Ayakashi and Japanese Bread
Summer was well under way in Kakuriyo.
My name is Aoi Tsubaki. I was in the back of Yugao, taking baking sheets with rows of fresh bread out of the brick oven. In this morning heat, no less….
“Aargh…oh, mmm, but the bread has a great color! Plus a great smell.”
Compared to steamed buns, bread that was baked in an oven had an especially fluffy and springy texture. It took a bit of work, but right now I was making “Japanese” bread.
I put each type of bread, hot and steaming from the oven, into a bamboo basket and lined them up on the counter.
Oooh… I definitely looked like a baker. Even if my selection were on the small side.
“Wow, Aoi. You’re up early again today. Even though it’s your day off.”
“Ah, Ginji. Good morning.”
Ginji had showed up. He was the Young Master, one of Tenjin-ya’s managers, as well as Yugao’s supervisor. A “nine-tailed fox” ayakashi, he was also the person who was closest to me and who supported me.
“I baked bread. Maybe today’s my day off, but every day is fun so it’s just another ‘ordinary day’! So I got up early.”
“Haha. That’s just like you, Aoi. We’ll have fun for sure today, like always!”
Definitely. For me, today was going to be a special day. So I was also in a good mood because of that.
“Hey, Ginji, want some bread?”
“I’ve been waiting for it. I could smell it all the way across the courtyard in the passageway. I was walking along, thinking, ‘What a great smell!’”
Clapping his hands and waving his nine majestic fox tails, Ginji came over excitedly.
He looked at the bread in the bamboo baskets that I’d lined up on the counter and then asked, “Is this stuffed bread? Which one would you recommend?”
“Hmmm, I’d recommend…the braised-burdock-root bun.”
I went to get the bamboo basket at the far end of the counter. In it were three flat buns topped with chopped burdock root braised in sugar and soy sauce. I’d added sharp sweet-and-salty konjac jelly too. I’d shaped the dough into disks, topped them with the braised burdock root, and baked them.
“Braised-burdock-root buns – this will be a first for me.”
“You sometimes see them in Utsushiyo. Even if it’s not braised burdock root, you’ll find canned-tuna-and-burdock-root buns, burdock-root salad sandwiches…. They’re not fancy or trendy, but places like little downtown hole-in-the-wall bakeries will sell these…simple stuffed breads.”
“That’s good. They look very delicious, and they fit Yugao’s theme perfectly.”
“Hurry up, eat it eat it.”
Carrying the bamboo basket of braised-burdock-root buns, I walked up to Ginji and held it out to him. He studied the buns, then picked one up and took a bite.
“Mmm! This is…oh, it’s delicious!”
Ginji rarely acted this shocked.
“So, it surprised you, right?”
“Yes. The combination of the soft bread and the chewiness of good braised burdock root is perfect. Pairing bread with a Japanese side dish…to make a bun you can hold in your hand, it looks like something the ayakashi of Kakuriyo will accept.”
“Yes…. I was thinking that soon I should study what kinds of bread bakeries typically sell.”
Deep-fried buns with a marinated, soft-boiled egg in the middle.
Rolls with sesame seeds and matcha green tea powder kneaded into the dough.
Basic loaves of milk bread that you could keep eating day after day, and so on. I wanted to try making many other kinds of bread too.
Since I was also a little hungry, I picked up a small, ball-shaped bun and ate it. It had a filling made from mochi and thin strips of kelp that had been cooked in soy sauce and then dried. The elastic texture reminded me of dango dumplings and was really good.
However, as I chewed, I started to worry.
“But…I can’t sell bread if I’m constantly running out of wheat flour and dry yeast. I used up all of our dry yeast for this experiment.”
“…For sure. It’s not readily available here.”
As we groaned over that, we kept picking up and eating more buns.
Even if eating while standing up were so rude…well, this was a food tasting, just a food tasting.
“Something smells good….”
