Disclaimers: Hikaru no Go and its characters are created and/or owned by Hotta Yumi, Obata Takeshi, Shueisha, Studio Pierrot (all rights reserved). I just borrow them to provide - hopefully - a bit of free entertainment to the fans.
The Way of Go
1. Prologue: A Game under the Moon
This autumn was still balmy in its middle. The leaves on the trees displayed an enchanting palette of green, gold and crimson under the setting sun. The breeze at the end of the afternoon was pleasantly warm, gently lifting the young courtier's long black hair. Leaving the sedan chair behind, he strode firmly toward the estate gate.
He paused before the entrance, whose heavy wooden gates were slightly ajar. But as he stepped forward, they opened widely as if he was awaited and watched from the inside. Yet nobody was to be seen around, giving the most disturbing impression that the gates were moving by themselves.
The young man didn't want to dwell on this, so he crossed the beautiful garden as quickly as his dignity allowed him. A short flight of steps led to the veranda in front of the main building. The place was empty, all the screen doors shut behind, making him think he was not welcome. That could not be though, since somebody had let him in the courtyard.
"Ano..." he tried shyly.
Two screens slid open on the right and on the left. Four servants scurried out, carrying a tea table, cushions and trays they put down under the eaves. They completely ignored their startled visitor until they got everything set. Then they turned to him, bowed deeply and ran back into the house.
Soon after that, a man came out at a much less nimble pace. He wore the same white over-robe and black eboshi his guest had himself, but his dark red robe underneath revealed his high rank in the Heian Court. His features, despite the deep furrows in his brow, remained distinguished and well-shaped like a Buddha's face, with a thin and short white beard. The man looked very old, and he was indeed, but his eyes kept a vivid, almost frightening gleam that only an eerie smile softened. The young noble recognized him instantly as the person he wanted to meet.
"Seimei-sama..." he said, a bit overwhelmed.
"Sai-sensei... What an unexpected yet pleasant surprise!"
The man named Sai bowed, wondering by himself to what extent his visit was "unexpected". It wasn't time to forget his manners though.
"Please forgive my rude intrusion, Seimei-sama. I would be sorry if my coming had to annoy you or disturb your noble duties, but I had to talk to you. I shall not stay long..."
"You do not annoy me, sensei. At least... not yet," Seimei smiled. "I hope you will stay long enough to sit here with me and share a cup or two," he added, pointing invitingly to the cushions.
Sai bowed again.
"It is a great honour for me to sit under your roof, Seimei-sama, although I have not come to impose on your kind hospitality."
"I am aware most of my visitors do not come just to drink sake! It makes me feel sad sometimes, it means I have lost too many friends through the years... Please, sit down! This is the first time we meet in private, isn't it? So let us enjoy this moment."
They knelt by either side of the table, while a servant was pouring two small dishes with warm sake. They savoured the strong drink, exchanging informal comments about the serenity of this evening and the upcoming splendour of the full moon.
"So, what brings His Majesty's Go master in my unworthy yard?" Seimei eventually asked.
"I wondered a lot whether I should come or not, but my heart is in such trouble that I need advice from one of the wisest in the City."
The old man looked at the young one with interest.
"Your... hesitation to come and see me, has it to do with the little faith you put in my science?"
Sai gulped. Truly he had wondered what good consulting a fortune teller, even a highly renowned one, could bring to his case. He remembered muttering something about it to himself as his chair was crossing the bridge over the nearby river, but there was no way he could have been overheard in that place...
Yet he was facing the great Abe no Seimei, the most skilled master in the way of On-Myo, the two opposite principles bringing forth the universe - the Chinese call them Yin-Yang. Above him were only the Emperor, the Chancellor and the Great Ministers of the Left and the Right. Below him was an army of dedicated onmyoji: astrologers, fortune tellers and exorcists who worked day and night to counsel and protect the Emperor, the Capital and its inhabitants from every form of evil or misfortune. If half the stories going around about his powers and his numerous feats were true - as well as the rumour that Seimei's mother wasn't human, the young noble had better not try to fool him.
"Well..." Sai said cautiously. "I do not claim to be learned in everything. Out of my own art, I must confess my ignorance about many domains. Onmyodo is one of those."
Seimei nodded appreciatively.
"A tactful answer. Your scepticism is not necessarily to be blamed. Actually, it is rather refreshing to meet people clever enough not to swallow every tale or rumour. But I hope you do not deny what happens just before your own eyes?"
