It took a long while to repair the palace after all the destruction. Before any actual repairs could be started, there were other things to take care of: the purification of the grounds, ceremonies for the deceased, and, above all, the pacification of the cause of the calamity, Sugawara no Michizane. He had been pardoned for his alleged crimes years before, but apparently that hadn't been enough. Only after a Spirit-Pacifying Ceremony had been conducted in all the temples of the capital area and he had been yet once promoted posthumously in rank, did the onmyouji give permission for the rebuilding to start.
"It is remarkable how fast they are proceeding," Sai stated one day to Nobunori as they stood side by side watching the workmen. It had been almost two months since the storm, and though there was still much to do, the men really hadn't been slacking in their work. It had seemed to Sai that it would take a year to repair everything, but every time he passed the damaged areas he was astonished at the progress.
"We can't have the palace in this state forever, can we," Nobunori remarked. "And there is still much to do. It's good if we have everything in order before the year ends."
Sai nodded in agreement, and the two turned to walk away from the place, together. It wasn't that he and Nobunori would have again come to terms with each other, but the horror of the storm had left many old disputes – for the time being – in the background. It was more than likely that one day their arguments would take fire again. Sai was well aware of it, and deep inside he was still mad at his cousin, but at the moment he was still willing to ignore it all.
"It is frightening to think what one angry ghost can do," he said thoughtfully. "One can't help wondering why…"
Nobunori gave him a glance. "What do you mean why? Shouldn't that be quite obvious?"
"Yes, but, but…" Sai had to pause to collect his thoughts. "What I mean is that the Sugawara no Michizane I've heard and read about didn't sound like a man who'd do something like this! Kill so many innocent people…. I can understand he'd want justice, but didn't he get that already years ago?"
"We can hardly even begin to fathom how a spirit thinks," Nobunori said dryly. "Obviously he thought what he had wasn't enough."
"Even so," Sai went on stubbornly, shaking his head. "Who will bring justice to the innocents he killed? No matter how badly you are wronged, to do something like this is just unthinkable."
"You'd make a very peaceful ghost, wouldn't you?" Nobunori said, amused. Sai gave a little laugh.
"I don't know about that," he said. "But I would never turn into something that would cause death and destruction like this," he added determinedly, and now Nobunori too laughed out.
These past two months Sai had spent exclusively at the palace. The young crown prince had been badly frightened by the storm, and he wanted to be close by, just in case he'd be needed. Of course, there were others to comfort the little prince, but he thought it would be good to show the child that life was going on as before – and that the game of go remained constant even through horrible supernatural storms. He actually said that aloud, once, and the prince gave him a long, weird look while the princess let out a half-suppressed squeak of laughter. Lady Asumi, accompanying the princess, chastised her gently, but Sai could see her lips were twitching too. He decided to ignore it. Perhaps with time they would learn.
The emperor as well took the storm heavily, but where his son's fear was simply a child's fright, his seemed to grow out of a guilty conscience – after all, it had been in the early years of his reign when Michizane had been banished. He fell ill shortly after the storm and refused to meet most people. Akitada too was allowed into his presence only a few times during those two months, and he could see that the emperor was still so pale and wavering, that he decided it'd be best to wait a moment before launching his plan. His impatience grew daily, though, and when the emperor finally seemed to be back to normal again, he couldn't wait any longer.
"Your majesty," he said, this time being the one to break the silence of their game, "I am sorry to bother you with this, when you have so recently been ill, but I find it of utmost importance to bring something to your attention…"
"How else?" the emperor said with a sigh. "So, what is it?"
Akitada was silent a while, weighing his words. "As you probably know, your majesty," he started, in a very, very careful tone, "as a child I was quite close to my great-uncle Michizane. I believe he too must have been fond of me." The emperor closed his eyes, looking weary and as if about to say something, and Akitada hurried on, "I would not bother your majesty with this otherwise, but the thing is… I have recently been dreaming of my great-uncle."
And that was, in fact, quite true. The first dream he had seen shortly after the storm, and more dreams had followed, irregularly but steadily. They had, for the most part, been happy, calm dreams, of the days when he had still been a child and visiting his uncle's home. But in some dreams Michizane had been clearly agitated and the atmosphere quite different from what he remembered of those childhood visits.
"I do not wish more harm to be caused by my family," he went on, "and least of all because of me. But I have reason to believe my great-uncle is… not happy about my situation."
The emperor was very still. "Surely you can't believe that just because of something like that…" His voice trailed off, and a moment the men sat in silence. Then Akitada bowed his head.
"I don't know what to believe, your majesty. But I have spoken of these dreams to an onmyouji friend of mine, and he finds them worrisome."