At that moment, a team of three very young whirlwind security guards peeked into Yugao.
Because the security guards were split into morning and night shifts, the morning whirlwind guards all had to get up early. They were often hungry and would show up at Yugao. Especially the little kids.
“Mornin’ – good morning, Young Master, sir.”
“Yes, good morning. It’s admirable of you to get up so early.”
“Yes – it’s admirable of us, milord.”
All of them bobbed their heads at Ginji, who was, after all, the Young Master. These little kids hadn’t quite figured out how to address him properly yet, and once again they sounded funny and cute at the same time. The whirlwinds were small, green-haired, adorable, sprite-like ayakashi.
“This smell, what might it be, Lady Aoi?”
“Well, this is the smell of bread. Have you had it before?”
The whirlwind kids gave me totally blank stares. Their faces said that they had no idea what bread was.
“It’s fluffy and delicious. Sweet or not sweet – which do you prefer?”
“We would prefer sweet, milady.”
The young whirlwinds all swarmed me.
“I – I got it, so please calm down! Hmm, let’s see…well, let me give you the fresh buns with sweet red bean paste filling. They’re red bean buns with condensed milk.”
My version of red bean buns had the classic round shape. However, I’d cut the sweetness of the red bean paste and also filled the buns with condensed milk made from rich cow’s milk. The bread itself was slightly salty, and I’d topped its glossy crust with toasted black sesame seeds.
When I gave everyone a bun, the whirlwind kids’ faces lit up at how round, shiny, and soft it was. The smallest girl opened her mouth wide and took a big bite, which was the signal to everyone else to follow suit.
At the unfamiliar, magic-like texture, their eyes flew open in shock.
“‘S fluffy.” “‘S soft.” “‘S packed with red bean paste.”
They all talked at the same time, completely forgetting to use polite language around Ginji and me.
But, then again, eating red bean buns first thing in the morning was a special situation.
Red bean buns were a bread that anyone born and bred in Japan would be familiar with. Even if bread itself had come from abroad, red bean buns were supposedly inspired by traditional Japanese confectionery.
That was why I was sure that the ayakashi of Kakuriyo, who weren’t familiar with bread, would also accept red bean buns.
Looking excited, the whirlwinds pestered me for more and more.
As they mobbed me, their older brother, Sasuke, arrived.
“Hey! Stop harassing Lady Aoi! How many times do I have to tell you that?”
Sasuke was a whirlwind who looked like a middle-school student. He was an ace security guard.
“Sasuke! Lookie, ‘bread’!”
“ ‘Bread’…? Hey, Hachibe, you forgot to be polite!”
“Oh, ‘look, there is bread’.”
The whirlwinds who’d gotten scolded by Sasuke all murmured the “there is” part only.
How much longer they’d remember that….
“Sasuke, do you want some bread too?” I asked.
“ ‘Bread’…. I prefer white rice, milady.”
Sasuke folded his arms, furrowed his brow, and made a grim face. How cute he looked!
“Ah, you know what bread is, then?”
“In the past, Lord Shiro said that it was an Utsushiyo souvenir and brought me some, milady. It was hard and dry…. Usually, unless I added water, I couldn’t eat it.”
“…Grandpa, what kind of bread did you bring?”
In the first place, my grandfather hated bread. For him to have brought it as a souvenir….
“I agree,” I said to Sasuke, “rice is great. No matter how delicious bread is, I think very few Japanese people would stop eating rice. For me too, white rice is what I want to eat every day….”
“Ayakashi are especially fond of rice,” Ginji told me. “It’s said that that is why the spread of bread has been delayed in Kakuriyo. Even though bread itself came to Kakuriyo a fairly long time ago.”
“Yes. But it’s by no means widespread. Certainly a portion of society is anti-bread. Many hate it and refuse to eat it.”
