Okay, this chapter is awfully short, I know. I decided to post it now anyway, just because I most likely won't have time to write more this week - friend visiting, and then there's Midsummer - and I don't know about next week... But hey, at least there happens something in this chapter! ;)
The spring went by surprisingly quietly. Sai couldn't help feeling that he was still somehow on probation, as far as most people's opinions were concerned, but at least both the amusement and the hostility had ceased. He tried to relax, to return to his old strategy of simply proving himself with time, and carefully kept his revolutionary ideas to himself. It was hard though, and not just a little vexing, and he hoped quite fervently time would fly faster so that he would already be able to simply be himself and stop worrying so much about what others thought.
And though time seemed to crawl by, spring did turn into summer. Ceremonies and banquets followed each other, and Sai took part into them, talking about conventional things, smiling, playing his flute, being simply a polite young gentleman. He wished he'd have someone to really talk with, someone with whom he could share his true thoughts, but the friends he had made at the palace were too superficial for that. He thought of the Taira brothers, but felt they were too close to their uncle for such discussions to be comfortable for them. Nobunori was quite out of the question. Then, of course, there was Lady Asumi, but they barely ever met privately, and the thin walls of the palace would have hardly made confidential discussions possible.
Luckily there was go, and, as he didn't have anything else to take his time, he dedicated his days to improving in the game. After all, being an imperial go teacher, it was his dutyto do his best to develop his skills. During this time, he didn't play a single game against Akitada, barely even spoke with the man. He would have wanted to see how he did against his colleague these days, but he knew Akitada would see any approach from him as a challenge, and so he too kept his distance.
He slept badly, those days, even when he spent the nights at his city mansion. He was hoping Akari would pay him another visit, and damn the rumors, but there was no sign of the girl. He would have wanted to ask her how Hikaru's parents took the news of their son's adoption. And, he longed for a simple, undemanding game he could play just for the joy of playing, without having to wonder about the political standing of his opponent. Surely it would have helped him to spend at least one peaceful night.
Within the privacy of the imperial chambers the emperor was playing a game with his go teacher. It was a quiet, thoughtful game, the emperor not being very talkative, and his teacher adjusting to his mood, taking his time to play his moves and letting the silence break with just the occasional snaps of stone against wood.
"It's been half a year already," the emperor suddenly remarked, just as his opponent grasped a stone to play. "How long are you going to hold your grudge?"
Sugawara no Akitada paused for the shortest instant before placing his stone on the board. "Grudge, your majesty?" he asked calmly. "I do hope I hold no grudges."
"You know what I mean." The emperor gave him a displeased look and he bowed his head.
"I hold no grudges," he repeated. "But I can't help feeling that I must have disappointed your majesty. Perhaps my services have not been good enough? Why else would you appoint someone new to my side…"
"That is hardly the case, and you should know it, too." The emperor took a stone but didn't play it yet but turned it in his fingers, inspecting it. "There has never been any reason to complain about you. But… it is how the world works, that the old give way to the young. Soon we all have served our time…"
"Surely you're not giving in yet, your majesty!" Akitada exclaimed. "You have ruled long and wisely – I see no reason why you shouldn't continue doing so."
The emperor said nothing. He placed finally the stone he had been fingering on the board and remained quiet, watching it. Akitada made no move to grasp a stone from his bowl.
"If I may be so bold, your majesty…" he ventured, bowing his head again.
The emperor gave an amused snort. "You tend to be, usually without asking for permission."
"It is hardly my place to give you advice on anything other than go, your majesty," Akitada went on, ignoring his remark, "but here… this doesn't concern just what is the best for you, but what is the best for the whole country. Do you truly want to place a child on the throne? You know what that would mean. After all work you have done, your majesty, to ensure that you hold the power… do you not want to give your son a similar chance? To truly be the emperor, not just in name but in action?"
"You truly can be meddlesome at times," the emperor muttered. "As you say, this is not your business."
"I know that, your majesty," Akitada said, bowing once again. "But I feel I have to voice my concern – I would be doing a great disservice to you if I remained quiet when…"
"Yes, yes," the emperor cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Your concern has been duly noted. Now, I believe it is your turn."
Akitada fell quiet and played his move. The game went on in silence.
As the early summer advanced, the weather remained worryingly sunny. Sai watched the blue skies, remembering with dread the rains that had hammered the country one year earlier. Then, too, the rains had been late, and he, like many others, was afraid of the catastrophe recurring. But this year's catastrophe was quite different – the rains simply didn't come. The sixth month was already nearing its end, and the rains were more than a month late, when the emperor declared that something had to be done to save the land from the drought that was threatening to destroy the rice harvest, and so preparations were started to conduct prayers for rain.
That day Sai was having his customary study session with the crown prince and the princess. It was a hot, stifling day, and the little prince was in quite peevish mood, finding fault at everything and everyone. It didn't help that the princess was lacking patience this day, and it was nearly impossible for Sai to get the two sit peacefully by the go board. He too was weary of the suffocating weather, and for once hoped the lesson would soon be over.
He noticed lady Asumi standing up and walking to look out, but he thought she was merely hoping to catch a breath of air – hardly likely in this weather. But there was something else in her mind.
"How dark it suddenly turned!" she said, frown in her voice, and looked out. She let out a surprised breath. "Look at that cloud!" she exclaimed, and in the same instant the prince and the princess were up and running to her.
"Wow!" the prince cried out. "Is it going to rain! Did they pray already? That was fast!"
"That," the princess said seriously, "is a very black cloud."