Sai shuddered. Was he referring to the self-opening gates? His words were so laden with innuendoes that the young Go master began to think Seimei was able to read his mind like in an open book. But a part of him didn't want to back down against the fortune teller.
"I do have good eyes, but there are powerful illusions..." he said.
"Now, that answer is a bit less tactful, but pretty wise. You really have a good basis for a potential disciple, if I had to take one now. But since you have already chosen your way..." and he poured another round of sake for both of them.
Sai sighed inwardly. He had still to get used to Seimei's knack for tricking his guests. The Head Onmyoji put down his dish and resumed their conversation.
"Though I do not know you well, I have heard about you: you are not the kind of man who has much to do with fortune tellers. Indeed your trouble must be great to make you come all this way and beg my counsel. Will you tell me?"
Sai took a good breath before speaking.
"Tomorrow is the game that decides who the Emperor will keep as his only Go tutor, you may have heard tell of it."
"Oh yes, yes!" Seimei said, lifting his folded fan against his lips in a thoughtful way. "One of my assistants was in charge of fixing the appropriate day and hour. I do not remember his sensing anything fateful though, he would have told me otherwise. Apart from the game itself, I do not see any reason for your heart to lie in trouble..."
He cast a sidelong glance at the Go master.
"I hope you have not come to hear me foretell your opponent's hands?"
The way Sai glared at him, Seimei could think he had just dropped an obscenity. When the young Go master spoke again, his voice was firm, even imperious.
"There is no way I would ask you such a thing, Seimei-sama. Even if you were able to do that - which I doubt, it would be completely useless."
"Oh, really?" Seimei said, a bit startled by this sudden remark.
"Absolutely. My opponent is not blind to the point he would miss the way I would play to counter his foreseen hands: he would change his whole strategy accordingly," Sai retorted.
"That is true..." Seimei admitted, "but... maybe you could take advantage of this knowledge, let your opponent deploy his strategy, and wait for the proper time to break it with an unexpected one of your own."
Sai answered in the measured tone he used whenever a novice voiced a naive comment across the goban.
"Each of my hands has consequences on my opponent's, and each of his hands has repercussions on mine. The hand I would play, knowing his next, would not be for sure the same I would choose if I was unaware of it. So how to be sure the stone I put on the goban is set on the place that will prompt the expected answer?"
"With your experience, knowing yourself and your opponent, you should easily deduce the most likely solution..." Seimei said.
"This is where you are completely mistaken," Sai cut. He was getting animated. "Some sequences may be predictable, but the possibilities for each hand are much too numerous. You can find a multitude of games beginning the same way, but you cannot find two of them following the exact same path, unless the players have purposely replayed a previous game..."
"Always changing, like the universe..." Seimei murmured.
"Verily this is the depth, the richness and the beauty of Go!" Sai exulted.
Only then he remembered where he was and who he was speaking to. He flushed and began to falter out some apologies behind his fan, but Seimei looked more interested than offended. Actually he was delighted by their conversation.
"So you say... Indeed I would like to see that beauty myself," he said keenly.
On a sign of his, a servant came, carrying a finely wrought goban with a pair of bowls cut in the same scented wood. Other servants were bringing some delicacies on large plates.
"Would sensei do an ignorant old man the honour?" Seimei asked with a graceful nod.
Sai was not in position to refuse, and he did not want to anyway.
"The honour is mine, Seimei-sama. Though teaching his Majesty is undoubtedly the greatest honour of all, sharing my humble knowledge with so wise a master will be a very rewarding task."
The old man chuckled.
"Do not be too sure of that before you see what kind of player I am !"
He put a shrivelled hand in each bowl, slowly stirring the stones.
"This goban and its stones are a present from Mikushige-dono. Unlike me, she is very fond of the game. She wished I developed a taste for it, but I am afraid I have given her little satisfaction on this point..."
"Lady Mikushige is a very dedicated student. She may still lack in strength, but one cannot deny her passion, and playing her is always a pleasure," Sai said.
"Certainly, her passion has to do with the excellence of her young and brilliant tutor!" Seimei winked. "Well, let us see if you can succeed where she has failed."
"Before we begin, Seimei-sama, I want to be sure I am not disturbing any of your plans for this evening..." a slightly blushing Sai asked.
Seimei waved his fear aside.
"You are not disturbing and in no way annoying anyone here, sensei, I can tell you now. My plans for the night were mainly to stare at this magnificent moon and doze off quietly under it. Both can wait. Please make yourself comfortable and taste these..." He pushed forward a plate and helped himself in the same time. "Your servants outside are already taken care of."