The emperor sighed. "And what would you have me to do? If I did right by you, I would do wrong by the other… no, I'm not going to demote someone, when he has done nothing wrong."
"Then let us play a game," Akitada suggested quietly. "And let that game decide who will hold the position. That is certainly something that would satisfy my great-uncle and his sense of justice."
"A game." The emperor fell silent again. "I'll think about it," he finally said. Akitada smiled to himself. He knew the emperor, knew he never agreed to anything right on the spot, but also that he was mightily frightened by Michizane's spirit and wouldn't risk angering it further. So he simply bowed his head and resumed the game.
On his way back to his rooms, Akitada happened to pass Sai and Nobunori. "The wind is changing," he couldn't resist saying, walking by them. From the corner of his eyes, he could see Sai's confused glance and Nobunori's sharper look, but he didn't turn to face them. "A fair warning, though I'm not sure you deserve it."
He walked by them, leaving the two stare after him.
Next day, so early Sai had barely had time to get out of bed and finish dressing up, Nobunori showed up in his rooms.
"Something really is brewing," he said before Sai even could wish him good morning. "Listen, I don't know the details yet, but be careful. If anything out of ordinary happens, talk with me before making any decisions. Don't do anything on your own, understand?"
"Yes," Sai said, blinking slowly. "But what…" he started to ask, but Nobunori was already going. Sai didn't have to wait long before he got the answer to his unspoken question. He had been going to meet the crown prince, for their usual forenoon session, but on his way there a servant rushed to tell him he had been summoned by the emperor.
This was, especially these days, unexpected, but hardly unusual enough to make him suspicious – on the contrary, he was merely happy that the emperor seemed to be recovering – and so Sai simply asked the servant to inform the crown prince they would have to postpone the study session. Arriving to the emperor's quarters he saw something that did surprise him: Akitada was there. As he knelt and bowed he remembered the man's words from the previous day and Nobunori's warning, and he told himself to be on his guard.
The emperor clearly didn't want to waste more time than was absolutely necessary.
"There is something I have been discussing with Akitada-sama," he said after they had exchanged short greetings. "And I would like to ask your opinion." He paused, cleared his throat, seeming to hesitate. Sai bowed his head again, waiting for him to continue.
"A game has been suggested," the emperor went on, in a roundabout way, "to settle… well, everything. A game between you and Akitada. There is, perhaps, after all no need for two imperial go tutors. And so, the winner of the game shall keep the title. What do you think of this?"
Sai paused, surprised. Then he smiled, a little bitterly. "It sounds like a very good idea, your majesty. There really are… many things that should be settled, and this would take care of it all."
"Good." The emperor sounded genuinely relieved. "Then it is agreed. I will inform you once I have decided of a good date for the game."
Sai bowed once again and retreated. The suggestion had taken him wholly by surprise, as something like it had never crossed his mind, but in a way he too found himself strangely relieved. True, he was disappointed, too, for no matter how unlikely it was, he had kept on wishing something would happen to help him and Akitada reach an understanding. But, in the end, this was most likely the best solution he could hope for.
He entered the gardens to reflect on his emotions – relieved, disappointed, and a little excited for the coming game. Quite soon he was joined by his cousin, and Nobunori's emotions were anything but conflicted.
"I heard of the game," he said, clearly fighting to keep his tone calm and quiet. "Why did you accept?"
"When the emperor asks something of you, can you really decline?" Sai answered, pretty much evading the question.
Nobunori heaved out a sigh. "Wonderful," he muttered. "But don't worry, we'll have it cancelled. Just…"
"What do you mean, no?" Nobunori frowned at him. "You can't mean you'd want to play this game! What if you lose?"
"I do want to play it," Sai replied calmly. "And if I lose… well." He paused. "Then I lose. That prospect doesn't make me happy, but… don't you get it?" He fixed his eyes to his cousin, willing him to understand. "The current situation… it has been much too stressful for me. No matter how hard I try, it feels like I still don't quite fit in. I want to this to be settled, one way or another."
Facing Nobunori's frowning gaze he could see that no, his cousin did not, quite, get it. He closed his eyes for a moment, shook his head sadly. "No matter how it ends, I am going to play that game," he stated firmly. "And I think I do have a chance to win. Don't you remember how I did against Akitada the previous time we played? And I know I have gotten better. I can win."
Nobunori took a deep breath. "Perhaps. But you can lose too. And we don't want you to…"
"You don't want me to lose?" All of a sudden Sai's patience ran out. "It's my life we're talking about! Stop messing around with it! Say what you will, I will play that game, and whether I win or lose is none of your business! Just stop trying to control everything!"
