Days flew by with an astonishing speed. Sai spent them at the palace, trying to get used to his new life. Every day was in a way similar to the previous, the life at the palace having a rhythm of its own that it unwaveringly followed; but every day he also played a variety of games against a variety of opponents, and all of them were different from the other. He didn't meet the crown prince daily, for the boy had also other lessons and duties to attend, and all things considered, Sai found his new post quite a leisurely one. He certainly did not mind, as this left him much time for playing games with other people.
He wrote letters to home, both to his father and to Hikaru, explaining the situation as closely as he dared in writing. He did not tell everything, but he was sure his father would be able to read between the lines all he left unsaid. He just hoped Fujiwara no Kouyou wouldn't be too unpleased with him. Then again, after the empress had personally asked him to stay, he didn't know what else he could do.
And he wanted to stay, to be honest. Every night he decided that next day he would seek out Sugawara no Akitada and resolve the matter with the man. Somehow he never got a chance for this, though. Akitada always seemed to be somewhere else than where he was.
In truth, he didn't really have much time to worry about it. His days were filled with new faces, and he couldn't help feeling a little astonished at how many people there were at the court. The first day had been the worst, as Nobunori had seemingly decided he had to be introduced to everyone right away. There were, of course, some people he was already familiar with, at least superficially, but the unending stream of minor and major counselors and controllers and secretaries had made him almost dizzy, and he could only hope he would be able to remember who was who without embarrassing himself too badly.
But then one of the minor counselors had asked him for a game, and Nobunori finally left him in peace, most likely deciding that as far as go was concerned, he would be able to take care of himself. The minor counselor wasn't a strong player, but their game attracted a small audience, and once it was over Sai had no shortage of opponents. Back in his element, he relaxed and calmed down. All the talk of court intrigue and politics had made him worried. It had seemed to him that all the courtiers were stalking down the corridors of the palace, plots brewing in their minds, but these people were honest, down-to-earth go players, and there were no hidden meanings in their discussions of the games and strategies.
Perhaps he would, in the end, find a place for himself in this world of the court.
One night he returned to his rooms to find two letters from home waiting for him. Seeing Hikaru's scrawls brought a smile on his lips, though deciphering them was hard work, and soon he decided it might be a better idea to read his father's letter first, to see if it would help him figure out what the boy was trying to say. He was a little nervous, though, as he wasn't sure how his father would react to his decision to stay at the palace.
Fujiwara no Kouyou was not pleased, unsurprisingly, but seemed to agree that Sai hadn't really had a real choice in the matter – or at least he chose not to chide his son about the decision, accepting it as an unfortunate but inevitable fact. He mentioned a few names, some of them familiar to Sai, some not, as people who might make good acquaintances for a newcomer at the court, and Sai memorized them carefully, deciding to meet them as soon as he possibly could.
There wasn't much about Hikaru, just a mention that the boy had started his studies with his new tutor, and everything had started fine, at least if one did not count music lessons. The letter stated rather dryly that by mutual consensus they had decided to leave music for later, and did not elaborate. With a shake of his head he picked up Hikaru's letter again, and started struggling it through.
As he finished writing his replies, he came to think of Sugawara no Akitada. Ever since he had assumed his new position, he had not met the senior go teacher a single time. Everything remained still unresolved between them. He looked at the letters he had written to his father and Hikaru, and grasped his brush again to write a third message, to Akitada. He kept it short, just expressing his wish to have a word with the man. The message was promptly sent, and it could not take long for Akitada to get it. A reply never arrived, though, and in the end Sai gave up on waiting. If Akitada-sama wanted to behave childishly, he decided, that was his problem.
One day when Sai was just having his session with the young prince, Akitada entered suddenly the room. Sai gave him a surprised look, his hand stopping above the go board – they were just in the middle of a teaching game. He composed himself quickly, though, played his move and gave his senior colleague a bow.
"Akitada-sama," he said, hoping to keep his tone neutral. "It has been a while, Did you not get my message? I've been wishing to speak with you."
"Indeed," the man said, settling down by the board. "Perhaps later." He gave a bow to the prince – but, Sai noted, never so much as a greeting to him. "Now I have merely come to follow your lesson. After all, I am still the senior go teacher, and, ultimately, the quality of the lessons is my responsibility. I have to be sure the crown prince won't be left behind in his studies."
"Of course," Sai said lightly. Akitada's tone and word choice annoyed him a little, but, he told himself, in truth he did have a point.
"I believe it was your turn, your highness," Akitada said, looking at the prince. The boy had a stone in his hand, but he was hesitating, and Sai couldn't help noticing how guarded his expression had turned. He gave the boy a reassuring smile. "Come, Hiroakira-shinnou, think of yesterday's lesson. Do you remember what we were talking about?"
The prince played his move, hand still hesitating before letting go of the stone. Though not a bad move, it wasn't quite how Sai had wished him to play, and with his next move he wanted the boy to see what was happening, to guide his attention to the threat. It worked – the boy's eyes widened and he made his move hastily, escaping the trap that was closing around him. Sai nodded, ever so lightly. It wasn't an easy thing to see, so he was happy the boy had caught on, even if he had needed a little help.