Sai bowed. "Thank you for your gracious consideration."
He sighed inwardly in relief. All in all, things were turning
The evening was beautiful, the cooking was delicious, Abe no Seimei was not as scary as people told, and most of all they were going to play Go. Back to his familiar turf, he would be free of any kind of embarrassment for the next hour or more. Or so he thought.
"Now, sensei, how many stones do you think I should put down?"
That was the strangest game Sai ever played, by many aspects.
Seimei's personality was not the least one. In his short but
already rich career, Sai had known many opponents with various
dispositions, but never he had met someone so exuberant.
At first, Seimei used to ponder on each and every of his hand, expressing loudly his thoughts and asking him for advice: "Do you think I can play this? Maybe I should protect these stones instead?"
Sai's answer was always the same: "Do not think too long, just play."
After a bit more equivocation, Seimei played, and Sai responded,
bringing detailed explanations: "You may certainly put this
stone there; what matters is how the next stones will relate to it.
If you keep fighting for this group, you remain oblivious to decisive
stones I can place elsewhere - here for instance, so you may
assure black a short victory on this corner while letting white reign
over the rest of the board."
Seimei was staring at the patterns on the goban for a while, studying their intricacies, before agreeing to Sai's comments with some of his own: "One event, one being alone may not be important by itself, but its bonds with others can have strong consequences." Or: "You cannot evaluate, even less influence a given position without taking a wider view and considering it in its context."
Sai wondered about the purpose of these rather obvious sentences. It took him some time before he realized that the Master was establishing connections between the game and his own experience. Sai had little clue of the latter and he felt a strong curiosity growing.
He had almost forgotten his partner's mischievous side, but was quickly reminded of it when he noticed quite alarmingly that half the stones on the board had suddenly swapped colours, displaying a whole new design. He glanced at Seimei, who was very busy hiding a grin behind his fan while pretending to be engrossed by the game.
Onmyoji are truly masters of illusions, Sai thought, slowly recovering from the shock. Well, I am still the master of the game...
The stones might look different to his eyes, but not to his memory. Raising his fan before his own smile, he purposely placed a white next to another one, seemingly connecting, actually capturing a black, which he removed and dropped among its unfortunate siblings.
Seimei raised an eyebrow.
"Are you allowed to capture your own stone, sensei?" he asked disingenuously.
"I beg to differ, Seimei-sama, that was not my stone,
but yours." Sai fetched again the last prisoner. "This,"
he said, raising the pearly white stone delicately, "is black.
And so is this one, and this one, and this one..." he added,
pointing successively to every black stone hiding in a snowy coat.
"Of course, if your preference inclines to a different arrangement, I can adapt my strategy to suit your visual taste," he concluded in a submissive tone, which a predatory gleam in his eyes belied.
He was pretty satisfied with Seimei's bewildered look. But the onmyoji promptly acknowledged the total misfiring of his deception, and he burst into a long laugh.
"Excellent! Really, no cheater - even the cleverest one - does stand a chance against you!"
He waved his right hand still holding a stone, and the colours on the goban went back to normal, making Sai blink in surprise.
"I wish most of my disciples were half as bright..." Seimei sighed.
They ended their game without any other incident. Sai won by a
wide margin, but since it was just shidougo, he reviewed the
main stages of the game with his partner, stressing every crucial
After the young master finished talking, Seimei remained silent for a while .
"There is something I must confess, sensei," he finally said. "All my life, I have always considered Go as a pleasant but useless pastime. Truly I used to look down on the passion so many people in this Court put in it, the warrior like the monk, the noble like the priest..."
He took a thoughtful sip of sake, then huffed.
"How many of them have the littlest idea of the meaning of this board, of the truth hidden under these stones? They use them to pit their conceited self against others', only to promote their way up in Court. Even the most talented of them, would you call them bright because they know how to embrace more void than any other?"
He raised a hand, stopping Sai's attempt to speak.
"The so-called master you are facing tomorrow, when confronted to the same illusion I tried on you sooner, was unable to do better than knock over this go-ke and leave in rage!"
His voice softened.
"You, sensei, are different... You are not conceited. You are proud, of course, very proud of your art, but you do not use it to enhance your own prominence. You care about the person you teach. You never lose patience, even with an obnoxious player like me. I thought Go players only see the surface of the board, but your comments of our game proved me wrong. You definitely look beyond, though still confusingly, and when I offered to initiate you, I was not speaking lightly. Anyway, if someone deserves to be Mikado's Go tutor, no doubt you are the one."
