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I imagined I'd be able to upload this final chapter sooner - it's short, and uses parts of the sequel (ch. 10) so there wasn't that much to write. But it took its time... maybe partly because it wasn't a happy chapter to write.

Here's the last chapter of this fic. If you want to see how the story continues, you can move on to the sequel (it's already written) if you haven't read it yet.


Chapter 23

Sai's palanquin carried him back to his mansion, but he remembered nothing of the way; his mind was dwelling on his last moments in the palace. Once Nobunori had left, he had started, slowly, to walk out, but when he had reached the gate that led to the courtyard he had turned back, unable to leave just like that. His eyes had searched the area, frantically trying to find someone familiar, someone who could give him help, or at least advice, but those he saw had turned away, leaving quickly. He had walked on, a few steps, and stopped, uncertain, not knowing where he had been going.

Suddenly quick steps had approached, a familiar thump thump thump getting closer behind the thinwall, but in the end the one to appear hadn't been the crown prince, but princess Hiroko – one he had never seen running like that. Lady Asumi had rushed after the girl, long hair flowing behind her.

"Sai!" Hiroko came into a stop in front of him, out of breath, fixing her dark eyes on his. "It's not true, is it?"

"What?" For a moment he couldn't understand what she was talking about. Then Asumi reached her young ward.

"Your highness," she whispered, pulling her sleeve. "You should not be here." She gave a quick, awkward glance at Sai. "Please, come now."

The princess pulled back, refusing to move. "It's not true, is it!" she repeated in a scream. "You did not cheat!"

Sai blinked, finally getting his brain to work. "I didn't," he said in indignation, at the same time as Asumi murmured, "Of course he didn't. But… that's not here nor there." She glanced at Sai again, her eyes troubled and apologetic. "I… I'm sorry," she said quietly. "But I need to take her away."

"Yes, of course," Sai said, himself surprised at how normal he sounded. "But I… that is, you, could we…"

"Shh." She shook her head, very slightly. "You need to go now," she whispered. "Leave the palace. Better yet, go for a while to your father's province. Lay low. Things will settle, with time."

"But…" Sai tried yet, but she turned away with one final glance and shake of her head, and led the little princess away.

Sai stood still watching after them long after they had disappeared. He looked around, and saw some people had stopped to watch him – they were standing aside, whispering behind their fans, giving him strange, cold looks. Someone laughed, though he wasn't sure who, where the sound came from. As he took a step to approach them, they turned and left, giving him still long, lingering looks over their shoulders.

So he had walked out of the palace, climbed into his palanquin, and let it carry himself away. And finally he arrived to his mansion where the servants, worried, were swarming around him, asking if he needed anything, but he sent them away.

The silence of the mansion had never felt so overwhelming. He wandered through it to his private rooms, to his go board, and sat down by it. Slowly he took out the stones bowls, and, grasping a black stone, started recreating the game. The beginning went so well, it was such a beautiful game, full of promise, and then… his hand paused. This was when he had noticed it. When Akitada had made his wild accusation. When everything had collapsed.

His hand went on playing the game, those awful moves that had ruined it. How could he let this happen? Yes, certainly, the way Akitada had cheated was shocking, his lies even more so. Still. How could he play a game like this? He reached the end, but still couldn't believe it. And so he cleared the board and started again from the beginning.

So much promise. And such an ugly end. He could see the ways this game could have proceeded. He could see the levels they could have reached.

Would he ever be able to play a game like that again?

His hand faltered, but went on, stone after stone, even though he wanted to stop, wanted to forget this game existed. Again, it reached its unavoidable end. And again he started it from the beginning.

Black eyes, full of hate. Stones on a go board, with no order, no sense, mocking him. Mean whispers behind his back... cold, cold sweat of despair rolling down from his temples, a lonely path, with no light, no destination, for him to walk...

He woke up by the go board, disoriented and still weary. The stones had not changed their shape while he slept, cruelly telling him that no, it had not been just a bad dream. He wiped at them, a sudden, angry motion he regretted even before the stones clattered across the floor. He gathered them quickly, black and white ones neatly into their own bowls.

