tuulikannel: (Reality - illusion)
[personal profile] tuulikannel
This was my fic for [community profile] blind_go round 14. It'll yet be continued.

Summary: Once, in the Heian times, a strange child was born, one who never quite belonged to the world of men. There were two things to hold him back - his mother, and go. Even they could not give him a long, happy life... but a thousand years later he would change the life of another boy. Fairytalesque AU.

Characters: This first chapter, Sai and Sai's parents. Hikaru and Akira in the coming chapters.


Chapter 1: Sai

One spring evening, around the time when the last cherry petals were floating down in the wind and the wisteria were just beginning to bloom, the capital was abuzz with whispering. Rumors spread across the city like fire in dry hay.

"Have you heard of the Minor Counselor's wife?"

"The baby… have you heard of the baby…?"

"It's horrifying! How could she face such misfortune?"

"I hear it's malformed, like a frog…"

"No, no, its skin, its skin is like that of a fish, slippery and scaly…"

"Frightening!"

"How did it happen? Is it a curse, or…"

"I heard…"

"Yes?"

"I heard she went for a swim."

"What? "

"When she went on a pilgrimage last summer. The day was hot, they passed a lake, and she went to swim."

"That… that is…!"

"I know. Such behavior! What else could follow but misfortune?"

-


As the women gossiped, the Minor Counselor's wife was smiling down at the tiny bundle in her arms. The servants were frightened, silly things, so she had to take care of her child on her own. She didn't mind though, for it was such a beautiful child: clear, pale skin, amethyst eyes, soft dark hair already thick as a finger. The only problem was the thin web-like skin growing between the infant's fingers and toes, like in the foot of a frog… but with such a beautiful child, it was a minor grievance. Surely it would come off as the child grew.

The baby's father wasn't quite as happy when he came to see his new son. The Minor Counselor stared at the sleeping baby and its tiny, tightly closed fists. Even so the web between the fingers was obvious. He turned his glare to the new mother, who lowered her eyes.

"It is unfortunate, of course," she murmured to his unspoken accusation. "But don't you see how beautiful and healthy the boy otherwise is? I think people are making too much out of a little thing…"

"Little thing!" the counselor exclaimed. "The city is full of rumors! Do you have any idea what this does to your reputation – not to mention mine?"

"People make too much out of this," she repeated quietly, still watching her hands. "With time, they will forget. And it is a little thing – as the boy grows, surely those things will come off. With time."

The Minor Counselor leaned back, watching her with an unreadable expression. He posed an extravagant sight that day in his fine robes, as if he had wanted to make sure that at least his appearance wouldn't give any cause for criticism. "How can you know that?" he finally asked. "And even if that is true, this is a bad time for you to cause a scandal attached to my name. How could you be so foolish!"

She stiffened a little. "I have done nothing wrong," she said, annoyed at the defensive tone in her voice. "I was merely walking by the lake when I slipped and fell into the water. You know that! Don't you remember? It perfectly ruined my clothes!"

She shuddered with the memory. The shock of the cold water hitting her and that frightful moment when she had been completely submerged, her clothes heavy in the water, uncertain which was up and which down, until a hand grasped her hair (of all things!) and pulled her to the surface. "I can't even swim," she concluded a little weakly. She looked up at her husband, and for the first time felt anger toward him. "How can you be so cold! This is your child, after all; can't you show at least a little bit of happiness for a new son?"

He looked again at the baby and frowned. "Is it so strange if a man isn't overly pleased when he has eagerly waited for the first song of a thrush, only to hear a frog croaking in the night?"

"Man has to be deaf indeed to mistake a thrush for a frog," she replied coldly. "I am sorry you are so disappointed, my lord. But what has happened can't be made undone. This child is now here, and he is yours, and mine. The days to come will yet prove to you that I am right: he is a fine son for you to have."

"Perhaps." With that the Minor Counselor stood up and without a word of goodbye stepped outside of her curtain, leaving her and the baby alone. She watched a moment after him, sighed, but turned then to her child. Yes, the days to come would prove her right.


The first two years of the child's life passed quite uneventfully. On the day when the Minor Counselor had left, not hiding his displeasure, the servants had been fretting, sure that he would not return and their mistress would face an unhappy fate, abandoned by her husband. To their great surprise he had not cut their ties completely and had even come to see the baby a few times.

The baby had grown up fine, just like any other child. The servants were still wondering about him (carefully when their mistress didn't hear them), about his hands and feet, his strangely colored eyes, his hair that had been abundant already when he was a baby. When the spring came two years after his birth, the hair fell down over the boy's shoulder blades, and they would have cut it, but the mother was against it – she said she wanted to see how long it would grow. So the servants kept on wondering, but with time they calmed down, gradually getting quite fond of the little, always smiling Kagemaru, as the boy was now called. His mother didn't like the name and its implication of something ghostly, but it was what his father had called him, and she decided it might be best not to make an issue out of it.

When the boy was living his third summer something happened that gave her quite a fright. Having found his feet, Kagemaru had turned into quite a lively and quick little boy. One day the girl taking care of him had turned her back only for a moment, or so she said, and suddenly he was gone. They searched everywhere, and finally it was his mother who spotted him in the garden, already wading into the water of the artificial lake, splashing happily as he went. She rushed quickly to him and snatched him away just when he was about to fall into the water, getting a loud wail of protest for her reward.

The girl got quite a scolding, and, teary-eyed, promised to be more careful in the future. After this it took everyone's full attention to keep the boy out of the lake – the moment they looked away, he was heading outside, toddling his way toward the water.

After they had fished him out of the lake for the third time, she wrote a desperate letter to the boy's father.

