes on pale gold. In the room’s centre, sitting on one side of a table, were Watanabe and what must be his daughter. Shouichirou bowed, then went to take his place across from them.
Even if this was not a marriage interview set-up by matchmaker services, he was surprised to find no-one else present but the girl and her father, but it left him able to focus on the person who had facilitated this in the first place more easily.
“Thank you for having me,” he said with a smile and another bow, and glancing up, he caught the girl’s lively eyes for a moment, before she cast them down, fidgeting slightly. She was no doubt very pretty, her long hair half pulled back and tied with a ribbon matching her exquisite silk kimono, but she also was very young. Too young for his tastes to be married, really, even if Tominaga might have disagreed.
He had half expected that seeing her in person might trigger a memory of having met her before after all, maybe briefly bumping into her in the street, but no such thing.
“Thank you for coming all this way,” Watanabe said, pulling Shouichirou’s focus back to him. The small crease between his brows spoke volumes of what he really thought of the whole affair, even though at least this time, Shouichirou could be certain he cut a much better figure.
As soon as Katsuko had learned of the fact that he had landed an entirely unexpected offer for an omiai from a respectable family, she had been on high alert, making sure his best kimono was sent out to the cleaners and kept there until right before he got dressed, so it wouldn’t telegraph miso-merchant by smell. And before he left the house, she had personally given him a final once-over with eagle-eyed precision, checking for any stray uncombed hair and spots missed during shaving.
“This is not that serious an offer,” Shouichirou had tried to curb her enthusiasm, if only to make the inevitable bad news that would follow less harsh.
“You can’t say that in advance,” she had argued, hands on her hips. Even with her standing on the step of the genkan, he was still slightly taller than her, but that did not stop her from doing her best to tower over him. “You really need to try harder, young master.”
He had only given a non-comittal hum in response.
“As I have told you on our previous encounter, my daughter Ayame wished to meet you, Tsurugi-san,” Watanabe explained.
“And I am very flattered and humbled by the request.” Again, he caught the girl looking at him intently before assuming a more proper expression. Interesting. He decided to address her directly. “Watanabe-san, your father mentioned we have crossed paths recently, and I must say I am at fault for not remembering a pretty young lady such as you.”
Her head jerked up, and for the first time, he saw colour rise to her cheeks.
“Oh,” she said, flustered, one hand coming up to brush some of the unbraided hair back behind her ear. “I mean, you might not have noticed me, Tsurugi-san, I just saw you from where I was sitting in a café with friends as you passed by in company of some other gentlemen.”
“I see.” He smiled, which seemed to lessen her nervousness, as she mirrored the expression. “I have to admit, I wouldn’t have imagined to catch the eye of a distinguished lady such as you.”
“But you’re a handsome man, Tsurugi-san,” the girl responded instantly, eyes bright and earnest, and Shouichirou saw her father actually flinch at the brazen declaration.
“Ayame–” he scolded, just in the moment as the girl beamed with the enthusiasm of a sudden flash of inspiration.
“I’ve heard you’re a talented painter, too, isn’t that right? Oh, you must absolutely see our garden, it’s beautiful–” she turned towards her father, clasping his arm, seemingly oblivious to how he visibly vibrated with a mixture of indignation and being overwhelmed by her energy, “Father, please, may I show him? Just for a bit, I’m sure it’ll be lovely!”
Shouichirou watched in stunned silence as the man who had been so stern in their conversation opened his mouth, then closed it, then just nodded weakly. The girl practically sprang to her feet, smoothing out the wrinkles in her hakama with one hand, gesturing him to rise with the other.
“Please come along, Tsurugi-san!”
He tried to check in with her father, but the man just sighed, rubbing his eyes. The image of defeat, Shouichirou thought with some sympathy as he got up to follow the exuberant girl, who had already crossed the room and opened the plain paper sliding doors which led to a spacious terrace walkway. No doubt this stately room was even more welcoming in summer, opening up to the garden like that. Shouichirou followed her outside, deliberately not closing the doors behind him so that the concerned father could have an eye on them.
And the girl had been right, it was a lovely garden – spacious and thought-through in its layout, with stone paths winding through sculpted isles of flower-bushes and trees, sprawling so wide that one could not make out more than one of the walls surrounding the estate at a time.
He had painted a similar scenery before, a commission from a long-time customer who had wanted “a painting to hang in my offices to impress business partners, you know, one that looks like it’s from a true master, but won’t cost me a year’s worth of income”, the kind of social prestige pragmatism Shouichirou could support wholeheartedly.
However, different from what he had rendered in the lush foliage of early summer, it was now December, and except for the sturdy evergreen pine trees, the garden lay draped in a patchy blanket of fading oranges, browns and grey, barren branches clawing at the heavily overcast sky above. It would make quite a somber, maybe even depressing piece of artwork.
The melancholic atmosphere didn’t seem to dampen the girl’s spirits, however. By the time he had looked around to find some wooden sandals to put on, she had already made her way down one of the paths towards a large pond, waving at him to hurry up. He caught up with her by the water’s edge.
Now that they were standing close, he noted that she was a petite girl, barely reaching up to his chest. Her entire delicate frame seemed to be brimming with energy, and she reminded him even more of child now. No, he could never consider marrying someone like her.
