tuulikannel: (Hikaru no go - Sai)
[personal profile] tuulikannel
Chapter 20

Following that night, a gap seemed to have formed between Sai and Nobunori, one that wouldn't be easily closed. Once Sai had calmed down it did make him a little sad – but he didn't think he'd be able to forgive his cousin so easily this time. And Nobunori obviously wasn't going to forgive him, either. They didn't quite avoid each other, but when they happened to meet, one could have imagined they were complete strangers.

It didn't take Sai long to notice that something had changed also in the general atmosphere of the court. The looks and whispers he had noted before suddenly ceased, but although this at first made him relieved, he soon came to suspect that something was quite badly off. Were there had once been amusement at his eccentricities, was now almost open hostility. There was a new wariness also in people he knew and considered his friends. He didn't still quite realize the depth of this change before he met Taira no Yoshitaka.

He ran across his friend one morning as he had left his rooms, and though Yoshitaka was about to pass him only with a nod of his head, he stopped and turned to follow him.

"Morning! How are you today? Do you think you'd have time for a quick game at some point?"

Yoshitaka gave him an uneasy glance. "Maybe… though today is quite busy…" He hurried on, avoiding looking at Sai. A moment they walked in silence, Sai watching him curiously, wondering what was the matter with him. Just when he was about to ask if everything was okay, Yoshitaka came to a sudden stop.

"You really did it this time!" he snapped, turning to Sai. "Did you have to make him angry?"

Sai frowned. "Do you mean your uncle?"

"Yes! Who else?" Yoshitaka was clearly fighting to keep his voice down. "He was quite clear of not wanting us to have anything to do with you."

"Oh?" Sai's frown deepened. "And you dutifully obey him in everything? I would have expected better from you."

"You're being unfair!" Yoshitaka exclaimed. "Do you have any idea how difficult he could make our lives? Not to mention your life!" He gave Sai a worried look. "You should be careful. You've made a powerful enemy."

"If you say so." Sai sighed. "But fine enough, if it's such a great problem for you, we can avoid each other for a while. But," he pointed his fan demandingly at Yoshitaka, "I count on you – both of you – yet playing many games against me in the future."

Yoshitaka smiled. "You can bet we will!" he said, but then his smiled faded away. "Just… take care that you will be around in the future to play those games, okay?"

Sai smiled his warning off, but something about it made him feel cold. At least he had his study session with the crown prince to look forward to, and as usual it did help to calm his nerves. It was beginning to seem like instead of just the prince, he also had the princess's go studies on his responsibility. She was always there when he met the prince. And this was not something he minded. Princess Hiroko was an attentive student, honestly interested in go, and her presence also helped the crown prince to concentrate better – as if, Sai mused a bit amusedly, he wanted to impress her. Of course, their age difference made it quite hard for the poor boy – though only three years, at their age it was still enough to matter.

"So why can't I play here instead?" the prince was saying, staring at the board intently "That would help me invade the corner."

"Yes," princess Hiroko replied before Sai could say anything, "but then white would play here," she pointed with her fan, "and what would you do then?"

The prince's forehead wrinkled in concentration. "Well, I'd just… just… I'd play here. And…"

"Don't be stupid!" Hiroko exclaimed. "You'll lose all your stones there, don't you see it!"

"It's not a stupid move," Sai said hurriedly. "Anything but. In fact, you might be able to make it work – though it would be quite hard. Playing like I first showed you is simpler. Safe and easy way to the wanted outcome."

"Maybe I don't want safe and easy," the little prince muttered darkly. "That's wimpy."

"No, that's smart," princess Hiroko snorted. "Only an idiot would knowingly do something the hard way when it can be done easily."

"Why don't I show you the hard way, just for fun?" Sai put in, hoping to evade the fight that loomed behind the horizon. "After all, this is quite an intriguing situation, and you might learn plenty from it."

The children shot glares at each other but settled down to watch.

The study session ended without any serious fights. Sai gave a quiet breath when the children leaved – on some days, they truly could be a handful. He cleared the board of stones, wondering what to do next, when a quiet voice startled him.


He looked up in surprise – he had thought everyone had left. "My lady," he said with a little smile as he saw the young woman who was still sitting where she had been, by the princess. "Still here? I thought you would accompany Hiroko-hime."

Lady Asumi was normally never far away from the princess. It was clear she would yet hold an important position in the court, for she was the little princess's, the future empress's, unwavering favorite.

"Her highness gave me permission to stay behind today," she said. "Actually, I was wondering if I could have a game with you."

"With pleasure!" Sai exclaimed. He opened the stone bowl he had just closed. "Right away?"

"Yes… but I thought that maybe we could play in outside, in the gardens. It's turning into a beautiful day. We could check if the cherry blossoms are soon budding, too."