"I don't know what to do," she wailed. "It is as if there were something in the lake to lure him away – I barely dare to sleep in the night, fearing he slips away in the dark and in the morning we find him drowned. What should I do?"

Instead of a reply, the Minor Counselor sent an onmyouji to examine the boy. The mother waited nervously for the verdict. Finally the onmyouji came to see her, sitting down on the other side of her curtain.

"To tell the truth," the onmyouji started, getting straight to the matter, "I must admit I have never seen a case quite like this before. It is as if your son consisted wholly of pure yin – yang in him is nearly nonexistent. Water is his element, strong in him. You should keep him away from water – I don't know what might happen if he ever would follow its call, and I don't dare to guess."

"So what should we do?" she asked, desperately. The onmyouji shook his head at a loss.

"Fire is the opposite of water," he said, "but we can hardly burn him. I will give him a fire pendant – maybe it will help to quell the water in him."

That was all he could say. Little Kagemaru didn't like his new pendant, but it was hung round his neck on a strong string, and he couldn't get rid of it, try as he might. His mother wandered outside and watched sadly the little lake that had always been her favorite part of the garden. Then she called for her servants and told them they would be getting rid of the lake. This aroused some startled protests, but she was adamant. The work took a long time, but in the end where there had once been a shimmering lake and a softly murmuring little brook was now a rather tasteful and extremely dry rock garden.


After this little episode years passed again quietly. Kagemaru left seldom his mother's house. A few times his mother took him to watch processions or competitions, always keeping him in her own carriage away from the gazes of others, carefully avoiding the canals that ran through the city on the way. She couldn't help feeling bad, though, for although he never complained she saw the boy was growing bored always staying within her walls. She would have wanted to send him to his father's at times, just for variation, but she worried how he would fare there, among people who didn't know him. She went on pilgrimages to various nearby temples – never wanting to stay away long – to pray for her son, and once she even took the boy with her. That trip, Kagemaru later declared, was the best thing ever to happen to him, and he asked his mother if he couldn't go with her more often. She was quiet, troubled – not that she wouldn't have wanted to take him with her, but there were few places where they could go that didn't have any waters to cross on the way.

She had been so sure that time would make her son normal, but as days rolled by his strange hands and feet did not change. At least she had been right at one point: he was a fine son to have. He studied diligently, learning to read and write in a beautiful hand, and the poems he composed, though still childish, showed quite much promise. He was a sensitive boy too, at times showing deep awareness of the evanescence of the material world that belied his few years. Especially in winter, when the nights were clear and starry, the boy was often found sitting outside, watching the dark sky in complete silence. "The universe, mother," he would say when she'd go to him. "Can you feel it?" And as she sat next to him under that great starry firmament, she thought she could.

What a great man her son could some day be, if only his hands weren't so strange! The worry grew in her, gnawing her insides, until one day she again wrote to her husband. First she explained in detail the achievements of their little son, now eight years of age, and attached a poem he had recited during one of those starry nights. Then she humbly admitted she had been wrong – the webbing between his fingers wasn't disappearing. They should do something.

An onmyouji arrived again, the same as before, this time accompanied by the boy's father, who by now had risen in his career despite his strange son and had turned from a Minor Counselor to a Middle Counselor. The onmyouji examined Kagemaru's hands and toes. The skin growing between the boy's fingers truly showed no signs of ever going to disappear, white and thin though it was – so thin that light shone through it when he raised his hand toward the sun.

The simplest way, the onmyouji declared, would be just to cut the skin away. The boy flinched, but in the presence of his father refused to show any signs of weakness, and so he followed the onmyouji in silence. His mother waited behind her curtain and couldn't help shedding tears as she heard her son crying in the next room. When the boy came to her, face pale and tear-stroked, all fingers separately bandaged, she opened her arms to him and let him cry against her shoulder.

Two days passed. On the third night the servants came to wake her up. The boy had developed a high fever. He was delirious, talking of strange things no one understood. Frightened, his mother called again for the onmyouji and sent a message also to his father. Now, the onmyouji was the only one to arrive, though the Middle Counselor sent a reply asking them to keep him informed.

Nothing the onmyouji could do seemed to help. A medium was called so that they could exorcise the evil spirit causing the fever, but nothing happened. If anything the fever grew higher. The boy writhed in his bed, moaning softly, great pearls of sweat glistening on his forehead.

"Can't you do anything!" his mother exclaimed behind the screen where she was following the procedure – she wanted nothing more than to tear down that stupid screen and take her son into her arms, but there were strange men present so she had to restrain herself.

The onmyouji gave the boy a troubled look, clearly at his wits end. "I must consult my colleagues," he finally stated. "I will return tomorrow…"

"Tomorrow!" She was wringing her hands. "But what of now? He is in pain now! What can we do to ease it?"

"I'm afraid I can't…" the onmyouji started.

"Get off those bandages!" she cut him off, not listening. "That must be what caused this! Let me see his hands!"

"Surely," the onmyouji had time to say before she plunged forward and, coming out of her screen, started to tear away the bandages. Embarrassed, the onmyouji started to turn away, but the sight of the boy's hands caught his eyes and he froze. The fingers were red and swollen, clearly infected. But what was more peculiar was the skin that had started to grow at their edges.

Kagemaru's mother sat a moment in silence staring at the hands. Then she tore off the rest of the bandages. "Can you… can you do something about this?" she said weakly, giving a self-conscious glance at the onmyouji, as if only now realizing what she had done. Her servants had already raised the screen again and she returned behind it, hiding her face behind her fan.

The onmyouji applied ointments on the boy's hands. After two days the swelling was down and the boy was as healthy as before. And the skin between his fingers was unbroken, as if it had never been cut off.