“Watanabe-san,” he began patiently, just as the water to their feet suddenly came alive. Looking down, he saw a mass of koi of all colours splashing and winding, forming a sea of large gaping mouths and flapping fins. “I see they like you.”
“Obviously,” she laughed, reaching into the sleeve of her exquisite kimono and to his surprise and amusement pulled out a bag of fish food. She threw a handful of it into the water, and they both watched the ensuing frenzy for a moment.
When she turned to look at him, her expression was more composed than before, a sincere urgency in her eyes.
“I have to apologise to you, Tsurugi-san,” she said quietly, bowing her head, “for asking you here under false pretences.”
Now, that was an interesting declaration.
“Is that so?” he prompted, keeping his tone neutral.
“Yes, and I am sorry for deceiving you. I assure you, my father did not know about it.”
That explained her dragging him out to see a barren garden in the middle of winter.
“I have to admit, I was very surprised to hear about someone I had never seen falling in love with me,” Shouichirou said lightly, stretching out his hand in silent request. The girl blinked, then understood and handed him the bag of fish food. “I hope this story did not make the rounds; certain people will never let me live that down.”
She bowed deeper this time, looking genuinely troubled.
“I truly am sorry, Tsurugi-san, and I promise I did not tell anyone other than my father!”
“I’m joking, Watanabe-san.” Shouichirou smiled and crouched down to let the food trickle down by the water’s edge, feeling the fish slither by under his fingertips, scales cold and sharp. “I don’t care about rumours. But what would you have done if I had taken the request seriously? I might have insisted to pursue the marriage after all.”
“Father would never make me marry someone I didn’t want to,” she said, in the tone of absolute conviction. Then, after a small pause, and much more quietly: “Also, I thought had it on good authority that you weren’t, well, interested in marrying a woman–”
“Oh, is that so?” Shouichirou interrupted, and he could see the girl fluster.
“I mean, I’m terribly sorry if you thought this was more serious and I’m wrong–”
“You aren’t wrong per se, no. I must admit, though, I do wonder just who that reliable source of your information is.”
“A friend of mine heard it from Asano Youko-san,” she replied with the instant straight-forwardness of someone used to honesty, and Shouichrou couldn’t help but laugh.
“I see, the young miss of Asanoya, I shouldn’t have been surprised.” He rose, drying off his hands on his haori, only belatedly realising Katsuko would probably get mad at him dirtying it when it was just so recently cleaned. “So, pray tell, then: why did you urge your father to set up an omiai for you with a man you know would not be interested? Is your father hurrying to marry you off and you wanted to stall?”
“Not at all, I really had to beg him to allow me this request in the first place.” She cast a look over her shoulder towards the veranda, and as Shouichirou followed her glance, he saw Watanabe standing on the porch, observing them closely. “He is very protective of me, you see.”
“I can see he cares for your wishes deeply. After all, he was even willing to let you get this far in entertaining a candidate for marriage who is as inferior in status as I am.” The girl opened her mouth to protest, but he smiled and cut her off: “It’s true, I’m from a merchant family, and not even the proper heir. Your father definitely indulged you in coming to me with a request like that, you should know that.”
She lowered her gaze, and seemed to reflect on it for the brief moment of youth being told off before instantly moving on, bound to make the same mistake again. Not that he knew the exact look from personal experience, of course.
“Now then, Watanabe-san, if it wasn’t pressure from your father, and not you falling for me, then why all this?”
“I didn’t see another way of contacting you,” she said, evidently relieved they could move on to her actual agenda. “I told you that I heard about you, Tsurugiya-san, and I don’t mean just about the, uhm, marriages.” She flustered again, clearly not quite as brazen as young miss Asanoya. “I also heard stories about how you’ve been embroiled in quite the number of strange events, those involving talk about involvement of supernatural forces, even.”
Her voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, and she leant in closer, looking at him with wide eyes.
“Is that true, Tsurugi-san?”
“I wonder about that,” he replied casually. No doubt those stories had also come from Asanoya-san. Honestly, this girl. “What if it was true?”
“Then I want to ask, no, beg you for your help,” the girl said, gravely earnest. “A dear friend of mine has fallen victim to a horrible curse, Tsurugi-san.”
It was obvious that the girl was entirely serious, having gone through such lengths just to ask him here, a stranger she only knew from rumours, on the off-chance he might be able to help.
“I am no expert in the supernatural, Watanabe-san, although I have encountered it. I cannot promise I'll be able to do something for this person, but please, do tell me, and I'll do my best to try if I can help in any way.”
The bright smile that lit up the girl’s face in response would be enough to overwhelm most men, Shouichirou thought, listening to her relay the story to him, words bubbling forth with a speed and urgency that betrayed how long she had been holding them back.
By the time they returned to the house, even Shouichirou felt quite chilly. Ayame breezed past her father, saying something about going to order some tea from the kitchen to warm them up, and it was Shouichirou who was left to face the full glare of judgement of Watanabe.
“She’s a very unusual girl, your daughter,” he told the man jovially. “But I’m afraid meeting me in person has thoroughly disillusioned her in terms of actually wanting to marry me.”
He could see Watanabe’s frown smooth out almost instantly.
“Is that so. What a pity.”
“Indeed. But nevertheless, I thank you for the invitation, and I’d be happy to maintain a friendly relationship from here on out.”
He might not go home with a bride, Shouichirou thought, but netting himself a good business contact was more useful, anyway.