Sai bowed deeply.
"Seimei-sama, the honour you do me is beyond any word. I feel so unworthy of..."
"You should not," Seimei cut. "Rare are they who can tell they have taught something to this old fox! This definitely must be rewarded. How can I-"
He stopped, struck by a sudden thought.
"How selfish I am! You come in worry to beg advice, and I bother you with my ill-timed request for a demonstration..."
"You do not bother me, Seimei-sama, and certainly not by asking me a game!" Sai assured. "As a matter of fact, I feel in a quieter mood now, thanks to it."
The old master smiled.
"All the better, then. So what troubled you so much if it was not for the impending duel?"
Sai closed his eyes. His worries were slowly coming back.
"I will not deny I dread this game, Seimei-sama. It is not a question of self-doubt; I know my rival's ability and does not fear it. Yet... I am afraid. And the most frightening is I have no clear idea of what I must fear."
"You must feel uncertainty about the future, which is very common," Seimei replied. "The best thing to do is to face it straightforwardly."
More easily said than done, Sai thought.
"I... I have tried to..."
Seimei leaned toward Sai.
"The problem, when you are thinking on your own, is that you often miss options... Whether you did not think of them, or you refused to consider them. A friend's advice is very opportune in such cases. I can be this friend, if you want..."
"Please..." Sai whispered.
The old man straightened up with a satisfied smile.
"Luckily, in your case, the options are very simple: you win or you lose."
"If you win, you stay in your position of imperial Go tutor, and you hold it alone. If you lose..."
"If I lose..." Sai shuddered.
"Well, you certainly lose things along... Your position, of
course; some consideration, probably - though I will always hold
you in the highest esteem," Seimei said with a smile. Sai
answered with a grateful bow.
"All in all, a loss does not necessarily mean a disgrace. You remain a highly talented player, if not the best, and surely you will find people eager to learn from you."
Sai felt rather stupid, like a child afraid of the dark crying for an elder to comfort him. But the anxiety was still there, and it was actually growing, so it was better to spill his heart while he could.
"The things you said I have repeated myself, Seimei-sama. They are indeed reasonable, but... reason alone cannot tame this fear."
Seimei noticed that Sai's fright was not pretended. The night had come, lighted by a beaming full moon, the air was still and warm, but the Go master was shivering, though he tried his best to hide it.
"So... Have you seen ominous signs lately? Have you premonitory dreams?" Seimei asked.
Sai shook his head.
"I cannot tell for sure. I do not sleep very well these days, but I am unable to remember any dream when I wake up. As for the signs... I cannot tell either."
I really do sound stupid, Sai lamented inwardly.
But the old master didn't mock him. He just waved a hand, and the servants came to clear the dishes and put the goban aside. Another one was bringing a low table with mysterious objects on it. The most peculiar of them was a heavy square slab of black stone topped by a rotating hemisphere of the same matter, etched with characters and small white dots Sai guessed to be constellations.
"No wonder you cannot tell, if you usually shut yourself off from these things... Fortunately, I can help you on this."
(continued in next chapter)
Eboshi: the black headgear worn by noble men (and Sai!).
Onmyodo(u): "the way of Yin-Yang". This set of beliefs and practices, based on religious Taoism imported from China, developed early in Japan. It became soon as firmly established as Buddhism or Shinto, and a whole department in the Heian administration was dedicated to it. Onmyodo covered a wide range of subjects from divination and astrology to medicine, magic rituals and exorcism of evil beings. People would use it frequently to work out the most opportune (or inopportune) time for an event, ceremony or enterprise to take place.
Onmyoji: a Yin-Yang master.
Abe no Seimei (921-1005): one of the most famous onmyoji, born in Abeno-ku - near Osaka. Though a historical figure, most of his life is steeped in legend, about which you can read in ancient texts like Konjaku Monogatari ("Tales of Past and Present"). His adventures have been recently popularized by novels, manga, anime/live series, and a couple of movies. You can watch for instance Yojiro Takita's Onmyoji movie, which shows a pretty good sight of the Heian Capital - all the magic and sfx put aside. For a more iconoclastic view, just try Gainax's hilarious Abenobashi Maho Shotengai!
Go-ke: a bowl of Go stones (but you knew this one, of course!)