"Of course, if you want to," Sai said, though he was a little surprised at the request. The gardens weren't at the moment at their best, as there wasn't yet anything else blooming but the plum blossoms. Nevertheless, a servant boy took the go board and they started to head out

On their way out they happened to pass a group of ladies-in-waiting, gathered around a piece of paper. As the women saw them pass, one of them whispered something to a friend of hers, and the two giggled behind their fans. Asumi's cheeks colored a little in anger, but before she could say anything one of the other women stated dryly, "How annoyingly loudly the sparrows chirp today," giving the two a look, and they fell into an embarrassed silence.

"Are you going to have a game?" yet another of the women asked. "Perhaps we could join you."

"That would be lovely," Sai said. "We're going to play in the gardens, if you want to come."

"In the gardens?" the woman exclaimed. "But it's still so gloomy there."

"Maybe we still could…" one of the gigglers started to say, but Asumi caught the eye of the woman who had reprimanded them, and she cut her off.

"Perhaps later," she said. "After all, now we have to compose a reply to this." She pointed her fan at the paper around which they were gathered. "You are always so quick with your verses," she said turning to the one who had been wanting to join them, "why don't you come up with something now?"

Sai and Asumi left them to ponder on their reply to what most likely was nothing but a playful note from some of the gentlemen of the court. Asumi's cheeks were still slightly pink, and Sai watched her out of the corner of his eye, wondering exactly what was going on among the women.

In the garden she chose a spot, and they settled down by the board. Lady Asumi was… if not the best then at least one of the best female go players in the court, despite her young age – Sai wasn't sure, but estimated her to be about sixteen or seventeen. She was a creative player, and sometimes her games were simply beautiful.

They were some twenty moves into the game when Asumi said quietly, "You have caused quite an uproar in the court."

"I have?" Sai gave her a look, at the same time surprised and annoyed. Surprised, because Asumi seldom chitchatted during a game; annoyed because he didn't want to think about it all right then. "Because of Taira no Sansho? Is he really so…"

"Who cares of Taira no Sansho?" Asumi snorted. "Well, I admit, some people do. But regardless of what one thinks of that man, you seem to have some opinions that don't make you popular. Did you really suggest that the emperor should give governors power over private estates?"

"I guess… something like that. But…"

"But? There are no buts. Don't you have any idea how dangerous a suggestion like that is?"

"Dangerous?" Sai was watching her with wide eyes. "But… I think it's just common sense! Of course the governors should have complete control of what goes on in their provinces!"

Asumi sighed. "It's a good thing I brought you here for this conversation," she muttered. "But still, do keep you voice down."

"That's why you wanted to play here? I thought…"

"You know," Asumi said, not listening to him, "practically everyone with a court rank has estates in the provinces." She leaned across the board and nailed her eyes into his. "Everyone. And they don't want to have anyone intervening with how they run them. Do you understand?"

Sai watched her in silence, the game forgotten "If they have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, why should it matter to them?"

Asumi sighed again. "There are those who do abuse their power in their own lands," she said quietly. "And there are those who worry that the governors might abuse their power, were they given it. The good and the bad – they're all against you in this."

"And what about you?" Sai asked sharply. "Where do you stand?"

"I?" Asumi gave a laugh. "I have no estates in the provinces – I get my income elsewhere. The whole matter hardly concerns me. I'm just worried about you, that's all."

"So you have to be directly involved before you get concerned about something?" Sai's harsh tone made Asumi draw back a little, surprised. "Let me tell you about a girl, just a little younger than you…"

Sai launched into telling her about Akari, what he knew from Hikaru of the girl and her family, and of their everyday life. He told her about the kidnapping, and of the few times she had met the girl after it, and of the games he had played with her. "So," he said finally, "do you really think it's of no consequence how we treat people like her? That it would have been perfectly alright for her to get kidnapped from her home and sent to work somewhere far away, never to see her family again?"

There was a moment's stunned silence.

"You've been playing go with commoners?" Asumi breathed then, and Sai threw his arms up in exasperation.

"Why do you people always cling to what's totally unessential!"

"Sorry," Asumi said with a laugh. "You just caught me by surprise. And it's not unessential – make sure no one else hears about it." She sighed, nodded her head a little. "But yes, I admit. You have a point. But it makes me no less worried about you. Listen – if you want to help these commoners, help first yourself. Tell people you've been misunderstood in the heat of the moment. Perhaps some day, years from now, you can bring it up again, but now – time is not ready yet. You are not ready yet. You need to be much stronger for something like this. Make allies."

Sai smiled thinly, a little amused at how he was being lectured to be someone younger than he was, and a woman to boot. "You seem to have a good grasp of how this political world of ours operates," he stated.

