1-3 Keika called from the living room. “Miss, supper is served.”
Shushou put down her writing brush. She glanced over the sheets of seemingly random scribbling, gathered them up, and stuffed them into the bookcase. She was cleaning the ink stone when the door opened and Keika stuck her head into the room.
“Miss, is it true the headmaster was killed?”
“And yet you continue to study! School has been suspended, has it not?”
Keika was a live-in maid, a year older than Shushou. She was one of a class of servants that weren’t paid a salary, but were reared as members of the family. In exchange for a minimal guarantee of room and board, they were granted a minimal but real standing. This wasn’t to say that none of the servants in Shushou’s house were paid a wage, but the gap in social status was considerable.
Keika was the child of such a live-in maid. Installed in the Sou estate by her parents, she’d been working there as a maidservant since she was little. Despite her status, having been raised together from a young age made her presence a relaxed and familiar one, and being so close in age to Shushou, all the more so.
“Such turns of events are becoming commonplace to an unsettling degree. But we cannot allow ourselves to mope.”
“I’m not moping about anything.”
“That may be so, but you said you wished to take your dinner in your room.”
“I don’t particularly want to look at my father’s face right now.”
“Ah,” Keika said with a dubious expression. She hauled Shushou to her feet and marched her into the living room. The evening meal was already set out on the dining table.
“Your father has been delighted with your progress. And to think he once mightily objected to your going onto the prefectural academy.”
Shushou sat down and surveyed the table settings. “That he did.”
“Does it really matter all that much? You can study here at home, can’t you? Your father can always hire a tutor.”
Shushou went to pick up her chopsticks and sighed instead. “The tutors my father hires teach nothing but etiquette and business. Besides, without a recommendation to the district academy, the whole matter is moot.”
The prefectural academies prepared students for the district academies, which prepared students for the provincial colleges. College graduates were pretty much guaranteed a position in the civil service. In short, her merchant father could never quite grasp that Shushou wished to try for a career in government.
“It’s so frustrating! I was that close to becoming a district scholar,” as students who’d received a recommendation to a district academy were known.
“But you’ve come so far already! Not only your father, but even your brothers and sisters were perfectly satisfied with a preparatory school education.”
“I don’t think were so much satisfied as they didn’t have the brains to earn a recommendation to the prefectural academy.”
Keika gave Shushou a surprised look. “That again. Certainly you cannot begrudge the knowledge and skills that made this fine house possible. Why in the world would you want to become a civil servant?”
Shushou took a sip of tea and stared out the window. “Rise high enough in the government and you will never grow older.”
“My, my. What a childish aspiration.”
“What wrong with not wanting to die? To live forever and not turn out like your mom, all baggy and wrinkled.”
“Don’t be mean. Leave my mother out of this, if you please.” Keika frowned, then peered at Shushou’s face. “Are you going to eat?”
“I’m not in the mood. I lost my appetite.”
“What are you going on about?” Keika picked up the chopsticks and thrust them into Shushou’s hand. “Such persnicketiness invites the wrath of the gods. Food is getting more expensive by the day. The average household cannot even afford the meager meal spread out before you.”
Shushou looked at the array of dishes. “That’s just silly,” she said, putting the chopsticks down.
“I have no illusions about how wealthy we are compared to everybody else. No ordinary family could afford something like this. But whether I eat or not is neither here nor there.”
“You’re just going to leave it there? There are so many who would love to partake of such a feast and cannot. And not only that, there are people who won’t even be able to eat dinner tonight!”
“And?” Shushou looked up at Keika. “I know that. As my father likes to say, if you stay shut up inside the house and never venture outside, you’ll never learn anything about the world. Going to school and meeting different people makes it painfully clear that other families aren’t like ours.”
“And so nothing. The one has no relationship to the other. Will eating this meal cause equal portions to rain down on those who go without? If the hungry are so pitiful, then take this food and give it to them.”
“Pardon me for saying so, Miss, but even this is far more luxurious than what I will ever eat.”
The kitchen workload had only increased of late. Keika and the rest of the live-in servants had seen cutbacks in their own meals. She was a growing girl, and the portions had never been generous to start with, so it was not unusual for her to wake up at night with an empty stomach these days.
She glared angrily at Shushou, who raised her cool countenance to Keika and said, “It’s all yours, then.”
