a nameless first meeting

He is eight years old the first time they meet: the day of the harvest festival, when people from as far away as the capital come to Suwa to buy and sell and trade, and the entire province is turned into an extravaganza of lights and music and celebration. Despite having brand-new clothes for the occasion (stiff and uncomfortable for not being properly broken-in yet) and a stern warning from his mother to keep his face clean, he sneaks off soon after breakfast, avoiding the servants who rush here and there and shout passed-along orders at each other. His father might be the lord of the area, but his mother commands her people with practical efficiency that would impress any general.

On tiptoe — and for one stretch, belly-down through the long grass — he makes his way from the estate, only popping to his feet and running when he’s too far away to hear any voices. The grass feels good against his toes, exposed by his sandals. He runs at full speed all the way down to the practice-field, where vendors are beginning to set up their flimsy stalls, then stops. Cautious again, he takes a left into the ring of trees that circle the clearing, and picks what looks like the tallest one to swing himself up into. With determination he climbs, using hands and feet to swing himself up to the best perch possible — but eventually his hands slip and he nearly falls, catching himself at the last minute and wrapping all four limbs around the sturdy branch that saved him.

Someone below him starts giggling. He scowls at the treebranch his cheek is pressed against, and manages to inch himself just enough so he can look down.

At the roots of the tree is a girl. Her long dark hair is pinned up with a variety of brightly-jeweled pins and her kimono is pale lavender, screen-printed with cranes taking flight amongst bamboo leaves. She covers her mouth with one long sleeve, and she is very obviously laughing at him, which makes him scowl harder.

“What’s so funny?” he asks, and tries to play it as cool as possible, like he isn’t hanging almost upside-down and getting his new clothes dirty, like he’s not being laughed at by a girl who looks like she might blow away with the next strong wind.

“You are,” she says, and she lowers her sleeve. She really is very pretty, he thinks. (He is young enough that he still thinks his mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, but. But. The little girl has a smooth round face and pale skin and large dark eyes; she looks very much like the dolls his mother will display for Girl’s Day, only she’s prettier because she’s alive.)

“What are you doing up there?” she asks, and he starts. It almost makes him loose his grip on the tree. “It looks very uncomfortable.”

“… Climbing,” he says, with all his great eight-year-old dignity. “What does it look like.”

She laughs again. “Oh, I see!” she says. “Forgive me, then. It looked to me more like you were falling.”

“I am not,” he snaps, and then his legs lose their grip on the branch so his lower half swings free and he has to cling madly to the branch. “I meant! For all of this to happen!”

“Of course, of course,” she says, and she’s still laughing. From the corner of one eye he watches her move to the side so she can still see his face properly. The grass under her feet barely stirs with her movement. He admires that: there are women in his father’s employ, who dress like regular handmaids and carry kunai in their long sleeves as protectors of his mother when his father is not around. The girl moves like them, but lighter still. “Do you need help?”

“I’m perfectly fine,” he says, wounded. “I just — need to–”

His hand slips as he tries to adjust his grip. For a moment his body spins dizzily, his weight held only by the one hand, and then he loses that as well and goes tumbling down. He lands hard on his shoulder but rolls to absorb the blow, as his father has trained him to do so many times. He tumbles into something soft that yields to his weight with a squeak and a flutter of long sleeves; it takes him a moment to realize he has rolled onto her. Up close, she is still very pretty, though now she looks just as surprised as he feels, with all her long dark hair pulled free of its neat pins.

Then, before he can apologize, she laughs again. It’s clear and brilliant and he wants to be annoyed because he knows she’s laughing at him — but the absurdity of it strikes him, and he begins to laugh as well. They lean against each other for support, even as his father’s right-hand man comes up and hauls him up by the back of his collar, and a set of women in matching dark blue robes hurry up and cry for their princess. They stop laughing and grin at each other from around their disapproving guardians; he watches her walk away (and how she looks back to keep smiling at him) and only grumbles a little at the cuff his father’s retainer gives him, trotting obediently home to face his true scolding like a real man.

Ten years later (with more ceremony and less falling from trees), he brings her a white scarf embroidered at either end with the same jewel-pattern upon her forehead. She lifts her face towards him and smiles as he places it around her shoulders, then steps neatly into his arms.

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