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A four-horse carriage was heading towards Aitheria along the snow-laden road. The white landscape outside its windows appeared to rush backwards as it travelled north. It was dazzling – the snowy fields sparkled brilliantly, reflecting the rays of winter sun that could be seen peeking out faintly from between the low-hanging clouds. There was no wind; it was very quiet.
Out of the corner of his eye, Maximilian saw something running outside. It was a mouse hare. He had never seen one with pure white fur before. Excited, he was about to shout, 'Hey, look!' but he stopped himself at the last moment. His "wife" was fast asleep next to him by the other window. Well, not really asleep. Hildegarde had just stubbornly sworn not to speak to him during the course of their latest domestic quarrel.
"That stiff-necked…," he muttered.
He turned back to the window, but the mouse hare, which he had been so lucky to notice, had already disappeared into the white snowy field.
He might have been born a prince, but Maximilian still did not understand politics. Everyday government affairs were handled by senior officials, so there was little for him to do. His duties were limited to sitting at the big desk in his office, signing official documents, and applying his seal to the wax on important letters. He was also told to just nod when listening to reports. That was probably not politics.
However, politics was probably why he had to take a wife when he had just turned 11. He had tried to follow the reasoning once, but, unfortunately, he could not keep up. His bride-to-be, Hildegarde, was one year older than him and pretty. She had flowing blonde hair, blue eyes, and, like Maximilian, she was still a child. When in high society, she would wear pretty dresses and talk in a refined manner. Privately, she liked fluffy cushions and sweet confectionery, and she would pout if neither were at hand.
On top of that, she was stubborn. Very stubborn. Whenever she quarreled, regardless of how small a reason, she would invariably end up refusing to speak to the other party. Before they got married, Maximilian had considered lovers' quarrels to be trivial and foolish. Now, it was a part of his daily routine. His "wife" would always put on a mature air during those and say, 'I am more of a big sister than a wife for Maximilian.' But somehow, instead of seeing her compromise as he would expect, the arguments always ended up with him apologising. Usually, they would bury the hatchet after two or three days. This time, for some reason, it had been going on for longer than that.
She was awake after all… It would have been nice to show her the white mouse hare. I should have called out to her, he thought as he replied.
"Where are we going now?"
"To Aitheria. To that izakaya."
She turned towards him with a smile, but quickly faced the window again. She seemed to have remembered that they were quarreling. Seeing her flustered like that was cute. It was worth bringing her along so far.
"Really. Let’s eat something delicious."
There was no reply. When he snuck a glance at her, she was hiding her face with its puffed up cheeks in a pillow.
"You don’t want to go?"
"Maximilian, did you think me a lady so cheap that you could entice me with food?"
The carriage shook with a bump.
"Of course not."
"Then, why did you propose going to Aitheria when you have no other business there?"
Oh, come on! Maximilian cursed in his thoughts. He understood her feelings, but even so… He wondered if this was this how all adult couples fought. Or was his the only special one among all the couples in this world?
"This is not related to our fight, you know. This is my gift to Hilda for always working so hard."
"Yes, a gift. I want Hilda to never stop smiling."
It was not just lip service, he really thought so. Their marriage might have been political, but Maximilian had fallen in love with Hildegarde from the bottom of his heart. Therefore, it was obvious that he would prefer to see her smiling, rather than angry. However, his words didn't meet with the expected response.
"So I was right after all… You thought you could entice me with food, didn’t you?"
"N-no, I didn't."
He started to deny in panic, but Hildegarde refused to continue talking and just kept hitting her cushion with small, cute fists. He wondered, not for the first time, whether a flower or a necklace would make for a better gift, but he had always lacked the confidence to give her that kind of thing. He had thought that all would be fine if he just managed to show her his sincerity, but when one quarreled, that was the hardest thing to do. This gift, this trip to Izakaya, had been meant to do just that, only to backfire spectacularly. A woman's heart was truly complex.
Despite being only eleven, he was becoming more and more familiar with the intricacies of marital conflicts. Were he to navigate this one successfully, he might actually be able to write a treatise on the subject. As he was pondering the wild idea, the castle walls of Aitheria emerged from the other side of the hill.
Unlike the first time Maximilian had come here, during the Grand Bazaar, Izakaya Nobu was having its usual business today. Wherever one looked, the wood and plaster interior was overflowing with eccentricity. The customers, drunk commoners, were enjoying their liquor and snacks. It suddenly struck him that he had never visited places like this on his own before.
