Despite Akitada's threats, life proceeded quietly in the capital. Sai's feelings were still quite mixed – on the one hand, he enjoyed greatly his new duties, teaching the young crown prince, and also all the games and discussions that filled his days, but on the other hand he couldn't quite escape the nervous, almost guilty feeling that followed him daily. He couldn't help but notice the looks he got from some courtiers he knew to be close to Akitada, or the whispers that ceased when he came to the place. He had decided to ignore it, thinking that the best he could do was to show them he was up to his task and not going to give in.
It was a little tiresome, though. He had made it a habit to spend approximately one night in a week at his city mansion – he slept better under a more familiar roof. There as well it always took him long to fall asleep, but at least his dreams were more peaceful.
Life was so peculiar. He had reached all he could hope for, faster and easier than he would ever have imagined – which of course was exactly the problem. How happy he had imagined he would be if he just could spend his days playing go at the palace! He had decided he would not take part into the internal politics of the court, but it was getting clear he had no opinion in the matter. And if he didn't take an active role, he'd be nothing but a stone in the players' hands. He didn't like that feeling.
He still remembered Akitada's threat, and though the man hadn't done anything to realize it, it weighed heavily on his mind. He had not told anyone about it, not his father nor his cousin (the former because he didn't want to worry his father, the latter because he didn't want to admit to Nobunori he had been right about Akitada.) But he wished he had someone to speak to, someone who could tell him how seriously he should take that threat – and what he should do about it. Briefly he considered the empress, but although she, his mother's cousin, had always been friendly to him, he still didn't quite feel comfortable around her. And what would she do if he told her? That worried him a little – if the empress took action, he could just watch the events unfold.
As his palanquin proceeded across the streets he stared numbly out, without really seeing anything. Although it was late there were still people on the streets, mainly commoners hurrying to their homes. But just as they reached his mansion and stopped to wait for the gate to open, something caught his eye. A lone girl, hovering by the wall, watching his palanquin seemingly in the grips of indecision. Recognition hit him, and just when his palanquin was about to move in he jumped suddenly out, astounding his servants.
"Akari, isn't it?" he exclaimed. "It's been so long since I've seen you!"
The girl didn't seem to know how to react to his sudden outburst, at first staring at him with wide eyes, but then, as she shook her head amusedly, a small smile crept on her lips.
"It has been long," she agreed and bowed low. "I… I was wondering if I could speak with you."
"Of course! Come, come in!"
Sai led her into the mansion, never even noticing the confused looks his servants were giving each other. Inside, they settled down for some drinks, and he gave the girl a friendly smile, noticing she was still a little awkward in his company.
"What is it you wanted to talk about?"
"Hikaru," she said. "Is he… doing okay?"
"He is fine," Sai said, smiling a little at the blush that colored her cheeks as she mentioned the boy's name. "Still at Kawachi, and studying diligently, I hear."
"Diligently?" Akari gave a little laugh. "Doesn't sound like the Hikaru I know."
Sai laughed too. "I know. But this time he really is serious about it."
"That is good to know." Akari was looking down at her hands. "This is all so very weird. I'm not sure what's going on and why. But…" She looked up at Sai. "I remember the day when he left. Later I kept on thinking I shouldn't have let him go so easily, but… I don't know. There was something in his eyes, something different, and I just… I don't believe I could have held him back no matter how hard I tried. …his father was really furious," she added as an afterthought.
"I can understand that," Sai said with a little sigh. "I'm sorry about all the trouble this has caused. But I can assure you there is nothing to worry about. I'll take good care of him."
Nothing to worry about in Hikaru's life, that is, he thought to himself. If he had only been able to say the same about his own life. He would have wanted to tell Akari about his father's plan to adopt Hikaru, to put her mind at rest, but how could he tell her when the boy's parents didn't yet know anything? He had a feeling Hikaru's father would not be too happy about this, either.
Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, for Akari didn't look convinced. She seemed to be about to say something, but hesitated, looking away. Sai too was quiet, closing his eyes and trying to push all worries out of his mind. He had come home to relax, right?
"Do you still play?" he asked the girl. "I would like to have a game with you, if you don't mind."