So, the mother concluded sadly, she would simply have to be content with their fate. No matter how perfect her son would be, would people ever see beyond his hands? Would he have to spend all his years hiding from people's eyes?

"It breaks my heart," she complained to the boy's father who had come to see them a few days after the boy had got better. "Would that at least you were to realize what a fine son you have!"

"Perhaps," the Middle Counselor stated, "I should learn to know him better. You say he is completely recovered? Then I shall take him to my mansion as I go. He can spend a few days there – I am not too busy at the moment, so I should be able to spend some time with him."

She worried, what else could she do, but even so she nodded her head. What else could she do.


And so Kagemaru left his mother's house together with his father. She gave them her final warnings and directions – ones she had voiced many a time before and which were beginning to make both father and son equally weary. "Stay away from water. Don't leave him alone in the garden. If he disappears, check first all the places where there is water. Don't…"

"I'm not two years old anymore, mother," the boy finally cut her off, growing impatient. "I'm not going to drown into a small garden lake."

She fell silent. "Well. I hope you enjoy your stay with your father," she finally said, and the two were off.

The Middle Counselor's mansion was much grander and bigger than his wife's, but even so, Kagemaru found himself a little disappointed. Everything was in a bigger scale, yes, but otherwise the place was very similar to his mother's. There was one crucial difference, though: in the garden there was a real lake. Kagemaru found himself surprised at how strong a pull that place had to him. Here he found the pendant with the fire emblem, still hanging on his neck, useful – clutching it helped him to resist the call of the water. Even so, very often he found his steps leading to that place, and he would sit long by the lake's shore, very much wanting to take a dip but not daring to put even a finger in the water, remembering his mother's worries and fears. The servants at the mansion gave him and his hands long, wondering looks, and he could at times hear them whispering behind his back, but everyone treated him politely, if not overly friendly. He was their master's son, after all.

His father had taken him there to get to know him, to spend time with him, but in truth he saw his father but a little. He decided not to let this chance to learn new things to be wasted, though, and with his father's permission he spent a long time in the library, reading this and that, what happened to catch his interest. And so one morning he happened to grasp a book that dealt on a subject he didn't know. Starting to read it he realized it was about a game – a game that at the same time appeared to be extremely simple but still so complicated he wondered if he ever could learn it.

He spent the rest of the morning reading that book. When his father came to look for him, he found the boy sitting on the floor, completely absorbed in the book.

"What are you reading?" the Middle Counselor asked, and it took a moment for his voice to register in Kagemaru's brain.

The boy looked up, and seeing his father stood up quickly, and bowed. "This book," he said, showing it to his father. "Honored father, what… what is this game called? I can't read this sign…"

The Middle Counselor looked surprised. "It's go. How can you not know go?" Then he answered his own question, "Of course, your mother has never been fond of that game. I still wouldn't have thought she would neglect teaching it to you. Would you like to learn?"

"Yes father, please!" the boy exclaimed, face alight.


This was the most important thing Kagemaru took with himself as he returned to his mother's house: love for go. His mother wasn't quite thrilled, for she had never had any skill for the game whatsoever, but still she couldn't help feeling happy as she saw how eager her son was about it. It even seemed that go might get a stronger hold of his heart than water, and she hoped this would be the case. She might not like go, but at least it wasn't something that would place her son in danger.

She said this aloud one day, and Kagemaru smiled at her. "Go is like water, mother. It… it flows. It is full of endless possibilities. It's flexible, without a given form, like water, and, like water, it's constantly the same and still constantly changing." He would have gone on, but seeing in his mother's eyes that she was growing troubled again he fell silent. "I do like it better than water, I think," he said then, smiling at her, hoping this would calm her down. It did, a little.

Despite her dislike for the game his mother took out her old go board and started playing with him. It didn't take long before she needed handicap stones against her son. The Middle Counselor, when he visited them and played a game against Kagemaru, was astonished at his growth. "Had you truly not played at all before I started teaching you?" He had new kind of wonder in his eyes as he watched his son, and for the first time in years Kagemaru's mother felt tiniest sense of hope.

As time passed she soon realized what a wonderful gift her boy had found in go, and regretted not having introduced it to him earlier. Where the boy had spent hours watching the clouds in the sky, clearly wishing he too could come and go as freely as they, he now was absorbed in the game, always reading, playing and replaying when he had a chance. Kagemaru too was grateful of finding go, though for different reasons – he had never spoken of it to his mother, but on so many nights he had lain awake in his bed, listening to the water he could feel flowing in the very ground below him, a hand clutched around the pendant that always hang on his neck. Now, at such times, he would think of a go problem, or of a game he had played the previous day, and soon he would be carried away by a different current, the call of water fading into the background.

With his new addiction to spend time with years flew by so fast Kagemaru hardly noticed it. At the beginning of his thirteenth year his father declared it was time to start preparing for his coming-of-age ceremony. This put the entire household into excited turmoil. Kagemaru's mother was at times smiling, at times weeping, petting his cheek as he walked by. "My little boy," she would whisper. "So soon a grown man."

On the day of the ceremony Kagemaru found himself more nervous he had ever been. It would be a simple enough ceremony, with not much for him to do, and there really wasn't any reason for him to be so nervous, but as the servants were making him ready he felt a bunch of butterflies flying around in his stomach, and he could just hope he'd manage to pull it through.

There was one part in the preparations he did not like at all, though: the cutting of his hair. It had grown long indeed, so long he had to be careful with it when he sat down. Now, it would be cut to shoulder-length, and it would be tied upon his head in a topknot. The sound of scissors clicking made him want to flinch, but he stood still, just breathing out an inaudible little sigh.