A moment the cousins' eyes were locked on each other. "If you play, and if you lose, you're on your own," Nobunori said finally coldly.
"So?" Sai cocked his head angrily. "Fine for me."
"As you wish."
After one final glare Nobunori turned on his heels and marched away.
It took over a week, but one sunny morning when for the first time one could smell something autumnal in the air, the game was finally held. It was a bigger event than Sai would have thought – he had imagined that they'd simply play the game in the emperor's presence, and that would be it. But no, they had a big audience; everyone wanted to see this game. As they settled down by the go board, Sai let his gaze wipe across the room. Closest by, with the best view, were the most important people, the Minister of the Left and Nobunori among them. He watched his cousin a moment, but Nobunori's face was impassive, and he didn't meet his eyes.
There were many other familiar people present, and Sai turned his inspecting gaze to them. The emperor hadn't yet arrived, but the empress as well as the crown prince and his young wife already sat behind the screens of their own. He could guess Lady Asumi was accompanying the princess as usual, and smiled lightly as his eyes passed their screen. Among their audience, farther away, he spotted Taira no Yoshitaka, this time without his brother, for Shinichirou couldn't attend – because of a taboo he couldn't leave his home that day. Sai smiled a little sadly, thinking about how disappointed he'd have to be to miss this game.
Finally he turned to look at his opponent. Akitada sat on the other side of the board, unmoving, seemingly as calm as if this were only an ordinary, friendly game played to spend some time. Their eyes met, and Sai wondered if behind that composed expression Akitada was as anxious to start the game as he was.
The emperor arrived, and everyone bowed, deep, foreheads almost touching ground. He sat down, looked through the screen at the players who were waiting for his word, and let the silence grow a moment.
"Start the game," he declared then, and Sai and Akitada bowed, first to the emperor and then to each other. They took their stone bowls, and opening his Sai saw he got white. Akitada had the first move. Sai waited patiently for him to make it, and took then a white stone in his fingers. Shortly, eyes on the board, he savored the moment – the coolness of the stone in his hand, the yet unplayed game for which everything was still possible. Then he made his first move, and let the game truly begin.
The game had an outstanding start. Akitada's game was flawless, as usual, his moves innovative and intriguing, but Sai too was playing his best, not being left in the least behind. Slowly the game was sucking him in. He fell into its rhythm, to the flow of the moves that followed each other, forgetting all about their surroundings. His mind was far ahead, thinking of all the strategies that might be behind Akitada's moves, coming up with counter-strategies to thwart those plans. As the game went on he shortly felt the joy of having found someone with whom he could play a game like this, someone with whom he could explore the deepest depths of the game. He looked up, met Akitada's eyes, and froze.
He might have felt joy, but it was clear the feeling wasn't mutual. Akitada's eyes were dark, filled with something unpleasant – hate, Sai thought hazily, as if waking from a dream, does he really hate me? – and his moves, when he placed the stones on the board, were sharp and unyielding. Sai looked down at the board again, went on playing, but the flow, the joy was gone. There was just the game; one he would have to win.
And he might yet do that. They had played long, and at the moment he had, if only slightly, upper hand. If he was careful, made no mistakes and read closely the game, he could win. He looked at the lower left corner. A battle was slowly developing there, one that might prove decisive for the game. He had, in the very beginning, made it his area, but Akitada was invading, pushing, trying to break through. He could see the man's plan, and it was a good plan, too, a brilliant one. But he could also see a way to stop him.
He played his move, and there came a quiet murmur from the audience, from those who truly knew the game. They could see what was happening, or at least a part of it, and everyone's attention was fixed on that corner.
Sai looked up again, at Akitada, and saw the man as well was watching the corner, the tiniest frown on his face. His hand rested on his stone bowl, fingers in it. Looking at it Sai gave a little start – there, half buried among the black stones he could see one single white stone, like a lone star on the dark night sky. He glanced at Akitada, but then the man took a stone and played it, drawing Sai's attention back to the board.
Akitada hadn't played quite as he had imagined. He took a long while to consider before making his move, and he could practically feel the audience lean forward, transfixed with the game. While Akitada pondered on his next move, Sai's gaze again wandered to that single white stone. He wondered if his opponent had noticed it, and if he should say something about it. He decided not to – after all, it wasn't that important, and such things happened; every now and then the stones might get mixed.
But then, right when he was about to return to the game, telling himself he had to concentrate or he might yet lose this, he saw Akitada's fingers stealthily take a hold of that white stone. The man was still watching the board – perhaps he simply hadn't noticed the color of the stone he was holding. How strange it would be if he tried to play it! Sai opened his mouth to say something about it, but right then Akitada moved his hand, and, as if just returning it to his lap to think on the move a little longer, he in passing placed the stone among his prisoners, as a stone he had captured.