"Me?" Akari seemed startled. "I… I guess, in a way I do… I mean, I've been teaching a friend of mine, but… I'm still really bad. I mean, really. You don't want to play with me…"
"But I do. "Sai smiled at her hesitation. "Please. It would help me to take my mind of… some bad things."
Akari said nothing, but nodded her head a little. Ayaka brought them a go board, and they started the game. Playing against Akari was strangely similar to his games against Hikaru back when they had just met. Back when he had still been excited about the capital and its goldenpromises, had imagined the world to be a beautiful, fair place for everyone to live in, and had awaited his occasional games with Akitada with great eagerness.
Thinking of it made him feel a sudden surge of longing for those past days. A tight feeling in his throat he played on, careful not to look at his opponent, least she would notice his inner turmoil. He forced himself to focus on the game. Though Hikaru had, even in the very beginning, had more insight than this girl, this simple game against Akari did help him relax. He couldn't help smiling at the concentrated frown on the girl's face as she stared at the board, trying to figure out the moves.
"Thank you for the game," he said once the game was over, and meant it.
"Thank you," the girl replied quietly. She sighed. "I miss playing with Hikaru," she confessed. "I know I'm no good, but still."
"You are not 'no good.' Don't say such things," Sai chided her gently. "I have met some courtiers who don't have as much skill as you." Well, there was just one, to be honest, and he had no skill for go whatsoever, but nevertheless. He sighed. "I miss playing with Hikaru too…"
Akari gave him a searching look. "Aren't you happy in the palace?" she asked, hesitant. "I… I just mean that you appear so… so, I don't know, unhappy?" she went on hastily when Sai met her gaze, surprised.
"Unhappy? I'm not unhappy," Sai said thoughtfully. "But things are more complicated than I thought. There are… some people at the palace I don't really get along with. And I would have wished to have them as my friends…"
"I'm not surprised, really," Akari said, and he was a little startled at her frankness. "You're just… somehow so off. I mean, not what one would expect from someone with a court rank. The way you're talking with me too! But…" she gave him a shy smile. "I think you're great. If you don't get along with someone, they must be at fault, not you."
Sai returned her smile. "You're very kind. I do wish there were more people like you at the palace…"
"At least you're there, now," Akari said with an embarrassed little laugh, covering her mouth with her hand. Meeting her eyes Sai paused to ponder on what she had just said. He was suddenly reminded of the day when it hadn't been Akari but Hikaru waiting for his return from the palace – a very frantic, frightened Hikaru. He thought of the ordeal this girl had gone through, and his decision to change everything. And what had he done, so far?
"Yes, at least I am there," he said softly. Spending his days happily playing go at the palace? Was that all he cared about? It wasn't just for his own happiness he would have to make himself a strong position at the court.
But that wasn't a matter for this night. "Would you like to discuss the game?" he asked Akari, and as the girl heartily agreed, they spent quite a long time talking of the game and various strategies. When Akari finally realized she should have returned home long ago Sai sent one his men to escort her, not wanting her to walk around on her own so late. He would have let her use his palanquin, but the mere thought had stunned Akari so badly he had agreed to let her walk.
Shortly after his meeting with Akari the second month came to an end. In the early days of the third month came once again the festival of the Snake. Right after that festival followed the ceremony of the Holy Light: the emperor dedicated a light to the Deity of the North Star, for the protection of the country. Later in the night long, thin candles were lit everywhere in the honor of the Great Bear, and there was a feast at the palace with dances and much celebration.
Sai followed the celebration a while, not really taking part into it. As long as go wasn't concerned he enjoyed himself most just as a spectator, though after some persuasion he too had agreed to play a little song with his flute. He left the feast early, but wanting to enjoy the beautiful cool night a little longer didn't go straight to his rooms. Instead he went out, strolling slowly through the corridors and verandas round the palace.
It was a lovely night, the stars shining on the cloudless sky, and here and there he could see the lights of the candles, like little stars themselves. Faint music carried from inside of the palace, and he hummed quietly to it as he walked, feeling an urge to take the flute again out and play a little.
He turned a corner, and a bit further down the corridor he spotted Akitada with a group of people, some of them familiar to him, some not. For a short moment his step faltered and he considered taking another route. He didn't. In the end he walked on, nodding his head a little at Akitada in passing. Akitada returned his nod and at first didn't seem to be going to say anything, but once Sai had passed the little group, he heard the man's voice behind his back.