As it was, the ceremony proceeded without any trouble. His father was there, naturally, and looked at him with something akin to pride in his eyes, and it made his heart swell. His mother, equally naturally, was sitting behind her curtain and so he couldn't see her face, but he was sure she too was watching him proudly, and that thought almost brought tears to his eyes. He fought to keep them back, and managed, somehow. Some people might have noticed the dampness of his eyes, but that was hardly a bad thing; on the contrary, it was a sign of a properly sensitive young man. His uncle was the one to place the court hat on his head, and it was all done. As he stood there in his new attire, he was given his adult name.

Sai, he repeated quietly in his mind. It would take time to grow used to it.

---


Being an adult, Sai thought to himself, wasn't quite as grand as he had thought. Mainly it had brought around changes he didn't like. For one, he couldn't meet his mother as informally as before anymore; only seldom she invited him to her side of the curtain. For another, he didn't like the hairdo. The topknot was so tight it hurt his scalp. Another problem was his fast-growing hair – already a week after the ceremony servants had to cut it again.

He had hoped that once he'd be adult he would have greater freedom, but he found out this wasn't the case. He was still practically shut into his mother's house. He wished his father would take him to court, or at least to meet new people, but nothing happened. Yes, he loved his mother, but playing go just against her and occasionally a few of the servants (who, in truth, were better players than his mother) was beginning to make him weary. He wanted to find new opponents.

And so, one day as he had been idling away his hours in the garden, watching the rock garden – he did like the way the sand was raked into little waves, but he didn't like sand – his eyes fell on an open gate and he walked out. He didn't have a clue where he was going, so he just walked on. He wasn't a child anymore. Surely he could go out if he wanted to.

He had a vague understanding of the plan of the city and of the location of his mother's house, and so he started walking toward the direction where he thought the Suzaku Avenue might be. On the way he had to cross a canal, and as he walked across it he could smell the water, hear its call, but he clutched the pendant on his neck and walked on, not giving a glance down into the water.

He had left to the right direction, and soon he found himself at the edge of the Avenue. He stopped, stunned. He had known it was wide, but before he had seen it only partially from the carriage's window. He had had no idea how huge it truly was. All the open space almost made him frightened.

And eager. There was even more to explore than he would have imagined. So he walked and watched and listened and wondered. Very few people seemed to pay any attention to him at all; some stopped to look after him, possibly wondering why a young lord like him was walking around completely unattended. Sai didn't notice. Spring had arrived, and cherry blossoms with it, and it was a beautiful day to be walking in the city. But more than the beauty of the Capital of Peace and Tranquility, it was the ordinary, the mundane that took his attention. He had never before seen commoners in his life – except his parents' servants, but they were quite different from the simple laborers he saw hurrying on their way through the streets, and he was staring at each and every one of them wonderingly.

All things considered, if he were to try, he probably could have counted all the people he had met during his life, at least approximately. He had never realized how different people could be. His curiosity and excitement increased. If people were so different outwardly, how different might they be inwardly? And if their differences were as big, or even bigger…

A quiet snapping sound cut off his thoughts. A familiar sound, and his feet turned as if on their own. There was a wall, and a small gate in it, and he walked toward it, peeking in curiously. He couldn't see anyone, but again he heard the snap of a stone against wood, and he stepped in. A few more steps ahead, and he saw two men sitting in the shadow of trees, engaged in a game. He was about to start walking toward them, when he suddenly realized he probably shouldn't be entering other people's yards like that, uninvited. He was about to leave, as quietly as he had come, but then one of the men noticed him.

"Well, hello there," the man said, and Sai stopped, hesitating. "Can I help you somehow?"

"I… I'm sorry to intrude…" Sai glanced at the gate. Then his gaze returned to the go board. "I just… heard the sound of you playing, and…"

"Heard?" the man laughed. "To the streets? Keen hearing you've got, boy."

"I'm sorry," Sai muttered again and bowed. "I'll be going now…"

"Did you want to play?" the man asked. "This game is as good as finished, anyway."

"What, are you resigning?" his opponent asked, and he laughed out loud.

"You're the one who should have already done that," he pointed out.

The other frowned, looking at the board. "What? It's not over yet!"

Sai had walked closer to them, covering his hands under his long sleeves. "It is a difficult situation for white," he muttered, eyeing curiously the board. The man playing white shot him a glare while the other grinned, but he went on, not noticing either of them, "but it is not over yet. White can still win."

The men looked down at the board, then, as one, at him. "Think so?" the one who had black said. "Well, let us see."

They played on, and white did lose, crushingly. Sai was shaking his head as he watched the board. "If you had played here, and then here, you could have won," he said to the white player. "You could have captured all stones in this corner."

The man stared at the board with a frown, and the winner was shaking his head. "Surely not," he started, but then his opponent stood up.

"Why don't you show us how, know-it-all boy," he said in an annoyed tone.

Sai hesitated, but only for a short moment. He would have to be very careful… but thankfully his sleeves were long enough he should be able to play a game so that only his fingertips would show. He pulled his sleeves as far as possible and sat down at the man's place. "If you want me to," he said and started clearing the board. The two watched in silence as he recreated the situation where the game had been when he arrived. "It was black's turn here, wasn't it?" he asked, and without saying anything the man played the same move he'd played in the game.

The men were very silent for a long while once this version of the game was finished. Although he had started with a huge disadvantage, Sai had pulled a three moku win.

Then, "Mototsuna needs to play against this boy," one stated, and after a short while they were joined by a third man, and Sai got to play a full game of his own. More and more people showed up during that game, and as Sai again won, he had soon a new opponent facing him. He kept on winning, one game after another, but more than the constant victories, getting to play against so many different people made him overjoyed. Not all of them were good players, but there was something new for him to learn in every single game.