This meal was to be for him and Hilda only; the attendant had left with the carriage.
"Can you find a table for two people?"
"It’s not a problem, sir."
Under the guidance of the waitress – he was certain she was called Shinobu – they were led to a table. Hildegarde was slightly surprised when he pulled the chair out for her; this was usually done by the servants. He thought seeing such a reaction was not a bad thing.
The warmth inside the shop belied the harsh cold outside. After settling in comfortably, he felt a sudden urge to fill his stomach quickly, driven by both anticipation and hunger. However, he did not know what to order.
"Hilda, what do you order at a place like this?"
Last time, the dish had been served without him saying anything. Today was different, though.
Upon looking around, he could see the customers apparently ordering what they liked. What should he order in that case? He had asked Hildegarde instead of the shop employee because she was always eager to show off her knowledge. However, his wife behaved a little differently than usual today. Instead of showing off her authority and acting as the older one in the marriage as usual, she was restlessly looking down at the floor in silence. For a moment, he thought she was still angry at him, but that did not seem to be the case.
"Hilda, what kind of dish would you like to eat here?"
"I don’t know…"
"But didn’t you come here often with Uncle Gustav?"
Johann Gustav and Hildegarde finding this shop had been the start of everything. Now, the name Izakaya Nobu enjoyed quiet fame even among the nobles in the Empire, some of whom would actually travel incognito to dine here.
"We were always served ankake yudofu…"
"Ah, is that so…"
Maximilian was not oblivious to his wife's unhealthy diet. Hilda was a picky eater, she would never eat things she didn't like. When she thought something was good, she would eat it, and when she didn't, she would never put it in her mouth. She would eat pretty much anything when she was in the mood. Even the master chef in her grandfather's palace had given up on changing her eating habits. Maximilian thought he could slowly solve this problem, even though she was apparently spoiled by her family. After all, she had been married off at the age of 12. She also must have had things she was not satisfied with.
"What would you like to order?"
The question didn't come from Shinobu, but from a waitress who looked like a little girl. She did not look much older than Maximilian or Hildegarde. From his previous visit, he was sure she was called Eva.
"I haven’t decided yet, but… That’s right. I’ll have anything that will suit Hildegarde, my wife."
Eva bowed her head, and went to relay the order to the chef. Maximilian was disappointed that he hadn't been asked about their preferences like he had expected. Moreover, he had forgotten to ask the waitress if they could make anything other than ankane yudofu. On further thought, he decided not to mind. According to Uncle Gustav, this shop was perfectly capable of rising to unreasonable challenges, so they might even be able to do something for vague orders like this one. Nevertheless, he expected that ankake yudofu might still be needed as a separate order in the end. As long as what they served fixed Hilda's mood, he didn't really care what it was. Listening to the hustle and bustle of the shop, he snuck another glance at Hildegarde while pretending to look around the shop. She wasn't looking his way, but she seemed calmer than before. He wondered if coming to a familiar shop had put her a little bit more at ease. Having been married at such an age was likely a source of strain to her. After a while like that, as if she got tired of waiting, she spoke again.
"What kind of dish do you think will be served today?"
Simply answering that it would be a good meal was certainly not an option. Hildegarde was finally talking to him again, he had to try to keep the conversation going.
"What kind of dish will be served, I wonder…"
"Heavens, Maximilian, are you saying I should think about it myself?"
"You have been to this store more often than I have, Hilda. If you don't know, how can I?"
"You’re avoiding my question again."
That 'again' took him aback. Now that he thought about it, there were certainly many similar occasions that he could recall. Until now, in an effort to accommodate the older Hildegarde, he had been, as a rule, refraining from asserting his own opinion. That, however, was because he wanted to treat his wife with respect.
"I’m not trying to dodge the question."
"You know, I didn't come to be a wife of a man afraid to frankly voice what's on his mind without judging his wife's mood first."
Her big, blue, gentle eyes were looking straight into him. He felt as if they saw straight into his very soul. Suddenly, there was a distinct rumbling sound.
She tried to say more, but Eva came back carrying something in her arms.
"Just a while more, please," she said, "It needs some final preparations."
The item was a tabletop stove, one that was a size larger than the type used for ankake yudofu. Eva manipulated it deftly and, with a click, blue fire lit up and formed a ring in the centre. Then, she placed an earthenware pot on top.