"A pleasant evening, isn't it?" As usual, when they had company, Akitada's voice was friendly, though perhaps a little condescending. "I hope you too have enjoyed tonight."
"I certainly have," Sai said, turning back. "It is seldom the night air is so sweet, or the stars shine quite so bright. An auspicious night – it must promise well for the coming year."
"Surely," Akitada agreed with a tiny smile. "But I stopped you because I wished to introduce you to someone. I don't believe you have met before." He waved with his hand to a short, plump man standing on his left.
Sai bowed politely, muttering, "An honor to me," while Akitada went on, talking to his companion: "As I am sure you must have understood, this is my colleague Fujiwara no Sai. And this," he gestured with his hand, "is Taira no Sansho."
"Ah," Sai said quietly, nodding at the man. "Your dear friend you know only by reputation."
If Akitada was put off by his comment, he didn't show it. "Sansho-sama was just saying how interesting it would be to meet you. I am happy he got a chance so soon." Someone in the small group snickered a little, tried to cover it with a cough. Everyone ignored it.
"It's easy to meet me," Sai said a little sharply. He did not want these men to ruin this night, too. "I am not a busy man like you. Now, if you excuse me…" He gave a little bow and was about to leave.
"Not a busy man, but still in such a hurry to go?" Sansho said, amusement in his tone. "Come, we just met! Why don't you join us for a moment?"
Sai could have given him quite a many reasons, but instead he just smiled thinly. "A moment, maybe. I was planning to retire for the night."
"But the night is still young! And I have heard so much about you. Our correspondence ended sadly so short…"
Yes, because you never replied me, Sai thought, and wondered if the man's voice possibly could sound any more irritating to his ears. He truly couldn't see exactly what made everyone so impressed about this man – an overweight, annoying creature who spoke in a nasal voice and seemed to be sweating even in the cool night.
"I hear you are quite a go player," Sansho went on, oblivious to his thoughts. "And you're standing for a good cause, too – a social reform of some kind?" He fanned himself softly. "Would you like to tell me the details?"
"I tried once," Sai said, at the edge of his patience. "You didn't seem to be interested."
"Hmm." Sansho snapped his fan shut, giving him a disappointed look. "Have I burned the bridges behind my back? That's too bad. I would have merely wanted to know what it is in the commoners that interest you so much. After all, you seem to be pretty fond of one…"
Sai just stared at him, wondering if he had somehow caught wind of Hikaru. But then one of their audience put in, a smirk in his voice, "I think Sansho-sama means the young girl who has been hanging around by your city mansion."
"Indeed!" Sansho exclaimed before Sai could say anything. "And I hear she stayed at your mansion quite late one night, didn't she?" he laughed at Sai's stunned look. "Come, don't be embarrassed! There is nothing wrong with having a bit fun with…"
"Y-you've got completely the wrong idea!" Sai burst out, so flustered it was hard for him to finish his sentence. "It's not…I'd never…"
"Oh? So what were you doing with a pretty young commoner girl in the middle of the night? Playing go? I think the game must have been quite different with her…"
Sansho – and all his companions – burst into laughter. Sai was a moment at a loss of words. It didn't last for long.
"You… you are truly disgusting!" he exclaimed, eyes ablaze. "How can you insinuate something like that?"
Sansho, clearly taken aback by his sudden outburst, raised his eyebrows at him. "Come, come now, what is this? I would understand your anger if this were a lady we were talking about, but why get so worked up for someone like her?"
"Someone like her? And what do you take her to be? She's a sweet, innocent girl – the very same girl your crooks kidnapped! She had nightmares for months after it, just so you know!"
"Aren't you going a bit too far?" one of the little group said.
"Indeed," another agreed. "Sansho-sama's crooks? You can't go around sprouting groundless accusations like that!"
"Groundless?" Sai asked. "Are they? Do you claim none of the people kidnapped, here or elsewhere, wouldn't end up on your…"
"This is ridiculous," Sansho cut him off. "I don't know what is going on between you and that girl, but this is getting out of proportion."
"There is nothing between us," Sai said quietly. "But one thing is sure – I would rather play go with her than with someone like you."
Sansho's nostrils flared and he was about to say something, but right at that moment someone arrived at the scene.