"Thank you for the game." He bowed his head as yet one game was over. Looking up at the sky he realized that evening was already arriving. He had been out much longer than he had planned. "I think I should be going soon. It's been…"

"Already!" his opponent exclaimed. "What, I get no chance to redeem myself?"

Sai would have loved to play against this man again – he had been one of the best players among his many opponents – but he was afraid his mother was worrying herself sick, not knowing where he was. "I'm sorry," he said, standing up. "Perhaps some other day. I really should be going home now."

"If you must, then you must," the man agreed with a sigh. "But what is your name? Where do I find you for a rematch?"

"I'm Fujiwara no Sai," Sai replied with a bow. "I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself earlier… the games took all my attention. My father is Middle Counselor Tadamasa. I'm still living with my mother on the fifth street."

"Middle Counselor…" someone in the group muttered. "But his sons are older…" the voice trailed off.

"Fifth street," someone else said. "Isn't that where…" He too left his sentence unfinished.

Sai froze for a moment, clenching his fists in the cover of his sleeves. He could feel the change in the atmosphere; the curiosity turning into wariness. Suddenly there was a tight knot of fear in the pit of his stomach. "I…" he said, voice hesitant, "I'll be going then…"

"Your hands, boy," his last opponent said. "Why aren't you showing your hands?"

"Ah… I…" Sai stuttered, not knowing what to say, reflexively hiding his hands behind his back. "I just, I mean, I should go, mother must be worried…"

Someone grasped his sleeve and pulled it up. There were frightened gasps, some made signs to expel evil spirits.

"Should have known it…" one man muttered, hiding behind his fan. "What human child has eyes of such color…"

"Or plays such go," someone added, and there were murmurs of consent. Sai found himself suddenly at the center of a widening circle, as people slowly backed away from him.

"I," he started, but still didn't know what to say. "I am human," he finally whispered, desperately, but the frightened gazes fixed on him didn't believe it.

"That I've had a changeling in my yard, playing on my go board," the owner of the place exclaimed. "Truly frightful!" He too was viewing Sai from behind his fan, as if it would protect him against otherworldly influences. "If you were going, then do go! Go!" He made shooing gestures with his fan, a little panicky look in his eyes. "Get out already!"

Sai opened his mouth again but got out only a choked gasp; then he turned and ran.

He ran fast, tears in his eyes, without any idea where he was going to. People stared after him as he went, but he didn't even see them – he just wanted away. It is hard to say what might have happened had he crossed any waters in his current state, but luckily there were many people on the streets looking for him, and he ran straight into one group.

"Young master!" one servant exclaimed. "Where have you been?"

He stopped, stared at them blinking tears away from his eyes. Then he raised his arm to cover his face with his sleeve, embarrassed. He answered nothing to the servants' questions but allowed them to lead himself back home where his frantic mother was waiting for him. She received him full of relief, which first turned into anger (How could you disappear like that!) and then to concern and worry (Are you alright? Are you sure you're alright?) Both made him feel equally bad, but even so he didn't answer her questions either, sat only quietly while she was fussing over him as if he were still just a child. Only when his father arrived he finally told them, fragmentarily, where he had been and what had happened.

"You foolish boy!" his father snapped. "Shouldn't you have understood they'd realize who you are?"

"I'm sorry, father," he said, eyes on the ground. "I… didn't think. And… they liked playing against me, so…" So I thought they wouldn't, maybe, mind…

"Is it just his fault?" his mother put in. "He is not a child anymore, yet you want to keep him locked in here as if he were a prisoner! You are his father – if you had introduced him to people properly this would have never happened!"

The Middle Counselor heaved out a great sigh. "You think people would accept him just like that if I were to introduce him? Your naivety is astounding. But the damage has been done… I guess we have no choice. I'll take him to court tomorrow."

"Tomorrow!" his wife exclaimed. "Isn't that a little too hasty? Shouldn't we wait for people to calm down and forget…"

"No. We have obviously waited too long. It's better to cut wings from rumors right away."

And so it was decided. Sai said nothing. Just one day earlier news like this would have made him thrilled. Now, he saw the worry in his mother's eyes, and couldn't help sharing it.

Nevertheless, early next day he was dressed in court attire, and he headed to the palace with his father.

"Do not hide your hands," the Middle Counselor told him quietly on their way there. "Hide nothing. You have nothing to be shamed of."

Sai nodded. I'm not ashamed, he thought to himself. Just scared.

They reached the palace and climbed out of their palanquin. As they walked through the yards they got long looks from people. The Middle Counselor behaved as if he noticed nothing, and Sai mimicked him as he best could. His father spotted people he knew and walked to them.

They exchanged a few pleasantries, during which the men's eyes kept on wandering to Sai and his hands. "This is my youngest son, Sai," the Middle Counselor finally said, and Sai bowed. "He just recently had his coming-of-age ceremony, and I thought it's about time I present him at court." He spoke lightly as if there was nothing peculiar about the matter at all. His friends kept on glancing from him to the boy, clearly uncertain of how to react.

"A splendid young man," one of them finally muttered. "I believe we have heard much about him." Once again his gaze dropped to Sai's hands. "Is he… I mean, is there…" he paused, looking confused, unable to figure out how to put his question into words without offending the Middle Counselor.

"You have heard many rumors, you mean?" the counselor said still in a light tone. "I am sure of that. And I admit, it is quite clear that my boy is somewhat extraordinary. But what of it? He still shows much promise, and I am sure he can yet be of great service to the throne."

"Certainly," his friend murmured, glancing at the others as if wishing for support. "He is apparently a skilled go-player, for his age… or so I hear."

"It is one of his strengths," the Middle Counselor said modestly. He seemed to be about to say more, but then a new voice joined the conversation.

