When the merchant Master Rai came to the physician Master Ema’s house at the upper end of the village where the stream bubbled out of the mountains in a pale torrent, the snow was melting from the high slopes and the buds on the trees were just beginning to unfurl into tender pale young leaves. The physician’s house was set just aside from the stream, low and thatched, separated by a wide garden already bursting with early flowers and spices from the narrow but hard-packed road that went up from the village into the mountains’ hulking palisades. Master Rai came to the garden gate and swung it open with a boorish bang and went up to the front door, which went into the house by way of the apothecary, a perpetually dim room now lit through the slots under the eaves and at nighttime by water-lanterns and candles.
The north wall of the apothecary was covered for the first six feet up, ending just about a handsbreadth beneath the slot at the bottom of the sloping ceiling, with row upon row on shelf upon shelf of small jars, some of native clay, some of Chinese porcelain or Dutch glass, bearing little paper labels on which Master Ema or his daughter had written the names of almost every manner of drug and medicinal herb in their small, spidery, nearly identical hands. On the south wall were anatomical charts from China and long lists and tables describing the properties of the ingredients on the north wall. In the middle of the room was a large low table; Master Ema was crouched over this table now, his thin back quivering in time with the work that his hands were doing. In his left hand was a lump of what looked like ginger, probably stored without air or moisture in one of the Dutch jars for the gods only knew how long; in his right hand was a short sharp knife that gleamed in the light from below the eaves. Every few seconds the right hand would come down on the left, cutting off another tiny chunk of ginger, which Master Ema would then almost mechanically pick up and cast into a small bowl.Master Ema was tall, over five and a half feet, and thin as a boating pole. His face was somewhat pinched, his nose long between the Chinese lenses in his oddly light eyes. Probably some of the blood of the furthest North ran through his veins. It took him well over a minute to notice Master Rai and several seconds beyond to follow through on his surprised grunt and look up from his cutting. By that point all but a little dirt-crusted butt of the ginger had been chopped up and put into the bowl.
‘Rai-san,’ Master Ema said. ‘I didn’t see you come in.’ He smiled. His smile was very thin and ironic and did not show even a hint of teeth. It was the smile of a man whose smile had to reassure without being crass or accept without being unnerving. ‘What brings you here?’