She too smiled. "I was born into this world, you know. Have you forgotten emperor Uda was my grandfather?"

"Make allies, you say." Sai's expression turned grave again. "Can I count on you as one?"

She shook her head, as if resignedly, but she laughed. "I should tell you no. But you're such a curious one, how could I? Yes, you can count on me. And on my mistress too, I dare to say that much, though she is still young."

They finished their game in the garden that was on the verge of bursting into life, and it was one of the best games Asumi had ever played against him. Afterward Sai thought of the discussion, and it made him feel more confident. Make allies, she had said. He thought of the people around him, and concluded that although he didn't have that many allies as it was, the ones he had were quite significant – the empress, the crown prince and his wife, even if they were only children, possibly the emperor too… and now lady Asumi, who held no little sway among the women of the palace.

Then he thought of the rest she had said, and his face darkened. He didn't like it. He didn't like it at all, but the next time he met his old, absentminded go-player friend, Watanabe no Tadatsuna – who at least still agreed to meet him, even though he too appeared to be somewhat awkward in his company – he mentioned in passing how he had noticed some strange rumors spreading in the palace.

"I think it must be something I said during that little fight I had with Taira no Sansho," he said lightly. "Though I don't know what. But it's just silly – it's not like I had any interest in such things – my father might be enjoying his time as the governor, but I know it's not the path for me. What do I know of how to best run provinces and estates, anyway?"

It was surprising how easy it was to babble on without even thinking what he was saying. He felt a little sick afterward, but one thing was sure – what he told Watanabe no Tadatsuna, the whole court would know next day. And sure enough, when he ran across Nobunori a couple of days later, his cousin congratulated him of his newly found common sense.

"Now if you'd only apologize to…"

"One more word," Sai snapped angrily, "and I take it all back."

Nobunori sighed. "It was too much to hope for," he muttered. "But at least you might survive here a bit longer. Taira no Sansho is going back to his estates, and I managed to convince him to ignore you. And don't bother thanking me – I did it for the family, not for you."

"I wasn't going to," Sai stated dryly. A moment the cousins watched each other sullenly. "Did you also finish your business with him to your satisfaction?" Sai asked finally.

"Indeed – no thanks to you."

"And what, exactly, did you want of him?"

"That," Nobunori stated coldly, "is none of your business. Besides, most likely you wouldn't even want to know."

And they went their ways, still not making peace.

"Alright, Hikaru." Ashiwara no Hiroyuki looked at his student from behind a great pile books and documents. "Start from the beginning."

The boy let out a great sigh. "Okay. So. The first emperor was Emperor Jimmu, direct descendant of Amaterasu herself. The next was his son was Suizei, and then came Annei. And then there was a big bunch of them – what? Fifty is a big bunch of emperors if you ask me!"

Hiroyuki sighed. "Don't talk about bunches of emperors. That's not respectful."

"Oh? Whatever. Well, the fiftieth one was Kammu who moved the capital first to… to…"

"To Nagaoka."

"Yeah. And then just ten years later to Heian-kyo. Which I think was pretty stupid, by the way."

"You know the capital in Nagaoka was under the curse of crown prince Sawara's vengeful ghost…"

Hikaru rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but couldn't they do something about it? Placate him somehow? Moving the whole capital just because of one ghost sounds kind of exaggerated to me."

"Clearly you've got no experience of ghosts," Hiroyuki muttered. "You shouldn't take them so lightly. Getting rid of a ghost can be quite a lot trickier than you could ever imagine, especially one of this level."

"But I think…"

Hiroyuki raised a finger at him. "I think we should try to stick to the topic today. The next emperor after Kammu was…?"

"After Kammu? That's… that's, just a moment…" The boy frowned in concentration and took then a deep breath. "Heizei Saga Junna Ninmyō Montoku Seiwa Yōzei Kōkō Uda," he prattled in one go, and grinned at his teacher's surprised expression. "Pretty good, huh?"

"Yes," Hiroyuki said and was about to continue, but they were cut off as Fujiwara no Kouyou entered the room.

"How is it going today?"

"Fine enough," Hiroyuki replied. "We're talking about the past emperors and their deeds. He seems to have a pretty good memory – when he just bothers to use it. But it's simply shocking how little he knew! Are all the commoners so ignorant? He didn't even know the name of our previous emperor!"

"That's just cause the current one's been ruling all my life!" Hikaru exclaimed in a defensive tone. "What does it matter who had power before him? I mean, it's not like it'd ever have mattered much to me who has it now. Besides, I did know something! Like about the Mad Yōzei, or…"

"You shouldn't refer to emperors like that," Hiroyuki said in a strained voice. "I've told you to be respectful!"

