So the spring passed, and finally, once the summer was coming, Sai started preparing to return shortly to the capital. He informed Hikaru that the boy would be coming with him, and though Hikaru was anything but eager to meet his parents, he didn't fancy spending a couple of weeks at Kawachi alone with Sai's father, so he followed Sai without demur. He had not seen Fujiwara no Kouyou that much during his stay in Kawachi, and spoken with him even less, and the man did still frighten him a bit.
The closer they got to the capital, the more nervous he grew, though, almost regretting that he had agreed to return. They arrived there quite late, and Hikaru was happy to spend the night at Sai's mansion, though Sai asked him if he wanted to go home right away. Next day, early in the morning before Sai would leave for his lectures in the university and before Hikaru's father would leave fishing, they headed together to his home.
Hikaru was still objecting to it – in addition to what was appropriate, he also thought that it would be much easier to face his father at Sai's mansion than at his own home ground. Sai seemed to figure out he had some other reasons behind his reluctance, for he simply remarked "I never knew you were so keen on what's appropriate and what not," and promptly headed to Hikaru's home without listening to the boy's excuses.
At least they rode there in a palanquin – it wasn't the kind of neighborhood where Hikaru would have been comfortable walking around with someone like Sai. As they walked into the yard, he saw his mother there, heading to the well with a bucket. When she noticed the newcomers, the bucket fell from her hands and she rushed to her son.
"Hikaru!" she exclaimed, and seemed to be about to hug him, but seeing Sai behind his back stopped, hesitating. "Hikaru," she said again. "I…" She glanced over her shoulder at the house and seeing all was still quiet the returned her gaze back to her son. "I wasn't sure if you'd come back. Masao said you surely wouldn't – and that he didn't care. Or so he claimed… But I thought that maybe, maybe you still would…"
She glanced again at the house, and now a man had stepped out of it and stood there watching them.
"We came here to discuss your son's future with you and your husband, ma'am," Sai said. "Can we come in?"
Mitsuko looked at him with a start, nodded then quickly. "Of course. Of course, let's go…" As they walked to the house, Hikaru noted the way her fingers kept on fiddling with her clothes, a sure sign she as well was nervous.
His father shot him a dark look as they entered the house. His gaze lingered also on Sai, but that look was more difficult to define. They settled down, Sai first, Hikaru waiting for his parents to sit, as he had a feeling there was no reason to annoy them more.
Once they were all sitting, Sai bowed his head a little. "I am quite sorry about the concern this affair must have caused you," he said. "If I had known he would do something like this… I certainly would have dealt with everything quite differently, but as it is, it was quite a surprise for me when we found him on the road to Kawachi. Hikaru has expressed…" he glanced at the boy, "a very strong wish to start working for me again, and as for my part, I would be happy to offer him a place in my household."
"I don't know why you need our approval," Hikaru's father said after a long silence. "Certainly if you want him, you can just take him – what does our opinion matter here?"
"You are his parents," Sai said with a small frown. "I would not wish him to be completely alienated from you, just because of me. But on the other hand I do not wish to be completely alienated from him just because of you, either. So I am hoping we can reach some kind of a common understanding."
"I…" Hikaru's mother said tentatively. "I never really thought Hikaru was so serious about this," she went on when the others looked at her. "I still don't quite understand why – though of course, getting into the household of one of your honored family certainly would be a grand thing for him. I… am just worried…" She left the sentence hanging unfinished, glancing at her husband for support, but he said nothing. Sai looked at her inquisitively, and as she looked down, embarrassed, he smiled.
"I think I've heard it from Hikaru. You think I'm too strange, and maybe as such, too… undependable? I certainly know I don't fit well into the life here in the capital – apart from the life by the go boards, that is. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't be a good master for Hikaru."
"Go…" Hikaru's father said with a frown, that single word catching his attention. "Why do I have a feeling there has for long been something going on about go…"
Sai looked at Hikaru who kept on staring the floor; the boy had yet to say anything. He turned back to the boy's parents. "Hikaru has a definite gift for the game," he said. "I have been teaching him – and I know you don't approve of games, but you are quite mistaken in your contempt of go. It is much more than just a leisurely way to spend time. Do you not know the birth of this game? It was created by a wise sage to train an unrulyyouth, a son of an emperor, and ever since it has been held to be the deepest, the most complicatedgame there is, one fit to develop the greatest minds. Why would you deny your son such a game?"
