It was the time for the rainy season to begin, but the skies were blue and cloudless. Sai and his father kept on watching up worriedly, but Hikaru was merely happy for each sunny day. When the rains finally came, they came with vengeance. It had rained almost constantly for a week, when one day the real downpour started. Hikaru didn't remember ever seeing rain falling with such power – but what worried him more was that both Sai and Sai's father shared his sentiment. Fujiwara no Kouyou was watching the rain with a deep frown.
Sai sighed, joining him. "Rain like this will be sure to destroy the gardens," he said sadly.
"Rain like this will do much more harm than that, especially if it continues like this," his father replied. "Now it is too dangerous, but tomorrow as soon as we can, we must go to inspect the water level of the Yodo."
Hikaru and Sai glanced at each other, unnerved by his worried look. "Maybe it will ease during the night," Hikaru said hopefully, but neither of the others replied anything, and they stood there in silence a long while watching the rain fall.
The rain did not ease in the night, quite on the contrary. In the middle of the night Hikaru woke to it, and to the sound of strong wind. He rolled over, very happy to be in his dry and warm bed, and lay awake listening to the deafening rumble. At times he thought he could hear voices, but they were distant enough to be almost completely covered by the sound of the rain. When he woke up again in the morning it was still raining, though perhaps not quite as heavily.
After a quick breakfast he went to look for Sai, and soon found him in the company of his father. There were other men with them, too, and they were discussing something quite animatedly. Hikaru approached them carefully, not wanting to disturb them, but Sai noticed him and came to him.
"Yodo River is flooding," Sai said before Hikaru could even wish him a good morning. "We're going out to check the situation."
"Out? But it's raining!"
Kouyou shot him a glance amid his preparations, and though it was a very quick look, it still told the boy what he thought of that brilliant observation.
"Indeed," Sai sighed. "Can't be helped. It seems pretty bad, and father wants to see himself what is going on."
"And you're going too?" As Sai nodded, the boy went on, "Then I'll come as well!"
"We're riding," Sai informed him, and the boy grimaced. Sai had been teaching him to ride, too – that had, in fact, been something Hikaru had been eager to learn, unlike writing and calligraphy – but he was still far from a good rider and found the practice rather painful. "It's not like you're going to gallop all around in this rain, right?" he said. "I'll manage."
They headed down toward the river banks, Hikaru, Sai, the governor and four of his men. They were wearing oiled cloaks, but even so, seeing how much it was still raining, Hikaru was quite sure they would not make it back dry. He thought a moment longingly of his bed – no one had forced him to get up, he could still be lying there nice and warm and dry, but then again, if Sai was going to ride around in weather like this, he certainly wouldn't be any worse.
They stopped on a hillside to watch down to the river. Not that Hikaru, at least, could see much through the rain, but as he screwed up his eyes he realized that the river truly was even wider than normally, spreading over the flat lands around it.
"It must have destroyed quite a many huts by the river side," Kouyou said watching the overflown river. "The villages should be evacuated by now, but I wish also the people living outside of them have realized to move to a safe distance."
"On should think so," one of his men said. "These people know the river, they surely have sense to fly its wrath."
"Even so, we should send men riding by the banks to see if there is anyone in danger." He shook his head. "We can just hope everything is in order on the opposite shore."
After a short counsel they decided that the four men would ride to opposite directions by the river, inspecting the damage and recruiting others to help. The governor and Sai followed the river as well a short distance to check how a nearby village was faring – finding it flooded they turned toward the temporary shelters prepared for the people who had lost their homes. Hikaru hesitated, looking after the two men who were continuing their way by the river.
"I'll go with them," he shouted to Sai as the two turned to look why he wasn't coming. "I want to help too!"
Sai opened his mouth to tell him to stop talking nonsense and follow them, but before he could say anything, his father nodded. "Be careful," was all he said, and Sai could just watch, fretting, after the boy as he spurred his horse after the two men.
The men did not seem pleased when they saw they had company, most likely thinking he would just be a burden for them. "Try to stay out of trouble," they told him. "Do not hurry, watch where you go. This much rain can make the ground itself unstable. Keep your distance to the river – the water level can still rise, and rapidly."
Hikaru took their advice with a stoic expression. He could understand they didn't want to babysit anyone in these conditions – as if he needed any babysitting. Did they think he was a complete fool? He most certainly would keep his distance to the river, even without them telling him so.
The rain eased a little as they went on, and now Hikaru could truly see the power of the flooding river. He stopped his horse for a moment to stare at the vast, foaming grayness in which floated dark forms: logs, tree branches, whole trees, things the river had swept away from the villages – and was that actually a small hut that floated on the waves?
The two men had ridden further and he hurried after them. His horse gave an annoyed snort, throwing its head – disliking the weather at the very least as much as he did. Hikaru patted its wet neck. He at least had his cloak… though it was anything but watertight anymore.
They met no one on the way, which, most likely, was a relief. Down by the river stood a little house surrounded by the water. Hikaru stopped to look hard at it, but there was no movement there, and so he too rode on. After a while the men stopped to talk, and then they separated, one still following the river, the other heading elsewhere. Hikaru had been too far behind to hear what they had been talking about, and they didn't find it necessary to brief him, but he guessed the other had probably gone to see how people were faring in nearby dwellings.
He was beginning to wonder what he was doing out there, riding around in this god-awful weather. Certainly everyone had understood to leave their homes by the river as soon as the water started to rise – and even if they hadn't, how would he be able to help them?
He stopped, wondering if he would somehow find his way to wherever it was Sai and his father had gone to. It felt like giving up, but he was getting cold, and… how far would they follow the river, anyway? All the way to Lake Biwa, and beyond? He looked after the other rider, who was already disappearing into the rain, and turned back.
He rode again by that little house, and stopped for a moment to wonder if the water had truly risen as much as he thought it had around it, or did he just remember it so wrong. He was about to go on, when something caught his eye – not by the house, but there was something in the water close to it, a big dark shape, and… eyes narrow he tried to see better. It seemed to him as if there was something white against that dark shape, and that white moved. Maybe it was just foam of the river, but…
Carefully he urged his horse to go a little closer. The ground was muddy, the horse's hooves leaving deep tracks on it, but so far he was still on safe ground. And yes, now he was sure – there was a large rock there, and someone sitting on top of it. And the water was still rising, wasn't it?
He stopped and hesitated. There was no sign of his companions, nothing but the never-ending rain all around him. He thought of riding to get help, but for one thing, he had no clue where to ride, and for another, he didn't know how much the water would still rise, and how soon – how much time he had. Uncertain, he pushed his heels into the horse's sides and forced it to go even closer.
The rock wasn't that far, and now he was sure there indeed was someone on it. He could even hear the faint cries of help now through the rain and wind. Perhaps, on his horse, he would be able to reach it…
The horse, having more sense than its rider, almost bolted as he once again spurred it onward, but after a long battle of wills by the water's edge, it still set its hooves into the water, closing to the rock step by step. Hikaru grinned, glancing down: the water didn't reach even to his feet. He might be able to do this without getting wet at all. Well, any wetter than he was from the rain, anyway. Slowly and steadily he rode closer, and saw now that it was a woman on the rock, young or old, he couldn't make out in the rain, but definitely a woman.
