Sai slept very late the next day, and once he finally managed to drag himself up, heading to the university was the last thing he would have wanted to do, but it couldn't be helped. He peeked in Hikaru's room, and seeing the boy still snoring, he went and got some old documents he was going to throw away. He dropped the pile next to the boy, who woke up with a start.
"Morning, Hikaru! I'm going to the university, and you're going to study too. You can practice calligraphy. Ayaka will bring you paper and writing utensils, so copy these while I'm gone."
"What?" Hikaru sat up and gave the documents a bleary look. "Copy…? Saiii!"
He wailed in vain, though, for Sai had already left.
When Sai came back, again quite late in the evening and very tired, he found the boy sitting by the documents, hands splattered with ink, and watching the result of his work quite miserably.
"How did it go?" he asked, and Hikaru shot him a dark look. Without saying anything he offered Sai a bunch of papers. Looking at the scrawls meandering across the papers he shook his head sadly. "No one would be able to decipher these," he stated. "But at least you tried. And look, this character is not bad at all!" he added as the boy's look darkened further, pointing at one that was actually recognizable. "You will yet master calligraphy too, don't worry about it."
"Yeah, sure. Whatever." The boy started to shuffle to his room, leaving him standing alone with the bunch papers in his hand.
"Hikaru!" Sai called after him, and the boy stopped. "Let's forget the calligraphy for now, alright? I want to show you something. A game I played yesterday…"
Hikaru didn't look very eager, but followed him to the go board. It didn't take long before the game caught his interest, though. Once Sai placed the last stone on the board they sat a long while in silence watching it.
"That's some game," Hikaru said then. "One could imagine you were playing against your dad… though his style is different."
Sai nodded. "And we played this game in front of the emperor himself! Can you imagine?"
Hikaru gave an amused snort. "Yeah, yeah, I'm sure it was grand," he said, and Sai smacked him with his fan.
"So it was! And don't you get it, Hikaru? The emperor was impressed with my game! Can't you see what that means? If I can get the emperor's confidence, maybe I truly can make a difference!"
"So you are still planning to make the world a better place?" Hikaru asked quietly. "I was wondering… you hadn't been talking about it anymore, and I thought you'd forgotten the whole thing."
"I certainly hadn't!" Sai exclaimed in an indignant tone. "I have been talking about it with my father. He… doesn't seem to believe I can do much, in the end, to change how our society works. It's too big a thing for one man, he says. But someone has to start it! I don't mean that the work he does wouldn't be important, too – to make sure that all those under his administration are treated fairly. But… it's just not enough."
He sat still, deep in his thoughts, staring at the go board with a little frown on his face, and Hikaru gave him a long look. "It's kind of funny," the boy said then, with a dry chuckle. "If we'd never met, and if this hadn't happened to Akari of all people, you probably wouldn't be giving stuff like this a second thought."
"True," Sai said with a sigh. "I was such a fool back when I first came to the capital…"
Hikaru suppressed a laugh. "And you're not anymore?" he asked in fake innocence, and received another whack.
The whole day when Sai was supposed to pay him a visit, Sugawara no Akitada had spent at his city mansion, thinking. He was trying to make up his mind how to deal with this upstart from the provinces, but found it hard to make a decision. Now that the emperor himself had seen Sai playing, he had to proceed with caution. That the blasted boy had to play such a brilliant game just then! He had hoped that the presence of the emperor would be enough to make him so nervous he wouldn't be able to play a coherent game, but the opposite had happened.
The boy had more nerve than he would have thought. And, perhaps, he was so more dangerous than he had thought…
It had been a mistake to agree to play a game with him with so many witnesses, at that poetry evening at Masatsune's. But how could he have known someone so young could be such a good player? Now, when the emperor had asked his opinion, he hadn't had any other choice but to admit that the boy had skill.
The Fujiwaras were clearly trying to bring him to the court. They had even brought him to the crown prince's good graces – one might think a little child's opinion wouldn't matter so much, but Akitada had come to see this wasn't quite true. The empress was fond of her son, and he was quite certain she was the main reason behind the emperor's interest. And after all, being the sister of the Minister of the Left, she didn't even need any additional motivation to advance their cause.