According to Ginji, there were one or two bakeries in the capital, Youto. As a type of cuisine, bread wasn’t entirely unknown, but it seemed like there weren’t enough bakers to make it widespread either. I’d heard that the motto of the Kakuriyo ayakashi was “Rice for the main meal, Japanese traditional confectionery for dessert.”
Since I was the same way and liked rice too, I had no intention of arguing against Team Rice. So I wanted to make Sasuke something else for breakfast.
However, he was already staring at the fresh bread lined up on the counter.
With a serious look, he said, “What the heck…. This is different from the bread Lord Shiro gave me….”
“You’re forgetting to be polite!” pointed out Hachibe at the same time.
“Well, that’s because these are stuffed breads. Sasuke, I’m not sure what kind of bread you had, but I tried to make my bread in a Japanese style. Are you interested?”
Sasuke pointed at a big, round bun. I’d cut off the pointy top so you could see stewed carrots and potatoes peeking out of it.
“Ah, that’s a meat-and-potato-stew bun. I stuffed it with leftover meat-and-potato stew, so it’s very hearty.”
“You like meat-and-potato stew, right? Want to try it?”
Holding the bamboo basket up in front of him, I urged him on.
At first, Sasuke showed considerable wariness about this so-called “bread” for sure, and he put out and pulled back his hand multiple times, but in the end he lost the fight with his empty stomach and picked up a bun.
Then, boldly, he took a big bite.
“…Oh!” he exclaimed for some reason.
“What is it?” I asked. “Does it taste better than the bread you got from Grandpa?”
“Ye–yes…. It’s unexpectedly delicious, milady. It’s soft…. Huh? This is bread?”
Sasuke was acting unusually confused. Still, he gulped down the meat-and-potato-stew bun he had in one hand, then buried his face in both hands.
“Are you okay?” I asked, peering at his face. “Hey, what kind of bread did you get from Grandpa?”
“It came in a tin and was very small…. It was a hard…much too hard…and rectangular…kind of bread, milady.”
Could it possibly have been hardtack…? Ginji and I exchanged sidelong glances.
“Well,” I told Sasuke. “That wasn’t normal bread, so don’t worry about it. Hardtack is a type of emergency ration.”
That was definitely Grandpa being cruel. I stroked Sasuke’s head.
“Even though this is the first time I’ve had meat-and-potato stew with bread,” he said, “it has such a nostalgic flavor…. Does bread really have such a gentle taste?”
“Did you like it? You’re right, meat-and-potato stew plus bread are an unusual combination.”
After a day, the flavors had really soaked into the leftover meat-and-potato stew. I’d wrapped it with plain bread dough alone. However, when you put the fragrant bread and the soft, crumbly meat-and-potato stew into your mouth together, you got the most incredible feeling of indescribable warmth and fluffiness.
Turning to his little brothers and sisters, Sasuke ordered, “Hey, you guys, no matter how good the bread is, you can’t eat it all. Get back to work at once.”
“But Sasuke, I still want more bread….”
Covering their mouths with their hands, the whirlwinds pulled gloomy faces.
“It’s no use,” Sasuke told them sternly.
“Oh, well then, how about just one more bun?” I suggested. “You can take whichever you like to go!”
“Wow! Thank you very much, Lady Aoi!”
The young whirlwind kids raised both hands happily. One by one, they each chose a bun they liked and ran out of Yugao.
“I am grateful to you, Lady Aoi, Young Master. For always, always putting up with these kids. I will pay for them…how much was it?”
From somewhere, Sasuke produced a purse with a metal clasp.
Ginji and I looked at each other. I hadn’t thought about what the price should be.
“No, that’s fine,” I said. “It was a necessary survey to determine the kinds of bread that ayakashi will accept. This time it was just food samples.”
“That won’t be possible, milady. Yugao is a business. The ingredients for these buns are almost certainly luxury items here in Kakuriyo. I would also like to support you.”
Touched by his thoughtfulness, I covered my mouth with my hand.