"Don't be afraid, I'm coming!" he shouted through the rain, and right at that moment his horse suddenly lost its footing, and he almost fell down as it stumbled. He hung on to its mane and pulled himself back up again. The horse, he realized, didn't reach the ground anymore. It was swimming, splashing the water frantically, trying to get back to the ground, but river's current was catching a hold of it.
The stone was close, very close suddenly, and Hikaru reached out a hand, and got hold of the woman. He wasn't sitting on the horse anymore, just floating on the water above it, grasping the woman close to him. She too took a hold of the horse's mane, and the poor animal tried its best to fight against the pulling force of the river.
For one panicked moment, one hand clutching the horse's mane so hard that his knuckles were white, the other holding just as strongly to the woman, Hikaru thought that he had probably just killed them both, but then the horse suddenly found ground under its hooves, and stumbling made its way toward the shore. Hikaru and the woman clung to it the best they could, and fell then down into one bundle on the ground. The horse sprung from them, still stumbling, and stopped after a short while, shivering so hard water splashed from its mane.
"Ah…I…" Hikaru tried to say something, though he didn't himself know what. He rolled on his back, and the water fell on his face so hard he almost couldn't breathe. Suddenly a pair of hooves stopped beside him, and a moment he thought his horse had come back, but then he realized the legs were of wrong color.
Someone jumped down and bent over him, then looked at the woman who was sitting up on the ground. There was cursing. "I thought I told you to stay clear from the river!"
Hikaru sat up as well. "But she… the rock… I…" he tried to explain, but couldn't get anything sensible out. There were more voices, and shapes in the rain, and someone put a cloak over his shoulders – he suddenly realized he'd lost his in the river – and he was placed on a horse, not his own though, and he tried to tell them this, but no one was listening.
The rest of the day was quite hectic, and Hikaru didn't later have a clear memory of it. He was taken somewhere where it was warm, and he got nice dry clothes and something hot to drink. Suddenly Sai was there, frantic in the way only Sai could be, and he was taken into a carriage and to the governor's mansion.
Next day he woke up in his own bed to find Sai sitting by his side. The look he received made him grimace.
"I," he said, and left it at that.
Sai let out a long breath. "I really can't leave you out of my sight," he said in a tone that was forced to be calm. "Just what was that stunt about?"
"Saving that woman?" Hikaru replied, though it came out more a question. "She… is she alright?"
"Yes." Sai sighed and shook his head. "She's fine. Why didn't you just go to get help when you saw her?"
"I didn't know where! And I didn't know how long I had, if the water was still going to rise, or if there'd be one of those flash floods I heard you talking about, or something. I just… didn't dare to leave her there…"
"You really are the Fortune's favorite," Sai stated flatly. "I wonder if you understand how incredibly lucky you are to be alive."
"I… I do," Hikaru said meekly. He remembered that panicked moment in the river, and shivered. What if something the flood had washed to the river had hit them? He hadn't even thought of that back then. "I know it was stupid. But…I had no time to think, and… and. At least we're both alive?" he offered.
Sai sighed once again. "Well, you'd better to stay in bed. It's a wonder you didn't – again – get a fever in these watery adventures of yours. But we're not taking any chances."
"I'm feeling perfectly okay," Hikaru said, starting to sit up, but Sai raised an index finger at him.
"Down," he commanded. "You'll stay in bed today. My turn to fuss over you, anyway." He smiled a little wryly. "We wouldn't want you to catch a little cold and die, would we?"
Hikaru just gave him a long, annoyed look, lying down again.
"That was an extremely stupid thing to do," were the first words Fujiwara no Kouyou said to him when he saw him next day. "You are much too reckless for your own good."
"I know, okay," Hikaru muttered. "I just had to do something."
Kouyou nodded. "Reckless but brave. In truth, you could have been right, and the flood might have risen up to the rock. And though it didn't, you were still the one to spot this woman, and so, you did save her life. Even if, with your actions you did also endanger it. But the fact is that if she had spent much longer in that rain, who knows if she had made it with just a mild cold."
Hikaru couldn't quite figure out if he was being praised or reprimanded. "Uh… I just… did my best… and I'm sorry if, I mean… next time, I'll be wiser."
"I sincerely hope there won't be a next time," Kouyou said levelly. "But I am relieved that you are alright. Sai would have been crushed if something had happened to you, and I'm not sure I would have forgiven myself for giving your permission to go. I don't think I'll do that again," he added then, as an afterthought.
"Umm, thanks?" Hikaru was beginning to wish for this conversation to end. "What was that woman doing there, anyway?" he asked just to change the subject.
"She was looking for her son. She thought he was with her husband, he thought he was with her, and when they realized he wasn't with either of them, they went to look for him. She thought he might have returned to their home, so she went there, and then the flood rose, so rapidly she couldn't get farther than to the rock."
"So was the boy safe?"
"Yes," Kouyou nodded. "He had been with some friends of the family."
"Figures," Hikaru muttered.
Sai joined them, and he and the governor started talking about all the work there was to be done once the flood would be over. Hikaru listened to them only with half an ear, his thoughts wandering.
"What are you thinking, Hikaru?" Sai asked suddenly, making him start. "You look so pensive."
"I just… just that there should be something to stop floods like that. Some… what do you call them, some kind of things to stop the water from coming to villages. Some… walls? I don't know. Something like that."
"It would certainly be a great thing to have, but I wonder how we could build anything that would stop such horrible water masses as we've been dealing with now. Forces of nature aren't easy to oppose."
"Yeah," Hikaru sighed. "I guess you're right." He thought a moment. "There's going to be quite a lot of repairing and cleaning and stuff," he said then. "Isn't there? Maybe I can help? I do know some carpentry, you know."
Kouyou was shaking his head. "You aren't easily put down, are you?" he muttered under his breath. "Maybe we'll find something for you to do."
Once the rains finally ceased and the river's water level started to fall, the sight revealed was quite depressing. And it wasn't just the Yodo River that had been flooding, smaller rivers both in Kawachi and elsewhere in the nearby provinces, as well as both Kamo and Katsura rivers that ran by the capital, had flooded, more or less devastatingly. The rest of the summer and autumn were spent repairing the damages, though there were also things that were not reparable; many had perished in the floods.
Hikaru's studies were once again forgotten as he spent his days outside, at first trying to help in the rebuilding of the destroyed houses and villages, but later becoming something of a combination of an overseer and messenger, delivering the governor's orders and carrying back messages about the progress. One thing he did learn pretty effectively during that time was riding.