Sai's mouth hang open, and he sat there, frozen, feeling the shock with every bone of his body. His eyes snapped to Akitada's face, and, as if feeling his gaze, the man looked up. Seeing the way Sai stared at him, shock on his face slowly turning into pure anger, he most likely realized Sai had seen what he just did.
"Did…" Sai uttered hoarsely, trying to find his voice. "Did you…"
Akitada all but grimaced at him. "You!" he exclaimed, springing to his feet. "How dare you! I saw what you just did! You had a black stone hidden in your bowl, and you put it among your prisoners!"
"What?" Sai breathed, momentarily so stunned he could barely understand what the man was saying.
"I saw you!" Akitada went on. "Everyone else was looking at the board but I saw what you did!"
"Wh-what are you saying?! That is what you just did!"
"Hah!" Akitada glowered down at him. "A pitiful excuse."
Loud mumbling had broken out in the audience. Everyone was whispering to each other behind their fans. Sai was still trying to comprehend what was happening, trying to figure out how to tell them that it was Akitada who had done it, that he would never ever do something like that in a game of go.
"But…" he attempted. "But, you…"
"Silence!" came the emperor's voice suddenly, sharp. "Enough! I refuse to believe that either of you would commit such an ugly offense in my presence. Now, on with the game!"
Sai swallowed, for a moment too shocked even to remember whose turn it was. Akitada saved him from wondering that. The man played his move, and Sai looked at the board, trying to remember what was going on, what he had planned to do. He could feel his heart throbbing in his throat; blood was humming in his ears. He took a stone, played it, and drew a shaky breath. The emperor had told them to go on. They would have to go on. He would have to get a grip of himself, win this game. He could not lose to a cheater.
But he couldn't stop his hands from trembling. Once he glanced up at Akitada, hesitantly, hoping to see at least a trace of remorse on the man's face, but there was nothing but that same dark, hateful look, and he quickly dropped his gaze down. He swallowed, took a stone, played it, though he knew he didn't anymore know what he was doing.
In the end he still managed to put up a weak fight, but Akitada had gained too big a lead. The game was over, and he stared at the board, not wanting to believe he had played a game like this.
"Congratulations, Sugawara no Akitada," he heard the emperor's voice. "It seems it is not yet time to yield to the younger generation."
"Thank you, your majesty," Akitada said, and Sai looked up.
"But," he said, and everyone's eyes turned to him. He swallowed, "But, your majesty, he cheated! I… I saw it. If you would count his prisoners you would see he has one extra…!"
"Fujiwara no Sai." The emperor's voice was stern. "I said I do not believe either of you would do such a thing, didn't I?"
"Sugawara no Akitada won this game," the emperor cut him off. "He will keep his position. As for you," even through the screen, Sai could feel the emperor's eyes on himself, "you should leave the palace."
"But…" Sai whispered, choking. "But, he really did…"
"Sai." Nobunori's voice, a harsh whisper. "Cut it."
Sai fell silent. People stood up, some left, some gathered around Akitada to congratulate him. Sai kept on sitting by the board, staring at it, not understanding what was happening. Slowly everyone left, their voices faded away, and he was left in the silence. Time passed, but he could not move, not rise from the floor. Not believe it.
"Sai. How long do you plan to sit there?"
He looked up and saw that Nobunori was still in the room. He felt a surge of hope – certainly his cousin would have a way to fix everything, somehow, in his own way, behind the scenes.
"Get up. The emperor told you to leave, didn't he?"
"Leave?" Sai blinked at him.
"It's best you go right away. You caused quite a scene here. I don't think you want to meet anyone who was watching the game right now."
"But!" Sai jumped up. "He did cheat! Don't you believe me? I saw…"
"It doesn't matter what you saw!" Nobunori snapped at him. "Don't you get it? You lost. Whether or not someone cheated isn't the point. The emperor declared a winner, and that's final."
Sai stared at him, unmoving, uncomprehending. Nobunori sighed.
"Look. Just leave. Go to your city mansion."
"But… but what will I do?" The question came out in a desperate whisper.
"I think it's probably best for you to return to the provinces. You can't come back here, anyway. Go now, I'll send you your things."
Nobunori turned to go. Sai stared at his back in growing agitation.
"To the provinces?" he whispered. "But… can't you…"
"Me?" Nobunori glanced at him over his shoulder. "I think I told you. If you lose, you're on your own. And I guess you were right in the first place – you just don't fit in here."
He left. Sai stood alone in the now so empty room, by the go board on which the stones still told their awful story. In the end he too turned to go.