"Go? How splendid! It is always wonderful to see new enthusiastic go players enter the court."

The Middle Counselor turned to face the newcomer, a light shadow passing across his face. "Then I'm happy to tell you my son loves the game quite deeply." He turned back to Sai. "Now, here is a face and name you should remember. This is Sugawara no Akitada, the emperor's go tutor."

Sai's eyes widened a little and he bowed, deeper than before. "Honored to meet you."

"So, you enjoy go?" the tutor asked, and Sai nodded eagerly.

"Greatly! I am constantly amazed at the depth of the game. I wish I could spend all my days playing…"

The man laughed. "You did not exaggerate," he said to the counselor, watching the boy thoughtfully. "You know, I have heard of the games you played yesterday, and I must admit I am curious. Would you play a game with me?"

Sai's whole face brightened.

"Perhaps later," his father put in apologetically before he could say anything. "Today I was wishing to present him to the emperor, so…"

"Father!" Sai exclaimed. "Please! Just one quick game!"

The emperor's go tutor was nodding. "You are a little early," he pointed out. "I am sure we'd have time for one game before the emperor receives anyone."

The Middle Counselor didn't look happy about it, but in the end consented.

"You say you won all your games yesterday?" he whispered to his son as they were waiting for a go board. "Don't win this one. It would be too strange if someone your age would win against the imperial go tutor."

Sai nodded slowly. Losing purposefully was a concept that had never crossed his mind, but he figured his father had a reason for the warning. He just hoped this man would be so good he would lose anyway.

From the very beginning he could feel that this game would be different from the others he had played. The man on the other side of the board had a strange air about him. His appearance was friendly, but even so Sai felt a coldness in him, and as he glanced hesitantly at his father who wore a very guarded expression on his face, he figured there was something going on that he didn't quite understand. Obviously these two weren't friends, and that saddened him – to be the emperor's go tutor this man had to be a great player, and so he would have wanted to be on friendly terms with him.

But the flow in the stones this day was anything but friendly. Sai hesitated, thinking of his father's words. He would have wanted to play his best, show what he could and so win the man over, but he didn't dare to disobey his father. He played his stone, and his opponent smiled a little, clearly knowing that this was not the best move. Sai switched, annoyed. I know it's not! he wanted to shout, but remained quiet, eyes on the board.

"It is very peculiar," the man suddenly said as they had been playing for a while. Sai looked up and realized he was watching his hands. "I have never seen anything like this. One can't but wonder…" He played his move, and again Sai's reply wasn't quite the best. A thin smile tugged his lips again. "Certainly a good game for one so young," he stated, "but hardly anything spectacular. I would have expected more. But I guess there is nothing else to see but a strange freak of nature…"

He looked away, out to the blue sky, and his thoughts seemed to wander away. Sai bit his lip. Nothing but a freak of nature? A slight tremor ran through him, and he could practically feel his scalp itching. Look at me! Look at my go! Can't you see it? Isn't it a little too precise how I always play the second best move? But his opponent laid yet another stone on the board, the look on his face almost bored.

Sai shot a guilty glance at his father. I'm sorry, he mouthed, though he knew his father didn't notice. He was some ten moku behind at the moment. Against an opponent of this quality it was much… but it was not hopeless. He was sure it was not hopeless. At the very least he could show this man what his go truly was like.

He played a stone. No one seemed to pay much attention to that first move, not his opponent nor their audience, but five moves later he noticed a change in them. He met his opponent's eyes across the board, and for the first time the man really looked at him. Sai suppressed the urge to smile. See?

After yet five more moves, his father got a coughing attack. Sai glanced at him and for a moment their eyes met. He winced a little at the look he got, but shook lightly his head. No. This was his game.

It turned into a fierce battle. Outwardly Sai remained quiet and calm, but inside he was rejoicing. Never mind the result – this was the best game he had ever played. Stone after stone they plunged deeper into the game, and every time he thought they possibly could not reach any higher level, a move from his opponent forced him to rethink everything once again.

In the end he won by two moku.

The audience was breathless. For a long moment no one said anything. Then the emperor's go tutor raised his gaze, and his eyes were dark.

"This… is not natural," he said slowly.

Sai looked at him, lips a little parted, suddenly all tense. "Did you not… enjoy the game?" he asked, very, very quietly.

His opponent stood up, sleeves swooshing. "This is not natural!" he repeated. He turned to the Middle Counselor. "I do not know what your son is, but this… this… no child can play like this!"

"Well, to be exact, he is not a child anymore…" the counselor tried to say, but no one was listening to him.

"He is right," one of the audience said, eyeing Sai warily. "This kind of game is impossible! And what… what is the matter with his hair?"

Sai raised a hand to his head, realizing his scalp was still itching. His hair, which should have been pulled tightly into the topknot, felt somehow loose. As he touched it by his left ear a part of it fell free and hang down over his shoulder, much longer than it had been in the morning.

The men stared at him, then at the counselor. "What is this creature you're trying to bring to the court?"

The Middle Counselor fell silent. He watched the board and the finished game, glanced at his son, and shook his head slightly. "I do not know," he said quietly. Then he looked at Sai. "Come. We're going."

"But…"

"Come, now!" He started walking away, and Sai had no choice but to follow.

They spent the way home in silence. As soon as she heard they were already back Sai's mother hurried to them.

"I do not know what this so-called son is that you bore for me," Sai's father exclaimed the moment he saw her. "But certainly none of mine!" He grasped angrily Sai's hat and pulled it off, and his wife let out a tiny gasp at the sight of the hair that cascaded freely over Sai's back.

"You can keep him," the Middle Counselor concluded darkly, turned on his heels, and left.