His little speech didn't quite have the hoped for effect, but he certainly got the attention of Hikaru's parents. They stared at him, glanced then at each other, then at their son, and turned then back to him again.
"As I said," Masao said a little gruffly, "we are in no position to oppose you. And if Hikaru wants to go with you, let him. But if he leaves his home, he leaves his home, and if things do go wrong, there is no coming back."
Sai sighed. "Stubbornness is not just the privilege of the aristocracy," he muttered to himself. "Well. If that is how you want it…" He glanced at the boy. "Hikaru? What do you want to do?"
"You know what I want to do," the boy said, still not looking at him. "I knew things would go like this, but you just wouldn't listen."
"Fine." Sai sighed again, shook his head sadly. "We will go then. But you can rest assured, I will take good care of your son. If you wish to reach him, for the next two weeks we will be staying at my mansion in the fifth street, after that you can contact my cousin's household – he did deliver you my message, did he not? Good. Hikaru, let's go."
Hikaru nodded and got up, followed him to the door. There he turned yet back to look at his mother who had followed them. He gave her a little wry smile. "Don't worry, mom, I'll be fine," he said and left.
Outside the two walked to the palanquin in silence. Sai climbed in, but Hikaru stopped. "I wonder if Akari's home," he said. "I'll go to see. I'll return later, okay?"
Sai nodded, and his palanquin took off. Hikaru watched after him a moment. First he considered going yet back to talk more with his parents, but in the end couldn't see of what use that would be. So he left, but instead of Akari's home, he headed to the abandoned house where they kept their go board.
It was still there, in the same corner where they had used to play. He knelt down by it and saw that it was not dusty. He wondered if Akari was playing alone, or if she had introduced the game to some of her friends. In a way, he wished she had not, for this was their place, but on the other hand there was something sad about thinking her playing just against herself. He took one stone in his hand. He had almost forgotten how rough they were, so unlike those black and white shining stones he and Sai used, made of slate and seashell.
He sat a long while by the go board, watching it in deep contemplation, and returned then to Sai's mansion without meeting anybody.
Sai couldn't help feeling quite disappointed at how things had proceeded with Hikaru's parents. He tried to put it out of his mind though, for he had plenty of other business to take care of now that he was in the capital again.
He met Nobunori, and his cousin greeted him in as carefree manner as ever, as if they had never had any disagreements. He didn't even jest about Hikaru, which Sai found quite surprising.
"It's good to see you again," Nobunori said happily, coming to a surprise visit one evening. "These couple of months have been nearly boring when I haven't had to worry about your carryings-on. Not to mention how great it is to get to play some real games once again."
"Did you come to play, then?" Sai asked, a little confused. Overall, Nobunori had never visited him often, it was usually the other way round.
"Oh, I was just passing by, and remembered you're in town again, so I figured I might drop by. But certainly, we might play a game."
Sitting down by the go board Sai gave him a searching look. "How… have things been here in the capital?" he asked.
Nobunori cocked his head to the side, and laid down to first stone. "The same, the same. Lately people have been busy bringing their daughters into the emperor's attention. But we feel two consorts are quite enough for a boy of six years…"
Sai made a quiet, amused sound, thinking about the strong-willed little princess. "Oh, I bet they are. Silly people."
"You know, your friend, Sugawara no Akitada certainly wouldn't mind if a daughter or granddaughter of his would become the crown prince's wife," Nobunori noted, his attention seemingly in the game. "Ever since someone slipped to him who was going to be the crown prince, he'd been scheming for his girls…"
Sai gave him a look. "Oh? Well, I guess it's natural for parents to want their children do well in life…"
"Mmm. It's not a completely wild dream for him, really – after all, his father's cousin was emperor Uda's imperial consort. But ever since her father, Michizane, was driven from the court, it became quite unlikely for one of his family to rise so high. It's only his go that has taken him so far… our emperor truly is grand; he doesn't see just the status of your family but your true skill, and rewards it."