Sasuke was truly a kind, earnest boy. I wanted to make him my little brother….
“In that case, how about the usual five hundred ren for an all-you-can-eat?” suggested Ginji. “Plus your impressions of the food. There’s no need to pay for the children. Your share will be sufficient.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “So, Sasuke, have as much as you want! There’s a lot of bread!”
Sasuke broke into a grin, paid me a five-hundred ren coin, and then floated over to the bread lined up on the counter as if he’d been bewitched. I’d just told a big eater to eat as much as he wanted, so there was barely any chance that I’d have leftovers, even if I’d made too much.
“…By the way, Lady Aoi. Somehow you’re even more cheerful than usual today.”
“Oh, you’ve noticed too? That’s right, as a matter of fact, today is –”
“Ooooh! Just like I thought – here you are, hiding and eating something that looks delicious! You’re all so sneaky!”
Just as I was about to tell Sasuke about my “fun thing,” Oryo planted herself in Yugao’s doorway. She was in a huff for some reason.
Oryo was a snow woman who was one of Tenjin-ya’s hostesses. She was also the former Young Proprietress.
“Since it’s your day off, I was restraining myself from expecting you to serve breakfast as usual…but when I peeked into the courtyard a liiiiittle, an amazing smell floated over…so I just knew something was going on.”
“What are you angry over? Or, rather, how do you have a sense of restraint?”
“Because…because because! When you cook things like this, call me first!”
Oryo stabbed a finger at me. Then, with a “humph,” she flounced around and turned her back on me. What the heck?
However, she noticed the bread on the counter and kept darting glances that way as if she couldn’t help herself. That was our Oryo.
“This is bread. Feel free to have some. Five hundred ren for an all-you-can-eat.”
Oryo listened to me, sullenly pulled her wallet out of her pocket, put five hundred ren’s worth of loose change on the chair of the table next to her, and dashed over to the counter. She acted as though she were pretty hungry.
“What kind do you want?”
“The hearty kind.”
“This early in the day? That’s our Oryo…. Well, how about this bun? It’s full of onion and mayo teriyaki chicken. You like mayonnaise, right?”
As its name suggested, the mayo teriyaki chicken bun was a flat, oblong bun with a hollow in the middle, where I’d put pre-made teriyaki chicken and thinly sliced onion, followed by mayonnaise and finely chopped dried seaweed. I brought this bamboo basket over to Oryo.
Seizing a bun with both hands, Oryo bit into it without hesitation.
The bite she took was heartier than the guys’, but it was better not to point that out.
I’d paired sweet onion with a teriyaki sauce that had a soy sauce base. When I added the strongest dashi and finely chopped dried seaweed to the tartness of the mayonnaise, then I ended up with an even more unmistakably “Japanese” combination.
“Mmmm…this is delicious….”
For some reason, Oryo tilted her face up, looking annoyed. However, she polished off the whole bun and licked her lips. Yep, she’d gotten every last crumb.
“So bread tastes this good…. It’s a soft and fluffy and fascinating food…. Mayo teriyaki is the best.”
“You’ve cheered up completely…Oryo.”
Ginji pointed out something truly rare. For sure, she seemed to have forgotten that she’d been angry just a moment ago.
Now she seemed to be competing with Sasuke, eating one bun after another.
This was awkward…. At this rate, those two were going to finish everything!
“Hmm, Kasuga and Akatsuki usually come around this time…I wonder, aren’t they coming today?”
I was worried about them. If they didn’t come soon, all the bread was going to disappear.
“Oh. I think Kasuga most likely won’t come,” Oryo told me. “It looked like she was going to help out at the hot spring baths from the morning on.”
“The hot spring baths?”
“Yes. She’s roommates with the hot springs manager, Shizuna, and they’re close friends. One of the bath attendants is suffering from heat exhaustion and is taking a sick day, so Shizuna was short-staffed.”