A long moment mother and son stared at each other. "I am sorry, mother," Sai whispered then. "I'm afraid I messed up everything."

She closed her eyes, shook her head, and pulled him into a tight hug.


After this unsuccessful visit at the palace they soon found their living at the capital quite restless. The Middle Counselor clearly had decided to have nothing to do with them anymore, and without his support they were quite on their own. The rumors were growing wilder all the time, and after someone had attempted to put their mansion on fire, Sai's mother decided it might be safer for them to leave the capital for a while. They packed their things and one early morning slipped quietly out of the city with only a few men as their entourage, heading to a temple where she had once been in retreat.

When they left the capital behind, Sai's feelings were quite mixed. He thought longingly of the house where he had grown up (though not so long ago he had dreamed of leaving it behind), wondered if he and his father ever could be reconciled. Even so, he was glad to finally get out, see the world. One capital, perhaps, was closed to them, but certainly rest of the world was much larger. His mother, though, seemed to take their voluntary exile quite heavily, and this saddened him.

They had traveled for a few days when one evening when they had just stopped for the night two men approached them. They were rather coarse and dirty, but as far as they caused no trouble Sai's mother decided it was best to be polite with them and hope they would continue their way soon. She told her servants to speak as little as possible with the men, and remained herself, keeping Sai with her, behind her covers.

In the night, a scream woke them up. Sai was the first on his feet, wide awake. He smelled something rusty in the air, and all his senses were warning him of danger. "Mother," he whispered as she sat up, clinging to her blanket, but fell then silent.

Two forms were rolling on the ground. There was flash of something bright, a gurgling sound, and that rusty smell got stronger. Sai glanced frantically around as one of the forms stood up. The other remained on the ground, unmoving. And a bit farther away he saw another lumped figure, sprawling on the ground… Of their other servants there was no sign, but soon a form appeared among the trees. For a moment Sai held his breath, hoping… but as the moon came out of the clouds he saw that the ones left standing were the two strangers.

He heard his mother let out a frightened gasp, and he swallowed. If all of their men were dead, how could he protect her? The men were already walking toward them. One of them reached his hand and pulled away the cover.

"Sorry to bother your sleep, ma'am," he said with a grin, "but there seems to be some bandits on the move. Bad night to sleep outside."

The other man chuckled, but frowned then looking at Sai. "The hell is this? Dressed like a man but looks like a girl. Which are you?" Sai's hair, the source behind his confusion, had just kept on growing and now it reached almost to his knees.

Sai took a deep breath, attempted to steady his voice. "We do not carry much with us," he said, taking a step so that he stood between his mother and the men. "You can take it all. Just leave my mother in peace."

"I asked what you are! Do we have to check?" The man reached his hand to grasp Sai, but at that instant his mother jumped to her feet.

"Do not touch my son!" she shrieked, pushing Sai aside.

The men laughed as she stood there, panting, facing them. "Son, is it? Are you sure? He's quite a looker. Then again, so are you."

He grasped her hair and pulled her closer. Sai plunged forward – "Mother! " – but the other man grasped him, holding him back. He could but watch as his mother struggled against the man's hold, attempted to bite his arm, and the man cursed, wrenching her head back, but still she fought back, twisting, trying to break free, and he pulled, sharply, and there was a quietest snap, and her body went limp in his hands.

The man cursed loudly and let her fall to the ground. "Stupid bitch!"

"What, you broke her neck? Idiot!" The other man practically threw Sai from his hands – the boy had gone almost as limp as his mother. He fell to his knees and crawled to her, breath stuck in his throat, hands reaching toward her but not daring to touch.

"Mother," he whispered, eyes staring at the awkward bend of her neck. "Mother…"

"Sorry 'bout that, kid," one of the men said. They were already going through their few possessions. "Her own fault, though."

Sai looked up. His eyes fixed on the men who were examining his mother's personal things, and slowly he stood up. Anger was swelling up in him, so great he thought he might explode with it. "Mother," he whispered one more time, eyes dark and wide, nostrils flared, and a shudder went through him. His hand rose up, to the fire pendant on his neck, and with one sharp move he tore it off for the first time since he had been a toddler.

As the pendant dropped to the ground from his fingers he felt the water around him, in him, in the land, in the air, in his mother's body on the ground… in the two men in front of him. He reached to it, called it like it used to call him, and suddenly first one of the men, then the other stumbled, gurgled, fell to the ground, water filling their lungs and mouths, making them drown on dry land.

Gasping for breath they glanced at the boy behind them, horror in their eyes. They tried to say something, shout, perhaps beg, but couldn't for the water pouring from their mouths and noses. One of them tried to ran but soon fell to the ground again, and after an endless period of thrashing and spluttering they finally lay still in the pools forming around them.

Sai stared at them long, unmoving, breathing heavily. Slowly his anger faded and his gaze moved to his mother. Tears filling his eyes he knelt beside her again, this time gathering her in his arms. A long while he stayed there, holding her in the quiet of the night. Then, without a glance at the dead bodies around him, he stood up, still holding her. Slowly he started to walk away.

His mother wasn't a big woman, but still she made a heavy burden for a boy like him. He didn't have long to go, though; he knew that. The water flowing in the ground guided him, and soon he arrived to a small lake, hidden among the trees. He knelt down by its shore, gently lowering his mother to the ground.

He knew the custom would be to cremate her, but he would not give his mother to fire. He looked around, gathered a few big stones and wrapped them into her clothes. After short hesitation he took off his own clothes. Then he took her in his arms again and walked into the water. When his feet didn't anymore reach the ground he swam, finding that movement more natural than walking had ever been, still holding on to her. Once he reached the deepest part of the lake he took one final look ofher face and then let her fall. A while he still stayed floating quietly on the lake's surface, watching the trees, the pile of his clothes on the shore, the dark night sky, and then he dove into the water and let it all go.