Sai remained in Kawachi as well, placing also his own studies in the background. He spent much of his time in different towns of Kawachi, helping there the provincial officials to organize everything. He did at times think longingly of the capital, but overall he didn't have much time to dwell on it. He did exchange some letters and poems with Nobunori. His cousin tried to coax him to return to the capital, and though it was a very tempting thought, he knew he wouldn't spend his days restfully there, worrying about how things were proceeding in Kawachi.
One day when he again returned home he found yet another letter waiting for him. This one had another letter accompanying it, though. Sai took a look at it and went then to find Hikaru.
"You got a letter," he told the boy, who gave him a confused look. "A letter!" Sai repeated, waving the paper at him. "From home. Your mother, I think."
"Oh!" Hikaru grasped the letter eagerly and started reading it with a concentrated look on his face.
"Can you read it?" Sai asked. It was written in the syllable writing, so it shouldn't have been too hard for Hikaru.
Hikaru gave a hesitant nod. "I think so. It's… she's saying that… they're okay… the flood and rains were a bit frightening, but didn't do much damage there – I think – and… dad did lose his boat but he has already got a new one. She says dad's still angry at me, but… he's only faking it? Or something like that. And that Akari's family is alright, too." He frowned at the letter. "Somehow it sounds like she wrote this a while ago," he said.
Sai took the letter and gave it a look. "Yes… maybe. It might be Nobunori didn't find sending it an urgent matter."
"Well, at least they're okay," Hikaru said with obvious relief. He had been wondering how life was going in the capital. "I did get that right, didn't I?"
"Yes." Sai nodded. "Right on all accounts. Do you want to write her a reply?"
"Yeah! I'll do it right away!" As Hikaru busied himself with the reply, Sai read the letter through once more. Hikaru's mother really was assuring her son that everything was fine, which probably was true at the time she had written the letter, but he wondered how they were faring now. The rains had been hard for the crop, and he knew many storages had suffered from the excessive humidity of the summer.
"We might send them some rice with the letter," he said, and Hikaru looked up from his writing in surprise. "We could say it's for the services you have done. Keeping in mind the current state of affairs, it might come to good use. There has been some shortage in the capital."
"If you think it's okay…" Hikaru turned back to his writing. "I should say something about that, too…" He bent over the paper, drawing his scrawls with great patience. Sai looked at it over his shoulder and shook his head. Hikaru might have learned to read a little better – at least the syllable writing – but his calligraphy had not improved much at all.
After the watery summer the winter came early, and it too was quite wet. The roads to the capital were made of mud, and though Sai did wish he would soon be able to return there, he might not have braved them if Nobunori had not written to him and urged him to come.
My father was discussing you with the emperor the other day, his cousin wrote. His majesty did you the honor of inquiring after you, wondering where you have been, as he had not heard of you for a long time. I believe he might wish to play a game with you personally. Do you think you could possibly tear yourself away from your dear province for his majesty to have his wish?
Sai could have hardly declined this invitation even if he had wanted to. The very same day he started to prepare to return to the capital. Hikaru was wavering, unable to decide what he wanted to do. It would have been fun to go back with Sai – after all, it was already over a year since he had left the capital – but for one thing, he didn't feel too eager to travel on the muddy roads, and for another, he wasn't sure if he was yet ready to face his parents, and had he gone there, he would have had to go to meet them.
In the end he decided to stay yet in Kawachi. Sai was disappointed, but he hid it, and started his journey alone. He had hoped to make better time there, but on the bad roads it took him four days to reach the capital. On the very same day he arrived there he went to visit Nobunori.
As usual, he found it peculiar how little had changed in the capital. It felt to him like an eternity had passed since he had been there last spring, but walking into Nobunori's mansion it was easy to imagine he had never left the capital in the first place.
"I thought you'd come pretty fast," Nobunori stated with a little smile when seeing him. "This is even faster than I imagined, though. We just got your message that you're coming two days ago."
"Of course I came fast! When can I meet the emperor?"
Nobunori laughed out loud. "I never knew you were so enthusiastic about his imperial majesty. You who always found it ridiculous how all courtiers were just interested in advancing themselves." He laughed again as Sai tried to stutter something, quite abashed. "Don't worry about it, I'm just teasing you. And no, I don't know when you can meet the emperor. It will probably take a few days, at least – he does have other things to do than just to wait for you to come over from the provinces, you know," he added at Sai's disappointed look.
It took, in the end, a better part of a week, but finally the day came when Sai was again invited to the palace.
It took, in the end, a better part of a week, but finally one day Sai again entered the inner palace and the emperor's private chambers. He had been expecting that Akitada would also be there, and he was surprised to see no trace of the man. Nobunori accompanied him, though, and as the emperor was, as usual, sitting behind his curtain, Nobunori was the one to play his moves.
It was a very different kind of game from any Sai had played before. It wasn't a teaching game, for the emperor had not wanted that, but it wasn't quite a real game either. Nobunori had been giving him exact advice how to deal with it – "Don't win against him too overwhelmingly, but on the other hand, don't make it too easy for him, either" – and Sai found it surprisingly hard to balance on the golden mean. The emperor was a very good player, but he had some weak moments which made the game a little tricky, as Sai wasn't sure how deeply he should exploit them.
But once the game ended, the emperor seemed to be content with it, though it was hard to say for sure because of the curtain.
"A good game," he said with a gracious nod of his head, and Sai bowed. "It brings pleasant variety to play against new people, and one truly can learn much from games like this."
Sai bowed again. "I am happy if I have managed to please your majesty."
The emperor seemed to be about to say something else, but as Sai straightened something caught his eye, and the emperor followed his gaze. At the door, there was a small head peeking into the room.
There came a royal sigh from behind the curtain. "What are you doing here? Do go your way."
"I am sorry, father," the boy said, but didn't move. "I want to play a game with him too."
Sai smiled, recognizing the young crown prince. Twoyears had passed since he had seen the boy, and he had grown much, though he still was but a child.
"It is not your…" the emperor started to say, but someone entered the room from another door and joined him behind his curtain.
"Why don't you let them play?" came the empress's voice from there, and both Sai and Nobunori bowed at her. "He is very eager about it."
The emperor sighed, but in the end raised his hand in an accepting gesture. "Very well. But do play a good game, then," he said to his son.
"I will, father," the boy exclaimed happily, and Nobunori made hastily room to him as he rushed to the go board.
Sai couldn't help smiling at the boy's eagerness. "I am very happy to play against you too, your highness. I take it you don't anymore find go so boring?"
The young prince wrinkled his nose. "It is very childish to think that go is boring," he declared. "I have grown up."
"So you have," Sai admitted. "I am sure this will be a great game. How many stones do you think you should…"
"No handicap!" the prince exclaimed. "I want an even game!"
"No handicap?" Sai asked, rising his eyebrows. "My, you must be a strong player. Even your honored father had two stones against me." And in truth, he would have needed many more for the game to have been even, but that Sai didn't say aloud.
"Well…" The little nose wrinkled again thoughtfully. "I guess I can have three stones."
"Three stones it is, then," Sai agreed, and so they started the game.