“Really? And so Kasuga is helping…. So she and that hot springs manager girl are roommates.”
Shizuna, the manager of the hot spring baths. I’d gone to see her once.
It was back when I’d just come to Kakuriyo and was looking for a job.
She was a sea woman ayakashi for sure. She was extremely timid and shivered and trembled, but with eyes the color of Japanese chestnuts, she was strikingly cute.
Since then, I hadn’t run into her at all. I didn’t go to the baths in the main building.
However, maybe “today” meant that I’d see her again….
“Aoi, you were looking grumpy. Why are you grinning all of a sudden?”
At Oryo’s rude question, I came back to myself and coughed.
“Um. Well. I wonder what Akatsuki’s up to?”
“Oh…. Lord Akatsuki has been busy all morning. You see, starting today, the Odanna will be going to Utsushiya for several days,” explained Sasuke while stuffing a matcha-and-sesame-seed roll into his mouth.
“What? …I mean, starting today, the Odanna is going to Utsushiyo?”
It was Ginji who answered my question. “Yes. Were you not aware of this, Aoi? Well, once in a while, the Odanna goes to other worlds and handles various affairs there.”
“Whoa, really? He goes on business trips? Does he investigate Utsushiyo inns or something?”
“Yes. He also networks with ayakashi who live in Utsushiyo.”
Because I didn’t meet with the Odanna every day, I didn’t know things such as whether he stayed at Tenjin-ya all the time. Unsurprisingly, he also left the inn to conduct business.
“Is that so…. The Odanna…goes to Utsushiyo.”
“By any chance, will my absence feel lonely? Aoi.”
“What? No…not in particular…. Huh?”
Huh? Whom did I answer just now?
When I yelped and looked at Yugao’s entrance, there stood the Odanna, looking as he always did in his black Japanese formal coat, or haori.
That haori…wasn’t it hot?
“Oh, Odanna, you’re here.”
“I’m here, or, rather, I came to see you.”
“You came to eat breakfast?”
“…Well, you could also say that.”
The Odanna’s expression looked slightly unconvincing. At their master’s arrival, his employees dropped the bread from their mouths at once and bowed their heads deeply.
“Odanna, you’ve had bread before, right?”
“Of course I have. I quite like bean bread.”
“Bean bread? You’re just as traditional as I thought. However….”
With a meaningful smile, I returned behind the counter. Then I produced a basket of bean bread and carried it over to him.
They were baked salted-bean buns, plump and balloon-like, with large Hokkaido red peas mixed in.
“This is bread made with Hokkaido red peas that I boiled in salt water. Because I baked them last, I left them in the kitchen to cool. They should be about ready to eat. They taste best after cooling down.”
This was a good time: while the buns were still slightly warm, but the bread’s springy texture and aroma had stabilized.
I thought that the best way to enjoy beans’ flavor was to bake and then cool them.
“But we’re on the same side, Odanna. Bean bread is my favorite too.”
“Is that so? That is good. I hear that married couples with the same tastes get along well.”
“…Well then, thank you for the food.”
The Odanna took a bun from the bamboo basket and tore it in half. The bread had a delicate crumb, with big, puffy Hokkaido red peas scattered throughout.
At the sight, everybody there perked up.
The Odanna said “Oho,” narrowed his eyes, put half of the bun in his mouth, and chewed.
“Ah…the saltiness of the beans is effective and pairs well with the flavor of the bread. This is delicious. I’m not getting tired of it. I feel as if I could eat many of these.”
“Really?! Ooh, I’m glad.”
“I’ve eaten a lot of bean bread, so if I say so, it’s definitely true.”
I filed away the revelation that the Odanna was such a huge fan of bean bread.
I also believed in bean bread.
Even though it was a little plain in terms of both name and appearance, I’d always liked it. Since even Grandpa had enjoyed it, I considered it my forte.