It was a good fortune the boy was so odd – so far that had been the one thing Akitada had been able to use against him. A great skill in go wasn't enough to make him important for most people at court, and his eccentricities certainly weren't going to endear him to them. Well… some of the ladies seemed to have taken a liking to him. He wasn't quite sure when and how that had happened – most of them had never even seen him – but somehow the rumors seemed to make them find him interesting. Akitada never could quite fathom how the women's world worked. The good thing was that there wasn't any among them whose opinions would have been important. Except the empress, of course…
The evening had arrived, he was sure Sai would be coming soon, and he still didn't know how he wanted to deal with the boy. Maybe he would wait, yet. See what the boy would do, and say. He might be a strong player, but that alone would not take him far, and though he might have more guts than one would have guessed, his naivety certainly was real. That was something a good player could use against him.
When Sai finally did come, there was no sign on his face of anything but friendly excitement. Akitada received him with an equally friendly expression.
"I have been waiting for you," he said. "I was replaying the game on my own, and I do find it quite an intriguing one. I am very curious about what you would say of many of the moves we played there."
"Same here," Sai said happily. "I showed the game to… a student of mine, and as we talked about it, I came up with so many things of which I would like to ask your opinion."
"Your student?" Akitada asked curiously as they settled down by the go board. "I didn't know you had one."
"Well," Sai said with an awkward laugh. "It's not really… official. There is just this boy in my household who is quite a good player, and I have been teaching him."
"Ah. Did he have some insight to our game?"
"Not much – but he is good enough to recognize a great game." Sai looked at the board on which rested the finished game. "Like here… would you think this move of mine was a mistake? We were thinking that maybe I should have, instead of attacking, played here…"
The evening passed quite pleasantly with them discussing the game with deep concentration. Akitada had to admit that if he just wouldn't have to worry about this greenhorn trying to usurp his position he would have even enjoyed their common analysis of the game. Now, he did not quite dare to let his guard down.
"It was quite a surprise to me when the emperor told me he wished me to play a game with you," he said when they were finally finished with the game. "But a pleasant one."
"If it was a surprise to you, you can only imagine how I felt," Sai said with a laugh. "I was… beyond stunned."
"One could not see that in your game, though. You seemed to be quite confident."
"Hmm… I don't know about that." Sai smiled a little. "Excited, mainly, once the game started."
"Your family must be happy with you," Akitada said smiling at him, and Sai laughed out again, this time a bit self-consciously.
"Yes, I guess they are." He was going to leave it at that, but went then on, "I just wish I knew what exactly they are planning. I mean, I'm sure they are planning something, but…" He shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable, thinking about Nobunori's warnings about this man.
"Mmm…" Akitada was watching him with a strange little smile. "You are a young talented member of the Fujiwara family. You should certainly have a bright future in front of you – and your success is also your clan's success. Who knows, maybe some day you might even rise to my position."
Sai's eyes widened. "I… that would… I mean, yours certainly must be the happiest position one can have in this world, but… I don't think I would, truly…" His voice trailed off.
"You don't? Well, if you don't, I am quite sure there are others in your family who aren't so modest. But yes, what happens in the future… who can know it?"
Sai nodded, slowly. "Who knows, maybe some day I can inherit your place. But be that as it may, I hope you will be around for long, for I truly enjoy our games."
"As do I," Akitada said, deciding that for now he might be assured that this youngster didn't have any real political ambitions – those came from his family. Which didn't make him any less dangerous, but perhaps a little easier to manage.
The return to Kawachi was quite uneventful. They just about made it before the rainy season started. As Hikaru watched the rain hit the ground, he couldn't help remembering that horrible rain that had fallen when they first came to this province, and he felt like he might catch a cold just of the mere memory.
Sai had decided to keep him studying again. He had made the boy lists of the most basic characters, and had him copying them. Hikaru had come to decide he hated calligraphy. No matter how he tried, the brush just didn't make the kind of strokes he wanted it to. Not to mention that he was sure there had to be some simpler way to communicate than all these impossible characters.
"I just can't learn this!" he wailed one day in exasperation, as he was once again copying those god-awful lists while Sai was reading his books. The rain drummed against the walls and the sound made him even more miserable. "This is awful." He stared at the sign that was supposed to be "year". It wasn't otherwise too bad, almost readable, but there was a big blotch of ink in the middle of it.
Sai looked up from his books and smiled at him. "It takes perseverance, that's all," he said. "Let's play a game later, when we're both done."