They finished the game in silence. Akitada watched it without a comment, and said nothing during their discussion either. Sai finished the session short, noticing that the crown prince was restless and not really concentrating, and the boy seemed to be glad to escape the room.
A moment the two men sat in silence. "Well?" Sai asked then, turning to his elder colleague.
"You're letting him play in rather unconventional ways," Akitada said. "He should still be learning the traditional joseki and not trying to come up withstrange plays of his own."
"I find he has a very good understanding of the basic joseki," Sai said with a frown. "If he wants to explore the game, why should I stop him? One doesn't learn to play good go just following a book."
"One needs a solid foundation on which to build!"
"Of course! But he already has that. There is no need to hold him down!" Sai took a deep breath, telling himself to stay calm. "In fact, I was astonished at how good grasp he has of the basics. He has clearly been studying diligently with you."
Akitada seemed to think nothing of his peace offering, didn't even acknowledge it as he watched Sai darkly.
"You're still a greenhorn yourself. Do you really think you're ready to teach a future emperor?"
"Ready or not, here I am," Sai replied steadily. "I… understand the situation now much better than I did back when we talked last time. I never wanted things to go quite the way they're going. But I'm not going to give up this position, either. Can we not reach some kind of an agreement, a compromise?"
"A compromise?" Akitada snorted. "There can be no compromises in a situation like this. You have no place here; you're not apt for the position you have. If you have no sense to leave on your own, I will have you removed – and do not doubt I cannot get it done. Leaving voluntarily would be the wise course for you, but knowing you, you will hardly follow it." Akitada stood up with a whoosh of his clothes. "So, enjoy your position while you have it."
He left. Sai didn't look after him but stared instead at the go board in front of him, feeling a little sick. Quietly he gathered up the board and the stone bowls, put them away, and retreated into his rooms. He would have rather gone back to his city mansion, to a more familiar place, but didn't want anyone think he was running away.
As he sat alone in his room, lost in gloomy thoughts, there came a quiet rapping outside. "Sai-sama?" a voice asked. "Mind if we come in?"
Sai looked up with a frown on his face, about to ask them to go away as he didn't quite want company right then, but as he realized who the newcomers were his face brightened. Two young men, brothers, entered the room. They were of the Taira family, which had originally made him regard them with some suspicion, remembering his not so lucky correspondence with Taira no Sansho, but very soon he had come to realize that these two were quite different.
The elder, Shinichirou, was a quiet and well-behaved young man, one who took his duties at the Ministry of Civil Administration quite seriously (unlike some of his colleagues), while the younger brother, Yoshitaka, was louder, livelier, and, shortly put, more hot-headed. Most importantly, they were both excellent go players.
"We're not bothering you at a bad moment, are we?" Shinichirou asked with a polite little bow.
"Not at all." Sai smiled at them. "On the contrary, I'm happy to see you're back. How was your trip?"
"Lovely," Shinichirou said at the same time as Yoshitaka said, "Boring." The brothers shot each other a short glare.
"It was lovely," Shinichirou repeated, "but quite uneventful. The southern forests aren't in vain famous for their beauty, and one day we went to have a picnic and listen to cuckoos, and…"
"And wrote poems and whatnot," Yoshitaka cut him off with a snort. "I'd have liked to go hunting, but we didn't have a chance for that. Nor have I played a decent game of go against anyone but my brother for ages, and I'm getting tired of playing against him." He shot Sai a wide grin. "So we thought to check if you're available for a game."
Sai returned his smile. "Always. So, which one of you shall I play first?"
"Me," the brothers said in unison, and glared at each other again.
"I'm elder," Shinichirou pointed out, and Yoshitaka rolled his eyes.
"And I," he said, "am bored."
"How about I play you at the same time," Sai put in hurriedly before a fight could break out.
"What, two games at the same time?" Shinichirou asked, surprised.
"That sounds interesting." Yoshitaka was again grinning. "Maybe this time we'll beat him!"
They got the boards out and started the games. They played in silence; discussion could wait until the games were over. They were excellent games, too, and Sai felt his spirits rise. This was just what he needed right now: friendly games with people he liked.
In the end, Yoshitaka's optimism was misplaced; though they played well, Sai clearly won both games. Once they were done discussing the games and the two were about to take their leave, Shinichirou paused and said almost hesitantly, "By the way, we just heard… our uncle is coming to visit the capital next month."
Sai paused. Uncle? Then he realized who they meant – Taira no Sansho – and gave a little sigh.
"You might not want to run across him," Shinichirou added.
Yoshitaka snorted. "Who in their right mind wants to run across with him? It's too bad you can't choose your relatives…"
"If I meet him, then I meet him," Sai said a little snappily. "I certainly don't care, either way."
Shinichirou was shaking his head. "It's a good thing uncle apparently was in a good mood when he received your letter, and took it all for a joke. It would have spelled quite a lot of trouble for you if you had offended him."