Sai had stopped paying attention to the game, something that happened quite seldom, and sat there staring intently at his cousin. "Is there some reason you're telling me all this?"
"Oh, I just thought it would be good for you to catch on with what's happening. After all, he might try to use you to advance his dreams…"
Sai snorted. "And how would he do that?"
"Who knows? I've told you, he's a sly one, and he must certainly wish to give the Sugawara family a new place in the sun. He hasn't been doing badly, so far. It's your move, by the way."
Sai glanced at the board and made his move. "And would that be so awful, then? Why couldn't he…"
"It is a good thing my uncle took Sugawara no Michizane down when he did. We do not need another family at the court with such great influence."
"Your uncle didn't live to an old age," Sai pointed out softly. "Don't you think it could be a sign from the heavens that he was in the wrong?"
It was Nobunori's turn to snort. "There have been rumors, of course there have been, and who knows if they aren't started by this Sugawara friend of yours. People say it can't have been a coincidence that Michizane's main adversary died so suddenly, and what with the emperor's crown prince and the crown prince's son dying, too… You know this is why they actually posthumously pardoned Michizane a few years ago, to appease his spirit." He shook his head. "People are superstitious fools."
"But still…" Sai tried yet, and Nobunori gave a sigh.
"Sometimes it feels to me you just don't hear what I'm trying to tell you," he muttered. "I merely wanted to remind you that this man is our family's rival, and you should remember it. He certainly does."
"If you say so. It's your move now."
Tired of the discussion, Sai turned his attention back to the board. Nobunori let the subject drop as well, but did not fall silent.
"The Iris Festival is next week, you know," he said in a conversational tone. "It's hard to believe how fast time flies. I remember how much you were fretting when we took you to the palace without a warning last year – it really feels like yesterday! – so this time you'll get your warning in advance: you're invited to join us."
"What? I… do you mean for the ceremony? I was thinking of going to follow the archery contest and the races…"
"Of course! It is an elemental part of the day, is it not? But first there are the ceremonies at the palace."
"Yes…" To be exact, Sai had been thinking to go to watch the race at Fujinomori Shrine together with Hikaru, but that plan was now thwarted. "I'm not sure… to be honest, I don't quite understand why you want me there. Can I even attend the ceremony, I am not a court noble…"
Nobunori waved his excuses away. "Mere formalities. Trust me, you'll enjoy it." And so it was decided.
Hikaru was disappointed when he told him the news. "It sucks," he stated frankly. "Do you really have to spend the whole day with those… those… people? Well, I guess I'll go on my own, then…"
"Don't you have any friends you could join?"
Hikaru passed his hand through his hair thoughtfully, and Sai wondered, once again, how hard it could be to make the boy believe he had to keep his hair tied up. Then again, he was probably at fault for giving Hikaru such a bad example where hair was concerned, but still, this was about making Hikaru look respectable, not him.
"I don't know, they're probably all with their families. But don't worry, I'm fine." The boy flashed him a quick smile. "You just try to have fun with those people too, if you can."
Once the day for the Iris Festival arrived, Sai had come to think of it in new light. He wasn't planning to "have fun" – he was all set to put the day into good use. He didn't know the exact details of how the event would proceed, but he was sure he would get a chance to speak with important people there. He had come to realize something since the previous year. If he wanted to get anything done, he needed two things: status and connections. And the latter would come first.
What he had not taken into account was that Nobunori kept a close eye on him the whole day. Not that it would have been any great inconvenience, for he had not planned to say or do anything that his cousin would have disapproved. The real problem was that Nobunori didn't seem to find it necessary for them to speak with pretty much anyone – they just stayed in the background following the happenings quietly.
Sai bit back a sigh and tried to at least enjoy the day. The Iris Festival had always been a favorite of his. There were irises everywhere; roofs were covered with them, they were hanging from the eaves, commoners had them on their waist, and in the court there wasn't a single courtier who wouldn't have been adorned with iris ornaments on their heads. Sai too had irises in his hair – he would have hardly been able to enter the palace without them. He liked the flower, its shape and its color, and the way it repelled negative spirits which were at their most active on this day, the fifth of the fifth month, attempting to spread disease.