Sai had not played many games against children, but he found that he enjoyed it. A child's game was so haphazard, but at the same time creative and not bound with old familiar conventions. He was happy to see that the boy clearly had been learning during these past two years, and he might yet some day make a good go player. He wondered a moment if he should let the boy win, but decided then against it. Not wanting to win against the enthusiastically playing boy either, he ended the game in a draw, which brought a little piece of extra fun to the game for him.
When the game was over he waited patiently for the boy to finish counting the territory. Just to be sure, the little prince did it three times.
"56-56?" he finally said, pouting a little. "I thought I might win…"
"It was an excellent game, though, your highness," Sai said, and pointed out a few moves he had found especially solid. "Though there were times when you should have paid a little bit more attention to what I was doing, and not just concentrated on what you were planning to do."
"Mmm… maybe," the boy said. It didn't quite sound like he was listening, and he had started to play with the stones, forming of them a black and white chain. Sai glanced toward the curtain and gave then a hesitant look at Nobunori, uncertain of what to do.
"It has been a pleasure to play with you," the emperor said. "You should not spend so much time away from the capital. I am sure there are many people who enjoy playing with you."
"And I would enjoy playing with them, your majesty," Sai replied. "I did not plan to spend so much time in Kawachi, but with the unfortunate events of this year, I found that I could not just leave my father to deal with it all on his own."
The emperor nodded. "A very proper thing to do. One can only hope the gods don't see the need to punish our country more, so that we can have you here in the capital in the future."
Nobunori bowed and started to back out of the room, and Sai followed him. The prince glanced after them. "Are you going already?" he asked, sounding disappointed.
"For today, yes, your highness," Sai replied.
"You'll come back?"
"Yes, I hope so, your highness."
The boy nodded and turned back to the go stones.
"I was really surprised he remembered me," Sai noted to Nobunori as they were leaving the palace. "He was so little when I met him."
"He remembered your hair, mainly," Nobunori said with a little chuckle. "But yes, you must have made an impression on him when you met. He's been asking after you, every now and then. I would have brought you again to the court much earlier, but the way you've been stuck in the provinces…" He shook his head. "For someone who once claimed never wanting to quit the capital again, you are surely spending a lot of time away."
"I know, I know! I just… I didn't plan it this way. It just happened. I am going to move back here soon."
"Good. What about the boy?"
"Hikaru? His go is progressing so fast you wouldn't believe it. Even my father is impressed. And I think he is growing up in every way. He'll be a fine young man before you know. I'm going to keep him in my household, as a retainer."
"Hmm." Nobunori sounded a little skeptic. "You know, his background isn't quite fit for that. If he at least were of the wealthier class of commoners, of a family with a surname, but as it is…"
"I really don't see what his name has to do with anything," Sai put in, a little annoyed. "We can give him a family name, if that's what it takes. He's a good lad – and I don't see how it's anyone else's business if he works for me or not."
"Anything you do that might have an influence on your reputation is your clan's business," Nobunori pointed out. "Besides, if you wish to create yourself a career at the court, you have to pay attention to what people think. You will have enemies – anyone entering the court is bound to have enemies – and they will use anything they can to get you down. He will be used against you, you can be sure of that."
Sai said nothing to that, but later in the night he couldn't help thinking about it as he lay awake in his bed. When he again returned home – once again without meeting Sugawara no Akitada during his stay at the capital, which rather disappointed him – he brought the matter up with his father.
"He does have a point," Fujiwara no Kouyou admitted. "Hikaru would be a good retainer for you – but I'm afraid our world doesn't judge people based on their skill. I'll need to think about this."
"I just don't know what we can do about it," Sai said. "It's not like we could change his origins – and even if could, we shouldn't! Why should he be ashamed of his family? He has good parents, even if they don't dress in silk and spend their days sending silly poems to each other!"
Kouyou smiled a little, recognizing the righteous indignation in his son's voice. Sai had always had a very strong sense of right and wrong, sometimes perhaps a little different from the society's norms, but he had not minded this – on the contrary. Sometimes, though, he couldn't help wishing he would have taught his son to be a little more careful with his opinions.
He spent his days watching Hikaru – the way the boy struggled with his studies, attacked go problems with a passion, did his best to help where he could, and spent the rest of his times either playing or fighting with Sai, like that younger brother his son had never had. And as the year was nearing its end, he made his decision.
So he sent a message to Fujiwara no Tadahira, the Minister of the Left, who was also the head of the Fujiwara family. He couldn't help smiling a little wryly when he imagined how his late wife's cousin would receive that message. Still, he was well within his rights with this decision, though it was just polite to inform the head before doing anything.
He did not have to wait long for a reply. As he had guessed, the minister was not happy about what he planned to do. The message was polite enough, though there was an underlying tone, "are all members of your branch of the family totally out of your minds?" Still, the minister did not outright oppose his plans, and so he summoned both Sai and Hikaru to him.
"When you returned from the capital," he said to Sai, "you spoke with me about a certain problem. This problem," he went on, turning to Hikaru, "concerns your birth. A retainer of our family has great status, and there are those who would find it ridiculous for someone of your origin to be placed in such position. I have been thinking about this matter, and I have come to a decision." He paused for a moment, and the two waited him anxiously to go on. "As Nobunori pointed out, you need a family name, but just giving you one won't in itself change much. You don't need just a name; you need a family. Therefore I have decided to adopt you into our clan."
There was a long silence after his declaration. "What?" Hikaru breathed then, and Sai clapped his hands together joyfully.
"Of course!" he exclaimed. "What a perfect solution!"
"What?" Hikaru said again, and Sai turned to him, grasping his arms.
"Don't you get it, Hikaru? You can join our clan! Then no one will be… alright, so maybe they will, but it won't matter!"
"What?" Hikaru repeated yet once. "I don't get it. I mean… if becoming a retainer is too much for someone of my status, how can I… I mean, it's just… just, what?" He was looking from Sai to Sai's father and back, not knowing what to think.
"It is very simple, truly," Fujiwara no Kouyou said. "Once you have the name of the clan, you are of the clan. Some might still sneer at your humble birth, but they won't do it publicly. Of course… but of course I should ask you first. Are you not happy with this plan?"
"Not… happy?" Hikaru felt like his brain was functioning with some kind of a delay. "I…! I just don't really get what that means yet, I guess," he finished a little meekly. "How do I get… adopted?"
"The easiest way is for me to adopt you, as my son. It is, after all, a personal matter, and so it won't be easy even for the head of the clan to oppose it."
"You?!" Hikaru almost shrieked. "But… what about… my parents? I mean, I already have parents…"
"Certainly, and nothing will change that. They will always be your birth parents. But… do you not wish to be adopted by me?"
Hikaru could only make a choked sound at that. "I… I think I need to think about this," he finally managed to get out, and Kouyou nodded.
"Of course. Take your time, there is no hurry. In fact, the minister did have one request: that before I make the adoption public, I make sure you won't embarrass our family. There are many things you must learn."