“I like all salted beans,” said the Odanna. “However, this is the first time I’ve had this kind of bun, where the bread itself is slightly sweet.”
“I got the idea from salted-bean mochi cakes. I have many types of bean bread in my repertory, but this is the best one. It’s the kind I like most.”
With a broad smile, the Odanna praised, “It’s good that you always put extra effort into your cooking.”
Somehow, just a little, motivation welled up inside me.
“Hey, that bean bread, I want to eat it too.”
“Actually, I do as well….”
Unnoticed, Oryo and Sasuke, and even Ginji, were peering into the basket of bean bread.
“You were eating up until just now, but you can eat again? Ayakashi really eat a lot…. Somehow, I want another bun now too.”
We each picked up a Hokkaido red pea bun, found a comfortable seat, and ate busily.
In the middle of that, the Odanna addressed his employees.
“Sasuke. Starting today, Saizo will leave for several days to act as my bodyguard. Since that means you will be managing all the security duties on your own, I am entrusting Tenjin-ya to you.”
“I accept the responsibility, Odanna.”
Who was Saizo? As I thought that I’d never met him before, off on my side Ginji explained, “He is the Head of Security. He is Sasuke’s father.”
“Oryo. In terms of hostess skills, you are far and away the best. I ask you to support the Proprietress and the Young Proprietress in order to offer our guests the best hospitality.”
Oryo seemed somewhat embarrassed and averted her eyes.
Almost certainly, she felt bitter over the part about supporting the Young Proprietress.
“Ginji. While I am absent, you will be my proxy. Therefore, you might say that I am asking you to carry out your duties with the same deftness as usual.”
“I understand, Odanna. In your absence, I will show that I am watching over Tenjin-ya.”
Looking reliable, Ginji bowed his head firmly to the Odanna.
“And now, Aoi.”
Finally, the Odanna addressed me. I was in the middle of raising a bun to my lips, so I hurriedly stopped eating.
Was he going to entrust something to me? What in the world would he entrust to a newcomer like me…?
“Aoi, you…. No, let’s talk after dinner tonight.”
“Huh? What is it? Did you want to discuss how Yugao is in the red or something?”
“No no. Today is not the time for such unromantic talk. Anyhow, today is….”
“Yes, you’re right! Today is the special day when I get to stay at Tenjin-ya as a guest and eat this season’s kaiseke courses!”
Before the Odanna could finish speaking, I blurted out today’s “fun thing.”
Whatever else today was, it was that promised day when I could eat Tenjin-ya’s kaiseki meal for free. “For free” being the key point.
On top of that, I got to stay in one of Tenjin-ya’s guest rooms for free.
“Moreover, you will enjoy our new accommodation package.”
“Huh? I haven’t heard of it. What’s the new accommodation package?”
“Recently it has become fashionable to travel alone, so Tenjin-ya has created an ‘exclusive singles package’.”
Well, it was true, I was single after all. However, when the Odanna, who was always insisting that he was my future husband, said that, an indescribably complicated feeling rose in me.
“Certainly, I hope to hear your thoughts on this package. When I return to Kakuriyo.”
After saying that, the Odanna rose. It was about time for the inn’s work to begin in earnest.
Sasuke and Ginji left Yugao together to see the Odanna off.
“Uuuuugh, I don’t want to work. Summer is so hot that it’s really unreasonable to…. Uuuugh.”
“Chin up, Oryo! Even if it’s hot for sure.”
Sighing listlessly, Oryo was preparing to leave. She was hunched over, so I clapped her on the back to encourage her.
“Next time, I’ll make sherbert for you.”
“It’s a cold Utsushiyo dessert. It’s kind of like ice cream.”
“Yes…. I’m planning to try making it with a bit of a twist on the flavor.”
When I whispered that in Oryo’s ear, she perked up at once. In a flash, she transformed into the image of the consummate skilled hostess, and she left Yugao buoyed by visions of sherbert.