As he sat there, staring at the empty go board, he suddenly became aware of someone in the room with him. He looked up and faced an old woman, someone who had been a servant of his family all his life. She was looking at him with such deep worry in her eyes that he had to look away.

"What... what time is it?"

"The Hour of Horse will soon be over, I think." The old woman's hands twitched, as if she wanted to wriggle them. "Are you sure you wish to have nothing to eat?"

He blinked. Had she asked him this before? "No... I mean, yes, yes, I'm sure." He truly didn't feel hungry at all. "I must..." The thought vanished in the middle of the sentence. What? He frowned down at the go board. He must what? The old woman waited, staring at him much in the same way he stared at the go board.

"I must send a message," he finally finished, uncertain whether it was what he had meant to say. "Please, bring me some paper and ink."

The woman hurried away, relieved to have something to do. He heard her steps, thumping against the wooden floor, quick and rhythmic. Soon he had paper in front of him, a brush in his hand. He looked at the paper, his mind suddenly just as blank as its whiteness.

"Would you have preferred colored paper?" he heard the woman's voice inquire, uncertain, but he couldn't think of such things right then, of all the shades of meaning the different colors would have, and he just softly shook his head.

He should send a message to his father, he knew that. But he couldn't. How could he tell his father about what had happened? Tell Hikaru? His heart wrenched when he thought of them. How he missed them, at that moment – and dreaded meeting them. He didn't want to see the pity and worry on their faces. Maybe it would be better first to approach his friends here in the capital first, ask them for help? Perhaps they would know what to do...

…no one had sent him a message. It was past midday, already, and no one had sent him a message. Why? Even on a normal day, messages traveled across the city in an unending stream, messengers hurrying from house to house with poems of love and reproach, condolences and felicitations... how come no one had thought of him this morning?

It was better not to think of that too much. He dipped the brush in the ink, but still his hand hesitated above the paper, not knowing what to do. He lowered the brush. Stood up.

"I won't send a message. It's best to go there myself, I think."

.

As he climbed his palanquin, he wondered fervently who he should go to meet. Nobunori and Nobunori's father were out of question. Lady Asumi might have been able to offer him some advice, but she was in the palace and he couldn't go there. Not to mention that he had tried, the day before, to ask her for help, and she had walked away, just telling him to go the provinces. As had Nobunori. But he couldn't believe that was his only option. If he left now, if he let himself be driven out of the capital like this… would he truly be able to return? Deep in his guts he felt the cold certainty that if he now passed out through the great Rashomon gate, he would not see that gate again.

He would not, could not, go yet. He would yet figure out something. He'd go to meet – not the court nobles and the politicians, for those he couldn't trust, but people like himself. His go-playing friends.

.

The third mansion he visited. The third place where he was denied entrance. "The master is not home," the servants claimed, but he couldn't help wondering. He sat quietly in his palanquin, hands clasped together, head a little bowed, trying to think, and failing. Outside, someone shifted from foot to foot, restless.

"My lord?" a voice asked. "Where should we go next?"

He closed his eyes, saying nothing. The curtains were down, but they couldn't keep out the noises of the city. The shouts of the peasants, someone playing flute somewhere faraway, a dog barking, another palanquin passing his... everything sounded so perfectly normal.

He made his decision.

"Take me to Sugawara no Akitada."

.

There, at least, he was allowed to enter. He could hear many voices – apparently he wasn't the only visitor there this day – but he was taken to an empty room. He sat down on the floor, and waited. After a short while, Akitada appeared in the doorway.

The two of them spent a long while staring at each other. There, in Akitada's eyes, he could see the same hatred he remembered from their game, and still he did not understand it. Had it always been there? How had he not seen it before?

"Why?" That wasn't what he had planned to say, but in the end it was the only thing he could get out of his mouth.

Akitada's eyebrows rose at the quiet question. "What do you mean, why? Surely that's my question. Why are you here? Why haven't you left yet?"

"Left?" he said, forcing his voice calm, hoping it would not break. "Why would I leave?"