Hikaru sighed. The promise of go had long since stopped being a strong enough motivation for this.
But finally the rains ended, and the summer turned out to be a beautiful one. The weather was sunny, but still not too hot, and sometimes Hikaru joined Sai and his father on their rounds around the province. He found Kawachi quite a beautiful place, and the Yodo River, passing through the province's northern part, was a great sight, much wider than the rivers running by Heian-kyo.
Sai spent much of his time helping his father run the province. Hikaru was not the most attentive person, but even he couldn't help noticing how moody his teacher often was after a long day spent in official business.
"I never realized how much work there is to be done if you wish to govern properly," Sai sighed one evening. He and Hikaru were sitting together in what had become their unofficial study. The boy was eyeing a go book, trying to read it, but Sai was just lying on the floor, leaning against his elbow and ignoring his books at the moment. "I guess it might have been the same in Musashi, in the beginning, but by the time I was old enough to understand these things, father was already running the province the way he liked. Here…" He shook his head. "There is much to be done."
Hikaru gave him a long look, wondering what to say, but as Sai kept on staring into emptiness, apparently not expecting any reply, he turned finally back to his book, struggling on with the text without much progress.
A little later he woke up with a start; he had dozed off on the floor. Sai was still in the room as well, but now he was bent over a stack of papers, a brush in his hand.
"What are you doing?" Hikaru asked with a yawn and sat up.
"Writing a poem," Sai replied without looking up. Hikaru watched him a moment – poetry was something he truly had no interest in – and picked then up his book, planning to continue reading. Right then Sai lowered his brush.
"Listen, Hikaru, and say what you think." He started reading aloud.
To whom does the cold come early?
To the man who fled and has been sent back.
Although I search the registers, I cannot find his name.
Asking for it, I try to determine his former status.
The land of his native village is barren.
His fate is to always be poor.
If men are not treated compassionately,
Surely many will continue to flee.
To whom does the cold come early?
"How long is it?" Hikaru cut him off.
Sai looked up from his papers, frowning. "Ten verses so far. Now, listen: To whom does the cold come early? To the child orphaned as an infant…"
Hikaru sighed and lay down on the floor again.
Sai sent the poem to his cousin with his next letter. Nobunori replied pretty quickly, praising the poem. I took the liberty to read it to a company of friends, and everyone was very touched and admired it greatly. I knew you for a great go-player; I'm happy to see you're a great poet too.
Sai read the message without much expression, and crumbled it then in his hand. "They might admire it, and find it touching," he muttered to Hikaru's questioning look, though the boy didn't even know what he was talking about, "but will they do anything about it?"
In the middle of the seventh month was the Festival of the Dead, and everywhere people burned stems of hemp to guide the spirits on their way. Sai and his father made offerings for Sai's dead mother, and they asked if there was someone Hikaru would wish to remember. The boy was about to decline, but came then to think of the old merchant who had been the first to teach him go.
"He reminds me of you a little," he said later that evening to Sai. "Not that he'd had long hair or anything, but people were telling him too that he shouldn't be teaching me, and he didn't care. I guess he just wanted to teach someone… he was always complaining how his children and grandchildren didn't care about go. You know, he was going to let me work at his store. Wouldn't that have been something? Me selling fancy silk?"
"He sounds like a good man," Fujiwara no Kouyou, who had been listening to their discussion, put in.
"Yeah," Hikaru sighed. "I wish I'd known him for a longer time. We had barely got started when he passed away."
"A long time is not needed to form a deep bond. Surely you will meet him again in some later life."
"I hope so," Hikaru said. In truth, he never thought about lives to come – he had enough to do with the one he was living. But the idea of meeting Heihachi again some day was comforting, and he hoped Sai's father was right.
During the summer Sai visited the capital shortly twice more, but these times Hikaru didn't accompany him. Sai tried to talk him to try once more to visit his parents, or at least his mother, and Akari too, but the boy refused, saying there was no point. Sai didn't quite agree with him, but couldn't make him change his mind.
Once when Sai was again away in the capital, Hikaru was sitting alone in the library, eyeing a life and death problem, but his mind was elsewhere. He didn't notice how someone entered the room and placed a scroll on its place, before that someone came to sit opposite to him. He looked up with a start, and bowed at the governor.