"Oh gods…" Hikaru's head sank to his hands. "I'm really not sure if this is such a good idea…"
"I think it's a brilliant idea!" Sai cried out. "Just think about it, Hikaru! How much you can do if you become one of us. You've already been running around this province, helping to manage it. I'm sure you could be… you could be… anything! Even a great governor some day!"
"Do give him some time," Kouyou said to his son as Sai, full of enthusiasm, was about to start convincing Hikaru what a great man he could some day be. "It is quite a big thing."
Hikaru got up and walked out of the room on shaky legs. Sai watched after him with a smile, and grinned then at his father. "I just wonder what Nobunori thinks about this. After all, it was he who first made me think about giving Hikaru a family name."
"It just might be he is not completely happy with how things turned out," Kouyou replied with a slow smile of his own.
The year changed. Sai had planned to go to the capital for the New Year, for this was a significant time for him: with the turning year he had turned twenty-one, and was so entering the rank system. The new ranks and appointments were announced a few days after the year's change, but there was a few weeks' time before one had to start in the new position, so Sai used the current bad weather as an excuse not go there before he absolutely had to – he was too excited about his father's decision to leave quite yet. So it took him a few days to hear of the appointments declared in the capital.
The three of them, Sai, his father, and Hikaru, were enjoying hot drinks one cool afternoon while having a pleasant conversation on go, when the messages arrived. There was a letter from Nobunori with them, and Sai read it first, frowning at it in mixed amusement and confusion. "He's saying that I probably regret now not having come there for the New Year, and that I truly should get myself there as fast as I can," he said to Hikaru and his father, who were watching him expectantly. "I really have no idea what he's talking about," he said, opening the other message. "It's not like I…"
The sentence remained unfinished as he stared at the message in his hands, stunned. "What? What is it?" Hikaru asked eagerly.
Sai made a choked sound. "Junior fifth rank…" he managed to get out. "Upper?" He shot a look at his father, who was staring at him equally astounded.
Hikaru grinned. "Hey, that's pretty good, isn't it?" His grin faded away as the others said nothing. "Isn't it…?"
"It's just… fifth rank?" Sai was still staring at the message as if he didn't quite believe it could be real. "How could I… that's a court rank, Hikaru, don't you get it? How is this possible?" He looked again at his father who could just shake his head, a worried look on his face.
"Do you have an appointment?" he asked, and Sai turned his eyes back to the message, reading on.
"Yeah! Are they making you too a governor or something?" Hikaru leaned forward with eager curiosity.
Sai said nothing, just read the message through and through again, eyes growing wider all the time. Then, still quiet, he offered it to his father.
Kouyou took one look at it and shook his head. "Decline," he said.
"What?" Sai breathed, a stunned look still on his face.
"What?" Hikaru too asked. "What is it? Something bad?"
"You should decline," Kouyou said, giving the message back to his son. "Trust me, that is the wisest course."
Sai was shaking his head. "I have a feeling you're not talking about just a customary 'this is too great an honor for me' declination that is supposed to go ignored, are you?"
"No. This is too much, too soon." A frown passed over his face. "I can't understand what they are thinking, you are clearly not ready…"
"Won't anyone tell me what is going on?" Hikaru put in, just barely containing himself.
"I have been appointed as the junior go teacher to the emperor," Sai said, turning to him. A grin spread slowly across his face. "Can you believe it?"
"It is not something you should take lightly," Kouyou said sternly before Hikaru could even open his mouth. "Someone as young as you gaining such a high position so suddenly is bound to arouse the jealousy of many. And I wonder what your co-teacher thinks of this."
"Sugawara no Akitada." Sai paused for a moment, thinking about the man, all the games they had played together, and everything Nobunori had had to say about him. "I don't know," he admitted. "But, father…" He turned to his father, bowing his head. "I do not mean to disrespect your advice. But… I would like to return to the capital and find out how this all really came to be before making any rash decisions. Wouldn't it be rude if I just declined it without even bothering to visit the capital?"
Kouyou sighed. "You're right. Yes, you must return there as soon as you can, whatever you decide to do. I just hope you will consider all sides of the matter carefully – and if you just can, consult with me before making any final decisions."
"But it's just so cool!" Hikaru put in, pretty much ignoring Kouyou's worries. "When are you going there? Right away? Can I come too?"
"That would…" Sai started to say, but his father cut him off.
"It might be best for him to remain here for now. You'll have enough trouble there without him. He is not adopted yet, you know."
"He might be right," Sai said to Hikaru a little sadly. "I'd love to have you with me, but maybe it's best you stay here for now – and study diligently."
Kouyou nodded. "I was thinking of getting a tutor. There is much you have to learn, and no matter what Sai does, he has no time to teach you properly."
Hikaru grimaced, but Sai was nodding. "That's a splendid thing, father. You really have to study hard," he said turning to Hikaru. "There are so many things we haven't even talked about yet."
"I guess," the boy sighed.
Kouyou was watching his son worriedly as they stood up. He could see the excitement – and certainly understand it too – and he wondered if Sai would be able to resist this temptation. He didn't yet have enough experience to understand what he would throw himself into.
"If you wish to swim with sharks, you should have sharper teeth yourself.," he said quietly, and Sai gave him a surprised look.
"So what's the big deal about the rank?" Hikaru asked later when he and Sai were alone.
"What's the big deal!" Sai exclaimed. "Gods, you have plenty to learn, don't you? The junior fifth is usually awarded to the heir of an official of first rank – my father is fourth rank, so I should have got seventh rank or something like that. I did tell you the fifth's a court rank, didn't I? Don't you understand what that means?"
He sighed as the boy gave him a blank stare. "Now listen, there are altogether eight ranks. The first three are the High Court Nobles, ministers of state. There's another division at the fifth rank – the fourth and fifth ranks are the lesser aristocratic ranks. The ranks from eight to sixth are for minor officials, and…"
He paused. The look on Hikaru's face told him that the boy didn't find this very interesting. "Alright, let me put it this way," he went on. "An official of the sixth rank gets about 22 koku rice as annual salary. The promotion of only one grade to junior fifth lower raises that to 255 koku."
"Two hundr…" Hikaru's eyes widened. "How much does a minister get?"
"With the third rank, it would be close to 7,000 koku," Sai said seriously, and Hikaru spluttered a moment.
"What do they do with that much rice!?" he finally exclaimed.
Sai smiled a little. "They do have expenses… though I'm sure they could get by with less. It is a little ridiculous, isn't it?"
"Wow." Hikaru looked still a bit stunned, but grinned then. "Over 200 koku for you, huh? That's great! Are you really going to say no to that?"
"It's not about the pay, Hikaru," Sai said with a tiny frown. "You must know I really want that position. It is something I haven't even dared to dream about yet – or I have, of course I have dreamed about it, but I couldn't believe… I still can't believe…"
"Yeah." Hikaru turned suddenly serious. "Say, if I'm gonna be adopted, do I get rank too?"