Akitada snorted, still not entering the room. "Don't you truly understand? You have no place here anymore. It's best for you to scurry back to the provinces."

"But..." He shook his head, trying to clear it. "It's you who cheated. I know that, and so do you. So how, why..."

Akitada's eyes flashed. "Is this why you came here? To continue your senseless accusations? The emperor declared he doesn't believe either of us would do such a thing – you should try to behave properly and honor his majesty's words."

"If that's the case – if that's the case, then why does everyone behave as if I were guilty?!" He leaned forward, slammed a hand against the floor. "Why am I left alone?"

Akitada's lips twitched. "You'll have plenty of time to think about that in the provinces; I'll see to it that you won't be coming back. Now, go. I have more important guests waiting." He turned away and disappeared from the doorway.

"Wait!" Sai sprung to his feet and rushed after the man. He saw Akitada entering another room and ran there, but came to an abrupt stop as he saw the people inside.

The conversation paused when he arrived. Eyes turned to him and looked then away, awkwardly. Someone muttered, but he couldn't hear the words. Akitada, sitting down among his guests, shot him a glare.

"Please leave. I have no business with you anymore."

His eyes were fixed on the go board around which everyone was gathered. On the board he saw again that awful game, and it was only with great difficulty he managed to look away. His gaze wandered from one face to another, all of them avoiding his eyes. Familiar faces, every single one of them, some belonging to those he had tried to go to see – ah, so they truly had not been home.

"Do you hear me?" Akitada's voice was sharp. "I've asked you to go twice, now. Do I need to call my servants?"

He shifted on his feet, restless and uncertain. He wanted to appeal to these people, ask if they truly believed he would do such a deed, but seeing the coldness on their faces he couldn't find the words.

"Do go," someone muttered, still not looking up. "It's for the best." He stared at the speaker, an old man, avid go player, but for the death of him he couldn't remember the name, just the go this man played. The man glanced at him from the corner of his eye, looking somehow shamefaced. "Someday, perhaps, you can come back, but for now... let the water settle."

.

He was walking on the streets. One step after another his feet carried him somewhere, with no other destination than away. He'd left the palanquin behind, and the confused servants as well. He kept on walking down the Suzaku Avenue, all the way to Rashomon, that great, beautiful gate that was already falling into disrepair. A shudder went through his body as he passed it, but he didn't stop, didn't look behind.

He walked on, on, on, leaving behind the capital, the treacherous, beautiful capital and its go players of such wicked skill. He kept on walking a long time, the whole day, until his steps took him to the shore of a river. High up, the round moon shed its light on him, on the waves of the river as he stood still on the river bank.

Let the water settle? The moonlight rippled on the river as the waves rolled by him. Let the water settle... how long would that take? Would it ever happen? How... how could he ever return, if he left like this? How could he ever return, as long as that man was alive...

"As long as the wings of hate beat, when will the water ever settle..." He took a step, and another, and the cool water eased the pain in his aching feet. It rose to his knees, to his waist, gentle and welcoming. His clothing, heavy in the water, dragged him down, and he did not fight against. It was just at the last moment, when he still saw the moonlight on the water's surface, when the final desperate thought flashed through his mind. I want to play more...

In the Kawachi province, Hikaru had slipped out after a long day of studying. His head was swarming with random pieces of information, and he couldn't understand how he'd ever be able to digest it all.

But he'd do his best. For, although there still was time, the day when he and Fujiwara no Kouyou would leave for the capital was getting closer and closer, and he was determined he would make Sai proud. He lay on his back in the grass, watching the full moon on the sky.

"Just a couple of months, Sai," he muttered aloud. "And then we'll meet again."


A/N: This was quite a long one - probably could have been compressed a bit, at times (though in a way I'm disappointed it didn't reach 100k...) but of course, there's still the sequel, so I can't really say this'd be over yet. The sequel can be found here.

Leaving you with a poem from the late Heian/early Kamakura period, by Fujiwara no Teika (1162 – 1241):

On a spring night
The floating bridge of dreams
Breaks off
Swirling round the mountaintop
A cloud drifts into the open sky



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