At any rate, it looked like everybody was busy. I’d heard that summer was the inn’s peak season.
“For now, I guess I’ll work on Oryo’s reward.”
I decided to make a frozen dessert for her as I’d promised.
The main ingredient was the tomatoes I had in the fridge.
“Haha. Oryo’s probably going to be surprised. Because it’s tomato sherbert.”
Since this was just a simple dessert, I made it and then, while it froze, cleaned up the shop.
If I moved around a lot, maybe I’d be at my hungriest when it was time for the chef’s kaiseki meal.
About half past two in the afternoon.
I’d finished the hardest part, cleaning the brick oven, and washed everything, including the steel cooking plate. I was cooling off and drinking tea next to a block of the icicle women’s ice when a visitor showed up at Yugao.
It was Akatsuki, the red-haired Head of Reception who always had an unpleasant manner. He was an earth spider ayakashi.
“Huh? Akatsuki? What’s wrong this time?”
I mean, he was literally wobbling on his feet. His usual energy had vanished.
“Did you skip breakfast by chance?”
“…Oh. I had to take care of some things very early today.” Sitting down at the counter, Akatsuki asked, “Do you have anything?” in a hopeless voice.
“Anything…. Up until just now, I had a lot of stuffed breads and you could have eaten your fill, but…unfortunately, Sasuke and Oryo ate them all.”
“Bread? Ah, I have fond memories of it. Bread, huh….”
“So you know what bread is too.”
For a while, Akatsuki had lived in Utsushiyo with my grandfather.
Because of that, he was also reasonably familiar with Utsushiyo foods.
“But Akatsuki, when you were in Utsushiyo, Grandpa hated bread, right?”
“Well. Shiro said that bread was evil and stubbornly refused to eat it. But when he was away from home, Suzuran and I would sneak out to the bakery together. Suzuran…Suzuran liked bread.”
“Whoa! So even you went through a cute phase, when you’d do things like sneak out to the bakery with your little sister.”
How adorable it was to picture Akatsuki, who looked like a hoodlum, going to buy bread with his little sister because he loved her! As if he’d said too much, Akatsuki glared up at me.
“This story isn’t worth bothering with. Food is. I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
“Yes, but still, what should I do? There’s no bread left, except milk bread….”
However, even as I spoke, I had an idea. “Oh! Got it. I can make a Japanese-style egg sandwich! I do have eggs today.”
“A Japanese-style egg sandwich?”
“The egg sandwiches I make are kind of big, but if you’re hungry, you can eat a lot, right? Or are you not in the mood?”
“Whatever, as long as it’s edible, anything’s fine. Whether it’s eggs or sandwiches or whatever. I’m starving here….”
Heaven forbid that the Head of Reception of Tenjin-ya should starve. That meant I should get to work on the egg sandwich at once. My egg sandwiches weren’t the so-called “normal” egg-salad affairs, but ones with a fluffy omelet inside.
I took out a loaf of the milk bread I’d baked this morning and cut two thick slices. Then I slathered them with a special mix of mayonnaise and mustard.
After preparing the bread, I immediately started heating oil for the eggs in the frying pan. In the meantime, I efficiently cracked and beat three eggs. The omelets in my egg sandwiches were flavored with sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, salt, and milk.
I poured the eggs into the frying pan. Without pausing to admire them as they sizzled merrily, puffed up, and turned golden-yellow, I stirred with chopsticks so they wouldn’t overcook. Deftly, I shaped the light yellow eggs into a square, put one slice of bread on a plate, and placed the entire omelet on top of it. After topping the slightly sweet, jiggly, still-runny omelet with the other slice of bread, I finished by cutting the sandwich in half to make it easier to eat.
On the cut side, you could see the thick slices of bread spread with mustard mayo sandwiching an even thicker layer of fluffy yellow eggs. It looked beautiful.
All set. I arranged the sandwich on the plate, added pickled cucumbers on the side, and thumped it down in front of Akatsuki.