"A hard one?" the man asked, and Hikaru looked down at the problem.
"I don't know… I haven't really thought about it yet…"
"Yet you seemed to be quite deep in thought. Is something troubling you?"
"No… not really. I was just thinking…" He fell silent, staring at the problem in front of him. Just thinking that I don't really know what I'm doing here. That Sai's probably right and I should have stayed with my parents…I don't know if I'm ever going to learn all the things he wants me to learn, and even if I do, then what? A place in his household, but… is that really something for me…
He didn't really know why this had been bothering him so much lately. Ever since of the Festival of the Dead, he had been thinking of his parents – they weren't dead yet, but the way he was estranged from them, it felt like they could have as well been. One night he had dreamed of returning home, but the whole neighborhood had burned down, and he couldn't find anyone, anywhere.
The dream had almost made him pack his things and rush back to the capital, but he told himself he was being silly. As if he was someone who saw premonitory dreams.
Suddenly he realized he had been silent quite a long while. Sai's father was watching him quietly, and he couldn't really read what the man possibly could be thinking about as he looked up. He was just about to say something – though he didn't quite know what – when the man spoke up.
"It has been a while since you came here," he said. "Why don't we play a game? I am curious to see how you are progressing."
"Ah…I…" Hikaru stammered, but couldn't really decline.
They weren't many moves into the game when he realized it was somehow different from the one and only game they had so far played. He couldn't quite put a finger on it; first he thought the governor was playing a teaching game, but that wasn't really it. Still, somehow it didn't feel like the man was playing seriously. Of course, there was no need for him to go all out against a player like Hikaru, but still the boy was beginning to get annoyed. One could almost say his opponent's moves were haphazard, pointless. Or was there something else going on the board, something deeper that he couldn't see?
He paused, fiddling a black stone in his hand, and stared at the board, his mind going over all the positions of the stones, and the consecutive moves he could think of. In the end he came to the conclusion that if there was anything deep going on there, it had to be something spectacularly ingenious. He snapped his next stone on the board, perhaps a bit harder than normally, and waited for his opponent to make a move, arms crossed over his chest.
Fujiwara no Kouyou did play a move, one that made no more sense than his previous ones, and resisting the urge to roll his eyes Hikaru played his next stone without even thinking. Was the man growing senile?
Kouyou smiled a little when his annoyance was beginning to leak to his face. "Do you find this game frustrating?" he asked. "Pointless, meandering, without any clear purpose?" He placed yet one stone on the board. "Sometimes, life is like that, too. It is, perhaps, an even more complicated game than go – and the rules, certainly, are much less clear. But there is one thing go and life have in common: all the purpose, all the meaning, must come from within you. You need to make a decision, you need to set yourself a goal – and then, diligently, work toward it."
He paused, looking expectantly at the boy, and Hikaru remembered the stone he had already taken in his hand. Feeling confused and a little hesitant, he placed it on the board. Almost immediately after, the man snapped his stone down with the same vigor Hikaru remembered from their first game. He said nothing more, but the move spoke for itself, and suddenly Hikaru realized that maybe, after all, the situation wasn't quite as bad for white as he had imagined. He took a deep breath, and thought.
No amount of thinking would have done him any good there; he lost the game as overwhelmingly as in his first game with Sai – or so it felt to him, at least. Unlike then, though, now he couldn't be disappointed, for he knew he still had played well and done his best.
"Would you like to discuss the game?" Kouyou asked.
Hikaru nodded slowly, eyes on the board. "I was just wondering," he said quietly, "if I should be here at all. Or if I just should go back home…" He thought about Akari, at the time when he had left her at the Rashomon gate. She had called him selfish… maybe he was. He certainly hadn't been thinking about anyone else but himself when he left.
"I told you once that all men should respect their parents' wishes," Kouyou said, not seeming to mind at all that they were discussing quite different things than the game. "But your life is yours – you should not throw away who you are just to please anyone. Even your parents."
"Who am I then?" The question burst out before he could stop it. "I… I mean…"
"That is a question only you can answer. But there is one thing I can see: if you do go back and become… a carpenter or whatever it was you were going to be, you might still live a happy life, but you won't reach your full potential. What you should do is to think of your life, decide what you want, and then… make it happen."
Hikaru couldn't help laughing out loud. "You make it sound quite easy."