"Yeah," Yoshitaka agreed. "Why on earth did you ever write to him, in the first place? Didn't you know anything about him?"
"No," Sai said with a sigh. "Just what I had heard from Akitada-sama. I thought he might…" He paused, seeing the look the two shared. "What?"
"Akitada?" Yoshitaka asked. "He's the one that put the idea in your mind? That just figures."
"He said he thought Taira no Sansho might…" Sai started, confused. He paused. "They know each other, don't they?"
"Our uncle and Akitada?" Shinichirou nodded. "They're old friends."
Sai was quiet, thinking of how Akitada had claimed to know Sansho only by reputation. "So he set me up…" he muttered to himself, too quietly for the others to hear him. As the brothers gave him a worried look, seeing his strained expression, he smiled at them, though a little thinly.
"Well, I guess it's time to say good night, then," he said lightly. "I hope we can play together soon again."
The brothers said their goodbyes, both of them looking like they wanted to say something more, but didn't, leaving Sai alone with his thoughts.
His newly gained good mood had disappeared again, like dew in the morning sun. With a sigh he watched out, across the city, and couldn't help hoping he was back in Kawachi, in a simpler world than the one he had entered. In the end he retreated to his bed, but he slept badly that night, plagued by murky, oppressing dreams he couldn't remember once he woke up.
Back in Kawachi Hikaru was wishing he could be in the capital. Ever since Sai had left, he had been feeling very restless. His days were filled by his studies, but his mind was constantly elsewhere. Sai had not, in the end, declined the position, and Hikaru could see this made his father quite worried. Kouyou had even been muttering about going to the capital himself, and Hikaru wished he would – this time he would not be left behind. Something of Kouyou's anxiety was rubbing on him, too, though he couldn't understand what worried the man so badly. Sai seemed to be doing fine. At least his letters were cheerful and optimistic.
But, Hikaru wondered, staring at the blue sky, would Sai voice in a letter his worries, if he had any…
"Hikaru? Are you listening to me?"
"What?" The boy gave a start. "I, yes, of course." They were just in the middle of a lesson.
"Then what did I just say?"
"That…" Hikaru blinked, trying to remember. Something about seasons, and lotus leaves, and… flowing water? "When you bury lotus leaves from flowing water in the, in the… I don't remember where it makes them smell stronger…"
The way his teacher groaned told him got it wrong. "You're mixing it all up! You should bury the blend by flowing water, and the longer you keep it there, the deeper the fragrance grows. And lotus leaf, that's the name of a blend for a summer fragrance. Now, what's a common spring fragrance?"
Hikaru just stared at him blandly, and he gave a deep sigh. "Plum flower. And chrysanthemum, that's for autumn. Got it?"
"I guess." Hikaru gave him a sheepish grin. "I'm sorry, I just don't get what's the big deal about all these smells…"
This earned him a frown. "Fragrances. Fragrances, not smells. And they're just as important for a real gentleman as any bit of clothing – the proper fragrance holds as much meaning as the color of your sashinuki."
The only meaning my pants have is to keep me warm, who cares of their color, Hikaru thought to himself, but chose to say nothing, telling himself to behave for his tutor's sake. To be honest, he liked this young man, Ashiwara no Hiroyuki, a very enthusiastic teacher (though hopelessly scatterbrained, Hikaru had soon found out). He was one of Kouyou's students, and a very good go player.
But no matter how much he liked his teacher, he did hope he'd have a way to escape these lessons. Perfumes, poetry, Chinese… he didn't know which was worst.
Hiroyuki was babbling on about the different blends, currently talking about something called Hundred Steps, named so because it could be smelled hundred steps away.
What a creative name, Hikaru thought to himself. "Hundred steps, huh," he muttered aloud. "A bit like in go one move can have influence a hundred moves later…"
"Huh?" Hiroyuki paused in mid-sentence and blinked at him.
"Do you think it'd be possible to plan that far ahead?" Hikaru asked in all seriousness. "A hundred moves?"
"What? A hundred… what are you talking about? Surely no one can plan that far ahead!"
"But, you see," Hikaru said, leaning forward a little with an earnest look on his face, "I once played this game with Sai, and I could swear he had it all planned!"
After a short argument they took out a go board so that Hikaru could show his teacher the game. As the discussion of go strategies took wing, perfumes were quite forgotten.
Sometimes Hikaru couldn't believe how easy it could be.
But, he wondered in the night as he was going to sleep, maybe he shouldn't exploit his teacher's distractibility so much. He had promised Sai to study diligently, after all. And if he really wanted to join Sai in the capital, he would have to learn this stuff. Ha lay down with a sigh. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he'd concentrate on his lessons like never before.
It wasn't the first time he had made this decision.
A/N: Isumi Shinichirou and Waya Yoshitaka. (One more pic) Just in case you've forgotten their given names, as for what ever twist of logic the official translation uses given names of pretty much anyone except the insei…
I was planning to make Shirakawa Hikaru's teacher, as that'd be kind of canon, but in the end chose Ashiwara because a) he's more fun, and b) he's Touya Kouyou's student.