It must have made a strong visual impact, because Akatsuki couldn’t speak for a moment.
“This isn’t the egg sandwich I know….”
“I didn’t say it was. I told you it was kind of big. My egg sandwich is an omelet sandwich. Well, try it. Dig in.”
With a wave, I urged him on. Even though he knew what egg sandwiches were from living in Utsushiyo, it seemed like he’d never seen one this size before and was pretty shocked.
Still, as the aroma of freshly cooked eggs wafted up, Akatsuki, who’d skipped breakfast, couldn’t stand his empty stomach any longer. He seized the sandwich in both hands and took a big bite.
Chewing silently, he gulped it down.
He didn’t say anything in particular, but he did take a second bite at once and chewed energetically.
The egg sandwich might look big, but the bread itself was soft and the eggs also had a light texture, so Akatsuki ate quickly while licking his lips. The mustard mayo had a tingly effect, so the sweetness wouldn’t be overwhelming.
“How was it?”
That was our usual exchange. Akatsuki never said much about my flavors, but since he always came here to eat, I figured that I could say they suited his tastes.
As a customer, he might come here the second-most often, after Oryo. Although he might be doing it to support Yugao.
No one else was here, so the clink of the chopstick rest and the crunch as he munched on the pickled cucumbers rang around out the restaurant.
“Hey, I heard you’ve been busy all morning. Is it because the Odanna will be away starting tonight?”
“That’s part of it, but starting tonight, entire families of longtime regulars who use the inn as their summer vacation home will begin to arrive. We’ll get hit with the Proprietress’ relatives, the one-eyed demon clan. On top of that, there will be a lot of child guests. That’s the worst.”
I brought a refill of cold-brewed green tea to Akatsuki, who’d polished off his egg sandwich. He drank it in one gulp and then let out another depressed groan.
“It’s their summer vacation. Well, because of them, I’ve also had to remind the employees to be extra careful. I’ve been running around Tenjin-ya dealing with that all day.”
“Really? But up until now, we haven’t had any child guests. Why do you have to be extra careful about that only for today?”
“You don’t understand what brats these children have been in the past. Every year they come to Tenjin-ya and get into some kind of mischief or other. We have to be careful because they’re the Proprietress’ relatives.”
“Ah, I see. They’re kids with a criminal record.”
“…That’s why I hate them. Those kids!”
Akatsuki chugged his chilled green tea refill and banged the cut-glass cup down on the counter. Then he stood up.
“It’s your day off, but you’re working hard.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine. I have something fun coming up today!”
“Oh, right. Today you’ll be one of Tenjin-ya’s ‘guests’ too.”
Akatsuki put back on the haori with the circular “Ten” on it that he’d taken off. As he left, he remarked, “In that case, it’s good that you can thoroughly enjoy Tenjin-ya’s hospitality. More ayakashi around Tenjin-ya recognize you now. You’ll probably receive good service.”
“Uh huh. You forgave the chef’s apprentices and kept the chef from leaving Tenjin-ya. The people who work here weren’t expecting that from you, so they were very relieved.”
I hadn’t realized that people might still remember that affair.
But come to think of it, I didn’t feel the employees’ hostility and hateful stares as much these days, even when I went to the main building. I’d simply assumed that I’d gotten used to them….
Akatsuki walked briskly out of Yugao.
I went out of Yugao again too, to send off that black haori with Tenjin-ya’s circular “Ten” crest.
“How wrong it feels for me to relax and enjoy the inn’s hospitality on such a busy day!”
But since no one had changed the plans for my “fun thing,” I wasn’t going to hold back.
Ah, it really was hot!
Wiping away my sweat, I surveyed the courtyard. The sun was beating straight down on it. As I listened to the noisy clamor of the cicadas, I gazed upwards. As far as I could see, there were only blue and white and towering clouds in the fierce midsummer sky.
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