"I never said it is easy. But I think you can reach your goals. Shall we discuss the game?"
"What? Yes, sorry, it… it'd be great."
When Sai finally returned from the capital, he found his father and his student absorbed in a game. He watched them a while, curious, as back when he had left Hikaru had been actively avoiding his father. Now the boy was playing as calm and composed as if it were a game between him and Hikaru. He did not complain, though; he had been wishing the boy would finally come around some day.
"Oh, hi Sai!" Hikaru grinned at him when he noticed they had an audience. "Back already? How was the capital?"
"The same as always," he replied, his attention on the board. "Have you two been playing a lot when I was gone?"
"Every day, recently!" Hikaru was still grinning. "I swear, it's even more frustrating to play against him than against you!" His tone was complaining, but he didn't look like he minded it so much. "Oh, and I've been studying too. The calligraphy stuff. Not that I'd have got any better, though, but still."
"Oh?" was all Sai could say to that.
"Yeah. Cause, you know, I've made my mind." The boy scratched his nose, his attention already returning to the board where the governor had just made a new move. "I, damn it, I'm going to be butchered again, aren't I…"
"What did you decide?" Sai urged him on, as he seemed to forget he was saying something.
"Hmm? Oh, just that I'm going to be your retainer, and I'll do my best to be a good one."
"I thought you had already decided that when you left from your home," Sai said with a little smile, sitting down to watch the game.
"Yeah, but… now it's for real."
That autumn and winter Hikaru spent studying more diligently than ever before in his life. In truth, it was only in go that he could clearly see himself making progress – well, perhaps his scribblings were nowadays a little more readable than before, but still his handwriting was quite awful, and he had not learned quite as many characters as he would have liked – just barely enough for everyday purposes. He had also made it a point not to fall asleep when Sai was reading to him – history, teachings of Confucius, and, worst of all, poetry, which he simply could not understand. Sai had also started to teach him Chinese, which, after all, was the main language for writing, and at times he thought it all was enough to break his brain.
These days he was playing daily games both with Sai and Sai's father, and as well with other members of the household – and to his joy he realized there were some good players among them who needed handicap stones against him. As he had only ever played against opponents that were clearly stronger than him, he had never quite understood the depth of his own strength.
In the winter they did not visit the capital once, for although it wasn't a long way, the winter was a harsh one and the roads were not in good condition. Sai had thought to go there once spring came, but at the time he had caught a nasty cold, and had a pretty bad cough. His father was fussing over him so much that Hikaru got worried and thought that perhaps the sickness was worse than he had realized, but Sai tried to calm him down. "It's just that my mother's sickness that took her life started with a cold," he explained. "It has, maybe, made father a little paranoid." This didn't really reassure Hikaru at all. If a simple cold could lead to death, there was no taking this lightly. And so Sai found himself with two people fussing over him, listening to his each cough, and forcing such amounts of medicine down his throat that he was sure he would soon become seriously ill.
He did recover, though, and relatively fast too, but his father recommended that he would not start traveling before they were sure there would be no complications following his cold, and before they knew it, summer was again behind the door. Having after all missed the series of lectures he had planned to attend to, Sai just made one short trip to the capital, and returned then a little disappointed. He had not been able to see Sugawara no Akitada – after such a long while he had wished to play against him again, for it wasn't just Hikaru who was developing. He didn't meet his cousin, either, or anyone of importance. Basically the only games he played there were against the old Watanabe no Tadatsuna, who was as absentminded a player as ever, if not worse.
"It was almost boring there," he muttered to Hikaru. "What a wasted trip, I got nothing done…"
"You did get my letter delivered to mom, though?" Hikaru asked. He had written by himself a little letter – in the syllable writing women used – to his mother, mainly stating he was doing fine, was learning a lot, and that he was sorry about how things had gone. It had been quite a painful endeavor to get it written, and quite a few papers had been thrown away before he was satisfied.
Sai nodded. "I didn't get any reply, though," he said a little sadly, but Hikaru just shook his head, satisfied that at least his letter had been delivered.
A/N: To whom does the cold come early? This poem was written by Sugawara no Michizane back when he was the governor of Sanuki. He at least showed concern over social problems most people ignored, but even he did not do much but write poems about them. If you want to read more of the poem, here you are.