"This is handmade donabe dofu. Please let it warm up for a while."
"Donabe dofu?"(TL note: donabe dofu = claypot tofu)
It also had the word 'dofu' in the name, could it be similar to the ankake yudofu? Maximilian watched the pot gradually be filled up with something similar to cow's milk. He wondered whether the meal would turn out to be something like a milk porridge. However, the aroma that rose from the dish once the white liquid warmed up was closer to that of beans. Eventually, after a few moments of waiting, a thin film began to spread over the surface. Eva nimbly scooped it up onto a plate, added some soy sauce, and placed it in front of Hildegarde.
"This is yuba, ma'am. Please enjoy your meal."
Yuba – (a thin layer of membrane forms when soy milk is boiled, which is called yuba. It's then dried to make tofu skin)
He wanted to ask about his share, but the words wilted on his tongue when nearly immediately he was served a second plate. He heard giggling and, looking up, he saw his wife stifling her laughter.
"You don’t have to worry, Maximilian. It’s a serving for two."
"I knew that from the start."
He placed the yuba into his mouth to hide the awkwardness. It had a strange texture that he had never tasted before. So it was this kind of dish. I see, he thought. It was a clever idea to have this milk-like soup that could be heated up to form yuba that could be scooped up and eaten. He saw that Hildegarde was so delighted by the taste that her eyes could barely be seen from behind her cheeks. He wanted to eat a little more. But even though he waited, the surface did not solidify anymore and Eva actually added some broth into the pot to dilute the milk. Then she closed the lid and extinguished the fire.
"Was that it, perhaps?"
"No, sir. A moment of patience, please. It will take a some time for the next step to be ready."
During the previous visit, he had been surprised when ankake yudofu was served with the expectation that the cooking process will conclude on the table. Might it be that this time things would be the same? He looked at Hildegarde sitting on the other side of the fascinating pot that stood in between them and, somehow, he felt himself smile.
"I am sorry, Hilda. It was my fault."
"What are you apologising for, Maximilian?"
"I want us to reconcile before we eat."
She puffed up her cheeks in an exaggerated manner.
"You always say you're sorry, dear. Do you think apologising is enough to make me forgive you?"
"I don't. But, it is proper to apologies when one was wrong."
"What do you think you did wrong exactly?"
He pondered a while before answering. This squabble lasted for the last few days, but for the life of him he could not remember what started it.
"So-sorry, but why were we fighting again?"
"See, there you go apologising once more."
But despite her tone, Hildegarde began to smile again.
"Ah, I'm just kidding," she added, "I’ve forgotten too."
He could vaguely recall that the spark had been something very trivial. It must have been. After all, both of them kept on fighting without being able to tell why.
"Ah, this is so silly. Maximillian, I’m hungry."
"Me too, Hilda."
With a perfect timing, Eva came to take the lid off the pot. When she revealed the contents, it was no longer soup, but tofu.
"The donabe dofu is ready now. Please enjoy your food, both of you."
"Both of us? Can I eat as much as I like?"
"By all means. Please feel free to do so."
This was rather interesting. After scooping up Hildegarde's share, he also served some for himself. He spilled a little in the process, but he did not mind. There was still a lot of tofu left in the pot after all. He raised the Chinese spoon to his mouth.
The tofu was fluffy and creamy. And yet, it had a smooth texture. He wanted to eat more and more despite the plain taste.
"Isn’t it yummy, Maximilian?"
"It absolutely is."
At first, he was refilling both Hildegarde's and his plate evenly, but halfway through the meal, the dinner seemed to have evolved into a competition. After all, both of them had eaten almost nothing since the morning. In a blink of an eye, their rivalry emptied the pot down to one single serving.
"There's only one mouthful left, isn't there."
"Hilda… I apologise in advance."
"It's rare to see Maximillian assert himself."
"It’s a good thing once in a while, I think?"
Taking the ladle, Hildegarde scooped the remaining tofu into Maximillian's bowl. They smiled at each other and the fight of the past few days felt like nothing. They heard a roar of laughter from the table behind them, it seemed that those customers were eating donabe dofu too. If one could enclose this shop within a pot, there would be neither nobles nor commoners here. Just customers who enjoyed delicious food.
"I want to come back and eat here again."
"Of course, dear. But I’ll get the last bite next time."
When she said that, the two of them laughed together again and Maximilian suddenly found himself wishing that they could live out their days happily like this.