Sai paused. "I haven't really thought about that," he confessed. "But I think so? After all, my father is fourth rank, and as I said, the children of those who are fifth rank and above are automatically admitted to the rank system. I don't know what your rank would be though – and you won't be getting it before you turn 21."
"Funny," was all Hikaru had to say to that.
A/N: One (Heian age) koku = about two bushels. 7000 koku is a lot of rice… Once again I’m honestly wondering how you, in practice, use rice as a medium of payment. Do you walk around with a pouch of rice on your belt? “Hi, how much is that pretty trinket? 500 rice grains? Okay, one, two…” Hah, maybe not. xD But this is the reason I’ve avoided buying and paying and anything money-related in this fic…
And back when I wrote the scene with the crown prince I didn't think much about it, just figured he sneaked there on his own, but now I've got a feeling his mother was really behind it, no coincidence she was there telling them to let him play...
And so Sai returned once again to the capital. He was beginning to grow very familiar with the road between Kawachi and Heian-kyo.
Before making any decisions, he wanted to talk with Nobunori about his new position. He had been wondering about the way they had been taking him into the palace – after all, those below fifth rank weren't even allowed to appear in the Imperial Audience Chamber, and there he had been, having private audiences with the emperor. As far as he knew, it was almost unheard of. He had thought these had just been some unofficial exceptions to the rule, not having any deeper meaning than letting the emperor satisfy his curiosity about his go, but now he wondered.
The first one he met in the capital wasn't his cousin, though. He got a surprise visit from Sugawara no Akitada.
"It has been such a long time!" he greeted the man, at the same time happy and nervous. "I would have wanted to meet you on my previous visits, but I guess you must have been too busy…"
"Yes," Akitada said shortly. "You seemed to be busy as well."
"Well, the floods in Kawachi were pretty bad…" Sai ventured, uncertain of what he meant. Akitada smiled a little wryly.
"I mean your visits to the palace. I hear you have been playing go both with the emperor and the crown prince."
"Oh, that? Yes, my cousin took me there on my last visit. He said the emperor wished to play against me, and…"
"And now you have your new rank," Akitada cut him off. "Not to mention your position. Congratulations." His tone was quite cold.
"Thank you, "Sai said hesitantly. "It was quite a surprise to me…"
"I am sure it was."
There was a moment's silence. "Are you… angry at me?" Sai asked then hesitantly. There was something strange in Akitada's manner.
"Angry?" The elder man smiled again, a rather unpleasant smile. "Now, why would I be angry?"
To win some time and to hide his discomfort Sai sat down and gestured to his guest to do so as well. "I truly was surprised about this," he said carefully, arranging his clothes around himself. "I hadn't heard anything to indicate something like this. It came to me as a complete…"
"Surely your visits at the court should have told you that something extraordinary was brewing," Akitada cut him off. "You can't possibly be so naïve you wouldn't have noticed anything!"
"I did think it was odd," Sai said defensively, fingering nervously his fan. "But how could I imagine they were planning to… I mean, I didn't know it was even possible to…"
Akitada leaned back a little, shaking his head, but his anger seemed to fade a little. "And what shall you do now that the impossible has happened?"
"I don't know yet," Sai admitted. "I… my father said I should decline, but I thought… I mean, couldn't I, possibly…" His voice trailed off.
"Wise man, your father," Akitada said dryly. "You should do as he says. Decline, and go back to Kawachi."
"Back to Kawachi?" Sai said in surprise. "Why? Even if I do decline…"
"It would be awkward for you to remain here. Very awkward, for everyone involved. Perhaps you can, some day, come back, but the coming years you'd be wise to spend in the provinces. And surely that wouldn't be so horrible to you," he added with a clear sneer in his tone, "as you love the provinces so dearly."
Sai looked at him, hard, pursing his lips. Akitada returned his stare, and looking into his dark eyes Sai couldn't help wondering how well he in the end knew this man.
"Perhaps I will decline, in the end," he said in a careful tone. "Perhaps. But I do not understand why you must be so worked up about this. Why can't we both serve his majesty? Surely you can't imagine I would be trying to usurp your place?"
A wry smile tugged Akitada's lips. "I have a very vivid imagination. And I think you have already proved that you don't have much say in what your family plans. Go to the provinces. I doubt they'd drag you here by force."
Sai was quiet a long while. "Maybe I will decline," he repeated then, his voice tight, "if this is how you feel about it. But I do not plan to move back to the provinces to stay."
"Is that so?" Akitada stood up. "A piece of friendly advice, boy: consider carefully what you do."
He left. Sai sat on the floor staring after him, biting his lower lip. He didn't have long to sit alone, though, for soon his second cousin appeared in the doorway.
"I ran into Akitada-sama as I came," Nobunori said lightly as he stepped in. "He didn't seem to be in a good mood." He looked down at Sai and took in his pouty expression and shadowy eyes. "And neither are you, apparently. Come now, Sai, I thought you'd be happy! Isn't this your dream?"
"Not like this," Sai said, voice quivering a little. "You're messing it all up!"
"Oh?" Nobunori sat down. "Stop being childish, Sai. What, do you want to wait for Akitada to retire? He could still hold his position for the next thirty years for what we know! "
"I know, but…"
"No buts there!" Nobunori waved his objections carelessly away. "I know this is sudden, but we want you into court, now. It would be better if you were a little older, yes, but that can't be helped. But it's good that you came here so quickly. Tomorrow we'll go to court and…"
"I'll decline," Sai said sourly.
Nobunori paused. "What?"
"I said I'll decline! I'm not going to accept this position!"
"Now, listen, Sai," Nobunori said with a sigh. "Even if you do write a petition to decline, it won't be accepted. No, it won't, so don't bother wasting everyone's time."
Sai gave him a dark look. "In that case I'll just return to Kawachi and won't come back."
"Oh?" Nobunori smiled a little. "Really? For how long? Come now, I didn't imagine you'd need to be persuaded! Say, why don't you want to have this position? Just because it made Akitada sour? Seriously, Sai, I have often told you that man is no friend of ours, what does it matter what he thinks? Are you going to let him bully you to lose your dream? You're just being silly! The emperor likes you, the empress likes you, and the crown prince above all – they all want you there! And just because one man is paranoid for his position, you're going to scurry back to Kawachi and rot there? You have to be kidding me."
Sai said nothing. Nobunori seemed to take his silence as a sign of giving in. "So, tomorrow! Don't sleep long, I'll come early to help you get ready. It'll be a grand day for you, so try to rest well!"
Sai barely closed his eyes that night.
True to his word, Nobunori arrived while the twilight still lingered on the streets and the only sign of the sun was a pale line in the horizon. Sai met him fully awake and dressed, and with quite conflicting emotions. All through the night his mind had been overworking, going through all the possible (and most likely also some impossible) scenarios of what could happen if he either accepted or didn't accept the offered position. In the quiet hours of the night, his mood had varied between utter despair, righteous rage, and tingling (though a little guilty) excitement. When he finally gave up on sleeping and dragged himself out of bed, he was quite exhausted, and didn't anymore know at all how he felt.