At court, his majesty was offering his high officials wine in which iris leaves had been steeped, a garland of irises around his neck, and the officials of the Bureau of Medicine were distributing different medical herbs to people. Hovering next to his cousin, Sai couldn't help feeling a little out of place. Once the ceremonies were over, he thought they would go right away to follow the contests, but instead Nobunori led him to where the Minister of the Left was standing by the emperor's dais, and he was reintroduced to the emperor.
"I have been hearing much about you," the emperor said, and Sai could but bow his head, astonished at the turn of the events. "Even my go teacher agrees that your skill is great. Come here once all the official program is over. I wish to see this skill with my own eyes."
Sai bowed again, unable to say anything. As he and Nobunori headed out to follow the archery contest, he was still too stunned to speak. A chance to speak with important people? This went beyond his wildest dreams. He was quite out of it for a long while, barely noticing what was happening in the contest.
("What do you mean you don't remember the black horse's rider!?" Nobunori exclaimed, when Sai admitted he didn't quite know what his cousin was talking about as he admired one competitor. "Didn't you see how he hit the target in full gallop? Try to compose yourself or you'll miss all the fun!")
Composing himself took a long while, but once the archery contest was over and the races were about to begin, he finally began to calm down. He couldn't quite believe that Nobunori – or rather, Nobunori's father, for the minister definitely had to be the one behind this – were doing this just for him. Still, he was sure they were the ones behind it. He couldn't believe the emperor had decided to honor him so just on a whim. Perhaps Akitada too had spoken for him…? The emperor had mentioned the man, after all. He wondered about that, for Nobunori's constant warnings had planted a seed of doubt in his mind, as strongly as he wished to ignore them.
But whether he believed those warnings or not, the most likely candidates behind his sudden imperial favor were his family. They must be planning to use him somehow, he could understand that much. Well, let them – he would use them too. He was going to meet the emperor – this was the kind of chance that he would not get often. Taking a deep breath he turned to follow the preparations of the next event.
Members of the imperial guard were divided into two sides, left and right, and they competed in a series of races. The word for iris, shoubu, written with different kanji referred to the military arts, and as the day's main purpose was to promote good health, such displays of military vigor had become a natural part of the proceedings. And this year one could safely say that at least Sai was full of positive energy as he watched the contests, cheering for his favorites.
The day passed surprisingly fast. In the evening there was a banquet at the palace – a rather small one, but pleasant, with beautiful music and good drinks, and poetry, of course. Sai waited eagerly for the moment to arrive, and now his excitement was again turning into nervousness. The banquet went on late into the night, and he was already beginning to doubt whether he in fact would have a chance to meet the emperor, when Nobunori finally led him to the inner chambers.
To his surprise the first person he saw was Sugawara no Akitada. He almost greeted the man happily, but something in his pose warned him, and suddenly he noticed a transparent screen and realized Nobunori was bowing toward it. He bowed hastily as well, kneeling on the floor next to his cousin.
"Well then, there he is," came the emperor's voice from behind the screen. "Why don't you get started."
Sai looked up, confused. Akitada smiled at him, perhaps a little thinly.
"His majesty wishes us to play a game," he said, and Sai's face brightened. He smiled back at the older man.
"It is always a pleasure to play with you, Akitada-sama," he said.
They started the game in silence. Sai felt a surge of excitement as the first stones snapped against the board – this was, without doubt, the most important game of his life. He had to impress the emperor. Never before had he thought of go as a way advance himself in the world, and though he wasn't quite sure what he thought about the idea, he didn't stop to ponder on it too closely right at the moment. This kind of a chance he would not get again.
The excitement grew in him, but it was good kind of excitement, such that made him eager for a battle. He couldn't help noticing, though, how guarded and unreadable Akitada's expression was, and so carefully forced his own face to be as blank as he could. Underneath that cool surface he was bubbling, though, and he was sure that Akitada too had to be just as… well, maybe not just as excited as he was, for playing in front of the emperor was certainly nothing new to him, but surely he couldn't face this game as any other he had played.