“Miss!” Keika exclaimed in a shrill voice.
“Look,” Shushou said, a chastening tint darkening her eyes. “The headmaster’s house had no bars on the windows. He was attacked by a bafuku youma and devoured. A child fed himself for three days with the money he plucked from the mouth of his dead father, money earned delivering buckets. You sleep safely in your bed. You eat regularly and do not starve. I hope you appreciate how blessed you are.”
Keika bridled. “What are you trying to say?”
“If you are going to feign ignorance of the obvious, then at least spare me the hackneyed moralizing. I don’t want it. Take it away, all of it.”
Now Keika’s face paled. “Miss, what’s gotten into you!”
No sooner had Keika’s anger flared but Shushou grabbed the soup bowl, rose to her feet, and threw it at her. “Shut up! I told you I didn’t want it!”
Keika stood there in stunned silence. The soup had cooled enough that it was no longer scalding. The greater shock was that the bowl had been hurled at her at all.
“W-what—did you do that for—?”
Tears welled up in misery and mortification. She bent over and wiped the broth from her cuffs and sleeves of her padded kimono. But it was already soaking into the fabric. The live-in servants did not receive a wage. They could count on room and board, but not clothing. Twice a year, the master gave them fresh fabric, but a growing girl like Keika soon outgrew her wardrobe.
On top of that, the manual labor done by the live-in servants day-in and day-out soon left their clothing threadbare. They patched the worn spots, sewed split seams back together, and made do. Once an article of clothing was beyond repair, it was either wait for somebody to take pity and part with a hand-me-down, or dip into the master’s New Year’s celebration allowance and have new clothing made.
She just had the outfit made from fabric she’d received at New Year’s. Choking back sobs, she brushed off the minced vegetables and pieces of meat. Shushou grabbed her hand.
“I’m sorry!” Shushou fetched a hand towel and wiped down her dress. “I’m sorry, Keika. Is it hot?”
“Um, no, it’s not hot, but—”
“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
Keika rubbed her face. As a servant, she’d been out of place taking Shushou to task. She dried her tears and blinked her vision into focus. Kneeling at her feet, Shushou looked up at Keika apologetically.
“I’m really sorry. I’m just not in a very good mood.”
“You’d better take this off. Maybe you got burned.”
“I’m fine. It was only warm.”
“You can’t very well return to you living quarters like this. It’s freezing cold outside. You’ll catch your death. Wait here. I’ll get you a change of clothes.”
Shushou ran to her room, banged around her closets, and returned with a pretty silk kimono. She held it out to Keika. “It’s an old thing but it should fit you, Keika. Here, take it. It’s yours.”
“But, Miss—” said the startled Keika.
“It’s okay. It was my fault. I’ll explain everything to your mother and father. Don’t you like it? I’ll let you pick something else.”
“No, no, this is fine!”
“I really apologize. I lost my temper for a moment. I never intended to do something like this. Can you forgive me?”
Keika nodded. It wasn’t clear to her who was supposed to be forgiving whom for what in the first place. And besides, she’d ended up with such a splendid gift.
“Um, are you sure this is okay? An outfit this nice?” She was pretty sure Shushou had been wearing it only since the New Year.
“If you’ll forgive me, then I don’t care at all. You’d better put it on before you catch a cold.”
“Yes, um, sure.”
Keika undressed there on the spot. Shushou helped her into the warm silk.
“I feel like I’m dreaming.”
“Really? It’s a perfect fit.” Shushou picked up the discarded clothing. “I’ll wash this.”
“You needn’t go to such lengths.” Keika hastily taking them back. She couldn’t allow Shushou to become the cleaning maid as well.
Shushou refused to relinquish them. “If that soup was hot, you could have gotten burned. I cannot with a good conscience do anything less. Don’t worry about it. I should be good for more around here than studying all day long. Well, I hope so.”
Shushou smiled and set aside Keika’s kimono and returned to her chair. “I apologize. The food looks delicious.”
She accompanied Keika to her living quarters and explained the situation to her mother and father. After receiving an earful of the expected protestations, she returned to her room.
Shushou sat in the chair and thought. Time passed. She sighed and got to her feet, held up Keika’s padded kimono, and gave it a good looking over.
With a small grimace, she said, “I should have thrown my teacup at her.” She stared out the bars of the window. “Now it smells like soup.”