Nobunori shook his head at his disheveled appearance and the dark circles under his eyes. "You're taking this too seriously," he said as he set out to make his cousin fit for the court. "Why do you always have to get so emotional? Just take a deep breath and calm down."
Sai said nothing, but let himself be dressed in court clothes, accepting Nobunori's choice of perfume, as well as the make-up to hide his tiredness. He did realize that he had no choice but to visit the court this day, whatever he would decide to do. Hopefully that visit would help him to clear his thoughts. He tried to listen carefully to the instructions Nobunori was giving him during the preparations, for no matter what happened, he didn't want to end up offending anyone. Still, his thoughts kept on wandering and he couldn't quite concentrate.
Nobunori seemed to realize that any in-depth explanations of court etiquette would at the moment be wasted, so in the end he just clapped Sai encouragingly on the shoulder, giving him a heartening smile.
"Try to relax. Just be yourself and don't worry so much – all will go fine."
Still in a gloomy mood, Sai just gave him a look.
Overall, one could say that all did go fine at the palace. If people thought there was something off with Sai's sudden promotion, they didn't show it. Everyone was friendly, and seemed to take it for granted that he would accept his new position – he was led to the inner palace and informed he was given quarters there, so that he could remain close to the emperor, were his services needed.
He also had a short audience with the emperor, who told him he would be taking over the crown prince's go lessons. Although his feelings were still quite murky, Sai couldn't help feeling happy over this piece of information, for he had enjoyed his short encounters with the crown prince. Still he would have wanted to voice his hesitation, but somehow was never given chance to it. His attempts to suggest that the honor was too great for him were promptly brushed aside.
"Souji!" the emperor finally exclaimed, and a monk approached them. "Why don't you take him to see my son." He turned back to Sai. "He has been waiting for your arrival eagerly."
Sai bowed. "And I shall be happy to see him again, your majesty. But I…"
The emperor had already turned away from him, and Sai swallowed the rest of his sentence. Holding back a sigh he rose to his feet and followed the monk.
"I have heard quite a lot of you," the monk said in a conversational tone as they walked on. "Very varying things – but nothing that would be bad in my ears. I am happy to finally meet you in person."
"Mmm. I'm glad to meet you too," Sai replied, automatically acknowledging his words, though he didn't really pay attention. A moment they walked in silence. Sai's thoughts were quite preoccupied by the situation, and he didn't notice the long look the monk gave him.
"The emperor spoke the truth," the monk suddenly said as they walked through a covered passage connecting the different parts of the palace. "Our little crown prince truly has been waiting for you, and so has his consort, Hiroko-hime. As you will soon find out." He stopped by a doorway to let Sai enter the room first.
Sai was about to ask him what he meant, but as soon as he appeared in the doorway there came the sound of fast, thumping steps, and the crown prince appeared in front of him, grinning.
"Finally you're here! What took you so long?"
Sai couldn't help smiling a little. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting, your highness," he said with a deep bow. "This matter took me by surprise –and I am still not sure if I should…"
The boy didn't listen. Instead he grasped his sleeve and dragged him into the room. "Come, let's play!"
Sai gave a resigned sigh. Maybe he would play a game or two with the boy before… before what? He settled down by the go board feeling quite uncomfortable. If he really was going to decline the position, he should have said it to the emperor, right away. Now it was getting more and more difficult to back away.
"I'll have three stones again, okay?" the boy asked, happily oblivious to his discomfort. "Would you play a teaching game with me?"
"Certainly, your highness." Sai looked thoughtfully at the boy in front of him. The truth was he would enjoy teaching this child. The crown prince, now eight years old, seemed to be a bright boy, and one with some innate skill where go was concerned. If only the circumstances were different… He felt a moment of annoyance at Akitada. Why did the man have to be so unreasonable? They would have to talk again, and now he would convince Akitada that there was no reason for him to feel threatened.
The boy had placed his handicap stones on the board and was now looking up at him expectantly. He bowed his head a little. "Onegaishimasu."
"Onegaishimasu!" the boy replied, and the game was on.
They were half-way through the game when princess Hiroko arrived to the room. Sai gave her a bow, wondering if this time it was alright for her to be there, but at least the lady accompanying her just sat down beside her, perfectly calm, so he figured that most likely everything was fine. He noted that the boy seemed a tad annoyed of her arrival, glancing at her from the corner of his eye, but saying nothing – though he did sit a bit straighter.
The girl followed their game silently and remained quiet when they started discussing it, but she was obviously listening keenly. Sai was going to ask her if she wished to play a game, but right then the monk returned to them, making Sai to start a little – he hadn't even noticed the man had left the room.
"I have to ask you to pause your discussion," the monk said quietly, bowing his head at Sai. "The empress wishes to see you."
"Now?" the little prince gave him an annoyed look. "Can't she…"
"Now, your highness," the monk said levelly, and the boy sighed.
"I was hoping to play a game with him," the princess said, a tiny frown on her face. "Please bring him back here once grandmother is done, Tora."
The monk gave a little bow at her while Sai stood up, wondering what a strange nickname that was for a monk.
"I'll come back when I can," Sai assured the children, though he did feel a little anxious. He tried to remind himself what a friendly person the empress had been. Certainly there was nothing to worry about.“Lady Asumi,” he heard the princess saying to the lady who was accompanying her, “I want to play with you while we wait.”
“Shouldn’t you play with your husband, your highness?” the lady asked quietly. Silence followed, and Sai could imagine the sideward glance the princess was giving the boy. He couldn’t hear her reply, for they were getting too far away.
The monk led him to the empress's quarters, where, to his shock, he saw the empress herself, lying leisurely by a go board, some of her ladies around her. Sai stopped, hesitated, but the monk gave him an encouraging nod.
"Come, come here." The empress gestured invitingly with her fan. "Play a game with me."
Sai swallowed as he knelt down by the board. He bowed deep. "This is a great honor for me, your majesty." Out of the corner of his eye he could see two of the ladies whispering to each other, their eyes twinkling above their fans, and he could feel a blush creeping across his face.
"You have played both with my husband and son," the empress said, placing some handicap stones on the board. "I figured it is time you play with me, too."
Sai said nothing, just bowed again, for he couldn't find his voice. They started the game in silence. Sai kept his gaze on the board, trying to concentrate on the game. Surrounded by a group of strange women, their perfumes wafting around him, he found that quite hard.
"My husband must have told you our son will be your student," the empress said suddenly. "But if you are to be a go teacher at the court, it means you can play with a wide variety of people – including myself, and the other ladies of the court." She glanced up with a wry smile. "I hear some of them are quite eager to play with you."