Sai too had joined them, and he could but agree with her. He didn't remember ever seeing sky so black – black, and rumbling. "I think it's going to…" he started to say, but right then a flash split the sky, followed by rumbling so loud his ears deafened. The princess gave a shriek of horror and clung to lady Asumi, while the prince, equally frightened, grasped Sai's clothes and buried his face into them.
"It's… it's just thunder," Sai said, holding the little prince's shaking shoulders, but his voice too quivered, and he stared out with wide eyes. That first lightning was followed by another, and suddenly the black clouds were slashed apart by dozens of strokes of lightning, and the continuous rumble seemed to make the earth itself shake. The prince didn't release his grip of Sai, squeezing even harder, and lady Asumi and the princess were staring out, both equally frozen and still clinging to each other, mouths gaping.
"Let's return to the game," Sai said, trying to force his voice steady. "There's no need to be alarmed…" His voice was drowned into the rumbling of the thunder, and he swallowed. This storm – could something like this be natural? He looked around, hoping for someone to come to tell him what was happening, what he should do, and right then two guards entered the room.
"Your highnesses," one of them said. "Please come to the inner parts of the palace. This storm might be dangerous."
"Yes," Sai said, relieved that someone was taking control. He and lady Asumi followed the children to the empress's rooms. Seeing his mother, the little prince finally released his grip of Sai's hand and rushed to her. Asumi and the princess sat down, side by side, still holding hands, and Sai as well settled down. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to stay there, but he didn't want to be on his own in this storm.
They sat in silence, all equally pale-faced, listening to the awful noise of the thunderstorm. The minutes seemed to stretch longer and longer. Sai wished they had taken the go board with them, for it was the only thing he could think of that might have helped to calm his nerves, but he doubted anyone else wanted to play right then.
Once again the thunder rumbled, and now so close the room was filled with the sound – Sai could practically feel it vibrating in his chest. There came loud crashing, screaming, and everyone looked up, holding their breaths, fearing what was happening. Running steps approached, and a servant appeared in the room.
"Your majesty," he said breathlessly, practically falling to his knees, "the lightning hit the palace. The Great Audience Hall is on fire. You should leave these chambers, just in case."
The empress stood up, tight-lipped, holding the trembling hand of her youngest son. "Very well. Let us go."
They were escorted out of the rooms, through the corridors and covered pathways to what everyone hoped to be safety. Looking over his shoulder Sai saw the red flames rise up to the black sky, and the sight, combined with strokes of lightning and the never-ending deafening rumble, made him tremble. The women cried, and he saw Asumi still guiding the princess, holding her and trying to comfort her, though her own shoulders were shaking. He felt like he should have done something, said something, but he didn't know what, and yet another loud rumble made him start just as badly as others.
The storm seemed to last for all eternity, but once morning came it finally subsided. The destruction was dreadful. Sai wandered numbly around by the destroyed areas, together with other equally stunned spectators, attempting to comprehend the extent of the damage, and failing. It wasn't just the material damage, which in itself was huge – the Audience Hall and surrounding areas were completely destroyed – but also many lives were lost. It took a long while for all victims to be identified, for most bodies were completely consumed by the fire. They were many, though, and some of them quite influential.
"Have you heard?" Sai heard a courtier ask another as he turned to leave from the place, feeling a little sick. "Apparently both Senior Counselor Fujiwara no Kiyotsura and Middle Controller of the Right Taira no Mareyo were in the Audience Hall at the time the lightning hit it. They are both gone…"
Sai walked by briskly, not wanting to hear more names. These two passed his ears without attaching to any face, though he was sure he had to know both. Most likely he had played with both. He tried not to think of it and headed toward his rooms, which luckily were quite far of the burned areas. Even there he could still smell the smoke.
Sugawara no Akitada had as well come to take a look on the destruction, but one look had been enough for him. He retreated to his city mansion, away from the courtiers who couldn't talk of anything but the fire, horrified fascination in their voices. He had the clothes he had been wearing on that day thrown away, certain that the smell of smoke would never leave them, and, thankful there wasn't currently any taboo for washing, took a proper bath. He returned to the palace only on the day the palace onmyouji were giving their report of the disaster to the emperor. He would have preferred to be elsewhere, but what the onmyouji had to say turned out to be more interesting than he could ever have imagined.
"This was no natural storm," the head onmyouji was saying, and anyone hardly was surprised about that. "The stars and the calendars all give the same answer: a vengeful ghost was behind this attack."
"Have you identified the ghost?" the emperor asked.
"Yes, your majesty," the onmyouji said, bowing low. The silence was so great one could have heard a rice corn fall on the floor. "The spirit is that of Sugawara no Michizane."
Great-uncle Michizane. Akitada sat in stunned silence, barely hearing the rest of the discussion. How could the gentle uncle Michizane be behind something so horrendous? But still, somehow it made perfect sense. Wasn't it about time that uncle Michizane would demand justice for himself, of his unjust exile and death? And keeping in mind that one of those who died in the fires was a man who had once been spreading nothing but outward lies about Michizane, claiming he had all but confessed his crimes…
Yes. A shiver ran down his spine and he drew a deep breath. No wonder he had never been in any real danger, amid all the destruction and death. Great-uncle Michizane would hardly harm him. On the contrary – his timing was much too convenient for it to be a coincidence.
"Thank you, uncle Michizane," he muttered to himself. "I can use this."
A/N: I have mentioned Sugawara no Michizane before, but in the case you missed it/forgot: a Heian age politician, banished (yes, unjustly), died in exile, later deified as Tenjin-sama after events such as in this chapter (this storm took place in 930.)