~*~*~


A thousand years flew by, and many a traveler passed by the little hidden lake during that time. They were a various lot, rich and poor, old and young, some full of dreams, others, despair. Some stopped to cool their aching feet in the cold water, but they saw nothing special in the lake, just a nice place for a short rest.

With years the city crept closer and closer, swallowing many other forests and lakes whole, but somehow this little corner was spared. Despite the city's new proximity, the place remained as untouched and wild as ever before – somehow it seemed that the locals had all but forgotten about its existence, for it was very seldom that anyone came there. A year could pass, and the only movement by the shore would be a squirrel jumping from a branch to branch, or a fox running among the trees.

But one day two voices approached, young, one male, one female.

"What a wonderful place!" the woman was saying. "It is almost magical – as if we had stepped into another world, another time when we came to this forest. Who knew there are places like this so close to the city?"

"If you like nature so much," the man said with a little laugh, "maybe we should have went somewhere else than Kyoto."

"Oh, but I've always wanted to see Kyoto! I can't believe I've never been here before!"

The man smiled a little at her happy tone. "Even so... we could have come here any time. It's our honeymoon, I would have wanted to take you somewhere more... special. Like... Paris? How about Paris?"

The woman laughed. "I would not say no to Paris, if you wanted to go there. But I like Kyoto. Besides, you know we can't afford to go so far right now. Certainly some day we can see Paris, if you wish; I'm sure it won't be going anywhere – oh, look! A lake!"

"This is a beautiful sight," the man admitted as they stopped to watch the little lake. "A bit surprising too."

"The air is so fresh here," the woman said, taking a deep breath. "Mmm! Wonderful." She kicked off her sandals and ran to the water. "It's not too cold!" she shouted to the man. "How about going to swim?"

"What?" He seemed startled. "Now? But we don't have our swimsuits or towels with us..."

"Who needs those?" She was already pulling her shirt over her head. "It's a hot day, we'll dry soon in the sun. And we're all alone here, so why not?" Her shorts flew to the same pile with the shirt, and soon she was running into the water, laughing.

"Mitsuko!" the man called on the shore, looking a little startled, but the woman didn't listen. She was already swimming with strong strokes to the middle of the lake.

"Come on, Masao!" she shouted, turning to look at him. "This is wonderful!"

He looked at her, shaking his head, and took then off his sandals and rolled his pants up. He sat on a rock, dangling his feet in the water. "I'm not swimming. But you have fun!"

Mitsuko waved at him. "Your loss!" She took still a few strokes, and dove into the wonderfully cool clear water.

She had always loved swimming, especially in nature. The water surrounded her, caressed her, carried her, and it connected her to the world in a way she couldn't explain, almost couldn't herself understand when she stood on the dry land. In water, she was a part of everything.

And in this little lake, that feeling was stronger than ever. She surfaced, took a deep breath, and dove again. The water got darker and colder the deeper she went, but she knew she would get warm again soon enough in the sun. She glided through water, nimble as a fish, and enjoying herself nearly as much. She turned to head to the surface again, but stopped, confused.

No light of sun came from above. The water was dark all around her. She kicked still with her feet, hesitating. This had to be up, right? She kicked again, pulled a strong stroke, panic rising in her. This had to be up! But still she could see no surface, no light, and she stopped, turned, turned again and wanted to scream, pressure growing in her chest.

Masao, help!

She couldn't lose directions like this. She couldn't. Shouldn't the little air that was left in her lungs help her rise toward the surface? She floated, waited, told herself to remain calm and think logically, but nothing happened. She was lost in the dark.

She squeezed her lips tightly shut, forced herself to keep from breathing though her lungs were crying for air. Blood was humming in her ears and she was sure she was crying, though in the water she couldn't feel the tears. She couldn't just stay there. She had to start moving. But where, which was the right direction?

Right when she thought she couldn't take it anymore, when a desperate so this is it? flashed in her mind and a new kind of darkness was beginning to take over her sight, she thought she saw a human form approaching.

Masao?

The form was blurred and hazy, and she wasn't sure if she really saw it or if it was just her brain playing tricks with her. But it seemed to raise its hand, and point, and as she turned to look she saw the lightest shimmer of light up there, so far away. Again she kicked with her legs, pulled, desperately, and right when she thought her lungs must burst she hit the surface, gasping for breath.

"Mitsuko!"

That was Masao, in the water by the shore. She turned and saw that he had come so far his pants had to be getting wet. She raised her hand and waved, though a little weakly.

"Don't scare me like that!" Masao shouted to her. "I didn't know you can dive for that long!"

"Me neither," she breathed. She shot a glance around. Here on the surface everything was normal – the sun shone, birds sung, a tiny breeze moved among the trees. And the lake was as cool and inviting as ever before.

She was cold. And she had swum enough for this day.

-


Next spring the young couple was at a hospital, watching with smiles their firstborn son.

"He's so beautiful," Mitsuko breathed, holding the baby in her arms. "So... perfect."

Masao smiled as well, but frowned, too. "So... what is it about those hands?"

"The doctors said it seems to be some strange case of syndactyly. It's nothing to worry about – they said this will be easy to operate once he is a little older. My little frog boy." She kissed the baby's head and stroked the strange goldish hair that grew on his forehead.

"Have you decided the name?" They had agreed Mitsuko would get free hands with the name – at least as long as she wouldn't pick one Masao simply couldn't stand.

"Yes." Now that she saw her son, she realized the name had always been clear to her. "He's Hikaru."

-----------------------------


kage = shadow, silhouette, phantom

maru = suffix that was used for esp. children's names

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