There was laughter among the ladies, and Sai blushed a little again, but a new thought had just occurred to him, and it pushed aside any embarrassment. "I have never really played go with women before," he said thoughtfully. "Except my mother, of course, but that was long ago. I wonder if a woman's game is different from man's…"
"What, have you never played with a sweetheart?" the empress said, amusement in her voice. "Well, here you can find out. But, coming to think of it, how come you aren't married yet? You're certainly old – and handsome – enough."
"I… I…" Sai stuttered, staring at the empress eyes wide, his hand forgotten hovering above the stone bowl.
The empress and her ladies laughed out aloud. "Oh, don't mind me. I just can't resist teasing you a little… an old woman's entertainment."
"You're hardly old," Sai muttered and played his move. True enough, though the empress was on her forty-fifth year, she would have passed for much younger. "I have not been thinking much on marriage," he said, regaining his composure. "It has not felt timely, so far. Perhaps once I…" Establish myself here, he had been about to say, but paused. It was beginning to seem he had made his mind to stay at court.
"Yes, your life has seen such great changes with this year it must be wise to wait a moment, see what direction your life will take. Then again, marriage forms a deep connection, and you might wish to tie yourself to some prominent court families." She spent a moment watching the board. "I heard from Torajirou this position came as a surprise to you," she said suddenly.
Sai blinked. "Tora…?"
"Her majesty means me," the monk said, leaning forward. He had been sitting quietly by the wall, watching the game. "Torajirou was my name before I took my oaths. She still insists on using it."
"I find it a fitting name," the empress declared, eyes still on the board. "Tora – tiger. He seems a quiet enough man, but there are many who have come to find otherwise. It has not made him overly popular – but a true monk does not care about popularity, does he?"
The monk bowed his head, saying nothing. Sai watched him curiously. He did look like an ordinary monk, a spindly middle-aged man dressed in rather simple robes, his expression calm but kind.
"So, my brother did not tell you of his plans beforehand?" the empress said, startling him awake from his thoughts. It took him a moment to realize she was talking about the Minister of the Left, Nobunori's father.
He shook his head. "No, your majesty."
"Hmm." She shot a glance at her ladies, and right away they gathered themselves up from the floor and left the room. Only the monk remained with Sai and the empress.
"I do not in any way mind having you here," the empress said slowly. "On the contrary. But… I feel it is rather irresponsible of my brother to throw you in here without giving you any explanation whatsoever. Why do you think you are here?"
"I don't know," Sai admitted. "This has caused me quite much confusion. I… I don't mind being here, of course not – in fact, this has always been my dream, but… I do wish I understood what is going on. I guess it all has to have something to do with… with internal politics of the court, but… I feel I'm such an insignificant piece in this game I don't really understand why I'm here at all."
"Mmm…" The empress leaned her head against her hand and gave him a tiny smile. "True, you are hardly important. But it's the little pieces that form the big picture." She gave a little sigh and sat up, straightening her back. "My husband has reigned for thirty-three years," she said. "It is a long time… after Emperor Kammu, who relocated the capital here to Heian-kyo, no one has ruled past twenty years – many not even past ten. There are those who think it is time for him to abdicate."
"Abdicate?" Sai was genuinely surprised. "But the crown prince is still so young – wouldn't it be better to wait for him to grow older?"
The empress gave a little laugh. "That is exactly what my brother doesn't want to happen – a child emperor needs a regent. Our eldest brother was my husband's regent, as I am certain you know. After his untimely death, my husband grasped the power himself. Now, the younger the new emperor is, the better – he will grow accustomed to having a regent, and so our family can again keep that position even when he is grown-up."
There was a moment's silence as Sai thought of her words. Our family, she had said – even if she was the empress, clearly she was still above all a Fujiwara. "I am sorry," Sai said then. "But I still don't understand what this has to do with me…"
"Once the emperor abdicates, he moves to a palace of his own – where he has his own court. His own go teacher. Now, were there only one teacher, he would probably remain here, but with two, it should be obvious: Sugawara no Akitada will go, and you will stay. And so one more position – perhaps not politically important, but even so highly respected – will move to our family."
Sai watched the board quietly, but for once he didn't really see it. It was so obvious, now that the empress had spelled it out for him. He should have understood what was going on by himself. So he really was there to take Akitada's position. The thought made him a little bitter.
"What do you think about it, your majesty?" he asked carefully. "If the emperor abdicates, then you too…."
"Oh, I too have spent a far longer time than most women as an empress – and, after all, it will be my son who will be the next emperor and my brother who will be the regent, so I have nothing to complain." She gave the young man on the other side of the go board a long look. "Something about this bothers you," she remarked.
Sai said nothing, just finally played the stone he had been fiddling in his hands, eyes on the board.
The empress sighed. "You're so young," she muttered. "I feel this might have been too sudden for you. But the other option would have been to wait for four years, for you to finish another appointment first, and I doubt my husband will stay in power that long. And I, too, wanted you here now." Sai gave her a surprised look, and she smiled a little. "I was the one to convince my husband to give you this position," she said. "I can see that my son likes you better than Akitada-sama – and what is more important, you like my son better than he does. I can't help feeling you'd be a good companion to our new little emperor. You will, won't you?"
She nailed her eyes on Sai, who blushed, once again. "I… I'll try, your majesty," he stuttered, and realized he had committed himself with those words.
"Good." The empress nodded. "Let us finish our game."
"You could have told me," Sai said to his cousin in an accusatory tone later that day. They were sitting in Sai's new residence at the palace. Sai had retired there as soon as he could excuse himself, and pretty soon Nobunori had come to see him. He had not been overly pleased to see his cousin.
"Tell you about what?" Nobunori asked casually, assuming a more relaxed position.
Sai resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "About… everything! Luckily the empress decided to inform me of all that is going on. I would be completely lost here without her majesty! Why didn't you tell me! Are you really going to make the emperor to abdicate?"
"Me?" Nobunori raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "I could hardly…"
"You know what I meant," Sai cut him off icily.
Nobunori was quiet a moment. "If you ask me, it's high time," he said then. "Besides, why shouldn't his majesty abdicate while he's still not too old to enjoy his retirement? And as for why we haven't been telling you everything… you can just blame yourself. You clearly can't keep a secret."
It was Sai's turn to remain quiet, weighing his words. "I guess it doesn't matter, in the end," he finally concluded with a sigh. "I gave a promise to the empress, so… here I am. But I don't want to take any part in your scheming."
He fixed a stern look at his cousin, who received it with a lazy smile. "Don't worry. No one is expecting you to – you can just enjoy the fruits. But I must warn you: you might find it difficult to stay outside of court intrigue. And who will you side with if not your own family?"
"I think I'd like to be alone now," Sai said levelly, ignoring his question, and Nobunori left, the tiny smile still tugging his lips.
A/N: Souji is a name formed with two of the kanji in Kuwabara Torajirou… I think it was the family name’s first and given name’s middle kanji, or something like that. Just for the record. (I considered calling him Shuusaku here, but that felt kind of silly, and as Torajirou didn’t sound like a monk’s name to me, I decided to make up a name…)