I'll play my best, Sai promised him voicelessly as he watched his opponent. My very best, so I hope you too will do that. He placed a stone on the board, starting his first attack, and soon he was so completely swept away by the game that he didn't even remember that there was anything out of ordinary with the audience they had.
True to his word, he played a game he later thought to be one of his best – if not the best. And so did Akitada, fulfilling the wish he hadn't spoken aloud. He knew they reached a new level with that game, one he had only glanced at before, and the words divine move flashed shortly somewhere in the back of his mind. Perhaps, some day, they would play a game where they would reach it…
It wasn't this game yet, though. It came to an end so stealthily he barely noticed it. He placed his last stone on the board and realized that it was over. Watching the finished game Sai realized that in the end he had lost by three moku – but having been able to play such a game, he couldn't feel disappointed. He looked up at Akitada and bowed deep. "Thank you for the game."
"Thank you for the game," the man replied. His eyes were still on the board. Then he turned on the floor and bowed toward the curtain separating them from the emperor. Sai mimicked him.
"An outstanding game," the emperor said. "I see the rumors have not been exaggerated. It seemed to Sai that he glanced toward Nobunori when he said that, but he couldn't be sure. "And you even managed to spark interest in my son," he added in an amused tone. "The color go he is playing has become rather popular among the ladies- in-waiting."
Sai felt himself blush a little. "I never imagined it would be something he would continue, your majesty," he said. "Just a… silly idea that at the time felt…"
"Oh, as I said, it sparked his interest in the game, and so one can't find fault in it. In the end, he is just a child. But now…" He rose, and all the three in the room bowed down. "This was a long game; one wonders if the sun won't be rising soon. We will retire for tonight. But certainly there will come another time when we can enjoy a spectacular game like this."
The emperor left, and they stayed bowing until his footsteps couldn't anymore be heard. When Sai straightened his back, he turned again to Akitada.
"I am very happy I could play this game with you," he said. "I honestly think it might be the best game I have ever played."
Akitada looked like he was about to say something, but swallowed it. He smiled thinly. "It was certainly a deep game," he said. "But his majesty is right – I think I too will be retiring to my quarters."
"Would you mind if I came to visit you tomorrow?" Sai asked. "Or the day after tomorrow, if that would be better. I would very much like to discuss this game with you."
"Hmm, the day after tomorrow, maybe. In the evening. I am sure it will be an interesting discussion."
He too left, and Sai and Nobunori were left alone.
"Satisfied?" Sai asked, turning to his cousin.
Nobunori gave him a sly smile. "Absolutely. I bet that guy has to be seething under his skin…"
"I don't understand what you could possibly mean," Sai said, getting up. "I'm sure Akitada-sama enjoyed this game too – and he did win, in the end."
"Yes… then I would have been truly happy if you had managed to beat him, but maybe that was too much to ask. But he is not happy that you could play such a game against him – you two are really on a level of your own. The emperor has a great fancy to the game… he will be sure to remember you."
"And this you think would annoy Akitada-sama?" Sai shook his head. "You're beginning to sound like he was my rival or something."
"But he is. And he is beginning to realize that you are his."
Sai thought a moment. "Maybe," he said then. "But isn't that how it's supposed to be? I would be happy to have a rival like him – someone whose skill equals mine, with whom I can play the greatest games. What is wrong with this?"
Nobunori just shook his head at his words.
A/N: As the fifth day of the fifth month, the children's day, is quite significant in Hikaru no go fandom, here's shortly how it evolved from the Heian age iris festival: I mentioned in the story that the word "shoubu" has two meanings, "iris", and "victory or defeat; match; contest; game; bout." (I also read somewhere that it'd mean "military spirit", but the former meanings are all Jim Breen's gives to it, so I don't know about that.) Because of this word association, people started decorating paper samurai helmets with irises, hoping their sons would become great soldiers, and during the Edo period, the day was designated as the Boys' Day. Competitions among boys at this festival included mock sword fights using shoubu as weapons. (The custom of flying nobori on that day (those fish-shaped wind-socks) apparently came from another festival (seventh day of the seventh month) when boys celebrated their scholarly achievements.)