"But the guy was totally nuts! Now, his deeds I do know, like how he used to strangle women with strings of instruments and throw their bodies into lakes, or run his horse right over people or…"

"I think that's enough," Kouyou said. "Hiroyuki is right – mad or not, he was an emperor and you should talk about him respectfully."

"Sorry," Hikaru muttered, while Hiroyuki was shaking his head in despair.

"How does he know all he's not supposed to know, and nothing people should know?" he mumbled.

"Actually," Kouyou said, wanting to move away from the subject, "I wanted to have a word with you, Hikaru. If you could have a little break?"

"What?" Hiroyuki looked up with a start. "Oh, of course." He got up hurriedly and left with a bow.

"What did you want to talk about, sir?" Hikaru asked, curiously, as Kouyou sat down.

"Your coming adoption," the man replied. "I've been thinking about it, and I think it's best if we wait until the time of the Gozechi dances before making it official. We can then both travel to the capital. This gives you time to be fully prepared, and by that time Sai too should have properly established himself at the court."

"It's pretty far away, but that's… good, I guess?" Hikaru said. "I mean, I'm sure you know what's best." Not to mention that he was quite relieved that nothing wouldn't happen for months.

"That should be a good time for it. There is so much going on there that people won't have much time to dwell on it, unlike in the quieter months. You'll just make a short appearance and we won't leave you alone for a moment, all should go fine."

"I see." Hikaru wasn't quite sure how smoothly all really would go, but he kept his doubts to himself.

"There is one more thing, though – I think it's about time we inform your parents. I'll write them…"

"Could I do it?" Hikaru cut him off. "I'd rather tell them myself. Hiroyuki-sensei can check that there won't be any mistakes…"

Kouyou nodded. "Fine. Compose the letter as soon as possible."

Writing the letter was quite a Herculean task for Hikaru. He was still using the syllable writing, finally getting better at it, though his handwriting was honestly still quite awful and he kept on confusing some signs to each other. It took the rest of the day, but, proceeding syllable by syllable, he finally produced something both Hiroyuki and Kouyou accepted. The letter was sent immediately. The next few days passed nervously, with Hikaru wondering if he still should have went to tell his parents in person, rather than just writing to them. He didn't look forward to meeting his father, though – and he was afraid he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to try to meet Sai. Sai had not written to them recently, but hey had heard rumors from the capital that he was facing difficult times. All the more reason to meet him, to cheer him up – but on the other hand Hikaru was worried that his presence would only make things more difficult for Sai.

And so Hikaru grasped his writing utensils again. If Sai wasn't writing to him, he would write to Sai.

Hi Sai, how are you doing? We’re fine. Well, I think your dad has again nosome trouble with his stomach, wabut it’s not like he told me anything. And I guess I shouldn’t be calling him just your dad – he’s going to be my dad too, ianyway. Wafunny, isn’t it? Hey, just so you know, we’ve told my piarents. They’ve not replied yet so AI dunno how they’ll react. But Hiroyuki-sensei tells me that this kind of adoption is pretty rocommon – maybe not where commoners are concerned, he said he’d never heard of a case like this – but otherwise, so I guess it’s okay. AI just thought it’s kind of funny, to be adopted when you’ve already got parents. We heard that you had some trouble with that Taira guy? Your I mean our dad says you should avoid that man. I don’t know much about him, but he kainda annoys me. I hope rosomeone’ll put him in his place. And I also hope that someone will be you! That’d be great. I’ve been studying a lot. Hiroyuki-sensei says I’ve got good memory. Maybe. He doesn’t know I make these silly opoems about things to help me ruremember. But hey, he should be hiappy about that, right? Anyway, you’re always talking about what a big deal poetry is. But I kinda feel he wouldn’t like my poems… and I don’t think you would either, so I’m not gonna share. But now my hand’s gugetting tired. Sorry about not writing this clean. But I’m getting pretty good in writing, aren’t AI? Take care. Hikaru

A reply from Sai arrived just a little before the reply from his parents. He was just struggling through it with Hiroyuki's help – the letter was, to his horror, written in Chinese. (If you think you have mastered the syllable writing, you should be moving on, right?) They had just reached a part that made Hiroyuki wonder what they were talking about (I would love to put annoying people in their places, but I'm afraid that will have to wait a little) when a new messenger arrived.

Hikaru took the message in nervous silence and opened it. He saw from the first glance that it wasn't written by his mother – clearly they had thought it to be important enough that they had got someone else to write it clean. It was a short message, and rather impersonal, simply saying that they were greatly honored and wished him good luck. Hikaru lowered the letter to his lap, feeling somehow empty inside.

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