"Sai?" Nobunori's voice was quite surprised. "What is going on here?" He gave a bow to the company. "Sansho-sama," he said, "I was hoping to have a word with you. I hope my foolish cousin," he looked at Sai of the corner of his eye, "is not causing you any trouble."
"Me causing him trouble?" Sai cried out, indignant. "I was merely telling this man what I think of him and his way to run his estates! It's simply shameful that someone so high-ranking…"
"Sai!" Nobunori had been attempting to cut him off for a while, and finally managed to do it, grasping tightly his shoulder. "I think you should try to calm down," he said sternly. "I don't know what has got you so worked up here – once again – but consider what you're saying. You should apologize to Sansho-sama."
Sai stared him in the eye for a long while. "I believe we've been through this discussion before," he said. "And nothing has changed since then." He turned back to Sansho. "Maybe I cannot know for sure whose men were responsible for the kidnapping," he said, "but I do know that your estates operate on slave labor, and I have heard much of the conditions. Have you ever thought that perhaps no one would need to go around kidnapping innocent people for extra work force if you took better care of the workers you've got!"
"Sai. That's enough." Nobunori was still holding his hand on his shoulder, and his grip tightened.
"What a peculiar creature, to lecture me so," Sansho muttered. "Besides, I hardly invented slavery. It's not like there weren't any slaves in your father's province, too."
"Do you think I wouldn't know that?! But you can be sure there wouldn't be any if my father could do something about it. But, as you surely know, a governor has no power over private estates." He paused and nailed his eyes on Sansho. "Now, that is one thing that should be changed."
This declaration raised an anxious murmur in the little group surrounding them. Sansho gave an incredulous little laugh. Nobunori looked like he wished to strangle Sai.
"Please excuse us," he said stiffly to Sansho. "I believe it's high time for me to take my cousin to bed."
"I…" Sai tried to protest, but Nobunori practically dragged him from the place.
Akitada had said nothing during the whole exchange, merely followed it in dry amusement. "Knowing him, they probably were playing go," he muttered quietly to himself as he watched after the cousins.
"I don't know what I should do with you!" Nobunori exclaimed once they reached Sai's rooms. "I truly don't know! Are you so determined to self-destruct? What was that nonsense about?"
"Nonsense?" Sai shot him a glare. "I just said what I thought. And yes, I do know you think that's a bad habit. But that man – how can someone like him be so horribly important!"
"How?" Nobunori received the glare calmly, his gaze as cold as Sai's was fiery. "If you don't understand it, perhaps you are too simple for court life. Sai, listen. I am not interested in your naïve utopian dreams of a world where everyone can live their lives happily. This was the last time I came to your rescue, got it? Now, I'm going to go to see if I can still placate Sansho or if you've managed to ruin everything."
"Ruin? Ruin what?" Sai's gaze turned again from merely angry to furious. "What, do you have some dealings with that man? Nobunori!"
His cousin didn't stop to answer him. Nobunori strode out of the room, leaving him to fume alone.
Sai didn't sleep that night. He couldn't even lie still for a long period, for every few minutes he sat up, thinking of dressing up again and going to speak his mind… he didn't know to who – Sansho, Akitada, Nobunori, or perhaps even the emperor himself. He started drafting a few letters, but they all ended up crumpled in the corners of the room. For a moment he lay down again before jumping up once more to pace around restlessly.
"Damn you," he muttered under his breath, not know exactly who he meant. Perhaps them all.
Once morning came he was still angry. He had his session with the crown prince before noon, and he tried his best to calm down a little, not to be too obvious in his anger. The prince didn't seem to notice anything, but princess Hiroko, who had a habit of coming to follow the lessons, gave him long looks. When the lesson was over and Sai was taking his leave, she followed him quickly and gestured for him to bend down so that she could whisper into his ear.
"I heard you made Sansho angry," she said. "That's fine. I would not like you if he did." As he straightened his back she met his eyes and nodded seriously her head. He returned the nod, and for the first time since the previous evening, smiled a little.
He shot still one look at her from the door as she returned to her young husband, to play a game with him. Sansho, he reminded himself, was an elderly man. These children were the future. That thought made him feel quite a lot better.
A/N: Back when I first mentioned Taira no Sansho in this fic I wrote that he was a "provincial lard." So I figured he might as well be fat. (And someone like him probably would have been.)